Cell 22.4

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I watched my dad’s expression change.  “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said,” Tagg said, “Peace of mind.”

“Let’s get started,” Alexandria said.  “I believe I’m fully up to speed, unless Director Tagg has agreed to any deals or made any concessions.”

“Sadly, he hasn’t,” my lawyer said.

“This is common knowledge?” my dad murmured to me.

“Since roughly ten days ago,” I said, not taking my eyes off the woman.  She was looking at me like Tattletale sometimes did.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make this the focus of our discussion.  You wanted to be on board, I presume.  You had to be informed, so you understood exactly what it means when I make a threat.”

“You’re planning to make threats?” I asked.

“Threats is the wrong word,” she said.  “But English is a limited language in some ways.  There’s really no word to articulate what I mean.  A threat with a measure of inevitability to it.  A promise?  Too feeble.  People break promises too often.  A curse?  A malediction?  Too… magical.  An oath?  The connotations are wrong.  When I say I’ll do something, I make it happen.”

I didn’t respond.  Mr. Calle did.  “You seem rather confident.”

Overconfident?  I imagine I seem that way.  It doesn’t matter.”

I studied her, “When you say you’re going to do something?  What is it you’re doing?”

“Putting an end to this nonsense, for one thing.  The PRT, flawed as it is, is my legacy, and I truly believe that it saves lives, or I wouldn’t try to protect it.”

I’m trying to protect it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “But the timing is wrong.  Things are too fragile at this moment.  It won’t do.  We’ll arrange this discussion for another time, weeks or months from now, when things have stabilized.”

“I… don’t think it works that way,” I said.

“It does.  Truth be told, I’ve relinquished all authority.  I’m serving under the new Chief Director, and I’m carrying out his instructions, between the times where I’m instructing him in the particulars of his job.  Alexandria, however, remains with the Protectorate, having given her notice that she quits within the week.  She’ll continue as a solo operative.”

An operative for Cauldron, I thought.  I didn’t say it aloud.  Best to let her dictate what information was acceptable to mention aloud.  And she refers to her costumed self as someone else entirely.

I could see the confusion in my father’s face, the dawning realization of how far in over his head he was.

“So you’re following orders,” I said.  “That’s the worst and scariest excuse in the world, really.”

“It’s a reality,” she said.  “When you’re dealing with organizations as big as these.”

“And it’s also a reality that you’ll have people at the top who don’t understand how things work on the ground, giving orders that don’t jibe with reality.”

“You’d be surprised at what I’m capable of understanding,” Alexandria told me.

“You’re forgetting about the Undersiders.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t forget anything.  Your team is now my bargaining chip.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “How’s that?”

“It’s twenty minutes to six.  I’m not in a particular rush, and I actually enjoy the idea of some field work.  We can talk for five minutes, and then have ‘Alexandria’ remove one of your teammates from the field.  Depending on the situation, I will either arrest them and take them to PRT offices in New York and Boston, or I’ll kill them.”

I could feel my blood run cold.

“After, we can talk for another five or ten minutes, and then I will, again, depart to dispatch one of your teammates.  I expect that by the time the sun sets at eight thirty, the Undersiders will be either dealt with or so neutered that they aren’t a consideration.”

“You’re talking about killing teenagers,” my dad said.  “Without a trial?”

“I’m talking about self-defense, if it comes down to it.  Tattletale can see through weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leverage mine in the spur of the moment, but I won’t rule anything out.”

I stared at her.  “You’re willing to go this far, yet you couldn’t bring yourself to show up to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Or Echidna, when she first showed.”

“There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Tattletale, you mean.”

“No.  Tattletale was only a small part of it,” she said.  “And it should be obvious that the rest isn’t up for discussion.  Three minutes and forty-five seconds.  Negotiate.”

“You mean you want me to make concessions.”

“I’m saying I’m willing to hear you out.  Convince me.”

“You’re underestimating my team.”

“And now you’re referring to them as ‘your team’.  I thought you left.  You committed to this idea of yours, did you not?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.  But as much as I may be underestimating them, I find that others underestimate me.  Strength, durability, flight.  It doesn’t lend itself to much imagination, does it?  Yet others acknowledge me as one of the strongest heroes in the world.  ‘Cape geeks’ debate my effectiveness, protesting that I’m only seen as powerful by association with Legend and Eidolon.  Do feel free to interrupt me if you want to talk about more concrete things.”

I would have, if I could have thought of something to say.

“My reputation isn’t so different from yours, Taylor Hebert.  It’s a reputation that was forged.  There have been fifty-six Endbringer attacks in the last nineteen years.  I have personally participated in forty-nine of them, and in each fight I’ve attended, I’ve been in the thick of the fighting, personally trading blows with the abominations.  The creatures know me.  They know how to fight me, and I know how to fight them.  Yet I’m still here.  Strength, invulnerability, flight.  Those are my core powers, but my other power is greater.”

“Other power?” my dad asked.  “I remember.  When you started off… you explained the reason for your name.”

“A reference to the burned library of Alexandria.  It’s been mythologized as that era’s sum of human knowledge.  I am much the same.  I think faster, I think more easily.  I know martial arts and I remember everything that crosses my path.”

Miss Militia reacted to that, giving Alexandria a look I couldn’t interpret.

She went on.  “I would say I am one of three or four people in this world who truly understands what is going on.  I don’t have all of the answers, and there are some riddles in particular that we’re desperately seeking to unravel.”

We, of course, being…” I said, trailing off.  It wasn’t a question.  Something about the gravity of the word made my dad look at me, startled.

“I won’t discuss the others.  I’ve been disconnected from my former partners, so it’s a moot point.  A debatable point, to use the true meaning of the word.”

I saw a possible piece of leverage and grasped for it, “If you need answers, then we’re the last people you should be attacking.  Tattletale can offer input.  Leave the Undersiders in place, and they can work with you where necessary.  Treat me fairly, and I’m sure Tattletale will play ball.”

“There’s two problems with that offer,” Alexandria said.  She stood from her seat and adjusted her suit jacket, then turned her attention to her cuffs.  “First of all, I believe I mentioned that there’s only a small number of people who truly understand what’s going on.  We haven’t shared this information.  Why?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“This isn’t a riddle.  It’s quite simple: we don’t want people to know.  And we don’t want people to know for good reason.  Having Tattletale off leash with all of the information she might discover is a dangerous prospect.”

“She’s not that unpredictable.”

“But it’s not a variable we can afford to have in play.  As I’ve said, things are fragile.  Which brings me to my second point.  There’s no reason to leave her here if we can bring her into custody and use her freedom or probationary freedom as leverage to obtain her talents.”

I frowned.

Alexandria glanced at Tagg, “It’s time.  Five forty-five.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.

She was at the door, waiting for the guard to open it, when I called out, “Tattletale won’t listen.  She’s too rebellious, wants to be the smartest person in the room.  If you force her, she’ll sabotage you, or she’ll just make you put her in the Birdcage, having her here, it’s the only way to get her help.”

Alexandria paused, then looked back at me.  “That will do.  Information I can use, that changes how I’ll respond to this particular confrontation.  I don’t agree, but we can discuss that after.  I’ll target one of the others in the meantime.”

The metal door slammed shut.

Miss Militia stood.  “I need some fresh air.”

She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t even look at anyone as she made her way to the door and knocked for the PRT guard to let her through.

“Everything she was talking about,” my dad said, “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“This is what I’ve been living,” I said.  “This has been my day-to-day.  My friends and I, facing terminal risk, facing down monsters like her, like Alexandria.”

“She’s one of the heroes.”

“Yeah,” I said, meeting my dad’s eyes.  It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d been able to cling to that basic idea.  The image, as I’d heard it phrased, of the heroes, of the Triumvirate.  It had been Armsmaster who instilled the seed of doubt in me, as far as the heroes went.  “Do you think she’s that heroic, now that you’ve met her in person?”

“No,” he said.  He looked troubled.

Shit.  I was stuck in a box while one of the scariest heroes around was going after my friends.  I’d expected retaliation, had told Tattletale to expect it, but this was… I hadn’t expected Alexandria.  She wasn’t even supposed to be with the PRT.  Eidolon, we possibly could have dealt with.  Or Tattletale could have.  Even Legend, possibly.  Alexandria was something else.  The heroic equivalent of a cruise missile.

There was Grue’s power, Imp’s power… did Alexandria have the ability to see through it?

Alexandria was taking her time.  She’d said ten minutes, but she wasn’t in a hurry, making her way out of the building.

“You know, now,” I said.  “After the Echidna incident-”

I could see Tagg stiffen, kept talking, “-Stuff went down.  Alexandria was outed as head of the PRT, other secrets came to light.  You know the PRT is supposed to be led by non-capes, there was scandal, and now the PRT is falling apart.”

“I see,” my dad said.  “Other secrets?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.  “And Tagg would be exceedingly upset if I shared.”

My dad frowned and stared down at the table.  “I believe you.”

I nodded.

Alexandria had found an alley and promptly took to the air, zig-zagging between buildings and flying with enough speed that people couldn’t follow her with their eyes.

“My phone isn’t working,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have you warning them,” Tagg replied.

“I’m offended at the implication,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have her warning them either,” Tagg replied.

Warning them.  I needed a way to contact my team. Cells wouldn’t work.  A land line?  An unoccupied office… Tagg’s office would do.  My bugs made their way there.

Too small to affect anything, to press a key on the computer, even if I could see the screen.  Too small to transmit a message of any sort.

I needed a larger bug.  There were larger beetles and cockroaches outside.  Everything else had been wiped out by Kid Win’s drones.

I could see Mr. Calle and Tagg watching my dad and I, looking between us.  “What?”

Mr. Calle answered, “I’ve represented a lot of supervillains.  I can count on one hand the ones who had parents show up at their trial, let alone pre-trial.  When they did show up, half of them were a nightmare.  Bambina’s mother, for example, all of the worst aspects of a showbiz parent, but the kid’s a vandal and a mass murderer.  Don’t even get me started on how toxic that dynamic was.  You two are civil with one another, at the very least.  That’s… something.  Hold onto it.”

“Hold onto it?” Tagg commented, from the opposite end of the table.  “I think you’re forgetting your client’s circumstances.”

Again, interjecting himself in between my dad and I.  Driving in wedges.  I felt a momentary urge to do something painful to him.

I couldn’t rise to the bait, though.  I had to channel the anger.  Bugs were finding their way through vents and down hallways, spreading out so the two or three remaining drones couldn’t eradicate them.

Others clustered on Tagg’s phone.  Silk allowed multiple bugs to effectively ‘grip’ the phone handle.  Larger bugs found their way under the base of it, wedging their bodies beneath as the pull on the cord tilted it.  A little bit of progress, driving in the wedge to make sure the phone didn’t simply fall back into place.

“You’re going to jail, Skitter,” Tagg said.  “And if you’re very, very lucky, it won’t be the Birdcage or a death sentence.”

“She’s a minor,” my dad said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Calle sighed.

“Look at me, Tagg,” I said.  “You said you weren’t going to underestimate me.  Do you really think I’m worried?  Do you think I would have surrendered if I didn’t have confidence that I’d be able to manage?”

My dad was staring at me.

“No,” he said.  “I think you have a number of plans in the works.  But it doesn’t matter.  Alexandria can out-think your plans, counter anything your Tattletale throws at us.

His phone handset fell from its perch, clattering across the keys before it fell from the desk, swinging.  I could see the flare of light on the phone, marking that the line was active.  I hoped there wasn’t a secretary who’d notice.

I flew the largest beetle I had into the number pad, driving him into the number five.  The bugs on the mouthpiece heard a sound I took to be the answering beep.

Five again.  Second number in the sequence.

Not hard enough.  No beep.

Five again.

Seven numbers.

The message that came through was odd, rhythmic somehow, though I couldn’t make out the words.  A recording.

I had to dial an outside line.

Eight numbers this time, starting with… Nine.  It took a full minute to hit the buttons.

Nothing.

Eight numbers starting with eight…  No.

Seven.

The call went through.  I got a response.

Please be Lisa.

I tried buzzing out words.  It didn’t feel like enough.

So I retired the abused beetle and set to using cockroaches.  My bugs felt the indents of the characters on the number pad.

Two, five, three, nine, two, six…

The voice interrupted me.

The number of syllables was right.  She understood.  The numbers each corresponded to three possible letters, and each number pressed on the phone generated a different sound.  Anyone else might have struggled, but Tattletale picked up on it right away.  ‘Alexandria’.

I could only hope it helped.  A little forewarning, at best.

Still couldn’t make out words that followed.  The filter of both the phone and my bugs was too much, and I couldn’t begin to guess where the speaker phone button was.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using it in case someone stepped into the office.  A phone being off the hook was far better than a voice talking to nothing.

“You meant it, when you said they were your friends,” my dad said.

“We’ve been through thick and thin.  They saved me, in some ways.  I’d like to think I saved them.”

Tagg snorted.  I ignored him.

“They did… bad things, didn’t they?” my dad asked.

“So have I,” I said.

“But you’re willing to martyr yourself for them?”

“No,” I said.  “I didn’t come here to be a martyr, I had other hopes.  But… things didn’t work out like that.  It’s down to secondary goals… and if those fail, then I’m willing to go to jail for their sakes.  Not just my friends.  The people in my territory, and maybe just a little, everyone.”

I looked at Tagg as I said that last word.  He gave me a dirty look, then more or less turned his attention to his phone, watching me with one eye while texting with one hand.

“Everyone?” my dad asked.

“We can’t lose the next Endbringer fight,” was all I could say.

“No, I don’t imagine we can,” he said.

That was something he understood in full, even if he didn’t know the particulars.  The Endbringers were something we all understood.  A fact of reality, something that touched everyone, struck a chord of fear in cape and civilian alike.

My heart sank as Alexandria appeared.  She plunged past the cloud of bugs that had collected over the roof, into an opening aperture in the ceiling.  She passed down a shaft that ran parallel to the elevator, and into the Wards’ quarters.

From there, she reached the elevator and made her way up to the cells.

Alexandria rejoined us in the cell, virtually the same, though her hair was disheveled, her suit jacket folded over one arm.  She laid it across the back of Miss Militia’s empty chair and stayed there, leaning on the back of the chair that was bolted to the floor.

Noting Miss Militia’s absence led to me double checking on her.  She was on the roof.  No, I couldn’t count on anything from her.  I’d hoped to have one more piece in play, but she was leaning over a railing at the edge of a helicopter landing pad, staring out over the city.

Alexandria had to be my focus.  She was staring at me, scrutinizing me.  I met her eyes, and she locked hers onto mine.

“I’d thought Tattletale had figured it out…” she paused, “But no.  You told them.  You have an open line of communication with them.”

I shrugged, thinking of Tagg’s phone, with the handset still dangling over the edge of the desk.

Wished I could hear her response.  What had happened to my teammates?

“Let’s take five minutes more to talk.  Then I’ll take care of another of the Undersiders.”

“Another?”

“A PRT van will be along shortly.  I wanted to keep to my time commitment, so I sent a truck.”

“Why should I say anything?” I asked her.

“Because as long as we’re talking, I’m not out there, taking your team to pieces, and you have a shot at passing them information.  It gives them time to recuperate and strategize.  Five minutes gives them time to make a getaway, or contact help.  I imagine you arranged for backup.  Hired mercenaries to help break you out if this went badly enough that you faced jail without getting anything you wanted or needed.”

I set my jaw.

“I know the general value of the properties you acquired, the proposed value of it.  Your team would spend it.  Ninety two million dollars, spent on hired soldiers, hired parahumans.  That’s only your liquid assets.”

I didn’t reply.  I set to typing the next message on Tagg’s phone.  K-N-O-W-S-A-B-O-U-T-M-E-R-C-S

She straightened, removing her hands from the back of the chair.  “If you’re not going to say anything, I might as well go now.  You’re rather partial to Grue, aren’t you?  Or should I take Tattletale out of the picture?”

“We can talk,” I told her.

“Excellent,” she said.  She stepped around the corner of the table and sat in her chair, opposite me.  “Do you need anything?  Water?  Coffee?  Soda?”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Calle?  Mr. Hebert?”

Two refusals.

She removed her phone from her jacket pocket.  “Forgive me for using this in the midst of our discussion.  Chevalier is likely to become the head of the Protectorate once the Triumvirate has departed, and he’s insisting that I keep tabs with him, what with the scandal and all.  I’d show you, but that would be a breach of confidence.”

She smiled, as though at a private joke.  The smile didn’t matter to me.  It was the way her eyes didn’t leave me.

“You’re cold reading me,” I said.

“Cold reading?” My dad asked.

“Tattletale does it too.  Mixes details she knows with ones she doesn’t, with very careful wording and a bit of an edge with her thinker powers.”

