Interlude 7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

<Walk!> the soldier barked in Turkish.  He jammed his gun between her shoulderblades, hard.  He was twice as tall as her, far stronger than her, so there could be no fighting or resisting even if he wasn’t armed.  She stumbled forward into the shrubbery and trees, and branches scraped against her forearms and face.

One foot in front of the other, Hana told herself.  Her feet were like lead weights as she trudged forward.  The needles on the trees and shrubbery scraped against her skin.  Even the twigs were coarse, almost thorny, catching on her dress and socks, biting through the cloth to scrape her skin and stab at her shoeless feet.

<Faster!> the soldier threatened.  He said something else, longer and more complicated, but Hana’s Turkish wasn’t good enough to make it out.  She looked over her shoulder and saw the man back the way she’d come.  He made his meaning explicitly clear by waving his gun toward the other children, who were corralled in the midst of a half dozen other soldiers.  If she didn’t move faster, someone else would pay for it.

Seven years had given her village false confidence, let them believe that they were far enough away, secluded enough in the valley and forest, that they could escape the worst fighting of the ongoing war.  That illusion had been shattered just hours ago.

She had been hidden in the cellar beside her house.  She had heard the screams and gunfire.  Too much gunfire, considering how few working guns the men and women of her village had.  Guns and bullets were too expensive when you lived off your garden and what you could hunt, and a trip to the nearest city to buy such things was dangerous.  What they had were the leftovers, the handful of weapons taken off enemies by the guerilla fighters and left behind or traded in barter when they passed through the village for supplies and medical care.  Those who had the guns lacked the skill or training to use them.  The fighters were supposed to defend them against people like this, stop them from getting this far.

She hurried to take another step forward and flinched as a twig broke underfoot.  The smallest of whimpers escaped through her lips.

When the enemy soldiers had found her in the cellar, dragged her into a group with the nine other children of her village, she’d known that her parents were already dead or dying.  As the soldiers had marched them through the village and into the woods, she’d stared hard at the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks, unwilling to look at the blood, the bodies, that littered her hometown.  People who she had seen every day of her life.

Her eyes scanned the forest floor, but she had no idea what to look for.  A hump of earth?  Twine?  A dense patch of dry, brown needles?  She took another step forward, waited for disaster.  When it didn’t come, she stepped forward again, paused.

Only a short while ago, she had watched from a distance as Kovan, the fat older boy that had once called her names, stepped forward and had his leg fall into a hole.  He’d screamed, and when Hana and the rest of the children had rushed forward to try and lift him out, they had only increased the volume of his shouts and the ferocity of his thrashing.  With the Turkish soldiers watching silently behind them, Hana and the others had used their hands to scrape at the hard, rocky earth, revealing the wooden stakes that were lodged in the sides of the hole.  Each was set in the earth so they pointed downward at an angle, with some at the bottom to pierce his foot.  Supple, the wood had bent enough to let the leg fall down deep into the hole, but attempts to raise Kovan had only pulled his leg and foot up into waiting wooden points.

It was, she knew, one of the traps that had been placed by her village’s hunters or by the guerrilla fighters that defended their village.  They were all over, set throughout the woods, around her village, near roads and other important places.  She had overheard one of the fighters describing this very trap to her father.  She had been told, over and over, that she wasn’t to play in the woods for much this reason, that if she had to travel into the woods for any reason, she needed an adult to guide her.  The full reality of it hadn’t registered until she saw what had happened to Kovan.

They had tried for a long time to dig the boy’s leg free, knowing as they uncovered more and more of his pierced leg, saw the injuries and the quantity of blood, that he wasn’t going to be able to walk very far.  It was hopeless, they knew, but Kovan was someone they had gone to school with.  Someone they had seen every day.

A soldier had put an end to their efforts with a bullet through Kovan’s head, making Kovan the second of the children to die.

Hana was picked to go next.  To test the path.

She clutched the front of her dress, balling the fabric up in hands that were still covered in dirt and scrapes from her efforts to dig Kovan free.  One foot in front of the other.   Every single one of her senses was on edge.  She was hyperaware of the rustle of dirt underfoot, the scrape of pine needles against the fabric of her dress.  She could feel the warmth of the sun heating her skin when she stepped into a spot where the light filtered through the pine trees.

She blinked hard to clear her eyes of tears.  So stupid.  She needed to be able to see.  Any clue.  Any at all, to see a trap.  Crying was the worst thing she could do.

One foot in front of the other.

She stopped.  Her feet refused to go any further.  Trembling, she looked around.

If she took one more step, she knew, she was going to die.

There was no rationale for it, no reason or clue.  This patch of forest was no different from the rest.  A bed of red-brown needles underfoot, shrubs and trees pressing in around her.

But she knew Whether she took a step forward, to her right or left, she would be stepping into a trap.  A hole like the one that caught Kovan, or perhaps an explosive device, like the one that took Ashti.  At least she’d gone quickly.

The soldier that was watching her called out from a distance behind her, the ever familiar <Walk!> that was a threat and an order at the same time.

Sick with fear, Hana looked around, searching for something that could tell her where to go, how to move.

In that moment, she knew she wasn’t going to die right away.  She couldn’t walk any further, it was physically impossible, as though her feet were as rooted to the ground as the trees were.  They would make her watch as they tortured one of the other children to death.  Then they would start on the next, maybe Hana herself, until they had another child willing to act as decoy and clear the traps from their way in the simplest, most dangerous manner possible.


She saw something vast.

It wasn’t big in the sense that the trees or even the mountains were big.  It was big in the way that transcended what she could even see or feel.  It was like seeing something bigger than the whole wide planet, except more – this thing that was too large to comprehend to start with, it extended.  She didn’t have a better word to describe what she was perceiving.  It was as though there were mirror images of it, but each image existed in the same place, some moving differently, and sometimes, very rarely, one image came in contact with with something that the others didn’t.  Each of the images was as real and concrete as the others.  And this made it big in a way that she couldn’t describe if she were a hundred year old scholar or philosopher with access to the best libraries in the world.

And it was alive.  A living thing.

She knew without having to think about it, each of those echoes or extensions of the entity was as much a part of a connected whole as her hand or nose was to her.  Each was something this living entity was aware of, controlled and moved with intent and purpose.  As though it existed and extended into those possible selves all at once.

It’s dying, she thought.  The outermost extensions of the creature were flaking off and breaking into fragments as it swam through an emptiness without air, not moving but sinuously adjusting its self through the existences that held the echoes, shrinking away here and swelling there, carrying itself away at a speed that outpaced light.  In its wake, flakes and fragments sloughed off of the entity like seeds from an impossibly large karahindiba, or dandelion, in a steady wind.  Seeds more numerous than all the specks of dirt across all the Earth.

One of those fragments seemed to grow, getting bigger, larger, looming in her consciousness until it was all she could perceive, as though the moon was falling, colliding with the earth.  Falling directly on top of her.

-k!> the soldier finished without missing a beat.

Hana stirred, she was still in the forest, hands stinging with the scrapes, feet sore from the walking.  Her heart pounded and she could taste fear like bile in her mouth.

Already, the memory was fading.  Had it even happened?  As hard as she struggled to retain it, it was eluding her.  It was like a dream that escaped her when she woke, but so slippery that even the idea that she’d dreamed in the first place was quickly retreating from her mind.

The soldier shouted something too complex for her to understand, directed at his comrades.  Hana let the scraps of the memory slip from her attention.  This, here, was the priority.  Either she walked forward, and she would die, or she would stand by and watch the others die for her cowardice.  With just the vestige of an idea that something had happened, she had been shaken from her paralysis.  Maybe she could step forward.

She raised her foot-

And stopped.  Something stood in her way.  A blur hung in the air at chest level, crackling, shifting with a manic ferocity.  She let her foot fall back down where it had been a moment ago and stared at the kaleidoscopic shimmer of black and green.

She touched it, and felt a weight settle into her palm.  Her hand automatically closed around it, feeling the warmth of it.  It felt almost like when she pet a friendly dog.  An odd thought, given what she found herself looking at.

A gun, polished gray steel.  Somehow familiar.  Identical to the smallest guns she had seen the guerrilla fighters carrying.

I can’t use this.  The thought was cold in her mind.  If I use this, they’ll kill the others the second I fire.

The gun shimmered, became that blur of green and black, then settled into a new shape.  She’d seen this, too.  One of the fighters had been talking to Hana, showing her his English gun magazine, in an effort to get in good graces with her older sister.  This was similar to the gun she’d just had in her hand, but there was a metal tube on the front, nearly doubling the gun’s length.  The tube, she knew, made guns quieter.

The rest of the children and the other soldiers were far behind.  It was still nearly impossible, but-

<Walk!> the soldier behind her shouted.  <Walk or->

She wheeled around, holding the gun in both hands.  She took a second to steady her aim, and the Turkish soldier’s surprise bought her just enough time to pull the trigger.

Hannah’s eyes snapped open.

This is why I don’t sleep.

She was still wearing her costume, she noted, as she rose from her bed and walked to the bathroom.  At least she’d had the sense to remove her scarf so she didn’t strangle while she rested.

She was the only one who remembered.  Everyone else forgot that impossibly huge being, if they were even graced with a glimpse of it.  She couldn’t be sure.  If any others saw it, they would inevitably forget it before they could gather their thoughts enough to speak of it.  Like she was supposed to.

But she remembered.  She touched the combat knife that was sheathed at her hip, as if to remind herself it was there.  She harbored her suspicions about her gift: her powers had taken a part of her psyche and given it concrete form.  The angriest parts of her, the most childish parts, the parts of her that dreamed, and those that forgot.  The knife at her hip slept for her and dreamed for her, she imagined.  She had gone nearly a year at a time without needing to stop and put her head to rest on a pillow.

When she closed her eyes and let herself drift off, it was because she felt it was something she ought to do, not because she had to.  Even then, she never dreamed.  She remembered, instead, her mind replaying past events in perfect detail.  And through some chance of fate, this meant she remembered the entity, and she remembered forgetting it, as paradoxical as that was.

And she would never speak of it to anyone.

She’d killed the soldiers that held the other children of her village hostage.  After the first, she had feigned fear, pretended the guerrilla fighters were in the woods.  Then she had waited for the moment they were too busy watching the woods and mowed the rest of the men down with an assault rifle.  She didn’t even feel bad about it, nor did she lose much sleep that one of the children, Behar, had been shot in the skirmish.

She regretted the deaths, that went without saying, but she didn’t feel guilty about it.  Of the ten of them, seven had made it back, because of her and her gift.  They had returned to their village, moved the bodies out of sight, and did what they could to conserve their food until the guerrilla fighters came through once again.

Hana had made the others swear a promise, to not speak of her gift.  She knew the guerrilla fighters would recruit her, use her, if they knew.  Whatever this power was that she had received, she didn’t feel it was for that.

When the fighters had returned, they saw the state of the children and elected to evacuate them.  The fighters took them to a city, and a man there saw that Hana and the others were shipped off to the United Kingdom, where many other refugees were going.  They were split up, and the others were sent one by one to homes for orphans and other troubled children.  Hana’s turn came late, nearly last, and she was taken to fly on another airplane to her own new home.  It was there she ran into difficulty.  She’d moved through the archway – what she would later learn was a metal detector – and it sounded an alarm.  Guards had found the weapon she couldn’t drop or leave behind, and Hana was carried off to another place.  Interrogated, asked many questions.  She was taken to the bathroom, patted down on her re-entry to the interrogation room, and they found the same gun on her that they’d taken away just half an hour ago.

Everything else had happened very fast, after that.  It was an American in a military uniform that rescued her.  He took her to America, saw that she was put with a family there.  When the first three Wards teams were established, she was enlisted.  She barely knew a hundred words of English, her numbers and the alphabet, when she first went out in costume.

Hannah bent over the sink and washed her face.  She found a toothbrush and cleaned her teeth, then flossed, then scraped her tongue.  Too easy to forget those things, without the rhythm of sleep to break up the continuity of days.  Better to do these things a little too often, than to forget.  She gargled with mouthwash, then bared her teeth to see the dentist’s work, where he had capped them.  Teeth that were perfectly shaped, white.  Not really hers.

Her weapon found its way into her hand at some point after she put the mouthwash down, a handgun not unlike the first shape it had taken for her.  She spun it around her finger by the trigger guard a few times before holstering it as she left the bathroom.  She went to the window and stared at the city across the water.  Colors shifted subtly in the refracted light of the PHQ’s forcefield, oversaturating the view like a TV with bad picture settings.

Even if she never dreamed, America still had a surreal, dreamlike quality to it.  It was so distant from where she had come from, so different.  There was no war here, not really, and yet the people here managed to find so much to  complain about.  Men in suits, trouble in love, medical care and not having the latest touchscreen phone.  Such complaints often carried more emotion and fervor than anyone in her village had used to bemoan the death of loved ones or the methodical eradication of their people.  When she heard the complaints of her friends and coworkers, she simply nodded and gave the necessary words of sympathy.

Bright lights and conveniences and wanting for nothing and televisions and sports cars and capped teeth and chocolate and the list went on…  It had taken her the better part of a decade to even start getting used to it, and everything moved so fast that any time she thought she was getting a grasp on it, there was something new, something she was supposed to know or understand.

She’d accepted without complaint when her adoptive parents told her to start writing her name in the more American ‘Hannah’.  She’d agreed and signed the papers when they took the last name her parents had given her and replaced it with their own. Small things, so minor, compared to what she had seen and done.  It didn’t bear complaining about.  Everyone praised her for how dutiful she was in school and her training.  She never gave up, never quit.  Why should she?  This was nothing compared to those hours she spent in that forest.

So hard to believe that the events from her dream had occurred just twenty six years ago.

It never felt entirely real.  More than once, she had let herself begin to believe she’d died, that she’d taken that step forward and never made it out of the forest.  She had made mistakes when she let herself think that way, had put herself in too much danger, back in her earliest years as a hero.  Now, when she found herself slipping into that mindset, she often tried to sleep.  Her memories as she slept were perfect, unblemished, almost more real than real life, which was why she never did it too often.  Ironic, given how necessary it often was, to keep her grounded in reality.

She’d grown to love this country.  Truly love it, for what it stood for.  She’d had to fight to wear the flag as part of her costume.  America wasn’t perfect, but nothing touched by human hands could be.  There was greed, corruption, selfishness, pettiness, hatred.  But there were good things too.  Freedoms, ideas, choices, hope and the possibility that anyone could be anything, here, if they were willing to strive for it.  As she accepted her new country, she let herself make friends, boyfriends, let herself get close to her parents and their church.  By the time she started college, her accent had all but disappeared, and she knew enough to at least pretend to know what others were talking about when they spoke of pop culture, music and television.

People were judgmental, she knew, and so she would never speak of what she had seen in that moment she received her gift.

Even among other faithful, she would be met with suspicion and scorn, were she to say she’d seen God, or one of His warrior angels, such as they existed beyond the scope of human understanding.  That He had given her this ability so she could save herself.  Others would offer different interpretations, argue that He had given such gifts to bad people, too, they would point to the science of it.  Maybe some small part of her suspected these hypothetical individuals were right.  Still, she preferred her faith to uncertainty.  The notion that this thing she had seen was something other than a benign entity watching over humanity, that it might be malign, or even worse, that it existed with no conception of the effect it had on mankind?  An elephant among gnats?  It wasn’t a comfortable thought.

She glanced at the clock; 6:30 in the morning.  She draped her flag-printed scarf loosely around her neck and lower face, then left her room.  The energy became an assault rifle hanging at her side, bouncing a comforting beat against her hip as she walked. She made her way up a flight of stairs and down to the end of a hallway.

She heard a male voice, a female one.  She paused at the open doorway and knocked.

“Yeah?” Armsmaster called out.

“Am I interrupting?”

“No.  Come on in,” he replied.

She stepped into the room.  It fell somewhere between a workshop and an office.  Two spare suits stood at one side of the room, each with minor functional differences.  A set of Halberds were placed on a rack behind Armsmaster’s desk, one shattered in pieces.  One of the spaces on the rack was empty – Armsmaster had the Halberd in front of him.

“You worked too hard and forgot to go to sleep again, Colin?” Hannah asked, though the answer was obvious.

He frowned, reached over to his computer and hit a button.  He saw the time, muttered, “Damn it.”

“Good morning, Miss Militia,” a woman’s voice came from the computer.

Hannah blinked in surprise, “Dragon.  Sorry, I didn’t realize you were there.  Good morning.”

“You’re up early,” Dragon commented. “And you were out late, from what I’m seeing on the web.  Trouble sleeping?”

“I don’t sleep,” Hannah confessed.  “Not really, since I got my powers.”

“Oh?  Me either.”

Colin leaned back and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, “I’d give my left foot for that little perk.”

Hannah nodded.  There were others like her?  She asked the computer screen, “Do you remember?”

“Sorry?  I don’t understand,” Dragon replied.

“Nevermind.”  If Dragon did remember, Hannah knew the answer to that question would have been different.  Dragon was too smart to miss the connection.

“We were talking shop,” Colin spoke.  He motioned to the Halberd he had in front of him.  “Procrastination through Tinker stuff.  I think tonight’s project was a success.”


Armsmaster stood, seizing the Halberd in one hand.  He pressed a button on the handle, and the blade blurred.  Without even swinging the weapon, he let the heavier top end fall against an empty stainless steel mannequin that might have held a spare suit of his armor.  Dust blossomed where the blade touched the mannequin, and it passed through without resistance.  Pieces of the mannequin clattered to the ground.

