Interlude 12½ (Donation Bonus)

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She couldn’t shake the idea that it was a hoax.  Three times, she almost turned around and headed back home.

Twenty eight miles west from New York City, down the 202, to where there were more trees than houses and the roads hadn’t been maintained for too many years.  It hadn’t rained recently, but there were murky puddles in the road where the water had settled into broad depressions.

Water sprayed as she deliberately aimed for one puddle.  Forty five minutes of driving, trying to convince herself this was real, not seeing anyone on the road for the last ten minutes, she’d started to feel lost.  The concrete action of steering into the puddle and getting the expected result seemed to ground her.

Every action had an equal and opposite reaction.  It was the way things were supposed to work.  Action and consequence.

Driving to the middle of nowhere was the action.  But what was the consequence?  Wasting two hours of her time on one of the last weekends of freedom she had before she was due to start school?  For a mere chance she might get what she needed?

She had to stop and reverse to reread a number on a mailbox.  2062.  She steered into the long dirt driveway.  A farm sat in the distance, with a rotted-out grain silo and a barn nearby.

What if this wasn’t just meant to waste her time?  What if it was more sinister?  If there was a gang of men waiting for her, ready to drag her off somewhere…

She shook her head.  She knew how to defend herself.  Her father had taught her, and she’d taken classes.  They didn’t necessarily know she was a woman from her email address. She’d left a note with her roommate, sealed with instructions not to open it or read the details unless she failed to return home.  Topping it off, the necklace she wore had a built-in GPS.  A gift from her sixteenth birthday from her dad.  If there was trouble, the note she’d left with her roommate had instructions to contact her dad and track her down using the necklace.

She stopped by the barn and sat in the car for a minute, peering around to try to see if anyone was near, the engine idling.  A minute passed before she felt secure enough that she wouldn’t be ambushed and shifted the car into park.  She held the key like a weapon as she stepped out of the car.  She didn’t hold the individual keys between her fingers, like an amateur would be inclined to do, but held it like a knife instead.

The barn was the final destination of the route the email had outlined for her.  Empty.  It smelled of stale manure, rotting hay and mold.  The exterior was covered in peeling red paint.

She checked her watch.  She was eight minutes early.

There were no other cars on the property.  That meant there were eight minutes for someone to come down that road with the cracks, potholes and puddles, pull down the long driveway and come meet her at the barn.

Her weight shifted from foot to foot, as her impatience manifested in restlessness.  Eight minutes before she found out if she’d been played for a fool.

She used her shoes to kick a few loose stones from the dirt driveway, smoothed it out, and then kicked them off.  Barefoot, she planted her feet a shoulder width apart, then bent her knees as though she were sitting down in a chair, her arms outstretched in front of her for balance.  She bent low, straightened, then repeated the process several more times.

Deep breaths.

Centering herself, she began on the next form, placing her feet perpendicular to one another, and transferring her weight from one foot to the other, from toe to heel to the heel of the other foot.

Her digital watch interrupted her exercises with a steady beeping.  She’d set an alarm for the meeting deadline.  Right this minute, she was supposed to be meeting someone.

And there was no car in sight.

Sighing, humiliated, she donned her shoes, opened her car door and prepared to leave.  She wouldn’t speak of this to anyone.

“Leaving?  After coming all this way?”  The voice was female, rich with hints of a French accent, but the English was probably better than her own.

She turned, then stepped a few feet in front of her car to look inside the barn.

A woman stood there, dark-skinned, with her hair cut into a short style that was more utilitarian than stylish.  She wore a doctor’s lab coat and held a white plastic clipboard with both hands.

That wasn’t the startling thing.

At a point halfway inside the barn, there ceased to be any barn at all.  White tiled floor and white-painted walls stretched a distance behind the woman, and the ceiling was all glass, hiding a smooth distribution of flourescent lights that made it all glow evenly.

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Mother, but that is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Those with a more professional attitude know me as Doctor.”

“I’m-”

“No names.  We’ve already investigated you, we know much of what we need to know, but I think there is a great deal of symbolic value in having you maintain some anonymity.  Pick a name, and I will use it for the duration of this meeting.  It doesn’t need to be permanent or long-term.”

“Okay.  Is it supposed to be a fake regular name or a codename or…?”

“Anything.”

“Jamie.”  It was the name her parents had been planning to give her baby sister.  They’d broken up before that happened.

“Jamie it is.  Come.  I have an employee that is relocating this section of my offices to this spot, but it taxes him, and there’ll be less wait for the return trip if we don’t strain him.”

Jamie looked over her shoulder at her car.  The GPS wouldn’t do her much good here, she suspected.  It would take a leap of faith.

She hurried over and stepped close to the Doctor, crossing that border from packed dirt and moldy hay to clean tiled floor.

There was a rush of wind, and the surroundings swam violently for two or three seconds.  When the image had resolved again, they stood in the middle section of a long hallway.  It looked like a hospital, sterile, white, clean, but it was empty.  There were no people, and there was no equipment.

“Welcome to Cauldron,” the Doctor said.

“How did you find me?  I just got an email.”

“I’d have to check my notes.  We have ways of finding interested parties.  If I remember right, you were browsing websites, researching ways to acquire tinker-made armor and weapons?”

Jamie nodded.  “I was.  So many were fakes or scams that I wasn’t willing to trust the ones that did look legit.”

“We own several of those sites.  All are fakes.  That might have been where we first noticed your activity.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“Creepiness is an unfortunate reality when you’re forced to operate covertly, without a steady customer base.”

“Why?  Why not go public?”

“Countries would go to war over what we have at our disposal.  A way to grant powers to anyone who wants them.  They would want armies of parahuman soldiers.  Even if we did manage to establish ourselves as a neutral party without government interference, Cauldron would be infiltrated by those looking to steal our secrets.  Spies, thieves.”

“And people who wanted to establish a rival business?”

They were reaching the end of the hallway.  The Doctor smiled lightly.  “And that.  Please, through this door.”

Jamie prided herself on her ability to identify evasions and untruths.  The Doctor was humoring her when she replied to the question about rival businesses.  The idea didn’t seem to worry her.  Why?

Jamie stepped through the open door and entered a large room.  As with the hallway, the decor was predominantly white.  There was a desk of white marble with a white leather chair, and two plastic chairs facing the desk.  A modestly sized monitor sat at one corner of the desk, with a compact keyboard placed in front of it, and no mouse.  The space was spartan.

I’d go crazy in here.  There’s no personality to this place.

Stranger still was the lack of dust.  Since her arrival, Jamie hadn’t seen anyone but the Doctor.  How did the Doctor keep everything so clean?

“Have a seat.”

Jamie sat in one of the plastic chairs.

“I like to talk and establish expectations before we begin.  You should know that almost every aspect of this experience can be tailored to your tastes.  Cauldron’s usual routine, however, is to arrange one face to face meeting.  We’ll discuss your budget, your situation and goals, and then we’ll peruse a catalog to find something that fits your budget and will hopefully give you the results you desire.  There is a two month waiting period, during which time I will assign you some testing, some regarding your physical condition, other tests for psychological reasons.”

“Psychological?  Is that to make sure I won’t flip out and go villain when I get powers?”

“That is not a concern.  Though your question seems to indicate that you hope to be a hero?”  The Doctor made it a half-question, half-statement.

Jamie’s brow furrowed.  “Wait, so you give powers to people who want to be villains?”

“We give powers to anyone who pays.  Rest assured, if you wish to end this meeting now because of a pang of conscience, we can see you returned to the barn shortly.”

Jamie hesitated, then shook her head.  “It’s fine.”

“The testing will include blood tests, stress tests, MRI, CAT scan, radiographic scans and a Torsten DNA sequencing.  These scans are primarily for our purposes, and if you’d prefer, you can have your family doctor arrange or conduct these tests instead for a small fee.  A larger fee will allow you to skip the tests entirely.”

Fees and additional expenses.  No.  The testing wasn’t so important that she’d spend her money on it.

“You can conduct the tests however you want,” Jamie said.

“Good.  You’ll need to forgive me, but I must be blunt.  Cauldron operates on a strict policy of secrecy.  It is crass of me to do this, but know that if you pass on any knowledge of what transpired here, we have ways to find out, and we’ll be forced to employ countermeasures.  This is in effect even if you decide you do not wish to sign anything.”

“Countermeasures?”

“Our response will reflect the gravity of the offense.  We have clients who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the products and services we offer.  It is our obligation to protect them.”

“What kind of countermeasures?  Would you kill me?”

“We try to avoid murder in the course of doing business, not just because of the moral issues, but because it draws attention.  For leaks, our usual procedure is to discredit the individual in question and deploy our in-house division of parahumans to drive them into hiding, remove their powers or both.”

Try to avoid murder.  The phrasing implied the Doctor or Cauldron had gone that far before. She didn’t like that, and she especially didn’t like the fact that the Doctor was phrasing things so she’d miss that detail if she wasn’t listening carefully.

“It’s fine.  I don’t intend to break the rules.”

“Few do.  Still, I’ve done my duty and informed you.  Tell me about yourself, Jamie.  I know your father is in law enforcement.”

“He’s a detective, yeah.”

“Does that have anything to do with why you’re here?”

Jamie frowned and looked away.  “Yeah.”

“Tell me.”

“A year ago… well, it all started two years ago.  There were two criminals called Ramrod and Fleece.  The local heroes brought them into custody, partially because of my dad’s work in tracking the pair down.  Three strikes act applied to Fleece, and Ramrod was in for murder with intent.  They put them in special cells, got them a court date, and everything was normal.  My dad worked to gather the evidence, made some deals with informants to testify anonymously, and everything.  The court process takes a lot longer than it does on TV.”

“Too true.”

“Finally, after about a year of court appearances and one minor appeal they managed to squeeze in there, it was decided.  The pair was supposed to go to the Birdcage.  Except someone broke them out.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Jamie gnawed on her lip for a second.  Just thinking about it pissed her off.  “His name is Madcap, and he’s a mercenary that specializes in breaking people out of jail.  Sometimes even when they’re in the convoy on the way to the Birdcage.  And it’s just… wrong.  It’s not the way things should work.  Months or years of investigation, good police and good heroes risking their lives to finally catch someone and arrest them, a year of trial, and all it takes is one fucking asshole with powers to free them?”

“And so you’ve spent the last year trying to find a way to purchase powers, with the intent of righting that wrong?”

“I want to stop him.  And not just him.  I want to help things make sense again, even if it means playing unfair because they’re playing unfair.  Crime should have consequences.”

The Doctor typed something onto the keyboard, paused, and then typed something else. “Madcap.  Well, the good news is that he isn’t one of ours, so there’s no conflict of interest. The bad news is that the PRT rated him as a striker seven.”

Jamie’s face settled into a grim expression.  “I know.  My dad has resources.  I took the time to look up Madcap’s records.”

“Having looked into your finances-”

“I’ve got a place in the city that was left to me.  My dad doesn’t know about it, so it’d be easy to sell it and not have anyone close to me get curious where they money went.  Current housing market says I could sell it for three-quarters of a million dollars.  I just have to sell it.”

“We can expedite this.  Cauldron is prepared to buy the property from you for seven hundred and thirty thousand dollars, renting it out to you in the meantime if you require it.  We will sell it at our leisure rather than wait for you to find a buyer.”

“I don’t need you to rent it to me.  No, that works,” Jamie said.  She was secretly relieved to have one of the biggest hurdles handled so easily.

“Good.”

“And I have another five thousand that my relatives set aside for my school.  It’d be harder to use that without people getting curious, but it’s there.”

“We’ll see.  In terms of cost, Cauldron requires that the client pay two-thirds of the total amount in advance, and pay the rest over a six year period or default.”

“Meaning you employ those countermeasures you talked about.”

“Revoking your powers in the worst case scenario, yes.”

“Is that revoking of powers a part of the process of however you give people the powers, or is it something that one of your in-house capes does?”

The Doctor was typing on the computer.  Without taking her eyes from the screen, she said, “The latter.  You don’t need to worry about someone using a loophole or flaw in the process to take away your abilities.”

The Doctor frowned at the image on the computer screen.

“What?”

The Doctor turned the monitor around.  It showed graphs and charts that made little sense to Jamie.  Clearing her throat, the Doctor leaned forward over the desk and extended one manicured nail to point at a series of labels on a three-dimensional graph.  “This is the ‘P’ value as related to the cost of the power, with the expected range of powers.  The amount of money you have, even assuming an additional thirty-three percent in payment made at a future date, is probably not going to provide you with the power you’d need to take on a striker-seven.”

Jamie’s face fell.  Shaking her head in confusion, she asked, “‘P’?  And what do you mean by probably?”

The Doctor opened a drawer and retrieved a binder.  She slid it across the desk.

Every page was laminated, labeled with a serial number.  Each page had a picture of a vial with a different colored metallic liquid inside, sitting beside a list of powers.  The bottom half of the page or a second page, depending on the number of powers listed, had a grid with a number assigned to an arrangement of letters.

“No sample provides the exact same powers every time.  The bullet points note examples of the powers gained when the sample was tried on a human subject or a client.  There’s typically a common thread or theme connecting powers from a given sample.  One sample might have a tendency to work with the production of acids and a tendency for physical manifestation.  This might allow an individual to turn into a living pool of acid, to secrete acid from his pores or to spit streams of corrosive venom.”

“I don’t want a power like that.”

“No.  For one thing, the ‘R’ value of sample J-zero-zero-ninety is very low.  Note the letters on the grid.  The most important ones are the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’.  These, on their own, determine roughly ninety-percent of a sample’s cost.  O refers to a power’s uniqueness.  It’s largely subjective, and liable to change through factors entirely out of Cauldron’s control, but it is easier to stand out as a hero or villain if nobody else can do what you do.”

“You’ve already mentioned the other two letters in passing.”

“The ‘P’ value is the raw effect of the granted abilities.  An estimation of the rating the PRT would assign to the powers.  Higher ‘P’, more effective and versatile abilities.”

Jamie nodded.  “And ‘R’?”

“Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there are no guarantees.  A given sample does not provide the same effects every time it is tested.  There are admittedly some dangers involved in the use of our product.  Sometimes there are physical changes that cannot be masked.  You have seen the heroes or villains with glowing eyes or less human features.”

That was sobering.

“The ‘R’ value refers to how predictable a given sample is.  There are some that produce very simple, reliable results.  In sixty-three tests of sample T-six-zero-zero-one, it has only failed to grant a form of flight on two occasions.  Contrast that with sample B-zero-zero-thirty.  It has, in four tests, granted an individual the ability to make things implode, it has created a powerful vacuum in someone’s mouth, that draws everything into a portal where it is promptly annihilated.  Sample B-zero-zero-thirty killed the other two test subjects.”

Killed.  There was an outside possibility she could die, if she took the wrong one, or if she got especially unlucky.

“How do you test this?  You’re talking about a lot of tests, sixty for just one sample, but there’s no way people wouldn’t notice or that word wouldn’t get out if you were doing something like that.”

“As you’ve seen, Cauldron has resources.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“It does.  Just not as clearly as you want it to.”

Something in the Doctor’s tone suggested the woman wasn’t going to elaborate further.  Jamie shut her mouth, frowning slightly.

“As you can see here, this graph shows the relationship between cost and the rising ‘P’, ‘O’ and ‘R’ values.”

It was a cube broken into a multitude of smaller cubes, with P as the X axis, O as the Y and R as the Z.  They ranged from white to sky blue to darker blue, purple, red, and finally crimson.  The key at the bottom of the graph suggested that anything beyond dark blue would cost several million dollars.  By the time it hit crimson, it was ranging into the hundreds of millions.

“This… is what you can afford.”  The Doctor hit a key and the graph was reduced to the white and light blue cubes.  “You could theoretically push into the seven range of ‘P’ values, to put yourself at this Madcap’s level in terms of raw power, but you would be forfeiting a great deal in the other two departments.  Your powers would be relatively simple, defaulting to the sort of abilities that countless other heroes already have… and with the low ‘R’ score, you would be risking getting something you do not want.  Physical changes, perhaps, or powers outside of the area you wanted.  Super strength when you desired telekinesis, for a crude example.”

“I… I’m not fixated on anything particular, powerwise.  Flying would be cool, but I’ll take anything that works.”

The Doctor tapped a key, and the graph shifted so there were only three rows.  She’d removed the samples with higher uniqueness values.

“Then the question is…” the Doctor said, “How much are you willing to gamble?  A hero can beat a superior foe with strategy, tactics and forethought, and I get the impression you’re focused enough to put your mind to the task.  Perhaps you’d want to emphasize reliability in a sample over the power it could offer you?”

“Can you zoom in?”

The Doctor did.

“So… how unreliable is a five, if we’re talking about ‘R’?”

“If you decided on a sample with an ‘R’ score of five, I would tell you I could make no promises.  There would be perhaps a three or four percent chance you would experience some unwanted physical changes.  Zero-point-five percent chance that you’d experience changes of a degree that you wouldn’t be able to go out in public without drawing notice, even with heavy clothing.  You would, I’d venture, not be buying a particular power, but the broader category of that power.  To use our earlier example, you would not be buying acid spit, specifically, but an acid power.

Jamie looked at the other lines on the graph, “And I’d be getting something like an ‘O’ of three and a ‘P’ of five.”

“Something in that neighborhood, yes.”

“A power rating of five to Madcap’s seven,”  Jamie put her elbows on the edge of the desk and her head in her hands.

“There’s a chance you could get lucky and achieve a power with a greater ‘P’ value than expected.”

Again, that misdirection.  Jamie shook her head.  “And a roughly equal chance that I could get unlucky, since it’s an average.”

“Admittedly true.”

“Is there anything else I could do?  A way to get better results?”

“We have options, but I don’t know that they apply to your case.  I mentioned the psychological testing earlier.  You should know that an individual’s personality, mental state and background do seem to have a great deal of effect on the resulting power. I would even say it’s one of the primary factors, outside of the sample itself.”

Jamie wondered momentarily how her own mental state would influence her powers.

The Doctor went on, “We have a package we call ‘Shaping’, and another we call ‘Morpheus’.  Both are intended to make the most of the two month waiting period and help a client reach an ideal mental and emotional state.  It’s often purchased by our high-end customers, to refine the powers they want and help ensure there are no untoward effects. For a low-end customer such as yourself, I don’t know that it would suit your needs.  You would be buying a lower quality sample to pay for the package… perhaps if you were someone who wanted powers for recreational purposes.  If you wanted to help guarantee that you got the ability to fly, for example.”

Jamie nodded.

“There’s the Nemesis program, but you already have an opponent in mind, and I expect you’re more interested in a fair fight than having an opponent you’re guaranteed to succeed against when it counts.”

“Yeah.”  This Nemesis program… how many prominent heroes or villains were out there that had faked or staged confrontations like that?

“Hmm.  Nothing else springs to mind as our packages go.  When we design an additional feature or program, we tend to aim it at our more wealthy customers.”

“You guys are doing lots of testing.  Could I do something like help with that?  Or something outside of these packages and programs?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m serious, I’m hard-working, and I stick to my guns.”

“It’s our tendency to require that any client be prepared to perform one unspecified favor for us at a later date.  Usually a simple task or a week of service.  It serves as a way to cover our bases without revealing too much in respect to our operations.”

“Very Godfather.  Do these favors mean doing anything illegal?”

“Sometimes.  But no, often it is a request to meet someone, to pass on a message, or help manage an information leak, a show of force to scare someone who is poking too deep.”

Jamie’s leg bounced nervously as she looked at the screen.  “And?”

“If you agree to perform three favors at a future date, and I suspect we could extend something of a discount.”

The Doctor hit several keys, and the graph extended a little in every direction.  Where it had been white and light blue, it now showed cubes of dark blue.

“What would you ask me to do?”

“I don’t know yet.  I prefer to leave that option open.”

Everything in Jamie’s gut told her there was some small lie or misdirection in there.  Either the Doctor did know what she wanted to ask for, or she knew her customer wouldn’t like what she heard.

Whatever these favors were, all she could do was hope she could do enough good to counterbalance any wrongs she’d have to commit.

“Alright,” Jamie said.  “Sounds like a deal.”

Jamie’s fourth visit to Cauldron was less out of her way than her first.  She entered the same way as before, but this time the hallway from Cauldron’s location was transplanted into the middle of her apartment.  She wasted no time in stepping through.

The Doctor was not waiting for her, but she knew where she was going.  She strode down the empty, spotless hallways, past innumerable matching doors.  There were no windows in this place.  Nothing peeking into the outside.

Still, she knew where she was.  She’d checked the GPS data on her necklace.  The Ivory Coast.  The west coast of Africa.  It was dangerous information to have.

If I tried to open one of those doors, would it be locked?  What would be inside?  Or would alarms go off, my chance here spoiled?

She’d been here twice since her first meeting.  Both times, she’d had her psychological testing.  She’d also had a full workup done.  The psychiatrist had been a young-looking white man, the doctor a heavyset Greek.  They’d said little beyond what they needed to for the testing, and had volunteered nothing about Cauldron.

She made her way to the room where she’d done her stress test.  Here, she’d run back and forth with steadily increasing speeds until she couldn’t run anymore.  She’d rested, then run again, then again, until she couldn’t even stand.

The Doctor was waiting for her.  A metal canister sat on a table, and there was a sturdily built, cushioned chair sitting close by.

“You’re ready?” the Doctor asked.

Jamie nodded.

“If you’ll change into this, we can preserve your clothes for the return trip home.”

Jamie took the offered clothing, a plain gray bodysuit that would cover everything from the neck down.  A word in blocky black letters on the front read ‘Jamie’ while one on the back read ‘Client’.

There was no indicated change room, and the Doctor was focused on the canister and the stack of papers she was setting down on the table.  Jamie changed where she stood, folding her clothes and setting them on the edge of the table.

“Sit.”

Jamie sat in the chair.  Comfortable.

“Sample T-one-one-seven-seven, with the agreed upon addition of Sample C-zero-zero-seventy-two.  This is correct?”

“Yes.  It’s what I paid for.”

“Read and sign here.  And there are stipulations on, let me see… pages twenty-six and twenty-nine that you need to sign as well.”

Jamie leaned forward and read through the contract.  It was every term they’d agreed upon, legalese and politely worded warnings about the hell Cauldron would try to bring down on her head if she broke the terms of the contract.  There were pages of receipts covering the financial transactions, and pages more of details about her own medical and psychological evaluations.

There were two stipulations to agree to.  One for the three favors she’d agreed to perform.  Another on the psychological testing.

Nine years ago, she had been kidnapped for use as leverage against her father.  She had been held in their custody for three days.  No food, six water bottles to drink and no bathroom.  She’d gone to the washroom in the corner, had removed one sock to keep the pee from making its way across the sloped hardwood floor.

She’d assured the psychiatrist that she had gotten over any of the trauma and any fear of the dark that had stemmed from that incident.  It was her father that’d had a hard time dealing with the event.

She’d been young then, and the event hadn’t really stuck in her memory.  But she couldn’t shake the idea that the kidnapping might have left some lingering effect on her that would taint the process.

“You haven’t eaten?”

“Nothing since this time yesterday.”

“You don’t have any colds, no aches and pains?”

“No.”

“That’s too bad.  The sample we use to moderate and control the effects of the finished products has a short-lived regenerative effect.  This is one of the selling points we offer to the clients we find in hospitals and the like.  Some have even recovered or partially recovered from life-long disabilities.  We’ve had reports from people who were mildly ill when they gained their powers, who found they never got sick again.  It would be nice to verify this.”

“You couldn’t have told me that before?”

“It could easily be a placebo effect.  Not worth a rescheduling.  You’re comfortable?”

“Sure.”

The Doctor unscrewed the canister and withdrew a vial.  It was no longer than a pen and no thicker than one of the Doctor’s fingers.  “The faster you drink it all, the quicker and cleaner the transition is.”

“You said something about a dream quest?”

“Some experience it.  Some don’t.  Don’t be concerned if you don’t.  Simply relax to the best of your ability and stay focused.  The higher and more pronounced the physical reactions like your heart rate, sweating, adrenals, and emotional response, the greater the chance of a physiological change.  I recommend that you keep from dwelling on any stressful thoughts or memories.  Just stay calm and try to relax as much as you’re able.”

“Isn’t that like asking someone to not think of a blue elephant?  They’re going to think about a blue elephant.”

“I stress, only a small percentage of people experience enough stress that they undergo any physical change.”  The Doctor removed the stopper from the top of the vial and carefully handed it over, not letting go until she was sure Jamie had a firm grip.

Jamie held the vial for several long moments.  “Now?”

“When you’re ready.”

Jamie tossed it back like she’d seen people throw back shots of hard liquor.  She coughed as it coated the inside of her throat, her saliva doing little to nothing to help it down.  The Doctor reached out, and Jamie handed her the vial.

It began to burn, the intensity increasing second by second, until she was convinced it couldn’t get any worse.  It did.

“Hurts,” she groaned, trying to push herself to a standing position.

“It’ll get more severe before it gets better.  Stay in the chair.”

“Didn’t tell me,” she could barely speak with the way her chest felt like it was caving in on itself.

“I didn’t want to alarm you before we began.  It’s normal, and it does get better.  A minute, maybe two, and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pain goes away.”

She clutched the arms of the chair.  As unfathomably bad as it had been just moments ago, it kept getting worse.  She had to endure another two minutes of this?  It felt like the burning inside of her was melting through the walls of her throat and stomach.  She could imagine the tissue blistering and dissolving, expanding outward until it touched on her lungs and her heart.

As it seemed to consume her lungs, her breathing began to dissolve into breaths too quick and small to bring enough oxygen into her lungs.  Darkness began to creep in at the edges of her vision.

“Relax.”  The Doctor’s voice sounded far away.

She was panicking, and the idea that she was panicking made it worse, because it could mean she’d change.  She might look different.  Scales, spines, metallic skin or something else.

The darkness swallowed her field of vision and she felt as though it were creeping over her skin.

What had she been thinking, doing this?

Have to calm down.

She’d taken up Tai Chi when she was thirteen, something one of her therapists had encouraged to deal with stress.  She couldn’t move here, and it was impossible to stand, let alone do her exercises, but she could try to reach that mental state.  She attempted to take deep breaths, but she couldn’t even tell if she had air in her lungs or if she was breathing in or out.  She tensed the muscles in her fingers and toes, then forced herself to relax them.  She did the same with the muscles of her hands and feet.  She worked her way up through the entirety of her body, focusing on that simple action of tension, relaxation.

The pain didn’t stop, but she felt disconnected from it, now.  She was calmer, focused.  She felt as though she were adrift in a vast, empty space, aware of every part of her body, the wholeness of it, and nothing else.

An incoherent image flickered across her mind.  A landscape of twisted biological shapes that seemed to alter with every passing second, changing into something completely different.  An archway of bony growths disconnected and became a bridge over a crevasse.  Then a hill.  Yet it all seemed to change with logic.  It was just a logic she couldn’t comprehend.

