Monarch 16.12

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Finding my teammates wasn’t hard; Calvert was telling me where they were.

He didn’t tell me directly.  No, this was more a casualty of being too careful, of putting too many secondary measures in place.  He’d stationed soldiers to serve as lookouts at a wide perimeter around the Undersiders.  I noticed one group, turned the truck to drive around them, and then noticed the second and third.  They were three blocks away from the Undersiders, effectively surrounding my team, staggering their movements so only half were changing position at a given time.

I wondered how much battlefield experience Calvert actually had, or if it had been too long ago to matter.  Had he forgotten what it was like to actually be in pursuit of a target in the midst of a sprawling urban environment?  He probably could have tripped me up a fair bit more by dropping the perimeter and leaving me to try to track down my teammates.

No less than three radios for one squad buzzed with the noise of voices.  The three soldiers picked up their radios and replied.  Ok, so he was checking in with each squad.  So maybe it was roughly as inconvenient as trying to find my teammates in the middle of nowhere.

Calvert had dropped me in Genesis’  territory.  It was about as far away as I could be from where I wanted to be, about ten minutes drive down Lord street and then a ways towards the water, if someone was driving quickly.  I wasn’t driving quickly; I spent far too long in the wrong gear, for one thing, I was clumsy with the car’s controls and I was forced to drive even slower because the roads were treacherous.  Damage to the road was hidden in the areas that were still flooded, where my bugs couldn’t necessarily see them.   Other roads were slick where there was just enough water to raise the oils up from the crevices of the road’s surface to the point that tires would slip on them.

On the plus side, driving while blind wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be.  I was relying on my swarm, of course, but even then I figured the lack of sight would be more of an impairment.

After noting where the squads were deployed and coming to the conclusion that Calvert was using his soldiers to track the movements of my team, I had to stop to contemplate the situation and finally got around to the coughing that had been looming for a few minutes.

If I charged in, Calvert’s men would collapse in on me.  Three or four soldiers per squad, and there had to be eight or more squads, unless Calvert wasn’t keeping troops moving in advance of the group.  That made for twenty-five to fifty soldiers.  That would be pretty much all of Calvert’s troops that hadn’t been at the house.  I didn’t fail to note how they were equipped, either.  I could sense the general shape of what would be sniper rifles and one piece of artillery that looked to be a mortar.

Made sense that he would have had the perimeter in place to ensure Dinah didn’t slip his grasp.  If she was gone, then he might have maintained their positions to keep me from reuniting with my team after I escaped from his deathtrap.

Thing was, I had another problem here.  Calvert had teleported me.  I wasn’t sure how he’d locked on to me, had ditched my phone as the most obvious measure, but I was worried that they could tag me with the thing and toss me into some backup trap reserved for one of my teammates.

All in all, I didn’t want to give the soldiers a chance to see me, radio in general coordinates and then toss me out to some remote area on the other end of the city.  Knowing that his power was least effective when he didn’t have a full grasp on what was happening moment to moment was another reason to keep out of sight.

did want to go on the offensive.  I just wasn’t sure how.  If I attacked the individual squads, a check-in on Calvert’s part would reveal that someone was picking them off and they would all go on the offensive.  They might even shoot to eliminate my teammates.  Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs might have the suits or natural durability to keep them alive in the face of a hail of gunfire, but Dinah didn’t, and there was the possibility that the shots from the sniper rifles could penetrate the suits.

Or Calvert would order his squads to fire their mortars and wipe my teammates off the map.  If I assumed he had more than one mortar positioned around them, added his power into the equation to give him two sets of barrages with different target zones, I doubted they would emerge unscathed.

That left me to wonder why he hadn’t done something similar at the house.  No grenades, no mortar, no bomb laying in wait.

Failing that, what was the trick behind the teleportation?  Why hadn’t he just teleported me back after I slipped away?

Did he want to keep me alive?  Or had he actually expected me to escape?  Had he looked at all my past confrontations and gauged that I could probably make it, and it was no skin off his nose if I didn’t?

Hell, it was possible he’d used his power to help ensure I’d make it this far, to further some greater scheme.

Whether I wanted to deal with the soldiers, get the Undersiders out of the way of those mortars or avoid falling into some greater trap laid by Calvert, I needed more information.

The Undersiders were walking, judging solely by the speed the soldiers were adjusting their positions.  I wasn’t sure where Atlas was, but I’d driven past the site where we’d picked up Dinah and he hadn’t been there.  I could guess that Dinah wasn’t keen on riding the dogs, so that made sense.

I slipped bugs into position on the soldiers to track their movements, then moved in closer, pulling the car into park and climbing out.  Better to move on foot.  I’d picked up masses of bugs on my slow-ish drive through the city, and I guided them as close to the soldiers as I could get them without giving myself away.

The tint of my lenses didn’t help with the haze over my vision.  Still, opening my eyes, I could see it was evening, and the city wasn’t offering much in the way of ambient light, given the inconsistent availability of power.  I coupled the use of my bugs with my eyesight to try to spot the glare of flashlights or headlights, but peeks suggested that the soldiers were operating in darkness.  Night vision goggles, perhaps.

I waited until the squad nearest to me shifted to follow, noted how the squads to the north and the southeast of them were holding position, guns at the ready.  Calvert would have told them I’d escaped and that they should keep an eye out.  Their wariness made sense.

Still, I was able to advance closer, following the group that was moving to follow, getting closer while keeping buildings and other obstructions between us.  Not the easiest thing in the world when I had to use the presence of the bugs to estimate where their line of sight extended, but I managed to get within half a block of them, crouching behind a van.  Swarms waited just around the corners.

I wasn’t attacking, though.  No, my interest was on getting close enough that I could reach my teammates with my power.  Calvert had apparently stationed his men with my power’s range in mind, but he didn’t necessarily know that my power’s range extended in certain circumstances.  Getting just a little closer, I could sense them, walking down the middle of the road.  I drew my bugs around me, not in the shape of a person, but to mimic the curves and bumps of the truck I was kneeling beside, so my silhouette wouldn’t stand out so dramatically.

I could sense Bitch, still on Bentley’s back as he trailed behind the rest of the group.  Bastard was lying across her lap, apparently asleep.

I sensed Grue and Imp, walking just ahead of Bitch and Bentley.

And I sensed Dinah, walking hand in hand with a girl who shared my build, who had hair of the same length and a costume similar to my own.  I didn’t want to give anything away by swarming her with bugs to sense where our costumes differed, but it was pretty damn close.  She even had bugs on her costume.  Some were drawn there by pheromones, and some were pinned in place.  Her utility compartment differed from mine.  She had a knife, longer and narrower than mine, and two guns holstered within.  Some grenade canisters were tucked into the spaces by the shoulders where the short cape could cover them.

If Calvert’s preparation of the building prior to teleporting me in hadn’t made me think his betrayal was premeditated, this certainly cinched it.  Copying my costume, finding someone who fit my shape to the point that the others wouldn’t notice?  Someone apparently capable of using a gun?

Dinah was still with them.  They hadn’t dropped her off, even though Calvert could have arranged something like fake parents to accept Dinah.  Or maybe someone had raised that possibility and fake Skitter was taking Dinah back to ‘her’ territory to look after for a bit. The other Undersiders would leave, maybe, and Dinah would go straight back to Calvert’s possession.

I wished I had a better sense of Calvert’s overarching plan.  What would happen to the other Undersiders?  What would he do with fake Skitter?  He couldn’t hope to maintain the ruse for any meaningful length of time.

There had to be a reason he hadn’t just bombed them here and erased the last of his enemies in one fell swoop.  How much of the plan that he’d shared had been real?

This situation wasn’t so different from the one I’d just escaped.  There was the immediate threat, the mortars, and there was the one beyond that, with the soldiers ready to gun down my allies.  Bitch could have rescued Dinah, Imp and Grue from the mortars, given a chance to run, and Grue and Imp could deal with the guns, but the biggest issue, the biggest difference in where they were now compared to where I’d been, was that they weren’t aware of the threat.

If I could communicate with them, perhaps I could have coordinated them, managed something.  But it was evening and the black and brown bodies of my bugs wouldn’t be able to spell out anything obvious against a dark background.  My phone had been locked out and the presence of the false Skitter meant I couldn’t deliver a message unless it was very subtle.

Any mistake on my part threatened to provoke an ugly situation.  Calvert could order the mortar strike and teleport Dinah and false Skitter out.

No, I didn’t think there were many options when it came to communicating with Grue.  Imp?  Maybe that was a better option, given her ability to disappear, meet up with me and then rejoin the others.

Except I didn’t have an explicit strategy in mind, and I wasn’t willing to gamble that Calvert hadn’t accounted for Imp with some kind of surveillance with an electronic filter, like the screen of Dragon’s battlesuit.

Rachel?  No.  I was pretty sure she couldn’t read and write well enough to follow any directions, so I couldn’t even explain anything complex without saying it aloud, and doing that would be hard, speaking through my bugs without alerting the doppleganger in their ranks.

I could abandon them, try to find Tattletale or my dad, but Tattletale was going to be behind even more layers of security, if she was inside Coil’s underground base, and going to see my dad felt like a detour that wouldn’t do anything to address this situation.