“Impressive,” she told him.

He pressed a button, and the blur around the blade dissipated in a steel-colored smoke, leaving only the normal axehead top of the weapon.

“Only problems are that it’s vulnerable to forcefields, fire, and other intense energy, and the apparatus takes up too much space in the upper end.  Even with my power, it likely means I’d have to do without some of the kit I’ve gotten used to.”

“I trust you’ll figure it out,” Hannah told him.  Then with mock sternness, she put her hands on her hips, “Now, no more distracting me.  Just what are you procrastinating on?”

Colin ran one of his hands over his short cropped brown hair, sighed.  “Right.  You have as much say as I do, in this.”

He walked back to his desk and slumped down into his seat.  He kicked a screwdriver and a pair of pliers from the corner of the desk to put his feet up, one ankle crossed over the other.  Reaching in the opposite direction, he grabbed a stack of folders and let them fall to the desk.

“Piggot has decided to take action in reflection of recent events.  Both the Wards and the Protectorate are being restructured.”

Hannah winced, “How bad?”

Shrugging, Colin told her, “As far as the Wards go, we’re losing Aegis.  Piggot and the PRT want to see how he does leading a different team, and the boy’s parents are amenable.  He’ll stay in the Wards for a little longer, to suggest he’s younger than he is.”

“A shame.  Who do we get?”

“It’s a swap.  It’ll be Weld from the Boston team.”

“I don’t know him,” Hannah admitted.

“He’s a good kid with a good record,” Dragon chimed in from the computer, “Ferrous biology, absorbs metals through his skin.  Strong, tough, good grades across the board, high marks in the tactics simulations.  Likable, and a scan of the web shows feedback for him is higher than average, which is impressive, considering he’s one of the Case 53s.”

“He’s got the tattoo?” Hannah asked.

“The mark is branded into his heel, not tattooed, but yes.”

Hannah nodded.  “What else?”

Colin frowned, “We’re supposed to pick two others from our Wards team to transfer to one of the other major teams, nearby.  I settled on Kid Win, I’m stuck on the others.”


“Too new.  Might be able to sell it to Piggot, but my suspicion is that she’ll think it looks bad, giving up our newbie.”

“Hm.  Gallant won’t be able to leave for Boston.  Too many logistical issues,” Hannah glanced at the computer.  She couldn’t say more.

“You can speak freely,” Colin spoke, “Dragon has either read the record in question, or she’s reading it as we speak.”

“Gallant has local responsibilities, and is expected to start helping with his father’s local business enterprise,” Dragon spoke, giving truth to Colin’s words, “Miss Militia is right, he’s a local fixture.  And his girlfriend is here.”

Hannah nodded, “Painful to give up Vista or Clockblocker.  They’re our big guns, and they’re local heroes after the role they played in that bomb scare.  Shadow Stalker?”

Colin shook his head, “There would be more trouble over handing over someone like Shadow Stalker to another team than there would be if we gave away a newbie like Browbeat.  Discipline problems.”

“Still?” she asked.  Armsmaster nodded.

Hannah frowned, “Alright.  This is what you do, then.  Propose Shadow Stalker and Kid Win.  If Piggot does refuse Shadow Stalker, and you should make an argument that Shadow Stalker might need a change of scenery, Piggot will have a harder time refusing Browbeat, right after.”

Colin rubbed his chin, where his beard traced the edges of his jaw, nodded.

“If she doesn’t agree to giving away either of the two, and you really should play hardball on that, you can offer Clockblocker.  He graduates this summer, anyways, and I’d say he’s got enough friends and contacts here that he might apply to come back to Brockton Bay to join our Protectorate when he turns eighteen.  Best case scenario for us, and it’s not like Boston or New York need more capes.”

Colin sighed, “You’re better at this than I ever was.”

Hannah wasn’t sure how to respond.  Colin had his strengths, but he was right.

He went on, “Congratulations.”  He picked up the second folder and held it out to her.

“What?”  She took it, opened it.

“There’s a change to our team, too, according to Piggot and the rest of the oversight.  You’ve been promoted.  Within the next two weeks, this building and this team will be transferred to your command.”

She stood there, paging through the folder of paperwork, stunned.  “Where are you going?”


Hannah broke into a smile, “Chicago!  That’s fantastic!  A bigger city, a bigger team!  Where’s Myrddin being moved?”

“He stays in Chicago.”

Hannah shook her head, “But…” she trailed off.

The hard look on Colin’s face was telling enough.

“I’m so sorry,” she spoke.

“It’s the politics,” Colin spoke, leaning back, “I’m good at this.  Better than most, if you don’t mind me boasting.  Everything I bring to the table, I worked my ass off for.  But when it comes to shaking hands, managing people, navigating the bureaucracy… I’m not good at it, won’t ever be.  Because of that, I’m getting demoted, and I can probably give up on ever being in charge of another team.”

“I’m sorry.  I know how much you wanted-”

“It’s fine,” he said, but it was clear in the curtness and hardness of his tone that it wasn’t.  He turned away and touched his keyboard.  In the darkness of the room, his face briefly reflected the blue light of the screen.  His brow furrowed.

“Dragon.  That program you gave me, predicting the patterns of class S threats, remember it?  I made a few modifications, to see if I couldn’t catch any highlights, I’m running a dozen of them concurrently.  One, I called HS203.  I want you to look directly at this.  I’ve put it behind some pretty heavy security, but if you wait a second, I’ll-”

“I’m already looking over it,” Dragon interrupted.  “I see what you did.  Linking my data to atmospheric shifts.  I think I see it.”

Hannah walked around the desk and leaned over Colin’s shoulder to see the screen.  A map of the east coast was superimposed with a rainbow hued cloud.  “This doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“Nothing’s truly random,” Colin explained, his voice tight, “Any data shows a pattern eventually, if you dig deep enough.  Dragon started work on an early warning system for the Endbringers, to see if we can’t anticipate where they’ll strike next, prepare to some degree.  We know there’s some rules they follow, though we don’t know why.  They come one at a time, months apart, rarely hitting the same area twice in a short span of time.  We know they’re drawn to areas where they perceive vulnerability, where they think they can cause the most damage.  Nuclear reactors, the Birdcage, places recently hit by natural disasters…”

He clicked the mouse, and the image zoomed in on a section of the coastline.

“…Or ongoing conflict,” Hannah finished for him, her eyes widening.  “The ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, the fighting here?  It’s coming hereNow?

Colin didn’t have a reply for her.  “Dragon?  Brockton Bay falls within the predicted zone, and the city is on the list of locations that rate high enough on the sensitivity or negative media scale.  Add my data, the correlations between abrupt microshifts in temperature, air pressure and-”

“The data is good.” Dragon’s voice, synthesized to mask the most telling details about her identity, held no trace of doubt.

“Good enough to call for help?”

“Good enough.”

Colin moved quickly, spinning in his chair to reach a small console.  He opened a glass panel and flipped a switch.  Air raid sirens immediately began their ominous whine.

“Dragon, I’ll contact Piggot and the Protectorate teams.  You get hold of everyone else that matters.  You know who’s most needed.”

“Already on it.”

He turned to Hannah, and their eyes met briefly.  Much was communicated between them in that moment, and she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw in his eyes.

A glimmer of hope?

“Miss Militia.  Recruit the locals.  And we need a place to gather.”

She swallowed her concerns.  “Yes sir!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We’re not to blame for what Coil did,” Grue told me.

“We sure helped it happen.”

“There was no way we could know what he was really doing.”

“Because we were complacent, not paying attention.  Because of that, and because we assisted Coil in distracting the capes, Dinah has been held captive for what, three weeks?  Almost a month?”

“Almost a month,” Tattletale echoed me.

I looked at Tattletale, noted how she was refusing to look anyone in the eye, and I had an uncomfortable thought.  “Did you know about this?”

“I-” She stopped to give a little sigh and briefly make eye contact with me before staring back down at the ground.  “I had an idea, sort of.  I didn’t think it would be this ugly.  It’s hard to explain.”

“Try,” I spoke, my voice hard.

“She disappeared from the middle school near Arcadia the same day we robbed the bank.  Obviously, Coil wanted to ensure the Wards weren’t close enough to interfere, probably why he was so keen on us doing the bank job, after I suggested it.  I made the connection, after.  I just didn’t think – Nothing he said or did led me to think it would be a serious kidnapping.”

“What else could it be?” Grue asked her.

“Her uncle’s one of the mayoral candidates in the election this Summer, you know that?  I knew Coil was putting a lot of value on getting hold of her, I thought maybe he was kidnapping her to use her to ransom for the uncle’s campaign funds, or to get the uncle to drop out of the race in a more direct play.  I had a suspicion he got her to cooperate with some sort of incentive.  Figure out she’s unhappy at home, give her a place to stay and some sort of bribe.  Either way, it’s more fitting with his methods to date, and it would have been short term or more benign.  Not so bad.”

“Kind of off there,” I said, bitterly.

“I’m aware,” Tattletale answered, with just as much emotion in her voice.  “I don’t like it either.  He’s been around me enough, communicated with me enough, to have an idea of stuff that I won’t necessarily know or think to look for.  I didn’t even know she had powers, or how Coil would have found this out or found her.  This is out of character for him.  Ruthless, power hungry.”

“If it bothers you that much, tell him to fuck off,” Bitch cut in, sounding irritated.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.  “We can’t just walk away and leave her like that.”

“And some of us are kind of relying on Coil for some major stuff,” Grue spoke.  “Some of us have people we can’t leave behind.”

I looked at him, surprised, “I don’t want to say your sister isn’t important, but… are you really willing to let Dinah stay in captivity, just for Aisha?”

“If it comes down to it?  Yeah.”

I stared at him.

“I’m being practical, Taylor,” Grue lapsed into using my real name, “People are suffering all around the world.  We ignore what’s happening elsewhere every second of every day, focusing only on our country, our city, our neighborhood, or on the people we see daily.  We only really care about the pain and unhappiness of our loved ones, our friends and families, because we couldn’t stay sane if we tried to support and save everyone.  Nobody could try to do anything like that, except maybe Scion.  I’m applying that concept to a smaller scale.  My family and my team, they take priority, and they take priority in that order.  If I have to choose one way or the other, I’m going to take the option that includes Aisha and you guys.”

“This is different from ignoring starving kids in a third world country or ignoring some homeless guy on the street,” I told him, “You’ve seen Dinah in person, you’ve looked her in the eye.  You’re already involved, you’ve played a role in her situation.”

“I’m not saying I like it, I am definitely less sure I want to work with Coil, now, but I’m saying it’s something that we should discuss and come to a consensus on.”

I looked at the others, “You feel the same way?”

Bitch gave me an annoyed look.  Okay, I wasn’t expecting an ally there.

Regent shrugged, “I’ve told you where I come from, how I grew up.  I’ve seen similar stuff before, only it was my dad’s powers, not drugs.  I’ve got a high tolerance for that shit.”

I tried to convince him, “Didn’t you leave Heartbreaker because of stuff like that?  Aren’t you just getting back into the same situation with Coil?”

“I left my father because he was trying to control me and force me to be someone and something I wasn’t.  It wasn’t even remotely interesting or fun any more.  The day that happens with Coil, I’ll leave him too.  For now, it’s a good gig.”

These are the people I’ve been associating with?  I looked to my last hope for a backup and support.  Tattletale.

She had her thumbs hooked into her belt, her shoulders hunched forward a little, where she leaned against the wall.  She didn’t look happy.

When she met my eyes, she gave a little shake of her head.

“Coil’s not stupid,” Tattletale told me, “He knows what he just did, he had every reason to suspect that one or two people in our group might find his methods distasteful.  He calculated this.  He’s testing us, making sure we’ll stick around when it’s time to make the hard calls.”

“If this is a test,” I spoke, feeling my heart sink, “I think I fail.”

“Don’t say that,” Tattletale spoke.  “Grue’s right, we need to discuss this as a team.”

“Discuss what?  Whether to stay with Coil?”

“Yeah,” the word was a half-sigh coming out of her mouth.

“That you guys even think it’s negotiable is pretty fucked up,” I replied.  The anger and betrayal I was feeling made my tone harsher, harder.

I don’t know what I expected, but I stood there for a few seconds.  Maybe I was waiting for an apology, some sort of excuse, or an admission from them that I was right.

None of them opened their mouths to offer any of that.

I turned to leave, pushing the hatch open as I stepped back into the gravel lot that surrounded the high-rise in construction.

“Come on Taylor,” Grue called out behind me.  I didn’t listen.

“Hey!” He raised his voice.

I didn’t reply.  I was too angry, and as moronic as it sounded, I didn’t want our parting words to be me cussing at him.

I was three paces away from the hatch when I heard the crunch of gravel behind me.  I wheeled around to see Grue closing the gap behind me, one arm outstretched, as if to grab me.

My temper exploded at the same time my bugs did, spilling out from beneath my costume.  At my instruction, they swept between Grue and I, creating a barrier of sorts.

I was already thinking of how I’d deal if it came down to a fight – his costume covered his skin, but I remembered the vents on the edge of his mask, that redirected the flow of his darkness from his face out the edges of his mask, so the skull image would stand out.  In a pinch, my bugs could get in that way.  His power didn’t really affect me, but would a slow trickle of my bugs into his mask compensate for his obvious advantages in hand to hand fighting?

I heard the growling of Bitch’s dogs.  They weren’t full size, but they were bigger than normal, locked into the beginning stages of their transformations.  In the dimly lit lot of the construction area, I could see their shadows through the haze of my swarm.  Dealing with them would be hard, if not impossible.

“No,” Grue spoke, on the other side of the swarm.  “Fuck.  Let her go.”

I turned and fled.

The loft was empty, with only Angelica present.  Behind her, the TV had been left on, a low level of background noise and activity to reassure the dog, maybe, or just Alec being lazy about turning everything off.

Angelica moved very slowly as she climbed down from the couch and approached to investigate me.  Whatever her past experiences, she had never learned to like any humans other than Bitch, so I only got a cursory sniff before she turned to shamble back to the couch.  Whatever energy she’d expended to get to me, check me out and return to where she’d been resting, it didn’t leave her with enough of a reserve of strength to hop up.  She settled down under the coffee table, watching me with her one intact eye, a perpetual wink, if winks could be wary or threatening.

Fog had done a number on her.  It was hard to believe, but she was better than she’d been a few days ago.  Bitch had intended to use her power on the dog, but Lisa had advised against it, warning about the threat of cardiac arrest.  As a consequence, Angelica had spent the better half of a week so lethargic, weak and still that I’d frequently looked at her and wondered if she’d stopped breathing.  I wasn’t so attached to her that I’d be upset if she died, but knowing how much the loss of a dog would gut Bitch had given me enough of a reason to worry about the critter.

It was strange to think I was walking away from this: the loft, the dogs, and the others.

I didn’t know how to parse what I was feeling or thinking.  I felt angry, betrayed.  Standing in the living room of the loft, the feeling of being lost was particularly keen.  I didn’t have a plan, and I’d had a plan for a while, now.  For my first year and a half of High School, it had been all about getting through to the end of the day, reaching the weekend.  When the weekend came, it was about recuperating, rebuilding my mental and emotional strength to face the coming week.

Then I had gotten my powers.  I’d reached my very limit, the moment I might have cracked, and my powers had given me something else to strive for; being a superhero.  There’d been so much to do, so much to plan, prepare and research, that it had given me a reason.  I was hesitant to define it as hope, but it had given me something to focus on beyond the next twenty four hours.

Everything else had flowed from that point.  Meeting the Undersiders, committing to a new plan as an undercover agent, with a new goal of getting info on them and their then-anonymous boss.  When I couldn’t do that in good conscience, I changed my plan to getting to know the others, being a friend to Bitch, bonding with Brian.  Admittedly, I’d had varying degrees of success, in the short period I’d traveled that road, but it had been enough for the present.

And now I was adrift.

I was, in a way, back to square one.  I had to get through today, then get through this week.  I’d figure out where to go from there.  I headed to my room.

My backpack sat beside my bedside table, and a quick investigation revealed it still contained a lot of what I’d stashed in there a week ago, back when I’d expected to spend a few days at Brian’s.  Clothes, basic toiletries, cash, an unused disposable phone.  I added more money, the card with the info for my supervillain bank account, and a few more things.  Checking the room for anything I thought I might need, I found myself looking at my dresser.  Resting on top were the katana I’d claimed as a prize from one fight, and the piece of amber Brian had given me.

I stuck the amber in my bag, surrounding it with clothes to pad it, and then zipped it up.

The alarm clock marked the time at 6:40 in the morning.  If Coil hadn’t called for the meeting at this strange hour, if I hadn’t been packing, this would be about the time that I headed out the door for my morning run.

Leaving like I was, hurrying to be gone before the others caught up with me, I was leaving a lot of stuff behind.  Clothes, furniture, pictures.  Without even realizing it, I’d sort of begun making this space my own, decorating and personalizing it.  Settling in, in a way I hadn’t when I’d been planning to betray the group.

I was putting clothes on over my costume when Lisa’s voice came from the doorway, “Where are you going to go?”

I turned to look at her, and her expression changed.  Was it the look on my face?  I wasn’t sure what emotion I was conveying.  Anger?  Disappointment?  Regret?

“A motel, maybe,” I said.  “Why?  Are you going to have to hunt me down?  Tie up a loose end?”

“You know we wouldn’t.”

“Sure.  I suppose he’ll send the Travelers after me if he goes that route.”  I pulled my mask off and put it away in the backpack.

