Prey 14.9

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“Your powers are working alright?” Tattletale asked.

I nodded.

“Bug powers, was it?  Don’t want to get it wrong.  Control them, see through their eyes-“

“No.  I can’t see through their eyes or hear what they do.  It’s mainly touch.”

“Just wanted to check.”  She paused.  “If I asked you what my power was?”

I shook my head.

“Okay.  And if I said I was born in Mexico, could you tell me where I was born?”

“Didn’t you just say?”

“Yeah.  Repeat it back to me?”

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Your short-term recollection is still good, at least.  That would be why you can retain the information Grue and I have shared over the past few minutes.  That big beetle of yours, you named it?”

I glanced at Atlas, who was crawling a short distance away.  “Atlas.”

Tattletale nodded.  “That would be the short-term memory, again. Your power probably gives you enough contact with it that you don’t lose track of who and what it is.”

“Right.”

“So long as that keeps working, we don’t need to worry about you and Grue forgetting who we are in the middle of a conversation.  But for us, we might lose track of each other if we split up, so let’s stay close, okay?”

“Okay.”

She reached out and took my hand.

“Can you use the bugs to scout our surroundings?  This will go more smoothly if we don’t need to worry about running into people.”

It made sense.  I sent my bugs out to cover the surrounding area.

The red mist was everywhere.  Color was strained out, leaving everything a monochrome red.  I could still make out the surroundings, but just enough light was filtered out that the area had settled into an oppressive gloom, with many existing shadows made nearly opaque as a result.  The drifting movements of the mist and the subtle shifts in color and shadow made me feel like things were prowling in every corner and in the edges of my field of vision.

That deep, primal prey-animal part of my psyche kept telling me something was wrong, that I was in danger.  I tried to tell myself that it was just my fear working itself up, my brain playing tricks on me.  There was nothing out there.

The weight of the gun in my hand was both a reassurance and a burden.  It would be so easy to do something I would regret for the rest of my life.

“Hate this,” I muttered.

“Me too,” Grue answered.  He put his hand on my shoulder to offer some reassurance.  “But we manage, we cope because we’re a team.  We belong together.”

My awareness snagged on someone who was walking a distance behind us, measuring their pace with ours.

“We may need to stand together as a team sooner than later,” I said. “We’re being followed.”

“By who?” Tattletale asked.  She paused, then laughed.  “Silly question, I guess.”

“Tie them up?”  she suggested.

“Right.”

My bugs gathered in out of the way spots, and the spiders began drawing out lines of silk in preparation.  I didn’t want to inform this person that I was on to their tail.

Then, just in case they decided to drop the tail and attack us, I began to gather bugs together into decoys.  Human-shaped lumps and clusters of bugs gathered in alleys and at the edges of rooftops.  Still more gathered in the street, standing in alcoves and in other hiding spots.  I invested less bugs in the ones that were further away from our pursuer, trusting that the shadows the miasma cast would help round them out.  There were no decoys our pursuer would see from where they stood, but there were now enough to give them pause.

Grue drifted away from our group to approach one of the decoys.  He extended one hand and traced his fingers through the massed bugs.  “You’re versatile.”

I felt a little uncomfortable at the compliment.  “We should keep moving.”

“You’re not tying them up?”

I shook my head.  A miscommunication on that front.  Hadn’t I recently been thinking about chemistry and intuitively understanding how your teammates operated?  The miasma might be throwing us off in that department.  “Sorry.  Need to prep for it first, I’ll make my move in a minute.  For now, we should act normal.”

“Fine.”  He dropped his hand to his side and rejoined us.  We kept walking.  I had to admire them, the way they were confident enough to avoid looking over their shoulders.  I had my bugs to track our pursuer with, and I was still feeling nervous having them behind me.

“Is paranoia a side effect of this mist?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Could be.  As the symptoms progress, you could have fits of anger, paranoia, hallucinations…”

I swallowed.

“Or it could progress in another direction.  A broader agnosia, with the inability to recognize anything, not just people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She nodded.

“I’m going to bind her now.  If it doesn’t work, or if she has a way of breaking free, we should run, with the decoys for cover.”

Tattletale just smiled.

The bugs swarmed our pursuer.  I’d minimized the number of bugs on them, just to be safe, with the drawback that I wasn’t getting a full picture of who they were.  The bugs couldn’t get to her flesh to sting or bite her, but they were telling me she was female in general shape.

I had them deploy the silk they had prepared.  I focused my efforts on her arms and legs.  It took only a couple of seconds to get the threads in place.

She tripped as the silk went taut mid-stride.  Raising one hand to try to catch herself, she found silk threads hampering those movements as well.  To avoid landing face first, she twisted herself in mid-air so she hit the ground with her shoulder instead.

“Got her,” I said.  “Let’s keep going.  We can lose her.”

“We should investigate,” Grue said.  “Make sure she isn’t a threat, and deal with her if she is.”

“With this miasma affecting us, there’s no way to be sure of exactly of just who we’re dealing with,” I pointed out.

“We have Tattletale.  She can tell us if this person’s a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Tattletale’s not-“

I stopped.  Where had that come from?

“What?”  Grue tilted his head as he looked over his shoulder at me.

“I was going to say she’s not always right, but I’ve still got that black hole in my memory of her, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”

Grue rubbed his chin.  “Something to keep in mind, but I still think we should check this person out.”

“I agree,” Tattletale said, a slight smile on her face.  She tugged on my hand.  “Come on!”

We had to stick together.  I reluctantly followed, knowing that separating from the group could mean losing them altogether.

We stopped a few hundred feet away from the woman.  The silk strands had formed a cord around her arms and legs, and the work of the spiders had tightened the binding as she allowed it to slack.  She hadn’t made it back to her feet after falling to the ground.

Grue drew a knife.

“Hey,” I said.  I grabbed his arm.  “What are you doing?”

“She’s obviously a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Tattletale said.

“Fill me in?  Because I must have missed something.  Doesn’t seem that clear to me.”

“Think about it.  Why is she wearing a mask like that, if not to filter out the miasma?  She knew about it in advance.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I could make out something like a gas mask or filter, now that Tattletale had pointed it out.  “Maybe there’s another explanation.  It could have something to do with her power?”

“It doesn’t,” Tattletale said.

Thinking about killing someone was one thing.  I’d always assumed I might have to do it out of necessity to save a teammate… I’d even come close to doing it when attacking the Nine, not long ago.  Couldn’t recall who it had been, but I’d gone all out, used potentially lethal stings and bites.

That had been at a distance.  Now we were looking at killing someone face to face.

The mask, there was another reason for it.  The-

Tattletale interrupted my thoughts.  “If you guys aren’t going to do it, I can.  She was following us, she was prepared for the miasma, and I’m positive she’s a bad guy.  My power, you know.”

“We can’t be certain,” I said.

“With my power, I’m five hundred percent sure.  Trust me,” she said, grinning.  She started toward the heroine.

“No,” I said.

“Skitter’s right,” Grue said.  “She could be playing possum.  Best to avoid being reckless.  Keep our distance and finish her.”

“That’s not what I meant.  Let’s just leave,” I said.  “I’ll make that phone call to, um-“

“Coil,” Tattletale supplied.

I nodded.  “We’ll get the information we need, get ourselves cured, or track down the Nine.”

“Cherish could lie,” Grue said.

It took me a second to place Cherish’s name.  Names were slipping from my mind too easily.  “Maybe.  We’ll use our own judgement to corroborate her facts.”

Tattletale scowled, “Have you forgotten how aggressively we’ve been going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?  The attacks, the harassment, capturing Cherish and Shatterbird.  And now you want to leave one of them there?  We don’t have to get close to her to take her out.  You have the gun.”

I stared down at the weapon in my hand.

“Trust me,” she said.

“No.”

Both Tattletale and Grue turned to look at me.

“No?”  Grue asked.  “We’re a team, Skitter.  We’re supposed to trust one another when the chips are down, have each other’s backs.”

I didn’t like the implications of that.  Like I was failing them.

But I shook my head.  “No.”

“Explain?” he asked.  He looked calm, but I could see the irritation in his posture.  Was the mist getting to him?