The ground split.  Chasms tore into the surface, dividing it, and-

Another image.  Earth.  It was as though she was looking at everyone’s face and every object and every living thing on the planet at once, from every angle, but then she was looking at a different everyone and everything, then another.  It dawned on her that it wasn’t her doing the looking.  She was a bystander.  Before she could realize what this other was looking for, the scene changed again.

Utter blackness and silence.  It was only in this stillness and quiet that Jamie realized there was an undercurrent.  An impression.  She hesitated to call it an emotion.

Reaching.  It was the only word she could use to place it, and it didn’t quite fit.  It was an action that was simultaneously frustrated and frustrating.

The pain cleared away so quickly she thought she might have imagined it.

She was on the ground, she realized.  On her hands and knees.  Tears ran down her cheeks.  Not all were from the pain.  Some were sympathetic.

“What was that?  What did I just see?  It wasn’t a dream.  It wasn’t what you described.”

“Roughly half of my customers ask questions similar to yours after they’ve transitioned.  I always say the same thing.  I don’t know.”

Even in the daze she was in, Jamie’s instincts told her the Doctor was lying.

“I expect you’ll retain the memory better if you don’t try too hard to hold onto it.”

The strange things she had seen didn’t seem to matter anymore.  “Did I… change?  Is my body different?”

“You glowed briefly, but that passed.  You look the same as you did.”

Jamie nodded, too worn out to feel relieved.

“I’m going to leave, now, for my own safety.  I recommend sitting and resting before anything else.  When you’re prepared, stand and see what you can do to exercise your new abilities.”

The doctor was halfway to the door when Jamie shifted her position and prepared to climb into the chair.  Relief was surging through her.  She hadn’t become a monster.  She hadn’t lost her mind.  This was for real.  What she had seen, it was too profound to mean anything else.  Even a hit of LSD wouldn’t have given her visions as clear as that.  Not that she’d done LSD.

Though she didn’t feel dizzy, she found she lacked the sense of balance to stand, and tipped forward.  Between one heartbeat and the next, everything seemed to click.  She felt as though she were floating in slow motion rather than falling, her body thrumming.  She extended one arm toward the arm of the chair to catch herself, but she underestimated the speed and strength of the movement in the midst of this slow motion world.  The chair was sent flying, skidding across the floor.  She fell hard, the moment over, her fall no longer slow motion.

On the other side of the room, the chair hit the wall and shattered.

“Seems you have something.  Congratulations,” the Doctor said.

Madcap hit one of the armored PRT vans hard enough to make it roll.  The driver of the second tried to steer clear, but Madcap stepped into the path of the incoming vehicle.  It struck him and the vehicle virtually bounced off of him, the hood crumpling as though it had hit a telephone pole.

He rolled his shoulders, and then kicked the vehicle.  It skidded along the road and collided with the third truck, which had already pulled to a stop.

Which left only the task of freeing his clients.

“Stop!”

Madcap turned.  Jamie stood in the middle of the street, opposing him.  Her low-budget costume consisted of a black bodysuit and a domino mask.

“You’re cute.  Nice body, and the costume is a nice mix of pathetic and adorable in a three-legged-puppy kind of way.   But you don’t want to try to stop me.  I hit pretty damn hard.”

The mention of her costume embarrassed her.  She hadn’t had the money after buying her powers.  Still, three legged puppy?

Madcap, by contrast, was wearing a customized costume that had cost no small amount of money.  A faceguard covered the lower half of his face, and was imprinted with the image of a wide grin.  Black facepaint surrounded his dark eyes, accentuating the whites, and a pointed black leather cap connected to the mask and his costume.  His armor was more aesthetic than functional, and featured broad, spike-studded pads.

“I hit pretty hard myself,” Jamie replied.  A glance over her shoulder revealed that the two men who’d been driving the containment van nearest her were running.  She knew it was empty, a decoy.

She wrested the bumper free with a tug and then swung it at Madcap like an oversized bat.

He blocked it with one hand, and the scrap of metal slipped from her hand and went sailing into the nearby cornfield.

Then he slid forward and tapped the flat of one hand against her chest.  She bounced off of the ground and fell in a heap.  It took her one attempt at standing before she realized it was futile.

Two PRT soldiers stepped forward to try to spray him with foam, but he dispatched both with a throw of something that looked like a thick frisbee.  With nobody left to stop him, Madcap proceeded to tear doors off the containment vans until he found the prisoners.

Jamie tried to move again.  Everything hurt too much.

“No,” Madcap said.  “Leave her be.”

She opened her eyes to see two villains, a male and a female standing nearby, with Madcap standing between her and them..

“She looks like a right morsel,” the man commented.

“Not saying she doesn’t,” Madcap said, “But hands off.  You paid me to free you, and I can’t do that if you’re fucking around.”

“Spoilsport,” the woman said, teasing.  “Come on.”

Then they were gone, and Jamie let her head rest on the pavement.

“My power didn’t work.  I was strong, and then I wasn’t.”

“There are going to be nuances,” the Doctor said.  “We could help you investigate the intricacies of your ability.  But that would cost you.”

“Everything costs something, here.”

“I have another idea in mind.”

“Another idea?”

“Consider this your first favor to us.  Cauldron would be much obliged if you could join the ranks of the Wards, and then graduate to the Protectorate as soon as possible.”

“The Protectorate?  Why?  To sabotage it from within?  Steal information?  I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“Just join.  That’s all I ask.  If nothing else, it would mean you had resources and training to develop your powers and achieve your own goals.”

Jamie frowned, looking at her gloved hand.  She had been contemplating joining anyways.  It meant one favor out of the way, relatively harmless, which was good, but there was little doubt that Cauldron wanted her in place for a reason.

“Round eight, puppy?”  Madcap said, “Maybe you can finally win one!”

Jamie charged him, and the rest of her team followed soon after.

Madcap leapt to one side as Legend fired a series of beams at him.  The villain plunged into and through the concrete wall of the jail, and Jamie was only steps behind him.  She saw him rounding a corner and gave chase.

He wasn’t in the hallway.  There wasn’t even debris from where he’d torn his way through yet another wall.

She activated her power.  Time seemed to slow down as she sped up.  She snapped her head to look up and saw him in the middle of a leap over her head.  He’d timed it perfectly, so he would be above her when she rounded the corner.

Except she was faster, and she could hit harder than he could.  Given a chance.

Her elbow caught him while he was still airborne, and unable to dodge.  She slammed him into a wall, and followed up with a leaping kick while the effects of her power still coursed through her.

Madcap rebounded off of the wall as though he were made of rubber and ducked beneath her incoming kick.  Twisting around as he rose back to a standing position, he got a grip on her from behind in the same moment her foot hit the wall.  Heaving, he hurled her down the length of the hallway.

Calm.  She had to be calm, concentrate.  Even as she flew through the air, she let her power build up inside her, then released it.  With the half second of effect it gave her, she contorted herself to touch the wall with one foot, then lightly kicked it to turn herself toward the ground.  She landed in a crouch, sliding from the inertia, and began charging up for another go.

Legend’s lasers tore into the spot where Madcap had been a half second ago.  The villain sprinted toward Jamie, moving faster with each step.

“Battery!” Legend called out, “Stop him!”

She held on, concentrating.  She let a deep breath pass through her lips.

Sticking one foot out in front of him, Madcap changed directions, heading straight through the wall.  Plaster exploded around him.

She released her power, and for just seconds, she was strong, she was almost invincible, and above all else, she was fast.  She ran forward, plunging through two walls in her pursuit.  Emerging from the second wall, she came within a few feet of Madcap.

He turned on the spot, reaching out to block her strike or grab her.

But she didn’t give him the opportunity to do either.  Instead, she spent the rest of her accumulated power in a single burst, pulling at the metal of a nearby chair.  It fell over, sliding into Madcap’s path.  The metal legs caught on his own legs, one sliding just beneath his descending foot.  He stumbled.  He exerted his power, causing the chair to crumple and explode before he stumbled any further and fell. 

She heard a brief chuckle from the man as he turned to make his escape.

Legend had taken advantage of that momentary delay to get in position.  He caught the villain with a laser blast.  Madcap tumbled, got his feet under him and darted for cover.  A laser blast turned the corner to follow and smash the villain into the ground.  Legend shot him again while he was down, and the man was unconscious.

“Good job, Battery.” Legend spoke with a smile.  “Finally, huh?”

“Finally,” she said.

“I really don’t want to go to the Birdcage,” Madcap said.  He was covered in containment foam from shoulder to toe.

“You’ve committed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred felonies,” Legend answered him.  “I don’t think you have many options.”

“Felonies, sure, but I haven’t killed anyone, and that’s got to be worth something.  Now, this is just a suggestion, but what if I switched sides?”

“Get real,” Battery replied.

“I’m serious, puppy.  You guys need more bodies on the field, I don’t want to go to the Birdcage, it’s win-win.  I’m strong.”

“You’ve spent nearly six years perverting the course of justice for others,” she replied.

“And now I can make amends!” They had removed his mask, but his real smile was almost more mocking than the one that had been styled into the mask.

“You spent the last five and a half years getting people out of the Birdcage, claiming to be against it and everything it stood for, but now you’re willing to work to put people in there?”

“Maybe you’ve changed me.  Your good looks, your winning personality, and your diehard persistence in the face of so many defeats at my hand.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Don’t suppose we can gag him?”

“Sadly, no.  And he raises an interesting idea.”

“He’s going to run the second he gets a chance.”

“There are options.  Tracking devices, or perhaps Myrddin can put some countermeasure in place.”

“I’m down for any of that stuff,” Madcap said, casting a sidelong glance at Battery.  He grinned, “But I want some concessions.”

“Concessions?  You asshole.  You should be glad that we’re even entertaining this asinine idea.”

“I think you’ll find them pretty reasonable,” Madcap said, more to Legend than Battery.

“Let’s hear it.”

“I think this would work best if I took on a new identity.  New costume.  My powers are versatile enough that I doubt anyone’s going to draw a connection.  It also means I don’t have any enemies or any paranoid customers from my shady past coming after me.”

“That could be arranged.”

“And I want to be on her team,” Madcap said, pointing at Battery.  He smiled.  “Puppy changes to a new city, I go with.”

“Hell no,” Battery said.

Why?” Legend asked.

“It’s funny,” Madcap said.  “It’s going to irritate the piss out of her, and I’ve got just a little bit of a sadistic streak in me.  If I don’t channel it somehow, this just isn’t going to work out.  Just give me this, and I’ll be a boy scout.”

“Boy scout?  You’ll be on your best behavior?”  Legend asked.  “This would be more than even regular probation.”

No.” Battery said.

Yes.”  Madcap answered the man.

No,” Battery said, stabbing a finger at Legend.  “I’ve been a damn good hero for you guys.  My record is spotless, I’ve put in the hours, I’ve put in the overtime hours.  I’ve done the jobs nobody else wants to do, the unpaid volunteer crap, the patrols at the dead of night when nothing happens.  This is a punishment.”

“You’re right,” Legend sighed, “It would be a heavy burden for a good heroine.  So it’s up to you.  You decide if Madcap joins the Protectorate or not.  I won’t judge you if you say no.”

“But you think I should say yes.”

“I do, if it makes us stronger in the long run.”

Battery looked down at Madcap, and the villain offered her an exaggerated pout, his eyes large, his lower lip sticking out.

“Fuck me,” she said.  “You’re going on paper as the one making the call, Legend, and you’re taking the hit if this backfires.”

“That’s fair.”

“Yes!” Madcap grinned.

“I’ve died and gone to hell,” Battery muttered.  It was everything she’d become a hero to prevent.  A villain evading his rightful justice.  But she knew it was for the greater good.  They did need more heroes out there.

“I already have a name in mind for my goodie-two-shoes costumed self,” Madcap grinned.  “You’re going to like this one, puppy.”

“You’re going to have to stop calling me that,” Battery warned him, “Or your identity as Madcap is going to become public knowledge, fast.”

Madcap rubbed his chin.  “Maybe.  I’ll agree to stop if you accept my name.”

She sighed.  “I already know I’m going to hate this.”

“You’ll love it.  Assault.  Get it?”

It took her a second to process.  “No!”

“No?  But it’s perfect.  We’ll be a pair!  People will know from the second they hear it.”

“The connotations are horrible!  No!  You’re not allowed to change the intent of my name like that!”

“Fine, fine.  Point taken.  Puppy.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Can I maybe get a raise, for putting up with this?”

The leader of the Protectorate folded his arms.  “Something can be arranged.”

“It can be a coffee,” Assault told her.  “Or a beer after a night of patrols.  Nothing fancy, low stress.”

Low stress?  You’re forgetting the part where I’d be spending more time in your company than I have to.”

“Hon, you need to unwind.  Relax.  You’re too rigid, and I know for a fact that you haven’t had a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the two years I’ve worked with you.”

“Stop implying I’m into women, Ass.”

“Well, you know, you keep turning me down, so it kind of makes a man wonder.”

“I’ve been too busy, and even if I did want to date, rest assured, you would be my last pick for company.”

“So hurtful!”  He pressed one hand to his chest.  “Look at me, I’m like a knight in shining armor, now.”

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing, more like.”

“Arooo.”

Miss Militia stopped in the doorway.  “Need rescuing?”

“If you could put a bullet between his eyes, I’d owe you one.”

“No can do.”  Miss Militia offered her an apologetic grimace.  “You okay, though?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

Miss Militia headed on her way, and Assault smiled, “Listening to her, you’d think every second in my company was torture.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Battery retorted.  She turned and topped off her cup of coffee, finishing the pot.  Assault stepped in and began preparing the next pot.  It would have been a nice gesture if it weren’t for the smug look on his face.

“Come on.  Give me a chance.  Let me know what it takes to get one night of your company.  Tell me to bring you a star in the palm of my hand, or slay a dreaded Endbringer, and I’ll get it done.”

“You’d just find some loophole and bring me a plastic star or kill an Endbringer in a video game, which would only give you an excuse to harass me further.”

“Then think of something else.  Anything.”

Battery sipped on her coffee.  “Anything?  Armsmaster was looking for volunteers for some unpaid work at one of the primary schools.  I already said I’d do it.”

“You do all of that crap,” Assault rolled his eyes.  “It’d be admirable if you weren’t trying so ridiculously hard at it.  It’s like you’re trying to make up for some wrong you think you’ve committed.”

Battery frowned a little.

The grin dropped from Assault’s face.  “Hey, seriously?”

She shook her head.  “No.  No wrong committed, real or imagined.”

“But the way you looked just now-”

She interrupted him.  “If you come on this errand with me and do part of the speech for the kids, I’ll maybe consider possibly going out with you for lunch someday.”

“Excellent!”  Assault grinned.

He strode off, looking like he’d just won the lottery.

She smiled.  If he only knew this was her shot at some clean, innocent payback.  The squealing, screaming grade schoolers, all fighting and pulling on your costume and demanding demonstrations of powers and constantly asking questions.

And he’d have to put up with it.

She would relish this.

“…And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip!  Snap!  Snip!  The scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!…”

Assault read from the book of poems, and every one of the ninety kids that sat around him were leaning forward, eyes wide.

“He’s so good with kids,” the librarian murmured.

“Of course he is,” Battery said.  Maybe there was a hint of bitterness in her voice, because the librarian gave her a funny look.

She plastered a fake smile on her face to assuage the woman’s doubts.

“…both his thumbs are off at last!”  Assault finished.

The kids squealed in delighted horror.

Pain in the ass, she thought.  If I were reading that one they’d all be crying.

Battery’s phone vibrated.  She excused herself from the librarian’s company and checked the display.

Customer wants product hand delivered by known parahuman.  Package waiting in your apartment.  Second task.  -c

Cauldron had sent it to the phone the Protectorate gave her?  To a number that only the Protectorate had?  Did that mean something?

She deleted the message.  It would be easy enough to handle.  If the recipient wound up being a villain at a future date, she’d stop them, put them away.  This would just be a delivery.

Assault caught her eye and a slow smile spread across his face, as the little girl in his lap read some of the next poem.  The look was smug, sly.  He knew exactly how much this was irritating her.

“Jackass,” she muttered.

But she couldn’t stop a smile of her own from spreading across her face.

The glass in the little window of her front door was shattered.  It fell on her feet as she pushed the door open.

“Ethan!”  Battery called out.

“You’re okay,” Ethan said, as he came down the stairs.  He was still in costume.  Only a single cut marked his cheek.

“I didn’t know where to find you, and since the cell phones don’t work anymore, and you weren’t at headquarters, I thought I’d come here.”

“I know.  I thought much the same thing, but I came here first.”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m okay, puppy.”

She punched him lightly in the arm.  She didn’t resist as he swept her up in a painfully tight hug.

“We should go on patrol,” he said.  “This is going to be bad.  They’re kicking us while we’re down.”

“Right.  Patrol together or apart?”

“Together at first, assess the situation.”

“Okay.”

“A courier dropped this off for you,” he pointed at a small envelope on the hall table.

She saw the undercase ‘c’ on the front and felt her heart sink.

“Puppy?”

She picked up the envelope and checked the contents.  A slip of paper, blank on both sides.

A joke?  A reminder?  The last one had been two years ago.

“Let’s go,” she said, crumpling it in her fist.  She charged up and ran, and Assault crossed a similar amount of distance with his long and powerful leaps.

She covered more distance with the start-stop motion of charging and running than she did just running, but it made for a halting progress where Assault simply continued forward.  He made some headway on her.  She knew he’d stop at some vantage point to wait for her.

As she stopped to charge, she felt a tingle from her hand.

The note?

She spent the energy of a charge, but she didn’t run.  Again, that tingle.  She used her ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy and focused it on the note as she smoothed it out.

A pattern emerged: simple black lettering.  A second after they’d appeared, the paper started to smoke.

She had only a few seconds to read and process the message before the paper ignited.

Siberian and Shatterbird are to escape the city, and our business with you will be done. Thank you.  – c.

The burning scraps drifted to the road around her, but she only felt cold.

Every action had its consequence.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I hadn’t actually slept in for a long, long time.  It was not the start I wanted for my day.

I’d been too tired to sleep, I hadn’t been able to get my thoughts to slow down, and I hadn’t been able to resist just one more check of my territory to ensure people were safe and sound.  Compounding it all were my injuries, which did an excellent job of jolting me from the twilight of almost-sleep any time I moved the wrong way or shifted position.  When daylight had started to stream in through the slits in the metal shutters, I’d pulled a pillow over my head and tried to get just a few hours more.

If I wound up having to face down Mannequin or any other members of the Nine, I’d need to be well rested.  Running on two or three hours of sleep would get me killed.

It sure didn’t feel like the added sleep I got made any difference.

My injuries and the general aches from running barefoot and fighting Mannequin had all melded together into one giant, stiff bruise.  It would be easier to name the parts of me that didn’t hurt.  My chest was the worst, each of my breaths drawing a stab of pain from the lowermost ribs of the right side of my body.  It took me two tries to get up from my bed and stand.

A quick investigation showed that bruises had spread across my abdomen, yellow and blue.  Some careful prodding showed that the tissues beneath the bruises weren’t rigid or particularly tender.  That meant there was no serious internal bleeding, if I was remembering right.

If this kept up, I was going to need another go at the first aid courses, to refresh my memory on the particulars and brush up on my skills.  February felt so very long ago.  So much had happened in the last few months.

Shuffling over to my bathroom, I groaned quietly at the sight of the shards of mirror and shower door that were carpeting the floor.  I made my way back to my room and put on some slippers, grabbed a shirt I didn’t care much about and dropped it on the bathroom floor.  I kicked it around enough to get the worst of the shards out of the way, brushed the glass out of the shower and onto the tiled floor, and then cranked the shower on.  The water pressure wasn’t even half of what it should be, and it was cold.  It didn’t warm up over the thirty seconds I stood there holding my hand under the flow.

I jumped in anyways, in the hopes of waking myself up and getting my hair wet enough that I could make myself look somewhat presentable.  I knew from experience that not washing my hair had a way of making it frizz out hardcore.  Not that I’d be able to tell, with every mirror within a thousand miles in pieces.

I dried off, put on my contacts, combed my dripping-wet hair into place, and stepped back into my slippers to navigate through the sea of glass shards and head back to my bedroom to dress.

My TV, laptop and phone were all useless.  There was no way to get information on recent events.  I couldn’t call the others, couldn’t check the news for details on the events of the past night, couldn’t even know if I’d managed to save anyone when I’d been waking them and leaving messages.  I was left to expect the worst, and it soured my already iffy mood.

I made my way downstairs, unlocking the door that led between the second and third floors.  The second floor was relatively unscathed – the metal shutter had kept the floor-to-ceiling windows from sending their contents indoors, and the terrariums were hard plastic rather than glass.  Knowing Shatterbird was in town, I’d been reluctant to spend much time in a room with sixty or seventy sturdy glass cases, and I was glad to have one less room to clean.  Still, there was no shortage of mess.

Sierra and Charlotte were downstairs, talking at the kitchen counter.  They fell silent as I appeared.

They didn’t speak as I walked over to the cupboard.  Tea.  Tea, maybe some toasted breakfast pitas, some bacon, an egg…

Opening the cupboard, my hopes of having a solid breakfast to start my day were dashed. Bottles of spices that had been on the same shelf as the teabags had exploded, sending their contents and countless glass shards throughout the cupboard.  The cupboard reeked of cinnamon and cumin and various peppers.  They weren’t the only casualties there.  Bottles of cooking supplies had exploded on the upper shelves, and their contents had settled overnight, most of it pooling on the shelves in layers of congealed liquid that were thick with the needle-thin particles of shattered glass.

I looked at the pair of them.  Neither spoke, and Charlotte even looked away.

I hated this.  Hated feeling flawed, knowing they saw me that way.  Being bruised, sore and stiff, I was visibly mortal to them.  I hadn’t been able to stop Mannequin from hurting bystanders, or protect and warn my people about Shatterbird.  How were they supposed to respect me as someone in charge?  Sierra was even older than I was.

Well, I’d have to make use of them anyways.  My focus on the cupboards and the damage inside, I asked, “Charlotte, you up for a job?”

“Yeah,” she said, behind me.  When I glanced back at her, she looked away again.  I knew I’d taken some hits, but did I look that bad?

“It’s a bit of a walk, but I need to get up to date on events.  You’ll be going to the territory of a guy named Regent.  He’s a friend, and it’s close.  Tell him about the Mannequin incident, tell him I’m alive, and get details on what happened to Tattletale and the father.”

“The father?”

“He should know what I mean.”

“Okay.”  She met my eyes as she responded.  Better.   I wrote the address down for her, then watched as she headed off to pull on her shoes and make her way off to the cellar exit.

“And me?” Sierra asked.

“Go to the basement, get a box of supplies, and bring it up.  There should be a propane stove in there.  Cook up some rice, and then start cleaning out the cupboards.  Wear gloves, and focus on picking out the stuff we can keep from the stuff that needs to be thrown out.  Use the box from the supplies to hold some of the extra trash if you need to.”

“Okay.”

I walked over to the corner to find a broom and dustpan.

“You’re cleaning up too?”

“Yeah.  You were at the hospital last night, right?  How did things go?”

“Nobody listened to me at first when I tried to warn them.  It was only when Battery showed up at the hospital and confirmed that the Slaughterhouse Nine were around that people started trying to prepare, but there wasn’t a lot we could do in those ten minutes.  There were a lot of people in the hospital, and a lot of equipment, monitors and displays, lots of windows.  Everyone who could got under their beds, and people put mattresses against the windows in rooms where there were people who couldn’t move.”

“But they were okay?”

“Most?” Sierra frowned. “I couldn’t really tell.  It was chaotic, lots of people running around, equipment failing.  Battery tried to grab me to ask me how I knew what was happening, and I used the chaos to slip away, spent the rest of the night in my parent’s room, hoping she wouldn’t spot me.”

“And they’re okay?  Your parents?”

“They’re okay.”

I smiled a little.  “Well, that’s good.”

She smiled back.  “You know, you’re not what I expected.”

“I’m not what expected, frankly,” I said.  I turned my attention back to the cabinet, found the dustpan and stood up.

“That reminds me-”  She paused.  “Nevermind.”

“Say it.”

“It wasn’t last night, but I overheard something at the hospital.  Something involving you and Armsmaster?”

I sighed, suddenly reminded of how weary I felt.  I saw her expression fall.  She said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No.  It’s fine.  What did you hear?”

“That you betrayed your team, and that you’d wanted to be a hero but, um,” she paused, “Couldn’t?”

She’d changed her mind about how she was going to finish speaking.  What had she left out, and had she stopped herself from saying it for my sake or for her own self-preservation, not wanting to piss off the villain?  I wanted to be a hero and I failed?

Given recent events, I wasn’t sure I could blame her for thinking along those lines.

“No, that’s not exactly right,” I responded.  “Long story short, once upon a time, I wanted to be one of the good guys.”

“What happened?”

“Took me a while, but I decided I’d rather have the likes of Tattletale and Grue at my back instead of siding with the sort of people who follow Armsmaster.”

“Really, Armsmaster?  Is he that bad?”

“Bad enough that Mannequin wants him to be the ninth member of their group.”

Sierra’s eyes widened.

I figured I wouldn’t mention that two of my teammates, including the one I’d sent Charlotte to meet, had also been nominated.  Regent had only been nominated out of spite, and Bitch… I wasn’t sure what the story was there.  “I’m going to be upstairs, cleaning up the balcony and the other rooms.  Give me a shout when the rice is done, or if you find anything breakfast-ish that’s edible.”

“Okay.”

I headed up to my bathroom and began to sweep up.  I deployed bugs to help me find the shards that the broom wasn’t catching.

I occupied myself with my other bugs as well.  I went out of my way to avoid using the spiders I’d employed to fight Mannequin, drawing from bugs in the streets and surrounding area instead.  I sent the weakest, smallest and most useless of the bugs to my spiders for a morning meal, then fed the non-spiders who were a little less reliant on protein.  With the other nearby bugs, I started collecting the smallest pieces of glass throughout the house.

The uncertainties of the day, the worries about Lisa and Dad, having my routine disrupted and the spoiling of my breakfast and morning shower had put me in a bad mood.  It would have been nice to say that it made me feel better, getting things in order again, and it did, but it wasn’t a cure-all nor was it a perfect distraction.  There was no way I could relax with the things I had hanging over my head.

Doing this felt like I wasn’t doing something to help Dinah.

Once I finished the bathroom, I tidied my room and opened the shutters on the windows.  Glass that had fallen against the shutter sloughed off to the second floor balcony, with stray shards falling onto the hardwood.  My bugs obligingly fetched them up for me.

Reams of glass shards fell as I opened the heavy shutters that stood just behind the pedestals with the mannequins I was using to design the costumes.  I stepped out onto the balcony and set about sweeping up the glass and dumping it into the trash can, using my bugs to collect what the dustpan wasn’t catching.  I wasn’t in costume, and I was in plain sight on the balcony, but I doubted the concentration of bugs was enough to draw attention.

Ten minutes passed before I heard from Sierra.  I assumed it would be about the food, but it wasn’t.

“Skitter!  You’ve got company!”

Every bug I had in the cabinets and corners of the room streamed forth to check the intruder, my thoughts immediately shifting into a combat mode.  What escape routes did I have?  Could I help Sierra if there was trouble?  What tools and weapons did I have on hand?

The second my bugs settled on the intruder and felt that familiar emanation of outward pressure, like a faint breeze, I calmed down.  I felt a mite embarrassed as I made my way downstairs to greet Grue.

“Christ, T- Skitter!” he exclaimed, the second he saw me.

“What?”

“Your, um-” he gestured at Sierra shaking his hand, agitated.

“Employee?”  I suggested.

“Your employee just informed me that you fought Mannequin last night?

“Yeah.”

“Are you suicidal!?”

“He’s not that strong,” I said, defensively.  “I mean, scary as fuck, he’s strong, but he was beatable.”

“Do you not recall the very specific numbers we got on our chances against these guys?  Fifty-five percent chance we die if we fight them!”

“There were people in danger.  My people.  I thought a forty-five percent chance of survival was worth the risk.”

He tapped his finger against the forehead of his helmet.  I could almost make out the noise through the thin emanation of his power.  “Could you ask your employee to give us some privacy?”

“I can go for a walk,” Sierra said.

“Thank you,” I told her, “I’ll signal you with my power when we’re done.”

My heart was speeding up just a bit as we waited for her to leave.  I distracted myself by limping over to the propane stove that was positioned on the countertop and checking the rice.  There were containers and boxes of food arranged on the counter that Sierra had apparently checked and deemed edible.  Nothing especially good for breakfast.

As the door closed behind Sierra, I hugged my arms against my body and said, “Please don’t tell me you asked her to leave because you have bad news about Lisa or my dad.”

Grue pulled off his helmet and the darkness dissipated around his head.  It was Brian’s frowning face I saw, now.  “Your dad is fine.  He was already fully checked out and sent home.  Lisa is… less fine.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s not life threatening.  I just don’t know if it’s hit her yet.  Coil’s doctor stitched her up, but he told her to expect a scar.  I don’t know if it’s shock, the blood loss, or if it’s that she hasn’t seen herself in a mirror, but she doesn’t seem to care.  Cracking jokes, even.  Isn’t- is it sexist of me to wonder why a girl doesn’t care more about her looks being spoiled?”

“It’s easily possible she does care,” I said.  I was thinking back to her interactions with our enemies in fights.  In particular, our run-ins with Glory Girl and Panacea during the bank robbery and Jack Slash last night seemed to stand out.  “I think maybe she handles stress and problems by throwing herself headlong against them.  It’s how she operates in costume, against serious threats and unexpected situations.  There’s a word I’m trying to pin down, it’s not reckless, but-”

“I think reckless may be a very good word to choose,” Brian replied.

“No.  It’s…” I reached for the word and couldn’t find it.  I was too tired, and my brain wasn’t really in that gear.

“I’m surprised, sometimes, at how much attention you pay to us.  You seemed to have Rachel down cold, and your description of Lisa seems pretty apt.  Makes me wonder how you’ve analyzed me.”

“I’m not all that.  Really.  There are exceptions, but dealing with people isn’t my thing,” I said.  Feeling awkward, I distracted myself with the rice, taking it off the propane stove and scooping some out into a bowl.  Holding the pot, I pulled at the wrong muscle and felt my rib protest.  I winced, and I wasn’t able to hide it.

Noting my pain, Brian commented, “I can’t help but worry you’re self destructing, Taylor.  You can’t go up against the Nine to protect people you don’t even know.”

“I can.  I’ll manage.”

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“Dunno.  Two or three hours, but I slept in.  What time is it?”

“Nine.”

“Maybe four hours?”

“You’re going to run yourself into the ground at this rate.  Or get yourself killed.  Take your time.  Go on the defensive, tell your people to stay out of trouble and avoid drawing the Nine’s attention, rest.  You can work on this territory thing over the next few weeks, instead of days.”

I shook my head, “I can’t.”

“Right.  Just like you rejected Hookwolf’s suggestion that our groups take a break.  I won’t say that hearing you muttering to yourself was the entire reason I refused his offer, or even half the reason, but it was a factor, and I think I deserve answers for going up to bat for you.  What’s going on?”

“I made a deal with Coil.”

Brian folded his arms, much as I was doing.  “What deal?”

“He said that if I can prove my services are worth it, he’ll release Dinah.”

Brian shook his head.  “No.  There’s got to be more to it.  You’ve been distant, driven, and you’ve done some very un-Taylor-like things in the past few weeks.”

I ate some of the plain brown rice.  Could I tell him?

“There is more to it.  Lisa and I talked it over after the Endbringer thing.  She doesn’t like the Dinah situation either, even if she’s more willing to roll with it.”

“Right.  Just for the record, I’m not in love with the kidnapping and confinement of some kid, either.”

I nodded.  “So Lisa suggested the deal.  But knowing Coil, and from what Lisa says, and from the way Coil framed it when I posed the deal to him and just my gut, I- we don’t think he’s going to let her go.”

“No, I don’t think he would.  Her talents are too valuable for him.  But that doesn’t explain your attitude lately.”

I shook my head.  “I-”

I stopped and raised one hand.  Sierra was outside, not too far away, and there was a small group of people around her.  What had gotten my attention was the fact that she was tapping her finger against the origami cube.  She’d wanted to signal me without doing anything overt, maybe.  Or without my calling a swarm down to her location.

“-Something’s going on outside.  Come with?”

Brian nodded.

I headed upstairs and got my costume on in record time.  I couldn’t help but note how dusty it was from last night’s encounter, and how the one arm was still crusty with old containment foam.  It was torture to actually get my limbs into the legs and sleeves and zip up, and to contort myself to attach my armor.  Especially doing it quickly.  I ended up enlisting Brian’s help with the armor at my shoulders and back.

I could feel Sierra’s steady but insistent tapping on the cube all the while.

They were a short distance down the beach, but they started walking towards us a little bit after we entered the storm drain, and met us halfway.

Sierra was in the company of a pair of Japanese boys and a petite Chinese girl with a pierced nose and a thousand-yard stare.  There was a degree of attitude coming from them that was all too familiar.  Gang members.  Of course.  Just because Lung and Bakuda were no longer around didn’t mean there wouldn’t be scraps of the ABB in the area.  They wouldn’t be liked, but they were there, they were equipped for trouble and criminal activity was all they knew.

“Sorry to interrupt your business meeting,” Sierra said, looking from me to Grue.

“It’s fine.  What’s going on here?”  I controlled the tone of my voice.  They didn’t seem too fazed by this encounter with two supervillains.  Were they veterans of Lung’s rule?  Or Bakuda’s?

A Japanese guy with a mop of hair covering his eyes and a bad slouch looked from Sierra to me and spoke in a very American accent, “You still looking for muscle?”

He didn’t look like he had much muscle, but I wasn’t about to comment on that.  If nothing else, I was a little too stunned at what he was offering to say anything witty.  “Pretty much.”

“We heard you took on Mannequin,” the girl said.  “That’s ballsy.”

“Thanks,” I said, in my driest tone.  Stupid as it was, that statement meant something to me.  Nobody had really congratulated me since my fight with Mannequin.  I hadn’t congratulated myself.  It was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that they respected me for what had happened with Mannequin.  A victory was a victory, but people had gotten hurt, I’d gotten hurt.

The second Japanese guy spoke up.  He was in his early twenties and his accent was thick enough that I didn’t realize he was speaking English at first.  He pronounced ‘girl’ more like ‘gurru’. “Other day, girl was knocking on neighbor’s door, talking about you.  Said you was good boss.  Nice, generous, fair.  But we think that means you weak, before, not so much of that now.”

I shook my head slowly.  “No.  I’m not weak.”

“We know you has trouble with Lung and ABB before.  Not friendly.  But they gone, we still here.”

“You should know this isn’t about preying on the people in my territory.  Just the opposite.  If you’re looking for an excuse to bully the people around here, you’re in the wrong place.  The only people we fuck with are our enemies.”

There were nods from all three.

“No starting violence, no drug dealing, no prostitution, no threatening people, and no drug use or drinking unless it’s a hundred percent limited to your own time.”

A look passed between the two boys.  Which of my points had given them that momentary hesitation?  Still, they nodded again.

“Do you guys have a place?”

“Nah,” said shaggy-hair.

“Come on,” I said.

I led them to the nearest spot to get from the beach to the old Boardwalk, and into the Docks.

I had our destination in mind.  During my stay in the area, nobody had occupied it.  A thorough check of the structure found no splintering supports or framework, and there was no crumbling masonry.

I opened the doors and strode inside, followed by the new members and Sierra.  Grue followed at the tail end of our group.

The square building had been a garage for the biggest sorts of trucks or for boats, and sported three sliding metal garage doors, only one of which still opened.  A cargo container sat in the back corner.  I had my suspicions that boxes of recyclables had been piled up along the walls when Leviathan’s wave hit.  Now, scraps of metal, paper and other trash littered the floor inside until the floor was barely visible.  “If you’re really interested in joining, you can start by cleaning this place up.”

“Why?” the girl asked.

“If my say-so isn’t good enough-”

“No,” she raised her hands to stop me.  “Just… can’t I know what the point is?”

“I want you somewhere accessible.  This is close to my command center, it’s dry, it took a hit from a tidal wave and it’s still in remarkably good shape, and it’s spacious enough to serve our purposes.  At least to start off.”

“Can I ask what they are?”

I looked around, and it was Grue I looked at while I spoke.  “Having everyone in the Docks spread out like this, over this wide an area?  It’s a problem.  We’ve got single families living in warehouses and factories that could comfortably house three to five families, and they’re dealing with problems that we could handle far more easily as a group.  And there’s the logistics of it, getting supplies to everyone when there’s only three to six groups of people on a given city block.  I want to bring people from the fringes in, so we’re not so spread out.  Get everyone working for the collective good.  Build a community and tie everything to a smaller area.”

“There’s going to be resistance,” Grue spoke.  “People aren’t going to want to move, and they’re too spooked about run-ins with Chosen and Merchants to trust one another.”

“If-” Sierra started, but she stopped when Grue snapped his head around to face her, intimidated.  She tried again, “If she’s going to try it, now would be a good time.  Word’s getting out.”

“About what, specifically?” I asked.

“You fought Mannequin, you said you’d make him pay, and then you did.  And you did it to save people, people from the docks.  I think people are realizing you’re for real.”

I couldn’t think of a response to that, and nobody volunteered anything further.  Instead, I said, “Come on, let’s get to work.”

It wasn’t the nicest of jobs, but my new employees worked without complaint.  Or, to be more specific, the girl and shaggy-hair complained often but they didn’t direct those complaints at me or the job, specifically.

Since the usual means of communication were out, and it might be some time before cell phone towers were out, I’d have to use messengers to pass word on to Coil.  I began explaining what I planned to do with the space to Sierra, outlining the need for bunk beds, a cafeteria or kitchen and an area for people to sit.  The area wasn’t a quarter of the size of Lisa’s shelter, but it was a refuge, maybe.  A place where people could congregate and get some peace.  And, ideally, it could be a barracks for my soldiers.

I instructed my new employees to stack the crates of trash outside the door.  I stayed outside with Sierra and Grue when they went back in to get more.

“You’re going to have to watch those ones,” Grue said.

“I know.  Listen, I want to send Sierra down to meet the boss, pass on word about stuff I need.  Can you escort her part of the way?”

“Sure,” he said.

“If you’re willing, Sierra?  I know it’s somewhat dangerous to cross the city, and our groups don’t control all of the territory between here and there.  I could send one of those guys with you.  Bit of a walk, though.  Maybe forty-five minutes both ways.”

“No, I can go alone, if it’s not too bad.”

“Good,”  I said.  I turned my head to see a trio of young men who were approaching us.

It took the one in the lead a bit of courage before he could approach me.

“Yes?” I asked, when he didn’t speak.

“We were remembering how some girl was saying you were recruiting, the other day.”

“I was and I am.”  My heart was pounding.  Why was this happening now, when it had met with only resistance earlier?

“Don’t want to do anything illegal.”

“Not asking you to.  You okay with starting with some clean-up?”

He looked at his buddies -or were they brothers?- and nodded.

“Sierra here will tell you what needs to be done.  Put in a good effort and I’ll pay you at the end of the day.”  My thoughts were on the small safe that I was using as a bedside table.

His eyes widened slightly at that.  “Mind if I go and get my cousin?  He’ll be interested too.”

“Go.”  I ordered, and Sierra led two of them inside while the leader of the newest group ran off at a half-jog.

“Seems like you started something,” Grue said, when the last of them were out of earshot.

I shook my head.  “I don’t even understand how.”

“Still think you’re moving too fast.  Like I said earlier, there’s no good reason for it.”

“Dinah’s a good enough reason for me.”

“Maybe.  But you’ve got to find time to relax, get some sleep, maybe have some fun.  Or you’re going to make mistakes, and you’ll set yourself back days or weeks in your plan.  Slow and steady wins this race.”

“Can’t afford slow and steady,” I said.

Why?  You were telling me earlier, but we got interrupted.”

I’d been glad for the interruption, and I was profoundly disappointed the subject had come up again.  I folded my arms and looked away, down the road to where it gradually sloped to the shattered Boardwalk and the ocean beyond.

Here was the leap of faith.  The test of my trust in him.  “Because if I don’t amaze Coil, if I don’t force his hand and give him absolutely no reason to say I failed… he’s going to keep Dinah.  If he does, the only way to free her is going to be if Tattletale and I take Coil down.  And I don’t think we’d succeed.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Mannequin lunged for me, his bladed toes biting into the ground for traction.  He moved fast enough that his arms trailed behind him like twin ribbons in a strong wind.

He stopped several paces away from me, turning his body to swing at me with his right arm and the three foot long blade that was attached to it.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he’d fall well short. But his arm extended on a chain, giving the swing just enough reach to put the blade on a collision course with my head.

I parried it with my baton.  The hit was heavy, more like trying to fend off a sledgehammer than what I’d expected.  I almost lost my grip on my weapon.

As the blade bounced off my baton, he reversed the direction his upper body was turning to start spinning like a top.  His one attached arm hurtling around him, he sprung at me.  I threw myself back and away, escaping by a mere two inches.

His spinning upper body had, with his right arm spooled out, caused the chain to wind around his body.  He began reeling it in, the arm and blade drawing a lazy circle around him.  I backed away, thinking I finally had a chance to get my bearings.

As his detached arm reeled in, the fingers folded backwards around the end of one of his feet, gripping it.  He retracted the blade at the toe of the other foot and dropped that foot flat on the ground.  The motion seemed to unbalance him, and he teetered, almost falling over.  Then in one sudden motion, he righted himself and thrust out with his other leg and the three-foot blade that was now attached to it.

I didn’t have time to get out of the way, to bring my baton up to defend myself or even to do more than belatedly realize his near-collapse had been a feint.  He caught me in the stomach with that same surprising strength as before, then slashed up toward my collarbone with enough force to lift my feet up off the ground.  I landed hard on my back, my armor absorbing the brunt of the impact.  The sides of my armor panels bit into the ribs of my back where they curved toward my body.

Keeping the lessons I’d learned from sparring with Grue in mind, I tried to scramble back and away while Mannequin righted himself and put the forearm and hand he had connected to his foot in the right place.  Before I could get to my feet, he started striding toward me.

I drew my bugs around me to conceal my movements as I rolled to one side, set my feet under me and sprinted to his left.

While still beneath the cover of my bugs, I was struck from behind and knocked face first to the ground.  The surprise was as bad as the pain.

Through the swarm, I sensed him approach until he stood with one foot on either side of me.  I felt him wind his fingers into my hair and pull my head up and back.  I struggled, trying to catch him in the knee with my baton, but he wrenched me to one side, and I felt a blade press against my throat.

As he’d done with the gray-haired doctor, he pulled the blade hard against my throat in one long, smooth motion, adjusting for the curvature of my neck.

In one heartbeat, I formed and initiated a plan.  I grunted and made a choking sound, which was all the more realistic because he’d just pulled a length of metal hard against my windpipe; I did want to grunt and I did choke.  Then I went limp and had every bug in the area cease moving.  Like snowflakes, the flies began drifting down from the air.

He let go of my hair, and my mask clacked hard against the floor.  I heard a girl scream, heard noises and shouts from everyone else.

I swallowed, partially to check that my throat really hadn’t been cut.  My costume had saved me.  I wished the gathered onlookers hadn’t witnessed the scene.  It would have been better if the bugs had blocked their line of sight, as their noises of fear and alarm were going to get his attention.

I just needed a second to think.  Mannequin could press an assault indefinitely, until he succeeded in cutting my throat open or delivering that mortal wound.  It was like sparring against Brian, but worse in every way.  Mannequin was stronger, faster, he had more reach, he didn’t get tired, he was good and he was out to kill me.  He was versatile in a way no ordinary human could be.  He couldn’t be caught in an arm-lock- his limb would just come free or bend in some screwed up way.

He could sense me somehow.  How?  It had been reckless of me to assume that he used sight to get by, especially when he didn’t have eyeholes in his mask.  The fact that he hadn’t noticed I was faking meant he wasn’t relying on sight, or his sight was limited enough that he couldn’t make out the lack of blood through the cloud of bugs around us.  If he wasn’t hearing my breathing, I doubted he had super hearing either.

Did he use radar, like Cricket?  It would be my first assumption, except my bugs hadn’t heard anything of the sort.

No.  This line of thinking wasn’t accomplishing anything.

I heard him sharpening his blades against one another with the sound of steel on steel.  I could sense the movement, from the bugs that were drifting down onto him.  A man in the crowd whimpered, and Mannequin turned towards him.

The metal singing in the pauses between the scrapes of blade on blade.  Mannequin was standing still, observing.

I had to come up with a plan of attack, or others would pay the price.  My deadline was the point, I suspected, that someone lost their nerve and tried to run.

If I was going to attack, I needed to find a weak point.  But he was smart.  Before the disaster that had turned him into this, he had been on the brink of solving many of the world’s crises.  Overpopulation, renewable energy, effective recycling, world hunger.  Even with tinker abilities offering the means, it took someone special to manage that and actually make progress.

It was a given that he wouldn’t have any blatant weaknesses.  Any measure he didn’t think of himself, he would have shored up by now, by virtue of being a longstanding member of the Nine.  He’d fought heroes and villains better than me, and he’d learned and improved in the process.

In that respect, perhaps, he and I weren’t so different.  I’d developed in much the same ways.  The difference was that he had years more experience.  That, and he was batshit insane.

What would I do in his shoes, with his power?

I wouldn’t leave any vital openings uncovered.  That was a given.  My focus -Mannequin’s focus- would be on designing way to make himself a completely closed system.  It wasn’t just sensible, it was the whole point of his transformation.  He’d have perfect recycling of all waste, dissipation of excess energy by diverting it to mechanical movement, intake of energy by absorption of heat.

Could that be a clue as to how he sensed the world around him?  Heat?  Or was it something completely different?  Radiation?  Radio waves?  Electromagnetics?

Putting myself in his shoes, I had to think of his motivation.  Why this form?  I’d make myself resemble a doll or a store mannequin because… it was an eternal reminder.  Didn’t his wife and kids die when the Simurgh attacked?  There was a story there.

But what else?  Why resemble a human?

To mislead?  Maybe the configuration of ‘my’ organs and parts wasn’t human in the slightest.  I might have gone the Aegis route and built-in redundancies for everything I could spare.  I wouldn’t need a heart, kidneys, or a conventional digestive system, bone marrow or any of that stuff.  Everything I could strip away would be more room for equipment, more room for all the pieces and parts that help turn ‘my’ individual body parts into perpetually self-sustaining systems.

His torso was the biggest section of his body.  It wouldn’t have his heart, lungs or any of that, because he didn’t have a circulatory system.  More likely, it contained his brain, his sensory organs/system, and whatever mechanism he was using to remotely control his arms, legs, hands and feet.  Unless he didn’t want to put all his items in one basket.  It was easily possible for some of that stuff to be in his thighs and forearms.

If I were him… I would have spent hours carefully balancing the ‘ecosystems’ of each individual part of my body.  Something that exacting and that fine tuned would be sensitive, fragile.  They’d be resistant to impacts, I wouldn’t go around getting into fights if they weren’t.  But heat and cold?  A crack in that exterior of his?  It could wreak havoc.

Okay.  I was getting a sense of him, maybe.  That said, none of that mattered if I couldn’t hurt him in the first place.  Maybe I was thinking about this all wrong.

Bugs dealt with threats that were encased in hard shells all the time, didn’t they?  They dealt with other species of bugs.  There were a hundred solutions there, if I was willing to look for them.

That was the spark of inspiration I needed.  In a matter of seconds, I had a plan.

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was something.  As a just-in-case measure, I could try some other smaller plans, on the off chance that they might distract or even work.  Having those options, if nothing else, would make me feel better.  Mannequin had just brutally and unquestionably kicked my ass in the span of fifteen seconds, and it was going to be at least two minutes until I could even begin my plan, judging by how long it had taken my bugs to deliver the supplies from my lair.

The same instant I had that thought, I started everything in motion.  Every flying insect near my lair headed indoors to gather what I needed.

I made a mental note to make a more easily accessible opening to my lair, so I could do this faster in the future.

I made another mental note to set up a clock with ticking hands, so I could have bugs ride the three hands and have a precise way of tracking time when I was in my territory.  I supposed it would have to be an old-fashioned clock, since Shatterbird had screwed up everything else.

I had to guess.  Roughly two minutes until I could start my plan.

As I lay face down on the floor of the factory, I tried to control my breathing so he wouldn’t notice I was still alive.  The beat of my heart in my chest was so intense I was worried it would give me away.

Staying still was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, and I had done some hard things before.  Knowing that he might leap for someone and end their life any moment, it had me on edge.  Every second I could buy here counted because every second I didn’t have to fight him was crucial.

“Mommy,” the word was drawn out.  Had to have come from someone young.  A toddler?  “I don’t want to be here!”

The rhythm of steel rasping against steel ceased.  Mannequin went still.

Shit.  So much for my reprieve.

I pulled myself to my feet and stirred all of the bugs in the area into action.  They rose from the floor like a dark whirlwind.  I sheathed my knife and gripped my baton in both hands.

“Mannequin!”

He stopped and turned his upper body to face me.  His head cocked to one side.

“Yeah,” I said.  “You didn’t get me.”

He turned back around and started walking toward the mother and the little boy.  The pair were huddled between an empty metal frame and a workbench.

“Hey!” I shouted.  “Come on!  Fight me!  Don’t you have the balls to take on a teenage girl?  Or are they one of the things you cut away!?”

He didn’t slow or hesitate at my words.

“Bastard!”  I ran for him.  It was a hundred percent possible he was baiting me, forcing me into a situation where I had to do something stupid or let the mom and the little kid get hurt.  Maybe if I’d been a harder person, I could have let him hurt them, knowing it was smarter in the long run.  But I wasn’t capable of doing that.

What could I even do?  I had to make the call in the three or four seconds it took me to cross the floor of the factory.  He was more than half-again as tall as I was, and my weapons couldn’t do anything to him.

I threw myself at the backs of his legs, colliding with the back of his knees and his calves.  Not all of his precarious balance was an act.  He teetered and collapsed backward onto the floor, his legs on top of me.

“Go!” I screamed at the mother.  “Run!”

She did.  Mannequin reached out to extend a blade into the back of her leg, and she fell, but someone else hurried forward to help her.

Mannequin’s left leg snaked around my throat in an impromptu headlock.  I tried to slip out, to force his leg apart.  Even though I could move it, I couldn’t squeeze my head through the gap.

Not counting the time I’d spent lying on the ground, buying time, how long had I lasted?  Less than thirty seconds?

Four blades sprung from the calf of his right leg.  He extended it high above me, and they began to rotate, slowly at first, then faster, like the blades of a fan.  Or a food processor.

He had me in a headlock, but the rest of me was free to move.  Gripping my baton with both hands, I swung it into the whirling blades with as much strength as my leverage afforded me.

My baton went flying out of my grip, but the blades stopped.  My heart sank as I saw them begin to rotate again, slowly.

They didn’t return to the same blurring speed they’d been at before.  A few seconds passed, and they retracted back into his leg.

I might have been relieved, but I was still in his grip.

He heaved me upward, positioning himself with two hands and one leg on the ground, the other leg holding me up high.  My toes scrabbled to touch ground and fell short.  The grip on my neck wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t cutting off my blood flow, it barely impacted my breathing, but it still hurt, and my neck strained with the weight of the rest of my body.

I drew my knife and gripped the handle.  Then I drove it at my throat.  Or at Mannequin’s leg, which was folded around my throat.  Same idea.  I aimed at the ball joint, striking a mere two or so inches from my own face.  Once, twice, three times.

I was swinging for a fourth hit when he shifted positions.  I couldn’t be sure if he had hoped to gradually strangle me, to leave me dangling until I started begging or if he’d been poised for something else, but he’d apparently changed his mind.  He turned over, his leg unfolding from my throat at the same instant one large hand closed over my face.

He whipped me around himself in one tight circle, then let his arm go free from the socket, the whirring sound of chain feeding out swiftly becoming distant as I hurtled across the room.

I crashed into a pile of wooden boards that were riddled with nails and screws.  The metal points jabbed at me but didn’t penetrate my costume.  I tried to get my feet under me, but the boards only slid underfoot.  His hand was still attached to my face.

He began to pull me forward, no doubt to repeat the process.  Half blind under the grip of his hand, I reacted in a heartbeat, slamming the point of the knife into the gap between his hand and my face.

Tattletale had said it was strong enough to serve as a crowbar.  I was glad to discover she was right.  Between the pull of the retracting chain and the leverage of the knife, I freed myself from his grip, his fingertips scraping hard against my scalp.  Flying back to him, his arm clicked back into place.  I tried to blink a blurry spot out of my vision, only to realize I had a scratch on the right lens of my mask where I’d hit it with the knife’s edge.

The pain from being thrown around was belatedly making itself known.  Bruises, I could deal with.  Just so long as my body moved where and when I needed it to.  I felt the dull ache of a building headache.  From where I’d been gripped in the headlock?

Okay.  Still in one piece, more or less.  How much time had I bought?  One minute?  One and a half?  Could I hold out for long enough?  Could the bystanders?  The moment my bugs arrived would be the moment I could begin my plan.  I’d still have to survive after that, and there was no guarantee it would work.  In fact, my gut was telling me it was a long shot.

Thirty seconds to a minute.  I was panting for breath, counting every second that he silently stared at me as something I should value.

What was going on behind that expressionless mask?  Was he coming up with a battle plan?  Maybe, maybe not.  He didn’t really need one.  It could be that he was calculating how best to destroy me: not just killing me, but ruining me.  There were enough ways he could do it.  Inflicting lifelong scars and injury.  Or he could go down the opposite road and murder the civilians, leaving me as the only one standing.  Both were very real possibilities, both devastating in their own way.