“This feels bad, Taylor.  You really have to go?”

“I don’t even want to look at myself in the mirror, right now.  Even if we came to some sort of agreement, made a plan to save her together, go against Coil…” I trailed off, trying to find the words, “I can’t face everyone else and pretend like things are normal.  Even if we were working to save her… it feels disrespectful.  Dinah deserves better than that.”

“Believe it or not, Brian’s as freaked out as you are.  If he’s being weird or out of character, it’s just him defaulting to his core programming, you know what I mean?  Like Bitch getting angry, or you going quiet and wary.”

I shrugged, tied my sweatshirt around my waist, told her, “In hindsight, I don’t think it was that out of character for him.  Part of the reason I’m leaving.”

“Is this leave permanent or temporary?”

“Don’t know.”

“Are you going to do something stupid like try to rescue Dinah yourself?”

“Don’t know,” I repeated myself.

“You’re aware that there’s an outside chance that if you try, we might have to try and stop you.  Depending on what agreement the rest of us come to about the current sitch.”

“Do what you have to, I’ll do the same.”

“Alright, then.”

I slung the bag over my shoulder, faced the door.

Tattletale spoke, “I’m not saying goodbye, because this isn’t.  I’ll resolve this situation with Coil and his captive myself, if I have to, if it means we can have another civil conversation in the near future.  Stay alive, don’t do anything rash, and be open to hearing us out in the future?  Surely our friendship is worth doing that much?”

After a moment, then I gave her a single nod.

Lisa moved out of the doorway to let me through.  When I turned in the direction of the living room and the stairwell, Lisa almost deliberately turned in the other direction, toward the kitchen.  As if following me to the exit constituted some vague sort of farewell, and she was sticking to the idea of refusing to say goodbye.

I was halfway down the stairwell to the first floor when I heard it.  A whining noise, like you might hear from a particularly large baby preparing to scream.  The nasal ‘wa’ sound stretched out, so loud it was painful to listen to.  A siren?  An air raid siren.

I reversed direction and ran back up the stairs.  Tattletale was already in the living room.  The TV was showing evacuation directions in a rotation of images:  Leave your homes.  Find the nearest shelter.  Follow the directions of local authorities.  Leave your homes…

“Bomb?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the siren, “Bakuda leave something behind?”

Lisa shook her head.

I’d seen her in the presence of Lung, around Glory Girl, Bakuda, Purity, Night and Fog.  Looking at her, now, I saw an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in any of those scenarios.  There was no trace of her vulpine grin, none of her characteristic humor or reckless abandon.

“Then what is it?”  I asked her, though I already had a dark suspicion.  Even the Bakuda’s terrorism campaign against the city hadn’t warranted the sirens, and that left very few possibilities.

Her response was one word, final. “Endbringer.”

“What- but-”  I turned toward the stairs, then back to Tattletale, “My dad.  I’ve got to-”

Tattletale cut me off, “He’ll evacuate or get to a shelter like everyone else.  Taylor, look at me.”

I did.

“The others and I, we talked about this possibility.  It came up before we met you.  You listening to me?  You know what happens, the usual response.”

I nodded.

“We all decided we’d go.  That we’d try to help, however we could.  But you weren’t a part of that talk, and there’s tensions in the group.  You’re pretty much not on the team, right now, so if you don’t want to-”

“I’ll go.”  I didn’t even need to think about it.  I would never be able to forgive myself if I walked away, knowing there was something I could have done to help.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The skeleton of a building loomed over us.  Girders and beams joined together in what would become one of Brockton Bay’s high rises, twenty stories tall.  At the base of it was a sea of crushed stone, with innumerable bulldozers, piledrivers, loaders, mixers and graders standing still and dark.  The only light came from the buildings and streetlights on the surrounding streets.

Tattletale put key to lock and let us through the fence that surrounded the site.  She held the gate open as Grue, Regent, Bitch and I filed through, followed by Judas and Brutus.  The two dogs were nearly normal in size, nothing that would raise alarm if someone saw us at a distance.  When we were through, Tattletale shut the gate and reached through the gap to put the lock back in place and click it shut.

Gravel crushed underfoot as we made our way to the unfinished high rise.  Tattletale pointed to a hatch, surrounded by a rim of concrete.  The hatch itself had a yellow warning sign reading ‘Drainage’, sporting images beneath of a man wearing a hazmat suit and a man wearing a gas mask.  She fiddled with the keyring to get the right key, undid the lock and raised the hatch.  Stairs led down into a darkness that looked and smelled very much like a storm drain.

As we descended, the smell got stronger.  We passed through a door with metal bars, and then traveled down a long hallway.  The room at the end of the hall was small, with one other door and a small surveillance camera in one corner.  The door we faced had no handle, forcing us to wait.  It took about twenty seconds before someone opened the door for us.  One of Coil’s men.

The interior of the sub-basement had none of the smell of the previous chambers, and consisted of two tiers with walls of poured concrete.  The upper level we stood on was an arrangement of metal walkways that extended around the room’s perimeter.  Crates and boxes filled the level below, and I could see fifteen or so of Coil’s people down there, sitting on crates or leaning against them, talking among themselves.

Each soldier was outfitted in a matching uniform: shades of gray and some black, hard vests with raised collars to protect their necks.  Only a few wore their balaclavas, and I could see a variety of nationalities in a group that was mostly men.  All of the soldiers had assault rifles somewhere nearby, slung over shoulders with straps and leaning against walls or crates.  Polished steel attachments on the underside of each gun’s barrel contrasted with the dark gunmetal tone of the rest of the equipment.

The man who had opened the door for us inclined his head in the direction we were to go.  We traversed the metal walkway, and passed more of Coil’s soldiers.  I saw one squad of six below us was gearing up, pulling on masks and checking their guns.  Five seconds later, we passed Circus on the walkway, in a costume and makeup of red and gold.  Oblivious to us or our passing, she was leaning against a wall by a stack of cardboard boxes, standing intimately close to a young soldier with close-cropped red hair and an ugly scar running down one side of his neck.

We found Coil at the end of the walkway, talking to four people who most definitely weren’t soldiers.  Each wore a suit, and none seemed the type to carry a gun.  There was a heavyset woman, a man who must’ve been fifty or sixty, a man who stood no more than four feet tall and a blonde woman who barely looked out of high school.

“Cranston, can you have it for tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the blonde woman replied.

“Good.  Pearse, the soldiers?”

“Squads Fish, Nora and Young are suited up and ready for your okay,” the short man spoke.

“And the replacement recruits?”

Pearse handed Coil a set of folders, “I’ve put post-its on the most promising.  We need two to make up for one soldier that was recently injured, and one that decided to skip town.”

Coil tucked the folders under one arm, “Good.  Duchene, I’ll talk to you later tonight about our preparations.  The rest of you, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

The suits marched off, with all but the fat lady passing us to go the way we’d come, along the metal walkway.  The woman headed down the stairs to the lower area with all the soldiers, and a group of people that weren’t in uniform flocked to her.  People with clipboards and crowbars.  The construction crew?

“Undersiders,” Coil spoke, “You’ve recuperated this past week?”

“More or less,” Grue replied.  He had his arms folded.

“Excellent.  And what do you think?”  He gestured to the underground complex around us with a sweep of his arm.

“It’s impressive,” Grue spoke.

“Once things are set up, some of this will be a base of operations for the Travelers, the rest of this space serving as a place my men can meet before they deploy.”

“Right,” Grue replied.

“So.  I expected a reply once you felt you were healed and ready for more work, or if you decided on a reply for my deal, but I got a sense this isn’t quite that.”

Tattletale spoke, “We can’t keep doing this, Coil.”

It was hard to tell, but I suspected that did something to knock Coil off his stride.  “Hm.  Elaborate?”

“We keep getting through these fights by the skin of our teeth.  We’re not up to it.  Just a few days after we helped take down the ABB, a situation that had two of our members facing down Lung and Oni Lee, we were up against the Protectorate, the Wards and Empire Eighty-Eight in the span of forty-eight hours.  Even with your people and your powers to help, we’re not strong enough for this.”

“I see,” Coil turned to face the lower section of the sub-basement and look down at his people.  He rested his hands on the railing, “Are you terminating our arrangement?”

Tattletale shook her head, “We’d rather not, but it depends on what we agree to here and now, in this meeting.  We talked this over for the past week, and I’ll be blunt.  The one person who wasn’t keen on taking your deal changed her mind, but the rest of us now have some serious reservations.  And it’s not just the issue of our safety.”

Coil nodded.  “Well, let me start by saying I’m pleased to hear about your change of heart, Bitch.  Can I ask what prompted it?”

Bitch shot Tattletale an irritated look, clearly unimpressed that Coil had been informed on our negotiations.  Still, she gave him a response.  “Decided it wouldn’t be so bad to get help with my dogs.  I still think you’re full of shit, but way I see it, you can be as full of shit as you want, so long as I get what I want.”

“I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”  Coil sighed a little, “Which leads me to our subject of discussion.  Would I be right in assuming these reservations our Tattletale has mentioned have something to do with me, and how I operate?”

Grue and I both nodded.

“And you’re among these individuals with doubts, Tattletale?”

“Sorry.  I’ve worked with you for a while now, I know what you can do, I even like and respect you.  What you’re going for.  But this last play of yours was fucked up on a lot of levels.”

“Yes,” Coil conceded, turning back towards us, “You’re right.  Too heavy handed a maneuver.  A tactical nuke where a rocket launcher might have sufficed, with undeserving parties suffering for being too close to the real targets.”

“Us, and the families of the members of Empire Eighty-Eight that you outed.”

Coil nodded, “So the two main points we need to discuss are the apparent carelessness of my maneuver against Empire Eighty-Eight, and the risk your group has been facing in the field.  That said, if these issues are addressed in a satisfactory manner, would I be right in thinking you are prepared to accept my deal?”

Tattletale glanced at each of us, myself included, then told Coil, “Maybe.”

“Good.  Shall we walk?  I’ll be more able to answer your second concern when we get to the other side of this complex.” He stepped away from the railing and extended a hand, inviting us to join him.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, leading us around the end of the room to the walkway opposite the one we’d traveled to reach him.

“First off, apologies are in order,” Coil spoke, “Your concern over the way I outed the Empire’s members is entirely deserved.  In truth, it was a plan I had begun before I even knew of your existence, Undersiders.  My initial attempts to divine the secret identities of my enemies were slow to bear fruit, and my hired men often underwent weeks of investigation only to find they had been barking up the wrong tree.

“For almost four years, I have invested funds and time in the possibility that I could find the weak point of my enemies: their civilian lives, the faces under the masks.  For years, I was disappointed.  In my early days, I had less money to fritter away, my facility with my own power was not what it is today, and many of the failures on these fronts were costly.

“As I began to amass my fortunes, this became easier.  I could hire better investigators, pay the right people to divulge information and unseal court records.  Pieces began falling into place.  With my recruitment of Tattletale, I was able to avoid a number of wild goose chases.  It was still slow, and the turnover rate of Empire Eighty-Eight was frustrating, especially as I aimed to have the complete picture, with no member of Kaiser’s empire left unmasked.  My efforts with the local heroes were no better, if for different reasons.

“For some time, aside from regular payments and some direction, my attention was elsewhere.  It was only two weeks ago that I was contacted by my investigators and told that I had what I wanted on Empire Eighty-Eight.  To have it come together at that time, when the Empire was one of the sole barriers remaining before me, it seemed to be serendipity.  I jumped on the opportunity.”

Grue spoke to Coil’s back, “And you forgot about us.  What it might look like.”

Coil turned his head, “Yes.  I’ll admit I am not proud of my failure to see the bigger picture, and I assure you, it is not a mistake I am prepared to make again.”

“That’s it?  You say ‘I’m sorry’ and we’re just supposed to accept it?” Regent spoke for the first time since we’d arrived.

Coil stopped, and we were forced to stop or we would have walked right into him.  He spoke, “If you accept my deal, I will undertake no plan of this scale without first consulting you, the Travelers and the independent villains that work for me.  It is my hope that you would be able to inform me about any flaws or unintended consequences regarding my schemes.”

Grue unfolded his arms, “I can’t say for sure.  Maybe.”

I spoke, “I like the idea, but no offense, I’m not sure I trust you that far.  And don’t say that Tattletale would find out and tell us if you bent the rules and tried to slip something past us.  She’s not infallible.  Sorry, Tattle.”

Tattletale shrugged at that.

“I’ll leave you to think on the idea,” Coil spoke, “There’s no action or gesture I can really take that will earn your trust in one fell swoop.  All I can do is to work with you, giving you no more reason to distrust me.”

“Sure,” I replied, noncommittal.

“Now, that leaves one us final issue to remedy.  Your worries for your safety.  I wish to show you that you are in good hands, and I’m prepared to reveal one of my secret weapons,”  Coil came to a stop outside a door.  A soldier stood nearby, smoking a cigarette.

“Fetch her,” Coil ordered.  The soldier nodded, squashed the cigarette against the wall, pocketed the butt and went through the doorway.

Coil walked over to the wall where the soldier had extinguished the cigarette and used his thumb to wipe the smudge on the wall away.  He spoke to us, “If I told you I knew where Kaiser was hiding out from the heroes, alongside his bodyguards and perhaps a handful of his lieutenants, that I wanted you to defeat them in a nighttime ambush, this would be an example of the sort of situation you’re concerned about facing?”

“Yep,” Tattletale replied, “Even with your power-”

“-You have your worries, yes,” Coil finished for her.  “Forgive me if I do not elaborate on the subject of my abilities, or give Tattletale permission to do so.  We- ah, here she is.”

The soldier came through the door, with a girl in tow.  Twelve years old or so, she had dark circles under her eyes, and straight, dark brown hair that was in need of a trim.  She wore a white long sleeved shirt, white pajama bottoms and white slippers.  She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, staring at the ground.  Her right hand gripped her left elbow, and the fingers of her left hand drummed an inconsistent beat against her thigh.

Coil bent down and pushed the hair away from the girl’s face.  She looked at him, then looked away.

“I need some numbers,” Coil spoke, gently.

“I want candy.”

“Alright.  Candy after six questions.”

“Three,” she grew more agitated, turned as if to walk away, then turned back in his direction.  She was fidgeting more.

“Five questions.  Is that fair?”  Coil turned and sat on the metal walkway, beside where the girl stood.

“Okay.  Five.”

“I’d like these people,” Coil pointed at us, “To go fight Kaiser, tomorrow night at eleven in the evening.  You remember them?  The Undersiders.  And you remember Kaiser?  From the pictures I showed you?”

“Yes.  You asked me this before.”

“I did.  But I want the Undersiders to hear what you say.  Give me a number.  How would they do, without my help?”

“Forty-six point six two three five four percent chance they all come back.  Thirty three point seven seven nine zero one percent only some come back.  That’s one question.”

Coil paused to let that sink in, then looked up at us, “She calculates possibilities, we think she does it by seeing all the potential outcomes of an event in a fraction of a second.   Her power categorizes these outcomes and helps her to figure out the chance that a given event will come to pass.  It isn’t easy for her, and I try not to tax her abilities, but you can surely see why this is so valuable.”

I hugged my arms close to my body.  When I glanced at the girl, I caught her looking at me.  I looked away.

“Candy, now?”  She started to bite at her thumbnail.  Looking at her other hand, I saw her nails were bitten to the quick.

He moved her hand away from her mouth, “Four more questions, pet, then candy.  Tell me the numbers for the same situation, but if I sent the Travelers instead.”

“Sixty point two one zero zero nine percent chance they all come back.  Forty-four point one seven four three percent chance but someone gets hurt or killed.”

“Good girl,” he turned to look at us, “The Travelers are powerful, so it stands to reason their chances are higher.  But I’ve found that your group benefits more from a use of my power.  Pet, tell me the numbers for the same scenario, for both the Travelers and the Undersiders, but let’s say I was helping them in my usual manner.”

“That’s two questions.  Two teams, two questions.  No cheating.  I get really bad headaches when I try to get too many numbers.”

“Okay.  Answer those two, then there’s one more before you get your candy.  I just need to know the chances that the teams will come back intact.”

The girl nodded, a little too quickly and eagerly, “Those people there have a thirty-two point zero zero five eight three percent chance to come back with nobody dead or seriously hurt if you help them.  The Travelers have a forty-one point-”

“No, stop,” Coil stopped her, “That doesn’t make any sense.  You gave me different numbers before.  Those numbers are lower than the ones they’d have if I didn’t help.”

“It’s the numbers in my head.”

“The numbers are wrong, pet.”

She shook her head, raised her voice in a surprisingly sudden fit of anger, “No!  They’re right!  You just don’t want to give me any candy!”

Coil put a hand on her shoulder.  She pulled away, but he held her firm.  He had to raise her voice to be heard over her squeals, and he shook her just a little to be sure she was listening, “Last question, then you’ll get your candy, I promise.”

She began to settle, and Coil was calmer when he spoke again, more like his usual, reasonable self, “Just give me the number, again, if I sent the Undersiders out to fight Kaiser, without giving them my help.  What percentage, that they come back intact?”

“Twelve point three one three three percent-”

Coil stood, swiftly.  He turned to the soldier that stood nearby, “Give her what she wants.”

The soldier guided the girl back through the door.

Coil muttered to himself, “There’s some anomaly at work, here.  The numbers can’t skew that much, that fast.  More than a thirty percent drop…”

“Coil?” Tattletale spoke.  She looked a little pale.