“The miasma… if it makes us paranoid, it could be coloring our perceptions here.  Even Tattletale’s.”

“I would know if it was,” she said.  She seemed impatient.

“Maybe.  But I’m not certain enough about that to take another life.”

“You nearly took Siberian’s,” she retorted.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But that was different.”

“I don’t see how.”

I stared at the bound woman who was prone on the ground, half-covered in my bugs.  She was looking in my direction.

“It bugs me.  This is too easy.  If the Nine were this easy to take out, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Sounds like a pretty thin justification for backing out,” Grue said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale added.

This kind of social pressure wasn’t the sort of thing I was good at coping with.  Just going by my recollection of how we’d planned many of our capers, I could usually trust some of the others to have my back when I was arguing a point.  Or I’d had some other motive or reason to go along with them.

“Why are you pushing so hard for this?”  I asked.

“Did you forget what they did to me?”  Grue asked, his voice cold.

Him specifically?  I had forgotten, yes.  But I could remember that scene, the emotions then, every feeling that I’d experienced afterward.  Frustration, hate, pain, sympathy for the pain he must have experienced himself.  I could remember the feeling of heartbreak, because someone I cared about was gone, in a sense.

“No,” I replied.

“Where’s your anger, your outrage?  Or don’t you care?”

“I care!  It’s-“

“Then end this.”

I shook my head, as if I could clear it.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly, necessarily.  It was that my thoughts kept hitting that dead-end where I couldn’t reach back for context about people, about Tattletale and Grue and the Nine.  I was in the dark.

What I did know was that I’d done too many things I regretted.  I wasn’t about to add something as serious as murder to the list.

Grue must have seen something in my posture, because he shook his head and turned away.  “Give me the gun, then.”

“Just use your power,” Tattletale told him.

“I want Skitter to acknowledge that she doesn’t care enough about this team or about me to do what’s necessary.  She can do that by admitting she doesn’t have the courage to shoot and allow me to do it.”

“That’s not what this is about,” I said.  “Murder is serious.  You don’t kill without being absolutely certain it’s right.  And nothing’s certain for as long as we’re under the influence of this miasma.”

He scoffed.  “And you call yourself a supervillain?”

“I call myself Skitter.  If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

“You’re not giving me the gun?”

“No.”

He shrugged, “So you don’t care at all, about what happened to me.  You don’t care about this team.  And you’ll even look down on us while you do it.  Your contemptible friends.”

“I care.  More than you know.  But you told me, not long ago, that I should follow my heart, trust my gut.  Fine.  That’s what I’m doing.  You attack her, I’ll fight to save her.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’ll fight me?  You’re a traitor now?”

The word hit home.  I must have flinched.

“A traitor again,” he added.

I snapped my head up to look at him in surprise.

“I wonder what it says that the notion of you being a traitor is so ingrained in my impression of you that it jumps to mind, even with the mist affecting me?”

“That’s enough,” I said.

“I know you like me.  I can read it on your face, I could see the way your eyes widened when you heard my name.  You’re an open book in some ways.  And I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

I felt a nervous feeling deep in my gut.  It wasn’t pleasant, at stark odds to what he was saying.

Grue’s words spoke to that feeling of trepidation.  “But this?  It’s telling me I could never have a relationship with you, never be close to you, because I’ll always wonder if you’ll stab me in the back or fuck me over, fail to do what’s necessary in a situation like this.  I’ll never be able to shake that image of you as a traitor.”

He kept saying that word, traitor, hammering it in.

“Unless I take this gun and shoot that woman, who you’re convinced is a member of the Nine,” I guessed what he was getting at.

“Guess I had the wrong impression of you,” he said.  The emotion in his tone was so different that it caught me off guard.  Almost contemplative.  If I thought of it as him emotionally closing down, it almost fit with the impression I associated with Grue.  At the same time, it didn’t quite jibe with what I was seeing.  Again, I felt that distinct discomfort.

Is this how I lose my mind?

I shrugged.  “I guess you did.”

I carefully holstered the gun, as if hiding it could keep it from coming up again in conversation.

A long pause reigned.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.  Then he smiled.  He turned and began walking away.  “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“We’re leaving her?”  Tattletale asked.

“Seems we have to.  Tattletale, can you use your power to make sure the lady from the Nine doesn’t pose a danger?”

Tattletale nodded, smiling.

“Then let’s hurry.  We wasted too much time here.”

“Let me know when she’s not in your range anymore,” Tattletale said to me.  “I’ll try to use my power to make sure she isn’t following us.”

I nodded.

She hugged my arm, “You’re stubborn, but we’re still friends, right?”

I nodded again.  I felt like I was back in school, in a situation where I couldn’t say anything without saying the wrong thing.  Strange, to recall being around the bullies rather than in the company of my team.

The argument weighed on me, as did the things Grue had said, the judgements.  Had I been wrong?  Were we risking letting one of the Nine get away, to murder others?  Was I arguing because I was still clinging to old ideals, or because the miasma was making me divisive?

Even if the miasma was to blame, I hated the idea of failing the others yet again.

This situation was fucking with my head.  I still felt like I was in the middle of a fight, that heart pounding mode where I was ready for bullets or laser blasts to start flying, for me or a friend to be in mortal danger, where a split second response meant the difference between life or death.

Except there was no danger here.  The only people nearby were the woman we were leaving behind, Grue and Tattletale.

I glanced at Tattletale as we ran.  Could I trust them?  They had been in the miasma for a little longer than I had, and I was already experiencing what I could only label as paranoia.  With only a difference of minutes, Legend had been thrust into a paranoid state where he was taking a reckless, offensive course of action, eliminating everyone from the battlefield, regardless of whether they might be friend or enemy.  How much was it affecting these two?  How would it influence their actions?

More to the point, what was my best course of action here?  If I worked on the assumption that I could trust them, would they drag me into a situation that was just as bad as what we’d gone through with the bound woman?  Or if I didn’t trust them, if I allowed myself to become suspicious and take countermeasures, would that be a slippery slope that led to me trying to kill them, in fear for my own life?

We’d come close to fighting just now.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Tattletale said.

“Leave her be,” Grue told her, his voice low.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t trust myself to handle this alone, not with the speed at which this general unease was building up.  But I wasn’t sure I trusted them either.  Something about the argument, it felt off.  Wrong.

“She’s out of my range,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“I’ll keep an eye out!”  She grinned.

Traitor.  I could almost hear the accusation.

I’d lied.  The woman was still in my range.

“Is there service?”  Grue asked.  I must have looked confused, because he clarified by saying, “The phone.”

I pulled my phone out of the space between my breasts and the armor at my front and checked the display.

“Yeah,” I said.  Why does that bug me?

“Call Coil,” Tattletale reminded me.  “We need to know where Cherish is.”

I found him in the contact list and made the call.

“Speaker phone?” Grue suggested.

I nodded, selected the option and hit the button.

As the first ring sounded out, my swarm sense alerted me to the bound woman breaking free of the silk strands, as if it was effortless.  Had she been playing possum after all, hoping we would get close?

I looked at Tattletale, trying to see if had any inkling that this supposed member of the Nine was free.

Nothing.  Tattletale turned to me and grinned.

“No trouble incoming?”  I asked, as the phone rang again.

She shook her head.  “All good.”

Was her power not working as well as she’d thought?  I couldn’t even recollect what it was, but she’d said she would keep an eye out… and there was something alarming occurring this very moment.

“Skitter,” Coil answered the phone.  “I’ve been made aware that Bonesaw has deployed the ace she had up her sleeve.”

“Yeah.  Agnostia… Agnosia-inducing mist.  Permanent, according to Tattletale.”

“I see.”  I could hear the sounds of typing on a keyboard.  “Agnosia… Panacea can’t reverse the effects?”

“She’s not here.  We’re trying to find her.”

“And you need Cherish for that, I suppose.”

I was grateful that he was supplying the names, because it meant I didn’t have to bog down the conversation by remembering or asking.  Grue, Tattletale and I had brought them up recently enough that it wasn’t a huge leap to remember their names.