“Mm hmm,” Alexandria said.  She typed expertly on her phone, almost absently.  “I know you’ve probably got someone in the lobby or outside, receiving coded messages.  I know about the mercenaries.  More mercenaries than I implied.  I expect Tattletale called in favors.  Probably not the Irregulars, but I didn’t read that.  Simple logic.  They wouldn’t work for you.  I know that you’re still feeling confident, but not entirely so.  If you were very close to breaking or very, very confident, you would have accepted my offer of a drink.  And I know that your bugs can’t see computer screens.”

Was she bluffing on that last part?  Did it matter if she was?  I could refuse, play some kind of trick, and she’d see right through it.

“I could make some noise about my client’s rights being trampled, a lack of consent to that kind of analysis,” Mr. Calle said.

“But you know the law doesn’t apply here.  We’re in a gray area, up until the moment we decide to press charges and set this into motion, or you decide to force the issue.  But neither of us want that.  For now, this is… somewhere between her being in our custody and us having a friendly chat.”

My lawyer glanced at me.  I frowned.  “Yeah.  So long as she doesn’t start grilling me.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Calle said.

My head turned as I sensed the truck arriving.   Bugs clustered to it as it found a spot at the side of the building, PRT uniforms moving their target on a stretcher.  My bugs shifted position, tracking what they were moving.  The white mask, the curls, the shirt, with a tightly woven fabric beneath… a spider silk shirt?  It was Regent, unconscious.

The bugs moved, tracing down the length of his arm.  It was broken in two places, virtually zig-zagging.  His leg was the same.  I caught the words ‘medical’ and ‘doctor’.  ‘Tranquilizer’.

“He’s arrived, I take it.” Alexandria said.

I nodded tightly.

“The paradigm has changed,” Alexandria said.  “In… two minutes and thirty seconds, I go and dispatch another of your teammates.  I’ll hear concessions, offers or relevant information, and I’ll adjust my methods and the severity of my attack where appropriate.”

“This is extortion,” my dad said.

“She makes the process easier for us, we make it easier on her and her friends.”

I frowned.  “That’s still extortion.”

“Two minutes and eight seconds,” she said, not even bothering to deny it.  She had the same habit as Tattletale, of knowing the time without looking at a clock.  “They’re going to be running, now, trying to throw me off their trail.  I’ll find them.  I can study the environment, I’ve studied the case histories and I know where they own property.”

Another alert I needed to give.  I was still typing in the last one.  The cockroaches weren’t strong enough to hit the keys with enough force, so it was more of a case of having to leverage the key down through the combined efforts of several larger roaches and carefully arranged silk.

I grit my teeth, trying to focus on the spelling while keeping track of what Alexandria was saying.  Started on the next message.  X-K-N-O-W-S-P-R-O-P-E-R-T-I-E-S

“You’re backing me into a corner,” I said.  “Backing them into a corner.  Someone’s bound to snap.”

“Most likely,” she said, and there wasn’t a trace of concern in her expression.  It was almost eerie, how little she seemed to care.  Was that her passenger at work, or was she simply good enough at what she did, comfortable enough in her invincibility, that she’d grown able to shrug off the insignificant things?

I shook my head.  “I’m not making concessions.  The terms I gave still stand.  If you want to discuss the reasons behind-”

She was already getting out of her chair.

“-behind why I made the demands I made, we can.  I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

“I’ve heard this,” Alexandria said.  She donned her suit jacket, buttoning it up in front.  “Read it, rather.  I’ve thought about all the permutations and unless you’re willing to change tack or tell me something I don’t know, there’s no point to this discussion.”

She walked to the door and knocked.  While waiting for the officer to open the door, she turned, “One last chance to offer me something.  Any detail I can use, things to watch out for.”

Bitch, I thought.  Her power, it screwed with her headShe can’t relate to people.  She doesn’t understand facial expressions, body language or our social constructs.  It’s all replaced by dog behavior. 

Grue.  Post traumatic stress.  He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like being confined, or the dark.  But he’s stable otherwise.

Information that could be used to protect Bitch, protect Grue.  To keep a bad situation from getting worse.  It felt like it would be a betrayal anyways.  It was an eerie reversal of the rationalization I’d done back at the bank robbery, on my first job as a villain.  Telling myself that terrorizing the hostages was for their own good.

But I couldn’t bring myself to betray them on that level.  Not to people who trusted me.

And she was gone.

I grit my teeth.  I looked at Calle, but he shook his head.

Tagg reached for his phone, where it sat on the table.

Long minutes passed, as Tagg texted and I sat in anxious silence.

“You said you’ve worked with cape families,” my dad spoke.  It took me a second to realize he was talking to Calle.

“Yes,” my lawyer answered.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

“I was just about to step outside, call some colleagues.”

“Oh.”

“After.  Unless you want to join me?”

“Isn’t it better if she isn’t alone?”

“Everything’s recorded.  Short of her being threatened with serious bodily injury or death, I don’t see a problem.”

My dad cast me a look.  I nodded.

He left with Mr. Calle.

“You and I,” Tagg said.

I folded my arms as best as I was able, then leaned forward to rest my head.  Not worth giving him the benefit of a conversation.

The table shook, and I briefly looked up, only to see Tagg setting his feet on the metal surface.

He took his time getting comfortable, and kicked the table several times in the process.

When I set my head down, he started humming.

He’s trying to get to me, I thought to myself, for the Nth time.

They were bullies.  Tagg and Alexandria both.  They were the equivalent of the older child picking on the kindergartener, or the adult picking on the child.  They had power to throw around that I didn’t, they had freedom, liberty, the power of choice.  They wanted to punish me, to put me off-balance for their own ends.

Just… bullies in a grander scale.

I simultaneously felt like I understood Tagg a little more, and a little less.

Mr. Calle answered a ton of my father’s questions, big and small.  About things I’d thought were common knowledge, like trigger events, and more specific, grave matters, like the prospect of my receiving the death penalty.  When he’d exhausted each of those questions, he asked about other things.  Smarter things, like the degree to which he might be able to stand up to Alexandria or Tagg, about how he could work with Calle to throw them off-balance, and signals to arrange a plan of attack.

My dad, entirely out of place, out of his depth, confused and utterly unarmed, fighting to get up to speed, in the hopes that he could do something to help.

It was a step forward.  A small step, but a step forward.

Tagg stood, approaching me, then leaned on the table just beside me, so he loomed over me, not speaking, invading my personal space, denying me the ability to rest or relax.

And my bugs, in his office, continued punching away as best as they were able.  Me, communicating with Tattletale, unable to hear her response, straining to hear some sign of the violence.  Had they split up?

Regent’s arms and legs had been set, and he lay on a bed identical to the one I’d had, apparently tranquilized.

I was the target, the mastermind, the one they were trying to break.

Alexandria only took six minutes.  She arrived by the same route, only she held a girl this time.  A hard mask with horns and slanted lenses that tapered into points at the corners, a skin-tight bodysuit.  Imp.

Alexandria had found a way around Imp’s power.  Or her mental powers had overridden them.

One more body in the cells.  One more Undersider down.

Alexandria found her way back to the cells before my dad and my lawyer did, accompanied by Miss Militia.  Alexandria grabbed one of Kid Win’s active drones from the air and tucked it under one arm like a football as she made her way down, and held it up as she visited the cell where they were checking an unconscious, tranquilized Imp.  Every bug was eradicated by the mist that appeared, leaving me utterly blind.

I didn’t see her again until she opened the door and joined us.  She was drenched, her hair soaked, swept back away from her face, and the makeup that had hidden the seam of her prosthetic eye had been washed away, leaving a conspicuous line in place.  Miss Militia looked grim and very dry beside her.

“They fought back?”  I asked.

“A firehose, and a cape with a water geyser power.  They tried to drown me.  It didn’t work.  Others have tried the same thing, in many different variations.  Old hat.”

A cape with water generating powers?  The Ambassadors.

She looked around, “Your lawyer?”

“Out,” Tagg said, not looking up from his phone.

“I suppose it would be bad manners to talk to you while he’s occupied,” Alexandria said.

I didn’t reply.

“Well, five minutes before I go again.  If this is a delaying tactic, it won’t work.”

“Read my face,” I said, “It’s not a delaying tactic.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “I’m keeping to a schedule.  Roughly half an hour at a time, collecting one Undersider with each excursion.  I told you I’d hold off on collecting Tattletale, so I’ll save her for last.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

Tattletale was still periodically speaking into the phone, while I typed out letters.  She’d stopped talking as much when I’d typed out a few words to let her know I couldn’t understand.  No, her focus right now would be on arranging her remaining forces, handling what she could, dealing with Alexandria.

“I’d like to stay,” Alexandria said.  “May I sit?”

“If you want,” I said.  I gestured towards the chair, best as I was able with the cuffs.

“Excellent.  So cooperative.”  She sat down.  “And we can talk?”

I nodded mutely.

Alexandria, a bully, believing herself untouchable.  I felt a grim sort of loathing stirring in the depths of my gut.

“My terms, to you.  You surrender.  The Undersiders receive no amnesty, but I let captives go, with all required medical care.  They fend for themselves from here on out.  Tagg remains in position.  He’s here for a reason.  Miss Militia is promoted elsewhere.  With the fall of the Triumvirate, we need a new core group.  We can market it.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“It’s what I’m offering.  And you… provided you cooperate fully, giving us all the information we desire on you, your histories, and the Undersiders, we put you in juvenile detention.  Two years, followed by a long probation and acknowledgement that any conceivable violation of that probation will be counted as a third strike and cause for sentencing to the Birdcage.”

My dad and lawyer were just arriving.

“What’s this?” Mr. Calle asked.

“Skitter’s hearing my revised terms,” Alexandria said.

“And?” Mr. Calle asked.

“They want me to turn myself in.  I get virtually nothing, except the prompt release of the Undersiders she’s picked up and a stay in juvenile detention until I’m eighteen.”

I could see my dad’s eyes light up.  He saw this as a way out, when he was seeing just how deep we were in the midst of this.

Which broke my heart, in a way.

“And your thoughts?” Mr. Calle asked.

“No,” I said.  I looked at Alexandria.  “No.”

“This isn’t the sort of offer that stays on the table,” she said.  “If you want to push this further, we could keep the Undersiders.”

“You need the Undersiders,” I told her.  “You need someone on the ground, keeping the real monsters out of the city.  You need us, so don’t pretend you’re really going to keep them.”

“There’s other options,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Because even if there wasn’t that security, no.”

“That’s a disappointment,” she said.

“You wanted compromise, Skitter,” Miss Militia said, “But you’re asking for the impossible.”

“I’m asking for the improbable,” I said.  “But it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it was easy.  Alexandria isn’t asking me to meet her halfway.  She’s threatening people I love.”

“From teammates to friends to people you love.”

I grit my teeth.

“I don’t blame you,” she said.  “I loved Hero.  I loved Legend, and Eidolon, and Myrddin.  I know what it means to pass through hell together, to take a desperate breath for air, to clutch for clarity of mind, and help each other find the briefest of respite in the little things, only to plunge into that hell once more.  The little jokes, the familiarity, the gestures and small kindnesses, they count for a lot, when you’ve been through what we’ve been through-”

“Don’t compare us,” I cut in.

“-and you learn to look past their faults.  The little evils,” she said.  “And they learn to look past yours.”

Miss Militia gave Alexandria a curious look, then turned to me, “The offer, it’s the most reasonable one we can give you.  It’s generous, considering all you’ve done.”

“It’s not enough,” I said.  “Until my team has amnesty, I can’t back down.  I can’t abandon them to fight lunatics like Tagg and Alexandria the second I’m gone.”

“That’s what you want?” Alexandria asked.  “Amnesty, release for captured teammates, and a sentence to juvenile detention?”

My dad reached out, taking my hand, a silent plea.  Saying everything without doing me the disservice of interjecting.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.  I could trust my teammates to hold their own.  I could… I could find my way.  Two years made for such a small length of time.  It… it would mean I was in custody when Dinah’s deadline came.  But maybe that was what she’d wanted.  For me to be somewhere secure when it all started.  I couldn’t rule it out.

And all it would take was for me to do what I’d done for so long before I had my powers, for months after I’d had my powers.  To capitulate, to let go of my pride.  To let them win, those people who wanted to use their power, their prestige and superiority against me.

My dad squeezed my hand, hard.

“I named my terms,” I told Alexandria.  “I trust my teammates, and I trust that they’ll win where it counts.  No.”

I met Tagg’s eyes, and my voice was a growl, “And if you fucking hurt another hair on their heads, I’ll see you pay for it.  Like Lung, like Valefor, and if it comes down to it, I’ll come after you like I did with Butcher, and Coil- Calvert.”

I directed my glare at Alexandria as I said that last part.

“You’re admitting-” Miss Militia started.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t all know,” I said.

I felt my dad’s hand drop away from mine.  I might have met his eyes, to take in the hurt and the pain that came with seeing who I really was, but I wasn’t willing to break eye contact with Alexandria.

You can read facial expressions?  Read this.  Know I’m telling the truthKnow that I’ll take you apart, given the slightest excuse.

I was pressing the keys on the telephone before Alexandria had even stood from her seat.  Another warning that Alexandria was en route.

She stood, wordless.  There was no negotiation, no offer for leniency, and I didn’t ask for either.

I could only hope.

In a matter of minutes, she was gone, flying away.  A third mission.  A third hunt.

Bugs found their way through vents to Regent, but Imp’s cell was sealed tight, no doubt due to the Stranger-class precautions that had led to the note being pasted on her cell door, notifying the PRT of the special precautions.  It didn’t matter.  Regent was still unconscious, and Imp was likely to be as well.

Grue, Rachel, Tattletale and Parian.  Flechette too, if it came down to it.

Flechette… could she hurt Alexandria?

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have answers, couldn’t get them.  I could only wait, keeping my bugs out of the way of the drones that Kid Win had finally recharged.

“You had a way out,” Miss Militia said.

“You said you understand me,” I told her.  “That you had insight into who I was as a person, now that you knew my history.  If that’s true, you understand why I had to say no.”

“For your sake.  Because of what you’ve been through.”

“And because of them.  They’d never forgive me if I betrayed everything they helped me become, because I didn’t think they could fend for themselves.”

“And me?” my dad asked.  “I know it’s asking a lot.  I failed you where it counted.”

“Dad-”

“And maybe it’s selfish, to want my daughter, when you’re talking about things on this scale…” he said, pausing as if he was going to follow that with an argument.  But no argument followed.

And I couldn’t give him a good response.

Eight minutes passed.  I could count the progression of time on the clock hands, when I dared let a bug pass through open spaces.

Nine minutes in, I could see Tagg suddenly tense, lines in his neck standing out as he read the newest message on his phone.  He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

The PRT van arrived before Alexandria did, this time.  The PRT officers took their time before they finally emerged.

Restless, I shifted position.  My forearms were digging into the table where the cuffs held my arms in front of me.  Leaning forward made my back hurt.

They opened the back of the van, and there were no precautions this time.  Their weapons were holstered, and they didn’t stand in any particular formation.

The only thing in the back was a single body bag.

Back pain forgotten, I went as stiff as Tagg.  I drew more bugs in to get a better picture of the scene.

They took a different route this time, using their phones to make their way through the various doors and checkpoints.  They entered the attached building.  A small hospital, or a special office with medical facilities.  It didn’t matter.

And they made their way to the morgue.

The size of the bag… it couldn’t be Lizardtail.  He was too large.  Was the wrong size and shape to be one of the dogs.  That left only three real possibilities.  A PRT officer, Rachel, or Brian.

I closed my eyes, clenched my hands.

Then one of the PRT officers who was escorting the body said something, and others laughed in response.  It was one of those rare moments I could discern tone, and it wasn’t a kind one.  That was enough for me to know it wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t a civilian.

Metal clicked as they unlocked the heavy clasps and locks that were likely meant to prevent any parahumans from getting up from the dead.

They unzipped the bag, and lifted the body onto the drawer.  The drawer slid into the recess, the lid was closed and locked.

I didn’t want to know which of them it was.  I couldn’t. Whether it was Brian or Rachel, it didn’t matter.  Neither of them would get up from the dead.  They weren’t so lucky.

I stared down at my hands, and I felt myself go cold, my thoughts crystal clear, singular.

“Taylor,” my dad murmured, so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Yes?”

I sounded so calm, like an entirely different person was speaking.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered.

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t really think of anything else to say.  He was right.  My fingers were trembling.

I looked at Tagg, to see if he’d heard or if he’d noticed.  No indication, but his hand was close to his gun.  The text he’d read… he knew.  He probably wasn’t aware he was doing it, but he was ready for a fight to erupt any second.

Miss Militia’s hand wasn’t, but I could read a tension in her, as she exchanged words with Calle.  But then, I suspected she could draw faster than Tagg in virtually any circumstance.  Or maybe she wasn’t as ready or willing to deal out violence as Tagg was.

Then I had to lower my eyes, to hide the tears that were welling.  Needed just a few moments.  Just a few more seconds.