“Tattletale, do you know why the numbers would change?  Does your power tell you anything?”

She shook her head, started to speak, but was interrupted.

“Then go,” he ordered her, ordered us.  “I will contact you later, and we will finish this conversation then.”


Please,” he stressed the word, “See yourselves out.  This situation, whatever it is, demands my attention.”

Tattletale nodded.  Together, we headed around the walkway to the door we’d come in.  We were halfway up the stairs to the hatch when Regent commented, “Well, that was surreal.”

“Not the word I’d use to describe it,” I replied, quiet.

“What’s her deal?  Is she like Labyrinth?  Powers fucked with her head?”

I looked at the others, then turned to look at him.  I couldn’t help but let a little venom seep into my voice as I asked him, “Are you dense?”

“What?  She said she got headaches, Coil said it was hard on her, using her power, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think there’s something going on mentally, especially seeing how she acted.”

“The candy she was asking for was a euphemism for drugs,” I spoke, and saying it aloud made it somehow more real.  I hugged my arms tighter against my body, “He’s keeping her strung out so she’ll cooperate, give him his numbers.”

“I don’t think-”

“Shut up,” I cut Regent off.  “Just shut up.  I- I can’t argue with you on this.  Please.”

He stopped.  I looked at the others.  Grue had his arms folded, and was standing very still.  Bitch just had her usual angry look.  Tattletale looked pale, even for the single lightbulb’s worth of light we had in the stairwell.  She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“You’d know if you watched the news,” I told Regent, “If you read the paper.  I hate that I have to explain this, when I don’t even want to think about it.  She’s the missing kid.  Remember our bank robbery?  How we were weren’t even front page news because an amber alert took priority?  That was her.  Dinah Alcott.”

The revulsion and anger that was welling up in my chest and throat made me want to throw up, hit something, right there.  Some of that emotion, a lot of it, was directed at myself.  I looked to Tattletale, “Tell me I’m wrong.  Please?”

She broke eye contact, which was answer enough.

“Get it, Regent?” I asked him, “The bank robbery was a distraction for the local capes, so Coil could be sure to get away with taking the kid.  We played a part in that. We made that happen.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”


“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.


Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.


“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”


“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”


I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.


“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Stormtiger raised one hand in the direction he’d come and created a blast of wind to clear a path through Grue’s darkness and reveal Hookwolf and Cricket.

“Fancy this,” Hookwolf chuckled, looking down at me, “We decide to attack the blockades and avoid being hemmed in like the ABB was, and we happen upon you?”

“Not looking for a fight,” I told him.

“Stormtiger, find the others of her group.” Hookwolf snarled, apparently not considering my words worth responding to.

“Can’t,” Stormtiger spoke, from where he stood above me.  “Not smelling them.”

“You smelled her.”

“And I smelled the two uniforms from the ambulance.  Other one’s bleeding, sitting near the ambulance somewhere over there.  Darkness boy isn’t around anymore or I’d be able to smell him.”

He was wrong.  My bugs could feel Grue out there.  If the driver had been injured, that might account for why Grue had lagged behind.  But Stormtiger couldn’t smell Grue?

Hookwolf turned to me, “The dog girl.  Where’s Bitch?”

“Not here.”

“I know that,” he growled.  His hand dissolved into a mess of knives, hooks and spearpoints, then solidified into an oversized claw with fingers as long as his torso.  He flexed them experimentally.  How did you even classify that?  Ferrokinetic shapeshifting?

I crawled backward a few feet, trying to maintain distance between us.  Stormtiger reached down and blocked my retreat with one blade-covered hand.

I looked up at Stormtiger and spoke, “We split up earlier today.  One of our members had a source, we heard about the email that went out when the news stations and papers did.  Decided it’d be better to back off, just in case.”  No harm done by admitting that much.

“Don’t believe you,” he snarled.  “Doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

“That’s because-”

I stopped as the two of them turned away.  The ‘paramedic’ a few feet from Stormtiger had bolted, and was drawing a gun as she ran toward the closest patch of darkness.  As she got close to her destination, still running, she turned on the spot and raised her gun to fire at Stormtiger and Hookwolf.

Hookwolf barely reacted as the bullets punched into his chest, and even that was just the inevitable force of being shot.  Stormtiger raised one arm as if to protect himself, but the bullets were already veering off before they could hit him, leaving a trio of hazy trails in the air where they had turned.

“Handle her, Cricket,” Hookwolf spoke, pressing a hand against his collarbone where a bullet had struck him.  The scarred girl with the buzz cut dashed forward, reaching behind her back to draw two scythe-like weapons, each only about as long as her forearm.

Coil’s soldier turned to fire at the incoming villainess, but Cricket ducked to the right, then evaded left, in time with the noise of the gunfire.  The distance between them closed rapidly.  I didn’t see what happened next, as Coil’s soldier disappeared into the darkness and Cricket followed her in.

Hookwolf turned back to me, “Suspiciously competent for an ambulance driver.  Pretty fucking sure that’s one of Coil’s people.  What are you doing with her?”

I didn’t answer.

My bugs reacted to a funny noise from the direction of Cricket and Coil’s woman, but I couldn’t hear it myself.  Grue’s power did strange things to sound.  I had more immediate concerns.

Hookwolf dropped his hand to his side, and I saw how the bullet had penetrated skin, but had failed to get any further than the interlocking grid of metal that sat in place of Hookwolf’s muscle.  He smiled.  “I was hoping you wouldn’t answer.  It means we get to interrogate you.”

Options, options, what were my options?  Bugs?  They were around, but I got the impression that Hookwolf wasn’t going to suffer that much if I swarmed him, and Stormtiger had some kind of aerokinesis, which was bound to be pretty effective against the lightweight bugs.  Knife, baton?  Not much better.   These guys were capable in hand to hand.  I wasn’t.

Where was Grue?  I felt out with my power, and found him at the back of the ambulance with the driver.  Whatever he was doing, I hoped he would do it soon.  I needed his help.

I looked for Cricket, and found her in the blackness, dragging Coil’s soldier back toward us.  I saw her emerge from the darkness, one of the miniature scythes buried in the woman’s upper arm, the other buried in her thigh.  With a full-body effort, Cricket swung the woman forward and pulled the scythes free.  Coil’s soldier rolled onto the ground before Cricket.  If her powers didn’t give her an edge in fitness, she was pretty damn fit for her frame.

Was Coil’s woman dead?  No.  The woman was breathing.  She was making lots of short, fast breaths, not moving, but she was breathing.

Hookwolf watched for a second before turning back to me.  “Maybe I’ll give Stormtiger some practice at getting answers out of people.  Those claws of his?  They’re compressed air.  Every second, he’s drawing in more air, shoving it into that claw shaped space, to make them denser, harder.  And when he releases it…” he offered me a low chuckle.

Come on, Grue.  I couldn’t handle this alone.

“Want to see what happens when one of them is buried inside you when he turns it into one of his blasts of wind?”  Hookwolf asked.  Again, the low laughter at my expense.

Grue was moving toward me with purpose, now.  I stirred bugs from the ground around him to place them on his body, get a sense of what he was doing.  He was carrying something three and a half feet long, nearly a foot wide, a rounded off shape that was all smooth metal.


I flipped over and scrambled away.  Stormtiger was behind me, and he kicked me in the back as I tried to rise up and start running, shoving me back to the ground, hard.  I was glad for my mask as my face bounced off the pavement.

Go with it.  Remembering the tips Brian had given me during our sparring session, I used the fact that Stormtiger had created a bit more distance between us and continued to move away as fast as I could manage.

“Running?” Hookwolf laughed, “You can try.”

“Gun oil,” Stormtiger called out, whipping around to face Grue.  “I smell gun oil.”

Grue hefted the long metal object back with both hands, then flung it forward.  He didn’t drop both his arms as he let go.  Instead, he used his left hand to follow up with a directed blast of darkness to cover it as it rolled into the clearing.

I clamped my hands to my ears, painful as it was with the bandage on my right ear.

Grue’s right hand was already withdrawing a gun from his jacket pocket as he backed up.

His arm jerked twice as he fired the gun at the oxygen tank he’d fetched from the back of the ambulance.  The first shot missed.  The second didn’t.

It was so quiet I thought I’d been deafened by the sudden explosion.  Hookwolf’s delayed scream of pain and rage was a bittersweet relief.

Wasting no opportunity, Grue marched forward, gun in hand.  Stormtiger had been farther away, and lay face down on the ground, bleeding badly but intact, from what I and my bugs could see.  Grue stopped, aimed, and shot him once in each leg.

“Hey!” Cricket’s voice was strangled, strained.  I wondered if one of the injuries that had given her one of those scars had done something to her vocal chords.  She lowered one of the scythes toward Coil’s soldier.  “I got a-”

Grue covered her and her hostage in darkness and turned toward me and Hookwolf.  The message was clear.  He wasn’t negotiating.  I was pretty sure I couldn’t have made that call, even knowing that stopping for the woman’s sake was almost inevitably going to lead to a worse situation.

Hookwolf staggered to his feet.  He’d taken more damage from the blast than anyone, and his skin hung off in tatters around the arm he hadn’t yet transformed, most of the trunk of his body and his thigh, with lesser damage over the surrounding area.  Beneath the tatters of skin, as I’d seen with the bullet wound, there was only blood-slick bands and blades of metal.  Hooks and knives all laid side by side in the general shape of human musculature.

Hookwolf thrust his damaged arm out to one side, and the muscles unhinged like a swiss army knife, revealing still more blades and hooks that unfolded, swelled and overlapped to cover and patch the injured area.  His arm grew with the use of his power, and the resulting limb was three times the normal size, ending in what looked like a two foot long fishhook.

“Skitter,” Grue called, “Run!”

I climbed to my feet and hurried toward him.  Hookwolf turned to face me, then lunged my way, closing more distance than I might have anticipated.   I abandoned my attempt to rejoin Grue and headed to my left, straight into the darkness.

My bugs dotted the surface of a mailbox, three paces into the blackness.  I ducked around it as Hookwolf blindly followed me in.  Swinging blindly, he struck a fire hydrant, but no water was forthcoming.  He lunged left, gouging chunks of brick from a wall, then he leaped right, striking the mailbox and cleaving it in half.

I was already scrambling in Grue’s general direction, the mailbox well behind me.

I felt a surge of relief at realizing that Cricket had abandoned her hostage in favor of going after Grue, to initiate a brief exchange of blows.  Unfortunately, my relief was short lived, because the combat wasn’t brief in a good way.  Grue fired the gun twice, and twice she dodged the bullet, standing only ten and seven feet away from the barrel.  It wasn’t superspeed, either, though she was quick.  Her movements were simply too efficient, and if there was any delay in her reactions, I wasn’t seeing it.

He swung a punch as she closed in.  Cricket leaned out of the way, then swung her scythe to rake him across the chest.  From the way he staggered, I knew she’d struck home.  He jabbed, she avoided it as though it were easy, then followed up with two more swings, and he failed to avoid either.  He staggered back, clutching one arm to his chest.

He blanketed the area around them in darkness, filling the clearing, and Cricket immediately switched to swinging blindly and ferociously around herself as she advanced toward where Grue had been.  Grue backed away, but this had the unfortunate effect of putting him closer to Hookwolf, who was doing much the same as Cricket.  Grue turned and ran to create some distance and avoid being hemmed in.

Then every bug in the area reacted to that sound I couldn’t make out, the one I’d heard when Cricket went after Coil’s soldier.  It was loud enough for them to hear through the darkness, but… entirely out of my range of hearing.

I couldn’t say for sure, but I got the impression the ones closer to Cricket had heard it a fraction of a second sooner.

“Grue!” I screamed into the oppressive shadow.  “Move!”

Cricket turned toward him and lunged in one motion, bringing both scythes down in an overhead swing.  Grue moved out of the way just in time.

“She has radar!” I shouted, my voice barely audible to myself.  Didn’t matter.  Grue could hear me.

Cricket passed one of the mini-scythes into one hand and then used her newly freed hand to wipe bugs from her skin.  They were gathering on her, and she was starting to feel it.  Good.

Again, that pulse emanated from her.  She maintained it this time, and my bugs began to suffer for it.  Their coordination suffered, they began to move slower, and their senses – such as they were in the darkness – began to go haywire.

After a second or two, I thought maybe I was starting to feel it too.  A bit off-balance, nauseous.  Grue was hunched over, his hands on his knees, but I wasn’t sure if that was Cricket’s power or the injuries she’d inflicted.  From the way Cricket was moving, I gathered that she couldn’t see us.  Was it echolocation?  Did it not work if she simply blasted the noise continually rather than use it in bursts?

Annoying as it was that everyone seemed to have a way of dealing with my bugs, I was at least putting her in a position where she couldn’t both find us and deal with them.

I was having trouble getting a sense of her powers.  I’d heard of her, seen pictures, read up on her on the wiki and message boards.  She was rarely more than a footnote, typically a suspect in a murder or arson case alongside Stormtiger and Hookwolf.  Never had I come across something like ‘Cricket has limited precognition’ or ‘Cricket is a sound manipulator’.

The bugs started to fall away from her, losing their grip or ability to navigate through the air.  Knowing our advantage would soon disappear, I advanced towards her, drawing my knife.  I checked on Hookwolf, and found him scaling a building a distance behind me.  Was he trying to rise above the cloud of darkness to spot us or get his bearings?

I was three paces from Cricket when I felt the sound die off, then resume again for one brief second.  Another radar pulse.

“Careful!” I shouted, adjusting my momentum and hurrying to back away.  Too slow.  She was already pivoting to swing at me.  The handle of one scythe struck me in the side of my throat, the actual blade hooking around behind my neck to halt my retreat.  Before I could do anything, she pulled me toward her.  I stumbled forward, and she adjusted her grip to swing the other scythe up and into the side of my stomach.

I doubled over and crumpled to the ground.

Grue shouted something, but his words didn’t reach me through the darkness.

Cricket emitted another radar pulse, then lunged for Grue.  She caught him in the arm, this time.  Then she backed off, going for the continuous, sense-warping noise to put my bugs on the fritz once more.

Grue raised his borrowed gun and his arm bucked with the kick.  Cricket was oblivious as the gun fired off several times in a row, but whatever she was doing with her power was screwing with Grue’s ability to aim.  None of the bullets struck home.  He stopped.  Either he was out of bullets, though it seemed too soon for that, or he wanted to conserve ammunition.

I climbed to my feet, feeling my side protesting in agony.  The blade hadn’t penetrated my costume, but the sides of my stomach weren’t armored and the cloth had done little to soften the jab of it, even if it had prevented me from being cut or disemboweled.  Cricket was bigger than me, stronger, and she knew how to use her weapons.  It had hurt.

When I was sure I could move without falling over, I lunged, knife in hand.

I’d hoped that if I was quick about it, I could act before she used her radar again.  I wasn’t so lucky.  She was already moving by the time I realized she’d made another pulse of noise, scythe points whipping around toward the side of my head, where my mask provided only partial coverage.  I had too much forward momentum to avoid walking straight into the incoming blades.

I half-fell, half ducked, and instead of driving my knife into her back like I’d intended, I wound up burying it in the side of her thigh.  Whatever technique let her dodge bullets, it apparently didn’t work if she couldn’t see.

As much as it might have hurt, she didn’t waste an instant in hefting her weapon to retaliate and swinging down at my head.  I wasn’t in a position to get out of the way.

Grue caught her by the wrist mid-swing and pulled her off-balance before she could follow through.

She moved fluidly, considering the blade buried in her upper leg.  She reversed her grip on her weapon with her free hand, stuttered her power to create what I took was another radar pulse, then readied to swing it at Grue.

I twisted the knife, and pulled it out of her leg with a two-handed grip.  Or, to rephrase, I pulled the knife through her leg, dragging it horizontally through the meat of her thigh, toward her hip, and out.

She toppled, and Grue put his hand on my shoulder to pull me back away.  Cricket lay on the pavement, pressing her hands to her injury.

“You okay?” Grue asked me, as he cleared the darkness within one foot of the both of us.

“I’m bruised but yeah.  I should be asking you that question.  How bad is it?”

He banished the darkness around his body, and in the gloom, I saw how the blades had neatly cut through his jacket and t-shirt to draw criss-crossing lines of red across his chest.  An uglier wound marked his right arm from elbow to wrist, all the more visible because the cut had extended to the cuff of his costume, leaving the sleeve to hang loose around his elbow.

“Looks worse than it is.  I’ve fought people like her before, in sparring and fighting classes.  She was showing off with the first few cuts.  Shallow, inflicting pain, not really meant to disable or deal real harm.”

“That’s stupid,” I muttered.  “I’m glad, but it’s stupid.”

“She probably didn’t think about it.  I’d bet it’s something she learned and incorporated into her style while fighting for a crowd.”  He looked over in Hookwolf’s direction, then winced at how the movement pulled against his injured chest.  “We should go.”


Grue opened a path in the darkness for the faux paramedic, we checked that she was alive, and then helped her limp to the ambulance, with me doing most of the heavy work for once.  I hurried to grab some first aid supplies, packing ointments, pills and bandages into a bag.  Coil’s soldiers retreated back toward the police barricade before I was finished, each supporting the other.

Grue flooded more of the area with darkness while I gathered most of the swarm back around myself.  I left only the bare minimum of bugs necessary to navigate the sightless world of Grue’s power and the ones I needed to track Hookwolf’s presence.  There were more I couldn’t touch because they were caught helpless in the endless, subsonic drone that Cricket still emanated, but I had enough that I could deal.  We hurried away before Hookwolf thought to attack the spot where the ambulance had crashed.

