Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”


I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”


“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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131 thoughts on “Monarch 16.10

  1. As far as chapters I went through grief to upload, this chapter rates in the top five. I managed to get ‘er done, but I know there was a scarcity of proofreading. Hoping it’s not too big a problem – if I don’t make an edit promptly, I hope that’s also ok, it’s just a question of time/resources atm.

    Anyways, apologies over with. Have a happy holidays, Worm readers.

  2. Oh Coil, everything probably could have gone your way if you had just stuck to the goddamn deal. The future that Tattletale described would have happened perfectly.

    • I’m not quite sure but I’m guessing this is due to Skitter insisting on Dinah, if she hadn’t been so attached to her morals they’d probably have worked well together.

    • Funny, I was thinking the same, replacing “Skitter” with Coil. She would have been wealthy, her family safe, Dinah free, Brockton Bay successful, and maybe could have even become a hero in another city.

      • Skitter’s been instrumental in chasing the Nine out of town, defeated the PRT, and Dragon.

        Honestly, if Dinah has been more useful, it’s an informed attribute, because I don’t think that’s been showned on screen.

  3. in how she related to be when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house. In how she related to me
    P.S. Happy Holidays everyone 🙂

  4. Anyone feel like a speculation thread on how Taylor will get out of this one?

    It probably has to do with the hand sign Lisa made. However, I have no idea what it could mean.

      • Disagree, she’s not rubbing her thumb against the tips of the index and middle, she’s tapping against the tips of the *other* fingers. I’d say it’s just a prearranged sign of when to push on Dinah.

    • Possible, but I still think Coil hasn’t told us his full plan. With Coil controlling both the PRT and the villains in several cities would be very useful to Cauldron, who might very well be the PRT at this point, I don’t see how it relates to saving the world or taking out the Endbringers. The Door maker might be the teleporter. But I don’t think Skitter is important enough to them to bring in. She is smart, but she is more Coil’s problem. So the Undersiders are officially at war with Coil after this. They don’t have access to his resources, he knows their true identities/limits of their powers, has control over another gang that he is bringing in to stop them as well as the heroes + any additional heroes he might call in for support. The Undersiders have Grue’s new power, which I don’t think Coil knows about, the fact that Tattletale has figured out how he circumvented her power and can probably stop it, Imp’s power is very hard to counter, and Skitter’s power becoming much more focused. If she does have swarm intelligence, maybe she can access more processing power easier now. Plus Coil just pissed off the Undersiders and he has to know how good they are at beating the odds. I mentioned this last chapter, but Skitter’s dad was hurt. Coil has to realize how damn dangerous her power is. She has been so effective without using lethal force. A vengeful Skitter who is willing to kill would be pretty scary and make him paranoid. EVERY bug he comes across could be her watching him/planning to kill him.

      • Remember that Coil is part of the reason they are so good at beating the odds. That’s what his power helps with.

      • All of that stuff is nice and all, but how do you know your team is attacking him at the same time in the alternate timeline? What if he left the city that day, and you just killed him in one timeline and he closed it. Now he knows your plan and what tricks you are going to use to try to kill him.

        • His power does not make him invincible. Look at what happened in Dinah’s interlude. Without her, Crawler would have killed him. If Dinah uses her own power she might be able to figure out that if she refuses to help Coil if Skitter attacks, she has a much higher chance of being set free. Skitter has a large range and if he is caught within her area of effect, or bubble as she calls it here, in both realities, she can kill him. In reality A he goes down down one hallway, and in reality B he goes down another to escape. She kills him in reality A, he splits again from reality B but if her bugs are already there, he still dies. Not to mention that it doesn’t matter if she fails, just the fact that she is out there trying to kill him can cause extreme paranoia and could cause him to make a mistake. Skitter could take out a page from the 9 when they each took turns attacking the candidates. Coil would have to be always on the lookout/stressed from knowing that a swarm of poisonous insects is going to attack him. He also can never be in the same place in both realities because she could kill him. That means he can’t use his power to in conversations, making snap decisions at a single place. She doesn’t even have to be in the area. She can just go briefly into range, using her relay bugs while she can, and simply orders EVERY bug to attack before leaving to another possible avenue of escape. The bugs are going to follow/hunt him even if she isn’t there. Imagine if Coil has “died” multiple times and a giant swarm is still chasing him with Skitter nowhere in sight. That is going to take a mental toll because we know from his interlude, that there are windows of opportunity where he hasn’t split realities and he is vulnerable when he uses his power. Hell, Skitter doesn’t even have to attack constantly, just show up every now and then to attack to rank up the paranoia. Coil would be freaked out just seeing a fly move around his head, knowing that it could mean another giant swarm actively hunting/chasing him. That isn’t even mentioning Imp using her power setting bombs in a karmic payback, Regent taking over a close employee while they sleep and attacking the next day, or Tattletale using her power to find a weakness. Coil better hope he kills Taylor here. She can make his life pure hell if she survives.

    • Nah. The little girl was Genesis (hence Genesis not wanting to see Skitter again), with Trickster being the teleporter.

      • Woah, hadn’t even thought about that but I love that idea , personally I think they will be shipping her off to the birdcage , likely after a publicized sham trial where she is incapeable of talking

  5. Isn’t it interesting that Skitter goes blind from this blast just in time for her to be brought to a little girl she’s seen before but now can’t tell if it’s really her due to the lack of eyesight?

    Coil’s plan is pretty good there, I admit. He might just go through with it despite the fact that he’s going to take out Skitter. Or he’d have tried. With Skitter dead and his own abilities and powerbase grown so high, he might have been able to enforce his own end of the plan no matter how much the Undersiders would try to make it personal. I’m also curious about this new gang moving in.

    I too have something special for everyone for Christmas. Not another parody of dialogue, but I wanted something a little nice for everyone here and I cooked it up earlier this year.

    Happy Holidays, everyone.

    • Maybe the little girl was a Genesis body? This could be what she meant by “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

  6. Possible spoiler alert:
    Chariot was recruited a year and a half ago. But the prt think he triggered after the leviathan event. It’s possible coil recruited him as a normal so he could be sent to cauldron for tinker powers .

  7. “Psycho Gecko Saves Christmas (insert facepalm here)”

