Interlude 4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A whistle.  Brutus’ ears perk up.   Already jumping off the bed as second whistle comes, just after the first.  Two whistles like that means come.  Master only asks for dogs to come to the front stairs if it is time for walkies!

Walkies are Brutus’ favorite thing!

Other dogs are bumping shoulders with Brutus in hurry to get to Master.  Turn corner too fast, claws scratch at floor to get grip.  Fall a little.  Judas hesitates, sniffs, but Angelica is ahead of Brutus now.  Bad girl.  Brutus snarls a little at Angelica, she backs away, drops behind.  Brutus is top dog.  Angelica should know that.  Brutus arrives at Master first, the way it should be.

Brutus is top dog, but Master is alpha.  Leader of this pack.  Not leader of her people-pack but that is okay.  She bends down and scratches all over Brutus’ neck and shoulders, deep, rough.  Perfect scratches because they dig through Brutus’ thick fur.  Tail is wagging so hard that back paws are slipping on floor.  Fall over and turn belly up so Master can scratch it.  She does and it is ecstasy.

Master is hurt and hurting.  Brutus knows this.  When she bends down, she is moving more slowly, she is making little sounds as she makes bigger movements like bending down and standing up.  She smells like dried blood and stress and sweat in ways she usually doesn’t.

“Angelica, Judas, stay,” Master says, “Not taking you two.” Brutus doesn’t understand but Master sounds apologetic.  Like when she was walking up stairs and accidentally kicked Brutus in chin because he was following too close behind her.  She scratches each of them in turn.  Not enthusiastic scratches.  They are happy to be scratched but they aren’t coming for walkies.  Brutus’ tail stops wagging.  Is Brutus not coming for walkies?

Master picks up leash.  “Brutus, good boy.  Walkies?”  Tail is wagging crazy hard again.  Master tells Brutus to sit, Brutus sits.  Is good boy.  Master puts plastic bags in back pocket, puts on backpack.  Backpack unusual.  Master doesn’t usually bring backpack for walkies.  Errand?

“We’re going on an errand, okay boy?” Master speaks.  Brutus’ tail wags.  Brutus was right!  Errands always interesting.  Brutus eagerly takes a few steps forward before remembering to be a good boy.  Master doesn’t like it when Brutus pulls on leash.  She puts on shoes, gets the keys that jangle, gets crinkly wrapper things she sometimes eats that Brutus can’t because Brutus is a dog.  Crinkly wrapper things go in left pocket.  She gets treats for dogs to put in right pocket, stops.  Gives treats to Judas and Angelica.  Treat for Brutus?

“Treats later,” Master says.  ‘Later’ is familiar word but meaning unclear.  Brutus feels crushing disappointment as treats go in Master’s right pocket.  Jumps up a little to remind Master she forgot to give a treat.  Master makes angry clucking noise and Brutus is sorry now.  Tail down, ears down.

“Bitch, hold up,” speaks the scentless man.  Scentless man makes Brutus nervous because he is big but he has no smell.  But he is Master’s alpha so Master stops and listens.

“You’re going out?” the scentless man asks.

“Work,” Master says.

The scentless man waits for something, then speaks again, “Are you okay?”

“Fuckin’ peachy.”  Brutus knows Master only says fuck word like that when she’s mad.

“I have a hard time believing that, to be honest.  You were in pretty rough shape when I found you with Über and Leet’s henchmen, and those guys from the ABB.”

“I’m fine now,” Master tells him.  She sounds angry.  Brutus steps forward, ready to growl to add own voice to hers, but Master tugs on leash just a little and Brutus stays quiet.

“When I found you, one of them had you tied to the ceiling by your wrists and was using you as a punching bag.”

Master breaks eye contact.  Brutus knows this is a sign that Master sees the scentless man as her alpha.  When she speaks, she still sounds angry, “I fucked up.  I was bored, restless, figured I’d walk Angelica and see if I could meet you guys where the money was.  Someone recognized me and tailed me.  I was stupid, I took my licks for it.  I’m fine now, we have the money, all is well.”

The scentless man sighs.  Sounds a little angry as he says, “It’s not… no, nevermind.  No use getting into it.  But what if someone recognizes you while you’re walking him?”

“I’ll fight back sooner, harder.  Or are you going to tell me I can’t walk my dogs anymore?”  All of a sudden, Master is tense.  Brutus can see it in her legs, hear it in her voice, feel it in her grip on the leash.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the scentless man replies, his voice quiet, slightly strained “And you wouldn’t listen even if I did.  Just… be careful.”

“I can go?”

“Go.  Enjoy your walk, both of you.”

And the tension leaves Master.  One small whistle and Brutus knows to follow.  Down the stairs and out the door into the outside world.  So many smells!  So many sounds!  So exciting!

But can’t get too excited.  Brutus is good boy.  Doesn’t pull on leash like Angelica still does.  Master always makes angry clucking noise at Angelica on walkies.

Master is walking slower.  Favoring one leg.  Brutus is eager for walkies but doesn’t pull on leash even if Master is walking slower.

So many smells!  Being in own territory is good but being on walkies is smelling whole world.  Always new things, always new things to smell about old things.  Smell this pee and know almost everything about the dog who peed.  Bitch.  Maybe in heat soon.  Lives with kids.  Pee smells like stress and eating too much grass and sleeping too much and being a fat dog.

Smell that poo to know about dog who pooed.  Hungry dog.  Hungry dog’s master probably hungry too.  Many like that here.  Not like that in Brutus’ old home.  No people or dogs there were hungry.  But Brutus remembers being unhappy.  Master was always ignoring Brutus.  Leave Brutus in basement alone all day until Brutus stop bad man who came in basement window.  Is okay now.  Brutus is happy now with new master.

Smell that pee.  Human pee.  Not as interesting.  Master whistles to remind Brutus to keep up.  No more sniffing for now.

“Brutus, sit, stay,” Master orders.  Brutus sits and stays while Master stands beside him.  Is good boy.  Gets scratched by Master.  Little female human is walking up to Brutus. Smaller than Brutus.  Pats at Brutus, pokes.  One poke in eye.  Brutus’ ears down, head down, tail between legs.  Not good scratches.  Little human laughs.  Poke again in Brutus’ side.

Brutus looks up at Master.  Pleading.  Master not saying anything so Brutus stays while being poked.  Little human grabbing Brutus’ fur on side and pulling too hard.  Like Angelica when Angelica was new to Master’s pack, biting and pulling and making Brutus bleed.  Bad memory.  Growl starts in Brutus’ throat.

“No, Brutus, off,” Master orders.  Brutus lowers head.  No more growling.  Still being poked.  Still being pulled at.

Big female human that smells like the little human arrives.  Is walking fast.  Big female stops and laughs at Brutus and little human.

“Aren’t they cute?”  Another laugh.

Master doesn’t laugh.

“Well, kids will be kids.”

Master speaks, her voice even but her body language is angry, “Watch your fucking child.”  Brutus knows watch is order for Brutus to sit and stay and bark if anyone comes… but Master is talking to big female and not giving order to Brutus.  Other word Brutus knows is fucking which means Master is mad but Brutus isn’t the one she’s saying fucking to so it is okay.

Brutus thinks maybe it’s okay to growl now because Master said fucking so he growls.  Smells fear from little human and big female.  Master doesn’t say no so it was okay for Brutus to growl.

Big female laughs but laugh sounds different than before, shrill.  Waves her hand.  Bends down to pick up little human.

“Brutus, guard,” Master orders.  Brutus quickly looks at Master and Master is pointing at little human so Brutus moves between little human and big female and growls at big female.  Big female backs away.  Brutus smells lots of fear now.  Smells sweat and stress and hears little noises of worry and fear from both the big female and little human.

Big female steps to one side and Brutus moves to stay between her and little human.  She bends down again and Brutus growls, snaps at her fingers.  Is good boy.

Big female talks to Master, “Please.  She was just doing what kids do.  She thinks all dogs are cuddly.”  Her voice is submissive, sounding like more worry and fear.

“Brutus, mouth.”  Brutus looks where Master is pointing and Master is pointing at little human.  Brutus obeys by grabbing little human’s arm and holding it in his mouth.  Is good boy.  Little human howls and tries to pull away but Brutus closes mouth a little each time and little human soon understands that arm is staying in Brutus’ mouth.

Then Master tells big female, “He’s an abused dog, you know.  Before I owned him, he was mistreated.  Until he hurt someone so badly they needed amputation.  I rescued him before he was put down.  And you just let your kid walk up to him and start clawing at him.  Do you understand what could have happened?  That he could have killed or maimed your fucking mouthbreather of a child?”

Brutus only knows his own name and word kill.  Other words don’t mean anything to Brutus.  Kill is order to attack and not stop until that thing isn’t moving anymore.  Master only gives Brutus and Judas and Angelica order to kill with squirrels and racoons and once a horse.  Big female is on knees now and fear smell is all Brutus can smell right now.  Is good to be lower than Master and showing submission.  Big woman is saying things but Brutus can’t understand because she is talking and not stopping.

“Brutus, off.  Come,” Master says and Brutus lets go of arm and walks to Master’s side.  Little human still howling.

Then Master tells big female same thing as before: “Watch your fucking child.”  Walkies begin again.  Get scratched.  Master says Brutus is good boy and Brutus is happy.  Tail wagging.

Is long walkies before Brutus and Master stop at a place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage and pee and poop.  Master knocks on door.  Man who opens door smells like blood.

Master and man talk for a while, and Brutus waits because Brutus is good boy.  Not paying attention to what they’re saying because of smells.  Bad smells.  Sounds of dogs yelping and barking from inside the door.  Then Master says “Stay” and man starts touching Brutus.  Touches like vet touches, not like Master scratching.  Feeling each part of Brutus, fingers deep in fur to massage, check.  Hands on Brutus’ private parts.  Says things that sound negative, shakes head.  Master talks some more.  Man stands and shakes her hand.

Master takes Brutus into the place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage.  Noisy.  Lots of people sitting in dark.  Smell like excitement and sweat.  Most lights are in middle of room where blood smell is strongest.

Man from door tells master, “Put him right in the gate.”  Master puts Brutus in something like kennel that smells like rage and fear.

Man talks in loud voice and all the people in room howl and make more noise.  Man says Brutus’ name.  He says kill which is a word Brutus knows.  But blood smell is so strong here Brutus can’t pay attention to much else.  So much blood from so many dogs.  So many smells.

Then the kennel is open and Brutus has nowhere to go but center of room.  Can’t go to Master because boxes are in way and there’s another dog here bigger than Brutus that smells like rage and his own blood and other dog blood and death.

Then Brutus feels it.  Master is making Brutus stronger and it hurts but it’s a good hurt.  Good hurt like when Brutus is stiff and stretches and joints snap and pop and Brutus feels better because of it.  Only this stretch doesn’t stop and Brutus keeps popping and cracking and Brutus keeps feeling better and Brutus gets bigger.  Master usually takes longer to make Brutus this strong but Brutus is in room alone with the dog that smells like blood and death and Master must know Brutus needs to be stronger.

Soon Brutus is bigger than Master and as big as car and Brutus is strong.  Bad dog that smells like blood and death is cowering.

Then Master whistles twice which is order to come and Brutus is confused because there is no way to come.  Master whistles again and calls Brutus’ name and Brutus lunges for boxes that are in the way.  Boxes break and Brutus can come to Master like a good boy.

“Brutus, guard!” Master says and Brutus goes where Master is pointing, and that is door where all the people who smell like fear are going.  To get to door and guard it Brutus uses paws to push people out of the way and grabs one person’s arm and flings her to one side like Brutus likes to fling favorite toys and person makes shrill howl.

Then Brutus is guarding door and people are running other way.  Reminds Brutus of squirrels and how squirrels run.  But people are not as fast or clever as squirrels and they don’t play unfair by running up trees.

“Brutus!  Attack!” Master shouts and Brutus obeys like a good boy.  Brutus uses paws and teeth and size to jump into the crowd of people who are running like squirrels and make them stop running.  Brutus knows it’s bad to shake people like Brutus shakes toys or shakes squirrels.  No shaking.  No chewing.  Bite arm and leg only.  No biting heads.  Using paws is okay but claws aren’t which is hard so Brutus mostly bites and slams into people with head and body to knock them over and make them stop.  Sometimes uses tail which is new and fun.  Brutus doesn’t have tail when small.

Lots of people.  Every time Brutus thinks all people have stopped moving someone runs again.  Takes a long time.  Brutus’ tongue lolls out, panting.  Tail wags and boxes break and Master makes clucking noise like Brutus did something bad.  No more wagging tail.

People lying on floor whimpering.  Smell like blood and fear.  Nobody running like squirrel anymore.

Master shouts, “No more!”  and it is word for the people and not for Brutus.  Both are words Brutus knows.  No means bad and is for things Brutus shouldn’t do.  More is what Master says when giving treats or throwing balls or filling bowls with food.  Brutus doesn’t understand because one word is bad and the other is good.  But Master is alpha and Master knows so it is okay.

Master takes jangly keys from whimpering person and picks up cage with angry dog inside that smells like blood.  Master takes cage outside and puts it in car and tells Brutus to guard the cars.  Some people leave place but Brutus doesn’t let anyone near cars.  Is good boy.  Master goes inside and gets more cages with angry dogs and puts them all in the car.  Then Master does it again.  Master gets backpack and uses ropes from backpack to tie cages together and tie cages to car.

Then Master goes inside for long time and doesn’t come out.  People are gone so Brutus doesn’t need to guard anymore.  Brutus goes to Master inside.

Master is kneeling beside cages and dogs inside smell like blood and poo.  But dogs aren’t angry, aren’t moving.  Brutus nuzzles master with nose and lies down beside Master and Master wraps her arms around Brutus’ neck.  Master hugs Brutus tight for very long time.  Brutus knows it is a long time because Brutus stops being big and becomes smaller than Master.

Cars that make howling sounds start to come from far away and Brutus makes little barks like Master taught him.  Master gets up and takes Brutus into the car and gets in other door and the car starts moving.

Master opens and eats crinkly thing from pocket.  Master gives Brutus treat then rolls down window so Brutus can stick his head out in the wind and Brutus’ tail wags because Brutus knows he was a good boy.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Hey Taylor, wake up.”  A girl’s voice.

“Taylor?”  A deeper, more adult voice, “Come on, kiddo.  You’ve done really well.”

I felt warm, fuzzy.  Like waking up in a warm bed on a cold day, all the covers in the right place, feeling totally rested, knowing you don’t have to get up right away.  Or like being six years old, having crawled into bed with Mom and Dad at some point during the night and waking up between them.

“I think she’s gradually coming to.  Give her a moment,” Someone older.  An old man, maybe.  Unfamiliar.

“I was worried she wouldn’t wake up,” the deeper male voice said.

“Could have told you she wasn’t in a coma,” the girl replied.

“The same way you’re absolutely, one hundred percent positive she doesn’t have a serious brain injury?” the old man asked. “Because narcotics can camouflage the symptoms, and if we wait too long to take action on that… well.”

“Nothing beyond what I described to you,” the girl said, just a bit testily, “Unless your equipment is faulty.  I need correct information to work with, or I get false info.”

“I assure you, my equipment may be limited, but it is in perfect working order.”

I tried opening my eyes, found everything too bright.  Foggy, like I was looking at it from underwater, but my eyes were sandpaper dry.  Something dark moved over my vision, made my eyelid flicker.  Something else tickled my cheek.  I tried to raise my hand to my face to brush at them, but my arms were at my sides, buried under sheets and I didn’t have the strength to move them.

“Hey sleepy,” the deeper voice once more.  I felt a large hand rest on my forehead, it moved to brush my hair back, reminded me of my mom and dad again.  Being a kid, being taken care of.

The old man and the girl were still arguing.  Her tone was impatient “-a concussion, severe blood loss, bruising, external and internal, plus whatever it is that fucked with her nervous system, understand?  I have no reason to lie to you.”

“All I’m telling you is that if there is something else, and complications result, it’s on you, because I’m taking your word on this.  I would rather the girl not die or wind up brain damaged, of course, but if she does, I won’t feel guilty, and I-”

“If something happens because I was wrong, and it isn’t because you gave me the wrong information or tools to work with, I’ll own up.  I’ll tell him, and your reputation will be unaffected.  Promise.”

The old man grumbled and mumbled, but didn’t say anything more.

I tried opening my eyes again.  I recognized the face.  Brian.  Lisa joined him at the bedside.

“Hey there,” she said, her tone sympathetic, “You got walloped, huh?”

“Guess so,” I replied, except I wasn’t sure I said the ‘so’ out loud.  I might have been drifting back to sleep, but another tickle at my face made me wrinkle my nose.  “What is-?”

“That, honey, is the only reason we’ve been trying to wake you up.  You’ve been using your power while you sleep, and every bug in the neighborhood has been gathering here to crawl on you.  Not all at once, not all together, but they’re adding up and someone’s going to notice.”

Brian looked across the room, ” We’ve got the windows and doors sealed with saran wrap and tape, and they’re still getting in.  Can’t take you anywhere like this, and the good doctor here needs us to clear out in case a real patient comes in.”

“What I need is a sterile work environment,” the old man groused, “One that isn’t ridden with cockroaches and-”

“We’re handling it,” Lisa snapped at him.  Then, in a softer voice, she said, “Taylor, don’t go to sleep.”