We were nearly four blocks away before Grue felt it safe to dismiss the darkness around us.  Rationally, I knew we were safer in the shadows, that it would prevent most ambushes, but a primal part of my psyche was glad to be in the light and noise once more.

I shot Grue another worried look as we walked.  “Looks like it’s my turn to give you some stitches.  You going to be okay?”

“Fuck.”  He touched his chest tenderly, not giving me a direct answer.  “What were her powers?  Overclocked reflexes and what was it you said?  Radar?”

“Enhanced reflexes is a better guess than what I’d come up with.  She was making some sort of subsonic drone.  It was the source of that disorientation effect.  She could use it like echolocation or something.”

“It’s times like this I can say it’s worth having Tattletale on the team.  I hate not knowing someone’s powers.”

We stopped at an old church with boards up where there should have been stained glass windows.  Litter and more than one half-full trash bag occupied the ground at the base of the building.  Together, we walked inside.

Regent was perched on the lip of the stage beneath the altar.  Tattletale sat on the back of one of the benches, her feet resting on the seat.  Bitch paced at the rear of the church, the point farthest from the front door, and her dogs moved like gargantuan silhouettes in the darkness of the aisles.  If it weren’t for the light filtering in between the plywood on the windows, I wasn’t sure I would have known they were there.

“Grue!” Tattletale leapt from her seat.  “What happened?”

“Ran across Hookwolf, Stormtiger and Cricket.  Those three like to cut people,” Grue spoke.  “We were lucky to get away as intact as we did.”

“Sit,” I ordered Grue.  Hissing between his teeth, he pulled off his jacket, then turned his attention to his T-shirt, which was sticking to his chest with the blood that had leaked from the cuts.  Rather than have to remove his helmet and drag the cloth over his injured chest and arm, he tore his shirt where it had been cut, and pulled it off in tatters.  He sat down, shirtless, his helmet on.  I began getting the stuff out to clean his wounds

“Did you guys run into trouble?” Grue asked.

“Just enough that we’ve been getting a little restless. Bitch took down some thugs, but they scattered, and word’s probably out that we’re in the area.”

“Purity?” He asked.

“She’s out there,” Regent spoke, in his characteristic distracted, disaffected manner, “We saw the lights and heard the noise as she was knocking down more buildings.  She moved away from this area a little while ago.”

Tattletale turned to me, “Here, give me that.  I’ll work on his arm.”

I duly handed over the cleaning solution and some antiseptic wipes.  I heard Grue mutter, “Shit, I hope Cricket isn’t the type to put poison on her weapon.”

“Don’t say that!” I gasped, horrified.

“Not to worry, either of you,” Tattletale sounded exasperated.  “My power says no.”

I nodded, but my heartbeat was still cranked up a notch from that momentary alarm.  When I glanced up from the stash of medical stuff I’d grabbed from the ambulance to see how Tattletale was doing with Grue’s arm, I saw Grue’s skull-visor pointed at me.  Was he looking at me?  What was he thinking?  What expression was on his face?

“I’m thinking guerrilla strikes,” Grue spoke, turning to Tattletale, “We have the dogs, we use their mobility to harass, catch any roaming groups off guard, take them down, disappear before reinforcements or heroes show.”

Tattletale shook her head, “One problem with that.”

“Which is?”

She pointed at his chest.  “You may not be poisoned, but you’ve lost some blood.  I’d lay even money that you’d pass out if you did something as high exertion as riding the dogs.”

“Don’t take a bet with Tattle,” Regent chimed in, “She cheats.”

“We need to end this fast,” Tattletale said.  “Not just because of Grue’s injuries, but because Purity’s going to wipe out our neighborhood soon if someone doesn’t stop her.  We take the most direct action we can.”

“Direct action,” I echoed her.  I didn’t like the sound of that.

“We go straight for Purity.”

“Fuck that,” Grue shook his head, “There’s no way.”

“Way,” Tattletale retorted.  “It’s not pretty, it’s risky, but it’s our best bet at ending this, one way or another.  Thing is, we’ve got to move fast or our opportunity will disappear.  Skitter, we’d better get started on the stitches, I’ll explain while we do it.”

I swallowed, nodded, turned my attention back to the bag of medical stuff, and found the needle and thread.

“Like you said before,” I told Grue, quiet, pulling the pre-threaded needle free of the spool, “Let me apologize in advance.”

“Damn it,” he muttered.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Purity floated above the docks, an oversize firefly against a blue-gray backdrop of sky.  She came to rest over a building that had been half built and left abandoned, a small crane jutting out of the middle of it.  A building I recognized as Bitch’s place.  Her improvised dog shelter.

“Brian!” I called out.  “You want to see this!”

The cameraman tried to zoom in and focus on Purity, but only intensified the lens flare effect that followed her.

He zoomed back out just in time to see her take action.

The beams of light that blasted from her palm weren’t straight.  There was a bit of a spiral to them, as they formed a rough double helix.  The end result was wider than Purity was tall, tearing into the building to topple the crane against one wall.  She turned the light on the other walls, obliterating them.

It took her less than a minute to level the building and pulverize any part of the structure that stood higher than the sidewalk.

She paused, and hovered there in the midst of the dust and the motes of light that had followed in the wake of her power.  She turned and shot the next-closest building, directing a smaller, tighter beam at one corner where the structure met the ground.  She hit the next corner, then swept the oscillating shaft of light through the ground floor to obliterate any supports that stood within.  The building toppled messily with brick walls sloughing off and cresting plumes of dust.

The building hadn’t even finished falling down before she started work on the next two, devoting one beam to each.

“Were there people in there?” I asked, horrified both at the idea and at what this woman was capable of doing. “What about those other buildings?

Brian was behind his couch, watching, “There might have been, and there might be.”

My need to hurry overrode my modesty.  I stood and pulled off my top, leaving just my bra on, making sure to keep my back to Brian.   I removed the sweatshirt I had tied around my waist and untied the arms of my costume.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting ready,” I put my arm through one arm and worked my fingers into the gloves.

Brian walked around the couch and I hurried to raise the top half of my costume and clutch it to my chest, covering myself.  He put his hands on my bare shoulders and exerted enough force to push me back down to a sitting position.  I complied, stiffly, reluctantly.

He pulled his hands away a little more quickly than he might have a day or two ago, jamming them in his pockets.  I hunched my shoulders forward self consciously.

Brian took a deep breath.  “Not your job.”

“They’re doing that because of us,” I adjusted my grip on my costume top to free a hand so I could point it at the TV.  The cameraman was retreating from the scene, and the image was wobbling as the camera rocked with his movement.  The spark of light that was Purity was moving in his general direction as she leveled more buildings.

“Because of Coil, not us.  The heroes will be the ones to take care of it,” Brian retorted.

“They could be hurting innocent people.”

“Given who these guys are, I’m pretty sure they’ve been hurting innocent people for a long time.”

I turned to frown at Brian, “You know what I mean.  We-”

“Undersiders,” A female voice cut into the conversation.  “Protectorate.   Take note.”

Our heads turned back to the television screen.  The camera showed a brilliant glare that could only vaguely be made out as a face.  The view shifted, and I heard her command, “Hold it.”

The camera steadied and focused on Purity’s face, from ground level looking up.  I suspected the cameraman was on the ground.

“You took the most important thing in the world from me,” her voice was without affect, flat.  “Until she is returned, this doesn’t stop.  I will take this city apart until I find you or you come to stop me.  My subordinates will murder anyone, everyone, until the matter is settled.  I don’t care if they are genetically pure or not.  If they haven’t allied with us already, they missed their chance.”

She bent down to take the camera.  While the image swayed wildly, Purity spoke, “Night, Fog.  Demonstrate.”

The camera steadied, fixed on a man and a woman in gray and black costumes, respectively, featuring cowls and cloaks.  Behind and to the side of them was an unnaturally pale and white haired young man.

The man in gray evaporated into a rolling cloud of white-gray fog, moving toward the camera.  Purity took flight, moving up and above the scene, keeping the camera focused on the cameraman.  As the camera rose and the view of the scene expanded, I could see Crusader off to one side, leaning against a wall with his arms folded.

As the mist enveloped the cameraman, Night strode forward, disappearing into it.  The timing of what happened was wrong, too soon after she entered the fog.  There was a ragged scream, and then blood sprayed out of the mist to paint the surrounding road in dozens upon dozens of long splashes of crimson.

The fog moved as though it had a mind of its own, congealing into the man once more.  When he had fully pulled himself together again, there were only a few spatters of blood six or so paces from where the body had fallen, and Night, standing in the middle of the road.  No body, no clothes, no blood remained where the fog had passed.

“We are not the ABB,” Purity spoke, not bothering to turn the camera back to herself, “We are stronger, both in powers and in numbers.  We have discipline, and thanks to you, we have nothing left to lose.  I will have my daughter back, and we will have our restitution.”

Purity dropped the camera, and the view spun lazily as the camera hurtled to the ground.  There was the briefest of glimpses of the trail of light that marked her departure, before the camera hit the ground and the television went black.  After a moment, the ‘BB4 News’ logo appeared on the screen against a blue background.

“Crap,” Brian said.

“So.  If you’re not going to go after them to save people,” I wasn’t able to keep all the bitterness out of my voice.  “Maybe you’ll do it for our rep, after we got called out like that?”

“That’s not- Taylor, I don’t want people to get hurt or killed, either.  I’m not a villain that aims to hurt people.  I’m just being practical.”

“You didn’t answer my question.  What are we doing now, after hearing that?”

“We’re calling Lisa.  Or you are, and I’ll take care of your ear while you do it.”

I nodded.  I took the opportunity to get my top back on while he got the first aid kit, and grabbed my cell phone.  Brian used saline and a wet cotton wipe to wipe around my ear, and I dialed Lisa.  She picked up on the first ring.

“Lemon J,” I told her.

“Bumblebee S,” she replied.  “No immediate danger, but the situation doesn’t look good?”

“Right,” I replied.

Brian put the cotton wipe aside.  It was a red-pink with flakes of my dried blood on it.  He prepared another to continue working.

“You see that bit on TV?” I asked her, “Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker for Grue.”  I’d used his codename for security’s sake.  I fiddled with the keypad to get the phone to speaker mode.

Lisa’s voice was tinny through the low quality speaker.  “Purity?  I saw the bit on TV.  From what I picked up, child protective services and a contingent of capes went into her place and walked out with her baby while she was at work, before she even had a chance to hear about the email.  Mama bear snapped.”

“Tattletale,” Brian spoke, “Did you talk to Coil?”

“Coil says he told Kaiser straight up that he was responsible for the emails.  I believe him.  If Purity and Kaiser’s other subordinates don’t know, Kaiser either hasn’t seen fit to tell them or he’s intentionally keeping them in the dark.”

“What?  Why would he do that?” I raised the phone closer to my mouth to ask her.

“It makes a warped sort of sense to me,” Brian answered for Lisa.  “He lets his people believe we’re responsible, with Purity’s group gunning for us and the Protectorate.  Hookwolf hates us anyways, because of Bitch, so he goes along.  Kaiser lets them deal with us, with all that fury and hate and no-holds-barred torture, murder and maiming that comes with blaming us.  When we’re dealt with, or when it’s convenient, he tells them the truth, turns that bloodthirst against Coil.  His people won’t ever be scarier or more vicious than they are right now.  Why not maximize the damage?”

“Doesn’t that fall apart if Coil admits, publicly or to the members of Empire Eighty Eight, that he’s responsible?”  I asked.

“Yes,” Lisa’s tinny voice replied, “But Coil won’t.  He was willing to talk to Kaiser, fess up to the man himself face to face, but going with a more public route risks putting him in the spotlight, drawing attention to himself, and he’s not going to do that.  I suspect Kaiser knows that and is accounting for it.”

“So what’s next?” I asked, “I think we should do something to step in, but Brian was saying that he thought we should continue to lay low.  Before Purity said her piece, anyways. Not sure if he’s changed his mind.”  I gave him a look.

“I haven’t,” Brian spoke, loud enough to be picked up by the phone.  He dabbed ointment on my ear, making me wince.  “Sorry.”

I wasn’t sure if the apology was over his stance in the discussion or the medical care.

“According to the news and my, um, inside source,”  Lisa spoke, referring to her power, “Purity hasn’t stopped.  She’s doing strafing runs across the Docks.  She moves too fast for anyone but Dauntless or Velocity to catch, and she hits harder than both of them combined.  She’s knocked down four more buildings while we’ve talked, I’m pretty sure. How long before she happens to knock over our hideout?”

Brian pursed his lips.

“And she leads her own sub-group within Empire Eighty Eight, so I’m betting that Fog, Night, Alabaster and Crusader are on the streets, doing their own thing.  I dunno about you guys, but I have friends in our neighborhood.  I’m very not cool with that.”

Brian sighed, “Fine.  We go.  But no direct confrontation until we have a game plan, especially not before we reunite our two groups.  Where are you guys?”

“Holed up on the far side of the Trainyard, with the dogs,” Lisa answered, “Not a bad spot.  Better than the building Purity tore down.  Don’t know why she was set up there instead of here.”

I heard a voice on the other end that was probably Bitch’s, though I couldn’t make out the words.

“So.  We meet?” Lisa asked.

“We meet,” Brian replied.  “I’m going to call Coil for a vehicle, and to ask him a few questions, hear for myself that he talked to Kaiser.  However long it takes for the ride to get here, it should give me time to stitch Skitter up.”

I winced.

“Patch her up?  Why?”

“Not relevant to the current situation.  We’ll explain later,” he said.

“Later then.  Take care of yourself, Skitter”  Lisa hung up.

Brian held up the needle and thread, “Let me apologize in advance.”

“You see kids get their ears twisted in the movies and on TV all the time.  What you don’t get is how much it fucking hurts,” I touched the part of my mask that covered my bandaged earlobe.  It was throbbing, due in part to Brian’s ministrations.

“Just leave it alone.  The painkillers will kick in soon.”


We sat in silence for a few moments.  I stared out the small window at the back of the vehicle.  Very few cars were going in the direction we were.

The interior of the vehicle that Coil had procured for us was filled with medical equipment.  There was a gurney, which I sat on, a second smaller type of gurney that could be disassembled and reassembled as required, up near the ceiling.  The interior was efficiently packed with medical supplies: an oxygen tank underneath the bench where Grue sat, a heartbeat monitor, lifejackets, tubes of all shapes and sizes, lockers and drawers with pills, splints and bandages.

It was, to all appearances, a real ambulance.  I couldn’t say whether it had originally been an ambulance, and Coil had added extra compartments for weapons and for my bugs, or if he’d gone the other way and built the vehicle from scratch, to accommodate his additions.

We slowed down, and Grue leaned towards the front of the ambulance,  “What’s the holdup?”

“Blockade coming up,” the driver spoke.  He and the woman in the passenger seat were Coil’s people, decked out in paramedic’s uniforms.  “No sweat.”

He flipped a switch, and the siren blared.  Seconds later, he was revving up and moving without difficulty.  I looked through the rear window, and saw a line of police cars and PRT vans behind us, moving to close the gap they’d just opened in their formation.

“Hey, are we okay?” Grue asked me.  He was outfitted in costume, helmet on and visor down.


“I get the feeling you’re angry.”

“If I’m angry at anyone for that thing outside the mall, it’s myself.  Can we just drop that topic forever and forget it ever happened?”

“No, no.  I mean, are you angry that I didn’t jump out of my seat to go fight Empire Eighty Eight, before we knew everything that was at stake?”

“Oh,” I flushed, and my ear throbbed in response to the rush of blood.  Could’ve kicked myself.  “I honestly don’t know.  I wasn’t expecting it.  I see the lengths you go through to take care of your… family member, I think of you as a pretty honorable guy, you know?”  This was veering closer to the conversation-that-was-not-to-be-spoken-of than I’d like.  I deliberately left that thought hanging.

Grue rubbed the back of his neck, “I’m not sure I’m as good a person as you’re making me out-”

An impact rocked the ambulance, tossing Grue out of his seat and nearly knocking me heels over head.  The ambulance veered out of the driver’s control, tipped, and landed on its side, bringing Grue against the underside of the stretcher I’d been sitting on.  The spare gurney and the contents of drawers and lockers around the interior spilled free and scattered around us.

“Fuck!” the driver swore.  “Fuckshit!”

I pulled free of the tubes and the half of a gurney that had fallen around me, and crawled toward the front to look between the two front seats.

It didn’t look so different from Bitch’s dogs in general shape.  It was a little larger, too, maybe, but that was a hard call to make.  It was hollow, its limbs were thinner than the dogs, and I couldn’t really draw a line between what was the actual ‘meat’ of the body and what wasn’t, because the entire thing was a chainsaw whir of serrated blades, hooks and needle points, shuffling and shifting around one another, rising and falling, all moving too fast for the eye to follow.  Altogether, it maintained a general quadruped shape with a tail and elongated snout.

Walking on either side of it were two people.  There was a pale, tall man with the sort of muscle-heavy build you only saw on cons and bodybuilders.  He wore black slacks that were in tatters around his feet, had chains wrapped around his forearms, hands and calves, and a blue-white tiger mask.  On the opposite side of the metal beast was a twenty-something girl with a gymnast’s build and scars criss-crossing her exposed skin.  Her hair was shorn to a bleached blond buzz cut, and her face was covered by a metal cage.