Or maybe, behind that hard shell, he was in the throes of mental anguish.  Maybe he was spending every second of every day reliving the day he lost his family and his dreams to a nigh-unstoppable, malignant force.

There was nothing I could do about his past.  Whoever he had been before, he was a monster now.  I had to pull out all the stops to try and stop him from hurting anyone else.

It was time to enact battle plan number one, one of the two ideas I had in mind that almost definitely wouldn’t work.  I set my swarm on him.  Up to this point, I had kept them largely at bay, using only the bare minimum necessary to keep track of my surroundings.  Now I smothered him, piling them on every available surface.

It didn’t accomplish a thing, of course.  He started running toward me, weapons at the ready.  He wasn’t impeded in his movements, nor were his senses -sight or otherwise- impaired.

I ducked beneath his first swing as he closed in, but I couldn’t avoid the follow-up hit.  His second swing scraped off the armor on my shoulder and struck my chest.  Beyond the momentary pain, I was almost grateful for it, because the strike knocked me further out of his reach.

Some of my bugs managed to squeeze inside the slots where his weapons had emerged.  The spaces didn’t perfectly match the bases of the blades, and the bugs were small.  There was nothing organic inside the sheaths.  Even the interior was completely sealed off.  Still, I managed to get bugs into the mechanisms, lodging their bodies inside the finer workings or killing one another to spill ichor and their bodily contents onto anything that felt sensitive.

Mannequin stepped back, and I watched as he retracted all of his blades, the slots they’d speared out of sealing closed behind them.  A wave of pressure and heat killed off every bug and likely most of the gunk I’d managed to smear inside.

Yeah, I hadn’t figured that would work.  Plan one down.

For plan two, I needed my baton.  I could only hope it was in one piece.  I used my power and my eyes to search the factory floor, while keeping my head still, so he couldn’t see what I was doing.

My bugs were almost here, arriving in droves.

I found my baton lying against the wall near where I’d been pinned by Mannequin.  I’d have to get by him to get it.

Fetch.  I ordered my bugs, as Mannequin lunged for me again.  I didn’t have a second thought to spare as far as telling them how.  For now, I needed to survive.

This time, his attack was frenzied.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he was irritated.  I hopped back out of reach of the first swing, then quickly backed up as he followed that up with a series of rapid rotations of his upper body, momentarily becoming a blender-whir of whirling blades.

I was so busy trying not to get hit by the blades that I missed it when he tilted.  He balanced on one leg and kicked out wide with the other, letting the chain out so it could stretch the seven or eight feet to me.  I was knocked back onto the wood pile a second time, landing on the edge and falling to the ground a second later.

He stopped spinning and retracted his leg, apparently unfazed after the dizzying act of spinning like a top.  I saw my bugs tugging the baton, but Mannequin spotted them at the same time.  He stepped back and placed one foot on top of it.  With a kick, he sent it sliding across the floor, away from me.

Fuck.  I’d have to take the slightly less efficient route.  I grabbed a stout two-by-four as I stood.  It was old, dusty, damaged by years of exposure, and the screws that clustered in one end were rusted.

Better than nothing, as weapons went.

His blades made that rasping sound as he sharpened them against one another, one edge of each blade, then the other.  After doing it just long enough to lull me into a false sense of security, he lunged, blades spearing for my chest and throat.  I struck out simultaneously with the piece of wood.  It seemed to catch him off guard.  I struck too soon to hit him, but he wasn’t my target.

I clubbed at the uppermost blade, driving it down toward the floor.  I tried to avoid the edge and strike the flat of the blade, but my strike wasn’t spot on.  I didn’t see if I’d had any of the desired effect, because he collided with me, both blades striking the armor of my chest.  Pain exploded in my collarbone and ribs, but I didn’t experience any of the telltale pain of impalement.  My armor had saved me.

Finding the tips stuck in the denser material of my armor, he whipped both arms to one side, throwing me a solid ten or twelve feet.  I sprawled where I landed.

I huffed out a breath, feeling pain in my chest with every movement.  Then I smiled a little.

My swarm had finally arrived.

The bugs flowed into the room as a singular mass and roughly half of them swept over Mannequin.  He wobbled a little, then turned his attention to me, uncaring.

Which was a good thing.  It was better that he didn’t pay much attention.

Behind him, the bugs moved in an almost kaleidoscopic pattern, slowly expanding outward from a center point, their arrangement symmetric.

He paused and looked over his shoulder at the swarm.

He was apparently able to sense my bugs on the floor, floating in the air.  That much was apparent.  He hadn’t, at the same time, been able to tell I wasn’t bleeding out into a pool on the ground, or that I was still breathing while I lay prone on the factory floor.  My plan hinged on two things; whether his peculiar means of sensing things would let him grasp what I was doing here, and if he would be able to do something about it.

The formation ceased expanding, then swept over him again.  Once again, he wobbled, staggered a step.

He charged through the mass of bugs that now sat between the two of us, running towards me.  I managed to parry one swing of his blade with my piece of wood, then jump out of the way of the second blade.  When I tried to block his kick with the two-by-four, however, I lost my grip and it fell to the ground.  He kicked me a second time, hard, and I staggered back, hand to my stomach, nausea building up in my throat.  I controlled my breathing to keep my dinner down.

Third pass with my swarm.  They focused on his legs, and very nearly unbalanced him.

I could see him pause, watched his head tilt quizzically.  I bit my lip.

To his right, my left, the swarm had once again gathered in a tight cluster, and were expanding slowly, with controlled movements.

The swarm consisted of pairings of flying insect and arachnid.  Every spider from my lair was clutching a bee, a wasp or a larger dragonfly, who clutched the spider in turn.  A thousand pairs.

Connecting to one another, these bugs quickly drew out five hundred or more lines of webbing.  Mostly dragline silk, this ‘net’ maintained enough of the sticky webbing to attach to him, draping over his artificial body and staying there.

I hadn’t used the black widow spiders I’d brought into the factory earlier out of a fear that he’d realize what I was doing and counteract it before I could really get the ball rolling.  Now I gathered them up and brought them into play.  I used all of the spiders I’d already placed on him, focusing on his joints, reinforcing the stronger webs that were already there.  Their silk was nothing compared to the black widows, but it was something.

He moved without a problem, either unaware or uncaring.  Silk strands stretched and snapped as he extended his arms, more broke free as he walked.  Alone, the threads were negligible.  It was together that they were stronger.  Much like my costume.

He tried to retract the blade in his right arm, but it caught.  Pressing the point against the ground, he bent it back into alignment.  It retracted on his next attempt.  My strike with the two-by-four hadn’t done much there.  My second just-in-case measure hadn’t worked out.

That same arm disconnected and extended towards me as he tried to grab for me, and I turned to one side just in time to avoid being caught.  He fired the other arm out with an almost explosive force and I managed to catch hold of it before it got a grip on my costume.

My swarm made a fourth pass, focusing on the chain of his extended arm and the joints of his shoulders, elbows, crotch and knees where the webbing had already accumulated to some degree.  Fifty or sixty spiders stayed on the extended chain, spitting out large amounts of their stickiest webbing.

He was trying to maneuver the arm I was holding to grab onto me, his fingers and wrist bending at unnatural angles as he sought a grip on my hands and wrists.  He changed tactics, making the blades in the arm spear out at random, to make it as impossible to hold as he could.  When that failed, he whipped the chain.  I let go of the hand just in time to avoid being caught by the tail end of the whiplash.  He reeled it in, and it got about three-quarters of the way in before he ran into a slight snag.

The last quarter of the retraction process was a fraction slower.  Silk glue gumming up the works, I could hope.  I saw him look at his arm, then flex the fingers, as if to test them.

While he was distracted, I made a fifth pass with my formation.  I tried to be more subtle about it, carefully draping the silk over him rather than letting it pull tight against him with enough collective force to move him off-balance.

He attacked, stretching out the arm I hadn’t gummed up.  The pain from the most recent hit to my stomach slowed me down, and his fist collided with me, knocking me over for what seemed like the hundredth time.  I managed to backhand it off of me before he could do anything, and hurried to my feet.

While the arm was still partially extended, I managed to deposit spiders on the chain.  They immediately began straining to produce silk glue on and around the mechanisms that allowed the chain to retract.  One spider wasn’t much, but all together, it added up.

I could pinpoint the moment he realized what I was doing.  Extending the chain, he flung it across the room, the blade cutting a wide swathe.  I ducked clear, but two bystanders were struck down, screaming.  When he moved to retract that chain, the mechanism stalled.

His body was like Armsmaster’s powersuit, but every piece of equipment he added necessitated that he cut away a pound of flesh.  I was inclined to suspect that, crazy as he was, that reality made him more inclined to go for elegant, efficient design over more rugged craftsmanship.  The propeller blades in his ankle, the chain retraction mechanisms in his arms, they were built to be lightweight, to use minimal energy, and achieve maximum effect at the same time.

He tilted his head, looking at the arm that was stubbornly refusing to retract back into place.

I made my sixth sweep with my bugs.  As the swarm passed, his head snapped up, looking at me.  As much as he could without eyes, anyways.  He knew what was happening.

A better cape than I might have had a quip there, an insult.  I hurt in too many places, in my ribs, my stomach, my shoulders, neck, back and legs.  Some of the pain was fierce, like a red-hot poker being driven with a constant, ceaseless pressure into the body parts in question.  I couldn’t spare the breath.

The chain dropped from his elbow socket, and I watched as he paced over to his fallen arm, picked it up, tore the remaining chain out, and clicked it into place.

“Come on,” I muttered under my breath.

Blades speared out of slots all over his body, some of which I hadn’t even guessed were present.  Then he began spinning furiously, every body part rotating the individual blades with enough force that webs were cut before they could be secured in place.

Different tactic.  This time, the swarm took its time passing over him, thirty or forty spiders working at a time, their work relentless, ceaseless.  Each spider cut the threads so they drifted down like strings in the wind.

Falling gently instead of being stretched taut, they would drape over the spinning blades, attach to other trailing silk, and form a looser cloud.

I’d anticipated this.

The part where I was caught off guard was when he changed tactics, going after the civilians for the second time.

“Hey!” I shouted after him.

I’d hoped to be more subtle about my second phase of attack.

Half of the swarm I’d brought from my lair was still waiting for the instruction.  I deployed them while running after Mannequin, stopping at the wood pile to get another two-by-four.

Someone screamed as Mannequin started cutting into them.  Two or three people, cornered by the monster.  One already in harm’s way.

“Fucker!  Stop!”  I shouted, my words useless.

I moved on to the second phase of my attack.  As I’d done with the pens, markers, the candles and the bottles of disinfectant, I’d instructed my bugs to arrive with supplies in hand.

Some carried the scraps of silk cloth from my work on the costumes: The masks I’d made as trial runs, the belts and straps.  As with the silk that drifted in the air, they were caught by the blades rather than being cut.  Mannequin soon had a dark blur whirling around his upper body.

Other bugs packed the remainder of my costume design supplies.  Tubes of paint were rigid enough to be cut by the blades, creating small, wet, colorful explosions.  A large bottle of glue made its way to my hand, and I hurried to tear off the lid before a large group of bugs carted it off to him, holding it upside-down over his head so streams of the stuff could spill onto his head and shoulders.  Packages of dye were torn in half by his blades, expanding into clouds of black, brown, gray and lavender powder, sticking to any liquid on him, filling every gap to highlight the hidden slots for his weaponry and the seams where everything fit together.

Swinging underhand, I brought the two-by-four up toward the widest part of the buzzsaw whirl that was Mannequin.  Through luck as much as intent, I managed a glancing blow on the end of the blade, knocking it up toward the ceiling.  The momentum of his rotation managed the rest.  He tipped and crashed onto his side, literally falling apart in the process.  Lengths of chain connected everything, but nothing was in the right socket.  Some sort of built-in defense mechanism against heavy impacts?

My swarm flooded over him to draw out more lines of silk and to spill glue -both organic glue from my spiders and brand name supplies- where possible.

He began to reel the various parts in, slowly.  I hurried in to grab the one arm he’d disconnected from the chain and hurled it away.  Then I seized his head.

I knew he wouldn’t have anything particularly valuable in his head.  It was too obvious a target.  But it was easy to get my hands on, it wasn’t connected to too many other things, and there was a chance he might want to keep it.

Holding the head, I hauled back, pulling more chain from the neck.  With one hard pull, I hauled half of his body in my direction, the exertion making every injury I had screaming in protest.  Another pull, and I dragged his body another half-foot back, but I got one or two feet of length from the neck-chain.

Even with stuff gumming up the works, his chest clearly had stronger mechanisms inside it than the rest of his body did.  The chain began slowly retracting.

Someone appeared behind me, and his hands gripped the chain, just a bit behind my own.  He added his strength to mine, and Mannequin’s body was dragged another two or three feet back.

“Where?” he asked.  It was a burly bystander with a thick black beard, thick rimmed glasses and a red and black striped t-shirt.  One of my people.

I turned and let go to point.  There was a metal frame that had once stood around some equipment.  Now it stood empty, just a connection of metal bars.

“Stand back,” he said.  I let go and backed off.  Without me in the way, the bystander was able to haul Mannequin another four or five feet towards the frame.  Another haul, and they were close enough to the frame.

I hurried forward, gripping the head, and winding it through and beneath the bars, tying it in the crudest of knots and tangling it in the bars in the process.  It dangled, the stump facing the ceiling.  Fifteen feet of chain trailed between it and Mannequin’s body.

Mannequin had only just managed to reel in the chain and reconnect his remaining arm, and was using it to attach his legs securely into place.

I had only seconds.

Having my bugs in the area, I knew exactly where to find what I was looking for.  I hurried over to the corner and hefted a cinder block.

I wasn’t halfway back to the head when I saw Mannequin stand.  I abandoned my plan, dropped the block and stepped away, circling him, putting distance between myself and his head.  His attention seemed to be on me.

Had I pissed him off?

He wasn’t spinning any more, and I could see the damage the bugs had wrought.  Dense webs and scraps of cloth had collected across his body, and only half of the blades had succeeded in retracting in the face of the silk, glue and other gunk.  Color streaked him, both liquid from the paints and powder from the dyes.

I gathered my bugs into another formation.  We were running low on silk, but I’d have to deal.

He stepped forward, and his movements were more awkward than usual.  Good.  That might mean the ball joints weren’t in pristine condition anymore.

He moved again, disconnecting the chain to free himself from the metal frame I’d tied the neck-chain to.  He wasn’t focusing on me.  I felt out with my bugs and sought his target.

His arm.  It crawled weakly for him, using the fingertips to scrape forward.

The moment I realized what he was after, I redirected a portion of my web-spinning swarm to the hand.  Then I limped to my left to put myself between him and his target.  My swarm passed over him.  The seventh strafing run.  He slashed at it as it passed in a surprising display of emotion.

He reached into the hole where his neck and head were supposed to be and withdrew a small knife.

I adjusted my posture.  He was a tinker, and that knife could be anything.

He pressed a switch, and it was soon surrounded with a gray blur.  I recognized it as Armsmaster’s tech.

A weapon with that exact same visual effect had done horrendous damage to Leviathan.

He stepped forward, and I stepped back.  Behind me, the arm jumped.  Mannequin was using the telescoping blade to help push it in the right direction.  It was trying to take a circuitous route around me.

My bugs made their eighth sweep past the headless Mannequin.

He lunged for me once again.  This time, there was no blocking the hit, no letting my armor absorb it.  His movements were ungainly, unbalanced by his lack of an arm, but he stood nine feet tall, usually, and that meant he had reach, no matter the type of weapon he was wielding.

I backed off, rapidly stepping away, all too aware that my spiders weren’t working fast enough to stop him before he landed a hit.  I was swiftly running out of room to retreat.

There was a sound, a heavy impact followed by the noise of ringing metal.  Mannequin stopped and whirled on the spot, striding back the way he’d come.

The sound came again.  I chased, trying not to limp, knowing there was little I could do to stop the monster.  I crossed half the factory floor before I saw what had earned Mannequin’s attention.

The man who’d helped me with Mannequin had the concrete block in his hand, and for the third time, be brought it down on Mannequin’s head.  The head came free of the chain and fell to the ground, rolling briefly.

The man hefted the cinder block again, saw Mannequin approaching, and changed his mind.  He dropped the block onto the head and then ran.

Mannequin didn’t give chase to his attacker.  Instead, he stooped down to pick up his head, then stood straight.  I stopped where I was.

For long moments, Mannequin held the head at arm’s length.  Then it fell to the ground.

Seconds stretched on as his arm flopped its way towards him.  My spiders swarmed it, surrounding it in silk.  Only the blade was really allowing it to move, now, the fingers struggling around the silk to move it into position for the next sudden thrust of the blade.

Mannequin turned his attention to his arm, and I set my swarm on it.  A thousand threads of silk, each held by as many flying insects as I could grip it with, all carrying the arm aloft.  I brought it up to the ceiling, and began fixing it in place, building a cocoon around it.  My enemy turned his attention to me, his shoulders facing me square-on.  As he no longer had a head, I found his body language doubly hard to read.  Had I irritated him, doing that?

He stepped forward, as if to lunge, and the silk that wreathed him hampered his full range of movement.  His leg didn’t move as far as he intended, and his missing arm displaced his sense of balance.  He collapsed.

“Want to keep going?” I asked his fallen form, my heart in my throat.  I stood ready to jump and react at a moment’s notice.

Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet again.  Twice, he used the knife to slash at the silk.  On the second attempt, I hit him with the formation of bugs for an eighth sweep of the silk net, hoping to throw him off-balance enough that he’d stab himself.  No such luck.

Standing straight, Mannequin shifted his grip on his knife and then raised one finger.  Wagged it left and right, that same gesture of disapproval, condemnation.

Then he turned to leave, striding for the door.  I didn’t try to stop him.  I didn’t have it in me.

I watched him leave with my bugs.  Felt him get three, four, then five blocks away with my power, before he was out of my range.  The second he was gone, all the strength went out of my legs.  I collapsed onto my knees in the center of the room.

I hurt all over.  If Mannequin hadn’t broken something in my ribs or collarbone, he’d fractured something.  But pain was only part of it.  Physically, I was exhausted.  Emotionally?  Doubly so.

Charlotte appeared at my side and offered me a hand.  The murmurs of conversation started to sound around me.  I tuned it out.  I couldn’t take the criticism, and I didn’t deserve any praise.  How many people had been hurt while I fought Mannequin?  How many people had died because I hadn’t been on the alert?

With Charlotte’s help, I stood.  I shook my head at her offer for support standing.  Moving slowly and carefully, not wanting to embarrass myself, I walked over to the dismembered head.

It was miniscule, but there was a drop of black fluid beading at the seam in the neck where the chain had been threaded.  Apparently that was enough of a flaw for Mannequin to abandon it.  I left it where it was.

Then I hobbled over to the body of the gray-haired doctor.  Getting onto my knees was painful, but I did.  I gently turned her head and stared into her open eyes.  Light blue, surprised.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

I couldn’t think of anything more to add or say.  A minute or two passed before I gave up on it.  I left her eyes open; using my fingertips to close her eyes seemed presumptuous and trite.

I cut the threads with my bugs and let the arm fall from the ceiling.  More than one person was startled at the sudden drop and impact.

“Throw the head and the arm into the ocean,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “If you can find a boat, drop it somewhere deep.”

“Okay,” Charlotte said, her voice quiet.

“I’m going to go.  I’ll be using my bugs to watch for more trouble,” I said, as I began limping toward the door.

I’d won.  So to speak.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I never thought I’d be thankful in any way that Leviathan had trashed my hometown.  Leviathan’s tidal waves had shattered many of the windows and the residents had put plywood, plastic and boards up in their wake.  It meant there was less material for Shatterbird to use against us.  Countless people had been spared from injury and death due to Shatterbird’s glass shards because Leviathan had gotten to us first.

But even without the glass, there was still sand.

I stepped out of the way as a trio of people moved down the street, supporting each other as much as they were able.  Each of them had been blasted by the sand, their skin left ragged.  It had turned a bruised combination of black brown and purple where it hadn’t been scraped off and left raw, red and openly bleeding.  One looked as though he’d been blinded.  The sandburns covered his upper face.

Two ambulances had stopped at an intersection just a block away from where I had announced my claim of territory.  At a glance, I could tell that they’d had all mirrors removed and all glass stripped from the dash, doors and windshield.  Those that had emerged from their homes and shelters were gravitating towards the ambulances.  There was still dust settling on the streets, and I could taste it thick in the air, even through my mask.  I wondered if we needed to be getting masks out to people.  It couldn’t be healthy.

Heads turned as I approached.  I’d put my costume on again, and I had a swarm of bugs following in my wake, giving me more presence.  When people were this hurt and scared, it didn’t take much to tap into that primal part of their psyches and intimidate them just a little.

Surveying the scene, I could already tell there were going to be issues.

Hundreds, thousands of hurt people, many in critical or potentially critical shape, there were only two ambulances here, and the hospitals would be overcrowded.  People were going to panic when they realized that they wouldn’t necessarily get help.  They would get upset, even angry.  This already unstable situation would descend into all-out chaos.

I told them I’d protect them, but there was no stopping this.

I wasn’t on my game.  My thoughts were on Dad and on Tattletale, not on these people and all the factors that I was supposed to take into account.  But I didn’t have a choice.

I gave the order, and my swarm spread out, flowing through the crowd.  It was enough bugs to get people’s attention.  I just hoped the benefits of having the bugs there would outweigh any fear or discomfort the bugs generated.

Using the bugs I’d spread around the area, I augmented my voice, allowing it to carry.  “The most important thing is to remain calm.”

More people turned toward me.  I stepped closer to the ambulances, where paramedics were working with some of the most critical cases.  I felt like a charlatan, a pretender.  The look of mixed fear and incredulity from the paramedics didn’t help.  Still, someone had to take control and organize before people started lashing out, and the city’s heroes were apparently occupied elsewhere.

“I don’t intend you any harm,” I reassured them.  “If you’re unhurt and able-bodied, there are people who need your help.  Step forward so I can direct you to them.”

Silence and stillness stretched on for long seconds.  I could see people who had no visible injuries, who were staring at me, unwilling to respond to my appeal.  Generally speaking, the types of people who lived in the Docks weren’t the sort who were used to being neighborly, to putting society’s needs above their own.

Fuck me.  My head wasn’t in the right place.  I’d forgotten.  I’d been taught in the first aid classes you had to be direct and specific when dealing with people in a crisis.  Asking for help was begging for disappointment, because people would hesitate to step forward, or assume that someone else would handle the job.  Instead of asking for help, we were supposed to single someone out of the crowd of bystanders and give them a clear, identifiable task.  Something along the lines of, ‘You in the red shirt, call nine-one-one!’

And now that I’d fucked that up, I’d entrenched them.  The status quo was now quickly becoming ‘not listening to the supervillain’, and it would be twice as hard to get them to go against the rest of the herd.

Which left me three unpleasant options.  The first option was that I could abandon that plan, look weak, and lose standing in the eyes of everyone present.  Alternately, I could speak up again, appeal to their humanity, beg, plead, demand, praying all the while for someone to come forward.  That was the second choice, and it would make me look even worse to everyone watching, with only a miniscule chance of success.

The silence stretched on.  I knew it had only been five or six seconds, but it felt like a minute.

The third of my ugly options?  I could make them listen.  Goad them into action with threats and violence.  It meant I risked provoking the same sort of chaos and violence I was hoping to combat, but I suspected that chance was relatively minor.  I could get people to do what I needed them to do.  I’d maybe earn their respect, but I’d probably earn their enmity at the same time.

Could I do this?  Could I become the bully, even if it was for the greater good?  I was going to hate myself for doing it, but I’d left my dad behind to be here.  I wasn’t about to fail.

“Alright,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.  My fist clenched at my side.

I hesitated.  Someone was approaching.  I felt them passing through the bugs I’d dispersed through the crowd.  Charlotte.

“You’re not wearing your mask,” I said, the second she was close enough to hear me, my voice quiet.  “Or the paper cube.”

“The cube got crushed when I was helping someone.  I was glad you didn’t use your power,” she said.  Then, loud enough that some people nearby could hear her, she asked me, “What can I do?”

I owe her one hell of a favor.

I’d had my bugs sweeping through nearby buildings since I’d arrived.  I hadn’t really stopped, even after I got home.  I had found several of the wounded.  A man lying prone, two kids huddled near their mother.  The mother’s face was sticky with blood, her breathing quick.  The children were bleeding too.  I could sense a man stumbling blindly through what had been his home, hands to his face.

I almost sent her after the blind man, but reconsidered.

I pointed at a warehouse, and spoke loud enough for others to hear, “There’s a woman and two little kids in there, you won’t be able to help them alone.”  Which was a large part of why I had chosen them.

I spotted a twenty-something guy with an impressive bushy beard and no shirt.  Aside from one cut on his stomach and some smaller patches of shredded skin where the sand had caught him in the back, he seemed to be in okay shape.  “You.  Help her.”

He looked at the older woman beside him.  His mother?  She was clearly hurt, and had the remains of two or three white t-shirts bundled around her arm.  It was clear the limb had been caught by the sand; it looked like a mummy’s arm, only bloody.  Anticipating an excuse on his part, I pointing to the nearest group of injured and told him, “They’ll look after her.  There are people who need you more.  Second floor.  Go.

He looked at his mother, and the look she gave him was answer enough.  He helped her hobble over to the group of people I’d indicated, leaving her in their care, and joined Charlotte in running for the warehouse where the woman and kids were.

Now I just had to keep my momentum.

“You and your friend,” I spoke to a middle-aged guy and his buddy.  “There’s a guy slowly bleeding out in the factory there.  Go help him.”

The second that passed before they moved to obey left my heart pounding.

I turned to the next person and stopped.  He was one of the few people with actual bandages on his wounds, and he stood near his family.  Even with the gauze pads strapped to his face, I recognized him from earlier.  Or, to be specific, I recognized the little boy R.J., and I knew this man as his father, patriarch of the rat infested house from early in the day.

“There’s a blinded man in the brick building over there,” I told him, facing him squarely.  “Go help him.”

“Why?” he challenged me, his voice gruff, his gaze hard.  “I’m hurt.  If I go, I’m going to miss my turn with the ambulances.”

Asshole.  There wasn’t even a shred of gratitude for what I’d done to help him and his family, and he didn’t even seem to need his turn at the ambulance that badly either.  I had to resist the urge to hit him or set my bugs on him.

Worse, I couldn’t help but feel like he was seeing through the image I was trying to portray.  Seeing the girl behind the mask, who was just trying to pretend she knew what she was doing.

I turned to the next person, a solidly built woman with scratches and the sandburns I was quickly coming to recognize all over her face.  She had even taped half of a sanitary pad over one eye.  It wasn’t my brightest move, but I asked her, “Are you going to whine like a little girl, too, if I ask you to help someone?”

She smiled a little and shook her head.

“Good.  Go.  Left side of the building.  He’s blind, and there’s nobody else there to help.  I think he might have inhaled sand, he’s coughing pretty violently.  Don’t push him to move too fast or too much.  Take your time walking him back, if the bleeding isn’t too severe.”