That left me one potential ally.  I sent a ladybug to Dinah, settled it on her right hand, the one that the mock Skitter wasn’t holding.

She glanced at it, her head turning a fraction, then moved her hand to hide it from false Skitter.  I felt her clench her fist, the skin between the ladybug’s legs stretching so the legs were pulled slightly apart.

Dinah knew that Skitter wasn’t me.  There was no other reason to hide the ladybug.

We’d never spoken.  We’d never had a conversation, or even communicated through more than eye contact.  Dinah had been driving my actions for weeks, now, or maybe it would be fairer to say my goal of saving her had been driving my actions.  Now we were finally getting a chance to interact, and everything hinged on it.

The bug crawled to the center of her palm, and she closed her fingers gently around it.  Did Dinah have access to her power?  Could she signal me?  Dropping the bug?  Killing it?

I sensed the movement of the bug as she raised it to her chest, used her thumbnail to scratch at her collarbone.

Maybe I’d pinned too many hopes on the drug-addicted preteen.

Maybe I’d read the little signals wrong, and she didn’t realize that the Skitter next to her wasn’t me.

Or maybe that niggling doubt that had been in the back of my mind since I’d decided I had to help Dinah had been real.  It was all too possible she didn’t want to be rescued.  She was dependent on the drugs, she craved them, and staying with Calvert meant she got them.  In a way, I felt like that possibility was why I’d been pushing myself to save her as hard as I had, because I suspected that Dinah was trapped in more than one way.  She’d been kidnapped, kept captive physically, but she was also being kept captive in other ways.  I had to save her because she might not want to save herself.

Except if she didn’t want to save herself, then this situation would be that much more difficult to manage.

She dropped her hand to her side, let it swing a distance away, then brought it up to her chest again, scratched.

My doppleganger noticed, said something along the lines of ‘Don’t scratch’.  I caught only some sounds, was left to put the rest of it together through cadence and context.  And, I thought, maybe it was easier to understand because she sounded familiar.  She sounded much the same to the ambient bugs as I did.

It bordered on creepy.

The second thing I noticed was that what Dinah was doing was probably a signal.  Both times, she’d touched the bug to her chest, bringing it close to her heart.

Bringing the bug to her?

I didn’t like the idea of that.  If I was interpreting it the way I was supposed to, it seemed suicidal.  Did she want me to come to where she was?  If she was, was her power guiding that request, or was she still powerless and simply wanting to be rescued?

Breaking past enemy lines without getting seen, only to… what?  Make myself a mortar target alongside my teammates?  Where was the advantage?  What was the asset to putting myself in the thick of it?

Calvert had to anticipate that I’d try to rescue my teammates.  His soldiers wouldn’t be on guard against an outside threat like this if he didn’t.  What did he expect I would do?  I wouldn’t charge headlong into his soldiers.  I would see them.  I’d find some way around them, maybe turn some aspect of the situation to my advantage.

There were too many possibilities when it came to ways I might leverage things.  He couldn’t narrow down what I’d do because that was how I operated.  I was versatile.

Then what was the common element?  I was tired, I was hurting, fighting the urge to cough, lest I inform the soldiers I was here.  I couldn’t think of any solid way to tackle this situation, but in scenarios where I could, what might the common elements be?

I’d be using my power, for one thing.  Calvert couldn’t do anything about that unless he’d had Leet devise some kind of counter-weapon.  It was all too possible, but I didn’t have the time to consider all the possibilities there.

I didn’t have the time.

The other common element, the drawback to my power, to my mode of operation, was that I wasn’t dynamic.  I wasn’t a blitz hitter, in and out in a flash.  I could be aggressive, impulsive, improvising on the fly, but it took me time to get my soldiers in a row, to prepare my tools and drag things to where I needed to be.  Fighting Mannequin had been like that, those two long minutes of sustaining a beating while I got all the supplies and spiders to the site of our skirmish.  Even escaping the house, it hadn’t been quick.  I’d had to hunker down and amass enough decoys before dropping from the window.

Calvert had studied us.  He’d be aware of this.

Dinah and faux Skitter were walking.  Whatever excuse they’d given for not being able to ride Atlas, they’d opted to travel on foot instead of riding on Bentley or catching a ride in the truck Calvert’s man had driven.  Maybe that wasn’t because Dinah was scared of the dogs.  Maybe faux Skitter had suggested it, encouraged this for some greater plan.

They wanted to let me catch up.  They were betting I’d get here, then take time to deal with the squads so my teammates weren’t in danger.  By doing that… what?  How would he capitalize on it?

Identify the direction I was attacking from, then bring all the soldiers he’d had at the deathtrap house here to corner me?  Bring the Travelers?  Über?  Leet?

Dinah struck the side of her leg with the bug she held, hard.  Grue said something I didn’t catch.

The message was clear.  Now.  If Calvert was expecting me to delay, to take my time and be methodical about this, and Dinah was urging me to be aggressive, throw myself headlong into this situation, that had to point to something.  I’d decide what the hell I was supposed to do while I was en route.  I broke into a run.

I couldn’t move directly to their location.  I had to backtrack, find a route that didn’t put me in view of any of the watching squads.  The activity was making me cough, and I was forced to suppress it or limit it to muffled choking as I got closer to the soldiers.

Sweeping the whole of my range with my bugs, I found a route.  I had to backtrack a touch, move a bit closer to the water, but I found the construction site, and I found the ladder leading into a hole in the ground.  From there, it was a short climb to accessing the storm drains.

The acoustics of the storm drains made for a lot of noise, even if it wasn’t raining aboveground.  The water varied from knee-high to waist-high, depending on how much debris had filtered down, and it was moving with enough speed that it interfered with my ability to run.  My chest screamed at me in pain every time I was forced to stoop down to touch ground with my good hand for added support, and I didn’t dare cough for fear that the same acoustics that made the area echo with the flowing water would carry something to the ears of soldiers above.

The realization hit me when my swarm reached far enough to sense the second mortar and accompanying squad of soldiers.  There was an advantage to putting myself in the middle of the mortar’s target area.  I just had to get there.

I picked up my pace, hurrying in the direction of my teammates and Dinah, slipping on the slimy footing and loose grit, trying not to cough and failing.  It didn’t matter too much.  I was past the perimeter and closing in on my teammates, using my bugs to figure out which turns I needed to make and which paths were most open to travel.

In a matter of minutes, I was close enough that I had to find a way up.  My bugs identified a ladder, and I pushed my way up, using one shoulder and my legs to lift the drain cover from its housing.

I emerged just far enough away that I thought the sound of the cover wouldn’t be audible.  Bentley perked his ears up as I used my good hand to set the drain down, but didn’t do anything further.

My concern and my worry were driving my range outward.  I was sending any bug I didn’t need for sensing my surroundings to the periphery of my range, gathering them near the mortars.  Spiders threaded cords of silk together, and other bugs gathered en-masse.  Being here, at the bullseye, with my range extended like it was?  It meant I could strike at each of the four mortars simultaneously.

I hit each squad of soldiers in the same moment, a tide of bugs washing over them.  I tried to wind cords around the noses of the mortars, snag them on anyone who was moving, but they were too stable.

One soldier grabbed a bomb and moved to load it into the tube of the mortar.  In an instant, I had the full mass of that one swarm on him, slipping beneath the stylized, high quality armor and masks Coil outfitted his mercenaries with.  They bit, stung and attempted to wind cords around him, tying his hands, for lack of a better word.  He put the mortar down and backed off, and I eased up on him, settling for a more general form of attack.

Snipers couldn’t fire, mortars were out of commission, and the soldiers weren’t in a position to attack.

And faux Skitter raised her head a fraction, her back straightening.  If I could see, and if I were in a position to see her, I might have missed it, but I was aware with my bugs on her. She knew.  A headset beneath her mask?  A communications device in her ear, feeding her info?

I ran towards my team.  Bugs stirred around the others, as I attempted to rouse them and get their attention.

Fake Skitter wheeled around, reaching behind her back to draw her gun.  Her arm caught Dinah around the shoulders, hugging the girl to her side.

I missed the first part of what she said.  The meaning was clear.  “…got no more use for you.”

And she sounded like me as she said it.  I could sense the shock on the part of my teammates.

And I could sense the trap fall into place, as though a switch had been flicked.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates to sense where they were went on the attack.  It wasn’t my command.

I tried to push the bugs to stop, but my power was drowned out.  It wasn’t that the commands they were receiving were more powerful than mine, more that they kept coming, a singular, crude set of commands extending across my entire range, maybe even further, every half second, overriding any ongoing instructions to my bugs.  Attack, move this way, attack, move this way.

Grue said something, and I couldn’t catch it.

Betraying us!?” Bitch screamed the words.  Next to Bentley, she was suffering the worst of it as the bugs attacked.

“Sorry…” my doppleganger said.  I missed the tail end of what she said after that, but it ended with, “…the plan.”

Sorry, Bitch.  It was always the plan.

“No!”  I shouted, and the act of shouting made me cough until my knees buckled.  I could feel the bugs gathering on me, attacking mindlessly, collecting on my scalp.  Still coughing, I reversed the short cape that sat around my shoulders and pulled it over my head to serve as a hood.  It didn’t do anything to kill the bugs that were still alive and present, but it kept more from accumulating.

I was too far away for any of them to hear.  A block away.  Miles away, for all the good it did.

The other Skitter fired her gun at Bitch, one shot after another.  Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and the false Skitter dropped her weapon.  I could sense Bitch slumping on Bentley’s back, Bastard spilling from her lap to hit the ground and roll on impact.

Did he clone me?

No.  I could sense the movements of the bugs throughout my range, even if I couldn’t control them.  They were moving in a massive, slow spiral, drifting counterclockwise and attacking anyone they came in contact with, and the center of the effect, where they were settling and gathering in piles?  A box in the center of one building.

Had to get there, shut it down.

I struggled to my feet, half-running, half-staggering as bugs gathered in a heavy carpet on me.  I was lightheaded, exhausted, still coughing, and the first of the bugs were arriving from where they’d been attacking the soldiers.

I sensed Dinah in the midst of the swarm.  The pheromones that false Skitter wore were serving to override the pulses from the box, keeping bees and wasps from doing too much damage to the pair.  I wasn’t sure how they planned to deal with the more dangerous spiders, but the bugs that were moving across land were slowed by the constant vertical ascents and descents as they ran into buildings and other features of the landscape.

False Skitter hurled a canister into the midst of my teammates.

A flashbang.  I could see the flare of light, the concussive sound that scattered the bugs that had congregated on them.  Heading for the swarm box, I wasn’t close enough for it to really affect me.

The mortar crews were packing up their equipment and climbing into the trucks to beat a retreat from the scene.  This is Calvert’s doing.  He was convincing the others that ‘I’ was turning on them the second I had Dinah.  He’d probably rigged it so I would disappear afterward.  Skitter out of the picture, in a way that was totally believable given my prior actions.  The Undersiders would be mad, they’d be hurt, but they’d still be his.

Except I was here.  I could convince them it was a trick.  Either shut off the swarm box or take a left turn, show up where they were, and things would make sense in an instant, two Skitters, one a fake…

No, I had to shut off the box.  I could feel blood, where some bugs had found flesh on Rachel and the dogs.  If too many bee or wasp stings struck home, someone could be seriously hurt, needing epinephrine.

I could sense Dinah moving one hand, drawing it across her chest in deliberate gestures.  From shoulder to shoulder, down the side of her body from her armpit, turning to cross the base of her ribs…

Letters.  S.  O.  R.  R.

There was no time for the Y.  Both Dinah and the other Skitter disappeared, replaced by a collection of rubble and a single flashbang.  The others were still reeling from the first when the second flashbang detonated.

More boarded up windows and doors.  I fired my gun at the handle of the door and then kicked.  I did more damage to myself than the door, collapsing in another coughing fit.

The others recovered before I did.  I could sense Grue standing, shouting something.  I couldn’t understand him with the effect his power had on his voice.  Not the first time I’d run into that issue.  Rachel was up too, using Bentley to stand, one hand pressed to her side.  I sensed the hot knot of metal where it had impacted the reinforced jacket I’d given her.  Good.

“Find her!” she shouted.  “Find Skitter!  Hurt!  Kill!”

Bentley broke into a run, zig-zagging across the street they were standing on toward where false Skitter had been.

Did they make her smell like me?  They had to have, to keep the dogs from barking distress.  But how?  Had Calvert had his men raid my stuff?  Had he used my dirty laundry?

I felt violated, not just because of the potential trespass, but the extent to which they’d stolen my identity and abused it.

Bentley raised his head and then turned right in a loping run that would put him behind me in a matter of seconds.  Then he’d have my trail, he’d zone in on me… I could picture what happened next.  I wasn’t in a state to put up a fight.

I climbed to my feet, reloading my gun, then fired three more times at the door handle.  A gnat that was following the spiral summons of the swarm box made contact with a deadbolt on the far side of the door, and I shot at that too.  This time, when I kicked, it opened.  I collapsed to the ground, my cough so fierce and ragged that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been expelling flecks of blood into the inside of my mask.

Bentley spotted me and began charging.  I crawled inside, brought my legs up to my chest to get them out of the way of the door, and kicked it shut.

The mutant bulldog was too large for the door.  When he impacted it, it split across the midsection, the upper half coming free of the hinges, and the surrounding brickwork bulged inward, cracked mortar showering down around me.  The wooden framework around the door kept him from getting much further, wooden pillars of support that were a foot thick on each side.  It made sense that Calvert had picked a fortified structure to stick the  swarm box inside.  Small blessing that it afforded me some small advantage as well.

Bentley butted his head against the doorway again, getting no further than before, then backed away a few steps and howled.  Bitch and Grue were already en route, following the sound of gunshots.  I could hear Bitch howl a response to Bentley’s cry, an utterance of raw anger and promised violence.  Bastard was at Bitch’s side.  He was bigger, growing spikes of bone and an armor of calcified muscle.  He would fit through the door.

I crawled for the swarm box.  The bugs were thick, and though they couldn’t penetrate my costume, they were making their way into the folds at my neck, around my hood.  It was due to numbers rather than any design, but it was stifling.  I could barely breathe, and having to climb through a mass of bugs as big as a large tank, feeling them biting, stinging, feeling the venom the wasps and bees were injecting into me…

I raised myself up enough to get a grip on the tarp that covered the box, and then let myself collapse to the ground, coughing, maintaining my grip so I pulled the tarp off as I fell.  I was seeing bright spots in my vision, which shouldn’t have been the case, because I couldn’t see anything.

Getting onto my knees so I could find the wires of the swarm box was a gradual process, made heavier by the mass of bugs on and around me.  Every bug for what had to be at least a mile in every direction, gathering here.

I tore at one handful of wires.  Nothing.  It was just a matter of time.  I had a minute or two, judging by the speed Bitch and Grue were moving.

I reached to grab another and felt a hand on my wrist.  Imp hauled my hand back, pulling me off-balance, then kicked me square in the chest.  I doubted there was a place she could have hit me where it would have hurt more.

I lay on the floor, alternately writhing and spasming as pain lanced through me.

“Did the doggie get you?” Imp growled the question.  “Good.  Turn off your fucking power.”

I had only a helpless noise to offer in response.

“I warned you.  Warned you what you were in for if you let my brother down.  So do I use the knife, make it quick?” she drew a knife.  Then she drew her taser with her other hand, “Or do I stick you with this until you stop using your power?  Then we can find some place where you don’t have your bugs, and take the slow option.”

Grue and Bitch entered through the door, and I heard Grue mutter something.  Bitch gripped Bastard by the collar.

“Imp.  You found her,” he said.  He sounded strangely unaffected by recent events.  There was no emotion to his voice.

“We were just discussing options.”

“I heard.  Taser won’t do anything.  Worse than anything, she’ll use her power while she’s asleep,” Grue said.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed instead.

“What about if she’s dead?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t sound disaffected.  She sounded pissed.  “I can do it, if you two can’t stomach it.”

The lack of a response from Grue was unnerving.  He kneeled beside me, putting one knee on my bad wrist.  I cried out in pain, coughed more.  He just stared.  Not that he could see much, with the way the bugs filled the room.

When he finally spoke, it was one word.  “Why?”

I struggled to gain my breath, to center my thoughts.  I felt dizzy.

What could I say?  Was there anything that would convince them?  If I said it wasn’t me, would they believe me?  If I turned their attention to the swarm box, would they think it was a bomb?

He waited patiently for me to recover enough to respond.

“Use…” I wheezed in a breath, “Dark.”

I closed my eyes as the darkness flowed over me.  I felt my power weaken, realized I’d unconsciously been pushing the bugs to hold back.  I felt their attack intensify.

Grue stood.  He opened his hand, fingers splayed, and his darkness dissipated.  He turned to Bitch, gestured to Bastard.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.”  He pointed.

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Bitch whistled, Bastard lunged, and the swarm box caved in beneath the wolf cub’s front paws.

The swarm went quiet.

Grue offered me a hand, I took it, and he hauled me to my feet.  I was unable to balance, dizzy, and leaned heavily into him.

“You’re not buying this, are you?” Imp asked.

“It wasn’t her.”

“She’s playing you.”

It wasn’t her.”

Imp folded her arms.  Bitch didn’t move.

Grue murmured, “Explain what’s happened.  Then we need to take care of you.”

I shook my head.


I coughed briefly.  “Tattletale.  Regent too.  They’re in trouble.  We left them with Calvert.  With Coil.”

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146 thoughts on “Monarch 16.12

  1. Now that’s a hell of a cool way to bring in the New Year! Excellent update as always Wildbow, and Happy New Year!

  2. Oh man once things are explained to Bitch she is going to murder Coil. There really aren’t any other options for her. Trying to ruin her relationship with Skitter in the worst possible way? No chance of her ever letting that go.

  3. Very nice chapter. The fake Skitter almost worked too, that darkness power copying of Grue’s really came in handy. Is this the last chapter in arc 16?

  4. Well Happy New Year.

    Poor Skitter, just when she had managed to gain some semblance of trust from Bitch. Grue’s hesitation probably won’t do him any favors relationship wise either.

    At least Skitter’s ability to ‘hear’ trhough her bugs is improving and she is seriously putting the smack down on Coil’s mercenaries.

    It was also nice to see Taylor again voice the same speculations that were voiced in the comments.

    First chapter of the new year and that was a good one although you probably didn’t intend to post it under ” Stories (Arcs 1-10)”.

    • I don’t actually think this is going to have a negative impact on Skitter and Bitch’s relationship. If anything I expect this will make it stronger, at least so long as Skitter doesn’t stop Bitch from killing Coil.

    • The way they immediately concluded that she betrayed them, and wanted to kill her, makes me sick. If I was Taylor, I would bounce. At the very least, I hope she dumps Grue. He should know better.

      • Well it isn’t as if she is the only bug user around, and has betrayed them once before, and looks sound and smells like her….. Oh wait a second all those things are true!

        • yeah, whatever. people who care about you and call themselves your friends and team mates don’t immediately set out to main, torture, and kill you when it “appears” that you have betrayed them. With all the shit that taylor has done for the undersiders and the shit that they have gone through together, you’d think they’d give her the slightest benefit of a doubt. So much for Grue.

          • Sure, but Brian did give her the benefit of the doubt it was Imp and Bitch who expected betrayal, and those were the two that Skitter fought with the most.

          • Bitch is just … broken that way. And Skitter knew it well before this. You choose to be friends with someone who’s broken, you choose to share this type of weakness.

            Imp, while impulsive, and wanting there to be Consequences… she’s not actually -moving- on hurting Skitter. Bear in mind, if Imp had grabbed Skitter, she could have gone off and tortured her without her brother even knowing…

          • Nah, seems reasonable to me. They were definitely finding it hard to believe (except Bitch, and to a lesser extent Imp), but in the middle of *being actively attacked* by (apparently) that person those doubts get shunted to the back of the mind and immediate reality gets dealt with first.

            Remember that, when they confronted Skitter they were still being attacked by (apparently her) bugs so stopping for a calm chat wasn’t the first option that came to mind…

        • She never actually followed through with betraying them, and Armsmaster only outed her after she’d already decided not to go through with it.

          Looking back at that incident Brian was rather quick to go against Skitter on the word of a spiteful jerkwad who had just gone through with a betrayal of his own. Grue was quick to forgive her as well. But still, when the clinical sociopath is quicker to accept someone as genuine than him that tells me that he has just as many issues as Bitch to work out before having a healthy relationship.

          Well, issues aside from the “flayed alive by Punky Brewster” thing.

          • The thing is they asked her if what Armsmaster was saying was true, and instead of denying it she said nothing and ran. That is damning evidence. What else were they supposed to think aside from that she was at the very least originally planning to betray them? Bear in mind that there are alot of trust issues among the powered, and the Undersiders in particular.

          • Running off is damning evidence? I’m not sure about that. From what they know about Skitter at the time she may be very good in a fight but she does not do well in intense social situations. Especially when dealing with the kind of bullying that Armsmaster was putting her through, so scarpering doesn’t seem that telling. I personally would expect her to stay and try to deny everything if I we’re in Brian’s shoes.

            I’m not saying that Brian’s behavior wasn’t understandable. But as a result of his upbringing I’m seeing a general lack of willingness to be the one to display trust and friendship by, like, finding your friend and asking her if the accusations are true or not instead of taking things at face value at the expense of friendship.

            That’s the main obstacle between a Skitter/Grue relationship, I think. Taylor’s been doing most of the lifting in terms of being trusting and supportive and Brian needs to start reciprocating that more.

            • Skitter could have said “No, he’s lying.” If she was innocent, the situation would not have been intense and there would be no reason to run.
              And Skitter never denied it later. If I recall correctly, she actually confirmed her original plans of betrayal!

          • In that situation running off is definitely damning evidence. As is anything that doesn’t include saying “No, he is lying. I was never planning to betray you.” Everything else is at least a tacit admission that he is telling the truth. If it were a lie can you imagine Skitter running off without correcting things? If she had been able to honestly claim she never planned to betray them she would have said it and gotten Tattletale to back it up.

          • I’m actually with mc2rpg as far as running away being an admission of guilt in that instance. At the very least, it showing that his charges hit close enough to home that it caused her to be unable to come up with something to say in her own defense. If someone were lying about you instead, it might be easier as you’d have a fair amount of outrage motivating you.

          • Taylor has always been weak at defending herself though. We see examples of that at school, and after Leviathan with the heroes. I actually liked the Undersiders extreme reaction. They reacted so strongly because they trust and hold Skitter in high regard and the seeming betrayal was probably very painful, especially for Bitch. I am very curious about Bitch’s attitude and feeling toward Taylor right now. I also think they will grow closer as a group after this debacle.

        • Actually, I was thinking about that – real Skitter should be very easy to tell apart from fake Skitter once the Undersider’s have a chance to get a calmer look at her. Why? Because real Skitter should *reek* of smoke. She was in that burning building for how long after all? Bitch may not have dog-senses, but with what Taylor’s been through she wouldn’t need them to see that Taylor’s story was true.

          In fact, once they get a chance to take a good look at her, Taylor’s got to have a whole lot of “battle damage” that would be obvious. The bullet to the chest will have left a mark (big bruise, and maybe something on her costume). Falling out of a 2 story window, walking through the sewers – she just can’t be looking the same as she did before she was teleport snatched.

          That’s not the kind of stuff you’d notice when someone pulls a gun on you and starts shooting but with a minute or two of breathing time, it’d be a lot easier to notice.

          • They wouldn’t have known any of that though. They would just know there was one Skitter that shot at them and attacked them with bugs, then that Skitter got away. They turned the corner and found someone in Skitter’s suit, and they kill her. To the Undersiders there never was a second Skitter if she hadn’t arrived in time.

  5. Going medieval on Coil’s ass would be too quick and painless, the Roman treatment would still be too easy on him. It’s time to bring the Old Testament upside his head, Exodus-style.

    And I really hope it wasn’t Genesis that made that doppelganger. She doesn’t seem like a bad kid and wouldn’t really deserve but if she’s complicit in this fuckery there’s a logical very un-PC conclusion waiting for her.

    • The Tinker could have been Chariot too. Unlikely, unless he has actually had his powers since before Leviathan attacked.

  6. Happy new year. I had a little too much to drink, but this chapter is good to start off the new year. A toast to another year of great storytelling.

  7. It’s entirely possible that Tattletale and Regent are imposters too. Though I don’t see why she thinks Regent is a traitor, personally.

          • I think there’s be a lot more bodies and broken glass around if that was the case. I’m guessing either they drugged her to sleep or killed her. Personally, I’m hoping for the latter – the Undersiders are most fun when outmatched and Regent’s power is really skeevy.

          • If Regent is disabled and locked in a room that blocks his powers like the one Shatterbird’s been stuck in, then Shatterbird is probably suiting up as an expendable asset of Coil’s. Skitter turning on her team and quite possibly her territory’s people by now. Shatterbird hunting down the others on Regent’s orders. Tattletale’s been using Coil’s people all this time, so her people will be out to off the other Undersiders. Bitch is easy to trick and provoke. In the public view, it looks like the Undersiders are turning on each other after having established dominance over the city.

            Some having done so more literally than others. Bitch, stop humping the mayor! Bitch please! Bad Bitch! Down! Go chew on your tennis ball.

            Bitch be crazy, you know what I’m saying?

            …educated and refined one moment, sex jokes and fucking f-bombs the next…

  8. Well, it seems Coil really did need her for the next part of the plan.
    Or, at least, knew she would escape, and got to work on a device to imitate her powers.
    I wonder what kind of trouble Regent and Tattletale are in now?

    • She didn’t have to be there. Imagine the scene if she hadn’t showed up. Dinah and ‘Skitter’ disappear post-flashbang, never turn up again.

  9. Nice Xanatos Gambit.

    Now, how are we going to deal with the copycat Skitter who might be Circus in disguise or possibly Genesis?

    In the case of Genesis, my best suggestion would be to heal her and allow her to walk, then give her a case of Locked-In Syndrome. She’d be fully capable of doing whatever she wants to physically. She’d just be unable to do it. Oooh, and even better, that’s when we’d let the bugs play with her. Mosquito buffet table, open for business. See if any spiders like to nest in the ears. Is there a good spot on a human female body for wasps to build a hive?

    If it’s Circus, I suggest firing her out of a cannon into another cannon that then fires her into a third cannon that fires her into a cake laced with C4 and fireworks. But the backup, in case she uses her hammer space…which I now wonder if it’s really similar to that one superhero who has his own hammer space…but in case she uses hammer space to escape the cannons, there is only one clear choice left. We bring in a helicopter designed for heavy lifting and dump an assload of smelly, 2 day old fish on her. Then we assemble more cannons and go Overture 1812 on her ass with grapeshot for 2 hours straight. Maybe 4, depending on if it’s an Imperial assload or a metric assload.

    The fish would probably get her, but I’d like to be sure.

    If I seem a bit overzealous, it has something to do with all the identity theft stories I’ve read tending towards the villain getting away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of the hero winning, but it’s a bit cheap at times.

    Besides, what kind of supervillain would I be if I permitted someone else to take over the world instead of me? That’s why the bad guys have to contend with heros AND villains when it looks like they might actually succeed. You think Lex Luthor wants to live in a world ruled by Brainiac or Gorilla Grodd? You think Dr. Doom (Roma) or Magneto (Jew) are going to tolerate Red Skull (Nazi) taking over?

  10. Happy new year, dear readers.

    It’s been a pretty good one, I think. We’ve gone from the midst of a fight at a fundraiser, through an Endbringer attack, the Nine, and many more events besides.

    I expect we’ll see Worm reach it’s conclusion before the end of Summer. Or at least, start its conclusion thereabouts. No promises. Sorry. Can’t guarantee it’ll end that soon.

    I try to minimize the nagging, but it’s a landmark, so I’ll take this opportunity to plug: Star ratings & reviews on Webfictionguide remain very much appreciated (See here, halfway down the page) and votes on topwebfiction would be helpful for this new caelum lex upstart who’s trying to bump Worm from the top of the rankings. 😉

    • Sigh, this story is so good I wish it would never end. It could be like the big mainstream series, a endless series of reboots, and alternate universes. Ultimate Skitter, New Undersiders, Skitter Returns, etc. I hope you tell other stories in this universe some day, though I will definitely read anything else you put out. It doesn’t count as nagging. The more readers you have, the more money you get from advertising, the more story we get to read.

      • Hm. I think, though, that if Worm were endless, it would be different.

        When I wrote it, I wrote it with the idea that there’s a beginning and an ending, and I had key events & arcs I wanted to include, I wanted to capture the best aspects of serials by letting it sprawl, but I didn’t want to write solely to keep writing. I always had the ending in mind, so to speak, even if I gave myself free reign to determine how we got there.

        If I did make the work endless & write for the sake of making Worm continue, I think characters would stop growing and developing and they’d start spinning in place, so to speak. It would get stale, and the story would die out.

        I won’t name names, but I sort of feel like that happened with one web serial that was once at the height of popularity (It’s not a superhero serial, not one that’s written by any of our occasional author commenters) and I don’t want to see it happen to Worm.

        • Reminds me, I need to go catch up on the latest TribeTwelve and EverymanHYBRID. They’ve all been at it for so long they’re hitting some serious scheduling issues and it’s hurting the reception of the work. They really need to get those moving again or ended.

        • I get what you are saying. Chris Nolan gave the Dark knight Trilogy, and by extension Batman, a definite ending that made the story better in my opinion. Batman doesn’t grow too much as a character in other works, though they do bring out different facets of his character. I still enjoy the many different reboots/alternate universes of Batman in fiction though. I think you are good enough to make it work for a while without it growing stale. You can always do spinoffs, there have been a few examples in other media that are just as good as the original. Maybe turning the interludes into other series like the Wards, our favorite tech odd couple, or a prequel focusing on the Undersiders early career before Skitter. You have consistently made a good story, so I trust your judgement if you feel it would be better ending. A person can dream though.

          • I’m going to have to disagree with you about that being an ending that made the story better. Dark Knight Rises was just not a Batman movie. You could have had John McClane or Rambo or Jason Bourne or something like that be in the movie and the only thing you’d have had to change was the character being a billionaire. The villains could have been retaliating for some off-camera mission that was never a big enough deal to be told in one of the movies. The bat symbol that one night could just be a hand giving the middle finger or the letters “F U”.

            And what he did between Dark Knight and Rises? All those years and he did that? Someone obviously hasn’t been paying attention to Batman’s motivation in life.

        • No, that kind of thing is why most comic books have lost all shreds of good…ness. It sucks but a clear narrative can’t go on indefinitely.

          A few thousand years seems reasonable form the quality of this story though.

        • I know which serial you mean.

          Oddly enough, that’s something I’ve had in mind as well. Personally I’ve thought the bigger issue in that case was the completely inconsistent update schedule in combination with the pace.

          That said, I’m taking the same approach as you–beginning, middle, and end in that order and once it’s done, it’s done.

          • Oh, I agree, and I suspect I’ve gone on enough on WFG and elsewhere about how important I think it is to be consistent as a serial author that you’ll believe me when I say that. I hate it when a story I’m enjoying just happens to miss an update. It’s one of the reasons why I’m pretty religious about updating Worm on time. I wasn’t able to get one update up a month ago, but I’m forgiving myself of that because it wasn’t scheduled and it was two days after my dog died. So yeah.

            LoN has been running longer than Worm, but the wordcount per chapter is lower, so I suspect the length may run roughly to the same count, or something like that. Worm’s threatening to be 1,000,000 or 1,200,000 words before I wrap up. Last I checked (a few chapters ago) it was just passing 800,000.

            On the subject of the other serial, I couldn’t help but feel that the author gained the ability to make a living writing their story and then they got trapped. Call it getting typecast, call it bittersweet fortune in creating a universe that people really loved, but they got stuck writing a story that couldn’t end and that they couldn’t move on from lest that income flow dry up.

            I won’t lie. If I could make a modest living writing serials and self publishing, I’d be thrilled. But if I should, a year or five years from now, come across a way to pay my rent with my writing, I’d like to already be known as an author who can write a genuine variety of engaging stories in various genres. I don’t want to get trapped psychologically in the sense that I don’t know if I could write something different and still strike a chord, I don’t want to get typecast as an author (a la Anne Rice) nor anything of the sort.

            Maybe people won’t love my next story. I do hope they will, but it might not make them fall in love with it in the same way, and that’s ok. But as of now, I still have some elbow room to experiment and learn without things threatening to collapse in on my head when I do. I’m more comfortable doing that than making Worm a 10 year epic or writing Worm II:The Worm Sequel or Arms:Jerkass with a heart of stainless steel.

          • Wildbow: We’re definitely on the same page there. I remember your comments about reliably updating. It’s one of the things that guides me with how I’m writing Legion of Nothing too.

            I have to admit that I haven’t always been perfect there. There was a while when even though I was consistently updating twice a week, posts consistently appeared the day after they were supposed to (if you were reading then, my apologies…). Now though, it’s consistently on time–if on time means somewhere between 1 and 4am of the due date.

            As for word count, yours blows mine away. Even after five years, I’m still at 476,500 (which is fine). I wouldn’t be surprised if Legion of Nothing hits a million words in the end as well.

            My word count per chapter is typically around 800 (but ranges from 750 to 1500). Yours seems to range from 4000 to 10,000 per chapter, so I’m not surprised that you’re further along.

            On the topic of the other serial, another piece of the problem was that it was prior to the big boom in ebooks. As of now, the smart thing to do with an online serial is to write the serial, and turn it into a series of ebooks. What she was doing with monetizing it was the “donate for additional episodes” only model without any hope of getting additional revenue off the finished version.

            As a result, the only way to get additional income off writing was to write more serials–which she did. None of them took off like the original, and all of them contributed to screwing up the consistency of her original serial’s update schedule.

            My take away from that is that if I’m tempted to start another serial while Legion of Nothing is still going, I’m not allowed to publish it until I’ve got a finished copy (or 90% done), thereby ensuring that Legion will continue to be consistent, and the secondary serial will continue without hitch.

          • Wildbow, I am always more and more impressed with your writing – You said that you expect to be over a million words by the time you finish. That’s 10+ full-length novels that you delivered on time & well written.

          • @Jim – I agree on the value of ebooks. That said, I have no idea how I’m going to work Worm into one. Where are the damned cut-off points? And fixing/polishing what I already have? I might scrap the beginning and rewrite it entirely. Too slow, and the tone doesn’t fit with the story that follows thereafter. Keep the essential ideas & events, but just tweak overall.

            @Roland – Maybe I’m just overly critical of my own work, but I know there’s areas I could fix Worm, chapters and arcs that weren’t as good as they could have been because I was distracted or I was operating under the wrong assumptions. I’ll accept the congrats on writing 10+ full novels on time & well written only after I hit that 1 million word mark. 😉

            • I’m currently in the process of turning “Book 2” into “Book 2” and “Book 3”. Original word count? 240,000 words. Book 2 came in at 90,000. Book 3 will be harder. I’ve got to cut 120,000 words to approximately 90,000 again.

              I’m not looking forward to it. I suspect I’ll end up evaluating on a scene by scene basis. With Book 2, all I had to do was cut a couple chapters.

          • While it’s nice to have people say I oughta be doing one, I hope this makes it clear to some people the kind of effort needed for serials. I’m more of a short story guy, which is perhaps even worse online if you’re using a consistent character. I’m pretty sure I’d fail hard at sticking to a consistent schedule and it really does make a difference knowing when you can count on updates.

            Heck, you see the way we swarm around here as soon as the updates come out. Like trained sharks waiting for a mastermind to drop another hero and his teenaged sidekick down the trapdoor.

          • To Wildbow: One of my favorite things about Worm is how it is very much not what I was expecting. I thought it would be a nice tale about superheroes, maybe with a bit of romance tossed in. Very light fare, but I had just been dumped and I wanted something like that. The transition into the darkness was executed wonderfully in my opinion, and it is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to Worm.

          • @Wildbow

            When you are putting out ebooks, are you sure that the traditional novel length is a requirement? Worm is already broken down into chapter arcs that tend to be pretty good cut off points. You could put out each chapter as an ebook for $1 or $0.50 each. If you converted them to print books, that would leave you with a bunch of ‘light novel’ sized books rather than a smaller amount of American sized novels.

            That seems like a good plan for saving effort, but I am not so sure that it works from a marketing standpoint.

        • Yeah, we don’t need another Inuyasha. Or Marmalade Boy (the tv series), that had an ending, but they needed to wait until the mangaka published it…

          Stories work better when people can evolve. That’s not to say you can’t do a slice of life where people just… kinda continue along… but an infinite story doesn’t work terribly well.

          • The format of anime makes for a really interesting, if oftentimes frustrating dynamic when it comes to endings.

            For those who don’t know, anime are, 90% of the time, adapted from manga. (Anime are the TV shows, Manga are the comics)

            Manga go through a pretty grueling selection process that combines the worst of our TV series & book publishing markets here in the west. You’ve got authors submitting their ideas to publishing companies, making countless revisions, with ridiculous amounts of competition (only .01% of people succeeding with the publication companies that count) and then even when they do get noticed & serialized, they run the risk of being dropped if readership dips too low (much like our TV series do).

            So after a manga’s made it that far, if they get noticed, they’ll often get converted to a TV series, 13 or 26 episode season. But this is often when the manga author hasn’t even finished their series. TV episodes are adapted from the early chapters of the manga, and if things move too fast or if the author can’t keep up, then they catch up and even surpass the point the manga got to.

            Which leads to the animators either having to postpone the ending (series death) or having to come up with a reasonable ending to the show that the author hasn’t written yet. Which creates fuck-ups like the ending to the Gantz TV series. Or the somewhat lackluster ending to Bokurano.

            Or you get the mind-blowingly bad situation of what happened to Kare Kano, where the author basically broke down and they made the last 6-8 episodes recaps.

  11. As for the whole trust and betrayal thing up there…let’s use an example that some of us might know by now. Say you’re in love with someone. You want to be with them and know the world will be ok as long as you’re with them.

    And then, out of the blue, they break up with you for some stupid Dom/sub relationship.

    Is your first response really going to be “Wait a minute, this has to be a trick, she’s not REALLY breaking up with me. I’d better make sure a body double hasn’t taken her place.” or is it going to be more along the lines of trusting that the person you love really is fucking breaking up with you over something so idiotic then crying for a few hours straight?

    If it is the first response, you might have Capgras syndrome, which is where you believe your loved ones have been replaced with malicious doppelgangers.

    Perhaps this puts things into a bit of perspective.

      • How many of those dopplegangers can control bugs though? I am pretty sure that is the entire reason the plan would have worked. Without the bugs there would have at least been doubts.

        • Well that was what was giving Grue pause from just trusting her implicitly. As soon as he used his darkness and had an explanation for the bugs he was right back on the trusting and caring wagon.

          I love him trying to get her to take care of herself and being completely overridden.

          • well, they’re both right. skitter’s been kinda badly damaged, here. but tattletale and regent are in far worse trouble…

              • And depending on whether her power grants her immunity to bug bites and bug transmited disease.

    • Well, I’d think the healthy response would be to talk with the person, tell eachother what you want and what they want, and go your separate ways in mutual understanding. But if healthy responses and relationships we’re common reality TV and X-Men comics would be out of business.

    • I don’t think any of us personally know someone who makes body doubles, who works for an untrustworthy bastard with a motivation to screw our girlfriend over.

    • My point was that no matter how much we sit here and say they shouldn’t have believed she’d betrayed them, she appeared to have betrayed them. Her look, costume, voice, controlling bugs, and the fact that she’s done so much purely due to Dinah. And she was even saying she was betraying them.

      Much like how a girlfriend or boyfriend is going to be believed when they tell you they’re breaking up with you, that was the comparison. If it caught you offguard out of the blue, you’re probably going to be too hurt to do a lot of rational thinking in the short term, mainly because it will appear there’s no need for it since you have no reason then to suspect anything.

  12. Has anyone here watched the show Misfits? It is a British show with all episodes available on Hulu about five juvenile delinquents (and a bunch of other people) gaining super powers. I started watching it a week or so ago and the characters in it just screamed wormverse to me.

    • I’ve heard of it. Also heard a show called either Alphas or Alpha was a pretty good one along those lines.

      • Alphas is actually pretty fun, but it doesn’t have the same feel as wormverse imo. If worm was actually a series about the PRT and its super agents then it would be more aligned with alphas. The misfits cast are so clearly low to middle grade thugs and I could easily see a few of them sliding into the Undersiders with almost no problem.

    • I’ve watched Misfits. It’s more lighthearted, though. And the overall feel is very ‘monster of the week’, barring the key plot things that start/finish each season.

      It’s pretty good, though.

      • Very true. It is definitely more light hearted than Wormverse, but can you really say Simon for example couldn’t slide right into the Undersiders or one of the other groups without much trouble?

    • I’m on the fourth season/series of Misfits, so I won’t comment, except to say that the first three seasons are great. It doesn’t seem very similar to the Wormverse to me, though, except for some of the characters. I can see Nathan and Alec/Regent getting along, were it not for the age difference. That, or they’d fucking hate each other.

  13. And now for something else light-hearted, if anyone wants to know what effect Skitter’s power would have on sea creatures if she were attending a fancy-dress event, this picture should suffice.

    Or you’ll just enjoy it as a funny little breather after this update.

    • The pinnacle of human technology indeed. I can picture Skitter doing this to cheer up a teamate if they are feeling down. Her power is great for pranks, though she is so serious all the time. I am still a bit tipsy at the moment from new years, and am quite curious how Taylor would act drunk. Maybe after this arc we can see her finally let her hair down and relax for once.

      • Well, she needs to pull an aquaman. She has only been over the water once, much less dived under it. She should see what exactly she can control under the water. “Of the million or more animal species in the world, more than 98% are invertebrates”. She could theoretically control giant squids and that is just for starters. The oceans aren’t completely explored, and we don’t know where the endbringers came from.

        • Can she even swim? I’m genuinely curious.

          She has trouble controlling Atlas so I don’t think she can use anything much bigger than that. And she has a familiarity with bugs that she doesn’t with sea creatures.

          It would be something worth exploring once everyone and their mother stops trying to kill her. Experiment to see whether she’s truly limited to arthropods or if she can expand that. I remember her saying that she can’t do anything with heartworms, however.

          • She said she wasn’t sure how much she could move them (the heartworms), but that was more because they were packed inside Sirius and they have limited capacity for movement besides.

          • She has trouble controlling Atlas because Atlas has no natural instincts. A giant squid would probably be fine (provided its brain was simple enough).

    • Underwater critters have lots of useful weapons they bring to the table. She could even have her own gang of pistol shrimps.

      Every day they bubblin’, bubblin’.

  14. Wildbow, I just want to say that I am so glad you included the Skitter betrayal’s resolution in this chapter. If I had to wait to see how this resolved itself, I would have had a heart attack.

  15. You have to admire Calvert’s ability to construct a comprehensive frame. This one only failed because Taylor was practically on top of her double and the swarm box when the double started attacking the Undersiders and the box went off – if she’d been anywhere else I think Bitch or Imp would have killed her before she knew what had happened.

    The one thing that puzzles me is the cordon of mercenaries around the Undersiders as they walked to the stage set. Presumably Calvert sent them as a precaution against Taylor escaping the teleport ambush, to make sure the real Skitter didn’t show up before the fake had played her part; they weren’t there to attack Grue, Bitch and Imp, because the swarm box was going to do that. But in that case, why bring the mortars? You don’t use mortars on a single fugitive on foot running through a city; mortars are designed to hit a fixed point and destroy anything there. The mercenaries could have killed the other Undersiders with those mortars, but Calvert didn’t want them dead. Were the mortars only there as a feint? (If so, that one guy who tried to load a mortar when Skitter surfaced will have several strips of hide torn off him in the debriefing.)

    Also, Taylor was only in the right place because Dinah signaled her to come in. Since Dinah sees futures, that means Dinah at least wants Skitter to live and keep her friends. From Dinah’s interlude we know the things she wants most are her freedom and her home, so presumably the Undersiders are Dinah’s’ main chance for those. So as of now Dinah is sabotaging Calvert’s plans, as far as she can. It’s established that Dinah can’t lie about her power, but I wonder how far she can go in avoiding questions she doesn’t want to answer, and inducing Calvert to ask her the wrong questions. I also wonder if Calvert used her power to plan the hit on Skitter, and was led to a plan that Dinah could sabotage …

    • I believe the point of the mortars and snipers was to force Skitter to not rush in. She would find one mortar and correctly assume there would be more. So she would have to come up with a plan to deal with all the mortars at once before moving in to save her friends, exactly as she was doing until she contacted Dinah. This whole setup was perfectly done to take advantage of everyone’s mental state. Kudos to Coil. No wonder he let her escape the house, having her teammates kill her would drive them pretty firmly into his camp.

      • Nope, if they killed her they would ask thenselves: Where is Dinah?
        This would be bad for Coil sooner or latter.

  16. I’ve been reading Worm since March, so it’s been a big part of 2012 for me. I’ve been writing web fiction since 2007, and reviewing it on Web Fiction Guide since it’s beginning which I think was 2008. Worm is hand’s down the best story I’ve read online, and one of the best stories anywhere.

    I’m looking forward to where 2013 takes us all, and I’m intrigued to see how it ends actually, because I imagine that will be just as ingenious and entertaining as the rest of the story.

    That being said, despite the amazing description and action of Wildbow’s writing, for the first time I’m confused. Perhaps I’ve overlooked something as a reader, so if someone can help me out that would be great.

    I’ve gone over the chapter where Skitter picks up Dinah a few times and I thought she was with Grue. Trickster needs to visually see the people he’s swapping, I thought, so there’s no way he put Taylor into the trap with Calvert and the foam in that isolated spot, and swapped in the Taylor doppelganger. Taylor didn’t have a teleporting device on her, so whatever Coil is using has range that is even more sophisticated than Trickster’s superpower — that messes with my head.

    Genesis makes projections out of her mind, so they’re usually imaginary monsters with specific abilities. I can’t remember if she can make people, though the wiki and cast page says she can — I’m figuring she has to spend a lot of time designing the projection though, and she needs to be asleep to do it. I don’t think there would have been enough time for her to talk to Skitter at base, and then put the plan into affect. But I could be wrong — and the doppelganger could be anything else.

    If Grue was with Skitter when she got Dinah, would he not notice the swap? I get that teleportation might be instantaneous, the way Trickster does it, there’s no convenient swirly lights like Star Trek, so you might not notice physical transition. But she’s his girlfriend (sort of?) and he’s noticed her weird body language and way of walking before. The doppelganger can mimic that well enough that he didn’t notice? If her weapons and costume are even two percent different, if her hair is just slightly the wrong shape, length or colour, the people that know her best would have to start raising eyebrows, even unconsciously.

    So the means of the swap makes me go “huh?”

    All fiction requires a “suspension of disbelief,” because you have to accept some parts of the story reality for there to be a story. This world has superheroes. Star Wars has the force and aliens. In Twilight an awkward, useless, morose girl attracts everyone. If you can accept the premise, the story happens. As a reader I can be jarred out of my suspension of disbelief if something inconsistent to the reality of the story happens, where my brain goes “huh?” and the story logic and consistency start being questioned. I have fraternal twin sons and my wife and I mix them up if we just glance — but if you look right at them you realize one has a broader nose, and his eyebrows go up at the ends where his brother’s go down, and his cheeks are a bit wider, his eyes a little less round. The fractions start to add up the more you look. Nobody noticed Skitter’s fractional changes? These are people who deal with details, life and death situations, the nuances of behaviour to see who’s going to attack them and who is a friend.

    I have enough faith in the writer to know Wildbow probably has something more going on, but this is the first and only moment where I ever needed to go “huh?” about the story reality. In a series where there are interdimensional cosmic beings giving passengers with superpowers to traumatized humans, that’s saying a lot. Wildbow is an amazing writer.

    So if I’m missing something there, in the swap, someone please point it out so I can go “duh” and laugh at myself.

    Then, in this chapter, I got mixed up again. Skitter is in the storm drain chasing after the team, and then suddenly she has a ton of bugs and can be effective. I get that she discovers they’re being drawn to the area, I just think that the description was vague so I didn’t catch on for several paragraphs. She was coughing in the storm drain and then this paragraph happened:

    “The realization hit me when I was halfway, and the extent of my range let me identify the placement of a second mortar. There was an advantage to being in the center of the bullseye. This particular tactic didn’t involve me calling every bug in the area to me. No, just the opposite.“

    What bullseye? What tactic? What made her realize it? There’s no “as I ran I became aware of a growing number of bugs, all around me, headed inwards to a centre. I could use them for my plan…” It comes out of nowhere and I had to grasp it from context as things went along, but for a moment I was going “huh?” and feeling kind of blind in a story where Skitter’s range and control over insects usually makes description really clear.

    Is it just me or could that paragraph use fine-tuning?

    I think it’s awesome that I haven’t nit-picked in nine months. I’m not complaining about my favourite story, which is epic and awe-inspiring. I just got confused here, and with the swap.


    • It was shown that Genesis could make a human form when she made a copy of herself who could walk. I was pegging the doppelganger as Genesis until I saw that she had bugs actually pinned to her costume- Genesis coulda just created them as part of her body along with the costume…

    • Re: Fractional changes. I think they would have noticed if she wasn’t wearing her costume. So long as you get the height right and the general build very close you can cover up minor problems with the full body costume.

      • The only real thing that I’m surprised nobody noticed was that Skitter is supposed to be blind, which I don’t think was something Coil knew. But then again, I guess she can work around that so well as for it to be not really a hindrance.

        • With enough other things right I can easily see everyone aside from Tattletale just thinking she had figured out workarounds. She adapts ridiculously fast after all.

    • More on the subject of the swap soon.

      I’ll retune that bit about her approaching the mortar sometime today, not now as I’ve just woken up. I fear I’ve had a bit of a cold, and writing this past chapter, I was pretty unfocused. I gave myself extra time to revise, with that in mind, but I may have slipped up there.

    • I’m going to have to agree here. This chapter had a lot of moments when I was scratching my head about things. Skitter can see well enough to guide the truck even though there is no electricity in the middle of a damaged and flooded road in an urban setting? I don’t think so. I don’t think the bugs would help enough to let her figure it out either.

      How come nobody noticed that fake Skitter had grenades and such? That should’ve been visible outside of the costume, right?

      Skitter, of all people, ought to know if the bugs were being attracted by pheromones. They’re key to some bugs’ perceptions of the world.

      How come the bugs weren’t affected by the box until after Skitter made her move? They were still collecting because of the box, right? She was even able to attack all those soldiers with them and only after taking them out was her ability disabled. Smells of plot device.

      Lastly, didn’t any of the soldiers have vehicles of their own?

      I’m glad that G.S. Williams picked up on the idea that there were bugs collecting into the area, because I definitely didn’t pick up on that. I thought she meant that the advantage to being in the middle of the killzone was that she could strike all four mortars and all the snipers at once.

      As for the teleportation, though, Coil does have access to the skills vampire. Maybe with both of them working together, they can reach further? At first, I thought that there wasn’t an issue here because the room did have a window. Then I realized that everybody should have been able to see all of those soldiers gathered around the building, shooting at it.

    • Made some changes…

      > The swap will be discussed next chapter.
      > Fine tuned the tube segment.
      > Mentioned that she brought bugs with her as she drove the truck across the city.
      > Clarified that she knew they were pheromones.
      > Leaving the truck alone. Might mention it next chapter.
      > Clarified position of grenade canisters.
      > Clarified that the soldiers ‘packing up’ were getting into their trucks.
      > Leaving the timing of the box activation be – it makes sense in story. Calvert was planning on waiting to activate the box, but he acted only after reports started coming in that Skitter attacked his squads.

      • I find it reads much clearer, and hopefully that means your intentions come across to readers better. I appreciate it, that’s for sure.

        I kind of figured the box was activated for that reason, I was never worried about its use — Coil is smart.

        I’m a little terrified that he seems to have a better way to teleport now, as I still don’t see how Trickster could have pulled that swap (since I think he needs a visual of both parties). I’m really curious how faux Skitter sounds like the real deal — this is going to get interesting.

        • My guess is
          – Trickster was there – hidden. I can see him doing it as he has no love for Skitter. However I don’t see how Coil is retaining the loyalty of the Travellers when he’s manifestly failed to do anything for Noelle.
          – Coil has a new cape in his employ whose speciality is making “puppet” replicas of people. Thus the replica of Coil that was blown up, and the replica of Skitter controlled by Coil. Trust no-one anymore!

      • You’re awesome Wildbow. I hope you know that. I hope, too, that you didn’t take my criticisms personally. You’re still one of the best authors out there.

        Hmm, I suppose that Trickster (or the vampire) could use cameras? I can’t remember if it’s been established that he could do that or not, but that would be a pretty good trump card.

        I find it interesting that Dinah wrote out sorry. It seems like she was aware of the plan all along. That would explain why she didn’t say anything when Skitter disappeared, too.

  17. I still don’t get what Coil’s playing at to be honest. I would think he’d have been able to work Skitter’s insistence that Dinah be returned to her family into a net positive given his association with the PRT. I mean, Dinah’s bound to become a member of the wards at some point in the future, especially given the familial connections. When that happens, it seems like Calvert would have pretty easy access to her and her prediction abilities. It’s not quite as convenient as the current arrangement of course, but it seems like significantly less work. But I guess Coil’s just a bit of an overachiever.

    • I have trouble seeing her as anything like a traditional Ward. Honestly, I can’t remember anything particularly like her showing up before. She’s powerful, but a combination of her power hurting her, being really useful, and her being useless in most direct fights would mean the Wards might be a bad place for her. Cauldron seems like the right spot if they weren’t evil.

    • She would probably never be a combat Ward like the others, but I can easily see her working for the PRT or Cauldron. On the other hand at some point she is going to do a bit of private work and end up a multi-millionaire in about 3 weeks.

  18. Happy new year!

    So, we’re going to be seeing Worm wrap up around summer? Don’t know how you’re going to do it, what with everything flying around, Armsmaster and Dragon flying off after the Nine, Cauldron up to whatever the heck it is those people do, Legend’s potential rebellion against them, the Endbringers and what their dealio is, those goddamn unsided tesseract things heading for Earth, the coming apocalypse courtesy of Jack Slash and (I presume) Kaiser Jr., whatever the heck Glaistig Uaine’s prophecy meant, and what the heck is up with Scion? Nevermind the gang getting out of their current sticky situation with Coil. But I look forward to seeing it, and whatever comes after. 🙂

    • Thank you, and happy new year to you too.

      And frankly, I have no idea how long it’ll take to wrap up Worm. I have only tentative ideas on what happens after this story arc (and the bonus arc) conclude, I don’t know how long that’ll really take, and I don’t know how long the story’s conclusion will take. Maybe it’ll be late spring. Maybe it’ll be pushing Christmas by the time Worm wraps up. But I’m ballparking Summerish.

      • Interesting to know. There’s something bittersweet about talking about endings. On the one hand, we’ve all been reading along, headed for the point when it all comes together and all the questions are answered. On the other hand what are we going to do afterwards? 🙂 Loved this chapter, it was a great way to start 2013!

  19. Now for an MiB 2 joke:
    ‘It wasn’t Skitter……it was something wearing some kind of Skitter suit’

    Wildbow this was amazing! I wonder who is under the skitter suit…..wait….holy shit. Could it have been Genesis as the faux-Skitter? O.O

    • MiB joke. Edgar and the bug was in the first one.

      If you’ll excuse me, Jeebs is expecting this shipment of reverberating carbonizers with mutate capacity any minute. Or maybe I hijacked a truck full of vibrators, hard to tell the difference. I know one thing, in Japan it’s the unlicensed cephalopoids that are the sex toys..

        • This is why a sandwich board saying “The End is Near!” is attire you can wear all year long. We hear at Gekko Tekk understand this and are releasing our new 2013 fashions of apocalyptic sandwich boards.

          This one here is for the doomsayer who wants a little more excitement in their life. Or they just live somewhere warm. The sides have straps to help hold it on in increased movement and they allow the wearer to be nude underneath the sign without anyone being the wiser. Remember, with the end on the way, who needs material possessions like clothes, cars, or the large wad of money you’ll have to pay for these hot new fashions.

          Or let’s say your not the type to do that at all. More religious, in fact. We have a wide range of religious versions. “Repent! The End is Nigh” is always popular and available in Hebrew, Latin, English, and Arabic to cover the big three. For the Buddhists, the best we could do was “Oh Crap, the Black Holes are Coming” which shouldn’t be confused with our KKK version, “Oh Crap, the Black People are Coming” which can actually double as a food source as it is made out of white bread.

          For the Taoists, we have one shaped like a butterfly that says, “The Alarm is Going Off Soon!” I don’t think many Taoists are going to get that one since it’s a philosophy that rejects education and you’d have to do a little bit of research into Taoism to understand the reference.

          For the environmentalists, we have tortured and restrained a number of trees to grow in the correct shape and lettering. It’s all natural. Also, I believe the straps will be buyer’s choice of poison ivy or poison oak. We haven’t used any pesticides, so a number of termites and other bugs will also likely be crawling all over it and the wearer. All natural!

          • For those who enjoy classic british zombie flicks there’s ” Repent, the end is Extremly fucking nigh!” in drywall and red spraypaint.

      • two years of IRL worm have taken about a month or two in story time. The story would have to pick up the pace for the world to end anywhere near Wildbow’s could-even-take-a-year estimate. so maybe the coming arcs will be spotted with brief not-really timeskips of days or even weeks. maybe something longer, like a few months. maybe worm will end before the world itself. i’m just saying that timejumping isn’t completely out of the cards.

  20. I love how our idea of who the Monarch is switches from Skitter to Coil to Tattletale at the very end. Thank you for another amazing chapter.

  21. Dinah can see the future, why didn’t she tell the other people that she wasn’t Skitter, why didn’t they notice from her not using her bugs like she normally does? How about the conversations with Grue how was she able to fake romance through that? Why did she tell Skitter to come if she knew that was going to happen? Why did Skitter attack the mortar crews before hand? How did Grue not notice piles of rubble replacing Dinah and Skitter? How did Bentley switch targets from a pile of rocks to Skitter down the street with so much ease? How did Coil really not tell them to shoot in the head, he knows spider silk is bulletproof and he obviously knows that the entire crew is kitted with that. Why didn’t he tell her to shoot for the head? It’s so stupid. Either we assume he’s suddenly stupid or he deliberately wanted to leave Bitch alive which makes even less sense.

    Also Imp’s power isn’t very great, all you need is a smartphone and you can see her. Very easily dealt with, you can’t even steal since CCTV will show you, really lame.

    • Why would having a smartphone let you see Imp? Her power isn’t invisibility, it’s to make everyone in the area forget about her And she can steal just fine, since being caught on CCTV doesn’t matter if she’s in costume.

    • 1.1)Dinah cannot see the future,she can see possibilities,and they are answers in a question asked,so if nobody asks(including herself to herself),she will know nothing.Even her zooming in is not prediction,its zooming in in possibilities,and it hurts so much she would never use it willingly.Even if she noticed,she might have been too fearful to report

      1.2)Because faux Skitter did seem like she was using insects as Skitter usually does,so unless a combat situation came up,her cover was safe.\

      2)not much to fake in costume in front of bitch and imp

      3)she asked a question,it got answered,the possibility of it working was high,when it went south shewrote sorry

      4)Because she was afraid they’ll shoot her friends.This counts whether you asked why she did it or why she didnt and this was a typo,as she attacked on Dinah’s cue,ie when her chances were good.

      5)Didn’t he?I do not think it matters,if Trickster is nearby,or a machine of Coil’s is,there is a reasonably god chance Skitter is nearby


      7)Did they even manage to shoot well with Skitter’s beforehand sabotage?Did they really want to kill the Undersiders?I’d imagine Coil wanted having them killing Skitter was more lucrative,and I cant think someone doing it better than Bitch.

      8)Assuming you remember what you took out the phone to do….which you won’t.A camera might filter the effects of you not seeing her,but does it filter the effects of forgetting her?Skitter is only speculating,she doesn’t know Dragon is an AI and might actually be unbiased herself,thus bypassing the effect….And imagine Coil’s suprise if he finds out his technique for ignoring Imp’s effect doesn’t work…(oh,what suprise?he’ll forget it).Assuming I am right pof course.

  22. I don’t understand why everyone in the comments here is so uncharitable towards the Undersiders. Is the fact that they didn’t all immediately know that the girl who looks exactly like Skitter and can apparently control bugs isn’t the real Skitter really so unbelievable?

    • Especially since this isn’t her first betrayal, when you consider that she originally joined the team as an ad hoc double agent for the heroes.

      Again, using the Undersiders to further a quasi-heroic motive. Not too suspicious, although perhaps a bit out-of-the-blue.

  23. This is Calvert’s doing. He was convincing the others that ‘I’ was turning on them the second I had Dinah.

    You first showed, and then you tell? That comes off as not particularly flattering to the reader, and also as inattentive. I’m somewhat disappointed to see the quality of both the storyline and the writing go downhill.

  24. I’m actually somewhat surprised the impostor Skitter problem was dealt with within a single chapter. That seemed like material for quite a lot of angst over quite a few chapters. It was certainly a terrifying development from my point of view.

    Very exciting chapter, anyway. The one part that broke my suspension of disbelief (and this is silly, but suspension-breaking usually is)… is that Skitter mentioned she was driving “in the wrong gear”. See, last chapter I found it rather ridiculous that she’d be able to drive without having had any lessons… until I remembered that most cars in the US are automatic. An automatic I guess I can imagine her getting into and driving away from the soldiers without anyone realising. But now she says she was in the wrong gear half the time… that implies it’s a manual, which in turn implies she was able to climb into a car without any lessons and drive away without grinding the gears or getting any suspicion for driving in the wrong gear.

    Anyway. I apologise as it’s such a silly niggle, but I just thought I’d mention it because it’s the little things that can jar one out of the story.

    • I had the exact same reaction. Changing gears is a skill that takes time and practice to learn and *noone* gets away without bunny hopping and stalling repeatedly at first.

      Personally I’d suggest dropping that reference and just make the van an automatic. Driving in a destroyed city, while blind with no experience driving is more than enough impediment to require her to drive slowly and carefully.

      I also find it weird that Coil was able to teleport Taylor away while holding Dinah’s hand witjout Dinah (apparently) noticing, but Wildbow says that’ll all be explained next chapter and the dude hasn’t let us down yet. 🙂

    • Yeah have to concur on this one, driving an automatic is hard enough the first time, there’s no way she could manage a stick shift.

  25. I was shaking in disbelief. I would not have been able to stand it, if Skitter was framed and then had to work to regain her trust. Scary stuff, Wildbow.

  26. How many ammo does Skitter have? I was under the impression she was left with six after the Slaughterhouse Nine episode, and she spent them breaking out of the trap house in the previous chapter. Did she refill her supply somewhere along the way?

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