The blender of dangerous looking metal bits dissolved, each of the hooks and blades retracting into the skin of the man at the center of the thing’s chest.  As the front legs withdrew into his shoulders, he dropped into a crouch on the street.  He wore a wolf mask of sheet metal that had been crudely bent into place, framed by long, greasy blond hair.  Hookwolf.

Rumor had it that Hookwolf, back in the day, had been one of the top fighters in a parahuman fighting ring in New York.  He’d grown greedy, killed the man that ran it for access to the vault with the night’s earnings, and had made a good number of enemies in the process.  It had been a group of white supremacists local to that area that had given him shelter and support, happy to side with him because the man he’d killed had been an ‘acceptable target’.  Maybe the ideology was real for Hookwolf from day one, maybe it was an act that had become reality when he found he enjoyed having people celebrate him for enacting his most twisted impulses and racking up a body count.  Either way, I suspected that  there were few things he wouldn’t do for his ‘Empire’ nowadays.

Stormtiger, the man with the chains and tiger mask, and Cricket, the girl, apparently tied back to the same circles of parahuman prize fighters that Hookwolf had once been part of.  I couldn’t begin to guess their motivations for following him, but I suppose it hardly mattered.  Hookwolf was dangerous enough on his own.  With friends?

“We run,” I muttered.  Hookwolf and his buddies had their backs turned to us and were walking toward the police barricade.  Stormtiger flexed his hands, and the air blurred around them, congealed into a half-dozen pale, translucent blades that jutted from each hand.

“We have guns,” spoke the driver, “We shoot them from behind.”

“No,” Brian spoke, “It won’t hurt Hookwolf, and I suspect Cricket and Stormtiger could do something about it, or they wouldn’t be so brazen about walking towards those cops.  Skitter is right.  We retreat.  Ready?”

Grue blanketed the back doors of the ambulance in darkness to mute the noise as he cracked it open to cover the outside as well.  Noiselessly, the four of us backed out of the ambulance.

Grue flooded the block with darkness, and I scattered my bugs out from the surrounding area and the compartments in the ambulance’s interior to follow in the wake of the darkness, spacing them out to cover the ground and the other objects around us, giving myself a swarm-sense of my surroundings.  I grabbed the hand of the woman ‘paramedic’ and pulled her away from the middle of the street, toward the sidewalk.  Brian brought the driver in the same general direction.

My bugs felt someone come after us, fast.  I didn’t have time to get out of the way and lead Coil’s faux paramedic to safety as well, so I shoved her in one direction and leaped in the other.  The man leapt into the space we’d vacated, and I felt a rush of wind set my hair to whipping around my face.

There was an explosion of sorts, a blast of wind powerful enough to lift me off the ground and push away a fair share of Grue’s darkness.  Stormtiger stood in the epicenter of the clearing, reforming the translucent ‘claws’ around his raised left hand.

He used one of the translucent blades on his hand to tap the side of his tiger mask’s nose as he turned to look down at me.  When he spoke, his voice was deeper than Brian’s, “Don’t need to see you, sweetie.”

I was really, really growing to hate enhanced senses.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“So, about that ‘favor’ I just did you…” Brian began.

I glanced around at the other people who were departing the bus, still more were waiting at the stop.  “Can we talk about it later?  In private?”

He gave me a curious look, but he replied, “Of course.”

I knew I was making it worse by procrastinating, that I’d only get more awkward if I dwelled on it.  Whether I admitted my feelings or told him about Sophia, both felt too personal to talk about with the crowd of strangers following us off the bus.

We’d gotten off the bus at a mall I’d never been to.  It wasn’t one of the ones with any major chains or stores in it, but it wasn’t small enough to deserve the label of ‘strip mall’ either.  There were more people milling around than I thought there might be, given that it was still mid afternoon; high school students and nine to five employees wouldn’t be out yet.  I realized there were more than a few people in their late teens or early twenties with backpacks and bags.  College students.

“Next bus going by my place should come in half an hour, but we can stay longer, if you want,” Brian told me.

“What did you want to get?” I asked him.

“Bus tickets and some stuff for breakfast.  This is the closest spot to my apartment that has both.”


“You need anything?”

“Toothbrush, toothpaste, and I was thinking about grabbing a book.”

“Don’t worry about the toothbrush or toothpaste, I have extra stuff set aside for Aisha when she comes, and replacing that before then is easy.  Want to go to the bookstore, and I’ll meet you there when I’ve got what I need?”


That might have been the point we went our separate ways, but the grocery store and bookstores were in the same direction.  We walked together, in awkward silence, until we saw a crowd outside a store.

It was an electronics store, with computers and TVs in the window.  The number of people had reached critical mass and was drawing more onlookers, to the point where it was hard to find an angle where we could see the screens.  At least, where I could see the screens – Brian was tall enough to see over the average person.

The images displayed on the screen were the same as the ones I had seen in the email, earlier.  Max Anders and Kaiser.  Kayden Anders and Purity.  The blondes as Fenja and Menja.  The broadcast flickered through all of them: Hookwolf, Krieg, Night, Fog, Stormtiger, Othala, Cricket, Rune, Victor, Alabaster, the Crusader… the list went on.  The screen shifted to two news broadcasters.  In the top right corner of the screen, there was the usual story of the moment image, showing Max Anders sitting at a table at some event, with a swastika followed by a question mark hovering above him.

“Word’s out,” Brian spoke to me, quiet.  “If they didn’t know about this already, they do now.”

I nodded without turning away from the screen.  The broadcast changed to show Armsmaster and Miss Militia with a man in a suit and tie, addressing a crowd of reporters.

“We’re probably not going to see anything new here,” Brian whispered to me, “And we can’t hear anything through the window.  We’ll text Lisa, let her know it’s on the news, and she can handle the information side of things.”

I nodded and joined Brian in walking away.

“It’s clever,” I murmured, glancing around to ensure nobody was in immediate earshot, “I don’t know if I agree with how the boss went about it, I think it sort of crosses a line, but I can see the reasoning.  Controlled chaos, keeping everyone that matters busy and off-balance so he can advance his own agenda.”

“It does cross a line, yeah.  We’ll have to see how that works out.”

I saw the bookstore to my left, “I guess this is where we part ways?”

“Sure.  I’ll meet you in a couple of minutes.”

Being around Brian was tense, in a way.  I found most social situations awkward, and the only way I could cope was by planning out what I’d say, considering and anticipating everything in advance.  Around Brian, though, I got so flustered and distracted that I couldn’t do that.  That led to me feeling like I sounded dumb, created awkward pauses.  It only got worse as I became aware of any of it.  That was where the kiss had been so nice, settling my thoughts and giving me a sense of tranquility for that all too brief moment.

Except things were worse now, and Brian and I had a discussion looming.  Worse, I’d been so focused on not screwing up the dialogue now, in the present, that I hadn’t had time to think about what I’d say in the immediate future.

In short, as much as I liked his company, liked him, I was glad for the break and the chance to calm down and get my thoughts sorted, so I could handle it when the conversation happened.

The used bookstore wasn’t organized in the slightest.  There was a heavy musty smell, and the racks were organized haphazardly.  There were fantasy books and science fiction both classified under ‘fantasy’, which irked me, and non fiction was one broad category that took up an entire wall.  If there was a system to sort the books, I couldn’t see it, and many of the shelves had books on their sides, stacked atop one another, sometimes two or three layers deep.  Some of the fuller shelves had books stacked on the ground in front of them, requiring careful steps to avoid knocking anything over or stepping on a stray book.

The sole occupant of the store was an elderly black man that sat behind the counter, leaning back in a chair with his hands folded on his stomach.  The television played a little too loudly for the store’s old school atmosphere.  Some courtroom show.

After checking out the selection of fantasy books in the middle of the store, I navigated my way to the back, keeping an eye on the signs identifying each section.  The Romance section had way too many books in it.  So did Mystery, as far as I was concerned.  Both genres tended to be a little too repetitive and samey for my tastes.

As I disappeared behind a row of shelves, the man at the counter called out, gruff, “Don’t be shoplifting because you think I’m not paying attention!”

“Alright!” I called back, feeling silly as I said it.  I wasn’t sure how else to respond.

I found the Instructional section and spotted the item I’d come into the store for in one of the stacks on a lower shelf.  Dog Psychology: The Basis of Dog Training.

With minimal experience being around dogs, I needed more information, if I was going to continue relating with Bitch.  I’d known I wanted a book on the topic of how dogs thought & related to others, and I was glad to have found it.

I tucked the book under one arm, then picked up another book on tailoring, as a possible reference for future costume design.  Flipping through it, I wasn’t too impressed.  I checked out another.

My thoughts froze as a hand touched my hair.  I belatedly remembered Brian.  I tried and failed to organize my thoughts.  I’d forgotten to plan out what to say to him, and what would he be doing touching my hair?

I started to turn around, only for the hand to seize my ear and wrench it hard enough to make my legs buckle at the pain.  I was shoved over and my body’s weight and momentum weren’t enough to pull my ear free from my attacker’s grip, with the skin joining my ear to my head paying the price.  I felt like my skin was tearing, and I couldn’t even scream as my breath hitched in my throat.

I collapsed on top of a pile of books, and the white-hot pain surrounding my ear was so overwhelming I wasn’t entirely sure if my ear was still being held or not.  A knee pressed against my side with enough force I had little doubt that most or all of my attacker’s body weight was on top of me.  Long fingernails stabbed into my cheek, forcing the skin in between and against my teeth, as my assailant gripped the side of my jaw.  It not only forced my mouth painfully open with the pressure of my cheek against my own teeth, but it pressed my face hard against the pile of books beneath me.   My cry of protest was reduced to an incomprehensible, muffled noise, which became a primal groan as my ear was twisted again, the opposite direction as before.

“Something you should know about me,” Sophia’s voice was dulcet, “The reason I’m such a good runner?  It’s not that I’m driven to win.  It’s that I really, really hate losing.”

She wrenched my ear again, changing the direction again, and I cried out.  If she went any further, I was positive the skin would tear and the ear would come off entirely.  I struggled, but the books slid beneath my hands and knees, giving me minimal traction.

“And I hate losing the most when it’s to a depressing queef like you,” she rocked her right hand back and forth against my cheek, as if she wanted to drive her fingernails through the skin.  Her thumbnail bit into the underside of my jaw.

I have bugs inside my jeans and backpack.  I can end this.

With both hands, using her grip on my ear and jaw, she lifted my head up and plunged it down hard against the pile of books beneath me.  It wasn’t the worst hit I’d ever taken, but it still left me reeling.

I couldn’t afford to take too many hits to my head.  Though my concussion was more or less healed, I’d be susceptible to a relapse of symptoms and future concussions for a while yet.  I just had to use my bugs to get her off me, buy myself time to get my knife and baton and…

…and then I’d be fucked.  I’d do more damage to myself in the long run, outing myself as the girl with the bug powers.  I’d never be able to go home to my dad.

Sophia let go of my cheek to cover my mouth with her hand.  Using this fresh hold, she wrenched my head as far to the right as it would go, so I could see her looming over me, her hair hanging down around her face.  She looked like a panther, black-skinned, savage, teeth bared just a little as she panted.

She let go of my ear and tapped hard against the lens of my glasses as she continued, “This is your reminder that everyone has their place in life, Hebert, and you should stick to yours.  Trying to act better than you are only embarrasses you and irritates me, get it?”

She yanked on my ear again, as if to make her point clear.

“Nod if you understand, and I’ll let you run off home.”

I glared up at her.

My fingertips traced against the books on the bottom shelf until I found the hardcovers.  I got hold of one, pulled it free, and in the same motion, drove one of the corners of the text into Sophia’s side.

She fell over, and I flipped onto my back to swing again, switching to a two-handed grip to add more power to the swing.  The time it had taken me to get into position for another swing, however, bought Sophia time to get out of the way.  I had Brian’s tips on fighting in mind, keeping on the offensive, and the only way to do that was to fling the hardcovered reference book at her head.  She used her arms to knock it out of the air, then winced, rubbing her arm.

“What the fuck is your derangement?!” I shouted at her.  “In what twisted perspective is it all right to stalk and attack someone because they kissed a boy?”

“It’s not just that,” Sophia started toward me, then stopped when I let my backpack fall to the ground and straightened, ready for another confrontation.  “You got me fucking suspended.  I don’t care about missing class, but I’m off the track team until further notice.  And it’s all because you ran off to whimper for the grown-ups.  I need that shit.”

“Boo fucking hoo.  If I knew it mattered that much to you, I’d have written a letter to your coach days ago, just to drive the point home and make sure you never got back on the team.”

Sophia gave me a look of pure loathing, “You’re a coward, Hebert.  A rat.  You know you’re a nerd, you’re flat chested, scrawny.  Nobody likes you, nobody wants you for a friend, you’re not good at anything.  So you run, you hide, skip school, stay quiet, don’t do anything with your waste of a life.  And if things get tough, if anyone decides to have a little fun at your expense, you go crying to the people in charge, because you can’t take it.”

My ear throbbed.  I put my hand up to tenderly touch the base of it, and pulled away when I felt a bitter stinging pain in response.  My fingertips were red with blood when I lowered them.

“FYI, it was Emma’s dad who called the meeting at the school, not me,” I replied without anger in my voice.  I was sobered by the sight of my own blood.  Odd as it sounded, I felt more comfortable with the situation.  I’d dealt with more serious fights, and I felt like I could handle this better, having seen the blood, knowing the ante was higher.

“You still told someone.”

“So what if I did?  What did you expect, that I’d keep my mouth shut, put up with it?”

“That’s exactly what I expected.  It seems you didn’t get my point about knowing your place.”  Her eyes flickered to the spot where she’d just held me down.  “Maybe you’ll get the message after round two.”

She started toward me, and I had a good sense of how this would go.  She was my height, but she was a stronger than me, with more room for muscle on her frame.  Not that she was fat, or heavy in any way, but her physique was athletic, slender, and mine was that of a scarecrow – just plain thin.

There was also the broader context – I was already hurting, and she was fucking psycho.  If it came down to it, I suspected I’d get the worst of it in the fight, unless I either found a way to get to my weapons in my bag or used my powers.  That didn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to do some damage to her in the meantime, it just meant she’d kick my ass in the process.

If that was how it turned out, I was okay with that.

“Enough,” the male voice cut in.

Sophia halted in her advance.  She turned an impassive expression to Brian, who stood to her left.  He set plastic bags of food on the ground as she watched.  “The boyfriend.”

Brian looked at me, and there was a touch of concern in the expression.

I turned my attention back to her.  “Meet Sophia.  One of the girls that’s been giving me a hard time at school.”

The look of concern disappeared from his face in an instant.  It was replaced by anger.

“She’s lying,” Sophia told him, without the slightest trace of hesitation. “She cheated off me for a test, and got us both suspended and-”

“Shut up,” Brian’s voice was low, not much different from his normal speech, but Sophia got the message.  She closed her mouth.  He turned to me, “Are you okay?”

“My ear hurts like hell, and I don’t even know what she did to the side of my face, but I’m alive.”


Sophia bolted, and there were only two ways to go – through me, or past Brian.  She chose the easy road, dashing toward me, and I lunged for her, aiming to grab her, slow her down enough for Brian to step in.

Except she was faster than I’d anticipated, proving her position on the track team wasn’t just for show, and even my last-ditch effort at grabbing her wrist fell short.

Brian and I gave chase, and were stopped when the guy from the front counter emerged and stepped partway between us and Sophia.

“What’s this?” he looked between us.  Behind him, Sophia turned to face us, assessed the situation and then backed up a few steps with the old man’s back was turned to her.

“She attacked me,” I said.

“Looks that way, sure, but the girl said it was justified, that you stole something from her on the bus.  Asked me to stay at the counter and turn up the volume on my show while she got it back.”

“It’s a lie,” I told him.

The old man ignored me.  He looked at Brian, “I thought you’d be on the other girl’s side, not sure I would’ve let you past if I knew it was any different.”

Why had he come to that conclusion?  Because Brian and Sophia were both black?  I didn’t like that assumption, that I was automatically the bad guy, here.

“No,” was Brian’s curt reply.  “My friend is right.  That girl attacked her.”

Sophia backed away another few small steps, behind the old man.  When Brian moved forward, the old man got in his way, angry.  “Hey now, I’m not going to have any more fighting in my bookstore.”

Sophia saw her chance and ran.  I raised my hand, as if I could somehow reach out and stop her, then dropped it.

It took us another two minutes to wrap things up with the old man.  He accused me twice more of being a thief and gave us a dressing down for causing violence in his store.  When he started demanding we go to the back with him and talk about the damage and mess, Brian grabbed my arm and guided me out of the store, ignoring the old guy’s insults and shouts of protest.  We took the quickest route out of the mall and started walking down the street.

I’d left the dog psychology book behind, I realized.  That bummed me out as much as anything.  I hadn’t really won or lost, as I saw it.  Any injuries I’d sustained were balanced out by the fact that I’d fought back, and that Brian had been there to back me up.

Well, that was my gut feeling, anyway.  It was entirely possible that I’d change my mind after I saw how bad the damage was to my face and ear.

Might as well know sooner than later.  I gestured to the side of my head and asked Brian, “How bad is it?”

“I think that ear’s going to need stitches,” Brian told me.  “You’ve got a tear in the skin by the earlobe.”

I nodded, mute.

“You want to press assault charges?”

I shook my head.  No money to do it, no use in trying.  She had Emma’s dad backing her up, and the only witness was the old guy from the bookstore, who had given me the distinct impression he sided with Sophia over me.