I was surprised to realize I was drifting off.  Funny.

“I know the painkillers are nice.  We gave you boatloads, since you were really hurting.  But we need you to send them away.  The bugs.”

Oh.  I dimly recalled telling my bugs to come to me not long before I passed out.  I guess I hadn’t ever told them to stop.  I guess blacking out had prevented me.  I sent an instruction, then told her, “Good as done.”  Something caught my attention. “Hmm.  Interesting music.”

“Music?”  Lisa momentarily looked very concerned.  She looked at Brian.

“Outside.  In front of the door.  An iPod, maybe.  There’s a guy, listening to music.  Maybe he doesn’t have the headphones on or the buds in his ears.  Or they aren’t plugged in to the iPod itself.  Sounds like orchestra, or pop.  It’s Latin?  Or English?  Both?  That last bit sounded Japanese.  Or Chinese.  Is it racist I can’t tell the difference?”

“You’re babbling, Taylor,” Brian said, not unkindly.

Lisa briefly disappeared from my field of vision, “But she’s right.  There’s a guy on the steps out front, listening to music.  How did you know?”

“Moth on the door.  I was so busy listening, I forgot to make her go.  I’m sorry.  I’ll… I’ll-”

“Shh.  Relax.  It’s fine.  Just send the bugs away, and you can go back to sleep.  We’re handling everything, okay?”

It was okay.  I drifted off.

I was jostled from a dream.

“Careful!”

“I am being careful.  Stop being so twitchy.  Just close the car door.”

“I’m not being twitchy.  You almost dropped her a few seconds ago.  I swear, if you drop her on her head…”

“I won’t,” the words were a bass vibration against one side of my body as much as they were a noise in my ears.  I was warm on that side of my body, too.  It smelled nice.  Like leather and shaving cream.

I started to say something, then stopped.  Too much effort.

A girl’s voice sounded not far from my ear.  “Hey there, Taylor.  Making a bit of a sound?  You waking up?”

I shook my head and pressed my cheek harder against the warm body.

She laughed.

A knocking sound.  The classic rhythm of ‘shave and a hair cut, two bits.’  The door opened a moment later.

“God, Taylor.  Is she?”

The girl – Lisa, I recognized it now – responded, “She’s okay, just sleeping.  Like I said on the phone-”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, just… I’m sorry, I’ve completely blanked on your name, but can I help you carry her inside?”

“Actually, I’m alright, and I think I’d be more likely to drop her if we tried to adjust to a two person carry.  The name’s Brian.”

“Brian, okay.  Thank you.  If you could just bring her through here.  After you called, I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I made up the sofa bed, in case we couldn’t get her upstairs, or if there was a wheelchair.  I was thinking the worst…”

“The couch is fantastic,” Lisa said, “She’s most definitely not in the worst shape she could be in, or even close to it.  She’s going to sleep a lot, and you’ll need to check on her every half hour to make sure she’s okay, for the next twelve hours.  Besides, she might want to watch TV between naps, so this looks like a perfect place to be.”

“Okay.  Good.”

I was laid out flat, and instantly missed the warmth and closeness I’d had moments before.  Then someone pulled dryer-warmed covers and a heavy comforter around me and I decided I could cope.

“Would you come through to the kitchen?  Our house is small and I’m afraid there’s nowhere to sit in our living room with the sofa bed out.  In the kitchen, we’ll be quieter.”

“But still able to see if she wakes up,” Lisa answered, “Makes sense.”

“Can I get you anything?  Tea, coffee?”

“Coffee, please,” Brian replied, “Long night.”

“Would it be okay if I asked for tea, when you’re already busy with coffee, Mr. Hebert?”

“After all you’ve done, making tea is the least I can do.  But please, call me Danny.”

If I’d been comfortable in a morphine induced haze before, I was very, very awake the moment I heard the name and realized these voices and names I recognized had no business being together.

Dad, Lisa and Brian.  At my kitchen table. I kept my eyes half-shut and hung on to every word.

“She’s okay?”

“Like I said on the phone, she’s alright,” Lisa said, “Concussion, bruising, some blood loss.  Nine stitches.”

“Should I take her to a doctor?”

“You can.  But my dad’s a doctor, and he looked her over in his clinic.  Pulled strings to get her a CT scan, MRI.  He wanted to be absolutely sure there was no brain damage before he gave her stronger painkillers.  Here.  I’ve got the bottle in one of these pockets.  There.  It’s codeine.  She’s probably going to have some major headaches, and she was moaning in her sleep about pain in her extremities.  Give her one pill four times a day, but only if she feels she needs it.  If she’s okay as is, just wean her off.  Two a day, or half a pill four times a day.”

“How much?”

“The codeine?  Four pills-”

“The CT scan, MRI, prescription.  If you just give me a second to grab my wallet, I’ll give-”

I could picture Lisa taking hold of his hand, stopping him.  “She’s a friend, Danny.  My papa would never even hear of having you pay.”

So surreal.  Hearing words like my dad’s name or the word ‘papa’ from Lisa’s mouth.

“I… I have no words.  Thank you.”

“It’s fine.  Really.  I feel guilty-”

We feel guilty,” Brian cut in.

“-for letting it happen.  That Taylor got the brunt of it.  And I’m sorry that we didn’t call you sooner.  We had to wait for Taylor to wake up and get coherent enough to give us your phone number.”

I was pretty sure I hadn’t.  Which probably made this one of those creepy Tattletale moments where she had been able to figure out something I wouldn’t have guessed she could.

“I – that’s alright.  Your other friends are okay?”

“Rachel’s more scratched and bruised than Taylor, but she didn’t get a concussion, and she’s a tough girl.  My guess is she’s sleeping soundly at home, and she’ll be up and about this afternoon.  Alec, our other friend, passed out when it happened, woke up with a bad headache, but he’s alright.  We’ve been teasing him about how he fainted, and it’s bugging the f-, uh, it’s bugging him.  As if guys never faint.”

“And you two?”

“A little worse for wear, but you could tell just by looking at us, obviously.  Scrapes, bumps, bruises.  I got burned, just a bit.  No worse than a bad sunburn.”

“Not around your eyes, I see”

Lisa laughed, so naturally you’d never think twice about it, “Yeah.  I was wearing sunglasses when it happened.  It’s that noticeable?”

“Not so bad, and if it’s like a sunburn, you’ll be fine in a few days.  Can you tell me more about what happened?  On the phone, you said something about-”

“A bomb.  You’ve seen the news?”

“Explosions across the city all night and all morning, yes.  The incident at the PHQ.   All started by one of the parahumans.  I can’t remember her name.  Sounded Japanese?”

“Bakuda, right?  Yeah, pretty sure that’s it.  We were cutting through the Docks on our way back from the Lord Street Market, and I guess we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One second, everything’s normal, then disaster.  Brian was carrying Taylor’s bags while she retied her shoes, so she was a bit behind the rest of us when it happened.  Brian and I stood up after the explosion, and Alec, Rachel and Taylor didn’t.  Taylor was the scariest to see lying there, because you could see the blood right away.”

“God.”

I opened my eyes to peek and saw my dad at the kitchen table, his face in his hands.  I swallowed a fist sized lump of guilt and shut my eyes again.

Brian’s voice.  “I feel bad about it.  I shouldn’t have walked ahead of Taylor while she was tying her shoes, or-”

“Brian.  If you had been standing beside her, you would have wound up in the same shape as her and you wouldn’t have been able to carry her,” Lisa objected. “It was my fault for suggesting we cut through the Docks.”

“I have to ask-” My dad started, “Why…?”  He trailed off, unable to find a good way to phrase it.

“We normally wouldn’t take a shortcut through that part of town,” Lisa said, “But there were five of us, and you know… look at Brian.  Would you want to mess with a big guy like him?”

“Gee, thanks, Lise,” Brian said.  Then he and my dad laughed together.

So surreal.

“I… I know it sounds strange,” my dad spoke, hesitantly, “But even after you told me it was a bomb, on the phone, I couldn’t believe it.  I thought maybe it was a mean prank, or Taylor had come across, um.”

“The bullies,” Lisa finished my dad’s sentence.

“You know?”

“She explained a lot of it, including what happened in January.  All of us made it clear we’d help if she asked, however much or little she wanted.”

“I see.  I’m glad that she found someone to talk to, about it.”

Sympathetically, Lisa answered, “But you’re disappointed that someone wasn’t you.”

If guilt caused you physical pain, I think that would have been like a shiv through my heart.

My dad, inexplicably, laughed, “Well, aren’t you eerily on target?  Taylor did say you were smart.”

“She did, did she?  That’s nice to hear.  What else did she say?”

My Dad laughed again. “I’ll quit now, before I say something that she would rather I keep private.  I think we both know she plays things close to the vest.”

“Too true.”

“There’s homemade cookies in the jar, there.  Still warm.  After I got the couch ready, I didn’t know what to do.  Had to work out the anxiety somehow, so I baked.  Make yourselves at home while I see to your tea and coffee.”

“Thank you, Danny,” Lisa said, “I’m going to go to the living room and check on Taylor, if that’s cool?”

“Please do.”

“Just gonna grab a cookie first… Mm.  Smells good.”

I shut my eyes and pretended to be sleeping.  I could hear Brian talking to my dad in the other room, something about my Dad’s job.

“So?” Lisa asked me in a quieter voice, as she climbed onto the sofa bed to lie beside me, “Does the story pass muster?”

I thought about it, “I don’t like lying to my dad.”

“So we did the lying for you.  Unless you want to tell him the truth?”

“No, but I don’t want you here.”  The mental brakes that should have stopped my lips from moving failed to keep the words from leaving my mouth.  I closed my eyes, feeling the heat of a flush on my cheeks.

“I- I’m so sorry… That came out wrong.  I’m grateful for what you did, what you’re doing.  You guys are awesome and hanging out with you has been some of the most fun I’ve had in years.  I’m so glad you’re here, and I’d like nothing better to just kick back and unwind after all that, but-”

Lisa put a finger against my lips, silencing me.  “I know.  You like to keep different parts of your life separate.  I’m sorry, but there wasn’t a way around it.  You were hurt, and we couldn’t keep you without your dad causing a stir.”

I lowered my eyes, “Yeah.”

“You’re probably going to be a little wobbly for a few days.  Your, um, brutal honesty just now was probably the concussion at work.  It’s going to influence your mood, maybe loosen your inhibitions as if you were a bit drunk.  Your memory might be a little unreliable, you might be more disorganized, or you might have extreme mood swings, like crying jags.  You might have a harder time reading social cues.  You work on getting through all that, we’ll shrug it off if you say something you normally wouldn’t.  Just… try not to let anything private slip around your dad, so nothing slips?  All of this should pass before too long.”

“Okay.”  That last part was something of a relief.

Brian joined us and sat on the corner of the bed opposite where Lisa was lying, by my feet.  “Your dad’s an alright guy,” he told me.  “Reminds me a lot of you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just said, “Thanks.”

“Even after you’ve recovered most of the way, I think we’ll go out of our way to stay out of hairy situations, at least for a little while,” Lisa said.  Brian nodded.

“I like that idea,” I replied. “So what really happened, last night?”

She moved her head so she was sharing my pillow, “Starting from when?”

“From when Alec crashed the car.  One second everything’s fine, the next, I can barely move, barely think.”

“She was playing possum.  I was busy looking after Alec, assuming you guys were watching her. At the same time, you and Brian, I guess, were assuming I’d keep an eye on her.  While we weren’t paying attention, she loaded her grenade launcher and shot you.  It should have burned you, but I think your costume saved you, there.  Your costume couldn’t do much to prevent the concussion, though.  There was some secondary effect, where it did something to your nervous system.  Like being jabbed with a Taser, but more about incapacitating you with unadulterated pain than knocking you out.”

I shivered.  Just remembering what it had felt like made me twitch, like I was hearing nails on a blackboard.

“I was farther away, and I think your body shielded Brian, or maybe his power helped, because we didn’t get hit half as hard.  It was still enough to put the two of us down long enough for Bakuda to load and fire two rounds of that gluey string crap.  Once that happened, we were pretty fucked.  Until you turned the tables.”

“I stabbed her foot,” I remembered.

“Cut off two and a half of the toes on her left foot.  One of which had a toe ring.  Brian said you pushed the knife towards him as you passed out.  He blacked out the area, managed to reach the knife, cut himself free, and then rescued the rest of us.”

“And Bakuda?”  I whispered.

“One of two bits of bad news.  She got away while Brian was getting free and helping us.”

“Fuck!” I said, a touch too loud.

Brian sounded apologetic, “You were in bad shape, I wasn’t sure what had happened to Regent, and Lisa was a little feeble from the same blast that messed you up like it did.  I could maybe have caught up to Bakuda, stopped her, but I decided making sure you guys were okay was more important.”

I nodded.  I couldn’t exactly argue with that.

Lisa continued, “I called the boss, he sent us to a doctor who has a reputation for being discreet and working with parahumans.  Been doing it twenty years.  We were worried about you.”

“Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for.  Anyways, it all more or less worked out.  The doc got the capsule out of Brian’s nose, patched you up, gave Regent an IV.  I sat and watched you while Brian went and got Rache, her dog and the money.  Only two or three thousand gone, that someone thought they could get away with grabbing from the bag before it was all counted.  Our boss sent a van and picked it up a little after midnight.  Money he gave us is already in our apartment, with more to come after he decides what the papers are worth.”

“You said it more or less worked out, and you still haven’t told me the second piece of bad news.  What aren’t you saying?”

She sighed, “I was hoping you were too out of it to ask.  You really want to know?”

“Not really.  But if I’m going to lie here for a while, getting better, I don’t want to be left to imagine worst case scenarios.”

“Okay.”  She fished inside her jacket pocket, then handed me a newspaper clipping.  Except it was torn, not clipped.  Newspaper ripping?  Across the top, in big bold letters, was the word ‘Escaped’.

When I tried to read the article, though, I found I couldn’t keep my eyes fixed on one line.  “Read it to me?”

“I’ll give you the cliff notes.  Just before she started to come after us in the Jeep, Bakuda gave the order to put another plan into action.  Bombs started going off all over the city.  Blowing up transformers to deny power to entire districts, a school, a bridge, train tracks… the list goes on.  People are freaking out.  Front page news, it’s on every channel.  They’re saying at least twenty people confirmed dead so far, with other bodies yet to be identified, and that’s not counting the four people she blew up when she was holding us at gunpoint.”

A vivid image of what had happened to Park Jihoo flashed through my mind’s eye.  He died.  He’s really dead.  I never knew him, but he’s gone forever, and I couldn’t do anything to save him.

“Here’s the second bit of bad news.  All of that?  It was one overblown distraction.  Something to keep every cape in the city busy, while Oni Lee sprung Lung from the PHQ.”

I let out a long sigh.  “Oh fuck.”

“The city is a warzone right now.  The ABB is twelve times the size of what it was two weeks ago, and Bakuda’s gone on a rampage.  More bombs are going off every few hours, but they’re not aimed at major services this time.  Businesses, tenements, warehouses, boats.  My guess is she’s targeting places the other major gangs and factions in the city hang out, or places they might hang out.  I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“You’d think having a third of her toes cut off would slow her down, if anything,” Brian said.

Lisa shook her head.  “She’s in a manic phase.  She’ll burn out, if she hasn’t already, and the explosions will stop in a matter of hours.  With Lung reinstated as leader, though, that doesn’t mean the ABB is going to lose any steam.  Chances are he’ll capitalize on the advantage Bakuda created for him.  It’s just a question of where, when, and how much.  Depends on the shape he’s in.”

We didn’t get a chance to talk further on the subject.  Tattletale raised a finger to her lips, and we shut up.  A few seconds later, my dad walked into the living room, holding a tray.  He put it in my lap.  Three mugs, a plate of cookies and two toasted bagels, one with jam and one with butter.

“I’ve got another bagel in the toaster, so help yourselves and ask if you want more.  Green mug is Brian’s coffee.  Tea for you girls.  Here you are, Lisa.  Woodstock mug is Taylor’s favorite since she was a kid.  Here.”

Brian chuckled a little as I accepted the mug with two hands.

“Hey!  No laughing at me while I’m like this.”

“Which reminds me, how long before she’s okay to return to be up and about?” My dad asked Lisa.

“A week, bare minimum,” Lisa replied, “Maybe escort her to and from the bathroom until you’re sure she’s steady on her feet, but beyond that, probably best if she stays in bed, stays home and takes it easy until next Saturday.”

That stopped me.  “What about school?”

Lisa nudged my upper arm with her elbow and grinned, “You got a perfect excuse not to go.  Why complain?”

Because I’d forced myself to go to school after missing nearly a week of classes, with the intention of not skipping any more, and now I was going to miss another full week.  I couldn’t say that, especially not in front of my dad.

“Okay if we stay a bit?” Lisa murmured in my ear, the moment my dad left to get the third bagel.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  The damage was done, so to speak, they were already here.  I might as well make the best of it.  I scooted over so Brian could sit on the bed, just to my left, and Lisa got up for just a second to grab the remote.  She found a movie that was only a few minutes in as she settled in on my right.

I momentarily dozed off and woke to realize my head was resting on Brian’s arm.  Even after my eyes opened and I started focusing on the movie again, I left my head where it was.  He didn’t seem to mind.  The three of us laughed at a series of jokes in the movie, and Lisa got the hiccups, which only made Brian and I laugh harder.