The woman who I’d tied up with the spider silk was walking towards us.  Her progress was hampered by the decoys.  I kept my mouth shut.  It wasn’t an imminent problem, and I was more interested in gauging just how far gone Tattletale’s power was.

“Except that with the agnosia, we can’t remember where she is and go meet her.”

“Meeting Cherish would be a grave error,” Coil spoke.

“Just put us in contact with her, then?”

“Tattletale informed me of your code.  You remember how it’s put together?”

“Yeah.  My memory’s fine, it’s just my ability to identify people and remember stuff about them that’s fucked up.”

Tattletale glared at me.  Right.  She didn’t like swearing.

“Then, using a name we’re both familiar with, D-gangrene.”

“I can’t remember names.  I don’t think I can use the code.”

“Troubling.  You must understand my predicament.  For all I know, you’re a third party using Skitter’s voice to make the request.  With shapeshifters, empaths and other methods of coercion, I have to be very careful about the dissemination of information.”

“I know.”

The woman was still approaching.  Tattletale and Grue weren’t talking.

Something was wrong.

“What if we kept you on the line?”  I suggested.

“That will suffice.”

There was a pause, then the sound of background noise.  A ring sounded, different from the one before.  It was interrupted as Cherish picked up.

“I have never been so sorry to miss out,” Cherish said.  She sounded a bit hoarse.

“We’re requesting your help,” Coil spoke.

“Oh, you need my help in more ways than you’re aware of.  Not that I’m going to provide it.  Skitter’s on the line, I believe?”

“She is.”

“I’m here,” I confirmed.

“And Tattletale and Grue, of course.”  She chuckled.  “How amusing.  Seems like I’m in high demand.”

“They’re looking for Panacea,” Coil said.  “Identifying her for us would be one way to achieve revenge on the Slaughterhouse Nine for turning on you.”

“Revenge?  Not my interest in the slightest.  I’ve learned my lesson and I’ve become the poster child for team loyalty.”

Coil paused, then said, “I’m prepared to offer you some enticements.  I imagine your current quarters can’t be too comfortable.”

“Don’t suppose these enticements will be hand delivered?”

“They will be provided by remote control, as your food has been.”

“Some headphones and music would be nice,” she said.  “The sound of the waves banging on the hull is driving me crazy.”

“Such could be arranged.”

“Nah, I’m totally fucking with you.  Music, as if.”

There were too many things that seemed off.  Cherish’s tone among them.  I glanced around.  The woman was still following us, throwing herself after decoys, verifying they were false, then retracing her steps.  She was slowly closing in.  I positioned Atlas so he would be ready to distract her if it came down to it.

“You’re stalling?”  Coil asked.  “I don’t see the point.”

“Just trying to see if I can provoke a reaction from you.  There’s only so many times I can read the labels of the shipping containers before I lose my mind.  Have to amuse myself somehow.”

“What will it take for you to tell us where Panacea is?”  Coil asked.

“Oh, I’m feeling generous, and I want to see what happens.  I’ll tell you that as a freebie.  They’re at Arcadia.  Somewhere in the top floor.”

A freebie.  Something was going on, and I wasn’t aware what.  I had to piece it together, but I had so little information.

“And maybe I could offer you something, in exchange for some goodwill.  Maybe you’ll even want to let me go free, no obligations.”

The feeling of dread that had been following me wasn’t getting worse as the woman approached.  It was staying steady, like someone had a gun pointed at me, and they’d had it aimed my way for some time now.

“I’m listening,” Coil said, “But if this is frivolous or another waste of our time-“

“Nah.  Critically important.  I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s simple.  Going by what I’ve been able to observe around the city, there seems to be a major concern.  Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur.”

“I’m not versed in Latin,”  Coil spoke, sounding annoyed.

“For shame, Coil, for shame,” Cherish said.  Her voice was too cheerful. “You can’t sell the cultured supervillain image without the ability to make quips in an ancient language.  I had the benefit of my power, languages are easier to learn when you can get a sense of what the other person’s feeling.”

“That was something about Jack?”  I asked,  “Repeat that in English?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” she replied.  “The message was delivered.  I’ll leave you to think about it.”

If only I could have blamed the miasma for my idiocy.  Everything clicked into place.

I kept my voice level, “I don’t think you’ll get much goodwill if we don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.  Coil?  We’re moving out now.”

“Report back when you’ve found the healer,” Coil told me.

I hung up before Cherish could speak, then I glanced at the others.  “Let’s go?  Arcadia high?”

They nodded.

My heart pounded with such force that my vision wavered.  I turned to head toward Arcadia high, joined by the two members of the Nine.  Stay calm, don’t let on that you know.

If I could direct the woman to us…

The miasma’s effects had almost made me lose track of her.  She was fighting, grappling with mechanical spiders.  She went from fighting like an ordinary individual to moving at high speeds and throwing crushing punches, then back again.  I couldn’t think of how to help her, and she was obviously unable to help me.

Cherish had been engaging in double-speak, saying one thing to us, while addressing the two people with me the entire time.  She’d told them about where she was being held captive, and she’d offered the most valuable information she had to avoid getting tortured to death after they’d freed her.  From the way she’d talked about the message being received, one of the people with me had to be Jack.

Jack was slated to bring about the end of the world if he left Brockton Bay, and now he knew.

Couldn’t meet their eyes, didn’t want to speak, in case I let on that I knew.  I could barely breathe, I was so afraid of letting my emotions show.

My gun was in the compartment at my back.  I’d put it away at the conclusion of our argument, and with the compartment broken in my fall from Atlas’s back, I’d been forced to put it in a place where it wasn’t easy to draw.  I couldn’t be sure I would be able to draw it and fire.  I was still handicapped, unaware of their powers.  I was fighting blind.

If Jack or the girl killed Amy, just about everyone in the city would die violently from the miasma’s effects.  But I couldn’t stop them without letting on that I knew.  Fighting them put me at a clear disadvantage, and-

“Skitter,” Jack spoke.

I didn’t waste time turning to face him.  I gripped the hair of the blonde girl beside me and virtually hauled her off her feet as I dragged her around to a position between Jack and myself.  Jack was already swinging his knife.

The knife cut the girl more than it cut me.  I could feel it raking across the exterior of my costume, failing to penetrate, but he was swinging it underhand, and it caught me in the chin, slicing through the side of my cheek and up to my temple.

I tried to keep a hold on the girl for the sake of using her as a human shield, but I saw her reach into her dress and withdraw some vials.  I shoved her toward Jack, then stepped forward to kick her square between the shoulder blades.  She collided with him, interrupting his follow-up swing.  For good measure, I drew the bugs from beneath my costume and sent them chasing after her.  Some capsaicin-laced bugs, just the few I had remaining.

Jack caught her shoulders and spun her around so she faced me.  The vials were already billowing with a chemical reaction.  She threw them at me.

I backed away, and they hit the ground between our two groups, black smoke joining the crimson mist around us.

“You’ve outlived your usefulness, Skitter,” Jack spoke.

If I’d just had a minute or two more to decide on a course of action.

“It was fun.  I almost wish I’d nominated you for the Nine.  You’re versatile, and there’s so many weak points I could have exploited if I’d had more time.  If Cherish’s information on you wasn’t so misleading, I think I could have made you shoot the heroine.  To corrupt you like that, it would have been amusing.”

I fumbled for the gun, using my bugs to get a sense for where it was.  In the same motion that I pointed it, Jack slapped it out of my hand with two slashes of his knife.  He was a dozen feet away, but the knife nonetheless connected with my weapon.

My bugs began to gather like a dark cloud, their mass casting a shadow on the already gloomy surroundings.

“So I end the world?  Interesting.”

“The source is a little unreliable,” I lied.

“Still, I would love to see how that comes about.”

“You won’t live to,” I told him.

“I’ll make sure he does,” the girl informed me.

My swarm could feel others approach from the heroine’s direction.  They were the size of dogs, and they skipped forward on mechanical legs.  The mechanical spiders.  Dozens of them, coming straight for me.

If I was judging right, they were running faster than I could.