“So that’s what you’ve been dealing with at school?” he asked.

I shook my head.  When I tried to speak, a surge of emotion made my voice reedy.  It took me a second to figure out how to get the words out, and the end result was that my voice sounded hollow and robotic, “That was the worst she’s tried to hurt me physically.  Guess it’s different outside of school.  I can defend myself more, but she has less reason to hold back.”

“So I suppose the,” he cleared his throat, “Kiss on the bus?  It was for her benefit?”

I swallowed hard, in an effort to get my voice more normal.  I probably wouldn’t get another chance.  “Some, yeah.  Some was for mine.”

He turned toward me, eyebrows raised a fraction.

I shrugged, doing everything I could to sound more casual than I felt.  I wasn’t sure how successful I was.  “I, um, I like you.  You don’t need to make a bigger deal of it than it is, I just-” I floundered as I tried to find the words, already regretting opening my mouth.

He didn’t speak, giving me a chance to continue, “I think you’re good looking, I like you as a person.  I respect you, more than any of the others, because you’re smart about what you do, career-wise.  You know.  And because you’re so comfortable in your own skin, so confident.  I admire that.”

“You sound so analytical,” Brian offered me a slight smile, but he looked a little pained, “Going through the points, step by step, like you’re checking things off a list.”

“That’s not- I’m not trying to.”

“I’m not criticizing you.  I’m saying it seems very you.”

“No.  I just thought, um, you’ve gone out of your way to spend time with me, you were meeting me on my runs, invited me to be at your place alone.  I’ve noticed maybe there was more casual body contact, and thought it might be intentional, a signal, guy flirting, I dunno.  The present, the amber…” I trailed off.  It had sounded like a stronger argument in my head than it did out loud.  Except… what was I trying to argue?  Was I trying to convince him he liked me?

“Ah, geez.  I’m sorry if I sent the wrong signals.”

My heart dropped.

“You’ve got to understand, the only girls I’ve spent time around are Aisha and Lisa… Bitch doesn’t count, you know?”

I nodded, tightly.

“Even when I was attending high school, I was always gone the second classes ended.  Meeting my dad at the gym, working, or going home to plan some costumed burglary or whatever.  You know?  I don’t have much experience, being around girls.  I don’t really think that much about the relationship thing, outside of noticing when I see a good looking girl.  It’s something I always figured I’d get to later, when I wasn’t so preoccupied.”

I offered another nod, not trusting myself to open my mouth.

“So if I gave you the wrong impression, I guess it’s partially because I have no idea what I’m doing, and because I’m an idiot when it comes to stuff like that.  I don’t see you that way.  It’s… more like you’re my sister, someone I want to protect, and help, and support.  I like you as a friend, I can even see us being best friends, somewhere down the line.”

Like his sister.  A friend.

“If there was more body contact or if I was spending time with you, or any of that other stuff you mentioned, I promise I wasn’t teasing or anything.  If any of it was conscious on my part, it was meant to make you feel more welcome, let you know you’ve got me around, because I knew you had a rough time of it at school.”

And pity.  There’s the trifecta.  “It’s okay.  You can- you can stop now.”

We walked a few seconds in oppressive silence.

“I’m sorry.  I feel like an asshole.  Like I’m kicking you while you’re down.”

I shook my head, “It’s fine.  Not a big deal.  Just drop the subject?”


I bobbed my head in mutual agreement and swallowed the lump in my throat.  In a different place or situation, if Brian wasn’t around, if I had privacy, I might have cried.  I didn’t have that luxury, so I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, controlling my breathing, reading street signs and store names, and just focusing on anything that wasn’t Brian or the conversation we’d just had.

The walk back to his apartment was long-ish, maybe half an hour, and was peppered with only meaningless small talk and long, wordless pauses.  We got up to his apartment, and he started putting things away and getting the first aid stuff together.  I turned on the TV to liven up the awkward quiet.

I didn’t have to wait long before something caught my eye.  It was on channel 4, a live update on the Empire Eighty Eight situation.  From the looks of things, there was no doubt in my mind that Kaiser’s people were giving Brockton Bay their response to the email.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“It’s too dangerous to stay here,” Brian spoke.

“What?” Lisa and I asked him, almost simultaneously.

“They’ve got too many heavy hitters and they have absolutely no reason to hold back anymore.  After the ABB thing and the issue with Bitch earlier today, with the number of powered individuals they’ve got at their disposal, they can probably figure out our general location and go on the offensive.  We can’t afford to still be here if they decide to try and root us out or if they lay siege to the Docks.”

“So, what, we run?” Alec asked.

“Tactical retreat.  Just to be safe,” Brian stated, his voice firm, “In case Empire Eighty Eight does decide to organize and come after us in force”

I spoke up, “Even if they don’t blame us for this email that’s outing them, secret identity-wise, I’m betting there’s going to be more than a few that just want to hurt someone and vent their anger… and we did just get in a fight with their people.  It makes us an easy target.  I’m with Brian.  I think we should lay low, at least for now.”

“Okay,” Lisa said, “I’m not sure I agree, but I don’t see any harm in it.  You guys think you can convince Rachel?”

“Already did,” Brian said, “More or less.  She’s packing up at her personal dog shelter, and she’ll be ready to go the moment transportation arrives.  Lisa, first thing, I want you to get on the phone with Coil.  Get that transportation – I’ll text you directions to the place – and get Coil to make a statement, have him make it damn clear to Empire Eighty Eight that he’s responsible for this email.”

“I don’t think he’ll be willing, as far as ‘fessing up.”

“Tell him that I’m not going to sign any deal with him if he can’t own up to this and get the heat off us, when we weren’t informed and we didn’t agree to taking this kind of action.”

Lisa frowned, “Okay.”

“If he’s as clever as he acts like he is, he’ll find some angle to make it work.”

“Alright.  I’ll try.  What else?”

“Take Alec and find a place to stay with Rachel and the dogs.  I think Bitch has more than one shelter like the one I saw today.  If none of those places work, ask Coil for a place.”

Lisa nodded, “Okay.  What are you doing?”

“Taylor and I will stay at my apartment.  It’s out of the way, and so long as we don’t go out in costume, we shouldn’t run into trouble.”

I’d be staying at his apartment?  I could remember the tension from the last time I’d been there alone with him, just how aware I’d been of his presence.  The idea of going there to stay overnight forced me to focus very carefully on keeping my expression impassive and my hands from fidgeting.  I was glad for the distraction of Alec’s response.

“The fuck?” Alec spoke, “You’re telling us to get out of here, stay in some random place with a bunch of stray dogs, while you go home and kick back?”

“Do not get on my case right now, Alec,” Brian pointed a finger at Alec, “As a member of our group, you agreed to answer your fucking phone when it goes off.  I’m not much happier with Lisa, for not having a phone ready, but you’re the one I’m really pissed at.  From what I heard, if things had gone a little differently, one or both of your teammates could be dead.  Because you guys weren’t able to back them up when Taylor asked for it.”

Alec’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t reply.

Brian’s voice was low, his tone controlled.  “I’m angry enough that you should count it as a good thing that you’re not staying at my place and having to put up with me.  That’s why you’re not coming with me.  I also need a level head with you and Rachel, and that means Lisa goes with you two.  I’d leave Taylor instead, but I’d rather spread out the firepower between our two teams.”

“Whatever,” Alec looked back to the TV.  “Forget I mentioned anything.”

Before Brian could get on Alec’s case again, I cut in to ask, “Shouldn’t we all maybe stay together?”

“No,” Lisa answered me, “Brian has the right idea.  Together, as a group of five, we might draw attention from anyone keeping an eye out for our team.  Especially if there’s dogs around.  Having two teams means we can mount a rescue or provide a distraction if one group gets in a bad spot.”

“Keep your phones on and answer them if anyone calls.  We take turns checking in on each other, every half hour, using the same passwords as before.” Brian instructed.

“Got it,” Lisa replied.

“If you really can’t find a place to stay, and the dogs are safely put away somewhere, you can stay at my place.  You’d be crashing on the couch and the floor, though.”

Lisa nodded.

“Hey,” I spoke up, hesitant, “Can I take five minutes to grab a shower and change while you guys hash out the rest of the details?”

Brian made a pained face, but he nodded, “Go.”

Grateful, I hurried to the bathroom, stopping by my room to grab my costume, a fresh outfit, and my towel.

The shower was being more uncooperative than usual, and I didn’t have the time to wait for it to decide to give me warm water, so I jumped in and endured the chilled water just long enough to rinse myself off, scrub the priority areas and get my hair wet.

I cranked the shower off, squeegeed the water off myself with my index finger and thumb, then hopped out of the shower to towel dry and run a brush through my hair.

When I was dry enough, I pulled on a pair of stretch shorts and then started to pull my costume on.  Given that it was all one piece, barring the mask, belt and armor panels, I couldn’t quite wear it under clothing without having to wear gloves and long sleeves.  That kind of clothing wasn’t an option as the weather got warmer.

One option I did have, what I’d been ruminating on, after having my bugs crawl all over me to keep my identity concealed, was only putting it on partway. When the lower half of the costume was on, I folded the top half around at the waist, tying the arms together around me, like a belt.  I put on jeans and a black and red spaghetti strap top that left some of my midriff exposed.  To finish, I tied a sweatshirt around my waist, positioning it over where I’d tied the upper half of my costume.

I sized myself up in the mirror.  The material was fairly thin and it stretched, so it didn’t make me look bulkier.  I’d have to see how comfortable the soles I’d built into the foot portion of the costume were inside shoes, but that was something I could adjust.  Having the main part of the body pulled around behind my back meant I could hide the bulkier portion under the sweatshirt.  So long as I didn’t untie the sweatshirt where anyone could see, I was golden.

I hurried out of the bathroom, grabbed enough tops, underwear and socks to last me a few days.  I rolled them up to make them compact, and stashed them in my backpack around the armor for my costume, my weapons, the rest of my utility compartment stuff, two books and six hundred bucks in cash.  I slung the bag over one shoulder.  Heavy, but manageable.

I left my room to rejoin Brian, tying my damp hair into a loose ponytail with an elastic while I walked.  I paused for just a second to extend one leg, toe down to touch the ground, so a collection of beetles, roaches and spiders could crawl up my leg.  They settled between my costume and my clothes.

I could deal with bugs being on me, so long as they weren’t directly on my skin.

“Ready?” I asked Brian.

He nodded.  He’d pulled off the leather jacket and had it in a gym bag with his helmet.  He was wearing a guy’s tank top, beige, leaving his arms and shoulders exposed.  His skin glittered with the tiniest droplets of sweat, from wearing a jacket in the warm weather.

I pulled my eyes away before my attention could draw notice.  I told Lisa, “We’ll see you guys later.”

“Have fun,” she grinned.

Brian led the way outside, and again, I paused at the door’s threshold to collect some more bugs under my clothing and in my bag while I could still be discreet about it.  It wasn’t a lot, but it was something.

He seemed to be deep in thought, and there was good cause for that, so I didn’t bother him as we walked to the bus stop.

“Am I being paranoid?” he asked me, as we arrived.

“I’m not the person to ask.  As far as I’m concerned, when you’re talking about capes, you can’t take too many precautions.  Especially with a group as influential as Empire Eighty Eight.”

“I’ll rephrase the question then.  Do you think the others will think I’m being paranoid?”

“Honestly?  Probably.”

“Damn it.”

Our conversation stalled when more people joined us at the bus stop.

“I just realized,” Brian spoke, “I never asked if you even wanted to stay over.”

I looked up at him.  I wasn’t sure how to answer without conveying my full feelings on the subject.  Keep it simple.  “I do.  It’s totally fine.”

“After I was first introduced to the others, I did that a lot.  The guys complained about it, and my sister’s mentioned it too.  I take charge, make calls.”

“Really, it’s cool.  It makes sense, given…” I paused, keeping the civilians that were in earshot in mind.  “…the situation, and I like your apartment, so I don’t mind staying there.”


“Definitely.  Hell, I’d have you decorate my apartment when I got a place of my own.”

He chuckled, “I’ll do that for you if you make me that outfit we talked about before.”

The costume.  I’d almost forgotten.

“Thanks for reminding me about that.  It sort of slipped my mind.”

“Considering it?”

“Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s a big job, but I guess I have more free time now, and, uh, yeah.  That’s pretty much it.  I could maybe do it, sure.”  Obviously, I couldn’t and wouldn’t mention the fact that my decision to ally myself with the Undersiders for real was a factor.

“Yeah?  I’d owe you.”

“Gives us something to talk about while I’m staying over, too.”

“I don’t think we’ll lack for conversation topics,” he smiled at me.  That boyish smile that I’d noticed on day one.  If I was being honest, I would even say it was tied with his voice for the thing I liked most about him, aesthetically.  It was maybe unfair to think so, but I generally saw the vast majority of teenage boys as awkward people that combined the traits of a child and an adult in the most unfortunate ways possible.  Brian was the opposite, and it was his voice and his smile that really nailed the effect.

I felt my ears warming up in the telltale sign of an incoming blush and looked away, distracting myself with an exhaustive investigation of a brown paper bag by the side of the road.  If I kept on that particular line of thinking about Brian’s better qualities, I was guaranteed to wind up saying or doing something to embarrass myself.

The bus arrived and we climbed on.  I flashed my school ID, while Brian paid with tickets.  I found an empty seat, and Brian stood next to me, holding the pole.  He was close enough to me that his leg pressed against my arm.  Even though I could have moved my arm away, I left it where it was.

I wasn’t the sort of girl Brian would be attracted to.  I knew that.  I could settle for just his presence and friendship.  I could enjoy it if there happened to be casual body contact between us, even if it was a bit pervy.

Our brief conversation had let me relax and start to enjoy the possibility of an evening in Brian’s company, but what I saw next was a bucket of cold water in the face.

The bus had stopped to pick up passengers, and Sophia Hess was among them.  Her sleeveless polo top was long, extending down to her waist, and clung tight to a slender body with curves and a chest I’d never have.  The tennis skirt she was wearing was only barely long enough to be decent.  More than one set of eyes turned her way as she boarded the bus, Brian’s among them.

She was oblivious to the attention and to my existence, preoccupied with a conversation over the phone.  She looked annoyed, bored, and distracted, as the person on the other end did most of the talking.  Probably a parent.

The bus continued on its route, more people filed in, and the people near the front moved further back.  I stared at her, waiting for the moment she would see me and make eye contact.  I wasn’t sure what she’d do, or what I’d do, but that moment held every iota of my focus.

She was Emma’s best friend.  The person who had shoved me into the locker, back on the day I’d gotten my powers.  On countless occasions, she had pushed and tripped me, often several times a day.  She’d knocked me down the stairs, when I was near the bottom of the flight, even got others to do similar things.  Given that she’d been suspended after my last meeting with her, I somehow didn’t think she’d walk away without confrontation if she saw me.

My leg bounced restlessly.  Without thinking about it, I’d readied myself to leap out of my seat, to defend myself, get out of the way, or respond to whatever happened.  My thoughts looped through possible things she might do, things I might say or do in response.

Sophia put the phone away, and gazed out the window for a moment.  When she’d seen everything there was to see of transition point between the Docks and Downtown, she glanced over the bus’ interior.  Her eyes paused on advertisements running along the top of the bus, then settled on Brian.

The appraising look she gave him was unmistakeable.  It lingered long enough that it probably would have been uncomfortable for him, if he’d been aware of it.

Or maybe not.  Maybe he would’ve liked the attention from a girl that looked like her.


She still hadn’t seen me.  I could see why – I was sitting, and she and Brian were standing, and there were others between us, obscuring her line of sight to me.

I startled when something moved to my left.  It was just the person sitting next to me standing to get off at the next stop, but it made me aware of just how tense I was.  I reached up and touched Brian’s elbow.  When he glanced down, I moved over into the empty seat and pointed to the vacated spot.

He smiled and sat down beside me.

My pulse was pounding in my throat, and I couldn’t tell him why, not here.  I waited and tried to organize my thoughts, as people from the front of the bus moved toward the back.  It took some doing, but I avoided looking at Sophia.

I reached up and put a hand on his shoulder, used it to rise high enough to murmur in his ear, “Do me a megahuge favor?  I’ll explain after.”

“Of course,” his voice was barely audible over the noise of the bus.  He turned his head just enough to look me in the eye, and my heart skipped a beat.

“Just play along.”  I put two fingers on the side of his chin, turning his head, and rose out of my seat just enough to touch my lips to his.

I expected electricity, fireworks, all that stuff you hear about.  I thought my heartbeat might race, or that my thoughts might dissolve into that chaotic mess that I’d experienced a few times in the recent pass.

What I didn’t expect was the calm.  The tension melted out of me, and all the worries, anxieties and conflicting thoughts faded into the background.  It was like the sense of peace I got from waking up at the loft, times ten.  All I thought about was the contact, how nice it was, the feeling of his lips on mine.

I broke the kiss and looked him in the eyes as I settled back in my seat.  Even before he opened his mouth to say something, I was giving him the smallest shake of my head.  He closed his mouth.

When I looked away, I felt his arm settle around my shoulders.

I looked and didn’t see Sophia at the front of the bus.  When I checked over my shoulder, I found her near the back.  She was staring at me.

I imagined it wasn’t so different from that primal sense of satisfaction Bitch had felt when she’d set the dogs on me.  Except where Bitch had lorded it over me with a smug smile, I didn’t change my expression from the light smile that was already on my face.  I gave Sophia a moment’s eye contact and nothing more, before turning to face the front of the bus once more.  She wasn’t worth it, wasn’t worth spoiling this.