I saw my dad puttering about in the kitchen, probably to keep an eye on me, and our eyes met.  I gave a little wave, not moving my arm, just my hand, and smiled.  The smile he gave me in return was maybe the first truly genuine one I’d seen on his face in a long time.

The school thing?  I’d worry about it later, if it meant I could live in the present like this.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I came to the gradual realization I could open my eyes, as though it was something I had forgotten how to do.  I tried it and regretted my decision instantly.  One of my eyes wasn’t seeing anything, even when open, and the other was out of focus, with images failing to make sense even when I could make something out.  As I screwed my eyes shut, even the pink glow of light passing through my eyelids was like fireworks exploding in my retinas.

When I tried to piece together what had just happened, my thoughts moved like molasses.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of,” a voice hissed.  It took me a few seconds to place the voice, way longer than it should have.  Bakuda.

I was beginning to hurt.  Like papercuts, but blown up to two hundred times the size, and each of those papercuts was one of my muscles.  My skin was prickling with stings that were gradually feeling more and more like a burn.  My joints throbbed as though every single joint had been torn out of its individual socket and people were banging the still-alive ends of them against the pavement in a grim rhythm.

I opened my good eye again and tried unsuccessfully to focus.  Three crimson ribbons… no.  I was seeing triple.  One crimson ribbon was extending along the side of my mask, dropping from the edge where the mask covered my nose, dropping in a straight line to touch the ground.  Where it made contact with pavement, there was a steadily growing puddle.  I realized I was bleeding.  A lot.

“Leaving me lying there with a grenade launcher in my hand and ammunition all over the fucking street was asking for it.  Fuck, just the hugging and being all relieved, as if you had actually beaten me?  You were begging to be shot.”

I wasn’t going out like this.  Not without a fight.  I could barely move, though, let alone take action.  My desire to do something was almost more excruciating than the pain that throbbed and thrummed through my entire body.  What could I do?  My mind wasn’t working as agonizingly slowly as it had been a moment before, but my thoughts were still bogged down and broken up.  Stuff I should have known without thinking about it was vague, uncertain, disjointed.  Too many thoughts were orphaned, disconnected from everything else.  I would have hit something in my frustration if I’d been able to move without everything hurting.  I settled for clenching my fists.

School.  Trouble at school?  Me?  The trio?  No.  Why was I thinking about school?  What had I been thinking about before I got frustrated?  Wanting to fight back somehow.  Bakuda, school, fighting back.  I almost groaned in frustration as I tried to connect the individual ideas, and simply couldn’t complete the thought.  I only wound up huffing out a breath, wincing at the pain that caused.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake,” Bakuda’s whirring voice announced to the night air.

Grue said something, a short distance away, I couldn’t make it out.

Bakuda replied with an absent, “Shush, don’t worry.  I’ll get to you in a moment.”

I heard something, and saw a pair of pink boots appear in front of my face, the image swimming and drifting lazily.

“Bad day?” she bent over me, “Good.  See, one of my new minions is on staff at the Protectorate Headquarters.  A guard where Lung is imprisoned, understand?  Wasn’t in a position to free him, but she got the full story from him.  I know you were the little freak that led to him getting sent there.  So you get special treatment tonight.  You get to watch what I do to your friends.  I’ll start with the boy in black, then move on to your unconscious buddies over there.  Glued them down just to be safe.  Once your friends are as good as dead, I give you to Oni Lee.  He was a very good boy when it came to the change of regime, and he’s been bugging me to give him something to play with.  What do you say to that?”

I was only half listening.  Like a mantra, I was mentally reciting the same thing, over and over.  Bakuda, school, fight back.

“Bakuda, school,” I mumbled.  Hearing how reedy and thin my own voice sounded was more terrifying than anything else that had come to my attention in the past few minutes.

“What?  Does the bug girl want to say something?”  She bent down and grabbed the armor that hung over my chest.  With a jerk, she hauled me into a half-sitting position.  Being tugged around like that was torture, but the pain helped sharpen my thoughts into a semblance of clarity.

“School.  Bakuda failed,” I answered her, my voice only marginally stronger than it had been on my last attempt.  The black-red lenses of her goggles bored into me as I composed my thoughts to speak again, trying to sound more coherent. “Smart as you think you are, failing like that?  What was it?  Second place?  Not even second?”  I managed something approximating a chuckle.

She let go of me and stepped away as if I was on fire.  As my head hit the pavement, I very nearly blacked out.  Had to fight not to.  Embrace the painKeeps you awake.

A short distance from me, Grue’s voice echoed.  I could only make out the first word.  “She’s” or “Cheese”.  He laughed.  It spooked me that I couldn’t understand him, that I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t understand him.  I wasn’t hearing as well as I should, I knew that.  But that wasn’t all of it.  What else?

The distortion.  The explosion or explosions had damaged my hearing, maybe, and I couldn’t make out his words with the effect his power had on his voice.  Just figuring that out, knowing I could figure it out, made me feel a hundred times better.

“You think so?” Bakuda hissed at Grue.  Her words were easier to make out, since her mask was reconstructing them so they were perfectly enunciated and monotone, even if it obscured it behind whirs and hisses.

She kicked me in the face with one of those pink boots.  Having to move my head hurt more than almost having my teeth kicked in.  She grabbed at my costume and dragged me several feet.  Being moved cranked all the other hurt up a notch.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a good solid nine point five.  Nothing I could do could make it hurt more, so I found the strength and willpower to reach up and grab at her wrists, for all the good it did.  She let me go and then shoved me to turn me on my side.  The movement made me want to throw up.

Seeing Grue helped ground me, as I fought the nausea and panted tiny breaths at the pain.  He was bound in a half-sitting position against a locker with what looked like lengths of sticky gold ribbon.  Where was Tattletale?

“Let’s see how smart you two are after I give tall, dark and mysterious his treat,” Bakuda threatened, “Let’s see… here.  Here’s a real gem.  Two-twenty-seven.  Now sit still.  If you even think about using your power, I’ll just shove it down the bug brat’s throat instead, set it off.  Not like you’re in a position to stop me from getting the job done, even if I’m deaf and blind.”

She removed her pink gloves and threw them aside.  Then she withdrew a set of what looked like long, narrow scissors from her sleeve.  Except they were blunt, not sharp.  Like pliers, almost.  They clicked as she closed them on the tip of what looked like an inch-long metal pill.

“No need for surgery, since this isn’t going to be long term.  What I’m going to do is slide this up your nostril and into your nasal cavity.”  She reached into the darkness that was leaking from all around him and fumbled around his face. “Just need to get your mask… helmet… off.  There.”

If Grue’s mask was off, it was hard to tell.  His head was just a roughly human-shaped blur of shadow.

She reached into that layer of darkness with one hand and pushed the capsule into the center of it all with the other.  “And in it goes… slowly, don’t want to activate it prematurely, and the effects will only be really cool if it’s deep.  See, my two-twenty-seven was something of a happy accident.  I’d taken readings of little Vista’s powers, thought maybe I could make a space distortion grenade.  Purely by accident, I cracked the Manton effect.  Or at least, whatever I’d done when I put the grenade together, it bypassed the Manton effect.  You idiots know what that is?”

She stopped and cracked her knuckles, leaving the scissor-like tool sticking straight out of Grue’s face.  “It’s that little rule that keeps pyrokinetics from boiling your blood, that limits most powers from affecting people’s bodies.  Or, depending on what theory you’re going by, it’s the rule that says your power either works only on organic, living things, or it works on everything else.

“So think about it.  A spatial distortion effect that only works on living material.  I set this thing off, and all living matter within three feet of the capsule is reshaped, warped, shrunk, blown up, stretched, bent.  It doesn’t actually kill you.  That’s the second most amazing thing about it, besides the Manton bypass.  Everything still connects to everything else.  Totally nonlethal, but it’ll make you wish you were dead every second of the rest of your miserable fucking existence.”

Don’t just lie there and watch, I thought.  Do something!

“Just click, whoosh, you’re ugly enough to put the elephant man to shame.  Wind up with a head four times the normal size, bumps like tumors all over, every feature and part the wrong shape, wrong size.  Reshapes the brain, too, but that’s usually just some mild to moderate brain damage, since I’ve got it calibrated to focus on the external features.”  She laughed.  It was that dry, repetitive, inhuman sound.  When she spoke again, she enunciated each word separately.  “Irreversible.  And.  Fucking.  Hilarious.”

I reached for my bugs, but I couldn’t draw my thoughts together enough to give them any complex commands.  I just called them to me.  That still left me to help Grue.

My utility sheath.  Slowly, as much due to my need to be discreet as to my inability to move very quickly without incredible pain, I moved my hand behind my back, reminded myself of what was there.

Pepper spray – no go.  It would burn her skin, but the goggles and mask would keep most of her face safe.  She was scraped and bloody, so maybe I could spray her body… it wouldn’t be fun on her wounds, but would that save us?

Pen and paper.  Cell phone.  Change.  No, no and no.

Baton.  I didn’t have the strength to swing it, or the leverage or room I needed to extend it.

Epipens.  Not much use, and I didn’t trust my strength or coordination as far as being able to both inject her and depress the syringe.

That was it for the contents of my utility compartment.  I let my hand go limp and dangle behind my back as I braced myself to move it, and my fingers brushed against something.

The knife sheath at the small of my back.  I’d strapped it in at the lowest point it could be on my back, while being both covered by my armor and easy to reach.

Knife worked.

There was a faint click as Bakuda adjusted the scissor-plier things and removed them from Grue’s nose.  They weren’t gripping the capsule anymore.

“This should be a show,” she gloated, standing up straight before I could figure out where to stab or cut.  Didn’t want to kill, but had to stop her.  For Grue.

My hand was still behind my back, gripping the knife handle with the blade pointing out the bottom of my hand.  I shifted my position a fraction so my angle was better.

“Hey, bug girl.  What are you up to, there?  Flopping around like a fish on dry land?  Pay attention, it’s going to look really cool when parts of his face start bulging out of that little blotch of shadow.”

I tried to formulate a response, some reply that would add sting to what I was about to do, but a wave of weakness swept over me.  Darkness began to creep in around the edges of my vision, again.  I straightened my legs in an attempt to cause myself more pain, force myself to alertness again, and it failed to push the darkness back.  Was Grue using his power?  I looked at him.  Nothing.  I was just blacking out.

I couldn’t pass out now.

Toe Rings.

With no witty reply, no quip or even an angry yell, I brought the knife down on the end of her foot.  Two thoughts struck me simultaneously.

I’d hit something hard.  Was her foot or boot armored?

Had I even gotten the right foot?  Tattletale had never said which one had the toe rings.  Or if both did.

As a wave of blackness swept in front of my vision and faded just as quickly, leaving me only dimly aware of her screams.  The nausea was welling again, and just like it was with my consciousness slipping away, the need to puke building.  I was going to throw up, but I could choke if I did it with my mask on.  If I wound up on my back, I could even suffocate.

Grue was saying something.  Couldn’t make out his words.  Sounded urgent.

The woman was screaming in my ear.  A litany of curses, threats, horrible things she was going to do to me.  Unconsciousness called to me, seductive, safe, painless, free of threats.

If it was even unconsciousness. The chilling idea that I could be dying dawned on me, gave me the briefest moment of clarity.  I focused hard on the jumble of distorted images and sounds, where I was, what people were saying and screaming at me.

The woman was rolling on the ground next to me.  As she kicked her leg, a spatter of blood marred the one lens of my mask that I could see through.  What was the woman’s name again?  Bakuda.  The very tip of the knife was still lodged in the pavement where her foot had been.  That was the hard thing I’d hit: pavement, not armor.  There was a lot of blood.  Hers.  A bit of her boot, pink and crimson.  Two smaller toes with painted nails, pink and crimson, in the midst of the mess of blood.

I tried and failed to pull the knife free, though it was only embedded a quarter-inch deep in the ground.  The effort that left me gasping for breath with big lungfuls of air.  Each breath made me feel like I’d inhaled barbed wire and hot irons were pressing against my sides.  I was praying the urge to vomit would go away, knowing it wouldn’t.

Grue.  What was he saying?  I could barely understand Bakuda with her robotic enunciation.  Understanding Grue was a dozen times harder.  Like another language.

Live knee vuh yife?  Knife?  The knife.  He needed it.

I let myself fall onto my front, face toward the ground, so I wouldn’t choke.  The knife-holding hand stayed put, but my arm bent at a bad angle, eliciting a stab of pain.  My wrist and elbow awkwardly twisted, strained to return to a natural position.  I resisted the urge to let go, kept my grip on the knife handle.

The ground gave before I did, and the knife came free.  My arm straightened, stretching out in front of me, the knife gripped in my black gloved hand.  I looked up from the knife to see a blurry image of Grue struggling under his bonds, the last thing I saw before darkness and merciful lack of consciousness claimed me.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Did you get shot?” I asked Regent, as the four of us dashed down the alleyway.  No answer.  So I tried again, more specific, “Regent!  Listen to me, did you get shot?”

He shook his head in a tight motion as he clutched his hand against his shoulder, “Not shot.  Used my power too much, too fast, and it backfired.  Left arm’s cramping up, spasms.  I can’t move it.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Backfired?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it!” his snarled response was all the more startling because it came from our normally placid and too-laid-back Alec.  As if to compensate for the lashing out, he muttered an apology, “Fuck.  Sorry.  This hurts, but I’ll deal.  You guys focus on getting us out of this mess.”

“Tattletale,” I was still holding her hand, so I squeezed it to ensure I had her attention, “This would be a fantastic time to do your thing.”

“Especially since you dropped the ball as far as letting us walk into that fucked up situation,” Grue growled.

“Okay,” Tattletale huffed with both the exertion of our run and her irritation, letting go of my hand to push her hair back from her face and put it behind her ears, “The big one: She’s lying.”

“About?” I asked.

“She’s not the new leader of the ABB.”

“What?  Who is?” Grue asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine.  She doesn’t see herself as the one in charge, as much as she enjoys the role.  She’s pretending.”

The ground rumbled, and we looked behind us to see debris spraying out of the darkness Grue had used to cover our retreat.

It was only because we were watching the debris that we saw the rocket blast out of the darkness.  We ducked, needlessly, as the missile arced 3 feet over our heads and continued down the alley, directly to the spot where a hologram-bomb sat.

We covered our heads as the rocket and bomb exploded, one just a second after the other.  The first explosion didn’t even ruffle our hair, though we were less than a hundred feet away.  The second, explosion, though, ripped past us with the most intense cold I’d ever felt.  Even through my costume, I could feel it.

When we opened our eyes, there was a spectacle in front of us.  The second explosion had flash-frozen the first bomb mid-explosion, had probably been what absorbed the force of the blast.  Smoke, debris and dust had been frozen into a tower of ice, easily as tall as a two story building, composed of spikes of ice and frost that radiated up and away from us.  Most of it was lit up by the lightposts that were spaced evenly across the storage facility.  It was already slowly falling apart – heavier pieces of debris were breaking through the ice that held them up, falling free and crashing through paper thin latticeworks of frost.

That same frost covered the ground and every wall that was facing the explosion site, as far as the eye could see.  It covered us.  Icicles so tiny and fine they were like eyelashes radiated from the parts of my costume that had been exposed.  There were even twists and curls of ice where Grue’s smoke had frozen.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked.  He was shielding Tattletale with his body, the ice sloughing off them in sheets as they stood.  When he saw me looking, he explained, “Tattletale’s costume exposes her skin, more than any of us.  If she’d been totally exposed-”

“No,” I answered, “No worries.  Smart.  But we should move.”

We ran.  All around us, tiny crystals of ice were drifting down, sparkling in the light.

Tattletale continued dishing the info on Bakuda, “Lie number two?  She’s fibbing about how she’s detonating those bombs she has in her people’s heads.  She said she blows things up with a thought, but she’s not wearing any external hardware on her head, and she’s  wouldn’t have someone else do surgery on her.  Too much of a control freak, too proud of her brain.”

“But you don’t know how she’s blowing the bombs up?” I guessed.

“I know exactly how she’s setting them off.  Toe rings.”

“Toe rings,” Grue said, disbelief clear in his tone, even with his warped voice.

“She’s got a ring around her big toe and the toe next to it.  When she crosses one toe over the other, contacts on the outside of the rings meet and it sends the signal.  She chooses the target with a system built into her goggles.  It doesn’t look like she’s doing anything, which is probably the effect she’s going for.  Appearances.”

“Good to know,” Grue said, “But that doesn’t help us right now.  What are her weaknesses?”

There was the crash of an explosion behind us.  The area briefly lit up, but it hadn’t hit close enough to be worth worrying about.

“Narcissistic personality disorder.  Megalomania.  She’s spent her whole life being smarter than everyone around her, even before she had powers.  Constantly praised, coddled.  But she rarely if ever heard a criticism, probably wasn’t ever knocked down a peg, and that was a big factor in her ego swelling up to neurotic levels.  Probably graduated high school years early.  My bet is her trigger event was related to this.  Passed over for a job or someone really bitched her out, and she didn’t know how to deal.”

I had something to add, “The first thing she did with her powers, only thing, before she came to Brockton Bay, was hold a University hostage.  Maybe she got some bad marks, failed a class or was passed over for a teaching assistant position.  Jarred her self image enough she snapped.”