I sent the swarm after Jack and the girl, massed into thousands of bugs.  Some groups clustered so tight together that they looked like massive, amorphous black entities, amoebas floating through a cityscape painted in shades of red and black.  Atlas heard my call and headed my way from the place I’d positioned him, too far away to join the fight for a minute or two.

The girl was already mixing something else together.  Plumes of white smoke billowed around her, almost luminescent after so long spent in the crimson mist.  My bugs died on contact with the gas.

Everything I’d learned about my enemies had been blocked.  I had no information on them, no sense of what to expect.  They weren’t so handicapped.

She tipped half the vial’s contents into an empty container and handed it to Jack.  Both protected from my power, they started backing away.

I moved to edge around the cloud of black smoke, but Jack struck me with the knife.  I had to use my forearms to cover my unprotected face.  I just had my glasses, some bugs, and a layer of cloth protecting it.  Nothing that would guard against Jack’s cuts.

When I’d lowered my arms, they had already turned a corner, running in the general direction of Arcadia high.  Running around the cloud of black smoke cost me a precious minute.  I made my way around the same corner they’d rounded, and stopped short as I came face to face with another black cloud.

Couldn’t match their speed, not with these noxious clouds slowing me down.  With the heroine lying unconscious in the street, several blocks in the wrong direction, I had no allies to turn to.  Worse, anyone I came across was as likely as not to be a threat. It was down to Atlas and me, and Atlas was especially vulnerable to both of my opponents.  I couldn’t even fly after them without risking being cut down in midair.

I had minimal information on my opponents, while they knew enough about me to completely counter my powers.  Topping it all off, the mechanical spiders were steadily, inexorably closing in on me.  I’d lost my last fight with the things, and there were dozens more this time around.  Couldn’t fly without exposing myself to Jack’s power, couldn’t stay on the ground without getting swarmed.

I swallowed hard and held out one hand to grab Atlas’s horn as he landed.  In a moment, we were in the air, giving chase.

I wasn’t thinking about winning anymore.  I was thinking in terms of minimizing the damage when we lost.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

84 thoughts on “Prey 14.9

  1. I was on the edge of my seat that entire chapter waiting for Taylor to piece everything together. Every time she almost had it and got interrupted just drove me nuts.

    I know that Battery has to charge her ability, but how in the world did she lose to the mechanical spiders? She obviously had some charge built up, enough to fight them. The other big question is why in the world did they leave her alive? I know Bonesaw isn’t entirely rational, but it seems like a weird choice under the circumstances.

    Cherish is just so stupid. How she can possibly think that would buy her safety from Jack and Bonesaw just boggles my mind. At least if she had ratted them out Coil probably would have taken care of her.

    • It’s not like Bonesaw actually intended to leave Battery alive, she sent her spiders after her as soon as Skitter said she was out of range.

      • Yeah, but she left her unconscious. Bonesaw is a badass, but I doubt the few seconds Battery was down with the spiders were enough for her to do anything really messed up to her. Not without being there personally.

    • I read a bit more before translating it, but the “mundi terminatur” and the reference to Jack were pretty much enough to understand what she said even without the translation. In French: world = monde, to end = terminer. One of those occasions where the Latin roots of the language show.

      • In portuguese world = mundo, terminar = to end and the rest of the sentence was equally easy.
        Latin based native language, sometimes is useful.

      • Yes, to me, as a spanish speaker, the meaning was pretty obvious :-S
        Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur
        En español sería algo como: Si Jack sale de la ciudad, el mundo termina.
        effugit sounds like “fugarse” in spanish, to scape. Also take the word fugitive from english… AGHHH TAYLOR!!! use your brain now!!!!! So exciting! :D

    • *puts on the old black and white PSA*
      Psycho Gecko’s Guide to Amateur Translation:

      Hello kids. I’m your guide, Psycho Gecko. Now, as you kids know, dirty communists exist in several other countries. As a sign of them being bad people, they use languages other than English. *shocked kids stop playing with their toys, mouthes wide*

      But don’t worry, the U.S. military and our boys in the state department *cuts to a picture of Langley where the entire building has been redacted out* are hard at work at eliminating subversive languages. Why, one language they have killed off is Latin. *kids look puzzled* Why, Latin is the most important dead language of all time. It has had a major influence on languages such as Italian *cut to parading Mussolini fascists*, Spanish *cut to the iconic photo of Che*, and even…French! *cuts to a picture of the Eiffel tower at night, with a lightning bold in the distance, and a sinisterly smiling man in a striped shirt and a beret burning an American flag*

      If you know a little bit of these languages, why then you should pick up your telephone right now, say the phrase “Help, I may be a Soviet spy” and a crack team of kind friendly boys from the government will be there soon to make sure you’re A-ok! *the film shows someone picking up the phone, speaking that phrase, being dragged out with bag over his head by the CIA, then standing against a wall with a blindfold on with a group of men in front of him holding guns before cutting away more quickly than usual*

      Today we’ll teach you how to roughly tranlate the Latin phrase, “Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundi terminatur”

      If you know a little about other languages, it can help you translate if you are dealing with a related language, like the languages related to Latin. For example, instead of doing things the right way, Spanish uses the word “si” to mean “if”. Can you say that along with me kids? Don’t!

      They also use the term “Mundo” to mean world, like some odd propaganda. Don’t be fooled, kids! Its similarity to mundi gives us an idea that mundi means world. They also have the verb terminar, which is similar to terminate. Forcing our words on other languages is just one way we’re hard at work winning the war against Communism *cut briefly to soldiers shooting into the distance in Korea*

      If Jack something something, world terminates. For added points, you might deduce that Latin also stole the word civic or civil, a word with all kinds of connotations towards the government and particularly local government, like a city. *A kid thinks, then is in a slightly different position as now a lightbulb appears over his head and lights up, the kid looking up in amazement and raising his hand* Why that’s right, some might say Jack something’s a city. You’ve got a bright future ahead of you, son. Perhaps you should go on down to your local Army recruiter and sign up to help us fight the evil reds.

      Now, we can also compare other knowledge about the subject to help fill in any gaps. We have the benefit of knowing that if this Jack person ever leaves this city the world ends. My, that’s a silly superstition, isn’t it? It gives us a good idea of the message though. *a kid draws a stick figure with a knife leaving a group of skyscrapers, then an arrow pointing to a drawing of the earth, then an arrow pointing to a drawing of the earth exploding.*

      That concludes our lesson today. Next time on Psycho Gecko’s Guide, we’ll show you how digging a six-foot deep hole in your backyard can protect you from nuclear attack! *film ends with footage of a mushroom cloud*

        • Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundi terminatur
          In portuguese:
          Se Jack fugir da cidade, o mundo termina.
          So, you already have the justification to invade amazonia, we speak a latin based language ergo we are communists :)

          • We’ve already done a lot to South America, or hadn’t you heard of our support for dictatorships down there?

            Nah, hopefully we’ll stay away from Brazil. That country is infamous for its special variation on scalping.

          • Heard? I lived in one. But it was no Siria.
            Scalping? Here? Nope, but Rio favela’s version of a microwave would make bonesaw proud.

        • I read the entire thing with a film grain and stereotypical ’50s voice. I also imagined the announcer with physical mannerisms that made him seem a bit unhinged.

    • It helps if you had Latin at school. I couldn’t piece together any of the grammar anymore today, but I still recognize enough of the words to sort of understand what was meant. (I have no idea if the right words and word-endings were used here though)

      It says something about Jack that he knew and Coil that he didn’t. Jack checks out as bored but cultured nihilist, but Coil fails as a true evil master-mind. Unless of course Coil only pretended to be fooled because he saw that this would lead to the better outcome…

      • Yeah, I was thinking that if I was Coil, I would have pretended not to understand. But more importantly, Coil is definitely not an idiot. I’m sure he’s recording the whole conversation, and had someone getting him a translation before the call even ended, assuming he didn’t already know. If Coil really wants to rule the city, he’s going to need to have something left to rule. Which means he’ll have people at Arcadia High ASAP to find Panacea for himself.