    Psycho Gecko returned to his apartment on December 22nd, filled to the brim with chicken teriyaki and fried rice, only to find that flashing blue and red lights barred access to his building. He almost activated his coat’s cloaking contraption when he realized that they couldn’t be there for him. There were no superheroes around, only two cars, and the building hadn’t been blown up by any of his traps. There was an officer writing a report beside one of the cars. He called up his wanted poster on his ocular HUD and confirmed that he had changed his appearance slightly for the downtime of the holidays. Still about 5’10” and the same build, he had had the reconstructive nanites mess with his cheekbones. His hair was now brown and curly. He’d even given the end of his nose a different angle. With the confidence of someone who can proudly say, “It wasn’t me this time, and I’m not the person you’re looking for” Gecko stepped up behind the woman, affected his best attempt at a Pierce Brosnan James Bond accent, and asked the officer what appeared to be the problem?
    “None of your business, now move along.”
    “Now now, ma’am, I live in that building. I’d like to know that my poor defenseless guinea pig, Vlad Tepes Dracul the Wrath of Romania, is safe and sound in his cage,” Gecko responded, aware that his apartment (and Vlad Tepes Dracul the Wrath of Romania) couldn’t have been broken into since half the building hadn’t been blown up.
    The officer looked at him, raising an eyebrow as she most likely contemplated arresting someone for having a bad British accent. She turned the rest of the way toward him then, her eyes narrowed, “Maybe you can help us, then. Do you live on the fourth floor?”
    “Yeeeeees,” he answered, drawing it out as he pondered if this was related to him after all. He also tried to remember if he was packing any weapons. At the very least he could suffocate her with a fortune cookie if he had to.
    “Where are you coming back from?”
    “Hibachi Yum Yum, a little ways down the street, and over on another street, and up another street a bit.“
    “Great directions. Were you there long?”
    “At least an hour, but it’s twenty minutes each way and I have a receipt to prove I was there. That one chef would remember me too since we were talking about knife throwing.”
    Gecko’s reminiscences were interrupted by yet another question by the police. I swear, he thought, they oughta talk him to death next time.
    “No, officer, I am a hundred percent sure I didn’t see anyone suspicious around apartment 45 when I left. Photographic memory.” In reality, it’s closer to a recorded video memory, so he can clearly see no one around while he was passing by the apartment in question. “That all I can do for you?” he asked, shifting his weight towards the leg of his nearest the door of the building.
    “You can go but here’s a number for you to call if you remember anything,” said the officer as she wrote down some contact info on the back of a card and handed it to him.
    He attempted a polite bow, told the cop “Arivaderci, mademoiselle,” and headed inside the building. Up on the fourth floor, the hall was somewhat crowded by a pair of policemen and the couple that lived in number 45. Their doorknob was a mess, hanging off. Their daughter sat by the stairwell, eyes wet and red. While Psycho Gecko pondered getting past cops and regular people like a normal person, without killing or otherwise drawing attention to one’s self (perhaps I should try “Excuse me? No, it’ll never work.”), he felt a bump on his leg. He looked down into the soggy eyes of the girl who had tapped him with a candy cane, then held it up to him and said, “Merry Christmas Mister.”
    He blinked a couple of times and just looked at the red and white striped hunk of sugar. “Umm…you don’t have to.” She held it up further, insistently. He hooked it on a finger and leaned down. “Thank you, I guess. What’s going on here?”
    The girl looked back down the stairwell, “Momma says someone came in and was naughty and took the presents.”
    “That bas-“ Gecko caught himself, “set Hound.” He contemplated the candycane. “You know, I’m generally on the naughty list too, but I think you deserve a good Christmas and you gave me this, so I’ll do something nice for y’all.”
    “Whatcha gonna do? Not anything any more naughty. Christmas is when you’re supposed to be nice.”
    “If you insist. I’ll very nicely find the presents and return them, and make sure the very naughty person who took them gets their lumps this year.”
    “Of coal?”
    “Sure, sure, whatever.”
    “Just don’t go and do naughty things too, Mister. Try and be a nice person. Goodwill toward man.”
    “Honey! Come here, it’s time to go to back to bed,” called out the girl’s father who, along with the police and his wife, were all turned watching the two. The girl obediently stood and walked over and called back to him,
    “Have a Merry Christmas!”

    Identifying the stolen items was easy enough. Gecko’s glasses were augmented reality-capable and worked well with the processing power he’d had installed in his skull. They were a paragon of augmented reality that this world had only begun to work toward and they were a good way to photograph the cop’s clipboard when Gecko slipped within arm’s reach of them while passing by. Finding the stolen presents would be a little harder. Gecko knew his way around the super fences that handle things like alien transformation rays and stolen indestructible shields and the mundane fences who preferred TVs and jewelry, but someone who would steal Christmas presents might just be a jerk who kept it for himself. Even if he sold it, there’s no guarantee he’s done so already. Still, Gecko knew he had to try. After all, he had been paid in advance. By candycane.
    That’s what brought him to Michelangelo’s House of Negotiable Stuff about 21 hours later. Mike was the kind of guy who would make a deal with supers or mundanes. He got this rather unenviable position by being an unfavorite relative of the Tornelli crime family. Jealous thugs, greedy minions, megalomaniacal masks, and overzealous capes were all easy ways to get rid of the black sheep of the family. It was a harsh way to deal with the family nerd, who was just a wee bit overenthusiastic about being part of the Family.
    What the Family didn’t count on is that once in a position working for them, Mike mellowed out a lot. That allowed his enterprising business mind to actually hold up under the job. He was competent enough that even the Tornellis’ chief rival in the city, Johnny Butterfly, was thinking of poaching him. Poaching, not killing. It paid to have contacts with masked strongmen. Of course, you never tell a man in a mask to poach anyone. They might wind up cooked.
    This time, those contacts paid off less well. Mike was sitting in a chair in the back basement of his pawn shop, in room full of special merchandise. Standing across the table from him was a man in grey and orange power armor who was asking him about Christmas presents while playing around with a surplus henchman hook used by Crimson Forever’s crew. The hook bowed and straightened like a finger, then extended, the point stabbing into the table in front of Mike. “Wootzors, my dawg,” said Psycho Gecko
    “This would be bad business for you and for me. You can’t sell to a dead man and other people won’t sell to a snitch,” Mike reminded Gecko.
    The hook pulled out of the wood and Gecko played around with it, trying to make shapes. “I’m on a time limit. Asked around and I don’t get much. Rumors. I’m hoping you know more. I don’t want to make this uncomfortable on everyone, ooh, watch, poodle…uncomfortable on everyone, but I need to know where the presents go for sure or if someone’s just keeping them. That’s all. That’s it. I’ll keep on this until you tell me. I’m not asking for all your customers. And it’s hardly snitching if it’s a guy like me.” Gecko turned to face Mike, the hook resembling a giant question mark on the end of his hand. The end snaked out to hold itself in front of Mike’s face, moving side to side.
    Mike waved it aside in annoyance. Gecko threw it to the side, the hook stabbing into a wall. He then grabbed a round piece of metal a little bigger than his forearm. “Nice, a Trobogorian MicroNerveRaker.”
    “That thing’s broken, so don’t bother,” Mike told him, wondering when or, with more savvy, if his security would show up.
    Gecko slid his hand to the halfway point of the length of the MNR. He fiddled around with the bulges and bumps on the exterior of the alien device for a minute. Then it lit up, and Gex shot Mike a look via his reflective orange visor. Mike’s eyes focused on the MNR, knowing full well that the Trobogorians were pacifists in the sense that the preferred weapons that didn’t kill. Instead, they fully explored an enemy’s ability to feel pain. Their enemies generally didn’t care for Trobogorian “mercy”. Such mercy was now swinging back and forth as Gecko got a sense of its balance while attempting ballet, muttering something about unicorns to himself. Then he stopped, facing Mike.
    “You know, buddy, I bet your family wouldn’t like it if you knew something about some buttholes robbing people at Christmas and just weren’t talking. Or at least I can make them not like it. Pay everyone a visit, drink some eggnog, carve Santa, sit on the turkey’s lap. You know, fun. Now, I don’t want to be mean or nasty during these twelve days of Christmas, no more than you want to be a stool pigeon in a pear tree. So, I reiterate. If you tell me what I want, I’ll just put this little alien gun down right here and walk away, no harm and no fowl. Or foul.”
    Mike caught something interesting about the end of that deal once he got past the dumb joke. “You’ll just take off the alien gun and leave me alone?”
    That’s how Psycho Gecko found out that this whole deal involved an odd, old-timey man wanting Michelangelo to direct low-level thieves to him for some off the books holiday work. “Not my concern, but here’s the address and that’s all I know.”
    And that’s how Mike was left alone in the back basement of his pawn shop with a fully functional alien pain ray.