I avoided looking back to see what she was doing or checking if she was still there.  When Brian asked me if I minded stopping to go shopping before we went to his apartment, I nodded.

I had taken Lisa’s advice, trying to improvise, be more impulsive.  I had also done as Bitch had suggested.  I’d let Brian know I was interested, kind of.  Not to the extent she’d suggested, but it was something.  Definitely something.

Except I’d just forced matters with Brian, and now I not only had to explain, but I had to deal with a night of awkwardness in his company, on top of the threat of action from Empire Eighty Eight.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Brian arrived as Bitch and I were trudging through the field with shovels and trash bags in hand.  Not the image I wanted him to get of me, but I was glad to see him nonetheless.

I’d rinsed off using the tap at the dog’s water trough, but I was still covered in dirty paw prints, grass stains, and my skin still itched with the feeling of bugs crawling on me.  I had little doubt that with my wet hair and the state of my clothes, that I looked pretty damn grungy.

“There’s bullet holes in the front door,” Brian spoke from the other side of the chain link fence, raising his voice to be heard over the torrent of barks.  He was wearing his costume and helmet, but had the visor flipped up and he wasn’t shrouded in his darkness.  From a distance, he’d look like some guy in motorcycle gear.

“Quiet,” Bitch ordered, and the dogs fell silent.  Seeing what the other dogs were doing, the few who hadn’t learned the command stopped after one or two more barks as well.

“Yeah, they fired off their guns a few times,” I told him.

“And you’re still here,” he said, in mild disbelief.

“My call,” Bitch told him.

“It’s a bad call,” he admonished her.

“I’m not leaving.”

Brian folded his arms.  “Is your pride or stubbornness worth getting those dogs hurt?”

She scowled and looked down at the dogs.

“The thing they said about the hotdogs,” I spoke, quiet, “About poisoning your dogs.  You couldn’t stop them unless you were here twenty-four seven, and maybe not even then.”

“It’s cowardly,” Bitch spat the words.

“They’re cowards,” I told her.  “Pretty much the definition of anyone who joins a hate group.  But even if they did take a more direct approach, would you be able to handle it?  Could you deal if twenty people showed up with guns?  Or if Night and Fog dropped by at three in the morning, when it was just you and these guys?”

“I can handle myself.”

I sighed a little and planted my shovel in the ground.  I had to think of a way to convince her.  If I lost my patience in the face of her stubbornness, she would win the argument, and we would all lose.

“I know.  But isn’t it better to rely on us?  To actually handle this instead of going it alone, hiding and letting those fuckers have the power?”

“I’m not hiding,” she gave me an angry look.  “I’m protecting-”

Brian interrupted her, “Protecting your dogs would mean taking them somewhere safe.”

She shook her head violently.  “No.  I do that, the fuckers win.

“I’ve been there,” I told her.  “Really, I know what you mean.  But our number one priority is keeping you and those dogs safe.  Once we’ve handled that, we can focus on dealing with any threats.”

She drummed her fingers against her thigh, looking back toward the building.

“We are going to deal with them?” she made the question a challenge.

“Yes,” Brian spoke.  “I don’t like that these guys are moving into this area.  I don’t like that they’d go so far as to attack a member of our group.  If we don’t do something to respond soon, it’s going to hurt our rep.  We need reputation, it protects us, gives people reason to think twice before they fuck with us.”

Bitch nodded.  “Okay.”

Brian quirked an eyebrow, “Okay what?”

“I’ll go, and the dogs come with.”

He smiled, “Good.  I don’t think I can hop this fence without getting on the bad side of those dogs, so I’m going to meet you around at the front door.  I’ll call Coil on the way”

“Alright,” I said.  As he turned to leave, I raised my hand in the lamest little goodbye wave ever.  Even though I was pretty sure he didn’t see it, I was left mentally kicking myself for doing it.

I glanced at Bitch, who was giving me a peculiar look.

“What?” I asked her, feeling painfully self conscious.

“You like him.”

“N-,” I started.  Before I went on to protest, I had to stop myself.  Bitch would appreciate straightforwardness and honesty more than anything else.  I wasn’t sure I could afford to come across as dishonest or two faced, with her.  “…Yeah.  I do.”

She turned to head back inside.  A horrible thought struck me at that moment.

“Do… do you like him?” I asked her.

She turned her head to give me an angry look, one I couldn’t read in the slightest.

“Because if you do,” I hurried to add, as I started to walk after her, “Hey, you were here first.  I’ll back off and keep my mouth shut if you want to make a move.”

There were about five seconds where she was very quiet.  My pulse pounded in my throat.  Why did I care so much about this?

“You should offer to sleep with him.”

“I-uh, what?” I stammered.  Relief mixed with embarrassment, and the abrupt change of topic left me struggling to get my thoughts in order.

“It’s what guys want.  Tell him you’re available if he ever wants to fuck.  He’ll accept right away, or he’ll start thinking about you as a possibility and he’ll take you up on it later.”

“That’s-  It’s more complicated than that.”

“It’s complicated because people make it complicated.  Just cut the bullshit and go for it.”

“I don’t think you’re wrong about there needing to be less expectations and rules and rituals around dating, bullshit, as you put it, but I don’t think I can do what you’re suggesting.”


I realized, belatedly, that she’d actually offered me advice.  As… I struggled to find the word.  As misdirected as her suggestion might have been, especially with Brian, it was probably the most blatant gesture of goodwill I had seen from her, next to her telling Armsmaster that she thought I could kick his ass.

“Thank you, though,” I told her.  “I’ll, uh, I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Don’t care if you do.”

We crossed the building’s interior and Bitch unlocked the door to let Brian inside.  For a second, I thought her bluntness would lead to her telling Brian outright that I liked him, but it wasn’t the case.  She was more focused on keeping the more unruly dogs from slipping outside and stopping them from barking at the new visitor than on our discussion.

“I can’t get hold of Coil,” Brian informed us.

“I couldn’t get Lisa or Alec, before,” I replied.  “You think something’s up?”

He nodded, “Maybe.  You stay here with Rachel.  I’m going to go check on the others.”

“No,” Bitch spoke.  “I don’t need babysitting, and I’m getting annoyed being badgered by you two.  Taylor goes with you.  I’m going to stay here and pack up.”

“Not a good idea,” Brian said, with a shake of his head, “If you get attacked in the meantime-”

“-I have Brutus, Judas and Angelica.  I managed on my own for years, dealt with people tougher than those fuckers.  If there’s trouble, I run.”

“And if they take one of your dogs hostage?” I asked her.  “One of the ones you can’t use your power on, yet?”

A dark look passed over her face as she considered that.  “Then I run… and I get revenge another day, on my terms.”

Brian tapped his foot for a few seconds.  “Okay.  If there’s trouble, it’ll be good to have Taylor at my back.  If and when I get hold of Coil, I’m going to see about getting you some trucks, and people to drive them.  In the meantime, stay alert, and don’t get yourself killed.”

Bitch scowled, but she nodded.

“Taylor, we should go.  The sooner we check on Lisa and Alec, the better I’ll feel,” he was already moving as he finished talking.

The moment we were out of earshot, he pulled off his helmet, tucking it under one arm, and asked me, “What happened?”

I told him, explaining everything after the point Bitch and I heard the ruckus the bottle man and his gang were causing.

“Funny that it’s Kaiser that’s having trouble controlling his people,” Brian mused, when I was done.

I wondered if he was still sore over what Kaiser had said at the meeting.

“Coil upped the pressure the moment the truce against the ABB was broken.  I would be surprised if Kaiser didn’t have his hands full with that,” I replied.

“You’re defending him?”

It wasn’t often that I felt acutely aware of the difference in our skin colors, but being asked if I was making excuses for the white supremacist supervillain was one of those moments.

“I don’t want to underestimate him, is all,” I said.

Brian sighed, “Yeah.  Maybe you’re right.  But Kaiser was willing to demand restitution for the attack on his dogfighting ring, and I’m more than willing to do the same for this attack from his skinheads, if it comes down to it.”

“Both events having something substantial to do with Bitch,” I noted.

“I’m aware of that fact,” he told me, frowning.  “She’s useful, she’s a credit to the team, but she comes with some problems.  We’ve dealt with it in the past, we’ll deal with it in the future.”


“How was she?  Any fights?”

“Nothing serious.  No, it was actually kind of nice.  I might even do it again, if she let me.”

“Really,” he replied, skepticism clear in his tone.


“What changed?”

“I’m figuring her out, I think.  How she operates, how she thinks.”

“I’ve spent ten months on the same team with her, and I haven’t even come close to getting how she thinks.  I can usually keep her from going too far or hurting someone, keep her mostly in line and get her to follow directions, but I haven’t had a conversation with her yet that didn’t make me want to bang my head against a wall.”

“That might be the problem.  You’re in charge, she looks up to you, respects you, but…” I paused.  How could I word this without getting into the particulars of her mode of thinking?  “…But you’re something of an authority figure in our group, and her personality demands she tests authority.  Especially when she’s insecure.”

Brian considered that.  With a note of approval in his voice, he commented, “You have been giving this some thought.”

“I think that you’d have a much easier time handling her if you took an official leadership role in our group.  Not just being the sorta-kinda leader, but actually taking the position.  If you’re not comfortable with that, or if you think the others will make it too hard, well, she’ll probably get more comfortable with relying on you as someone in charge over time, as you prove you can handle it.”

“It’s been ten months, how long does she need?”

“And she’s had how many years, without parents, teachers, bosses?  I mean, even when she had foster parents, I don’t think it was sunbeams and rainbows, y’know?”

He rubbed his chin.  “…Yeah.”

“Tell me she hasn’t gotten at least a bit better in the course of those ten months.”


“There you go.  It’ll only improve from here on out.”

He offered me a theatric groan in reply.

Brian was walking with long strides, and he had long legs, which forced me to do little jogging spurts to keep up.  It wasn’t tiring, I was fit enough from my running, but it was embarrassing to feel like a small child trying to keep up with a grown-up.

Either way, we did make good time getting back to the loft.

Brian put his finger to his lips as he pulled on his helmet and flipped his visor down, emanating his darkness to hide the costume.  I grimaced and brought bugs up to cover my face, calling more from the area to form the beginnings of a swarm.  Brian – Grue now – reached out and coated the front door of the loft in darkness, then opened it without the slightest of creaks or squeals.  Before we ascended the metal stairs leading to the second floor, he coated them in a layer of his power to render our footsteps utterly silent.

I didn’t anticipate the scene in the living room of the Loft.

The TV was on, showing ads.  Alec lay on the couch, his feet on the coffee table, a meal on his lap.  Lisa sat on the other couch, laptop resting on her legs, a phone to her ear.  She turned her head as we came upstairs, gave us a funny look, then returned her attention to her laptop.

“Why the fuck aren’t you answering your phones?” Grue raised his eerie voice.  He flipped up his visor and banished the darkness around him.

Lisa frowned and held up a finger.  She continued talking into the phone, “-don’t agree with this, and if you’d asked me, I would have said you shouldn’t do it.  No, yes, I think it’s an effective measure.”

She pointed to the laptop, and I stepped forward, moving the bugs off my face and down to the center of my back, where they would be present but not in the way, resting on cloth rather than skin.  I looked at the screen.

“My problem is that it’s not just them.  It’s their families,” Lisa spoke into the phone.  “Unspoken rule, you don’t fuck with a cape’s family.”

I read the contents of the email she had open.  I felt a ball of dread settle in the pit of my stomach.  I leaned over the back of the couch and put a hand on her shoulder to steady myself as I reached down to press the pagedown key on the laptop.  I read more of the email and then hit the button again to scroll down again.

When I’d read enough of the page to verify my suspicions, I hit the home key to return to the very top of the page.  I checked who else had been Cc’ed on the email and the time it had been sent.

Fuck,” I muttered.  “Fuck!”

Lisa looked up at me, frowned, then spoke to the person on the other end of the phone, “Can we finish discussing this later?  I’ve got to talk to my team about this.  Kay.  Later.”

The email was a list.  At the very top of the list was Kaiser.  Following his entry were his lieutenants, Purity, Hookwolf and Krieg, and the rest of the members of Empire Eighty Eight.  It wasn’t even limited to people with powers, noting some powerless captains and even some of the lower level flunkies.

The list included pictures and text.  Beneath each of the villain’s names was a comprehensive block of data, noting their civilian names in full, professions, addresses, phone numbers, the dates they moved to the city and the first appearances of their costumed identities in Brockton Bay.  There were pictures of them in costume paired with pictures of their alleged civilian identities, roughly matched in angle and size for easy comparison.  Most of the entries had zip files attached, doubtless with more data and evidence.

Kaiser.  Max Anders, president and chief executive officer of Medhall Corporation, a pharmaceuticals company based in Brockton Bay.  Father of a Theodore Richard Anders and an Aster Klara Anders.  Twice divorced, currently living in a penthouse apartment downtown.  Drives a black BMW.  Native born to Brockton Bay, son of Richard Anders.  Richard Anders, according to the email, was Allfather, the founder of Empire Eighty Eight.  From the pictures, it was clear to see how the armor fit around his face and body, how both Kaiser and Max Anders had the same height and body type.

There were other images as well, showing Max Anders with a gorgeous twenty-something blonde, and Max Anders with an older brunette woman at a coffee shop, their table strewn with what looked like paperwork.  I scrolled down to confirm my suspicions, the blonde appeared in another picture with her twin sister.  Fenja and Menja.

The brunette woman was Purity, according to the email.  Far mousier than I might have thought, given the sheer presence she had in costume.  Real name, Kayden Anders.  Interior decorator.  Single mother of one Aster Anders.  Purity was promoted to Kaiser’s second in command in the same week that Kayden Russel took Max’s hand in marriage to become Kayden Anders.  Their separation occurred within the same time period as Purity leaving Empire Eighty Eight to apparently strike out on her own.  Little citations pointed to files apparently in the attached zip file.

Krieg was alleged to be a James Fliescher.  Head of a pharmacy chain, in turn connected to Medhall.  Father of three, married.  According to the notes in his block of information, he took a vacation twice a year with his family.  The email stated that the zip file had copies of inter-company emails where he’d told his coworkers he went to places like South America or Paris, and flight records showed that he was lyingHe always went to London.  Twice a year, every year, for nearly twenty years.  Not once, during these trips, had Krieg been seen in Brockton Bay.

The list went on.  And on.

Every piece of information connected to others.  Even the info on the mooks like the ones I had met earlier with Kaiser’s business, showing how they were employed as low level employees of Medhall and its derivative businesses.  It seemed like everyone had a criminal record except the people at the top.

In short, It was comprehensive enough it would take a special kind of willful ignorance to not buy into what the email was selling.

The email had been sent not only to Lisa, but to the Brockton Bay Bulletin, a half dozen other local news stations, and several national ones.  Everyone that mattered, and a few that didn’t.

The email had been sent at 1:27 pm this afternoon.  Less than an hour ago.  That was the really bad news.

“Coil did this?”  I murmured.

Lisa nodded, tightly, “Yup.”

“With your help, I’m guessing?”

“Only a little.  He asked me a few times, to give him my thoughts on some stuff, put him on the right path, eliminate possibilities.  I didn’t think he’d get this far, or go this far.  Once I got him on the right track, he apparently used private investigators and hackers to dig up the rest of this and get the photographic evidence.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“I don’t agree with it,” she said.  “It’s crossing a line.  It’s not just messing with the enemy, there’s going to be a ton of collateral damage.”

“Why weren’t you answering your phone?” Brian changed the subject.

She blinked a few times, startled, “My phone was nearly a goner, so I grabbed a fresh disposable to talk to the boss.  I didn’t want to use the phone with the rest of your contact info in it, just to be safe.  Alec was with me the entire time.  He should’ve gotten any calls.”

“Check your phone, Alec” Brian spoke, terse.

Alec did.  His eyes went wide, “Oh fuck.”

“Part of being a member of this team is being on call if we need you.  I swear,” Brian growled at Alec, “I’m going to kick your ass so hard-”

Lisa looked from Brian to Alec to me, “Something happened.  Is anyone hurt?”

“Yes, something happened, no, nobody’s hurt.  That’s really not what concerns me,” I told her.  I pointed to the screen, “Did Coil plan this?  Is this a scheme of his, him using his power?  Using his destiny manipulation or whatever to create some general coincidence, put us in a bad spot, and force us to join him?”

Lisa shook her head forcefully, “I didn’t get the sense of anything like that, and that’s not how his power operates.  Besides, he expected we would agree anyways.  He wouldn’t jeopardize that with a gambit like this.  It’s too crude.”

“So it was just him attacking Empire Eighty Eight on a new front, and a fucking bad coincidence for us,” I said, as much to myself as anyone else.

“What’s going on?” Alec asked.

I took a deep breath and tried to explain just how bad the situation was.  “Coil just made a big play against the Empire, and it looks like it was anonymous.  Bitch and I got in a fight with some of his underlings at almost the same time.”

“I don’t-” Alec started.

“Look at it this way,” I interrupted, “Kaiser and every single one of his twenty-ish superpowered flunkies are going to be pissed enough to want to kill someone, after Coil went and turned their lives upside down.  Kaiser and his people know who we are, from our cooperation against the ABB.  Specifically, they know who Lisa is.  So who are they going to blame for this, if not the group his people were just fighting with this very afternoon, the group with the very talented information gatherer in their ranks?”

“Oh.”  Alec said.  “Fuck.”


Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter