Sentinel 9.5

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“Don’t cross the yellow line,” Flechette spoke.

“Right,” Vista agreed, “I got the message the last time I came this way.”

Flechette leaned forward, found a string, beaded with water from the rain.  She plucked it twice.

Parian sloshed out from a nearby alley.  A nine-foot tall rabbit with an eyepatch and boxing gloves followed a few feet behind her, moving on two legs, swaggering forward like it had a chip on its shoulder.

“It’s cute!” Vista smiled.

“Hi Vista,” Parian greeted her.  “Hi Flechette.”

“Hey,” Flechette smiled, “We come bearing gifts.”

Vista stepped forward and held out a shopping bag, “A dozen gallons of water, some rice, some tins of beans, multivitamins and first aid supplies.  My power will wear off pretty soon, so get the bag somewhere safe before then.”

“It’s basic stuff,” Flechette said, “But it’ll hold you for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Parian spoke, reaching over the makeshift yellow line for the bag.  She held it behind her back with both hands.  Just over her right shoulder, cloth formed into a rough shape, a trio of needles with attached spools of thread weaving in and around it, a razor cutting at pieces of it.

“How are you managing?”  Flechette asked.

“Some kids came through around noon, roughed up the mother of one of my friends.”

“I told you to call me if there was trouble!”

“I handled it.  Kind of.  They ran when they saw my rabbit.  According to my friend’s mom, they were trying to get someone to tell them where they could get food, and she was afraid they’d take everything if she told them where we have our stuff.  I think they were more hungry than dangerous.  Not enough food going around.”  The cloth took on a rough shape with arms and legs.  “Erm, that makes it sound like I’m blaming you guys-”

“You’re right,” Flechette interrupted.  “We’re not doing a good job of getting supplies to everyone.  We can’t.  Any time we try to distribute it, a group like Hookwolf’s gang or the Merchants try to seize it.  Even if the heroes on duty fend them off, the citizens get scared away.”

“I suppose we’re lucky to have this haven, here.  So far.  I dunno how long before someone I can’t scare off comes through.”

“You have my number.”

Vista turned away as a third voice sounded in her ear.  She stepped away from the conversation, shook her head a little to shake off the water that the steady rain was depositing on her.

Vista squeezed the earbud, “Sorry?  I didn’t catch that?”

“Weld here.  Kid Win has something to report, asked everyone to come in.  Can you make it back here quickly?”

“Okay.”

She hurried back to Flechette’s side and waited a few seconds for a break in the conversation.  When none was forthcoming, she put a hand on Flechette’s arm.

“What’s up?”

“Weld wants us back asap.”

A look of disappointment crossed Flechette’s face.

“I’ll see you later?” Parian asked.

“I’ll stop by later, unless I’m done with patrols for the night,” Flechette shrugged.

“I’ll look forward to it,” Parian replied. She turned to Vista, “Here.”

Vista accepted her gift.  A stuffed rabbit, made in the last-minute or so.  It was finely detailed, wearing a fancy dress with lace trim.  The fur had a softness that indicated high quality material, despite being wet.  She would have been delighted with the gift, were she four years younger.

It was still a really nice gesture.

She suppressed her annoyance at the child’s gift and offered a smile instead, “Thank you, Parian.”

“Let’s go,” Flechette spoke, “Back to headquarters?”

“Back to headquarters.  Come on, we’ll take my shortcut.”

They walked two blocks east to reach Lord street.  Beneath the water’s surface, they could see a fissure that ran down the center of the road, zig-zagging from one lane to the other.

Vista stepped out into the middle of the road at the edge of the fissure, then concentrated.  She felt her power extend to every solid object in front of her, formed a map in her head.  There was nobody out there, which made it easier.  Slowly, carefully, she began adjusting.  She truncated the length of Lord street, then did it again, repeating the process to make the four lane road shorter and shorter.  The fissure down the center of the road squeezed against itself like a compressed spring.

“This is disorienting,” Flechette spoke, as she gazed at the scene.  “My power gives me a grasp of angles… and I’m worried I might have a seizure if I try to use it to get a sense of what’s happening here.”

“It’s not that complicated.  Everything’s like wet clay, and I’m smudging it around.”

Vista deemed her work done, started walking forward.  Flechette followed, eyeing the distorted sidewalk at the edges of the effect.

“You’re powerful, kiddo,” Flechette said.

“Kinda.”

“You could be one of the top dogs in the Protectorate, in five or six more years.”

Vista frowned, “They said the same thing about Dauntless.”

“One of the Protectorate members who got killed, if I remember right?”

Vista nodded.

Flechette frowned, “That’s… unexpectedly dark, coming from you.  Where did that come from?”

“What we do is dangerous.  Sometimes we die.  I don’t see why I should worry about what happens five years from now when I might not even be here.”

“Are you having second thoughts about being on the team?”

Vista gave Flechette a look, “No.  Not in the slightest.”

“But if you’re concerned about risking your life…”

“I didn’t say I was concerned,” Vista said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “Just that, hey, it might happen.  I’m being realistic.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being amazingly mature about the topic of death or if I should be really concerned about you.”

Amazingly mature?”

They had reached the PRT building.  A trip that had taken them thirty minutes on the way out had taken them four on the way back, with the aid of Vista’s power.  Flechette held the bulletproof glass door open, raised a hand in greeting to the PRT uniform who stood alert on the other side.  “You know what I mean.”

Vista had to bite her tongue.  Pointing out that people were being condescending had a way of making her look petulant, which only compounded the problem.  Yes.  Because any maturity on my part is something special.  Doesn’t matter that I have nine months of seniority over Kid Win, being thirteen means everyone expects me to be squealing over Justin Beiber or the Maggie Holt books, or dressing in pink or-

Her train of thought stopped dead when her eye fell on the portraits on the wall above the front desk.

Three feet high and two feet wide, the two pictures were black and white, bordered by foot-wide black frames.  The pictures themselves were head-and-shoulders shots of Aegis and Gallant, both in costume, masks on.  She knew from her own experience that the pictures would have been taken in their first week on the team.  Gallant looked so young.  He had still been so young when the tidal wave had smashed into him and caved in his chest.  Only seventeen.

She looked at her own picture.  In contrast to the boys’, it was vibrant, filled with color.  Her eyes, costume and the frame of the picture were a high-saturation blue-green, the background of the image a sunset orange to highlight her blonde hair.  Vista was young in that picture too.  Her photo had a missing fang tooth on the bottom row, which created a small, dark gap in her awkward smile.  She’d been just a month shy of turning eleven, then.

She hated that picture.

She hated it all the more because she couldn’t help but wonder if the time would come when that picture would be hanging over the front desk in black and white, smiling that guileless goofy smile that was everything she didn’t want people to remember about her.

Hell, were they even doing Gallant justice?  The guy who’d set out to be the literal knight in shining armor, lived his life with more chivalry than any five people you plucked off the street?  All he got was a photo and a name on a memorial.

“You okay?” Flechette asked.

Vista tore her eyes from the portraits, “I’m fine.  Let’s go, Weld’s waiting.”

Without waiting for Flechette, she marched for the elevator.  Flechette fell in step behind her.

Everyone else was sitting in the meeting room, except for Director Piggot, who stood with her arms folded.

“Thank you for being prompt,” Piggot spoke, “Would you please have a seat?”

Vista obediently sat in the chair closest to her.  Flechette found a chair beside Weld.

“Kid Win?” Piggot prompted.

“Here’s the deal, guys.  I went out to talk to Chariot, and there’s a bit of a complication.”  He tapped the screen of his smartphone, and the computer screen at one end of the table changed to show text from a series of emails.  “Chariot hasn’t yet agreed to join the team, but there’s evidence that he fully intends to join as a mole for an unknown party.”

“This evidence was assumed using legal methods, of course,” Piggot spoke.

“Of course,” Kid Win grinned in a way that left no doubt for anyone present that he was lying through his teeth.  “We believe this unknown party is Coil.  There’s no other criminals in town that would really do this.  Fenrir’s Chosen aren’t that subtle, and they’re too racist to work with Chariot.  Purity’s group is, again, too racist.  The Undersiders aren’t well-funded enough.  It doesn’t fit the Travelers’ MO.”

“That,” Piggot spoke, “And there are prior cases of Coil using undercover operatives.”

“Prior cases?” Weld asked.

“This doesn’t leave this room,” Piggot spoke.  Vista nodded alongside everyone else.  “We know there are three agents employed in this very building who are working for Coil.”

“Seriously?” Clockblocker asked.  “As in, right now?”

“Yes,” Piggot nodded, “We might have gone entirely unaware, but Dragon found that one face on our security camera footage matched up with that of a known soldier of fortune.  On investigation, we found two more.  Capable gunmen, each with a wide array of skills ranging from facility with computers to multiple languages.  Very much the type Coil would employ.  We might have arrested them, but I spoke with people with higher credentials and clearance than myself, and we came to the unanimous agreement that it would be ideal to keep those mercenaries employed here.  It allows us to keep a close eye on them for knowledge we could use, and we occasionally feed them bad or misleading information, obviously with a great deal of consideration each time.

“Which brings me to the primary subject of this meeting,” Piggot informed them.  “I would like to do the very same thing here, with Chariot.  He would work alongside you, quite likely see you unmasked.  You would socialize with him, and you would pretend not to know that he is passing on information to his employer.  For that, for the risks you would be undertaking, I require your express permission.”

Kid Win whistled.

“Dealing with the relationships between team members is difficult enough to begin with,” Weld spoke, “And you want to add this into the mix?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do it if I didn’t think you could handle it.”

“What if we say no?” Clockblocker asked.

“If only one or two of you disagreed, out of fear of your civilian identities being used against you, I would propose splitting up your team’s schedules so you did not share any shifts with Chariot.  Ideally this would coincide with each of you returning to school, so your busy schedules could serve as sufficient excuse for why you do not cross paths with the boy.  Given how complicated this becomes, I would much prefer that all of you were onboard.”

“I have no problem with it,” Weld spoke, “But I have no secret identity, no friends or family here to watch out for.  I totally, one hundred percent understand if anyone else has objections.”

“Not a local or a long term member of the team, here,” Flechette said, “My vote probably shouldn’t count, but I’m okay with it, if it’s what the PRT needs to do.”

“Good,” Piggot spoke, “And the rest of you?”

Shadow Stalker was next to agree, followed by Kid Win, Vista and then a reluctant Clockblocker.

Piggot offered them a rare smile, “Good.  For your information, the earpiece communication channel, the computers at this console, the spare laptops and the spare smartphones will all be continually monitored by a team upstairs.  Your own laptops and smartphones will be free of this prying.  This makes it doubly important that you do not lose these possessions or let him gain access to them.”

“He’s a tinker,” Kid Win pointed out, “He might be able to figure out he’s being watched.”

“Admittedly true, but I have assurances from Dragon that the programs and devices she has put together are sufficiently discreet.”  She clasped her hands together, “Thank you, Wards, for your cooperation.  Your service since the start of the Endbringer event has been exemplary.  Trust me when I say I will find some way to make it up to you.”

She moved to leave, stopped, “And Kid Win?  Good work.”

Kid Win smiled broadly.

The Wards watched in silence until the moment the elevator door closed.

“It’s really freaking creepy when Piggy acts human,” Clockblocker commented.  There were chuckles from the rest of the group.  Vista’s own titter was tinged with relief.  The crack was a sign that Dennis was putting out an effort, acting more like his old self.

“Alright guys,” Weld spoke, clapping his hands together once, generating a muted clink, “We needed to be ready with a response in case Chariot replied, I’m sorry about interrupting your nights.  Lily, could I have a word with you before you head out again?”

Flechette nodded and followed Weld to the far corner of the room.

Vista went to get a sports drink from the kitchen in one of the alcoves.  Kid Win was sketching in a notebook.  If he was feeling inspired, it would be best to leave him alone.

She stood behind him at enough of a distance to avoid distracting him, and watched the comedy on the TV, sipping her drink.  She felt a hand on her shoulder, turned to see Weld.

Weld spoke quietly, “You look like you could use a shower.  Go warm up, then get yourself dry and in comfortable clothes.  Clockblocker is replacing you on your patrol, you can come with me in a few hours.”

She nodded.

“Come see me when you’re done.  I want to have a chat.  Nothing bad.”

She nodded again.  So Flechette said something.

She headed into the bathrooms, detoured into the adjacent girl’s bathroom with accompanying showers.  She kicked off her boots, removed her body armor, and hung the armor on one of the drying dummies.  She removed the dress and peeled off the stockings, and hung the clothes on a second dummy, where they would be subjected to a steady, gentle flow of warm air.  Her boots were placed upside down on the heating vent below the dummies, propped up against the wall.  She removed her underwear last, putting it in a basket with the rabbit Parian had made, and grabbed a towel.

It felt strange, removing her costume.  It was like she wasn’t herself.  When had she started seeing herself more as Vista than as Missy Biron?  When her parents divorced, and she started taking extra shifts to get away from the oppressive atmosphere?  After one year on the team, two?

She hung the towel up and stood under the spray of hot water, rinsing off the dirt and the grime that had come with the damp, dirty water that was everywhere outside, now.  It didn’t take long to soap up and rinse off, but she spent a long few minutes leaning there with her hands against one wall of the stall, letting the water run over her, not thinking about anything in particular.

She cranked the water off and walked over to the sink to look at herself in the mirror, her towel around her shoulders.

The water had removed most of it, but there was a line of dried blood flecks on her throat from where the wire had pulled against it.  She had another, similar, mark on her left arm, by her elbow.  She picked the flecks away with one fingernail, then rinsed her finger clean with a spray of water from the faucet.  Only a pink line remained.  Neither serious enough to warrant worrying about.  There was bruising on one of her knees, the thigh and around the side of her pelvis where the bone was closest to the skin, from where rubble had fallen on her, green-yellow in color.

There were older injuries too.  Small scars on her hands, tiny cuts on her legs, the bump of a dime-sized keloid scar on the top of one foot.  The one that caught her eye was on the right side of her chest, an inch and a half down from her collarbone.  An inch wide, the scar puckered inward a bit.  It had been the result of an altercation with Hookwolf as the villain escaped the scene of a grisly attack on a grocer, a year ago.  A blade on the villain’s arm had punctured her armor as he’d knocked her aside.  She’d felt the pain of her skin being penetrated and she’d kept quiet about it out of a desperate need to shake the label of being the team baby.  She didn’t want to be seen as the one always in need of help and protection.  It would have been embarrassing to ask for medical attention, only for it to be a scratch.

It had only been later that she’d seen how serious it was, how much it had been bleeding into the fabric of her costume, underneath her breastplate. She’d stitched it up herself, here, in the showers.  She’d done as best as she was able, worked with a kind of grim determination.  Not the most competent job, in the end.

She kind of regretted that series of decisions, now.  She was a late bloomer, looked younger than she was, but when she did eventually have the sort of cleavage she could show off, the scar would be there, plain as day.  It might even be worse, when that time came, depending on how the scar stretched as her chest grew.

Vista might have tried asking Panacea to fix it, but hadn’t been able to summon up the courage.  Now, as she thought about it, she thought maybe she didn’t really want to get rid of it.  A part of her took a perverse kind of pride in the fact that she had a scar, as though it was some kind of proof to herself that she was a good soldier.  It was a sort of validation of the philosophy she’d been outlining to Flechette.  Why stress about a scar on her chest when some villain could kill her before it became an issue?

A toilet flushed in one of the bathroom stalls, and Vista hurried to pull her towel from around her shoulders and wrap it around herself, hiking it up to cover the scar on her chest.

Sophia strolled over to the sink next to Vista.  She gave the younger girl a cool look, “Don’t freak out, midget.  It’s not like you have anything worth hiding.”

Bristling at the midget comment and the crack about her chest, Vista just stared at herself in the mirror, ignoring the girl.

Sophia finished washing her hands, then got her toothbrush and brushed her teeth.  She took her time, while Vista stood there, clutching the towel around herself with both hands.

Finishing, Sophia put her toothbrush away, and, as she’d been doing recently, put a hand on Vista’s head as she passed by.  Only this time, she mussed up the younger girl’s hair, with more roughness than was necessary.  “Carry on, kid.”

Great, Vista thought.  Dennis might be acting more like his old self, but Sophia is too.

She combed out her hair, sorting out the tangles that Sophia’s attention had given her, dried off, and then went to her locker to get a change of clothes: A t-shirt, sweatshirt and flannel pyjama pants.  Comfortable clothes.  She pulled on slippers and went to find Weld.

Sophia was manning the console, browsing Facebook.  Kid Win was testing out the armor – four guns with the size and shape of large pears were floating around the shoulders in a loose formation.

Rather than distract Chris or have to deal with Sophia again, Vista left the headquarters and headed into the elevator.  Weld’s room was in the hallways one floor up, opposite Kid Win’s workshop.

The door was open, and he was there, reclining on the a heavy-duty chair of the same model as the one he had in the conference room.  He had headphones on, his feet on a granite counter where his computer sat.  She’d never been in his room.  Looking around, she saw rack upon rack of CDs, DVDs and vinyl records.  There was no bed, but he didn’t really need to sleep, so that made some sense.  It was easily possible that he slept in the chair.

His head was bobbing with the music until he spotted her.  He gave her a quick nod, pulled off his headphones and turned off the speaker system.

“You wanted to talk to me?” she asked.

“I sent Flechette on patrol with you because she’s got an objective perspective on the team, and I wanted to see if her thoughts on you echoed my own.  True enough, you were only out for a short while, and she’s already expressed concerns.”

“Okay.”

“Tell me straight up, are you doing okay?”

“People keep asking me that.  I’m fine.”

“Flechette said you were sounding pretty fatalistic when you were on patrol, a little while ago.  I know you were fond of Gallant, that you were pretty inconsolable when you were in the hospital, at his bedside.”

Vista looked away.

“And now you’re acting like nothing fazes you, even the idea of you maybe dying in the near future.  I have to know, Missy.  Do you have a death wish?  Are you going to be putting yourself in unnecessary danger?”

“No,” she said.  When his expression didn’t change, she repeated herself, louder, “No.  You saw me against the Travelers.  I don’t think I did anything stupid there.”

“You didn’t.”

“I just want to do a good job as a member of this team.  Carry on their memory.  Act like they would want me to act.  I can work twice as hard, be twice as tough, twice as strong, if it means making up for them being gone.”

“That’s a pretty crazy burden to be shouldering.”

“It’s fine.”

“And it could go somewhere problematic, if you get frustrated, let it consume you, alongside this blasé attitude towards death you seem to be adopting.”

“I can deal.”

Weld sighed.  “Maybe.  Maybe not.  You know what I think?”

Vista shrugged.

“I think you should let your teammates take some of the responsibility there.  Trust them to help carry on the legacy.”

She shook her head, “Nobody else seems to care as much-”

Weld raised a hand, “Stop.  Let me finish.  Remember that your teammates have their individual strengths to their personalities.  I don’t know enough about Aegis or Gallant to say for sure, but I think maybe Clockblocker is stepping up to become more of a leader, in Aegis’s absence.  It could be part of why there’s friction between him and me, even if he doesn’t fully realize it.”

“Gallant was sort of preparing to be the team leader, for when Aegis graduated,” Vista said, her voice quiet.

Weld nodded.  “The impression I’ve picked up, and forgive me if I’m off target, is that Aegis was the head of the team, the leader, strategist and manager.  Gallant, maybe, was the heart.  The guy who tied you all together, kept the interpersonal stuff running smoothly.  Would I be wrong in assuming he was the one who handled Sophia best?”

Vista shook her head.  A lump was growing in her throat.

“Okay.  With all this in mind, I have one suggestion and two orders.  My suggestion?  Stop trying to be everything they were.  Be what you’re good at, a caring, sweet young woman who everyone on the team likes.  My professional opinion is that you have it in you to fill some of that void Gallant left.  Use that empathic nature of yours to help others with their own struggles.  Be the team’s heart.”

Her eyes started watering.  She blinked the tears away.

“And my orders?”

“Order number one is that you go see the PRT’s therapist.  If I can clear it with Director Piggot, figure out a way to make the patrol schedules work, I’m going to try to get everyone to go.  I’m honestly kind of flabbergasted that nobody higher up than me has mandated it already.”

“Okay.”  In a way, she was relieved, at that instruction.

“Order number two is to let yourself cry, damn it.  Stop holding it back.”

Just the mention of crying made her eyes water again.  Vista wiped it away once more, “I’ve cried enough.”

“If your body wants to cry, then you should listen to it.  It doesn’t make you any weaker if you let it happen.  You think I’ve never cried?  Looking like I do, facing the disappointments and frustrations I have?  Maybe it’s self-serving to think so, but I think it takes a kind of strength to let yourself face your emotions like that.”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks, now.  She let her head hang, her damp hair a curtain between her and her team leader.  He stood, pulled her into a hug.  She pressed her face against his shirt.  It was soft, but the body beneath was hard, unyielding.  It was still very gentle.

When she pulled away, a few minutes later, his shirt was damp.  She sniffled, taking the offered tissue to wipe at her eyes and nose, Weld spoke, gently, “I’m always here to talk, and the therapist will be there too.”

Vista nodded.

“If you need a break from the team, just say the word.  I’ll talk to Piggot.”

She shook her head, “No.  I want to work.  I want to help.”

“Okay.  Then we’ve got patrol in… two hours and fifteen minutes.  Go relax, watch some TV, maybe take a nap.”

“Alright.  Don’t you dare let me sleep through patrol.”

“I wouldn’t.”

She made her way back to the elevator, noting the lights were on in Kid Win’s workshop.  Heading back down to the base, she walked toward her cubicle-room.

“Holy crap, you’ve been crying again?  I thought you were over that.”  Sophia commented from the console.  She was on her laptop, sitting just to the right of the main console.  Nobody else was present in the headquarters.  Again, the two of them were alone.  Was Sophia’s nice act only for when others were around?

Vista turned, irritated.  “I was venting a little with Weld, what’s your issue?”

“I just really hate crybabies,” Sophia turned back to the computer.

Crybaby.  Whatever else someone could say about Sophia, there was no denying that she was very, very good at finding someone’s weak points, be it during a brawl or in an argument.  Vista couldn’t think of an insult that would have needled her more.

“Bitch,” Vista muttered, moving toward her room.

She thought she spoke quietly enough that Sophia didn’t hear, but the girl did, because she had a response.  “You annoyed him, you know.”

Vista stopped in her tracks, stayed where she was, her back to Sophia.  She replied without turning around “Weld?  You don’t know-”

“Gallant.  Twelve year old following him around all the time, brimming with prepubescent lust and lovesick infatuation?  And he can feel all of her emotions?  You know how gross that would be?  How disturbing and awkward?”

Vista clenched her fists.

Sophia went on, “Think about it, every time you got just a little turned on while you looked at him?  Every time you crushed on him?  He felt it, forced himself to smile and play nice even as you totally repulsed him, because he was that kind of guy.  You know he was that kind of guy.”

“I loved him,” Vista spoke.  The first time she’d spoken the words aloud.  Why did it have to be to Sophia?  Why couldn’t she have said it to Gallant, before he passed?  “There’s nothing gross about love.”

“You don’t know what love is, little one,” Sophia’s condescending tone rang across the room, “It was a first crush, a little infatuation.  Real love is what he had with Glory Girl… that long-term bond that survived through a dozen really nasty fights, and brought them back together again and again.  A schoolgirl crush is easy.  Real love is hard, something tempered and enduring.”

Vista turned to look at the older girl.

Sophia was reclining in her chair.  She smiled a little, “I know it sucks to hear now, but it’s better to hear it straight than to look back and realize how horribly stupid you sounded, five or ten years down the road.”

“I am not going to feel stupid for how I feel now.”

Sophia shrugged, “Kids.”  She turned her attention to Facebook.

Vista unclenched her fist.  She could tip Sophia out of her chair, bend the computer screen, carry out any number of petty revenges.  But Weld’s advice stuck in her head.

“What happened to you, Sophia?”

Sophia looked over her shoulder.  “You’re still here?”

“What kind of situation led to you becoming like this?  So casually cruel, so lacking in basic human decency?”

“My advice is for your own benefit, little tyke.  I’m not the bad guy.”

“You’re the only one who doesn’t have any friends on the team, you keep yourself at a distance, you talk only with your friend or friends from your civilian life.  Even there, you’re always in trouble.  Getting suspended, picking fights.  It’s like you want to break your probation and go to some juvenile detention facility for the next few years.”

“Not your business.”

“Out in costume, you’re scary.  You hurt people like you’re hungry for it.  I just want to know why.  Where did you come from?  What situation led to you being like this?”

“Drop the fucking subject.  You’re irritating me.”

Vista sighed.  Feeling the traces of anger and the hurt from Sophia’s words, she still tried to soften her parting words as she turned to go back to her room, “If you ever do want to talk about it, I’m willing to listen.”

“I’m not about to talk about it with you.  Fix your own shit before you start worrying about me, crybaby.”

Frustrated, disappointed in herself for failing in her first genuine effort at taking Weld’s advice, trying to reach out to a team member that needed it, Vista shook her head, muttered, “I pity you.”

The sound of a laptop crashing to the ground made Vista turn.  She saw Sophia in her shadow state, wispy, her skeleton visible beneath her skin, warped.  The girl’s eyes were too reflective, her entire body seemed to bend and distort, not completely solid as she leaped towards Vista.

Sophia dropped out of her shadow state in time to push Vista flat onto her back, hard, one fist gripping the collar of the younger girl’s t-shirt.  She shook her.  “Pity?”

Feeling strangely calm despite the pain that radiated through the back of her head, where it had struck the ground, Vista spoke, “Weld said it takes a kind of strength to face your emotions.  Are you really that scared, Sophia, that you’d attack me instead of talk to me?”

Sophia raised a clenched fist.  Vista screwed one eye shut, anticipating the hit.  It would almost be worth it if she hit me and violate the conditions of her membership on the team, to have her gone.  But we need all the help we can get, right now.  “The security cameras are watching us right now.”

Sophia dropped her hand, stood, and stalked over to the far side of the room.  She gathered her costume in her arms.  “I’m going on patrol.”

“It’s not your shift,” Vista spoke, sitting up.

“Don’t fucking care.  If Weld asks, I’m doing a double shift.”

And then Sophia was gone, having used her shadow state to disappear through the elevator door.

“Okay,” Vista spoke, pulling herself to her feet. “Guess I’m manning the console.”

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Sentinel 9.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’m a tinker.  I’m supposed to be smart.

So how can I have been so stupid?

Ballistic raised one hand and pointed at Kid Win.  He waited until Kid Win moved before kicking at the uneven, rubble-strewn ground, sending a spray of concrete and wood fragments flying like a hail of bullets.  It only grazed the teenage hero mid-leap, lacerating the side of his stomach, hip and thigh, chipping his armor.  It still hit hard enough that it twisted him in midair.  He landed on his back atop the rubble that covered the ground, grunted.

“Hey!” Ballistic bellowed, “Little girl!”

Kid Win saw Ballistic pointing at Vista.  The villain, between his build and armor, had the frame of a football player, a dramatic contrast to the young heroine.  He pointed at her, paused long enough for her to bend the ground into a semblance of cover, then launched a chunk of concrete at her.

The concrete flew at an angle that wouldn’t have hit the girl anyways, struck the barrier and shattered, sending debris careening onto and into the girl.  Vista screamed and fell backwards, part of her barrier crumbling to land on top of her.

He’s telling us exactly where he’s going to attack next.

Kid Win looked up, saw Sundancer with her orb hovering a good fifteen feet off the ground, keeping it away from the walls of the building and the corpses that were hung above them.  Even though it was fifteen feet up and thirty feet away, he could feel the heat of it prickle his exposed skin.  He knew from the Endbringer fight that she could make it bigger, move it faster.

As the burning sphere drifted forward, staying at roughly the same height, Flechette and Glory Girl were forced to scramble away.  Shadow Stalker leaped off of the top of the wall and into the alleyway next to the building to get away from the heat.  Only Vista remained where she was, caught under debris that she was striving to shrink down and push away.

It dawned on Kid Win.  Sundancer and Ballistic, at the very least, were holding back.  Because they were strong enough that going all out would leave corpses.

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  If these guys got desperate or panicked, they might stop being so polite about it.