    It didn’t take Psycho Gecko too long to find the place. A warehouse on the waterfront. Just the kind of place you expect to find bad guys. He’d seen some good offers on places too, but he didn’t generally build lairs. He had known a few people who just couldn’t fill the space very well. There’s something sad about seeing a supervillain’s decked-out lair of theme props, death traps, and whatever scheme he’s working…only fill half a dark building that’s either got boxes or a bunch of nothing for the other half. Some can make it work, those who are good at dangerous labyrinths, but it is mainly the mad scientists who use that much space and they prefer better shielding on their buildings. The poorer mad grad students will take whatever they can get. They don’t care, they’ll build a death ray in the back of a Winnebago.
    Since this was the base of a colleague of sorts sad since he just wanted a certain set of presents back, Gecko walked in the front door without his stealth on. While he almost never walked into someone else’s hideout without his network of cameras, projectors, sound mufflers, and other gadgets, he was willing to show some good faith this time. After all, his mission was the candycane.
    The owner went with the dark and foreboding look, along with shelving and boxes that were probably full of nothing more dangerous than packing peanuts. In fact, Gecko stopped, opened one up, and checked. Yep, just a show. Whoever the owner was had a spider problem, though. The rafters were a mess of web and a few strands hung down to the ground. He let his hands drift over a few such strands as he walked deeper into the warehouse.
    He turned to his left, sure he’d seen something. It was enough for Gecko to avoid the claw swipe and spin around to get a good look at the attacker his HUD was labeling “Magic Threat”. A man with unkempt dark hair, pale skin, black circles around his mouth and eyes, and very sharp fingernails, dressed like someone from the 1800s. Without seeming to move, the man faded into the shadows of the place. The label “Magic Threat” switched to “Spider,” as his computer identified the attacker. Not many supervillains go for the Victorian goth look. Conformists.
    Gecko cycled through vision modes. Nothing special on thermal, and night vision mode was having some difficulty with the shadows and the webs. Magic. Negotiations suspended. Psycho Gecko pulled out a rubber chicken. Time to tempt that condition of not killing anyone. He tore the head off and dropped it to the ground. He kept his back to it as it walked the way he entered. His rubber chicken grenades were wonderful but tricky little inventions. Tear the head off and they’ll walk on their own until exploding. For some reason, though, they attempt to walk toward and cross the nearest road. Gecko had no clue why.
    He pulled out a pair of cylinders slightly smaller than his hands then pulled the pins and tossed them to either side. Safe directions to attack from were now a bit limited, and Gecko had a guess which one this Spider would take advantage of. As explosions rocked the warehouse to his rear, left, and right, Gecko launched himself up, one hand raised. His fist smacked into the face of Spider. While the barbed wiring around his fists could normally channel energy to supercharge his punches, this time they merely scratched at the clawed gentleman’s skin. Both men landed, but only one on his feet.
    Spider clawed at his Psycho Gecko’s ankles, though, so Gecko resorted to what anybody would do in the situation. He tried to stomp on the Spider. Spider caught his leg and bit him just above the boot. Gecko was surprised to feel it penetrate that armor. Not that it was particularly thick, but most people still can’t bite through it. Maybe a little fluffy bunny rabbit could bite through armor, but this was a grown man.
    The piercing sensation was soon followed by burning as he found himself unable to control that leg. Gecko attempted to leap away, counting on the exoskeleton on his legs to deliver him to safety. Instead, it delivered him into a mass of webbing. So his aim was just a tiny bit off. All it meant was being stuck in a giant spider web near a poisonous, clawed man named Spider. Oh look, he even had neighbors. At least he found the thieves that came to be paid. They looked a little thinner and less lively after the venom liquefied their insides. If Spider was as good as his name, bite, and bodily excretions (just where did this web come from, after all?), then Gecko was in a less than ideal situation.
    Spider approached, webbing in hand. Darn it, Gecko still couldn’t see where it was coming from. Also, he was having trouble breathing. Despite this, he took advantage of Spider’s proximity and palmed various blades he kept hidden on him. His hands were a blur as he stabbed and sliced at Spider, discarding one knife to try another. Cleaver, carving knife, bowie knife, kabar, he tried everything. It still didn’t stop Spider from grinning smugly at him through his newly-made cocoon, a potato peeler shoved all the way into his shoulder. Then, he stepped away.
    Gecko knew he had actually left, instead of disappearing and sticking around to snack on him, because while Spider was busy ignoring the cheetah-like speed of his knives of fury (note to self: Psycho Gecko action figure!), he had used what catlike agility was left in his dissolving body to plant a couple of trackers on him. Magic, meet technology. Rock, meet laser. Kraken, meet shark with fricken’ laser beams attached to its fricken’ head.
    He just had to get free first, something which also required him to reverse the damage that Spider’s toxin had rapidly done. Luckily he was suited up. While other suits of power armor provide things like flight, the ability to hack satellites, missiles, miniguns, lasers, sonic weapons, massively increased strength, tank cannons, and rollerblades, his own provided less armor and weaponry in exchange for excellent deceptive and stealth capabilities. That was useless in this case. What wasn’t so useless was that it functioned as both life support and a way to regenerate. His suit kept his respiratory system functional as its somewhat limited supply of nanites flooded his body. You can never have enough nanites. They would be used up as the process went on, but those little machines set to work reversing the damage being done to him while also attempting to clear the venom itself.
    Spider’s bite was potent. It would take hours to get that spleen to reticulate, but the most important thing was that Gecko wasn’t finished. The presents weren’t, well, present, but that doesn’t matter as much when you can track the spider-like man who has them. Gecko had to catch up to him again, just as soon as his bones were no longer made of jelly. Which made Gecko wonder if they make brown jello. Ah, but gelatin must wait. The candy cane demands retribution!
    …Darn webbing’s tough, too. A miniature chainsaw blade extended from the underside of his forearm. The same system that applied an energy field to his gloves to provide an extra oomph in battle also made the gadget he named the Nasty Surprise even nastier when it cut into the web. It was made for just this purpose, the unexpected need to cut through something. Usually just to give a her a nasty surprise, though. It was tough going, but aided by his healing. The same toxin that had melted various organs inside him also ate through nearby webbing as it was ejected from his body by the nanites.

