I showed up in costume. I didn’t care if they thought it was rude or paranoid, I would rather be capable of surviving having a knife pulled on me than play nice.
I had caught a bus from the library to my house and put my costume on under my clothes. Most of the armor panels of my costume were separate pieces, held in place by straps that ran into slits in the fabric of the costume. Not all of them were, though. I’d made some of the armor part of the bodysuit, I’d made narrow, rigid sections of armor running along the center of my chest, back, shins, wrists, hips and the tops of my shoulders. so that when I strapped the larger pieces on, grooves on the underside of the armor would fit over them and help keep them from flopping around. I checked myself in the mirror before I left, and didn’t think anyone would notice unless I held a strange posture and they were paying a great deal of attention to what I was wearing. I wore loose fitting clothes over the costume, – one of my larger pairs of jeans and a sweatshirt, and even with that, I felt painfully conspicuous
I changed much the way I had the previous night, finding an empty alley, quickly pulling on my mask, pulling off my outer clothes, and stuffing the clothes into one of my dad’s old backpacks. I’d hidden the backpack before I went patrolling last night, but today, I opted to take it with me. I headed out the other end of the alley.
When I was a short distance away from the site of last night’s brawl, I sent a dozen flies out to scout. I focused on what they were sensing.
Bugs, it probably goes without saying, sense things in a very different way than we do. More than that, they sense and process things at a very different speed. The end result was that the signals my power were able to translate and send to me in a way my brain could understand were muted. Visual information came through as ink blot patches of monochrome light and dark, alternating between fuzzy and overly sharp. Sound was almost painful to focus on, breaking down to bass vibrations that made my vision distort and high pitch noises that weren’t unlike nails on a chalkboard. Multiply that by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, and it was overwhelming. When my power was new to me, I hadn’t been able to hold back. The sensory overload had never actually hurt me, even at its worst, but it had made me flat out miserable. These days, I had that part of my power turned off a good ninety nine percent of the time.
My preferred method of sensing things through my bugs was touch. It wasn’t that their sense of touch translated much better than the hearing or sight part of things, but had more to do with the fact that I could tell where they were in relation to me. I was acutely aware when they were very still, if they were moving, or if something else was moving them. That was one thing that translated well.
So as I sent the bugs out to scout, the twelve sets of compound eyes first identified the trio as blurry silhouettes atop a larger, more defined shadow, backlit by a flare of white that had to be the sun. I directed the flies closer, towards the ‘heads’ of the figures, and they touched down on skin. None of the three were wearing masks, which I deemed reason to believe Tattletale had been telling the truth. They weren’t in costume. There was no guarantee that the three were really Tattletale, Grue and Regent, but I felt confident enough to head around to the fire escape and climb up to the roof.
It was them, no doubt. I recognized them even without their costumes. Two guys and a girl. The girl had dirty blonde hair tied back into a loose braid, a smattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose and the same vulpine grin I recognized from the night prior. She wore a black long sleeved t-shirt with a grafitti-style design on it and a knee length denim skirt. I was surprised by the bottle-glass green of her eyes.
The smaller and younger of the two guys – about my age – was undoubtedly Regent. I recognized the mop of black curls. He was a good looking guy, but not in a way that would make me say he was handsome. He was pretty, with a triangular face, light blue eyes and full lips pulled into a bit of a scowl. I pegged him as having French or Italian heritage. I could see where he would have girls all over him, but I couldn’t say I was interested, myself. The pretty boys – Leonardo Decaprio, Marcus Firth, Justin Beiber, Johnny Depp – had never done it for me. He was wearing a white jacket with a hood, jeans and sneakers, and was perched on the raised lip at the edge of the roof, a bottle of cola in hand.
Grue was startling in appearance, by contrast. Taller than me by at least a foot, Grue had dark chocolate skin, shoulder length cornrows and that masculine lantern jaw you typically associated with guy superheroes. He wore jeans, boots and a plain green t-shirt, which struck me as a bit cold for the spring. I did note that he had considerable muscle definition in his arms. This was a guy who worked out.
“And she arrives,” Tattletale crowed, “Pay up.”
Regent’s scowl deepened for a second, and he fished in his pocket for a wad of bills, which he forked over to Tattletale.
“You bet on whether I would show up?” I ventured.
“We bet on whether you would come in costume,” Tattletale told me. Then, more to Regent than to me, she said, “and I won.”
“Again,” Regent muttered.
“It’s your own fault for taking the bet in the first place,” Grue said, “Even if it wasn’t Tattle, it was a sucker bet. Showing up in costume makes too much sense. It’s what I would do.” He had a nice voice. It was an adult voice, even if his appearance gave me the sense of a guy in his late teens.
He extended his hand to me, “Hey, I’m Brian.”
I shook his hand, he wasn’t shy about shaking my hand firmly. I said, “You can call me Bug, I guess. At least, until I come up with something better, or until I decide this isn’t an elaborate trick.”
He shrugged, “Cool.” There wasn’t the slightest trace of offense at my suspicion. I almost felt bad.
“Lisa,” Tattletale introduced herself. She didn’t offer me her hand to shake, but I think it would have felt out of place if she had. It wasn’t that she seemed unfriendly, but she didn’t have the same aura of geniality about her that Grue did.
“I’m Alec,” Regent informed me, with a quiet voice, then he added, “And Bitch is Rachel.”
“Rachel is sitting this one out,” Grue said, “She didn’t agree with the aim of our meeting, here.”
“Which raises the question,” I cut in, “What is the aim of this meeting? I’m a little weirded out with you guys revealing your secret identities like this, or at least, pretending to.”
“Sorry,” Grue… Brian apologized, “That was my idea. I thought we would make a token show of trust.”
Behind the yellow tinted lenses of my mask, my eyes narrowed, flicking from Lisa to Alec to Brian. I couldn’t draw any conclusions from their expressions.
“Why, exactly, do you need my trust?” I asked.
Brian opened his mouth, then closed it. He looked to Lisa, who bent down and picked up a plastic lunchbox. She held it out to me.
“I said we owed you. All yours, no strings attached.”
Without taking the box, I tilted my head to get a better look at the front, “Alexandria. She was my favorite member of the Protectorate when I was a kid. Is the lunchbox collectable?”
“Open it,” Lisa prompted me, with a roll of her eyes.
I took it. From the weight and the motion of the contents inside it, I immediately had a pretty good idea of what it was. I undid the clasps and opened the box.
“Money,” I breathed, caught off guard by suddenly having so much in my hands. Eight stacks of bills, tied with paper bands. Each of the paper bands had a number written on it in permanent marker. Two fifty each…
Lisa answered before I had the number totaled up in my head, “Two grand.”
I closed the box and did the clasps. With no idea what to say, I stayed silent.
“You have two choices,” Lisa explained, “You can take that as a gift. A thank you for, intentionally or not, saving our ass from Lung last night. And maybe a bit of incentive to count us among your friends when you’re out in costume and doing dastardly deeds.”
Her grin widened, as if she’d said something she found amusing. Maybe it was the irony of a villain talking about ‘dastardly deeds’, or how corny the phrase was. She elaborated, “Between territory disputes, differences in ideology, general power struggles and egos, there’s a rare few people in the local villain community who won’t attack us on sight.”
“And the second option?” I asked.
“You can take this as your first installment in the monthly allowance you’re entitled to as a member of the Undersiders,” Brian spoke up, “As one of us.”
I shifted my gaze between the three of them, looking for the joke. Lisa still had a bit of a smile, but I was getting the impression that was her default expression. Alec looked a little bored, if anything. Brian looked dead serious. Damn.
“Two thousand a month,” I said.
“No,” Brian cut in, “That’s just what the boss pays us, to stick together and to stay active. We make, uh, considerably more than that.”
Lisa smirked, and Alec chuckled as he swished the contents of his coke bottle. I made mental note at the mention of this ‘boss’.
Not wanting to get sidetracked, I quickly thought through the earlier part of our conversation in the context of the job offer.
I asked, “So Bitch didn’t come because she was against the, er, recruitment?”
“Yeah,” Alec said, “We voted on it, and she said no.”
“On the plus side, the rest of us voted yes,” Brian hurried to add, giving Alec a dirty look, “She’ll come around. She always votes against adding new members to the group, because she doesn’t want to divide the money five ways.”
“So you’ve done this recruiting thing before,” I concluded.
“Uh, yeah,” Brian looked a touch embarrassed, he rubbed the back of his neck, “It didn’t go well. We tried with Spitfire, and she got scared off before we even got to the job offer. Our fault, for bringing Rachel along that time.”
“And then she got recruited by someone else,” Alec added.
“Yeah,” Brian shrugged, “She got snagged by Faultline before we got a second chance. We’ve made an offer to Circus, too, and she told us in no uncertain terms that she worked alone.”
“Taught me a few new curse words while she did it, too,” Alec said.
“She was pretty vocal about how she flies solo,” Brian admitted.
“So you’re going the extra mile, with no costumes as a show of trust and a cash bonus up front, to get me to join,” I said, as the pieces came together.
“That’s the gist of it,” Brian agreed, “Long and short of it is, especially with Lung taken out of action and the ABB diminished by his being gone, there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving over territory and status among the various gangs and teams. Us, Faultline’s Crew, the remaining ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, the solo villains, and any out of town teams or gangs that figure that they can worm in and grab a piece of the Bay. If it comes down to it, we want firepower. We haven’t screwed up a job yet, but the way us three figure it, it’s only a matter of time before we end up stuck in a fight we can’t win, with Bitch as the only one of us who can really dish out the hurt.”
“I just don’t get why you want me,” I said, “I control bugs. That’s not going to stop Alexandria, Glory Girl or Aegis.”
“You fucked up Lung,” Lisa shrugged as she spoke, “Good enough for me.”
“Um, not really,” I replied, “In case you missed it, you’re the ones who stopped him from executing me last night. That just goes to prove the point I was making.”
“Honey,” Lisa said, “Entire teams of capes have gone up against Lung and got their asses handed to them. That you managed as well as you did is fantastic. The fact that the asshole is lying in a hospital bed because of you is the icing on the cake.”
My reply stopped before it even left my mouth. I only managed a dumb, “Hunh?”
“Yeah,” Lisa raised an eyebrow, “You do know which bugs you had biting him, right? Black Widow, Brown Recluse, Browntail Moth, Mildei, Fire Ants-”
“Yeah,” I cut her off, “I don’t know the official names, but I know exactly what bit him, what stung him and what the venoms do.”
“So why are you surprised? A couple of those bugs would be fucking dangerous if they bit just once, but you had them bite several times. Bad enough, but when Lung came into custody they had him checked over by the docs, and the idiot doctor in charge said something like, ‘Oh, well, these do look like bug bites and stings, but the really venomous ones don’t bite multiple times. Let’s arrange to check on him in a few hours’.”
I could tell where the story was going. I put my hands over my mouth, whispering, “Oh my god.”
Tattletale grinned, “I can’t believe you didn’t know.”
“But he regenerates!” I protested, dropping my hands, “Toxins aren’t supposed to be even one percent as effective against people who heal like he does.”
“They’re effective enough, I guess, or his healing stopped working somewhere along the line” Lisa told me, “By the time they got to him, the big guy was just beginning to suffer from large scale tissue necrosis. His heart even stopped a few times. You do remember where you had the bugs bite him?”
I closed my eyes. I could see my reputation going down the tubes. One of the spiders I had been using was the brown recluse. Arguably the most dangerous spider in the United States, more than even the black widow. A single bite from a brown recluse could make a good chunk of the flesh around the bite blacken and rot away. I’d had my bugs biting Lung in the more sensitive parts of his anatomy.
“Let’s just say that even with the ability to heal several times faster than your average person, Lung is going to be sitting down to use the toilet.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” Brian stopped Lisa before she could go on, “Lung is going to recover, right?”
With the look Brian was giving Lisa, I thought she might lie, regardless of the truth. She shrugged and told me, “He’s already recuperating. Slowly, but he’s on the mend, and he should be in good working order in six months to a year.”
“You’d better hope he doesn’t escape,” Alec said, his voice still quiet but bemused, “Because if someone made my man bits fall off, I’d be out for blood.”
Brian pinched the bridge of his nose, “Thank you for that, Alec. Way you two are going, our potential recruit is going to run off to have a panic attack before the idea of becoming an Undersider even crosses her mind.”
“How do you know this?” I asked, within a heartbeat of the thought crossing my mind. When Brian turned my way with an expression like he thought he had said something to offend me, I clarified, “Tattletale, or Lisa, or whatever I’m supposed to call you. How do you know this stuff about Lung… or about the fact that I was at the Library, or that the cape was on his way, last night?”
“Library?” Brian interjected, giving Lisa another dark look.
Lisa ignored Brian’s question and winked at me, “Girl’s gotta have her secrets.”
“Lisa’s half the reason we haven’t failed a job yet,” Alec said.
“And our boss is a large part of the rest,” Lisa finished for him.
“So you say,” Brian grumbled, “But let’s not go there.”
Lisa smiled at me, “If you want the full scoop, I’m afraid the details on what we do only come with team membership. What I can tell you is that we’re a good group. Our track record is top notch, and we’re in it for fun and profit. No grand agenda. No real responsibility.”
I pursed my lips, behind my mask. While I had picked up some info, I felt like I had a lot more questions. Who was this boss they mentioned? Was he or she setting up other teams of highly successful villains, in Brockton Bay or elsewhere? What made these guys as effective as they were, and was it something I could steal or copy for myself?
It wasn’t like I was signing the deal in blood or anything. I stood to gain so much.
“Alright then, count me in,” I told them.