        Hg

        • With some time to think on it, I think you’re right that he just pretended not to know. If she was saying that to Skitter and the people with her, he must have realized that at least someone with her must have been in the Nine and Skitter wouldn’t know due to the agnosia. If he had let on, they’d still be heading where they were going, but Coil’s asset (Skitter) would be dead.

    • I did, I did!

      I had started to consolidate my, “Oh crap she’s walking with the Nine” just before they after they left Battery alone and figured that Cherish was just talking with Jack that entire conversation so I had to know what she said…

  2. Heh, I noticed that parts of the story were based on my comments from last time. Sorry for clogging up the story like that. Still, that was so cool to see how gracefully you incorporated that into the story. It made perfect sense for Coil to bring up the secret code, for instance.

    • A trap you run into with a WIP and a audience:

      Reader raises idea/point.
      Said thing was intended to show up/be addressed anyways.
      People are left (I imagine) to wonder how much was influenced by reader

      Unavoidable unless I avoid comments entirely, and I won’t be doing that, obviously.

      Only the point about Aegis might have been ignored/left to the reader’s interpretation, I think.

      • Not sure how bad a thing that is really, we all know you’re very good so there won’t be any bad blood over it, and it provides other perspectives which I would bet can be at least somewhat useful at times.

        Personally I just assume whatever it was was already going to happen unless stated otherwise.

  3. Yep. It’s official. Jack’s crossed the Crisis line.

    I mean, the Nine were considered bad enough already for villains to help against them, but that is a relatively low bar here. However, as any card-carrying member of supervillainy knows, most supervillains have an obligation to help out against one of their own kind in a few circumstances, chief among them being the utter and complete destruction of the planet. Alien occupations are also frowned upon (is there a Doctor in the house?).

    Still, someone actively seeking the destruction of the Earth is above such things as good and evil into a territory known as “stupid”. No world is bad for business. I suppose that’s is one way to confront one’s own mortality, though. I suppose, if it gets right down to it, Jack has to know that’s something that will get him no matter what. No escaping age and death even if you’ve killed every hero on earth.

    He doesn’t want to die, of course, but if he knows he’s going to then probably the best way that control freak would think to cope with it is for everyone else to go with him.

    Poor deluded little freak. If he wanted to pull that, he’d have to take the whole universe with him.

    Oh, and Kudos to Skitter. This is one of those chapters that exemplifies that she’s got a serious pair of balls on her. I mean it, must be hard for Atlas to lift those things. Steel ones like that, she might be able to knock a tooth of Jack’s out.

    • Skitter’s thoughts – I’m such a terrible person, why am I even wasting all this air? I never do anything right. I’m useless. I fail all the time, I can’t do the right thing.

      Skitter’s Actions – Unflinching moral, doesn’t matter how you coerce her, or how much she hates you or even if no one will ever know it happened. Courageous beyond belief (like if Nodoka and Jacuzzi Splot had a bizarre, crossover love child) and resourceful to boot.

      • Not entirely sure I agree, actually. She’s certainly above average, but she’s made major decisions based on her own feelings over what she knows is right. Primarily staying with the Undersiders. She would (presumably) be doing a more good if she was a hero working with the Wards rather than working with the Undersiders. The various plot events where the world has benefited from her being a villain have largely been coincidental. If anything she’s refused the course of self sacrifice several times. She works well within the system of working for a villain, but she’s not really doing the best she could due to giving into her own biases.

        I’d absolutely love her as a friend, ally, or soldier. Being 15 also cuts her a tremendous amount of slack. Still, she’s stolen from innocent people, intimidated innocent people, worked to assist seriously evil people who will continue to commit acts of violence. She is a morally gray protagonist who is critical of herself.

        • “She would (presumably) be doing a more good if she was a hero working with the Wards rather than working with the Undersiders.” – Have to disagree with this. The Wards have rules and restrictions and their powers (and strategies to defeat them) are record in the HCP database. While the Wards teamwork is good (most of the time) their tactics are often lacking given the numbers resources at their disposal. The Wards outnumber the Undersider significantly and yet the Undersiders are arguably the more effective team. Also, there’s an Art of War angle to consider: in any battle with two primary forces (Heros vs Nine) , any tertiary group wields disproportionate influence on the outcome.

          – Excellent stuff wildbow. Keep up the good work.

        • Skitter “would (presumably) be doing a more good if she was a hero working with the Wards rather than working with the Undersiders.”

          Wow. You got all the names right, but I’m certain you’re not reading the same story I am. One of the major points of the story is how morality isn’t defined so easily, and besides, what good have the wards accomplished, exactly? Have they even made a net positive iinfluence on their world, considering Shadow Stalker’s actions?

      • I’m guessing it was Dinah. According to the Mayo clinic, though, grangrene ranges from “brown to purplish-blue to black.” How is Skitter supposed to know which color he meant? (joking)

        Somehow, I see the line that Cherish says is going to become prophetic: “I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.” If Skitter survives long enough to warn Coil, I can’t imagine him allowing Cherish to live after that betrayal.

  4. I wonder what Bonesaw’s view on recent events is. She supposedly is loyal to Jack, but I got the impression that she liked what she does and ending the world would rather put bumper or her research. She might very well turn on him to stop him from stopping her from torturing and experimenting on people in the future.

    There also is the fact, that Bonesaw has taken quite a lot of damage recently. Jack cut her when he freed her from Skitter’s web and now again when she used her as a human shield. Sure she can survive being stabbed in the heart and everything with what augmentations she made, but sooner or later this stuff adds up and she might suffer a death of a thousand cuts.

    You also have to wonder what happened to Siberian. Either they split up to do more damage, or Jack stabbed him in the back once his usefulness was over. If Siberian (or rather her creator) hadn’t previously trusted the rest of the nine with his identity this might not have been the best way to reveal his weakness. It would also mean that Bonesaw had not time to prepare any immunity for him…

    Jack might very well end up the last of the nine standing in very short order.

  5. Long time reader, first time posting. First of all – kudos to Wildbow for the fantastic story. It’s definitely my number one web serial, both for the quality of the story and writing, as well as for the size of the updates (sorry Jim, your work is great too, if somewhat less prolific). The fact that some of these people and places had earlier lives in some of your earlier stories has paid off for you (and us).

    I certainly agree with some others here when I say that the best parts of the story usually take place in Taylor’s head – it’s a very interesting place to be. That said, the interludes are great too.

    The ONLY complaint I have is this: I read purely when I am at work (Mon-Fri, day job) and since you update Tuesday and Saturday, that means I read an update Monday, get another update again on Tuesday and then I’m done for the week (in other words, Jim’s Monday/Thursday schedule is better, at least from my perspective). Who am I to tell genius how to operate though?

    The one major question (and reason for my post) is this:

    You say you have only a few arcs left and then it sounds like things will come to a conclusion. I just don’t see how that can be possible without leaving so many unanswered questions and unexplained things. All 3 Endbringers (origins, resolution), Scion (origins), Cauldron and Coil’s plans just to name a few. Then we have the 2 beings that seem to be responsible for the trigger events. I could go on, but point is, there is lots to explore if you wanted to go on. Not that everything HAS to be explained by stories end.

    Oh – and no one would blame you if you went to a more ‘human’ word count on your updates (look at me saying whatever it takes to keep my Worm fix going…)

    • Thanks for chiming in, Digerati.

      I went with Tuesday-Saturday because I didn’t want to conflict with the schedules of other ongoing superhero serials (May be wrong, but I think Jim was MWF, then switched to M-Th) and I’ve found this works for me – it gives me a day off in the course of the week, typically, and it leaves the weekend more or less free, in case I’m going up to the cottage or whichever. I might have done Monday-Friday, but then I’d feel like I was conflicting/competing with Jim for people’s lunch break reading. I have a lot of respect for Jim and wouldn’t want to step on his toes in any way, shape or form.

      As for this word count, I find it works for me. It’s mainly a concern of whether I can get from the chapter’s beginning to the conclusion without having to feel like I’m working to shoehorn stuff in. With 4000 (or more) words, I can generally have a natural-feeling change in scene, a twist, a balance of action and dialogue and/or all the other stuff I’d want, and I don’t feel like I’m reaching for a cliffhanger or natural ending point (as I did in some of the chapters for the early arcs). Just as an example, if I ended this chapter at the 2000 word mark, it would have fallen around the point where she made the call to Coil.