Trickster and Genesis were tangling with Weld and Clockblocker – Clockblocker was putting paper in the air, freezing it to give himself footholds to go after his flying opponent.  Any time Genesis moved to attack, Clockblocker set paper in her way, edge towards her, or he tried to duck in close enough to touch her.  Giving up on more physical means, she exhaled a cloud of the choking smoke.  Clockblocker and Weld both worked together to minimize the spread of the cloud, using paper and plywood, freezing it in place with Clockblocker’s power.

Kid Win decided they had a handle on that.  It was up to him to help against Ballistic and Sundancer.

As he climbed to his feet, breaking into a run before he was even standing straight, he raised his spark pistol and fired off a series of oversized blue sparks at Ballistic.

Trickster managed to teleport him again, swapping his position with Ballistic’s.  The forward momentum of his sprint was enough to get him out of the way of his own gunfire.

His spark pistol sported a small power core that used spatial warping technology to magnify and then reabsorb a steady electrical current.  The barrel was wired with a helix-shaped electromagnetic rail, based on some of Armsmaster’s old data on the ‘hard’ light Purity and Dauntless created.  Nanomolecular, ionically charged rifling on the barrel’s interior was arranged to guide the fired charges into a rough elliptical shape, which sustained their shape and consistency the longest.

In laymen’s terminology, it was not unlike a power bar that was plugged into itself, with a small addition that made each revolution of the current larger than the one before.  An attached battery kept the current going.  The shots themselves were ‘hard’ electricity condensed into balls, which meant they had a physical impact to them, due to how they carried and transferred kinetic energy.   Given how the weapon charged, waiting a few seconds between shots meant the next shot hit harder, up to a limit.

I can make something like this, which is brilliant, then I go and dismantle my fricking hoverboard to get parts for a project I never even finish.  Idiot.

Ballistic marched towards Vista, who was trying to climb to her feet.  He was intercepted by Glory Girl, who slammed him into a wall.  She punched him, drove her knee into his gut, then slammed him against the wall again, to keep him off-balance and hurting.

Ballistic slumped against her and grabbed at the collar of her costume for support.  A second later, Glory Girl was a blur, disappearing into the skyline.  His attacker gone, Ballistic fell onto his hands and knees with a grunt.

Flechette threw a handful of darts at Sundancer, pinning the girl against the wall.  Somehow Flechette had avoided Trickster’s attention.  How?  Kid Win turned to look, saw that she was standing so her body blocked Trickster’s line of sight to both the darts and his teammate.

So he can only teleport what he sees?

Kid Win moved to mimic Flechette’s technique, running to a position where he would be between the injured Ballistic and Trickster.  He cocked his spark pistol.

He was nearly lined up for his shot when his gun disappeared from his hand, an awkwardly sized piece of wood taking its place.  A second later, his mask and visor cracked against a hard surface.  He had to grip the wall to steady himself and keep from falling.  He’d been teleported.

Then the wall moved beneath his hand, and he heard Clockblocker shout, “Get down, Kid!”

He let himself fall, simultaneously realizing he had been leaning against Genesis, in her gargoyle-like form.  Weld slammed into the villainess, his left hand in the form of a heavy miner’s pick.  It did a surprising amount of damage, but she didn’t seem to care.  She gripped Weld around the face with a claw, raked his chest twice with criss-crossing slashes of her other hand, leaving deep gouges in the metal.  The same noxious black smoke that she had been breathing began to billow out of the hole the pick had made in her chest.

Clockblocker charged, but Genesis shoved Weld so the two heroes stumbled into one another, delaying them long enough for her to leap into the air.  She beat her wings to keep herself aloft and out of reach.

Kid Win unslung his laser rifle and fired at the villainess.  His first shot grazed her, as one flap of her wings carried her higher into the air, but the next two hit the mark.  One struck her in the shoulder, leaving a hole large enough to fit his hand through, the other struck her in the side of the head, doing a similar amount of damage.

Genesis dropped from the sky, exploded into a mess of dark smoke and pebbles as she struck the ground.

Feeling a moment’s panic, he checked the settings on his gun.  Normal levels, no anomalies.  It could heat metal and other inorganic materials, cut through more fragile materials, but against a person, it wouldn’t do more than hurt and maybe leave the mildest kind of burn.

That’s her power, he reminded himself, you didn’t kill her.

But his gun had done a surprising amount of damage.  Was it some interaction with how she pulled her new shapes together?  A specific wavelength, a weakness to lasers?

He wasn’t about to complain.  He wheeled around, fired on the other villains.

An injured Ballistic opened fire on Vista, discharging a series of pieces of rubble at an angle.  It struck the ground just in front of the girl and fallout from the impacts showered her.  Each shot drove her back further, buying him a chance to limp to Sundancer’s side.  He touched the darts that were fixing her to the wall, sending them flying into Weld’s face.

“Fuck!” Weld cursed, the metal spikes of the darts jutting out of his jaw, cheekbone, eyebrow and forehead, “Takes forever to get my face right after something like this!”

Trickster’s teleportations had placed the enemy’s group in the interior of the building, with the Wards surrounding them.

Surrounding one’s enemy wasn’t quite an advantage when the enemy could teleport, but for a moment, they all paused where they were, various weapons at the ready.  It was the kind of momentary peace that fell when everyone was waiting to react to what the others were doing.

A wind blew past them, and Kid Win blinked as a fat droplet of water spattered against his visor.  It was starting to drizzle.  He glanced up at the corpses where they hung on the walls of the building.

“The water’s going to wash away the evidence if you don’t let us go and hurry to check on the bodies,” Trickster spoke.

“Crime scene techs can’t get here in time with the roads like they are,” Weld spoke.  “And we’re not allowed to touch the evidence anyways.  Rules.”

“Rules?  You shouldn’t sweat those things so much,” Trickster chuckled, “Here, I’ll help you out.”

Weld disappeared, and the burned corpse flopped to the ground.

“Shit!” Clockblocker shouted, running forward.

Weld dropped from the wall for the second time in a matter of minutes as the restraints intended for the woman’s corpse tore free of the concrete.  Vista reshaped the wall to ease his descent.  Kid Win raised his laser rifle to fire at Trickster.

Dumb.  He regretted it the second his finger left the trigger.

As he predicted, he found himself somewhere else in the blink of an eye, and the impact of his own gunfire slammed into his back, intensely hot.  He threw himself to the ground at the base of the building, where water pooled, rolling so his back was submerged.

It’s not lethal, can’t do any permanent harm, you had it vetted, tested on pig meat.

The balance of the fight had abruptly shifted.  Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista were where the three Travelers had been, and vice versa.

“Nuh uh uh, kiddo,” Trickster spoke, as the gap in the wall began closing behind his group, “Up you go.”

The flayed corpse appeared in Vista’s position.

No!  Kid Win turned, saw Vista on the wall.  She’d gotten tangled in the loops of wire that had been holding the corpse up.  The metal wire was coiled around a shattered part of the wall, and more than one wire had caught around her neck.  Another looping of wire bound her body, one of her arms caught against her side.  She struggled to pull at the wire on her neck with her free hand, but it was little help.  The wire pulled so tightly against her throat that Kid Win feared it would cut her skin.

“Trickster!” Sundancer cried out, horrified.

“Just run!” was the villain’s only reply.  The three villains started running, leaving the building behind, their footsteps sloshing and splashing.

Kid Win raised his laser pistol, aimed carefully, then fired, landing the shot a half-foot to the right of Vista’s throat.  The wires heated and split, freeing her, and she dropped a foot before catching on more wires.  Nothing dangerous, this time, but it was a fair distance to fall and one slip could see her getting cut on the wire, strangled or cracking her head open as she fell.

Shadow Stalker materialized behind Trickster, catching him around the throat in a headlock.  She used one foot to kick his feet out from under him, and then forced him face first into the water.

Kid Win hesitated.  Help her or help Vista?

Vista.  Shadow Stalker would say she could handle herself.  Made a point of trying to.

He fired more shots to free Vista, missing the wires one or two times.  The heroine, for her part, focused on angling the wall beneath her to allow herself to slide down instead of falling the full distance.

Ballistic shot Shadow Stalker, driving her back.  The attack had left a gaping hole just below her heart, the edges wispy.  The gap closed, but the attack had separated her from Trickster, and hurt her badly enough that she crumpled to the ground, a hand to her chest.

Kid Win fired a salvo at the retreating villains, grazed Ballistic.  Sundancer turned, directing her orb between their groups.  She dropped it into the water.  Massive clouds of heated steam rose where the orb met water, obscuring the battlefield.

By the time it cleared, the villains were gone.

It took a minute to check that none of them had suffered any permanent damage.  After some debate, they moved the bodies to a more secure, dry spot, inside the building. Glory Girl managed to make her way back two minutes after the Travelers were gone, helped with the last body that still hung on the wall.  By the time they were done, the rain was pouring down.

Kid Win stared down at the corpses, an ugly feeling in his gut.

He was dumb, easily distracted, prone to leaving his projects unfinished, and it was moments like this that this knowledge hit him particularly hard.  His dad had made him get tested, and the doctors had labeled him with ADD and dyscalculia.  He held to the opinion that the ADD diagnosis was way overused – he liked to think that he was just a daydreamer, prone to getting lost in his thoughts.

The dyscalculia was something concrete that he couldn’t deny or explain away.  He couldn’t keep numbers in his head, couldn’t make the most basic intuitive leaps or connections with them.

All of that had been before he got his powers.  Nothing had changed, except that now he could visualize something, instinctively know how he could put it together.  His disability or disabilities put him a step behind the rest.  His daydreaming was worse, because his thoughts were so damn interesting, now.  He couldn’t take reliable measurements without using computers to do it.  Couldn’t finish half his projects without feeling compelled to move on to something else.

The PRT staff insisted he was exceptional with antigrav and guns, had it even marked in his file, but he knew it wasn’t so true.  He finished his guns because they were simple, in their own way.  It was easy enough to take three half-finished gun projects and mash them together.  Create something with multiple settings, even.  As far as he was aware, he was the only Tinker in the PRT’s records that didn’t have a defined specialty, gimmick or trick.  He was increasingly worried that his special talent as a tinker was being able to occasionally make something despite his learning disability.  Which would suck, if it were true.

There were exceptions.  He’d finished bigger projects.  His hoverboard, driven by the idea of how awesome it would be to fly.  Even then, it had been a chore.  Monumentally stupid of him to dismantle it.  The idea and motivation driving the action had been good: he was graduating the Wards in a little while, he’d be expected to change his name and adjust his methods, because an adult calling himself Kid Win was lame.  He’d had an idea about a harness with a floating array of turrets that could fire different munitions depending on what gun he holstered in the main slot.  Self adjusting and adaptive the way his Alternator Cannon was.  Except he’d gotten frustrated at a snag in the testing, put it down to take a break and hadn’t picked it up again in six days.  His hoverboard had effectively been destroyed for no reason, when it might have made the difference in getting the Travelers into custody.

His Alternator Cannon was the real gem.  It had been the result of a medication the PRT’s doctor had prescribed, which he’d been forced to stop after two weeks when he began to get increasingly dizzy, anxious and nauseous.  While he’d been taking the pills, he’d been focused, had a glimpse, maybe, of what he could do if it weren’t for his distractibility and daydreaming.  When Piggy had spoken of destroying the thing, the mere thought had been crushing.  Then Leviathan had destroyed it for real, maybe the only truly brilliant thing he’d be able to make.  He harbored fears it might even the only brilliant thing he’d ever be able to make.

He wasn’t the worst hero ever, he knew that.  He had things he could do.  He could let the worries and the dozens of unfinished projects alone, most days.  That changed when his team got thrashed.  Thoughts like that had been plaguing him since the Endbringer event a week ago.  He couldn’t shake the notion that he was in the running for the weakest member of the team.  The notion that he was dumb, second-rate.  That this loss, here, was his fault, because he had dropped the ball.  The people of this city deserve a better hero, a more focused one.

Weld spoke, disturbing him from his thoughts, “I just got a message.  PRT is on their way.  We head back now.”

Hearing the unenthusiastic replies of his teammates, Kid Win realized that the rest of the team wasn’t in any better of a mood than he was.  Losing had a way of doing that.

Strangely comforting.

“Got word from the Protectorate.  They’re handling the case with the bodies, we’re not to touch it or get involved in any way,” Weld spoke, folding his arms.  He had what looked like acne – blisters of extra-shiny metal on his face where the remainder of the darts hadn’t yet been fully integrated into his ‘skin’.  He reclined in an expensive, custom-made office chair, capable of supporting his dense, heavy body.  Everyone else had found seats in the central room of their headquarters.  Everyone, that was, except for Glory Girl, who had gone home.  She wasn’t yet an official member of the team.

“No word on what’s going on?” Clockblocker asked.

“They’re staying quiet on the subject,” Weld spoke.

Vista leaned forward, “Maybe a serial killer?”

“We should focus on what we do know,” Weld shook his head. “As far as tonight’s patrols-“

“Actually,” Kid Win cut in, “Sorry.  But I have one theory.”

“What?” Clockblocker asked.

Kid Win glanced at Weld, checking to see if their leader was ok with it.  Weld didn’t say anything, which he took as assent to continue.

“There were two other crime scenes, right?  Any idea if there were the same number of bodies at each crime scene?”

“Same number-” Weld raised an eyebrow, “Why… Oh.  Shit.  I think I follow.”

Smarter than you’d think, given his brute-force power and his appearance, Kid Win realized.  Or I’m just that bad with numbers.  The connection took me twenty minutes to make.

“Three crime scenes with three bodies each.  So it’d be nine bodies?” Clockblocker asked, “Each killed in some different way?  I don’t see what killer that would fit with.”

“Not one killer,” Kid Win answered, “Nine bodies, each for different killers.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine,” Clockblocker leaned back in his seat, groaning, “Fuck, that’d be all we needed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve arrived at a location in the wake of an Endbringer event,” Flechette pointed out.

“Maybe it’s them,” Weld conceded, “And maybe the Protectorate figured that much out, with the clues they have from the other two scenes.  It could be someone or something else.  Either way, it’s not our case, not even in our league, and we should stay as hands off as we can manage.  We need to talk about patrols and tonight’s duties.”

“The grunt work,” Flechette offered a literal grunt to punctuate the statement.  Kid Win and Clockblocker chuckled.

“Vista’s due for a patrol, and as a young member, she has to go with someone.  Lily?”

Flechette smiled a little, “Quick to make me pay for the snark, huh?  No, it’s cool, I’ve been wanting a chance to shoot the shit with Vista.”  She extended her fist, with index finger and thumb extended to form a gun, mock fired it at her junior teammate.  Vista rolled her eyes.

“Clockblocker, you and I will handle the night’s shifts after that.  Your call if you want to patrol with me or not, we can cover different routes and go for a wider area if you’d rather.”

“Alright.  We’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving Shadow Stalker.  You okay with the late-night, Sophia?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sophia didn’t look up from her laptop.

“And me?” Kid Win asked.

“Special duty, tonight,” Weld smiled, “You’re recruiting.”

“Recruiting?”

“There’s a kid calling himself Chariot.  Been racing around the city with a powered suit that lets him move a hundred miles an hour.  Assault finally caught up with him last night, brought him into custody.  Wound up calling the kid’s mom, got him to agree to talk to our recruiter.  You.  You’ll be meeting the kid in his home.”

“Why me?”

“Shared interests.  You’re both tinkers.  You have the best idea of how he thinks.”

Kid Win nodded.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was feeling.  A measure of excitement at the idea of getting to talk to another tinker that wasn’t Armsmaster?  Sure.  Fear?  Would he be replaced by a new tinker?  It was an immature thing to be spooked about, he knew that, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Cool,” he spoke, by way of agreement.

“You convince him, it’ll look good to the guys upstairs,” Weld informed him.

Right.  Great.  Pressure.

“Now, onto a more serious topic.  I’m seeing that this team is really disorganized, these days.  I have no problem handling the brunt of the paperwork, it gives me a degree of insight into what’s going on that the files don’t.  I don’t even mind cleaning up the kitchen and showers here when the janitors are off duty.  But we really need to communicate.  Last night Flechette went on patrol and ran into a situation with Parian she should have been briefed on.  It could have turned hostile.”

“Sorry,” Vista muttered.

“It turned out okay,” Flechette smiled a little.

“Right.  It’s okay, it’s understandable, given all we’re trying to handle,” Weld reassured her, “But we can’t miss out on details and updates on the overall situation.  The Protectorate have their hands full with the gang wars between Fenrir’s Chosen, Purity’s group and Coil,  they’re now dealing with this serial killer or serial killers, and they’re still updating the records.  So here’s what we’re going to do, I’ve checked it with Piggot, she agrees.  I’m picking up an extra patrol shift, and I’ll be adjusting your patrol shifts down by twenty minutes each, moving them around slightly.  With the downtime that creates, we’re going to have meetings like this, every day.”

Pausing, Weld glanced at Clockblocker, as if expecting a response.  When Clockblocker only nodded assent, Weld’s eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise.  He continued, “Gives us a chance to talk about our recent patrols, fears, concerns, ideas.  Or hell, just talk, because I’m seeing this trend where we only see each other in passing, while patrolling or in class, and some of you are going out of your way to spend time together and hash stuff out, even at the detriment of stuff like school.”

“You’re talking about class, earlier,” Clockblocker said.

“More or less.  Not saying it’s a bad thing, but we can restructure our schedules, make time for it, instead of detracting from an area we need to pay attention to.”

“Sure,” Clockblocker agreed.  Was there a note of irritation in his voice?  Kid Win couldn’t tell.  Dennis was playing along, at least.

“Now, about the paperwork you guys have been submitting, there’s been a few recurring problems…”

Kid Win sighed and settled into his seat.  This was going to be a little while.

The building was ugly, had trash piled up on either side of the front door, a sour smell wafting out from it.  The water level wasn’t so bad here, and the building was almost entirely intact.  The only sign of damage was the boarded up windows on the first and second floors where the glass had been knocked out of the window frames.  Red brick, it seemed like the usual sort of tenement building one would find in the Docks.

He stepped inside.  A Hispanic boy in the front hall whistled sharply as Kid Win stepped inside, while a group of Asian-American boys and girls in dirty clothing ran around him, screaming at a ear-piercing volume as they continued a game, some pointing and hooting at the superhero.  Occupants aside, it was dark, with only two dingy lightbulbs and no open windows.

It’s nine o’clock at night.  Don’t these kids have a bedtime?

He checked the folded paper he had in his hand, found the room number, and headed up the stairs.  A morbidly obese, older man sat halfway up the stairs, maybe a babysitter for the kids.  Kid Win hoped the man was a babysitter, because the man was white and the kids weren’t, meaning he probably wasn’t family.  If he wasn’t getting paid, there was only one uncomfortable explanation for why the man would be willing to tolerate that yelling and squealing.

Or maybe he’s deafLet’s go with that.

The fat old man didn’t budge an inch as Kid Win approached, forcing the boy to squeeze by.  He made his way up, ignored a gang of fit twenty-something Asian guys who were standing guard in the hallway on the second floor.  On the third floor, he headed past people who were sleeping on blankets in the hallway, found apartment 306.

The door opened a second after he knocked.  A tired looking Hispanic woman greeted him, “You’re the superhero, I take it?”

“Yes.  Kid Win,” he extended his hand.  She shook it firmly.

“Ashley Medina.  My son’s back through here.”

There was a sense of pride in the narrow apartment, Kid Win saw.  An undercurrent of aesthetic taste, matching knick-knacks and furniture.   There were marks of a vacuum cleaner’s recent run over the carpet and both kitchen counters and dining room table were immaculately clean in a way that suggested she’d gone to some effort to clean up.  In a building like this, though, there was only so much you could do.  There was a water stain on the ceiling, dark brown marks on the carpet under a small rug, maybe from a previous occupant.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll get him.”

Kid Win sat on the sofa.  He noticed the cathode ray tube television was missing its screen, had been gutted.  Quite likely for parts.  The toaster was a goner, too.  Only the wireless modem in the corner of the kitchen had survived, green lights blinking.

He has priorities, at least, Kid Win thought, with mild amusement.  Gotta have an internet connection.

When Chariot arrived, Kid Win stood, offered a hand.  There was a delay before the kid shook it.  He was lanky, with big ears and close shorn hair that made him look slightly goofy, but he had a wary look in his eye.  He wore a t-shirt and jeans that were stained with grease, had lots of little cuts and stains on his fingers, hands and forearms.

Been thereSubstandard tools, not enough parts.  I can use that.

“Please sit,” Chariot’s mother said.

Kid Win obliged.  Chariot was the last to take a seat.  Was he reluctant, something else?

“Chariot, is it?”  Kid Win ventured.  God, hope I don’t fuck this up.

“Mm,” was the noncommital reply.

“Just to give me an idea, on a scale of one to ten, how interested are you, in maybe joining the Wards?”

“Ten’s high?”

“Ten’s a lot of interest.”

“Four.”

“Trevor!” Chariot’s mom admonished, “They offer funding, education-“

“We do,” Kid Win interrupted.  If mom pushes, this guy’s only going to get less interested.  Shit, a four is low.  Maybe if I do the talking… “It’s good money, with room for better money.  Especially for a tinker like you or me.”

“How’s that?”

“The guys in charge want tinkers.  They really want tinkers, both because they want us in a position where we won’t be making trouble for them, and because and they want the kind of stuff we can create.”

“I’m not giving up my stuff.”

Kid Win paused.  This is like looking into a mirror to a year and a half ago.  “Look, I can see your TV, your toaster.  Chances are you’ve gone to the Trainyard or a scrapyard to find some stuff.  Old batteries, car parts, chains, good metal, whatever.”

“He wanted to go to the Trainyard,” Chariot’s mother cut in, “I told him no, caught him trying to sneak out.”

Chariot scowled a little, looked away.

This would be easier without her here.  “I get it.  Been there.  You’re hungry to use your power, but more than any other kind of cape, you’re facing a hurdle in terms of the entry-level resources you need.  This is where the team would support you.  You get funding, a lot of funding, to put your stuff together.”

Kid Win reached into his belt, retrieved a compact disc.  He placed it on the glass coffee table, then withdrew a set of small tools from the other side of his belt.  He dismantled the object and began laying out the components one by one.

Chariot reached for the nearest component, and Kid Win moved to block the boy’s hand.  “Don’t touch, please.  Look only.  Trace oils and static charge could damage something.”

The boy gave him an annoyed glance, bent over the table to look closer at the chips.

“What’s this crystal?”  Chariot asked.

“3D computer chip.  Uses light instead of electrical current.  They’re made by this Protectorate tinker down in Texas.  She gets funding to produce a set number every month, in addition to her regular pay.  So long as you’re in the program, you can put in an order for her stuff, with the specs you want.”

“And this metal threading, gold?”

“Gold, for maximum conductibility.”

“That’s a camera, this would be the power source, that part does something with wavelengths, and this reads energy… but I’m not getting it.  What does this do?”

Kid Win quickly slipped the pieces back together, turned the compact device over, then pulled out his smartphone.  Touching the screen, he activated the compact device.  It floated above the coffee table.  He turned his smartphone around to show them the image it was streaming from the device’s camera.

“So much effort, for a video camera?” Chariot’s mother commented, “My tax dollars are going towards this?”

The dumbfounded look Chariot gave his mother put Kid Win in the awkward spot of having to suppress a smile.  This is a point for me.  If I asked him again, what would he say?  Five, six?

“You join the Wards, you get exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a Tinker.”  A small lie there.  Not like I’ve reached my full potential.  “And anything you make, the PRT buys the rights from you.  If you’re willing to give up that much, you can do well for yourself.”

“You’re talking money?” That had piqued Chariot’s interest.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“I maybe shouldn’t, but I’m going to tell you what I’m getting out of it, because it’s almost definitely going to be the exact same for you.  I get paid, but the money goes straight into a trust.  I’ve made enough to pay for my college education, and every dollar I earn beyond that is going to be waiting for me as a cash award, if and when I graduate from a four-year postsecondary program.  I’m getting four hundred dollars in allowance each month, just to mess around in my workshop, all my materials are paid for, and I currently have about two thousand dollars sitting in the bank, right now, from that.  Once I turn eighteen?  I make more.  It automatically transitions to a job with good pay, working with the Protectorate, and the hours will be totally flexible around any classes I take.”

“But he’s risking his life,” Chariot’s mother spoke.  Chariot frowned.

“He is.  There are responsibilities.  But honestly?  There’s zero way he’s going to be able to go out and try out any of the stuff he’s made without running into trouble.  People are going to pick fights, just because he has powers.  If he tries to hang out in a workshop he establishes on his own, they’re going to find him, strong-arm him into putting something together for them.  Not just villains, either.  Heroes too.  Being a tinker doesn’t just make you a target.  It makes you a resource.  It’s why pretty much every tinker out there is a member of a larger, more powerful team.”

“Then Trevor could just not use his powers?” she spoke.

“Sure,” Kid Win folded his arms, leaning back against the back of the couch.  “What do you think, Chariot?  You think you could keep from using that power of yours?  Be normal?”

Chariot frowned, looked down at his scratched-up hands, “No.”

Kid Win nodded in agreement, “It’s a part of you, Chariot, a part of how you think, now.  I’m telling you this is the best option.  The safest.  Having a team means you’re protected, free to do what you need to do.”

Chariot’s expression indicated clear interest.  Then he frowned, “I don’t want to give up my stuff to others.  It’s mine.”

Something struck Kid Win as off about the reply.  What was it?   It was out of tune with the flow of the conversation, didn’t quite match up with Kid Win’s own experiences being recruited.  Maybe it sounded forced?  But why would Chariot fake reluctance?

He pushed forward, anyways, “I get that, really.  But it’s only given away in name.  You still get to use it, you just can’t give it away or sell it to others.  The benefit is that you gain access to all the stuff and plans other PRT tinkers have made.  I can’t show you any more of that than I have, but the fact is, you’d be able to look at my blueprints as easily as I could look up yours, get inspiration…

“…Or you could look at the sort of stuff Dragon makes.”

Chariot’s eyes lit up.

“Tell me you’re not interested, now.”

“I’m… kind of interested.”

Again, that vibe.  Pretending he’s not as interested as he is.

“They can’t force you to join, but they do want you on the team.  There’s no negotiating.  You’d get the same I get, pretty much, so if you’re holding back or trying to fake like you don’t want to join when you do, you’re just wasting your time and mine.”

“I’m not,” Chariot replied, defensive.  “It’s only… this is a big deal.”

“It is.  So take my card.  Call me if you have any questions, or if you want me to pass on word that you’re joining the team.”

Kid Win fished in his belt and then handed his card to the boy.  Black with white lettering and his starburst-gun emblem on the back.

“Okay,” Chariot replied.

“Talk it over with your mom.  Get back to us.”

“Thank you,” Chariot’s mother spoke, standing.  Kid Win stood as well.  He shook her hand again.

“Not a problem,” Kid Win replied.  He punched the boy lightly on the shoulder as he stood, “Join.  It’d be good to talk shop with someone else that gets this stuff.”

Chariot nodded.

The mother led Kid Win to the door, and he headed out the building – the fat man from the stairwell was gone, and only the Hispanic boy by the front door was still in the hallway.  Kid Win stepped outside.

Something’s off with this scenario.

He tapped his foot a second, then stepped around the building and into the alleyway.  He retrieved his smartphone, and used it to send the hovering camera up to the third floor, checked in the windows where the apartment would be.  The boy was leaving the bathroom, going into his room.  Kid Win moved the camera to the next window over, the boy was sitting down at his computer, turning it on.

Straight to the computer.  Hm.  Kid Win pocketed the hovering camera, then turned his attention to the smartphone.  According to the phone, there were three wireless modems in the building.  One was named with a string of violent swear words, the other was on its default settings.  Both were unlocked.  He chose the third, locked connection, clicked a button on the screen to have his phone decrypt the password.

Fifteen seconds later, he could see someone online.  Kid Win watched the white text scroll by with details on the connection’s activity.

Google docs – pages of technical stuff, the boy was adding notes on gold wiring, shortform notes on antigravity, 3D crystals.  The next page the boy visited, five minutes later, was an email account.

Twenty seconds later, an email was sent.

To: C1298475739@cryptmail.com

Guy from wards came.  I’m in.

Kid Win stared at the screen for a long while.  Cryptmail.  That wouldn’t be an agreement with the PRT.

“So someone got to you before we did,” he muttered to himself.  He tapped the armor over his ear twice to open a communications channel, “Console?”

“Weld here, manning the console.”

“Do me a favor, call everyone back to the base for a quick meeting?  And maybe call Piggot?”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Welcome to Parahumans 103: Theories and Patterns.  I see we have a packed auditorium, and according to the enrollment list, we have no less than three hundred students taking the TV course.  A bump up from the last two trimesters, so I must be doing something right.”

Clockblocker looked around the room.  Six PRT uniforms sat in the front row, helmets off, three with notebooks open on the desks in front of them.  Weld and Flechette sat in the desks closest to the door, exchanging murmured words as the professor on the screen began going over the course syllabus.

Glory Girl sat just in front of him, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, arms folded on her desk, chin resting on the back of one hand.  Vista, odd as it was, sat beside the other heroine, had been the only one to offer any conversation.  When Glory Girl hadn’t seemed interested in talking, Vista had instead offered her silent company.  Clockblocker wasn’t exactly sure how Glory Girl had gotten into the Wards headquarters to attend the screening, but she was here, uncharacteristically quiet, much in the same way that Vista had been this past week.

Kid Win sat to Clockblocker’s right, fidgeting by taking apart his pen and putting it back together, his eyes not leaving the screen.  Shadow Stalker was sitting as far away from everyone else as she could manage, at the back corner of the room.  She sat sideways in her seat, back to the wall, her feet resting on the seat next to her.  Her attention was directed entirely at the keys and screen of her cell phone, rather than the projector screen at the front of the room.

Only thirteen people present, altogether.

“…for disability and pregnancy accommodations, the course syllabus gives you all the details you need on who to contact.  If you aren’t already, you’re going to be sick of hearing all that by the time you graduate.  We’re required to go over it in the first class of every class we teach.

“So.  Let me start off by addressing and banishing some assumptions you may have.  This is not an easy class, and anyone who took Parahumans: History and Society or Parahumans: Case Studies and Powers will be aware of this.  Even for those of you who emerged triumphant from the previous two semesters should know that PARA-103 may be something of a shock to you if this is your first year of University.  Here, primarily, I will be looking for creativity, problem solving and research abilities.  Skills and abilities that, frankly, aren’t stressed enough in high school.

“For this class, I want you to think.  Parahumans.  People with powers.  They’ve been around for nearly thirty years.  Where did they come from?  Why are they here?  It’s common knowledge that parahumans are ordinary individuals who gained abilities.  It is too easy, however, to assume that this is the sum total of our knowledge.  I want you to think further on the subject.  For example, why does virtually every parahuman ability have some application in confrontation and combat?  Is this the nature of humans, to turn any progress to violent ends, be it science or superpower?  Or is it by design, an individual’s hand at work?

“With the destructive potential of these abilities, why do so very few individuals perish in the chaotic and unpredictable emergence of their talents?  For the first two or three weeks of the class, we’ll be talking about these most pivotal moments in a given parahuman’s existence, these trigger events, when an individual first gains their powers, typically through some form of trauma.

“Throughout the course, we’re going to be looking at correlations and patterns, both in relation to trigger events and other things.  For example, how does the nature of the trigger event shape the power?  A study by Garth and Rogers suggests that psychological stress leads to a higher prevalence of mentally driven powers.  Tinkers, thinkers, masters, shakers.  The more physical violence that is involved, the higher the bias towards physically driven powers.  Garth and Rogers suggest a sliding scale, but it may not be that cut and dry.

“A followup study by Garth touches on what we know about cape ‘families’.  If one individual in a family has powers, it is far more likely that others will as well.  Almost always, this trend is either descending or lateral, it seems to transition from parent to child, or one sibling to another, but not from child to parent.  We’ll talk about the theories on why.  For those of you wanting to read ahead, take a look at Garth’s notes on the Dallon and Pelham families in chapter nine.  We can surmise that the different scenarios leading to trigger events may be directly related to the differences in powers, even among closely related members of a cape family.  Similar trigger events and related individuals, similar powers.  The more distant the relation and the more varied the trigger events, the more drastically different the powers they possess in the end.”

Clockblocker glanced at Glory Girl, to see if the mention of her family had stirred her interest.  She hadn’t budged an inch.  Was she asleep?

He couldn’t help but sympathize.  This is a monumental waste of time.  I could be out there, helping people.  Or spending time with my family.  The Protectorate was coordinating shifts so the Wards could collectively get at least some education in the meantime, on Piggot’s orders.  Except this wasn’t useful, this wasn’t applicable to the ongoing crisis right here, right now, in this city.  Cooped up in a PRT conference room, learning stuff that didn’t apply to actual field work.

Hell, it was on videotape, a recording of last year’s lectures.  Why couldn’t they watch it in their off hours?  It was just a fucked up set of priorities enforced on them from the people in charge.

He shifted restlessly, annoyed, angry.

“Trigger events are a crucial element for study, because the timing, nature and spread of these emerging powers may provide a clue as to where these parahuman abilities come from.  More women than men have powers, for example, and there are more powers in undeveloped countries than there are in industrialized ones – Some of you may remember me mentioning this fact in the 101 class, when I was talking about the witch burnings in The People’s Republic of Uganda.

“Another pattern we will be exploring is the apparent effect of multiple trigger events occurring in the same time and place.  There is a very strong correlation between coinciding trigger events and individuals displaying three or more powers rather than one or two predominant ones.”

“Hey, Flechette,” Kid Win called across the room, “You’ve got a bunch of powers, right?”

She turned in her seat, “Sure.”

“Anyone else get powers at the same time you did?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Could someone nearby have gotten their powers, without you knowing?  Way things played out?  Did any capes show up around the same time as you?”

Flechette frowned, “Yeah.  A rather persistent villain.”

“Worth thinking about.”

Weld turned around, “Critical thinking and applying this stuff is good, but let’s not forget the lecture.  Or the other people in the classroom.”

Is he trying to get people to dislike him?  Clockblocker wondered.

The professor on the screen was answering a student’s question, “…I think Eidolon expresses a single power.  But thank you.  Good question, and good lead-in to the next section of the course we’ll be discussing.  After we wrap up on trigger events, we’re going to be moving on to what we call ‘outliers’.  Parahumans or parahuman-related elements that deviate from the norm.  Any guesses?”

“Scion.” A student on the TV spoke.  The camera shifted to him late, and by the time he’d responded, the professor was pointing to another.

“Endbringers.”

“Nilbog.”

“I wouldn’t suggest Nilbog, but we can debate the point later,” the professor spoke, “Perhaps a subject for a course paper.  Scion, yes.  Endbringers?  Yes.  We have no reason or evidence to suspect they gained powers by normal means.  Another group you may or may not be familiar with are what the PRT terms Case Fifty-Threes.  Often the ‘monstrous’ parahumans, we’ll get into more depth on the subject.”

Clockblocker glanced at Weld.  The boy was digging through his canvas backpack for something.  Was he one of them?

“Weeks five and six, assuming we’re on schedule, we’ll pull all earlier material together and discuss the beginnings of the parahuman phenomenon.  Not for the individual, as with trigger events, but as a whole.  Where do capes come from?  There is the patient zero theory, typically working under the assumption that Scion is the source of these abilities.  This, however, raises questions about where Scion came from.  The theory is corroborated by the case of Andrew Hawke, who came into contact with Scion on the very first sighting of the hero, only to manifest powers of his own… but there are others who manifested powers without ever coming into contact with Scion or entering a location where Scion had visited.”

“There’s the viral theory, supposing some advanced virus, though it is flimsy at best in justifications, with no identified culprits, method of transmission or explanation as to how it provides the actual powers.  The genetics theory is popular, but has been thoroughly debunked.  We’re going to talk about how it was debunked…”

Clockblocker felt a vibration at his wrist.  He reached inside his glove to get his cell phone.  A text.

From: Mom

Dad’s not doing well.  You may want to come by the hospital.

He stood, and Weld turned to give him a look.  He ignored the metal skinned boy, headed for the back door of the classroom, his keypad beeping as he dialed the number.  It was ringing as he closed the door behind him.

“Mom?”

“Dennis.”

“How bad is it?”

“As bad as last weekend.  Worse.”

He closed his eyes.  More statement than question, he said, “He’s not getting better.”

“No.”

“Okay.  Do you need me there?  I can use my power, buy the doctors time to think or get prepared if there’s a crisis.”

Her voice was tight.  “No, Dennis.  It’s not that kind of situation.  They’ve got him on a respirator, and the doctors don’t have much hope he’s going to be able to breathe without it, again.  The antibiotics can’t fight the infection on their own.”

“So he’s going to die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“A few hours?  Days?  A week?”

“The doctor says it’ll be the next few days.”

He clenched his fist, relaxed it.  Not fair.

“Hey, mom?  Listen, I’ve got to run.”

“Come by, Dennis.  Before it’s too late.”

“I’ll try.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too.”

He hung up, paused to compose himself.

Not fair.

Stepping back inside the classroom, he returned to his seat, but didn’t sit down.  Instead, he stepped up a little further to where Glory Girl sat and touched her shoulder.  When she raised her head, he pointed to the door.  She nodded, stood.

When they were both in the hallway, he spoke, “Sorry to pull you away from that.”

She shook her head, golden curls swinging, “Not missing anything.  I’ve already taken this class.”

“Oh.  Then why are you here?”

“New Wave may be disbanding.  My mom suggested that if I wanted to keep being a hero, I should consider joining the Wards.  So I’m here, checking things out.  Your leader and director okayed it.”

“Are you?  Joining?”

“Don’t know.  They’re willing, if I agree to some extra rules and stipulations.  They’d be putting me on probationary membership, like they did with Shadow Stalker.  I came by to get a sense of things, see if it’d be worth going through the hassle instead of going solo.  I thought maybe I was ok with doing it until I saw the portraits in the lobby.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Clockblocker nodded.  She didn’t need to explain.  Where the Wards’ portraits hung in the lobby of the PRT offices, the portraits of Aegis and Gallant had been reprinted in black and white, surrounded with thick black frames.  One was apparently in the works for Browbeat, who had been too new to even have an official costume, let alone a portrait.  They had been repositioned to be just above the front desk and below the PRT logo, with wreaths and flowers beneath, tokens from the PRT employees.  The building wasn’t open to the public, and was surrounded by PRT squads, but the public would get their chance to pay respects.

Glory Girl had lost three people she was close to on that day.  Gallant – Dean when out of costume – was a loss she shared with Clockblocker.  Her boyfriend, his friend.

“I know it’s crass, I know you guys have rules,” he spoke, “I’ll understand if you get angry.  But… my dad has leukemia.  He was a few days into some pretty rigorous treatments when Leviathan came.  He got hurt when one of the waves hit, and some infection got at him through the wounds.  He has pretty much no immune system, doesn’t have the strength to fight it off.”

“You want me to ask my sister to use her power on him.”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

The response startled him.  He looked up at her, caught off guard.

She explained, “I’m not promising anything.  Like you said, Amy has her rules about taking requests.  But I’ll see if I can convince her.  Again, no promises.”

“Thank you,” he said, “Really.”

“And if you want to pay me back, maybe tell me about Gallant sometime.  Share some stories I wouldn’t get to hear otherwise.”

“For sure.”

The door opened, and Weld stepped out into the hall, followed closely by Vista.  Clockblocker felt a pang of annoyance, bit his tongue before he could say anything.

“Everything okay?” Weld asked.

I could tell them, Clockblocker glanced at Vista, but the rest of the team would find out.  They don’t need another thing to worry about.

“Things are okay,” Clockblocker spoke, carefully.

“We paused the video, waiting until you guys are ready.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker replied.  He added, “Thank you.”

“I’ll trust you have reason for this,” Weld smiled slightly, showing a row of white metal teeth, “But don’t take too long.  You’re on patrol at two this afternoon, and that doesn’t allow us much leeway for delays if we want to finish watching.”

“Alright,” Clockblocker repeated, his tone growing impatient.  He watched as Weld returned to the classroom, shutting the door behind him.  To the closed door, he muttered, “Tool.”

“He’s trying,” Vista piped up.  “It’s hard to be leader, but he’s working hard.”

“That’s my whole problem with him,” Clockblocker answered, annoyed, “He gets on our case about patrols and training and paperwork, then turns around and says he’s not asking us to do anything he isn’t doing himself.  Except he only sleeps one or two hours a night, he barely eats, doesn’t need to use the washroom or shower.  He’s got no friends or family here to look after.  He can afford to work hard.  He’s a f…rigging robot.”  He censored himself for his junior teammate.

Vista shook her head.  “That robot, and he’s not really a robot, by the way, is doing as much paperwork as the rest of us put together.  He only makes us do the paperwork he can’t do himself.  Even if he doesn’t have to.  That gets brownie points from me.”

His temper flared.  “What, are you channeling Gallant, here?  Standing up for…” he trailed off before he could finish.  Realized who he was talking to.  “Shit, no, I…”

Vista just stared at him.  After a second, her eyes got shiny, and she looked down at the ground, an angry expression on her face.   She wheeled around and ran down the hallway.

He moved to chase her, stop her, but the hallway folded together, letting her reach the end in two strides, snapping back to its full length as she passed along it.  She rounded a corner in the distance.

He looked at Glory Girl, his voice small, “I’m sorry.”

She answered him with only a glare.  He wondered if she would hit him.

She relented, looking in the direction Vista had run off.  “It’s okay.  We’re all worn down, at the end of our ropes, and you’re worrying about your dad on top of that.  You get one pass from me.  One.”

He nodded.

“But you’d better go after that girl and apologize.  Because the way I heard it from Kid Win, you were the one who told everyone else to be extra nice to her, because she was taking it hard.  You convinced Shadow Stalker to play nice, and from what Kid Win said before class started, that was a pretty big deal.  Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know your team like you do, but I’d guess that if you don’t fix this, your team won’t forgive you for a long time.”

“Yeah,” he swallowed.  Was she using her power?  He was getting a bad vibe from her.  Like he was locked in a cage at the zoo with a murderous jungle cat.

She poked him in the chest with a finger.  “A real apology.  You own up to what you said and did, acknowledge that it wasn’t fair of you to say, and you promise to do better in the future.  That probably means you should cut Weld some slack, because Vista wants you to.”

“Okay.  Right, okay.”

She pushed his shoulder, making him stumble in the direction Vista had gone.  Easy to forget how strong she is.  “Now go.”

He ran.

Definitely don’t get the sense I’m forgiven, there.

He checked two empty rooms and made one nervous check of the women’s bathroom before he found Vista halfway down the stairwell at the rear of the building.  She had one leg up on a higher stair than the other, her hands clasped around her knee.  She turned her head partway, acknowledging that someone was there, then wiped at her eyes with the sleeve of her costume.

“I’m sorry,” he spoke to her back.

“You’re a jerk.”

“I am.  I’m the worst jerk.”

Vista twisted around to look up at him, “You said that in front of Glory Girl, too.  He was her boyfriend.”

“I know.  She said she understood and that it was okay, but I don’t know how true that is.  Before I figure that out and work out how to make it up to her, I want to make sure you’re okay.”

She hung her head.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “He was the reason I looked forward to coming here every day.”

He walked down the stairs and sat down next to her.  “Yeah.”

“I knew I didn’t have a chance with him.  He was way older, he was rich, handsome.  He was dating Glory Girl, or they were just getting over a breakup, or he was starting to patch things up with her for the millionth time.  There was never a good time to talk to him one on one, unless we were out on patrol together, and I dunno what I would have said if there had been a chance.”

“He liked you.  He was fond of you.”

Vista gave him a sidelong glare, “Are you lying to me?”

“No!  No.  I’m saying he actually enjoyed doing patrols with you.  Never had an unkind word to say about you-”

She interrupted, “He didn’t have an unkind word to say about anybody.”

“Not exactly true.  When Piggy caught on to the fact that Shadow Stalker was doing solo patrols every night, made us take turns going with her, he had a few things to say.  About both Piggy and Shadow Stalker.”

Vista smiled slightly.

“He enjoyed your company, Missy.  There were little signs, but I believe it.  When Triumph or Aegis assigned him a patrol shift with Kid Win, Browbeat or just about anyone else, it was ‘okay’, or ‘yes sir’.  But when it was with me or you, it was ‘great’ or he’d just smile really wide, like it had made his night.  It sounds dumb when I say it out loud-”

“No. I kind of noticed that too.  I thought it was wishful thinking.”

Clockblocker sighed, “He was a good guy, and it’s shhsss…ucky-”

“You can swear around me, Dennis.  I’m thirteen, not eight.”

He smiled a little behind his mask, feeling embarrassed.  “Okay.  Sorry.”

More seriously, he admitted, “It’s shitty of me to snap at you for doing what he would do.  Glory Girl said I should let the grudge toward Weld go, partially for you, and she’s right.  You’re right.  I was, am, angry.  At the pointlessness of what happened, what’s still happening out there.  I get frustrated and angry when I’m here, because I feel like I should be out on the streets.  I get pissed off when I’m out on patrol because I feel like I should be with my family… but when I’m with my family, I feel frustrated and helpless because I can’t do anything there…”

He stopped himself before he admitted the full extent of his difficulties back home.

“…I was taking it out on the new guy, when he probably doesn’t deserve it.”

Vista let her head rest on his arm.

“I miss the old Dennis.  The guy who picked a sorta rude codename and announced himself in front of the news so Piggy and the other people in charge couldn’t really make him change it.  Because it was funny.  Because he liked pushing the limits and because he saw this all as something fun.  The new Dennis is so angry.  Now I guess I get why.”

“Aren’t you?  Angry?  At everything that’s going on?  At the unfairness of what happened?”

She shook her head, which amounted to rubbing her head against his shoulder.  “Yeah.  But you can’t let it consume you.  If you really don’t like Weld, you don’t have to force yourself to get along with him.  But don’t stay like this.  Don’t stay angry.”

He nodded.  It wasn’t so easy, though.  Letting things go, relaxing, he couldn’t help but feel like he’d fall apart if he did.  He couldn’t get his hopes up about Panacea’s willingness to help his dad – and facing any of that head on, without a buffer of smouldering fury?  It might leave him unable to serve and protect the people who really needed it.  He felt his pulse quicken a step at the thought of it.

He hedged his answer, “I’ll work on it.  Sorry if that’s been bothering you.”

“It’s okay.  I’m tougher than I look.”  She bumped one fist against the armor that covered her chest.

“And I’m sorry, again, for saying what I did.  You’re good people, Missy.”

“Want to go back to class?” she asked.

“If you’re okay?”

She nodded.

When they returned, the Wards and Glory Girl were out in the hallway.  The PRT officers were rushing out of the room, pulling their helmets on.

“You’re back,” Weld informed them, “Just in time.  Class is cancelled.  We’ve got trouble.”

The scene was set up in the husk of a building.  Walls loomed on three sides, but there was no roof remaining.  The floor was uneven, composed of layers of broken boards, shattered drywall and chunks of concrete.

“There’s two more crime scenes like this?” Clockblocker asked, eyes wide.  He craned his neck upward to look above them.

“Yeah,” Weld spoke.

“It’s the middle of the day,” Kid Win spoke, “Broad daylight.”

Clockblocker looked at the overcast sky above.  Not quite daylight. And people weren’t around.  It was still ballsy, and more than a little scary.

On each of the three interior walls of the older building was a body, twenty feet above the ground.  Each had received a different kind of treatment.  To their left was a corpse that had been flayed, the gender no longer identifiable.  Directly opposite their group was the corpse of an obese woman, charred black.  Completing the scene was the body of what appeared to be a homeless man, or one of the people who’d been rendered homeless by the recent disaster, judging by the layers of clothing he wore.  His limbs had been severed at each joint, then reconnected so each was joined by a short, foot-long length of chain.  Nails placed through the chain kept him in position, head hanging, a macabre puppet with an overlong body.  The chains jangled and swung in the wind.

Occupying the same building as the corpses was a familiar group.  Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic stood beneath the corpses.  A winged figure that might have been a gargoyle, demon or dragon was clutching to the sides of an empty window frame with three talons, the other reaching toward the homeless man.  Genesis.

“Pardon the cliche, but this isn’t what it looks like,” Trickster spoke.

“I believe you,” Weld spoke, “I’ve read your file, and this isn’t your M.O.”

“Excellent, excellent.  I commend you,” Trickster tipped his hat, “Then we’ll be on our way?”

“No.  But if you come into custody-”

“You’ll arrest us for any number of other criminal charges we’ve got waiting.  And you can’t promise that one of your superiors won’t try to stick us with the blame for this.”

Weld frowned.

“Let us go.  Whatever happened here, it deserves your full attention.  You should be trying to find and capture the real criminals.  This guy here was still alive when we arrived.”  Trickster pointed at the man with the chain limbs.

“Can’t do that.  You’re still suspects, regardless of how much this deviates from your usual methods.”

“A shame,” Trickster bowed.

In the blink of an eye, Weld disappeared, and Genesis loomed in his place, eight feet tall and nearly as broad across the shoulders, a body of pebble-like scales, heavy with muscle, a short tail and broad bat wings sprouting from her shoulders.  She spun to face the rest of the Wards as Weld fell from the window.

Ballistic turned on the fallen captain of the Wards, unloading a barrage of debris and rubble to keep the metal skinned boy off-balance and on the defensive.

Clockblocker lunged for Genesis, hand outstretched.  He was mere inches away when Genesis disappeared from in front of him.  Or, rather, Clockblocker had been moved somewhere else.  A lack of proper footing made him stumble, and he nearly collided with one of the dilapidated walls of the ruined building.

As he spun in place, catching a glimpse of Genesis exchanging blows with Glory Girl, he had his position swapped yet again.  He found himself once more with his back to the brawling pair.  One of them bumped into him, and he sprawled.  If only he’d been able to tell if it were Genesis or Glory Girl that bumped into him; had he known, he might have used his power, taken Genesis out of the fight.

Annoying.  He climbed to his feet, wary of more teleportation hijinks.

Kid Win wheeled on the spot to raise a square-nosed pistol and fire what looked like a brilliant blue flare at Trickster, but the teleporter swapped positions with him.  Kid Win ducked the moment he was teleported, but he still got grazed by his own shot, blue sparks showering off his armored costume, small arcs of electricity dancing briefly around the metal joins.  Sundancer created her flaming ball – small, but still far too bright to look at – and sent it after Kid Win.  The young hero scrambled for cover, dropping his gun in his hurry to get away from the superheated orb.  Flechette moved to shoot, then reconsidered, threw a handful of darts at Trickster instead.  The darts disappeared in midair, and splinters of wood and small stones dropped straight out of the air where they had been.

Really fucking annoying, Clockblocker revised his summation of the teleporter.

Shadow Stalker had positioned herself on the ragged top of the wall where the roof had crumbled away, high above the skirmish, cloak billowing.  She fired a shot at Ballistic and Sundancer, reloaded as Ballistic sent a piece of rubble flying through her shadowy form, then fired again.  The Travelers had body armor, so she wasn’t doing more than distracting them.  The needles of the tranquilizer darts wouldn’t pass through the durable armor or material.

“Red rover!” Vista shouted, “Go!”

Good girl.  Clockblocker dashed for Trickster, and the distance between them compressed to a matter of feet, the highest points in the uneven ground flattening to make running easier.

Trickster swapped him with Vista, placing him several feet back.  Ahead of him, he could see the girl where he’d just been, within a few feet of the teleporter.  Clockblocker found his footing, darted forward once more.  Again, Vista’s powers helped close the distance.  Kid Win, Flechette, and Vista joined him in charging the enemy, so that Clockblocker wouldn’t be set too far back if he was teleported to their locations.

Sundancer moved the orb in between them and Trickster, igniting a few of the pieces of wood that were exposed and above the water.  Vista responded by raising her hand to shrink it dramatically.  Weld ducked one of Ballistic’s attacks, then charged for the orb, striking it out of the air with one fist.  The blow dispersed it enough that Sundancer couldn’t draw it back together, and a wave of hot air washed over everyone present.

Weld, for his part, staggered back, his hand glowing white-hot.  He flexed his glowing hand, and it moved slowly, stiffly.  Even as far down as his elbow, the metal of his arm was an orange-red.

Clockblocker didn’t get a chance to see if Weld was okay.  He charged around his team leader, using the metal boy’s broader body to put himself in Trickster’s blind spot.  From this position, he tried to charge and tag the villain.

An instant before his hand could brush against Trickster, the villain was gone, and Weld was in front of him.  His hand touched the metal of Weld’s back.

He breathed a sigh of relief when Weld turned around.  Only the fact that he’d expected something along these lines had allowed him to turn his power off in time.  Spinning around, Clockblocker reached for the space Weld had just vacated, but Trickster was already swapping places with Glory Girl to place himself as far away from the thick of the fighting as he could get.

I can’t keep track of this guy.

Clockblocker looked around to survey the situation.  His group was sandwiched between the Travelers, now.  On one side, Sundancer and Ballistic crouched in the far corner of the building.  Trickster and Genesis stood on the other side, atop the rubble that spilled across the building’s entrance and onto the flooded street.

Genesis inhaled, chest expanding, and Weld was the first to react, stomping one foot hard into the rubble underfoot, using his foot to raise a large, ragged piece of plywood.  With his hands, he forced the large wooden board into a standing position, placing it between himself and Genesis.  Kid Win, Flechette and Vista wheeled on Ballistic and Sundancer.

Weld’s piece of plywood served to block the worst of whatever it was that Genesis exhaled.  From what Clockblocker could see around the plywood, it was a dark, gray-black vapor.  Wisps billowed around the edge of the board and drifted their way – it had a bitter smell and taste, like ashes mixed with something foul.  Even inhaling a trace of it through the air holes of his mask forced barking coughs from his lungs.  His teammates seemed to be in rougher shape, Vista falling to her hands and knees.  The changer’s exhalation hadn’t even reached them directly.

So, that’s what a changer nine brings to the tableDifferent forms, each with their own powers.

Weld staggered as Genesis lunged forward, and Clockblocker ducked low under Weld’s arm, planted a hand against the plywood.  He felt his power snap out to encompass the material, and he fixed it in place, cutting it off from the flow of time.

A second later, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.  Weld, standing over him, gave him a quick smile and an offered hand.  He returned it with the briefest of nods and took Weld’s hand to stand straight.  Together, the pair of them stepped back and away, to see Genesis rising into the air with heavy flaps of her bat-like wings, inhaling to prepare another blast of the noxious smoke.

He felt oddly calm as his group squared off against the villains with some of the highest power ratings in Brockton Bay, beneath the grim display of the three hanging corpses.  He reached into the slot of the armor at his side and withdrew two sheaves of paper.  Moving his thumbs in one direction, he fanned out the papers, holding them like anyone else might hold a pair of knives.

He realized what it was, this calm.  Whatever else it was, this fight was a refuge from that feeling that had plagued him since the fight with Leviathan ended.  The feeling that he was always in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the face of a city in crisis and a dying father.  This, right here, was where he was needed.

This is what I’m here for.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Flechette spoke, “You’re a hard person to fin-”

Shadow Stalker, transparent and wispy, whirled on the spot, not even pausing as she fired her crossbows.  The first bolt went wide.  Flechette caught the second out of the air, staggered back a step as she was caught off balance.  Her right foot skidded to the edge of the rooftop.

“What the hell!?”

Shadow Stalker rose from a crouch, becoming opaque in the process, “Oh.  You shouldn’t sneak up on people when they’re on patrol.”

WhatI nearly get shot and she blames me?

“You nearly killed me!”

“It’s a tranquilizer shot, and you have the fire escape behind you.”

Flechette turned to see Shadow Stalker was right about the fire escape.  The bolt in her hand had a glass shaft, filled with fluid, a three-pronged head with a wider cross-shaped flare at the base of it to prevent it from stabbing too deep.  Tinker made?  “Geez.  You shaved a year off my life, doing that.”

“Sorry.  A little twitchy.  Good to see you,”  Shadow Stalker crossed the roof, offered a hand.  Flechette shook it.

