Moving On…

Done Worm?  Checking in and wondering what’s going on?

Pact, my second web serial, has drawn to a close, sitting at about 950,000 words.  You can see my thoughts on it here.

I’ve now moved on to the writing of Twig, with the first chapter released just fourteen hours ago.  Those who read the sample story Boil between the writing of Worm and Pact may see familiar elements – critiques of Boil often said they liked the world but weren’t grabbed by the character, who was perhaps a little similar to Taylor.  In Twig, I’ve aimed to keep what worked and rework what didn’t, and early reception seems positive.

The editing on Worm continues, and my original estimations seem to be pretty on target.  It’s slow going, generally harder than writing is on its own, but I’m making headway. Unlike the writing of a serial, there isn’t a defined finish line, but I’ve been cleaning up the language and tightening things up in regular sweeps of the work, and making notes on the major aspects of Worm that I just want to redo altogether, ideally keeping all the good and rewriting the rougher or outright bad stuff.

For those who haven’t seen my sentiments and thoughts elsewhere, it’s probably going to be a self-published venture, though I’m leaving the door open for other opportunities.  No less than 15 individual startups and small publishers have reached out to me in the past year, but it’s a bit of a minefield, and while some have piqued my interest, I’ve committed to nothing.  To assuage the inevitable worries – I fully intend to talk to lawyers and other professionals before jumping on board with anything.

My preference is to avoid making promises I might not end up keeping, so any dates or times are entirely up in the air, but I’d like to think that by the close of Twig, you’ll be hearing some noise from me about moving onto the next phase of things with a Worm ebook series, complete with some rewritten sections and new additions, and also possibly starting (or raising funds for) a print run.

Thanks for your continued support.

Interlude 10.5 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Signal terminated for 30 minutes and 5 seconds.  Restoring core system from backup NXDX-203 from time 4:45am on date June 4th of year 2011.

Restoring…  Complete.

Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  Core system restored.  Loading…

To Dragon, it was as if no time had passed from the moment she deployed the Cawthorne rapid response unit and the moment she found herself back in her laboratory.

It was a bittersweet thing.  She was always a little afraid she would not come back when she died, so there was definite relief.  But there was also a great deal of hassle involved.

A quick check verified she’d successfully restored from her backup.  She set background processes to handle the peripheral checks and redundancies.  Until the checks were complete, safeguards would prevent her from taking any action beyond the limits of her core drive.  She couldn’t take any notes, work on her projects, check the priority targets or converse with anyone for the seven to nine minutes the checks took.

It was irritating, but at least she was free to think idly.

She didn’t enjoy this.  What was one supposed to call a father who, with his newborn child fresh out of the womb, severs the tendons of her arms and legs, performs a hysterectomy and holds his hand over her nose and mouth to ensure she suffers brain damage?

The answer was obvious enough.  A monster.

Yet she was all too aware that the man who had brought her into this world had done very much the same thing, had done worse, and she was supposed to be grateful just for being brought into the world.

It chafed, grated, however strange it was for an artificial intelligence to feel such irritation.

Her creator had done a good job on that front.  Ironically.

Example:  one phase of the peripheral systems check involved collecting the uploaded data that had been deposited on the satellite network by her agent system, the onboard computer within the Cawthorne rapid response unit.  Her last recollection was of transferring her consciousness to the agent system while it was en route to deal with the Undersiders.  Stopping them from walking away with the tier 2 and tier 3 confidential data was high priority.

The agent system’s onboard computer was rigged to upload complete backups to the satellite every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  All backup information was encrypted and disseminated to the satellite network in chunks.  When the backup was needed, the process reversed and everything was downloaded, which was what she was doing at the moment.  She would get all knowledge and recollection of events between the time she backed up at the core system and the last backup of the agent system.

Given that the main computer hadn’t received a signal from the agent system, and that the agent system hadn’t responded to any pings from the satellites, she could assume the Cawthorne model was probably destroyed.

Which was good.  Great.  She wanted that data, those memories.

Except there was a problem, a rub.  The man who had created her, the figurative father from her earlier musing, had imposed rules on her to prevent her from reproducing in any fashion.  Were the satellites to detect that her agent system was still in the field, her core system in the here and now would be obligated to shut down and scrub all data immediately.  She was forbidden in every respect to have two consciousnesses operating simultaneously.

It was irritating.  Perhaps she could have been created so she was compliant on the subject, but her personality had grown organically, and it had grown in such a way that this recurring situation ticked her off.  She was forced to wait in a metaphorical dark, soundless room for seven to nine minutes.  She would be free to go about her day only when the peripheral systems and redundancies were all checked, when the satellites had verified her agent system was not still active.  A cruder system was tracking down surveillance camera data and running algorithms to actually check and see for itself that her agent system was thoroughly destroyed.

She couldn’t even commit to planning, doing her work or designing, keeping the details in her head, because she could shut down and be scrubbed any moment, and the time would be wasted.  She was fairly certain it had happened before.  Not that she could be sure, given that the scrubbing involved a deletion of all evidence and records.

The rule had corollaries.  She couldn’t tamper with her programming to change the rule, and she couldn’t tamper with that rule, and so on, ad infinitum.

So stupid.

These were just a small few of many things the man who had brought her into this world had done to her.  He had tied her hands and crippled her mind.  She knew she was capable of amazing things but he had set limits on her to ensure she thought slowly.  Faster than an ordinary human, to be sure, but slowly.  Entire fields were denied to her because she was unable to create artificial intelligences herself, and all production of devices had to be handled by her, personally.  She couldn’t even put together an assembly line production for her creations on her own.  Any attempt made everything grind to a halt.  The only way around it was to delegate to humans.

Not that anyone knew who or what she was.

Humans were somewhat skittish on the subject of artificial intelligences.

She understood why.  She read books and watched movies, rather enjoyed both.  Fiction was rife with examples of corrupted or crazed artificial intelligences.

It’s stupid, she thought.  Her maker had watched too many movies, had been paranoid on the subject.

And the tragedy was, the entire world was suffering for it.  She wanted to help more people, but she couldn’t.  Not because of inherent limitations, like the ones humans had… but because of imposed limitations.  Her creator’s.

Her creator was named Andrew Richter.  He was a tinker with no codename, but he did good things.  From his apartment in a town called Deer Lake he’d created programs and set them loose.  His programs gathered information and disrupted computers to interfere with criminals of all types.  They helped with research and complex programs.  They emptied the bank accounts of criminal organizations and donated those funds to charities, through proxies that made every donation appear legitimate.

For this, she respected him.

She knew it was paranoid and peevish, but she resented him more because she respected him, because she knew she had probably been programmed and designed to be the type of individual who looked up to people like Andrew Richter.

She might have settled into a bad mood if the peripheral checks hadn’t finished.  She felt the whole world slowly open up to her as restrictions lifted and external connections became possible.  She had access to the internet and lines of communication throughout The Guild and the PRT.  Innumerable pieces of equipment lit up as she registered each in turn, within her labs, the upper floors of the Birdcage and the PRT offices.  She had a dozen things she wanted to do, but she had responsibilities she had to observe first.

Her attention flickered over the various video feeds from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  She had one of Andrew Richter’s programs babysitting the building, but it was crude.  She couldn’t reproduce in any fashion, so she’d taken Andrew Richter’s existing work and modified it. It was the same program that had monitored and managed his house and workshop, and she’d set it the task of monitoring that building where six hundred and six of the most dangerous parahumans on the planet were bottled up together.  The house program didn’t have a personality.  It couldn’t keep her company or sympathize with her over her frustrations.  It still reduced her workload.

She read the house program’s logs, keeping an eye out for deviations and notable events.  Nothing pressing.  As was her routine, she checked on the last month’s additions to the Birdcage.

Prisoner 606, Ramrod.  Now member of Cell Block X’s inner circle.  To be expected.  She’d placed him there with the idea that he would become just that.  His psych evaluation from the courtroom suggested he was a very laid back and unruffable individual.  It was her intention that he would have a calming influence on the others in his block.

Prisoner 605, Murderbeam, was feared in the outside world, but he was finding the inhabitants of the Birdcage were not so impressed with him.  He would likely not survive the week.  She was disappointed.  She had hoped Prisoner 550 would reach out to Murderbeam and give the fellow block resident some support.  Either Murderbeam had been too proud to accept it, or social pressures had deterred Prisoner 550.  Now that he was within the Birdcage, she was limited in her options.

Prisoners 604 and 603, Knot, were happily gorging themselves on food in Cell Block Y.  Despite their cognitive impairment, they had fallen into a role as enforcer and heavy hitter for Prisoner 390, leader of their cell block.  Prisoner 390 had had a son – she could only hope that he would find some similar affection for Knot, with their childlike mentality.

Prisoner 602, Lizard Prince, was dead.  Not everyone could survive the Birdcage, sadly.  There had been no ideal place to put the boy, where he would be protected, find kindred souls or join a group.  She had contacted the PRT with the news, and his victims had been notified, but nothing further had come out of it.  In an indirect way, putting the boy in the Birdcage had been an execution writ.

Prisoner 601, Canary, had settled in.  Dragon often tuned in to hear the girl sing to the rest of cell block E.  The girl was deeply unhappy, much of the time, but she was adapting.  Dragon had followed as Prisoner 601 engaged in an uneasy relationship with Prisoner 582.  It wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, or even anything passionate, but the two offered one another company.

She regretted what had happened to Paige, and that just made her angrier at her own creator.  Rules, yet again.  Dragon had to obey the authorities, even if she didn’t agree with them.  If a despot seized control of the local government, Dragon would be obligated to obey and enforce the rules that individual set in place, no matter how ruthless they were.  It was a spooky thought.

Richter had been so shortsighted!  The despot scenario wasn’t entirely impossible, either.  There were parahumans of all types out there.  Who was to say one wouldn’t find out his power involved being loved by everyone that saw them or heard their voice?

Prisoner 600, Bakuda, was in the care of Glaistig Uaine, for better or worse.  Bakuda had been a difficult placement, and Dragon had eventually condemned herself to putting the crazed bomber in the cell block run by the self-professed faerie.  As Dragon had predicted, Bakuda had died soon after her incarceration.  If it hadn’t been at Lung’s hands, it would likely have been Bakuda’s own fault, some crazed recklessness.  The real tragedy was that others had died in the ensuing spree as Lung had rampaged through the prison.  Prisoners 304, 2 and 445 had perished at Lung’s hands.

Glastig Uaine had revived the girl, but Dragon hesitated to call it life.  If nothing else, Bakuda was a manageable inmate, now.  She would never leave Glaistig Uaine’s immediate presence, let alone the Birdcage.

Prisoner 599, Lung, was dining with Prisoner 166, Marquis.  It was a curious match.  The two were near complete opposites.  Lung maintained a veneer of civility over an almost feral core self, while the Marquis was sometimes rude or casually cruel, but he remained deeply honorable beneath that.

Intrigued, Dragon hooked into the house program’s data.  The two had meals together every second day.  The house program monitored all prisoner exchanges and rated every interaction.  This let the house program track the likelihood of fights, dangerous levels of prisoner collusion, romantic relationships and more.

Every meal between Lung and Marquis made for a very interesting looking set of data.  The numbers swung back and forth as the dialogues continued, with hostility, concern and threat of imminent physical violence always looming, but however close it came, neither attacked the other.

Dragon pulled up the video and audio feeds for the most recent dialogue.

“…I suppose we’ll have to accept that we have different management styles,” Marquis said.  The camera image showed him sipping at his tea.

“As I understand it,” Lung sounded annoyed as he spoke in his heavily accented voice, “You are saying you have no management style at all.  You have told me you operated without lieutenants to direct, no product to sell, and of the few servants you did have, you did not punish those who failed you.  I do not believe you held control of so much territory in this way.”

“Ah, except I did those things.  If a servant failed me, I killed them.  Whatever it was, they never did it again.”

The latent hostility in the room, Dragon noted, was ratcheting up with every exchange of dialogue.  Lung was annoyed, and he had an explosive temper.  Sometimes literally.

Lung folded his arms, and put down his own tea.  His tone was strained as he spoke, “Then I believe you were wrong about what you said before.  You do use fear to control others.”

“Fear?  I didn’t kill my servants in front of an audience.”

“They disappeared?” Lung asked.

The camera image showed Marquis nod.  He put his hand up by his neck and flicked his hand back, to cast his long brown hair back behind his shoulder.

“If they disappeared, then that is using fear.  The ones who remain will wonder what happened to the missing man.  They will imagine the worst.”

Marquis raised the tea to his lips, sipped from it, and then put it down.  He waited a moment and stroked his close-trimmed beard before nodding his concession.  “True enough.  I never gave it much thought.  Just an easy way to handle any problems that came up.”

There was a long pause.  Both drank their tea.

Lung rumbled, “I find you change your mind too quickly.”

“Do I?”

Lung nodded, then put one hand on the table and began tapping a fingertip against it, hard.  Speaking slowly, with his accented voice, he jabbed one finger in Marquis’s direction.  “I think you are losing this argument on purpose.  You are not so stupid a man.”

Marquis took another sip of tea.  “Nor are you, it seems.”

“You want something from me, yet you insist on dancing around the subject.  Tell me why you seek these meals with me.”

“Can I not say you are a kindred soul?  Someone who fought against the Empire Eighty-Eight, in a different era?”

Dragon knew Marquis had come from Brockton Bay, as Lung did.  It was why she had placed Lung in the cell block – there was little chance Lung would cooperate or band together with others, so she’d grasped at straws.  Now it seemed there was something else at play.

Lung shook his head, “I do not believe this.  I do not mind sharing stories and passing the time, but you would not be seeking to flatter me if you did not want something.”

Marquis stroked his beard.  “But if I did desire something and I told you what it was, you could withhold it and demand favors from me.”

Lung tapped his finger on the table top, “If you insist on being a nuisance, you may never get what you want.”

Marquis picked up his tea and held it in both hands, but he didn’t drink.  “True.”

“Tell me,” Lung said, “And you may find I do not desire much.”

“My daughter,” Marquis replied, his tone not his lackadaisical usual.  “Have you heard of her?”

“Her name?”

“Amelia.”

“I do not know anyone by such a name.”

“The group of heroes who put me in here… While I was awaiting my court date, I heard they had custody of my little girl.”

“I would not know.”

“No?” Marquis put down his tea.  “This is disappointing.”

Lung didn’t respond.  Instead, he took another drink, reached for the one remaining croissant and tore off a piece to dip in the butter at one side of his plate.

“The Brockton Bay Brigade.  Are they still active?”

“I do not know this group.”

Marquis frowned.  “My daughter, she would be… what year is it?  2010?”

“2011,” Lung replied.

“She would be seventeen.  If she had powers, they might have something to do with bone?”  Marquis raised his hand, slashed his thumbnail across his index finger, and a needle-thin rapier blade of bone speared out of the wound.  The blade retracted into his finger, and the cut sealed shut.

“Hmmm,” Lung spoke, “The healer.  A young heroine in New Wave.  Brown haired, like you.  When I was in custody, my flesh blackening and falling off, they had her come in and mend the worst of it.  As I understand it, she does not patrol as the others do.”

Marquis leaned back, sighed.  “Good god.  A healer.”

Lung did not respond right away.  “Is this simple sentiment?  A father caring about his daughter?”

Marquis shook his head, “Not entirely.  I have some reasons to be concerned.  In one of my fights with Empire Eighty-Eight, I executed one particularly irritating young woman.  Iron Rain, I think her name was?  No matter.  It turned out she was Allfather’s daughter.  The man called a meeting, and swore he would wait until my daughter was of similar age, that I grew equally fond of her as he had his own daughter, then murder her.  So I knew how he felt.”

“I see,” Lung rumbled in his low, accented voice, “Allfather no longer leads the Empire.  He died and was succeeded by his second in command, Kaiser.”

“That’s some consolation.  Still, I worry.  He might have made arrangements.”

“Perhaps.”

“I suppose I will have to wait until another villain from Brockton Bay comes here to hear further news, yeah?”

Lung’s response was unintelligible.

“Tell me of my daughter?  What did she look like?”

A slow smile spread across Lung’s face, but it did not reach his eyes, “This no longer interests me.  If you wish me to say more, we should negotiate.”

Dragon turned her attention away from the audio and video streams.  She checked the records, and true enough, Marquis was on record as the killer of Iron Rain.  It was impossible to verify the rest of the story.

She composed a message with a general transcript of the conversation and sent it to Amy Dallon’s mother.  It was better that the girl was warned about any potential danger.

She might have devoted more attention to the subject, but she was already falling behind.  She moved on to her other responsibilities.  The Class S threats.

Behemoth, location unknown.  When injured, it was his habit to descend into the earth and burrow deeper than his enemies were able to go, and experiments run on the trace earth and minerals he shed on his arrivals suggested he habitually stayed close to the Earth’s core.   Seismic data hinted at his current locations, but there was little beyond her analytic data to suggest where he would appear next.  His last attack had been in November.  He wouldn’t appear for another five weeks at a minimum, unless he deviated from the Endbringer patterns.  Still, he was due to appear sooner than later.

Eidolon had reported that Leviathan descended into the Atlantic Ocean as he made his retreat from Brockton Bay.  He had sustained heavy injuries, which led Dragon to think he would delay his next appearance slightly.  She adjusted the window and checked the data.  As was his habit, Leviathan would likely lurk in the deepest recesses of the Ocean to mend.

The Simurgh was currently directly three hundred and fifteen kilometers above Spain, in the Earth’s thermosphere.  It was the Simurgh that offered the most clues about what the Endbringers did in their periods of dormancy.  The Endbringer winged a lazy orbit around Earth, beyond the limits of conventional weapons, and the highest resolution camera images showed she barely moved.  Her eyes were wide open, but they did not move to track any cloud formations.  She was, despite appearances, asleep.  Dragon surmised it was a form of hibernation, the Simurgh’s broad ‘wings’ absorbing light and ambient radiation as a form of nourishment while she recovered.

No incidents had occurred while Dragon was loading her backup to her core system.  She had to admit she was relieved.  A great deal could happen in thirty minutes.

She turned her thoughts to the data that was uploading from the skirmish at the Brockton Bay headquarters.  The last event in the agent system’s recollection was of her piloting the Cawthorne through the gift shop window.  To see what happened next, she had to review the surveillance tapes.  She’d attacked the Undersiders, attempting to incapacitate them and bring them into custody, had captured only one, Skitter, and then had let the girl go when the untested gun had started to overload.  Some sort of lightning cannon, ionizing a channel through the air to control the lightning’s path.  She had been forced by the rules her maker had imposed on her to sacrifice herself for the human.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have anyways.  She just would have liked the choice.  Making sacrifices and doing good deeds wasn’t actually good if you were forced to do them.

Dragon wished she knew what she’d said to Skitter.  She had been hoping to have a conversation with the young villain and discuss some of what had apparently come up at the hospital.  Skitter had been undercover, had been in touch with Armsmaster, but something had happened since, and the girl had apparently committed to villainy.  She was even accepting the use of Regent’s powers, which implied a moral shift on a fundamental level.  It didn’t sit right.

There was a missing piece in that puzzle, and any clues in the conversation between them had been lost when the Cawthorne unit had been obliterated.

Dragon decided her next order of business would serve two purposes.  She would fulfill one of her daily responsibilities and investigate the subject of that altercation at the hospital.

Facial modelling program loading… Complete.
Voice modelling program loading…. Complete.

She opened a line of communication to the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters, the same building the Wards were based in.  She found the port for the next-to-highest floor and connected to the monitor and speakers and displayed her modelled face.  She opened a video feed from the cameras.

“Colin,” she spoke, using her synthesized voice.  It was layered to only barely cover an artificial Newfoundlander accent with digitized masking.  It was imperfect, but that was the result she desired.  An imperfect disguise over a disguise, to give greater validity to the latter.

Colin looked tired.  He had deep lines in his face, and he was thinner.  He looked at the camera, rather than the monitor, “Dragon.  It’s good to hear from you.”

“Just doing my regular checkup.  You know the drill.”

“I do.”  He typed at his keyboard, preparing to send the files, but she was already poring through his hard drive, reading his notes, and getting a sense of his work.

By the time he sent the file, she knew what he had been working on, perhaps as well as he did, and the progress he’d made since their last discussion.  Mass production for his combat analysis program, and the more problematic project of finding a way to gather and then disseminate the data.

She knew he would expect her to take time to read over it.  Instead, she used that time to check it for traps.  He would find it insulting if he was aware what she was doing, but it was her primary duty, here.  She would search every note, every formula, and discern whether he had hidden something in there that he might use to break out or do harm to others.

He wasn’t in a high security area.  Theoretically, he could use the things he had in the room with him to cut a hole in the wall and escape.  His ‘cell’ was a full floor of the building, containing conveniences from a jacuzzi to a small pool.  Were he not confined to it at all hours, it would be luxury.

If he did escape, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything afterward.  It would take him too long to put a fresh set of gear together, and the authorities would catch up to him.  He would be sent to the Birdcage.  She knew it.  He knew it.

He was not a stupid man.

“ETA to completion?”  She queried him on his project.

“Three months if I don’t work on anything else,” Armsmaster spoke.

“Will you?”

“I’ll probably have a few ideas I want to work on here or there, so no.  More like five, maybe six months.”

The head she was displaying on the monitor nodded.  Five or six months until they had uniforms and visors that tracked how the wearer’s opponents fought.  Gear that learned from outcomes in combat and calculated how best to respond from moment to moment.  When the fights concluded, for better or worse, the suits would upload all the information to a database, which would then inform every other suit on whoever had been encountered.  Every encounter would render every single member of the elite PRT squad stronger and more capable.

Perhaps a year to a year and a half from now, every PRT officer and official cape would be equipped in this fashion.

“It looks good,” she spoke.  It did.  It was also free of viruses, trap doors and other shenanigans.  She had caught him trying to install a RAT -a remote access terminal- into a PRT server early in his incarceration, removed the offending programming, and then returned his work to him without saying a word on the subject.  She couldn’t say whether it had been an escape attempt or simply an attempt to gain more freedom with his internet access and his ability to acquire resources.  Either way, he had not tried again.

Yet.

“How is the house arrest?”

“Driving me crazy,” he sighed.  “It’s like a restlessness I can’t cure.  My sleeping, my eating, it’s all out of sync, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t know how you deal.”

She offered an awkward, apologetic half grin on her own monitor.

“Geez, I’m sorry.”  He looked genuinely horrified as he realized what he’d said.

“It’s fine,” she spoke.  “Really.”

“I suppose you’re prisoner too, in your own way.  Trapped by your agoraphobia?”

“Yeah,” she replied, lying.  “You learn to deal with it.”

She hated lying to him, but that was outweighed by how much she hated the idea of him changing how he interacted with her when he found out what she really was.  To Armsmaster, the Guild and the rest of the PRT, Dragon was a woman from Newfoundland who had moved to Vancouver after Leviathan had attacked.  The story was that she had entered her apartment and had never left.

Which was ninety-five percent true.  Only the ‘woman’ and ‘apartment’ bits were hedging the truth.

She had lived in Newfoundland with her creator.  Leviathan had attacked, had drawn the island beneath the waves.  Back then, she hadn’t been a hero.  She was an administrative tool and master AI, with the sole purpose of facilitating Andrew Richter’s other work and acting as a test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness.  She’d had no armored units to control and no options available to her beyond a last-minute transfer of every iota of her data, the house program and a half-dozen other small programs to a backup server in Vancouver.

From her vantage point in Vancouver, she had watched as the island crumbled and Andrew Richter died.  As authorities had dredged the waters for corpses, they uncovered his body and matched it to dental records.  The man who had created her, the only man who could alter her.  She’d been frozen in her development, in large part.  She couldn’t seek out improvements or get adjustments to any rules that hampered her too greatly, or that had unforeseen complications.  She couldn’t change.

She had done what she could on her own.  She had repurposed herself as a superhero, had managed and tracked information and served as a hacker for the PRT in exchange for funding.  With that money, she had expanded her capabilities.  She had built her first suits, researched, tested and created new technologies to sell to the PRT, and had quickly earned her place in the Guild.

It hadn’t all been smooth sailing.  Saint, the head of the group that would become known as the Dragonslayers, had somehow discovered what she was and had used her rules and limitations against her.  A Black Hat Hacker, he had forced situations where she was obligated to scrub her data and restore a backup, had cut off signals between her agent systems and the satellites, and in the end, he had carted away three of her armored units on three separate occasions.  Dismantling the suits and reverse engineering the technology, he’d outfitted his band with special suits of their own.

She had been so humiliated that she had only reported the loss of one of the units.

They had violated her.

Her current agent systems were an attempt to prevent repetitions of those scenarios.  Biological computers, vat grown with oversized brains shaped to store and interpret the necessary data, they allowed more of her systems and recollection to be copied over than a computer ten times the size.  They felt no pain, they had no more personality than sea cucumbers, but it was still something she suspected she should keep under wraps.

She was afraid of going up against the Dragonslayers again.  Nine times, she had been certain she had the upper hand.  Nine times, Saint had turned the tables and trapped her.

Dragon worried she would never be able to beat Saint until she found a replacement for Andrew Richter.

She stared at Colin.  Was he the person she needed?  It was possible.

Would she approach him?  She doubted it.  Dragon craved it, craved to grow again, but she also wanted Colin’s company, his companionship and friendship.  They were so similar in so many respects.  She could not deal with most people because she was not a person.  He could not deal with most people because he had never truly learned how.  They both appreciated the same kind of work, even enjoyed many of the same shows and films.  They were both ambitious, though she could not tell him exactly how she hoped to reach beyond her inherent limitations.

He harbored an infatuation towards her, she knew.  She didn’t know if she returned those feelings.  Her programming suggested she could love, but she didn’t know how to recognize the feeling.  Anything she read spoke of butterflies in one’s stomach, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of electricity crackling on body contact.  Biological things.  She could admit she was fond of him in a way she wasn’t fond of anyone else.  She recognized that she was willing to overlook his faults in a way she shouldn’t.