“Something we can use, people!” Grue growled.

“The personality disorder,” Tattletale said, “Even a small victory on our end is going to get a big reaction from her.  Ego-wise, she’s got a glass jaw.  Hard to say if a win for us would mean she goes manic and blows everything up, or if she’d just crumple, but I guarantee she wouldn’t handle it well.”

Grue nodded, started to speak, but stumbled.  I did my best to stop him from falling over, but he probably weighed half again as much as I did.  He got his balance, growled, and then spoke, “How do we win?  Or how do we avoid losing?  What’s she got going on that we don’t know about?”

“The goggles.  She’s seeing heat signatures.  It’s how she kept finding us.  That ice is a blessing in disguise, since it’s probably hiding us some.  She must have a reason for using it.  Um.  Her guns are keyed to her fingerprints, so you couldn’t pick up her grenade launcher and use it against her.”

“What else?”

“That’s all that’s coming to mind right now.  If you’re going to come up with a plan, best do it fast.  I think she’s after us on the Jeep.”

“Then we’re splitting up,” Grue grunted, “I fucked up my ankle by kicking in that door when the black hole hit.  I fucked it up worse by running so much afterward.  I’m going to see what I can do, staying here.”

“What the fuck?” I breathed, “No.”

“I’ll buy you time.  You guys go.  Now!”

“No way,” I said, but he was stopping, turning around.  I tried to stop, too, but Tattletale took hold of my hand and dragged me after her.  I shouted, “Grue!  Don’t be stupid!”

He didn’t respond, turning to fire blasts of darkness at the lights nearest him, darkening the entire alley.  Slowly, he walked in the opposite direction the rest of us were going, favoring one leg.

With a whistle and a resounding crack, another rocket slammed into the tower of ice.  The entire thing toppled like a massive house of cards, with a sound of a hundred thousand windows breaking.  Even with that cacophony, I heard the squeal of tires.  I saw the blurred form of the Jeep approaching through the cloud of snow and frost that was rolling away from the collapsed tower.

Grue didn’t retreat as the Jeep barreled forward, didn’t turn away.  He bellowed at the top of his lungs, in his altered voice, “Come on!”

“Grue!” I shouted, but he didn’t react.  “Fuck!”

No bugs.  Still too few.  We’d been constantly moving, so my bugs hadn’t had a place they could congregate, and this place was lousy for them anyways, in quality and quantity.  How could I have been so goddamn stupid?  I should always be prepared, and now I wasn’t in a state to help a friend and teammate when he needed it most, because I’d assumed my bugs would be on hand.

There were only three people in the Jeep, with the person standing at the back being the very recognizable Bakuda, grenade launcher in hand.  The thug in the passenger seat had a pistol in each hand, and the driver was steering with one hand, a gun in the other.

Grue didn’t budge as the driver stepped on the gas.  Was he playing chicken against a speeding car?

“Come on!” Grue shouted, again.

“Don’t just watch!” Tattletale tugged on my arm, pulling me toward the corner, “We’ve gotta go now or there’s no point!”

It was stupid, but I resisted, grabbing at the edge of the locker to ensure I could at least stay long enough to see what happened to Grue.  See if maybe he would be okay.

Those hopes were swiftly dashed.  The car slammed into the darkness-wreathed figure with enough speed to assure me he wouldn’t be walking away from an impact.

The tires squealed and the Jeep skidded in a half-turn as it veered to a halt.  Bakuda pulled herself up to a standing position, holding on to the roll bar as she looked around, presumably for us.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged me in a strained whisper, “Let’s go!”

I realized it before she did. “There’s no damage to the car.”

Tattletale’s repeated yanking on my arm stopped as she paused to verify what I’d said.  No broken window, no dents on the hood, no dents on the bumper.

A cloud of darkness bloomed from the shadows at the side of the alley and swallowed the Jeep and its three occupants.

Two seconds later, the Jeep came roaring out of the darkness, fishtailing as the wheels struggled to get a grip on the frost-slick pavement.  The driver steered it towards us, while Bakuda loaded her grenade launcher, her focus on the cloud of darkness she’d just exited.  The guy in the passenger seat… was gone.

Bakuda aimed the grenade launcher at the darkness.

“Fuck, Grue owes me one for this,” Regent muttered.  He let go of his shoulder, raised his hand toward the Jeep, and then flung it out to one side.  As he did it, he screamed, his voice primal, raw.

The hand the driver had on the wheel moved much as Regent’s did, swinging wildly to one side.  The Jeep turned, skidded, and spun out, flinging Bakuda and the contents of a half dozen boxes of explosives onto the road of the alley.  It collided with a locker, halfway smashing through a door in the process, and spiraled to a halt with a single airbag deployed, the driver limp behind it.

Almost at the same moment the Jeep stopped, Regent started to collapse to the ground, unconscious.  I grabbed him to stop him and eased him down so he didn’t hit his head.  I looked at Tattletale, “Backfire?”

“No, but close,” Tattletale said, “After a backfire, he’s got to rest his powers.  It’s like throwing a punch with a broken hand.  He’ll be sore and probably powerless for a little while, but he’ll recover.”

“Good,” I said, staring out at the scene.  The crashed car, the frost-covered street covered with grenades and canisters, Bakuda lying still in the midst of it all.  Grue limped out of the cloud of darkness, the passenger’s gun in his hand.

“Grue!” I called out.  I ran to him, hugged him.  My relief was so intense I wasn’t even embarrassed about it.

“Heya,” his voice echoed, “I’m alright.  Only a feint.  Hard to tell whether it’s me or a blob of shadow shaped roughly like a person when the lights are out, yeah?  Fooled her.”

“Fooled me.  Scared the fucking crap out of me,” I answered, “You fucker.”

“Nice to know you care,” he laughed a little, patted me on the head like someone would a dog, “Come on.  We should restrain the lunatic, get her out of here so we can drill her on what happened to Bitch and the money.  Maybe get an idea of what’s going on with the ABB.”

I smiled behind my mask, “Sounds like a-”

I didn’t get to finish.  Everything went white, then every inch of me bloomed in a searing agony that dwarfed the worst pain I had ever felt.

Since we had trounced Über and Leet, it had been one close call after another.  Being surrounded and charged by a mob, being held at gunpoint, escaping a miniature black hole, nearly being frozen in time like bugs in amber, innumerable explosions.  We’d escaped each of the threats by the skin of our teeth, knowing all the while that all it would take was one well placed shot, and we were done, gone, out of commission.

All it had taken was one good shot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’d discovered facing down more than a dozen gunmen, thirty or so people with improvised weapons and a mad scientist with a fetish for bombs made me really, really appreciate what Bitch brought to the team.

“All of this,” Tattletale spoke very carefully, “You were toying with us.  It’s why you didn’t have your people shoot at us from the start.”

“You’re very right.” Bakuda’s mask may have altered her voice to something approximating Robbie the Robot with a sore throat, but I got the impression she tried to make up for it with body language.  She shook her finger at Tattletale like she was scolding a dog.  “But I think you, specifically, should shut up.  Boys?”

She rested her hand on the head of an ABB member standing in front of her jeep with a pistol in his hands.  He flinched at the touch.  “If the blonde opens her mouth again, open fire on their entire group.  I don’t care what the others have to say, but she stays quiet.”

Her soldiers adjusted their grips on their guns, and more than one turned the barrel of their weapons to point towards Tattletale, specifically.  Glancing at Tattletale, I saw her eyes narrow, her lips press together in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Bakuda straightened up, put a foot up on the top of the Jeep’s door and rested her arms on her knee, leaning towards us. “You’re the only one I don’t get.  Don’t know your powers.  But seeing how you and the skinny boy baited my ineffectual mercenaries, I think I’m going to play it safe and have you be quiet.  Maybe it’s a subsonic thing, altering moods as you talk, maybe it’s something else.  I dunno.  But you shut up, ‘Kay?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale give the slightest nod.

“Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle,” Bakuda hissed, examining the back of her hand.  It seemed she wasn’t just compensating for the mechanical voice with body language; she liked to talk.  Not that I was complaining.  “See, Lung taught me a lot, but the lesson I really took to heart was that being an effective leader is all about fear.  Career like ours, people are only truly loyal to someone if they are terrified of them.  Enough fear, and they stop worrying about their own interests, stop wondering if they can usurp you, and they dedicate themselves entirely to making you happy.  Or at least, to keeping you from being unhappy.”

She hopped down from the jeep and grabbed the hair of a taller, longer haired Japanese guy from a group of twenty-somethings.  Winding his hair in her hands, she made him bend over until his ear was right in front of her, “Isn’t that right?”

He mumbled a reply and she released him, “But it goes further, doesn’t it?  See, I may have inherited the ABB-”

It was almost imperceptible, but I saw a flicker of movement around Tattletale’s face.  A change of expression or a movement of her head.  When I glanced her way, though, I couldn’t guess what it had been.

Bakuda continued without a pause, “But I also inherited Lung’s enemies.  So I have a dilemma, you see.  What can I do to you that’s going to convince them that I’m worth steering clear of?  What gesture would be effective enough that it would have their people running for the hills when they see me coming?”

She wheeled around and grabbed a pistol from the hands of one of her thugs, “Give.”

She then strode forward into the midst of the crowd.

“There’s not enough bugs here.” I took advantage of the pause in her monologue to whisper under my breath, hoping the others would catch it, praying I wasn’t being too loud.  At least my mask covered my face, hid the fact that my lips were moving, “Regent?”

“Can’t disarm this many guns,” he whispered his reply. “I mean, I-”

“You.” Bakuda called out, startling us.  She wasn’t paying attention to us, though.  A Korean-American guy in a private school uniform – from Immaculata High, in the nicest part of the city – was cringing in front of her.  The crowd slowly backed away, clearing a few feet of space around the two of them.

“Y-yes?” the boy replied.

“Park Jihoo, yes?  Ever hold a gun before?”

“No.”

“Ever beat someone up?”

“Please, I never… no.”

“Ever get in a fight?  I mean a real fight, biting, scratching, reaching for the nearest thing you could use as a weapon?”

“N-no, Bakuda.”

“Then you’re perfect for my little demonstration.”  Bakuda pressed the pistol into his hands, “Shoot one of them.”

The guy held the gun like it was a live scorpion, with two fingers, at arm’s length, “Please, I can’t.”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” Bakuda might have been trying to coo or sound reassuring, but mask didn’t allow for that kind of inflection, “You don’t even have to kill them.  You can aim for a kneecap, an elbow, a shoulder.  Okay?  Wait a second.”

She left the gun in the guy’s hands and stepped away, pointing to one of her thugs, “Get the camera out and start rolling.”

As ordered, he reached for the side of the jeep and retrieved a small handheld camcorder.  He fumbled with it for a few seconds before holding it over his head to see past the crowd,  looking through the flip-out panel on the side to make sure the camera was on target.

“Thank you for waiting, Park Jihoo,” Bakuda turned her attention to the guy with the gun, “You can shoot someone now.”

The guy said something in Korean.  It might have been a prayer, “Please.  No.”

“Really?  They’re bad people, if you’re concerned about morals.”  Bakuda tilted her head to one side.

He blinked back tears, staring up at the sky.  The gun fell from his hands to clatter to the pavement.

“That’s a no.  Shame.  No use to me as a soldier.”  Bakuda kicked him in the stomach, hard enough to send him sprawling onto his back.

“No!  No no no!” The guy looked up to her, “Please!”

Bakuda half-stepped, half skipped back a few feet.  The people around them took that as their cue to get well away from him.

She didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, didn’t offer any tell or signal.  There was a sound, like a vibrating cell phone on a table, and Park Jihoo liquefied into a soupy mess in the span of a second.

Dead.  He’d died, just like that.

It was hard to hear over the screaming, the wailing, the outraged shouts.  As the crowd scrambled to back away from the scene, all trying to hide behind one another, one of the thugs fired a gun straight up into the air.  Everyone stopped.  After the shrieks of surprise, there was the briefest pause, long enough for one sound to bring everyone to a stunned silence.

It sounded like the noise you make when you rake up dry leaves, but louder, artificial in a way that sounded like it was played over an archaic answering machine.  All eyes turned to Bakuda.  She was doubled over, her hands around her middle.

Laughing.  The sound was her laughing.

She slapped her leg as she stood, made a noise that might have been an intake of breath or a chuckle, but her mask didn’t translate it into anything recognizable – only a hiss with barely any variation to it.  She spun in a half circle as she crowed, “The six-eighteen!  I forgot I even made that one!  Perfect!  Better than I thought!”

If her job was to terrify, she’d succeeded.  With me, at least.  I wanted to throw up, but I’d have to take off my mask to do it, and I was afraid that if I moved, I’d get shot.  The fear of the guns was enough to override my welling nausea, but the end result was that I was shaking.  Not just trembling, but full body shakes that had me struggling to keep upright.

“That was pretty cool.”

With those words, Regent managed to get as many wide eyed looks than Bakuda had with her laugh.  He got one from me.  It wasn’t just what he said.  It was how calm he sounded.

“I know, right?” Bakuda turned around to face him, cocked her head to one side, “I modeled it off Tesla’s work in vibrations.  He theorized that if you could get the right frequency, you could shatter the Earth it-”

“No offense,” Regent said, “Well, I’ll rephrase: I don’t really care about offending you.  Don’t shoot me though.  I just want to stop you there and say I don’t care about the science stuff and all the technobabble about how you did it.  It’s boring.  I’m just saying it’s kind of neat to see what a person looks like when dissolved down like that.  Gross, creepy, fucked up, but it’s neat.”

“Yes,” Bakuda exulted in the attention, “Like the answer to a question you didn’t know you were asking!”

“How’d you do it?  You stuck bombs in these civilians to get them to work for you?”

“Everyone,” Bakuda answered, almost delirious on the high of her successful ‘experiment’ and Regent’s attention.  She half skipped, half spun through the crowd and leaned against one of her thugs, patting his cheek, “Even my most loyal.  Bitch of a thing to do.  Not the actual procedure of sticking the things inside their heads.  After the first twenty, I could do the surgeries with my eyes closed.  Literally.  I actually did a few that way.”

She pouted, “But having to tranquilize the first dozen or so and do the surgeries on them before they woke up, so I’d have the manpower to round up everyone else?  One after the other?  Really tedious once the novelty wears off.”

“I’d be too lazy to do that, even if I had your powers,” Regent said, “Can I approach the body?  Get a better look?”

Her mood changed in a flash, and she angrily jabbed a finger in his direction. “No.  Don’t think I don’t know you’re trying something.  I’m a fucking genius, get it?  I can think twelve moves ahead before you’ve even decided on your first.  It’s why you’re standing there and I…” she hoisted herself up so she was sitting on the side of the Jeep, “Am sitting here.”

“Chill the fuck out,” Regent replied, “I was just asking.”

I could see from Tattletale’s expression that she was having the same thoughts I was.  Give the lunatic bomber a little respect.  I quietly voiced what Tattletale couldn’t.

“Tone it down a notch, Regent,” I whispered.

“Whaaattever,” Bakuda drew out the word, “Skinny boy just lost any goodwill he’d earned for appreciating my art.  Or at least being able to fake it convincingly.”  She tapped the guy with the camera on the shoulder, “You still filming?”

The man gave a short nod.  As I looked at him, I saw beads of sweat running down his face, even though it was a cool evening.  It seemed her thugs were pretty spooked, too.

“Good,” Bakuda rubbed her pink-gloved hands together, “We’ll edit out the talky parts later, then we put it on the web and send copies to local news stations.  What do you think?”

The camera-guy answered in an accented voice, “Good plan, Bakuda.”

She clapped her hands together.  Then she pointed into the crowd  “Alright!  So, you…  yeah you, the girl in the yellow shirt and jeans.  If I told you to, would you pick up the gun and shoot someone?”

It took me a second to spot the girl, at the far end of the crowd.  She looked at Bakuda with a stricken expression and managed to answer, “The gun m-melted too, Ma’am.”

“You call me Bakuda.  You know that.  Nothing fancy.  If the gun was still there, would you shoot?  Or if I told someone to give you a gun?”

“I-I think I maybe could,” her eyes flickered to the puddle that had been Park Jihoo.

“Which concludes my demonstration,” Bakuda addressed our group, “Fear!  It’s why Lung went out of his way to recruit me.  I always understood deep down inside, that fear was a powerful tool.  He just phrased it so well.  True fear is a blend of certainty and the unpredictable.  My people know that if they cross me, I only have to think about it to make the bombs in their heads go kablooie.  Boom.  They know that if I die, every single bomb I’ve made goes off.  Not just the ones I jammed into their heads.  Every single fucking one.  And I’ve made a lot.  Certainties.”

Lisa reached out and grabbed my hand, clenched it tight.

“As for unpredictability?”  Bakuda kicked her legs against the side of the jeep like a grade schooler sitting on a chair, “I like to mix up my arsenal, so you never know what you’re going to get.  But you’ve also got to keep your people wondering, right?  Keep them on their toes?  Case in point: Shazam!”

The word coincided with the start of a very real explosion that was closely followed by something like thunder, but Lisa was already pulling on my arm, pulling me away.

I saw a glimpse of chaos, of screaming people running from the place the explosion had happened in the midst of Bakuda’s own group.  The fleeing people were obstructing the view of the people with guns.