    December 24th. Christmas Eve. The city had been darkened by night and by a string of present thefts. Psycho Gecko stopped by the apartment to stock up on a few toys for the upcoming confrontation, then headed for Spider’s bolt hole. Said hole turned out to be an old theatre in a neighborhood that had long since gone to drugs. He considered getting around to the back street to make entry, but Spider would be expecting a rear attack and set up more difficult defenses or alarms there. No one was going in there unless they knew it was being used by a supervillain. And if it was being used by a supervillain, there’d be traps at the front door. So they would try the rear door, which is where the traps will actually be set because villains can follow this logic. So Gecko strolled on in the front door.
    Psycho Gecko avoided the tripwires at the doors, stretched at odd angles to avoid the ones in the lobby, and would win a limbo championship for his moves getting to the seats. Spider laid on a mass of webs all coming together, no doubt waiting. The stage itself featured an arcane design drawn in purple with antlers and wooden fetishes along certain peaks and valleys of the outer edges of the curves. A spear and cup of dark red liquid rested in what roughly counted as the middle of the glyphs.
    Gecko leapt to a balcony. It was there, where Spider could most easily come at him from above, that he plucked a string of webbing. Shave and a haircut. Two bits.
    Spider took notice, then sprung upward into a mass of webbing along the ceiling. Gecko dropped his stealth and looked around as if expecting an attack from any side but up. This time his readout showed Spider descending much more slowly via a line of webbing. Gecko let him get close, then casually pressed a button on a capsule about the thickness of his thumb and tossed it up. It burst into a small fireball that lasted less than a second but it did so right next to the line of web near Spider’s knees and caught it on fire. Spider dropped from the line onto the edge of the balcony’s guard, facing away. He bent at an unnatural angle to face Gecko, even though his legs were pointed toward the stage. Gecko pulled out an egg, crushed it, and threw the contents into Spider’s face. Did Spider ever have egg on his face in this confrontation. At least, if most people fill a couple of their eggs with crushed glass, ground chili pepper, and a little fiberglass insulation.
    Spider’s hands went to his face in a futile effort, but then another pair of forearms split from his elbows to reach for Gecko. His mouth opened wider, fangs glistening with venom. This time, Gecko shoved a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper in there. Spider caught hold of him with one hand, until Gecko gave his enemy a Nasty Surprise that cost the magical predator a couple fingers. Psycho Gecko then noted that Spider’s knees each sported a new lower leg as he tried to keep his balance. It didn’t make it any harder for Gex to shove him off the balcony. He heard a splat and then the shuffling of flailing, so he called down, “Walk it off!”
    Being one to kick a man when he’s down, Gecko made sure to land on Spider when he jumped to the main floor. He made his way to the stage, yelling back to Spider, “Hey, what’d you do with the presents?”
    He hopped on the old wood stage and a man in a sweater stepped out from backstage. That’s all Gecko noticed because everything was bright and fuzzy, like being in a cloud with heavy lighting. The man seemed taller. And familiar. He himself felt small. Too small. He was too preoccupied with the encounter to notice the years slip out of his mind. “Who are you?”
    “Son, you’ve been a bad boy, and now you don’t even recognize me?” He shook his head. He still couldn’t place that face. “I’m your dad, silly. How can you not remember me?”
    “I live at the base now. They came into the house they shot you, and now all the instructors call you a piece of trash. They call me that too. Even the General.”
    This is probably a test, he told himself. Probably more compromised perception training. I bet I’m supposed to kill him, he thought.
    The man cocked his head to the side, “Why don’t you just leave and go play? Or work on your homework. I forgot, you should be hard at work on your math.”
    Homework…didn’t we have a lesson on knives recently? As if sensing the hostility in his thoughts, the man’s tone changed. The yellow-white light became red and his seemed to be blurred with medals and a military cap. “Come now, Lamb. It’s lights out.” It was that name that sent a cold chill through Gecko. It was enough to drop the glamour away and reveal the man’s face, or lack thereof. The mouth was wider than normal, and lipless, like a cut in the pale flesh that surrounded it. There was no nose, or eyes, or nose. Instead there were mouths. The flesh would pulse and a new mouth would open with needlelike fangs hanging out of it, then disappear again as others appeared elsewhere. “No peeking, lost little Lamb.” The man’s hands glowed purple for a moment before all the light came crashing down on Gecko, hurling him to the frayed carpeting of the aisle.
    Gecko tried to stand, but he was tangled up in his armor. Nothing fit right. It was…agh! Gecko yanked his helmet off. Despite the pain, he realized more was wrong and pulled off a glove. He’d shrunk. The way his head felt, he wouldn’t be surprised if someone just used a magic clothes dryer on him, but he had a suspicion. He tried his best to ignore the pressure in his head, noting similar aches and bumps in other areas of his body, and slipped out of the armor. He felt like a kid again. No, literally, he had to be back to elementary school age. Luckily his boxers could still protect his modesty. Normally he didn’t care, but it paid to make it harder for men with claws and energy beams to see where your junk is.
    That’s important. He was a supervillainous interdimensional refugee stuck in his kid body that was too small to use his power armor and standing in front of someone with some odd magical wammy with a magical poisonous spider-like man somewhere behind him. Priorities. Unsure if this magic man was capable of beating up a kid but willing to bank on him trying, Gecko grabbed his utility belt and separate it from his armor. As he turned to do this, he saw Spider crawling for him, stiff hairs grown up on his cheeks. Glamour failure. Maybe he’s mad. Should have used Maybelline.
    He tossed another flame capsule at Spider’s face, tied the belt to his waist, then pulled out a pair of knuckle dusters with a small white pad fixed to the knuckles. He clambered on stage and charged at the man with the mouths. He bounced off a barrier just in front of the man, who had made no reactive move. He knew it wouldn’t connect, but he threw a punch anyway. When the barrier in front of where a face should be made contact with the white pad on the knuckles, it set it off. It, in this case, being a small flashbang. Gecko’s ears were ringing from it, but as he turned back to the man, he saw he was stumbling back.
    He rushed at the mouthy man and grabbed. The man’s many mouths opened wide as he groaned in pain. Psycho Gecko had got one of his chestnuts while he was too stunned to open fire. Gecko twisted it and the man sung soprano. He then slide under the man, grabbed the man’s shin, and pulled hard. Sir Speaks-a-lot went down to the floor on his face.
    That was when he felt something splat against his chest. Webbing. Spider yanked him back off stage, hairy round thorax sprouting from an otherwise human body to facilitate ensnaring him. Spider’s mouth opened wide. Gecko slipped a canister of silly string out of his belt and into Spider’s maw, ejecting the silly substance into the serious struggle. Spider hacked, then spit it back into Gecko’s face. Gecko beat him in the eye with the canister. From the stage, the pale mouthful called out in the midst of their life and death struggle. “Tie him up. In that form, keeping him in danger might prove more useful for the ritual.”
    “Stupid,” spat Spider with a hiss. He didn’t argue. He attempted to cocoon Gecko, but Gecko let him have it. The laughing gas pie did nothing, as expected. The razor yo-yo did give Spider a nice gash on his neck, at least enough for Gecko to deliver a shin to the balls, but arachnids are much more resistant to testicular trauma. Do they have eight of those too?
    Worse, he’d grabbed Gecko’s leg just after contact. Gecko jumped and twisted so that he face away from Spider, then rolled forward, escaping from the annoyed grasps of his foe. He tried to regain his footing, but the floor seemingly liquefied. He slipped in to his ankles and it solidified again. He pulled a small pair of knives from the belt and bent backwards, slicing at Spider’s reaching hands, but it was inevitable. Four strong adult hands grasped his own and held them to his sides as fresh silk wrapped around them and his torso. With his feet also trapped in carpet and wood, Spider didn’t bother covering him completely.
    They just left him like that for an hour, no expositing or anything. When he next saw the mouthful man, he was getting prepared for whatever this ritual was. Interestingly, he noted that when the man turned away, there appeared to be features.
    Spider pulled a curtain back to reveal a large stack of stolen presents backstage. Gecko could make out faintly glowing runes. Finally, he fell back to a cliché. “Won’t you at least tell me what your evil plan is before you kill me? Whoa, felt weird to be on that side of this conversation. While we’re at it, can I just say ‘Halt, evil-doer, in the name of justi-‘ hahahahahaha…Ok, I don’t know how they can do that with a straight face, you get me? So seriously, now that you’ve stopped me stopping you, what was I stopping?”
    “I didn’t know how much you knew. Your trappings suggest magical affairs are beyond you, but you came after us for a reason. From how you talk you don’t usually try to stop an evil plan. Bad guy to bad guy, you tell me why you came after us and I will tell you what we are doing.”
    “Some of those belong to a little girl in my building. Despite her gifts being stolen, she gave me a candycane and wished me a Merry Christmas.”
    “She wished you a Merry Christmas?”
    “She wished me a Merry Christmas.”
    “And a happy New Year?”
    “Not yet, but there may be figgy pudding in future negotiations.”
    “Don’t count on it.”
    “So, whatcha up to?”
    “This year, I’m giving little boys and girls around this city the best gift of all. A future.”
    “Technically, the laws of physics already guaranteed them one.”
    “One in service to someone worthy. Me. It would be impossible to get even an entire city’s worth of presents, true, but there are many kids’ wishes here on stage. My spells would make them more malleable to me. It is all tied in to the joy they get from these gifts. They would never know how I could have so much pull over them if we met in person, but it would be so.”
    “How are you going to get them all back? You don’t know where they’re from, and you’re short on time.”
    “Yes. The next part solves that problem and more. I want lives I can mold as I see fit and then put into prominent positions. Children who will follow my will without realizing it isn’t their own. Perhaps I’ll have a president.”
    “Overrated in this political climate. You’d be better off having a billionaire.”
    “I just might. I’m going to summon the very spirit of this season here to me. He will be trapped here by these spells. This will affect time for the immediate vicinity and we will take from him his trappings. We will take his place for this evening, a position that will give us ample time and knowledge to return these presents. The magic in this form of delivery is ancient and will ensure a much more potent meaning to these gifts. Sure, they may the fruits of you people’s commercialism, some toy that will become meaningless to them as they outgrow them, but the impact of such a gift seemingly coming from this spirit on this night will be so much more…magical. And potent.”
    Gecko had a sneaking suspicion he’d been transported to a holiday movie. “Your master plan, if I have this right, is to kidnap the Sandy Claws, tie him in a bag, wear his hat, and deliver your tainted presents to the kids so that your low-level mental persuasion spells become full-blown subservient dummy magical wammy where you get to make a lot of kids grow up into whatever you want them to be, like presidents, CEOs, judges, and celebrities that people want to emulate?”
    The mouthful man took a moment to process this inanity, then replied, “You should be more succinct.”
    “Suc what? You know, if it wasn’t for it being Christmas, it’s not bad.”
    “Thank you. Why does Christmas matter?”
    “Well, you know several of us on this side of the law don’t particular care for religious observances. And some of us do, you get all types. It’s just that, some of us have loved ones, and even the ones who don’t kinda like the season being a really good one where people, for once, are rather forgiving of a person’s eccentricities and act like they care. Even if it’s only acting. It’s like the real world, for a little bit and only in certain places around the world, stops being the real world and at least aspires to be the place it could be. And for the grumpy supercriminals, it’s also a good time to lay low because the heroes just want to celebrate the holidays too, and they don’t feel like pulling punches so much if they had to leave their place in line at the register to stop you robbing a bank then realize the last one of those perfect gifts that someone’s been whining about was just bought by someone else since they had to leave.”
    “Those are very interesting points. I don’t care.”
    So ended their discussion as Psycho Gecko checked the time, which solved another mystery. His internal computer. The same useful device that fulfilled a number of memory and information services. Unlike the rest of him, it didn’t shrink or revert. That was the pressure in his head he’d felt ever since he was de-aged. He didn’t want to think about his replacement eyes, especially because he needed to think about disrupting the magical ritual.
    30 minutes to go time. He had in stock: a chicken grenade, the laser potato peeler (he needed a new one after stabbing Spider with the old one because nobody should be out stabbing someone without a potato peeler) a blinding mine with the same concoction he’d used against Spider earlier, and two hologram discs. He worked his fingers into their compartment and held them, waiting for the connection. Finally…there! It was slower than using his suit’s connection, but he programmed a new set of images. The first disk he dropped just in front of him. He placed the second below himself. There was only so much he could do to ease them down but they were light and didn’t make much racket on landing. He covered it up by singing Scandal’s 1984 hit “Warrior”. “Shooting at the walls of heartache, bang bang, I am the warrior!” Spider spared an annoyed glance his way, seeing Gecko still tied up.
    Behind the illusion of himself tied up and the other illusion that concealed his real self, Gecko cut away the spider silk with his potato peeler’s laser. It ate up the time like some sort of common side order food, but he knew the words to “Hey Mickey,” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” and he wasn’t afraid to repeat them. His singing paid off when Mouthy McMoutherton got annoyed and ordered Spider to “On the other and, he’s not that useful to us. Please eat him while I perform this.”
    So it was that the hapless Spider lunged for Gecko and passed through and found himself facing a (mostly) free boy supervillain. Then the mine went off, spraying a cloud of ground glass, insulation, and chili pepper around them both. Then Gex tore the head off his chicken grenade and set it down. It walked towards the back street located behind the stage. A section of the stage blew and flung away carved antler while Speakeasy was in the midst of chanting. The magical energies working their way around the symbols and magical foci lost control. Faceless fought for control but cursed and gave up. An unnatural wind pushed away the blinding cloud. Spider was still incapacitated as he sought his dodging, frustrating prey. Unnaturally quick, Chompers the Faceless was there looking down on Gecko. Gex avoided looking at his face and poked him where his eye should be. With a potato peeling laser.
    The Many Mouthed Man held one hand to where his eye should have been and growled, using the other to guide Spider’s to Gecko’s waist. In the corner of his eye’s display, Psycho Gecko noticed the clock hit midnight. Sorry kid, he thought, but I’ll make sure they’re there before you wake up. But then he noticed the seconds on the readout slowed. And stopped. The same was true of his foes.
    Psycho Gecko blinked. They were completely still. Such a clatter arose from the stage that Gecko bent to look past them, ignoring the “temporal error” message on his HUD. There on the stage was the man, the myth, the legend. Jelly belly himself, accompanied by sleigh and deer.
    “Uh…hiya there…,” Gecko said upon seeing Santa Claus in person.
    “Hello there little boy.”
    “Aren’t you supposed to be captured? That was their plan.”
    “It didn’t work thanks to you. That one was binding me here before you interrupted,” said the jolly old elf as he gestured to the designs on the stage.
    “Oh. I didn’t notice you there,” Gecko spoke and realized he had no idea how you were supposed to talk to Santa. Then again, his own Christmas experience was a little on the nonexistent side.
    “I’m around in one form or another this season, with many names. Most of the time, no one sees me at all. All I can do is watch, except for some days when I have power to act.”
    “Happy Saturnalia then, Lord of Misrule,” Gecko waved to Kris Kringle.
    “And a Happy Saturnalia to you, Psychopomp Gecko,” waved Saint Nick back, before he stepped away from his sleigh and dropped to the floor of the theater. As he did so, Gecko noticed two things: the pressure in his head was gone, and the floor no longer clung to his feet. He stepped out of the holes that were left from his imprisonment, then noticed the terrible and richly deserved fury on the face of Father Christmas as he looked at the two who tried to imprison him. “Bogeymen. Always trying to harm the children.”
    “Boogeyman? But where are the leisure suits and platform shoes?”
    “Not those creatures. Bogeymen are those monsters only children admit to being afraid of. They are so open about this fear and so openly dismissed that these monsters hunt them. They normally do not dare this on my day.” Sinterklaas clasped one hand together and the pair disappeared.
    “What’d you do to them?” Gex asked.
    “I did what I do, little Psychopomp. I gave them what their actions this year earned. Oh, and are you feeling better?”
    Gecko nodded, “I am until you give me all I’ve earned.”
    “I won’t say you’ve done anything in the past few days that makes up for everything you’ve done in all your years. You’ve stolen, lied, pranked, conspired, attacked, and killed. That was you trying to walk a better path than you were originally set upon. What they made you. I won’t give you what you’ve earned, but I can offer you something you deserve and perhaps there is justice in this mercy.”
    Gecko’s gaze had drifted away as Saint Nicholas talked, outside of his comfort zone talking seriously about his life with the Spirit of Giving. “What would that be?” he wondered aloud.
    “A real second chance. Your current bodily age without your current mind or memory.”
    “Hey, in a question that in no way changes the subject at all, I was just wondering. You seem to be Santa Claus. You going to bat for Christianity?”
    Santa’s belly shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly. “No, there is nothing in that religion about me. I’m something different. Something they missed, because they were too busy looking at the world they wanted to make and not the one that was. I’ve existed for a long time, far longer than those religions that incorporate me. It’s because humans cling to each other all year, but especially in the cold and the dark. Tens of thousands of years but they mostly forget this. During the bright sunny times, they can so often be at their worst. It is in the cold and dark, when all seems worst, that humans show off how good they can be.”
    Psycho Gecko burst into laughter at the thought, considering all he’d done over the past few days. “That’s really not saying too much for me, Saturn,” he said while catching his breath.
    That jolly old elf watched him with a warm smile spread across his face, “It could be.”
    Gecko mulled it over briefly and gave his answer. There was no reason to explain, just a reminder, “Make sure you get all those presents back without the magical mind wammy that guy put on them.”

    The next morning, a kid runs past underneath the window of Psycho Gecko’s apartment, brown curls bouncing in the Christmas Morning light and happy laughter breaking the silence. Psycho Gecko lifts his window open and tosses an empty vodka bottle against the wall of the building opposite his. Someone cursed from the alleyway as shards of broken glass fell. Gecko leaned out and called down with a slur, “Hey, whatzat now?”
    “Cut that out, it’s Christmas for Pete’s sake!”
    “Huwha? Christmas? Christmas morning?”
    “What other morning would it be on December 25th?”
    “Hey man, you want to make a little money?”
    “I won’t have to take my pants off, will I?”
    “No, no, I just want something to eat,” Gecko said as he pulled out some cash. “Run on up to the store and get me one of those turkeys they already cooked real cheap. And some macaroni and cheese. And maybe a little dressing. Use as much of the fifty as you can, bring it back, and you’ll get the rest of the hundred. Oh, and I have think I got another full bottle of vodka in here too.” He tossed down $50 and half a hundred.
    “Well Merry Christmas to you! I’ll be right back.”
    Gecko used that time to step over to apartment 45 in his armor. He cracked the damaged door enough to hear the shrill sounds of a little girl’s happiness. He watched from invisibility as she excitedly woke her parents to come see all the stolen presents had been returned. The little girl was even more astounded when three new ones appeared out of nowhere, though she didn’t notice the door open and then close again as an unseen presence exited. All three were done in a dark grey and bright orange pattern, but one was bigger than his her own torso and labeled simply “The Girl.” The other two were significantly smaller due since they only held documents about a trust that gave the family the best gift a homicidal maniac could give. A future.