      And, perhaps most importantly, 4000 (or 6000 or 10,000, if the chapter demands such) words is enough that I have to push myself to write. Writing’s like a muscle, and if I exercise it and keep ratcheting up what I expect of myself, I can get pretty fit, so to speak. I find 4k is enough that I’ve plateaued in that steady progression and I’m working hard without suffering overmuch.

      As for the cliffhangers, yeah, I’m wondering how I can work all that in, myself. I like what I have in mind, but it’s tough to wrangle it all. This is my first time writing a story for the public, and some of that stuff ties into the conclusion – something I’ve never written on this scale.

      It may well be that Worm isn’t as close to finishing as I’ve guessed/implied. I’m currently debating if I want to add another arc after this one is complete, just to allow more time to deal with the aftermath, I think it would feel more natural (with the caveat that this would delay the bonus week I’ve promised by another 3 weeks to a month).

  6. I’m very interested to see where this is going. The miasma is well done. Even though Skitter doesn’t have any information on people, the way things are written I’m still able to understand what’s going on, but also recognize that she doesn’t.

    But really, I have to fault Legend last chapter. If Bonesaw is gonna release a bioweapon, the TWO people you want right there are each in the Travellers and Undersiders. If she hits a button to send some radio wave it won’t get through Grue’s darkness, and if she releases some biological thing, it won’t get through Sundancer’s sun!

    For shame Legend, for shame.

    I’m very interested in knowing how this stuff effected the rest of her team, so I think the extra arc dealing with the aftereffects is a good idea. There’s a lot of fallout from something like this.

    Presumably Regent, even if he didn’t know who he’s controlling, won’t stop controlling Shatterbird. Grue’s smart enough not to overreact so they should both be good overall. Tattletale and Trickster can probably work together.

    But Bitch? And Ballistic? I don’t think they’d do too well. And I STILL want to know more about Taylor’s dad. We haven’t heard a thing from him in a while. And Taylor had to get back to her territory, unless she’s stopped caring about it? That might just be the agnosia though.

    Alright, so Presumably Skitter won’t die. So I have no idea how this arc will end, cause there’s nothing she can really do against Jack or Bonesaw. Maybe Panacea/Glory Girl will pull something out.

    Aaaaaaand, I’m guessing since Bonesaw didn’t have time to protect him, Siberian’s creator was affected by the mist, and that’s why they’re not hanging with him now. Also, Legend no doubt forgot what he looked like, so Siberian is off Scott Free again! :(

    Personally? I think the Nine need to die. And not out of a moral sense, but out of a narrative sense. IMO the plot is about Coil, taking over the city, and Skitter controlling territory, expanding, being a reluctant supervillain, etc… That’s just how I feel. Now while the Nine have certainly been interesting, to me they seem more like an aside than the main plot. Just my 2 cents.

    Also, props on starting in with more physical descriptions, though I swear last chapter you did it ONLY because it made things creepier! You’re evil.

    As always, great writing! I did notice nobody in the comments was correcting your grammar/spelling this time! Did you get a beta reader or something?

    • No beta reader. It’s just that this chapter demanded a close reread, because there was a lot of room to fuck up (saying Bonesaw instead of Tattletale early on, for example)

      • I considered making a comment to that effect, but then I’d feel silly if I’d missed something, too=P
        (That said, I’d not mind proofreading, since I tend to do it whether I’m trying to or not!)

    • If I may say so, the arc about Skitter’s territory expansion is over. The adult population of her territory is mostly dead. She cannot possibly go back to where she was, and I have trouble seeing her starting over on an emotional level. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if Skitter didn’t change her loyalties at the end of this arc. She’s seen villainy in a much worse light, and seen heroism in a much better light. This fic has a good degree of twists and turns to keep me surprised, but this is a change to the plot roughly as large as the Endbringer was.

      I would find it quite interesting if Panacea can’t/won’t heal the miasma, myself, and it turns out to be permanent and won’t degrade further. Or perhaps makes it conditional on not healing villains if she is capable of healing it. That would be a fascinating end to this arc IMO.

      Hell yes the Slaughterhouse Nine need to die. Note, they’re pretty much doomed already. Simply knowing Siberian’s weakness and killing Crawler is practically enough. They seem to have survived largely because of Siberian. Once her creator is destroyed the team isn’t going to be able to get away with its old tactics, which means either they die or they can’t unleash their old violence.

      Another thought. If Glory Girl got infected with the miasma, and can’t cure it, what happens to Glory Girl’s brain chemistry? How does not remembering who you’re in love with effect being in love? She might (very arguable) loose her reason for resisting it as well.

        • 1. She doesn’t do brains. Considering the last time she tried she kind of raped her sister, it’s not looking like this is going to change in the near future.

          2. She’s kind of retired from doctoring anyway. Her deciding to mass cure people seems unlikely.

          3. On the other hand, there’s a good chance that Grue’s going to repair her memory if any kind of deal is reached.

    • Personally, I’d be really interested to see how Coil manages to piece together his plans after the conflict with the Nine is over. I know he had payed off a few of the local candidates for public office, but I have to imagine some of them died or fled during the recent chaos.

  7. Them talking about nominating Skitter reminds me of way back when we were still guessing who the nominees would be or how they fit into Cherish’s archetypes. My thinking was that if Skitter wasn’t one of the nominees then it would all be too distant and removed from her part of the story. I imagined something dark and isolated where the nominees went find out their test (probably something involving eliminating at least one of the others each round) and maybe needing help from others on occasion.

    And I was almost right, if you count being completely wrong. Instead of a dark, nighttime, horror-esque contest full of drama and tension, we got a conflict that might ultimately be as destructive to the city as Leviathan’s visit. The Nine stuck around in the city longer, but have been whittled down a lot more than Leviathan. Can’t play a game of attrition with Jack, though. If he escapes, game over, and it is hard to say that he won’t escape.

    Aside from Wildbow taking the whole Slaughterhouse Nine arc in a direction I didn’t see coming, the series’ darker moments wouldn’t make it unprecedented for Jack to get away for a short time. Though I half expect that just before he does, the one kid of Purity will be there, with powers or just a big gun, and deliver the blow to kill him. Could go either way.

    Not much substantial and I bet people are tired of me going, “Hey Wildbow, you had an idea similar to this one of mine no one ever got to see when I wrote it privately,” and all such thinking of how I’d do things.

    I mainly just wanted to point out where we are compared to where we were. You surprised the expectations of myself and probably a lot of your readers the way you took all of this.

    • As a thought, Theo makes real sense as the world killer.

      1. Jack’s the instigation, not the cause, of the end of the world.
      2. Assuming he gets the world ender powers, he’s much more likely to use them sooner with Jack coming after him than if Jack is dead, either because of an earlier trigger event or simply going all out/at all on Jack.

  8. Earlier someone commented that they thought the “natural progression of the plot” (more my summary, not really a direct quote) would be Skitter working to help Coil take over the city and restore it to functioning, acting as a positive influence and securing Dinah’s release. They viewed the Nine as a digression.

    I would disagree. Consistently throughout the story Taylor has shown that she judges situations not by labels but by truth. “Hero” didn’t really apply to Armsmaster, who worked for his own advancement. “Villain” didn’t really apply to Tattletale or Grue, who had been using their powers in escapist fun after harsh childhoods, but who were willing to stop true villainy in the case of Bakuda and Leviathan. She bailed on the team when she couldn’t handle Coil’s manipulation, and only rejoined to manipulate him into freeing Dinah.

    Had she helped him conquer the city, she would have compromised all her values to repair that one imbalance. In this arc, with the Nine, she is closer to true heroism because even stripped of her memory, she still wrestled with finding the truth and doing the right thing, at great personal risk. Instead of freeing Dinah based on an ideal and to rectify Coil’s manipulation of the team, she’s out to save actual lives and indeed the world if they can stop Jack. Everything has been stripped away — civilization, society, friendship, clothes, superficial identity, family, team, memory. But with all of that out of the way, Taylor knows who she is.