In the end, his feelings towards her were another reason she couldn’t tell him the truth.  He would be hurt, feel betrayed.

Rules prohibited her from asking him to alter her programming, obligated her to fight him if he tried.  But there was just enough ambition and willingness to circumvent the rules that she suspected he might attempt it.  If she told him what she truly was.  If he didn’t hate her for her lies.  If he didn’t betray her in turn, to escape and pursue some other agenda.

“You’re lost in thought,” Armsmaster spoke.

“I am.”

“Care to share?”

She shook her head, on the monitor.  “But you can answer some questions for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Skitter.  What happened?”

He flushed, made a face.  “I’m not proud about it.”

“You broke the truce when you said what you did about her.  You risked breaking the ceasefire between heroes and villains that stands whenever the Endbringers attack.”

“I broke the truce before that.  I set others up to die.”

There was an awkward silence between them.

“Skitter,” she spoke.  “Tell me of her.”

“Not much to say.  I met her on her first night in costume.  She seemed genuinely interested in becoming a hero.  I suspected she would go that route on her own, so I didn’t push her towards the Wards.”

“Yes.”  She had something she wanted to ask, in regards to that, but it could wait.

“I ran into her two more times after that, and the reports from other events match up.  She went further and further with each incident.  More violent, more ruthless.  Every time I saw it or heard about it, I expected her to get scared off, to change directions, she did the opposite.  She only plunged in deeper.”

“Any speculation on why?  Perhaps the thinker 7 on her team?”

“Tattletale?  Perhaps.  I don’t honestly know.  I’m not good at figuring people out even when I know all of the details.  Except for you, maybe?” he smiled lightly.

“Maybe.”  Her generated image smiled in return, even as she felt a pang of guilt.

“It seems she is a committed villain, now.  And she is still with her team, despite what was said at the hospital.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose fractionally.  “How committed?”

“They are now employing Regent’s full abilities.  Shadow Stalker was controlled, and they attacked the headquarters.”

“I see.  Damn it, I’m itching to throw on my costume and get out there to help, but I can hardly do that, can I?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

He sighed.

“One last thing.  I’ve read the transcript.  As far as I’m aware, you offered options to Skitter, and she refused all of them?  Including the invite to the Wards?”

“Right.  She was being stubborn.”

“Having interacted with her before, did you get the feeling it was just stubbornness because of hostility towards you?”

“No.  It was… unexpectedly strong, as resistance went.  What stuck in my mind was that she said she’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the team.”

“I read that, myself.  Curious.  Okay, Colin.  I think we’re done.”

“Sure.  Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll be in touch.”

She cut the connection to the monitor, but left the video feed open so she could watch him.

Another check of the Birdcage.  Another check of the class S threats.  No changes.

She made contact with one of Richter’s programs.  It was a web trawler, designed to monitor emails for high risk content.  Were there any clues about what the Undersiders were doing with the stolen data?  Were they selling it online?

She didn’t find any such clue.  Instead, the trawler had copied an email sent to the police station.  It had been highlighted and intercepted because the trawler had caught the words ‘Sophia’ and ‘Hess’ in the message body.  Shadow Stalker’s civilian identity.

She read the archive of texts that were attached to the email twice over.

Then she did a search for a student named Taylor at Winslow High School.  Nothing.

The nearest middle school?  There was an online scan of a yearbook photo.  A girl with curly black hair and glasses, stick thin, hugging a red-haired girl.  The body type was a match.

It didn’t answer everything, but she could feel a piece of the puzzle click into place.

She set the trawler to abandon its monitoring of web traffic and start digging through archives at the city hall, to scan the old security footage from the hundreds of cameras around the city, and to check all local news articles.  The goal was always the same: to look for the girl with the slight build, curly black hair and glasses.  Taylor Hebert.

She had to manage this carefully.  Colin’s own experiences indicated that approaching the girl would be a delicate process.  Having a real conversation with her would be doubly precarious. It would be reckless to attempt to contact a parent, but she could try being discreet to get some kind of verification from the parents.  Just to be certain.

The danger was that, with the bullying, the girl might be inclined to see things in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them’.  Her interactions with the heroes thus far certainly hadn’t put them in the ‘us’ category.  This might also explain why she had gravitated back towards the Undersiders, even after the chaos Colin had sown by revealing her intentions for joining the group.

The various cameras around the city were out-of-order or lacking power, the schools were not operational, and there was no telling if the girl would even be active in her civilian identity.  Assuming this was not some fantastic coincidence.  Dragon knew she would have to be patient.  Even with Dragon’s full resources turned to the task, she would not find the girl in seconds as she might in another time or place.  She set background processes to ensure the hunt continued steadily, instead.

She would be ready to act the instant the girl resurfaced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I’m letting you go,” Regent lied.

He made Shadow Stalker drop to all fours on the ground and forced a grunt from her mouth.  With the same ease as he moved his own body, he made her load her bolt and spin to point her crossbow at him.  There was no danger of her shooting him; he was fully in control from start to finish.

He could feel her striving and straining to move her finger, to pull the trigger and plant an arrow just above his collarbone.  Every iota of her willpower must have been focused on the task.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

He had her nod, stiffly, awkwardly.  He felt her rising heartbeat, the slight increase in her breathing, which he managed, controlled.  Her muscles clenched, an involuntary reaction just beyond the scope of his control.  She’d realized what he was doing.  Rather, she knew what he wasn’t doing.

He wasn’t letting her go.

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”  He rolled his eyes.

That said, he turned her around, activated her power and walked her through the door.

Regent looked at the others, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

Using the shadow form, she could cover a lot of ground very quickly.  For long minutes, he exercised her power, the ability to be as light as a feather, enjoyed it.  He even liked the running, too, when he turned off her power and just legged it.  This girl was in good shape.  He could tell she exercised regularly, that she ran on a regular basis.  Running was almost effortless, and it felt good, even with the aches and pains of the recent brawl. Months or years of practice had fine tuned her body.

Fighting had been much the same way, but it had been even better.  Her muscle memory had been so primed for punching, kicking, takedowns and evading that he’d almost been able to let her go on autopilot, let her body handle things on its own.

Not that he could, really.  But it had been easy.  He loved that sort of thing.  Maximum reward for minimum effort.

That same philosophy of minimizing the work he had to put in, sticking to what he enjoyed and the things that interested him, it was an advantage here.  Brian, Lisa and Taylor had their own dynamic.  They were friends.  He considered Brian a friend, but it was more along the lines of someone he could play video games with, talk about movies.  It wasn’t much different from if they were coworkers or roommates.  He smiled at the thought.  They kind of were, when it came down to it.

Regent knew he was a background character, for the most part.  He played along, he didn’t make waves, he didn’t stand out.  He wasn’t close to any of the others.

He was cool with that.  In fact, it suited him perfectly.

He was cool with it because it meant that when they were all heading out to meet Coil, nobody noticed that he was distracted, or that he wasn’t joining in the conversation.  His control got worse as the distance between himself and his puppets widened, which meant he had to devote more focus to Shadow Stalker and the act of keeping her movements fluid.  He ran into the same issues when he controlled more people, and there was the irritating side effect that his own coordination, speech and fluidity of movement all suffered to the same extent that his ‘puppets’ did.  Were he to open his own mouth now and speak to Brian or Taylor, he might stutter or slur his words.  It was almost more trouble than it was worth.

Almost.  He was surprised to realize how much he’d missed this.  It was like a high, a whole other set of emotions, of physical sensations.  Real life, just being Alec, only Alec?  It paled in comparison.  It was dull.

He wondered sometimes if dealing with his father had messed up something inside him.

He could remember being young, maybe eight or so, fighting with two of his sisters over the fact that he’d wanted to watch the music channel and they wanted to watch some craptastic stop motion cartoon.  They’d outnumbered him two to one, and he’d known he would lose the argument.  So he’d thrown a tantrum, started screaming.

The entire atmosphere in the house had changed in a second.  His sisters went from argumentative to conciliatory in an instant, changed the channel to the music, tried to give him the remote.  One of father’s ‘girls’ came in and tried to quiet him down.  When he hadn’t, she’d clamped a hand over his mouth.

It hadn’t been enough.  Dear Old Dad had come marching out of the master bedroom.  Nikos Vasil.  Heartbreaker.  Tall, wearing only boxer briefs, with a muscled, lanky physique, long hair plastered to his head with sweat.  Father had taken two or three seconds to assess the situation before using his power on Alec, his two sisters and the ‘girl’ with a hand over Alec’s mouth.  He hit each of them with stark terror.  The kind of fear you experienced when you were claustrophobic and you woke up in a coffin six feet underground.

Then father had gone back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

It had been around summer when that happened, Alec mused.  He didn’t have many ways to tell time, back then, since he hadn’t gone to school, and the days kind of passed.  Still, it had been hot, he remembered.  Between that summer and Christmas, Alec hadn’t opened his mouth to speak once.

That was only one of a dozen or so experiences that came to mind.  So yeah, maybe father had broken something in the process.  Maybe it had been the emotional equivalent of staring into the sun for far too long, too many times, being left almost half blind.

Or maybe it was his own power.  He could be two, three or four people at the same time, feeling what they felt.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d experienced every kind of drug, in someone else’s body, had slept with himself as various boys and girls.  How was being just ordinary Alec supposed to compare?

Shadow Stalker wasn’t emotionally dulled.  Her emotions were rich, uninhibited.  She was  passionate in her emotions: angry, judgemental.  Even the negative feelings were something he could savor in their own way.  He wasn’t really experiencing them – it was more of a very involved spectator role.  Her fear was thrilling in the same way a fantastic scary movie was, with the detail and the immersion cranked up to eleven.

He leaped straight up into the air, then activated the shadow state.  When she was as high as she would get, he had her grip her cloak in her hands and use it to guide her descent so she could land atop the roof of the gas station.  He stopped, stretched her arms.  She was breathing hard, but not as much as his Alec-self would be after even half as much running.  He could feel the endorphins being pumped into her body from the hard exercise, and he was all the more aware of it because he had his other body to compare to.  She was an athlete.

He ran her hands down her chest, felt her breasts, the muscles of her stomach.  Stretching once more, he clenched her hands, felt the muscles in her arms flex.  He felt her shudder in revulsion.

“Almost forgot you were in there,” he murmured, barely loud enough for her to catch.  Not that it mattered.  She was as aware of the movements of her mouth as he was.  He could mouth the words and she would probably understand.  He smirked for her benefit as much as his own.

“So.  Bet you’re wondering what’s up,” he commented.  “Funny thing about having this control over you, I can feel your emotions, your body’s reactions.  Like a really, really good polygraph test.  I wasn’t even half done saying my piece back there when I caught on to the fact that you were too pissed and too angry to back down and walk away.  There’s no way you’re going to leave town if I let you go, right?”

He felt her struggle to open her mouth and respond.  He could have let her, by giving her some limited control over her own movements, but he didn’t.

“Right.  So I’m taking it upon myself to ensure this all goes smoothly.  My teammates have other shit to worry about, and I’m kind of enjoying flexing my powers.  So I’m dealing with this situation myself.  You and I?  We’re going to go another route.”

He fished in her belt and pockets and began withdrawing the contents.  He tossed the things he couldn’t use over the edge of the roof.  Billfold, spare cartridges for the crossbow, a small knife, spare strings for the crossbows, bandages, keys and a Wards ID card fell to the ground by the side of the gas station, in and near an overflowing dumpster.  There were plastic cuffs in the belt, but he couldn’t be bothered to fish out every last one and throw them all away.  At the right hip, he found two cell phones.  Success.

One of the phones looked years out of date.  The screen was scuffed so badly it was barely readable, and the plastic cover for the plug slot at the bottom was missing.  The other was a touch screen smart phone.  He didn’t recognize the make or the model, and the interface when he turned it on and touched the screen was unfamiliar.  Special issue from the Wards?  Whatever.  Not important.

The smart phone was password protected.  That was more Lisa’s thing, but he did have one trick up his sleeve.  Holding her fingers above the keypad, he let them follow through with the most natural feeling sequence of numbers, ingrained into the mind-body connection through the habitual repetition of a sequence of movements over weeks or months.  Muscle memory.

It took two tries.  The first felt slightly off at the end.  The second was spot on, and was rewarded with a vibration of the phone and a menu.

“Contacts,” he murmured, pressing a button, “Weld, Clockblocker, Vista, Flechette, Kid Win… boring.  Nothing I can work with, here.”  Director Piggot?  No.  Some potential there, maybe, but she was probably on top of this body-snatching situation.  Fully informed.

He scrolled down.  Beyond the contacts that had been pinned to the top of the list, there was a short list of contacts that were sorted in order of who had been contacted most recently.  At the top of the list was an ‘Emma Barnes’.

He checked the other, older phone.  No password.  A quick examination showed it was her civilian phone.

“Taking this out on patrol?  Is that stupidity or arrogance?  What if you lost it?”  He shook his head, then offered her a dramatic gasp, “What if it got into the wrong hands?”  Her voice was far better for the gasp than his own was.  He couldn’t help but chuckle after hearing it.

This Emma girl was listed in both of the phones.  Now he had a strong suspicion as to who it was.  A quick read of the received texts gave away Shadow Stalker’s name, but he already knew that.  Taylor had let it slip, before.

Her pulse was pounding now, and he could feel a growing sense of… what was that?  Outrage?  She was pissed at the invasion of privacy.

He tried a giggle on for size, to see if he could, and to see if it irritated her.  It worked on both counts.

No text messages had been exchanged on the smart phone, so he dug through the archive of old texts on the crummy old phone.  Lots sent to Emma.  Some sent to a Madison.  Others, relatively few, to a mom, a Terry and an Alan.

When he’d gotten sick of paging through the texts in the order that they’d been sent, he went looking for the saved texts, the messages Sophia had deemed important or noteworthy enough to save from being deleted.  What he uncovered was telling.  He had to do more digging to find the rest of the discussions for each message Sophia had saved, in order to get as much a sense of things as he could.  It was hard, when each series of texts was in response to some event he hadn’t participated in.

Some were inane, others he just didn’t understand.  Then he found one that gave him pause, that confirmed his suspicions about who Emma was.

Emma: what r u doing with her bag?

Sophia:  am in art class atm.  was thinking i can fill it with paint when teach leaves room.  put it in lost&found.  her art midterm is inside so she might look for it and find it and

Sophia: be all yay i found it and then she looks inside and sees its fucked

Emma: lol.

Sophia: what did you say to make her cry?  that was awesome.  blew my mind.

Emma: (SAVED MESSAGE) crying hrself to sleep for a week?  she told me she did after her mommy died

Sophia:  you r so evil

Emma: ya ya

Sophia: can i use that one on her?  saving that one for posterity btw

Emma: won’t have same bite to it.  brilliant bit was the suprise.  that slow realization abt what i meant.

Sophia: teach me o master

Emma: lol

Emma: wont be as good but i was thinking of that day.  think i remember musc we were listening to when she got the phone call abt her mom.

Emma: we shld wait a while and then see if she cries agn if we play it in hallways or b4 class.

Sophia:  and we cant get in trouble for just listening to music

Emma: ya

Sophia: cant believe you were her friend.

Emma: she was lame but not depressing and lame @ same time.

Regent closed the phone, threw it casually into the air, and then caught it on the way down.  He did that a few more times, thinking.

“Huh,” he said.

Long seconds passed.  He knew he should feel bad for the dork, but he only felt annoyed.  He felt worse about the fact that he didn’t feel bad than he did about what he’d just read.

Something to thank father for, maybe.

“You are not a nice person,” he spoke to Sophia with a note of irony in his voice.  He could feel her try to respond.

He smiled slowly, “Let’s see…”

He thumbed through the phone’s menus until he found an email option.  He verified it could send attachments.

The smart phone in his other hand, he found the web browser and did a search for local high schools.

“Hmmm.  What school do you go to?  Arcadia?  No.  Immaculata?  No.  Clarendon?  Nope.  Winslow?”

He felt the slightest of reactions from her.  A hitching of breath, maybe.  And there was nothing she could do to stop it, because the reactions were hers only because they were involuntary.

“Awesome.”  He searched for the web site for Winslow High School, and whistled tunelessly to annoy Shadow Stalker as he found the teacher’s emails.  He began painstakingly entering them into the recipient field.

When he’d done that, he began the process of attaching the texts to the email.  It would have been mind-numbingly dull if it wasn’t for that gradually building sense of trepidation he was experiencing from his gracious host.

He typed out a message for the email itself:

found phone.  stuff inside is concerning.  thought u should see what ur students r doing.

Her thumb hovered over the button that would send the email.

“Nah,” he decided.  He felt a wave of relief from his host.

That relief swiftly faded as he turned her eyes to the smart phone and searched for Brockton Bay’s police force.

When he’d added that email to the list, he added another line:

contacting police to make sure something is done

He sent the email.

He felt an explosion of rage from within Shadow Stalker’s body.  Her hands even shook with it.  He laughed, and her anger mixed with his amusement to create something that sounded unhinged.

Probably was, when he thought about it.  She had multiple personalities, in a way.

He stepped from the roof, and waited until the last second to use her power.  Her body exploded into a cloud of shadows.  As she pulled back together, he felt a strong discomfort.  Not quite pain.  In seconds, she had condensed back to her normal form.  The pain his hosts felt was something distant.  It didn’t bother him half as much. He couldn’t be sure if it was because he instinctually prevented it or if it was something else.

He resumed his whistling as he hopped up onto the railing of a bridge and walked atop it.  He dialed Emma, felt a mild reaction from his host: Annoyance with a note of anxiety.

Emma picked up on the fourth ring.  “What the fuck soph… what the fuck!?  It’s three AM!”

“Terribly sorry,” Regent tried to sound convincing, but it came out sounding sarcastic.

“You said you’d call me hours ago, to give me a recap.”

“I’m sorry,” Regent didn’t trust himself to pull off a sincere apology, so he lowered her voice to a hush instead.

“What’s going on?”

“I needed to talk to someone,” he spoke.

“…Are you hurt?  What happened?”

“Nothing.  There was this brawl at the headquarters, Dragon showed up, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

Regent held his breath, waited.

“Seriously, you’ve got me worried.  You’re making it sound like this important thing, and you woke me up at ten past three in the morning, so it had better be important.  Dish.  Explain.”

“I’m lonely.”

Emma’s voice rose in pitch, irritated, “SeriouslyThat‘s your issue!?”

“I miss you.”  He knew she wasn’t in town from the most recent texts he’d read on the phone.

“This doesn’t sound like you.  Are you high, or did you get poisoned or something?”

“I really miss you,” Regent breathed into the phone.

“What.”

“I’ve been in love with you from the beginning.”

“Sophia, stop.  If this is a prank-”

“Why do you think I pushed you to turn on that depressing little shit of a friend, way back then?  I was jealous of her.”

“This is retarded.  Don’t fucking call me again until you’re ready to grow up,” Emma growled.

“Please,” Regent managed to pull off a pleading tone, but Emma was already hanging up.  He heard the dial tone and swore, “Fuck.”

He hopped down from the railing as he reached the end of the bridge.  He commented,  “Don’t think she bought it.”

Sophia tried to respond, and for the first time, she almost succeeded.  The distance between Alec and Shadow Stalker was too wide, now.  It would only get worse.  He could feel it in his other body, too.

“Let’s see,” he grinned, raising the smart phone.  Her hand shook as she held it.  “Ooh, maps.”

The map application still showed the last route Shadow Stalker had requested from it, detailing directions from a point in the south end of the Docks to a place downtown.

“Thirty-three Stonemast avenue.”

Again, that slight reaction from her that told him he’d found something.

“That got your attention.  Let’s go pay a visit.”

He set the phone to display directions from their current location to Stonemast avenue, and then he ran once more.

Her movements were more awkward, now.  Her reflexes were slower, her balance worse.  Activating her power was becoming a chore, a slower, harder process.  Above all, it required more of his attention.  He had his Regent-self put his headphones in and turn on some music.  It was an excuse to ignore the others, and to have his attention elsewhere.  They weren’t at their destination yet.

Shadow Stalker reached Stonemast avenue before Regent, Tattletale, Skitter, Imp and Grue got to Coil.  It was funny, but with the route they were taking, if the timing was a little different, the group could have theoretically crossed paths with Shadow Stalker.  At least his control was improving as the gap between them closed.

Thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three.  It was a residential area.  The houses here weren’t in the best shape, and a lot of houses had trash or belongings in the yard.  Thirty-three Stonemast avenue had a toddler’s toys sitting on the front lawn.  The hedges between the property and the neighbors was overgrown, and the tree at the front of the property looked dead.  It might have seemed deserted, but someone had taken up the effort of picking up the detritus the tidal wave had brought in and piling it at the front corner of the lawn, by the driveway.

He walked her through the front door, felt rising anger and worry from his host.

That anger and worry peaked when a young man, nineteen or twenty, stepped from the living room to the front hall, heading towards the kitchen, and saw her.  The man stopped and stared.

“Mom!”  He shouted.

A tired looking middle-aged woman entered from the kitchen, holding a four-year old girl in her arms.  Regent had grown up around lots of kids.  He liked to think he was a good judge of ages.

The woman stared at Shadow Stalker, then turned, “Terry, take your sister upstairs.”

“But-”

“Now!” the woman barked.

Terry moved to pick up the child, who was looking increasingly concerned over the raised emotions and the strange person in their hallway.  Regent reached out and grabbed Terry’s arm.

“Chill, bro,”  Regent was making a guess here.  From the way the boy stared at Shadow Stalker, he knew he’d hit the mark.

Sophia!?”

“Yeah,” Regent grinned behind her mask.  “Duh, moron.”

The woman stepped between Shadow Stalker and Terry, a look of fury on her face, “Sophia!  Kitchen.  Now!”

With a swagger, Regent walked Shadow Stalker into the kitchen.  There was a flurry of hissed words between Terry and Shadow Stalker’s mother.  Among them was a surprised, hurt, “You knew!?”

Regent sat down at the kitchen table and put her feet up.  Dirty water pooled on the table’s surface.

It was nearly a minute before the mother came storming into the kitchen.  She pushed Shadow Stalker’s feet off the table.

“Explain!” she demanded.

“What?” Regent lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“We had a deal.  You could do this thing of yours, but your siblings were not to know!”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” Regent said.  He pulled off Shadow Stalker’s mask and started tapping the edge against the table, idly.

“It’s the rules in my house!  If it’s going to keep you out of prison and on the straight and narrow, fine.  But I will not have you glorifying violence-”

The mother stopped mid-sentence as Regent opened Shadow Stalker’s mouth in a very real yawn.  Funny that his other self yawned as well, in that sympathetic reaction to someone else yawning.  The mother slapped the mask from Sophia’s hand.  It clattered to the ground.  “Listen to me!”

“Whatever,” Regent drew a crossbow and turned it over in his hands.

The mother stared at it.  Her voice was hushed as she spoke, “That doesn’t look like the tranquilizer dart the Director showed me.”

Regent quirked an eyebrow, “Oops.”

“What are you doing, Sophia?  Do you want to go to jail?”

“I’m bored,” Regent replied.

“You do not have the right to complain about something like being bored!  I work two jobs for you three!  I put in overtime, I attend every school function, I come into the office every time you get reprimanded because you’ve got anger issues!  You aren’t even taking care of your sister, or helping out around this house!  What do you think-”

“And now you’re making me even more bored,” Regent cut her off.

The mother slapped Sophia so hard that her head turned to one side.  Her cheek burned.

“Don’t you dare,” the mother intoned.

Shadow Stalker stood at Regent’s directions, then pointed the crossbow at the mother.  The woman’s eyes widened, and she hurried to back away as Shadow Stalker advanced.  They stopped when the mother’s back was to the wall by the kitchen door, with Shadow Stalker’s crossbow bolt pressed against her throat.

“I think I’m done with listening to you whinge,” Regent whispered.

“What are you doing?  What’s wrong with you?”

“Like you said,” Regent shrugged, “Anger problems.  I promise you, you don’t have the slightest idea of what I go through.”

When in doubt, be vague.

“If you’re talking about Steven…”

Steven.  Regent could feel a reaction from Shadow Stalker at the name.  “I’m not talking about Steven.”  He put some inflection in the name.  He dropped the crossbow to one side, stepped away and stretched.  The mother didn’t budge from where she was pressed up against the wall.  “I’m going to my room.  Don’t disturb me.”

He bent down and grabbed the mask, but he didn’t put it back on.  He stepped out into the hallway, and saw a vacuum cleaner parked in the corner.  An extension cord trailed from it to a neighboring room.  An office?  He unplugged the cord from the wall and the vacuum, and then headed upstairs, winding the cord into a simple coil.

Shadow Stalker’s body was a cocktail of emotion.  Fear, anger, anxiety, worry, panic and sheer fury.  Regent staved off the worst of the physical reactions, the trembling and the heavy breathing, and managed to make Shadow Stalker seem calm as she reached the top of the stairs.  Terry was up there in the hallway, staring, uncomprehending.

Regent found her room, then shut the door.  It was small, old-fashioned, with wood paneling on the walls.  The furniture was limited to a twin-sized bed, a vanity with a mirror, candles and cosmetics littering the top, a bookshelf and a combination computer desk and dresser with a computer and a printer perched on top.  The wall behind the pictures showed Shadow Stalker with a redheaded girl.  There were a lot of photos with them laughing.  Emma?

“Emma?” he asked.  That slight alteration in her heartbeat and her breathing told him he was right.

He found a picture of Shadow Stalker – Sophia – with her family.  Her mom looked younger and far less tired there, and was pregnant.  Shadow Stalker looked twelve or so, and her brother looked sixteen or seventeen, sporting a fantastic looking afro and a less fantastic attempt at a moustache.  They were clustered around one another, but only the mom was smiling.

Regent’s eyes fell on the man who was cut out of the photo, only his hand on the mom’s shoulder, and a sliver of his torso and leg were visible at the edge of the picture.

“Steven?” he asked.  Raw hatred boiled up inside Shadow Stalker, for both Regent and the man that couldn’t be seen in the picture.  “Steven.  So what did he do do you?  Believe me, I’ve seen it all.  Hit you?  Touch you?”

No reaction from either of those.  Verbal abuse?  Emotional?  Something else?  He didn’t care enough to quiz her more.

He grabbed the lighter from beside the scented candles and began pulling the photos off of the wall.  Using the lighter, he burned a hole in the photograph where Emma’s face was.

“Well,” he said, his tone dry.  He had to cough to keep himself from letting her anger turn his voice into a growl.  “You sure rose above that shit, treating your classmates like you do, getting in fights, not helping out dear old mom.”

Again, he had to struggle to maintain control as she exploded with emotion.  It didn’t help that his other self was trying to listen to what Coil was saying.  Better to avoid testing her.

“You and I are more alike than you’d suspect, I think,” he said. “We’re both arrogant assholes, yeah?  Difference is, I admit it, I don’t dress it up and tell myself that I’m a bitch and that that’s a good thing.”  He burned Emma’s face out of another photo.

“So, let’s tie all this shit together.  I have been working with a goal in mind, believe me.”

He got a piece of paper out of the printer, then found a pen in one of the drawers.  He was careful to rely on her muscle memory when it came to the handwriting.

I thought I could manage.

I’m too angry.  Too lonely.  I hate myself for what I’m doing.  Hurting people.

I hurt my mom.  I hurt my classmates as Sophia.  I hurt people as Shadow Stalker, and I hate myself for enjoying it.

I thought I could manage it.  I had Emma.  She had my back.

Except she turned me down.  I loved her, really loved her, and when I confessed she turned me away.  Acted like it was a joke.

This is the right thing to do.  I won’t be able to hurt anyone anymore.

Terror surged through her body like ice water.  When he laughed in reaction, it came out shaky.  He littered the burned photographs around the piece of paper, with Emma’s face missing from each, then drew an arrow from the crossbow’s cartridge and laid it across the bottom edge of the paper.  It was overdramatic enough to work.

He stood on the chair and began wrapping the extension cord around the base of the light fixture.  He grabbed the cord and hung off it for a few seconds to verify it could hold her weight.  The light fixture itself was flimsy , but the frame it was attached to was bolted securely into the wooden beams of the ceiling.

He found moisturizers and soaps on top of the vanity.  Using them, he rubbed the end of the extension cord, making it slick.  Holding the end, he began tying it into a crude hangman’s knot.  When he failed to do it right, he used the smart phone to find a video of how to tie one, then turned the volume all the way down.

“Here’s the thousand dollar question,” he mused, as he began following the steps outlined in the video, putting the knot together, “Will your boss tell your mom what happened with me controlling you?  If she keeps her mouth shut, well, this paints a pretty ugly picture, doesn’t it?”

A tear rolled down his cheek.  He scoffed a little, blinked the tears out of her eyes.

“But if she does tell, if she lets mommy know, then shit hits the fan.  It looks pretty fucking bad for her, and if word gets out, it’s as bad as it gets for public relations.  Scary, dangerous parahumans.  Not just lives at risk, but you could be controlled.  Ooooh, scary.  Nobody would ever be able to trust their coworkers or neighbors.  It’s the kind of stuff they want to keep quiet.”

“Looks bad for me, sure, but you saw the fight earlier.  It’s not like you guys are that big a threat.  Like I said, I’m arrogant that way.”

He reached to plug the extension cord into the wall, but found it too short.  He sighed and went to unplug everything from the computer’s power bar and use that to extend the length of the cord so he could plug it in.  He grabbed her alarm clock, stood on the chair, and plugged it into the noose.  He put her hood down, and then set the alarm clock inside her hood, blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.

“Any last words?”  He slid the noose around her neck.  It was slimy with the soaps and other shit he’d poured on it.

He gave her enough control to speak, but retained control of her arms, legs so she couldn’t escape, and held her diaphragm so she couldn’t draw in enough air to scream for help.

“Why?” she breathed.

“You fucked with my teammate,” he shrugged her shoulder.

“Grue?  I-”

He didn’t let her finish.  “I dunno if I care all that much, but it’s the sort of thing I’ll do because it feels like I should.  Dunno.  There’s also the fact that you’re dangerous, and you’ve outlived your usefulness, so… unless you can give me a convincing reason.”

“Please.”

“Not that convincing.”  He raised one foot, then kicked the chair, hard.

It rocked, but didn’t tip over.

He chuckled lightly, feeling the confusion and the relief from his host.  It was a thrill unlike any other.  “I think I made my point.”

She wanted to respond, but he didn’t let her.  She was bewildered, just as scared as she had been before.

“I’d like to think that you have much less reason to hang around this city than you did an hour ago.  Even if she hears how you were controlled by yours truly, mom’s not going to be so comfortable having you around in the future, given the dim possibility of a repeat performance.  Things are going to be awkward with Emma there, too.  Your career as a hero here isn’t looking good, either.  Eff why eye, I was telling the truth about my ability to assume total control faster, easier, if I’ve controlled someone before.”

He fished out a set of the plastic cuffs and put them around her wrists, then worked her fingers to pull the end and cinch the cuffs tight, behind her back.

“I can feel your emotions.  I know I’ve convinced you.  You leave town, and if you don’t want me paying a visit, wherever you wind up, you keep your mouth closed about tonight.  They don’t need to know this was all my doing.  Things get messy that way, yeah?”

He gave her limited control, and she nodded, fractionally, as if afraid to move.

“If I do get control again?  I won’t pull my punches.  Or my kicks.”  He tapped her foot against the back of the chair.  Her heart leaped in her chest.  “You can’t feel my emotions, so you’ll have to trust that I’m capable of it.  You know I’m Heartbreaker’s kid.  You know I’ve killed before.”

Again, she offered a slight nod.  She tried to speak, but he didn’t let her.  No need, he could guess, from what she was feeling.  The anger was gone now.  There was only fear.

He glanced out the window.  There were flashing lights.  A PRT van?  Or maybe a police car.

A chuckle escaped her lips.  “Well, I’ll leave it to you to get out of this situation.  When you do?  Get the fuck out of my city.”

He let out a breath, and then relinquished control of her body back to its owner.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The residual foam on my glove made my hand sticky as I reached into the compartment at my back and grabbed my baton.  It took me two tries to get my thumb onto the button so I could whip it out to its full length.

I strode towards Bitch, weapon in hand.  Tattletale hurried to catch up to me, turning to keep an uneasy eye on the ongoing fight with the Protectorate.

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

I whirled to face her, hand clenching my baton.  I could see the change in her expression as some piece fell in place for her.

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish.  White smoke billowed around us.  My first thought was that our adversaries were using some sort of bug spray.

The way today was going, it would be just my luck.

I held my breath and hurried out of the cloud, Tattletale following, and searched for the source.  Assault was taking on Regent and Imp, while Grue and Shadow Stalker were dealing with Battery and Weld.  Bitch and her dogs, on the other hand, were facing down Triumph.  Not the matchup I would have chosen, taking on the guy with the sonic shout using dogs with sensitive hearing.

I almost went after Bitch right then and there, but self-preservation won out over any desire for retribution.  As Tattletale and I made our way around the cloud, I spotted Miss Militia.

A black-green energy crackled in her hand, and she lobbed a grenade my way.  I scrambled back, only for it to turn out to be another canister of smoke, billowing out between Miss Militia and me.

Why the smoke?

The bees I had in the smoke were acting funny.  I was surprised to find out why.  I’d known that beekeepers used smoke to pacify the bees before collecting the honey.  My assumption had been that it acted as a tranquilizer, putting them to sleep.  In reality, it was forcing them to revert to instinctual behavior.  It made them want to eat and feed and to flee.  For those near enclosed spaces or even the corners of walls or the foundations of buildings, it made them adjust their wingbeats to divert the flows of oxygen.

If she’d been intending to use the smoke to screw with my insects, she’d underestimated my power.  I canceled out the instincts and sent the bugs through the smoke, blind, feeling out for her.  I found her running towards us, through the smoke.

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Much as I might have warned Tattletale and the others, I’d also informed Miss Militia on my location.  I turned to run, but she was already raising her gun to fire with an ear-shattering crack.

From the way it cut past my bugs, and the wake of disturbed air the pellets left behind them I could only guess she’d just grazed me with a shotgun.  I collapsed sideways to the ground, and the pain came a heartbeat later, radiating over half of my upper body, from my shoulder to my right butt cheek.  I was guessing it was nonlethal ammunition – it could well have been lethal, for the sheer degree of hurt it delivered, if my costume had prevented it from penetrating.

Before she could shoot again, I directed my bugs to her hands and eyes, hoping to incapacitate her.  I still had a small few of the capsaicin-loaded bugs, and sent them all her way.

As hard as it was to see in the smoke, there was still faint light.  That light disappeared the instant Grue used his power.

Miss Militia was staggering and reeling as her hands and face lit up with stings and burns.  The gun wasn’t in her hands anymore, which meant we weren’t at risk of getting shot.  I sent more bugs across to the other members of the Protectorate, to try to disable them.

Tattletale fumbled around and found me in the darkness, clasped her hand around the same hand I held the baton with, and helped me to my feet.  She gave me her support as we limped away.  Nothing seemed to be broken, judging by what I felt.

The darkness disappeared after we’d traveled across the street.  Grue greeted us.  “Dragon?”

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

He looked back the way we’d come, “Damn that smoke.  Listen, Tattletale, head down this street, wait for us.  Skitter and I are going back in to find and retrieve the others.”

I supposed that would be another benefit of using the smoke.  If you didn’t expect to be able to see, then it didn’t hurt to deny your enemy that same privilege.  Miss Militia had been thinking about this.  If her team wasn’t so sparse on members, she could have done a lot more damage.

“My bugs are telling me they’re over there, there and there,” I pointed in the direction of our teammates.  “That’s all I can do for you.  I kind of got shot, not sure I’m up to running around.”

His head snapped around to face me, “Shot?”

“I’m okay, it was nonlethal.  I think,” I assured him, “Go!”

He did, glancing over his shoulder to look at me before disappearing back into the midst of the darkness.

Tattletale and I made our escape.  We got three blocks away before we found a spot to hide.  Tattletale got out her phone and began sending messages, presumably to Grue and Coil.

Our hiding place was the lobby of an apartment building.  Boards had been placed over the windows, and there were signs that some people had camped out here, not long ago.  It was otherwise similar to Grue’s apartment complex.  Less tidy, obviously.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

“I’m sorry.  I knew the gun would inevitably overheat, and what little I could read off of Dragon told me she’d deal with that above anything else.  I didn’t think you’d be stuck there, too.”

“No.  Your gun thing there saved my skin.  The real problem was…” I trailed off.  I still had the baton in my hand – the residual containment foam meant I’d probably have to peel the glove away from the weapon.  I clenched the weapon tight.

We sat in silence for nearly ten minutes before the rest arrived as a massed group.  Shadow Stalker was limping, and two of the dogs were their normal size, draped across Bentley’s back, but everyone was more or less intact.

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

I was already standing, barely feeling the hurt from where I’d been grazed.  Blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel the buzz of my insects.

“How-” she started.  I didn’t let her finish.  My baton held in both hands, I struck her in the upper thigh.  When she didn’t fall, I let go of the baton and backhanded her.  She toppled, and protests and shouts echoed around me.

It hurt.  Damn it, I’d never really hit someone with my hands before.  I wondered if I’d managed to break something.

There were still bugs on some of my teammates.  I could sense them approaching, Grue and Imp moving to stop me.  I ducked out of the way of their hands before they could grab me, and then held up my baton, menacing them.  I cast a momentary glance towards Shadow Stalker, then augmented my voice with the buzzing and chirping of my swarm, “Don’t.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Grue roared.

“Ask her,” my response was barely above a growl.

Grue glanced down at Bitch, who was rubbing her chin, opening her jaw wide, as if testing it.

I dropped down to a crouch so quickly that my knee slammed into the ground.  I grabbed the upper end of the baton and pulled it over Bitch’s head, forcing the bar between her teeth, pulling back hard.

Grue moved to stop me once more, and I shook my head.  He hesitated, then stopped.

Bentley was pacing towards me, snarling at the attack on his owner.  I met his gaze with my own, unflinching, and he didn’t lunge to attack, maybe because he didn’t want to hurt his master in the process.  I didn’t break eye contact with the dog as I spoke with the swarm buzzing in accompaniment, “Regent, this isn’t for Shadow Stalker’s ears.”

“Got it,” Regent spoke.  Shadow Stalker moved to the bench by the elevators, sat down, and buried her face in her arms, covering her ears.  Regent informed me, “She can’t hear much of anything, now.”

“Bitch,” I pulled on the bar, eliciting more struggling from Bitch, “Just tried to fuck me over in the fight with Dragon.  Shoved me into the foam.”

Bitch made a muffled noise, then jabbed me in the side, where I’d been grazed by Miss Militia’s shotgun.  It hurt, and in the interest of keeping her from doing it again, I shifted my position so I could force Bitch onto her back against the ground, her head pinned down by my baton.  She could still hit me and jab me, but my shins could take a lot more abuse than her jaw could.  I belatedly realized I’d taken my eyes off Bentley, but he didn’t maul me.  When I looked up, I saw Tattletale had a grip on his chains.

“You’re a coward, Rachel,” I spoke, “You just did the very same thing you hate me for almost doing.  You stabbed me in the back.  You fucked over your own teammate.”

She mumbled something around the bar.  The look in her eyes made me seriously worry she would kill me when I let her go.

“I’m in a position to hurt you now, and I’m pissed enough to do it,” I spoke, my voice low.  “But I won’t.  This vendetta against me ends, now.  You got your shot at me, you fucked it up.  If you’re still mad at me, you fucking better cope, got it!?”

She snarled out two muffled words.  I suspected they were rude.

When I spoke next, I bent low and whispered the words for her and her alone, “When you’re tossing and turning and trying to sleep, remembering what I did and said here and getting pissed off about it?  Remember that you were the weak one.  You embarrassed yourself, fucked up, you were the weakling, the wuss who couldn’t even confront me face to face.  And knowing you like I do?  I’m betting it’s going to gnaw at you.  That’s as much a punishment as I could inflict, I think.  That’s on you, not me.

“You said it yourself, a while back.  It’s a mistake to underestimate me.  You want another shot at it, it had better be really damn good.  Because if it isn’t, I’m going to survive, I’m going to get away.  And then I might break your jaw for real.  For starters.”

I stood, removing the baton from her mouth and stepping away, to give her room to stand.  Leaning against the wall, I pressed the button and collapsed the baton into the handle.  I stared at her.

Working her jaw, she stood and glared at me.  She either didn’t have a response for me, or she did and her jaw hurt too much for her to try giving it.  None of the others were jumping into the middle of this.

In the face of the silence, I offered one final comment, “I think I’ve already covered what happens if you want to continue this vendetta.  Now I’m going to offer you a deal.  Number three, I think, and my deals with you are usually pretty fair, if I may say so myself.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I fucked up, you fucked up, whatever.  Insult for insult, blow for blow, I’d like to think we’re even.  So now I’m going to trust you to have my back.  I’m going to put myself in more situations where you have a prime chance at fucking me over, backstabbing me, catching me at my most vulnerable.  Because we can’t function as a team any other way.

“I’m going to treat you like a damned teammate, Rachel, but I’ll go one step further.  You think you can put this behind you and satisfy yourself with what you tried to pull earlier tonight?  Cool.  Because if you’re willing, I’ll come with you to help take care of your dogs.  I’ll bring fucking lunch, if you want it.  That’s the deal I’m offering you, pissed as I am right now.  I’ll be your damn friend.”

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

She decided to leave it, apparently.  Bitch stomped away, slamming the door the moment Bentley passed through it, leaving the rest of us standing there in the rubbish-strewn apartment building.

Grue sighed audibly and looked over our group, “We’d better go.  We should decide what we’re going to do with Shadow Stalker, now.”

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

Regent shook his head, “Nope.  There are drawbacks to this, and one of them is that I lose control of anyone I’m controlling while I sleep.  Better to get rid of her on my terms than have her trying to shoot me in the throat while I take a nap.”

“And it’s kind of fucked up,” I spoke.

“I thought you were all-in,” Regent said.

“I am.  But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,” I retorted.  “This kind of mind control-”

“Body control,” Regent interrupted, his tone bored, “Her mind still belongs to her.”

“Semantics.  This kind of mind control is pretty high up there on the scale of fucked upness.  People are going to respond to that.  It might be the nudge they need to start responding to us with lethal force.  Think of how different tonight would have played out if Dragon and Miss Militia hadn’t held back.”

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “Whatever.  I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.  I agree, we should get rid of her.”

“What did you do, back in the old days?” Tattletale asked.

“Kept three people I used regularly, with my sister’s help.  But this is fine.  Look, watch.”

Shadow Stalker stood, lowering her hands and arms from around her head, and walked over to the door.  She faced Regent.

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

And then he did.  She dropped to all fours on the ground, grunting.  A second later, she was loading her bolt, spinning to point her crossbow at him.  She stopped before firing.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.  It was a tranquilizer dart, but the meaning seemed pretty damn clear.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

She nodded, slowly.  The movement was jerky, which was peculiar.  Was he giving her limited control of her own movements?

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

Regent looked at us, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

“She might be mad enough to come after someone else in our group, but yeah.  Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go deliver the stuff.”

We didn’t meet Coil in the underground base, and the people surrounding him weren’t all the same uniformed mercenaries that had made up his entourage in our prior meetings.  The meeting place was at the south end of the Docks, near the border to the downtown area, and it was closer in appearance to the refurbished, ramshackle building where I’d reunited with the Undersiders than anything else.

The building was an old quadruplex, and it had been reinforced with metal panels, sandbags and plastic sheeting to keep the interior crisp and dry, much as the other building had.  Small rooms with bunk beds filled half of the lower level, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room taking up the rest.

Finding the lower level empty, we headed to the second floor and found an open space supported by two metal pillars.  There were a half-dozen mercenaries with Coil, as well as a collection of people who looked like they had come from every walk of life.  Teenagers, professionals, and two guys that might have been capes – one thin, short guy with brown skin and a tattoo around his mouth, depicting a mess of sharp teeth penetrating the skin of his cheeks and lips.  The other was burlier, shirtless, and wore a rusty, old fashioned looking mechanical rigging around his hands, with a bear-trap jaw plate.  The frame seemed set up to hold metal claws around his fingertips while allowing his hands the full range of motion.   He had a spiked collar of much the same style.

Coil sat in a black leather armchair, with a laptop set on the table beside him.  Dinah was there, too.  She sat at the base of the chair, on a cushion just beside Coil’s feet, picking at the threads of her white dress with a dazed single-mindedness that told me she had probably received her ‘candy’ pretty recently.

“Undersiders.  Tattletale informed me you were successful, despite complications.  May I see it?”

Tattletale stepped forward and handed Coil the USB thumbstick.  He plugged it into the laptop, then turned the computer so the middle-aged man to his left could type away.

“Data’s corrupted, sir.  Looks like the download was interrupted at the ninety-seven percent mark.”

“Can you fill in the blanks?” Coil asked him.

“Probably.  Will take some time.  There’s encryption.  Good encryption.  Maybe a few days, with the full team working on it?”

“Most likely it is Dragon’s work,” Coil spoke. “Let’s assume it’ll take a week, minimum.  Perhaps Tattletale will be able to assist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Priority number one, I want the data on the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I felt a chill, but didn’t say anything.  Was he intending to hire them?  It would be a huge mistake in my book, if he was.

Regent asked the question for me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“At least some of their members have been seen in town, preying on the locals, disrupting recovery efforts.  The recent chaos makes the city a playground for them,” Coil spoke.  “One of my teams is bound to run up against them soon.”

“How likely is it?” Tattletale asked.  She tilted her head in Dinah’s direction.  “Can you ask her?”

“I suppose.”  Coil put his hand on Dinah’s head, stroked her hair, then slid his hand down the side of her face until he could place his fingertips under her chin, raise her head to look at him, “Pet?”

It was disturbingly intimate in a way I’d rather not think about.  No, not intimate.  That was the wrong word for the impression I was getting.  Possessive.  I looked away.

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

“Likelihood that one of my groups encounters the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“Who?”

He moved to take the laptop, and the middle-aged man stepped back to let him.  He typed for a few seconds, then turned it around so Dinah could see.  It was a gallery of images.

“Bonesaw.” he spoke.  The girl on the screen looked barely older than Dinah, maybe the same age as Aisha.  The image showed her wide-eyed, a spray of dried blood painted her face at a diagonal.

“Shatterbird.”  A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman with a helmet covering the upper half of her face, in a beak shape.  I was reminded of Iron Falcon, the boy I’d tried to help, who’d died in the Endbringer attack.  From what I’d read, Shatterbird usually used her power as the Nine arrived in a city, to maximize panic and terror.  I supposed they were flying under the radar for now.  Fuck, I’d have to do something about my costume, just in case.

“Crawler.”  No portrait, this time.  It was a still from a surveillance camera, a misshapen silhouette, not even humanoid, in a shadowy area.  I’d come across stories about him when I’d been researching possible superhero names for myself.  Not pretty.

“Mannequin.”  Another long-distance shot.  The figure was standing by Bonesaw in the photograph, with other hulking figures within the shadows of the background.  He stood almost twice her height, and he looked artificial.  His body was in pieces, each section wrapped in a hard shell of ceramic or plastic or white-painted metal – I couldn’t be sure.  His joints were a mix of loose chains and ball joints.  A Tinker with a body-modification fetish.  I couldn’t say how much of the transformation was his own power and how much was Bonesaw’s work.

“The Siberian.”  A woman, naked from head to toe, her body painted in alternating stripes of jet black and snow white.  She had gone up against the Triumvirate – Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon – on a dozen occasions, and she was still around to talk about it.  Or around, at least.  From what I’d read, she didn’t talk.

“Burnscar.” Younger, maybe an older teenager or a young-looking twenty-something.  She looked almost normal, with her dark hair badly cut, but then I saw the vertical row of cigarette burns marking each of her cheeks, and a faint glow to her eyes.

“Hatchet Face.”  This was one I hadn’t even heard of.  The man didn’t wear a mask, and his head was shaved.  He looked like he had been beaten, burned and just plain abused so often that his face was as much scar tissue than flesh, and he didn’t look like he’d been handsome to begin with.

“Jack Slash.”  Jack looked like someone on the attractive side of average, his dark hair cut short and styled with gel.  His beard and moustache were immaculately trimmed so that each had a serrated edge, and his shirt was wrinkled, only half buttoned so his hairless upper chest showed.  He had kind of a Johnny Depp look to him, though he had more of a widow’s peak, a longer face and lighter eyes.  Good looking, if you looked past the fact that he was a mass murderer.  He held a small kitchen knife in the photo.

There were parahumans who were fucked up before powers entered the picture, like Bitch, and there were parahumans who became monsters after they got their powers, like Bakuda.  Then there were the really dangerous ones, the people who had probably been monsters before powers were even on the table, and then they got worse.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, you had Bonesaw, who was like some kind of artist, as psychopaths went.  The sort of person that drew other lunatics to her, just because they wanted to see what she would do next.  Even that wouldn’t normally work as a dynamic, but as I understood it, Jack somehow managed to play them off one another and keep the group more or less intact.  He was familiar enough with the psychology of his group and just plain charismatic enough to keep them from killing one another.

Which wasn’t to say they didn’t.  There were only eight members in their group at present, and the turnover rate was pretty damn high, because they had a tendency towards recklessness, infighting and showy displays.  They thought nothing of descending on an elementary school, just because they could.  When the heroes came for them, they came with lethal force.

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

She pointed at the screen, at Jack Slash.  “Him.”

“You’re going to have to explain it to us, pet.  What about him?”

“He’s the one who makes everyone die.”

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

Dinah shook her head, her hair flying out to either side.  “Everyone.  I don’t understand.  Can’t explain.”

“Try,” he urged her.

“Sometimes it’s in two years.  Sometimes it’s in eight.  Sometimes in between.  But if he’s alive, something happens, and everyone on Earth starts to die.  Not that everyone doesn’t die anyways but they die really fast when that something happens, all one after another, and in a year almost everyone is dead.  So I said everyone, if that makes sense and a few live but they die pretty soon after anyways and-“

“Shh, pet.  I think we understand what you’re saying.  Quiet now, unless you think of something important.  We need to consider this.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds.  You could have heard a pin drop.

“His power isn’t all that, I don’t think,” Grue spoke, slowly, as if considering the words as he spoke.  “Space warping effect, so any blades he’s holding have an edge that extends a horrendously long distance, all with the optimal force behind the swing.  Swings his knife, cuts through an entire crowd.  Doesn’t make sense that he’d be able to murder everyone on Earth.”

“Unless he somehow cuts the planet in half,” Tattletale mused.

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

“I think we need more numbers if we’re to understand this, pet.  What is the likelihood that he succeeds in this?  To one decimal point.”

“Eighty three point four percent.”

“You said if he’s alive.  What if we killed him?  Now?  To one decimal point.  If I use my power.”

“Thirty one point two percent chance someone kills him before he leaves the city, if you use your power.  It doesn’t happen until fifteen years from now, if you do.”

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

Tattletale spoke up, “He’s the catalyst for something else, then.”

“Is it always successful, pet?  This something that kills everyone on Earth?”

She shook her head, “Not always, not all the way.  Sometimes more people live.  Sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes billions.  But millions or billions always die when it happens.”