  8. Wow.

    I’d been idly wondering if Skitter was going to end up having any Arcs *inside* the birdcage. Kinda thinking she might, now. And we know Panacea is there, too…

    However this turns out, you’ve DEFINITELY been keeping me guessing with all the high-quality twists in the ongoing story, Wildbow. Thank you for the story so far, and good luck with the story yet to come!

  9. I wonder if Dinah would ever lie to Coil about the odds she gives him.

    I don’t think Coil will try to kill Skitter – she is wearing bulletproof suit, so he probably just intends to stun her. As a hostage to ensure that the rest of the Undersiders cooperate, she is more valuable. Also – I wonder if at some point Skitter would get to the Birdcage. Escaping the inescapable prison seems to be something she can pull off. Plus she got people there, who do be interested to see her.

    • It’s mentioned in Dinah’s interlude that lying about the results her power gives her leaves her in the same mess she was in after she sought out a specific result: days, weeks or months of incredible pain and an inability to use her power properly while she builds the mental schema of possible worlds.

        • I would say ‘no’. In all likelihood, she calculates probabilities based on the assumption that she will report the results (tells the person asking her). Different report (lie) = different results, throwing the calculations off. She’d have to run different calculations for every variation of every lie she considers telling – and if predicting just ONE set of future potentials gives her a screaming headache, you can imagine what a chain of what-if’s based on her lies would do to her.head.

    • While her suit may be bulletproof, her skull is not . When someone in a bulletproof vest gets shot, they typically get a large welt where the bullet hits. And that is with large ceramic plates to absorb and spread out the force. With a thin piece of cloth in the way, she will be lucky if all she gets is a fractured skull from this.

  10. Ok, I imagine one of two things happening at the moment:

    1.) Skitter wakes up in a PRT cell and is outed.

    2.) Secondary trigger event let’s her escape.

    The first would be interesting because it involve the fallout of her identity being revealed and show some interaction with the Wardes with possibly some sympathy once her story reaches them and because if Wildbow went with the second option, it may seem too deus ex machina if done wrong.

    On the other hand, it’d be pretty interesting to see what new power Skitter would gain alongside her usual/

  11. Well this went both better and worse than expected.

    Coil apparently read the Evil Overlord List

    When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.”

    I am not too worried about Skitter. As a protagonist she seems pretty safe. I am more worried about her team-mates and her father and the people in her territory that Coil knows about. Lisa and the others would be fine living on the run, especially since imp is no longer something that can be held over Grue’s head. But if she wants to save her dad from becoming a hostage she would pretty much have to deal with Coil in some fashion. With her powers as specialised as they are she doesn’t even have the option of faking death and assuming another identity.

    My guess, would be that it was a taser or a stung gun or some other less lethal weapon in “e the general shape of the weapon in his hand”. Maybe Coil wants to renegotiate from a position of strength maybe Skitter is about to be delivered to the Cauldron or something.

    If Coil did want Skitter dead it would have been in his best interest to do so in public to get himself bonus points from the public. Getting rid of her in secret will not earn him any positive publicity.

    Well anyways this was cool, bit more cliffhangerly than I would have wished but nice.

    Happy Holidays.

    • Well, Skitter could make a swarm in the shape of the letters “COIL” and an arrow pointing to him if he betrays her in public.

  12. Holy doublecross, Batman!

    My expectation? The gun was nonlethal. Taylor goes to the Birdcage. Awesome prison break drama ensues.

      • What if she only brings innocents with her?

        Actually, the Innocents would be an awesome name for a prison gang in the Birdcage, especially if they keep it after they get out.

      • I disagree, the Birdcage is downright inhuman and should be brought down. From what I can see, besides the Slaugherhouse 9 most supervills are actually *less* dangerous than your run-of-the-mill thugs, they at least keep to their unwritten code, no killing, no going after eachothers’ families, etc. Sure, they have more power, but that’s not their fault, most trigger events happen when a person is at their very lowest emotionally, nobody who gets powers without going through Cauldron *wants* them. But because they are so powerful they get thrown into a cage with no chance of parole, not even if they were later acquitted by new evidence could they be released because there *is no exit*, there aren’t even any guards to keep order, the men knock a hole through to the women’s wing and the compromise they use to keep the peace is for the women to run a brothel. It’s never mentioned that any of the inmates are sterilised, so it’s a distinct possibility that new children with a high chance to go parahuman will be *born* in this hellhole, growing up in a den of psychopaths with godlike powers for role-models and never seeing the sun. At the very least the birdcage is discriminatory against offenders who happen through no fault of their own to possess parahuman powers, at the worst it’s a monumental human rights abuse that has no place in a modern democratic society and a goddamn powderkeg waiting to blow. I have a feeling that Dragon only created it under orders from some government flunky with very poorly thought-out design requirements, I can’t believe that she’d come up with something so downright (pardon the joke) inhuman as the Birdcage without her programming forcing her to.

        • Thing is, the Birdcage is supposed to be for supers who break the rules about that stuff. Diference between in theory and in practice, though.

  13. Let’s hear it for Coil, the guy who needs to split timelines, know the precise odds, and have a bunch of gunmen backing him up in a room filled with containment foam before he feels safe enough to shoot a blind teenage girl. It would be sad if it wasn’t Skitter he’s taking these precautions against.

    And he’s still going to get his ass handed to him, somehow. I assume Calvert used a pistol, and Taylor’s suit stood up to low caliber rounds before. Depends on where she got shot. Just hope he doesn’t get the chance to double-tap.

    Tricksters definitely going to have a reckoning coming for him. Hopefully in the form of having his head caved in by a pissed off boyfriend who can stop him from using his power.

  14. Here’s a possibility: Taylor dies.

    No, seriously. She dies. Or at least, her body does.

    Remember, she uses the bugs around her for processing power, right? So what if her body’s brain dies… But the bugs keep thinking her thoughts…

    Probably not going to happen, but I still think it’s a neat idea.

    • Well, she has been faking an ability to dissolve into a swarm and reform. To have a secondary trigger event that turns her (perhaps irrevocably) into a swarm consciousness that cannot be destroyed as long as there are enough eligible critters in the area it occupies would be interesting, though, as Undead-Spaceman noted above, that would be too much of a deus ex machina. (Also, what Skitter is experiencing now or is likely to experience is downright mundane compared to what Grue — our only other point of reference — had to experience to get his second trigger event.)

  15. Remind me again, does Coil know about who would want Skitter dead? For all we know, Coil might be sending Taylor to the birdcage either to be killed by Lung (archenemy due to her fights with him) and Panacea (who cannot possibly be happy with her) or its part of the plan in which the villains start to lose their territory (unlikely due to it being too early). Coil is as always the hardest character to read but this conversation he had with the undersiders makes me feel like he’s the second coming of Light Yagami. Bravo Wildbow and Happy Holidays.

  16. Because Devil’s Advocate is a fun game, I’m going to say that Coil could be staging a PRT attack that captures Skitter for the Wards and rescues Dinah.

    Probably not, though.

    So, odds on this leading to the prophesied end of the world? Perhaps via the “everyone breaks out of the Birdcage and even the innocents are /pissed/” method?

    • Re: Prophesied End of the World…

      Jack escaped Brockton Bay. Dragon is fiddled with by Armsmaster to tweak her limitations and the two of them team up in order to pursue the Nine in the most Ends Justifies The Means way possible. World ends as a side effect of the resulting fight?


      • Remember Jack promised to meet Kaiser’s kid in two years? My bet is that the kid gets some *major* powers, the resultant fight with Jack is where he goes overboard with them and causes a world-ending event.

  17. I’d like to see more on Chariot. The kid seems like an interesting tinker, and his speciality hasn’t really been explored. What with Coil’s new position as head of the PRT, I think something interesting could be made of him (Perhaps an interlude or donation bonus?)

    • I agree, though I am in the unfortunate position of being able to look at the table of contents and see that he has no interlude. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in the course of the book though.

      I’m thinking his specialty is suits (who doesn’t want to be Iron Man?), you first hear about him riding around in a suit, and he was in a special hovering transporting suit.

  18. Wow, good chapter. Coil’s plan really was devious and well-thought out. The fact that it actually came from the mind of one person who probably winged it is really mind-blowing. Kudos, Wildbow. Merry Christmas, while I’m at it.

    where higher –> were higher

    “I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.” Is this new info? In-story, it was a paramedic who mentions this, but Skitter realizes that she was lying.

    • Thank you for that image, razorsmile. Now I’m imagining random Christmas decorations with maggots bursting out.

      Only the Grinch is allowed to do that, dang it!

      • He’s got termites in his smiiiiiiiile! He’s got all the fuzzy sweetness of a seasick crocodile, Mr. Griiiinch. If I had to choose between them I’d pick the seasick crocodiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiile!

  19. The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped. She looked healthy, but not lively, dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.



  20. Think I found a mistake, Coil says that Chariot has been in his employ for a year and a half, but there wouldn’t be a point in that if he only triggered a few months ago when Leviathan attacked. Maybe you meant Trainwreck?

  21. ” A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?””

    WAIT WHAT? Brockton Bay is tiny! How is it even a blimp on the map? It cannot be called a city, it’s no bigger than an average town. Cities have hundreds of thousands of citizens not 50 thousand! Are you sure you got that right? Seriously, who would care if an Endbringer killed 50k people compared to 6 million or whatever it was, they should have just let the city fall.

    The Wiki page has 300 cities that are above 100,000 people. Defined in fact by being above 100,000. Do you understand how tiny that makes Brockton Bay? It’s just so absurd. I wish I had notes so I could rattle off some things you’ve said earlier that don’t mesh but none the less it should be obvious enough. Do you really need 12 capes to contain 50k people, that’s like 1 cape per 5k. And they have a Christian only school too? They can’t have that many kids

    Persons under 18 years, percent definition and source info Persons under 18 years, percent, 2012 23.5%

    Dunno how different it is for cities, but yeah, that’s like 10k kids. My secondary school had (well it still does too) a roll of 1.5k and I live in tinyville.

    Also if I was Coil I would have just poisoned Skitter because that makes way more sense than going to all the bother of teleporting and fake releasing the girl, dealing with Undersiders, etc

      • Also, it’s 50K taking a role of some sort in civic life, which tends to not include the youngest, oldest, least healthy, least interested, fringes of society, etc. It’s just the middle-age/ income/ education type folks. Just a guess, but I’d say about 1/2 the remaining population qualifies?

  22. Just had a diabolical thought. Coil could have vastly improved his position by having Dinah kidnapped by people that he could “prove” were connected to one of the other Brockton Bay gangs and then “rescuing” her from them. At that point, he could offer her the choice to go home, but honestly say that whoever took her might do it again and potentially hurt her family in the process; the E88, for example, aren’t known for restraint. Then he “reluctantly” offers his protection and tries to help her with her power.

    A week or two later…
    “I promised to help you, Dinah. I can’t stand to see you in such pain. Here, take your medicine.”

    From that point on, any time he’s reluctant to give her her medicine he can pretend that it’s because he’s concerned about the long-term effects on her (which may even be half-true, if only from a utility perspective). Dinah may be powerful, but she’s still young; possibly young enough to indoctrinate through relatively “soft” methods. It might not work, but if it did she could well end up resisting any rescue attempts. A convincing façade of caring for her, plus isolating her from everyone she’s connected to and making it seem like it’s not for his benefit, and voila! One loyal precog. It’s frighteningly plausible, at least to me. Her power might not even let her see through it, depending on how it works and what questions she thinks to ask, especially because most of the deception would be in the past, which she can’t see. If he played it right, he could even start off urging her not to use her power, since it hurts, then maneuver her into volunteering it, or even insisting on helping. Just pretend that he’s starting to lose territory, and he suspects the E88 know he’s giving Dinah sanctuary…maybe come back injured one day, stuff like that.


  23. I’m reading this near Christmas a year later and I think if I’d been handed a cliffhanger like this on Christmas day I’d have had to cancel the festivities, boot relatives out of the door and keep reading. Dodged a bullet there.

    (I swear that pun was accidental)

  24. First-time commenter here. I am absolutely loving this story, and I hope that you can get a book deal out of it. Excellent storytelling!

    There’s one major error here I wanted to point out. One of the mayoral candidates was Keith Grove, but you’ve referred to him in this update multiple times as Thomas Grove.

    Thanks for your hard work! I can’t wait to see what’s waiting in the rest of the story.

  25. Neat writer-ly trick! Having ‘blind’ Skitter meet solo with the Travelers not only forces her to up her game with what her bugs tell her, it ups Wildbow’s game with having to tell US more about what she is getting/ thinking/ interpreting. New spin on the ‘show us, don’t tell us’ dictum!
    “… too much to ask for you to ask your squad …” Ask … ask is bumpy to read and awkward. (Just try it aloud!) He doesn’t ask — he tells, or directs, or moves.
    I do love the little details: Circus spitting to kill a mid-air horsefly as a way to thumb his/her nose at Skitter’s swarm. 🙂 And TTs description!
    I’m doing less forgetting to look around and see which group Imp follows, but somehow I never quite catch it at the beginning … 🙂 I guessed she’d stick with Regent (driven by likely nosiness about TT and Noelle). Guess I’ll find out in another chapter or so!
    I keep idly wondering where she’s housing/ feeding Atlas. Does he have a cozy little pied-a-terre on the roof of her lair? His own plexiglass terrarium on the 2nd floor? A simple crash pad in the cellar? (Does he like/dislike damp and dark vs. sunny and airy?) I’m developing quite a fondness for her devoted little transport beetle! What does he do with himself (itself?) when he’s just waiting for Skitter to call? Does she get more than just ‘position/ airflow data’ FROM Atlas?
    Dang it — every time I think I’ve got a bead on where Coil’s next switch-hit is going, Wildbow pitches him a knuckleball, and Coil catches a piece of it! Where’s the ref? Really — Coil now having some kind of direct teleportation (not just Trickster, who is erratic & mass-equivalance limited) on top of his 2-pass timeline testing, plus Dinah now ready to come back into ‘prescience’, is just trumping the trumped Trump. If Cauldron does/has called in the last favor he ‘owes’ we can just assume this dimension is doomed. And yet …

  26. Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election

    Should be Keith Grove I believe. Only Thomas’s in Worm at this point are Coil and the merchant that skitter left to die at Skidmark’s party.

  27. Coil is a downright idiot. He is super successful with his master plan, manages to think far enough ahead to actually accomplish pretty much every one of his goals, still has two loyal teams under him willing to work with him towards finishing up his huge power play, is really wealthy, and has just finished dashing the worries that he is an amoral psychopath. All he has to do to finish up becoming both the legitimate and underground ruler of an entire city is to let a single girl go. What does he do? Set things up to try and kill an underling who has continually demonstrated her ability to escape from inescapable situations and think up solutions to problems and enemies much larger and more powerful than her. Even should he succeed with this idiotic idea, either the rest of the Undersiders are going to notice and try to kill him or walk away or they will figure it out as soon as Dinah doesn’t show up at home. Really Coil? Really? Idiot! Reread the Evil Overlord list! Stop hoarding the phelobotonium girl and compromise instead of throwing a hissy fit.

    On the flip side…really Skitter? Did you honestly expect it to be that easy? For a paranoid girl just told that he has a makeshift teleporter you really didn’t think this part through.

  28. >It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore[…]

    Flows poorly. Try a but or an albeit? Unassuming but secure, etc. Entire sentence might need restructuring to flow well.

    >and where temperatures where higher

    Were* higher.

    >”[…]There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.””

    This is a really jumbled sentence, and not in the way sentences tend to be jumbled when people talk.

    >If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over

    EXPECTED to cooperate? Do you mean intended?

    >his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

    It may be an American thing to do this (the thing I quoted, that is, not the proposed correct form), I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure the first word in this excerpt should be ‘the’.

    >“Circum-what?” Imp asked.

    Okay, this has been bugging me for a while. The characters characterised as ‘stupid’ (pretty much Shadow Stalker and Imp) keep doing this. Real stupid people don’t give a shit about their vocabulary, and if they don’t understand a word, they don’t pipe up, because they think they’re smarter than they are; the trend for lower-than-average folks to overrate their intellect is a thing I’ve read about repeatedly.

    What a tweest! Coil didn’t keep his word?! Shock!

    • Imp’s not unintelligent, she’s uneducated, and even that I think is more an exaggerated image she’s cultivating than the reality, maybe deliberately to get people to underestimate her, maybe just to be annoying. Skitter even thinks, “I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.” My vote’s for “intentionally obtuse”.

  29. Aw, lookit Taylor, pretending that her vision has actually been her dominant sense at any point in the last, oh, month and a half.

  30. “Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said. “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as. Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

    She is what she identifies as and this description is really offensive to Circus’s gender. “Posing as” a girl? Is that really what you think of trans people?

    I expected better writing from this story.

    • Yes it is offensive but TATTLETALE IS offensive. It’s basically the girl’s shtick. She has the potential to be one of the most useful people at everything from recruiting to solving super hardcore problems but she is quite simply put, a bitch. Don’t get me wrong I like Lisa but this type of statement is actually rather perfectly in line with how she generally acts. If you are not in her core group (and even sometimes for those who are) she is rather vitriolic and unreserved. A great deal of her battle strategies generally boil down to either stalling by talking or insulting someone enough that they make mistakes or get distracted from the bigger players. I didn’t take that statement as offense due to wildbow but as Tattletale being insensitive as usual.

      • I honestly don’t care. Her words don’t exist in a vacuum outside of the story and her trashing trans people as a whole is inexcusable. I’m sick of hearing the excuse that “it’s the CHARACTER’S actions not the AUTHOR’S” because the author is the one dictating how their characters behave and what they say, and they can project their beliefs onto their characters. The difference between good and bad writing of a character who is offensive is how their actions are framed; if they are written as an unsympathetic character or someone the readers are clearly supposed to dislike, their offensive opinions will be taken for what they are — untrue. When someone like Tattletale says it, who we’re supposed to trust and/or like as a person, and there’s NO comment on the hurtfulness of her words or framing to make it obvious that what she’s saying is okay, people will just take it at face value. It’s not shown as a character flaw, it’s just an outright statement that trans people are posers.

        Circus’s transness should be portrayed a natural part of who she is, and not something to be exploited. It doesn’t make a difference that TT is someone who makes a habit of exploiting others, because this is something that hurts people in real life, not just in universe.

        I genuinely don’t know what Wildbow thinks of trans people, but going by the callousness of this scene and the complete lack of acknowledgement for it, I feel really unwilling to trust them.

        • My treatment of transphobic characters is the same as my treatment of white supremacists. Reprehensible views exist, they aren’t always met with direct consequences, but generally speaking, the people who hold views like that are unhappier in the long run than those who don’t. In a way, they make their own unhappiness.

          Now, I’m not saying that Tattletale is transphobic – I don’t think or feel that she is (with some explanation below) – but her approach does meet with consequences in much the same way as the ones mentioned above and the relative carelessness of her approach, much like what I described above, does feed into her struggles in the day to day.

          In answer to your original point – it’s perfectly fine to, when it’s not clear, to ask what someone identifies as, particularly if you’re expecting to be around that person a great deal (And here the group is expecting such, finding the trio in the company of Coil). Not asking just creates room for misunderstanding or hurting others. Tattletale, even with her power, can’t tell. Regent raises the topic and Tattletale (in a very cavalier, Tattletale way) takes the opportunity to raise the question. Circus deflects Tattletale rather than answer, and the topic gets dropped. Could it have been handled more gracefully? Sure. But the only socially graceful person here is Calvert.

          Final point: Circus is best described as a genderfluid cross-dresser and both of Tattletale’s suppositions are thus correct, which is why her power can’t give her a definitive answer. In being unsure and not knowing, Tattletale was probably closer in labeling Circus than anyone Circus has met. Circus is pleased on a level (being someone that defies/plays with their own gender identity to the point that it confounds someone like Tattletale), and thus takes it as something of a compliment.

          Tattletale uses the word ‘poser’ because Circus -is- posing (or crossdressing). In a number of the snippets I wrote about Circus (and with Circus as a main character), Circus veers between being male and female and switching to the other gender (or being ambiguous) to confound attempts at figuring out the secret identity. This casual mention is something of a nod to the snippets (and not the first or last in the story).

          • Fine. The wording “posing as a guy/girl” gets my hackles up and it’s, I’m sure you know, a common tactic people use to delegitimize and dehumanize trans people, so it came off as more as another of Tattletale’s cheap shots than an innocent question (much less one out of consideration for Circus’s identity).

            I had gotten the impression that they were a trans woman, but knowing they’re genderfluid, I’m even more interested to see how their character arc progresses.

            Regardless, I appreciate that you addressed this.

            • Tattletale is well known for taking cheap shots, and not pulling her punches, whether the shots in question relate to, say, someone’s parentage, or someone’s intend to betray the team she’s working with. Taking a shot at someone’s gender is not out of character for her at all.

              • Did you even read what I said? As I said several times, the point was that the issue is not her *characterization* — sure, that’s spot-on — it’s in the actual, real world consequences of statements like that and the fact that without proper framing, people internalize those messages when they’re said by sympathetic characters.

    • A character acting like themselves in a story is not an indication of bad writing, nor an indication of what the author thinks about a certain subject. This story is written rather realistically, so, just like the real world, not everyone is going to be politically correct and rainbows. I understand if the way Tattletale spoke might have rattled you, but there is no need to attack the writing or the author. That is just her CHARACTER. Of course Wildbow does not think that way of trans people, and it is rude of you to assume that.
      Besides, Circus was not the least bit offended at the comment, so Tattletale was obviously not trying to be offensive. She is just very very blunt.

  31. well. holy moly. first comment on this story so far because i wanted to say woohoo to a nonbinary character!! circus is my new fave because of that tbh <333

  32. “Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.”

    I’m assuming you mean Keith Grove? Had a bit of a name change there.

  33. I’m at work, I have to do work! I’m also sleep deprived from staying up all night. And this is how you treat me, with cliffhangers and way too compelling plots! I curse at ye!

  34. Archive binging:

    Taylor is a bit stupid to trust Coil there, but does so in a way thats totally consistent with her character. Weirdly despite her antiauthoritarian tendencies she seems to like having certain authority figures she can latch on to and trust, then feeling betrayal afterwards. She also overfocused on the idea of him saying yes or no, not a more indirect betrayal

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