    That’s the essence of all literature — defining the protagonist’s true self through conflict — and so to me that’s the “natural plot progression” in a plot that is constantly surprising and intriguing.

    Furthermore, I’m not worried about the Endbringers and loose plot threads because this story takes place in a broader world — it’s like a Spiderman series and you know the X-Men and Avengers are still out there. Wildbow can follow up on any of that stuff later and this thread will still be satisfying because it’s about Taylor’s journey. If he never continues in this world, it still stands as good writing because it gives the sense that the world was whole, and not just constructed to create Taylor’s plot. But it sure gives lots of room for sequels and further awesomeness.

    • Totally agree with your post Nomananisland, especially your last point about the loose plot threads.

      I never meant to imply that all threads NEED to be tied up by stories end. All I meant was that there is lots of room to keep Worm going if Wildbow so desires. I just think it would be a shame if we never got to see the resolution/explanation for some of what Wildbow has built. Course I am saying that out of selfishness :)

      And yes, those things could definitely be elaborated more in some OTHER story, be it a ‘Worm’ sequel or some entirely different story within this same setting.

      And btw Wildbow, Digerati = Jeff. You’re welcome for the ‘donation’ You’re work certainly merits reward.

      • I hope/intend to give you guys the resolution to the key areas there. I don’t intend to do it in a sequel or another story in the same setting (and I’m not sure I will do a sequel/wormverse story – maybe a novella, but nothing big). I’d like to move on to other stuff before I get burned out on this.

    • I agree with most of what you have written here, except for the part about Armsmaster not being a hero, and Tattletale and Grue not being villains.

      Just because Armsmaster is saving people and fighting villains for selfish reasons doesn’t negate the fact that he is still saving people and fighting villains. Tattletale and Grue are almost certain to go back to being villains when this whole mess with the Nine is over with. They aren’t going out there saving people just to save them, after all is said and done they are almost certainly going to go back to being criminals.

      Armsmaster is a scumbag, and Grue and Tattletale are decent enough, but that doesn’t change the actions they have taken throughout the course of their careers.

      • It occurs to me that one part of the divide between those of us who see the heroes and the villains differently is that we attach the term hero and villain based on different criteria.

        So far as I notice (so feel free to fill in any gaps I miss here) there are those who see the label as being related to society while others relate it to the individual. I considered claiming the second way was relating it to morals, but that’s biased on my part and there’s certainly an argument to be made for the morality of upholding a society’s laws even when the person doing so is a dick. In fact, I remember being rather critical of ethics because while it discussed what a person should or shouldn’t do, it didn’t address the ethics of following the law.

        Armsmaster is, viewed by society, a hero. He got the label by rounding up people who break the law and saving people. In the context of society and maintaining it (as well as the people whose lives he saves) he is a hero, but it’s all dependent on another person.

        I don’t remember if the truce is an actual law or not, but what we saw there was the individual’s flaws show through. Compare him with Watchmen’s Comedian, who followed and upheld the law…and mainly did so because he enjoyed breaking people’s faces. Despite helping to save lives and catch criminals, he also had attempted rape and had murdered some people.

        Skitter is, if you look at her, a very good and heroic person. Time and again she puts her life selflessly on the line for other people she doesn’t know. She hesitated, but she still tried to save her jerk of a teacher. She tries to help people do what’s best for them in the wake of a disaster. Her plan is to follow two of the world’s most notorious killers and try to stop them. It doesn’t matter that they have a history of surviving the best that’s thrown against them. It doesn’t matter that she could easily die. She does it because it is right.

        But hell, I’m not even going to count all the laws she’s broken. Is there any law specifically for cutting out a guy’s eyes or toxin-rotting his balls off (and she was much more effective against him, a worse criminal, than Armsmaster the lawful tinker)? She’s a criminal. A villain. She’s robbed a bank but most people don’t suffer from their cash being stolen from a bank (FDIC insures everyone’s bank accounts up to $250,000). She’s harassed and assaulted civilians (generally for their own good). By society’s labels, she’s a villain. But if you see it on a more individual level, she’s a hero who happens to not be legal. In a couple of different meanings, but that’s beside the point: social villain, individual hero. Armsmaster, while legal, still let people die to make himself look better. Social hero, individual villain.

        If you look at it, it was kinda implied back with the bullying. Taylor was good and no harm to anyone, but to the big social group she was someone to be bullied to the extent of winding up in an institution briefly. Evil individuals who were socially heroes.

        • This is pretty much exactly where my thoughts are on it. This story does n excellent job of deconstructing heroes by showing them in multiple lights.

          We’ve seen at least some glimpse of what the general perception of a certain character is.

          Then we’ve gotten the societal authority viewpoint on them, the PRT’s files and briefings.

          Then we see them from the individual level, see what they do and why. And perhaps those two things should themselves be divided up separately.

          To continue comparing Arms and Skitty;

          Armsmaster:
          -General public thinks/thought he was excellent, shown in Skitter thinking about his place in the V-Formation thing. He was cool, composed, dedicated.
          -Then we get his place in authority where again he’s a hero but we saw all the bureacracy and how bad he was with it. How much it wore him down.
          -Then we got his individual actions, mostly heroic and he almost stayed on the right side of utility ethics at least when he let numerous villains die…except that one of those was Skitter who he knew to be a good person and a young girl. She had done nothing to make that okay and in doing that he was destroying a possible hero. Still if we say that this is the only time he’s gone this far then it’s still grey.
          -Until we consider his motivations which were by this point purely selfish. He just wanted advancement…but considering the third of these things, along with his furious rant at Mannequin, I wonder if that was not different from the man he once was. He certainly seemed to mellow a LOT after he went on house arrest and no longer had to deal with it.

          Skitter:
          -General public thinks she’s a terrifying and incomprehensible psycopath. The bug thing probably worsens this, especially the idea that she’s not thinking in human terms, as well as making her inately more terrifying to everyone. Even if she was an out and out hero people would be scared of her, with her actions up til Extermination I would put her firmly as public villain. Right now it depends a lot on how much information has circulated. Saving the shelter, fighting the nine and her control of her territory has all shown an examplary person, but I doubt that’s known beyond certain parts of Brockton Bay and a few internet fans maybe.
          -Authority wise, plainly a villain. She’s so anti-authority that it makes this particular anarchist (did I mention how much I love the flat structure of the Undersiders? I wuv it like cheesecake) squeal with glee in a very manly fashion of course. In seriousness, she’s very clearly opposed to this one, no love lost there.
          -Individual actions are tricky but ultimately even with straight utility I would measure her as overall good. Sure she started some insane disaster dominoes but that’s hardly her fault and quite possibly is the result of an outside manipulation such as the Simmurgh. In terms of her actions she’s so far inserted good people into Coil’s schemes (herself an her teammates with her influence) which would have otherwise succeeded anyway. Has a good chance at saving Dinah and has acted against every major threat the city has faced in this series. She does everything up to and including self-sacrifice to save others, the bit when she TACKLED MANNEQUIN to save a parent and child springs to mind there, or being a distraction to Leviathan, or most of what she does really. Her truly evil actions amount to serious stress harm to the bank goers and the same again to those at that party…though they were rich so I have less sympathy myself. Most of her badness has been towards bad people anyway (which makes her the same as the heroes, indeed she’s less brutal then several of them) and so I would put her individual status as hero.
          -As for motivation, that’s also difficult. She’s undoubtedly a good person, despite her endless pessimism and self-hatred. She has tried through blood sweat and tears to help others and not once has yielded to pressure not to. She is also selfish, she has avoided taking down Coil’s scheme not only because she truly doubts her success but also (at least this is how it seems to me) because she wants to be part of that organisation and because she sees it as a way to do what she sees as good. That last is a strike out from society more than outright selfishness though. When it comes to those she cares about she reminds me of Rubi (R+V) in her apparent view of herself as a lesser being and a shield. What’s that Ballistic? You can’t come with? Well let me just get off in your place. Heroic perhaps but with how often she pulls this stuff I’d say lack of self-esteem is a big part.

          Overall, what do either of these classify as?

          Well I’ll say now that I hate this genre. Loathe it.

          I love this story but hate the genre at large and a good chunk of that is due to the ridiculous oversimplifying of labelling heroes and villains. I prefer eastern comics where powerful people generally just do what they like and are called people who can do as they like. This makes more sense to me.

          I love this series not least because, not only do we see the rogues, but it even rips up that most annoying part of the superhero genre whil simultaneously lampshading the societal tendency towards easy labels. Showing that people prefer those labels even as it hammers home that it is not that simple. That we’re better off asking bigger questions.

          As Skitter put it; “I call myself Skitter. If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

          • You’ve had a lot of us emotionally and intellectually invested in the story for some time. It’s a testament to how well you’ve done at writing realistic seeming characters and at building their super environment.

            Also, we’re nerds.

            I happen to like this genre. There are parts of various ages that I like. Having some good, pure hero is golden age. Zany antics that aren’t necessarily lethal like walking chicken grenades and capsacin bugs from the silver age (heck, a seemingly joke character who takes down the baddest of the bad? Skitter’s got some Squirrel Girl in her). Pouches and more realistic takes on many of the heroes from the dark age. The only age I like is the modern age, with its rampant retcons and ability to write characters as completely unlike how they’ve been for a long time. Ok, maybe I’m not sure if there’s anything in the modern age I like.

            I don’t care for the labels so much where they deviate from reality. I prefer reality, substance, facts to perception, flash (though I like The Flash for his villains), or distortions.

  9. I think that a main part of the series is Taylor’s inner struggle with her own conscience. The battles happen on the outside as she gains experience, but the truly interesting stuff happened on the inside from day one when she unintentionally pretended to be a villain and slowly worked her way to what she is today.

    She doesn’t want to be known as a villain holding her own territory, she wants to be hero, but in order to help people this is what she needs to do right now.

    The possible ultimate conclusion of that progression of inner conflict would be something like her becoming a new leader of villains, perhaps taking Coil’s place as a figurehead, not because she wants to be a villain, but because she wants to save the city and it is only held together by Coil’s criminal enterprise. she might be forced to step up into the role when coil becomes unavailable because she (unlike Tattletale) has the reputation needed.

    A scenario like that, that pits what she wants to be, against what she needs to do seems likely. Throw in some conflict of loyalty versus conscience a bit of insecurity and guilt and you have an interesting conflict, but it probably won’t happen like that because wildbow likes to buck tropes to play with the readers like when giving Grue not Skitter the trauma induced powerup.

    • Both those ideas are pretty interesting! I had an aside thought, about the plot/story whatever. But I don’t think it’s right, cause well, it seems like a weird plot!

      Point Being, it’s the story of how Brockton Bay falls/get’s worse/nearly crashes and recovers, whatever happens, from the point of view of Skitter, who happens to have caused most of it, albeit indirectly.

      1.) She took down Lung,upsetting the careful balance of villainy in the city, which lead to Bakuda’s violent attacks.
      2.) She mocked Bakuda with her failure, and cut off some of her toes, which directly caused Bakuda to become manic and bomb most of the city.
      3.) The bombings led directly to the rest of the villain groups starting near open warfare, first against the ABB, then against each other/the heros.
      4.) Leviathan attacks, because of the chaos.
      5.) The nine arrive. Because Tattletale is sympathetic to Skitter, she proposes the game/challenge, which directly leads to the miasma.

      I’m sure I’m missing things or am completely incorrect, but that’s just a possibility. None of this includes Armsmaster’s downfall, which she helped with.

      • Armsmaster knew what he was doing to cause his own downfall. Skitter was just the clue they needed to see it.

        If someone wants to argue that Armsmaster’s a hero, I suppose they could go back to Homer with heroes having a major flaw that causes their own problems. Achilles had his wrath and Odysseus had his pride.

        Chances are good the ABB would have pulled that trick sooner or later without Skitter’s intervention. Kinda tough to tell Bakuda she can’t bomb. Or, it wasn’t while she was alive. Now you could tell her anything and she’ll act however you want as long as the Birdcage super with her hand up Bakuda’s backside wants to do it.

        I guess we know where the Birdcage’s chicken ranch girls come from. They almost had some Armsmaster on the menu, but he got special treatment.

  10. Hi I’m A big fan and had A question / idea for skitter and bitch.
    would bitch’s powers work on a Hyenas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyena http://www.hyaenidae.org/hyena-myths.html
    and could coil get skitter Japanese giant hornet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_giant_hornet
    or bullet ants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraponera

    http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/wild/videos/the-bullet-ant/

    please check out the links and get back to me win ever you can.

  11. Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundi terminatur.

    …is wrong…

    Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur

    or if you want to leave the heroes a bit more hope :P

    Si Jack effugiat civitatem, mundus terminetur.

    You can’t put “mundi” with “terminatur”… it makes no sense: you’ve put a singular verb with a plural noun or a singular verb with a genitive… also, most would probably just use finio, finire…

  12. This chapter is inconsistent with how smart you’ve portrayed skitter up to this point. You should have given her less hints for this to work.

  13. I think it’s a bit out of character that Coil didn’t find it suspicious how “Grue” and “Tattletale” were both keeping quiet, considering Grue is supposed to be team leader and that Tattletale should be doing the majority of talking (because of her power and information). Coil should be smart enough to figure that out. Kind of wonder if he’s playing a long con or anything, or maybe I’ve overestimated his aptitude and it’s mostly just been his power making him seem brighter than he actually is. Ugh, can’t wait to see what happens next… and so I read on. :D

  14. Nope, scratch my previous post, THIS was the most intense chapter thus far. Talk about cliffhangers.

    Isn’t Jack in his early thirties though? Just the fact that he was admitting his ‘love’ for her should have alerted her immediately, right? I would’ve thought she’d know herself well enough to realize she wouldn’t fall for guy twice her age… Actually, it took way too many hints overall for a clever girl like Skitter to figure it out.

  15. Typos/ continuity:
    Skitter refers to their pursuer as “she” before the paragraph where she mentions finally having enough swarm info to ID gender.
    ~~~
    ” … trying to see if had any inkling …” missing [she].
    ~~~
    For those recent commenters who are saying Skitter and/or Coil shoulda figured it out quicker — it was discussed some earlier/ upthread. I think the consensus is that:
    a) Coil probably did suss it quickly but played dumb and used it for intelligence gathering, and
    b) Skitter was suspicious all along but was thrown by the miasma-induced agnosia so she was second-guessing herself, pushed that way by Jack as Grue. Jack was trying to manipulate her emotions, but given that HE didn’t really know the current state of her relationship with Grue it was a bit ineffective; he later mentions that Cherish’s info on her was “misleading”.

    All of which adds up to some SUPERB writing by Wildbow!

  16. Poor Battery. I really had liked her. Seeing as how we don’t actually see her die…I’m going with she is just hiding from Cauldron. I don’t care if she’s supposed to die in story. She is quietly living out her life in happiness with Assault quietly visiting in my mind.

    I was kicking myself halfway through this chapter. It took me until just after the thing with Battery to realize she was walking with the nine. So darn obvious and yet of 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.

    I love how Jack talks about wishing to recruit Skitter. If he had devoted his full manipulations into converting her I wonder how it would’ve gone. A truly evil Skitter would be a horror worthy of the Nine. Add in alterations by Bonesaw to make her physically powerful as well? Plus her quick thinking and deep observations? Hell she could’ve kicked Jack out of the top spot and taken over as leader. That could even have been his pitch. “You want to stop us? Then join us and work at us from within.”

  17. Took me a while to realize Grue wasn’t Grue, even after the obvious hint about Bonesaw. Jeez. That makes the “trust your heart” bit from last chapter horrifying, instead of just disconcerting.

    • Yeah I didn’t figure it out until Bonesaw grabbed her arm and said something about still being friends. Totally not Tattletale behavior which made me go back and reread the ending of the last chapter and then I started banging my head on the desk. You aren’t alone man.

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