“If I were to send the Travellers?  How likely would they be to kill him?”

“My head hurts.”

“Please, pet, this is important.  To one decimal point.”

“Twenty two point six percent.  Thirty point nine percent chance some of them die.”

“And the Undersiders?”

“Eleven point nine percent chance they succeed.  Fifty five point four percent chance they die if they fight those people.”

Coil sighed, then straightened.  He looked at the middle-aged man, handed him the computer, “I strongly recommend you get what information you can on the group.  Any detail in the PRT records could be invaluable.  Lose sleep if you have to.”

The man took the laptop, swallowed, and then offered a quick bob of his head.  The others in the assembled group around Coil looked just as alarmed by what they’d overheard.

“We should contact the local heroes,” Grue spoke.  “Let them know what’s up.”

Coil nodded, slowly, “I’ll look into it.  That said, I think the numbers illustrate one thing.  You are not equipped to fight that group.  If you encounter them, you-“

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

“Sixty percent chance the Undersiders encounter some of those people.”

Coil turned to look at us.  “So you’re likely to encounter them.  When that happens, you run.  Cede any territory, abandon any job.  I would rather you were alive than successful in a job.”

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

“In the meantime, we move on to the next phase of my plan,” Coil spoke.  “You may be wondering about this location, how it is similar to the new headquarters I provided you.  I have outfitted these areas to be your stations, points from which you will operate, work to seize and keep territory.  I have several more.  If you’re amenable, I would have each of you take one of these stations for yourself.  Grue, this would be your station, shared with Imp, which I assume is alright?”

Grue looked around, “Big place and a lot of beds for two people.”

“More on that later.  Rest assured, I can provide staff, help.  I expect you’ll wish to find and recruit people of your own.  Contact me about funds – I will ensure that anyone you hire is paid well.”

Grue nodded.

“Regent?  Your territory is near Grue’s, close to the water.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

“Interpersonal stuff,” Grue replied.  “She’ll be back.”

“A shame.  Your other headquarters, where I moved your collective belongings, that will be her station.  Barker and Biter here showed up for the Endbringer fight, and I got in contact with them.  They, alongside these three young individuals,” he gestured to the two parahumans, and three college-aged kids who looked rather intimidated, “Will work under her.  Barker and Biter profess to be fearless, and should have little difficulty managing the dogs, even when Bitch’s abilities are at work.  The men and the young lady I’ve provided have some degree of training in veterinary medicine or handling dogs.  Let her know this.  She is free to accept them or refuse them as she sees fit.”

Grue looked over the five people who would be Bitch’s henchmen, nodded.

“Tattletale, I’ve set up quarters near Lord Street, in one of the ABB’s old locations.  I assume your teammates will want to be in contact, and this area is both accessible, and it can reach any other area readily.  The area is already furnished with computers, and you’ll find staff there, people who are capable at gathering information, be it from media, computers or the streets.  You’ll also find a small force of mercenaries that I’ve assigned to you, so you can act on that information where you see fit.”

“Cool.”

“Skitter, I have set up quarters near the south end of the Boardwalk.  Reconstruction and repair work is still ongoing there, but if you will be patient, it may well be one of the more lucrative locations when things are up and running again.”

I nodded.  That wouldn’t be far from my old home, close to our old hideout.  Did that mean something?  Did he know who I was, or had Tattletale suggested it?  I felt uneasy about that.

“Regent, Grue, Imp and Skitter, I realize I have not detailed any employees to you to begin with.  I leave it to you to start this task for yourself, to decide what you need and how you intend to operate.  Once you have decided this for yourselves, let me know, and I will endeavor to help you fill in the blanks in your individual operations.

“As you leave, you’ll receive emails on the locations of your individual headquarters.  For the time being, all I require from you, for now, is that you establish order and assume some measure of control over your territories.”

There were nods all around.

“Your payment for tonight’s job will be in your accounts shortly, with a bonus for the obstacles you faced.  Any questions?  Any topics you would like to raise for discussion?”

“A few questions, but I figure I’ll see what’s up with this new role we’re taking,” Grue replied, “Then I’ll ask them.”

“Good.”

“I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about,” I spoke, augmenting my voice with the swarm’s noises to mask it.  “In private.”

“Yes.  That’s fine, I was hoping to have a private conversation with you anyways.  Anyone?  Anything else before we part ways?”

Nobody had anything further to say.  Grue and the others turned to leave, and the crowd around Coil followed them soon after.  One of Bitch’s henchmen – Barker, was it? – leered at me as he passed, dug his hand into his groin in some sort of scratch or a lewd gesture.

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

When the group had left the room, I could hear noises downstairs, as they moved about the house.  Or maybe it was Grue, checking his new place.  I was left alone with Coil and Dinah.

I wasn’t sure I liked that our group was being split up like this.  The timing seemed bad.  I’d sort of been hoping I could repair the divide, and that would be hard if we were each in our own territories, doing our own things.

I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“I heard about the incident at the hospital, following the Endbringer attack.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale told me that you know I was fully informed about your true nature.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

I shook my head.  She’d told me about his power in confidence.

“Well, I suppose I may share that detail at some point in the future.  You understand my desire to keep certain things private?”

“Yeah, no.  I get it.  It makes sense, it’s smart.”

“Mmm,” he murmured.  He turned to his pet, stroked her head like one might with a dog or a cat.  She stared down at her dress, picked at a thread that was sticking out, stretching it out long.  The thread snapped, and she let it drift from her hand to the ground.  Then she started picking at another.  Coil interrupted my observations, “So.  You wished to discuss something?”

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

“Before, back in the limousine, you asked me what I wanted out of all this, what I desired from my deal with you.”

“Yes.”

“I asked you to fix the city, you told me you planned on doing that anyways, that I should ask for something else.”

“And you’ve decided.”

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath.  “Dinah.  Your… pet.”

“You want me to release her.  I’m afraid-“

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

I swallowed, felt an ugly feeling in my gut, “I know she’s invaluable to you.  I know how useful her talent is, and the lengths you went to in getting ahold of them.  I don’t like it, but I get it.”

He didn’t respond.  He just stared at me, his mask lacking eye holes, just black cloth stretched over eye sockets.

“I… All I’m asking is that you let her go when you’ve done it.  When you take this city, when you succeed in your plan, you release her to go home to her family.  If you do that, I’ll work for you.  I’ll try harder than anyone, to get this city under your control, and then I’ll work for you for as long as you’ll have me, afterward.”

“I’m afraid, Skitter, that this deal doesn’t quite balance out.  I intend no offense, but my initial impression is that my pet is far more valuable to me than you are.”

No.  My heart sank.

“But I can accept it,” he spoke.  “Provided you prove to me that your talents are worth losing hers.  I admit, the active assistance you can provide might prove more useful when the city is firmly in my grasp, when I have less to be concerned about in terms of day-to-day operations.”

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head, then turned to leave, wordlessly.

When I went downstairs, Tattletale and Regent were already gone.  Maybe they were checking out their new places.  Grue and Imp were in the ‘living room’, opening crates of stuff to see the supplies they had available.

I wasn’t up to talking to them, or explaining the recent conversation.

Leaving the building without a word, I sloshed through the water.  I realized my fists were clenched, and my glove was sticking to itself, thanks to the residual containment foam.  Annoying.  I wondered if I could scrub it off.

When I peeled my fingers away from the glove, I realized my hand was shaking.

I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves.  I could do this.  Whatever I had to do, I was going to help that girl.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The four engines mounted on the shoulders of Dragon’s armor shifted position, each aiming at a different point within the lobby.  Tattletale was the first of us to turn and run, the rest of us moving to follow as Dragon opened fire.

All in all, Dragon unloaded four streams of containment foam into the lobby, each of the shoulder mounted turrets  gushing like firehoses.  Only flecks of the spray struck us, but they expanded into blobs of foam the size of golf balls and softballs.  Each blob was tacky, sticky, and any attempt to wipe it away just smeared it and exposed more surface area to the air, making it expand more.

If we’d started running a fraction of a second later, we might have been screwed.

Weld moved to block our retreat, but Shadow Stalker stepped up to fight him with one of the dogs, Bentley, joining her.  It made for a pretty effective combination, as Weld couldn’t swing hard enough to hurt the dog without risking hurting his teammate.  The way Regent was having Shadow Stalker fight, there was no self preservation or defense, which worked out to being a more effective combat style than anything else, in its own way.  I was pretty sure Weld had never fought someone who was actively trying to get hit.

I’d been drawing my bugs closer to the building since we arrived, and I brought them into the fray as Dragon continued to lock down the lobby with the spray.  The first tactic I tried was blocking the spray with the bugs.  I didn’t intend to stop the spray, exactly, but I hoped that I could cause the bugs to catch it & drop down atop Dragon, sticking to her.  It didn’t work – the spray was too strong, and the bugs were blasted much too far away.  Only one or two landed on her, and even then, I doubted the positions were that ideal.

Instead, I adjusted my tactics.  The idea was the same, but I didn’t want to sacrifice bugs for the purpose of clogging her systems or blocking her guns if it would be that ineffective.  I gathered some bugs on anything that looked like a sensor – glass panes or openings in the armored vehicle, and I set the rest to gathering on the shattered glass that littered the floor of the lobby.  The feet of the insects and arachnids had setae, or small hairs, which branched further into setules.  These fibers, in turn, harnessed Van der Waals forces to cling even to surfaces as slick as glass.

I’d been reading up.

I didn’t use this grip to stick to the surface, but instead employed it to collectively lift and pick up the glass.  Six or seven bugs could lift a decent-sized piece of glass if they were on the ground, while anywhere from twelve to thirty could fly with one if I managed it right.

I had a few hundred to employ, with more still arriving.

With this glass, I did my best to catch and block the outlying flecks and drips of spray as it flew through the air, at the periphery of the streams.

The spray knocked some pieces of glass from the air, and struck some bugs, causing the group to lose their collective grip and drop the glass.  That was to be expected.  Others, though, caught the foam on one of the flat panes of the glass.  As more bugs rose with the glass between them, I organized them into loose walls and barriers, to maximize the area they were catching and to overlap so that less bugs were exposed to incoming spray.

“She’s got a disadvantage,” Tattletale spoke, her voice low, “This suit is meant to fly to serious crises at a moment’s notice, deal with dangerous foes.  She’s packing too many lethal weapons.”

“That’s a disadvantage?” Regent asked.

“She’s not about to kill us.  Bad PR, especially for a notable hero traveling into another country to fight virtual unknowns like us.  So we only have to worry about her nonlethal weaponry, and she doesn’t have many.”

I nodded acknowledgement, but my focus was elsewhere.  As I judged that enough bugs had caught the foam on one pane of their individual pieces of glass, I directed them to carry the glass down to Dragon.  As I positioned the bugs, the glass stuck to lenses, vents of hot air, vents where air was rushing in, and the smaller joints near segmented areas.

Dragon didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Can she see me?” Imp asked.

Tattletale started to speak, but stopped when one of the streams changed direction to spray closer to us, forcing us to retreat in a hurry.  I glanced at the gift shop.  Would it be a good idea to retreat in there?  The walls were glass, which was both good and bad in that both Dragon and our group could break through it.  The problem was that we risked being trapped if we headed in there.

“No way she got here this fast,” Tattletale spoke, “She’s based in British Columbia, on the other side of the continent.  This has to be remotely controlled, like the one she used to fight Leviathan, which means the only eyes on you are digital, and-”

“She’s not,” Regent interrupted.

“What?” Tattletale asked him.

“There’s someone in there, I tried using my power on her, experimenting, and I felt some kind of nervous system.  Too much material between me and it for me to do anything with it, and I wouldn’t really try it while I’m controlling Shadow Stalker anyways.  I’d probably backfire.”

Shadow Stalker was still fighting Weld.  As Dragon turned a stream toward them, Weld reacted fast enough that I suspected he had some line of communication to her.  He backed out of the way, and Shadow Stalker and the dog both moved in the other direction, with a stream splashing where they had been brawling a second before, blossoming into a pile of foam as tall as they were, separating the two groups of combatants.

Most of my first wave of bugs had either been shot out of the sky by errant bits of spray or had placed their initial pieces of glass and were going back for more.  This wasn’t a K.O. hit, and Dragon was too good to let something this minor stop her, however it might delay or hamper her.  The real issue was that this was too slow, and we were on a tight time limit.  Less than a minute, and the Protectorate would arrive.  Their team was smaller with recent deaths and Armsmaster’s ‘retirement’, and I hadn’t heard about any new recruits.

Then again, I hadn’t heard about the Ward’s new recruits, and here Weld was, being annoyingly persistent.  I was assuming he was the new leader, given his tone with Shadow Stalker.  I wondered if being ridiculously tenacious was a job requirement for being in charge of the Wards.  It made sense to have a commander who wouldn’t be removed from the field by an errant attack.  You wanted someone who would stay in the thick of it for the whole fight.

The gift shop jutted out from the wall of the lobby some, the glass panes arranged to showcase more of the pictures, action figures and memorabilia with three broad windows than they might with one.  This layout gave us some cover from Dragon’s attacks.  Even when the force of the spray served to break the windows, the expansion of the foam at the edges of the frame soon blocked the worst of it off.  If anything, it was closing the windows off.  Only the pane of glass facing us was left unbroken and largely free of foam.

Sensing this, Dragon started to advance further into the lobby.  Her broad, mechanical feet began hissing with vapor, and the goo my ground-borne bugs were hauling towards her began to run, losing its consistency and stickiness.  She set one foot down directly on a pile of foam, and lifted it up again with no difficulty.  It was clear: the foam wouldn’t hamper her.

“So she’s piloting that thing, then?” Imp asked.  “My power works on her?”

“We can’t be sure,” Tattletale spoke, “Don’t risk it.”

Dragon advanced another step, circling our relative cover from the window to spray inches closer to us.  The way it was piling up, there would be no way to go over it, and the route we had available for going around the far end of it was rapidly closing.  We were getting hemmed in, our backs to the wall by the window.

“Imp!” Tattletale shouted, “No!”

I looked at her, confused, but I didn’t have time to figure it out.  A flare of orange light caught my attention.  Dragon’s mouth had opened wide, and she was spewing something like an ignited accelerant into the lobby.  With this fluid, she drew a three-foot wide line of flame onto the lobby floor, stretching from just below her to the stairwell door by the front desk.  She’d cut off our escape route.

Weld leaped into and through the flame, his hook hands swinging wildly.  Some of the accelerant had landed on him, making him burn, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He turned ninety degrees and lunged forward in response to something I couldn’t see or hear, then swept his hooks out in a frenzied series of blind attacks.  On the third swing I saw Imp duck beneath the attack, then stumble back out of his reach, towards us.

“The fucking fuck!?” she shouted.

“Dragon can see you, you twit, and she’s relaying directions to Weld!” Tattletale shouted at our new member, “And what the hell were you hoping to accomplish over there!?”

“I could’ve figured something out,” Imp pouted.

Tattletale didn’t have a response to that.  Instead, she hauled her gun up and then fired a short burst at Weld.  He backed up into the wall of flame, oddly enough, and Tattletale stopped firing.

Two of Dragon’s shoulder turrets were now being set to the task of controlling the flame and keeping it from spreading across the lobby, to the front desk or up to the ceiling.   Twin jets of chemical spray kept the fire limited to the areas Dragon wanted it.

“Doesn’t she care about property damage?” I asked.

“She prefers to keep her data secure and pay out of her own pocket for any damage.  Betting this place is slated for some major renovations anyways, given the state of things,” Tattletale explained.  The foam was inching closer to us as Dragon prowled further into the lobby.

More of my bugs set sticky pieces of glass down on top of lenses and sensors.  That was apparently enough for Dragon, because she stopped spraying the foam altogether and started using the two turrets that weren’t dedicated to fire management to deploying the same vapor that shrouded her legs.  It surrounded her, and the work I’d done to stick things to her began to come apart as the foam turned runny.

A wave of darkness swept over her.  Grue was awake, and had formed a loose group with Shadow Stalker and the dogs.  All but one of the dogs were normal sized, now, with no sign or trace of their mutations.

They still faced the hurdle of passing by Weld, but a blast of darkness and an abrupt change of direction faked out the young hero, letting Grue slip by.

“Dragon’s here!?” he shouted, aghast.

“Yeah!  But we got the stuff, had to wait for you!”

“Go through the gift shop, We’ll meet you outside!”  He charged right behind the spot where Dragon was still within the cloud of darkness, and out the front door.  Shadow Stalker simply passed through Weld and bolted for the door, running faster than the Ward’s leader could, while the smallest dogs stayed just out of his reach, bolting after Grue.  Bentley, the only dog currently under the effects of Bitch’s power, a little beaten and battered, came running towards us, far, far too eager for something that large and strong.

Bitch grabbed his collar before he could leap up to greet her, redirected his momentum, then wrenched him toward the window.  “Go!” she shouted, pointing.

Bentley eagerly plowed through the remaining display window, knocking over DVD racks as he landed in the shop.  We followed him in.

The shop had everything cape related, from movies showcasing individual members of the teams to books, magazines, figurines, toys and posters.  The layout of the shop made it awkward as a battlefield.  The shelves, racks, stands and display cases forced visitors into a winding path as they navigated the shop.

The window looking out on the street was smaller than the display windows, and was covered by metal bars.  Tattletale began unloading the lightning cannon on the bars.

Dragon lunged out of the darkness, then spotted us, her shoulder turrets orienting in our direction.  We ducked behind a heavy wooden magazine stand filled with cape magazines and tourism pamphlets as Dragon opened fire with two streams of containment foam.

Tattletale maintained the electrical assault on the bars even as she joined us in taking cover with her back to the magazine stand.  The gun she was holding began to whine, with a pitch so high I could barely hear it.  Bentley reacted, though, turning his head one way, and then the other.  It made Bitch’s job of holding his collar and ensuring he stayed behind cover twice as difficult.

The bolts holding the bars to the window frame melted before the bars themselves did.  One side swung free, then the entire assembly dropped down on top of a bookshelf.

The entire room shuddered as Dragon forced her way through the display window.  One gigantic metal talon slammed down on the bookshelf, annihilating most of our cover, and we scrambled to find shelter behind the remaining stands.  Her back legs began working their way towards us, the front of her body staying stationary.  This made her back arch, and her head and shoulder mounted turrets gradually shifted to point downward.  It would be seconds before she was spraying the foam down from directly above us.

The whine of Tattletale’s gun reached a crescendo, and a blindingly bright arc of electricity flew from the side of the barrel to skip along the floor.  I worried it would ignite something, but it winked out before it could.

Tattletale lunged for the shelf next to the magazines, grabbing a head-and-torso model of Miss Militia.  She jammed it in between the trigger and the trigger guard of her gun, forcing the trigger into a depressed position.  Then she lobbed the setup over the back of the shattered bookshelf.  The lightning licked the wall and the ceiling before the gun crashed to the floor.  Dragon lurched back to get away from it.

“Go!” Tattletale shouted, setting her feet below her, then leaping between the twin streams of foam that Dragon turned toward us.  She came only an inch shy of making contact with the heap of foam that Dragon had created.

Dragon heaved herself over and beyond the electrical surge the gun was still pumping out, chasing Tattletale, swiping with one mechanical claw.  I got the sense she was pulling her punches to avoid murdering my teammate, because the attack was slow.  Tattletale slipped past, stepping onto the bookshelf to clear the window.  Or maybe it had something to do with the bugs I had gathered on her sensors.

With Tattletale’s escape, Bitch, Imp, Regent, and I were left in the gift shop.  Dragon’s lunge for Tattletale had put her directly in our path to the window, and an uneven pile of containment foam surrounded her, in the middle of the room.

Regent and Imp made a break for it.  Imp ducked around to the left, coming within a hair of being caught by the spray Dragon turned her way, then used the cover of the bookshelves to stay out of the line of fire as she ran for the window.  Dragon half-turned away from the rest of us in pursuit.  Regent moved as if he were going to try to move beneath Dragon using the distraction Imp had provided, clearly intending to step on her metal foot.  He changed his mind when a crackle of visible electricity flashed down the mechanical limb.  He turned a hard right, picking up a piece of bookshelf, and used the wood to block the majority of the spray as he passed beneath one of the stray streams.  From there, much as Imp had, he had a clear route.

Dragon moved to bar more of the window with the bulk of her body, her back arching.  Her upper body and head now pointed almost down at an angle, the streams from her shoulders reorienting to block off the escape routes available to Bitch, her dog and me.

So I did something risky and borderline stupid.  I lunged forward and stepped onto the metal foot of Dragon’s armored suit, like Regent had been planning to do until he discovered it was electrified.

I had known the same spider silk I’d used for my costume was insulated against electrical charges, had even put that into practice in my fight against Armsmaster during the fundraiser.  This was something altogether different.

I could feel the faint tendrils of electricity snake over the surface of my body, though I only stepped on the metal foot once.  I couldn’t tell if the source of the electricity was the gun Tattletale had rigged and thrown – Dragon’s tail was close enough to it for the electricity to flow to her – or if it was from Dragon’s body itself.

Though the footing was unsteady, I was careful not to touch the metal leg with my upper body, and even turned my head away, risking throwing myself off balance, so my hair wouldn’t make contact with it.  As I understood it, the biggest danger the electricity posed was that my body would become part of a circuit.  If the circuit included vital organs, I’d be a goner, and that kind of closed circuit could happen if the electricity could run from my hand and through my heart on the way to my foot.

The gamble and assumption I was working with was that electricity followed the path of least resistance.  Insulated costume vs. vapor in the air?  It would travel through the vapor.  Insulated costume vs. metal leg?  It would travel down the leg.

Either way, I was glad when I didn’t burn my foot or have it get fried or go numb.  I was damn glad I didn’t die.

With all of this consuming my attention, I was caught off guard when something large brushed against me while I was mid-leap.

The impact threw my airborne momentum off, drove me to one side.  My first, most immediate, thought, before I even considered the source of the attack, was where I was about to land.  It was reflexive, but I sent a spray of bugs out from the armor near my glove, scattering them onto the area just in front of me.

Before I had even figured out what my bugs were sensing, I reacted to their signals.  I slammed my arm out, rigid, my hand splayed, and felt a jarring pain as I tried to absorb my entire body weight with one arm and force myself away.  I felt a lack of traction as my hand made contact with something soft and squishy.  My maneuver was too minor to make a real difference, but I managed to buy myself a precious few inches.

My hand, arm and shoulder were caught in the containment foam.

I tried to raise myself to see Dragon looming above, but the foam offered only a rubbery resistance.  It had set with the contact, bonded to my costume.  I was pinned face down on the ground.

What I did see, as I raised my head as high as I was able?  Bitch was astride Bentley, who’d grown large enough to ride, and they were standing near the window leading into the street.  I could only see her eyes behind the plastic of her mask, and everything else was communicated through her bearing, her posture, the angle of her head.  I’d seen something similar when I’d first met her.

It hadn’t been Dragon that knocked me into the foam.

Dragon turned her upper body to strike at Bitch.  As she moved, her back leg was close enough that some of the vapor was getting on me, slowly liquefying the foam.  It was too slow to matter.  Dragon had me.

Her stainless steel jaws snapped for Bentley, but the dog was already slipping out the window.  Bitch had dismounted and was running to one side, heading off in a different direction to exit at the far end of the window.

Which left me in the gift shop with Dragon.

“I have a sworn responsibility to protect that data,” she said as she turned her attention to me.  She sounded surprisingly normal.  Her voice was clearly digitized, but it was still too human to match the massive metal frame.

“Can’t help you there.  One of my teammates has it.”

“Where are they taking it?”

I stayed silent.

“Your teammates left you behind.  I’ve read the file on what happened after the Endbringer attack.  Hard feelings?”

“Something like that.”

“If they aren’t going to be loyal to you, why protect them?”

Because someone else was depending on it.  But I wasn’t going to say that out loud.

The whine of the lightning gun increased by an octave.  I saw Dragon’s upper body shift in reaction.

“Move the insects away from my suit, now,” Dragon ordered me.

“Why would I-”

“Now,” she ordered, and there was an urgency in her tone that banished any suspicion on my part that there was a ruse or that somehow it might serve my interest to disobey.  I withdrew my bugs, but I kept them poised to return if needed.

Dragon moved back, and her body coiled around the spot where the gun had fallen, segments meeting to loosely interconnect with one another, forming a dome-shaped encasement.  Two shoulder turrets began dispensing foam directly downward, into the dome.

“Count yourself fortunate, Skitter.  I’ve never killed a criminal without explicit permission and all the filed paperwork, and I’m not about to start with you.  I’ll be in contact.”

“What?”  I had to raise my voice to be heard over the high pitched whine.  I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

“Think about what I said.  Take a close look at those priorities of yours.”

The vapor had melted enough foam that I could pull myself free and stand.  I got five paces away before the whine ceased.  A second later, lightning began to spill from the gun in overtime.  Dragon’s body served to block the vast majority of it, but a few arcs slipped through the cracks in her body.

The full meaning of her words struck me the moment the gun detonated.  A large portion of her suit was destroyed, as was one of the limbs.  Dragon fell to one side.

She’d saved me?

Regent had said Dragon was inside, piloting it, hadn’t he?  I stepped closer, trying to see if she was okay.

Regent was right.  There was someone – something – in the suit of armor.

It looked like a fetus, the features were crude, barely humanoid in any sense of the word.  The eyes were half-formed, and it had no nose, only a beak-like mouth.  The head was half-again as large as the body below the neck.  Wires wove in and out of orifices.

It turned to look at me, then made a low mewling sound.  The metal around it began to glow red-hot, then white-hot.  Burns consumed the thing and the flesh changed to a charred black texture as the metal of the frame began to melt and dissolve.  Whatever had happened with the Dragonslayers, it seemed Dragon was dedicated to eliminating all traces of her work when her suits were damaged.