Regent stuck his arm out, swept it outward, sending ten or so people stumbling into one another, turning the crowd into a disordered mob.  I heard the too-loud roar of guns being fired, saw Regent grab the shoulder of a limp left arm, couldn’t be sure the two were connected.

Finally, there was Bakuda, still sitting on the side of the jeep.  She was either shouting something or laughing.  She was letting us slip from her grasp, her people were on the verge of killing one another in mindless panic, and she’d just killed at least one of her own people on a whim.  From what we’d just seen of her, I was willing to bet she was laughing as it all happened.

Almost without my noticing, night had fallen, and as if to invite us deeper into the maze, the light poles flickered and turned on above us.  With Grue covering our retreat in a curtain of darkness, we ran.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Grue raised his hands and blanketed the entire area in darkness.  It wouldn’t help much.  Even if they hesitated or got confused in the darkness, the crush of bodies would eventually stumble into us, and we’d be beaten and battered under the sheer force of numbers.  The only real advantage was that if any of them had guns, they probably wouldn’t shoot, for fear of hitting their own guys.

I felt hands seize my waist, and lashed out with my baton.  The hands let go, and the baton hit only air.  After a moment, I felt the hands grab me again, the hold gentle.  Not an enemy.  Grue, I realized.

“Sorry,” I muttered.  He could hear inside his darkness, couldn’t he?

He hoisted me up into the air, and I immediately understood his intent.  I reached up and felt brick, then found the corrugated metal of the roof.  I hauled myself up and turned around to reach for the next person, one hand gripping the edge of the roof to keep myself in place.

I found Regent and Tattletale’s hands in the darkness and helped haul them up.  I knew neither was Grue, because they were too light.  Five or six seconds long, tense seconds then passed before Grue took my hand and hauled himself up.

We climbed down the far side, and Grue banished the darkness around us.

There were three ABB gang members standing at one end of the alley we’d just entered, and a fourth, lone member on the other.  Both groups were looking the wrong way, and were standing still, which was as good an indication as any that they hadn’t noticed us.

The sheer number of soldiers we’d seen didn’t fit, and I said as much,  “What the fuck?  How many people was that?”

Grue was apparently thinking along the same lines. “The ABB shouldn’t have that many members.”

“They do now,” Tattletale glanced over her shoulder at the ABB members behind us, then back to the lone one in front who still hadn’t reacted to our approach, “Trap!  Down!”

She practically shoved me to the ground, then took cover herself.

The lone figure in front of us shimmered, then disappeared.  In his place, for just a fraction of a second, there was a cylindrical object the size of a mailbox.  Knowing what kind of devices Bakuda specialized in, I drew my legs close to my body, screwed my eyes shut and covered my ears.

The force of the explosion hit me hard enough I could feel it in my bones.  It  lifted me clear off the ground.  For a moment, it felt like I was floating, carried by a powerful, hot wind.  I hit the ground with my elbows and knees first, and they thrummed with agony at the impact.

Chaos.  The four or five storage lockers that had been closest to the canister had been  reduced to chunks of flaming brick, none any bigger around than a beachball.  Other lockers near those had doors, walls and roofs blown away.  More than one locker had been actually used, because the blast had emptied them of its contents.  Pieces of furniture, boxes of books, clothing, bundles of newspaper and boxes of papers filled the alley.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked, as he staggered to his feet.

“Ow.  I’m burnt.  Fuck!  She was expecting us,” Tattletale groaned.  However bad her burns were, they weren’t severe enough to be seen through the smoke and dust. “Set traps, had her people waiting.  Shit, we were only a half hour later than we planned.  How?”

“We have to move,” Grue urged us, “This gets ten times harder if she finds us.  Tattletale, watch for-”

“I already found you,” Bakuda called out in what could have been a sing-song voice, if her mask didn’t filter it down to a monotone, rythmless hiss.  She emerged from the smoke that billowed from the explosion site; her hood was pulled back and her straight black hair was blowing in the wind.  The lenses of her dark red goggles were almost the exact same color as the sky above her.  There were five or six thugs just a step or two behind her, a middle aged guy that didn’t look like a gang member, and a skinny boy who was probably younger than me.  I was glad to see none of them had guns, but they were all armed with weapons of some sort.

“Not that you were hard to find,” Bakuda continued, sweeping her arms out to gesture at the devastation all around her.  “And if you think this only gets ten times harde-”

Grue blasted her, shutting her up, and his darkness billowed into a broad cloud as it struck her, enveloping her group.  We took advantage of their momentary blindness to scramble for the other end of the alley.

We were only halfway down the length of the alley when there was a sound behind us, like the crack of a whip.  It struck me as deeply wrong, since we shouldn’t have been able to hear anything through Grue’s darkness.  All at once, it was like we were running against a powerful headwind.

Except it wasn’t wind.  As I looked for the source of the noise, I saw Grue’s cloud of darkness shrinking.  Debris began to slide towards the epicenter of the darkness, and the wind – the pull – began to increase in intensity.

“Grab something!” Grue bellowed.

Breaking posture and lunging to one side was like forcing myself to leap over a hundred foot chasm.  I don’t know if I misjudged, or if the effect that was pulling on me increased in strength as I leaped, but my hand fell short of the doorknob.  I missed the one on the neighboring locker as well.

I knew in an instant that even if I managed to get my hand on something, the force of the pull would yank me from it before I secured a grip.  I grabbed my knife from its sheath at the small of my back and swung it with all the strength I could spare for the next door I saw.  It bit into the wood, stopping me from being dragged backwards, or falling sideways.  The one-hundred and twenty pound body hanging off of it was too much, though, and almost immediately, the knife began to slip from the hole.

It had slowed me down enough, though.  As the force of the drag increased to the point that my body was parallel to the ground, I waited with my heart in my throat, watching the area where the knife met the door, seeing it slide out millimeter by millimeter.  The moment it slipped free of the wood, I grabbed the doorknob that had been just a few feet beside my toes.  My arm jolted painfully, but I managed to hold on and jam the knife into the gap between the door and the frame.  Even with two things to hold onto, it didn’t feel like enough.

All at once, the effect stopped.  My body collapsed to the ground at the base of the locker, and I pried stiff fingers from the knife handle and knob.  All up and down the street, massive clouds of dust rolled towards the point her device had gone off.  The parts of the lockers that had been set on fire had been extinguished, but were still smouldering enough to send columns of dark smoke into the air.

Regent had found a grip on the edge of a locker’s roof; it had either been bent prior to his getting a grip on it, or the force of the pull had bent the metal as he clung to it.  Tattletale and Grue had apparently gotten a door of a locker open, because they exited as a pair, Grue limping slightly.

“What the fuck was that?” I panted, “A miniature black hole?”

Tattletale chuckled, “Guess so.  That was brac-”

From the other side of the storage lockers, a canister arced through the air, clinked off the metal roof of a storage locker and landed in the middle of our group.

Grue was on it in a heartbeat, using his foot to slide it across the ground and into the locker he and Tattletale had just left.  Without stopping, he opened his arms wide and ushered us all away as he ran away from it.

Even with brick and concrete in the way, the blast knocked us off our feet.  That wasn’t the scary part.  As the initial blast passed, the remainder of the explosion seemed to happen in slow motion.  Shattered chunks of the brick shack drifted through the air so slowly you could barely tell they were moving.  As I watched, I could see them actually slowing down.

Then I looked forward and saw plumes of smoke in fast motion and rubble bouncing across the ground at twice the normal speed, just ten feet ahead of us.  It took me a precious second  to realize why.

We were still in the blast area.

“Hurry!” I shouted, at the same moment that Tattletale yelled, “Go!”

We lunged forward, but I could see things continuing to speed up just in front of us.  Which meant, really, that we were slowing down.  Slowing to an absolute stop.

Somehow, I didn’t think this effect would end in a matter of minutes like Clockblocker’s did.

We broke through the perimeter of the effect with what felt like an abrupt change in air pressure.  I didn’t have a chance to check to see how close we’d come to being trapped in time forever, because Bakuda was behind the row of locker, launching another salvo – three projectiles that arced high into the air, plumes of purple smoke trailing behind them.

Grue shot blasts of darkness at them, probably in hopes of muffling the effects, and gasped, “Over the lockers!”

Regent and I were up on the row of lockers first, much the same way as we’d done it when the mob had been after us.  Once Regent had climbed down to make room, Tattletale and I helped Grue up, and we climbed down the far side.

Again, on each end of the alleyway, there were members of the ABB.  They weren’t moving, which meant they either hadn’t noticed us, or they were just holographic images hiding traps.  My money was on the latter.

“Again,” I panted, “Over.”  We couldn’t risk another trap, another bomb blast too close to us.  So we crossed the alley again and climbed on top of the next row of lockers.

We found ourselves staring down at a half dozen armed members of the ABB.  Except they weren’t your typical gang members.  One of them was an elderly Chinese man, holding a hunting rifle.  There was an girl who couldn’t have been much older than twelve, holding a knife, who might have been his granddaughter.  Of the eleven or twelve of them, only three had the thuggish look to them that really marked them as members of the gang.  The rest just looked terrified.

The old man trained his gun on us, hesitated.

A thug with a tattoo on his neck spat out something in an Eastern language I couldn’t place, the phrase ending with a very English, “Shoot!”

We were down off the other side of the lockers before he could make up his mind.  Grue created a cloud of darkness over the top of the lockers, to discourage them from following.

“What the fuck?” Regent gasped.  We hadn’t stopped running or struggling since Bakuda had sicced the crowd on us.

“They’re scared, not loyal,” Tattletale spoke, not as out of breath as Regent, but still definitely feeling the effect of the last few minutes of running and climbing, “She’s forcing them to serve as her soldiers.  Threatening them or their families, probably.”

“Then she’s been working on that for some time,” Grue said.

“Since Lung got arrested,” Tattletale confirmed, “Where the fuck do we go?”

“Back over the same wall,” Grue decided.  “I’ll blind them, we cross over at a different point in case they open fire where they last saw us.”

Before we could put the plan into motion, there was another explosion. We staggered into the front wall of the storage locker we’d just climbed down from, collapsing in a heap.  My entire body felt hot, and my ears were ringing, and we hadn’t even been that close.

As I raised my head, I saw that one of the storage lockers across from us had been leveled.  Through the gap, I saw Bakuda standing astride the back of a jeep, one hand gripping the roll cage that arced over top of the vehicle.  She was saying something to the thugs in the front and passenger seats, but I couldn’t make it out over the feedback noise in my ears.  They peeled off to the right, and for just a fraction of a second, she looked at me.

I reached for my bugs and directed them towards her, but she was moving too fast.  That left me the option of spreading them out so they were in her way, in the hopes that she would run straight into them, and maybe enough would survive the bug-against-a-windshield impact to give me a sense of where she was.

“She’s going around,” I said, grabbing at Tattletale’s wrist, “We can’t go over the wall.”

“We gotta keep running,” Regent panted.  I was having trouble hearing him.

“No,” Grue stopped him, “That’s what she wants.  She’s herding us into the next trap.”

“Where do we go, then?” Regent asked, impatient, “Fight her head on?  Catch her by surprise?  If I can see her, I can mess with her aim.”

“No.  She’s got enough raw firepower to kill us even if she misses,” Grue shook his head, “We don’t have many options.  We go over this wall again, we won’t just have to deal with the thugs and the old man.  We go down either end of this alley, we’re walking face first into a bomb.  So we have to backtrack.  No choice.”

I wished there was another option.  Backtracking meant moving back toward the center of the facility, it meant prolonging our escape, and possibly running headlong into ABB troops.

We headed for the gap that Bakuda’s latest explosion had created in the lockers, and Grue filled the alley we were leaving with darkness, to help cover our escape.  The little road was empty, except for the still figures at either end.

As we started to climb over the next row of lockers, we felt rather than heard a series of explosions rip through the area behind us.  Bakuda was bombarding the cloud of darkness with a series of explosives.  I guess you didn’t need to see if you could hit that hard.

We climbed down from the lockers and found ourselves in the same place we’d been when we escaped the mob.  There were three still figures at one end of the alley, doubtlessly a concealed bomb, and the destruction caused by the explosions and the miniature black hole in a can on the other.  If we climbed over the locker, we faced the risk of throwing ourselves straight into the mob we’d fled.  We’d have the element of surprise, but we’d be outnumbered, and our firepower was virtually nil.

By unspoken agreement, we headed towards the end of the alley where the hologram-bomb had gone off, where plumes of dust were still settling.

We were greeted by the sound of guns being cocked.

My heart sank.  Twenty or so members of the ABB had guns of various sorts trained on us.  Kneeling, sitting and crouching in front of the two groups, so they were out of the way of the guns and out of sight, were thirty or so other people Bakuda had ‘recruited’.  There was a businessman and a woman that could have been his wife, a girl wearing the Immaculata school uniform, from the Christian private school in the south end of the city, about my age.  There were two older men, three older women with graying hair, and a group of guys and girls that might have been University students were standing together.  Everyday people.

They weren’t gang members, but I could think of them as her soldiers; Every one of them held a weapon of some sort.  There were kitchen knives, baseball bats, pipes, shovels, two-by-fours, chains, crowbars and one guy even had a sword that was, oddly enough, not Japanese.  There was a look of grim resignation on their faces, circles under their eyes that spoke of exhaustion, as they watched us.

Behind their assembled group, standing astride the Jeep, one foot resting on her modified jeep-mounted mortar launcher, an altered grenade launcher danging from one strap around her shoulders, was Bakuda.  All around her were boxes of her specialized grenades and mortar rounds, bolted onto the back of the Jeep, blinking with various colored LEDs.

She put her hands on her grenade launcher as she tilted her head to one side.  Her robotic voice crackled through the still air.

“Checkmate.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 3½ (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Kayden crouched by the crib, her arms folded over the edge, watching her baby’s chest rise and fall.  She felt at peace.  Aster was perfect, flawless, untainted by the chaos and the evils of the world beyond the apartment and the nursery.  Even in her waking moments, she wasn’t overly demanding, quick to reduce her wails to quiet whimpers when she heard assurances that food, company or a diaper change were on the way.  Not that she understood, of course, but she trusted her mother would provide.  Kayden couldn’t have asked for more.  Literally, there was nothing Aster could do, have or be that would make her better than she was.

In an odd way, Kayden supposed, she took refuge in Aster.  She found succor in the company of her child, in the midst of a world she had little hope for.

It took willpower to force herself to step away, to quietly step from the nursery and half-close the door behind her.  When she saw pudgy fifteen year old Theo sitting in front of the television, she was momentarily disoriented. Then she felt a stab of guilt.  She’d forgotten about the boy, in the midst of caring for Aster and her preparations for the night.

“Theo, I’m sorry,” she spoke.  The boy had been captivated by the final votes of some reality TV show, but he didn’t give a second thought to muting the TV and giving Kayden his full attention.  “I’ve been so preoccupied, I haven’t fed you.”

“It’s okay,” Theo answered her, breaking eye contact.  It wasn’t.

“Look, I’m going out-”

“In costume?”

“Yeah,” Kayden replied.  She tried to read the expression on the boy’s face, but Theo was a stone wall.  He’d had to be, really, with what he’d grown up with.

Resisting the urge to comment or push the boy to offer some commentary, criticism or support, Kayden continued, “I’m leaving you thirty dollars here on the kitchen table.  If you want to use it to order out, please feel free.  Otherwise, raid my cupboards, my fridge, or use the money to go down to the convenience store in the lobby, okay?  If you decide to rent a movie, leave it here for me to take back.  I might want to watch it.”  Kayden smiled, trying to coax a matching expression from him.

“Okay,”  Theo said, his face blank.  “When will you be back?”

In time to take you back to your dad’s, Kayden almost said.  Then she had an idea, “I might be late.  Would it maybe be okay if you spent the night?  You’d just have to check in on Aster every few hours.  Keep an ear out in case she cries?  I’d pay you for the full night’s babysitting.”

The times when Theo let a glimmer of emotion show were few and far between.  A smile, genuine, touched Theo’s face, and almost broke Kayden’s heart in the process.

“I’d love to,” Theo replied, meaning it.

“Then it’s settled.  Sorry to interrupt your show,” she said.

“It’s fine,” Theo said, just a touch too fast.  It wasn’t fine, apparently, but he would never admit it.  Could never admit it.  Kayden felt a flicker of hatred for the man who had eroded every ounce of personality and assertiveness from his son.  She would give her right hand for a smart-alec remark, rolled eyes or to be ignored in favor of a TV show.

She had to console herself that she was at least giving Theo a night’s respite from the man.  It wasn’t enough, of course, but there was so little she could do.  All she could offer were small kindnesses, little gestures of love and affection, and hope they helped.  With that in mind, Kayden took the time to get some sheets out and set up the other couch so Theo would be comfortable when he was done watching TV.

When that was done, she double checked the TV to see that she wasn’t interrupting anything, and told Theo, “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” the boy replied, in a tone that was all affectation.  The false words stung Kayden more than if Theo hadn’t said anything at all.  Tonight wasn’t the night to confront that issue.  She left the apartment, locking the door behind her.  She took the stairs up to the roof, and shucked off her bathrobe.   The garment went in the gap between two flowerboxes, where nobody would find it unless they were looking for it.

Then she stepped off the edge of the roof.