“I suppose being twitchy is excusable,” Flechette excused Shadow Stalker, looking out beyond the rooftop to the dark streets.  Some of the buildings looked ready to fall over, and the main street below the pair had a two-foot crack running down the middle.  Water covered everything at the ground level, a half-foot deep.  “And the apology is accepted.”

“So.  You joining the team?”

“No.  Temporary stay, until you guys fill out your ranks again.  Maybe a few weeks, maybe as much as a month or two.  Weld told me you were out on patrol, that you might need backup.”

“I don’t do backup, and I don’t do the team thing unless someone makes me, but I’m willing to hang with another crossbow aficionado.  Is that the right word?  Aficionado?”

Flechette smiled, “It is.  The brown haired guy at the computer told me you’d be around here.  Took me almost two hours to spot you, though I did get sidetracked by some kids taking clothing from a broken display window.  We’ll patrol?”

“Sure,” Shadow Stalker agreed, lowering her eyes to her crossbows as she picked bolts out of one of the three cartridges mounted on her forearm and loaded them into her crossbows.  “You look like a rooftop type.  Fly?  Glide?  Grappling hook?”

“Grappling hook,” she patted her weapon, touched the chain that ran along her arm to the automatic-firing crossbow, her arbalest.

“If you can’t keep up, don’t worry about it.  Keep moving in a straight line, I’m mostly untouchable, hard to spot, so I’ll scout ahead for trouble, double back every minute or so to check on you.”

“Got it.”

Shadow Stalker swept her cloak over one shoulder, simultaneously shifting into her shadow state.  She turned and leaped twenty feet to the side of a neighboring building.  Grabbing a windowsill, she vaulted herself another fifteen or so feet straight up the face of the building, caught another windowsill, and then heaved herself up once more to reach the rooftop.  Her cloak billowed out around her, and Flechette saw how Shadow Stalker’s costume clung to her body.  One of the surprisingly few people who could wear a skintight costume without armor pads or features to mask minor physical imperfections and emphasize or suggest certain features.

When Shadow Stalker had disappeared from view, Flechette remembered she was supposed to follow.  She cocked her arbalest, flipped a switch beneath the trigger while sending a burst of her power through her weapon to connect the chain to the ammunition, and then fired a needle with an attached chain to the edge of the rooftop.

The needle bit deep, and the chain went taut.  A second later, she was reeling in.  The pull of the chain wasn’t quite enough to carry her straight to the rooftop, but the pull of the chain coupled with her ability to plant her cleats into the face of the building and run up the building face let her reach the edge of the roof.  A bit of momentum, one hand and her cleats gave her what she needed to hop over the roof’s edge.

Running across the rooftop, she used her index finger to flip the switch, severing the chain, then reconnected the chain to the next piece of ammunition as her free hand loaded it into place.  It took her a second to spot the vague blur that was Shadow Stalker, almost three buildings ahead of her.  The girl was practically gliding as she fell, moving more horizontally than vertically.

It was a drop to the next rooftop, Flechette noted.  She touched the front end of the needle that was mounted in her arbalest, used her power on it.

Capes with the ‘breaker’ classification were generally those who had some ability to ‘break’ the natural laws of the universe as far as those laws applied to them.  Shadow Stalker was one.  Scion was apparently another.  There were others who could slow or stop time in relation to themselves, change their effective orientation in respect to gravity or make themselves effectively larger without the exponentially increasing the stresses that the increased size and mass would normally place on their body.  Almost always, such powers came with some physiological changes that let them manage despite the altered environment they were effectively operating in, allowing them to breathe and walk at the very least.

Flechette wasn’t a breaker, though her power came close.  Technically, she was a striker, a cape with the ability to apply some effect by touch or at point-blank range.  The striker classification could include certain breaker effects as they were applied to things other than the cape themselves, but not always.  Other strikers included those who used energy weapons, those who had certain kinds of superstrength that weren’t accompanied by durability and those with pyrokinesis or such that didn’t extend more than a foot around them.  The way she used her ability, coupled with the intuitive understanding of angles, trajectories and timing she got from her secondary powers, gave her a low rating as a ‘blaster’.  A cape with a ranged attack.

She infused the three-foot length of sharpened metal that was mounted in her arbalest with her power.  The more power there was in it, the less it was affected by the natural laws of the universe.  Focusing more power into an object meant gravity, air resistance and general physics held less and less sway over it.  She could tune it, make the effect longer lived, shorter lived or bias the effects to allow for more of one element or less of another.

She could do other things, but the primary benefit, the easiest thing to do, was making her ammunition punch through anything.  It would glue itself in place on impact, if she had the effect wear off at the right time, and she was very good at timing things.  She could charge the metal of her cleats so they bit into any surface, and though it was too slow to be used defensively unless her foe telegraphed their attacks, she could make her costume frictionless.

She fired the needle through the corner of the roof just in front of her, and it passed through without resistance.  It continued on to strike the rooftop below and in front of her, nestling in deep as the effect wore off, bonding on a molecular level to the material around it.  The chain stretched down at a fifty degree angle, taut.

Flechette stepped forward, onto the chain.  The space between the spikes of her cleats made for a groove the chain could run through.  She slid down, one foot behind the other, arbalest held behind her with the chain reeling out, a safety measure in the event she slipped or was pushed off, with the added advantage that it allowed her to control the speed of her descent.

When she was close to the rooftop below, she cut the chain, let herself drop down.  She was running the second her feet met the surface, using the momentum from her slide.

It was tiring, constantly running, but she didn’t want to look bad in front of Shadow Stalker.  She was going to spend weeks with this team, and Shadow Stalker was the only other girl present that was close to her own age.  Doing double shifts of patrols, eating, showering, relaxing with her teammates, day in and day out, it would drain the life out of her if she had no friends to do it with, if she had no conversation and camaraderie.

At least this wasn’t so different from the exercise she got on her nightly patrol back in New York.  The problem was that this city was unfamiliar ground.  The buildings didn’t match together well, the skyline was jarring, didn’t flow.  Back home, traveling from rooftop to rooftop wasn’t much harder than running, with the use of her grappling hook to move her every minute or two.  Here, it was a jerky, stilted exercise, slow, awkward, demanding use of the grappling hook for nearly every building.

It wasn’t something she did often, but after too many steep ascents followed by steep descents, she bridged a gap to a more distant building with her chain, forming a horizontal tightrope, and ran along it.

Shadow Stalker was waiting for her when she got to the other end.  She did her best not to pant for breath.

“Don’t you run out of chain?”

Flechette turned, reached over her shoulder to tap her back. “Tinker teammate back home specializes in replication and cloning.  Small pack back here consumes energy from a small fusion battery to create a steady supply.  I’ve also got a kit back at the base that makes me a fresh stock of bolts.”

“I could use one of those.”

“Why’d you stop?  You see something?”

“Come.”

Shadow Stalker led Flechette to the edge of the roof.  Looking down, they could see a group of men in a loose half-circle around a middle-aged woman.  The woman was backing away from the men, who were gradually closing in.

“Why haven’t you done anything yet?!”  Flechette gasped.

“These things go smoother if the culprits are clearly committing a crime when you step in-”

A man grabbed the woman’s wrist, and she pulled back, struggled.  She screamed, attacked the man, only to get punched and knocked back on her ass, landing in the shallow water.

“-And there we go.”  Shadow Stalker leaped from the rooftop, falling at a normal speed, slowing to an almost gentle floating descent when she was partway down.

You only need to wait like that if you’re going to be violent, Flechette thought to herself.  Why?  When she has the tranquilizer bolts?

And Shadow Stalker had neglected to inform command.  Flechette reached for her ear, where an earbud was nestled in the canal. She squeezed it twice.  “Console, woman under attack by twelve or so ordinaries.  Shadow Stalker and Flechette stepping in.”

“Acknowledged,” a voice in her ear responded, “Good luck.”

She fired a bolt into the corner of the rooftop, then jumped, rappelling down.

Shadow Stalker was already engaged by the time Flechette arrived at the fight.  In a matter of heartbeats, Shadow Stalker answered Flechette’s unspoken questions.

The other heroine didn’t flinch as one of the men swung a baseball bat at her – the weapon passed harmlessly through her head.  In response, she stepped back, materialized from her shadow state, raised a crossbow and shot him in the side of the neck.  A fraction of a second after the glass arrow stuck in her target’s neck, Shadow Stalker stepped forward again, driving her armored elbow up at an angle at the spot where the bolt had struck home.  Glass shattered and the combination needle-arrowhead was violently dislodged.  The man went tumbled with a splash, going limp before he hit the water.  The side of his neck and the corner of his jaw were a bloody mess of cuts and embedded broken glass.

Shadow Stalker wheeled around, then simultaneously slammed the top of her right crossbow into her left forearm and her left crossbow into her right arm.  There was a barely audible click as cartridges loaded into the top of each crossbow.  She extended her arms to fire at the two of the men closest to the woman.  They dropped on their backs in the water, splashing.

Realizing what they were up against, the group began to scatter.  Flechette raised her arbalest, shot one bolt so it struck a wall just in front of one man’s throat.  Still running, he ran headlong into it, clotheslined himself, and fell over, gasping and gurgling.

She spared a glance to double check he wasn’t in a position to drown, which very nearly cost her.  One of the thugs turned to attack her, drawing a gun, but she had a bolt loaded and fired off before he could aim it, spearing through the gun’s barrel and out the back, to strike a wall.  She loaded another bolt even as she was already pulling the trigger to fire it, so it was sent out an eye-blink after it was in place.  The shaft of metal struck the thug through the crotch of his sagging jeans, pinning them to the wall he was backing up to.  He didn’t scream, so he clearly wasn’t well endowed enough to get hit anywhere important.  Flechette wasn’t exactly an expert -or even a novice- in that sort of thing, but she was ninety-nine percent sure that men didn’t dangle nearly to their knees.

Made lightweight by her power, Shadow Stalker leaped to the nearest wall, then vaulted herself off, careening directly toward three of the retreating men.  As she landed atop the one in the front, she dropped out of her shadow form, returning to her normal weight.  Planting her feet on his shoulder blades, she combined the force of her weight and her momentum with a downward kick of both feet, driving him into the water, hard.  She went shadowy a half second later, becoming almost invisible in the gloom of the empty lot, effortlessly reorienting her now lightweight body to land on her feet.

Both of the men behind Shadow Stalker attacked her, one swiping a knife at her, the other kicking for the small of her back.  Smoky, dark flickers appeared where limbs and weapons passed through her.

Almost casually, she holstered her crossbows, then straightened up.  A flurry of other attacks passed through her.

One man hesitated, seeing the futility of what they were doing, and Shadow Stalker took the opportunity to drop the shadow state.  She leaned out of the way of one desperate punch from the other man, then grabbed him.  She seized him by the shirt-front, pulled him forward with a hard tug on his collar and a counterclockwise turn of her body, then brought her right knee into his ribs.  He fell with a splash.

Metal kneepad, Flechette noted.  That’s going to hurt.

The other man attacked, but Shadow Stalker went shadowy just long enough for his knife to pass through her, then slammed her metal mask into his face.

While he swayed back, stunned, blood streaming from his nose, she reached out and grabbed him by the lower jaw, her fingers digging into the bottom of his mouth.  Instinctively, desperately, he bit down, hard, but the construction of the girl’s gauntlets was good enough to safeguard her fingers.  She used her grip to pull him to one side as she’d just done with his compatriot, helped by a swift kick to the side of one leg.  Rather than use her knee to deliver the telling blow, she brought the heel of her free hand against the gap between the man’s skull and his jaw.  He screamed, crumpled toward the ground, his hands moving to where the strike had hit.

Shadow Stalker waited a moment before letting go, forcing him to twist and squeal in agony before she let him finish collapsing.

After watching him a moment, perhaps to be sure he wouldn’t retaliate, Shadow Stalker glanced at Flechette.  “Your man there is getting loose.”

Flechette had been caught up in the spectacle of watching Shadow Stalker fight.  A kind of horrified fascination.  She saw the thug she’d shot in the crotch, on his back in the water, his pants still fixed to the wall.  He was struggling to work his legs out of the jeans.  She loaded a shot and fired a bolt just beneath his armpit, nailing his sweatshirt to the ground.  Another just above his opposite shoulder and behind his neck secured him.

Shadow Stalker was chasing one of the stragglers.  Going shadow-light, she closed the distance in two long paces, leaving ripples and small disturbances in the foot-deep water, rather than splashes.  As she reached the man’s side, she dropped the shadow state, gripped his ear and used one leg to trip him.  With the grip his ear afforded her, she thrust him face first into the ground with enough force that he couldn’t absorb the impact with his arms.  Water sprayed around them in the wake of the hit.

Flechette reached into her belt and withdrew a handful of darts, each nine inches long.  She channeled her power into each, and then flung them at the feet of the two remaining thugs, catching the edges of their shoes.  Their shoes fixed firmly to the ground and they fell awkwardly.  Two tranquilizer bolts appeared in the rear end of one and the upper thigh of the other.  Shadow Stalker.

Which finished the fight.  None of the men were left in any state to run.

Flechette palmed one of her throwing darts, glanced at it.  She’d been with the Wards a year before she had been given the arbalest and the chain reel.  Her darts had been her weapon of choice for a long time, alongside a rapier she’d eventually retired after too many fights using it had turned out badly.  She hadn’t had the heart to change her codename, even if it didn’t quite apply anymore.  Maybe when she graduated to the Protectorate.

“Hey,” Shadow Stalker called out, disturbing her from her thoughts.  “Here!”

Tired, she thought, mind’s wandering.

Flechette caught the device Shadow Stalker threw to her.  Investigation revealed it to be a small, thin, round device with a single button on top.  “Haven’t seen one of these since training.”

“Times like this call for ’em.  City wants us on patrol, not sitting around with our thumbs up our asses, waiting for the cops to cart these fuckers off,” Shadow Stalker kicked one man in the side, so he flopped over onto his back, no longer face down in the water.  He grunted.

Flechette winced.  That girl is a little too comfortable with violence for my tastes.

While Shadow Stalker ensured that the man with the cuts on his neck wasn’t bleeding out, Flechette  loaded another bolt into her arbalest and fired it into a spot on the wall, two floors up.

She walked briskly to the two men that had just been darted.  She bent down and used her left hand to wind the coil of the restraint device around his left foot, then did the same for the next man’s right foot.

She tossed the restraint device over the bolt she’d embedded in the wall, a metal thread trailing behind it.  She caught it as it fell, then connected it back to the cord, forming a loose loop that encircled the bolt in the wall.  She pressed the button, and the cord retracted, pulled tight around the pole, then continued retracting.  The two thugs were pulled off the ground, so that each hung from the wall by one ankle.

The device would signal nearby police and PRT officers and direct them here.  They’d use their own equipment to make the restraint device lower the men so the thugs could be brought into custody.  The cord was difficult to cut with conventional knives and saws, and those caught wouldn’t want to cut it either, given how they faced a long drop face first onto pavement.  Any buddies of theirs would have a hell of a time getting to them and cutting them free, as well.

She walked over to the man she’d clotheslined, who still hadn’t finished gasping, nor had he collected himself enough to run.  She grabbed his wrist and forced it behind his back.

As she hauled him to his feet, a collision made her stagger back.  It hadn’t been directed at her.  No, it was the man she held that slumped, almost insensate.  He hung his head, a trail of blood dribbling from his lip.

Seeing a movement just outside her blind spot, opposite the man, Flechette pushed her captive down and away.  She had to evade the weapon as it swung towards her head.

It was the middle-aged woman that the men had been attacking.  She held a metal trash can lid in two hands.  Oblivious to Flechette, she swung the lid down at the man’s head.

“Hey!” Flechette shouted, “Stop!”

She reached out to grab for the lid, but a hand on her wrist stopped her.

“Let her,” Shadow Stalker spoke.

The woman kicked the man in the ribs, hard, then struck him with the flat of the metal lid.

“You fuckers!” the woman screamed.

Stunned, Flechette spoke to Shadow Stalker, “The hell?  He’s not in a position to defend himself!”

“Doesn’t deserve to.”

“She’s going to kill him!”

“Better that we give her another few swings than render her powerless for the second time tonight,” Shadow Stalker spoke.  “Or she won’t get over it for a long time.  We’ll stop her before she goes too far.”

“No, this isn’t right.” Flechette pulled her arm free of Shadow Stalker’s grasp, then grabbed the woman’s wrist, stopping her as the lid was brought back behind her head.  Not entirely to the woman, she spoke, “You’re better than this.  You have to be.”

The woman resisted, tried to pull free to make another swing.  When Flechette maintained her grip, the woman used her free hand to throw the lid down on top of the man.

“Stop,” Flechette spoke.  As the woman struggled, she turned to bark a command to Shadow Stalker, “Help!”

“I’m on her side, to be honest,” Shadow Stalker didn’t move.

“So am I,” Flechette grunted as the woman shifted her weight towards her, knocking her off balance.  “Which means stopping her from doing anything she’ll regret!”

“Let me go!” the woman shouted at her, “Fuckers like this hurt my daughter!”

“Is she here?  Your daughter?”  Flechette asked.

“She’s home, it- it happened last week!  Let me at him!  Fuckers!”

“Stop attacking him and I will!”

The woman didn’t have a response, beyond continued struggles.  Though Flechette kept to an exercise regimen, spent four nights a week in the gym, she was still only seventeen, and the woman had a good fifty or more pounds of weight advantage.  The woman pulled free and staggered back, gave her an angry look.

When the lady stepped forward, toward the fallen, bloodied man, Flechette stepped in her way.  The woman didn’t back off, so Flechette raised her arbalest a fraction.

That was apparently enough.  The woman scowled further, then turned and fled the scene, half-running, half-limping.

“Thanks for the backup,” Flechette spat the words to Shadow Stalker.

“Told you, I don’t do the backup thing,” Shadow Stalker bent over the unconscious man, turning his head to investigate his injuries.  “He’ll live.  Him and his buddies deserve what they got.”

“That’s not your call to make.”

“Sure it is,” Shadow Stalker retrieved another restraint device and quickly strung the man up beneath a metal frame meant for an air conditioning unit.  “Times like this, we’re cop, judge, jury and if it really comes down to it, executioner.  We’re the ones with the power.”

“No.  That’s wrong.”

“Suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree,” Shadow Stalker turned her back, preparing another restraint device.

Flechette huffed, angry.  She didn’t want to get into a shouting match, wasn’t sure what to say to convince the girl.  “You can finish your patrol alone.”

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied without looking back, “If you want to be like that.  I’m only on the team because I have to be, so you’re doing me a favor.  Prefer to fly solo.”

Three strikes, Flechette thought, as she strode away.  Nearly being shot for saying hello, the way Shadow Stalker had delayed helping the woman, and now this.

She’d give the other girl the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe Shadow Stalker had some unresolved issues, maybe it had been a rough week.  But for now, she needed to calm down and wait long enough to think more objectively about what had happened.  Then she’d decide whether to deal or to tell her new team leader.

Fuck.  She felt profoundly disappointed.  She wanted to like the other heroine, but this was too much.

She had one other thing she had wanted to do tonight, before she finished her patrol, went back, showered, ate and unpacked.

She squeezed the bud in her ear twice, “Console?”

A brief pause, then a voice in her ear, “Kid Win on the console.  Hi, Flechette.  Deal with those guys okay?”

“Guys are dealt with but… I’m going to do the rest of my night’s patrol alone.”

“Sorry.  I should’ve warned you.  Tends to be easier to work around her.”

So she’s always like that.

“This is unfamiliar territory for me. I might need you to brief me if I run into a cape, so I know what I’m potentially running into.”

“Of course, I’m not going anywhere.”

“And on that subject, I remember meeting someone when I was in town for the attack.  What can you tell me about the cape with the stuffed animals?  Pariah, par-”

“Parian,” Kid Win replied.  “A parian doll was a kind of doll about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Though Parian’s costume is actually closer to a more classical Victorian style porcelain doll, from the same era.”

“Oh.”  That was random.  What kind of guy knew that much about dolls?

He went on, “She’s a rogue.  Fashion student with the costume and stuffed animals as a gimmick to help her build for a professional reputation and stand out.  Tentative rating of Master-6, but we haven’t really seen her fight, outside of the Leviathan encounter.”

“Student.  So she’ll be near a college?”

“College is gone.  Kaput.  Um, let me see.  Last we heard, she was situated between the spot where the college was and the lake downtown.  If I remember right, there’s going to be a fairly thin strip of places there that are intact enough to live in.  Vista ran into her the other night, but she’s asleep right now and we’re behind on paperwork so…”

“So you don’t know exactly what happened, and I’d be going in blind.  She’s harmless though?  This Parian?”

“Nobody’s harmless at a time like this, Flechette,” Kid Win replied.

“Right.”  Flechette thought of the middle-aged woman beating her attacker bloody.

“Listen, easiest way to get to that area, you’ll find the lake to the northwest, walk the perimeter of it to reach the north end.  The area she could be staying at should only be a block or two wide.  If she’s even awake.  I’ve got Clockblocker buzzing in, probably to check in for the night and give me the cliff notes on his nightly patrol, so I’m going silent until you need me, k?”

“Sure.”

Flechette gauged the direction of the ocean, deemed that east, and then headed northwest as Kid Win had suggested.  She traveled at ground level, wading through the water, to make faster progress.  Nothing to prove, now that she had stopped patrolling with Shadow Stalker.

It didn’t take long to find the ‘lake’ Leviathan had made in the downtown area.  Given that the streets were flooded with water anyways, the crater itself was distinguishable only by the barrier around it, and a dark shadow beneath the water where there was nothing beneath to reflect light.  Hulks of fallen buildings sat in the center of the water.  The orange light of a fire on the top floor of one of the buildings suggested that someone had swum to one of the buildings and was staying there.  Maybe one of the safer places to be.

The crater was surrounded by orange striped barriers with flashing lights and portable chain link fences that were chained together.   The fencing formed a solid barrier around the hole.  She walked with the fence to her left, which roughly halved the area she had to keep an eye on, in case of approaching trouble.  Her right index finger was just below the trigger of her arbalest, and her left hand clutched a handful of darts.

The massive sinkhole Leviathan had made was roughly circular, but it was large enough that she couldn’t say for sure when she had turned and started moving more west than north.

Fresh graffiti stained buildings, some warning people to stay away, others were the crude pictographs of hobo signs.  One neighborhood had used the debris of fallen buildings to form makeshift barricades in alleys and in front of doorways.  There wasn’t much intact housing here – the sinkhole sat to her left, and two blocks to her right, from what she could make out in the moonlight, the buildings were too damaged to serve as living accommodations.

At one intersection there were two parallel, vertical lines spray painted in yellow on opposite walls.  Traffic cones, some broken, an orange striped barrier and the remains of one yellow raincoat sat in the water, much of it weighed down by rubble.  Together, the organized debris formed a brightly colored line joining the marks that had been spray painted on the wall.

She stepped over the line, and immediately felt a resistance.  It took her a second to figure out what it was – a thread caught the moonlight.

There was a muffled splashing sound, and a twelve-foot tall gorilla leaped from the nearest rooftop to land directly in front of her.  It swung its arms wildly in front of it, missing her, then slammed both knuckles down in the water, crushing one side of the orange striped barrier.  Flechette raised her arbalest to shoot, then stopped.

It wasn’t real.  Damp cloth, stitched together.  And it was blind.  It wasn’t acting as though it could see her.

She dropped the arbalest, backed over the line, and then waited.

Parian arrived at a run, feet splashing in the water.  She spotted Flechette, and the gorilla moved to place itself between the two of them.

Her creations can only see what she seesThey’re puppets.

“Stay back,” Parian warned.  She peeked out from behind the gorilla.  Her mask, a doll’s face, was smudged, and a crack ran from the corner of one eye to the ear.  She wore a frock, different than the one she had worn for the Leviathan fight, but it was wet, dirty, and some of the lace had torn.  There was a wood chip in the damp golden curls that were otherwise too perfectly coiled to be real hair

“I’m staying back,” Flechette assured the girl.  “Remember me?”

“Yes.  You talked to me before the fight, pulled me away from that horrible little girl.”

“Yeah,” Flechette smiled, shrugging.  She stepped forward.

“Back!”  Parian called out.  The Gorilla slammed its knuckles against the ground again, then lurched forward, one fist raising as if to deliver a massive punch.

Flechette obeyed, backing up another two steps, hands raised.  The gorilla’s fist stayed where it was.

“I’m a hero.  Member of the Wards.  I’m in town for a little while.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I made a deal.  Me, my friends and my family get a place to stay here, a fair share of the food and water.  In exchange, I keep people from entering.”

“I’m a hero,” Flechette stressed the word.  “I’m not going to cause trouble.”

“I don’t know you’re telling the truth.  Nothing saying you couldn’t be lying.”

“I have ID.”

Parian shook her head.  “It doesn’t matter anyways.”

The frocked rogue climbed up to stand on top of the gorilla’s shoulders.  She added, “I made a deal.  I’m keeping to it.  One hundred percent neutrality.  You trespass, I fight you.”

And I’d almost definitely win, Flechette thought. You may even know that, but you’d fight me anyways.

“Okay,” Flechette replied, trying to sound reassuring, “I won’t step over the line.  I heard you were around here, you’re one of the only recognizable faces for me here, I thought I’d stop by, see how you were doing.”

“Coping,” Parian answered.

“Good, good,” Flechette sheathed her arbalest, hoping the rogue would feel safer.  “Look, I’m here if you need anything.  If people make trouble and you’re not strong enough to protect that neighborhood there, or if you need resources that you couldn’t get otherwise, like names or medical services, call me.  Can I give you my card?”

The gorilla lowered his raised fist, reached forward with palm upturned, and Flechette fished in her belt for her cards.  Slightly damp, but readable.  She placed it in the center of a sopping wet hand crafted out of black denim.  The gorilla’s palm was surprisingly firm.  Hard.  Its shape was a little too humanlike, in comparison to a real gorilla, maybe.  Not that it mattered.

“Okay,” Parian spoke, as the gorilla handed her the card.  Her voice was a little softer.  “Phone lines are down, but cell phones work around here.”

“You guys need anything here?  I don’t know what the situation is with supplies, just got into the city a few hours ago.  Don’t know how that stuff is being distributed, but I could see about making sure you guys have something.”

Parian sat down cross-legged on the gorilla’s shoulders.  “Yeah.  We’re low on fresh water.  This stuff we’re wading in has too much salt content, and you couldn’t even boil it clean if you wanted to, I don’t think.”

“Okay.  Fresh water.”

The doll girl shifted her weight to put the card in the front pocket of her lacy apron, fumbled with it.  Flechette spotted a tremor as the girl put the card away and moved to clasp her hands in her lap.

She’s shaking.

“Hey?” Flechette asked.

“What?”

“Seriously, are you okay?  You holding up?”

Parian turned, looked behind her, as if checking anyone was listening.

“I hate fighting.  Hate confrontation.  Even this, being here, having just thought I might have to fight you, fight anyone, it makes me feel edgy.  My teeth are chattering and I’m not even cold.”

“You faced down Leviathan.  You did better than a lot of people.”

“Do you know how long it took me to get my head together?  To actually step up and help?”

“But you did.  You stepped up.  Give yourself credit.  You’re strong.”

“I want this to be over.  I’m so, so scared that someone’s going to come and try to loot this place and I won’t be able to do anything.”

“You’ve got my card.  I can’t promise I’ll arrive immediately, but I’ll be staying at the Wards headquarters, which isn’t too far.”

Parian nodded.  Quietly, she spoke, “That helps a lot.  More than you know.”

“And I can come by on my patrols, if you want.  Check everything is okay, give you an update on what I can do about supplies.”

Parian hesitated, “Please do.  If you pluck the strings twice, I’ll know it’s you.  I’m using my telekinesis on the strings, I’ll feel it.”

“Deal.  I’m Flechette, by the way, in case you didn’t know.”

“Oh.  Um.  I didn’t.  My name’s Sab-” Parian stopped, made a barely audible groan.

“It’s okay,” Flechette suppressed the urge to smile.  Sabrina?  Maybe.  Sable?  No, the b pronunciation was different.

“I’m an idiot,”  Parian spoke.

Flechette paused, then removed her visor.  “Lily.”

I need people I can trust, she tried to convince herself, even as she knew she had other reasons.  Stuff like this could get her in serious trouble with the Wards.

Parian hesitated, then reached up and removed her mask.  Though her clothing style was western, her wig all blonde curls, her face was dark, middle eastern.  There were bands of metal extending from the edges of her face to the middle of her cheekbones, her chin and her forehead.  Mounts to keep her mask in position?  She had full lips and large, dark eyes. “Sabah.”

Cute, the thought struck Flechette.  Funny to think she’s older than me.

“Nice to meet you, Sabah.”

“I’m still not letting you over the line,” Sabah warned.  She looked so small, up on the gorilla’s broad shoulders, the threat held little gravity.  Maybe, Flechette considered, it was intended more for Sabah than for her.

“Okay,” Flechette donned her visor once more, “But maybe you want to walk with me?  Do a patrol of the perimeter of your territory?  I’ll stay on this side.”

Sabah put her mask back on, and for a second, Flechette thought she would say no.

“Okay.  Thank you.”  Parian dropped her legs down to either side of the gorilla’s neck as it moved forward. To stay decent, the girl pressed her hands down on the lap of her dress, leaning forward a little.  It was a little thing, that bashful modesty, but Flechette felt as much of a rush watching that as she did running across her chain/tightrope with a five-story drop below her.

She didn’t let it show.  Instead, she smiled and started walking, hands clasped behind her back, darts clasped in one hand in case of trouble or ambush.  The gorilla crossed the yellow line and sort of half-ran, half-loped to catch up, move beside her.  It slowed to a plodding, gentle walk

Flechette was secretly relieved.  She knew she’d manage for the duration of her stay, now.  She’d made a connection, even if it wasn’t with someone on her team.  She wasn’t in this alone.

“So, you’re a fashion student?” she asked.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It was seven-thirty in the evening in a medium sized airport.  Weren’t there supposed to be people?

There had been staff, for sure.  The odd staff member to greet him as he got off the plane, another to see him past the gates.  Still, the terminals were empty, there were no crowds, the shops and restaurants were all closed.  Only half the lights were on.  For the first time, he was wondering if he was getting in over his head.

At least there were no people making the same old jokes about the metal detectors.

Baggage claim had three carousels, which should have been in operation, delivering a regular supply of people’s luggage onto the conveyor belts, crowds gathered around them in anticipation.  Instead, there was a single man in uniform with three large bags already piled onto a cart.

“I can take my bags, I’m stronger than I look.”

“It’s alright, son,” the man replied, “It’s good to have something to do that isn’t cleaning up.”

Son.  That bothered him more than he cared to admit.  Not that he had any ideas about his own ethnicity, but it was vaguely condescending.  A reminder that people didn’t know how to act around him.

“Alright,” he conceded, “Where are we headed?”

The man gestured toward a set of double doors, then gripped the handle of the cart to push it in that same direction.

Stainless steel handles on the doors.  He put his hands on the painted surface instead, pushed them open, and then held one of the doors open for the cart.  He was distracted enough that he almost didn’t notice the group waiting for him.

The group consisted of a squad of PRT officers with their regular assortment of nonlethal weaponry and a large woman with a bleached blonde bob.

“Weld, I’m glad you made it,” she managed to say the words without a trace of humor or smile on her face.  She extended a hand.

He glanced quickly at her hand, checking there were no rings, then shook it.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Director Piggot, I’m assuming?”

“You assume correctly.  Shall we?”

He nodded.

As they fell into step, he asked, “Where is everyone?”

“This airport was attacked by one of the local villain groups just three days ago.  The front lobby and ticket claim were ransacked, and the airport has shut down for the time being, with only special cases such as yourself coming or going.”

“I take it things are bad?”

“Yes.  We have seen this type of situation before, if not to this extreme.  Too many citizens here had been living paycheck to paycheck or were unemployed.  There was a great deal of latent frustration and unhappiness with the status quo.  A powder keg needing only a spark to set it off.”

Weld nodded, “And the arrival of an Endbringer is a bit more than a spark.  I see.  I know the Endbringers tend to target areas where they know they can do the most damage.  You think Leviathan did it on purpose?  Attacked this city because he knew this would happen?”

“If someone raised the idea, I wouldn’t dismiss it.  But our focus should be on what we do in the here and now.  Are you ready to take command of the local Wards?”

“I’m ready to try.”

“Good.  The team here is smaller than your old team in Boston.  It currently consists of Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Shadow Stalker.  We had three members die in the attack.”

PRT uniforms opened the doors, and he followed the Director onto a helipad, followed shortly after by the other PRT uniforms and man with his luggage.  A black helicopter with the PRT logo on the sides sat there, propeller already whirring in preparation for takeoff.

The Director took the hand of a uniform inside the helicopter, stepping inside, and Weld followed her up, refusing a helping hand.  The helicopter shifted slightly with the addition of his six hundred pounds of weight.

When the door shut, cutting off the worst of the noise, he took the offered headphones and put them on.  When he spoke, his voice came through the headphones crystal clear, without a trace of the ambient noise of the helicopter, “So there’s only five of us?”

“There will be more.  We’ve got a lead on a young man who could be joining as a new member, assuming we can get close enough to him to make the offer.  I trust you know your classifications?”

“I do,” Weld nodded.  He’d memorized it as a rhyme, as suggested by his old boss.  Maybe that had been the intention from the start:

Mover, Shaker,
Brute and Breaker.

Master, Tinker,
Blaster and Thinker,

Striker, Changer,
Trump and Stranger.

He was classified as a brute and changer, classifications meant for the unnaturally tough and strong and for those who could change their shape to some extent, respectively.  He never liked the word brute being applied to him, even though he was aware that the labels had originally been intended for the PRT teams to identify and label villains, specifically.  It was only later that they had been extended to identifying the heroes as well.

“Right.  This potential recruit is tentatively marked down as a Tinker/Mover.  It isn’t unusual for powers to emerge in the wake of an event as serious as this.  For this reason, we keep careful track of things to see if we cannot detect any new parahumans.  This young man has been observed in the south end, moving at over a hundred miles an hour with the assistance of a mechanical suit.  His inclusion on a local team would help fill gaps left by the death of Velocity, a local Protectorate member, and Armsmaster’s retirement.”

Weld nodded.

“Others may make themselves known, and we will approach each of them in turn.  To help fill the gap in the meantime, Flechette is arriving from New York.”

Weld chuckled, just under his breath.

“Something amusing?”

He was surprised that she had heard or noticed the laugh.  “No, it’s just that we know each other.  Our teams are -were- friendly rivals, kind of.  We’d meet two or three times a year and compete, just to spar and practice our skills against less familiar opponents.  We’d joke around about which team was better, give each other a hard time.”

“I certainly hope this ‘rivalry’ isn’t going to hamper your ability to lead this team and work with her.”  There was no humor in her tone.  Just the opposite.

“Um, no, ma’am,” he replied, chastened.  The helicopter lifted into the air.  A glance out the window showed the sprawl of the city.  It was dark out, but much of the city was unlit, nothing shining through the windows, no street lights illuminating the roads, nor the headlights and taillights of traffic.

Noting where he was looking, Director Piggot spoke, “Because the current situation is serious, and it isn’t improving as fast as we’d like.  You’re going to have to be on the top of your game.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Clockblocker and Vista are your best assets.  Clockblocker is a Striker 7 with touch-based time-stopping.  Vista is a Shaker 9.  Large scale spatial distortion.”

“Geez louise.  The others?”

“Kid Win is a Tinker 4.  Guns and antigravity devices, primarily.  Shadow Stalker is more ambiguous.  Breaker 3, sublabels are Stranger 2, Mover 1.  Her particular nature as a ‘breaker’ makes her superlight, semi-gaseous, transparent and capable of passing through solid surfaces.”

“Okay.  The team sounds well rounded, I can work with that.”

She handed him a stack of files, “Here’s the files on local factions, including your new team, and a file on the solo heroes and villains.  You’ll have limited access to the databases as well, which you should be familiar with, but this should get you the essential details to get underway.  I’ve ordered those files loosely by priority, so you’ll find the most need-to-know information at the top of the pile.”

Weld took the folders and opened the one for the Wards, glanced through it to memorize the faces of his new team.  Then he went to the next file, “Then the top priority as far as opposition goes is… the Archer’s Bridge Merchants?  Superpowered drug dealers.  A Shaker 2, Tinker 2/Mover 3 and a Shifter 4.  These aren’t big numbers.  Am I missing something?”

“Context.  They’ve become a rallying point, representatives and leaders for those on the lowest rungs of society.  Too many civilians who were the have-nots think allying with the Merchants is a way to become the haves.  People that were angry, disenfranchised or both have gravitated towards the group, are seeking to overturn the social order.”

“So they’ve got, what, a following of homeless?”

“Brockton Bay doesn’t, or didn’t,  have many that you could strictly call homeless, as there were so many abandoned buildings to squat in.  When the Endbringer attacked, he chose the area with many of these buildings.”

“I think I remember, yeah.  The area where the fight started didn’t exactly look upscale.”

“The sad irony of this is that the defending parahumans protected that area, while other locations were leveled by the tidal waves.  That area, known to locals as the Docks, was not under the control of any organized crime or villain organization even before the attack.  After the battle’s conclusion, it was swiftly occupied by the Merchants and growing numbers of their followers, and is now one of the areas with reliable shelter.  Not entirely, but more than many.  By the time our local heroes were finished with search, rescue and minimizing damage, their number of followers had reached a critical mass.  In the past several days, they’ve begun attacking the city infrastructure, the airport, grocery stores, malls and they’ve repeatedly seized medical supplies and food as they come in.”

“So a big priority will be safeguarding incoming supplies from relief efforts, protecting key areas of the city so it can recuperate from the disaster.”

“Yes, for the time being.”

“Let’s see, the next group is… Fenrir’s Chosen?”

“One of two major offshoots of the Aryan villain group, Empire Eighty-Eight, which fell apart after the death of their leader, Kaiser.  Fenrir’s Chosen are led by Hookwolf.  Violent, utterly merciless, and reveling in the current chaos.”

“And it looks like he’s a Shaper 4, Brute 7, with the longest list of homicides or suspected homicides I’ve seen on someone who wasn’t already in prison.  Thick file, I take it he has lots of followers?”

“The largest group in terms of parahuman numbers, at present.”

“And this second group, The Pure, is the second offshoot of that Aryan group, I take it?”

“Small but powerful.  Their leader, Purity, is a Blaster 8 and Mover 4.”

“Yeah, there’s a Breaker 9, a Shifter 8 with Stranger 3 and a Master 6 in that group?  I buy that they’re powerful.”

“Their leader has made overtures to us, offering cooperation in helping us regain control of the city.  We have refused her for the time being.  If she approaches you, you are in no way, shape or form permitted to agree to any deals.”

“Noted.  Let’s see…  Coil, powers unknown.  The Travelers have high ratings on their powers, but their crimes are low end, pretty much.  There’s the Undersiders… three Master classifications in one team.”

“Only one of whom is of any particular concern.  Investigations into two members have suggested sociopathic tendencies, and if they’re channeling their efforts into low threat activities such as robberies, we can afford to ignore them for the time being.”

“Faultline’s Crew.  Mercenaries, low rating, mediocre rating, low rating…  A Shaker 12?  Seriously?”

“The girl has cognitive deficiencies that reduce the effective threat she poses, but yes.  Again, that group is not an imminent threat.  In the current situation, I might suggest you leave them be if you cross paths, conserve your group’s strength for the priority opponents.  The Merchants and Hookwolf’s group.”

“Okay.  I’ll have this memorized by the end of the week.”

“I expect you will.  That brings us to more mundane matters.  You’ll be enrolled full-time at Arcadia High School.  It’s close to the Wards headquarters, and your teachers have been informed about your special nature.  I’m afraid there’s no easy answers as far as your appearance and how the rest of the student body will react to you.”

Weld looked down at his hands.  His body, from skin to hair to bone, was all metal and alloys of varying types.  “I’ve dealt with it before, I’ll manage.”

“We can’t enroll you in the co-op program, as your absence would be noted, and would draw attention to others who are using the co-op program to mask their attendance in the Wards.  It won’t be easy, attending high school full-time, keeping up with your coursework and leading the team in your off hours.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t have to sleep much, anyways, so it’s good to keep busy.”

“Good to hear that.  All that said, I have asked your teachers to make special arrangements, reducing expectations toward your homework, provided you are not struggling in any subjects.  The Wards program will also provide tutors should you need them.”

“Okay, cool.”

“You’ll have time to get into the swing of things without worrying about school, as the high schools are all currently shut down for repairs and to allow time for thorough investigation of the premises.  When the schools are open, we’ll have you take three courses and attend first year classes on parahumans at the University, if that suits you?”

“Perfect.”

“You’ll be living in a private room in the Wards headquarters, and you’ll have a monthly allowance of four hundred dollars in addition to the money put into your trust account by the program.  We expect you’ll spend this allowance on necessities, such as food and clothing.  You do still eat, yes?”

“Yes,” he answered her, bending the truth.  While he did eat, it was a negligible amount.  As he saw it, there was no real harm done if he pocketed some of that extra money and said he spent it on food.  Given that his tongue was made of an alloy and the pleasures of food were a shadow of what they should be, it was only fair that he enjoy himself in some other way.  He knew that some staff back in Boston had caught on, but they hadn’t said anything.  Director Piggot here gave him the vibe that maybe she wouldn’t be so cool with it.  He’d be more careful until he knew for sure.

“Your quarters have been checked and double checked, so there is no exposed metal, no screws, nails, frames or pegs.”

“I appreciate the thought,” he told her.  His physiology had the unfortunate drawback that he couldn’t help but attach to and absorb metal he touched.  While it had been crippling when he’d first been found, dumped in a junkyard, he had learned ways around it.  He could rearrange the metals that formed his body, separate them into their composite elements, and he extended this particular trick to push all the impurities in the metals out to his ‘skin’.  The impurities, unlike the metal that composed the rest of him, didn’t bond, giving him the ability to handle things with his hands and teeth if he needed to.  It didn’t always work – at least once a week there was one embarrassing moments where he bonded with someone’s wedding ring during a handshake or bumped into a shelf display – but it helped.  Clothes helped as well.

In a more serious situation, such as when he was out on patrol, he could force parts of himself to melt and drop off, leaving a piece of himself behind, but it made him distinctly uncomfortable – pain wasn’t the right word – until he replaced the tissue he’d lost.  More often, he preferred to just tear the offending piece of metal from whatever surface it rested on, whether it was a segment of chain link fence or a hubcap.  Whenever he did it, he’d have to spend as much as an hour dissolving the metal and absorbing it into his body.  Either way, they were only emergency measures.

Which wasn’t to say he was weak.  Being made of materials and alloys as strong or stronger than steel from head to toe made him practically untouchable in a fight.  In addition, his biology fell into some optimal middle ground between organic and inorganic.  For those whose powers affected only living things, he counted as inorganic.  The opposite was also true.

“Do you understand why we have gone to this trouble for your sake, Weld?  Why we are testing your ability as a team leader in a crisis such as this?”

“You’re grooming me,” he replied.

“Yes, but do you understand what we’re grooming you for?” she pressed.

He knew, but he assumed she would prefer to explain.  Besides, how she explained would inform him a great deal about his new boss’s personality.  “Not really.”

“You likely know Director Armstrong in Boston, how he tends to prioritize research and understanding parahumans.  I concern myself with more concrete affairs.  Public relations, parahumans as a part of America.”

Weld nodded.

“What Armstrong continually fails to grasp is that if we do not integrate parahumans into society, help society bend to accommodate your kind, there is no point in lab experiments or classifications.  As bad as things might be with the periodic arrival of Endbringers and parahuman criminals, matters could be ten times worse if panic or prejudice takes hold from the public.  You understand?”

“One thing, ma’am,” Weld spoke.

“Yes?”

He took a deep breath.  Not that he really needed it, but he did anyways.  “Forgive me for saying so, but I get the impression you don’t like or respect Director Armstrong?”

“Your point?”

“I just thought you should know he’s something like a father figure to me.  He’s the one who recruited me to the Wards, got me up to speed.  I’ve already made plans to go to his house for a bit this summer.  Maybe I’m putting myself on your sh… in your bad books by saying so, but I just thought I should let you know I’ll step up to defend him if you start putting him down.”

“I see,” tiny frown lines appeared between her eyebrows.

“Sorry.”

A fire on a street below caught his attention.  A car had been set on fire, and people were crowding around it.

Not noticing, Piggot pursed her lips, “Fine.  My apologies for putting you in that situation.  I won’t say anything further about Director Armstrong for the time being.  I was speaking of the need for public relations?”

“Yes ma’am,” he spoke, feeling somewhat relieved at her composure.  He wouldn’t feel a hundred percent okay about it until he verified her as someone who wouldn’t find some other way to get back at him.

“As the number of parahumans first became clear, a long-term plan was established.  In the early phases of the plan, much effort was dedicated to setting up the Protectorate and Wards, ensuring the public had heroes they could look up to, likable faces, likable personalities.  Merchandising, interviews, tv shows, music, movies and more were all encouraged and supported with the idea of building up this image.  Law, policy and rules for the official groups were all shaped with the idea of gradually building confidence in heroes.”

Weld nodded.

“As we enter the next phase, our objective is to push the public a margin beyond their comfort zone.  We are encouraging and promoting the existence of rogues, which is an unfortunate term that heralds back to the early days.”

“Right,” Weld responded.  The term ‘rogue’ applied to anyone with powers who wasn’t hero or villain, the negative connotations of the term tying back to an era when expectations had been rather different, much the same way the brute classification had been coined.

“This is a sensitive subject, slow to advance, as major corporations are particularly litigious when parahumans get involved.  In simple terms, the big businesses do not want people with powers affecting the status quo, and it is very easy for them to derail years of work with one bad media campaign targeting parahumans.”

“I see,” Weld commented.  He didn’t like that in simple terms bit of what she’d said.  Too many people implied he was stupid because he was strong.  But could he really speak up about it, when he couldn’t be sure if her choice of words came from an offensive or judgemental perspective?  Or was he being overly sensitive?

“The second half of this phase is getting the public more comfortable with the outliers.  The people with stranger powers, and stranger appearances.  You’re likable, Weld.  You have a clearly unnatural appearance, if you’ll forgive me saying so-”

Weld shrugged.  He stood out.  There were a hundred things that bothered him more than stares and comments on the subject.

“-but you have fans, and people are interested in you.  You get higher ratings for your interviews than even the average handsome hero gets.  You’re second most popular for team leaders for number of youtube videos, possibly helped by a briefly lived internet meme featuring your face, and you have a blemish-free record, both academically and in your two years serving as a part of the Wards.”

“Thank you.”

“Provided all goes according to plan, we intend for you to become a member of the core Protectorate team within the span of three to five years.  Making your face national, even international, if you are willing.”

“Wow.  Yeah, I’m definitely okay with that, ma’am,” he tried to feign surprise.  Armstrong had already covered much of this.

“Of course, this hinges on your ability to lead your team, in the here and now.”

“Of course.”

“It seems we will land shortly.  Any questions before we do?”

“One.  I was hoping to arrange interstate training sessions with the New York and Boston Wards groups.  As far as I’m aware, the local team doesn’t do this.  They barely have regular situation training.”

“I recall Triumph made a request for something like this, a few years ago.  I believe we refused him on the grounds that it was frivolous.”

Weld squared his shoulders.  He had to be assertive, here. “I’m firmly of the opinion that it would improve the local team’s ability to cooperate and respond to a greater variety of situations.  I’m totally prepared to eat any and all paperwork on our end.”

Eat the paperwork?”

“I mean I’ll do it all, for the members of my team.  Give you updates after any and all training sessions.  Notes on improvements, lessons learned, weak areas, strengths, resources that could fill any perceived gaps.”

“So long as you’re prepared for me to put a stop to things at any time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And,” the Director paused a moment as the Helicopter touched down on solid ground, “It cannot cut into the regular patrol schedule.  You and your team members would do this outside of the hours you’re on clock for the Wards.”

“I’ll see if I can sell it to them.  Thank you, Director,” Weld stood.

Secretly, he was elated.  The training games he’d led his team through back in Boston had been some of the more fun moments of his career.  It had also allowed for a harmless but fun interaction with the New York group, giving them a chance to mingle, talk and share war stories.  There was something about being able to mess with others on a level that you couldn’t with teammates you had to fight alongside.  If his new team liked the games half as much as he did, it would be a win in his book.

“Do you wish me to come down and introduce you?”

That earned a moment’s consideration.  Was this woman likable?  No.  Would the others like her?  Probably not.  Which meant that having her introduce him might be detrimental, associate him with someone they might view negatively.

“No, I don’t think it’s necessary, ma’am.”

“Your old keycards will let you in.  I’ll have replacement identification sent to you shortly.  In the meantime, I wish you luck.”

“Thank you, Director,” he handed her his headset and stepped through the door as PRT uniforms opened it.  As if welcoming him into the city proper, there was the sound of a woman screaming down on the street below, the noise turning into a manic laugh in the same breath.  Half the block was without power, and searchlights on the corners of the rooftop scanned nearby streets.  PRT guards stood at the edge of the roof, armaments in hand.  He relaxed at the sight of the guards – if they weren’t acting on whatever was going on below, he didn’t need to worry about it.

He took a deep breath, deep enough that he could feel the groan of the metal stretching to its limits inside his chest.  Then he stepped off the rooftop and through the elevator doors.  When the complex chrome doors shut, they cut off the noise of the helicopter entirely.

It was utterly quiet, inside the box.  There was barely any sense of motion or movement from the elevator.  Tinker designed.  It had to be.  He avoided touching the chrome walls or railing.  It was probably coated with something, but emerging with a piece of railing stuck to him would make for a terrible first impression.

Stepping out into a hallway, he walked up to a security terminal.  He swiped his identification card, spoke his name for the voice authentication, “Weld.”  There was a pause, and then the doors glided open.

His team was there, each with their masks off.

Clockblocker sat in a chair at the huge computer to the right of the room, swiveled to check out their new arrival, then stood, folding his arms.  Red haired, freckled, thin lipped, he wore a costume that was all white, with animated images of clock faces on it.  A white helmet sat on the counter of the computer terminal.

Shadow Stalker was leaning against a wall, thumbing through a smartphone.  She had one foot against the wall, one arm folded just under her chest, her free hand resting in the crook of her other elbow.  She looked up at him, stuck the phone in a pouch on her belt.  She was dark-skinned, pretty, and from  what he could see beneath her costume and her voluminous cloak, she had a nice body.  Athletic figure.  A part of Weld’s adolescent psyche was relieved that there was some eye candy here.

Kid Win and Vista arrived from what the ‘cubicles’ at the far end of the spacious room.  They weren’t really cubicles, but sectioned off areas with beds and room for personal effects.  The base in Boston had been similar.  Kid Win was in civilian clothes, brown-haired, ruddy cheeked in a way that suggested he had been exercising until just recently.  Very normal looking.

Vista was in pyjamas, her hair tied back into a ponytail.  He’d had someone as young as her on his team in Boston, but the boy had been a Thinker, a limited precog content to work and communicate with them from their command station.  This girl had been out in the field – three fingers on her left hand were bandaged, with crimson seeping in through the white.  Her eyes were puffy, as though she’d been crying until very recently.

Should he comment on that?  Offer support?  He wasn’t sure what to say, if it would even be welcome.

“Hello,” he spoke.  He received a chorus of muttered and murmured greetings in return.

“Look,” he said, “I won’t make a big deal of this.  The guys upstairs want me in charge.  It’s going to take me a short while to get up to speed, but I hope to prove to you guys that I can and will work as hard as anyone.”

It was hard to say what he’d expected, but surely he should have gotten more of a response than some blank stares and glazed looks.  Was it the wrong time for this?  Every single one of them looked dog tired.  Clockblocker looked like he was barely managing to stand.

“From everything I’ve heard, you guys are an excellent team, and I hope I can do you justice as a leader.  It’s my hope that we can improve on a winning formula.  I’ve talked to the director about some special training-”

“Training?” Clockblocker interrupted, “You just lost me.”

“If you’ll hear me out, I think you’ll like the idea.”

“Have you seen the situation out there?” Clockblocker challenged him, “Less than an hour ago, I saved a guy I know from my high school physics class from being dragged into an alley by a half-dozen grown men.  One of them stuck him with a needle before I got him away from them.  The Hospitals are shut down or over capacity, so I brought him here.  He’s upstairs right now, getting drugs to ensure he doesn’t get HIV.”

Weld struggled to find something to say, failed.

Clockblocker went on, “Kid Win and I stopped some lunatics in gas masks from mixing ammonia and bleach into a poison gas.  You know why?  They wanted to off the people in an apartment block so they could loot the place and stay there.  There’s people going fucking crazy out there, and you’re talking training.”

“I didn’t mean now,” Weld protested, backpedaling, “I was thinking in terms of the future.  The training would be something to look forward to, after this crisis has passed.”

“You’re assuming it’s going to pass,” Shadow Stalker replied, her voice tired.  “Some are saying this is the way things are going to stay.  I almost agree with them.  This isn’t the kind of city that bounces back from things.”

I’m losing them.  “I can’t believe that.  We’ve got to have hope.”

“Pull a fifteen hour patrol out there, then come back and talk to me about hope,” Clockblocker spoke.  “You know, I could almost play along.  Go with the blind optimism, say yippee to training.  But you don’t even mention the guy you’re replacing?  A few words for the dead?  It’s a matter of respect, bro.”

“I didn’t mean to dismiss them or their sacrifice.  I just didn’t know them, and-”

Clockblocker turned, swiping his arm angrily at his helmet to snatch it off the counter.  Tucking it under one arm, he spoke to the others, his back to Weld, “I’m going to check on my family.  I’ll head there in costume, in case I run into trouble, be back in the morning.  Mind manning the console, Kid?”

Kid Win shook his head, “I need to take a break anyways.”

Vista glanced at Weld, then asked, “Where do you guys need me?”

“Go sleep,” Shadow Stalker spoke, placing a hand on Vista’s head as she walked past the girl, “I’ll start my patrol, go with Clock to make sure he gets home and that he has some backup.  You can relieve me when I’m back, maybe get Clockblocker to go with you.”

“Thank you,” Vista’s voice piped up, with a definite note of relief.

Helplessly, Weld watched as the team split up to go their separate ways, Kid Win sitting down at the far end of the computer station, Shadow Stalker and Clockblocker heading for the elevator.

“I fucked up.  I already lost them,” Weld spoke, mostly to himself.

“No.  They’re just tired,” Vista spoke from beside him.  “And not just lack of sleep.  You’ll see what I mean.  You could’ve mentioned Aegis, Browbeat, and Gallant, but you can’t be blamed if Clockblocker didn’t give you time to get around to it.  Nobody’s really in the mood for speeches.”

“Right,” Weld replied, feeling lost, “They’re the ones who died?”

Vista gave him a look that could only be described as pity.  “You didn’t even learn their names?  Nevermind what I just said.  Yeah, you fucked up.”

Then she turned away and walked back to the cubicles.  She was halfway there when he saw her rub at one cheek with the back of her hand.

“I… I just got here,” Weld said, helplessly.

I just got told by a pre-teen, he thought.

“Shit,” he swore under his breath.  He found a chair in front of the computer and dropped the stack of file folders on the nearest flat surface.  He plucked the file folder off the top of the stack, opened it and began studying.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 8

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Coil held firmly to the philosophy that one couldn’t be too paranoid.  Every moment of every day was a delicate balancing act, anticipating any number of unseen threats from every possible angle, whether he was speaking with his subordinates or simply rising to meet the day.

In one reality, he was safely ensconced in his underground base, costumed, with no less than twenty armed soldiers between himself and the multiple sets of heavy metal doors.   He had spent his night reading, following the news and checking his stocks.  His location was known only to those who worked for him, individuals paid well enough that even if they did have reason to attack him, their ‘coworkers’ would have incentive to stop them.

Second reality:  He was waking up in an ordinary, slightly rundown home in the southwest end of the city.  He prepared and ate his breakfast, then stepped outside in his bathrobe to pick up the paper and the mail, pausing to wave to the neighbors as they led their two girls out of the house.  The flooding hadn’t affected their neighborhood as much as others, but the schools weren’t yet up and running, so the mother and father would be taking their girls to work with them for a short while.

He headed back inside, showered, then dressed in a button-up shirt, khakis and a silk tie.  He got in his four-year old prius and headed into the city.  What was normally a ten minute drive took him three-quarters of an hour, as he was forced to detour around destroyed roads, fallen buildings, and reconstruction work, move with the other drivers in a perpetual traffic jam from the moment that he left the little cul-de-sac where his house was.  To all appearances, he was an ordinary man leaving for work.  His identity, fabricated, was complete, a real job at a real company, records going back ten years in health, taxes, dentistry, house payments and more.

The soldier that met him was known to the other soldiers as Creep.  No captain would have the man in their squad, his predilections made him unemployable in the public sector, and the fact that Coil was the sole person who could and would provide him with the ‘payment’ he craved makes Creep as loyal as men can get.

Everyone had a hook, a vice or something they needed on a primal, desperate level.  Sometimes that need needed to be created, or nurtured, so it could later be hand fed.  Those people who were driven by such things, carried that craving for something especially close to the surface, were among Coil’s favorite people, coming in a very close second to people who were useful.  Those who were both useful and desperate for something Coil could provide?

Well, they were the Travelers, Creeps and Grues of the world.

Wealth would have to suffice for anyone and everyone else.

Creep remained the one individual that had the opportunity to discover Coil with the mask off, so it was worth buying his loyalty.  The man waited in the front seat of the white van, eyes forward, until he heard the three knocks on the back door of the vehicle.  He pressed a button, opening the door to allow Coil to enter.

Once inside the back of the van, hidden from Creep’s view by a barrier between the seats, Coil removed his clothes, folding them neatly.  He donned his costume, his second skin.  A zipper was hidden in the image of the long white snake that weaved up around the body of the costume to the head.  He drew it together around himself, tucked the metal tab of the zipper into a flap at his ankle. The fabric of the costume allowed him to see and breathe through it, but was an opaque black-gray to outside observers in all but the brightest light.

He was spending less and less time in his civilian identity, these days, to the point that he was pondering dropping it altogether.  He could be Coil full-time, when the base was fully set up.  For now, though, so long as he needed a bed, and a place to get away from the noise of construction, the ruse was necessary.  He seated himself in the one chair at the back of the vehicle.

To outside observers, Creep was an ordinary laborer driving an electrician’s van to the construction site.  Coil’s underground base had fallen just beyond the scope of the massive lake in the middle of downtown.  Had the crater extended another forty or fifty feet, it might have done more than crack the interior walls, cost Coil months of time rather than days, hundreds of thousands rather than thousands.

Creep directed the vehicle down the ramp and into the parking garage.  He stayed behind with the van as Coil departed.

Coil entered a doorway in the lowest, most secluded corner of the parking garage, entering a room with an electrical system behind a metal cage.  Opening the door to step into the cage, passing around behind the electrical box and passing through the concealed doorway there, he reached the heavy vault door that marked the entrance to his underground base.

Even after he was inside, with two employees waiting to greet him, a contingent of his squad captains standing at the ready, he remained careful.  Back in the other reality, he stood from his computer, traveled into the room beside his own.  He paused in the doorway, staring at the girl who lay on the cot.  She was dressed in white, unmoving but for the rise and fall of her ribcage, her eyes open.

“It’s morning, pet.  You know what questions I ask you.”

“It’s morning?” she asked, head rising.  “I feel like I just had dinner.  Candy?”

“No, pet.  It’s too early.  Now please answer my question.”

Petulant, she replied, “Zero point two five two percent chance there’s any problems here in the next hour.  Three point seven four four one percent chance there’s any problems before lunchtime.”

“Good girl,” he spoke.

With that, he collapsed that world where he had stayed up all night, studying the news, following international business trends, tracking the details on his troops’ most minor operations – he helped ensure the success of the major ones with his power.  The reality swiftly faded, leaving only the world where he had a full night’s sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, drove to the base with Creep.  Only the memories and knowledge remained.

Standing before his employees and soldiers, he divided realities once more, leaving only a heartbeat between the erasure of one existence and the creation of another.

He often wondered if he really was creating the realities, or if it was solely in his perception, foretelling futures to the extent that they hinged on his actions.  He’d asked his Tattletale, and she hadn’t had an answer for him.

He had hated these moments, before he’d acquired his pet and the assurances she provided.  These were the times when he was most vulnerable,  when he’d just started a fresh use of his power, his selves so close to one another.  It was sadly inevitable, unless he found a way to expand to a third world.  Though he knew the chance of danger was miniscule, that his pet could not lie to him if she had wanted to, he still made efforts to distance the two worlds as much as possible.

The first reality: “Captains, with me.  Empire Eighty-Eight is divided, and I’m going to direct you on a series of strikes to ensure we deal as much damage as possible before the two factions can merge once more.”

The other: “I wish to survey the base.  Captains, as you were.”

Two groups traveling in separate directions.  One of his selves traveled with the troops, down the metal staircase to the lower level, the other moving in the other direction, across the metal walkway, the two employees hurrying to keep up with his long strides.

He eyed the base as it was developing.  The massive quantities of crates and boxes were being unpacked, bunk beds for soldiers on call, a fully equipped medical bay, stocks and facilities for the kitchens, innumerable weapons.  It was taking shape, fine details emerging where there had been only right angles and neatly organized stacks boxes.

He owned the company that had built the underground shelters in Brockton Bay and neighboring cities.  Hiding the details on his base in construction was a matter of intercepting information at the right time and place, paying with his own money rather than the city’s, controlling what was reported and to whom.  His pet’s powers had assured him that nobody would be noticing any disparity anytime soon.

“The Travelers’ room,” it was more statement than question, but it required an answer.

A man in a sweater and small round-rimmed glasses, Mr. Pitter, spoke, “Done.  Individual rooms, furnishings, kitchen and wardrobes.  Some minor modifications are needed to make it more handicap accessible, but they could all move in today.”

“And the containment facility?” he asked, though he already knew the answer, from the interruptions while he spent the night in the facility.  He’d heard the noise of the work just hours ago, been informed that people were arriving.

“The vault door was placed just last night.  She was-” Mr. Pitter paused, “Agitated.  We had to call Trickster in to talk to her.  He’s here now.”

“I’ll speak with them.”

“Yes sir.”

He didn’t like interacting with people, especially not subordinates as important as the Travelers or Undersiders, without the ability to create or banish the reality if the discussion didn’t go his way.  Here, he was safe.  His other self was giving orders on movements, targets to attack, individuals to watch out for, informed by the night he had spent tracking the deployments and patrol patterns of the Protectorate and Wards.

He let Mr. Pitter take the lead as they headed to the Traveler’s apartments.  The man was small, unassuming, ordinary.  A registered nurse, he had an exemplary eight-year record of acting as nanny and caretaker to a pair of very ill children.  Then he had found out his wife had cheated on him, attempted to divorce her.  Deciding that wasn’t acceptable to her, the woman had set about dismantling his life, ruining his careers, friendships, familial relationships and everything else, laying accusations and planting evidence of the worst sort of crimes.  The sort of accusations and suspicions that a male nanny had to be leery of at all times.

Mr. Pitter was one of those particular people who was both useful and bought with stronger things than currency.  He would ensure the Travelers were comfortable and well stocked.  More specifically, he would take care of Dinah, ensure any and all dosages were clean and properly administered, that the girl was kept in the best of health.  All he had required was for his wife to disappear, the chaos and problems the woman had caused him discreetly sorting themselves out in the aftermath of her death.  He had gone from being a broken man to a person who was so unflinching in his duties that it had given even Coil pause.

Mr. Pitter knocked on the door, waited.  It was almost a minute before it opened.

Trickster stood in the doorway, unmasked.  His skin tone was darker in a way that left his ethnicity ambiguous, to the point where the boy could have been a darker skinned Caucasian, biracial, Middle Eastern or Eastern Indian.  His dark hair was long, hanging to his shoulders, and a hook nose coupled with a widow’s peak gave him something of a severe appearance.  His eyes, normally sharp, were bleary with sleep.

“Are you really that sadistic, Mr. Pitter?  I get dragging me here at five in the morning if Noelle needs it, but waking me up three hours later?”

The ‘nanny’ didn’t reply, instead stepping out of the way, to give Trickster a better view of Coil.  Trickster leaned out of the doorway to look his employer up and down, picked some sleep from the corner of his eye with his thumbnail.  “Damn it.  Okay.”

“Thank you,” Coil replied, “I would like to speak with your friend, downstairs.  Past experience has suggested this works best if you act as an intermediary.”

“I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

“Indulge me.  Would you like me to wait while you wash your face?  Get dressed?”

“If we’re just going to talk to her, and if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’ll probably go straight back to bed, after.”

“As you wish.”

Trickster pulled on a black bathrobe, cinched it around his waist, then stepped onto the metal walkway.

“Is there at least anything I can tell her?” Trickster asked.  “Anything encouraging?”

“Nothing definitive.  I had intended to introduce Tattletale from the Undersiders to this situation, ask her for her opinions.  That is, if she doesn’t already have some idea of what’s going on.  Either way, her talents might turn up some details we have missed.”

“Had intended?  I take it that she can’t, now, because of what happened at the hospital?”

“Something like that. She’s informed me that there’s currently difficulties within her group and requested that I not distract her or give her tasks until things have been settled ‘one way or the other’.  Her words.”

“That’s not really anything that’s going to give Noelle hope.”

“No.  No it isn’t.”

They headed back onto the walkway, then down the stairs.  A vault door, twenty feet across, was set into the concrete wall.  It loomed over them, three times as tall as even Coil was.

Coil stepped to the side, gestured toward the small monitor and keypad to the left of the door.

Trickster touched a button on the keypad, “Noelle?  You there?”

The monitor flickered.  A girl’s face took up most of the screen.  Her face was framed with brown hair, greasy, and she had dark circles under her eyes.  Her eyes moved as she looked at the monitor on her end, but she didn’t reply.

“Hey,” Trickster spoke.

“Hey,” her voice had a ragged quality to it, as though she had screamed herself raw.

“Coil wants to speak to you.”

There was a pause.  “Okay.”

Coil stepped forward so he shared the camera with Trickster.  “Noelle.  I’m sorry the construction work disturbed you.  We shouldn’t have been doing that so late in the night.”

“You locked me in,” Noelle accused him.

“For your safety, and ours,” Coil spoke.

“You agreed to this,” Trickster told her, “We talked about it.  You asked us to do this.”

“I know.  I-  I didn’t think it would be this claustrophobic.  Or lonely.  I swear I’m getting cabin fever and it’s only been a few hours.”

Trickster opened his mouth, then closed it.  When he finally found the words to say, he spoke, “You can call me any time.”

“Except when you’re doing a job.”

“You can talk to Oliver, then, or Mr. Pitter.”

“Oliver’s still busy talking to you guys, and Mr. Pitter creeps me out.”

Coil raised an eyebrow behind his mask, gave Mr. Pitter a glance.  The man hadn’t reacted.

Trickster diplomatically didn’t comment on Mr. Pitter’s presence nearby.  Calmly, he spoke, “We’re working on a solution.”

“You’ve been working on that for a month now!”  She began to shout, which only added to the gravelly quality of her voice, “Fix this!  Fix me!  You did this to me, Krouse!

“Noelle,” Coil spoke, controlling his voice, “Trickster is not to blame.  At the next possible opportunity, I will be inviting an employee of mine to speak with you and the rest of the Travelers.  Her power will provide hints.  I’ve also been in contact with the head of parahuman studies at Cornell.  An expert in the field.”

Her scream sounded through the intercom system, “That’s just more poking and prodding and theories!  You promised us you’d fix me!”

Punctuating her statement, there was a bone-rattling impact against the vault door.  Almost every soldier on the lower level stood or turned to face the doorway, hands on their guns.  Dust spilled out  from the joins where the concrete walls met ceiling.

Irritating.  Nothing more was going to come out of this conversation.   At least he knew the one thing he’d sought to find out: she was getting worse.  He used his power, obviating the reality with the raging girl in favor of the one where he was talking to his soldiers.

“-dersiders are otherwise occupied, so you’ll be supported indirectly by the Travelers.  Captain Heroux?  How fast can your squad be ready?”

“We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Good,” Coil spoke.  “Be ready, I’ll have orders for you in less than an hour.”

“Sir.”

Coil turned, leaving the captains to their assigned tasks.  He glanced at Mr. Pitter, “The Travelers’ quarters are all set up, I trust?”

“Yes.  We just installed the heavy door in the middle of the night.  Noelle was agitated enough that we had to call in Trickster to calm her down.”

“I see.”

“He’s still here, if you want to talk to him.”

“Let the boy rest.  He’ll be tired.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ensure the girl has a double ration for this morning.”

“The costs-”

“Are my concern.  With her sleep disturbed, she is liable to be… cranky.  Let’s ensure she has little to complain about.  And Mr. Pitter?” he paused, “Speak with Duchene about the construction the second she comes in.  I want that door on the lower level reinforced.  Extend walls inward and put in a second door, if you have to.  Schedule any construction for the middle of the day, so we aren’t interrupting her sleep again, but I want it done as soon as possible.”

The man nodded, correctly interpreted the order as a dismissal, and hurried off.

That left him with the one remaining assistant following after him.  Cranston.  “Anything urgent?”

“No, sir.  The businesses you purchased are still struggling in the wake of the catastrophe, but we’ve received insurance payments-”

“Good.  We’ll discuss it later.”

“Yes, sir.”  Cranston hurried off.

Coil returned to the end of the complex furthest from the entrance, entered his quarters.  He paused at his computer to check his emails and the latest news feeds.  Nothing crucial.

He divided realities.  In one, he stayed at his computer.  In the other, he entered the room reserved for his pet.  “Good morning, pet.”

“It’s morning?” she groaned, sitting up.  “I thought I just finished dinner.  Candy?”

“You know my morning questions.”

He already knew the numbers – he noted they had barely changed, as she rattled them off – but if he always canceled out the reality where he asked her for the chance of any danger in the morning and never asked again because it would be redundant, she would never remember.  Even a mind like hers had its limits and boundaries.

“The chance my grand plan is a success, ignoring any uses of my powers?”

“Seventy two point two zero zero two one percent.”

Pleasing.  It was a number he could raise in the ensuing days and months with the use of his power.  Interestingly enough, the number was better than it had been before Leviathan attacked.

“Chance the issues with the Undersiders will be resolved?”

“Don’t understand.”

He frowned.  Another limitation.  She needed to be able to visualize the scenes.  “What is the likelihood that the Undersiders will still be serving under me, at the point in time my plan succeeds or fails?  To one decimal point?”

“Sixty five point six.  But they aren’t all the same Undersiders.”

“Oh?” he rubbed his chin, “The chance that my plan succeeds with this new group versus the old?”

“I don’t understand.  My head’s starting to hurt.”

“Just one or two more, pet.  If the group changes, is it more likely that my plan succeeds?  To one decimal point.”

“Yes.  Four point three to eleven percent, depending on who comes and who goes.”

“One more question.  What is the chance that I find a remedy to the Travelers’ circumstances?  To one decimal point?”

“Nine point five.  Candy?”

A full seven percent lower than it had been before the Endbringer attack.  Had a crucial individual died or left the city?  Or was his running theory correct?  Was there a reason Leviathan had come here, beyond the chance to attack a city already under siege?

It was hard to ignore the reality, that Leviathan, from the time he arrived, had gradually moved closer and closer to this location, where the girl had already been ensconced.  The Travelers had even picked up on that, called him, worried.

Something to ask Tattletale about, perhaps, when he introduced her and Noelle.

“It feels bad.  Wanting the candy so much, knowing I’m going to want the candy, seeing it like I do.  It builds up.”

Seven percent lower.  At what point did earning their loyalty fail to be worth the resources he was investing?

“Knowing I’ll get sick if I don’t get it, being able to see it, what it’s like, the getting sick, and as it gets closer to happening, higher percentages, it feels more real, so clear a picture it’s almost as bad as getting sick for real.  Even if there’s only a nine point two-”

“You’ll get some to tide you over in a bit, pet,” Coil interrupted her, in as reassuring a tone as he could manage.  It was impossible to conceal all of his irritation at being disturbed from his thoughts, but she was distracted enough by her own problems that she likely didn’t notice.

His plan was succeeding, though it had been delayed slightly by recent circumstances.  Potential enemies were divided or reduced in numbers, the city all the more vulnerable to being seized.  Victory was so close he could taste it.

Perhaps worthy of a celebration.  Coil maintained his own vices.  It would be unfair to expect more of himself, when he had the unique talent he did.

It had certainly been an expensive talent.  Even with his ability to game the markets in a way that clairvoyants and precognitives couldn’t detect, it had taken him years to pay it off.  A maddening, frustrating endeavor, when he had already been thinking of plans he wanted to set in motion, having to postpone them.  And he still owed a favor, even now, up to a week’s services.  He couldn’t be sure if he was powerful and secure enough to fight back if they demanded too expensive a price, or too much of his time at a point critical to his plan.

He canceled the reality where he stood at his pet’s bedside, found himself still at the computer.  Best to leave the world where his pet wasn’t so tired, in case he wanted to ask more questions that morning.

The worlds he created weren’t real.  They were little more than an especially vivid, accurate dream.  To enjoy a whole separate world, free of any consequences beyond the ones he wanted?  It would be unreasonable if he didn’t indulge in it.  Anyone would, given the chance.

These entertainments kept him centered, utterly calm.  He needed that, after the irritation of dealing with the Travelers’ girl.

He touched a button on his phone, “Mr. Pitter?  My office.”

“Yes sir,” the reply sounded.

He was on the brink of achieving his goals.  It would be a laughable tragedy, to get this close, only to have his power fail him, to accidentally choose the wrong reality, or to have his other self killed by accident or malicious intent, forcing him to live with the ramifications of these idle amusements.  For now, he wouldn’t touch his pet, nor any of his powered subordinates.  Not when he was this close.

A click of what appeared to be a part of his desktop wallpaper made his bottommost drawer pop open.

Mr. Pitter entered the room.  “Sir?”

One reality: “My pet needs her ‘candy’, a low dosage, please.”

The other: Another click of his computer mouse, remotely locking the doors.  Mr. Pitter turned, alarmed, tested the door.

For now, even with the safeguard of his other realities, he would do nothing he couldn’t explain away if he had to.  He wouldn’t entertain himself with anybody he couldn’t replace.  Mr. Pitter?  Replaceable.

No such thing as being too paranoid, after all.

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Extermination 8.8

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How was a city like Brockton Bay supposed to pay its respects to all the heroes, villains and miscellaneous others that died to protect it?  Until about five years ago, the answer had been a funeral.

It really hadn’t worked out.

On the surface, it was a great idea, had made for an amazing scene.  Grand speeches about great moments of true selflessness from even despicable villains, good guys doing the most heroic of sacrifices.

Except problems started to stack up.  Could the people in charge of the event really let someone stand up and give a eulogy for someone like Kaiser?  If they did, you earned the wrath of the dozens or hundreds of people who’d had their lives changed for the worse by Empire Eighty-Eight.

The uneasy solution had been to avoid saying anything about the local villains, beyond the fact that they had participated, but problems had stemmed from that, too.  Subordinates or teammates of the fallen villains had made a scene over these omissions, sometimes during the funerals, and villain participation in Endbringer situations started to decline.

More issues came up, rooted in the reality that people who went out in costume were more theatrical or dramatic as a rule.  Too many vying to take the spotlight, hero and villain alike, even some of the fallen, with measures or requests placed in advance.  It didn’t happen every time, but enough events became sideshows and media circuses that the whole purpose of the events was defeated.  The media was banned from recording the event, but the capes who’d sought to stand out only tried harder.  Fights had erupted.

So the funeral services became less frequent.  Then they stopped altogether.

A memorial was simpler.  All who had joined the fight could be treated equally.  There could be no snubs, really, nor could there be insults, dramatic oaths, taunts or speaking ill of dead rivals and nemeses before cameras or audiences of capes.  It was simply a dedication to the dead, a list of names, sometimes with a statue, if the groups involved could decide on something that didn’t too closely resemble a particular hero or villain.  Ever a difficult, delicate balancing act.

Brockton Bay’s memorial had no statue.  It seemed to be black marble with stainless steel in the core of the monument, so that the etched letters stood out in a metal gleam, even reflecting the sun’s light if the time and viewer’s position was right.  The overall shape formed an obelisk, with the corners and base unpolished and rough, only the four sides smoothed and polished.  It was out of the way, placed atop Captain’s Hill, at the base of the mountains to the west of the city.  I wasn’t sure if it was put there to stay or if they intended to move it after reconstruction and city revival efforts.

Even with the memorial being out of the way, set down in place five days after the attack, it had taken a full week before the worst of the crowds were gone.  Four times, I’d felt compelled to come see it and pay my respects, only to see the press of people and turn back.

Now I was here, along with a little less than a hundred people, only a small fraction of whom were actually viewing the obelisk.  Others sat on the hill or picnicked.  As strange and vaguely inappropriate as it seemed, I couldn’t really blame them.  The memorial had been put here, specifically, because the rest of the city had been devastated.

In any given area of Brockton Bay, there was flooding, shattered streets, collapsed buildings, septic conditions or ongoing reconstruction.  Often three or four of those things at once.  More than half of the city was without power, two thirds had no running water, and even with the rest of the country and the world pitching in, uneven food distribution, health concerns, lack of facilities and rampant looting and crime made for dangerous living.  Buses were leaving every hour with evacuees, but the city was still thick with crowds of people just struggling to get by.  Too many were people who had no relatives or friends to go to, who wouldn’t leave their remaining possessions behind to be taken by unscrupulous thieves.  Captain’s Hill, for now, was a place that was safe, dry and clean.

I walked around the monument, noting the names.

Escutcheon / Tyrone Venson
Erudite / Mavis Shoff
Fenja / Jessica Biermann
Fierceling /
Frenetic /
Furrow /
Gallant / Dean Stansfield
Geomancer / Tim Mars
Good Neighbor / Roberto Peets
Hallow /
Herald / Gordon Eckhart
Humble /

Gallant was dead. Unsettling to think that I’d met him and fought him.   Or, rather, I’d fought against his team in the same skirmish, even if we hadn’t actually paid attention to one another in the fight.  Now he was gone.

I could guess that the ones without names either hadn’t given permission for their names to be released, hadn’t written any will or had reason to keep their names private, protecting teammates.  I circled the monument, walking around to the right.

Impel / Corey Steffons
Iron Falcon / Brent Woodrow
Jotun /
Kaiser / Max Anders
Manpower / Neil Pelham
Mister Eminent /
Oaf / Wesley Scheaffer
Pelter / Stefanie Lamana
Penitent /
Quark / Caroline Ranson
Resolute / Georgia Woo
Saurian / Darlene Beckman

I noted Iron Falcon on the list.  A few nights ago, trying and failing to fall asleep, managing a half-sleep where my thoughts drifted, I’d made the connection between the boy I’d helped and the ‘Iron Falcon down’ report I’d heard from the armband.  The name had maybe stuck with me because I could remember reading about how it was becoming a trend for heroes to go the easy route and stick -hawk or some other bird of prey on the end of their names.  Laserhawk, Flame Falcon, Steel Eagle, and so on.  It had become unfashionable, but apparently Iron Falcon had stuck with it.

If his name was here, it meant he hadn’t made it.  Hadn’t it been a problem with his leg?  How did that kill someone?  It was hard to figure out how I felt about it.  Disappointed?  Sad for him?

It was hard to figure out how I felt, period.  Not just about the dead.

I shivered, and rubbed my arms to warm up.  It was sunny out, but cool air rolled down from the nearby mountains, and the amount of moisture in the air made for a damp cold.

Should have brought something warmer to wear.  I stepped back and out of the way so a pair of parents with a toddler could pass by me.

Rubbing my sleeves against my arms, I traveled around to the right, to the far side of the memorial, which faced the city.

Sham /
Shielder / Eric Pelham
Smackdown / Jennie Ryan
Snowflake / Charlotte Tom
Strider / Craig McNish
Uglymug /
Velocity / Robin Swoyer
Vitiator /
WCM /
Zigzag / Bennie Debold and Geoff Schearn

It was shorter than the other lists, the last list of names, so there was space at the bottom.  Someone had used the empty space to etch words into the marble.  It was crude work, with scuff marks around each notch where the tool had been off target.  The letters were all in capital letters, all straight lines – the ‘o’s were squares, the ‘B’s two triangles joined at one corner.

KOOROW   BULLIT
MILK                   STUMPY
BROOTUS  JOODUS
AXIL         GINGIR

How long had it taken her?  She would have had to come late at night, well after the crowd had left, sat there with a chisel, hammer and flashlight, painstakingly chipped the letters into the marble.  If she even had a chisel.  She might have done it with a screwdriver or something else she had at hand.

I bent down and ran my fingers over the letters.

“Sickening.” I glanced over my shoulder to see the father holding the toddler.  He shook his head, added, “Vandalizing this?  So soon?”

“They’re names, and this took time,” I said in answer, turning back to the memorial.  “They mean something to someone.”

“I think you’re right,” a girl said.

The father didn’t respond, just continuing to walk around the memorial.  I waited until the father was gone before I stood, checked to see that most of the people who’d been visiting were off getting their lunches, the rest out of earshot.  I turned to face the girl, sticking my hands in my pockets.

Lisa’d had the sense to dress warmer than me.  Her hair was up in two tight buns, just behind her ears, and she wore sunglasses, an oversized sweater and a skirt with tights underneath.  She had a backpack slung over one shoulder.  She smiled lightly, almost sadly.

“You getting by?” She asked me.

I shrugged, “I’ve got a cot in one of the shelters for people who lost their homes, and I have some of the cash I brought with me, so I have the basics of what I need.  Not sure if Coil cancelled my bank account or what, but I might have that too.  I’m surviving.”

“I figured you would be.  What I want to know is if you’re okay.”

I shrugged.  How did I respond to that?  Confess that I wasn’t sleeping?  That I had nowhere to go?  That I was angry enough in general that I’d been asked to leave one shelter, for yelling at someone who hadn’t entirely deserved it?

Could I even bring any of that up?

Instead, I guessed, “So.  You knew?”

“Yeah,” Lisa replied, bobbing her head in a nod.  “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re apologizing?” I asked, caught by surprise, “I’m the one who planned on screwing you guys over.”

“But you didn’t.  You changed your mind.  Me?  I had an idea of what you were up to, I lied to you, misled you.  Manipulated you.  Kept it all a big secret.  And I’m sorry for that.  Really.”

“How long did you know?  When I was lying on my cot in the shelter, wondering whether you did know, thinking back to your expression and the things you’ve said in the past, I thought maybe it was when I decided to leave the group over…”  I paused, looked at the people nearby, who might or might not be in earshot.  “…you know.  But no.  You’ve known from the start.”

“Since before we met.”

That was unexpected.  “What?  How?”

She turned her head, surveying the scene, the handful of people still around the monument, “Over there?”

I nodded.

We walked over toward the railing above the sheer drop to the base of the hill.  The position gave us a view of the entire city.  There was the ocean, the coastline with crews and machinery clearing away the wreckage of buildings and the PHQ.  Blinking lights marked the barriers and trucks around the perimeter of the massive hole Leviathan had made in the upper end of Downtown.  The hole was still largely filled with water.  People were still trying to verify if it would ever empty on its own, or if it would be a permanent part of downtown.

I couldn’t make out the details of the Docks, but I saw flattened and ruined buildings.  I’d scouted it early one morning, pulling on my costume and traveling the streets at an hour that even the roving mobs were asleep.   From a distance, with the help of my bugs, I’d verified it.  The loft was gone.

My dad’s house was intact, at least, if not in the best shape.  Still, even with two nights in a row with barely three hours of sleep between them, I’d held off on returning.  Too much I couldn’t explain.

Lisa leaned on the railing, “I didn’t think we’d win.”

I joined her, leaning beside her.  Maybe she could read something in the fact that I put myself far enough away that she couldn’t reach out and touch me, couldn’t push me over if she had a mind to.  Paranoid.  Looking over the city, thinking of the devastation, the hundreds of thousands of hungry, dirty, homeless people still in the city, I thought aloud, “Did we?”

“We’re alive.  That’s a win in my book.”

I didn’t respond, and a silence stretched between us.

“Okay,” Lisa told me, “No more secrets.”

“Sounds good,” I admitted.

“And I’m trusting you to use that brain of yours to know what parts of what I’m about to say should stay between us.”

“Okay.”

“Imagine this.  You walk down a street in an unfamiliar city, you’ve got an appointment to go to, but barely any directions.  You follow?”

I nodded.

“You come to a branching path.  Do you go left, do you go right?  Whatever decision you make, you’ve got to live with it, walk down that path, and if it’s wrong, you have to figure out how to get over to the other path.  And that keeps happening, until you get where you need to be.  Maybe you got lucky, picked the right paths, got there on time.  Maybe you were unlucky, and you were late.”

I nodded, not sure where this was going.

“That’s everyone’s situation, day-to-day, making choices.  Through resourcefulness, like using a cell phone to call for directions in our hypothetical situation, or talent, like me using my power, we can make it more likely we find the right paths, but we inevitably come to a choice between A or B at some time, right?”

“Right.”

“What if you could choose both?  Choose both A and B, so your A self knows what your B self knows and vice versa.  When you know path B is the right choice, you can make it so.  The world where you chose to go down path A is gone, vanished, so when you comes to the next choice, you can do it again.”

“Sounds pretty useful.”

“Trick being that you can only have two realities running in parallel at a time, and the only differences between those realities hinge on the choices and calls you make.  So you delegate.  You find people who will follow orders.  Sometimes you send them out to do something in only one world, so that if things don’t go the way you want, you can default to the reality where you didn’t send them.  Or, in simpler terms, in one world, you flip a coin.  In the other, you hold on a second, delay, say something.”

“Until every coin you’re flipping gives you a heads.  You’re talking about Coil,” I realized.

Tattletale nodded.

“He’s been doing that from the start?”

“Some.  The bank robbery, he had our back.  But timing was sensitive, and I guess he wanted to maximize the chances that he’d get Dinah, so he didn’t have a concurrent reality where he kept us out of action.  And, according to him, we succeeded in both cases, though Bitch got hurt in a fight with Glory Girl in the other one.  Lucky for us, I suppose, that the world where she didn’t get hurt was the same one where Coil got his captive.”

I winced.  Even an offhand mention of the role I’d played in what happened to Dinah elicited a painful stab of guilt.

“We didn’t have him for the fight with Bakuda, but we did have him for the fundraiser.  He had the other version of us in reserve.”

“And the fight with Empire Eighty-Eight?”

Lisa frowned, “Apparently that was one case where he saved our hides.  Remember that call I got?  Telling me to be careful?  Same thing he did with the bank robbery.  Tells one version of me to push us to be careful, tells the other to go in for direct confrontation.  Knowing how he works, I try to nudge us in one direction or the other.  The group of us that went in for the headlong attack?  We got taken down.”

“That happened?” my eyes widened.  That would have been the fight with Night and Fog, and it hadn’t been pretty as it was.  “Did we die?”

Lisa shrugged, “Not sure.  He didn’t elaborate, often doesn’t, unless it’s key info.  But Coil decided not to go with that option, so it was clearly worse than what did happen.  Or worse in his eyes.”

“Damn,” I muttered.  What had happened?  Not knowing was almost worse than hearing we’d all been slaughtered.

“Anyways, point of this explanation is this:  Knowing we had an imminent fight with Lung coming, knowing Lung planned to pyrokinesis our general area until he rooted us out, got civilians to finger us or brought in enough capes to make life difficult for us, I called Coil.  He said he’d help, told us to wait five minutes, then take the more direct route, straight into the heart of ABB territory.

“We go, we take out a contingent of ABB gangbangers and scare off Oni Lee.  Then I get a call back from Coil.  The other reality?  We left earlier, went a different route.  Got in a fight with Lung before you showed.  You decided to attack both our groups while we were occupied fighting each other, worn out, only Lung was stronger at that time, too strong for you to do too much.  By the time you realized you’d have to work with us to stop him, which wasn’t long, it was too late.  Lung was too tough.”

I tried to picture that scenario.

“I got away, managed to call Coil, let him know what had happened.  Coil, in turn, informed me in this reality, the one you remember.  Told me to watch out for a junior hero in the area.”

I nodded.

“So I told the group to hold up, fibbed a bit about needing to use my power, get a sense of things, like Lung’s location.  I was hoping that you were a new member of the Wards, that you’d call in help and deal with Lung without our involvement, that you’d leave, or even start the fight on your own.  You attacked him on your own.”

She shrugged, smiled a little, gave me an apologetic look with a tilt of her head, “And my plan worked out.  Of course.”

“Of course,” I replied, dryly.

“It might have ended there, but then Grue mistook you for a villain, and you didn’t correct him.  It was interesting enough that I played along.  The idea of recruiting you came when he was finishing his introductions.”

“So everything I’ve been through, all of this, it’s-”

“My fault, pretty much.  That’s why I’m saying I’m sorry.  I mean it, too.”

I sighed.

“It’s okay,” I told her.  “I think… I think if it happened again, I’d still want to be part of the group, want to have met you guys.  I’d want some stuff to go down differently.  Dinah, my dad, having things come out like they did after the battle with Leviathan.”

“We can’t take back what happened,” Tattletale said.  “But we can try to fix it.  Some of it.  You could go back home.  Face the music.  Tell your dad some or all of what happened.  You could go somewhere else, or I could convince the others to leave you and your dad alone, if you wanted to do that.”

“I’m not ready to go home just yet.”

“No?  I mean, I knew you hadn’t gone home yet, but I thought maybe that was our fault, you protecting your dad, staying away from places we’d know you frequent.”

“I’m still hurt, still mad at him.  Mad at myself, too.  I guess, more than anyone, I expected my dad to understand, to give me the benefit of a doubt.  And going home would be going back to the way things were, which is the last thing I want.”

“So you don’t want to go home, you obviously don’t want to go to the Birdcage, and you turned down an offer to join the Wards.”

I hesitated, “Yeah.”

“So, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Become a hero?  Strike out on your own?”

I shook my head, stressed the words, “I don’t know.”

“No hard feelings if you want to go that way.  Again, I can talk to the others, ensure they don’t go straight for revenge or any of that.  We don’t hate you, now, hurt as some of the others might be.  Except maybe Bitch.  She probably hates you.”

Really, I don’t know,” I told her, exasperated, “I don’t like or even respect any of the heroes I’ve met, I don’t even see the point of it.  As villains, we faced down other villains.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d be doing as a hero… but what did we really accomplish?  What does anyone accomplish, if all we end up with is this?” I gestured out at the cityscape stretching out below us.

“Maybe you don’t know what you want to do because what you really want to do is come back.”

I didn’t reply for a minute.  The quiet was disturbed by the noise of not-too-distant helicopters moving over the city, some capes flying alongside them as guards.  It would be another drop of much-needed supplies.

I sighed, “They wouldn’t have me, and those guys won’t budge on the thing with Coil and Dinah.  Not really.”

“Probably not.  I mean, even if they took you back, you’d have to eat crow, accept a few concessions, like Coil’s ‘pet’.  There’d be no more playing around.  You’d have to go all-in, from here on out, if you expected to convince them you were legit.”

I shook my head.

“You want to be forgiven for what you did?  It’s not going to be easy.  There’s going to be a sacrifice on some level.  And that starts with giving up that stubbornness, being willing to talk to them.  To talk to me.  You might even change your mind, find yourself able to look past thing with the girl, for the sake of having friends, doing the things you want or need to do in other areas.”

I stood away from the railing, stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them warm.  “Never.”

“Never’s pretty final.  If you’re so certain, what do you have to lose by hearing everyone out?  Hearing me out?  I’ve got coffee and lunch in my bag, we can sit down, talk it all out.  If you’re willing, we can then go meet the others.  I’ll talk to them with you, back you up, keep Bitch from murdering you.”

I shook my head, turned and rested my back against the railing, looking at the memorial, rather than the city.

So many dead.  So pointless.  What was wrong with this world, that it was this fucked up?  That people like Sophia and Armsmaster were heroes?  That there couldn’t even be a proper funeral for the people who had given their lives, because of a small handful of grandstanding idiots?

The wind blew hard from the north, cold, blowing my hair into disarray.  I pushed my hair out of my face, tucked it behind my ear.  When I gave Lisa a sidelong glance, she was putting her hood up.

She spoke without looking at me, “I’d go on, ask about whether you prioritize friends or morals, talk about how you’ve grown as a person in so many ways since joining us, except my power informs me that you just settled on a decision.”

She was right.  As I stared at the monument, a goal was crystallizing in my mind, a focus.  I knew, now, what I wanted to do.

I had to change things.  I had to be better than them.  Than Armsmaster, Sophia, Coil, and all the others.

“Yeah,” I replied.  She turned to glance my way.

“And does this plan feature the Undersiders?”

I gave her my answer.

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Extermination 8.7

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Sophia Hess was Shadow Stalker. 

I tried to pull all the individual pieces and clues together, fill in the blanks.  Did this mean Emma was a cape, too?  No – I’d seen Emma in the presence of other capes.  At those times, I knew, she’d have reason to be in costume if she had powers.

But those times I was thinking of, when my cape and civilian lives had crossed?  Emma had been at the mall, where Shadow Stalker had been on duty.  She’d been at the fundraiser, too.  As Shadow Stalker’s plus one?  Emma’s dad had been there as well.  Was that a clue?

A sick feeling in my gut told me that Emma knew about Sophia and Shadow Stalker.

I could even guess that Emma had found out sometime before high school started, while I was at nature camp.  It would have been an exciting revelation, a juicy secret, being a part of the cape community.  Seduced by that drama, Emma would have turned her back on me, became Sophia’s best friend.  The civilian sidekick and confidante to the young heroine; it was cliche, but cliches had their basis in something.

I was probably wrong on some level, but it gave answer to questions I’d assumed I’d never get an answer to.

A  hand seized me by the back of the neck, hauled me to my feet.

Numb, I wobbled, relying heavily on the painfully hard grip to stay balanced.  He turned me around, and I saw Armsmaster, his lips curled in a silent snarl of anger.   A glance at his shoulder showed no sign of the ragged mess from when I’d last seen him, but there was no arm either.  I thought I saw a glimpse of a flat expanse of skin.  Panacea’s work?

What are you doing here?!” he roared the words to my face.

When I couldn’t formulate an answer for him, he marched me out of the curtained enclosure, kicking the curtain so it slid shut, moved me towards the nurse’s station where Miss Militia and Legend were talking.

I apparently didn’t move fast enough for him, because he swung his arm forward, forcing me to stumble forward to keep my feet under me.

It was looking increasingly likely that I would get arrested, but my thoughts turned to the trio, and their crime and punishment.  Had Sophia, Emma and Madison had gotten off easy because Sophia was a superhero?  I had my suspicions that the schools worked alongside the Wards, things wouldn’t work if they didn’t, and the schools were a government institution just like the Wards were.  Did Sophia get easier treatment?  Two weeks suspension when she deserved expulsion?

Had my teachers been looking me in the eye while calculating ways to make things easier on their resident superhero?

Maybe.  More likely that it was some combination of ineptitude, laziness and ignorance, on top of being influenced by the school’s link to the Wards program.

Armsmaster slammed my upper body down against the counter of the nurse’s station, hard.  I grunted, as much in reaction to being brought back to reality as in reaction to the blow.

“Armsmaster!” Legend’s tone was a rebuke to Armsmaster for the show of force.

More able to take it in stride than the leader of the Protectorate, Miss Militia asked, “What happened?”

“Escaped her cautionary restraints, caught her peeping on one of the blue tags.”

“Damn it,” Legend muttered.

“Who?” Miss Militia asked, “And how bad?”

“Shadow Stalker.  Saw her unmasked.”

“I see,” Miss Militia spoke, “Nurse?  Would you see that everyone without clearance is put to work elsewhere, while we resolve this?”

“Yes ma’am,” the reply came from a man I couldn’t see.

I struggled to turn over, failed.  When I found I couldn’t budge Armsmaster’s grip, I gave up, slumped onto the counter.

“Who is she?” Legend asked.

“Skitter, member of the Undersiders, a group of teenage villains,” Miss Militia replied.  “Master-5, bugs only.”

“This situation is serious,” Legend spoke, walking around the counter until I could see him.  I saw nurses and others behind him staring, some of them being ushered away by an older nurse in scrubs.  “Do you understand?”

He nodded at Armsmaster, and Armsmaster eased his grip some, as if it would make it easier to talk.

I was opening my mouth to speak when the thought struck me – If Sophia was Shadow Stalker, did she know who I was?  She’d heard me talk in costume, hadn’t she?  I knew from the time the trio had overheard me in the bathroom and doused me in juice, that at least one of the girls could recognize my voice.

I shook my head a little, as if it could get my thoughts back on track.  “Nobody explained anything.  You guys were going to arrest me, so I thought I’d leave.”

“Hospital personnel aren’t permitted to talk to patients, liability reasons,” Miss Militia told me, echoing what I’d heard earlier.

“Figured as much when the nurse didn’t answer my questions,” I muttered.  No use dragging that nurse-in-training down with me.  She’d been nice.  “But Panacea did have words with me when she was putting me back together, and-”

“Panacea is a member of New Wave,” Armsmaster spoke, and I got the impression the explanation or excuse was meant more for Legend than it was for me, “She’s not official.”

“She’s the only person who would talk to me!” I raised my voice.

“I would ask you to keep your voice down,” Legend spoke, his voice hard, “There’s very few ways a situation like this can go, with a cape’s civilian identity at stake.  If you start shouting, specifically shouting what you know, it would severely curtail what options you have left to you.  Understand?”

When I didn’t come up with a response right away, he added, “If the tables were turned, if it was you who had your identity uncovered, you would want us taking the same firm hand, giving you that same respect.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle silently for a second there.  The armor of my mask clacked against the countertop as I let my head rest there.  Respect?  For Sophia?

Besides, I had suspicions that if the tables were turned, Shadow Stalker wouldn’t be pinned against the counter of the nurse’s station.

Taking a deep breath – no use digging myself in deeper – I asked, “You were talking options.  What are they?”

“If you were judged to have used an Endbringer situation to your advantage, you would meet the most serious penalty we can offer.  Those who violate the Endbringer truce are almost always sent to the Birdcage,” he let that last word hang in the air.

I had to keep myself from laughing again.  This shit was too ridiculous.  This was Sophia.  She was five times the villain I was.  The only difference between us were the labels that we stuck on ourselves.  I told him, “It was an accident.”

“Okay,” Legend told me.

Armsmaster told him, “Skitter here has been building a fairly strong reputation as an adept liar, so be cautious.”

“Oh?”

“She’s fooled my instincts and my hardware on more than one occasion.”

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to keep that in mind.”  When Legend returned his attention to me, his lips were creased in a frown.

What could I say to defend myself now?  Anything I said would be colored by Armsmaster’s undeserved comment on my personality.

“Another option would be for you to join the Wards.  We were willing to offer you this when we got around to talking to you, before seeing you on your way.  You would be placed under varying degrees of probation based on your past crimes, but you would earn a paycheck, you’d have a career-”

“No.” The word left my mouth before I even thought about it.

And when I did think about it?  No.  Not with Sophia there.  No way, no how.  If I stepped on her turf, I suspected one of us would kill the other.  Besides, there wasn’t one thing about joining the Wards that was even remotely redeeming.

“No?” he sounded surprised.

“Just… no.  I’d sooner go to the Birdcage.”  I was surprised that I actually meant it.  My contempt for the heroes was growing.  Armsmaster had refused to cooperate with me on any level.  Glory Girl and Panacea hadn’t done anything to earn my respect when I ran into them.  Topping it off, they had a personality like Sophia’s on their team?  I couldn’t even imagine joining them, now.

“I don’t think you understand what you’re saying,” Legend spoke as if choosing his words carefully.

I took a deep breath.  “Is there a third option?”

“You do not get to negotiate!” Armsmaster roared.  Heads turned.

Feeling a flare of anger, I retorted, “So he gets to yell, but I don’t?”

We have the authority here!” Armsmaster shouted.

“The only authority you have is the authority people give you.”  It wasn’t me who responded.  The voice was male, familiar.

“Grue!” I called out.

“You’re alive,” Grue responded.  “We thought-”

“Is she okay?  Tattletale!?”

“I’m at about ninety percent,” Tattletale’s voice informed me.  “You’re the one that gave us a scare.”

I sagged in relief.

“I would ask you to step back and let us handle this,” Miss Militia told him.  “If any of you do decide to stay, and Skitter divulges the confidential information she’s happened upon, you could be just as culpable, face the same restrictions and penalties.”

Grue replied, “So you want us to leave a teammate in your custody, here?  No.  That’s ridiculous.  I can’t speak for the others, but I’m staying.”

Teammate.  He’d said I was his teammate.

There was a pause.

“All four of you, then,” Miss Militia replied, sighing, “I expected as much.  I simply thought you should be informed.”

“Skitter,” she went on, “Just to be clear, you would be well advised to keep your mouth shut, until we’ve come to a consensus here.  Or you could get your team in trouble.”

“Noted,” I replied.

Armsmaster let me stand, but he settled his one hand on my shoulder, held on with an steel grip that left me no illusions about my ability to walk over and join my friends.  Ex-friends?  I wasn’t sure where we stood.  I hadn’t expected them to come to my defense.

Grue looked much as he ever did, a human shape wreathed in smoky darkness.  His skull mask showed through, when he was still like this, but his face was impossible to make out, let alone his facial expressions.  Even his body language was masked beneath the layer of darkness, when it was billowing around him like it was, making him seem larger.  I thought maybe he had his arms folded, but I couldn’t be sure, and he had his feet planted shoulder width apart.

Regent looked a little worse for wear.  He was wet, dirty, spattered in blood, and he had a long cut running from the side of his neck to his shoulder, down to his elbow, all neatly stitched up.  I hadn’t heard any alerts about him being taken out of action, so I assumed it wasn’t that serious.  That, or it was serious, and my broken armband hadn’t caught the message.

Bitch, by contrast, looked to be in better shape than anyone present, physically.  She stared at the ground, hands jammed in the pockets of mud-caked, soaking wet jeans.  Her hair was wet, pulled straight back and away from her face.  A hard plastic dog mask was raised so it sat on top of her head, cord dangling.  She was intact.  Physically.

Mentally?  Emotionally?  Her dogs were the closest thing she had to family, and she had watched seven or eight of them die.  She was rigid with tension and repressed anger, but she didn’t have anyone to direct it at, so it broiled inside her, just waiting for the slightest of excuses to be released and vented.  I wondered if Grue had told her to keep her hands in her pockets to keep her from lashing out and hitting someone.

Tattletale was on crutches with one leg bent to keep it away from the ground, had a bad bruise on her face, but was otherwise in one piece.  Her eyes darted to watch the three heroes and myself.

“Skitter escaped her restraints and uncovered another cape’s secret identity, and we can’t say for sure whether it was intentional or not,” Miss Militia explained to the rest of the group.  “In the interest of protecting that cape, who I assume isn’t well enough to join the discussion…?”

She looked at Armsmaster, who shook his head.

“…We’re left with three options,” she finished her thought.  “Jail time, especially if it’s discovered that this was intentional.  Joining the Wards under a probationary program-”

Regent snorted.

“Or, as a final option, some sort of collateral.”

“That option is generally reserved for capes we can trust,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice low.

My pulse picked up as I heard Armsmaster’s words.  This was a dangerous situation, all of a sudden.

“Collateral?  Explain?” Grue asked Miss Militia, apparently not gathering the deeper meaning of Armsmaster’s statement.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve run into a situation like this, though this is a first for an Endbringer event that wasn’t a blatantly intentional attempt to gather information on a rival.  In the previous case, the villain couldn’t be detained conventionally, and the Birdcage wasn’t yet running.  To top it off, he… wasn’t Protectorate material.  For reasons I won’t explain.  Yet every individual involved was concerned that if we didn’t resolve the case, it would be a costly loss of resources on both sides with an ongoing pursuit by the heroes, and there would be potential escalation leading to serious harm or death on one side or the other.”

Grue nodded, “So?”

“So he agreed to reveal his real face to the other cape, so that any abuse of the knowledge on his part could or would be just as damaging to him.”

Reveal myself to Sophia?  No.  On so many levels, no.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, “That doesn’t work either.”

Armsmaster tightened his grip on the armor of my shoulder until I could feel the pinch.  Miss Militia leveled a very cold look at me.  I saw Tattletale staring at me.  I met her eyes.  She was easiest to look at.

“You’re making a difficult situation even more difficult for you, by being stubborn,” Legend spoke.

“Knowing Skitter, I’m sure she has her reasons,” Grue replied.

“She always does,” Armsmaster replied.

Grue turned his head sharply to look at the hero.

No.  He wouldn’t.

“Well, you’ve made a good case,” Tattletale spoke, “Let me make mine?”

“One second,” Legend spoke.  He turned to Armsmaster, “I need more details on this group.”

“The one that is speaking is Tattletale, member of the Undersiders,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice a hair away from being a growl, “A master manipulator, penchant for head games, likes to pretend she’s psychic but she isn’t.  We don’t know her power, possibly clairvoyance, psychometry, or some combination thereof, but we’ve got her pegged as a Thinker 7.”

“Seven?  I’m flattered,” Tattletale replied, grinning.

“It’s reason enough to end this conversation here and now,” Armsmaster spoke, “Before you find some angle.”

“Fine,” Legend nodded, “That’s all I need.  Miss Militia?  Escort them away?”

Green-black energy leapt to Miss Militia’s hand, materialized into the shape of a gun.  She didn’t raise it, and she kept her finger off the trigger, but the threat was implicit.

“You start a fight here,” Grue spoke, “You better pray to some higher power that you can fucking spin this well enough with all those others looking, because it’s an end to the truce if you don’t, too many eyes on this.”

Grue turned his head, and I leaned forward a little to see what he was looking at.  There were capes at the far end of the hallway, staring at the scene, kept out of the main triage area by a set of PRT officers.  Trickster leaned against a wall with a cell phone raised, recording video.

“It’s not a concern,” Legend spoke.  “Miss Militia?”

“Come on, let’s walk,” she told the others.

“No,” Grue replied, his chin raising an inch, challenging, defiant.

Tattletale raised one hand, “If  could just say my piece, I-”

“Quiet,” Armsmaster interrupted her.

“Nobody ever lets me talk!” she spoke, turning on her heel to walk away, flouncing, almost.  It was a bit theatrical, overacting.  I wondered if someone that didn’t know her would catch it.  “Whatever.  Grue, let’s go.”

Grue looked at her.

“It’s cool,” she gave him a little smile, then she offered me one, “Hey Skitter, don’t sweat it.  We’ll handle this, kay?”

“Kay,” I muttered.  In a way, I was relieved at the idea of them leaving.  I had no idea what I’d do, but it was a relief anyways.

Miss Militia raised her gun a fraction, waved it toward the others to prod them onward.  One by one, they turned.  Tattletale led the herd in walking away, followed my Regent and Bitch.  Grue was the last to turn away, with Miss Militia following him.

When they were out of earshot, Legend floated over the counter to land in front of me.

“We’ve given you three options.  Pick one or I’ll choose for you.”

I opened my mouth, closed it.  The only things I could think of to say would only get me in more trouble.

This working?  This on?  Good.  The tinny female voice rang out from the armbands of the two heroes.

Armsmaster snapped his head around.  I followed his line of sight to where Grue, Regent and Bitch were standing in between Tattletale and Miss Militia.

For those of you who don’t have a front row seat, the very well armed Miss Militia is currently doing her best to point a Beretta 92fs at my head.  If this broadcast ends prematurely, you can all rest assured that the Protectorate is willing to kill and break the truce if it means censoring its dark, dirty little secrets.

Legend grabbed me, hauling me into the air as he crossed the length of the room, Armsmaster hurrying behind as we raced towards the scene.

“Free speech is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” I saw Tattletale’s lips moving as she broadcast the message.  She wasn’t holding any buttons down on her armband, but it was going through with no difficulty.  Miss Militia held a handgun pointed at Grue’s heart.

Other capes were in the vicinity, some of the Travelers, New Wave, out of towners.  Not quite in earshot, maybe, but close enough to see everything unfold.

The heroine looked at Armsmaster as we arrived, “She said something about deep access, offered your name, then the armband asked her for your password.  She knew your password.”

“Armband, pause announcement,” Tattletale spoke.

Acknowledged.  Her armband replied.

With his one arm, Armsmaster reached for his shoulder, but his Halberd wasn’t there.  Photon Mom had apparently decided not to bring it when she’d carried him here.  No EMP burst possible.

“Let’s negotiate,” Tattletale spoke, taking a step to one side, ducking a little to ensure that someone else was always in between herself and Miss Militia.  Bitch scowled as the gun moved to point toward her head, with Tattletale roughly on the other side.

“Negotiate?” Legend asked.

“Sure.  Let’s turn things around.  You gave Skitter your three options.  Here’s my three.  Number one: Shoot us now, and confirm to everyone in this room, civilian and cape alike, hero and villain, that you’ve got something to hide.  It doesn’t even have to be lethal, people will still have their concerns if you knock us out rather than let us talk.”

Legend nodded, “Okay.”

“Two: I do my little announcement, and the truce ends.  I really don’t want to do that.  I recognize how necessary it is.  But if you decide that one cape’s identity maybe getting publically revealed is worth the truce, well, that’s on you, not me.”

“And the third option is that we release the girl,” Legend guessed.

“You got it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Except that you could be bluffing,” Legend frowned.  “You’re a master manipulator, according to Armsmaster.”

“True enough.  You know, Alexandria was giving me a recap on what I missed, in exchange for my intel on the Endbringer.  Let’s see… Armband, find me the largest break in casualties from the earlier Leviathan encounter.”

Found.

“Mark this time period.”

Marked.

“The notifications in the minute before the mark?”

Sundancer down, ED-6.  Eschutcheon deceased, CD-6.  Herald deceased, CD-6.

“What is the point of this?” Legend asked.

“Please replay us the notifications following the mark, until I tell you to stop.”

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6.  Fenja down, CC-6.  Fenja deceased, CC-6.  Kid Win down, CC-6.  Skitter deceased, CC-6. Kaiser deceased, CC-6.

“Stop.”

“What is the point of this?”  Legend folded his arms.

“Skitter’s right here, she’s not dead.”

“My armband broke,” I replied.

“Did it?  Or did someone break it?”  Tattletale’s gaze went to Armsmaster, her voice dropping in volume to ensure that our ‘audience’ didn’t hear.

“What are you implying?”  Armsmaster growled.

“I’m implying that you set things up to guarantee yourself a one-on-one fight with Leviathan.  Who cares, after all, if some villains get murdered in the process, if it means stopping an Endbringer?”

Armsmaster raised his voice, “This is exactly the sort of manipulation-”

“Elaborate,” the one spoken word from Legend was sufficient to cut Armsmaster off.

“Armsmaster has a fancy computer system in his suit, set it up to predict Leviathan’s movements and actions.  Clockblocker tagged the Endbringer, put him on pause long enough for Armsmaster to set up the playing field the way he wanted it, with that predictive program.  Leviathan’s going after the people who can make forcefields, and Armsmaster uses this, dangles Kaiser like bait, puts more villains – Fenja and Menja- in the way to Kaiser.  Sure enough, Leviathan marks Kaiser as a target, charges through the conveniently arranged villains, and goes straight to the spot where Skitter is.”

“Oh no,” I heard Miss Militia mutter under her breath.

“This is nonsense,” Armsmaster spoke, stabbing his index finger towards her, “Heroes died too.”

Tattletale didn’t hesitate a second in replying, “To your credit, if any credit is due, that was an accident.  Your program can’t account for that many variables, probably, in the chaos of a bunch of capes trying to keep Leviathan pinned down.  Either way, Leviathan did as you wanted, followed the path you plotted.  You used a directed EMP blast to nuke Skitter’s armband, ensuring that she couldn’t report Leviathan’s position and call in reinforcements, buying you time to take on Leviathan one on one.  Who cares if she dies, after all?  She’s a villain, and you’re positive you’ll win, that it’ll be worth the body count you just allowed Leviathan to rack up.  Except you lost.”

Armsmaster scowled at her.

“This is a serious set of accusations,” Legend spoke.

“Sure.”

“But it’s speculation.”

Tattletale shrugged, “Take Skitter’s armband.  It’ll have damage from the EMP hit.”

“You bitch,” Armsmaster snarled, “This is a lie.”

“Check the armband,” Tattletale repeated, “And you’ll see the truth.”

“Convenient that this would take days or weeks to check,” Armsmaster spoke.

“True, so how about I just do another announcement?  Tell everyone that’s still wearing an armband an abbreviated version of the same story I just told you?  How do you think they’d react?  If you’re really innocent, I’m sure your name would be cleared eventually, after the test results came back from the armband.  If it’s wrong, we get get in everyone‘s bad books for fucking around with an Endbringer situation.  Hell, I’ll even submit to being detained while you get things checked out.  You can take me from there to jail if I’m wrong.  Either way, you get some jerk in custody.”

Legend frowned.

Armsmaster lunged forward, swatting Grue aside with his armored hand.  He shoved Regent aside, reached for Tattletale.

A laser to the right shoulder spun him around, sent him sprawling to the ground.  His armor smoked where the laser had made contact.

“Who!?  Why!?”  Armsmaster flopped over, saw Legend with one open hand aimed at him.  “Legend?”

Miss Militia pointed her handgun at his lower face.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t want this getting out,” Tattletale spoke, looking at the heroine, “Let us walk away, I keep my lips sealed.”

“I know you were tired, that you hadn’t slept all last night,” Miss Militia told Armsmaster, ignoring Tattletale, “Frustrated, your dream taken from you.  But to go this far?”

“It was for the greater good,” Armsmaster replied, without a trace of shame or humility, “If it had worked, Leviathan would be dead, the man holding Empire Eighty-Eight together dead.  All of us survivors would have been legends, and this city could have risen from the ashes, become something truly great.”

“It didn’t work,” Tattletale spoke, “Couldn’t.”

“Shut up.  You’ve said enough,” Armsmaster spat the words, looked away from her, breathing hard.

“The way the Endbringer’s physiology works?  You could detonate a small atom bomb in his face, he’d probably survive.  Take him two or three years to recover, but he’d survive.”

“Shut up!” Armsmaster raised his head to shout at her.  He stopped, eyes flickering to me.  When he spoke again, his voice was almost calm.  “You don’t know everything.”

No.

“Her,” he pointed a hand at me, “She’s not who you think she is.”

I spoke quickly, “Grue, shut him up.”

Grue raised his hand.  But he didn’t blanket Armsmaster in his darkness.

“She’s a wannabe hero.  Has been from the start, since the night Lung was first brought into custody.”

Grue’s hand dropped to his side.

“I met her that night.  She said she was a hero, that you Undersiders mistook her for a villain.  I didn’t think twice about it until she arranged a meeting with me, the night before the bank robbery.  Told me she had joined your group as an undercover agent, getting the dirt on you so she could hand that group over to us.  Talked to me again the night you raided the fundraiser, out there on the balcony.  Told me if I let her go, she’d get the details on your boss to me.  Guess she hasn’t gotten around to figuring that little detail out, yet.”

I tried to speak, to say something, even ‘I changed my mind’.  My throat was too dry to form the words.

Armsmaster turned, shouted at the capes who stood watching, “You want to look down on me!?  I tried to save this city, I got closer to killing the fucking Endbringer than Scion!  That girl is the person you should be mocking, spitting on!  A wannabe hero without the balls to do anything heroic!  Planning from the start to betray teammates for fame!”

I stepped back, swallowed hard.

“Is this true?”

I turned to look at Grue, but he wasn’t asking me.  The question was for Tattletale.

“Yeah,” Tattletale confirmed, sighing.

Bitch stared at me wide eyed, teeth bared, as if all basic human expression had left her as she regarded me.  Regent looked me up and down, turned away, as if in disgust, one fist clenched hard enough to make the area around the long stitched up cut on his arm stand out in white.

I couldn’t see Grue’s face, could barely make out his body language, but I knew that it would have stung ten times worse than anything else if I could see his expression in that moment.

Tattletale was the only one who didn’t look surprised.

I backed away a step, and nobody moved to stop me.  The heroes were preoccupied with Armsmaster, the Undersiders couldn’t or wouldn’t go around the gathered heroes to follow me.

Some of the capes that were in the vicinity were staring at me.  Murmuring.  Panacea was among them, looking at me as though I were from another planet.

I turned and ran out of the hospital, out the door and into the street, kept running.

Except I had no place to run to.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

All of the adrenaline, emotions and endorphins that had been building since I first heard the sirens, maybe even before them – when I learned about Dinah Alcott – made for one hell of a rush.  More relevant to the present, it made for one hell of a mental wipeout as I came down from the rush.  A low point to equal the ‘high’.

The background noise of screams, shouted orders of doctors and nurses, a hundred heart monitors beeping out of sync and my ‘cell’ of three curtained ‘walls’ cutting me off from everything else?   Didn’t help.

My arm hurt, and hanging from the manacle made that ten times as bad.  My back was the worst thing, a slow, steady, pain that terminated in my midsection. It seemed to build in intensity every second I paid attention to it, settling into a dull blistering of pain when I focused my attention elsewhere.  If I didn’t focus on keeping my breathing steady and deep, I found that I unconsciously held my breath to minimize the pain.  That only made it worse when I did have to breathe again, because it brought tightness in my throat and chest, along with agonizing coughing fits.

None of that was even touching on that growing terror over the fact that, hey, I couldn’t feel my legs, and it wasn’t getting better.

If my back was really broken, it could mean my best case scenario was surgery and years of physical therapy, years of crutches and wheelchairs.  My worst case scenario would be never walking again.  I didn’t have a power that would help too much on that front.  It would mean the end of my career as a cape, never having sex with a boy the natural way, and never going for another morning run.

I made myself take a deep breath.  It shuddered as I exhaled slowly, and not just because it hurt to breathe.

I couldn’t do anything about my back, in the here and now.  My arm?  Maybe.  The metal pole was fixed to the wall at every foot or so by horizontal bars, and the end of the manacle was stopped from descending any further by one of the bits that extended to the wall, three feet or so above my head.

I couldn’t really believe they were going to arrest me.  Like Tattletale had said, there were rules.  Largely unspoken rules, but still more important than anything else in the cape community.  You didn’t profit from an Endbringer attack, you didn’t attack your nemeses or take advantage of undefended areas to steal.  You didn’t arrest a villain that came to help.

Because when people started doing that, the truce broke and things became ten times easier for the Endbringer.

The manacle on my wrist made me wonder.  I’d made some enemies with the good guys.  Maybe I was getting some rough treatment because of it.

One ominous idea nagged at me, and I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It was that I might not get any treatment at all – for my back, specifically – because of grudges against me and capes who could ‘suggest’ that maybe the doctors’ resources could be better directed elsewhere.

If they went that route, one hundred percent deniable, excusable, then there’d be nothing I could do about it.

If that was what was going on, being manacled like this would be something of a slap in the face, a way of letting me know it was intentional, while keeping me from contacting anyone to complain.

My arm shifted involuntarily as I cringed at a painful intake of breath, swinging a little, and I clenched my teeth.

I turned my head, gripped the fabric of my pillow with my teeth, tugged and pulled my head forward at the same time.  It moved to my left.  I did it again, bumped my shoulder, making my arm swing on the chain once more.  I suppressed the noise I might’ve made at the pain, choked back the gorge that rose in my throat.

Whatever was going on with my back, it prevented me from sitting up, denied me the use of my abdominal muscles.  I could only work with my shoulders, my head, my teeth.

Shifting the pillow over several long minutes, I managed to gingerly ease it under my shoulder and upper arm.  Provided I didn’t move -which I couldn’t, really- it gave my arm something to rest on, prevented all of the weight from dangling off of my cuffed wrist.

Of course, I was now absent one pillow for my head and neck, and the propped up shoulder and arm made my back twist slightly, which only intensified the pain there.  I closed my eyes, focused on just breathing, tried not to pay too much attention to how slowly time was passing by, or the cacaphony of noise from the rest of the triage area.

I hated this.  Hated not knowing, not having any information about what had just happened, what was happening, what was going to happen.

Roughly half of my nightmares about being bullied took place in the classroom, knowing that a class was just about to end, or that a teacher was about to assign us group work.  That some group of faceless bullies were waiting to pull the worst ‘prank’ yet.  It was the idea that I was about to be put in a situation where something bad was about to happen, that it was inevitable.  Being helpless to do anything about it.

Maybe it was stupid, but I’d never failed to wake up drenched in sweat after that, even when I woke up before the follow-through.  The dreams had come less often after I got my powers, but they still came from time to time.  I had suspicions they might come even years after I left high school behind me for good.

But that state of mind in the nightmares?  I felt like that now.  Trying to keep from panicking, knowing that no matter what I did, I was counting on luck and forces beyond my control to not ruin my day, my week, my month.  Ruin my life.

I’d done the heroic thing.  Drawn Leviathan away from those in the shelter who were still alive.  A part of me was proud of myself.  The rest of me?  Faced with the idea of spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair?  I felt like an idiot of epic proportions.  I’d bought into the idea of the grand, noble gesture, and in the here and now it felt like I had to convince myself that what I had done mattered.  It sure as shit didn’t seem to matter to anyone else.

The chain of my manacle clinked taut as I yanked my right hand forward angrily.  The pain that caused me in my midsection stopped me from doing it again.

A girl in a nurse’s uniform pushed the curtain aside to enter.  I identified her as a girl rather than a woman because she barely looked older than me.  Bigger in the chest, for sure, but baby faced, petite.  Her brown hair was in a braid, and the lashes of her downcast eyes were long as she stepped to the foot of my bed, picked up a clipboard.  She was very carefully not looking my way.

“Hi,” I spoke.

She ignored me, turned her attention to the heart monitor, made a note on the clipboard.

“Please talk to me,” I spoke.  “I have no idea what’s going on, and I feel like I’m losing my mind, here.”

She glanced at me, looked away hurriedly the same reflexive way you’d pull away from a hot stove with your hand.

“Please?  I’m-  I’m pretty scared right now.”

Nothing.  She took more notes on the clipboard, noting stuff from the screen the electrode ran to.

“I know you think I’m bad, a villain, but I’m a person, too.”

She glanced at me again, looked away, returned her eyes to the clipboard and frowned.  She stopped writing as she glanced up to the monitor, as if she had to find her place or double check her numbers.

“I have a dad.  Love him to death, even if we haven’t talked lately.  I love reading, my- my mom taught me to love books from the time I was little.  My best friend, it wasn’t so long ago that she helped pull me out of a dark place.  I haven’t heard how she’s doing.  If she’s dead or if she’s here too.  Have you seen her?  Her name’s Tattletale.”

“We aren’t supposed to talk to the patients.”

“Why not?”

“While back, some cape sued the rescue workers after a battle much like this.  Hadhayosh, I think.”

“That’s one of the other names for Behemoth.  Like Ziz is for the Simurgh?”

“Yes, some heroes got hurt badly enough they wouldn’t recover, they knew they had no more income from their costume career, so suing, it was a way-” she stopped, closed her mouth deliberately, as if reminding herself to stay silent.

“You can’t tell me if my back’s broken or not?”

She shook her head, “No.”

“I won’t tell.  I won’t sue.”

“Saying that isn’t legally binding,” she frowned, again, “and It- it’s not that.  I’m just a nursing student.  I haven’t even graduated.  They recruited us to help meet demand, to do the paperwork and check that patients weren’t coding, so the people with experience could focus on handling the patient load.  I don’t have the training to diagnose you on any level, let alone your back.”

My heart sank.  “Have you seen Tattletale?  Have you heard if she’s dead or injured?  She wears a lavender and black costume, and there’s this eye in dark gray on the black part across her chest-”

“I’m sorry,” she hurried to the foot of the bed, hung up the clipboard.

I’m sorry?  Was that an answer – condolences – or was it a refusal to speak on the subject?

I might have made a noise, because she turned back, stopped.  I couldn’t be sure, though, over the sounds from the other nurses, doctors and patients.

“We’ve got a code!” someone screamed, just beyond the curtain.  “Need paddles!”

“Paddles are in use!”

“Then get me someone with electricity powers!  And you, resuscitate!”

I closed my eyes, tried to stop myself from imagining that they were talking about Tattletale, or my dad, or even Brian, though I was pretty sure Brian had made it out okay.  Even as I managed to dismiss those images from my mind, a voice in the back of my head noted that whoever was on the table was important to somebody.  So many beloved family members, friends, coworkers, gone from people’s lives.

“Do you want to call your dad?  Or try calling your friend?” the nurse-in-training offered me.

If she was offering for me to call Tattletale, that at least meant she hadn’t seen Tattletale’s body.  That was some relief.

I wasn’t sure if I should take the offer.  If I called my dad, would they track the call?  Find out who I was?  Would they track down Tattletale, if she wasn’t dead or dying?  Who else could I call?  Coil?  Way too many issues if they traced the call, and I wasn’t sure if Lisa had passed on word of our recent argument and/or breakup.  Grue, Regent, Bitch?  I wasn’t on their team anymore.

A darker thought struck me.

“Is that – would that be my one phone call?  These cuffs – am I being arrested?”

She shook her head, “I was just offering.  I don’t know if they’re arresting you.  Only thing they said was that I was supposed to fill in the charts for the patients on this end of the room that have the red tags.”

She pointed to a set of plastic tags that were clipped to the curtain rod, so that one large tag hung down on either side of it.  Was it to designate the seriousness of my injuries?  No, they hadn’t even examined me.

I drew a connection to my line of thinking from earlier – was it because I was a villain?  Did I get a mere check-in from the nurse-in-training while the heroes got actual nurses and doctors?  I hadn’t seen anyone put the tags up, but then again, I hadn’t been looking at the curtain rod right after I was stuck here.

“Okay,” I spoke, quiet, my thoughts going a mile a minute.

“The phone call, I can let you use my cell phone if you promise not to…” she trailed off, as if realizing the possibilities of what could happen if a villain had her phone number, contact info for her friends and family.  Yet she could hardly back out, not without potentially upsetting a bad guy.

I shook my head.  “No.  But it’s really good of you to offer.  Thank you,” I tried to put as much emphasis on the thanks as possible.  “With that kind of empathy, I’m sure you’ll become a great nurse.”

She gave me a funny look, then backed out through the curtain.  I could have called after her, asked for something for the pain, asked if maybe I could get some help, but I suspected she didn’t have the power to give me any of that.  I had no idea how long I’d be here, and I suspected it’d be worth more to have a potential friendly face around than go for the long shot and risk seeming manipulative or alienating her.  That, and I didn’t want to get her in trouble.

Minutes ticked on.  No more than three seconds passed without someone screaming or shouting orders or updates regarding a patient in crisis.  It would have been interesting to listen to, if I could make out more than half of it, and if the half I could hear wasn’t so horrible.

The anxiety over my circumstances and not knowing what was going to happen was gradually overriden by a maddening boredom.   I couldn’t move, had nobody to talk to, didn’t know enough about my present situation to think up contingency plans.

I closed my eyes and used my power, because it let me be outside my own body in a way, because it was something to do.

A handful of cockroaches from near the kitchen made their way through the walls, through an air intake grate in the wall, and up to my bed.  They gathered on my stomach.

I gathered them into a pyramid on my stomach, let them collapse.  Made a kaleidoscopic starburst pattern, then moved them all in sync to expand out into a perfect circle.

“You’re so creepy, you know that?” the voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.

“I’ve heard worse,” I replied, opening my eyes.  Panacea was entering my curtained enclosure, shutting the curtain behind her.  There was a PRT uniform with her.

“I’m sure you have,” she frowned.  Her hood and scarf were down, so I could see her face, much as I had during the bank robbery.  She had dark circles under her eyes that looked painted on.  She spoke, sighing the words, “I need your permission to touch you.”

“What?”

“Liability reasons.  Someone overheard you say you’ve got a broken back.  There could be other complications, and that takes people, time, equipment and money that the people in charge of this hospital are reluctant to spare at a time like this.  You could refuse to let me touch you, make the hospital give you the X-rays and MRI, get months or years of treatment paid for by the Preservation Act, all under oppressive confidentiality agreements that could cost the hospital millions.  It’s an option, but the treatment wouldn’t be as fast, good or effective as it would if I used my power.  You’d be shooting yourself in the foot for the sake of being stubborn.”

“Um.”

“Just agree, so I can move on to other patients.”

“What was it you said during the bank robbery?  You’d make me horribly obese?  Make everything I eat taste like bile?  What’s to stop you from doing something like that here?”

“Nothing, really.  I mean, you could sue me after I did it, but you’d have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and that’d be damn hard if I gave the symptoms a time delay before they showed up.  Plus I’m a valuable enough resource that I could get help paying the legal costs.  And, let’s not forget, Carol, my adoptive mother, is a pretty kickass lawyer.  Whatever you did by trying to sue me probably wouldn’t cripple me as much as what my power did to you.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

“It’s not meant to be reassuring.  I suppose maybe you’ll just have to either trust in the fact that I’m a decent person or refuse my help,” she shrugged, glaring at me, “There’s a kind of poetry to this.  Like, a thief fears being stolen from the most, a scumbag… well, you get the drift.  The more horrible a human being you are, the more you’ll agonize over what I might have done to you, with a time delay of minutes, hours, days, years.  Yet if you’re a decent person, you’ll be more inclined to think better of me.”

“Are you?”

“What?”

Are you a decent person, Amy?”

She gave me an offended look.

“I envy you, that it’s so easy for you to think of things in terms of black and white.  I’d like to think I’m a good person, believe it or not.  Everything I’ve done, I did because I thought it was right at the time.  In hindsight, some of the ends didn’t justify the means, and sometimes there were unforseen consequences.”  Like Dinah.  “But I don’t think of myself as a bad person.”

“Then you’re either ignorant, deluded or you have a very twisted perspective.”

“Maybe.”

She went on, “Don’t really care which it is.  If you’re going to call yourself a good person,” she paused, shook her head a little, “Then don’t waste my time.  Give me an answer, one way or another, so I can get on with helping people.”

It wasn’t really a choice.  A long, hard road to recovery, possibly with no recovery at all, fraught with any potential health complications that the universe decided to hand my way, or healing for a broken back, with the potential health complications that Panacea decided to give me?

I mean, whatever she deigned to inflict on me would be calculated to make me miserable, if she went that far, but at least then I’d have someone to hate.

“Please,” I spoke, “Use your power.”

She nodded at the PRT uniform, who left the enclosure.  Then she approached the side of the bed.

“I’m going to have to move some of your mask aside, to touch your skin.”

“Permission granted,” I spoke, “Though I’ve been wondering since the bank robbery – why didn’t you reach up and touch my scalp?”

“No comment.”

Ah.  Something about hair, maybe?  A weakness in her power.  Maybe it was mucked up or confused by ‘dead’ tissue?

She fumbled with my mask for a second.

“Lower,” I informed her, “The mask and body part of the costume overlap just above the collarbone.”

She found it, separated the two, and touched a fingertip to my throat, like she was taking my pulse.

The pain left in an instant.  My breathing became easier, and I felt a steady pressure deep in my broken arm.

“You have a brain injury that’s not fully healed.”

“Bakuda’s fault.”

“Hm.  Outside the scope of my abilities.”

Ominous, but I wasn’t ready to put too much stake in what she told me, and what she might be leaving out.

“Okay,” my voice was stronger, without the crippling pressure in my chest and back.

“Microfracture in your shoulder, nerve damage to your left hand, reduced fine dexterity.”

“Really?  I hadn’t noticed.”

“It’s there.  I’m not going to bother with that, either.”

“Wasn’t expecting you to.”  Couldn’t let her ruffle me.

“Broken arm, broken spine, fractured ribs, small perforations in colon, kidney and liver, some internal bleeding.  This will take a minute.”

I nodded.  It was more severe than I’d thought.  That unsettled me some.

A part of me wanted to apologize for what had happened at the bank robbery, but the tone of our earlier conversation made it feel like I’d be trying to dissuade her from doing something malicious with her power.

Relief overwhelmed me as sensations began returning to my legs.  They were quick, like being shocked, but they ranged from hot to cold to the unfamiliar, running from my abdomen to the tips of my toes, tracing every internal area of my legs.

“Ow,” I muttered, as one line of pain drew itself from my hip to my ankle.

“I’ve got to test your nerves as I re-establish the connections, but I’m too tired to do it all with my power, and I can’t dope you up with endorphins because Armsmaster, Miss Militia and Legend will be coming to talk to you in a bit, and I’ve been told you need your head one hundred percent clear for that.  So some of this is going to hurt.”

“Wait, what?  Why do I need my head clear to talk to them?  Why are they talking to me?”

“Mmm.  I can feel your emotions in your body, hormones and altered chemical balances.  You’re scared.”

“Damn right, I’m scared – ouch.  Fuck, that stung.”  My leg jerked.

“It’s going to happen any time my concentration slips.  Best to stay quiet.”

“No, seriously.  Why are they talking to me?  Is that why I’m in handcuffs?  To keep me here until they, what, arrest me?”

“No comment,” she smiled a little.

“Hey, no.  You can’t call yourself a decent person and then leave me here agonizing over details.”

“I can.  I don’t know what they want to talk to you about, though I have… strong suspicions,” her eye drifted to my manacle.  “But I have been informed that you are to be lucid and fully mobile.”

“Why?”  I had a growing suspicion as to why, helped by her glance to my restraints.  If they were arresting me, they couldn’t have me agree to any deals or plea bargains while I was drugged up, or it would be thrown out of court.  I was pretty sure.  One semester of a law class didn’t exactly leave me an expert.

“According to the woman from the PRT that I talked to, it will work best if all of you are kept in the dark for as long as possible.”

“All of us?”  It wasn’t just me.

“A slip of the tongue.” She smiled slightly, as if enjoying stringing me along.

“Do these others include Tattletale?” I asked, “Did you heal her?”

She quirked an eyebrow.  “No.  I can tell you I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.  Because she didn’t need your help, or because she was already dead?  Ow!”

My leg jerked again, a muscle in my thigh clenching hard, not unlike a charlie horse.  It subsided.

“I think we’re done here.”

“Hey!” I raised my voice again, “Give me an answer!  Stop fucking with me!”

She lifted her finger from my throat, and many of my smaller bruises and scrapes began making themselves felt once more.  I could breathe without a problem.  I wiggled my toes experimentally, felt them move against the soles of my costume.  I moved my left arm, felt no pain.  Tugged on the chain with it and felt everything working as it should, no pain.

She leaned close, so her mouth was by my ear, “Not so fun, is it?  Let me tell you, this isn’t a hundredth of the mind-fuckery that your teammate was pulling on me, back then.”

“That wasn’t-” I stopped.

“What?  Wasn’t you?  You stood by and watched it happen, played along, took advantage of it.  Or maybe you were going to say it wasn’t that bad?  You really don’t know.  You don’t know me, you don’t know Glory Girl, you don’t know what Tattletale was saying, how she was threatening to ruin my life.  Imagine the person you care about most, finding our your darkest secrets.  Secrets that, even if they eventually came to accept it, you know they would taint and color every single conversation you have with them afterward.”

I couldn’t help but picture it.  My dad finding out I was a villain, what I’d done.  Forevermore having doubts about me.

“I’m sorry,” I spoke, my voice low.

“Maybe you are.  I doubt it.  I’m sorry to leave you wondering what happened to your teammate, what the big name capes are going to say to you, but I have others to help.”

She didn’t sound sorry at all.

“Hey!”  I raised my voice again, “Come back here!”

She turned her head to give me a dark look as she walked away, “Good luck with Armsmaster.”

I pulled on the chains, angrily.  I almost, almost sent the cockroaches on the bed after her.  I stopped when I saw the PRT uniform hold the curtain back for her in courtesy.

When Armsmaster and Legend arrived, it would be too late.

I sent the roaches after him, the PRT uniform.  They landed on him, individually squeezed into the pouches on his belt and bandoleer.

Found the keys on his belt.

Getting the keys out of the pouch was harder.  I had to be smooth, and the keychain was heavy enough that the roaches couldn’t pick it up with their mouths.  Instead, I tried lifting it up with the middle of a roach’s body, supported by the rest.  No luck, it slipped free off of the convex exterior of the cockroach’s shell.

I turned it upside down, instead, used the more textured underside to catch the loop of metal.  The rest of the roaches latched on, hauled the roach up and out of the pouch, squeezed it through the flap-covered opening, breaking it nearly in two against the metal of the ring as they drove it through the too-narrow gap.  One roach dead, but the keys were falling free of the pouch.

Instinct took over, and I unconsciously bid roaches to move into place beneath the keys as they fell to the floor, muting  the noise of metal against the ground.  They skittered my way, the weight of the keychain managed between them.

Hopefully people were too busy to notice the falling keys or the small number of bugs.  I suspected it was crowded and busy out there, from what I had glimpsed when I was brought in.  If people did notice, well, I was still getting arrested anyways, right?

Getting the keys up onto the bed would be harder.  I had the roaches put the keys beneath the bed, set them on the blanket, to start unraveling it.  Ten sets of mandibles -eleven now, as another cockroach came from the air vent- each working at individual threads.

I was torn between rushing this and doing it right.  I had to convince myself that I wouldn’t be dragged off to jail in the next five or ten minutes.  Probably.

It probably took that long to get a long enough piece of thread.  One group of bugs set to looping the thread around the keychain, tying it into a firm knot, while the others brought it up the side of the bed, up my body, my arm, and to my hand.  Once I had the thread in my fingers, I started winding it up around my fingers with a circular motion of my hands, reeling in the keys.

In a matter of seconds, I had the keys in hand.  Good.

The cockroach that had brought me the thread helped me figure out the keys that would work, traveling over them to eliminate the ones that were too large, acting as an added digit to help sort through them and putting the right keys between my fingers.  It guided the end of the keys into the lock.  The first key didn’t fit, too large.

The second unlocked the cuff.

I hurried to unlock the cuff on my left hand, flexed my hand and arm, rubbed at my wrists.

I pulled the covers off, swung my legs over the side of the bed, and gingerly tested them against the ground.  They supported my weight.

The relief was palpable.  Almost something I could feel, making me want to hug my arms around my body in quiet joy.

But my priority was getting out of here.  Not so easy, with the amount of capes and PRT personnel around.  No windows around me, but if I stepped outside the curtain and into the main area, I risked running into someone like Legend or Armsmaster.  I was assuming from what Panacea had said that they had been treated for the injuries that had taken them out of the fight and were up and about.

No, a better plan of action would be to keep out of sight.

I sent my bugs forward, tracing the lines of the curtains and wall.  Once I was sure that the curtains in the next few patient enclosures were closed, I moved the curtain to my right and headed that way.

Some cape I didn’t know was unconscious, blood smeared around his nose and mouth, almost caking the upper half of his mask to his face.

Another enclosure, an empty cot, with red stains on the sheets from whatever patient had been there earlier.

There was a window past the next enclosure.  I wasn’t sure if I could climb out, or if there would be somewhere to go once I had, but it gave me hope.

I pushed my way into the next curtained enclosure.  Stopped.

Oh.

There were shouts behind me, which might have been someone noting my absence.  I was at the point of not caring anymore.

I tried to take a step forward, to move to the bedside or around it, but my newly healed legs gave out under me.  I crumpled into a kneeling position.

Staring up at the occupant of the bed, a few things came to me.  For one thing, I got to experience first hand what Brian had told me, about how he’d gone cold, still and quiet inside on that day he’d gotten his powers.

For another, I realized why they’d had me chained up.  Kind of stupid not to, in retrospect.  A glance at the curtain showed a blue tag, the same style as the red one that had been on my curtain, plastic, unlabeled.

The bed’s occupant lay on her back, tubes running into her nose and mouth, an IV in her arm.  An ugly cut marred her right breast and shoulder, which were bare.  Smaller cuts covered the rest of her body.

Running footsteps and the sound of a curtain being heaved open in a neighboring section didn’t stir me from my daze.

The bed’s occupant wore Shadow Stalker’s costume, sans mask.

I recognized her.  Sophia Hess.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat deceased, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Right.”

She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.

Leviathan.

People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Oh.

Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

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