Alexandria arrived the same way she had after her last two excursions, through the hole in the roof.  With the speed she moved, she didn’t risk being spotted.  Even photography wasn’t in the cards.

With the speed she moved, she didn’t seem to notice the bugs that followed after her as the aperture began to close behind her.

She got as far as the Wards HQ before she stopped and the bugs had a chance to catch up to her.

As though I’d thrown a javelin, they speared right for her nose and open mouth, the fastest moving bugs I had at my disposal, and spiders.

She was invincible, the flesh inside her throat untouchable.  The flap that kept food out of her lungs kept the bugs at bay.  At first.  They bound themselves together, spiders fixing themselves and others to the inside of her throat with adhesive.

As strong as she was, air didn’t move past the mass of bugs that filled her mouth, as they fought to move into positions where they could block her throat.  She coughed in an instinctive attempt to dislodge them.

Even with super strength, even with a diaphragm like hers, the coughs didn’t remove every bug, and the greedy gasp of air allowed those who remained to find their way inside, filling her lungs.  They were just as impervious inside, but the bugs arranged themselves side by side, forming a layer that blocked the flow of oxygen to the membranes of the lung itself.  Spiders drew out silk, filling gaps.

If she could choke, if Leviathan saw submerging her in water as a viable tactic, if Tattletale saw fit to try to do the same, then I could drown her in insects.

The Wards were watching, realizing what was going on.  Clockblocker ran, pressing a button for the alarm.

And in front of me, Tagg moved, drawing his gun.  His voice was a roar, “She knows!”

A thread caught it before he could point it at me, and it fell to the ground.

With each entry that had been made into the interrogation room, barring the one where she’d used the drone in Imp’s cell, I’d brought more bugs inside.  Spiders, hornets, black widows, brown recluses and more.

I’d warned him.  He jumped as he felt the bites.  Shouted as hornets found the soft tissues of his eyes, his tongue and eardrums.  Black widows and brown recluses found crevices.

Miss Militia moved too, but the silk I’d used only bound her hand, didn’t serve to stop her.

“Taylor!” my dad’s voice sounded so far away.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t let the bullies win again, I thought.  That I’d stop the monsters.

But the thoughts sounded disconnected, false.

No, this was revenge.  Something simpler than any of that.

Miss Militia raised a gun, pointing it at me, where I had my head bowed, hands still chained in front of me.  My dad was shaking me, but I wasn’t a hard target to hurt.

And my bugs weren’t hurting her.  Weren’t touching my dad, or Mr. Calle, who was backed up into a corner, trying to make as much distance from me as he could.

She didn’t shoot.  Her gun clattered to the ground.

“Taylor!” she called out, as if she could reach me that way.  “I’m not going to shoot, but you have to stop!”

“Not a promise, not an oath, or a malediction or a curse,” I said, sounding calm, probably inaudible in the midst of Tagg’s screaming.  “Inevitable.  Wasn’t that how she put it?  I told them.  Warned them.”

Alexandria, in the basement, still choking, drowning on dry land with lungs full of dragonflies, spiders and cockroaches, soared.  She flew through the closed barrier in the roof, and debris showered down on the Wards who’d approached her, wanting to help but finding themselves unable.

In moments, she was out of my range, too high in the air.  I wasn’t sure it mattered.

And Tagg- Tagg was staggering towards me, roaring something incoherent, chewing and spitting in a feeble attempt to remove bugs from his mouth.  His tongue was likely swollen already.  The black widow venom would take effect soon.

He tried to push my dad out of the way, and my dad blocked him, shielding me with his body.

Tagg kicked my father hard enough to drive him to the ground.  The Director was still shouting, nearly blind.  He gripped me by the hair and slammed my head down on the table, hard.

I saw stars, felt tears welling out freely, as if the dam had finally broken.

Blind, writhing in pain and a struggle to get the insects off him, Tagg still managed to hold me down as the PRT officers burst into the room.  They had darts like the one that Shadow Stalker had kept in her crossbow, jammed one into my neck.

I had only the chance to think of how they’d just signed Tagg’s death warrant, that my power would work while I was unconscious.  I could have rescinded the order in the last moments.  I didn’t.

And then it was only darkness.  Oblivion.  A false kind of death.

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Cell 22.3

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The door slammed shut as the last of the heroes departed.  They joined the PRT uniforms and Wards who had gathered just in front of the elevator, leaving me and my lawyer to talk in private.

It should have been quieter, but things got more disruptive.  The moment the door was shut, a handful of seconds passed, and then everyone started talking.  Mr. Calle saying something to me, Director Tagg talking to his deputy and Miss Militia, Clockblocker talking with his teammates.

“This is more or less what we expected…” Mr. Calle was saying.

“Call him.  And let me know when he arrives.” Director Tagg, talking about my dad.

“She wanted to defect,” Clockblocker told the waiting Wards.  “Join Defiant and Dragon, go hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine…”

“You created pressure with the deadline, he’s trying to turn it around on you…” Mr. Calle said.

“I know he’s trying to turn it around on me,” I said.  I slid forward until I was sitting on the very edge of the chair, my elbows on the table, forehead resting against my hands.  “I didn’t think he’d be this stupid, and I kind of hoped someone would speak up, give a little momentum to what I was proposing.”

“People are stupid,” Mr. Calle said.  “The question is how we can use that.  If we-”

Some heroes simultaneously began to voice their thoughts, to the point that I failed to take any of it in.  It was too much.  Too much input, all together.  I couldn’t track it all.  I shut my eyes.  “Do me a favor?”

“You’re the client.”

“Five minutes,” I said.  “Five minutes to think, with some quiet.”

“Would pen scratches bother you?”

I shook my head.

Mr. Calle didn’t reply to that.  Instead, he started writing on a pad of yellow, lined paper, apparently unconcerned that I’d just brushed him off.

“…a hot button for her,” Mrs. Yamada was telling the Director.  “It’s a pattern, with the timeline we established.  Something happens to her father, and she escalates.”

“Yes,” the Director replied.  “But let’s not talk about that here.  Not while she could be listening.  We give Kid Win’s drones a chance to check us over before talking about any of that…”

“Hunting the Slaughterhouse Nine?” Vista was asking.  The Wards were lagging a short distance behind the adult members of the PRT and Protectorate.

“Yeah.  As in, step down from her position here, stop the guys who are supposed to end the world,” Clockblocker said.

“She didn’t kill any, did she?” Kid Win asked.

“Grue supposedly killed Burnscar, Piggot killed Crawler and Mannequin, they killed Cherish themselves, basically, Vista finished off Shatterbird after things caved in on them at the Echidna fight… no, Skitter didn’t kill any, I don’t think.  She was there, though.  Have to give her credit, she made a difference in that last fight with Mannequin and Crawler.”

“Which doesn’t matter,” Tagg said.  He’d overheard, it seemed, and stopped at the open elevator door.  “Because she also wanted us to condone criminal activity in this city.  Think about what that really means.  Your careers would be dead in the water once people caught on to the fact that you weren’t going after the real threats.  You’d be known for being corrupt.  Flechette’s actions threaten to taint this organization for some time to come..”

“Wait, wait,” Kid Win said, “Flechette?”

“We’re telling them?” Clockblocker asked.  “It’s confirmed?  It’s not a trick?”

“It’s not Regent,” Miss Militia said.  “The timing doesn’t fit.  No, it doesn’t look like it’s a trick.  She sent us an email and the details include only things she knows.  It feels right.”

There was a pause.

“What happened?” Crucible asked.

“Flechette is stepping down from the Wards program.  She is going to be assisting the Undersiders in the future, helping Parian,” Miss Militia said.

“No!”  Vista said, raising her voice.  “No!  She became a villain?  What… what the hell!?

“Vista,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in love.”

“She was still one of us.  Did you do something?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, until Tagg responded, “No.  We didn’t do a thing to her.  Everyone that’s been in Brockton Bay over the past weeks and months has dealt with a lot, and I think this is her wrestling with something on her own.  I have immense respect for Flechette, and all I can do, all we can do, is hope she comes to her senses.”

“What about her parents?  Her family?”  Vista asked.

“I can’t talk about anything my patients discuss with me in my office,” Mrs. Yamada replied.  “I’m sorry.”

“She came from a broken home,” Miss Militia supplied the information instead.  “She bounced between her mother, her father and the surrogate mother who had attempted to renege on the deal they’d made and keep her.  With the number of times she changed between them and moved, I can’t imagine she has strong ties to the idea of ‘home’.  Even within the Wards… New York has five small teams, and she moved between them as she changed residences.”

“She didn’t say anything about that.”

“It didn’t matter in the here and now.  Her focus, her path, was school, her career with the Wards.  She didn’t have much in the way of roots, but she had direction.  I think that the events following the Echidna crisis left her more devastated than she let on.”

“Can I call her?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” Miss Militia said.

“Do,” Tagg said.  “Remind her what she’s leaving behind, tell her how you feel, then let her be.  Too much pressure and she’s liable to be stubborn.  Give her time to think, and you may sway her.”

“Okay,” Vista said.

“When you’re done, join the others in discussing battle plans.  I’d rather not wait for Skitter’s forces to strike.  If it comes down to it, we mobilize first.”

“We’ll be fighting Flechette,” Vista said.

Tagg nodded.  “Very possible.  If you don’t feel confident you can do it in good conscience, then I won’t make you.  In the meantime, I’m requisitioning capes from nearby areas.  If it comes down to it, I want to be ready for a fight.”

“And if they don’t give us the chance?” Miss Militia asked.

I missed Tagg’s response.  It was monosyllabic.

“If the Undersiders try to avoid direct engagement and attempt to come at us from another angle?  Media?  Revealing telling details?  Financially?  Through our families?”

“Oh shit,” Clockblocker said.

“They wouldn’t, would they?” Crucible asked.

“They would,” Kid Win said.  “Probably.”

“They would,” Director Tagg agreed.  “And I already have ideas in mind.  This situation is far from unmanageable.  Rest assured.  I’ll need to make some calls.  Miss Militia, are you up for another walk?”

“Yes.”

Tagg stepped into the elevator, holding the door open.  It was too small for everyone to fit inside, but Miss Militia, the deputy and Clockblocker joined him.

Mrs. Yamada started to step inside, then paused while standing in the doorway.  “I’ll be in my office all day.  If any of you need to talk about Flechette, or anything else that’s going on, come see me.”

There was no reply.  There might have been nods, but I didn’t have bugs on top of any of the Ward’s heads.

The doors shut, and a few seconds passed, Kid Win, Crucible and Vista standing in the hallway with a handful of PRT officers.

“Fuck,” Vista said.  “Fuck this.  Fuck you, Skitter, if you can hear me.”

I waited to see if there was more, but neither she nor her teammates said anything.  The drones Kid Win had made were doing a number on my bugs, catching me by surprise when they opened fire with lasers, striking from the other side of the room.  It wasn’t easy to avoid them completely, when an exposed bug could get zapped, but keeping my bugs in hiding prevented me from seeing the drones themselves.

Miss Militia left the building, walking.  She wasn’t quite out of my range when she made her first call.

“Mr. Hebert?”

I sighed, then shifted position.

“Everything alright?” Mr. Calle asked me.  “Needed to get centered?”

“Was listening in,” I said.

“Listening in?”

“I can hear what my insects hear.  Tagg is confident.  He’s calling in more capes, and preparing for a fight.  He’s apparently not too worried about the Undersiders pulling something that isn’t a direct attack, but I don’t know what he’s got in mind, as far as trump cards go.  Miss Militia is apparently calling my dad, so Tagg can talk with him.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Calle said.  “Anything else?”

“The Wards are upset over Flechette defecting.”

“Okay.  Something to keep in mind.  Now, this is difficult to say, but-”

Mr. Calle paused very deliberately.

“What?”

“I would never recommend my clients do anything illegal,” he said.

“But you maybe suspect that if I had any leverage, I should exercise it?”

“I would never say any such thing,” Mr. Calle said.  He smiled.  “But now that you mention it…”

“There are options,” I said.  I thought about the areas of attack that Miss Militia had outlined.  Family would cross a line.  Something to shake their confidence in the coming conflict.  “Can you pass on a message?”

“That would be a mistake, I think.  I walk a fine line as it is, and I won’t have a hand in anything direct.”

I frowned.

“Let’s talk about what I can do.  First off, I think we should change things up.  As it stands, the Protectorate East-North-East holds Brockton Bay in a specialized state of emergency.  It’s a legal wild west, with very little precedent holding things together.  Director Tagg reports to his superiors, who report to the United States government.  This circumvents a great many of the usual checks and balances.  Checks and balances I think we should put back into play.”

“How?”

“Contacting the District Attorney and bringing her to the discussion would tie Tagg’s hands, but it would also tie yours.  We’d be working entirely within the law, certain items would be taken off the table.  You couldn’t ask for condoned villainy, for example.  Charges would inevitably move forward against you, but these same things would tie him up in managing things.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it.”

“It depends.  It’s… pressure.  The Director is focused on a half-dozen things at once.  There’s a lot to be said for putting one more thing on his plate.  I know he’s not trained in the particulars of law.  He’d be forced out of his depth, made to consult others, made to wrap his head around terms he’s not familiar with.  It would mandate that you, as a minor, would need a guardian present.  Failing that, there’s a great many hoops they’d have to jump through.  He’s a soldier.  So long as this is a battlefield of some sort, he has a leg up.  We can make it something else.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’d be adding pressure, turning things around so he’s the one on his heels, but I’m still not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  Other options?”

“Media.”

“He doesn’t care about image,” I said.  “He said he figures it’ll get patched up with good PR in a matter of time, a few days back.”

“It won’t hurt him as badly, then, but he’s more likely to make a mistake if it’s not something he pays attention to.”

“An option,” I said.  “It sets a bad tone, though.  I’m really looking for cooperation.  I’m putting everything on the line in the hopes of getting it.  I don’t want them to be enemies, not any more than they are.  And I don’t know that just talking to the media is going to be enough to get the results I want.”

“It isn’t, frankly.  Are there points you’re willing to compromise on?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Because he’s not willing to meet me halfway.”

Mr. Calle rubbed his chin.  “Okay.”

“So we need leverage, and it can’t be legal.  Going to the District Attorney or the media has drawbacks.”

“Yes.”

“Then I need you to get in contact with Tattletale.  Only we’ll be above-board, mostly, about how we handle it.  She’s been arranging things for a while.  Now it’s time to figure out just how much clout she has.  We’ll hit them with the biggest card we have.  We’ll make a play for ownership of the portal.  Successful or not, it’ll distract them.”

“I’ll do what I can to get in touch with her, then.  My firm’s assets will be at your disposal, of course.”

I nodded.

He stood from his seat to make the call.  Apparently he didn’t find them much more comfortable than I did.  He paced as he waited for the phone to ring.  “Cecily?  Need you to pull some strings.  And route me to someone, best if it’s untraceable.”

It wouldn’t be a direct call.  That didn’t make sense.  I focused my attention elsewhere in the building.  The outlet that fed Kid Win’s anti-bug drones… I found the wiring in the walls and ordered cockroaches to start chewing through it.

Petty, maybe, but I didn’t want to be disarmed, not with the way things were going.

The heroes were returning, Sere and Dovetail entering the lobby.  I planted bugs on Dovetail as she made her way indoors, and as discreetly as I was able, I transferred the bugs to Tagg and Miss Militia, who were waiting.

“They’re moving,” Dovetail said, “… soldiers.  Arming civilians.  Squads no larger than five people, across the city.”

“Good,” Tagg said.

“That’s all.”

“Tell the others,” Miss Militia said, “Adamant’s getting a cycle retooled to handle more weight before he leaves again.  He’ll go with Triumph.  Log it all in the system.”

“Will do,” Dovetail said.  Miss Militia patted her on the shoulder as she made her way inside.

Miss Militia and Tagg remained in the lobby, by the hallway to the elevators.  They didn’t say much.  A few words on degrees of lethal force, but no camraderie, not even much in the way of small talk.

My cockroaches found their way through the wire, and promptly died as they came in contact with the live circuit.  A breaker blew, but Kid Win didn’t seem to react.

Hopefully the drones wouldn’t get a chance to recharge.

A few minutes passed, as my lawyer got in touch with someone, and started talking about media contacts.  Then my father arrived.

I could sense him as he got out of a truck in the parking lot, making his way inside.

“Mr. Hebert,” Miss Militia said, extending a hand.

My dad shook it.

“Thank you for coming in again,” Director Tagg said.  He extended a hand.  Again, my father shook it.

“My office?” Tagg asked.

My dad nodded.

My pulse was pounding as Miss Militia, Tagg and my father entered the elevator and made their way upstairs.

“She’s here?” my dad asked.

“In a room downstairs with her lawyer,” Miss Militia answered.

“She hired him herself?”

“I imagine she did,” Miss Militia said.  “With the speed he pulled things together, I suspect she may have more working in the background.  Crime does pay, if she’s paying their salaries.  They’re apparently top of the line, as parahuman defense attorneys go.”

“I can’t believe this is all real.”

“It is,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s very real.”

“And very real blood will be shed tonight,” Tagg said, “If we can’t rein her in.”

Rein me in.

They exited the elevator and made their way to Tagg’s office.

“These,” Tagg leaned forward, and my bugs could hear something move.  “Are the charges as they stand.”

I didn’t sense it, but my bugs could hear papers rustle.  I might not have identified the sound if I hadn’t had the context.

A few long seconds passed, and I could hear the rustling again.  The turning of a page.

I clenched my fist.

“Problem?”  Mr. Calle asked, covering the mouthpiece of his phone.

“My dad’s here.  They’ve got him in Tagg’s office, and they’re filling him in on their version of events.”

“Right.  Let’s put a stop to that.  I’ll be back.”

Phone still pressed to his ear, he picked up his briefcase, tapping on the door three times with the side of his shoe.

A PRT uniform unlocked and opened the door, and my lawyer strode out.  It shut behind him.

Upstairs, my dad turned another page.

He was reading through it all.  All the details I’d gone over with my lawyer, only without my feedback, without my voice to point out the places where they were going a little overboard, naming charges they could throw at me, without checking whether they could stick.  Not that the difference was that big, comparing what I’d actually done to what they were accusing me of.

I heard the sound of him flipping through the last few pages before he dropped the pad on the table.  “Okay.”

“She’s in a lot of trouble,” Tagg said.

“This isn’t news to me,” my dad answered, his voice quiet.

“If the charges went through, she would face being charged as an adult.  The three strikes protection act wouldn’t mitigate things.  I’d say the worst case scenario is execution, or indefinite detention in the Birdcage, but the best case scenario for her isn’t much better.”

My dad didn’t reply to that.

“Her power means we can’t keep her in a conventional prison.  She’s too flexible, too versatile for us to use any of our current means of keeping her from using her ability.  Even today, contained in a cell, she’s been literally ‘bugging’ us to track our movements and listen in on conversations.  We had our tinker put together a countermeasure, but it’s not perfect.”

Again, my dad was silent.

“I have two daughters.  Four and six years older than Taylor,” the Director said.  “I can’t imagine.”

“I can’t either,” my dad said.  “Like I said, it doesn’t feel real.”

“I’d like you to come with me the next time I speak to your daughter.”

“She didn’t listen to me before, she won’t listen now,” my dad said.

“I didn’t ask you to come because I thought you could convince her,” Tagg said.  “You don’t have to say anything, as a matter of fact.”

What was he up to?

My lawyer had reached the top floor, and was striding between cubicles and desks.  He raised his voice to ask a question I couldn’t make out, and someone answered him.  He altered his course slightly in response, walked with more purpose, directly for Tagg, Miss Militia and my father.

“I’d like to talk to her alone,” my dad said.

“We can arrange that,” Tagg said.

I clenched my fists.  Using my dad as a pawn?  Damn right I was going to escalate.  Which, I suspected, was exactly what Tagg was aiming to achieve.  This was something to put me off balance, just like we were looking to do to him by way of leveraging control of the portal.

My lawyer knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a response.  “My client would like a word.”

“Of course,” Tagg said.  As the four of them exited his office and made their way to the elevator, I turned the two words around in my head.  Had he sounded sarcastic?  Did he simply expect me to interrupt?

I couldn’t say.  I could only wait as they made their way downstairs.  I was stuck, my back hurting where my arms were in a more or less fixed position.  I stood, stretched as well as I was able, tossed my head to one side in an attempt to get my hair out of my face.  When that didn’t work, I bent over and lowered my face to my hands to tidy my hair.

Then I sat, stewing in unidentifiable emotions.  Trepidation, dread, fear, guilt, shame, anger, relief… none I could put a finger on.

“Did you know?” Miss Militia asked.

“Me?” my dad asked, by way of response.

“Who she was?  What she was?”

“Yes,” he said.  I could feel alarm sing through me, inexplicable, but jarring.  Then he seemed to change his mind, “No.”

And the emotion that hit me at that was just as strong as that misplaced sense of alarm.

Damn Tagg.  Damn him for bringing my dad into this.

The four of them stopped outside of the cell.  Miss Militia used her phone to unlock it, and Tagg gestured for my dad to enter.

I saw him hesitate as he stepped into the room, dark sheet metal, a reflective pane of one-way glass, the metal table bolted to the floor, my handcuffs, locked to the table in turn.  Me, with my hair in some disarray, a touch damp from the shower and ineffectual toweling, from sweat, in my black uniform with the word ‘villain’ marked clearly across it.

I could see it, his expression changing, the disbelief he’d professed to becoming something else entirely.

His feelings were as mixed as mine.  I could tell just by looking at him, by imagining what he’d been through, the person standing by, dealing with the aftermath of everything I’d done.  His frustration, his confusion, pain, and embarrassment.  His loneliness, disappointment, his fear.

And, somehow, as though it were too much to bottle in, it seemed to boil over in the form of one singular emotion.  I could see his jaw shift as he clenched his teeth, met my eyes and looked away.  The sudden agitation that seemed to grip him, as he opened and closed his fists.

Tagg and Miss Militia had reached the interior of the room on the other side of the one way mirror, while Mr. Calle stood in the hallway, speaking on the phone.  I stood from the chair as my dad approached, his body language making it all too clear what he was about to do.  Miss Militia took one look and reacted, turning around to hurry back out of the room, to intervene.  Tagg said something, two words I couldn’t be bothered to decipher, and she stopped in her tracks.

My dad raised his hand, palm open, and I closed my eyes, lifting my chin to take the hit.

It didn’t come.  My dad wrapped his arms around my shoulders instead.  I squeaked, and I couldn’t say whether it was because he was squeezing me too tight or if it was because of an overflow of emotion similar to the one he’d just displayed.  I stood there, unable to return the hug with the way I was cuffed to the table, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

When minutes passed and we hadn’t exchanged a single word, Tagg and Miss Militia stepped out of the observation room, signaling Mr. Calle.

“Let’s talk,” Tagg said.

I broke away from my dad.  Blinked where there were tears in the corners of my eyes.  I didn’t care if Tagg saw.

“I’m waiting on a response from my colleagues,” Mr. Calle said.  “There’s no reason to speak further, unless you’re capitulating.”

“No,” Tagg answered.  “But I’d like to go over the main points.”

This was why he wanted my dad here, I thought.

“You’ve informed me that your teammates, many of whom are known murderers, are going to declare war against the PRT in three hours and twenty minutes, without word from you.”

My dad took a seat to my left, watching me carefully.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve described them as unpredictable.  They’re undeniably dangerous.  You think they’ll hurt people.  They’ll pull out all the stops, to get you back, and to hurt us.  The good guys.”

“Yes,” I said, not taking my eyes off Tagg.  “But I don’t think you’re a good guy, Director.”

“I don’t think you’re a good person either,” Tagg said, “and the court of public opinion is likely to agree with me before they agree with you.”

“Let’s not resort to name calling this early in the discussion,” Mr. Calle said.

“Right,” Tagg said, “It wastes time, and you have very little.”

“Neither of us want this to happen, Director,” I said.  “Neither of us have time, and neither of us want a war.  Except maybe you do.  Maybe you think you’d win, and it’d be a bump in the PRT’s ratings.”

“No,” he said, “I think, like any altercation, both sides would lose something.  But let’s talk about your terms.  You want amnesty for your criminal friends?’

I was acutely aware of my dad watching me.

“Yes,” I said.

“You want to depose me, raising Miss Militia to my place, and in the doing, force the PRT to relinquish all ideas of humans governing parahumans, to help keep those with incredible power in check.”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted me to allow you to become an official vigilante, leaving your group behind while you worked to hunt down psychopaths with powers.  I’ve explained why that can’t happen.  I’m not sure if you intend to change your demands, or-”

“I’ll go to the Birdcage if I have to,” I said.  “Because the rest of it, I believe in it enough to make the sacrifice.”

“Taylor,” my dad said.  The first words he’d said to me since the breakfast we’d had together, on the day I’d been outed.  “Why?”

“Because we’re losing.  We’re so focused on the little things, on petty squabbles and factions and vendettas, that we’re losing against the real dangers.  The Class S threats.  The fact that the world’s going to end in a year and eleven months.  Did you hear about that?”

He shook his head.  “I… I read the letter you left me, at Annette’s grave.  Realized it was probably what you were trying to write, the night you left.  Before you changed your mind.”

The night I left, so long ago.  When I’d first met Coil.

“A lot of what I did, it was to stop the man who really wanted to take over the city.  Who would have been far worse than any of us Undersiders.  And I did that because he had a little girl captive.  Dinah Alcott.  She could see the future, and she says the world ends in two years.”

My dad shook his head, “No.”

“Yes.  The heroes know it.  It’s a big part of why the PRT is falling apart.  You’ve heard about that on the news?”

“I… some.  But I haven’t paid much attention since I found out that you-”

“That I’m a supervillain,” I said.

He flinched visibly at that.

“Interesting,” Tagg cut in.  “That you call yourself that.  You say you’ve had justifications for what you’ve done, but you call yourself a villain.”

I wanted to hit him, for cutting into my conversation with my dad, for polluting my attempts to explain things.

“I am,” I told him.  “I’ve done bad things.”

“Left a trail of devastation in your wake.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I’m willing to pay the price.  I’ll go to the Birdcage, a place you described as a literal hell on Earth.  A place where people just as scary as the ones I’ve spent the last few months fighting stay.  A place where some of those very people are currently imprisoned.  Lung, Bakuda, Trickster.  They probably want to inflict fates worse than death on me.  But I’ll do it.  Because I really truly believe the world needs the PRT, or a PRT, one without lunatics like you in charge, and maybe bringing me in helps keep a handful more capes in the roster, keeps my friends secure where they are, so they can help.”

I was heated, my words angry.

“Your friends,” he said.

“My friends.”

“That’s the rapist, Jean-paul?  Alec?  A murderer.”

“Regent.  He was the son of a supervillain, screwed from the get go, and yeah, maybe some shady stuff went down, way back then.  I think he’s… not in love, but he’s close to Imp.  Somewhere between love and friendship, maybe.”

“Imp.  She’s the one who makes it a game, to psychologically and mentally torture gang members who step foot in her territory, until they have mental break downs.”

“Yes,” I said, through grit teeth.  “It’s more complicated than that, she’s been through a lot, but yes.  And I heard directly from people who were grateful to her for scaring off the real rapists and murderers.”

He didn’t pay me any mind.  “Who else is there?  Hellhound.”

“She prefers Bitch,” I said.  “But she’s Rachel to me.”

“Who had her monster dogs chew up innocents who’d gotten in her way.”

“It was a bad time for her.  Weren’t you just excusing Flechette, because we’ve all been through some shit?  I know Rachel as the person who takes care of wayward souls, grown men and children who are lost in a way even we can’t fathom, with the things we’ve been through.”

“And Grue?  Do tell me how you see him.”

“I liked him,” I said.  “If I’d stayed with them, maybe he and I would have tried to make it work.”

“Romance.”

I met my dad’s eyes.  His forehead was creased with worry.  My power was buzzing around the periphery of my consciousness.

I found refuge in the bugs, paid attention to their movements as they avoided the remaining drones, found my center, so to speak.  Calm.  He wants me upset.

“Romance,” I said.  “He was my rock, when I needed a rock.  And I was his, when-”

“When he snapped,” Tagg cut in.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“He was the stable one, until he wasn’t stable,” Tagg said.  “Until he killed Burnscar.  Yet I suspect he’s the one in charge, now that you’ve left?”

“Yes,” I said.  “And with the dozens, hundreds of people I’ve tried to take care of or whose lives I’ve saved, I trust Grue to look after them and keep the peace.  I wouldn’t give him that responsibility, with all the time and effort I’ve invested in them, if I didn’t trust him.”

“Very generous,” Tagg told me.  “And Tattletale.  Where do I even start?”

“With the fact that she was my best friend.  That she’s maybe our best bet at understanding what’s going on?  Understanding the Endbringers and what they’re doing?  Understanding powers?  Finding the Nine before they bring about the end of the world?  Understanding how the world ends?”

“All of this, from the girl who used her power to convince her brother to kill himself, before fleeing, spending years on the streets, stealing wallets and using the account numbers to take whole fortunes?”

“All wrong,” I said.

“And who planted the seeds that led to Panacea breaking down and mutilating her sister.”

“Those seeds were planted a long time before we talked to Panacea,” I said.

This was what Tagg had wanted.  He’d devastated my defenses, bringing my dad into this.

“Nonetheless,” Tagg said, leaning back.  “So, Danny Hebert, what do you think about your daughter’s friends?”

My dad glanced at me, then looked at the Director.  “I know less about them than either of you.”

“That’s not important,” the Director said.  “I just want you to answer one question for me.  Assume we’re both right.  Me and your daughter.  Assume that they’re everything we described them as.  Do you really want them in control of this city’s underworld?”

Again, my dad looked at me.

“No need to double-check with your daughter.  I’m wanting your honest opinion, as a man on the streets, from someone who has to live in this city without any real say over what happens in the cape-on-cape fights and politics.  Do you really want them in charge?”

“No,” my dad said.

I did my best not to show it, but the word was like a punch in the gut.

“I’m sorry, Taylor, but-”

“Are they really that much worse than the ABB?  Than Empire Eighty-Eight?”

“With them, we…” my dad trailed off.

“With them, we could pretend things weren’t bad!” I said, “But they were worse.  You know they were worse.  The people you worked with, the addicts, the people without money…”

“Does it matter?” Tagg asked.  “You don’t have your dad’s support, what makes you think you’d get anyone else’s?”

I grit my teeth.

“No,” my father said.

“Hm?”  Tagg raised his bushy eyebrows.

“No.  I think you’re wrong there,” my dad told Tagg.  “She has support.  When you attacked her in the school, there were people who stood by her.  If I’m being honest, I don’t get it, I don’t want those people in charge, but I don’t want any villains in charge.  I don’t understand the politics behind this, or the context, but I trust my daughter.”

“Of course you trust your daughter.  The curse of being a parent, I know it well.”

“You wanted my opinion,” my dad said, his voice a little firmer, “You get my opinion.  Others believe in her.  I trust her, even if I don’t know enough to follow what this is all about. Even if I barely feel like I know her right now, I can look her in the eye and know that’s the same girl I’ve spent the last sixteen years with.  With some of the worst qualities of my wife and I, and a lot more of the better ones.”

“I wonder how long that opinion will hold,” Tagg said.  “Because we have, what is it?  Three hours and a handful of minutes?  Then the war she set in motion hits this city.”

“It can be avoided,” I said.

“If we cave in to your extortion,” Tagg said.  “Except you think too small, Skitter.  It’s a common flaw among teenagers, however powerful they are.  They attend high school, and all they can see is the school, their peers.  Tunnel vision.  You’re the same.  You’re focused on this city, but you don’t see what happens elsewhere.  You don’t see the ramifications.”

“Which are?”

“You’d be strengthening the PRT a little in the short-term, but the long-term?  Letting villains take charge, taking the humans out of the PRT, condoning villainy?  It would doom us all.  What you’re threatening us with?  It’s only one fight.  And maybe it’s ugly, but it’s one fight.  If they kill us, if they become monsters of the Slaughterhouse Nine’s caliber to defeat us, then we win.  Your side wins the battle, loses the war.  If you don’t go that far?  If you leave us in a state to recover?  We pick ourselves up and we lick our wounds, and then we rebuild.”

Tagg cupped his hands, moving them as if balancing a scale.  “One fight, one set of casualties in one area of one medium-sized city, compared to consequences that reach across North America?  Across the world?  It doesn’t measure up.”

I glanced at my lawyer.

“You don’t have an answer for me?” Tagg asked.

“I have one,” I said.  I hope.

Mr. Calle looked at his phone, then gave me one curt nod.

“What?” Tagg asked.

“It’s in the news,” Mr. Calle said.

Tagg and Miss Militia simultaneously reached for their smartphones.  I was probably as tense as they were, as they thumbed past the security screens and found news sites.  Miss Militia was a few seconds faster than Tagg.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“It’s all legitimate,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.  Legal enough.”

“What is it?” my dad asked.

“Property,” I said.  “I expect a great amount of property just changed hands.”

“Who’s Sierra Kiley?” Miss Militia asked.

It was all I could do to keep from smiling with joy.  Of all the people to serve as a public face, Tattletale had found Sierra.  Someone I owed, in many ways.  Someone who’d, maybe, followed recent events and rethought her initial doubts.

“No idea,” I said, maintaining my poker face.

“I don’t understand,” my dad said.

“Quite simple,” Mr. Calle told him.  “I believe the PRT has become aware that properties in a wide area around the portal in downtown Brockton Bay, previously under the control of various individuals and groups, just exchanged hands, finding itself in the hands of one singular individual.”

“And that one individual is in thrall to the villains who control this town,” Tagg said.

“I resent the notion,” I told him, and I allowed myself a small smile.  “But it would be amusing, if it were true.  You might even have to rethink what you were saying about how narrow my worldview is.  I mean, that’s a whole other world.  Anything but narrow, when you think about it.”

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You’re playing out your hand.”

“And you’re bringing my family into this.  Remember how our little feud started?  You crossed the line.  You made the call to out me, because you wanted me in custody.  Congratulations, you got me in custody.  You broke the unwritten rules, because you think that you don’t have to obey them, since you aren’t a cape.  Except you’re forgetting why they exist in the first place.  The rules keep the game afloat.  They keep everything afloat, at the core of it.  We all know the PRT is a sinking ship.  You don’t agree with what I’m doing?  Fine.  But at least I’m trying to keep it afloat.”

“And you?” my dad asked.  It took me a second to realize he was looking at Miss Militia.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You’ve been quiet.  Are you here just in case my daughter turns violent?”

“No.  She’s not violent.  Not in that sense.”

“You don’t have anything to say?”

“As grateful as I am for the right to free speech,” Miss Militia said, “I’m grateful for the right to silence as well.”

“Then you don’t agree with your Director?”

“I didn’t say that.  What I’m saying is that there’s no right answer here, and I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make the decision.”

“Isn’t that cowardly?”  I asked.

“No.  It’s human, to not want to make the hard choices,” she said.  She raised one boot off the ground and placed it on the corner of her chair.  “And it’s good strategy to conserve your strength.”

“We’re not fighting,” I said.  “We’re not going to get tired.”

“Physically?” she asked.  “No.  Emotionally?  Mentally? Yes.”

“You’re anticipating the fight,” I said.  “You don’t think there’ll be a consensus in time.”

She shook her head, then used one hand to fix her hair, tucking it behind one ear.  “No.  I don’t think there will be a fight.  I hope there’ll be a consensus, but it’s not necessary.  Your ploys with the portal, controlling the territory around it, it’s clever, it’ll take a lot of time before we can pass legislation or conduct a thorough enough investigation to justifiably seize it.  But I’m not worried about that, either, nor am I concerned about the damage Tattletale could do in other areas.”

“Then why do you need to conserve your strength?” I asked.

“Because we’re dealing with the devil,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m angry at you, Taylor, and half of that is because you put us in this situation, a set of circumstances where we’re liable to lose either way.  Because I agree with the conclusions you came to, how the PRT is needed, the need for compromise, and because I can’t condone how you approached those conclusions.”

She shifted position, and the black-green energy of her flickered from her right hip to her right hand, appearing in her hand, amorphous and shapeless, as if searching for a form to take.  When she didn’t grasp it, it darted to her left hip, and the metal of a cutlass clinked against her seat.

“But I really hate you because we had to call her,” Miss Militia intoned.

Her?

Tagg looked at his phone.  “Assuming she’s on time, it’ll be less than ten minutes.”

“Her?” my dad asked.

“You’ve played your part,” Tagg responded.  “Go.  It’d be better in the long run.  Wash your hands of this, leave.  Your daughter’s in custody, she’s going to one prison or another.  You can go home and know that it was inevitable, and that this was the best outcome.  It takes a few years maybe, but you lament your mistakes, and you eventually make an uneasy peace with what happened to your daughter.”

“And if I stay?”

“You won’t have any of that peace of mind,” Tagg said, and that was all.

My dad looked at me, “I think you’re wrong.  Everything before this, it was the times where I thought I had to walk away, look away, times where I thought things were inevitable, that I regretted the most.”

He took my hand.  “I’ll stay.”

“Thank you,” I murmured the words.

Our guest didn’t arrive right away.  It might have been fitting, in a dramatic way, for her to appear as we finished our dialogue, but things weren’t so carefully orchestrated in the real world.

“Those things they said you did?” my dad murmured.

“Mostly true,” I said.

He squeezed my hand for a moment, but it wasn’t reassuring.  Something else.  Concern, maybe, channeled through a simple gesture.  Concern for me, for what I’d become.

I wanted nothing more than for my dad and I to talk for a month straight, just to hash things out, to form some kind of balance, some semblance of a connection like we’d once had.  Instead, there was only this, like the father-daughter relationship distilled.  Not enough communication, barely any familiarity, both of us flooded with very different sorts of fear, confusion, and frustration.  I imagined it was much like the bonds that had kept primitive families together in an era when living from week to week was a challenge.  Basic, crude, but almost primeval.

She arrived, minutes later.  A woman, tall, in a suit, carrying nothing with her.  I sensed her at the periphery of my range, walking with a steady, strong stride.

I was reminded of the Siberian, almost.  The way she moved with the confidence of the indomitable, the way that she was almost careful as she moved among people.  Except that where the Siberian was only careful among her teammates, this woman was careful with everybody.

It took her five minutes to reach us, walking through the crowds, using the pedestrian crossings.

But the person I found myself comparing her to, as she approached the PRT building, wasn’t the Siberian.  It was me.  She reached her home ground, and people started to recognize her.  They reacted, moving out of her way.  Showing respect.  Showing fear, in some cases.

Three of the Wards were in the elevator when it stopped at the ground floor.  Kid Win was taking his drone recharge station apart, which meant it was just Clockblocker, Crucible and Vista that crossed paths with her.

The Wards took only a moment to recognize her as she entered the elevator, and the two native Brocktonites left, pulling a protesting, confused Crucible after them.

In a matter of a minute, she was opening the door to the cell.  A woman, the sort who could be forty but looked like she was in her late twenties.  Hispanic, insofar as that was a descriptor, with darker skin and long, straight black hair.

But more than her description, the part of her that hit me was her presence.  Almost without thinking about it, I got out of my chair, standing, the chains of my cuffs pulling taut against the lock on the table.  My lawyer, Miss Militia and Tagg all stood, my dad a step behind them, bewildered.  The only one not in the know.

“Chief Director,” I said.

Deputy Chief.  I’ve stepped down from my position, but I still have to train my replacement,” she said, her gaze piercing through me.  I couldn’t even tell that one of her eyes was a prosthetic.  “And seeing to some leftover crises.  Hello, Ms. Hebert.”

She extended a hand.  As though driven to accept the handshake by a peculiar gravity, I extended my own hand and shook it.  Her firm grip could have pulverized me.  I might have been less intimidated if I were trapped in a small pen with an angry bull elephant.

“And Mr. Danny Hebert,” she said.  She shook my father’s hand.

Tagg stood from the chair at the table and moved over one left, leaving the seat for his superior.  “Since you’ve made up your mind about staying, you’ll need to know.  This is Deputy Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.”

My father nodded.  I was getting the feeling he was almost shell-shocked.  To find out about the end of the world, the situation his daughter was in, and countless other things, the name of this woman might not have even processed for him.

“Otherwise known as Alexandria,” Alexandria said, taking the chair opposite me.

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Cell 22.2

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Miss Militia handed me a phone and uncuffed one hand from the table.  I dialed the number I’d memorized and waited while she and Director Tagg watched.

Mr. Calle, Esquire,” the voice on the other line said.  He sounded distracted, and the voice was slightly muffled.  I could hear noise in the background, voices.

“It’s time,” I said.  “I’m at the PRT headquarters, second basement floor.”

Ms. Hebert!  Excellent!  I was just telling myself that I’d almost run out of things to see in your city, here, and was about to let myself start being concerned for your welfare if it got much later.  I’m in your territory as we speak.

“My territory?”

Getting a sense of who you are as a person and a personality.  There’s a number of people here who are very concerned for your welfare.  They don’t quite believe me when I say I’m looking out for your interests.

“Okay,” I said.  “Big guy?  Beard?”

A young lady, dark-haired.

I thought for a second.  “Tell her ‘fly in a paper box.’”

He didn’t cover the mouthpiece of his phone as he spoke the phrase.  There was a pause, then Mr. Calle spoke into the phone once again, “That did it.

I don’t really care, I thought.  I just didn’t want him getting in any trouble.  “How soon can you be here?”

“A five minute drive.”

“It’s not a five minute drive from there to here.”

“I’m a fast driver.  No need to worry, but… maybe don’t mention it to the law enforcement officials that are looking over your shoulder.  Do you have any preferences for donuts?  Coffee?”

There was a murmur on the other end.

“Someone’s telling me you want tea,” he asked.

“Just-” Just get here, I was about to say, then I reconsidered.  I knew where he was, and I was tempted at the thought.  Besides, I knew Tagg was watching me.  “A BLT on toasted white and a sugar donut.  And tea.”

“They don’t sell any tea here, but I’m sure we can contrive to get you some in a timely manner.  I trust you haven’t said anything to the glowering heroes?”

“No.”

“Excellent.  Keep your mouth shut, now.  I’ll be there in six.”

With that said, he hung up.

“A sandwich, donuts and tea,” Tagg said.  He had his arms folded.

I smiled a little, but I didn’t reply.

“Very casual,” he mused.  He took the phone, gripped my wrist in his hand and set the handcuff back into place.

I shifted position, and the movement raked the chain of my cuffs against the ring that held them fixed to the table.  It was hard to get comfortable.  The table and chairs were bolted to the floor, and my hands were held in front of me.  I got the impression the setup was meant for villains just a touch taller than I was – I couldn’t quite lean against the chair back without the cuffs cutting into my wrists.

“I’m trying to figure you out,” Tagg said.

I ignored him.

“My aims aren’t very high.  I’m not a psychologist, like Mrs. Yamada, I’m not experienced in the ins and outs of the traumas you capes go through or the damage that shit causes.  You and I haven’t really squared off yet, like you have with Miss Militia.  Those two understand you on levels I never could.”

I glanced at Miss Militia.  Her expression was inscrutable behind the stars-and-stripes scarf she wore over the lower half.

“I’m setting my sights lower than that.  I’m trying to figure out if you really think you have the upper hand, here, if you’re arrogant enough to expect everything will go your way…” Tagg paused, studying me, as if looking for a response.  “…or if you intend to martyr yourself.  Is that the idea?  You go to the Birdcage, but you make some demands first?”

I would have put my head on the table and tried to close my eyes for a minute, but the setup wasn’t very accommodating.  I didn’t want to try to then realize I couldn’t get comfortable.

“Maybe you don’t really get what the Birdcage is.  See, I hate it.  I was in Lausanne in two-thousand two through oh-three.  Fought a whole mess of ugly.  People that couldn’t be reasoned with, people who were hopeless, in the grand scheme of it.  Victims, as much as anyone else.”

I found myself listening, despite myself.

“We shot them, the people who heard too much of the Simurgh’s song, who weren’t just walking disaster areas, but who’d listened long enough that they lost something.  Men, women and children missing that moral center that people like Miss Militia and I have.  Hell, even you’ve got morals.  They didn’t.  I’m sure you heard about it, you’re not that young.  Suicide bombers, dirty bombs.  Terrorism, if you will.  Eleven year olds and old men making their way to Amsterdam or London and opening fire in a crowded area.  Just like that.”

Tagg slammed his hand down on the metal table, coinciding with the ‘that’.  I jumped a little, despite myself.

He’s just trying to rattle me.

“Once we realized what was happening, we had to act, contain the damage.  Contain families.  Had to act against people who went home from a day of trying to kill the rest of us and cooked a nice dinner, oblivious to just how fucked they were in the head.  People who were otherwise good, who got warped on a fundamental level, left open to the preaching and the incitement of their angrier neighbors.  Two years of fighting before we got the word down from on high, that they couldn’t rehabilitate the ones they’d captured, the ones who’d listened too long.  The poor assholes would play nice until they saw an opportunity, then they’d take it, do as much damage as they could.  Two years fighting good people who’d been convinced they had to throw their lives away fighting an enemy that didn’t exist.  So we closed the perimeter, bombed them out, herded them and gunned them down.”

I glanced up, briefly meeting his eyes.  The lines around them seemed just a little deeper.  I wasn’t sure if it was emotion, memories coming to the surface, or if it was just the lighting in this interrogation room.

“Which takes me back to my original point,” Tagg said.  “The Birdcage.  I hate it.  Hate what it stands for, the affront to our freedoms.  The farce of it.  You know what that word means, little girl?  Farce?”

I almost took the bait and responded, bit my tongue instead.

“Guess not.  And Miss Militia said you were smart.  When it comes to the monsters and the menaces who are more trouble than they’re worth, I wish with all my heart that we had another option.  Look me in the eyes, now.  I want you to see I mean what I say.”

I met his eyes.

“I’d rather do what we did in Lausanne than use the Birdcage.  End result’s the same.  You’re gone from this world.  It’s more merciful, understand?  If it was legal, if I got the okay from on high, I’d make you kneel in the center of this very room and end you with one well placed bullet.  Better than you getting in a van and getting disappeared, dropped into a pit that some of the scariest, meanest capes around haven’t figured out how to escape, a literal hell on earth.”

Disappeared.

“But as much as I hate the Birdcage, I’ll gladly use it if it gets menaces like you off the streets and out of the way of civilized Americans who are trying to live their lives.  And my bosses know that.  They know I’m just as stubborn as the worst of them, because I’ve fought bastards like the sad souls in Lausanne, who didn’t even know how to yield, and I outlasted them.”

I wasn’t sure I could have responded if I’d been willing to open my mouth.

“I want you to think on that.  As much as you see me as an asshole, maybe you look down on me because you think you’re smarter than I am, but you think about what it means that I’d sooner shoot a misguided sixteen year old girl than send her to that place… and I’d sooner send you there than let you go free to keep perverting the system.”

“My lawyer’s here,” I said.  I could sense him, striding through the lobby to talk to a receptionist at the front desk.  “Mr. Calle.  He’s upstairs.”

“Someone will show him the way down here,” Tagg said.  “You and I, we can keep chatting here.”

I shut my mouth, frowning.  Miss Militia wasn’t acting, wasn’t saying a thing.

“I wonder if you realize what you’ve really done.  Pulling the shit you have in this city.  Forget the PRT, forget me and the people I work for.  Let’s talk about the grander perspective.  The precedent this shit sets.  You know there’s already been others who tried to do what you’re doing?  Take over?”

People have been trying to take over for a long time, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.

“People are getting hurt, hurting others, trying to follow in your footsteps.  You’re a fucking pioneer, aren’t you?  Do you get that?  That part of what we’re doing, here, is not just stopping you, dealing with you Undersiders, whatever your excuses might be.  It’s the effects that reach across this entire country.  The world.”

I didn’t reply.  My focus was on Mr. Calle, who was making his way downstairs in the elevator, accompanied by the same PRT soldier who had taken me to my cell.

“What’s the name of the fellow who tried to take over that town in Alaska just a few days ago?  You remember, Miss Militia?”

“Hiemal.”

“Hiemal.  How many did his people kill?”

“Three.”

“Three dead,” Tagg said.  He pulled a chair away from the table, set one foot on it, so he was looming over me.

Mr. Calle appeared in the doorway.  I’d looked him up prior to first contacting him, and I’d seen his photos online.  I was caught off guard, nonetheless, on two very different fronts.

“Good afternoon,” he said, putting his briefcase down before extending a hand to Miss Militia, smiling in a way that showed off his very white teeth.  I’d assumed that his prim appearance in the pictures had been because he’d been anticipating having his photos taken, or because he’d been appearing in public.  His black hair hadn’t just been cut, it had been styled, his eyebrows shaped.  He had long eyelashes, I noted, and a small cleft in his chin.  He was an exceptionally handsome Latino guy, in a light gray suit with a white vest beneath, and a red tie.  He had a folder and a paper bag under one arm, in addition to the briefcase he’d put down.

His immaculate appearance was the first thing that caught me off guard, and it set a stark contrast with the corner of one nostril and one of his cheekbones, where, apparently, one of his clients had done some damage.  It was a cut, but puckered around the edges where it had been burned, either with fire or some kind of acid.

He extended a hand to the Director, who glowered but shook it.  He flashed another white smile at Tagg, “Quinn Calle, I-”

“I know who you are,” Tagg replied.

“Excellent.  That should make the rest of this easier.  I’d like some time alone with my client.  I already have the bulk of the paperwork, but if you could give me anything that came up in the last short while, I’d appreciate it.”

“I’ll see what we have,” Miss Militia said.  She and Tagg turned to leave.

Calle brushed the seat clear where Tagg had stepped on it, then sat down just to my left.  “And Director?”

Director Tagg paused in the doorway.

Mr. Calle pointed at the one-way mirror at one side of the interrogation room.  “This is a confidential meeting with my client.  I would never imply that anyone in the PRT would be so crass as to listen in, but… let’s leave that room empty until further notice, okay?”

Tagg visibly bristled at the implication.  Wordless, he turned to leave.

“And cameras stay off!” Mr. Calle called out at the Director’s back.

Tagg shut the door with a little more force than necessary.

“Ms. Hebert,” Mr. Calle said, without looking at me.  He set the folder on the table and began sorting out the contents.  He waited until the paperwork was all arranged in front of him before he turned his attention to the paper bag, retrieving my sandwich, a small carton of six donuts, and a small thermos.  He met my eyes and spoke, “We finally meet.”

Again, that smile, the kind of smile someone could only really give if they were attractive and they knew it.  He didn’t seem to mind the blemish on his face, acted as though it weren’t there, as if that dictated how others would react to it.

“Can we cut out the charm and get to business?” I asked, as I reached for the thermos and sandwich.  “There’s something of a time limit.”

The smile dropped from his face, and he was all business.  “A time limit.  Can I ask?”

“It’s twelve past one,” I said.  “We have until eight-thirty.”

“Very well.  Let’s get moving.  First off, I want to get some things clear.  I’m an excellent lawyer, I’ve worked with more than a few big-name villains, as well as heroes who went astray.  I have the rest of my firm backing me, and their talents are but a phone call away.  But.  He paused in a very deliberate way.  “You should know that I’m not the lawyer you want at a jury trial.  We’ve run simulations, and I don’t sell when it comes to juries.  This little mark is a good part of that.”

He touched his face, where the scar was.

Mr. Calle continued, “If it comes to a serious trial, I’ll take the backseat and one of my senior partners would represent you.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s fine.  I don’t want this to go to trial.”

“Alright.  We can work with that.  In the meantime, let’s see what we’re up against…”

He turned the first page in one of the neatly bound sheafs of paper.  “Charges… chime in, but don’t panic, alright?”

“Okay,” I said.

“April tenth, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability, sixteen charges of assault, sixteen charges of battery with a parahuman ability.”

I tried to think.  April tenth?  Early in my career?

“Lung,” I said, “I attacked him and his gang.  They’re seriously charging me for attacking Lung’s henchmen?”

“They’re going to charge you with everything they think they can get away with and see what sticks.  Depending on who they could actually find and convince to testify, they’ll drop charges after the fact.  We can maybe use that, or we could, if circumstances were different and we were wanting to take this to trial.  No need to worry.  Gut reaction?  Could they make it stick?”

“The Lung part, yes, but the rest… probably not.”

“Okay.  Let’s run down the list.  April fourteenth.  Thirty two charges of willful felony assault with a parahuman ability.  Thirty two charges of hostage taking, technically domestic terrorism, each perpetrated with a parahuman ability.  Robbery with a parahuman ability.  Willful damage to government property.  Disturbing the peace.”

“The bank robbery.  I didn’t damage any property.”

“Right.  April twenty-fourth?  One case of battery.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“An… Emma Barnes.  She appeared-”

“Right.  No, I remember what that was.  It happened, didn’t think anything would come of it.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Odd that they took their time filing charges on it.  Only this past week.”

Tagg must have talked to her.  I shrugged.

“Moving on, then.  Incidents taking place at the… Forsberg Gallery, May fifth.  Five cases of assaulting a law enforcement officer.  Five cases of battering a law enforcement officer, three performed with a parahuman ability.”

“That’s attacking the heroes?”

“No.  That’d be an entirely different charge, and…” my lawyer flipped through the papers, “Just double checking… there’s a conspicuous lack of charges involving your altercations with major heroes.  It could be that they discussed it and didn’t feel it necessary.  Things get complicated when capes take the stand, given the issues of identity and character, and they might not have wanted to dredge up old business.  If not that, the only way I could imagine it is if the heroes in question withdrew all charges?”

He pitched his voice to make the statement into something of a question.

I thought of Armsmaster.  Him?  Maybe.  But Assault?  Miss Militia?  That was harder to picture.  The Wards?  Harder still.

“I don’t know which it is,” I admitted.

“All right.  Something to look into, if we have time.  Still on May fifth, eighty-one charges of willful felony assault.  Still at the fundraiser.”

He raised one eyebrow.  I only nodded confirmation.

“Skipping ahead a month to June third, we’ve got… complicity towards one count of kidnapping using a parahuman ability.  This was-”

“Sophia Hess.”

“One of the girls who bullied you.  Extenuating circumstances, perhaps,” he said.  He made a note in the margins of the document.  “June fourth, you’re supposedly complicit in class two extortion with a parahuman ability, criminal negligence with a parahuman ability and false imprisonment with a parahuman ability.”

“They… can probably make that stick.”

“June fifth.  Treason.”

“Treason.”

“That would be, in effect, declaring war against the government of the United States of America.”

“That’s not what I did.”

“It’s what they’re going to say you did when you took over the territory.  I’d expect they already have strong arguments lined up on that front.  On the same day, thirty cases of assault and battery.  Six cases of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.”

I nodded.

“June eighth, eight cases of assault with a parahuman ability.  June ninth, we’ve got twelve more.  June tenth, three cases of assault with a parahuman ability, one case of assault in the third degree.”

“Alright,” I said.

“Thirteenth, we have three more cases of assault with a parahuman ability.”

“Makes sense.”

“Sixteenth of June, disturbing the peace, property damage.”

I nodded.  The days were starting to blend into one another, to the point that I wasn’t sure I could guess which charges were referring to which events.

“Seventeenth, five charges of assault and battery.  One charge of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability.  One charge of criminal extortion.”

“Attacking the mayor,” I said, almost relieved to be able to pinpoint the crime in question.

“And his family, it seems.”  Mr. Calle paused, then paged through the rest of the pad.  “June eighteenth.  Destruction of government property, four counts.  Hostage taking, assault and battery of a law enforcement officer.  June nineteenth, complicity in another count of treason.  Complicity in manslaughter, nineteen counts.”

I nodded.  Dragon and fighting in the debate.  Given Dragon’s response in the cafeteria, I’d almost expected her to drop any charges involved in the destruction of the suits she’d sent against me.  Maybe people higher up than her had charged me anyways.  Then there was the manslaughter.  “Apparently the murders were staged.”

“We’ll have to look into that.  And… that’s the last we have in our actual records.  The PRT was slow in sending us the rest, but Miss Militia should deliver it soon.  There’s been more in the last week, I take it?”

“More assault and battery,” I said, feeling a touch weary.  “Whatever charges come up with the thing at the school.  I sort of arranged to have a psychopath kill herself.  Um.  However you’d charge putting maggots in someone’s eyeballs.  In self-defense.”

He didn’t even flinch at that.  “I see.  And any other charges that might catch us by surprise?”

“Premeditated murder,” I said.  “Of a law enforcement officer.  Miss Militia knows, but she’s kept quiet on it.”

“I see,” Mr. Calle said.  He frowned briefly.

“It was Coil.  Director Thomas Calvert was Coil.”

“Alright, then,” Mr. Calle said.  He met my eyes, then smiled.  “Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse.”

I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved at that.

“Now let’s talk about our goals.  For the record, if we took this to trial, I think we could knock off most of these charges on a lack of evidence and degrees of amnesty surrounding your participation against the various class-S threats.  They’re going to want to put together a jury that hasn’t heard of you, which would be difficult.  To those people, it’s going to sound downright preposterous that a sixteen year old girl is being charged with treason and terrorism, especially after we reduce the number of assault and battery charges to single digits.”

“I don’t want a jury trial,” I said.  “I’ve said this twice now.”

“I know,” Mr. Calle said. “Hear me out.  I’m wanting to make sure our expectations are realistic.  Theoretically speaking, I think we could get you charged as a minor.  Paint a picture of a bullied teenager pushed to the limit, caught out of her depth and, following the Leviathan attack, ensnared in an ugly situation where she’s trying to protect people and the heroes are being unreasonable in how they interact with her.  We could use the unwarranted unmasking to indicate just how aggressive and ruthless the PRT has been in regards to you.”

“And if I decided to plea down, in exchange for certain considerations?”

“We can still reduce the charges, which would help reduce the penalties you’d face, but where I’m confident we could get you off in a trial by jury, you’d face some consequences if you insisted on taking this route.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I can live with consequences.  In terms of holding them to the terms I stipulate, is there any way to set it up so they can’t change their minds after they’ve gotten what they want from me?”

“We can prepare a contract, but that only imposes financial penalties,” Mr. Calle answered me.  “The PRT could theoretically get it thrown out of court, and that’s ignoring the possibility that you could be sent to the birdcage.  It would depend on the penalties you’re able to levy against them…”

He trailed off.

I thought of Tattletale.  “I think I have some ideas.”

“Excellent.  But the best way, I’m thinking, is to make it all common knowledge.  Let the rest of the country hold them to it.  It would depend on whether we could share the details with John and Jane Q. Public.”

“Can we talk about the terms, then?” I asked.

“We can.  I got the impression you were able to tell time?”

“It’s one twenty-seven.  Six hours and three minutes left.”

“Right then,” he made a pained expression.  “A good thing I told my wife I wouldn’t make it to dinner.  I’ll get a few of my coworkers on the line.  They can pitch in and put an intern to typing things up while we hash this out.  You don’t have much ground to stand on, but we can make the legal ramifications as ugly as possible for them if they throw you under the bus.”

It took one and a half hours, roughly, to get everything worked out and organized.  After that, I had to put up with twenty minutes of waiting while Mr. Calle’s law firm typed it and emailed it to us.  It took ten more minutes for my lawyer to run to a nearby print shop and get the paperwork we’d put together.  Mr. Calle then insisted on reading the entire thing through.  The wait was almost intolerable.

Fifteen more minutes passed as he went through it page by page, with agonizing slowness.  I winced a little every time he stopped and went back to check earlier details against whatever it was he was reading.

“It’s bare bones,” he finally said.

“I didn’t expect much else,” I said.

“We could have done better with more notice, I have to say.”

“Too many variables to lay anything out ahead of time,” I said.

“Very well.  Let’s bring them in.”

More minutes ticked away as we waited for the others to arrive.  Director Tagg, the Deputy Director, Miss Militia, Clockblocker, and Mrs. Yamada… they were gathering in force.  Tagg took a seat opposite us, Miss Militia to his left, his second in command to his right.

“Let’s hear it,” he said.

Mr. Calle stood, then walked around the table, handing each person present a copy of the document.  I was the only one who didn’t have one in front of me.

“My client, Taylor Hebert, is offering official surrender to the PRT, for a select handful of crimes.  This surrender and an admission of guilt would be televised locally, nationally and possibly internationally, dependent on which outlets were prepared to cooperate.  In exchange, my client, Taylor Hebert, known by the alias ‘Skitter’, requests some concessions from the Protectorate, PRT and Wards.”

“Televised?” Tagg asked.

“It serves as insurance for my client, and it serves to signal the Undersiders to stand down, should they be considering any sort of aggression for the capture of their leader and friend.”

“Right,” Tagg said.  “Let’s pretend she didn’t plan for that.  Go on.”

“To begin with, the remaining members of the Undersiders will be given leniency for past crimes.  With the understanding that the Undersiders are serving to police this city’s underworld where the Protectorate is unable, the group would cease to be the target of any aggression or harassment on the part of the PRT, Protectorate or Wards.  This fact would not be disclosed to the public, but would serve as a truce to allow both sides to carry out their respective duties in the service of Brockton Bay.”

“You’re kidding me,” Clockblocker said.

“You want us to play nice,” Tagg said.

I watched Miss Militia.  We’d already discussed this point.  I’d gauged her response.  Now I was putting it out there in simple, clear terms, making it official.  I couldn’t be sure if she’d hold to her word or if it would collapse under the bureaucracy.

I’d tested her once, and she’d informed Tagg of what I was planning.  This would be a second test, of sorts.

“Special allowances,” Mr. Calle said, “Would be made for crimes committed in the future, within specific limits detailed on page three of the paperwork you have in front of you.”

“You want to neuter us,” Director Tagg said.  “Stop us from policing the criminals who run this city.”

“As my client phrased it, Director, we’re hoping to free you to focus your efforts on real targets.”

“You can want it and begin again,” Tagg said, “But I won’t stand by and watch it happen.”

“Quite alright,” my lawyer responded.  He flashed a smile, “I expect that’s why Ms. Hebert has asked that you retire, Director Tagg.  Her colleague, known by the alias Tattletale, has apparently confirmed that you’ve put in the requisite number of years.  You could collect your pension without issue.”

I watched as Tagg leaned back in his seat.  He gave me a smug look.  He thinks he got to me.

“You’re dangerous,” I said.  “You’ve got a soldier’s mentality at a time when we need peace.  You’d let the world burn to… give me a bloody nose.  You said it yourself.  You’re unyielding, and we need compromise.”

“A reality that Ms. Hebert feels Miss Militia would be better equipped to accommodate,” my lawyer added.  “That’s our third term.”

There weren’t any retorts or rebuttals from the ‘good guys’.  Instead, they exchanged glances across the table, everyone looking between Miss Militia and Director Tagg.

“The PRT is led by non-capes,” Miss Militia said.

“That can change,” I said.  “Nearly a week ago, you and I had a conversation.  We talked about the issues within the PRT, the fact that you had to kowtow to non-capes and all the problems that posed.  I think the non-capes who tend to find powerful positions in the PRT are getting there by dangerous roads.  They tend to have backgrounds with the police, military, and anti-parahuman strike teams.  It sets up a combative mindset, where we don’t need one.  With a cape in charge of the local team, at the very least, I could hope that there’d be a shared perspective.”

“You think Miss Militia would be easier to manipulate,” Tagg accused me.

“I think she’s a no-nonsense type.  I know she’s a respected cape, that her power… it’s not one you want to cross paths with, so there’d be little doubt she could put up a fight if it came down to it.  And she listens.  She doesn’t always do what I’d want her to, but I can live with that.”

“This sets a precedent,” Miss Militia said.  “One that I doubt our superiors would be happy with.  One I doubt the public would be happy with.”

“When I showed up the night you guys outed me to the public, Tagg was boasting about your fantastic public relations department,” I said.  “How virtually anything could be sold to the public, given time.”

“It’s ultimately up to the Director,” Triumph said, “But what if, hypothetically, we had a figurehead leader, with Miss Militia as the person that was really calling the shots?”

I shook my head.  “Not good enough.”

“You actually have the temerity to play hardball?” Tagg asked, his voice rising a notch.  “I think you’re missing the fact that you’re securely in our custody, and you already surrendered.  If it comes down to it, we can see you shipped off with Dragon and Defiant, keep you airborne and away from any large body of insects until your trial by teleconference.”

“And my teammates?” I asked.

“That’s up to you,” he said, “But I don’t think you have it in you to sacrifice them for… this.”

“I guess I have a higher estimation of them than you do.  Don’t tell your people to stop underestimating me, only to slip up and expect to win wholesale against the rest of the Undersiders.  I think they’d surprise you.  Surprise all of you.”

“You said you need compromise,” Miss Militia said.  “But you won’t budge on this point?  A figurehead leader would keep the public content and give you what you’re asking for.”

“What I want,” I said, “Is to set a precedent.  Fixing Brockton Bay doesn’t do a thing, if we don’t leave doors open to fix things elsewhere.  If one cape becomes head of the local PRT, then it could happen elsewhere.”

Director Tagg drummed his fingertips on the metal table for a few seconds.  When he spoke, his tone was derisive.  “Your arrogance boggles the fucking mind.  You want to change the world, and you think a confession on television and the threat of your friends attacking the PRT will be incentive enough?  You’re not that big a fish.”

“I don’t want to change the world,” I said.  “I want to make it possible for things to change.”

“Semantics.”

I sighed.  My glasses were slipping down my nose.  I had to bend over to put them in reach of my hand so I could push them up.

“Is that it?” Miss Militia asked.

“One more thing,” Mr. Calle said.  “My client has a request.”

All eyes turned to me.  I straightened.  “I recognize that I’m asking for some big things.  I’m hoping that the… scale of some of what I’m asking for is tempered by the fact that this is all constructive.  It puts us in a better place and leaves us prepared to face down the real threats: the impending apocalypse, the Endbringers, the forces who’d want to move into this city and abuse the portal.  I’m going to ask for one more thing in that vein.  Don’t send me to the Birdcage.  Don’t send me to juvie, or hang me for treason.  It’s… not constructive.”

“What would you have us do?” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.

Use me.  I get that it wouldn’t work, having me join the Wards.  Too much baggage.  But… the end of the world hinges on Jack Slash doing something within the next two years.  You absolved Armsmaster of his crimes and sent him out to hunt them down.  Do the same with me.  I can cover a lot of ground in a search, I have experience fighting them, and if you needed it, nobody would even have to know I was doing it.  I’d be one more body on the ground, relatively discreet, and maybe that gives us all a slightly better chance of keeping Dinah’s prediction from coming to pass.”

I wasn’t even done talking when I saw the looks, felt a sinking in my gut as the various people in charge exchanged glances.  Tagg smiled a little.  Miss Militia looked… concerned.  The only person who looked as confused as I felt was Clockblocker.

“What?” I asked.

“Your intel is out of date,” Tagg said.  His heavily lined eyes were staring at me, studying me.

“What?” I asked.  “You already stopped them?”

“No,” he said, and the word was a growl.  He didn’t elaborate further.

“Taylor,” Miss Militia rescued me, “Do you know where the Slaughterhouse Nine went after leaving Brockton Bay?”

“A series of small towns, then Boston,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.  “And they struck one target after Boston.  Toybox.”

I remembered seeing the name on Tattletale’s bulletin board.  “Who or where is Toybox?”

What’s Toybox, you mean,” the Director said.

“What’s Toybox?” I asked.

“May I?” Miss Militia asked Tagg.  He gave her a curt nod, and she took hold of the laptop in front of him.  It took her a few moments to log in and open the page.  She unplugged the cord from the laptop and handed it to Mrs. Yamada, who handed it to my lawyer.  He set it so we could both see it.  Mr. Calle clicked the touchpad to page through the various images and documents.

“Toybox is a black market organization,” Miss Militia said.  “Tinkers who operate solo find life rather difficult, due to a lack of resources and the fact that gangs and government organizations are very, very persistent when it comes to recruiting them.  Faced with the prospect of spending their lives on the run, trying to avoid being forcibly recruited into one organization or another, most turn to the Protectorate or the Wards.  For those few who don’t, Toybox is… was a refuge of sorts.  Tinkers would join, share technology, stay in the enclave as long as they needed to build up a reputation and whatever tools they needed, they would share thirty-three percent of any proceeds with the rest of the group, helping to keep others afloat.  Toybox sustained itself with barter, by moving frequently, operating between the scope of heroes and villains, and by selling less-than-legal goods to criminal groups.”

I could see the images, grainy black and white photos of various tinkers huddled together, or standing behind tables loaded down with ray guns and the like.  There was a chronology of sorts, to the point that I could see the group evolve, some leaving as others joined, the enclave shifting from a group as small as four members to as many as fifteen.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked them at the end of June,” Miss Militia said.  “In doing so, they appropriated all of the tinker technology and all of the tinkers that were staying with the group.  See page thirty-six and on.”

Mr. Calle paged forward until the images showed up.

Pyrotechnical.  A tinker focusing on flame manipulation, special effects, guns.

Cranial.  A tinker specializing in neurology.  Brain scans, draining thoughts, recording thoughts.

Big Rig.  A tinker who built drones that built things in turn, particularly buildings.

Bauble.  A girl who specialized in glassworking and glassworking tools, including tools that could turn inorganic matter into glass.

Dodge.  A boy, twelve, who made access devices for pocket dimensions.

Toy Soldier.  A powersuit user with a suit the size of a small building.

Glace.  A tinker specializing in cryogenics and stasis.

“The Nine have access to all of their work?”  I felt an inarticulate feeling of horror creep over me.  I couldn’t imagine anything particular, but anything that enhanced the capabilities and options that Slaughterhouse Nine had at their disposal?

“And access to the work of Blasto, a cloning specialist they assaulted and kidnapped in Boston,” Miss Militia said.

I sat back and the chain of my cuffs went taut, my arms stretched out in front of me.  “This doesn’t change things.  If anything, you need all of the help you can get.  This is serious.”

“It’s complicated,” Miss Militia said.

“Seems pretty damn simple,” I said.

“No,” she said, shaking her head.  “Because they’re gone.  They stopped.”

I shut my mouth, staring.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Toybox, taking the group’s devices for themselves, and they disappeared.  We suspect they used Dodge’s devices to exit into a pocket dimension, and by the time we’d found a way to follow, they’d exited elsewhere.”

“They’re dimension hopping?”

“Dodge’s devices only exit from Bet to pocket worlds he creates with his devices, back to Bet.  We believe they exited somewhere on Bet, possibly in another state, then used another device to hide.  Which would be where they are now.  Without knowing where they entered that particular pocket, we can’t hope to find them,” Miss Militia said.  “We know their patterns.  They tend to cut a swathe of destruction across North America, and it’s rare for even a handful of days to pass without them taking any action at all.  Between the PRT’s past experience with the group, our thinkers, and the fact that they haven’t made an appearance in nearly ten days, we believe we’ve worked out what they’re doing.”

I stared at the laptop.  It was still on the last page.  Glace.

“Cryogenics,” I said.

“Stasis,” Miss Militia agreed.  “The pressure grew too intense, with Defiant and Dragon’s pursuit, they weren’t recovering from losses fast enough.  They’ve gone into hiding, and we think they plan to wait.”

Wait, I thought.

“How long?” Clockblocker asked.

“We can’t know for sure,”  Miss Militia replied.  “But if they’ve put themselves in a cryogenic sleep, they could wake and resume their normal activities days, weeks, months or years from now.  Depending on the resources they have available, they might well emerge with clones of their current members at their side.”

Tattletale should have told me, I thought, even as I knew why she hadn’t.  Her power had been out of commission.  She’d been out of commission.  We’d known the Nine attacked the Toybox, but we’d missed what that meant in the grand scheme of things.  Through a combination of Tattletale’s ailment and a hundred other small distractions, we’d missed out on the reason Defiant and Dragon had been able to abandon their hunt for the Nine and visit Arcadia.

“Does Jack know?” I asked.  “I mean, I know he knows he’s supposed to end the world, but does he know he sets it in motion within two years?”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “We don’t think so.  Which means that, unless there’s something specific they want to wake up for, we can’t even begin to guess when he’ll have his team wake up.”

Silence hung in the air for long seconds.

“Now you know.  These are your demands?”  Tagg spoke up.

“We’ll need to discuss things and revise our terms with this new information in mind,” Mr. Calle said, glancing at me.  I nodded once.

“Better do some heavy revision,” Director Tagg said.  “And do it fast, because it’s not that long until sundown, and I won’t be accepting any of your terms as they stand.  You said it yourself, nobody wants this fight.”

I frowned, watching each of them making their way out of the interrogation room.

Tagg joined Miss Militia’s side, and I couldn’t help but notice the way she adopted a guarded position, folding her arms as he approached.  It gave me a flicker of hope.

Until the bugs I’d planted inside the fold of Tagg’s collar caught a fragment of something he was saying.

“…her father.”

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Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-”

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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Imago 21.1

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Tattletale stood at the very edge of the floor, with a twenty-five story drop just in front of her.  The wind whipped her hair around her, and she didn’t even have a handhold available.  Shatterbird had cleared out all of the window panes, long ago.

She lowered her binoculars.  “He’s gone.  If he was going to pull something off, he’d want to watch and make sure everything went off without a hitch.”

“I could have gone with them,” Imp said.  “Listened in.”

“Not without us knowing their full set of powers,” Tattletale said.

Imp folded her arms, pouting, “I thought you were one of the cool ones.”

“Othello’s a stranger,” Tattletale said.  “I’d think he has an imaginary friend who can mess around with us, but I didn’t see any sign of anyone invisible walking around.”

“Isn’t that the point?” Regent asked.

“No dust or glass being disturbed, none of that.  I might think his ‘friend’ is invisible and intangible, but then what’s the point?  Accord tends to have people with good powers.  Citrine, only bits I could figure out were that she’s got an offensive power, something with substance, and her focus was in a strange place.  She was more focused on places in the room where the strongest powers were clustered, and her focus was fairly indiscriminate beyond that.  Either her power wasn’t anything that anyone here would have been able to defend against, like Flechette’s arrows or a controlled version of Scrub’s blasts, or she’s a trump classification.”

“What’s that?” Regent asked.

“Official classification for capes who can either acquire new powers on the fly,” Tattletale gestured towards Grue, “Have an interaction with other powers that can’t be categorized or they nullify powers.”

“She’s powerful, then,” Regent said.

“She acts like she’s powerful,” Tattletale said, “And she probably is.  But that database of PRT records we had didn’t have anything in it about those two.  I don’t know where he finds those guys, but Accord collects some damn heavy hitters.”

Parian broke her spell of silence.  “You keep talking like we’re going to fight them.”

“Threat assessment,” Tattletale said.  She made her way back to her chair, sitting at the long table.  “Be stupid not to know what we’re getting into, especially with someone like him.”

“Not to mention we’ve gotten in fights with pretty much everyone who ever set up shop in the ‘Bay,” Regent commented.

“There’s nothing imminent,” Grue said.  “Let’s focus on more immediate problems.”

He turned his attention my way.

“Me?” I asked.

“He’s right.  We’ve been so busy preparing for possible fallout that we haven’t had time to discuss this,” Tattletale said.

“I’m a non-factor.  The damage is done, and it’s a question of the dust settling,” I said, staring down at my gloves.  I’d altered some of my costume, but the real adjustments would have to wait until I had time.  I’d made up the extra cloth in an open area of my territory I was devoting to the purpose, but hadn’t had time to turn it into something to wear for tonight.  Some of my mask, the back compartment of my armor and my gloves were more streamlined.  Or less streamlined, depending on how one looked at it.  Sharper lines, convex armor panels that flared out more, gloves with more edges for delivering damage if I had to get in a hand to hand fight.

I’d only done some of the armor, pieces of my costume that were already battered and worn.  My gloves, my mask and the back compartment of my armor tended to take the most abuse.  I’d update the rest later.

“I’m not sure it’s that simple,” Grue said, his voice quiet.  He reached across the table and gripped my hand, squeezing it.  “Have we double checked to see what bridges they’ve burned for us?  My parents aren’t showing any sign of interference.”

“Mom wouldn’t care either way,” Aisha said.  “She might try to capitalize on the attention with appearances on television if she could get money for it.”

“Yeah,” Grue agreed.

“My family wouldn’t care,” Tattletale said.  “I’d be surprised if they didn’t already know.  They’d choose to ignore it, I’d bet.  Parian?  You’ve covered your bases.”

“Most of my family is dead.  The ones who aren’t dead already know,” Parian said.  She looked out toward the window, at the city lights under the night sky.

Tattletale nodded, “Let’s see… Rachel isn’t a problem, not really.  Never had a secret identity.”

Rachel shrugged.  Her attention was on her dogs.  They were shrinking, their extra mass sloughing away.  She already had Bastard sitting next to her, his fur spiky and wet from the transformation.

“And if they tried to come at me through my family, they’d get what they deserved,” Regent said.

“Why?” Parian asked.

“His dad’s Heartbreaker,” Tattletale said.

“Oh.  Oh wow.”

“Funny thing is,” Regent said, “If you think about it, we might be bigger than Heartbreaker, now.  People all over America know who we are, and I’m not sure if Heartbreaker is known that far to the south or west.”

“That’s not our focus right now,” Grue said, squeezing my hand.  “It’s good that we’re talking about safeguards and damage control, but discussing villains and the rest of America can wait.  They came after Skitter while she was out of costume.”

“How are you coping?” Tattletale asked, leaning forward over the table.  “You were pretty heavy-handed tonight.  We discussed it, sure, but I thought you’d at least pretend to play ball with them.”

“I didn’t need superpowered intuition to figure out they weren’t going to cooperate no matter what I said,” I replied.

“But you were provoking them.  Valefor especially.  You up for this, with all the other distractions?”

“This is what I’ve got left, isn’t it?  The good guys decided to play their biggest card.  They couldn’t beat Skitter, so they beat Taylor.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s no reason not to throw myself into this, to deal with both heroes and villains as a full-time thing.  I lay down the law, because now I’ve got time to enforce it.  I can be stricter with the local villains, back you guys up if they cause trouble, and dedicate the rest of my time to my territory.”

“Dangerous road to travel down,” Tattletale said.  “You need to rest, to have downtime.”

“And do what?  Go to a movie?  I’m not sure if any theaters are open-”

“They are,” Tattletale said.

“-And I couldn’t go even if they were.  My face is plastered all over the news, and I’ve got a tinker who might be watching every computer system and surveillance camera in the city, because she’s not willing to go against her bosses.  I can’t go shopping, can’t leave my territory unless I’m in costume and ready for a fight.”

“More time to go after them,” Regent said.  “You can’t let this slide.”

“I’m not planning to,” I said, standing from my seat.

“Hold on,” Grue said, as my hand came free of his grip.

“Walk with me,” I said.  “All of you.  The city may be getting better, but there shouldn’t be lights on in this building, and it’s only a matter of time before one of the local heroes decides to stop by and see why.”

“We can take them,” Rachel said, from the rear of the group.

“We can, and we will,” I said, entering the stairwell.  “On our terms, not theirs.”

“There’s enough enemies to fight,” Parian said.  She had to hurry around the table to catch up.  “We don’t need more.”

“I agree,” Grue said.  “Not that I don’t understand the need for some response, but you’re talking aggression.”

“I’m feeling aggressive,” I said.  “I think.  I don’t know.  Hard to pin it all down.”

“Might be better to wait until you have a better idea of what you’re feeling,” Grue said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, stepping down onto the staircase.  “Logically, there’s no choice but to act on this.  You heard Valefor.  The villain community won’t respect us until we answer the PRT, and the so-called good guys won’t have a reason to think twice about doing it again.”

“The rest of us aren’t as vulnerable as you are,” Regent said.  “Don’t want to sound disrespectful or anything, but we don’t have the same kinds of civilian lives to protect.”

“There’re others,” I said.  “Part of the reason we uphold these rules is because it sets precedents.  Other villains hold to the rules and we benefit, the opposite is true.”

“The flip side of it,” Tattletale said, “Is that we’re risking an escalation in conflict.”

“I don’t see how they can escalate,” I said.  “As I see it, they played the last card they have.  The harder we hit them now, the more clear it is to outsiders that the PRT doesn’t have an answer.  I can show that it doesn’t bother me, and the effect is the same.”

“Doesn’t it, though?” Tattletale asked.  “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Yes,” I said.  “In terms of me, I don’t know.  I can’t say for sure whether it’s justified or not.  But they went after my dad.”

“I get that,” Grue said, “I’d be pissed if they went after Aisha.  God, you know, when I was swallowed up by Echidna, and she was filling my head with all the worst stuff I could think of, revised memories, it-”

He stopped, and I paused to glance back up the stairs at him.

“Bro?” Aisha asked.

He took a second to compose himself, then said, “I get what you’re saying, Taylor.  Believe me.  I was buried in it.  If anyone here knows what it’s like to want to protect people-”

“That’s not it,” I cut him off.

“No?”

“It’s not about me wanting to protect my dad from the aftermath of all of this.  That’s done, and right now he’s hurting more than he has since my mom died.  Some of that’s on me, and some of it’s on the people who sent Defiant and Dragon into the fray.  The damage is done.”

“And you want to go after the non-capes who made the call?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sick of being on the defensive.  I hate waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there’s always another shoe, and always a bigger threat.  Speaking of, what’s your interpretation on the company we had tonight, Tattletale?  How do you think they’re going to play this?”

“The Ambassadors are on the up and up, as far as I can guess their direction.  Accord’s unpredictable, which is kind of ironic.  I’d say they’re lower priority.”

“They’re going to stick to the deal?”

“Until Accord’s neurosis pushes him to break it,” Tattletale said.

“Then who’s a higher priority?  The Teeth?”

“Lots of aggressive powers.  Butcher’s at the forefront of it all.  Spree has rapid fire duplicate generation, Vex has the ability to fill empty spaces with small, razor-sharp forcefields, Hemorrhagia is a limited hemokinetic with some personal biokinesis, Animos can transform for limited times and packs a power nullification ranged attack while in his other shape.  There’s two or three others.”

“I’m asking about their goals,” I said.  “Any clue what they’re thinking?  Are they going to come after us?”

“Probably.  We seem weak and unbalanced right now, especially with Parian not doing the absolute best job protecting her territory.”

“I’m trying,” Parian said.

“You’d be doing better if you’d accept help,” Tattletale retorted.  “Except you don’t want to do that because you haven’t committed to this.”

“I will.  I’m still figuring out the more basic stuff you guys figured out ages ago.”

“Commitment on a mental level, P.  That’s more than just coming to meetings.  You don’t have to like us, but respect us, get to know us, trust us and maybe allow for the occasional intimate moment.”

Parian snapped her head around to stare at Tattletale, in a way that was rather more dramatic than the statement warranted.

“Not that kind of intimate.  Sorry hon.  Trust me when I say we’re all pretty accepting here, and there’s no reason to lie; none of us girls here bat for the other team.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Of course,” Tattletale said, smiling.  “But I was talking about letting us see more of the girl behind the mask.  Share those vulnerabilities, let us give you a shoulder to cry on.”

“I don’t need one,” Parian said, “And that has nothing to do with me defending my territory.”

“More than you think,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me, “They’re the type to prey on weakness, and Parian’s capable of only protecting a short section of her perimeter.”

“Hire people?” I asked.  “Henchmen, mercenaries.”

“I don’t want to put innocents in the line of fire,” Parian said.

“You don’t want others to suffer if the Teeth come after the people you wanted to protect, either,” I said.

“I don’t know what you want me to do.  If I call for help, they’ll retreat, and we wind up wasting your time, while leaving me looking and feeling useless.”

“There’s an alternative,” I said.

“What?”

“What I was talking about before.  Going on the offensive.  Only it’s not about just the good guys.  I’m talking about targeting our enemies, wiping them out before they hurt us and give us cause.”

“That’s dangerous,” Grue said.

“You guys keep saying things along those lines,” I responded.  “I shouldn’t be so strict with our enemies, I shouldn’t ratchet up my involvement in things, I shouldn’t be aggressive.  It’s more dangerous to leave them loose, to always give our enemies the first move.”

“The flip side to that coin is that it gives everyone else we deal with less reason to play ball.  We need to get other villains to parley if we’re going to seriously hold this territory.  The Ambassadors are only step one,” Grue said.  “If some other group comes into town and they’re considering joining us, are they going to look at whatever humiliating defeat we visit on the Fallen and feel it’s better to attack us first?”

“Escalation,” Parian echoed Tattletale’s earlier statement.

I sighed.  Atlas had descended from his vantage point above the building, and flew in to land next to me.  I ran my hand along his horn.

“We’re not… the idea here isn’t to attack you, Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “Hell, what they did was low.  You said it yourself, in that cafeteria.  But you’re talking about changing our dynamic, and it’s a dynamic that’s been working.  We’ve already been through some high-tension, high-conflict scenarios.  A bunch of times when we went days without a chance to breathe.  You want to ratchet that up?”

“Not entirely,” I said.  “If we do this right, if we play this smart, then this should reduce the amount of conflict.  I need to know if you guys are on board.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“I’m in,” Regent replied.  Imp nodded.

“My- my vote doesn’t count,” Parian said.  “I only wanted a show of force, to see if we couldn’t scare the Teeth.  Only I think it had the opposite effect, because what you guys were saying about Butcher is spooking me.  If you guys want to help me with them, okay.  But I don’t want to commit to anything major here, and I can’t tell you guys how to operate, because I’m new to this.  Skip my vote.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?  Grue?”

“I’ve already said my bit,” Tattletale said.  “You call the shots in the field, and act as the face of the group, I do the behind the scenes stuff.  That’s how we worked it out.  I’m kosher with that.”

Grue said, “I have one thing to say.  Think it over, or keep it in mind.  We made it further than most groups do.  Some villains set their sights high, and they fall.  Others try to eliminate their enemies and get eliminated in turn.  Still others set their mind on a goal and they strive for it, only to get worn down along the way.”

He paused, glancing away.  I didn’t interrupt.  Picking the right words?  Thinking about himself, as one of the ones who were worn down by circumstance?  Or maybe he was thinking about me in that light.

“Maybe part of the reason we made it this far was because you weren’t striving for that.  When we were villains, you were trying to be the good guy, behind the scenes.  When we were trying to take out some pretty nightmarish opponents, your focus was on surviving more than it was on attacking.  I didn’t get the impression you craved to be team leader or to rule the city, but you took on the job because you knew the alternative would be disaster.”

I nodded.  Even if I’d wanted to say something in response, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve wanted to say.

“Maybe the reason I’m less comfortable with this is that it’s not your usual pattern.  I feel like you’re wanting to be aggressive because you’re hurt and angry.  There’s nothing to temper it.  Think about it, okay?  I won’t tell you not to do this.  Despite everything I just said, I do trust your instincts, and I’m not sure I trust mine these days.”

“Grue-”

“I don’t.  That’s me being honest.  Do what you have to do, but do it with your eyes wide open.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try.”

I had a sudden impulse to hug him, to hold him as close and as tight as our costumes allowed, my arms tight around his broad back, his muscled arms holding me just as tight.

The idea alone made me feel like I might suddenly burst into tears, and I found it startling, inexplicable.

I didn’t hug Grue; I wasn’t sure enough about what I was feeling or why, didn’t want to come across as anything but a leader.  Leading this team was something I could do.  Something concrete, with real dividends.

Why had I brought Atlas here?  Had I already been thinking about running?  Avoiding further contact with these guys?  Avoiding Grue?  It was disconcerting to think about.

Tattletale was staring at me.  Could she read what I was experiencing, or get a sense of the emotions that were warring inside me?

“Okay,” I said, and I was surprised at how normal I felt.  “We’re playing this much like we did against the Nine, only we aren’t waiting for better excuses to do it.  Groups of three, one group active at a time, one target at a time.”

“Who are we fighting?” Rachel asked.

“The Fallen, the PRT, and the Teeth.”

“And you’re in this group of three for tonight’s mission?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”  I needed a release, to do something.

She glanced at Grue, and I suspected there was some kind of unspoken agreement there.  She met my eyes, or the opaque yellow lenses that covered my eyes.  “I’ll come.”

“You’re ops,” I said, “I thought the whole point of that was that you’d stay behind the scenes and out of trouble.”

“I’ll come,” she repeated herself.  No argument, no manipulation.  Only the statement.

I sighed.

“Me too,” Rachel said.

“Not sure that’s a good idea,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe someone more subtle?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s fine.”

Subtlety wasn’t what I had in mind.

Bentley crashed into the side of the PRT van.  The vehicle rocked, but it was set up to be in the field amid villains with superstrength and literally earth-shattering powers.  It didn’t tip over.

Two more dogs crashed into the side of it, and the thing fell.  The PRT officer in body armor fell from the turret at the top, his armor absorbing just enough of the impact that he wasn’t badly hurt.

The containment foam sprayers might have been an issue, but none of the uniforms were in a position to use the stuff.  I’d come prepared, and each sprayer was either thoroughly snagged on spider silk at the top of the equipped trucks, or the PRT agents who were wearing the portable tanks were bound, blind and under siege by massed bugs.

Dovetail flew after Atlas and I, a trail of luminous slivers of light falling in her wake.  She was good at maneuvering in such a way that the sparks didn’t fall on the PRT uniforms and heroes below, even with my swarm crawling over her head, shoulders and arms.  Where the slivers touched something solid, they ballooned out into what Tattletale had described as soft force fields, encasing the subject.  Anyone could push hard enough against the force fields to break them, even with multiple fields layered over one another, but it impeded movement, and she could hover over a target to keep reinforcing the forcefields until the victim could be smothered in more permanent containment foam.

It might have been a crummy power, but she was fast.  If she could have thrown the forcefield-generating slivers further than she did when she flung her arms out, she might have had us.

It was to my advantage that it was easier to dodge pursuit than to match someone else’s course exactly.

Didn’t hurt that she had bugs in her nose, ears and mouth, and that she was being bound by silk, limiting her range of movement with every passing second.  She was already unable to use the compact containment foam sprayer she had built into her costume.  Nothing I did would stop her from flying, but so long as she was blind and unable to use her arms, I didn’t see her being too much of a threat.

She wasn’t making headway on the offense, but retreating wouldn’t change her circumstances.  I’d still bind her in silk, blind and choke her.  Her costume had a flared collar, and my bugs were crawling inside, between skin and cloth.  That attack was as much about the psychological effect as about getting to more skin to inflict bites.

I wasn’t sure if it was just me, but her movements were bordering on the frantic, now.

No holding back.  I only had so many wasps and hornets, but I did what I could.  Mosquitoes were a good one.  Welts.  Leaving a mark.

Rachel’s dogs knocked over another one of the vans that had been circled around the PRT headquarters. The van was knocked into the side of the building, bending the bars that were supposed to protect the windows.  Each window cracked, with the lines spiderwebbing out between the hexagonal sections, but they didn’t break.

Adamant got into close quarters combat with the dog, slashing at it with pieces of his armor and driving the animal back.

Rachel whistled, shrill, and two dogs tackled him.  He delivered one good swipe before the other blindsided him.  The disadvantage of forming a full covering of armor was that it limited his peripheral vision.

She wasn’t going even two seconds without giving a command.  There were five dogs in the field, or four dogs and one young wolf, and many were lacking in serious training, so she managed them with lengths of chain between their collars and Bentley’s, and by giving enough commands that they wouldn’t have time to get creative and go after one of the PRT uniforms.

Sere was indoors, along with Triumph.  Binding Sere had been a first priority, and I’d achieved it in much the same way.  He’d done what he could to target the bugs managing the threads, and to disentangle himself, but time spent on that was time he wasn’t moving outdoors and shooting me or one of the dogs.  As with Dovetail, I’d managed to make enough progress that he was more or less out of the fight.  She was blind, he was immobile.

The other heroes would be arriving soon.  I double-checked Dovetail wasn’t in a position to give pursuit, then ventured inside, entering through an open window on the uppermost floor.

I felt calm, which was odd, given the scene.  Bugs swarmed every employee, from the official heroes to the kids who might have been interns.  Some howled in pain, others screamed more out of fear, or yelped as bugs periodically bit them.

The bugs gave me a sense of the route I needed to take, my destination.  There were offices in the back corner, but I had a sense of where I was going.  I’d been here before, when Piggot had been director.

I saw the labels on the door.  Commissioner.  Deputy Director.  Director.

I opened the last door.  Director Tagg.

He held a gun, but he didn’t point it my way.  There was a woman behind him, using him as a shield.

I’d had statements ready, angry remarks, any number of things I could have said to him, to punctuate what my swarm was doing to his assembled employees.  Statements, maybe, that could have surprised him, woken him up to what he’d done to me.

Then I saw the steel in his eyes, the sheer confidence with which he stood in front of the woman… they had matching wedding bands.  His wife.  I knew in an instant that there wouldn’t be any satisfaction to be had that way.

Rather, the word that left my mouth was a quiet, “Why?”

His eyes studied me, as though he were making an assessment.  His words were gruff, the gravelly burr of a long time smoker.  He very deliberately set the gun down on the desk, then replied, “You’re the enemy.”

I paused, then pulled off my mask.  I was sweating lightly, and my hair was damp around the hairline.  The world was tinted slightly blue in a contrast to the coloring of my lenses.  “It’s not that simple.”

“Has to be.  The ones at the top handle the compromising.  They assess where the boundaries need to be broken down, which threats are grave enough.  My job is to get the criminals off the streets and out of the cities.”

“By starting fights in schools.”

“Didn’t know it was a school until the capes were already landing,” he replied.  “Had to choose, either we let you go, and you were keeping an eye out for trouble from then on, or we push the advantage.”

“Putting kids at risk?”

“Dragon and Defiant both assured me you wouldn’t risk the students.”

I sighed.  Probably right.

Someone behind me screamed as a group of my hornets flew to him to deliver a series of bites across his face.

“Barbaric,” Director Tagg said.

“Inflicting pain isn’t the point.”

“Seem to be doing a good job of it,” he commented.

“There are heroes on their way back from patrol, your guys called them in.  But there’s also news teams on the way here.  We called those guys in.  They’ll find your employees covered in welts, every PRT van damaged or trashed.  Your employees won’t be able to get any cars out of the parking lot, so they’ll have to walk, which will make for some photo opportunities.  A handful of heroes will be a bit the worse for wear.  You can try running damage control, but some of it’s bound to hit the news.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“I couldn’t let you get off without a response from us.”

“Didn’t expect you to.”

“This was as mild as I could go,” I said.  “I think you know that.  I’m not looking to one-up you or perpetuate a feud.  I’m doing what I have to, part of the game.”

“Game?  Little girl, this is a war.”  His voice took on a hard edge.

I stopped to contemplate that.  Rachel was destroying the last containment van, and Tattletale was saying something to her about incoming heroes.  I was low on time.

“If it is a war, my side’s winning,” I said.

“And the world’s worse off for it.  You can’t win forever,” he said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He must have sensed he had some leverage there.  “All of this goes someplace.  Do you really see yourself making it five more years without being killed or put in prison?”

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

“I have.  Bad publicity fades with time.  So do welts and scabs.  Five or ten years from now, provided the world makes it that long, nobody will remember anything except the fact that we fought back.  Good publicity will overwrite the bad, carefully chosen words and some favors called in with people in the media will help whitewash any of our mistakes.  We’re an institution.”

“So you think you automatically win?  Or you’re guaranteed to win in the long run?”

“No.  They didn’t pick me to head this city’s PRT division because I’m a winner, Ms. Taylor.  They picked me because I’m a scrapper.  I’m a survivor.  I’m the type that’s content to get the shit kicked out of me, so long as I give the other guy a bloody nose.  I’m a stubborn motherfucker, I won’t be intimidated, and I won’t give up.  The last few Directors in Brockton Bay met a bad end, but I’m here to stay.”

“You hope.”

“I know.  You want to fight this system?  I’ll make sure it fights back.”

“So you want to escalate this?  Despite what I said before?”

“Not my style.  I’m thinking more about pressure.  I could pull your dad in for questioning every time you pull something, for example.  Doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter who it’s directed at.  You or your team do anything that gets an iota of attention, I drag the man into the building, and grill him for a few hours at a time.”

I felt a knot in my stomach.  “That’s harassment.”

I was aware of Tattletale approaching me from behind.  She leaned against the doorframe, arms folded.

“It’s a war of attrition,” Tagg said.  “I’ll find the cracks, I’ll wear down and break each of you.  If you’re lucky, then five years from now they’ll remember your names, speaking them in the same breath as they talk about the kid villains who were dumb enough to think they could keep a city for themselves.”

“He’s playing you,” Tattletale murmured.  “He knows he’s got you on a bad day.  Best to just walk away.  Remember, the Protectorate hasn’t had a good day against us yet.”

I thought about asking him about Dinah, but there wasn’t a point.  It was something he could use against me, and I already knew the answer.

I approached the desk and turned around the photo frames.  The second showed Tagg with his wife and two young women.  A family portrait.

“You have daughters,” I said.

“Two, going to universities halfway across the world.”

“And you don’t feel an iota of remorse for hurting a father through his daughter?”

“Not one,” he replied, staring me in the eye.  “I look at you, and I don’t see a kid, I don’t see a misunderstood hero, a girl, a daughter or any of that.  You’re a thug, Taylor Hebert.”

A thug.

His mindset was all ‘us versus them’.  Good guys versus the bad.

It wasn’t much, but it served to confirm the conclusion I’d already come to.  Dinah had volunteered the information.  Whatever else Director Tagg was, he wasn’t the type to abuse a girl who’d been through what Dinah had.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel’s downstairs with all her dogs, we can run before the reinforcements collapse in on us.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Nearly done.  You, back there.  Are you Mrs. Tagg?”

The woman stepped a little to one side, out from behind her husband.  “I am.”

“Visiting him for the night?”

“Brought him and his men donuts and coffee.  They’ve been working hard.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And you stand by your husband?  You buy this rhetoric?”

She set her jaw.  “Yes.  Absolutely.”

I didn’t waste an instant.  Every spare bug I had flowed into the room, leaving Director Tagg untouched, while the bugs flowed over the woman en masse.  She screamed.

He reached for his gun on the desk, and I pulled my hand back.  The thread that I’d tied between the trigger guard and my finger yanked the weapon to me.  I stopped it from falling off the desk by putting my hand on top of the weapon.

Tagg was already reaching for a revolver at his ankle.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  Slowly, he straightened.

“I’m illustrating a point,” I said.

My bugs drifted away from Mrs. Tagg.  She was uninjured, without a welt or blemish.  She backed into the corner as the bugs loomed between her and her husband.

“Not sure why.  Doesn’t change my mind in the slightest,” Tagg said.

I didn’t respond.  The swarm shifted locations and dogpiled him.  Stubborn as he professed to be, he started screaming quickly enough.

I picked up the gun from the edge of the desk, joining Tattletale.  We marched for the exit together, moving at a speed between a walk and a jog, passing by twenty or so PRT employees, each covered in bugs, roaring and squealing their pain and fear to the world as they stumbled blindly and thrashed in futile attempts to fight the bugs off.

Nothing venomous, the wasps and hornets weren’t contracting their bodies to squeeze the venom sacs.  There was nothing that could put their lives at risk.  It was still dramatic enough.

“He’s right,” Tattletale commented.

“About?”

“You won’t change his mind with a gesture like that.  Sparing his wife.”

“Okay,” I replied.  I opened a drawer and put Director Tagg’s service weapon inside, while Atlas ferried Tattletale down to the ground floor.

Atlas returned to me, and I took to the air, flying just above Lisa and Rachel and the dogs as we fled the scene.  I made a point of leaving every single bug inside the PRT headquarters, to infest it until they had the place exterminated, which would only be another photo opportunity for the media, or to serve as a perpetual reminder as it took weeks and months for all of the bugs to be cleared out.

The news teams were already arriving on the scene.  No doubt there was a camera following us.  I remembered Director Tagg’s threat, to bring my father into custody.  Only a threat, going by his wording, but it did make me think about how every activity, every thing I did that brought me into the public consciousness, it would be a little twist of the knife that I’d planted in my dad’s back.

Not a good feeling.

Maybe the little demonstration I’d done with Tagg’s wife hadn’t been for him.  It could just as easily have been me trying to prove something to myself.

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