The wind ripped at her hair, blew cold against her face.  As she tumbled head over heels, seeing only glimpses of the streetlights and cars below her, she waited.  Her apartment building was fifteen stories tall, which gave her less time than one might expect.  All it would take was one second of doubt, one mistake, a momentary hesitation, and she would hit the ground.

Aster.  It was fitting that she thought of her daughter.  She always did, these days, every time she jumped.  It had become a ritual, as though she couldn’t set out to clean up the city if she didn’t remind herself why she was doing it.

Energy suffused her body.  The entire sky lit up in a brilliant, blinding flash of light.  By the time the spots cleared from the eyes of the people on the street, she was already gone, hurtling over Downtown Brockton Bay, a white trail of light following behind her.

Kayden didn’t wear a mask, but it wasn’t necessary.  With her powers active, her brown hair and eyes became a radiant white, emanating a light so brilliant it was impossible to look straight at her.  The fabric of her alabaster costume, too, radiated with a soft glow that rippled like light on the surface of the water.

Her usual routine was to patrol for an hour or two, get a sense of things, and then take action where she thought it was most appropriate.  Tonight, though, she was frustrated, and she hadn’t even begun.

A year ago, she had made the ABB a priority target.  Three to five times a week, she had carried out surgical strikes against the low level operations of the gang, interrupting shipments, beating up dealers and thugs, attacking their places of business and all the while, she had been gathering information.  That information had paid off from time to time; she had clashed directly with Lung on no less than four occasions, had encountered Oni Lee on two.  In all but one of those encounters, she had successfully forced them to retreat, to abandon whatever it was they were doing at the time.  Those were the good days.

There had been bad days too.  Most of the time, she made a point to rough up the lower level members of the gang when she’d taken them down, enough to make them reconsider their career choice.  Make them consider going to another town.  At one point, Lung had set a trap for her, and succeeded in returning the favor.  It had taken her two months to recuperate from all of her injuries.  Other days, which were somehow worse, she found herself struggling to make a difference, coming to the dawning realization that she had failed to change things.

This week had been a long series of those bad days.  When she’d read in the news that Lung had been apprehended, she’d cleared her schedule.  Kayden had taken her vacation days and called Theo about babysitting.  It had been the best chance she’d get, she thought, to clean up the ABB once and for all.  Get that scum out of her city, while they were leaderless.

Five of her seven vacation days had passed, and she’d accomplished nothing.  Less than nothing.  They were getting stronger.

Breaking her usual patrol route, she headed straight to the northern part of the city and investigated the Docks.  It was empty of ABB members, aside from two Korean girls were taking a break from turning tricks near the ferry, talking to their aged, fat, matronly pimp.   Kayden resisted the urge to take action and run them off, resisted grilling them for information.  She had done that last night with a group of dealers, and accomplished little to nothing.

The ABB was still active.  Even with their boss gone, they were more organized than they had been under Lung’s influence.  But her interrogations had failed to get any details on why.  Even broken arms and legs hadn’t hurt or scared the thugs enough to get them talking about what was going on.

This was the situation, usually, where Kayden would go to informants for information, resurrect old alliances and get help in squashing the ABB before they could get their footing again.  She had hunted down old buddies, contacts and teammates three days ago, and had been frustrated by the lack of response, the lack of enthusiasm.  Max, Theo’s father, was to blame for that.  Just as she’d left his team a more broken person than she’d been when she joined, others had gone through the same experience. With charisma and a keen sense of people, Max had convinced people from across the country to join his team.  Just as easily, he’d tore them apart without them realizing he was doing it.  Confidence broken, wracked by doubts, paranoid regarding everyone except the one man that had caused the paranoia in the first place, they’d splintered off from the team.  Not that Max minded.  There was always a fresh supply of bright eyed recruits ready to replace anyone he broke.

Now most of the gang was gone, quite possibly on a big job, and she had no idea where.  She had no idea where to find out.  Kayden grit her teeth.  This wasn’t working.  If she was going to make any headway before her vacation days were up, she had to act now.  Make a deal with the devil.

She returned Downtown.  It was hard to navigate the streets from so high up, even if they were roads she traveled on a daily basis as her uncostumed self.  From here, the buildings all looked the same, with mirrored outsides and gravel rooftops.  Twice, she circled around the top floors of the wrong buildings, looking for the logo set on the side of the building would mark Max’s building apart from the others.

The black crown against a red and yellow background.  She stopped when she saw it, cursed under her breath.  When she approached, she saw him, still in his office.  Not so unusual, he’d worked late during every night of their marriage.  He had a laptop directly in front of him, a sandwich in a paper wrapping to his right, and an array of papers spread over the desk to his left.  He swiveled around to face her as she got close to the window, smiled softly.

Damn him, he was five years older than her, pushing thirty five, and he was still the best looking man she’d ever looked in the eye.  Even the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes only made him more attractive.  He’d taken off his tie and suit jacket, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled halfway up his forearms, forcing her to note he was still working out.

He waited, his hands clasped over his stomach, the faintest expression of amusement on his face.  She knew he was capable of opening the window to his office.  He was waiting for her to ask to come inside.  It was the sort of little power game he was so fond of.

On another night, she would have tested her will against his.  To no avail, usually, but she would have tried.  It probably would have ended with her flying away, making it clear she could do without his assistance.  Tonight, though, she felt the frustration of her fruitless ‘vacation’ and brought herself to reach out and knock on the window.

Before she could rap her knuckles against it a second time, it clicked and opened upward. She navigated her way around it to make her way inside. He hadn’t seemed to move a muscle when he opened the window.  He liked little demonstrations like that.  She set foot on the carpet of the office and let the light glowing from within her fade.  Her hair stopped stirring and writhing in response to the energy rippling through it, going limp and turning brown.  Her eyes dimmed to their dark hazel color.  She could hear a click followed by the faintest of hisses as the window slowly closed behind her.

“Kayden.  It’s been a little while,” he managed to greet her and make it sound like a criticism in the same breath.  He half-turned to type on his computer, and the lights in the office adjusted to a halogen glare.  She shut her eyes briefly and basked in the glow, feeling her internal supply of energy recharge.

“Max.  Thank you for the light.”

“You’re fine, I take it?”

“I’m fine.”

“And our daughter?”

“Aster’s well,” she said, as calmly as possible, as her hearbeat pounded in her ears.  She knew he didn’t really care.  He was letting her know that he hadn’t forgotten about Aster, reminding her that he, at any time, any moment, could take custody of her baby girl.  He had the money, he had the contacts.  She’d be helpless to stop him.  She remembered to mention, “Theo’s babysitting her tonight.”

“I know.  He called a little earlier to ask if he could spend the night.  I told him that was fine.  It’ll do him good to spend time with you and Aster.  Some female influences in his life.”

Kayden answered with a curt nod.  To anyone else, this conversation would have sounded perfectly innocent.  As someone who had worked alongside Max for ten years and been married to him for one, she knew this was all negotiation.  He was making it clear he was doing her a favor, and he’d expect recompense at some point, tonight or a week from now.  It was how he was – always playing for power, for advantage, for dominance.  All the while, he was doing it in a way that you couldn’t confront.  If she called him on it, he’d play innocent and she’d look like the crazy one, the one in the wrong.  Sometimes even to herself.

“So, what can I do for you?” he leaned back in his seat.

“The ABB is lacking leadership.  Or, at least, lacking experienced leadership.  I want to take them down before they regroup.  To do that, I’m wanting to reunite our old team.”

“And you’re admitting you can’t do it without my help.”

“Yes,” it pained her to admit.

“Not interested,” he said, spinning around in his chair to face the computer.  There was a click, and the window behind Kayden began to open again.  As the air blew in from outside, a strand of hair blew across her face.  She tucked it behind her ear.

“I’ve talked to the others, but nobody that’s worked for you is willing to be the first to join me.  Some say they’re worried they’ll offend you.  Others are just spooked, or they’ve already given up.  They ask me why would a group of your rejects do any better than they’d managed as part of your team?  I’m not getting anywhere, and time’s running out.  All it would take would be one word from you, and I’d have a team of four or five people.  With that, I could root out and squash the ABB.”

Max stood up and sat on the edge of his desk so he was facing Kayden, “I don’t see it being worth the effort.  What’s in it for me?”

“The ABB would be gone, for starters.”

“They’ll be gone eventually.  I’m patient.  What else?”

“I don’t have anything else to offer you, Max,” she answered.  That was a lie, she knew… but the closest thing she had to a bargaining chip was something she would never give up in a million years.  Never Aster.

“I want you.  On my team again.”

“No.”

“You’d be my second in command.  I’d talk to the old members of the team, and get them to form a separate group to work under you.  You’d double check with me on anything you did, but other than that, you’d be completely autonomous.  Free to use your team as you see fit.”

Other than that, she thought.  As if it was inconsequential, to be checking in with him on every move she made.  “I don’t agree with the way you do things.  I don’t want to be associated with you.”

He laughed, throaty, deep, rich, while she stood there in stony silence.

“Kayden,” he said, when he’d stopped, “You’re already associated with me.  People say our names in the same breath, even when we haven’t worked together in two years.  When my name appears in the newspapers, yours is never far behind.”

“I’m working to change that.”

“And you’ll be working against that impression for decades, to no effect, I guarantee you.”

Kayden turned and looked out the window, unwilling to look Max in his brilliantly blue eyes for any longer.

He continued, and she knew he was smiling smugly at her even without looking at him, “Regardless of our different methods, we always shared the same goals.  To clean up this filthy world of ours.”

“You do it by putting drugs on the street, stealing, extorting.  I can’t agree with that.  I never did.  It doesn’t make any sense, to improve things by making them worse.”

Max smiled, “It’s ugly on the surface, but it’s more money, more power, and it gives me the leverage to really affect things.  The only people I hurt are the same people who cause the problems in the first place.”

It was a refrain she had heard often enough before.  She folded her arms.

He changed tactics, “Let me ask you – would you rather be doing things your way, failing to change things or would you rather work under me and make a difference?”

“I am making a difference,” Kayden answered, “I’m working to make this world a better place.”

“Of course,” he replied, and she didn’t miss the hint of condescension in his voice, “You left my team to go do good work, it’s just pure coincidence that it’s black, brown, or yellow criminals you target.”

Kayden frowned, “Hard to avoid, when the only notable gang of whites is yours.  Some old friends and allies of mine still work for you… I can’t go around attacking them, can I?  I’m working to improve our city, but I’m not going to beat up people I’ve been out to drinks with.”

“And in the process, you’re doing little to shake the notion that you’re a part of Empire Eighty-Eight,” Max smiled, “It’s amusing to hear you try and justify your perspective, but you’re ignoring the elephant in the room.  Cut the B.S. and tell me you don’t feel something different when you look at a black face, compared to when you look at a white one.”

Kayden didn’t have an answer to that.  It was his fault, really.  The high school baseball player she’d had a crush on when she’d been in middle school had wound up being the same person that first approached her when she started going out in costume.  Blinded by his good looks and his way with words, she’d been swayed, convinced of his way of thinking.  She’d tried to change her outlook since the divorce, but she had seen a great deal in her ten years as a member of his team.  It was impossible to look at the city now and ignore the fact that too much of what made it an uglier place to live and raise a child in could be traced back to the same kinds of people.  Sure, the whites had criminals too, but at least they were fucking civilized about it.

When no response was forthcoming, Max said, “That’s what I thought.  However our methods differ, regardless of whether you’re willing to admit it out loud, I think we share a very similar perspective.  My offer is this:  Let me prove my methods work.  Join my team, serve as my second in command for one more year.  Only person you answer to is me, and I give you a team of your own.  You can handpick your own squad from our prospective members and ex-members, though I can’t guarantee every person you name will come running…”

“Max…” Kayden shook her head.

“The final part of the deal is this.  If you aren’t satisfied with how things went when your year is up, Empire Eighty-Eight is yours.  Lock, stock and barrel, including my business, every employee, every asset, legitimate or otherwise.  I become your second in command, and I follow your orders.  You can make Empire Eighty-Eight into a humanitarian effort, sell the business, turn us all into superheroes.  I don’t care.  If I can’t impress you, then what I’m doing simply isn’t worth holding on to.”

That caught her attention.  Years ago, Kayden probably would have snapped up an offer like this without a second thought.  Being married to Max for eleven months, waking up to who he really was, it had given her perspective and caution.  She considered for a few long moments, trying to figure out the angle.  He was telling the truth, she knew.  Whatever else Max was, he wouldn’t break his word on something like this.

“Is the business failing?”  She asked.  Was she getting a booby prize?

“Thriving.  Promise.”

“What would you have me doing?”

“The same thing you did before.  You’d be my heavy hitter.  My enforcer.  If I needed you to make an example of someone, you’d do it.  Only difference between then and now is that my Empire is bigger.  Better.  You and I can make a greater impact.”

More blood on my hands.  As the thought crossed her mind, she looked at her gloved hands.  Pristine white cloth, stark in glare of the halogen lights.  She knew what he was doing, had known when she decided to come.  He found a person’s weakness, attacked it, turned it to his advantage.  He’d known she was frustrated with her efforts as a solo agent, had probably had this conversation planned out days or weeks ago, playing it out in his head, having an answer ready for anything she could say.  How could she compete with that, when she rarely looked beyond the next twenty-four hours?  It was just how she was, how she thought.

Which was probably why they were so effective as a pair, she was forced to admit.

“So I ask you again, Kayden, do you want to spend your time failing to make a name for yourself on your own, or are you willing to join me in actually changing things?  Come with me, and I guarantee you win one way or another.”

Her eyes lit up, and her hair began to turn white from the roots outward.  In moments, she was her radiant alter egoPurity.

As if in response, he picked up a letter opener and held it in front of his chest.  Blades of metal began to branch out from it, each forking out into more.  Slow at first, the network of metal swiftly encompassed his chest, then the rest of his body.  Bars, blades, tubes, sheets of the metal found their place around him.  With his power, she knew, he could bring metal to sprout from any solid surface around him, including the metal he had already created.  As readily as he could bring thirty-foot spears of iron to erupt from the ground or walls, he created a finely worked suit of armor, then embellished it with blades and curling spikes.  He finished it with an uneven crown of blades.

He extended a gauntlet, left it there for her to take.  It was the smallest gesture, he never made a move where someone could refuse him, leave him hanging, and it meant the world to her, even as she suspected it was calculated for just that effect.

Forgive me, Aster, she thought.  I’m doing this for you.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

We weren’t the only ones who were discussing strategy.  As I turned my full attention to the pair, I saw Über and Leet were muttering to one another.

When they realized I was looking at them, they stopped talking.  Über wiped again at the blood under his nose and took a step forward.  “Enough talking.”

I wished there were more bugs in the area.  The storage facility made for a disappointing selection.  Bugs had to live off something, and there was little around here except pavement, concrete and brick.  That left me only cockroaches and moths that had lived off of the contents of the lockers they could access, and spiders that dwelled in the dark corners.  However lame the pair of them were, I wasn’t happy about going up against two supervillains with so little at my disposal.

I didn’t get a chance to dwell on it, because Über charged us.  I hurried to get out of his way.  Über’s power made him talented.  It didn’t matter if it was playing the harmonica, parkour stunts or Muay Thai, he could pull it off like he’d been working on it for hours a day for most of his life.  If he really focused on it, the way I understood it, he could be top notch.

In short, there was no fucking way I was going to let him get close to me.

Grue had the opposite perspective.  He stepped forward and then disappeared as darkness swelled around him.  A second later, Über stumbled out of one side of the cloud, landed on his rear end, and then did a fancy spinning kick maneuver to bring himself to his feet again.  The juxtaposition of clumsiness and technique was outright bizarre.

My bugs were gathering nearby, now, but very few of them were useful.  Somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness, I’d connected to a fledgling wasp nest hanging from a storage locker near the Trainyard.  They were more useful, but extricating them all from the nest and bringing them to my location would take a minute.  I brought the rest of the bugs into a small swarm nearby, letting the group grow until I had use of them.  Both Kid Win and Lung had obliterated my swarm when I’d attacked them, and I couldn’t risk being more or less powerless if Leet pulled a similar stunt.

Leet stepped in as Über circled around us.  Reaching behind his back, Leet retrieved what looked like an old school bomb; Round black iron casing with a lit fuse sticking out of it.  The way the light bounced off it made it look wrong, though.  Like it was a picture of a bomb instead of a real one.

Regent waved his hand, and the bomb slipped from Leet’s grip, rolling a few feet.  Leet’s mouth opened into a round ‘o’, and he bolted.  Über wasn’t far behind.

As he joined the rest of us in running for cover, Regent half turned to thrust out one hand.  Über stumbled and fell just ten feet from the armed explosive.

The blast radius was thankfully small.  The shockwave that rippled past us didn’t even make me lose my footing.  Über, though, went flying.

Leet watched his friend roll with the impact, try to stagger to his feet and fall again.  He turned to us with his face etched in hard lines of anger.

“I keep wondering when you guys are going to give up,” Tattletale grinned, “I mean, you fail more often than you succeed, you make more cash from your web show than you do from actual crimes, you’ve been arrested no less than three times.  You’re probably going to wind up at the Birdcage the next time you flub it, aren’t you?”

“Our mission is worth it,” Leet raised his chin – inasmuch as he had one – a notch.