She obeyed, moving off with a powerful stride.  When I looked, R.J.’s dad was gone.  He was stomping off toward the ambulances, keeping the crowd between us, dragging his wife at his side with R.J. hurrying to keep up.  Knowing how angry he was, I had to hope he wasn’t the type to take out his anger on his family.  I didn’t want to be indirectly responsible for their pain.

There were more people to pick out of the crowd, more orders to give.  It was all about setting them up so that refusal made them look bad, both to themselves and to others.  Social pressure.

By the time I’d sent two more groups, some of the others were coming back to be directed to the next few injured.  I gave them their orders.

Which only raised the greater problem.  How were we supposed to handle these people who were hurt and waiting their turn?  They were scared and restless.  That unease bled over into their friends, families and maybe their neighbors, who were scared for themselves and the people they cared about.  Already, they were gathering around the ambulances, pleading for help from too small a group of people, who had their hands full saving others’ lives.  Some were simply asking the paramedics for advice while keeping a respectful distance, others were demanding assistance because they felt their loved ones were more important than whoever was getting care or attention at that moment.  The paramedics couldn’t answer everyone.

People in this area formed closely knit packs.  They would step up to defend the people they cared about far more quickly and easily than they had with my appeal to help strangers just minutes ago.  I didn’t trust them to remain peaceful if this kept up.

What the hell was I supposed to do with them?

As lost as I felt in that moment, I managed to look calm.  My bugs gave me an awareness of the situation, and my eyes swept over the scene to get a sense of the mood and what people were doing.

I spotted a mother picking at one of her son’s wounds, and I realized what she was doing.  I hurried to stop her.  “What are you doing?”

Riding the highs and the lows of emotion from the past hour or two, I might have come across sounding angrier than I was.  She quailed just a bit.

“He has glass in his arm.”

He did.  There were slivers of glass no longer than the nub of lead in an old-fashioned pencil, sticking out of his cuts.

“Those are probably okay to remove,” I told her, “But avoid disturbing any close to the arteries, here, here and here.”

“He doesn’t have cuts there.”

“Good,” I told her.  “But you should know for later, for when you’re helping others.”

She pointed at her leg.  Sand had flayed the skin of her foot and calf and turned the muscle a dirty brown color.  “I can’t really walk.”

“You won’t need to.”

A plan was coalescing in my mind.  A way to give people something to do and give them some indication they’d eventually get help.  The problem was, I needed materials to carry this out, and there wasn’t much nearby.  It meant I had to get the materials from my lair.  I wasn’t willing to leave for any length of time, though, and I didn’t want to spare Charlotte, either.

I had to use my bugs.  That wasn’t so simple when the things I was retrieving weren’t small.

I had a box of pens and markers in my room, for sketching out the costume designs.  I also had first aid kits in my bedside table upstairs and in the bathroom on the ground floor.  Bringing all of that stuff here meant opening the boxes and retrieving everything I needed, carting them here on a wave of crawling bugs, past puddles and flooded streets.

I collected markers, pens, bandages, ointments, iodine, candles and needles.  Especially needles.  Smaller bottles of hydrogen peroxide.  At least, I hoped it was the iodine and hydrogen peroxide.  I couldn’t exactly read the labels.  The bottle shapes felt right, anyways.

More people returned with the injured.  I administrated my bugs while I gave new directions to the rescue parties.

Just carrying the things on a tide of bugs wasn’t going to work.  The crawling bugs couldn’t pass through the water, and there was no way to have flying bugs carry things – too many of the objects were too heavy, even with the flying insects gathered on every inch of their surface and working in unison.

Minutes passed as I tried different configurations and formations of bugs, trying to wrangle things like the small bottle of hydrogen peroxide with my swarm.

Then I saw the woman with the maxi-pad eyepatch and a man of roughly the same age carting someone to the ambulance using a blanket attached to two broomsticks as a stretcher.

I could do the same thing.  I called on my black widow spiders, drawing some out from the terrariums where I had them contained.  Wasps carted them to the necessary spots, and I had them spin their silk around the objects in question and tie that silk to the necessary bugs.  Silk looped around the neck of a marker, then around a series of roaches, who could then be assisted by other bugs.  I did the same for the other things, the iodine, markers, pens, candles and more.

When I was done, I called the swarm to me.

I turned my attention to the injured who were clustering around the ambulances.

“Listen!” I called out, using my bugs to augment my voice.  “Some of you have been picking the glass out of your skin!  I understand it hurts, but you’re slowing things down!”

I got some confused and angry looks.  I held up my hand to forestall any comments or argument.

“Any paramedic, nurse or doctor that helps you has to make absolutely sure that you don’t have any glass embedded deep in your body.  I don’t believe x-rays can detect glass-”

I paused as a paramedic snapped his head up to look at me.  Okay, so I was wrong.  I wished he hadn’t reacted, though.  People were paying attention to the paramedics, they’d noticed, and it wasn’t critical that these people know the exact details of the treatment they’d get.  If he’d just let me lie or be wrong, this would have gone smoother.

“Or at least, glass as fine as the shrapnel that hit you,” I corrected myself.

A shrug and a nod from the paramedic.  I got my mental bearings and continued, “If you’re pulling the glass out of your cuts and wounds and you lose track of which ones you’ve tended to, they’re going to have to explore the wounds to investigate, queue you up for x-rays and maybe even cut you open again later, after the skin has closed up, to get at any pieces they missed.”

I could see uneasy reactions from the crowd.  I raised my hand, just in time for the first of my swarm to arrive.  I closed my hand around a pen as the cloud of airborne insects delivered it to me.  They dispersed, and the pen remained behind.

“I’m going to give some of you pens and markers.  We’re going to have a system to make all of this easier on the doctors.  Dotted lines around any injuries with glass sticking out.  Circles around wounds where the glass may be deeper.”

The paramedic waved me over.  I moved briskly through the crowd to the stretcher.

“Tetanus,” he said, when I was close enough.  “We need to know if they’ve had their shots.”

“They probably haven’t,” I replied, using my swarm to augment my voice, but not to carry it to the crowd.

“Probably not.  But we have to ask, and time we spend asking is time we could spend helping them.”

I grasped the hand of a grungy old man who stood next to me, stretching his arm out.  “Have you had your shots?”

He shook his head.

I used the pen to draw a ‘T’ on the back of his hand, circled it and drew a line through it.  I pressed the pen into the old man’s hand, “You go to people and ask them the same question.  If they haven’t had their shots, draw the same thing.  If they have, just draw the T.”

I saw a glimmer of confusion in his eyes.  Was he illiterate?  I turned his hand over and drew a capital ‘T’ on his palm.

“Like that, if they have had their shots” I said, raising his hand for people to see, then turned it around.  “Like that if they haven’t.”

He nodded and took the pen, turning to the not-quite-as-old man beside him.

I addressed the crowd, “Remember, dotted line around the wounds if you can see the glass or if you’re absolutely sure there’s no glass in there, circle if you can’t tell.  Once you or someone else has drawn the dotted line, you can take out the glass if it’s smaller than your thumbnail.  If it’s bigger, try to leave it alone!”

“We need some elbow room,” the paramedic told me.  His blue gloves were slick with blood.  People were standing within two or three feet of him, watching what he was doing, trying to be close enough to be the next to get help when he was done with his current patient.

That wasn’t the limit of the potential patients, either: there were the injured that Charlotte and the others were retrieving.  The people who hadn’t been able to get here under their own power.

“We’re changing locations,” I called out.  I could see them reacting to that, balking at the idea.  “If you’re able to stand, it’s going to be a long time before you get the help you want.  There’s plenty more people with worse injuries.  Suck it up!”

I waited for someone to challenge me on that.  Nobody did.

“If you listen and cooperate you’ll get the help you want sooner.  We’re going to gather inside the factory right here where we’ll be clear of the worst of the dust.  It’s dry inside, and there’s enough space for all of us.”

It took some time for everyone to get moving, but they did.  My bugs passed me some candles and a lighter and I started handing them out with the pens and markers.  I followed the mass of people into the defunct factory that was next to the ambulances.

Sheets and cloths were pulled from machinery and laid atop boxes and on the ground, so people had places to sit and lie down.  Gradually, people set about the process of marking the types of wounds and the presence of glass, buried or otherwise.

“Disinfectant?” a woman asked me.

I turned.  She was older, in her mid-fifties, roughly my height, and she had a pinched face. “What about it?”

“You’ve been pulling things out of the clouds of flies,” she told me, “Can you produce some disinfectant for us, or are you limited to art supplies and candles?”

I got the impression of a strict schoolteacher from her.  The kind who was a hardass with even the good students and a mortal enemy to the poor ones.

I reached out my hand, and a portion of my swarm passed over it.  Thanks to the fact that many of them were in contact with the bottle, it was easy enough to position my hand and know when to close it.  The bugs drifted away, and I was left holding the three-inch tall bottle.

My theatrics didn’t seem to impress her.  Her tone was almost disparaging as she said, “Nobody uses hydrogen peroxide anymore.  It delays recovery time.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” I said.  “If the wounds heal over embedded glass, it’ll be that much more unpleasant.”

“Do you have medical training?” she asked me, her tone disapproving.

“Not enough, no,” I said with a sigh.  I had the swarm pass over my hand again, picking up the hydrogen peroxide and depositing another plastic bottle in its place.  “Iodine?”

“Thank you,” she said, in a tone that was more impatient than grateful.  “We’re going to need more than this.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told her, trying not to sound exasperated.

She headed for a group of people and knelt by one of the wounded who was lying on a sheet.  I could see her posture and expression soften as she talked to them.  So she wasn’t like that with other people.

Whatever.  I’d been prepared to be hated when I committed to villainy.

I gathered all of the supplies I’d brought and sent more bugs out to scout for more.

What I wouldn’t give for a working cell phone, to find out about how Tattletale was doing, even to ask after my dad.  But cell phones had computer chips, and computer chips had silicon.

Everything that was electronic and more complicated than a toaster was probably fried, with exceptions for some tinker-made stuff.

There was no use dwelling on the fact that two people I cared about were gravely hurt.  I couldn’t do anything about it now, and time spent wondering was time I wasn’t protecting and helping these people.

In terms of protecting these people, I spread my bugs out over every surface, until a potential threat wouldn’t be able to take a step without killing one.  It would serve as advance warning in case any members of Hookwolf’s alliance came through to make trouble.  I spread out some flying insects to try to detect airborne threats like Rune.

Most of the flying bugs, however, I was using to sweep over my surroundings, checking buildings and building interiors.  I wanted first aid kits, anything these people could use to clean their wounds.  Noting the lack of suture threads, I had my spiders start using their silk to spin something long, thick and tough enough, threading it through the holes of needles for their use.

It would slow down my costume production a touch, but I could deal.

“That doesn’t look very sterile,” a woman said, from behind me, as I checked the length of the thread one set of spiders had produced.  It was the pinched, gray-haired woman from just a little bit ago.

“More than you’d think.  I raised these little ladies myself.  They live in terrariums.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s clean enough to thread through someone’s open wounds.”

“No,” I replied, feeling a bit irritated, “But in the absence of good alternatives, I’d rather use this and then supply everyone here with antibiotics at some point in the next day or so.  Which they probably need anyways.”

“People use antibiotics too often,” she said.  “I try to make a point of using them sparingly in my clinic.”

Seriously?  “I think situations like this are the exact right time to use antibiotics.  These people have open wounds, they’re undernourished, dehydrated, stressed, their immune systems are probably shot, their environments are filthy, there’s probably countless other reasons.”

She said something, sounding even more irritated than before.  I think it was a repeat of the question from earlier, about my credentials in medicine.  I wasn’t listening.

The paramedics hadn’t come out of the ambulance in several minutes.  A check with my bugs found them lying on the floor of the ambulance.  No blood, as far as I could tell.

Ignoring the woman, I turned and headed for the door, hurrying outside.  She barked something snide at my back.

I was battle ready as I approached the ambulance and checked the area.  Nobody.

Stepping inside, I checked on the paramedics and the patient with an oxygen balloon strapped to his face.  The paramedics were beyond help, dead, their heads twisted at an ugly angle.  The patient hadn’t been dispatched the same way.  I checked his throat to find him still warm, but he wasn’t breathing and he had no pulse.  I squeezed the balloon, and huge amounts of blood bubbled from what I had taken to be a shallow cut in his chest. The bubbles meant the oxygen was leaking from his punctured lung.

This wound – there was no way he could have had it when he came into the ambulance.  It was fresh.  All three of the people here had been executed.  It had been done in cold blood, clean, and I hadn’t even noticed with my bugs on watch.

Which left me very concerned for the people I’d left in the warehouse.  I hopped down from the back of the ambulance, checked my surroundings, and then ran across the street.

I was a single step inside the door when I saw him.  Tall, faceless, featureless, but for the chains and ball joints that connected his ceramic-encased limbs.  One hand was raised, a single finger raised, ticking from side to side like a metronome.  Like an old-fashioned parent scolding an errant child.

The other hand was folded back, a long telescoping blade extended from the base of Mannequin’s palm.  The blade was pressed to the neck of the gray-haired doctor, so she had to stand on her tiptoes, her head pressed back against his chest.

I didn’t have a chance to move, to speak, or to use my power before he retracted the blade.  It slid across her throat, shearing through the skin, and arterial blood sprayed forth to cover some of the ground between us.  She collapsed to the ground.

Mannequin’s knife hand went limp, dangling at his side.  His other hand remained in position, finger wagging, as if admonishing me for what I had been doing.  Saving people from the Nine, tending to the hurt and scared.

I should have anticipated this.

I stepped forward, almost without thinking about it, and he dropped his other hand while taking three long steps to back away from me. His movements were ungainly, as if he was about to collapse to the ground with each one.  No sooner had I wondered why when I saw his feet.  His ‘toes’ pointed at the ground, and blades had sprouted from slots at the front of each foot.  He was perched precariously on the honed knife points, walking on the blades.

Reaching behind my back, I drew my baton and knife.  I tensed as he moved in reaction, closing half the distance between us, lurching three or four feet to the right, then back again.

I caught on immediately.  He was evading the bugs that had been hovering in the air between us, the knife-stilts that extended from his feet delicately avoiding contact with the bugs that were on the ground.  The contact he did make with the bugs was gentle, sliding against them like a brush of wind.  I only noticed because I was paying attention.

He didn’t need to avoid my swarm.  He was taunting me.  Letting me know exactly how he had gotten so close without me realizing it.

I flicked out my baton to its full length.  He responded by doing the same with the telescoping blades that unfolded from his arms.  His weapons were longer, both sharp.

Not taking my eyes off him, I used my bugs and my peripheral vision to track the other people in the warehouse.  Too many were too hurt to move, and those who could move had backed into corners and to places where they had cover.

Still, this was his battlefield.  He had far too many hostages at his disposal.  He was faster than me, stronger, tougher.

I was pretty damn sure that his power was as complete a counter to mine as anyone could hope for.  Anyone who had paid attention to the news in the past five years knew who he was, what his story was.  Mannequin had once been a tinker who specialized in biospheres, terrariums and self-contained ecosystems.  A tinker who specialized in sustaining life, sheltering it from outside forces; forces that included water, weather, space… and bugs.

The only difference between then and now was that he was using his power to help and protect himself and himself only.

“Motherfucker.”  Even without intending to do it, I used my swarm to carry my voice.  His head craned around, as if to look at the swarming bugs who had just, for all intents and purposes, spoken.  Eventually his ‘face’ turned back to me.

“I have no idea how the fuck I’m going to do it,” my voice was a low snarl, barely recognizable as my own beneath my anger and the noises of the swarm.  “But I’m going to make you regret that.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I could kill them right now.

It would be so easy.  Jack, Bonesaw and Cherish were all in my range.  I could drop poisonous spiders on them, sting them each with dozens of bees and wasps in the hopes of provoking anaphylactic shock.  It would be easy, and I might save the world by doing it.  I’d get revenge for the countless people they’d murdered, for their attacking Tattletale, and maybe even save hundreds of people’s lives by distracting Shatterbird.

But I wouldn’t be able to kill Siberian.  She’d fought Alexandria, Legend and Eidolon at the same time and walked away unscathed.  She hadn’t been able to hurt them due to her inability to fly, but she’d still survived.  If I attacked Jack, she would come after me and I’d probably die.  Would it even work?  Bonesaw was a medical tinker.  She could theoretically save all three of them.  Then I’d accomplish nothing but getting the Nine pissed off at me.

If it was just my life at stake, a part of me hoped I might do it anyways. But it wasn’t.  Others would pay the price if I got away from Siberian, and maybe even if I didn’t.  Even if I escaped and Siberian didn’t get her hands on any of us, the added distraction and detours that came with evading her would probably mean I couldn’t make it to my dad in time.  And if I did die, Dinah might never go free.  Which only led to the greater question: would I be willing to trade ten lives for the hundreds or thousands those members of the Slaughterhouse Nine might potentially kill if they walked away here?  The billions, if Dinah’s prediction about Jack came true?

I remembered what Brian had said back when we’d found out about Dinah: the choices we made in terms of who we tried to save: those we cared about versus complete strangers.  I’d rebelled at the idea of people abandoning people to their fates simply because they didn’t know them and weren’t connected to them in any meaningful way.

But now that I faced having to make the call and decide if my life and the lives of just about everyone I cared about were worth less than everyone else’s, it didn’t seem so black and white.

The decision to attack and kill Jack and potentially sacrifice our lives in the process wasn’t binary, I told myself.  It wasn’t limited to two options.  I would try to save the people I could tonight.  Then our teams could collectively prepare to do something about Jack and the other Nine, after we were all ready to defend ourselves.  As much as a small part of me wanted to make the heroic sacrifice, I couldn’t throw away my life for the mere chance to kill him, and I definitely couldn’t throw away the lives of others.

The inch deep water splashed as I ran, my feet already sore from the impacts against the pavement.  The soft soles of my costumed feet made me quieter when I walked, but it wasn’t fit for running.

How much of my decision just now had been because I didn’t want to kill a man?

I was indirectly responsible for the deaths of others.  I’d looked at the information on the capes who’d died during Leviathan’s attack and found Chubster, the fat man I’d failed to save.  Innumerable others had died because we hadn’t been able to stop Bakuda, giving her the chance to attack the city, killing forty-three people and inflicting horrific injuries on dozens more in the process.  When Thomas, the man from the Merchants, had been bleeding to death, I’d given the order to leave him there to die.

There were others, too, I was sure.  A part of me was horrified that I couldn’t even keep track of it all.

At the very same time, another part of me was just as horrified at the idea that I might not have the ability to pull the trigger, to deliver the venomous payload or drive the knife home.  So much could hinge on that.

I shook my head.  No.  I didn’t want to dwell on the subject of murder.  I had to save people.

The upper downtown area had no power, and it was just warm enough that people had their windows open to get some reprieve from the heat.  That made it easier.  I sent some bugs into every open window, using the roaches and flies that were already present when possible.

How many people did I have to reach?  The buildings here were anywhere from six to twelve floors, and there were anywhere from one to six apartments to a floor.  Less than half of the apartments were occupied following the evacuations, but it still made for hundreds of people on each city block.

I didn’t slow my pace as I worked.  Bugs swept over the surfaces of rooms for any smooth surfaces that indicated glass or mirrors.  I checked bedside tables for eyeglasses and alarm clocks.  If I found glass, a bed positioned too close to a window or mirror, something potentially dangerous on the bedside table or if there were enough attack bugs around, I attacked the residents.  The bugs bit, stung, or momentarily smothered them, covering their noses and mouths, waking them.

Hundreds of people at a time.

It dawned on me as worked through each bedroom in each apartment: I doubted there were five other people in the world, cape or not, who could multi-task like I was.  It had to be a side-benefit of my power.  My consciousness divided a hundred ways, problem solving, performing complex tasks for a hundred different scenarios at once.

Once each person was awake, I had to warn them.  But that wasn’t simple – apartments without power didn’t have light, either.  For many, I could put the bugs on the window and spell out words with their silhouettes, but there were people with blinds and curtains that would obscure that.  I forced myself to use the bug’s sensory inputs, to seek out the biggest patches of light and warmth in each room where a person was being woken up, so the bugs could cluster in those spots and hopefully be seen.

But what could I write?  I looked at my cell phone to see how much time I had left. For some, where I had enough bugs and space to write, I told the bugs to spell out ‘Glass explosion 28 min’.  For the places I didn’t, I spelled out ‘take cover’ or ‘hide under bed’.

Thousands of people, a thousand warnings.  I couldn’t be sure that everyone saw or listened and I couldn’t hang back to make things clearer or pass on more detailed information.  It was stupid and selfish, but I had to reach my dad.  Not for any greater plan or for the greater good, but for me.  Because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

And even this, helping people here, striving to help my dad, wasn’t the extent of my responsibility.  I selected Sierra from my contact list and called her, trusting my bugs to give me a sense of anything I might run into or trip over while my eyes were on the screen.

“Yes?”

“Where are you?”

“Hospital with my parents and Bryce.  You said I could have the night off, that you’d be busy.”

I was short on breath from the running.  “Emergency.  Shatterbird’s about to hit the city.  Twenty-seven minutes.  Warn the hospital, now.  Convince them.”

“I’ll try,” she said.  I hung up and dialed Charlotte.

“Skitter?”

“Twenty-seven minutes and change before Shatterbird hits the city with her power.  Spread the word, fast.  Avoid glass, take cover from a potential sandstorm.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are here?

“They’ve been here a little while.  Go!”

“I don’t… how?  How do I tell everyone?”

“Tell as many people as you can, tell them to tell as many people as they can.  Now go!”  I hung up, to force her to move sooner and because I couldn’t spare the breath.

My range and fine control were extending.  This not only kept the people behind me in my range for a precious few extra seconds, but it extended my range forward and to either side, adding one hundred people to the total who fell within my range.  Soon that became two, three and four hundred more.

My legs burned, my feet throbbed, and I could feel sweat soaking the fabric of my costume where the water I was running through didn’t.  On one block, the water would be only a half-inch deep, but the next might prove to be nearly a foot in depth, adding extra resistance to each movement of my already complaining legs.  The block after that, it could just as easily be a split-second decision between trying to make my way past the piles of rubble and parked cars and detouring to the next block over.  Which would cost me more time?

If only Bitch and I were on better terms, maybe she could have explained about the Nine approaching her.  If I could only trust her, if she could only trust me, I could have borrowed one of her dogs, and this wouldn’t seem as impossible as it did now.

I made my way through the college area that was Regent’s territory.  The buildings here were in rougher shape.  There were fewer people to warn, but they were harder to find.  I used the bugs I could afford to check my way was clear.  Five blocks ahead of me, I could feel the presence of construction equipment, of temporary fencing and barricades.

Chancing a look at my phone, I felt a chill.  Time had flown while I’d worked, my attention elsewhere.  I had eleven minutes, and I wasn’t close enough.  I couldn’t afford to take a detour.

I threw every bug that wasn’t warning someone at the fencing, flying insects gripping the thin metal bars, crawling insects swarming at and under the concrete pads beneath each post.  Tens of thousands of bugs gathering together to surge forward as a single mass.  I tried pushing, pulling, trying to rock it and build enough momentum with the bugs to bring it down.

My bugs hadn’t managed to push it over by the time I reached the fence.  It had been designed to withstand strong winds, and the concrete feet at the base of each pole gave it too much stability.  As I got there, I had to stop running for the first time, panting for breath.  My fingers clutched the grid of fine metal wire until it hurt.

The thin metal wire pressed hard against the deep tissue of my gloved fingers as I climbed the fence, while my toes scrabbled for a hold on the metal hinge that divided one section of fence from another.  Precious long seconds, maybe a minute or two and I knew I’d have to get by the fence on the far side as well.  I wobbled on top of the fence and then hopped down with a splash.  I was running again the second I had my feet under me.

Why wasn’t I stronger?  My disappointment in my luck and the power it had given me was an almost physical pain.  I could warn people, but I couldn’t push down a fence.  I felt cheated.

I managed to squeeze between the edge of the second fence and the neighboring building.  My phone showed the time as 12:33 at night.  I had seven minutes.  Something as stupid as fences had cost me so much time.

That doubt and fear that had rested with me the second I’d realized how far I’d need to travel in this short span of time was crystallizing into a dawning realization that I wasn’t going to make it.

The window of opportunity for getting to the house and getting my costume off and getting dad somewhere safe was long gone.  Even the window for doing all of that without taking the time to get my costume off was long past.  I was too far away.

That left only one option.  Could I save him with my power the same way I’d been trying to do with everyone else that fell in my range?  I still needed to get closer, fast.

I held my phone in one hand, sneaking glances as I made my way from one block to the next.  The six-minute mark came all too fast.  The clock on my cell phone ticked to 12:36.  Four minutes left.  Three.

Then I couldn’t look anymore. I threw it aside, trusting my bugs to nudge it into a storm drain where it wouldn’t be found.  The time wasn’t exact; I couldn’t be sure exactly how much time had passed since Jack had told us about Shatterbird’s attack.  I couldn’t say if Shatterbird’s clock was a few minutes fast or a few minutes late.  There was no point on dwelling on the final minutes, and keeping my cell phone on me was dangerous.

That, and I wasn’t sure I could bear to watch the clock hit zero.

I heard sirens nearby.  Not just from one vehicle, but several, all getting closer.

I could sense my neighborhood, and the black widows that were still where I’d put them.  Every step brought more bugs into my focus.  Ants beneath people’s lawns, earthworms in gardens, pillbugs and earwigs under stones and objects in garages and carports, cockroaches in the darkest corners of cabinets.  I woke the people I could and left them their warnings.

I knew the time had to have run out.  But I was so close.  I could sense the block my house was on, the neighbor’s house.

And then my dad’s house.  I dropped onto my hands and feet the second I was in range, my legs aching.

My bugs swept over the interior.  I knew the layout, so it was quick.  Dad was in his bed, bundled up in the covers.  He was taking up only one side of the bed, leaving the space that mom had once occupied empty.  It was like a punch in the gut, a reminder of how alone he was.  How alone I had left him.

I needed more bugs to wake him, still more to write a message.  I began drawing them up to his bedroom.

I might not have noticed it if I hadn’t been listening through the bugs.  I primarily heard it through the moths and beetles, a sound like someone running their finger along the rim of a wine glass, painful to hear, only it kept getting sharper and higher pitched until it was well beyond the limits of anything my human ears could hear.  It was coming from the windows.

There were enough bugs in place to wake up my dad.  I could have disturbed him from his sleep… but would he react fast enough to any message I left?  Or would he sit up and put his head and upper body in harm’s way of the windows?

I couldn’t risk it.  Instead, I took the bugs near him and threw them against his alarm clock, a miniaturized version of what I had attempted to do with the temporary fence.  It was thin, a tilted capital ‘L’ shape with a digital display.

I pulled my knees up against my face and my hands up around the back of my head to shield myself where my mask didn’t have coverage.

The alarm clock was in the midst of tipping over when Shatterbird used her power.

It was as though the glass broke in response to some invisible tidal wave, caught in the nonexistent ‘water’, carried along, shattering on impacts with surfaces, slashing anything that would cut, piercing deep into any surface soft enough.  I could feel it roll past me, south to north.

Loud.

The sound seemed to come a second later, like the sonic boom following a jet.  I’d halfway expected a boom, but it sounded more like a heavy impact, as loud and powerful as a bullet the size of the moon striking the city, followed by the sound of trillions of glass shards simultaneously falling like rain across the cityscape.  There was a cloud to the east, where the beaches were, reaching up to the cloud level, like some pale wall.

The moment I was sure it was over, I was on my feet, running around the back to the kitchen door.  I tore off my mask as I made my way there, and some bugs helped guide my hand to the latch as I reached through the broken window of the kitchen door and opened it.  I tore at the straps connecting my armor to my back as I ran upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, pulled the zipper down as I ran down the hallway.  Getting my arms free of the sleeves, I tied the inside-out arms around my waist.  It wasn’t nearly enough to seriously hide my costumed identity, but I wasn’t about to delay for another second.

I pulled open his bedroom door and hurried to his side, glass crunching under my feet.  I gingerly peeled away the layers of blankets that had draped over my dad as he was thrown from the bed.

So much blood.  Two thirds of his face was covered in blood that looked more black than red in the gloom.  Darker lines marked where the blood was welling from.  Cuts across the side of his head, the edge of his forehead, his temple and cheek.  His ear had been almost cut in half.

There was a rattling from the window.  I looked and saw strips of shredded duct tape.  It looked like the tape had been taped around the edges, then taped in an asterisk-like pattern.

He’d taken my warning seriously.

I investigated further.  More blood at the back of his head.  Had the glass penetrated into his brain?  No, I could feel the edges of the glass.  It had stopped at his skull, maybe splintered under the surface of his skin.  I had no way of telling.

His hands fumbled blindly for my wrists, seized them.  He couldn’t see me with the blood in his eyes.  That fact didn’t make me happy or relieved in the slightest, however it might have kept him from discovering my costumed identity.

“Taylor?”

“I’m here.  Don’t move too much.  I’m going to see what I can do.”

“Are you okay?”

“Not even scratched.”

I could see him sagging with relief.

“You were right,” he said.  He tried to stand, and I pushed him back down.

“Stay still,” I said.  “At least until we can be sure there’s nothing more serious.”

“Right,” he mumbled.  “You took that first aid class.”

More glass had penetrated his blankets and sheets.  There were holes in his back, his arm and shoulder.  All bled, but none seemed to have hit any arteries, gushing or releasing copious amounts of blood.  It was still far more blood loss than I would have liked – his undershirt was turning crimson.

I climbed over him, glass stabbing my palm as I put a hand on the ground for balance.  I wanted a closer look at his back.  Had anything hit his spine?  Fuck.  There was one hole close to the spine, around the same distance down as his belly button.

“Can you move your toes?”

There was a pause.  “Yes.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  “Then the next biggest issue is possible internal bleeding.  We need to get you to a hospital.”

“They hit the entire city?”

“I think so,” I told him.  No use letting on exactly how much I knew.  It would only cause the both of us more distress in the long run.

“The hospitals will be overcrowded.”

“Yeah.  But not going isn’t an option.”

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ll need my sandals, downstairs.”

I was using my power to find them by the time I was standing again.  I found something else.  There were people in our kitchen.

The Slaughterhouse Nine?  Had they followed me here?

My dad was unable to see, thanks to the blood.  I drew my bugs together into a cluster, hid them in the folds of my costume, which I had tied around my waist.  I crossed the hall to my room and found a pair of loose-fitting cargo pants from when I’d had a bit of a belly and a wider waistband.  I zipped up the pants and tied a sweatshirt around my waist to hide the rest of my costume.  I could sense them approach.  One of them waved at a fly that flew too close to their head.  Both were men.

Floorboards creaked as they ascended the stairs.

“Hello?” one of them called out.  I tensed.  I didn’t recognize the voice.  They were right by my dad’s bedroom.  I heard my dad respond and swore under my breath.

My knife was still strapped in against the back of my costume, which dangled around my knees.  I bent down and drew it from beneath my sweatshirt.

Voices.  One of them murmured something, and my dad replied.  I couldn’t make out anything in terms of the words or the tone of what they were saying.

Quietly, aiming each footstep to avoid the worst patches of broken glass, I stepped from my bedroom, my knife held low and ready.

Two paramedics were working together to shift my dad onto a stretcher.  I hurried to put the knife away.

One noticed me.  “Miss?  You’re alright?”

“I’m fine.”

“This your dad?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re going to take him to the hospital.  Mind making sure our way out is clear?  Maybe open the front door for us?”

“Okay.”

I felt like a machine, clumsy, almost emotionless, as I led them out of the house.  There were two other ambulances parked in places I could see.  None had windshields, mirrors or headlights.  The explosion had blown out the flashing lights and whatever system had handled the sirens.

It didn’t fit.  The timing of this, their preparedness.

But they didn’t look like any members of the Nine I knew.  I could see one of the paramedics down the street – she was black.  So it wasn’t the Chosen, either.  Merchants wouldn’t be this organized or devious.

I reminded myself of where my knife was, in case I needed to draw it at a moment’s notice.

The two paramedics began loading my dad into the back.

“Can I ride along?” I asked one, the second they were done.

He looked at me, then grabbed something large, black and irregularly shaped from a pocket beneath the stretcher.  Holding it in one hand, he put one hand on my shoulder and led me a short distance away.  My heart rate tripled.  My gut was telling me they weren’t normal paramedics, and this was the moment I found out just how.

“Here,” he pressed a bundle into my hands.  It was large, bulky, and there were hard bits beneath the cloth.  “You don’t want to leave this behind.”

I peeked at the contents of the bundle, then swallowed hard.  It was my mask and the back sheath of my armor with the stuff inside.  In my haste, I’d torn them off and left them where they fell.

“You’re with Coil?” I asked.  I felt a quiet horror at the realization that Coil would now know who my dad was, and who I was by proxy.

He nodded once.  “More specifically, your teammates sent us.  They’d hoped we would pick you up and drive you here, but we weren’t able to find you, and we were delayed  because we had to take safety measures first.”  He looked towards the van.  I realized he was talking about the removal of the glass.

Relief surged through me, and I felt tears welling up.

That relief proved short-lived.

“Our employer feels there’s very little you’ll be able to do with your father here, and quite a bit you could do elsewhere.  He did say he understands if you want to prioritize your family.”

My eyes widened in understanding.  Coil wanted me to attend to my territory, now, in this moment of crisis.  “He wants me to leave my dad?”

It might as well have been a rhetorical question.  The paramedic didn’t respond.  I felt my heart sink.

“We’ll give him the best care we can,” he said.

I turned and climbed into the ambulance.  My dad was gingerly dabbing at one of his eyes with a wet cloth.  I was pretty sure he didn’t see me.

I bent over him and kissed him on the corner of his forehead, in a spot where the blood didn’t cover his face.  He snapped his head up to look at me.  The white of one of his eyes had turned crimson, the green of his iris pale in the midst of it.

“I love you dad,” I said, then I backed away a step.

“Stay,” he said.  “Please.”

I shook my head.

I stepped back once again, and then hopped down from the back of the ambulance, turning away.

“Taylor!”

Always like this, now.  Always walking away, knowing how much it hurt him.  I blinked more tears out of my eyes.

“You make sure he’s alright,” I ordered the paramedic, ignoring another of my father’s shouts.

The man nodded.  “I can tell him we aren’t allowing ride-alongs, just in case we need more bodies in the back.”

“Thank you.”

My power buzzed at the edge of my consciousness as I turned my back on the scene.

Fuck all of this.  Fuck the Nine.  Fuck Shatterbird.  Fuck Jack.  Fuck Leviathan.  Fuck Coil.  Fuck Hookwolf.

Fuck me, most of all.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“This is not an exit.  Kudos for the reference,” Tattletale said.

“I try,” Jack replied.  He didn’t say anything more, looking us over.  I felt a chill as his eyes stopped on me before moving on to Regent and the Travelers.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.  What options did we have?  Running?  Siberian was bound to be faster than the dogs, and none of them were big.  We’d be dead before Bitch got them to grow.  That was even without considering Jack’s ability to cut us down from where he stood.

Fight?  Again, Siberian was the biggest problem.  She could take all of us on and win.  I suspected the only people who could really go toe to toe with her would be Scion, Eidolon and the Endbringers, and even then, I wasn’t sure if they would really be able to stop her.  At best, Scion and Eidolon would survive and keep her from killing any civilians.  The Endbringers would hold their own, but civilians obviously wouldn’t be a concern.

Could we escape under a cover of my bugs and Grue’s darkness?  I didn’t think Siberian would be able to see us, and if we surprised them, ran back the way we came-

“What’s this?” Cherish asked, cutting off my train of thought. “Someone thinks she’s had a clever idea.  A bit of hope and inspiration there.”

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm.  She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power.  As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own.  But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way.  She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens.  She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures.  Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of.  If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes.  They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

“Poetic,” Jack said.  “I take it Skitter is this clever worm?”

“Yup.”

“Skitter.” Jack looked at me.  “You do anything and Siberian attacks.  I’ll attack as well.  Whatever it is you’re thinking of trying, I’m betting the two of us can cut you down before it works.”

I swallowed, then took a small breath to clear my throat and ensure I wouldn’t stammer or come out sounding even slightly unclear.  “Alright.”

Bad plan anyways.  If we did try to escape under the cover of darkness, Siberian would probably reach us and cut at least some of us down before we got anywhere, even attacking indiscriminately.

“The same goes for the rest of you, but I’m sure you know that.  One or two of you could kill me right now, I’m sure, but you’d die horribly for your trouble, and I doubt any of you are that suicidal.”

Did he know about the role he was going to play in the end of the world?  It might change his stance and self-assuredness.

Jack looked at Cherish and she gave him a small nod.  He turned a winning smile towards us.  “How are our potential recruits doing?”

Recruits?  Plural?  Was he including Noelle?  No.  He would know she wasn’t anywhere near here, thanks to Cherish.

Bonesaw piped up, “I wanted to say hi and meet the people who might be joining the family.  Jack said that if I’m ready, I can tell you what my test is.  Except I haven’t decided.”

“Oh?” Jack looked at her, “I didn’t know you had any ideas yet.”

“I haven’t decided,” she told him, sounding annoyed at having to repeat herself.  “The test might be about challenging them, but I’m challenging myself too.  I don’t want to be boring, so I’m making myself come up with something original each time.”

“How admirable,” Jack said.

“And it has to be fair.  What I have in mind isn’t fair, and I’m worried it’s too similar to the test I gave Burnscar.  I need this to be fair.”

“Why does it have to be fair?” Cherish asked, “Unfair world, unfair test.”

“Because I like them both!  What better way to add to our family than to have two real siblings on the team?  They would fight all the time but they’d really love each other deep down.”

“Ha,” Regent made it more of a word than an actual laugh, “You really don’t know the Vasil family, munchkin.”

“And the dog girl!  I love dogs!  I’ve seen the pictures of them and they’re beautiful.”

I felt a chill.  All at once, Bitch’s presence behind me felt ominous.  She’d been picked by the Nine, and even when asked, she hadn’t said a thing about it.  Why?  And who had picked her?  The members of the Nine we hadn’t been able to nail down candidates for were Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian.

Siberian, I saw, was staring at Bitch.  When I turned to look at Bitch out of the corner of my eye, I saw her staring right back at Siberian, unflinching, holding the sleeping puppy in her arms.

“If I don’t make it fair then it’s like I’m picking one over the other and I don’t want to do that,” Bonesaw said.

“You’re a smart girl.  You’ll work it out.”  Jack turned to our group, where we waited in tense silence.  “A lot going on tonight.  All these meetings, and we didn’t get an invitation.  Almost enough to hurt our feelings.”

“Can you blame us?” Tattletale gave him a shrug.  “We were talking about how to kill you guys.”

I wasn’t the only member of our group to look at her in horror.

Jack laughed.  A little too hard for whatever it was he’d found funny about her statement.  “Of course, I already knew you were plotting against us, and you knew I knew.”

“Sure.”

“Here is what you need to know, Regent, Bitch.  Each of the Nine’s members get to put our recruits up to a test.  Some of us always give the same test, time after time, no matter the candidate.  Mannequin always asks candidates to alter themselves in a way that costs them something.  Siberian waits until half the candidates have been discarded and then hunts the remainder.”

“I hope she doesn’t catch you,” Bonesaw sounded disturbingly earnest as she spoke, “There’s no meat left for me to work with after she’s done.”

“As for me,” Jack said, “I tend to go last, when all the others have offered their tests and only one or two are left.  I like to mix things up, and unlike our dear Bonesaw, I have no interest in playing fair.”

“And if we fail?” Regent asked, “We die?”

“No, no,” Jack smiled.  “Nobody passes every test, and the punishment for failing a test is up to the individual who assigned it.  Sometimes death, yes.  Sometimes something different.  But it’s always worse.”

“What did my sister do for her tests?” Regent asked.

“Hey!” Bonesaw raised her voice, stabbing a finger in his direction, “No cheating!”

Bonesaw wasn’t the only one he’d irritated.  Cherish glared at him.

“Not cheating,” Regent said.  “Call it idle curiosity.  My sister got me in this mess, I figure it would be nice to hear what she had to go through.  You don’t even have to spoil the answers, I can agree not to copy anything she did.”

Jack laughed, “Ah, adding to the challenge?  Fair.  She killed Hatchet Face.  Crawler took that as his test completed in advance, didn’t think of her as worth his time.  Little Bonesaw, for her test, designed a parasite that would stay in her system for forty-eight hours and strip her of her powers for as long as it remained.”

“Because it’s not fair that Hatchet Face didn’t get to give his test.  And I wanted to break her out of her rut, so I made it so the parasite’s effects would be permanent if she didn’t drink lots of blood.”

“Of course,” Jack tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead, “That was an interesting little twist.  Of course, you didn’t tell her how much she needed to drink, or if a certain species counted…  Well.  It broke her stride, didn’t it?  Siberian went after her, starting on day two of Bonesaw’s parasitic infection.  Three days and three nights of cat and mouse.  To her credit, she did very well.  It came down to a hair.  Another ten minutes and Siberian might have caught her a third time.”

A dark look passed over Cherish’s face.

“Shatterbird likes the psychological tests, and she was in a hell of a mood after Cherish nominated herself for the team.  Our Cherie didn’t have five minutes to rest before Shatterbird drove her into a room and sealed her in.  No food, no light, barely any water.  The room was empty, but for one glass shard.  Always edging towards her, ready to prick, cut, slice and stab the second she stopped, the moment she tried to rest.”

I shivered.  Jack hadn’t said how long that lasted, but after three days and three nights without sleep, even a few hours like that would have been nightmarish.

There was a clue there, too.  Credit to Regent for getting Jack to let it slip. Shatterbird had more offensive range than Cherish, if she was able to trap the girl and use the shard without getting affected in retaliation.  It wasn’t much, but it was a tidbit of information, a piece for the puzzle.

“Burnscar’s test, she failed.  Afraid I’m not spoiling that one.  Doesn’t have the same impact if you know it’s coming.  That left only two tests for her to pass.  Go on.  Show them.”

Cherish glared at Jack.

“Show them,” he said.  There weren’t any hints of a threat or any anger in his tone, but she obeyed anyways.  She turned her back to us, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off.

“Mannequin demands that a candidate changes themselves, and that it be hard.  Having just faced the punishment Burnscar gave for failing her test, Cherish wasn’t about to pay his.”

The tattoo stretched from beneath the waist of her low-rise jeans and up the length of her back.  The centerpiece was a large festering heart, done as realistically as any tattoo I’d ever seen.  It was all in shades of green, covered with ulcers, sores, patches of rot and live maggots.  The surrounding tattoos gave the appearance of torn skin revealing the bone and organs beneath, rats and roaches lurking behind ribs and atop her kidneys.  Framing the entire thing were words, not done in any elaborate script, but in scrawled letters that looked like they’d been carved into a surface with knives: epithets and invectives.

“She told the artists to make it so ugly she’d want to kill them.  If she didn’t, she promised to kill their loved ones and then kill them.  Took six artists in total.  Inspired.”

Cherish looked over one tattooed shoulder to fix Jack with a stare.  It was then that I noticed two things.  The first became clear as her skin stretched.  There was depth to the tattoos that you didn’t get with a two-dimensional image.  Her skin had been scarred and flensed to raise edges and give the images and words a permanence that simple ink wouldn’t have.

The second thing I noticed was her eyes.  It was like a light had gone out inside her, just standing there with that tattoo exposed.

“That was the hard one for you, wasn’t it?” Jack smiled.  “Even as tired, scared, hurt and desperate as you were after the other five tests, it was when you willingly defaced that young, unblemished body of yours that a little something inside of you broke, and you began thinking of yourself as one of us.  Liminality.”

“What was your test, Jack?” Regent asked.  I couldn’t tell if he was glad to know his sister suffered or sad for her.

“Oh, I knew it would be almost impossible to top Mannequin’s test.  He caught her at the exact right moment, struck the right nerve, and pushed her to her very limits.  Still, I think I managed to top it.  Turn around, Cherish.”

Like an automaton, she did.  More tattoos and scars covered her chest, just as expansive, just as unpleasant to look at.  Two nude women, their entwined limbs like the broken legs of a squashed bug, neither attractive in the slightest.  One was emaciated, the other morbidly obese, and both were old.  More tattoos of rotting and torn flesh framed the scene, and the words forming the border of the tattoos on the front were the opposite of the others, almost worse in their irony and desperation: ‘Take Me’.  ‘Please Desire Me’.  ‘Want Me’, and more vulgar variations of the same.

“I made her do the other six tests all over again.”

“I even brought back Hatchet Face for Crawler’s test again!” Bonesaw grinned.  “No surprise attack that time.  That was one of the three tests she failed in round two, I was so proud of him!”

Seeing Cherish’s shoulders draw together, her expression darken as memories came to mind, the ugly tattoos that guaranteed she would never be able to leave this behind and get a completely fresh start, never have a boy look at her body and just be hungry for her… I had to look away.  I knew she was the worst sort of person, I just didn’t know how much of that came before the tests.

“Well, sis,” Regent said, “I thought you were running headlong into a fate worse than death.  I stand corrected.  You’re already there, and you did it to yourself.”

She pulled on her shirt and snarled, “This is the part where I’d threaten to kill you, except they are going to do it so much better than I ever could.”

“Can’t do it yourself?” Tattletale cut in.  “Why do you have to rely on them?”

Cherish’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re trying something.  I feel smugness from you, too much confidence for where you’re standing.”

Jack smiled and caught the hairs of his beard between his thumb and index finger.  “Oh?  I’m still interested to hear your answer to her question.”

“Fuck that.  You’re getting predictable, old man.  You want to keep things amusing for yourself, you know you’re as smart as anyone else in the room, so you take the hard road so it won’t be too easy.  Why not have Siberian eat her?  Can’t you imagine the looks on her friend’s faces when they can’t do a thing to save her?  I bet it’d light a fire under their asses, rev them up for the tests.  Maybe they’ll even throw themselves headlong into it, to spare the rest.”

“Now who’s trying something?” Tattletale asked.  “She’s trying to manipulate you.”

Jack frowned and yanked out the hairs of his beard he was holding.  He flicked them away, “I know she’s trying to manipulate me.”

“Okay, except I just noticed something else, as I finished that last sentence.  Do you know she’s playing a long con?  She’s setting you guys up, using her power to pull your strings and make you attached to her.  Half a year to a year, she’ll probably have you wrapped around her little finger,” a slow smile spread across Tattletale’s face.

I could see Cherish’s expression change from anger and irritation to wide-eyed horror.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, looking down, and I could just barely hear him mutter the word, “Disappointing.”

“It was probably her plan from the start,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

All at once, Tattletale stopped talking, and I was blind.  In that same instant, something slapped against the fabric of my mask.  Wet.  I could taste it against the fabric of my mask.  Salty-sweet, with a faint metallic taste.

“You fucking bastard!” Grue shouted, his voice distorted by his power.

Blood.

I hurried to wipe it from the lens of my mask.  Everything I saw was obscured by the streaks that remained, almost black in the light.

Tattletale lay on the ground a little in front of me, both Regent and Sundancer crouched at her side.  So much blood, covering her face and Regent and Sundancer’s hands.

Jack toyed with the knife in his hands, while Siberian stood between him and the rest of our group, her eyes primarily on Ballistic.

Jack paced back and forth, two or three steps at a time, gesticulating with his knife.  “I was looking forward to Cherish’s attempt.  Bonesaw and I even had a plan in mind.  I wanted to see what she did, how she worked around Siberian’s immunity to her power… then the safeguards Bonesaw implanted in us would have kicked in and released us from her thrall, and oh, the look on her face.  To have seen that would have been so very worth all the trouble.  And that girl just spoiled it all.”

“You know,” Cherish said, shell-shocked.

“Clearly.”

“But my power – I didn’t sense anything as far as your planning, your emotional networking or-”

I dropped onto my knees so fast it hurt, and immediately began trying to help Tattletale, and Regent gave me the space, allowing me to take over.  Jack had cut her from her mouth to the edge of her jaw.  It had parted the skin at the corner of her mouth.  I must’ve been directly in the line of fire for the resulting blood spray.  How was I supposed to put pressure on a wound like this?

Jack was getting heated, talking mostly to himself.  “That was the whole point!  To see how long we could go without tipping her off.  Bonesaw helped with some surgery, even some artificial neural connections that Cherish wouldn’t be able to see.  So much work and preparation ruined.”

“I-” Cherish started, then stopped before she could finish the sentence.  Trying again, she asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Not a pressing concern,” Jack said, as if realizing she was there.

My power crackled at the edge of my consciousness.  I had to suppress it, before I gave them another excuse to attack us.  The majority of my attention was on Tattletale, on Lisa. I used my fingers to scrape as much of the blood out of her mouth and throat as possible, then adjusted the angle of her head so any further blood would flow down the side of her face or out of her mouth.

The fabric of my gloves afforded more traction than fingertips would have, but the amount of blood made everything slick to the point that I couldn’t be sure of what I was holding.  I had one hand inside her mouth, her teeth hard against my knuckles, my other hand pressing down from above to sandwich it and press everything as closed as I could get it.  She roused herself enough to pull away, no doubt because I was pulling the tear at the corner of her mouth open.

“Hold her head, Regent, don’t let her pull away.  And cloth,” I said, my voice small, “Need some kind of cloth to absorb the blood.”

First aid classes hadn’t prepared me for this.

There was a tearing sound, and regent handed me a strip of cloth.  I fumbled to put it into place at the corner of her mouth, where the bleeding was worse, then applied the rest along the cut.  The white cloth turned totally crimson in a second.

“More,” I said, keeping my voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry to the members of the Nine that were standing nearby.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Jack said.  “A wound like that, she’ll die of blood loss before you can do anything.”

“You asshole,” Grue growled.

“You really shouldn’t swear!” Bonesaw said.  “It’s crude!  If you agree to be good, maybe I could fix her for you.  Oh, and since her cheek’s already cut, I could change it around so her teeth are on the outside and she wouldn’t have all that skin and flesh just getting in the way.  And, and, I could make it really artistic and beautiful, and change her tongue so she can make all of the speech sounds you’d normally need lips to make, like puh, buh, muh, wah, vuh…”

Regent handed me more cloth, and I wadded it into place.  Tattletale wasn’t really moving, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of the amount of blood she had already lost or just because it hurt too much.

I saw a flicker of light as Jack flicked his knife out, tossed it into the air and then caught the blade tip between his middle finger and the nail of his index finger.  He snapped it around so he gripped the handle.  “I suppose I should get around to the purpose of our meeting you here, Regent and Bitch.  Unless you want to pose your test to them, Bonesaw?”

“No.  Let me think about it for a little while.”

“Alright.  Well, it wouldn’t do if our candidates died before we even got around to the tests, so I came to offer you two a warning.  Two warnings, as it happens, for each of you.”

Why couldn’t he stop talking so we could take Tattletale somewhere where she could get the help she needed?  My hands were already cramping from trying to maintain pressure and the awkward angle that resulted from  the way I had her head tilted.

“Two of the candidates we chose are heroes, for lack of a better word, and Cherish reported that we may have trouble bringing them in close enough to introduce them to the tests.  Our dear Bonesaw has devised an incentive to encourage their cooperation.”

Bonesaw reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial.

I felt Tattletale tense and looked down.  She was staring at the vial.

“Biological warfare?” Grue asked.

“Naturally.”

“What does it do?”

“Just in case all of our candidates fail to play along, I would strongly advise you to stick to bottled water.  No filtered water, no rainwater, none of that.  Not unless you’re feeling brave.  Just to be on the safe side, avoid getting your injuries wet as well.”

“And the second warning?” I asked.  I wanted him to finish.

“In…” Jack pulled out a pocket watch on a chain. “T-minus thirty-four minutes, Shatterbird is going to sing loud enough for much of the city to hear her.  She wants to make it known to everyone in Brockton Bay that we’re here, and since there’s no need to maintain surprise with our potential members, I said she should.  With this in mind, you would be well advised to stay away from anything made of glass or any beaches, and be sure to put away anything in your pockets with a screen.”

Dad.  The people in my territory.  I had to warn them, but…

I looked down at Tattletale and felt paralyzed.

“That’s the meat and bones of it,” Jack smiled, “It was nice to meet you two.”

I felt Tattletale move.  Her hand was fumbling at her belt.  Was she going for the gun in the largest pouch?  No.  A pouch near there, just as long, but thinner.

“Sundancer,” I hissed, “Help her.”

Sundancer did.  There were pens in the pouch.

“Help her find the paper,” I said.  Jack and his team had wrapped up and were walking away.

It was a notepad barely larger than a pad of post-its.  Tattletale took the pen that Sundancer held for her, clasping it in a closed fist.  She scrawled out one word.  ‘Deal’.

Then she looked up at me, her eyes wide.

“No,” I whispered.  “We have to get you help, and I have to go warn-”

She stabbed at me with the pen and clenched her teeth against the back of my hand, which must have caused her incredible pain.  I wasn’t sure if it was her pain and mine, but Cherish turned and gestured for Jack, who was already walking way, to stop.

“A deal,” I called out, “I don’t-”

Sundancer had ripped off the first sheet, and Tattletale was writing the next message.

I swallowed, “She wants to know what happens if… if more than one person is left at the end.”

“We pit them against one another,” Jack said.

The next word- I could barely make it out.  ‘Game’.

“She, um.  I think she wants to play a game?”

Tattletale gave me a single, slow blink of confirmation.  She was writing more.

“A game?” Jack asked.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  ‘If there more half left at end.’

“One second.”  I said.  Sundancer ripped off another sheet.  This was excruciatingly slow, trying to parse her shorthand and follow her line of thought.  “Tests.  If there’s more than half of the candidates left at the end of the tests, we win.  You leave with volunteer?  You could leave with whoever wants to join.  But you leave.”

“You expect that half of the candidates could pass the tests?  I’m intrigued.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m intrigued.”

“Brockton Bay has its share of badasses, Jack,” I said, my voice hard with repressed outrage.

“I don’t see what we get out of it.”

Tattletale had dropped the pen.  It was up to me to pick up the slack.

“It’s a challenge.  A game.  Changing the routine.  We can do whatever we need to, to keep as many candidates alive as we can.  You guys… do what you do.  It keeps things interesting.”  My eyes fell on Bonesaw, “And maybe it keeps things fair?”

Seconds passed.  I felt the tension ratcheting up another notch with each beat of my heart.  Every moment that passed was one step closer to Tattletale bleeding out or to Shatterbird using her power.

“I like that.  It might be a way to fix the test I want to give.  Let’s do it,” Bonesaw said, looking up at Jack.

He frowned.  “We’ll discuss it as a group.  I suspect we’ll have terms of our own to attach to this game.  Among other things, a steep penalty for when we win.”

And then he turned to leave.

I looked down at Tattletale.  Her eyes were closed.  My hands felt like two blocks of stone where I had them pressed to her injury; rigid, heavy, unable to move.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, barely audible to myself.  I looked up at Grue and said, louder, “I don’t know what to do.”

He didn’t have an answer for me, but he bent down to check on Tattletale.

It was Tattletale who gave me my orders.

“Guh,” she coughed out the word.  As Grue gently pulled my hands away to take over, she repeated, only slightly clearer, “Goh.”

Go.

I stood, wobbling slightly as I backed away from her.  She looked so fragile, lying on her side, blood pooling beneath her head, around her dirty blond hair.  And I was leaving her there.

“We can call Coil,” Ballistic said.  “He can send a car to get you where you need to be.”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t wait and trust that a car would arrive in time, or that it would get me where I needed to be.  There would be detours, areas a car couldn’t pass through.

I turned and I started running.  Out of the parking garage, past Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack.  They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t try to stop me.

I was a block away from them when I got my cell phone out and dialed home, but I already knew the response I would get.  The automated message came from the phone as I held it in one hand, heading directly north.

This phone number is currently out of service.  If you would like to leave a message…

Judging distances wasn’t a great strength of mine.  How many blocks, how far did I have to run to reach my dad?  Five miles? Six?  I was a practiced runner, but the streets here weren’t all in the best shape.  Some were flooded, others strewn with debris, still more suffering in both departments.  There were areas that were blocked off.

And I had less than thirty minutes.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Fuck!” Grue swore the second his boat hit land.

“Let me guess,” Regent remarked to Bitch, “He’s been swearing since we left.”

Bitch nodded.

The Travelers had already arrived.  They stood in a huddle by the water while Genesis disintegrated into several vague floating body parts.

“Coil just bent us over and fucked us,” Grue said.

“I dunno,” Tattletale answered.  “That might have been the only way for him to play things, with the way his power and operations work.”

“That would do a hell of a lot more to ease my concerns if I had any idea what his power was.”

Tattletale only offered an apologetic half-smile and a shrug to that.

I tried to help her out.  “Look, we do know that Coil is smart, he’s proud, and he’s at his best when he’s managing his enterprise.  Being cooped up, he’d be hit hard in all three areas.  Limited tools to work with, limited access to his people, and he’d be less powerful in a way that everyone would be aware of.”

“That doesn’t excuse how thoroughly he just screwed us, without even trying to help us out.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s completely screwed us over.  We know Coil’s got at least one undercover agent, Trainwreck-“

Tattletale interrupted to say, “He’s got a whole lot more than one.”

“Thought he might.  Doesn’t it make sense that he’d assist us by being one himself?  I get the impression he likes the control it affords him and the amount of information he can get this way.”

“Maybe,” Grue conceded.

“We should focus on where we go from here,” I said.

“Agreed,” Trickster called out.

Genesis had finished disappearing, and Trickster was walking over to our group, followed by Sundancer and Ballistic.  He extended a hand for Grue to shake, then turned to Tattletale, me, Regent and Bitch to do the same.  Bitch didn’t take his hand, turning away to focus on her dogs instead.  Trickster took the snub in stride.  “If nothing else, I’m glad we get a chance to talk.  Unless things get a lot worse from here, I’m hoping we’ll all be working side by side for a little while.”

“Let’s hope,” Grue agreed.

Trickster said, “We just sent Genesis back in a more discreet form to listen in.”

“Imp is staying behind as well,” Tattletale informed him, “So we’ve got redundancy there.”

“Christ,” Grue snapped his head from one side to the next, as if he could spot his sister that way.  With a note of alarm in his voice, he asked, “Imp’s still there?”

“She’s okay,” Tattletale reassured him, “They won’t notice her.”

“They could.  We don’t know how consistently her power works, or if it works in a group that large, and we can’t be sure we know every power the people there have, if anyone has some extra senses that might bypass her ability.  Fuck!  This is the exact type of situation I wanted to keep her away from.  The whole reason I let her join this group was to keep her close enough that I could rein in this sort of recklessness.”

“She’s a bit of a rebel, but she’s not stupid,” Tattletale said, “Trust her to hold her own.”

“I wouldn’t trust myself to hold my own in her shoes,” Grue told her.  “Christ.  Skitter, can you send a few bugs over that way, tell me if she’s in one piece?”

I nodded, while Trickster slapped his forehead.

“The bugs,” he said, “I could have told Genesis to stick around while you scouted, wait, no.  Why send Imp if you have the bugs?”

“I can’t see or hear through the swarm, really.  Not well enough to listen in.”

“You did once,” Tattletale told me.

That surprised me.  “When?”

“After the fight with Bakuda.  You were doped up, hurt, you had a concussion, but you were able to tell us the kind of music someone was listening to, and he was way out of earshot.”

“Seriously?  And you didn’t tell me this?”

Grue shook his head.  “Just speaking for myself, I had a lot on my mind, between you and the others being in rough shape and the ABB setting off bombs across the city.  I completely forgot until just now.  Sorry.”

Tattletale nodded.

“That’s huge,” I said, “Do you know how much I could use something like that?”

“Why can’t you now?” Trickster asked.

“Bugs sense things so differently, my brain can’t translate what they see and hear into something I can process.  It’s all black and white blotches, high-pitched squeals and bass throbs.”  I paused.  “Imp’s perfectly fine, by the way.  At least, I can’t find her, but nobody’s reacting like they found a spy in their midst.”

Grue sighed, “Okay.”

“So this sensory part of your power, you stopped trying?” Tattletale asked.

The way she phrased that nettled me.  “In the three months between my getting my powers and first going out in costume, I saw zero improvement in that department.  None, zilch.  When I did start going out in costume, I was worried the useless sights and sounds might distract me at some crucial juncture.  Between that and the fact that it was like hitting my head against a metaphorical brick wall…”

“You gave up,” Regent said.  He was trying to get on my nerves, I knew it.

“I stopped trying.  But now that I know it’s somehow possible, I dunno.  I can start looking for a way.”

The degree to which it would expand my capabilities, it was tempting.  That kind of expansion of my sensory abilities could be a matter of life and death at some point.  I could theoretically listen in on most of the people in my territory.  Would I want to, though?  The invasiveness of that kind of creeped me out, and I had a pretty high creepiness tolerance.

“It might be like your range boosts.  Tied to your mental state,” Tattletale said.

“Except my range boosts are probably linked to me feeling trapped, and I somehow doubt I felt that way when I was doped up and waking up in that hospital bed or ambulance or wherever.”

“It’s something you can work through,” she said.  “And now that you know to look for it, you should push yourself to use that part of your power so you can see when it’s stronger or weaker.”

I nodded, and willed myself to tear down all the mental barriers and safeguards that walled my brain off from the sights and sounds the bugs wanted to send my way.

It was every bit as grating and annoying as I recalled.  This would take some getting used to.

“Listen,” Trickster said.  “Ballistic’s HQ is close by.  Since my group is going to be waiting for Genesis, and you guys will want to hang around and pick up Imp when she’s done, maybe you want to come by and we can discuss strategy in the meantime?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Grue said.  “Thanks.”

Ballistic gestured toward a nearby street and we all started walking in that direction.

Grue started us off.  “Number one, we know that they were here to recruit.  Who were they recruiting?”

“Me,” Regent said.  That drew a few looks of surprise from the Travelers.  He elaborated, “My sister is their newest member, replaced Hatchet Face.  She did it to fuck with me more than out of a genuine desire to have me join.”

“Armsmaster is another,” I pointed out.  “According to Miss Militia, Mannequin wanted him.”

“The, uh, sixth member of the Travelers is the next recruit, I guess,” Trickster admitted.  “Crawler hit Coil’s place.”

“Sixth?” I asked.  “If there’s four of you, then-“

“We have two group members who don’t see any combat.  They spend most or all of their time at Coil’s headquarters.  I understand if that raises a lot of questions, but I –we– would really appreciate it if you guys could leave it at that for now.  I’m thinking we’ll introduce you to the others soon.”

“I’m okay with dropping it so long as you’re not withholding anything crucial,” Grue said.  “I’m happy to stay on topic as much as possible anyways.”

Trickster tipped his hat.  “Appreciated.  Looked like Hookwolf got hit.  His entire group did.  Shatterbird?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale replied.  “Can confirm that one.”

“Shatterbird, Crawler, Mannequin and…” I trailed off, looking at Regent for help in placing the name.

“Cherish.”

“If the condition of Faultline’s crew was any indication,” Tattletale said, “We can make an educated guess that Burnscar paid them a visit.  Thing is, I can’t even begin to guess who she visited.  Spitfire’s too nice, and none of the others really have the, I dunno, edge?”

“In any case, that leaves the people who Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw nominated.  Any ideas?”

I glanced across our groups.  Nobody moved to reply.

“Maybe they’re not done?” Sundancer spoke up, “Or maybe some of them aren’t picking new members?”

Maybe they’re not done,” Tattletale spoke, “But I think they are.  From what I’ve read on them, and from what my power is giving me, I have the distinct impression they all would have made some kind of move by now.  They either hit all at once, shock and awe, or they draw it out.  This is the former.”

“But are they all picking new members?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “No clue.  We know of four, at least.”

Ballistic led us into a parking garage.  We walked between rows of cars that had been pummelled by the floodwater.  Panels had been dented, windows shattered, and some of the cars had been lifted and pushed into one another.

Sundancer formed a tiny ‘sun’ and held it up for light, while Regent turned on the flashlight he’d brought.  We descended into the bowels of the garage, and stopped at the ramp between the second level down and the third.  It had collapsed, and both rubble and two or three cars sat in the water that flooded the floor below.

“This way,” Ballistic said.  He grabbed a length of pipe that stuck out where the ramp had collapsed and climbed down.  Trickster gestured and we moved to follow.

Clever, clever.  Out of sight from any vantage point on the level above, short walls had been set around the fallen ramp.  They ensured that the flooding and the wreckage were all contained to one area to sell the illusion, and kept everything else on the lowest level of the basement dry.  Cars had been removed, clearing the area for use as an underground base.

Ballistic pulled off his mask and tossed it onto the bed that sat in one corner.  He cleared a few dirty dishes from the table in the middle of the area and invited us to sit while he fetched some extra seats.

He had a bit of a heavy brow and a snub nose, and his short brown hair, damp with sweat, made me think of the jocks that always seemed to gravitate towards Sophia.  Still, he wasn’t a bad looking guy.  If a guy like him had asked me out in some alternate universe where Emma had never stopped being my friend and I’d never been bullied?  Just going by his looks, I might have said yes.

Trickster unmasked as well.  He definitely didn’t remind me of one of the jocks.  His hair was longer than many girls wore theirs, he had light brown skin and an unfortunate hook nose.  Combined with his intense stare, he gave me the impression of a hawk or some other bird of prey.

Grue, Tattletale and Regent all unmasked as well while they got themselves seated.  Trickster offered each of them a cigarette, then offered one to me.  I turned him down, as did the others.

“So what are we discussing here?” Sundancer asked from behind me.  I turned and saw a rather attractive blonde girl with a long neck and delicate features.  Her hair was expertly pinned up behind her head.  “I was under the impression that the Slaughterhouse Nine were pretty much unbeatable.”

“No,” Brian said.  “Some of them, maybe, but others are as vulnerable as you or me.  Thing is, Dinah told us that our odds against these bastards aren’t good.  Our chances of winning are pretty low, and it’s pretty damn likely we’ll get killed if we confront them head on.”

“So we don’t confront them head on,” Trickster said.

Feeling conspicuous as the only one with a mask on, I pulled mine off.  It took me a second to adjust to the blue tint that everything had after I’d spent over an hour looking through the pale yellow lenses of my mask.  I realized Trickster was setting up a laptop.  He placed it at one corner of the table, facing the rest of us.

“Oliver?”

“I’m here, Trickster,” a male voice came from the computer.

“Feel like patching in Noelle?”

“Sure.  She’s in an okay mood.  A little drowsy.  I’ll be right back.”

Trickster pressed a button on the keyboard and then turned to us, “Tattletale.  I’ll be as quick as I can.  Coil promised he’d get you to help us, but he’s taken his time introducing you to our group.  The cynic in me suspects there’s a reason, and the pessimist in me says that reason is that he’s already figured out what you’re going to tell us, and it isn’t going to be pretty.”

“Okay.”  Tattletale was all business.

“Noelle’s going to ask you for help.  Lie to her.  Tell her you’re already on it.  Roll with it if she gets angry, or if she gets impatient.  She’s sensitive.  I don’t know how your power works, really, but if you realize whatever it is that Coil doesn’t want us to know, don’t tell Noelle.”

“She’s the one Crawler visited?” I asked.

Trickster nodded once.

“Hello?’  A girl’s voice came from the computer.  Trickster hit a key, which I assumed was to take himself off mute.  He hit another combination of keys and a webcam feed snapped up to cover the screen.

Noelle had long brown hair and she wore a red sweatshirt.  She looked like someone who was ill.  She was horribly pale, she had dark circles under her sunken eyes, and her lips were chapped.  I was reminded of drug addicts in an early stage of addiction, where they were deteriorating because the drugs took a higher priority than taking care of themselves.  Was Coil drugging her too?

”Noelle, “ Trickster said, “You’ve asked to be included more.  I thought you’d be okay with this?”

She nodded.

“Left to right, we have Grue, Regent, Skitter, Bitch and Tattletale.”

There wasn’t a flicker of a smile or any interest on her face until she heard that last name.  “Tattletale?”

“Noelle,” Tattletale spoke, “It’s nice to finally meet you.  Listen, I’m working on your situation.  Coil’s filled me in on the basics and I’m chasing down some leads, but something’s come up with the Slaughterhouse Nine, and everything’s on hold until we can be sure they won’t try to kill us in the meantime.”

I could see Trickster tense.  Was Noelle so high strung or desperate that she’d throw a tantrum over being asked to wait?

“Coil was telling the truth,” Noelle said, in a small voice, “You can help?”

“Honestly?  I don’t know.  But I’m a fucking genius when it comes to getting answers, and Coil’s got all the resources in the world.  If there’s help to be had, we’ll give it to you.”

“How soon before you know?”

“No idea.  I don’t think it’ll be as fast as you want, but it’s doable, and it won’t take so long that you should give up.”

“Okay.”

“In the meantime,” Trickster cut in, giving Tattletale a thumbs-up gesture from a position outside of the laptop’s  field of view, “We need our old field commander’s brain on the Slaughterhouse Nine sitch.”

“A distraction would be nice,” Noelle smiled for the first time.

Field commander.  She used to be the leader of their group?  I wondered if I could dig up any information about her if I hunted far enough back.

I could see Brian fidget under the table.  He wasn’t liking the constant distractions from the subject at hand.

“Eight enemies,” Trickster said.  “Now, I’m not a serious player of the game, I’m sorry to any of you Undersiders who are irritated by the way I’m about to butcher it, but the way I see it, their leader is like the king in chess.  More raw power than a pawn, but in the end, he’s simultaneously the second weakest piece in the game and the one everything hinges on.  We take him down without getting massacred in the process, I think we win.”

“Jack Slash,” Noelle said.

“Right.  Siberian’s like the queen.  She’s fast, mobile, one of the strongest physically, and the bitch of the matter is, she can’t be taken off the board, and she can’t be contained.  A special queen, if you will.  Physically she’s an unstoppable force and an immovable object any time she wants to be.”

To my right, Bitch picked up the puppy and settled it in her lap.  It curled up and nestled against the cupped circle of her arms and hands.

“Then there’s Crawler, who visited us the other night.  Maybe not as fast or agile as Siberian, and he can be contained, but he can’t be taken off the board.  A special rook.”

“I’m wondering how far you can stretch this chess analogy, Trickster,” Ballistic commented.

Trickster ignored him.  “Shatterbird and Burnscar are like bishops.  They’ve got mobility, reach, and they can bury you damn fast if you don’t have the right kind of cover.”

“What about Mannequin?  Another rook?”  I asked.

“I’d peg him a knight.  He’s more close range, but he’ll catch you from an oblique angle, maybe slip past whatever defences you think you have.”

“Which leaves Cherish and Bonesaw,” Grue said.  “We’ll have to trust Regent to give us the details on Cherish.”

Regent nodded and tapped his finger against his chin, “My sister.  I don’t know if you could call her a third bishop or a knight.  Long range on her power, gets stronger as she gets closer.  Affects your emotions and as far as I’m aware, there’s no way to defend against it or to take cover.  If she decides she wants to hurt you or make you hurt yourself, she can find you and she’ll make it happen.”

“But she has no special defences,” Grue cut in.  “She’s vulnerable to pretty much any knife, gun or power we can hit her with.”

“Can we gang up on her?” Sundancer asked.

“She can affect multiple people at once,” Regent said.  “So it’s not that easy.”

“That means we have to beat her at her own game,” Trickster mused, “Track her, beat her in long-range warfare.”

“I could use puppets to go after her,” Regent said, “But she can paralyze them with the kind of uncontrolled physical reactions I can’t cover with my power.  I am immune to her, for all the good that does.”

“How far does her offensive range extend?” I asked.

“No clue.  I’d guess she can sense emotions across the entire city, which is how she’s finding people, but in terms of attack? I don’t have any basis to make a guess.  Farther than my dad, Heartbreaker, but not city-wide, no.”

“The ability to track us by our emotions is a good enough reason to take her out of action ASAP,” Trickster said.  “So long as she’s active, it’ll be that much harder to catch the others off guard.”

“Maybe…” I started, then I hesitated.  Feeling the pressure of everyone’s attention on me, I said, “…Maybe my power will outrange hers?  Not in terms of what we see and sense, but in terms of who can do more damage from further away?”

“It’s a thought,” Grue agreed, “Risky, but we don’t have many options.  Trickster, where does Bonesaw fit into your analogy?”

Trickster shook his head, “She doesn’t.  She’s relatively weak in terms of raw power, but her presence on the field threatens to change the rules.  She’s a medical tinker.  The medical tinker.  So long as she’s in play, we can’t be certain of our enemy’s attack power, we can’t know that any enemy we clear from the field will stay gone, and there could be harsh penalties if they catch or kill one of us.  It sucks to think about, but if Bonesaw got her hands on, say, Sundancer, I’d be a hell of a lot more worried than if Hookwolf or Skidmark did.”

Sundancer muttered something to Ballistic, but I couldn’t make it out.

“What about our side?” Noelle asked.

“Lots of playing pieces, not all cooperating, and we have one debatable advantage,” Trickster said, “We know in advance, pretty much for a fact, that if any of us, Undersider or Traveler, try to fight these bastards, we’re going to lose, and we’ll lose hard.”

“Tattletale say that?” Noelle asked.

“Coil did,” Trickster answered.

Odd.  So Noelle was staying with Coil, but she didn’t know about Dinah?  Another secret or white lie from her team?

“I can’t help but think of the Desecrated Monk scenario,” Noelle said.  I saw Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic all nodding.  When I turned to my team, they looked as confused as I was.  Was this Desecrated Monk someone the Travelers had gone up against at some point before they came to Brockton Bay?

“Go on,” Trickster encouraged her.

“The rules are unfair.  Half of our opponents are pretty blatantly cheating.  But we have to deal with them anyways.  So either we cheat back-“

“Which we can’t.”

“Or you guys handle it the way we did it before.  You don’t fight the way they want to fight.”

“Okay,” Trickster nodded, “So the first question we ask ourselves is how they want to play this.  What do they want?  In terms a five-year-old could understand.”

“They want their ninth member,” I said.

“Right.”

“They want to hurt, scare and kill people,” Tattletale put in her two cents.

“Why?”

“Reputation, entertainment,” Tattletale said, “These guys are monsters, and pretty much anyone who watches T.V., surfs the web, or reads the papers knows it.”

I saw it out of the corner of my eye.  Noelle’s expression shifted all at once from being animated and engaged to the same look she’d worn when the webcam feed first went live.  Disinterested, hurt, hopeless.

She’d been scouted.  Unlike Regent, it hadn’t been to mess with her.  It had been because a freak like Crawler legitimately thought she was one of them.

If Tattletale was sitting next to me, I would have kicked her under the table.

Noelle suddenly perked up, saying, “They want to hunt.  They’re predators.”

“Okay, how can we use that?” Trickster leaned forward to look at the screen.

“They want to be the predators, we make them prey,” Noelle said.  She was looking more animated again.

“Not sure that’s possible, but keep going.”

“It’s not possible because, um.  You described them like they’re chess pieces, and we’re thinking in terms of a chess game.  What if we changed the game?”

“I always preferred Go,” Trickster said, “But Go is about territory, give and take, less about aggression than an educational sparring match between two master swordsmen, each walking away with a new kernel of knowledge.  Go applies more to taking over the city than it does to this scenario.”

“Shogi?” Noelle suggested.

Shogi.  I got her meaning almost immediately, and I wasn’t alone. Tattletale, the Travelers and I all looked at Regent.

Regent, Bitch and Grue, for their parts, were left looking bewildered.

“Maybe you should clarify?” Grue suggested.

“Shogi is an Eastern variant of chess,” I said, “Some of the pieces move a little differently, though I can’t remember how.  But the big difference is that there’s a rule that says you can take any of the opponent’s pieces you’ve captured and place them on the board as your own.”

“More or less right,” Trickster said.

“So the question becomes,” Grue thought aloud, “Who can we beat in an indirect confrontation, capture and control?”

“Jack, Bonesaw-“ I said.

Grue shook his head.  “They know they’re vulnerable.  Either they’ll be watching their backs or the others will watch their backs for them.”

Regent said, “Siberian is out, and while we might theoretically be able to catch and contain Crawler or Mannequin, I dunno if we could keep them still long enough for me to use my power on them.  If I can.  Their bodies are different.”

I counted the enemies off on one hand, “Leaving Cherish-“

Regent shook his head, “She knows me, has measures in place.”

“Burnscar and Shatterbird,” I finished.

“The bishops,” Trickster said.

“Easier said than done,” Grue sighed.

Noelle’s face disappeared from the webcam, and a blond boy popped up in its place.  Oliver?  “Trickster, Genesis is waking up.  She’s done whatever you had her doing.”

“Long stint,” Trickster replied, “She’ll be groggy.”

“That means Imp is probably done too,” Grue spoke.

“She’ll need a ride back,” I finished his thought.

“Should leave her there for a bit as punishment for staying behind,” Grue grumbled.  Still, he stood and pulled on his helmet.  “But it’s not worth the grief she’ll give me.”

“Softie.” Tattletale grinned.

“Are you coming back?” Trickster asked.

“How long will it be before Genesis is able to brief us on the meeting?”

“Fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Then we’ll be back to finish the strategy session,” Grue responded.

Trickster turned to his teammates, “Mind giving Noelle and me a minute to talk?”  Sundancer and Ballistic stood.

Joined by the two Travelers, we made our way up the disguised ladder to the second sub-level of the parking garage.  As one of the last to head up, I saw the adorable sight of Bitch managing the sleeping puppy, tucking it against her body with one arm so she could scale the ladder one-handed.

As she reached the top, I could hear Sundancer cooing, “It’s so cute.  Is it a he or a she?”

“He.”

“What’s his name?”

“Bastard.”

“I’m guessing you named him?” Regent asked, as I reached the top and stepped down onto solid ground.  I missed Bitch’s response.  Had she nodded?

“I was surprised you brought him tonight,” Grue said, being remarkably delicate about the fact that Bitch had undercut any presence our group had by bringing the cute ball of fluff.  It would have been better if he’d brought it up earlier, but he might have felt the same way I did about provoking Bitch before a major event, when she’d been so short tempered lately.

Bitch’s response was surprisingly verbose.  “Had to.  For the first year and a half, he’s going to be like a dog.  Need to train him as much as I can, get him used to me.  It’ll be too hard if I wait.”

Like a dog?” I asked.  In the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale’s expression change as she looked at the dog, clearly realizing something.  As fast as I could turn her way to try and piece together what that was, something else got her attention.

“Shit,” she breathed.  She clutched at my arm with one hand and at Bitch’s with the other, stepping back to pull us with her.  Bitch pulled her arm from Tattletale’s grip, looking angry at the invasion of personal space.

“Oh fuck,” I muttered, as I saw through the darkness to spot what Tattletale’s power had noticed first.

Four of the Slaughterhouse Nine were stepping through the entrance of the parking garage.  The Siberian was in the lead, her waist-length hair blowing in the wind from outside, her eyes practically glowing in the gloom.  Behind her, Jack Slash held Bonesaw’s hand as the young girl skipped to make it so she only walked on the yellow lines that divided the lanes.  They were accompanied by a young woman who might’ve been eighteen or so years old, who bore a striking resemblance to Alec.  Cherish.  None of them wore costumes.  The Siberian didn’t wear anything.  She was as nude as the day she’d been born, her skin patterned with stripes of alabaster white and jet black.

Jack Slash noticed us, and his his eyes drifted around the arch that led from the parking garage to the wet outdoors.  He smiled, “This is not an exit.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The first beetle gripped the corner of the paper in his mandibles and slowly pulled it back.  Two more moved to the edges of the folds and held them firm.  The fourth and largest of the four beetles ran its head left and right along the paper until it was firmly creased.  Each of the four changed positions and repeated the steps at a different point.

“That’s really creepy to watch,” Charlotte said, from where she sat at the kitchen table.

I looked up from the laptop I was using to view a webpage on origami.  “Is it?  I’m pretty used to them, so I don’t give it a lot of thought.”

“They’re so organized and human.  Bugs shouldn’t act that way.”

“I don’t really believe in thinking that way anymore,” I said, absently.

“What way?”

I had to stop to compose my thoughts.  I glanced at Charlotte, and Sierra, who was standing by the fridge, silently eating her breakfast.  “I don’t believe in shouldn’t, like there’s some universal rules about the way things should be, the way people should act.”

“So there’s no right or wrong?  People and animals should do whatever?”

“No, there’s always going to be consequences.  Believe me when I say I know about that.  But I do think there’s always going to be extenuating circumstances, where a lot of things we normally assume are wrong become excusable.”

“Like rape?  Are you going to tell me there’s a situation where rape is okay?”  Charlotte asked.  I would have thought I’d touched on a hot subject if her voice wasn’t so level.

I shook my head.  “No.  I know some things are never excusable.”

“Right.”

“But as far as bugs are concerned, at least, I figure anything goes.”

“It’s still creepy.”

“Give it time.  You’ll get used to it.”  I picked up the tightly folded piece of paper that was the end result of my little experiment.  I pushed at two corners of the tight paper square, and it settled into a cube about three-quarters of an inch on each side, with holes on two opposing faces.

I directed a housefly into one hole and settled it inside, then fed a braided length of twine through the holes.  I handed the result to Charlotte and ordered the bugs to start making another.

“A necklace?”  Sierra asked.  She put her plate down in the sink and ran water over it.

“Or bracelet, or a key chain.  So long as you have this, I’ll know where you are, because I can keep an eye out for the fly in a box.  The real purpose of this, though, is when there’s an emergency.  You can crush the box and the bug inside, and the moment that happens, I”ll use my power to protect you.  It won’t be instantaneous, but you’ll have a swarm descending on whoever is giving you trouble in anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute.  If it works out, I can make something a little more stylish for the future.”

There were nods from both of them.

“I can’t protect you from a bullet or a knife wound, but I can screen the people in your vicinity, feeling them out to see if they have weapons on them and give you a heads up so you don’t get in that situation to begin with.  If there’s potential trouble like that, I’ll warn you by drawing this symbol with my bugs…”

I drew three lines that crossed in the center, using the flies and beetles that were working on a cube for Sierra.

“Okay,” Charlotte said.  Sierra nodded.

I got the bugs working on the second cube again.  “I’ll use numbers to inform you on the number of people nearby.  You’ll want to approach a situation differently if there’s twenty people than if there’s five.  Maybe have one of you hang back and be in a position to crush the cube, or just keeping your distance.  Or just avoid the situation.  Trust your gut, use your best judgement.”

“What exactly are we doing?”

“For now, just door to door.  I’m going to mark the places you should visit, where there are families or groups of people.  I need the info I can’t get with my bugs.  Who are the people in my territory?  What do they need: Maybe medical care, clothes, more food, maybe someone’s giving them trouble?  You find out, take notes, then pass that information to me.”

“That’s it?”

“For now.  I’m going to ask you guys to travel as a pair, obviously.  You’ll be safer and there’s a better chance you’ll be able to signal me with the necklace if something goes wrong.  Not that you should need the cube, but I prefer having some redundancy.”

The pair nodded.  Sierra bent over to pull on the rain boots I’d provided her.  Charlotte was already wearing hers.

“That’s the general plan.  We’ll work out other tasks and maybe other signals later, in case you need my attention but not for an emergency, or if you want to cancel a request for help, whatever.  That leaves payment.”

“I was wondering about that,” Charlotte said.  “But didn’t know how to ask.”

“We’ll try for six to eight hours a day, five days a week, but consider it flexible.  Not to spook you or anything, but I’ll know if you’re slacking.  I’m thinking two hundred and fifty dollars a day, and obviously it’s under the table, so you’re not getting taxed on it.”

“That’s a little more generous than I was expecting,” Sierra said.

I didn’t like Coil, pretty much despised his methods, but I did agree with his sensibilities on some things, like personnel and making sure people wanted to work for you.  It wasn’t like I couldn’t afford it.  I had yet to spend the earnings from any of my earlier villainous stints, since Coil was providing everything major I needed.

“There’s another reason I’m putting you guys out there.  Two people aren’t going to be enough for what I’m planning long-term.  I want you two to trust your guts on this, but you’re also going to be keeping an eye out for possible recruits.”

“You’re hiring others?” Charlotte asked.

I nodded.  “I’m looking for people who are young, reasonably fit, and able to follow orders.  With you two out there, I’m hoping others see a pair of girls who are secure, happy and healthy in my employ.  You recruit someone I decide is worth keeping?  I’ll reward you.  But this isn’t a competition, got it?”

Both girls nodded their heads.

“If you don’t have any questions-”

“I do,” Charlotte piped up.  “Do you have a mask I could wear?”

I frowned.  “I was hoping you guys would put a more human, less sinister face on things.”

“I don’t want to run into someone I know and have to explain.  Not that I think anyone I know lives around here, but-”

“Okay, no, I wouldn’t expect you guys to go unmasked when I won’t.  That wouldn’t be fair.  Give me a few seconds,” I told them.  I headed upstairs to my office.

Over the past few days, I’d received deliveries of the more specific and obscure items I had requested from Coil.  Among them were cases of more exotic bugs, a sturdy work table I kept upstairs in my room and five mannequins with custom measurements.

Coil’s people had taken the time with Brian, Lisa, Alec and Aisha to get comprehensive measurements and hand casts.  Bitch had refused.  This had led in turn to the creation of the mannequins, which had been shipped to me and set up on the pedestals beneath the shuttered window.  One mannequin for each of my teammates and one for me.  There was also a little folder of notes from each of the others on what they wanted, including some photos, clippings and print-outs for reference.  Grue had included pictures of the little statuette he had bought at the Market, which he wanted me to copy for his new mask. I hoped to have a costume for each of us in short order.

I’d already finished a few draft attempts at designing Lisa’s mask, since it didn’t require much cloth and the nuances of it were tricky.  The way her old mask fit her, it hid her freckles and eyebrows and changed the apparent angles of her eyes and cheekbones so her entire face had a different look to it.  Emulating that was hard, since the texture of the silk compared to the material of her mask didn’t let me copy it over exactly.  I’d used the scrapped attempts to test different dyes and how they reacted with the fabric.  I grabbed the failed masks, pressing each against a white piece of paper to ensure they weren’t going to stain skin, and then headed back downstairs.

“Got black, more black, dark purple, blue and blotchy crimson.  Take your pick.”

Charlotte took a black mask that would cover her eyes and the lower half of her face, adjusted it until the eyeholes were in place, and then set about fixing her hair.

“Sierra?”

“Not much point.  My hair is pretty recognizable,” she flicked one of her dreadlocks.

“Won’t do any harm.”

She took the second, smaller black mask.  While she put it on, I deposited a fly and threaded twine into the second origami cube so she had her emergency signal.

“Good luck,” I told them, grabbing two black clipboards with attached notepads and handing them over.  “Come back around noon, we’ll eat, and you can give me an update on how things are going.”

“Will do,” Sierra replied.

My minions moved on to their morning’s tasks.  I headed back upstairs and finally let myself breathe.

I missed staying at the loft, when things were easy and I was free.  I was happy with how things were going with my new recruits, but I was realizing that living with them would mandate changes to my lifestyle.  There were appearances to maintain, and I couldn’t be seen slacking off or being a slob.  I couldn’t sleep in or put off my shower until later in the day.  I couldn’t let myself collapse in a sweaty heap after a hard morning run.  I’d woken up at six in the morning to be sure that I could run, shower, dress and look like I was on top of things by the time they were up.  After a late night, it left me feeling a little worn around the edges.  I harbored some concerns about my ability to help Dinah if this kept up.

The pair had spent some time with their families before returning to my lair.  I’d been anxious in the meantime, worrying they would have second thoughts or turn me in, wearing my costume and waiting in a nearby position in case capes converged on my lair. I’d been both gratified and relieved when they’d returned.  One hurdle crossed.

Both Sierra and Charlotte had seen me bleeding, when I’d come back from rescuing Bryce.  It sounded so minor, but I didn’t want them imagining me as hurt and mortal when they were supposed to trust me and look up to me.  What bugged me even more than that was the fact that Charlotte knew my secret identity. I was fairly certain she would keep it to herself, but she’d seen me as Taylor.  She’d seen me at what was perhaps the lowest point in my life.  From a distance, but she’d seen it.

Charlotte now served under me out of a mixture of obligation and fear, but I wouldn’t feel secure in my reputation until I’d divorced Skitter from that image of a weaker, abused Taylor.

I worked on all five costumes at the same time.  Low-level multitasking was either a minor benefit that had come with my powers or, more likely, a skill I’d developed in the half-year I’d spent micromanaging thousands or tens of thousands of bugs at the same time.  I didn’t need to expend any focus on the simple task of laying out the thread, and the only time I really had to pause to give them direction was when it came to the creative input and the more complicated tasks of deciding how everything fit together.  I could only make some calls on style and what would suit the respective recipients’ tastes when I’d made enough progress and seen the groundwork laid out.  Where I could, I used my bugs to model ideas and options, forming possible shapes for masks, collars and armor panels.

When I wasn’t occupied with that, I focused on Sierra and Charlotte.  I checked their surroundings, discreetly screened nearby groups of people for weapons.  I marked each door with symbols to count the people inside, notified the girls if people were armed, and I put a circle on doors that they were to visit, an ‘x’ on doors they should skip.

A lot of people were ignoring the knocks.  I let them be.  After a few days, if they were still ignoring my minion’s attempts to talk to them, I’d maybe give them a bit of a nudge or leave them a message using my bugs.

Apparently overwhelmed with the requests from his various rulers of the Brockton Bay territories, Coil had started delegating some of his people to act as intermediaries.  I got in contact with Mrs. Cranston, the intermediary he’d designated to me, and outlined what I needed.  Waste removal was a big priority, as was clearing out the storm drains so the water could drain from the flooded streets.  I let her know that my services were available if she wanted help identifying where the blockages were, or if the trash removal teams needed protection from interference.

Once those big issues were resolved, a lot of the smaller ones could be attended to.  Too many problems came with large numbers of people spending the majority of their time wading ankle-deep in water that was swimming with warm garbage.

Time passed quickly, what with my focusing on the costumes, Sierra and Charlotte, arranging the cleaning up of the area, using bugs to sweep for troublemakers in my vicinity and experimenting on a smaller scale with dyes and costume options.  I had a smaller collection of Darwin’s bark spiders that Coil had procured for me in a specialized terrarium to emulate the hot temperatures they were used to, but I couldn’t use them to make anything until they had given birth to at least one new generation.  When I did, though, I expected that the fabric they created would be as superior to the black widow’s work as the black widow’s silk was to conventional cloth.  There wasn’t much room for error with the small number Coil had provided, so I was being careful with the breeding process.

My cell phone rang, and I knew from the bugs I had placed on the two girls that it was Charlotte calling.  That, or someone else had coincidentally phoned me the same instant Charlotte dialed on her phone and raised it to her ear.

“Yes, Charlotte?” I asked.

“Um,” she was taken back a little.  “There’s this place here with two families, and they’re in the middle of packing up to leave.  I thought you’d want to know, in case they were gone before we came back at noon to eat and tell you about it.”

“That’s fine.  What’s the problem?”

“Rats.”

Of course.  The trash would offer a steady diet to vermin, and the flooding would deter many of their natural predators.  The rodent population had exploded, and it could easily be getting to the point where it was interfering with people’s daily lives.

“Their neighbors have the same problem?”

“We haven’t been able to get any of them to answer the door.”

I searched the area around Charlotte.  Sure enough, there were hundreds of rodents lurking in the areas where humans weren’t active.  They nested in rafters, walls and piles of rubble.  Some were apparently getting courageous enough to venture into people’s living spaces, climbing onto tables and into discarded clothes and beds.

No wonder they wanted to leave.

“Tell them to step outside.  If they hesitate, warn them they might get hurt.  They won’t, but it’ll make them move.”

“Okay.”

I hung up, then hurried to pull on my costume, donning latex rubber socks before pulling on the leggings.  At the same time, I gathered a swarm near the rat house.  I began a systematic attack against the rodents there.  Bees, wasps, hornets, fire ants, regular ants, mosquitoes, biting flies and spiders gathered and began attacking the rats furthest from the house and began steadily working their way inward.  Some rats fought or ran, but more bugs gathered each second.

I hurried out the door and took my shortcut through the false storm drain to the beach.  Drawing a host of bugs around myself, I headed toward the rat house with long strides.

The compartment of armor at my back buzzed, and I reached back to retrieve my cell phone.  It was Grue:

can I come by?

I quickly replied:

On errand.  Don’t come to my place.  Meet me at Bayview and Clover.  Not too far from our old place.

It was only a moment before I got a reply:

got it. am already otw.  close.

So he was already on the way when he called?  I wasn’t sure what to think about that.  It suggested it was a social call with the assumption I would be okay with it, which I didn’t mind, but that didn’t really fit his personality.  More likely there was something that he wanted to discuss with me in person.

The rats died at the hands of my bugs, thoroughly poisoned or envenomed, or even eaten alive by the ones that bit repeatedly and didn’t even bother to chew or swallow the flesh.  It wasn’t a fast job, as there were hundreds of the rodents and they were surprisingly tenacious. I wanted to be thorough.

It took me eight or so minutes to arrive, with the roundabout route I had to take to get from my lair to the beach and then back over toward the Docks.  A heavy cloud of bugs surrounded the house, and a group of eight people of different ages were clustered on the far side of the street, watching the scene like they were watching their house burn down.  Sierra and Charlotte stood apart from the huddle, a short distance away.

I covered my approach with a cloud of bugs and slow, quiet footsteps.  Nobody noticed me arrive.

“Just a minute or two longer,” I said.  Charlotte and some of the family members jumped.

“You,” a man who might have been the patriarch of one of the families pointed at me, “You did this!”

“Yes,” I answered him.

“Is this some sort of game to you!?  We were prepared to leave, and you keep us from getting our things?  Add another infestation to the one that’s already there!?”

“She’s just trying to help!” Charlotte said, with a tone like she wasn’t expecting to be listened to.  I got the impression she’d tried convincing him earlier.  I raised one hand to stop her.  It was better if I handled this myself.

The man drew himself up a fraction, “No reply, huh?  I’d punch you right here, right now, if I thought you’d give me a fair, no-powers fight.”

Irritated, I told him, “Count backwards from a hundred.  If you still want to when you’re done, I’ll give you that fight.”

He set his jaw stubbornly, refusing me the courtesy of a countdown.

Ignoring him, I looked at a young boy in the group.  Eight or nine years old, “What’s your name?”

He looked up at his mother, then at me, “R.J.”

“R.J.  Can you count to a hundred?”

“Of course,” he looked offended at the idea that he couldn’t.

“Show me.”

“One, two, three…”

Only a small fraction of the rats were left.  The largest mass of them had been herded into a corner by the swarm, and in their panic they had done nearly as much damage to each other as they were doing to the bugs.  Stragglers remained elsewhere, but as good as they were at navigating the nooks and small spaces of the house, the bugs were just as good, organized by my will, and they vastly outnumbered the rodents.

“Thirty-one, thirty-two…”

Before the last of the rats were dead, I began organizing roaches and other sturdier bugs to have them cart the dead rats away.  I filled the corners of the stairs with massed insect bodies, until it was more like a ramp than a set of steps.  I stepped up to the house to open the door and let the swarm start bringing the dead rats outdoors.

“Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine…”

I knew I wouldn’t quite have enough time to clear out the entire house of the rat corpses, so I cheated by hauling the rats through the walls, into the unoccupied neighbor’s residence and out the kitchen window at the back of that building.  The last of my bugs left the sky around the house.  I timed the arrival of the last few dead rats with the end of R.J.’s countdown.

“So many,” Charlotte gasped, as she saw the three or four hundred rats held high by the swarm.  Judging by the family’s expressions, they hadn’t known how many rats they’d had nesting inside their home.

Turning to the dad, I told him, “Your rat problem is dealt with, and nearly all of the bugs are gone.  Some of my swarm will remain so I can keep an eye out for any future infestations, but you won’t see them.  Now, if you still want to swing at me, I’m okay to go a round or two.  No powers.”

His mouth twisted in a scowl, but he didn’t move to attack me.

Walking over to Sierra and Charlotte, I quietly asked them, “Would I be right if I guessed he wasn’t the one who asked for help?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said, “She did.”

Sierra pointed at the woman who was protectively clutching R.J.’s shoulders.

“Is this satisfactory?” I asked the woman, raising my voice.  “The dead rats will be cleared out of the area in a few minutes.”

“They’re really gone?  They won’t come back?”

“They’re gone, and they won’t come back until someone forces me to move out of this territory.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something else, then stopped.

Well, at least the mom thanked me.

“You’ll want to sterilize the place.  Rubber gloves, bleach.  Boil or replace every dish, every piece of silverware, toothbrushes, linens and clothes.”

“We don’t really have the ability to do all that.  We don’t have much money, let alone those things.  Stores aren’t exactly open, and we don’t have running water or electricity either.”

Geez.  “What have you been drinking?”

“We have a rain barrel and we have a water collector on the roof that came with the supply kit.”

That’s not good enough for this many people.  “Do you have a propane tank?  One should have come with the supply kit.”

“It’s nearly empty.  We’ve been using the propane to cook rice, but we don’t have measuring cups, and if we use too much water, it takes too long to cook, and so we’re running out of the gas.”

She sounded so tired.  Getting by with eight people in one household and no facilities would be such a chore.  Add the stress of rats getting into the food, tearing at sheets to get material for nests, crawling on them as they slept?  I didn’t know how she’d coped.

I hoped my dad’s situation was better.

“Make a note,” I ordered Sierra, “If these people are having trouble, it’s easily possible others are in similar straits.  We’ll want a fresh set of supplies going out to everyone in my territory.  For this family, a delivery of cleaning supplies; bleach, rubber gloves.  They’ll want some new clothes, you can get their sizes after I leave.  Supplies, of course, and containers to keep the food in.  Tupperware.  We’ll arrange for a doctor to come by and check them for bites, scratches and infections.  Standard inoculations.  The doctor will know how to handle that stuff better than we do.”  Hopefully.

“Okay.”

“And measuring cups.”  I smiled behind my mask.

“We can’t pay you back for this, even if you give us a loan, we won’t be able to.” the mom said.

So they were assuming I was putting myself in some loan shark role.  Get them indebted to me, leech them for cash.

“It’s on the house,” I waved her off.

“Thank you,” she said, again.  I felt bad for feeling the way I did, but I thought her gratitude was a little muted for what I was giving her.

I could sense Grue a block away, my bugs settling on his helmet, unable to see as they got close.  I could feel that faint push of the darkness billowing away from him.  He’d been watching for a minute or two.

“If there’s nothing else that’s pressing?” I asked.

Silence, a few shaken heads.  I turned to go and meet Grue where he stood at the corner of one building.

“Taking up a side business in extermination?” he asked me.  I thought I detected a note of humor in his voice.

“Assisting my people.  Some goodwill will help when I’m more firmly in power here.”  I couldn’t help but sound a mite defensive.

“Yep.  That guy over there will be singing your praises.”

I looked over my shoulder at the ‘dad’ who’d been giving me a hard time.  He was ignoring Sierra and Charlotte, who were talking to the larger group of people.  Instead, he watched the bugs cart the dead rats down the street, as if he thought I would slack on the job.

“I don’t understand people sometimes.”

“My guess?  When everything went to hell, he told himself he’d be the ‘man’ for his family.  Take charge, provide, protect.  He failed.  Then some little girl waltzes in and takes care of all that all at once?”

“Little girl?”

“You know what I mean.  Look at it from his perspective.”

“What if I recruited him?  Gave him the opportunity and the power to help others?”

“He’d be intolerable.  I mean, sure, things would get better in the short-term.  But over the long haul? You’d wind up with someone who criticizes every last thing you do, every last call you make, to make himself feel better about the fact that he isn’t the one in control, the one calling the shots.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “I thought you said you weren’t good with people.”

“I’m not good with girls, mainly.  Guys?  Or ‘manly’ guys like him?  I’ve met enough people like him in the gyms with my dad, in fighting classes.”

“Guys and girls aren’t that different.”

“Aren’t we?  Look at our group.  Regent and I are going on the offensive.  I’ve got Aisha and I making constant, coordinated attacks against enemies in my territory, terrorizing groups with attacks from the cover of my darkness, or from someone they can’t even remember fighting.  Regent’s got a squad of Coil’s soldiers with him, and he’s tracking and kidnapping the leaders of enemy groups and gangs, using his power to control them and then having them sabotage their own operations, or start fights with other groups that leave both almost totally wiped out.  Then he cleans up the mess.”

“And us girls?”

“Lisa’s running the shelter, and she says she’s doing it to get more info, but I think she doesn’t mind how it connects her to the community there, either.  You, too, are almost nurturing in how you’re treating the people in your territory.  And you’re acting like you’re getting that aspiring superhero thing out of your system.  Or entrenched deeper into it.  I can’t tell.”

I didn’t like that he was mentioning that.  Sore spot for both of us.  “Just following my instincts.”

“And maybe pushing yourself a little too hard, too fast in the process.”

“Mmm,” I offered a noncommittal response.  I could have asked how Bitch fit into his interpretation of events, but I already knew the answer.  Normal rules didn’t apply to her.  “I think all this ties more closely into how our individual powers work than it does to gender.”

“Maybe.  But… no,” he changed his mind after thinking for a second.  “I think both you and Lisa could be a lot more aggressive.  It kind of worries me that you aren’t.”

“Worries you?”

“If you aren’t taking out the other gangs in your territory and turning a profit, why should Coil bother keeping you there?”

“First of all, I’m totally prepared to squash any troublemakers the second they make themselves known around here.”

“Assuming you can find them.”

“I can.  Second of all, Coil didn’t say a thing about turning a profit.  He has money.  Scads.”

“He has his own money.  Money that he has to devote time and attention to earning.  If your territory never starts earning for him and just becomes some black hole that sucks up tens of thousands of dollars of his money each week, you think he’s going to be okay with that?”

“What do you want me to do?  That doesn’t involve taking protection money or peddling drugs?”

“Those would be your biggest revenue streams.”

“I’m taking control like he wanted me to.  Faster than the rest of you.”

“But you’re not leaving yourself in a position to do anything with that control.”

“I can get all of the people in my territory onto Coil’s side.  And I have over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars I can put towards infrastructure here.”

“That’s not as much as you might think it is, when you’re talking about this much territory.”

“No, but it’s something.  Look, Coil’s a proud guy.  He said it himself.  He’d be upset if he took over the city and it wasn’t better than it was before.  I’ve got the old Boardwalk here.  I can help set that going again.  I’ve also got the Docks, here.  A part of it.  If I can improve things here, if I can take this place and make it better than it’s been in decades, wouldn’t that be a feather in his cap?”

“Even if things went smoothly, that’s not going to happen fast, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Not fast.  Grue had been pretty merciless in trying to poke holes in my approach, but the realization that he was right on that score was like a punch in the gut.  “If I can show Coil I’m making headway…”

Even I wasn’t convincing myself.  Coil wouldn’t give Dinah up for something as minor as a good start.  I think Grue noticed my dejection.

“I’m sorry if I’m being hard on you,” Grue settled one hand on the armor of my shoulder.

“No.  You’re right.  I’ve been thinking too short-term.”

“I really did want to come by and talk about less serious things.  It’s a shame we can’t.”

“We have time to do that, don’t we?  We could go back to my lair, hang.  I can show you what I’ve got done on your new costume, and we could talk about the mask,” I suggested.

He shook his head.  “No.  What I meant was that I’d hoped to spend today talking about that stuff.  But we’re not going to get the chance.  Something more serious has come up.”

“Oh hell.”  My initial suspicions had been right.  This wasn’t a social call.

“Regent got a visit from one of the Slaughterhouse Nine last night.  So did Coil, though the man is quiet on details.  Coil’s also reporting that Hookwolf got a visit on Tuesday, and one of Coil’s undercover operatives died in the ensuing carnage.  The PRT office downtown also got hit, according to Tattletale…”

“They’re active.”

“Yeah.  More to the point, they’re recruiting.  Looking for a ninth to round out their group.  Regent was one candidate.”

“Who was the other, at Coil’s?”

“Coil isn’t saying.  We think, with Tattletale’s educated guess helping us out, that Hookwolf might have been another possible recruit.”

“And at the PRT offices?  Shadow Stalker?”

“As good a guess as any.  We’re not sure where she wound up.”

“So what does this mean?”

“It means Hookwolf is calling together a meeting of the local powers that be.  Crook, criminal, mercenary and warlord.  We have to decide if we want to go.”

“He was one of the people they visited.”

“He was.  Which means this could be a trap.  Some kind of grand slaughter to commemorate his joining the group.  Taking out the other prospective members in the process, like Regent.”

“Or it could be a target for the Slaughterhouse Nine to attack.  Create chaos, maximum bloodshed, the kind of stuff that gets attention.  They’d be killing some of their possible recruits, but that’d suit them, being unpredictable, never letting you think you’re safe.”

Grue nodded.

“At the same time, if we don’t go, it’s crucial info that we’re missing out on.” I thought aloud.  “What does Dinah say?”

“Her power is out of commission after the attack on Coil’s base, apparently.”

“So we’re flying blind, with only Coil’s power to back us up.”

“Whatever it is.”

“Whatever it is.” I echoed him, feeling bad for the dishonesty and my lack of disclosure. “What do Coil and Tattletale have to say about the meeting?”

“Coil wants everyone present.  Tattletale thinks Hookwolf is on the up and up, but he’s only one of the potential problems that could come up.”

I thought of the others who would be at the meeting.  “Like the fact that Skidmark is one of the local powers.  Or he is if he’s managed to recuperate rep-wise from the ass kicking that Faultline gave him.  He’s not exactly the type to keep to the truce at the meeting.  An unpredictable element.”

“Yeah.”

“But if Tattletale is right, and Hookwolf isn’t on the side of the Slaughterhouse Nine, if we can trust Skidmark to have the basic common sense to back the rest of us up if they attack-”

Brian turned toward me, and I could imagine him giving me an ‘are you serious?’ look behind his visor.

“-Or at least not get in our way,” I corrected myself.  “We could fight back, if it wound up being most of the villain groups against the Nine.  Our group’s powersets lend themselves to slipping away if that went sour, and Tattletale might be able to sense trouble before it hit us.”

“You’re talking like you want to do this.”

“I do.  Kind of.  If all the top villains of the city attend and we don’t, are we really doing ourselves any favors?  Our rep will take a nosedive, we’ll be out of the loop, and there’s nothing saying we wouldn’t be targeted by the Nine all the same if we sit it out.”

“Why do I get the feeling your decision here is motivated by your rushed attempts to get more control, more rep and finish this phase of our territory grab as soon as possible?”

“Because it is.”

He sighed, and the sound was eerie, altered by his darkness.  “To think I used to like that you were hardcore serious about the supervillain thing.”

That touched on that sensitive subject again.  My original motivations, my act, such as it was back then.  I turned the subject of our debate back to the meeting.  “What do you think?  If it was up to you and you alone, would you want us to go?”

“No.  But it isn’t up to me and me alone.  When I weigh everything in my head, including the risk of our groups spending time fighting and arguing on the subject when we could be organizing and putting measures in place to protect our territory in our absence?  I think it makes more sense to accept it and go with the flow.”

“When is the meeting?”

“With a situation this critical?  There’s no time to waste.  Tonight.”

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