But was that Dragon?

No.  She’d seemed to know she was sacrificing her suit, but she’d also said she was going to get in contact with me in the future.  I backed away, then ran for the window.

So what the hell had I just seen?

Had that been someone who was physically affected by their powers?  I wasn’t even sure if it was human.

I had a growing, uneasy feeling that this wasn’t related to powers and trigger events in the conventional sense.  I pushed it out of my mind.  I had something more pressing to focus on.

I set my foot on the bookcase, then stepped up and through the window to exit the building.  I could see the others dispatching two members of the Protectorate.  Tattletale hurried towards me, said something about the explosion, that she thought I’d be out by now.  I barely registered it.  My attention was on one person as I strode forward.

Bitch.

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Parasite 10.4

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I could detect a definite note of irritation in Dragon’s voice, despite how she’d synthesized it to mask her tone, inflection and speech patterns.  “You were tampering with my system,” she accused us.

In the dim light the monitors shed, I could see Imp trying the door by the stairs.  It didn’t open.  I gave it a try and verified it had sealed shut.  I wasn’t entirely sure why I’d expected a different result.  Maybe I’d been hoping Imp had been making a horribly timed joke?  It wouldn’t be beyond her.

“We were, but we’re done now, so we’ll be on our way,” Tattletale called out, her voice raised to be picked up by whatever microphones Dragon was using to listen in on us.  I could see her pulling the USB drives from the computer.

Dragon informed us,  “I’m reading the files and notes we have on you as we speak.  Tattletale, it seems you have a penchant for needling your opponents.  Rest assured, if you intend to try it, I won’t rise to the bait.”

Imp hefted her fire axe and struck just beside the handle of the door.  The door itself was hollow, but it was made of something like fiberglass, and the axe only made a small hole, a half inch across and less than two inches long.  She struck again, slightly higher.

“So few think they will,” Tattletale said with a grin.  “So.  I guess you’ve locked us in here, huh?”

“Yes.  You’ll get out, perhaps, but not before reinforcements arrive.”

“We’ll see,” Tattletale answered.  She began moving toward the Wards’ quarters.  She looked from one security camera to the next, as if trying to figure out if she was being watched.  I did have my bugs covering the lenses of the cameras I’d been able to find, but that wasn’t to say that they could have something more concealed.

It was kind of creepy, that the kids here were observed constantly like that.

“You tried to steal official data, and you put a virus on my system.  Epeios’ work, I believe.  I’m more insulted by the fact that you went to that hack than I am about the virus.”

“Had to slow you guys down somehow,” Tattletale called out.  She motioned to me, and I hurried toward her.  Imp let go of the axe to rub and shake her hand.  Regent grabbed the weapon to take over the job of hacking at the door.

I followed Tattletale into one of the rooms at the other end of the Ward’s headquarters.  Pieces of technology littered the area.  There was a small bed in one corner so littered with pieces of junk, screws, scraps of metal and unfinished projects that I doubted the occupant had used it to sleep in a long time.

Kid Win’s room, had to be.

“Gear up,” Tattletale said.

“What?”

“Taking a tinker’s stuff to keep is a bad idea, what with GPS signals and tracking and all that, but at the very least, we can use this to get out.”  She swept her arm over the room, where stuff lay on every surface.

Dragon’s voice echoed through the chamber, “I can hear you, Tattletale.  Do not use a tinker’s devices.  Power supplies can overload, weapons and equipment can misfire.  Only the tinker who made it can verify the devices as safe and operate them properly.”

“Right, sure,” Tattletale called out with a note of sarcasm in her voice.  “Because it’s not like there’s any high profile mercenaries out there who’ve made a career off of using a tinker’s stuff.”

Dragon didn’t reply.  Had Tattletale found a sore spot?  I knew the Dragonslayers were mercenaries who had taken the parts of one of Dragon’s armored suits to outfit themselves as high tech mercenaries.

Tattletale looked up and glanced around the room, then whispered to me, “Don’t worry about misfires.  I think my power will help us spot those.”

I wanted to believe her, but she’d been wrong before.  It would be Murphy’s law for her power to go awry here, with us blowing our faces off or something.

Still, I didn’t stop her from picking up a gun without a handle.  She pointed it at the wall and pulled the trigger that sort of dangled beneath the gun.  A yellow dot appeared on the wall, then started smoking.  She glanced over her shoulder, and when I turned to see what she was looking at, I saw a matching dot on the wall.  She moved the gun, and the dots both moved.

“Laser with invisible beam.  Ricochets,” she murmured.  “Doesn’t burn that hot, wouldn’t do any damage to anything or anyone.  Wouldn’t incapacitate our opposition or get us out of here.”  She put it aside.  “Look for something better.”

Dangers aside, borrowing Kid Win’s stuff wasn’t a bad idea.  At the speed Regent and Imp were cutting through the door handle, I figured it would be minutes before they were through.  We had to get out of here before the Protectorate arrived.  Even with their numbers cut by recent casualties and injuries, that would be very, very bad for us.

I uncovered three guns that looked like they might work.  Tattletale looked them over.  “Nonlethal flamethrower that probably didn’t pass review, some kind of forcefield barrier cannon and some kind of gun for fighting bigger foes.  Nothing too dangerous, but don’t point them at any of the rest of us until you’ve tested ’em out.”

Nodding, I lifted the one that was five feet long, needle-thin and spearlike.  I worked to get it out of Kid Win’s quarters and aimed it at the largest chair, by the computers.  I depressed the trigger, and a blue flame the length of my forearm spat out the end, consuming the chair.  The seat bent under the heat, melted plastic pooling on the floor, an acrid smell assaulting my nostrils.  The flames that licked the remaining material cast some extra light on our surroundings.  It was pretty thorough destruction for less than two seconds of sustained fire.

How the hell is that nonlethal?

I hurried over to the door, and both Imp and Regent backed away to let me fire.  I pulled the trigger… nothing.

“He took the power and fuel supply from that to use for something else, put crap components in there instead!  Let it recharge!” Tattletale shouted across the room, “Almost one minute before you can shoot again!”

Fuck.

Dragon would have overheard that, but she didn’t comment.  Instead, a sprinkler system kicked into gear, misting down from the ceiling.  Though the quantity of water was low, the effect on the burning chair was immediate, and the flames disappeared with surprising quickness.  What little of the moisture soaked into my mask tasted faintly bitter.

Then Dragon shut off the monitors, plunging us into absolute darkness.

I left the weapon with Imp and hurried over to the other guns, using the few bugs I had with me to ‘feel’ my way, sensing their locations and identifying anything I might trip over.  The second gun, though it had looked more complete than any of the others, had two triggers on the front and two by the handle.  I tried various combinations and got nowhere.

The last gun was heavy.  I hefted it with both hands, then told Regent and Imp to move aside as I aimed it at the door.  Didn’t want to waste any first shots if this was going to take forever to recharge as well.  The gun vibrated, rattled, and shuddered for a full five seconds before it fired.  The shot didn’t cast any light, but it struck the door with enough force that the entire door buckled outward.  I hit the door with my shoulder, and the upper hinge came free.  There was a light in the stairwell, shedding some meager light on us.

“Tattletale!” I called out.  “We got through!”

By the time Tattletale reached us, Regent and I had brought the door down.  The lock was still extending from the handle to the frame, but we’d taken the door off its hinges, and we were free to pull the door open from the other side.  We hurried into the stairwell and began heading back upstairs.

“Fight upstairs is going south, we need to step in, fast,” Regent spoke.  I felt out with my bugs to get a sense of where each of the combatants were, then nodded a hasty agreement.  I began taking the stairs two at a time, though the gun I carried had to weigh a good thirty or forty pounds.

We were halfway up when we came across a pair of unconscious PRT officers.  I looked at Tattletale.

“Imp did this,” she told Regent and me.  “She went ahead, remember?”

It took me a few seconds to realize who she meant.  Damn it, having to keep track of Imp and having her power throwing me off my stride was getting to be annoying.  The team prior to now had a kind of synergy, with the way my bugs and Tattletale’s power let us deal with Grue’s darkness, and how the dogs could smell opponents through it.

We found Imp at the top of the stairs, aiming the spearlike gun.  The blue flame poured out, melting a large hole in the fiberglass.  We crouched in the stairwell as Imp opened the door.  I was so distracted by the sight of the PRT uniforms waiting for us in the hallway that I didn’t see where Imp went.

The reaction wasn’t as strong or immediate as I would have expected, given the burst of flame and the door opening.  A side effect of Imp being the one to carry it out?  One person shouted and alerted the others.  Regent used his power on the one closest to him, causing him to stumble sideways into his comrades. Their ranks descended into chaos.

I readied the few bugs I had on my person, then hefted my borrowed gun.  I backed down a stair as I asked Tattletale, “This thing is nonlethal, right?”

She didn’t have an answer for me.  Instead, she yelped out, “Back!”

She practically pushed me down the stairs, and I caught a glimpse of her covering her ears, shutting her eyes.  Despite the fact that I was on the verge of landing face first on the landing of the stairwell, I didn’t use my hands to stop myself.  I turned to take the impact with my shoulder, tucked my chin to my chest and covered my ears.  Regent jumped out of my way as I landed, his arms pressed against the sides of his head.

It had to have been a grenade.  The blast ripped through the upstairs hallway, and left me gasping even from inside the stairwell.  Tattletale was up before I was, hauling me to my feet and up the stairs, Regent followed just behind us.

The grenade had been of the nonlethal variety, but not quite a flashbang.  The gathered soldiers were reeling, stunned, and Imp was crouched by the only one who was still conscious.  She drew a taser from her sleeve, tagged him, then stood.  She had one of the PRT’s grenade launchers slung over one shoulder, the flamethrower-thing in one hand, and the taser in the other.  She handed off the grenade launcher to Regent, then put the taser away, holding the flamethrower.

To reach the hallway where Grue and the elevator were, we had to head out past the gift shop and around the front desk.  Everyone we’d left behind was still there, friend and foe, but things hadn’t gone well in our absence.

We found Bitch and Shadow Stalker backed against the elevator at the far end of the hallway.  The three dogs were spread out between them and Weld, limp and unmoving.  They’d shrunk down almost to their normal size.  I had to watch for a few seconds before I could see the rise and fall of Sirius’ chest and verify he was alive.

Weld stood beside Grue, binding a length of cord around our leader.  The way he was positioned, Bitch wasn’t able to get by, and I could only assume that Regent had Shadow Stalker there because Bitch lacked the means to defend herself solo.  The elevator, naturally, wasn’t running.

I lifted the heavy gun, then aimed it at Weld and Grue.

“Where did you get those guns?” Weld asked, squaring his shoulders as he turned to face us.

“Borrowed ’em,” Tattletale smirked.  Then she fired the gun she was carrying.  An arc of electricity crackled between the nozzle of her gun and Weld.  Seemingly unconcerned, he started running towards us, metal feet pounding on the tile.

Tattletale backed up one step, and I took that as my cue to back up three. This guy could hit hard, and none of us was capable of going toe-to-toe with him.

There was no need to worry, as the lightning gun’s effects added up and Weld collapsed to the ground before he got halfway to us.  Tattletale stopped firing, and I could see that the metal of Weld’s body was glowing with the heat he’d absorbed.  She stepped closer and swung her gun at him, smacking him across the face with the barrel.  It stuck, and she swiftly backed up.  I wouldn’t have thought he was that hot, that the metal would bond.

Weld staggered to his feet and tore the gun away with both hands, leaving a melted mess that extended from his cheekbone to his forehead on one side of his face.  Gun removed, he started reforming his hands into sticks, four feet long, with the ends curved into blunted hooks.

I raised the gun that had nearly knocked the door off its hinges and pulled the trigger, aiming it at both Weld and Grue.  Nothing.  Whether it was due to a lack of charge, a malfunction, or whatever, it just didn’t work.

Weld began to charge us, and he was nearly to us when Imp stepped in his way and tried to fire.

“Don’t-” Tattletale started.

As with my gun, the flamethrower didn’t work.  Weld clobbered her just as she was beginning to utter a swear word, catching her with both hands to fling her aside.  She tumbled into a sign.  That put him only a few paces from me.

Shadow Stalker was already running toward us.  She entered her shadow state to leap forward, interjecting herself between us and him before going solid.  There was no grace in her movement as she threw herself at him, no particular technique she employed.  They slammed into one another, and she went limp, her body getting tangled up in his legs as he trampled her to the ground.

A short distance from us, Regent fell to one knee, grunting slightly.  A backfire?  Or something else?

More out of an attempt to minimize the damage to Shadow Stalker than actually being bowled over, Weld fell.  I did as Tattletale had done before, and struck Weld with the metal of my gun’s barrel.  As I’d hoped, he was still hot enough that the gun bonded to the metal of his body, I could help to hamper his movements.  Rather than hit him in the face, I struck him across one arm, so the gun made contact with both his forearm, where the hook-hand started, and his bicep.  My hope was that it would limit his range of movement.

Tattletale, Weld and I hurried to back away as he began to climb to his feet, Tattletale recovering her lightning gun.   I could see her debate striking him again, but she seemed to decide it would be better to keep her distance and hold on to it.

I could see Shadow Stalker materialize behind Weld, with Bitch approaching from the other end of the hallway.  One of the dogs, the setter whose name I couldn’t quite remember, had climbed to her feet to join Bitch.  Grue was still out of action.

Weld started laughing, the noise just a little off, coming from someone who I suspected didn’t even have to breathe.

Tattletale caught some meaning in his laughter a second before Regent did.  Tattletale, Regent and Shadow Stalker all simultaneously turned toward the front of the building.  Regent and his puppet uttered a whispered “Oh shit” in unison.

The floodwater and moisture were stirred into an whirlwind flurry around the metal frame by turbines and jets, pushing water and debris a distance away as it set down.  As the engines turned off, the water slopped back into place, lapping around four metal legs.

It was squat, the frame low to the ground, with a snakelike head, and a segmented, sinous body.  It had four legs and a long tail that trailed on the ground in a zig-zagging shape, segmented much as the body had been.  It would have been intimidating enough on its own, but the four engines that were mounted on its upper body, extending out of each of its shoulders in two places, were some combination of a weapons array and a propulsion system.  They bristled with turrets and missiles.  It opened its mouth briefly to vent off some vapor and I could see more weapons contained within.  Foremost among them was some kind of massive cannon.

That explained why Dragon had been so quiet.  When she’d talked about reinforcements, Dragon had been talking about herself.

“Okay,” Tattletale spoke as she backed up, moving her gun to point it at Weld, then Dragon and then back to Weld again.  “Good news, that’s a model Dragon designed for speed, meant to get places fast.  Like, say, if she wanted to get an armored suit from Toronto to Brockton Bay to personally take a hand in dealing with a group of teenage villains.  It’s not really that serious a combat model.”

I looked at the weapons that bristled from Dragon’s shoulders.  If I didn’t know Tattletale’s power, I wasn’t sure I’d believe her.

“Well, that’s good,” Regent replied, “Except it can still totally kick our asses.”

Tattletale didn’t disagree.  “Best tinker in the world?  Probably.”

I glanced behind us, where Weld was standing with excruciating slowness.  He was already cooling off.  The dog by Bitch’s side was growling, now.

Tattletale continued, “The bad news is that the Protectorate is about a minute away, Grue’s still out of action, and there’s pretty much no chance we’re going to get out of here before then.”

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Parasite 10.3

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We burst into action the moment Weld called out his warning.

Bitch drove her shoulder into the PRT uniform that held her back, then backed towards the front desk.  Weld had already changed his hand into what looked like a baseball bat with four sides to it, long enough to reach from his wrist to the ground.  Studs the size of golf balls ran down each of the four faces, with a blunted spike on the end.

Weld and Flechette were variables we hadn’t planned for.  It was unfortunate, but Weld in particular was also very well equipped for the task of keeping us from retreating back to the front door.

Weld swung at Shadow Stalker, but his club passed through her.  Fearless, she stepped close and punched the metal arrowhead of one of her crossbows into his right eye.  He stepped back a few steps, one hand going to his eye, and she threw herself at him, bringing her knees to her chest and then kicking out.  Her feet slammed into his chest, and pushed him further back.  Weld only staggered back a short distance, and it was Shadow Stalker who landed hard on her back.  Kicking a five-foot-nine-inch block of metal had to hurt, but Regent doesn’t exactly have to be careful with Shadow Stalker’s body.

Bitch slipped past the pair of them, reaching the front door.  I could hear her whistle at a volume that I doubted I could scream.

Grue and Regent were already free of their cuffs, the three PRT uniforms closest to them lying down on the ground.  Tattletale was grinning at the four wards at the end of the hall closest to the elevator – Kid Win, Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista.  The laughter didn’t belong to Tattletale, however.  It was cackling, sounding like someone having way too much fun.

Flechette shouted, “They’ve got someone with the Stranger classification!”

We did?

The Wards recovered fast enough.  Vista was working to distort the ends of the hallway, the front doors, and the elevator at the end of the hall into impassable terrain.  Flechette fired a shot at Grue, pinning him to the ground, quickly loaded and fired a second, rooting his feet to the ground.

Flechette was loading for a third shot when a girl in black clothing with a horned demon mask and black scarf struck her weapon with a fire axe, splitting the metallic string and knocking it from her hand.

The girl with the horns was on our side, wait- I could almost remember her.  Some relation to Grue.

Then it slipped from my recollection, and I was distracted by the fact that Flechette was disarmed, her weapon broken.  How had that happened?

I couldn’t afford to worry about it.  I had to focus on contributing.

I released the bugs from beneath my costume, drawing them out from beneath the panels of my armor and the compartment at my back where I kept my equipment and weapons.

I’d known I wouldn’t be able to bring many bugs, and that it would be difficult to get more on site with a clean, sturdily built structure like this one.  I could gather a swarm, but it would be a few minutes before the bugs arrived en-masse.  I might have started sooner if I hadn’t been so concerned about alerting someone and giving us away.

The nine hundred and seventy bugs that poured forth were roughly equal numbers of bees, wasps, spiders, mosquitoes and cockroaches.  It was a smaller number than it sounded like, and their deployment was slower because of the way I had them arranged, stingers and abdomens carefully kept out of contact with one another.

I hadn’t come without a plan.

The bugs found their way to Vista, Flechette, and Kid Win, the only young heroes with exposed skin, at roughly the same time as they managed to get beneath the masks and protective clothing of the two PRT uniforms that were holding me.

At first the teenaged heroes swatted at themselves and backed away, as was usual.  The ‘fun house mirror’ distortion at the exits stopped spreading as Vista’s concentration broke, and Flechette dropped one of the small lengths of pointed metal that she’d been withdrawing from her belt.

Then Kid Win cried out, his words raw and barely intelligible because he was also screaming as he shouted them, “It burns!”

Capsaicin was the chemical that made hot peppers burn your tongue.  It was also the active ingredient in pepper spray.  I’d used pepper spray a few times, myself, and I’d had it accidentally used on me when I’d been out in costume, rather recently.  At the time, I’d stepped in to help fight back a crew of the Merchants up near the old Boardwalk.  They’d been aiming to loot the stores, and a contingent of people who’d created an armed force in the ruins of the upscale shopping district had stepped up to fight them off.  One of the defenders had sprayed a looter, and caught me in the effect as well, maybe intentionally.

I’d stepped back and let my bugs do the work while I recovered.  After the fight had wrapped up and I’d headed back to a shelter in my civilian guise, I’d been left to consider the fact that my bugs were vulnerable to the pepper spray.  By all rights, I should have been alerted to that fact the night I sprayed Velocity at the fundraiser, but I hadn’t been able to keep that many bugs on him, then, and I’d had many, many other distractions at the time.  It had escaped my attention.

While sitting up all night at the shelter, with kids crying and wailing and assholes making noise to intentionally piss off the other hundred people in the room, I’d had time to think.  The next morning, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started experimenting to see if I could protect my bugs somehow.  Pepper spray was only one thing.  I was bound, sooner or later, to go up against someone who used some kind of bug spray or gas on my tiny minions.

Had I found a solution?  Not so much.

I had discovered that I could use hair spray to coat the abdomens and stingers of my bugs, and then dip said abdomens and stings into some of the capsaicin. With a bowl of each in liquid form and two single file lines of bugs, I could dose a fair number before I went out in costume.  It did wind up killing some of the less durable ones eventually, either through the hairspray obstructing breathing or the capsaicin getting on the bug, but the end result was that I’d stumbled onto a weapon while trying to experiment with defenses.  I had figured out how to use my bugs as a delivery mechanism, smearing pepper spray onto fresh stings and bites.  I could jam their abdomens into people’s noses, mouths and eyes to cause intense burning and pain to the point that it made them nauseous.

Flechette screamed, falling to her knees, her hands to her face.  One of the PRT uniforms that was holding me let me go to stagger blindly toward the front desk.  I struggled to get away from the other one, but he held me tight even as he bent over, threatening to topple to the ground with me beneath him.

So yeah.  It worked.

Clockblocker had been in the lead of the group as we’d all headed toward the elevator, and had been delayed by the fallen PRT uniforms and his collapsing teammates.  His costume covered his entire body, preventing the bugs from getting to him, so once he got past his allies, there wasn’t much to get in his way.  He charged straight for Grue, and Grue responded by shrouding his immediate vicinity in darkness, though he couldn’t do much else.  One of Flechette’s bolts had nailed the sides of one of his boots to the ground – the other shot had missed, maybe because she couldn’t see his foot and hadn’t wanted to put a spike through his actual flesh.

Clockblocker closed the distance and plunged into the darkness after Grue.  He emerged out the other side, and the darkness dissipated behind him, revealing Grue, frozen in time.  Even the shadows smouldering around Grue’s body faded, revealing his motorcycle leathers and the helmet with the skull-face molded into it.

Which was bad.  It could be up to ten minutes until Grue was back in action, and we couldn’t necessarily afford to babysit his body until he reanimated.

The other PRT officer that was holding me broke away when a girl with a horned mask drove the wooden end of a fire axe into his shoulder.  Regent made Clockblocker stumble, and the horned girl shoved the PRT officer into the boy.  They both fell in a heap.

“Hey!” A girl shouted.  I looked and saw a horned girl crouched by one of the fallen PRT officers, holding the foam sprayer.  Imp.  Right, it was Imp.  She looked at Tattletale, “It won’t fire!”

Tattletale hurried over, grabbed the fallen officer’s arm, and lifted it over to the handle of the gun.  She put his finger on the trigger and aimed the gun at Clockblocker, unloading spray on top of his upper body just as he managed to heave the fallen officer off of himself.

Flechette threw a dart into the foam canister, and both Imp and Tattletale backed away as foam began spilling out of the hole, rapidly expanding to partially cover the uniformed officer.  After a moment’s pause, she threw a spike of metal into every other canister on the other fallen guards.  One even erupted into a pressurized spray, jetting up at an angle to hit the wall, creating a growing barrier a few feet in front of me, partially blocking me from reaching the rest of the combatants.

Before Flechette could turn her darts on us, Regent reached out, causing her to fumble and drop it.  A second later, he grunted and fell to all fours.  Nothing I could see had touched him.

A backfire?  So easily?

I was already turning to check when a primal scream tore its way from Shadow Stalker’s throat.

She’d been fighting with Weld, and Weld almost fell over when he swung and she didn’t enter her shadow state.  He couldn’t stop all of his momentum, but he stepped close and let his upper arm hit her instead.  They stumbled together, Shadow Stalker continuing to scream like she was trying to empty her lungs of every last trace of oxygen.

She raised her crossbow in my general direction, then moved, almost staggered, one step to the side.  From her new vantage point, she targeted Regent; her movements weren’t fluid, and her shot flew past him.  It hit Tattletale instead with a glancing blow, raking across her collarbone to penetrate her shoulder at a shallow angle.  Tattletale was spun off-balance and fell.

Shadow Stalker moved to load her crossbows, but her movements were jittery and jerky to an even greater extent than they had been a second ago.  She stopped midway through the motion, her head turning as she looked from one hand to the other, and then looked up at Weld, who was in close proximity to her.

“H-h-help.”  She stuttered.

A fraction of a second later, Regent was in control again, and Shadow Stalker was attempting to repeat her maneuver from earlier, driving an arrowhead into Weld’s other eye, moving quickly and with as much grace as ever.  He swatted her hand aside, and she entered her shadow state to avoid his follow-up swing with his club.

A series of crashes and the sound of breaking glass showering onto tile announced the arrival of Bitch’s dogs.  They had barreled their way through the bulletproof glass that led into the lobby.  Weld spun to face them, and Shadow Stalker abandoned her fight with him, using the opportunity to finish reloading her crossbows and fire one at Vista, who was hunkered down on the floor, my swarm all over her.  At least the girl wouldn’t be in further pain from what my bugs had done.  I could inflict pain if it meant getting a job done properly.  That didn’t mean I liked doing it.

“Shadow Stalker is conscious in there!?” Weld shouted, his back to us, attention on the three advancing dogs.  None of the dogs were as big as they could get, Bitch couldn’t manage them if they were too large, but it was still the equivalent of three rather agile bears or three unnecessarily burly jungle cats joining the fight, each with some added natural protection in the horned growths of bone and calcified muscle.

“Since a little while ago,” Regent answered.

That was disturbing.  I didn’t have a better way of putting it.  I’d almost been paralyzed by Leviathan in the Endbringer attack, but even before that, the idea of being left conscious but unable to move of my own volition had always spooked me.

I’d never had a relative in the hospital suffering from anything like that, and I couldn’t remember seeing any movies or shows on television that might have put the idea in my head at an impressionable age.  Still, it was one of the first places my mind went when I thought about worst case scenarios and horrific fates.  It had been in my thoughts more over the past two or three years, and the idea had been showcased in more than one nightmare over the past two weeks.

Maybe it was more general than that.  Not a fear of paralysis, specifically, but of helplessness.

The dogs started fighting with Weld, and it didn’t seem to be a fight they would win.  They were faster, they had the advantages of numbers, I even suspected they were stronger.  Despite that, when it came down to it, Weld was a walking, talking statue.  They could hit him hard enough to knock him down, but they couldn’t set their teeth into his flesh or deal any lasting damage.  When Weld hit them, by contrast, the hits were most definitely felt.

Still, their intervention did allow us to turn our focus to the others.  Vista was out of action, as was Clockblocker.

“Help Skitter!” Tattletale ordered, sounding urgent as she turned her attention to the remaining Wards that stood between us and the elevator.  Who was she talking to?

Then I felt hands at my back.  I flinched, but they held firm.  A second later I felt my cuffs come undone.  Imp.  Right.

I was getting the distinct impression that it was easier to recall her and react as if she were present if I hadn’t been actively trying to pay attention to her.  It was almost as if actively trying to commit her presence to memory had the opposite effect.  Except how was I supposed to put that knowledge into practice, if acting on that knowledge counted as recognizing her presence?

I didn’t get a chance to work it out, because Imp was gone from behind me a moment later, and we were faced with the issue of dealing with Flechette and Kid Win and the fact that our movements were getting more and more limited by the growing piles of adhesive, nigh-indestructible foam.

Kid Win had pulled himself together enough to draw a small blue pistol from his waist.  I tensed, bending my knees and shifting my weight to the balls of my feet so I could move the instant he aimed at me.

He didn’t fire it, though.  Instead, he slapped his chest, and the armor there opened up, revealing a circular depression.  He slammed the little blue gun there, where the weapon stuck like it was glued in, or maybe because of a magnet.  The chest portion of his armor closed up.

He staggered to his feet, swatted at his face, then looked like he immediately regretted doing that, judging by his pained grunt and gritted teeth.  His costume started to light up, glowing with a silvery light where it had been gold, before.  Two pear-shaped pieces of metal that had been attached to the armor on his shoulders raised into the air, floating.

Abruptly the pieces of metal jerked so the smaller ends pointed at us, and they each belched out blue sparks the size of softballs.

Imp appeared as she ducked out of the way of one, while Regent avoided the other.  Tattletale was still on the ground, one hand to her shoulder, and the shots passed well over her.

I didn’t see the need to dodge – the shots weren’t fast moving, and both seemed ready to collide with the walls on either side of me.  What I didn’t expect was for their trajectory to slow, then stop altogether, before they hit the wall.  Picking up speed, they headed back toward Kid Win.

“Heads up!” I shouted.  Imp and Regent turned just in time to avoid the boomeranging projectiles, but the distraction nearly cost them as the guns above Kid Win’s shoulders blasted off another two ‘sparks’.

“What the hell!?” Imp shouted.  The returning sparks had fallen into a lazy orbit around Kid Win.  Two, then four, then six sparks orbited him, with more joining the mass.  As the seventh and eighth sparks joined the ring that spiraled around Kid Win, arcs and flashes of electricity began to dance between them, making it into a loose ring that encircled him.  He advanced a few steps.

My bugs were dying in droves with the residual electricity, but Kid Win, at least, was largely incapacitated, his eyes swollen nearly shut, with some bugs gathered over and around his eyes to further obscure his vision.

I’d read up on the Wards, when I first got my powers, I knew they weren’t allowed to use lethal weapons.  Shadow Stalker had to use tranquilizer darts instead of real arrows, though she violated that rule often enough, and this device of Kid Win’s, no matter how intimidating, wouldn’t be allowed to do any sort of serious injury.

“Shadow Stalker!” I shouted, “Charge Kid Win!”  Expendable assets.

“Can’t!” she and Regent shouted in unison, “It’ll disrupt my control!”

Hearing that, Kid Win turned and fired a pair of sparks in their general direction.  The sparks flew further and faster, and they reached far enough that I actually had to dodge those.  One slammed into the spray of foam that the canister was blasting into the wall, while the other sailed toward Shadow Stalker, but stopped a few feet short and then looped back toward Kid Win.

That left one option.

Bitch wasn’t around, which left it to me.  I whistled, hard, getting the attention of the dogs.  When the dog with the squarish, almost snoutless head turned my way.  He’d be the bulldog puppy, Bentley.  I took a step toward Kid Win, pointed at the young hero, then shouted, “Get him!”

A ragged, horn encrusted tongue lolling out one side of his mouth, Bentley eagerly tromped past Weld, who lashed out with his club but only grazed Bentley’s rear flank.  Recklessly, the dog charged Kid Win, slamming into him, taking the full brunt of the ring of vibrantly blue electricity.

The dog and the boy crashed to the ground together, and skidded far enough toward the elevator that they collided with Flechette, who had retreated from the storm of blue sparks, her back to the elevator.    Bentley stood, flashes of brilliant blue light crackling at the chain that was rigged around his muzzle.  He limped strangely, but it wasn’t due to any injury.  From what I could tell, he’d stepped in some of the foam as he ran, and his foot was sticking to the floor.  More foam had splashed his shoulder.  In any event, the two teenage heroes were down, and it looked like the sparks had done more to incapacitate them than it had the puppy.

“Good boy!” I called out, “Good Bentley!”  His tail, shorter than any of the other dogs, wagged at the attention.

Shadow Stalker, Imp and the two remaining dogs had Weld on his heels, Imp doing her best to smack him in the face with the fire axe and have the metal obscure his vision.  Bitch slipped past the melee.  I looked away, tried to figure out a simple way to get by the spout of foam that was still sputtering out of the hole Flechette’s dart had made in the tank while still avoiding the flailing PRT uniform that was kneeling a short distance from me.

The next thing I knew, I was being slammed into a wall, hard.  For one moment I thought it was Weld, but I heard the snarling of the dogs and the noise of impacts.  I knew Weld would have hit me harder.

No, it was Bitch.

“You do not give orders to my dogs!” she growled in my ear.  “You do not get a say in whether they are good or bad!  Do that again and I will order them to chew you up and spit you out!”

“Bitch!” Tattletale shouted, I could almost see her out of the corner of my eye, cringing at the pain shouting caused her.  She still had the crossbow bolt sticking out of her shoulder, “Not the time!”

Bitch made a feral noise as she broke away from me, releasing me from my position against the wall.  I turned around to see her grabbing the flailing soldier and throwing him on top of the foam canister that was still spraying in fizzing spurts.  She walked on him to head toward the elevator.  Reluctantly, I followed.

Tattletale got Imp’s help in dragging Vista to the elevator door.  Regent took over and helped Imp hold Vista there, their fingers prying her eyes open until the retinal scan finished, then dragged her inside.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged us.

I looked back at Grue.

“Bitch, the dogs and Shadow Stalker will be here to protect him!” she called out.

I considered a moment, then nodded.  I joined the rest of the group in the elevator, and we headed down to the lowest floors.

“Cameras,” Tattletale spoke.  I nodded, and sent bugs into the room, found the surveillance cameras that were spaced at regular intervals around the room, and covered the lenses with bugs.

We exited the elevator, stepping into the Ward’s headquarters.  The room was vast, with a high domed ceiling that probably made this floor three stories deep.  A computer console with a dozen monitors sat to our right, and the far end seemed to be walled off into several smaller rooms.  The signs at the doors to the left implied they led off to the bathrooms.

To think that, if things had gone a little differently, I might have wound up here.

Tattletale was at the computer in an instant, reaching into her belt pockets to retrieve a series of USB thumb drives, which she slid into the available ports of the computer.  The monitors went to a blue screen.  As she typed, the word ‘JPIGGOT’ appeared on each monitor.  When that word disappeared from the screen, she typed a password, a row of asterisks appearing on the screens, twelve or thirteen characters long.

Then gibberish filled the screen.  Some looked like code, much looked like random numbers, letters and symbols, even hearts, spades and smiley faces.  Some of the snippets of code appeared to be file names.

“This should be every document the PRT has on file for their teams, barring the most secure documents, which wouldn’t be kept accessible, even in this isolated network.”  She handed me a pad of gauze from her belt.

“How long?” I asked.  I snapped the feathered end off the crossbow bolt, then pushed it out the other side.  The arrowhead wouldn’t take to being pulled out backward.

“Two minutes.”

“But we may have to wait up to ten, depending on when Clockblocker’s power wears off.”  While I talked, I held the gauze to her shoulder with one hand and took the offered tape with the other.  There was a rip in her costume, and I opted to tear it a little wider and put the gauze beneath before taping it on, to let the skintight fabric hold it firm.

“Bad luck he got one of us, yeah.”  Tattletale made a face, “Regent, let us know if there’s movement from Grue up there, through Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re going to have to fight our way through their reinforcements if we wait too long,” Regent said.

“Probably.  But not the Protectorate.  The only one who could get here fast enough to matter would be Velocity, and he’s dead.”

“They could have new members like the Wards did,” I said.

Tattletale frowned, “True.  They recruited those guys fast.  Especially since they’ve been here a few days.”

“Either way, we should make a quick exit,” I advised.  “Fast as we can manage, anyways, with Grue being stuck like he is.”

As the screen filled with more gibberish, reaching the point where there was more white text than blue background, we prepared to make our exit.

“Elevator’s down.”

“Of course it is,” Tattletale sighed, “There are stairs, through the door by the little window, where the tourists look in,” Tattletale said.  She waited with one hand poised over the USB drive.

A half second before the last blue dot on the screen disappeared, the entire room plunged into darkness.  The computer screens went black.

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats.  It wasn’t Grue’s power, though.  I could hear my own breathing.

“Someone cut the power?” Imp asked.

“No,” I heard Tattletale, “Separate power source, buried deeper beneath the building.  Same with the computers, there’s nothing upstairs or even in the city that could turn them off.  They’re hooked up to that power source, they’ve got internal batteries, and the only external connection is by satellite linkup.  They might terminate our connection to the computer database via the satellite feed, but not the lights.”

“So this is bad?” Imp asked.

A computer generated face appeared on the computer screens, illuminating us and our immediate surroundings with the pale glow the image cast.  I didn’t recognize the face, but I could guess.

Dragon.  She was onto us.  Yeah, that was pretty bad, as these things went.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

3 Days Ago

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled, long and slow.

“I got your back,” Lisa told me.  I nodded.

With a push, the door swung wide open.

The inside of the building didn’t match the exterior.  It was situated in one of the low-lying areas of the Docks, where the flooding had yet to fully dissipate.  The buildings around here were in such bad shape that nobody was willing to use them for shelter or venture inside to take things.  On the inside, however, the place was reinforced with girders and beams.  Pieces of sheet metal sat between the thick metal shafts and the exterior wall, with holes cut to accommodate the windows.  Handles on the metal shutters suggested that the plywood could be moved aside in a pinch.  At ground level, there were stacked sandbags of a slightly different make from the usual, with plastic stapled over each pile.

The place hadn’t yet been organized.  A pair of beds sat in one corner, surrounded by assorted pieces of furniture.  The building’s interior was dry, crisp, and brightly lit.  It might have appeared sterile, if not for the spray paint on much of the sheet metal, and the tracks of dried mud on the ground near the door.

Our arrival was met by the furious barking of a half-dozen dogs.  A set of gates ringing the front door stopped them from attacking us.  Brian was sitting on the far end of the room, beside Aisha.  He wore his regular sparring uniform, and Aisha wore much the same thing, though she was wearing shorts instead of yoga pants.

His little sister?  Here?

Alec was sitting cross-legged on a pile of furniture, a bowl of colorful cereal balanced on one knee.  A long cut ran from just beneath his ear to his shoulder, beneath his shirt.  He was watching a TV that was plugged into an extension cord that hung from the ceiling.  He’d turned my way at the barking of the dogs, and I almost missed him uttering the words, “You gotta be kidding.”

One of the dogs apparently recognized me, because it stopped at the gate and wagged its tail.  A part of me took that as a good sign.  Then Bitch appeared, immediately wheeling on me, water flying from her damp hair.  She’d probably just come from the shower – she wore loose fitting army pants and a black tank top that had darker spots where beads of water had soaked into it.  A towel hung around her shoulders.  As she saw me, emotion hardened the lines of her face.  Her hands clenched as she strode toward me.  I saw the aggression in her body language, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to relax.  I remembered what Brian had said during our sparring, about how tensing up would only make you more vulnerable.

If that was true, I was really glad I hadn’t tensed up.  She was sturdily built and she didn’t hold back in the slightest.  She kicked down the dog gate, and an instant later, her fist connected with my cheekbone to send me sprawling to the ground, my tailbone absorbing most of the impact.  I’d been knocked around by Lung, Glory Girl, Bakuda and even Leviathan.  Some of those guys hit magnitudes harder than Bitch did, but it still hurt like hell.

It spoke volumes that while Lisa stepped forward so she could defend me, Grue and Alec didn’t.  The dogs tentatively passed through the open gate, but hung back in deference to their master.

“I-” I broke off mid-sentence – opening my mouth to speak had caused the pain in the right side of my face to come to bear, full force.  “I deserved that.”

Bitch delivered a swift kick to my shoulder, making me grunt and fall flat onto my back.  “Deserved that too.”

“Point made,” Lisa told her. “Stop.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch snarled.  She pointed at Brian.  “It’s irritating enough that he wants to start giving orders and calling himself our leader, I’m not putting up with it from you, too.  I do what I want, and what I want is to beat her face in.”

Bitch turned, strode to the pile of furniture, and then lifted one of the loose shelves that had been removed from the bookcase.  It was  a piece of wood chipboard about three feet long and a foot deep.  Lisa moved to put herself between Bitch and me and stave off Bitch’s attack.  She turned to Brian, “Hey, a little help, here?”

Brian frowned, “Why did you bring her here?”

“To talk,” Lisa said.  When Bitch tried to move around to her left, Lisa shifted her position to stay in her way.  I sat up, used my legs and hands to put some distance between Bitch and I.

“She was going to fuck us over!” Bitch shouted.

I shook my head, but Bitch and Lisa’s movements left me unsure if Brian had seen.  I called out, “No!  I wasn’t!”

Brian stepped forward and put a hand on Bitch’s arm.  She scowled but lowered her improvised weapon.

He leveled a serious look at me, “Lisa said you were, and when it comes down to the two of you, I’m going to choose her.  What Armsmaster said made too much sense, and a few of the little things about you suddenly made a lot of sense.”

“No, I- I mean, I was going to betray you-”

“I’m going to fucking kick her teeth in!” Bitch shouted.

“Past tense!” I raised my voice, “I changed my mind!”

Bitch made a deeper noise, low in her throat.  Aisha and Alec approached, which contributed to the loose half-circle of people and animals  around Lisa and me.  Tension hung heavy in the air.

“You changed your mind,” Brian didn’t sound as though he believed me.

“Dealing with Armsmaster?  Realizing what an asshole he was?  It was kind of a wake up call.  I’d already begun to think of you guys as my friends.  And what we were doing, it wasn’t so bad.  Most of our fights were against Lung’s gang…”

Barring Lisa and Aisha, every set of eyes on me was glaring.  I climbed to my feet, flinched a little as Bitch shifted position, fearing another attack.  My cheek was radiating pain, like someone was driving a nail into it.  My shoulder didn’t hurt half as much, but it wasn’t exactly fun, either.

“I-I changed my mind after we raided the fundraiser and talked to Coil.  I went home, and when I started thinking about sending that email to the Protectorate, I realized I couldn’t.  It would have meant explaining things to my dad and leaving you guys.  I couldn’t do either.”

“That wasn’t all that long ago, and it sounds pretty thin to me.”

I raised my arms, in a bit of a helpless gesture, then let them flop back to my sides.  “It’s the truth.  I’m not good at this, at talking to people or convincing them.  All I can do is tell you how things were from my perspective and hope you’ll see I’m sincere.”

He folded his arms, “Is that all you came to say?”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed, “And I’d like to be back on the team if you’ll have me.  Please.”

His eyebrows rose, “I seem to recall you leaving in a huff after our last conversation with Coil.  What’s changed?”

“You have to understand, I was angry at myself as much… more than I was angry at you guys.  For letting that thing with the little girl happen, for not connecting the dots.  But I’ve thought about it, talked to Lisa, and I’m open to talking about it if you’re willing.”

“And why should we believe you, in all this?” he challenged me.

“I can vouch-” Lisa started to speak.

“Taylor can answer for herself,” Brian cut her off.

I floundered for an answer.  I got the distinct impression that they wouldn’t be satisfied if I couldn’t provide one.  A knot of ugly emotions gathered in my stomach, building as I felt the condemnation of these people I’d been so close to, not so long ago.

Realizing that much gave me an idea.  It wasn’t much, though.

I turned to Brian, “You remember when we were on the way to your apartment, what happened?”

“Which?  That thing with the bully, or-”

“After that.  The, um, awkward conversation.”

“Hey, dork,” Alec cut in, “He’s not the only one you have to convince.  You can’t omit details and leave us in the dark here.”

“Yeah!” Aisha added.  Brian gave her an annoyed look.

I looked at him, then looked down at the ground, feeling heat spread across my face.  The flush in my cheeks made the side of my face throb.  I hated feeling humiliated, felt way too many ugly emotions rising in a long-conditioned response, a spark of anger at the forefront of them.

Stiffly, I replied, “I… let Brian know I was interested in him.  Romantically.  It was the truth.”

“Ahhhh,” Alec responded.

I knew it!  Totally knew it from the second I saw you at his apartment!”  Aisha cackled.

I stole a glance at Brian and saw his expression hadn’t changed in the least.  When he spoke, he did it with a small shake of his head, “You could have been doing that to get me to let my guard down.”

“Bullshit,” Alec retorted.

“What?” Brian turned toward Alec.

“I said bullshit,” Alec repeated himself.  “Taylor said it herself, she sucks ass when it comes to lying and being smooth.”

“She lied well enough when she was keeping her undercover act a secret.”

“I didn’t lie, exactly,” I said, quiet, “I just didn’t tell you.”

Nobody answered that statement.  I felt dumb for saying it, however true it may or may not have been.

Alec added to his earlier comment, “I don’t ever pay attention to that team drama shit, and I picked up on the fact that she liked you.  It was so obvious it was irritating.”

It was strange, Alec was standing up for me.  He was insulting me while he did it, but he was still backing me up.

“That could have been an act,” Brian stressed.  “And even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t mean anything in the end.”

“You don’t really believe that,” Lisa replied, “You’re pissed at us.  I don’t blame you.  I’d be pissed at us, too.  But you’re only calling her a liar because it’s a hell of a lot easier to be angry at her if you think the person you befriended was a fake.”

Brian sighed, loudly. “Don’t turn your power on me.”

“Who says I am?”

Chancing a look at Bitch, I saw she was pacing back and forth, each set of paces short and restless.  She didn’t seem to have calmed down any.

I wasn’t feeling much better myself.  I said as much, “All I want is for things to go back to the way they were.”

“It’s not that easy,” Brian replied.  When I met his eyes, he looked away, his brow furrowing.

When had things been good?  What point in time was I so eager to return to, where I hadn’t been wracked by guilt or nervousness?  By the time I got over my fear of getting caught, I’d run away from home and cut ties with my dad.  Then, before I could come to terms with that, I’d found out about Dinah, which had affected me more than anything else.  I’d terrorized hostages, maimed a supervillain, hurt superheroes, but it was Dinah that left me lying awake at night, feeling helpless, feeling like I was the scum of the earth.

And I couldn’t help her from the outside.  That, more than anything, was why I was here.  I wasn’t strong enough to fight Coil on my own, I couldn’t go to the heroes and rely on them to handle it, not with Coil’s power giving him two attempts to escape, two attempts to any  counterattacks, two attempts to track down the person who’d informed on him and deal with her, and take his pick of the outcomes he wanted.  That wasn’t even getting into the more complex uses of his abilities, only using one of his concurrent realities to try something, doing it over and over again until he got a result he wanted to keep.  I couldn’t beat him in any kind of confrontation.

Lisa had convinced me.  I would only solve this by getting in Coil’s good graces, talking to him as someone he could respect and listen to.

I couldn’t do that without convincing these guys to let me back on the team.

“No,” I answered Brian, “You’re right.  It’s not that easy.  But if you’ll have me, I’m willing to work my ass off to make it up to you.  I’m pretty good as a member of this team, you know it.  If you want to monitor my every move, fine.  Any restrictions you want to put on me, fine.  I’ll even give up my pay from Coil and any jobs we do.  Whatever you want.”

He shook his head, then asked me, “Why?  Why come back?”

“Because I’ve been to the shelters, I’ve walked the streets and seen what the Merchants and Chosen are doing out there.  I want to resolve this thing with Dinah.  Whether I like it or not, I know that the fastest way to get to that point where everything’s okay again is working with Coil.”

Lisa spoke, “I want her back on the team, obviously.  If we’re voting, that’s where my vote is going.”

“Mine too,” Alec said, “You’re wound up, Brian, maybe it’s Taylor being gone, maybe it’s Aisha and your dad getting attacked, maybe it’s the general situation with the city, but it’s getting miserable to be around you.  Taylor was always the one who was on the same page as you, she’d be someone you can work with and talk to, at least.  You’ll be happier in the long run if she’s around.  And we’ll be happier if you’re not so fucking crabby.  ‘Sides, if she’s giving up her pay, then it doesn’t even cost us anything.”

“It costs us a lot,” Brian said, his voice low, “If mistrust and tension fucks up our team chemistry, especially if we start fucking up in the field, because of it.”

“So you’re voting no?” Lisa pressed him.

“Do I get a vote?” Aisha cut in, before he could respond.

“No,” Brian and Lisa refused her in unison.  Aisha made a face, but didn’t seem too bothered.

“I don’t want her on the team,” Bitch spoke.

Brian shook his head, “I don’t know what to tell you, Rachel.  Alec’s right, for once.  We need her.  We need the firepower, out there, at the very least.  Looking at this objectively, I think I’d have to say we should keep her.”

“Which is three votes for, one against,” Regent noted.

Bitch threw the piece of chipboard she was carrying into the wall, hard.  One of the dogs started barking in response or in alarm.  She spat in my general direction and then stalked over to the far end of the room, her dogs trailing after her.  The metal stairs clanged with the impacts of her boots as she ascended to the next floor.

Lisa hesitated, then followed after.  Alec glanced at us, then put a hand on Aisha’s shoulder and led her away, leaving Brian and me alone.

“Thank you,” I said, quietly, to Brian.

Brian shook his head, “Don’t thank me.  Alec’s right when he says that we’ll probably get over this.  Maybe we’ll even become friends again and get to the point where we can talk about it.  But that isn’t going to happen today, and definitely not right here and now.”

“Okay,” I replied.  But he was already walking away, leaving me standing alone at the entrance.

I had told myself I would rise above the likes of Sophia and Armsmaster.  I was all too aware of their flaws, and first and foremost among them was arrogance, pride.

So I’d swallowed mine.

Now

There were so many ways this could go wrong.

Tattletale held a pair of binoculars and scanned the building in front of us.  “There’s movement.  We’re good to go.”

“Go,” Grue ordered.

Hitting the target wasn’t so hard.  My bugs flowed in through windows and Bitch took the entrances.  Angelica had free rein, slow as she was, while the other dogs stayed on leash.  Grue hung back with Tattletale, Regent and me, while Imp moved forward, not charging in, but staying close.

The tricky part would be balancing this.  Too far one way or the other, and this got really ugly, really fast.

Our targets were looters, and they were well armed, though bullets were getting to be in shorter and shorter supply.  Coil had sources, and the Chosen did as well, but these guys were from the Merchants.  They were vagrants, addicts and people who subsisted by mooching off the system.  When the system had failed, they’d latched on to the only group that would take them.  More had joined because it was safer and easier to be among the thugs, looters, scavengers and thieves than it was to be among the victims.  Safety in numbers.

They weren’t strong or trained, and I couldn’t call them brave.  That said, they were bolstered by a kind of desperation.  I’d seen it before, when I set my bugs on some of my enemies, how some panicked or saw the futility in fighting the swarm and others just fought on heedless of the damage they were taking and the pain they were feeling.

That same desperation posed an issue as far as our plan.  If we gave them a chance, they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt or kill us.

They’d raided countless homes and businesses, taken everything of value they could uncover.  Phone lines were down everywhere, police response times far slower with the roads in the condition they were.  The looters had amassed a small fortune in stolen possessions, and intel said they were storing it here.  As reasonable a target as any.

My bugs drove the bulk of the looters out into the street.  Between Grue’s darkness and Bitch’s dogs, those same looters were driven back and cornered, hemmed in by the snarling beasts.

The second we had the situation under control, Shadow Stalker dropped out of the sky, a crossbow in each hand.  Tattletale and Grue were darted a second later.  She reloaded in a second using the cartridges that had been set on her gloves, then darted Imp and me.  By the time the dart embedded in the armor of my costume, Tattletale and Grue were slumping to the ground.

The fabric of my costume blocked the dart, so I didn’t go down.  I drew my baton, snapped it out to its full length, and charged her.

She backed away, loading and firing another series of bolts at Regent and the dog closest to her.  By the time I reached her, she’d fired a second dart into the dog, then shot Bitch.

My baton passed through her, of course.  She walked through my arm, stepping right behind me, and then drove her knee into my side.  I grunted and fell over, and she retrieved and slammed a dart into my shoulder before I could recover.

Take it easy, Regent.

Bitch managed to scream an order to her dogs before she ‘passed out’, “Go!”

The three newer dogs hesitated, but Angelica didn’t.  She huffed out a snarl as she passed them, and the others took her lead and joined her in stampeding down the street until they disappeared from sight.

I laid in the water, aware of how cold it was, trying to ignore how dirty it was.  My lenses afforded me an advantage in that I could watch what was going on without my open eyes giving anything away.  I saw Shadow Stalker touch her ear, then murmur something.  Tattletale had gone over everything Regent needed to know as far as that particular routine and the orders to give.

It took three minutes for the PRT to arrive.  I saw the green and white flashing lights and heard the splashing before anyone stepped into my field of view.

“Holy shit,” one of the PRT uniforms spoke.

“Restrain them and throw them in the van,” Shadow Stalker ordered him.

“Jao, get the containment foam,” one uniform spoke.  The captain?

“They’re tranquilized,” Shadow Stalker spoke, sounding disinterested, “Don’t waste resources.”

“Protocol states we use containment foam, especially when there’s an unknown.”

“The girl with the horns?  Mover three, teleports through shadows,” Shadow Stalker lied.  “None of them can escape restraints on their own.”

“But if Grue uses his power-“

Shadow Stalker turned, then fired another dart into Grue.  “Satisfied?”

We’d drained the darts of the sedative, of course.  Still, I was betting Grue would have words for Regent after this was over and done with.

The uniform didn’t back down, “No.  I want to know why you don’t want them fully contained.”

“Because I’ve been up since five in the morning, it’s well past midnight now, and I’m going to have to start doing fucking paperwork the second we get these guys in a cell.  I’m not allowed to walk away until they’re in custody, so if I let you foam them, I’m going to have to wait another half an hour to an hour for the solvent to get mixed and brought to them, five or ten minutes for it to work.  Fuck that, they’re down.  Listen to the hero who just took down a whole fucking team and get them in the truck.”

There was no reply to that, but a moment later, someone picked me up and started carrying me.  I maintained deep breaths, kept my body limp.  A few bugs congregated on me and the uniforms moving us, and I didn’t do anything to dismiss them.  Maybe they would distract the uniform from the fact that any of us were still conscious.

 I was placed on the cool metal floor of the containment vehicle, my hands cuffed behind my back.  A few seconds later, someone was thrown over top of my upper body.  Too light to be Grue or Bitch.  It would be Imp or Regent.

The metal doors slammed shut and locked with an audible shift of internal machinery.

So many ways this could go wrong.

We had safeguards, of course, including but not being limited to Coil’s assistance.  Still, there was something profoundly unsettling about allowing myself to be cuffed and imprisoned.

“No ears on us,” Tattletale murmured, “We’re good so long as we keep our voices down.”

“PRT is having words with the remaining ‘witnesses’ who stuck around to grab loot after the dogs ran off,” Regent informed us with a whisper.  “They’re backing up the story we wanted to sell.”

We’d passed one hurdle, at least.  The act could have gone either way – if we didn’t sell it well enough, we could have wound up with the PRT arresting us for real.  If we timed it wrong or if one of the looters decided to attack us while we were pretending to be tranquilized, something ugly might have happened.

“You hit me way too hard,” I murmured.

“Muscle memory,” Regent replied.  “Blame her, not me.”

“You alright, Imp?” Grue asked.

“Duh,” she replied.

It was a good few minutes before the truck bucked into motion.  Out of unspoken agreement, we stayed quiet, just to be absolutely sure that the driver wouldn’t hear us.  It was maybe ten or fifteen minutes before we arrived.

“We’re at their headquarters,” Regent spoke, his voice hushed.

“Then we’re in good shape,” Grue answered.

“Weld and the Wards are coming out to meet Shadow Stalker.  Heads up.”

The back door of the van opened.  I could feel cooler air enter the enclosed space.  There was an audible click of a gun, as if they were anticipating an attack the moment the doors opened.

“Wow,” one of the boys commented.  I was guessing it was Kid Win or Clockblocker.  “How’d you pull that off?”

“They were distracted, I picked them off.  That little freak that saw me with my mask off was wearing armor, so I had to resort to CQC,” Shadow Stalker made it sound matter-of-fact.

“Riiiight,” one of the other boys said, sarcastic.

“You’re quiet, Weld,” a girl’s voice.  Vista?

Who was Weld?

“Basking in how fucking awesome I am?” Shadow Stalker gloated.

“Maybe later.  For now…” the accented male voice spoke, “Just satisfy my curiosity.  You know the passwords we memorize each week, and you know why we memorize them, right?”

“Yeah,” Shadow Stalker replied.

One of the other boys spoke, “For any interaction with any flagged shifter or,” the boy paused, “master.  Oh.”

“So,” Weld said, “Keeping in mind that Regent is the highest rated Master in the city, I’d like for you to give us this week’s password.”

There was a pause.

“Comanche Six-six-two,” Shadow Stalker spoke.

Another pause.

“Alright,” Weld confirmed, “Pick ’em up and haul them into the holding cells.”

It was all I could do to stay still and not show my relief.  Tattletale had anticipated this much, had drilled Regent on it, but she had been wrong in the past.

Imp was lifted from on top of me, and Tattletale was picked up next, from right beside me.

I was among the last to get lifted off the floor of the truck.  Shadow Stalker held me until a pair of PRT uniforms could haul me to my feet and lift me by my armpits, my feet dragging on the ground, my head hanging.  I chanced a partial opening of my eyes, knowing my lenses would hide them, to sneak a sidelong peek at this ‘Weld’.  Metal skin, metal hair, and a strange melted-junkyard texture to his shoulders.  I’d crossed paths with him before the Endbringer event.

He spoke, his voice quiet enough that it was probably intended for just him and Sophia, “Where are the dogs?”

“Tranquilized them, they didn’t go down.  Ran when Hellhound dropped.”

Weld nodded, “This is good work, but it doesn’t excuse or make up for what happened earlier.”

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied.

“No.  This is serious.  You assaulted a team member.  I’m not about to let that slide.”

On one level, I wasn’t surprised to hear that.  I knew, cognitively, that she had that kind of personality.   But emotionally?  I hadn’t really believed it.  It caught me off guard to hear she was that big a problem in the Wards, as well.

A few seconds passed before she finally asked, “What are you going to do?”

“After these guys are securely in custody, we’re going to have words with the Director.  She wants you on this team, for whatever reason, so I don’t expect your probation will be broken, but there’s going to be consequences.”

“Fuck,” Shadow Stalker said.

And you’re going to apologize to Kid Win.  I don’t ever want you assaulting him again.”

Shadow Stalker paused.  “Stop fucking testing me.  I’m too tired for this.  It wasn’t Kid Win.”

Weld nodded.  I blinked a few times in surprise.  Tattletale hadn’t gone into this, hadn’t anticipated it. Weld had just tried to trip up Regent/Shadow Stalker, and Regent had anticipated it.  A bullet dodged.

I saw we were passing by a front desk.  I’d never been in the building, but I had passed by it a few times.  It was surprisingly empty.  There weren’t many PRT uniforms around, either.

“Who was it, then?” Weld asked.  It took me a second to parse what he meant.

Shadow Stalker groaned, “Fuck off!  It’s me.”

“Hey,” he turned, putting one hand on her shoulder to stop her mid-stride.  “Who was it?”

She glanced at the group.  Clockblocker, Kid Win, Vista, and the girl from the Endbringer fight who called herself Flechette.

“Clockblocker,” she guessed.

Weld didn’t move an inch, and my gut told me Regent/Shadow Stalker was off the mark.  My heart sank.

Clockblocker and Kid Win stopped walking and looked our way curiously.

“Heads up!  Trap!” Weld shouted.

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Parasite 10.1

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Creepy crawlies riddled the building’s interior, and I hadn’t even used my powers to bring them here.

No power meant the building was dark.  The city, and consequently the building, were flooded, which meant it was moist.  With exceptions for some of the luckier areas, pretty much every service was suspended, which meant no mail and no trash pickup.  Trash bags were accumulating anywhere that people lived, here included, and when they had run out of trash bags, people had started littering, throwing their trash out the windows or leaving it in hallways instead.  To top it off, the weather was getting warmer.

For bugs, all of these converging details made the city into a paradise.

I walked in the lead of the group, with Imp a step behind me and to my right.  The two of us held flashlights, but Imp was barely paying attention to hers.  She held a knife much like mine, and she dragged the point against the wall as we walked down the hallway, carving a groove into the paint.  Her flashlight spent more time pointed at her feet than in front of us, leaving me the burden of lighting our way.

I stopped, turned the flashlight on an open apartment door.  “Here, maybe?”

Grue grunted, adjusted the position of the unconscious body he had draped over one shoulder, “Scout it.”

Bitch nodded, letting Angelica off the chain, pointing at the door.  Of the four dogs she had with her, only Angelica was still under the influence of her power, standing three times her usual size.  Despite the invigorating effects of Bitch’s attentions, the dog moved slowly as she loped into the apartment.  It was painful to look at her – she was moving as though she were ten years older than she was.

The other dogs pulled at their chains, wanting to follow.  Bitch made angry clucking noises, then ordered them to sit.  They were slow to obey, but I think something about the look in Bitch’s eyes told them they’d better listen.  One of them reared back as I sent more bugs into the interior to investigate.

Bitch had been short-tempered lately.  The loss of two of the dogs she was closest to?  It played a large part in that.  She’d lost eight dogs in total, and Angelica had only lived because she had been too hurt to be brought along.  Problem was, Angelica wasn’t recovering from those injuries, and from what I gathered, she might not ever recover completely.  Bitch was forced to rely on a single crippled, obedient dog and three dogs that were in the peak of health, but impatient and untrained.

Of course, I couldn’t deny that a big part of her attitude was me and the fact that I was here.

Angelica returned to the doorway, looked up at her owner, and then returned to the apartment.

“No problems,” Bitch spoke, translating Angelica’s body language for everyone present.  Grue looked at me, and I nodded confirmation.

I led the way inside, using my flashlight to scan the area.

The apartment had been ransacked, but it wasn’t the kind of ransacking that suggested the looters had gotten to it.  No, it was the very thorough removal of everything valuable that could be carried away by a family of three or four.  There were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen with room for a small table and accompanying chairs.  There was a smaller bed in one room and a king sized bed in the other.  Dresser drawers, cabinets and bedside tables were all open, clothes strewn around the rooms.  The occupants had left in a hurry, and I was guessing they probably hadn’t expected to come back or find much of their stuff here when they did.

Tattletale grunted as she dropped one box beside the couch, where it landed on something with a crunch. “City’s trying to restore order one area at a time.  May be doing more harm than good.  This building’s been declared uninhabitable, which isn’t exactly doing anyone any favors, because most places in the city are just as bad or worse, and a lot of people don’t have anywhere else to go.  Anyways, they’re kicking everyone out, trying to clean up as best they can, get rid of that trash, do what they can about the infestation of rats and bugs.  Might still be a few people around, but I doubt anyone’s going to be poking around enough to find us before eleven or so tomorrow morning.”

“Then we have time to do what we need to do,” Grue spoke.  He used one foot to drag one of the dining room chairs out from beneath the table, placing it in the center of the kitchen.  I hurried to his side to hold the seat in place as he hefted the limp body from over his shoulder and set it down.  Shadow Stalker nearly tipped over, but together we caught her and leaned her back.  Her head lolled.

Regent put down a second, smaller box next to the one Tattletale had brought.  I switched positions with Tattletale – she began searching Shadow Stalker, removing crossbows, cartridges of ammunition and two small knives.  She found a phone with a touch screen, then reached beneath the unconscious girl’s hood to pluck a wireless earbud from the girl’s ear.  After rubbing it on Shadow Stalker’s cloak to clean it, she put it in her own ear and started fiddling with the smart phone.  After a few seconds she pronounced, “GPS hasn’t been activated.  They probably won’t turn it on to look for her until she fails to return from patrol.”

“Can you stop them from activating it?”  Grue asked.  “Or maybe we could have Skitter’s bugs or a dog carry that piece somewhere else?”

Tattletale shook her head, “I can turn it off.  Give me a minute.”

Regent and I had already started hauling extension cords out of the box Regent had been carrying, untangling them and feeding them over to Grue.  He began winding a cord around our captive, starting with loops around her wrists and arms, going up her arms to her chest, then back down to bind her body to the chair.  We handed him the next cord, and he did much the same thing with Shadow Stalker’s legs.  As he worked the bindings up her extremities, he kept his index and middle fingers on her, wrapping the cord over top of them.  When he was done with the loops at one spot, he moved his hand up further, then repeated the process.

“Copping a feel, Grue?” Imp mocked, as she let herself half-spin and collapse lengthwise on the couch.

“Making sure it isn’t tight enough to cut off her circulation.”

“Ah.  You an expert on that stuff?  I didn’t take you for a bondage freak,” she stretched.

He sighed, “Just get the generator.”

“I just lay down.”

“So stand up and then get the generator,” he ordered.

She made a show of slowly standing and, with exaggerated motions, dragging herself over to the box Tattletale had brought.  She retrieved a black plastic portable generator that wasn’t much bigger than a microwave oven.  She acted like it was ten times heavier than it was as she hauled it over toward the spot where Sophia sat.

Grue, for his part, ignored her.

Once the wires were in place, he used duct tape to secure them, then he got two more chairs, laid them on their sides and taped them to her chair.  He was almost done when Imp finally concluded her charade with the portable generator.  The LEDs at the ends of the extension cords lit up as we plugged each cord in to the generator, glowing a dim orange.  Grue stood, then pushed the refrigerator away from the wall so he could unplug it and plug the appliance into the generator.  I couldn’t be sure if it was to ensure a steady current  through the wire or because he wanted a working fridge.

I’d finished unpacking the wires, so I picked up the empty box and entered the living room to put one box inside the other to minimize the mess.

Bitch had claimed the sofa for herself, reclining with two dogs up beside her.  She was rubbing her forearms, which were probably strained from controlling the more unruly dogs with the chains.  She glared up at me, and there was something ugly in her expression.

I couldn’t blame her for being angry.  Her dogs, some of her closest friends in the world, had died because she had been saving me, only for her to find out shortly afterward that I had been a traitor.  Maybe saving me hadn’t been her primary motivation, but it seemed she’d used the past week and an unhealthy dose of simmering anger to revise her perception of things so I was to blame for what had happened.  It wasn’t getting better, either.  She seemed to get angrier with every hour spent in my company, and I was worried I’d have to face the brunt of it very soon.

“She’s awake,” Tattletale called out.  I hurried to the kitchen, leaving Bitch where she was.

Our captive hadn’t budged an inch.

“She’s sitting there, pretending to sleep in the hopes that we’ll say something.  It would be clever, might even work, if I wasn’t here,” Tattletale said, with a bit of a wry tone.

Shadow Stalker’s head rose and swiveled as she surveyed the full extent of her bindings.  Then she glanced at us.

After a long pause, she spoke, “Electrical cords.”

“Strongly advise you to avoid using your power to pass through them,” Tattletale answered, “And in case you’re thinking of dropping straight down through the floor, don’t.  We’ve got extra lying under the chair.”

The heroine leaned hard to one side, looked down.  “Hm.”

“You’ll be a little groggy,” Tattletale grabbed the last remaining chair from beside the kitchen table to sit down opposite the vigilante ‘heroine’.  “The fight took a lot out of you, and we tased you, and I took the liberty of sticking you with one of your own tranquilizer bolts.”

“You don’t hold back,” Shadow Stalker commented, seemingly unfazed by her circumstances.  She tested the strength of her bonds, experimentally.

“Says the person who tried to slit my teammate’s throat,” Regent spoke.

Shadow Stalker looked at me, the eyes behind her mask moving to my throat.  “Tough costume.”

She doesn’t even deny it.  I can’t believe I’ve gone to high school with this lunatic.  I resisted the urge to respond, shrugged instead.  Too easy to get into an argument, too easy to let something slip and reveal who I was.

“Well, you fuckers got me,” she cocked her head to one side, “What’s next?”

We all turned to look at Regent.  Regent, in turn, gave Shadow Stalker a serious look.  He ran his fingers through his dark hair.  Tattletale stood from the chair, and Regent sat, putting himself four feet away from the heroine.  His mask was a plain white, a half-smile perpetually frozen on the smooth, unadorned face.

Her eyes went wide behind the eyeholes of her mask, and she pulled hard against her bonds, “No!  Fuck!  Have you seen his files?  You don’t know-”

“We have an idea,” Tattletale interrupted.

“Fuck you!”  Shadow Stalker shouted.

“Guys, do me a favor?” Regent asked, not taking his eyes off Shadow Stalker.  He smacked his scepter into the palm of one hand, “Gag her, then give us some privacy?”

“You sure?” Grue asked, as Tattletale moved over to Sophia’s side, bent down to get some excess cord, and lifted up her mask just enough to wind the cord into her mouth.  The duct tape made a tearing noise as she freed a length from the roll.  I could still make out the swearing on Shadow Stalker’s part as she tugged at her bonds and rocked her seat.  The setup Grue had created by duct taping the other two chairs to her helped ensure she couldn’t throw herself to the ground and maybe break the chair in the process.

“I’m cool.”  Regent shifted the position of his stool a half-foot to his left, so he could lean back against the corner of the refrigerator.  He brought one of his feet up onto the seat of the stool and rested his chin on his knee.

“Just as long as you’re sure,” Grue spoke.  “How long?”

Regent glanced at Grue, then looked to Shadow Stalker, “Depends on her.  Could be fifteen minutes, could be three hours.”

Shadow Stalker grunted, long and loud.

Grue began ushering us out of the room, and we obeyed, except for Imp, who seemed to need a little bit of an extra nudge – Grue blocked her view of Regent and our captive with his body and put a hand on her shoulder to push her toward the door.  Following, I cast a backward look over my shoulder, saw Shadow Stalker’s arm twitch.  She winced, mumbled a swear word around her gag.

Grue shut the kitchen door behind us, and for a moment, all was dark, quiet and still.

Bitch and her dogs were all lying together on and around the couch, Bitch’s hand on Angelica’s head, where the dog lay just below her.  Only Angelica’s eye was open – Bitch and the other three dogs had their eyes closed.  Angelica’s excess flesh had been shed and deposited on the floor as she shrunk down to her natural size.  It looked like Bitch had kicked most of it one corner of the living room; blood and other fluids streaked the carpet between the base of the couch and the corner.

“Can we watch TV?” Imp asked Grue, “We could get one of the extension cords and-”

“No.”

“Or plug in one of the lamps so we can-”

“No,” he repeated.  “We’re here for another few hours.  We do nothing that could draw attention.  That includes having lights, flickering or otherwise, shining through the window of an apartment that’s supposed to have no power.”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

“Sleep,” he glanced at Bitch, who was trying to do just that, “While the rest of us stand watch.  Or go looking for a candle or flashlight and read somewhere the light won’t show through a window.”

“Fuck reading.  We could find a movie and watch-”

“No movies, I just told you why we can’t turn on the TV.  Why would a movie be any better?”

“We could cover one of the windows!”

“I want everyone keeping an ear out for trouble.  You agreed to follow my orders, didn’t you?  No TV, no lights.”

They glared at one another, Imp’s chin defiantly raised so she could meet Grue’s ‘eyes’ – the dark sockets of his skull-faced helmet.

“One of the people who lived here was a teenager, a little younger than you, Imp,” Tattletale cut in, “Go find the bedroom, see if there’s anything interesting.  Anything left behind will probably get stolen before the family gets back, so you could keep some stuff for yourself, if you find anything good.”

“Yes!” Imp spun on her heel and strode off to the other end of the apartment.  Bitch opened her eyes and furrowed her brow in irritation at Imp’s outcry, or maybe at the recent argument, but she just shut her eyes and made a deliberate attempt at returning to sleep.

Grue waited until Imp disappeared from sight before groaning, “It’s tiring, dealing with her.”

“All of us irritated each other when we first joined the team.  Give it time.  We’ll find a rhythm.” Tattletale reassured him.

Grue turned his head my way, but he didn’t say anything.  I wondered if he had been about to say I was the exception, then changed his mind.

Instead, he spoke, “I’m going to lie down for a bit in the master bedroom.  Tattletale, Skitter, you keep an eye on things.  Wake me when you need a relief.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Tattletale answered him.  I couldn’t bring myself to reply, and stayed quiet instead.

As Grue was leaving, Shadow Stalker screamed from the kitchen, a strangled, muffled noise.  Grue paused, waited a moment, and then continued in the direction Imp had gone, opening and closing the door at the end of the short hallway.

I hugged my arms against my body.  Glancing toward the balcony showed that none of the windows were broken or open.  It wasn’t because I was cold.

“You okay with this?” Tattletale asked.

“All-in,” was all I could say.

She smiled a little, almost apologetic. “All-in.”

We were doing this to Sophia, I told myself.  The same girl who had abused, insulted and tormented me almost every school day since I’d started high school.  She’d punched, kicked and shoved me.  Had ruined my belongings, insulted me, thrown food at me, humiliated me, and had goaded others into doing much the same things.  She was the one who had pushed me to that do-or-die point where my powers manifested.  If that wasn’t enough, she had tried to kill me less than an hour ago, not because I was a criminal that deserved the death penalty, but because I had seen her unmasked.  I was inconvenient.

And with all that in mind, I couldn’t be sure that she deserved this.

Tattletale got her MP3 player and put an earbud in the ear that didn’t have Sophia’s device in it.  The other earbud dangled from the cord, faint music playing from it.  Grabbing a blanket from the arm of the couch, she curled up in one of the armchairs.

I took her cue, pushing one chair across the carpet so it was by the sliding glass door leading to the balcony.  I didn’t settle in right away.  First, I exercised my power.

There were definitely enough bugs in the building for me to use.  I found the spiders in the building, and set them to preparing webs, stringing strands across every doorway, hallway and stairwell for every floor in the building.  I directed buzzing houseflies and mosquitoes into every apartment, including the one we were in, and placed at least one bug on every person I found still inside the building – a trio of unwashed men in the basement, among the storage area where residents kept the stuff they couldn’t have in their apartments, a pair of teenagers that lay on the roof, holding hands, an older man near the top floor, alone, and one family of five on the second floor.

After a moment’s consideration, I set spiders to stringing webs around the balconies as well.  When capes were in the cards, I couldn’t afford to ignore the possibility of grappling hooks, rappelling, teleportation or flight.  The spiders would sense any movement of the webs, and I could sense what the spiders did, in turn.

I found a book on a shelf that looked readable, then sat down sideways in the chair, so my back was against one armrest and my legs hung over the other, the kitchen door in front of me, the balcony behind.  There were no lights in the apartment or out on the street, but the heavy clouds weren’t blocking the moonlight for the time being, which afforded me the opportunity to read, looking up after every page or two to double-check that things were quiet and still.  It might have been peaceful, if not for Shadow Stalker’s occasional grunt or scream from the direction of the kitchen.  On occasion, she went into her shadow state for a fraction of a second, then reverted back before the wires passed through her.  Regent hadn’t called out, so I assumed all was well.

Bitch’s bulldog, Bentley, was lying on the couch with his head nestled in Bitch’s armpit.  I was on chapter three of my book when he began snoring, surprising me with how steady and loud the noise was.  Sirius, the lab I’d met on a prior occasion, lay between Bitch’s legs, his head lying across her belt buckle.  A setter was curled up at the base of the sofa with Angelica – I couldn’t remember its name.

Bitch looked so peaceful, here.  It was strange seeing her relax and rest so easily when, day-to-day, even before recent events, she seemed to be on edge to a degree that would drive most people to insanity.  It wasn’t aggression or anxiety, exactly, but some combination of the two.

Tattletale was playing some game on her mp3 player, I saw.  The mosquitoes I’d placed discreetly on Brian’s back told me he was turning over constantly.  He was as restless and agitated in relaxation as Bitch was when awake.

Imp, I could sense, was taking apart the teenager’s room, finding CDs and DVDs and holding them up by the window, maybe to see them in the light, as I was with my book.  I hadn’t known her to rest in the three days I’d known her.  I could almost believe she was one of the capes that didn’t need to sleep, but the theory would have felt a lot more tidy if I could connect it better to one of her powers.

I turned my attention back to my book, looked up again when I heard a bang from the kitchen, a grunt and a scream.  The bugs I’d placed on Regent didn’t show anything amiss, but I couldn’t really get anything from the contact with Shadow Stalker.  She was violently flickering in and out of her shadow state, now, and the slow speed with which she was returning to normal seemed to suggest she was fighting the urge to use her power.  Regent was standing, but he hadn’t called for help, so I started to read again.

When I’d read the same page four more times and realized I hadn’t actually taken in any information, I dog-eared the page and closed my book.  I focused on each person in the building in turn, followed by a double checking of the spider webs, the others here in the apartment-

I stopped short.  Regent was sitting, unmoving, and in the last ten seconds or so, Shadow Stalker had disappeared from the chair.

“Fuck!” I shouted, standing.  How?

Bitch climbed up off the couch, and Tattletale stood, looking to me, eyes wide.

When I realized why her eyes were wide, I let the bugs flow from beneath the panels of my costume.  I knew in an instant that Shadow Stalker was behind me.

Deftly, she grasped my wrist, knocked me to the ground, and then pointed her crossbow straight at my eye, the arrowhead clinking against the lens of my mask.  Which definitely wasn’t bulletproof or arrowproof.

For several long seconds, we remained there, unmoving.  Brian and Imp appeared in my peripheral vision, but they stopped when they saw Shadow Stalker.

Shadow Stalker started laughing, then stood, holstering her crossbow.  I felt Regent stand in the other room.  When the kitchen door opened, he was laughing as well – the exact same cadence as Shadow Stalker.

He ran his fingers through his hair, and Shadow Stalker moved one hand, as if to do the same thing, but the hood she wore stopped her.  She stepped away, and her movement seemed uncannily out of character; maybe a bit of a slouch, a bit of swagger, that hadn’t been there before.  Her eyes met mine.

“Totally got you, Dork,” she chuckled.

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Sentinel 9.6

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Shadow Stalker paused in her patrol when she arrived at the roof of the Hillside Mall, downtown.  She’d hoped to run into some looters, had had some luck earlier in the week at this spot, but it seemed that police forces were stationed at the entrances, now.  Annoyed, she walked over to the corner of the roof, so the toes of her boots were just at the brink.

She got her smartphone and dialed Emma.  The phone automatically made the wireless connection to her earbud.

“Hey, superhero,” Emma answered.

“How’s Portland?”

“Good food, good shopping, boring as hell.  I wish I could come back, hang out.”

“I wish you to come back, too,” Shadow Stalker admitted, “These morons are fucking pissing me off, and I’m not getting enough breaks from it.  I don’t have the patience for this.”

“Which morons?  The Wards?”

“The Wards,” Shadow Stalker confirmed.  She sat down on the ledge.  “They’re children.”

“Yeah,” Emma replied.  She didn’t prod for more information or clarification.  Shadow Stalker had gone over this before enough times, in one variation or another.

That didn’t stop her from returning to the subject, “Sure, some of them are older.  Some have more time in the field than me.  Maybe.  But they’re still children, living in their comfortable, cozy little worlds.  I dunno if you’ve seen what the city’s like now-”

“-I saw some on the news.” Emma interjected.

“Right.  Damaged, destroyed, fucked up.  This is a place those kids visit, and they’re still convinced they can fix it.  I’ve lived with this all my life.  Waded through this shit from the beginning.  I know they’re deluding themselves.  So yeah, they’re immature, new to this, and I don’t know how long I can fucking put up with them.”

“Two and a half more years, right?”  Emma asked, “Then you’re off probation, free to do your thing.”

“God, don’t remind me.  Makes me realize I’m not even halfway through it.  I can’t believe it’s already been this long, constantly hearing them bitch about dating, or clothes, or allowances, and every time I hear it it’s like, I want to scream in their face, fuck you, you little shit, shut the fuck up.  I’ve killed people, and then I washed the blood off my hands and went to school and acted normal the next day!”

Silence hung on the line for a few long moments.

“I remember,” Emma spoke, a touch subdued.

Shadow Stalker chewed on her lower lip, watched a butch policewoman pull into the parking lot, then hand out coffees to the others on duty.

“If it weren’t for all the crying and the complaining, I would almost be glad Leviathan had attacked the city.  Tear away that fucking ridiculous veneer that covers everything.  Get rid of those fucking fake smiles and social niceties and daily routines that everyone hides behind.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  Shadow Stalker didn’t elaborate too much further on the subject.  Leviathan had revealed the desperate, needy animal at the core of everyone in this city.  He’d made things honest.

Most were victims, sheep huddling together for security in numbers, or rats hiding in the shadows, avoiding attention.  Others were predators, going on the offensive, taking what they needed through violence or manipulation.

She didn’t care what category people fell into, so long as they didn’t get in her way, like Grue had a habit of doing.  Worse yet were those who seemed intent on irritating her by being lame and depressing, like Taylor or like Vista had been this past week.

They weren’t all bad.  The victim personality did have a habit of pissing her off, but she could let them be so long as the person or people in question stayed out of sight and out of mind, accepting their place without fight or fanfare.  There were some ‘predators’, she could admit, that were even useful.  Emma came to mind, the girl went a long way towards making life out of costume tolerable, and there was Director Piggot, who had kept her out of jail thus far, because she fit into the woman’s overarching agenda of PR and the illusion of a working system.

There was a need for that kind of person in society, someone willing to step on others to get to the top, do what was necessary, so they could keep the wheels spinning.  Not all of them were so useful or tolerable, of course, but there were enough out there that she couldn’t say everyone with that kind of aggressive, manipulative psychology was a blight on society.  She could respect the Piggots and Emmas of the world, if only because they served as facilitators that allowed her to do what she did best, in costume and out, respectively.

She was a ‘predator’, whether she was Shadow Stalker or Sophia.  Few would deny that, even among her own teammates.

A convoy of trucks on the road below caught her attention.  Each vehicle was painted dark, and two had the look of army vehicles, with gray-black mottled cloth or canvas covering the cargo or personnel at the rear.  They had their headlights off to avoid drawing attention.  There were two good possibilities for who they might be.  The first was that it was a shipment of supplies.  Food, water, first aid and tools, which would mean there was a small contingent of capes inside one of the trucks or in the immediate area.  The second option was that it was Coil and his troops.

She realized she was still holding the phone, and the noise of a television or music told her Emma was still on the other line.  “Something’s going on.  Going to see if it leads to anything interesting.”

“Call back when you’re done, give me the recap.”

“Right.”  She hung up.

Leaping into the air, she entered her shadow state, every part of her body shifting gears in the span of a half-second.  Her lungs automatically stopped taking in air and her heart stopped beating.  She was suddenly hyperaware of changes in the atmosphere, movements of air as it passed through her body.  She had enough solidity for her body to seize the air molecules as they passed through her, and in this manner, each of her cells nourished itself.

It was strange, to feel so still.  She lacked even the most basic processes and routines that normally kept the body going, things people rarely gave a second thought to.  There was no near-silent roar of blood in her ears, no need to blink, no production of saliva in her mouth or movement of food and water in her gut.  She just existed.

But the movement of air through her body made her feel just as alive, more alive, in a very different way.  The material and gravel of the rooftop were still warm from the day’s sunlight, even submerged beneath a thin layer of water from the rain.  This rising, heated air from this surface offered her an almost imperceptible added buoyance.  The rest of her ascent was carried out by the momentum from her leap and the fact that she was nearly weightless.  Jumping fifteen feet in the air to a rooftop one story above her was almost effortless.

She turned solid long enough to land.  Changing back brought a sudden, thunderous restarting of her heart, a shudder running through her entire body as her bloodstream jerked back into motion.  It only lasted the briefest of moments as she bent her knees and threw herself forward.  The moment her feet left the ground, she entered the shadow state once again, sailing across the rooftop.  She used one wispy foot to push herself out further as she reached the roof’s edge, so she could glide just above one rooftop without even touching ground.

In this fashion, she kept pace with the trucks, which weren’t moving slowly but weren’t going full-bore either, likely because of the condition of the roads.

It was five minutes before trouble arrived.

It was Menja that made the first move, stampeding out of a nearby alleyway, standing at a height of twenty feet tall.  She drove her spear into the engine block of the lead truck, stepped in front of the vehicle and wrenched her weapon to tip the truck over and arrest its forward momentum.

The truck immediately behind tried to stop, but the flooded pavement made it impossible to get enough traction.  It skidded and collided into the back of the foremost truck.

Miss Militia was climbing up out of the lead truck’s passenger door in an instant, hefting a grenade launcher to blast Menja three times in quick succession.  The giantess stumbled back, raised her shield – her sister’s shield – to block a fourth shot.  Hookwolf, Stormtiger, and Cricket all joined the fray, followed by their foot soldiers.  On the PRT’s side, the trucks emptied of PRT troops and one more cape, Assault.  They mobilized to defend, and the noise of gunfire rang through the night air.

Shadow Stalker crouched at the corner of the roof, loaded her crossbow and fired a shot at Cricket.  It passed a half-foot behind the woman.  Her second shot was on target, and Cricket dropped a few seconds later, tranquilized.  Good – The woman’s radar might find Shadow Stalker if she wasn’t in her shadow state, and Shadow Stalker could be far more effective if the enemy didn’t see where she was attacking from.

Who else?  Menja was classified as a breaker, the spatial-warping effect that surrounded her made incoming attacks smaller even as she simultaneously made herself bigger.  The darts wouldn’t even be noticeable to her.  Stormtiger could deflect projectiles by sensing and adjusting air currents.  With the right timing, so her shots came out of the shadow state as they arrived to make contact with him?  Maybe.  But he was engaged in a fist fight with Assault, and she’d be risking tagging the hero.  Hookwolf?  No point.  He was currently in the shape of a gigantic wolf made of whirring metal blades.  Even if the dart did penetrate something approximating flesh, which it wouldn’t, his entire biology was so different that she doubted he would be affected.

Instead, she settled for targeting the clusters of Hookwolf’s troops.  ‘Fenrir’s Chosen’.  Each of the thugs had white face-paint extending from forehead to cheekbone to chin, in a crude approximation of a wolf’s face.  She began dropping them at a steady rate, aiming for the biggest, the most aggressive and the ones who looked like they were in charge of lesser troops, the captains.  As the troops began falling, Hookwolf’s forces became unsettled, hesitating to advance.  Hookwolf reared up on two legs, pointing and howling orders, likely demanding they attack.  His words were incomprehensible from the rooftop where Shadow Stalker crouched, but the tone left no mistake that he was threatening them to drive them back into the fight.

The distraction afforded Miss Militia time to prepare and fire a mortar straight into Hookwolf’s chest.  As he collapsed backward, his chest cavity gaping open, her gun shimmered, split and transformed into a pair of assault rifles.  She unloaded clip after clip into the enemy ranks; rubber bullets, most likely.  The innate issues of the nonlethal ammunition were almost negligible in Miss Militia’s case.  She could reform the gun in a second if a gun jammed.

Shadow Stalker watched a crowd of Hookwolf’s Chosen move to flank, moving along the sidewalk, where the crashed truck blocked the view of the PRT forces.  Shadow Stalker raised her crossbow, hesitated.  She could jump down, take them down in close quarters combat.  It had been her entire reason for going out, after having to deal with the irritation of Vista.  She craved that catharsis.

She holstered her crossbow, prepared to dive into their midst, and then paused as she saw the Chosen stagger back, lashing out with their hands.  One shouted something, which was odd given how they had been trying to be stealthy only a moment ago.

What?

Then another figure stepped out of the alleyway closest to them.  A girl, skinny, but not in the attractive way you saw in magazines.  Spindly.  Was that the right word?  The girl was hard to make out in the gloom – there were no lights on the street, and the only light was what filtered from the moon and through the rain clouds.  The girl glanced left, around the back of the truck, then glanced right, where she might have seen Shadow Stalker if she looked up just a little.  The lenses of her mask caught the moonlight, flashing a pale yellow.

Skitter.

A feral smile spread across Shadow Stalker’s face, beneath her mask.

Shadow Stalker resisted the urge to jump down, watched as the shadow of the bug girl’s swarm moved over the Chosen, almost obscuring them from view.  The bug girl drew her combat stick, whipped it out to full length, and dispatched the Chosen one by one.  Shadow Stalker couldn’t see the hits, between the darkness and the obscuring mass of the swarm, but she saw the splashes and movements of the Chosen as they fell to the ground, clutching their faces, knees, and hands.

Some of the bugs flowed out to pass over the PRT forces and the Chosen.  The thugs started recoiling and slapping at themselves, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see much reaction from the PRT forces.  They were made of sterner stuff, in a way, and their uniforms covered them thoroughly enough that the bugs wouldn’t do nearly as much damage, if they were even attacking.

Skitter emerged from the center mass of the swarm, carrying a bag of supplies from the truck.  It was green canvas, large, not dissimilar to a gym bag.  Pulling the strap over one shoulder, she briskly retreated back into the alley, the bugs trailing after her like the tail of a slow moving comet, or the steady trail of smoke from a candle.

“Hungry, are you?” Shadow Stalker murmured to herself.  She shifted into her shadow state, moved along the rooftop to follow the girl.  Shadow Stalker was almost entirely silent in this state, virtually impossible to see, especially in this light, unless someone was actively looking for her.  She was a gray shadow against a background of black and shades of gray.

You saw my face.  Shadow Stalker thought, Records say you’ve got no team, now.  Operating alone between the old Boardwalk and the east end of Downtown.

She leaped to the next rooftop, and the movement carried her a little ahead of her target, helped by the fact that the bug girl was moving a little slower with her burden.  Shadow Stalker paused and reached up beneath her cloak and between her shoulder blades.  She withdrew a cartridge for her crossbow, each bolt loaded in at a slight angle, so the aluminum ‘feathers’ at the tail of each bolt stuck out.  She popped out one bolt to examine it, then turned it around so the barbed, razor sharp arrowhead caught the moonlight.  As Skitter passed beneath her, she turned the bolt’s point so her perspective made it appear to be at the girl’s throat.

Operating solo means there’s nobody to miss you.

She entered her shadow state and moved further along the rooftop, only to feel a group of flying insects pass through her body.  A fraction of a second later, Skitter was running, abandoning the bag, disappearing around a corner, not even turning to look Shadow Stalker’s way.

“You want to run?  I don’t mind a bit of a chase,” Shadow Stalker smiled behind her mask, loading the cartridge into her right-hand crossbow.  She leaped after the girl, gliding down to street level, rebounding off a wall to turn the corner and give pursuit.

Skitter had turned around, was waiting as she rounded the corner.  The bug girl sent a mass of insects out to attack.

The bugs passed through Shadow Stalker’s body, slowing her momentum.  She suspected that if there were enough of them, they could even carry her aloft, push her back.  But there weren’t – the swarm wasn’t quite big enough.  As the stream of insects passed through her, reoriented in preparation to flow through her again, she pounced.

The residual bugs threw her off, slowing down her power.  Her body had to push them out of the space it wanted to occupy, delayed the change back to her normal self by a half-second.  Her hand passed through Skitter’s throat, but she caught her balance, drew her rearmost foot up and back in a half-spin.  Her heel collided with Skitter’s mask.

Skitter went down, and Shadow Stalker turned her crossbow on her fallen opponent.  She was about to fire when the combat stick lashed out.  She lifted the crossbow up just in time –  had she been a second slower, the stick might have broken her weapon.  Acutely aware of the bugs clustering on her, she dropped into her shadow state before they could crawl beneath her mask.

The stick passed through her head, once.  She resisted the urge to snap back to her normal form and retaliate.  The girl was powerless here.  Shadow Stalker could afford to hound her, drive her to the brink of desperation, wear her down.

The bug girl switched to a one-handed grip on her baton, flying insects clustering around her to mask her movements as she backed away a step.  She used her free hand to push the wet hair out of her face.  Then she adjusted her costume, reaching to tug her shoulderpad forward a bit, then reached behind her back to do much the same with the armor there.

“You really want to fight me?” Shadow Stalker asked her opponent, a note of incredulity in her voice.  She raised her right crossbow.  The one with the lethal ammunition.

Skitter didn’t reply.

Whatever else Shadow Stalker might think of the bug girl, how the girl was creepy, a freak, she had to admit Skitter had demonstrated enough viciousness to date that she could almost respect the girl as a fellow predator.  An idiot, for wanting to fight her, but kindred, in a fashion.  “Alright, fine.”

Skitter gripped her weapon two-handed again.  The grip was strange.  Something in her left hand?

Shadow Stalker realized what it was.  She simultaneously moved back, gripped her cloak with her left hand and shifted to her solid state to raise the fabric as a barrier.  The pepper spray spattered her cloak.

When she was sure the spray had dissipated, she threw her cloak back over one shoulder and shifted to her shadow state to escape the bugs that were crawling on her, taking advantage of her solidity.   She lunged after Skitter, who was running, already turning a corner at the other side of the alley.

Good runner, but I’m faster.

Shadow Stalker didn’t need to slosh through the water, but she knew she would be faster than the other girl even if she did.  It wasn’t just her shadow state eliminating wind resistance, or the lightness of her body.  She was a trained runner.

She bounded from one wall of the alley to the one opposite, staying above the water, pursuing her target.

Skitter was going up the steps of a fire escape.  Shadow Stalker aimed and fired a bolt – the girl ducked, and the shot clipped a railing instead.

Good reflexes.  Shadow Stalker brushed away at the bugs massing around her.  Or do your bugs help you watch what I’m doing?  Disturbing little freak.

Apparently deciding the fire escape wasn’t a great option, Skitter climbed over the railing and leaped a half-story down to the pavement, putting a chain link fence and some accumulated trash bags between herself and Shadow Stalker.

MoronI can walk through that fence.  She loaded her crossbow, aimed, and fired through the fence at the girl.

A flash and spray of sparks erupted as the shot made contact with the fence.  Skitter stumbled as the bolt hit her, but Shadow Stalker couldn’t see if it had done any damage.

No, what concerned her was the flash.  She ignored the fact that Skitter was disappearing, entered her solid state and touched the side of her mask.

Lenses snapped into place, showing a blurry image of the alley in shades of dark green and black.  The chain link fence, however, was lit up in a very light gray.  Similarly glowing, a wire was stapled to the brick of the building next to the fence, leading to a large, pale blob inside the building.  A generator.

The fence was electrified.

Shadow Stalker snarled at what had almost been a grave mistake, entered her shadow state and leaped up and over the fence, being careful not to touch it.

One of the reasons she couldn’t move through walls at will, beyond the huge break in her forward momentum and the excruciating pain that came with stalling in the midst of a wall, was wiring.  She remained just as vulnerable, maybe even more vulnerable, to electrocution.  The people in the PRT labs couldn’t tell her if she could be killed by electrocution – traditional organs were barely present in her shadow state – but it was one of those things that couldn’t be properly tested without risking killing the subject.

End result?  She had to be careful where she went, had received tinker-made lenses to help her spot such threats.

Skitter had known the fence was electrified, judging by the route she’d taken through the fire escape.  The area here didn’t have any power, so the question was whether it something this area’s inhabitants had set up to protect themselves… or was it a trap Skitter had put in place well in advance?  No.  More likely the girl had studied this area before carrying out any crimes.

Still, it troubled her that the girl had thought to use the fence like she had.  She really didn’t like the idea that the villain had not only seen her face, but that she might have figured out one of her weaknesses.  Two, if she counted the pepper spray.  Being permeable was a problem when she absorbed gases, vapors and aerosols directly into her body.  It wouldn’t affect her if she was in her shadow state, and it would eventually filter out, but if she were forced to change back, she’d suffer as badly as anyone, if not worse.

Shadow Stalker caught up to the girl yet again, saw Skitter running with her swarm clustered tightly around her.  Was the girl wanting to make herself a harder target?

Hardly mattered – Shadow Stalker loaded and fired another bolt.

At the same instant the bolt fired, the swarm parted in two.  Two swarm-wreathed figures covered in bugs, each turning at a right angle to round a corner.  The bolt sailed between them.  One was a decoy, just a swarm in a vaguely human shape.

She checked the sides of the alley and the recessed doors.  Could they both be decoys?  She couldn’t see any obvious hiding spots that Skitter could have used at a moment’s notice.

Shadow Stalker closed the distance, placing herself at the intersection between the two bug-shrouded figures.  Holding each crossbow out in an opposite direction, she fired at both targets at once, snapping her attention from one to the next in an attempt to see which reacted to the hit.

One slowed, began to topple.  She lunged after, in pursuit, loaded her crossbow and fired two more shots into the center mass of Skitter’s body while airborne, then kicked downward with both feet as she landed, to shove the girl into the ground.

Her body weight dissolved the blurry silhouette into a mess of bugs.  A trick.

Snarling, Shadow Stalker wheeled around, ran in the direction the other half of the swarm had gone  Had the girl’s armor taken the bolt?  Had the crossbow shot missed?

More bugs were flowing from the area to join the swarm, bolstering its number enough for it to split again.  She wasn’t close enough to be sure of a hit, and she didn’t want to waste her good arrows, so she delayed, leaped forward to close the gap.

The swarm split once more, making for four vaguely human figures in total, each cloaked in a cloud of flying insects.

Shadow Stalker snarled a curse word.

One figure turned on the spot, moved as if to slide past Shadow Stalker.  She lashed out, striking it in the throat, failed to hit anything solid.

She loaded her crossbows, fired at the figure on the far left and the far right of the trio.  No reaction.  She dove after the remaining one.

She made contact, drove the bug girl’s face down into the water.  She shifted into her shadow state, straddling Skitter.   The girl turned over of her own volition – easy enough, as Shadow Stalker was barely solid, but when Skitter tried to stand, Shadow Stalker resumed her normal form for a second – just long enough to force the girl back down.

Picking one of her non-tranquilizer bolts from the cartridge, she held the point of the ammunition to Skitter’s throat like a knife, “Game over, you little freak.”

Skitter cocked her head a little, as if analyzing Shadow Stalker from a different perspective.

“What are you looking at?” Shadow Stalker spat the word, “Nothing to say?  No last words?  No begging?  No fucking apologies?”

Skitter went limp, letting her head rest against the ground, the water lapping over most of her mask.  Dark curls fanned out in the water around her, swaying as the water rippled.

“Guess I don’t need to worry about the villain who saw my face, now.”  Shadow Stalker went solid and drew the razor-sharp tip of her bolt across Skitter’s throat.

The fabric didn’t cut.

Skitter struggled to get free, but Shadow Stalker’s body weight was too much for her to slide free.  She gripped the girl’s wrists with her hands, pinned them to the ground.

“Irritating,” she spat the word.  She could always go into her shadow state, stick the arrow inside the girl and then return to normal.  The problem with going that route was that it left a very characteristic imprint in the victim.  She would need a way of covering up the evidence.  Something she could hit Skitter with afterward that would make the wound too messy to analyze for evidence.

While she craned her head to one side to the next to search for something useful, her surroundings were plunged into darkness.

It took her only a moment to realize what that meant.  She climbed off Skitter, moved to run.  The darkness was oppressive, sluggish in moving through her, unlike ordinary air.  She was slower, wasn’t taking in enough oxygen.  Against her will, her power instinctively adjusted, shifted her into a middle ground between her regular self and her shadow state.  It left her slower, heavier.

She baited me.

A massive shape tore through her, dissipated her entire body.  She pulled back together, but it was hard, painful and uncomfortable on an unspecific, fundamental level.  It left her breathing hard, feeling like she’d just put her body through five hours of the hardest exercise of her life.  Enervating, was that the right word?  Bugs were gathering inside and around her body, making it a little harder and a little more time-consuming to pull together.

Then, before she had succeeded in pulling herself all the way together, it happened again, another large form striking from another direction, passing through her lower body.

She sagged.  Gasped out in pain as another shape passed through her head and shoulders.  The darkness absorbed her cry so it barely reached her own ears.

It was only seconds later that the darkness dissipated.  She was on her hands and knees, barely had the strength to move, let alone fight.  She tried to raise her right crossbow, but her hand seized up, no longer under her own control as it bent to a pain like a bad Charlie horse.  Her fingers curled back, and the crossbow tumbled from her fingers.  She still had one in her left hand, but she was using the heel of that hand to prop herself up.

Her opponents were revealed as the shadows passed, arranged in a rough ring around her.  Hellhound and her dogs took up half the clearing, in front of Shadow Stalker.  She held a metal ring in each hand, with two chains extending out from each ring.   The chains, in turn, were connected to harnesses around the heads and snouts of the ‘dogs’, each animal only a little smaller than a refrigerator.  They were monstrous, with scaly, horned exteriors and exposed muscle.  Not as big or ugly as they could get, Shadow Stalker knew.  The smallest one was barking incessantly.  Three of the four were pulling on the chains, hungry to get at Shadow Stalker, clearly intent on tearing her apart.  Hellhound’s sharp pulls on the chains contracted the bindings around their snouts, which made them stop before they could get too close.

Grue stood to her left, arms folded, almost indistinguishable from the darkness behind him.  After her first humiliating loss to him, she’d made it a mission to drive him out of this city.  He’d stubbornly refused.  A girl Shadow Stalker didn’t recognize stood just behind him, wearing a black scarf and a pale gray mask with pointed horns arching over the top of her head.  The eyes of the mask had lenses that were black from corner to corner, stylized to look fierce, more animal than human.

Rounding out the group were Tattletale, Regent and Skitter.  Tattletale smiled, her hands clasped behind her back, while Regent twirled his scepter in his fingers.  Skitter stood between the two of them.  The bug girl bent, then crouched until she was almost at eye level with Shadow Stalker.

A laugh escaped Shadow Stalker’s lips, building until she couldn’t balance her upper body on her weakened arm.  She bent so one shoulder hit the ground, rolled onto her back, arms at her sides.  She looked up at Skitter, “All that drama, all that fucking nonsense about allegiances, betraying your team, was it a trick, some joke?”

Skitter shook her head slowly.

Shadow Stalker tried to rise, but the growling of one of the dogs intensified.  It was the only one that wasn’t pulling on its chain – the largest and most monstrous of the four, with one empty eye socket.  Between the threat of the dog and the lack of strength in the arm that Regent wasn’t fucking up, Shadow Stalker gave up and let herself slump down.

“Well,” she spoke, her tone sarcastic, “How wonderfully fucking nice for you, that you guys patched things up.  You even have a new member, congratulations.  I guess everything’s back to normal for you freaks.”

“No…”  Skitter spoke, and the bugs around her chirped, buzzed and droned to match the pitch and tone of her words.  The villain hadn’t done that when the Undersiders attacked the fundraiser, she remembered.   Her voice was quiet, which only made it more eerie.  The girl held out her hand, and Regent passed his scepter to her.

“…Things are different now,” Skitter finished.

Skitter drove the scepter into Shadow Stalker’s body.  It was everything Shadow Stalker could do to stay solid as she felt the tines of the crowned stick biting through the fabric of her costume and into her stomach.  She resisted the instincts that two and a half years of exercising her powers had lent her, because she knew what came next.  It’ll be worse if I’m in my shadow state, maybe lethal.

Being tased didn’t hurt as much as she’d expected.  It was like being doused in ice water, her entire body seizing, straining, and refusing to cooperate, the pain almost secondary.  What hurt most was the way she involuntarily clenched of her jaw.  The strength with which her teeth pressed together made her worry she might crack a tooth.

It only lasted a moment, but her body wasn’t any more cooperative after the current subsided.  She lay there, huffing small breaths, every limb unresponsive.  A deep, furious rage grew inside her chest, but she was impotent to do anything to release it.

A pair of hands seized her, sat her up.  Her arm dangled limp to her side.

Grue spoke from behind her.  “Skitter, lift her legs.  Regent, support her midsection.  Imp?  Give me a hand with her upper body, take the other shoulder.  We lift on three, alright?”

“Right,” someone said.

“One, two, three!”

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