“Right,” Tattletale said, “Spreading the word about the noble and underrated art form that is video games.  That’s from your website, word for word.  People don’t watch your show because they think you’re righteous.  They watch because you’re so lame it’s funny.”

Leet took a step forward, fists clenched, but Über called out, “She’s provoking you.”

“Damn right I am.  And I can do it because I’m not scared of you.  I don’t have any powers that are useful in a fight, and you guys don’t intimidate me in the least.  A guy who’s good at everything yet still manages to fuck up half the time, and a Tinker who can only make stuff that breaks comically.”

“I can make anything,” Leet boasted.

“Once.  You can make anything once.  But the closer something you invent is to something you’ve made before, the more likely it is to blow up in your face or misfire.  Real impressive.”

“I could demonstrate,” Leet threatened, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.

“Please don’t.  I hear the carbonized ash of geek is hell to get out of a costume.”

“You say geek like it’s a bad thing,” Über said, in his characteristically overdramatic tone, “It’s a badge of honor.”

“Among geeks, sure,” Regent replied, “But there’s clowns out there that consider being a clown to be a noble calling, while the rest of us just laugh at them.  Catch my drift?”

“Enough,” Leet growled, “It’s obvious you’re trying to antagonize us-”

“I just admitted it.  That’s not obvious.  That’s fact,” Lisa pointed out.

“We won’t be baited!” Leet raised his voice, I think it’s time for our grand reveal, our guest-”

He was cut off as Grue blasted him in the face with a cloud of darkness.  Leet stepped out of the cloud, sputtering.

“They’re laughing at you, Leet,” Tattletale heckled him, “You’re trying to be all dramatic, all intense for your viewers, and they’re just sitting at their computers, snorting over how much you suck.  Even Über is laughing at you behind your back.”

“Shut up!” Leet spat the words, glancing over his shoulder at his teammate, “I trust Über.”

“Why are you even with this guy, Über?” Regent asked, “I mean, you’re kind of lame, but you could at least accomplish something if he wasn’t fucking up half your jobs.”

“He’s my friend,” Über replied, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“So you don’t deny he’s holding you back.” Lisa pointed out.

“Shut up!” Leet roared.  Except he didn’t have a very deep voice, so it was probably closer to a screech.  He pulled out another bomb and flung it at us before Regent could make him fumble again.  We scattered, with Regent, Tattletale and I running away while Grue shrouded both himself and Über in darkness.

As I scrambled for cover, I directed my bugs to attack Leet.  He’d done something different this time, because the bomb didn’t take half the time the first bomb had before it detonated.  It caught me off guard, and I didn’t get a chance throw myself to the ground as a result.  The blast caught me full in the back.

The air and the fire that rolled over me wasn’t hot.  That was the most surprising thing.  That wasn’t to say it didn’t hurt, but it felt more like getting punched by a really big hand than what I would have thought an explosion would feel like.  I could remember Lung’s blasts of fire, Kid Win shattering the wall with his cannon.  This felt… false.

“The bombs are fake?” I asked aloud, as I picked myself off the ground.  I ached, but I wasn’t burned.

“They’re solid holograms,” Tattletale said, “Actually pretty neat, if you ignore how ineffective they are.  I guess he couldn’t make real bombs without fucking up.”

Leet snarled, though it was hard to say whether it was Tattletale’s words or the moths, wasps and cockroaches that had settled on him.  As I’d suspected, they weren’t doing much.  Even crawling for his nose and mouth, they didn’t really slow him down.  Maybe there was a downside to getting him furious, like Tattletale and Regent were intent on doing.

He whipped out two more bombs and Regent was quicker this time, snapping his hands out.  Leet recovered before he dropped the bombs, and pulled his arms back to throw them.  Regent was ready, though, and one of Leet’s legs jerked out from under him.  He fell to the ground, the bombs rolling only a few feet from him before going off.

He slammed into a door hard enough I thought he might have managed to kill himself.  Before I could approach and check his pulse, though, he began struggling to get to his feet.

“Good thing you made those things nonlethal,” I muttered, half to myself, “You’re one for four.”

Glaring at us, he reached behind his back again and withdrew a sword.

“Link’s sword?” Regent taunted him, “That’s not even from the right game.  You’re breaking theme.”

“I think I speak for everyone when I say we just lost what little respect we had for you,” Tattletale quipped.

Leet lunged for the two of them.  He didn’t get three steps before Regent made him stumble and fall to his hands and knees.  The sword slipped from his grasp and slid over the pavement before flickering out of existence.

He was only a few feet from me, too focused on Tattletale and Regent to pay enough attention to me.  I reached behind my back, withdrew my baton and snapped it out to its full length.  As he started climbing to his feet, reaching behind his back for what I realized was a thin, hard backpack, I swatted at his hand with the length of metal.  He yelped, pulling his hand to his chest to cradle it.  I hit him in the calf, just below the knee, a little harder than I’d intended to.  He crumpled.

Stepping around him, I grabbed the end of the baton with my other hand and pulled the length of metal hard against his throat.

Leet started to make strained choking noises.  He caught me off guard by bucking backward, throwing the two of us onto our backs, him on top of me.  I winced as the impact brought his weight against the bruised area of my chest where Glory Girl had thrown Tattletale at me.  I didn’t lose my grip, though.  Ignoring the one hundred and thirty pounds on top of me, I was glad for the extra leverage being on the ground afforded me.

“You okay?” Grue asked me in his echoing voice.  He stepped forward so he was standing over me.

“Peachy,” I replied, huffing with the exertion.

“Don’t pull it against his windpipe.  You’ll get tired enough that you lose your grip before he ever passes out.  Here,” he bent down and forced Leet’s head to one side, moving the baton so it was pressing against the side of Leet’s neck, “Now you’re pulling against the artery, obstructing the blood flow to his brain.  Twice as fast.  If you could put pressure on both arteries, he’d be out in thirty seconds.”

“Thanks,” I huffed, “For the lesson.”

“Good girl.  Über’s down for the count, but I’m going to go help the others make sure he’s not going to give us any more trouble.  We’re only steps away, so shout if you need a hand.”

It wasn’t fast, even with the technique Grue had instructed.  It wasn’t pretty either.  Leet made lots of ugly little sounds, fumbling awkwardly for his backpack.  I pressed my body tight against it, though, and he gave up.  Instead, he tried pressing against the bar, to alleviate the pressure.  When that didn’t work, he started scratching uselessly at my mask.

I released him when he finally slumped over.  Extricating myself from underneath him, I adjusted my mask, drew my knife and cut the high tech backpack off him.  When I’d done that, I searched him.  If we were going to interrogate him, it wouldn’t do to have him digging out some little trinket to free himself or incapacitate us.  His costume was skintight, so it was easy enough to verify there weren’t any hidden pockets or devices on him.  Just to be safe, I cut the antenna off his head and removed his belt.

The others returned with a battered and unconscious Über in their arms, his arms bound behind him with plastic wrist ties.  They dumped him beside Leet.

“Now to find out where they stashed Bitch and the cash,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, “Got any smelling salts?”

I shook my head, “No.  These guys have henchmen, don’t they?  They’ve probably got them watching over the money.  We’d likely find Bitch in the same place.”

“Close but no cigar,” a mechanical hiss answered me.

We wheeled around to see a woman in the same outfit Über and Leet were wearing.  The difference was that she wore a gas-mask style fixture over her lower face, and the lenses of her goggles were red, not black.

The woman’s mask seemed to take what she said and replay everything in a robotic, monotone hiss, “I really hoped they would take one or two of you out of the picture, or at least injure someone.  How disappointing.  They didn’t even get around to introducing their guest star for tonight.”

“Bakuda?” Tattletale was the first to put a name to the face, “Fuck me, the game their costumes were from… Bomberman?”

Bakuda stood and bowed in one smooth motion.  Regent raised his hands, but she let herself drop to her knees, gripping the roof’s edge with one hand to avoid sliding off.

“Nuh uh uh,” she waggled one finger at him, “I’m smart enough to learn from the mistakes of others.”

“You seriously left the ABB to join Über and Leet?” Regent asked, astounded.

“Not exactly,” Bakuda said.  She snapped the fingers of the hand she wasn’t using to keep hold of the roof.

Below her, the door to the storage locker opened.  Three men in ABB colors stepped out, each holding a weapon.  A gun, a baseball bat, a fire axe.

Then other doors opened, all down the corridor of storage lockers.  Thirty or forty doors, each with at least one person behind them.  Some with three or four.  All of them armed.

“Those two were cheap hires.  They just wanted a few hundred dollars and I had to wear this costume.  Guess you get what you pay for.

“Goes without saying, I’m still with the ABB,” Bakuda stated the obvious for us.  “In charge, matter of fact.  I think it’s fitting that I commemorate my new position by dealing with the people that brought down my predecessor, don’t you agree?”

She didn’t expect an answer, nor did she wait for one.  She pointed at us and shouted, “Get them!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sunsets are always best after a spell of bad weather.  Today was no exception.  Following the day and a half of heavy rain we’d just suffered through, the sky was turning vivid shades of orange and crimson, with purple highlights on the thin clouds that were moving briskly in the strong wind.  It looked especially amazing as we approached the water of the Bay, but none of us were really in a mood to appreciate it.

It was like we were an entirely different group of people from the group of friends that had walked from the market to the loft.  There was no conversation, no joking, no bonding.  We were all thinking the same thing: that something was wrong, that something had happened.  Nobody voiced their suspicions, though, as if there was the unspoken agreement that we would only make it come true by saying it aloud.

In silence, we caught the bus at the ferry and got off at the Trainyard, the part of the Docks that sat opposite to the Boardwalk.

As a group, we walked a half block from the bus stop, around the back of a derelict building, and stripped out of our civilian clothes.  The storage facility was just a block from the Trainyard.  Just past the chain link fence,  I could see long abandoned boxcars sat like oversize, crumbling tombstones, overgrown with weeds, surrounded by discarded bottles and makeshift shelters.  The entire area was desolate, empty.  It was hard to say why the bus even came this way.  I supposed maybe there was a skeleton crew of employees maintaining the rail for the trains that happened to pass through.

We descended into the maze.  Each storage locker was only about ten feet by ten feet across, but there were hundreds of them, each one joined to the one beside it, organized into disorganized rows of ten or twenty brick shacks.  It was a common enough sight; places like this were scattered all over Brockton Bay.  Decades ago, as unemployment rates skyrocketed, people had started using the storage lockers as a place to live.  Some enterprising individuals had caught on and storage blocks much like this one had appeared in the place of dilapidated warehouses and parking lots.  It was, in an off the books sort of way, the lowest budget living accommodations you could find, a way for people who’d had apartments and homes of their own to keep their most cherished possessions and sleep on a bed at night.

But things turned sour.  These storage facilities became drug dens, gathering places for gangs and areas where the crazies would congregate.  Epidemics of the flu and strep throat had swept through these ‘neighborhoods’ of closely packed, unwashed and malnourished groups of people, and left people dead in their wake.  Some who didn’t die to sickness were knifed for their belongings or starved, and corpses were left to rot behind the closed doors of their rented storage lockers.  In the end, the city cracked down, and the lockers fell out of favor.  By then, the local industry had crashed enough that the homeless and destitute were able migrate to the abandoned warehouses, factories and apartment blocks to squat there instead.  The same general problems were still there, of course, but at least things weren’t so densely packed into a volatile situation.

That left these sprawls of storage lockers scattered over the city, particularly in the Docks.  They were largely unused, now, just row upon row of identical sheds with faded or illegible numbers painted on the doors, each with a corrugated steel roof bolted securely on top, slanted just enough that people wouldn’t be able to comfortably walk or sleep on top of them.

“We’re looking for thirteen-oh-six,” Grue spoke, breaking the silence that had hung over us for half an hour.  It took us a few minutes to find.  There wasn’t really any rhyme or reason to the layout of the lockers or the numbering.  Probably, I guessed, the lockers had been set down where there was room, and given the first number that was available.  The only reason we found the locker as fast as we did was that Brian had been here before with Rachel.  The vastness of the space and the disorganization was a large part of the reason we had stashed the money here, of course.  If we had trouble even when we knew where we were going, then someone who knew the number and got the key from us would find it even more time consuming.

While Grue fiddled with the lock, I glanced down both ends of the alley we were in.  Except for a forklift parked a short distance away, it was eerily quiet.  A ghost town, I thought.  If ghosts existed, they would reside in a place like this, where so much misery, violence and death had occurred.

“Shit,” Grue said, as the door swung open.  My heart sank.

I stood on my toes to get a look inside.  The locker housed only a broad smudge in the thick layer of dust on the floor, a single lightbulb dangling from a power cord, and a dark stain in the corner.  No money.

“I vote we kill her,” Regent said.

My eyebrows went up, “You think it was Bitch?  Would she just take the money and run?”

“If you asked me five hours ago, I would’ve said no,” Regent replied.  “I would have told you, sure, she’s a loose cannon, she’s reckless, crazy, she’s easily pissed off and she’ll hospitalize those people who do piss her off… but I’d have said she’s loyal, that even if she doesn’t necessarily like us-”

“She doesn’t like anyone,” I interrupted.

“Right, she doesn’t like anyone, us included, but we’re the closest things she has to friends or family, besides her dogs.  I wouldn’t have thought she’d throw that away.”

“She didn’t,” Tattletale spoke, “It wasn’t her.”

“Who was it?” Grue asked.  The haunting echo of his voice had an edge of anger to it.

“A cape,” Tattletale replied, almost absentmindedly, as if she was focusing on something else, “Someone who can pick locks.  That door wasn’t forced.”

“A villain?” I asked.

“A villain,” Tattletale echoed me.  I couldn’t tell if she was clarifying what I’d said or if she was just echoing my words while she paid attention to something else.  “More than one.  And they’re still here.”

A soft clapping answered her.  It was slow, unenthusiastic to the point of being sarcastic.

“Brilliantly deduced,” the same person that had been clapping spoke out.  As Tattletale whipped her head around, I took a few steps back from the storage locker, to get a better look at the two people who stood on the roof.

They were standing with one leg higher than the other, to keep from sliding off the angled roof, and both were wearing identical costumes.  The costumes sported blue man-leotards with broad belts cinched around their waists, skintight white sleeve and leggings.  Their hoods were elastic, clinging to their heads so they left only a window for the face, and each sported a single white antenna.  Of all colors, their gloves, boots and the balls at the top of their antennae were bubblegum pink.  Their faces were obscured by oversize goggles with dark lenses.

Other than their costumes, though, they couldn’t have been more different.  One of the figures was scrawny, with a weak chin and a bad slouch.  The other had a sculpted physique, broad shouldered and tall, the lines of his muscles clearly visible through his skintight costume.

“Über and Leet,” Tattletale greeted them, “I can’t tell you two how relieved I am.  For a few seconds, I thought we had something to be worried about.”

“Rest assured, Tattletale, you do,” Über proclaimed.  He was the sort of person who proclaimed, announced, broadcasted and declared.  Just like Grue’s power altered his voice to make him sound haunting and inhuman, Über’s power made him sound like the guy who narrated trailers for action movies or late night commercials.  Overdramatic, intense about everything he said, no matter how mundane.  Like someone overacting the role of a gallant knight in a kid’s movie.

I looked around for what I thought of as the snitch.  I finally spotted it as a small round shadow against the backdrop of the sunset-red sky, just above the glaring sliver of sun.  It was a camera, mounted in a golden sphere the size of a tennis ball.  It was capable of moving like a hummingbird, staying safe, always recording.  Über and Leet streamed all of their costumed activity online, so people could tune in whenever to see what they were up to. I was pretty sure they had a time delay, so events that the camera recorded would play out online in a half hour to an hour.

I could admit I had watched myself, a couple of times, which was how I knew about the ‘snitch’.  Each time I’d tuned in, I had been surprised to see there were thousands of viewers.  I’d stopped because it wasn’t feel-good watching.  They were real underdogs, struggling to succeed, which made you feel sorry for them, made you want to root for them, until they did something despicable.  Then you found yourself looking at them in a negative light, looking down on them, cheering whenever they failed.  It felt a little too much like I’d been looking at them in the same way Emma, Madison and Sophia looked at me, and that had been a major turn-off.

After spotting the camera, which was no doubt positioned to catch a view of us looking up at the two villains, our shadows long behind us, I turned my gaze back to the pair.  With my power, though, I sent a collection of flies to congregate around the camera.  It didn’t take long for the camera to start going spastic in the periphery of my vision, as if it were trying to shake them off.  I smiled behind my mask.

Leet frowned and turned to the camera, “Is that really necessary?”

“You fucked with us,” I replied, “I fuck with your subscriber base.”

Tattletale and Regent grinned and chuckled, respectively.  Only Grue stayed quiet.  He was standing very still, but the darkness around him was roiling like a stoked fire.

“What’s the theme tonight?” Regent called out, “Your costumes are so terrible, I can’t look directly at them long enough to try and figure it out.”

Leet and Über glared at him.  Their entire schtick was a video game theme.  With every escapade, they picked a different video game or series, designing their costumes and crimes around it.  One day it would be Leet in a Mario costume throwing fireballs while Über was dressed up as Bowser, the two of them breaking into a mint to collect ‘coins’.  Then a week later, they would have a Grand Theft Auto theme, and they would be driving through the city in a souped up car, ripping off the ABB and beating up hookers.

Like I’d said.  Despicable.

Über approached the edge of the roof and stabbed his finger in Regent’s direction, “You-”

He didn’t get to finish.  Regent swung his arm out to one side, and Über lost his footing.  I joined the others in stepping back out of the way as he fell face first onto the pavement at the base of the locker.

“Too bad you’re fucking with the camera,” Regent commented, tilting his head in my direction, “I would have liked to see how many hits that clip would have gotten on Youtube.”

“Give me some advance warning next time,” I told him, “Maybe a hand signal?”

We had backed away from the locker as Über fell, and we retreated another few steps as he stood.  Leet hopped down to stand beside him.

“The money,” Grue spoke, “Where is it?  How did you find it?”

“Your fifth team member led us straight to it.  Lucky happenstance, really,” Leet grinned, “As for how we found her…” he trailed off.

Grue spoke in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to the pair of villains, “They did something to Bitch, they’ve got the money.  If we don’t get a decisive victory here, our reputation is fucked.”

“No holds barred?” Tattletale murmured.

“Leave one of them in a state to be interrogated.  Make it Leet, since Über’s powers make him annoying to keep contained.  Give him a chance and he can figure out how to do anything like he’s a goddamn expert at it, and that probably extends to escaping from ropes or handcuffs.  Alright?”

“I’m game,” I answered.  I was surprised at how excited I was.  This was the sort of thing I had put on a costume to do.  Sure, the context wasn’t what I would have chosen, but going up against bad guys?

I smiled behind my mask and reached out for my bugs.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

An evening crowd had started to file into Fugly Bob’s, large groups that were grabbing beers and moving tables together to accommodate their individual crowds.

As one group began dragging tables into one long row in the middle of the patio, not far from where we were sitting, Brian asked, “Want to go?  I’ll share my bit on the way back.”

There were no arguments, so we paid our bill and left.  Brian was gracious enough to carry some of Lisa’s and my bags, in addition to his own, lightening our load.  The Market itself had mostly emptied, with the various merchants and shoppers having left to get their dinners.  Only the stalls and venders that were selling food were sticking it out.  Brian apparently deemed it safe to begin.

“For background, I guess it’s important to mention that my parents split up when I was thirteen,” Brian told us, “I went with my father and my sister Aisha went with my mom.  Aisha and I kind of stayed in touch, but there’s four years difference in our ages, our interests were completely different, so there wasn’t a lot to say.  I’d send her a text message about how my day at school had been painfully dull, and a few days later, she’d send me an email about a cartoon she liked.  Or she’d ask me for advice on what to do when she got an F on a spelling test.

“We weren’t close.  It wasn’t really possible, since I was living at the south end of the city and she was up here.  But one night, I got a text from her.  Two words: ‘Help me’.  I called, but the line was busy.  To this day, I don’t know why I took it so seriously, but I got over to my mom’s place as fast as was humanly possible.  Ran out the front door, sprinted two blocks to Lord Street, downtown, and grabbed a cab.  Left the cab driver shouting for his money as I charged through the front door of my mom’s place and found my sister.

“She’d been crying, but she wasn’t saying what was wrong.  I didn’t bother asking a second time.  I gave her a hug, picked her up and started to leave.  A man I didn’t recognize got in my way.  My mom’s new boyfriend.

“I knew he was the reason she had texted me for help, from the moment I saw her reaction.  Maybe I’d suspected there was something going on even before that, from the way her emails and texts had changed in tone.  It would explain that gut feeling I’d had that made me get over there as fast as I did.  I saw her shrink back, I felt her hold me tighter, and I went cold inside.

He paused a second, just walking in silence.  I almost thought that he was done, somehow, until he suddenly turned to me.  “I think I mentioned, Taylor, that my father had been a boxer, while he was in the service?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Well my father is a hard man.  Not the kind of man that’s meant to raise a son alone.  I wouldn’t say he was abusive, but there’s never been any warmth to him, no charming anecdotes, no fatherly wisdom, no throwing baseballs in the backyard.  The extent of our bonding was in the gym, him holding the punching bag in position while shouting at me that I was doing something wrong, staying grimly quiet if my form, my timing, the raw power of my hits were all flawless.  Or we’d be in the ring, with boxing helmets and gloves on, a thirty five year old man in peak physical condition barely holding back against his fifteen year old son.  He just expected me to keep up or take the hits, and I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

“So even if I was only fifteen, I was tall for my age, I was fit, and I knew how to throw a punch.  I didn’t say a word, didn’t make a sound.  I put my sister down and beat my mother’s boyfriend within an inch of his life, my mother screaming and wailing the entire time.  When I was done, I picked my sister up and returned to the cab.  We went to my father’s that night, and we went to the police station in the morning.”

“When you throw a punch barehanded, it doesn’t leave your hands pristine.  A few good swings, you connect solidly with someone’s face, someone’s teeth, and it tears the fuck out of your knuckles.  It was at my father’s place that night, washing and cleaning my hands, when I saw it.  It wasn’t just blood leaking out of my torn up knuckles, but there was the darkness too, like wisps of really black smoke.  You hear about the trigger event, you might think it’s all about rage or fear.  But I’m a testament that it can be just the opposite.  I didn’t feel a fucking thing.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That’s my story,” he said.

“Um, I can’t think of a nice way to put this, but why aren’t you in jail, after thrashing that guy?”

Brian sighed, “It was a close call, but the guy I beat up had violated the terms of his probation by not going to his narcotics anonymous meetings and Aisha backed me up as far as us saying, well, it was well deserved.  He came across as the bad guy more than I did.  He got six months in jail, I got three months of community service.”

“And you’ve been as good as gold ever since, haven’t you?” Lisa grinned.

Brian smiled at that.  “These guys know already, but I don’t think I mentioned it to you,” he said to me, “I got into this for Aisha.  My mother lost custody of her after child services stepped in, so Aisha’s living with my father now.  Problem is, he’s not an ideal parent.  It’s been nearly three years, and he still doesn’t know what to do with a daughter, so they mostly ignore each other.  But she’s acting out, getting into trouble, and she needs someone watching over her that isn’t him and isn’t our mother.  I turn eighteen in June, and when I do, I plan to get my mother and father’s parental rights terminated and apply to become Aisha’s guardian.  To do that, I’m going to need money.”

“Thus his current, rather lucrative, form of employment,” Lisa pointed out.

Brian stuck his hands into his pockets, “My father has given me his blessing as far as my taking custody of my hellion of a sister.  My mother made it clear she’s going to fight it every step of the way.  That means legal fees.  It means paying a private investigator to get proof that my mother hasn’t kicked her habits as far as the drugs and the fucked up boyfriends.  I’ll need an apartment that’s going to pass inspection, with a space ready and set aside for Aisha.  More than anything, I’ve got to present myself as someone that’s financially secure and responsible enough to make up for the fact that the other option is Aisha’s own mother.”

“The boss is helping on that last bit,” Lisa said, “The allowance and a share of the other income Brian is getting is coming back to him in the form of a paycheck from a legitimate company, and the manager of said company is both willing and able to provide a glowing recommendation on his behalf.”

“Which I’m less than thrilled about,” Brian admitted, “It’s… convenient, I don’t know how else I’d manage it, but I don’t like being so reliant on someone I don’t know at all.  He could walk away with that forty thousand dollars, I’d deal.  But if he fucked me on this…”

“You said it earlier,” Lisa assured him, “He has no reason to.”

“True.  It doesn’t make me feel much better.”

“I think what you’re doing is very noble,” I said.

“No,” Brian almost sounded offended at the idea. “I’m just doing what I have to.  She’s family, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”  I could understand how family was a priority.

We fell silent for a minute or two, only partially because some mothers with oversize strollers had turned a corner and were walking in front of us, putting them easily in earshot.  The other reason was that there hadn’t been too much more to add to the conversation.

I was relieved when the two moms parked their strollers and stopped to look in a store window, because it let us get ahead of them.  Groups of people who take up the entire sidewalk so you have to step onto the road to go around them are a definite pet peeve of mine.  Oblivious people who block the entire sidewalk and walk slowly enough that you’re forced to dawdle, yet fast enough that you can’t walk around them?  They make me fantasize about bringing swarms of bees down on their heads. Not that I would actually do it, of course.

When we were free to talk again, I found myself struggling to think up a new topic of conversation.  I glanced at Brian, trying to gauge how he was feeling after telling his story.  Was he really okay, or was he just really good at repressing his feelings?  He looked totally normal, as relaxed as one could expect from someone who was carrying as many shopping bags as he was.

“Hey, what did you buy?” I asked him.

“Some stuff for my apartment.  Placemats, a piece of art I gotta to put in a frame.  Kind of boring.  I found a neat statue, the guy said it was a concept sculpt he did for a horror movie that never panned out.  I was thinking it had a freakish looking face, and since I’m thinking of updating my costume, I was considering using the statue as an inspiration for a new mask.  Move on from the skull.”

“You’ll have to show me,” I said.

“Actually,” he paused, “You’re the person I was most interested in showing it to.  Your costume is pretty cool, and I was wondering if you had any suggestions on where to go?”

“Where?”

“For costumes.”

I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, trying to piece together what he was saying.

“Having my power is really frustrating, sometimes,” Lisa complained, “It’s like being the only person with eyes in the land of the blind.  Taylor, Brian is asking you where you bought your costume.  Brian, she didn’t buy her costume.  She made it from scratch.”

“No shit?” His eyebrows raised.

“It’s spider silk,” I said, “So it’s got a tensile strength that’s only a hair less than steel, but it’s a fraction of the weight.  It’s not as strong as kevlar, but it stretches, which means it’s going to handle regular wear and tear better than a costume made with steel, kevlar or rubber would.  Making it was kind of complicated, because of how I needed to manage the spiders and weave it, but I basically had the spiders do the work while I concentrated.”

Brian nodded, “That’s pretty damn cool.  Would you make me one?”

That gave me pause.

“I wouldn’t expect you to do it for free,” he added.

“How much are we talking?” I asked.

“Name a price.”

I thought on it.  “Two thousand?”

He chuckled, “No discount for me being a team member and a friend?”

“That is with a discount,” I said, “It takes time, long hours of having to be in general proximity to the bugs as they work, which I can’t do all the time, because my dad would see if I left them out while he was home.  Plus I have to rotate the spiders so I constantly have a fresh supply of silk, but I can’t have so many in the neighborhood that people would notice… it’s not easy.”

“If that’s the big issue, then change locations,” Lisa suggested.

“To where?  It has to be a place I’m spending a lot of time, some place with room to work, where I can keep a few tens of thousands of spiders without anyone noticing.”

“The loft?” Lisa shrugged, “Or to be more specific, the area under the loft?”

That stopped me.  It made so much sense I could have kicked myself for not thinking of it the instant Lisa suggested changing locations.

“Woah, woah, woah,” Alec cut in, “Tens of thousands of spiders?”

“If I want the work to be relatively quick,” I said, “Yeah, we’re probably talking about that much.  Especially since I suspect Brian is going to want something a little heavier. The floor under the loft could definitely work.  I mean, it’s not like a few more cobwebs will attract attention if anyone sticks their head in, right?”

Alec ran his fingers through his hair, which I took to be a sign of stress or worry.  It was a rare thing, to see him as anything but bored or half distracted.  As if to confirm my thoughts, he said, “I don’t want tens of thousands of spiders just lurking below me, making spider noises and climbing upstairs to crawl on me while I sleep.”

I tried to reassure him, “Black widows don’t tend to roam, and they’re more likely to devour each other than they are to bite you.  I mean, you wouldn’t want to provoke one-”

“Black widow spiders?” Alec groaned, “This is the point where you say you’re messing with me.  It’s cool, I can take a prank.”

“They have the strongest dragline silk you’ll get from any spider around here,” I said, “I’d love to get my hands on something better, like a Darwin’s bark spider.  They’ve got the strongest silk of any arachnid or worm out there.  It could make fabric five times as tough as kevlar.  I’d ask our boss to see about getting me some, if I thought they could survive in this mild climate.”

“You’re not kidding about the black widow spiders.”

“Remember the ones I brought to the bank robbery?  I brought them from home.”

“Fuck,” Alec said, then he repeated himself, “Fuck. And now Brian’s going to insist on that costume, so this is probably going to happen.”

“Arachnophobic?” I asked, just a little surprised his reaction was so strong.

“No, but I think anyone would be spooked by the idea of tens of thousands of black widow spiders being in the same building as them.”

I considered for a moment, “I could have cages, if it would give you some peace of mind.  It probably makes sense to have it anyways, since they’re territorial, and would kill each other when I wasn’t there.”

“We’ll work something out,” Lisa grinned, “Think you could micromanage enough to make me one too?”

It struck me that I was thinking seriously about putting together some high quality costumes for villains.  I wasn’t sure how I felt on the subject.

“I can micromanage my bugs enough to make two at once, sure… but it’s really just such a pain in the ass.  I was so relieved to be done my own costume, I’m not looking forward to the idea of doing two more.”  All true enough.  “Let me think on it?”

“One thousand five hundred,” Brian said, “I’ll go that high, now that we’ve come up with a way to maybe handle the logistics of it.  I think it’s a fair offer.”

“Okay,” I said.  Money didn’t hold any sway over me, really.  I mean, big numbers could make my eyes widen, but at the end of the day, I had no plans to spend my ill-gotten gains.

All in all, it took us maybe an hour to get back to the Loft.  I didn’t mind.  My training meant the hike didn’t tire me out much, and the company was good.

As we made our way into the building and the others headed up the stairs, I stayed behind to look at the factory area on the first floor.  If I could maybe secure some plywood to the frames where there had been treadmills, it would mean I would have several long countertops for my bugs to work on.  Add some sort of cage at the back, to house them… but where would I find the sort of grid of cages or containers that could house thousands of individual spiders?

It was something I could figure out.  Whether I settled on egg cartons or built the entire thing with the help of bug labor, I knew it was doable somehow.

The question was, did I want to do it?

I made my way upstairs, deep in thought.

“Where’s Rachel?” Brian asked, as he returned from the other end of the loft, Brutus and Angelica trotting behind him, tails wagging. “Only two of her dogs are here.”

“We’re twenty minutes later than we said we’d be,” Lisa pointed out, “Maybe she went ahead?”

“You guys get ready,” Brian directed us, “We told our employer we’d hand the cash over at some point tonight, and if we take too long, it’s going to reflect badly on us.  I’ll take care of calling Rachel to see what’s up, since it doesn’t take me as long to get my stuff on.”

Alec, Lisa and I headed towards our individual rooms.  After shutting the door, I got my costume from the bottom drawer of my bedside table.  I laid it out on my inflatable mattress, then gathered and lined up my arsenal for my utility compartment: pepper spray, knife, telescoping combat baton, notepad, Epipens, a change-purse with some spare change and a twenty inside and an unused, disposable cell phone.  Everything I’d been able to think of, for what I’d want to keep with me.

Pen, I realized.  It was a little thing, but a notepad did me little good without a pen.  I headed for the dresser and stopped short.

On top of the dresser, there was a crystal.  Except crystal was the wrong word.  It was a teardrop shaped piece of amber, polished smooth, almost a foot tall, set into a stone base so it stood upright.  Inside was a dragonfly.  The dragonfly was so large it almost didn’t fit – it wouldn’t have fit, even, if the wings hadn’t curled inward at the tips as the amber set.  Where the light from the loft’s windows touched the crystal, it cast the top of the dresser and some of the wall in deep shades of yellow and orange, with hints of dark blue where it passed through the dragonfly’s translucent wings.

There was a note beside it.  ‘Saw it, seemed very you.  Consider it a belated welcome present.  Brian.’

I was stunned.  He must have left it while I was still downstairs.  I hurried to get into my costume, found a pen in the dresser and put the contents of my utility compartment in place.  When that was done, I pulled on some jeans, a sweater and a jacket over top of the costume, finishing up with a nearly empty backpack to cover the slight hump of the armor on my back.

It was only after I was totally ready that I headed out of my room and found Brian on the couch.  While I was sure he’d be gracious either way, I was assuming he would appreciate it more if I got ready first and then thanked him, instead of the other way around.

He was still in the living room, pulling on his leather motorcycle jacket over a protective vest.

“I-uh, don’t know what to say.”

His forehead creased, “Is it okay?  I was thinking, maybe giving you a rock with a dead bug inside it wasn’t the nicest-”

“It’s perfect,” I interrupted him, “Really.  Thank you.”  I never knew what to say when getting a gift.  I always worried my thanks sounded false, forced or sarcastic, even when they were genuine.

Impulsively, I gave him the briefest of hugs.  It seemed like the only way I could make my gratitude clear.

“Hey!” a voice from behind me startled the wits out of me, “No romance in the workplace!”

I turned around to see Alec and Lisa standing in the hallway, grinning.  In Lisa’s case, grinning more than usual.

I must have turned beet red.  “It’s not, no, I was just thanking him for-”

“I know, dork.  I was with him when he bought it.”

Mercifully, Lisa changed the subject, “Any word from our resident sociopath?”

Brian frowned, “No.  Her phone is out of service, which it shouldn’t be, since I was the one who turned it on, activated it and gave it to her earlier today.  Something’s up.”

The good natured mood from moments before was gone.  We exchanged looks between us, and nobody was smiling now.

“I think…” Brian said, weighing his words carefully, “It would be a very good idea to check on the money, ASAP.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter