Interlude 13

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It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Director Emily Piggot finished the last of her coffee and paused to survey the enormity of the task that lay ahead of her.  The scale of it could be measured in paperwork.  Piles of it.  Sometimes two feet high, the stacks of paper were arranged in rows and columns on every available surface, including the top of her coffee maker and the floor around her desk.  There were stacks of stapled pages, each topped with a weight to protect it from the gusts and breezes that flowed through the open window frames.

She couldn’t help but notice the way that the pages at the bottom of the pile were neatly organized, tidy, everything in line.  The newer pages, the ones at the top, were the sloppy ones.  Pages were slightly out of alignment, some dog-eared or stained.

The same progression could be measured in the print.  The older pages were typed, printed as forms with everything in its place.  Abruptly, it all shifted to handwriting.  Shatterbird’s destruction of everything glass and everything with a silicon-based chip inside.  Computer screens and computers.  The handwriting, too, grew less tidy as the rise of the piles marked the passage of time.  On occasion, it would improve for a day or two, when her captains and sergeants complained about illegible handwriting, but it inevitably slipped back into disarray.

A strong metaphor, Emily Piggot thought.  Every part of it said something about the current circumstances.

The shift from uniform typed words to countless styles of handwriting, it said something about the innumerable voices, the break down of the cohesive, ordered whole.  What resulted were hundreds, thousands of self-interested voices.  One in five condemned her, two in five pleaded with her for assistance in some form, and the remainder simply expected her to perform her duties as a cog in the machine.

She looked over the sheer volumes of paper around her office.  The PRT handled cases where parahumans were involved, and these days, it seemed like everything and everyone was touched in some way by the heroes, villains and monsters of Brockton Bay.  Every time the other precincts had the slightest excuse, they would claim that it was the PRT’s responsibility.  If they had no excuse at all, they would claim it a joint responsibility.  Until she read over the cases in question and either signed off on them or refused them, the job was in her hands.  As far as the ones passing the buck were concerned, it was out of their hands.

The first real intrusion on the average citizen’s life had been the bombings instigated by the ABB.  Frightening, but it had been easy for the average person to believe they wouldn’t be one of the victims, to shrug it off as the same background noise of heroes and villains that they’d experienced for much of their lives.  Now, between Leviathan, Shatterbird, the fighting and the formation of territories, everyone had reason to worry and give serious thought to who they needed to support and how they were going to protect themselves.

Just as the parahumans had invaded the lives of those in the city, the paperwork seemed to dominate Emily’s life.  It crept onto the walls, onto bulletin boards and whiteboards.  Notes on the local players, timelines, messages and maps.

Insurmountable.  Too much work for one woman to handle.  She delegated where she could, but too much of the responsibility was hers and hers alone.  The humans outnumbered parahumans by eight-thousand to one, give or take, in urban areas.  Outside of the more densely populated areas, it dropped to a more manageable one to twenty-six-thousand ratio.  But here in Brockton Bay, many had evacuated.  Few places in the world, if any, sported the imbalanced proportion that Brockton Bay now featured.  What was it now?  One parahuman to every two thousand people?  One parahuman to every five hundred people?  Each parahuman represented their respective interests.  She represented everyone else’s.  The people without powers.

The whole nation was watching.  People across America ate their TV dinners while they watched the news, seeing footage of the slaughters in downtown Brockton Bay, white sheets draped over piles of bodies.  The before and after shots of areas devastated by Shatterbird.  Flooded streets.  Fundraising efforts were launched, many succeeding, while yet others leveraged the situation to cheat the sympathetic out of money.  The world waited to see if Brockton Bay would become another Switzerland, another Japan, another region that simply couldn’t recover.  Ground lost to the Endbringers in their relentless campaign of attrition against humanity.

So very few of them knew it, but they were counting on her.

She heaved herself out of her chair and made her way to the coffee machine to refill her mug.

“Director?”

She turned to see Kid Win standing in the doorway.  He looked intimidated.

“Yes?”

He raised the laptop he carried in his hands.  “The guys in CS asked me to bring this to you.”

She shook her head, refusing the offer, “For now, every computer that comes in is supposed to be used for setting up the consoles and communications.”

“They’re done.  Or almost done, for communications.  They expect to be up and running in two hours, but they have all the computers they need.”

“Good.  Access to the central database is up?”

“Everything except the highest security feeds.”

Disappointing.  “I’ll make do, I suppose.  Thank you.”

Kid Win seemed almost relieved to hand her the laptop.  It meant he could get out of her presence sooner.  He was turning to leave the instant the laptop was out of his hands.

“Wait.”

She could see his shoulders drop, slightly, in the same way a dog’s tail drooped when ashamed or expecting reprimand.  Emily Piggot wasn’t good with kids, or even young adults.  She knew it.  Outside of the time she had played with dolls as a small child, she’d never entertained the notion of being a mother.  She didn’t even like kids.  It was the rare youth that she actually respected, now, and those few tended to be the ones who saw her firm leadership and respected her, first.  Now she was in charge of some of the most powerful children in the city.

“The next patrol shift is in…”  She turned to find the clock, “Twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes, yeah.  Vista, with Clockblocker babysitting.  Weld and Flechette are out right now, patrolling separately.”

“Postpone the next patrol, and tell Weld and Flechette to take it easy, but to be ready to report at a moment’s notice.  With the consoles up, we’ll be ready to act.  Pass on word to Miss Militia as well.  I believe she’s taking the next patrol shift.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The laptop would do little to help in her war against the paperwork until she had access to a printer.  PRT divisions and precincts in neighboring cities were all too willing to send along staff and officers to assist, but her firm requests for the fundamentals -for computers, printers, satellite hookups, electricians and IT teams- were ignored all too often.

She cleared space on her desk and started up the laptop.  It would be good to have access to the files on the locals and ‘guests’ alike.  She would handle the paperwork better after a moment’s break, while she focused on other things that needed doing.  She was barely registering the words, at this point.

This would be a battle won with preparation, and for that, she needed information.

It took her a moment to adjust to the smaller keyboard.  She entered her passwords, and answered the personal questions that Dragon’s subsystem posed to her.  Why is your nephew named Gavin?  Your favorite color?  Irritating- she didn’t even know her favorite color, but the algorithms had figured it out before she did.  All information divined from the countless pieces of data about her that were in official emails, photographs and surveillance footage from the PRT buildings.  It was with a moment of trepidation that she typed in For Gawain, knight of the round table.  Silver.

The fact that Dragon’s system could divine these details, as always, unnerved her.  This time, in light of recent events, it unsettled her all the more.

She typed in the words ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ and watched as information began appearing in lists.  News items, sorted by relevance and date, profiles, records.  Lists of names.  Casualty reports.

Emily clicked through the records.  Sorting as a timeline, she found the entry muddled with Armsmaster’s simulation records on the fighting abilities of the Nine.  He’d been preparing to fight them.  A double-check of the modification dates showed he’d seen the entries recently.

So when he’d escaped, he’d done it with the intent of fighting the Nine.  She’d suspected as much.

She refined the search to remove the simulations from the results and found video footage.

A video of Winter, an ex-member of the Nine, engaging in a protracted siege against no less than twenty members of the Protectorate.  She’d been killed by one of her teammates.

A sighting of Crawler, shortly after he had joined the Nine.  He’d been more humanoid, then.  Still large.

Another member of the Nine from yesteryear, Chuckles, attacking a police station.  No use to her, beyond serving as a testament to what might happen if she consolidated too many forces in one place.

She found a file listed as ‘Case 01’.  She clicked it.

We’ve got her cornered?” the person in the video spoke.  Hearing the voice, noting the camera image of an apartment was mounted on a helmet, Emily Piggot knew who it was.  She knew the video well enough.

Think so,” a man replied.  The camera focused on Legend, then swung over to Alexandria, and finally Eidolon.  “We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.

She hasn’t tried to leave?” the face behind the camera asked.  “Why not?

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  “She has a victim.

Alexandria spoke up, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-

Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.

Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.

We’re trying an experimental measure.  It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.

Emily turned off the sound as the four charged into action.  She didn’t want to hear it, but she felt compelled to keep watching.  A matter of respect.

It was Siberian.  One of the first direct confrontations, more than a decade ago.  It hadn’t gone well.

The Protectorate had been smaller, then.  The lead group had consisted of four members.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Hero.  Hero had been the first tinker to take the spotlight, so early to the game that he could get away with taking a name that basic and iconic.  He’d sported golden armor, a jetpack, and a tool for every occasion.  His career had been cut short when Siberian tore him limb from limb in a sudden frenzy of blood and savagery.  He’d been scooped up by Eidolon, who tried to heal him, who continued to hold the man as he joined in the ensuing conflict.

Director Piggot had seen the film before.  Several times.  It was the screams that haunted her.  Even with the sound off, she could have put it all together from the sounds that were engraved in her memory, right down to the cadence, the pitch.  Seeing a teammate die so unexpectedly, so suddenly.  The noises of panic as some of the strongest capes in the United States realized there was nothing they could do, adjusting their tactics to try to save people, staying one step ahead of Siberian to minimize the damage she did as she waded through any defense they erected, tossing the PRT trucks -modified fire trucks, then- as though they were as light and aerodynamic as throwing knives.

Invincible Alexandria was struck a glancing blow and had one eye socket shattered, the eye coming free in the midst of that bloody ruin.  Eidolon had healed her, after, but the scar was still there.  Alexandria now wore a helmet whenever she was out in costume.

After that telling blow, Legend’s voice would be ordering the containment foam.  Not so much to bind Siberian as to hide the wounded Alexandria from the feral lunatic.

With the sound muted, Piggot would not have to hear Legend crying out over what he had believed was the death of two teammates.  It had always made her feel guilty to hear it, as if she were intruding, seeing someone mighty at a moment in their life when they were stripped emotionally bare.

And of course, Siberian had escaped.  Slipped past countless PRT officers and a dozen superheroes in the chaos.  Nothing in the footage gave a clue as to how.

A shadow passed over her desk.  Turning, she saw a silhouette of a flying man against the light of the sun.

Like so many parahumans, he lapsed into intrusiveness and a self-centered mindset.  Well, she wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in regards to this.

She composed herself and spoke, “If you’d like to enter my office through the front door, Legend, we can talk there.”

Silently, he disappeared around the side of the building.  She couldn’t see through the wall, but she heard the commotion as he flew in through the window.  He stepped into her office with the fluid grace one had when they could use their ability to fly to carry their weight.  Blue and white costume, boots and gloves.  Veteran member and leader of the Protectorate, his lasers carried as much firepower as a battalion of tanks.  She had to remind herself that she technically outranked him.

“Siberian?” he asked.

“I’m reading up on our opposition.”  She wouldn’t apologize, but she couldn’t keep the sympathy from her face.

“I flew up to check if you were in your office, and I saw the video.  My fault for seeing what I did.  It wasn’t a good day.”

She nodded curtly.  It hadn’t been.  One could even suggest it was when things started to go bad.  The loss of Hero, the first time a truly dangerous villain made an appearance.  “What did you want to see me for?”

“A note delivered for you at the front door.  We gave it a high priority.”

“You’re taking the standard precautions?”

He nodded.  “It’s already on its way to the lab.”

“Join me?”  She lifted herself out of the chair, keenly aware of the differences in her and Legend: parahuman and human, male and female, lean muscle and eighty pounds of extra weight, tall and average in height.

“Of course.”

They walked past the reams of public servants, government employees and Piggot’s own people.  Emily knew she was not the only one overburdened with work, not the only one sweating, trying and failing to keep cool.  The rest of her people were staying awake with the benefits of coffee more than anything else.

She couldn’t turn away everyone that volunteered or was sent to Brockton Bay to assist her PRT division, but there were too many.  Space was at a premium, and there were too few places where she could establish secure offices, where buildings didn’t threaten to fall down and where assistance was actively needed.  Still, she’d sent people away when she could.

“How’s the family?” She asked.  “You adopted, if I remember right?”

“We did.  Arthur was worried that a surrogate parent would give birth to a parahuman, and if that happened, he’d be out of the loop.”

“The odds are still high, even with an adopted child.  It’s likely more to do with exposure to parahumans at formative ages than genetics.”

“I know.  Arthur knows, but I don’t think he believes it.”

“Or he doesn’t want to believe,” Emily said.

Legend nodded.

“He knew the price of admission,” she said.

Legend smiled.  “You’re always straight to the point, Director.”

“But the child is good?  A boy or a girl?”

“A boy.  Keith.”

“You’ve heard there are some third generation parahumans on record?”

“For a while now.  We knew they were being born anyways, right?”

“We did.  But nothing’s official until it’s on record.  But the point I was getting at was that there was apparently an incident.”

“Oh?”

“In Toronto.  A five-year-old manifested powers.  A third generation parahuman.”

Legend nodded, but he didn’t respond right away.  He stepped forward to open a door for her.

“Everyone’s alright?” he asked, at last.

“No.  But no casualties.  The parents were outed in the chaos.”

“Sobering.”

She nodded.  “The perils of being a superhero parent.  Your child isn’t a third generation cape, I know, but there are always risks.  Still, I envy you.”

“How so?”

“Family.  I wonder if it is harder or easier to get through the day if you have people waiting for you at the end.”

“Yes.”

She smiled a little at that.

They entered the lab, and Emily Piggot very carefully measured the expressions of every person in the room when they noticed Legend.  Awe, surprise, amazement.  Sometimes ambivalence.

What could she take away from that?  If she were to promote one of them, should she promote one of the awestruck ones, or one of the taciturn?  The starry-eyed might be in the PRT for the wrong reasons, but the ones who were unfazed by the presence of one of the most notable heroes in the United States could easily be plants, hiding their emotion or simply too used to the presence of capes to care.

“The note?”

“No traces of toxins, radiation, powders or transfers.”

“Why the priority?  We get letters from cranks every day.”

“The man who delivered the message reported a fairly convoluted series of safeguards to protect the identity of the sender.  Apparently the man who gave him his instructions was given the note by a civilian, and ordered to find a random individual to deliver it to the PRT, all with compensation arranged.”

“You’ve tailed him?”

“Of course.  We doubt anything will come of it.”

“No.  It wouldn’t.  Can you make out the contents without touching the envelope?  Can’t be too careful.”

“We can and have.”  The technician handed Emily a paper.

She read it over twice.  “Burnscar is dead, it seems, and Bonesaw won’t be in the field for the interim.  God knows how quickly she’ll recover, but it’s something.”

“Good news,” Legend said.

Emily wasn’t so sure.  “It’s… a change.”

“Not a good one?”

“The closing line reads, ‘Thanks for the help.’  I can’t help but read it in a sarcastic tone.”

“The bug girl?  Skitter?”

Emily nodded.  “Exactly.  As good as it is to have one more member of the Nine dealt with, this shifts the balance of power towards another group of villains.  It also serves to move up our deadline.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Call a meeting.  Protectorate and Wards.”

“Alright.”

She looked at each of the capes in turn.  Legend, Prism, Ursa Aurora and Cache were the outsiders, heroes on loan.  Miss Militia’s group was more worn out.  Where their costumes had been damaged, stained or torn, pieces had been replaced from the generic costumes the PRT kept in stock.  Miss Militia had doffed the jacket but left the scarf with the flag motif in place.  She wore a black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of empty holsters and sheaths for her weapons.  Battery was wearing a plain black costume and goggles, while Assault had replaced the top half of his costume with similar odds and ends.  Triumph still wore his helmet and shoulder pads with the roaring lion style, but his gloves had been replaced with the same utilitarian, generic ones the PRT officers wore in the field.

The Wards, at least, were in better shape.  Tired, to be sure, but they hadn’t been directly in the fray.  The patrol shifts were unending and they always had something to do.  Weld, Flechette, Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Chariot.

She deliberately avoided looking at Chariot.  The mole in their midst.  Did Coil suspect she knew about the mole he’d planted?  Could she afford to assume he didn’t?

Still, it would all be for nothing if she gave the game away.  Back to the matter at hand.

“We have three priorities,” she began.  “We take down the Nine, we regain control of the city, and we don’t die.”

She stressed the final two words, waiting to see their reactions.  Were any of her people thinking of performing a heroic sacrifice?

“There’s no point in winning now if any of you die or get converted to the enemy side by Regent or Bonesaw.  Even if we were to defeat the Nine outright, through some stroke of fortune, I harbor concerns that we’d lose the city without the manpower to defend it.  It’s a dangerous situation.”

She picked up the remote that sat in front of her and clicked the button.  The screen showed a map of the city with the spread of territories.

“The Nine have the advantage of power.  Not necessarily in terms of the abilities at their disposal, but in terms of their ability to affect change and shape everything that occurs.  They are our number one priority, obviously.  With them gone, if nothing else, I can hope that more capes will be willing to venture into the city to help out.”

“But we’re operating with a deadline, and the Undersiders and Travelers have just moved it up dramatically.  The Nine posed their challenge, and they’re losing.  There’s now four ’rounds’ of Jack’s little game remaining.  Twelve days, depending on their successes and failures in the future.  I’ve talked it over with Legend, and we’re both working under the impression that the Nine will enact whatever ‘penalty’ they mentioned in the terms for their game.  Our working assumption is a biological weapon.”

There were nods around the table.

“In short, our worst case scenario is the Nine feeling spiteful or cornered, and deploying this weapon.  When we attack, we need to make it an absolute victory, without allowing them an opportunity.  Wards, I know you’re not obligated to help in this kind of high-risk situation.  This is strictly voluntary, and I’ve had to discuss the matter with your parents to get permission to even raise the subject, but I would value and appreciate your help on this front.”

The Wards exchanged glances.

“If you could raise your hand if you’re willing to participate?”  She ventured.

Every hand except two was raised.  Chariot and Kid Win.

It did mean she had Flechette, Clockblocker and Vista.  The ones she needed.

“Thank you.  Rest assured, Chariot, Kid Win, that I harbor no ill will.”

“My mom wouldn’t forgive me if I went,” Kid Win said.

“I understand.  Now, the Nine are only one threat.  Let’s talk about the others.”  She clicked the remote again.  “Tattletale’s Undersiders have the advantage of information.  We still don’t know her powers, but we can speculate that it’s a peculiar sort of clairvoyance.  She was able to provide us detailed, verifiable information on Leviathan after fighting him, even though she was only participating for several minutes before being knocked out.”

She paused. “I believe this is why, in a matter of twenty-four hours, they were able to fight the Nine twice and win both times.  On the first occasion, they captured Cherish and Shatterbird, presumably enslaving the pair.”

“So they have Shatterbird’s firepower and Cherish’s ability to track people, now,” Legend spoke.

Piggot nodded.  “Skitter contacted us for assistance, as some of you will remember, and when we refused, the Undersiders took the fight to the Nine a second time.  Burnscar is dead, Bonesaw injured.  She’s invited us to attack them in the meantime.”

“Why would we do that now when we turned down her offer to cooperate?”  Weld asked.  “What’s changed between now and then?”

“Communications will be up shortly,” Piggot replied, “We now have the consoles and trained employees ready to man them, and so long as we’re going into this as a unit, we don’t need to worry about other groups stabbing us in the back at any point during the battle while we engage the Nine.”

“Would they?”  Legend asked.  “I have a hard time assessing their motives and morality.”

“I don’t know.  Could they?  Yes.  And that possibility is too dangerous, especially given what Regent can do.  The Undersiders do not pull their punches.  The Travelers, oddly enough, are more moderate, but they do have sixteen kills under their belt, due in large part to the sheer power at their disposal.”

“Let’s not forget the incident in New York,” Legend said.  “Forty individuals disappeared in one night.  Investigation confirmed the Travelers were occupying a nearby location.  Chances are good that they were involved.”

“They’re complicated, no doubt,” Emily confirmed.  “But for now, they’re one knot in a very  tangled weave.  The Nine have power, the Undersiders have information.  Coil has resources that may even exceed our own, including a precog of indeterminate power.  Last but certainly not least, Hookwolf’s contingent is one and a half times the size of our own, and he’s absorbing the whites from the Merchants to his own group.  He commands a small army.”

“It’s a considerable series of obstacles stacked against us,” Legend answered.

“And few capes are willing to step in to help defend the city.  Credit to Legend and his teammates for joining us.  Thank you.”

The group of guests nodded.

“There’s more.”  Time to see how much information filters through to Coil, and how he reactsWith luck, we might be able to pit one problem against another.  “Armsmaster’s confinement was technically off the record, to protect the PRT in this time of crisis.  He escaped, and thus far, Dragon has not been able to track him.  Without official record or reason to arrest him, our measures are limited.”

“It’s impressive that he got away from Dragon,” Kid Win said.

“It is.  Thus far, he has eluded every measure she had in place.  Either he is much more crafty than even Dragon anticipated, keeping in mind that she’s a very smart woman, or Dragon helped him.”

That gave the others pause.

“Dragon’s record of service has been exemplary,” Legend spoke.

“It has.  And we’ve put an inordinate amount of trust in her as a consequence.  How many of our resources are tied into her work?  If she had a mind to oppose us, would we be able to deal with her?”

“We have no reason to think she’s done anything.”

Emily waved him off.  “Regardless.  Very little of this situation remains in our control.  Armsmaster is gone, the other major players are members of the various factions, and we remain in the dark about who many of them are.”

There were nods all around.

She had them listening.  “I have a solution in mind.  The higher-ups have approved it.  Clockblocker, you’re going to be using your power defensively if things go south.  They aren’t patient enough to wait for it to wear off.  You can protect yourself by using your power on a costume you’re wearing, yes?”

Clockblocker nodded.

“Vista, I’m counting on you to help control the movements of the Nine.  Siberian is immune to powers, but not to external influences.  The timing will be sensitive.”

She clicked the remote, then turned her head to look at the result.  It was a warhead.

“On my command, a stealth bomber is prepared to drop payloads of incendiary explosives at a designated location.  We evacuate civilians from the area or lead the Nine to an area where evacuation is possible or unnecessary, then we drop a payload on site.  If they move, we drop another payload.  Clockblocker, you protect anyone that’s unable to clear out.  Legend will ferry you to where you need to be.  Cache can rescue people as the effects wear off.”

“That’s… still not reassuring,” Flechette spoke.

“You’ll be equipped with fire resistant suits.  I ordered them in anticipation over fighting Burnscar, but the plan has been adjusted.  You’ll all look identical, except for agreed upon icons, colors and initials on each costume.  Ones Jack and the other members of the Nine will not be able to identify, please.  There’s a team ready to prepare the costumes at a moment’s notice.  It will help mask the identities of those involved, and postpone any reaction from Jack over our having broken the terms of the deal.”

“But we are breaking the deal.  Even if Legend’s team doesn’t get involved-” Miss Militia started.

“The incendiary deployments will serve three purposes.  They’ll forestall any biological attacks Bonesaw attempts, they’ll force Siberian to stay put to protect her allies and they’ll kill Jack or Bonesaw if she isn’t able.  Humans aren’t biologically programmed to look up, and whatever else Siberian is, she’s still human at her core.”

“And if Siberian does protect her allies?” Weld asked.

“Flechette will see if her enhanced shots can beat Siberian’s invulnerability.  Failing that, Clockblocker contains the woman.  His power won’t work on her, but we can cage her in thread or chains that he can then freeze.  If we can do the same with Jack and Bonesaw, we can starve them out, or wait until they let go of Siberian.  If you’re prepared, Clockblocker?  We can support you with relief teams.”

“If it means stopping them, I’m down.”

“Unless she’s able to walk through that,” Weld spoke.

“It’s inviolable,” Clockblocker said, leaning back in his chair.  “I’d sooner expect her to fold the universe in half.”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s what the doctors say.”  Clockblocker said.

“And Crawler?” Legend asked.

Piggot spoke, “Legend, Ursa Aurora, Prism, Weld, Assault and Battery will occupy him until we can contain him.  He’s still vulnerable to physics.  I’m hoping the white phosphorous explosive will keep him in the area long enough for us to put measures in place.  As I said, we can’t afford to do this halfway.  If they get cornered, or if they think they’ll lose, we run the risk they’ll lash out.”

She glanced around the room at the fourteen parahumans present.

“We carry this out this evening, before any of our opponents catch on to our intentions and complicate matters with their own agendas.  That will be all.  Prepare.  See to your suits in the lab.”

She watched everyone file out.  Legend stayed behind.

“You’re not saying everything,” he murmured.

“No.”

“Fill me in?”

“Some of that is to mislead the spy in our midst.  We have a follow-up measure.”

“Does it pose a risk to this team?”

“It does.  Unavoidable.  I suspect Coil will inform Hookwolf and encourage the Chosen, the Pure and even Faultline’s group to act.  Tattletale, I suspect, will know something’s going on, and I intend to leak enough information to pique her curiosity.  It’s in the moment that the villains enter the situation that the risk to our capes occurs.”

“But?”

“But we have a store of equipment we confiscated from Bakuda when we raided her laboratory.  Miss Militia deployed a number against Leviathan, but we have more.  Once the other factions have engaged, we bombard the area with the remainder in a second strike.  Our research suggests that several of these explosives can bypass the Manton effect.”

“This breaks the unspoken rules between capes.  And the truce against the Nine.  I don’t like this.”

It’s a world gone mad.  Do I have to join the madmen to make a difference?

“Don’t worry.  I’m the one who’s going to push the button,” Piggot answered.  “And I’m not a cape.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.10

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I slept, but it was less like parking a car and more like running one into a ditch.  I’d fallen asleep not by any choice on my part, but because I’d ceased to function.  Over the past few days, I’d hit my limits of endurance, only to push past them over and over.

We’d made our escape without incident.  When we’d gotten Brian settled, I’d planned on staying awake and keeping an eye on him, only to drop off to sleep within a minute of sitting down.  I’d tried to push my limits once more and I’d discovered them.

When I woke up again, it was dusk.  I was curled up in a chair with my head on the armrest.  My eyes were sore and itchy, and I wasn’t sure why.

We’d settled at Brian’s headquarters, because it was close, and there had been the unspoken agreement that it would be better for him to be somewhere he’d be comfortable.

I was still tired, and I kept my head on the chair’s arm, clutching the blanket that someone- I suspected Tattletale- had draped over me.  I could see her in the bed in the other corner of the room, lying beside Aisha.  When I’d dozed off, it had been Brian and his sister sitting on the bed.

The blanket’s presence unsettled me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.  It was thoughtful, nice, and the fact that I didn’t know who’d done it or that I’d been unconscious and helpless when they’d done it, it shook me from the twilight of near-sleep.

Which meant I was now wide awake when I desperately wanted to get back to sleep, to stop thinking for just a few minutes.  The second I started worrying about things, my shot at a good rest would be gone.  Worrying about things like Dinah, and Cherish’s hints that Coil wasn’t on the up and up about our deal.  Worries about what that could mean in the long run.  The newest were my anxieties over Grue.

No, I wouldn’t be getting to sleep any time soon.  I turned my attention to checking my surroundings, rousing my swarm to check the surrounding streets and rooftops, count the nearby civilians, and get a sense of who was around.

Sundancer was out cold in the bunk beds in another room, and Bitch was sleeping in another bunk, in a heap with Sirius, Bastard and Bentley occupying the open spaces.  Trickster and Ballistic were walking outside, maybe keeping an eye out for trouble.  Genesis was off-site.  She had to be awake for a while to recharge her power, so she’d told us she was going to report to Coil and check on Noelle.  If my bugs were any indication, she wasn’t back yet.

Parian had gone her separate way.  She’d had stuff to deal with; her family was dead or surgically altered, their faces changed to make them near identical to some of the most hated individuals in the western hemisphere.  I felt bad about leaving her with the aftermath of that scene, but we’d been prioritizing Brian.

Seems Brian’s commentary to me on the morning we’d found out about Dinah, the morning Leviathan came, was ultimately on target.  When the cards were down, we protected and helped the people we care about, and we ignored the greater suffering of the world beyond that.

I shifted restlessly.

My bugs ran into a wall of Brian’s darkness in the living room, on the couch.  I could feel it seep through them, tracing their internal organs.  I didn’t move them further.  I didn’t want to wake him if he was sleeping.

He wasn’t.  A hand settled over my bug and covered it.  I felt him scoop up the cockroach and lift it into the air, holding it on the flat of his palm.  The darkness dissipated, and the cockroach heard the bass rumble of his voice.

I made myself rise from the bed.  My ribs didn’t hurt anymore, and my burns were gone, but my muscles had kinked up from my sleeping in the fetal position on a piece of furniture meant for sitting.  I stretched as I made my way to the living room.  He was sitting on the couch with his feet firmly on the ground.

“You say something?”  I asked.

“I said you can check on me in person, if you want.”  The words were kind, but the look in his eyes wasn’t.

His stare reminded me of Bitch.

“Okay,” I replied, feeling dumb. I’d come to do that anyways, hadn’t I?

And now I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I hadn’t mentally prepared or planned for this conversation.  I stood there, feeling an impending panic as I tried to think of what to say.

I couldn’t ask if he was alright.  That might be the last reminder he wanted, in much the same way that I’d been trying to avoid dwelling on my own anxieties and worries.  Could I approach closer, or would that bother him?  If I left, would I be abandoning him?

“Keep me company?” he asked.

Gratefully, I approached the couch and sat.  I could see him tense as I jostled the couch.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked, stupidly.

He shook his head, but he didn’t offer another explanation.

“Can I ask about the new power, or-”

“Yeah,” he interrupted.

There was a pause.  I saw him raise his hand and create a slithering mass of darkness around it.

“Feels different,” he said, “And I can tell where it is, more.  Slower to create, spreads faster.”

“But the other powers?  I counted at least four.”

“One new ability.”

I nodded.  Didn’t want to argue, so I waited.

From the other end of the couch, he raised one hand and pointed it towards my head.  I stayed utterly still as a tendril of darkness snaked through the air, taking its time as it approached.

I stood up, abruptly, and he jumped to his feet in alarm.  I could see his hands clenched, lines standing out in his neck.

An awkward, tense silence reigned, as we stood facing each other.

I waited until he’d relaxed before I spoke.  “Had a bad time with someone else trying to get into my head, not so long ago.  Um.  Can we- can we just skip the demonstration?  Or make it more blunt?”

“Right.”  It was like a shadow had passed over his face.  He stared hard at the shuttered window at the end of the room.

I sat down,  pulling my knees up in front of me so I could wrap my arms around my legs, and I waited for him to rejoin me.  He’d healed himself, but he hadn’t exactly bounced back.  It wouldn’t be right to expect him to.  Was this the kind of interaction Tattletale had wanted to avoid, when she’d urged Aisha to go to Brian, instead of me?

“I’ve talked to Tattletale about this.  My power’s always had some effect on capes like Shadow Stalker.  Her powers didn’t work as effectively in my darkness.”

“Velocity struggled, too.  He was slower, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the increased air resistance or something else.”

“Yeah.  So we think I always had some effect in that department.  That’s stronger now.  Affects more powers, according to Tattletale.  She’s making an educated guess that this aspect of my power is going to be more effective on capes with a physical power.”

“Right.”

“And when it works, I feel… a circuit?  It’s like the darkness comes alive, a cord or wire between me and the people in my darkness, and I can actually see it.  If I focus on it, it gets bright and hot, and I have access to whatever my power’s sapping from them.  A fraction of a power, one power at a time.”

“So the healing?”

“Othala.  I was so worried she’d escape my darkness before I finished giving you guys regeneration.  I couldn’t just use her power on each of you, because it was only lasting a few seconds after I touched you.”

“And the regeneration was… Crawler?”

He nodded.  I could see that dark look pass over his face.

“And then the duplicate you created would have been Genesis.”

He shook his head.  “No.”

“No?”

“She wasn’t in my darkness, I’m almost positive.  And my power’s weaker than whatever I’m stealing.  It doesn’t make sense that I was able to form myself as fast as I did.  It wasn’t like she’s described it, either.  Remember, I worked with her when we were dismantling the ABB.”

I nodded.

“It was more like… a forcefield.  Except not.  A hole in reality, and it took something out of me to feed and shape itself.”

I blinked a little in surprise.  If Brian was stealing a share of other people’s powers, then-

I blinked again.  My eyes were itchy.

“Damn it,” I groaned.

He gave me a curious look.  Or at least, that’s what I took it for; I was having a hard time reading his expressions.

“Forgot to take my contacts out.  My eyes are going to be sore for a while, and I don’t have a spare pair of glasses to wear.”

He nodded.

“Sorry.  So small a problem in the grand scheme of things.”

“You need to be able to see.”

I reached into my utility compartment and got a small case with the spaces for the individual contacts and contact lens solution, then pried my right eye open to pinch the thing out.

A few seconds later, my other contact was out, and I was half blind.  The way the shadows fell over Brian’s face, the shadows of his eye sockets made him look like he was wearing sunglasses.  I couldn’t see the lines of tension, anger or anxiety.  Whatever it was that’d had him awake, sitting up and staring into space at ten or eleven in the evening.

Maybe I should have left them in.  Risking an eye infection was small potatoes compared to fucking up this interaction.  Except I couldn’t put them back in without having to explain why.

Why was this so hard?

“You get any sleep?”

He shook his head.

“None at all?”

“Didn’t need to.  Didn’t want to.  Felt better about keeping an eye out for trouble than about sleeping.”

“Trickster and Ballistic are out there.”

“I know.  I saw them step outside after Rachel came back.”

I smiled a little.  “Wasn’t so long ago that you were getting on my case for not sleeping enough, mandating that I get a certain number of hours before we moved on the Nine.”

He didn’t respond, and he didn’t move.  I couldn’t read his expression.  Had I said the wrong thing?  Should I not have mentioned the Nine?

“Yeah.”  His reply was delayed, almost begrudging.  It didn’t sound gentle, or kind, or anything like that.  It was more like I’d expect someone to sound if they were giving up the password to a safe at gunpoint.

“Sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure exactly what for, but the apology was genuine.  The smile on my face was gone.

For a minute or two, neither of us said anything.

What had we ever talked about that wasn’t about our costumed life?  At first, it had seemed like common sense.  I was new to the cape scene, it was exciting, he was experienced, and he’d wanted to share his knowledge.  We’d talked about our recent jobs, the implications, even jobs we were considering.  I could count on one hand, maybe two, the times we’d done stuff that hadn’t been centered around powers and fighting and violence.

Now that I couldn’t raise those subjects without reminding him of what had happened earlier, I was lost.

“You shouldn’t have come for me.”

“What?”

“Should have left me there.  I was as good as dead.  Throwing away your life and the rest of the team, to try to rescue me?”

“You’re not thinking straight.  There’s no way I’d leave you behind.”

“Right.  Because you’re supposedly in love with me, so you go rushing off to rescue me.”

That stung, more than it should have, and it would’ve hit me hard anyways.  I couldn’t read his expression, so I went by his tone of voice, by the anger, the bite in his tone.  The fact that he’d brought it up so casually.

Emma jumped to mind.  She’d been my best friend once, as I was friends with Grue. She’d also flipped on me, turned hostile, and used private thoughts and feelings I’d shared with her to attack me.

I took a deep breath.  “That wasn’t why we came to help you.  And it wasn’t just me making the call.”

“Really?  Because I remember you were the one who stopped Ballistic from putting me out of my misery.”

I clenched my fists.  Any resolve I’d had to remain calm was gone.  “I would have done the same thing for Bitch!  Or Lisa, or Alec, even!  Are you seriously telling me you wish I’d let you die?  You’re alive now!  It worked out!”

“Because we got lucky!  Christ, you always do this!”

Using my power, I checked on the others.  One of the dogs had perked its head up at the shouting, but nobody else had roused.  I didn’t take my eyes off Brian, though.  The look in his eyes was scary.  Angrier than I’d seen him.  I’d unconsciously defaulted to the same defenses I’d used against Bitch: Eye contact, pushing back when pushed.

I deliberately lowered my voice.  “Always do what?”

“You’re smarter than average, so you count on your ability to think up solutions on the fly, you throw yourself into these reckless situations, push and vote for the risky plans because you know that’s a situation where you thrive, where you offer the most to the group.  Every step of the way, you do it.  Pushing the all-out assault on the Wards at the bank, charging in to fight Lung after taking on Oni Lee, the fundraiser, confronting Purity, attacking Leviathan with zero backup, the attack on the Wards’ HQ-”

“Stop,” I said.  I was getting flashbacks to my conversations with Armsmaster, now.

“You say you’re not manipulative, that your undercover operation was pure in motive, but you are.  You throw yourself into those situations solo, or you join in on whatever fucked up plan the others come up with, and you do it because it makes you useful, because you know we’d struggle without you, you’re making us dependent on you.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat.  “That’s not- not what I’m doing.  Every step of the way, I had other reasons.  Strategies, or there were people I needed to help-”

“Maybe Bitch was right about you all along.”

“That’s not fair.”  This isn’t him.  He’s still reeling from what Bonesaw did to him.

That excuse did little to shake my worries that this was what he really thought.  Was this the stuff he was holding back, every day he was with me.

“What’s not fair is that I’m the one who’s tried to keep things sensible, to keep this group sane, and when push comes to shove, when I go with the majority because things won’t go smoothly if I don’t, I’m the one who gets captured and tortured.  Your plan!”

“Don’t.”

“Are you going to tell me I’m wrong?”

“It- it wasn’t fair.  You’re right.  But I don’t deserve all of the blame here.  I volunteered to be the person Trickster swapped out.”

“Knowing there was no way you could, with your injury.  So you let me.”  He stared at me with an intensity that I couldn’t meet.  I broke eye contact, looking down at my gloved hands, which were clutched together in my lap, fingers tangled.  “Tell me, Taylor.  If you don’t deserve blame, who does?”

The Nine.  Bonesaw.  But I could hardly say that.  Not after seeing his reaction when I’d casually brought up the Nine before.  However intent he seemed to be on hurting me, I wasn’t going to retaliate in kind.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, to my silence.

I looked up at the ceiling, blinking to get the tears out of my eyes.  “Okay.”

“What?”

“I’ll own up to it.  My fault.  The blame is at least partially mine.  Maybe mostly mine.  I’ve been reckless, and others have suffered for it.  Dinah, my dad, Bitch, the people in my territory.  You.  Maybe I am toxic.  Maybe me and my motivations, my issues, are causing everyone misery.  I can leave the team if you want.  Give me the word, and I’ll leave.”

There was a long pause.

“Christ,” he said.  “I’m not telling you to leave.  I’m just-”

“You’re making it clear I should.  And you’re probably right.

“I’m frustrated, and I went too far.  That’s not what I’m trying to say.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

I stood up and turned away.  I didn’t want to see that look in his eyes.

I tugged my armor into position and made sure I had everything I needed.  It wouldn’t do to get ambushed and killed as I left.  My modified costume was heavier than my old one had been, and between that and the blanket, and this place’s lack of air conditioning, I was sweating.  My hair was stuck to the back of my neck.

He wasn’t saying anything.

“I’m going to go.  Half my territory burned to the ground, my people need some attention.  If you decide everyone’s better off with me gone, just pass on the word.  I won’t make a fuss, I won’t say you wanted me gone.  I’ll just make an excuse and leave.”

I drew some bugs around my lower face and eyes as a makeshift mask.  My real mask was still in tatters.  I noted that the modifications I’d made were no longer necessary.  I wondered if I would go back to skintight leggings.

It’d be good to get back to my people.  To check on them, and ensure they were okay.  Maybe they’d be better off without me.  If Tattletale or Regent took over the-

“Stop,” he said, cutting off my train of thought.

Didn’t need to hear more of his accusations, his condemnations.  I ignored him and headed for the front door.

“Please.”

His tone had changed.  I stopped walking.

“I’ve never really said anything like this to anyone,” he said.  “But I’m scared.  I’m more powerful now, but I feel more insecure than ever.”

How was I supposed to respond to that?  A part of me wanted to sympathize, to hug him and tell him it was okay.  Another part of me was angry, wanted to slap him, scream at him, because he was still focused on himself, himself, himself, after he’d just attacked me.  I understood why he’d done it, but that didn’t make his barbs hurt any less.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m on edge.  I’m spooked.  I can’t calm down.  I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“And you can’t stop thinking?  I feel like that, all the time, and I have for a while.”

“They had Aisha.  So much of what I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to support her.  Make up for the fact that I wasn’t there when she needed it, before.  Only we’re putting her in more danger, and she doesn’t respect me enough to let me keep her out of danger.”

I turned around.

“And as long as I’m being honest and upfront,” he said, “I was thinking about you when I had my trigger event.”

I swallowed.

“I won’t lie and say I’ve suddenly realized I’m in love with you.  I don’t really know what I feel, so I can only comment on what I think.  I can say I respect you on a lot of levels, even if I can’t figure you out.”

“Sure as hell didn’t sound like you respected me thirty seconds ago.”

“I worry about you.  You throw yourself into these situations like you don’t care if you die, like you’ve got nothing to stick around for except for those people you insist on protecting.  Dinah, the people from your territory.  People you barely know, if at all.  And then you actually make it out okay, so you do it again, only more so.  Riskier stuff.”

I folded my arms.  This was uncomfortably close to what he’d been saying before.

“I start thinking about how I’m supposed to protect you, get you to stop, get you to focus on a goal that’s actually attainable, because you’re so capable that you could be amazing if you stopped acting suicidal.  Then I get pissed at myself and I get pissed at you, because I can’t figure you out, and you move forward so fast that I can’t keep up.  I let my guard drop for one evening to focus on other things, and then I find out you’d gotten in a fight with Mannequin.”

“It’s not your job to look after me.  If you want to get on my case because I’m putting you and the others at risk, that’s fine.  It’s your right to yell at me for that.  But don’t make me feel bad because you can’t be the macho guy, protecting me.”

“That’s not-” he stopped.  “No.  I’m trying to say I think about you more than I should.”

I looked away.  I might have asked whether he thought about me more than he should because he cared, or because I was a fuck up.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer, either way.

“Stay?  When I asked you to keep me company, I was being genuine.  Rather not be alone with my thoughts.”

I sighed.  “I could do with some tea.  I could make you some coffee if you wanted.”

He shook his head.  “Jumpy enough already.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I headed into the kitchen, put a kettle on and began digging around for teabags.  It wasn’t easy, when I was half-blind.

Once I had the teabags and a mug set, I got my cell phone out.

“Cranston here,” the woman on the end of the line replied.  “What can I do for you, Skitter?”

Cranston was the woman Coil had assigned to me, as he’d assigned employees to the others, so he wasn’t personally dealing with each of us when he had other things to focus on.

“Need glasses.  Coil has the prescription on file from when he got me my contacts.”

“I’ll have them for you by morning.  Anything else?”

“No- wait.  Yeah.  Can you pass on a message to the PHQ?”

“Coil has contact information.  Hookwolf’s contingent exchanged contact details with the other teams, including the PHQ.”

“No.  I mean, without going through Coil’s channels.  I need to give them a message from me.”

“That can be arranged.  I have a pen and paper, if you’d like me to take dictation.”

“Tell them Burnscar’s dead and Bonesaw’s missing a pair of hands for at least a little while.  Four and a half members left.  If they were being honest about waiting for the right moment to strike, this is probably a good one.”

“Mm hmm.”

“We can give them the location of the Nine if they’re interested.”

“Should I give them your contact information?”

“They have enough tinkers that I’d be worried about them tracking me down.  No.  If they want to get in touch, I’ll leave it to them to figure it out.  Not going out of my way.”

“Alright.”

“And one last thing.  Tell them ‘thanks for the help’.”

“I’ll get the message to them promptly.”

I hung up.

I returned to Brian with a mug of tea for myself and a glass of water for him.  The television was on, and he sat in the middle of the couch.  He patted at one cushion.  With the way he was positioned, there was no way for me to sit a distance from him.

At the same time, when I did sit, he didn’t reach out to touch me, to put a hand on my shoulder, or any of that.  We watched terrible late night TV with the volume so low we could barely hear it, not talking, not making body contact, barely even looking at each other.

He’d confessed feelings for me, after a fashion; I had a special place in his thoughts, even if he didn’t know what that meant, exactly.  We were sharing personal parts of ourselves we’d never let others see.  We even cared about each other.

I just hadn’t wanted it like this.

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Snare 13.9

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“With the shoulder bone connected to the,” she paused, “Hip bone…”

Bonesaw sang to herself as she drew a scalpel from her sleeve, investigated it, then laid it on the counter.

“And the hip bone connected to the… back bone.”

She drew a pair of forceps from beneath her dress, another two pairs of forceps were retrieved, joining the first.

“And the back bone connected to the… knee bone.  And the knee bone connected to the… hand bone.”

I was scared.  I could admit that.  I could barely think straight, I couldn’t move, and whatever she’d dosed me with was rendering me unable to use my power.  It was there, it wasn’t like what Panacea had done; it hadn’t shut it down entirely.  I could sense what my bugs did, and I could maybe give them crude instructions, but I couldn’t do anything even remotely complicated or delicate.

“And the neck bone connected to the-” She rocked her head to either side as she finished, “Head bone.”

I could see the open door of the refrigerator out of the corner of my eye, but couldn’t turn my head to get a better look.  Brian could see us from where he hung.

I didn’t want to go down without a fight.  I couldn’t give specific directions to my bugs, but if I tried, maybe I could give one.  Maybe, just maybe, I could rely on my subconscious to guide them, even if my conscious mind wasn’t up to it.

I controlled my breathing, in then out, and gave the order.

Attack!

If the commands could be analogous to words in my head, this was a shout.  There was no control, no guidance or direction.  I didn’t have the facility.  Still, every bug in reach, within a range of five or so city blocks in every direction, began to converge on our location, veering towards Bonesaw.

She noticed almost immediately, drawing the can of aerosol spray she’d used to wipe out the first swarm I’d set on her.  One hornet managed to sting her, and with my power as limited as it was, I couldn’t stop it from contracting its body in such a way as to inject its venom into her.  I wouldn’t have if I could.

The rest of the bugs died on contact with the spray, their bodies shutting down.

Except my order was a continuous directive, much as my calling my bugs to me had been when I’d passed out while fighting Bakuda.  It worked on its own, without my direction.  It was eerie to track their movements, to see just how much initiative they took without my conscious mind guiding them.  They spread out, navigated past obstacles, they organized into ranks and tried to attack her from behind, while she was spraying the ones in front of her.  Some of the flying insects were even dropping spiders onto Bonesaw.

“This is annoying,” I heard Bonesaw comment.  I couldn’t see her in my field of view, which was primarily limited to the floor, Imp’s mask and if I looked as far to my left as I could manage, the fridge that held Brian.  Few of the bugs were getting past that spray, and even the droplets of the spray that had settled lingered on Bonesaw’s skin, hair and clothing were enough to kill or incapacitate them on contact.

I was unable to respond to her statement.  I focused on breathing, and taking in every detail I could.  My eyes could still move, my fingertips could twitch, but nothing else.

“Just so you know, I’ve rendered myself immune to all those pesky little venoms and allergens,” she said.  “And I can turn pain off like I’m flicking a switch.  Don’t want to do that on a permanent basis, but it does make this easier to deal with.”

So I wasn’t even hurting her.  Damn it.

“It’s still annoying.”

I could feel my bugs congregating on her as she put the aerosol down and fumbled around inside her pockets.  Test tubes: I could feel the long, smooth glass. She dropped something into each, then stabbed the aerosol can.  The smoke that plumed out killed most of the bugs in the area.  I couldn’t follow what she did with the can and the test tubes.

“It’s interesting,” she said.  I felt small hands on me, and she heaved me over so I was staring at the ceiling, and at her.  Clouds of what looked like steam were rising around her.  From the test tubes?  It was having the same effect on my bugs that the aerosol had.  She’d erected some kind of gaseous barrier.

“See, there’s this part of the brain that people who study parahumans call the Corona Pollentia, not to be confused with the Corona Radiata.  It’s a part of the brain that’s different in parahumans, and it’s the part that’s used to manage powers, when the powers can be managed.  More specifically, there’s this part of the Corona they call the Gemma, that controls the active use of the power, the same way there are parts of the brain that allow us to coordinate and move our hands.”

She ran her fingers over my exposed scalp, massaging it, as if she were feeling the shape of my head.  “The size, shape and location of the Corona and the Gemma changes from parahuman to parahuman, but it tends to sit between the frontal and the parietal lobe.  Beneath the ‘crown’ of the head, if you will.  They can’t really lobotomize the Corona in criminals.  Some of that’s because the location and shape of the Corona depends on the powers and how they work, and trial and error doesn’t work with the scary bad guys who can melt flesh or breathe lasers.”

She tilted my head back and felt around the edges of my mask, trying to find the part where she could pull it off.   “I’m really good at figuring out where the Corona and the Gemma are.  I can even guess most of the time, if I know what powers the person has.  And I can pry it wide open, make it so the powers can’t be turned off, or I can temporarily disable it, or modify it.  The powder I blew into your face?  It has the same prions I put in the darts I shot your friends with.  Cripples the Gemma, but it leaves your powers intact.  Can’t experiment with your abilities if I’ve fried your whole Corona Pollentia, right?  Right.”

She angled my head and stared into my goggles with her mismatched eyes.  “Dealio is, the Corona’s way too small to be doing what it’s doing.  As parahumans, our brains are doing these amazing things.  The framework, all the details our minds are using to decide what works and what doesn’t, the sheer potential, even the energy we’re using, it’s too much for our brains to process, and it’s waaaay too much for a growth that’s no bigger than a kiwi.  All of that?  It’s got to come from somewhere.  And the other reason you can’t just carve out the Corona?  If you do, the powers still work on their own.  The person just can’t control them.  It becomes instinctive, instead.”

She began feeling around my mask for a seam, buckle or zipper, searching.  She talked as she grabbed the part of my mask that bordered my scalp and tried to peel my mask down towards my chin.  “So you can see why I find it very interesting that you still have the ability to control bugs, even when your Gemma is out of order.”

She gave up on pulling my mask down.  The armor panels made it too difficult, and the fabric wouldn’t tear.  She snapped her fingers, and one of her mechanical spiders stepped close.  She removed one of the tools at the tip of the spider’s leg – a small mechanical circular saw.  It buzzed like a dentist’s drill as she turned it on.  She began taking my mask apart, thread by thread.

“I’m ten times as excited to take your brain apart, now!  You might give me a clue about the passenger.  See, I think it’s something that’s hooked into your brain.  It was alive up until your powers kicked in, it helped form the Corona, then it broke down.  I’ve seen it at work when I’ve provoked and recorded trigger events, seen it die after.  But I’m pretty sure some kind of trace is still there, linked in, cooperating with us and tapping into all those outside forces you and I can’t even comprehend, to make our power work.”

Breathe in, breathe out.  I was having to consciously maintain my breathing.  Whatever her dust had done to me, it had also jammed up the part that handled the more automatic things.  My pounding heart wasn’t in sync with the speed of my breathing, and I was beginning to feel dizzy and disoriented.  Or maybe that was the powder.  Or fear.

“But I haven’t been able to find it.  It’s not physically there, or it’s so small that I haven’t been able to track it down.  If your ‘passenger’ is strong enough to let you work around a disabled Gemma, if your powers work without your say-so, maybe it’ll be easier to spot.”

Her progress through the fabric of my mask was slow.  She stopped to clear loose material from around the tool.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll put your skull’s contents back when I’m done looking.  Then we can get to the real fun.”

She peeled my mask off.

Breathe in, breathe out.  Don’t want to pass out.  Or maybe I should?  Maybe I didn’t want to be conscious for what came next.

Her scalpel slid across my forehead, so fast and precise that it barely hurt.  I caught a glimpse of her untangling her fingers and her scalpel from my long hair before the first dribbles of blood flooded down into my eyes.  It stung, and I was momentarily blind before I managed to blink the worst of it away.  I wanted to blink more, faster, but the response was sluggish at best.  I couldn’t tell if my contacts were helping or hurting matters.

I was put in mind of the incident just days before I’d gone out in costume.  The bathroom stall, the showering in juice.  It had started with cranberry juice in my eyes and hair.  How had I gotten from there to here?

“I can’t tell you how excited I am.  It’s like Christmas, opening a present!  Thank you!”  She bent down and kissed me squarely in the center of the forehead.  When she sat up, there was crimson all over her lips and chin.  She wiped most of it away with the back of her hand, uncaring.

She glanced at the circular saw, and it started up with that high-pitched whine.

Then it stopped.

“Clogged up with teensy-weensy bits of silk and whatever that armor’s made of, too slow.  But don’t worry!  I have a bigger saw somewhere else.  I was using it for one of the other surgeries I did earlier.  Let me see if I can find it.”  She stood, then stepped out of my field of vision.  My bugs couldn’t feel her, but I could tell that she was carrying one of the steaming, smoking vials with her, as bugs died on the other side of the room, then the hallway, then a nearby room.

I tried to move and failed.  My fingertips twitched, I could blink if I focused on it to the exclusion of everything else.  My eyes, at least, moved readily enough.

I couldn’t do anything.  Even an instruction as basic as ‘find Bitch’ was beyond my abilities at present.

Bonesaw had talked about this ‘passenger’.  My ally, my partner, after a fashion.  Was there some way to use it?  To put more power in its hands?

Help!  I tried, putting every iota of willpower into the command that I could.

Nothing.  Too vague.  Whatever aid my ‘passenger’ provided, it wouldn’t think of something I couldn’t.  My bugs didn’t respond.

It was the perfect time for a rescuer to show up.  My bugs had stopped going after Bonesaw because we weren’t aware about her current location, so they hovered in place, clinging to walls and feeling around for people who might be their target.  There was a chance that they would bump into someone else.  If a rescuer was coming, my bugs would see them.

There was nobody.  No people on their way.

None of my teammates were moving, either.

If I had the ability to use my power properly, I might have done something with the smoking vials that Bonesaw had left behind.  Used loops of silk to drag them away, perhaps.  I didn’t.  My power was clumsy, now, a brute force weapon at best.

And hell, I was just so tired.  Physically, mentally, emotionally.  So many burdens on my shoulders, so many failures that had cost so much.  We had fucked up here, had underestimated Bonesaw.  I’d gone with Trickster’s plan to set Hookwolf’s contingent against the Nine and buy us the chance to infiltrate and rescue Brian, even though I’d known the strategy had too many holes, too many unpredictable variables.  I’d been too tired to think of something else, too preoccupied and impatient because Brian was in enemy hands.

I would have resigned myself to a fate worse than death, but how did one do that?  How was I supposed to convince myself to give up?  It would be so easy, on a level.  It was alluring, the idea that I could stop worrying, stop caring, after so much pressure for so many weeks and months.  After so many years, if I counted the bullying.  I wanted to give up, but a bigger, more stubborn, stupider part of my brain refused to let me.

Bonesaw returned all too soon.  “Threads, Skitter?  These yours, or leftovers from before?”

Threads?  I hadn’t set any tripwires.  I should have, but I’d been more focused on a quick rescue mission than preparations for a potential fight.

My bugs felt movement.  Except nobody had entered the building, to the best of my knowledge.  It was in one of the hallways.  Big.

The huge stuffed animal I’d noted in the hallway.

Of course.  Parian’s creations had deflated without her power to sustain them, hadn’t they?  The stuffed thing was inflated, heavy, so she was here.  My bugs couldn’t detect her, but she was here.

“Outlet, outlet, need an outlet.  You’d think there’d be more in a kitchen, but nooooo,” Bonesaw muttered.  She passed through my field of view, holding a saw twice the size of the one she’d held before.

The stuffed animal moved forward clumsily.  My swarm’s contact with it was intermittent as it made its way towards us, then past us, venturing into a hallway.

“Gonna have to cut a hole in your skull, Skitter.  Unavoidable.  I’d go up through your nose, but I couldn’t reach the top of your brain with the equipment I have.  Going to make a little window.  Just big enough to get my hand through.”

She turned on the saw, and it screamed, a shrill whine on par with nails on a blackboard, but unending, ceaseless.

The stuffed animal was turning around, coming back down the hallway, towards us.

Have to stall her.

I looked up at her, then deliberately blinked three times in a row.

The saw stopped.

“Trying to say something?”

I blinked once, hard.

“Is that one blink for yes, two for no?”

I blinked twice.  Just to confuse matters.

“That’s confusing.  You’re not just trying to delay the part where I carve up your brain, are you?”

I blinked twice.

“Not getting what you’re trying to say.  One blink for yes, two for no, okay?  Now, do you actually have something meaningful to communicate?”

I blinked once, hard.

“Are you going to tell me to stop?”

I blinked twice.  She wouldn’t listen if I did, and then it would be right back to the surgery.  I trembled, but I didn’t take my eyes off her.

“Tell me when to stop.  Last requests, threats, your friends, um… science, art-”

I blinked once.

“Art?  Yours?  Mine?”

Another blink.  If anything would get her talking, it was her ‘art’.

“What do you want to know.  About your friend there?  It’s more research than anything else.  Or maybe about you?”

I blinked.  The stuffed animal was close.

“Art and you, huh.  You want to know what I’m gonna do when we’re done with my investigation?”

Why not?  Knowing had to be better than wondering.  One blink.

“I’m going to go all out.  Way I figure it, I set your Gemma lobe to attract bugs around you, then remove it, so you’ve got no conscious control over it.  But there’s a point to it!  I make some physical modifications to you, see.  Implant some of Mannequin’s equipment so you’ve got enough sustenance to keep you going, and sustenance to keep the bugs you bring to you alive.  You become a living hive, see?  We could even make it so they crawl inside you and build nests there.”

The stuffed animal pushed the door open and walked into the cafeteria.  The room darkened as it passed in front of a window.

Please don’t notice it.

“I’ve got a regular mod for your amygdala, to make sure you behave, and a frame I implant to your skeleton and heart to help control you, make you stronger, more durable.  I figure we’ll try to go for a cosmetic shift.  I have to say I admire this armor, so why not let take that to the logical conclusion?  We’ll give you an exoskeleton.  It’d be awesome.  Compound eyes, claws.  We’ll see how far we can go.  Won’t that be fun?”

The stuffed animal had stopped in the middle of the cafeteria.  Either it didn’t hear Bonesaw or something else had its attention.

I could feel that not unfamiliar sensation of darkness creeping in around the edges of my vision.  Was I passing out?  How much blood was I losing?

I blinked three times.  Stall.

“No, no.”  She stroked my hair, and my forehead lit up with a burning pain where she’d cut.  “We should get this done before you drop dead.  Don’t think I can’t see the changes in your breathing and pupil dilation.”

She started up the saw and pressed it against my skull.  The horror of what she was doing was compounded by the most god-awful noise, and a grinding vibration of my skull.

If it hurt, I didn’t register it, because the noise of the tool had drawn the stuffed animal’s attention.  It charged for us, slamming through the glass sneeze guard of the dining hall’s serving counter.  It struck Bonesaw, hard, and the saw slid across my head, cutting through my hairline.  I didn’t care.

My rescuer was some kind of cartoonish dinosaur made of black and blue fabric.  I could see the logo of this health club repeated several times over the stuffed animal’s exterior.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Bonesaw slowly stand.  The two combatants were at opposite points in my peripheral vision; Bonesaw stood to the far left, Parian’s creation to the far right.

“That’s really rude,” Bonesaw said, putting inflection on each word.  “I was having a nice conversation with Skitter, and you interrupt?”

She snapped her fingers, and mechanical spiders leaped from a spot I couldn’t see to latch onto the stuffed dinosaur, much as they’d done with me.

Needles, saws, scalpels and drills attacked the dinosaur, and it, in turn, smashed the spiders to the best of its ability.  Though it clubbed the spiders into pieces with its hands, feet and tail, it still continued to march steadily towards Bonesaw, moving over me and the others.

Bonesaw, for her part, was retreating, holding a pair of test tubes in one hand, dropping what looked like color-coded sugar cubes into them with the other.  She glanced around quickly, then lunged for a nearby counter, grabbing a bottle of water.  She upended it over the test tubes, going for haste over precision.  More than half of the water splashed around her feet.

Parian’s creation struck the villainess a second time.  Bonesaw was thrown into a metal shelf unit with enough force that she dented it.  One test tube slipped from her fingers.

The other, she whipped at the stuffed dinosaur.  It hit with enough force that it shattered on impact.

The dinosaur struck Bonesaw a third time.  Heavy as the impact was, Bonesaw was cornered and she couldn’t go flying as she’d done before.  My view of the scene was limited to the back of the Dinosaur’s head, and the occasional view of an stubby-fingered arm as it was drawn back for a haymaker punch.  It pounded her, one hit after another.

My heart sank as I saw the stuffed dinosaur begin to deflate.  It backed away from Bonesaw, and I saw a spreading area on its side where the fabric was thinning out, bleaching.  Once the first holes appeared in the fabric, the rest of the process was swift.  It crumpled almost explosively, revealing a figure inside.

Parian threw off the cloth that had covered her and used her power to rip away her sleeve and part of her dress where it was disintegrating; whatever had eaten at the fabric of her dinosaur armor was continuing the process with her clothing.

I could see Bonesaw too.  Her face was bloodied, her nose gushing blood, and her cheek was a ruined, abraded mess.  Whatever had eaten at Parian’s dinosaur had gotten on her too, devouring the edges of her dress, one sock and part of the shoe on the same foot.

Rude.”

“You killed my mom,” Parian’s voice sounded hollow.

“My teammates did most of the actual killing, so I don’t think I did, if that makes you feel any better.”

“My aunt, my best friend, my cousin… they were all here.”

“Wrong place, wrong time?” Bonesaw shrugged.  She slapped at a wasp that had managed to get in position to sting her.  She wasn’t in the area of her anti-bug smoke anymore.

“They told me to run, to protect the kids.  But they were supposed to escape while I handled that,” Parian sounded lost, dazed.  “I thought they’d get away, so I played dead.  I didn’t know.”

She wasn’t a fighter, I remembered.  She had held her own against Leviathan, but she didn’t have experience.  I wanted to scream at her, to make her stop talking, to do something to Bonesaw.

“If it makes you feel any better, some of them might still be alive.  We didn’t kill them all.”

Parian snapped her attention to Bonesaw, “What?”

“Some we left alive, so I could give them five-minute plastic surgery.  My spiders handled most of it.  Implants under the skin, some chemical dyes for hair…”

“Plastic surgery?”  Parian shook her head.  “What?  Why?”

“To make them look like us.  They’re all running around out there, drawing enemy fire and freaking out.  It’s funny.  And of course, it’ll take a dozen visits with doctors less talented than I to get something even resembling their old faces back.  Can you imagine how many people are going to double take when they look at them, before they’ve all been fixed?  Like, ‘Oh no, it’s Siberian!’, except it isn’t.”

Parian flung one hand in Bonesaw’s direction.  I didn’t see what happened next, but the bugs that were still drifting in Bonesaw’s direction to attack her were telling me that there were threads stretching between the two of them.  A bug settled on the point of a needle where it had impaled the side of Bonesaw’s neck.  Twenty or thirty needles with attached threads extending between them and Parian’s sleeve.

Bonesaw crunched something in her mouth, “You’re playing so rough.  Ow.  I think you broke one of my teeth, with your dinosaur.”

Parian ignored her.  A twist of her hands, and Bonesaw was lifted into the air, spread-eagled.  Bonesaw’s skin stretched where the needles pulled at it.  Parian advanced towards the villain.

Broken tooth?  No.  When I’d kicked Cherish earlier, hadn’t she said that Bonesaw had reinforced her teeth?  Surely the psycho would have done the same for herself.

She was lying.

And there was nothing I could do to alert Parian.

Parian picked up one of the scalpels Bonesaw had placed near me.  Her hand was trembling even after she had it in a white-knuckled grip.  “I don’t want to do this.  I never wanted to fight.  But I can’t let you walk away.  That’s the most important thing.  I’m willing to compromise what I believe in, compromise myself, to do that.”

Bonesaw rolled her eyes.

Wall!  Barrier!

My bugs left Bonesaw’s presence to form a barrier between her and Parian, but they were too few.  Too many had died against Bonesaw’s bug killing smoke.  Parian ignored them.

In one motion, Parian stepped close and stabbed the scalpel into Bonesaw’s throat.  Then she did it again, and again, stabbing over and over, hysterical.

It wasn’t enough blood.  I knew it, and Parian had to know it.

Bonesaw spat into Parian’s face.  Her own flesh burned as whatever chemical she had been holding in her mouth spilled down her lip.

Parian, for her part, dropped the scalpel, tore her mask off and staggered blindly in the general direction of the sink, her hands over her eyes.

No.

What I wouldn’t give for the chance to change this, to act, to offer even one word of assistance.

Bonesaw turned her head and spat again, some residual chemical directed at the threads. When that didn’t achieve the desired result, she repeated the process.  The threads snapped and she dropped to the ground.

“Burned mah tongue,” Bonesaw said, to nobody in particular.  Or to me?  She stuck it out to demonstrate.  It was scalded, blistered and covered with dead white flesh in much the same way her lip was.  She spat again.

Parian reached the sink, cranked on the tap.  There was no water.  She threw herself to one side, feeling along the counter for something, anything to wash out her eyes.

“You’re lucky I’m so nice,” Bonesaw said.  She lifted up the tattered bottom of her dress to dab at her lip and tongue.  I could make out test tubes, equipment and pouches, all belted to her thighs and stomach.  “If I was a less forgiving person, I’d make you regret that.”

Parian sagged to her knees, hands still on the counter, heaving for breath.

“But instead, I’ll leave you alone to think about what you’ve done,” Bonesaw said.  She plucked some of the needles out of her skin.  “I’ll finish with these guys, and later, I can show you what can do with a needle and thread.  It’ll be fun.  Common interests!”

“Making friends, Bonesaw?”

No.  Any vestige of hope I’d had disappeared.

Jack leaned over the counter.  Burnscar stood beside him, looking troubled.

“Jack!  Yes!  I’m having lots of fun!  These people are so interesting,”  Bonesaw smiled.

“You hurt yourself,” Jack frowned.  “Your mouth.”

“The doll-girl ambushed me.  But I’m okay.  I can fix myself after I’m done here.”

“You’ll have to finish fast.  We’re going.”

“No!”

“Yes.  The enemy’s recouping from the first few hits, and they’re stalling Siberian and Crawler.  Only a matter of time before they engage in one good flank and blindside one of us three.  We leave now, and all they remember is how hard we hit them and how little they could do.”

“But I have research!”

“Bring three.  We won’t be able to bring them all along, and you know they get messy if you leave them like that for too long.”

“Only three?”  Bonesaw pouted.

“Only three.”

“Then, um.  Skitter…”

I felt hands seize my feet and pull me away from my teammates.  Burnscar.  She held me under one arm, my head and arms dangling.  Beads of blood dripped down to the floor.

“Um, um.  Tattletale.  I want to see what her brain looks like, too.”

“Tattletale it is.”

“And Trickster!  Because Ball-of-fire girl killed Hack Job.  I want another.”

Hack Job?

“Trickster it is.  Finish off the rest.”

“Can I leave Brian there?  I have to show my art to people to get known.”

“Brian, is it?  Hm.  I think that’s a very good idea.”

“Yes!  Then we’ll go from first to last.  The girl with the horns.”

Imp?

The small circular saw started up with its high-pitched whine.

Then it stopped.  I could hear a strangled noise.

“Aw.  Look at his heart beating!  So fast!”

Burnscar turned, and I could tell they were looking at Brian.

Another strangled noise, trying and failing to form words.  It was so forced and ragged that it made my own throat seize up in sympathy.

“You don’t want to see your sister die, huh?  That’s sweet,” Bonesaw said.  “Maybe you should have taught her the basics.  Don’t have to see her if she’s going to walk straight into a modified wolf trap.  Did you know?  She turned off her power just so she could beg for help.  From us.  She’s not very bright.”

He made a sound that might have been a growl or a howl of rage, but there was no volume to it, and it was more high-pitched than anything else.

“Don’t worry!”  Bonesaw said, “I’ll take good care of your friends.”

I felt a hand pat my cheek.

“Come now, Bonesaw,” Jack said.

“It’s just so funny, watching him react.  His heart beat faster when I touched her.”

“It did.  But we should go.  Burnscar?  Torch the ones we’re not bringing.”

“I wanted to!”

“You had your chance, little b.  You got distracted.”

I could feel the heat of nearby flame as Burnscar manifested a fireball in one hand.

Darkness rolled over Burnscar’s feet, a carpet.  There was no direction to it, and very little volume.  It pooled on the ground and spread.

“Yes!  He’s doing it!  Can I look?  I just want to get the hard drive!”

“No.”

“But-”

I could feel my heart pounding, pounding, then stop.  The pain was gone.  I was gone too.  I had no body, only perception.

The scene was familiar.  At the same time, I couldn’t have said what happened next.  It was like a book I’d read years ago and promptly forgotten, too strange to commit to memory.

Two beings spiraled through an airless void, past suns, stars and moons.  They rode the ebbs and flows of gravity, ate ambient radiation and light and drew on other things I couldn’t perceive.  They slipped portions of themselves in and out of reality to reshape themselves.  Push further into this reality to ride the pull of one planet, shift into another to ride that slingshot momentum, or to find some other source of momentum elsewhere.  Ten thousand thousands of each of the two entities existed simultaneously, complemented each other, drew each other forward.  They shrugged off even the physical laws that limited the movement of light, moving faster with every instant. The only thing that slowed them was their own desire to stay close, to keep each other in sight and match their speeds.  Yet somehow this movement was graceful, fluid, beautiful even.  Two impossible creatures moving in absolute harmony with the universe, leaving a trail of essence in their wakes.

I focused on one of them, and I got the sensation that this wasn’t a scene I’d seen before.

I could see what it saw.  It was looking forward, but not in distance.  Ten thousand pictures at once.  Seeing situations where it arrived at its final destination.  Earth.  The farther forward it looked, the broader the possibilities.  It was looking for something.  Paring away the branches where the possibilities were few.  An Earth in a perpetual winter.  An Earth with a population of hundreds.  An earth with a population of more than twelve billion, that had stalled culturally, a modern dark age with a singular religion.

And it communicated with its partner.  Signals transmitted not through noise, but wavelengths transmitted across the most fundamental forces of the universe.  In the same way, it received information, it worked with its partner to decide the destination.

It viewed a world, one point in time in the present, and in a heartbeat, it took in trillions of images.  Billions of individuals, viewed separately and as a tableau.  Innumerable scenes, landscapes, fragments of text, even ideas.  In that one heartbeat, I saw people who were somehow familiar.  A young man, a teenager, out of place among his peers, men who were burly with muscle.  They were drinking.  He was tan, with narrow hips, his forehead creased in worry above thick glasses, but his mouth was curled in the smallest of wry smiles over something one of the men was saying.  A snapshot, an image of a moment.

It was my world, my Earth it was looking at.

Coming to a consensus, it transmitted a decision.  Destination.

The reply was almost immediate.  Agreement.

More signals passed between them, blatant and subtle.  A melding of minds, a sharing of ideas, as intimate as anything I’d seen.  They continued to communicate, focusing on that one world, on the possible futures that could unfold, committing to none, but explored the possibilities that lay before them.

They broke apart, the two massive beings that spiralled together, and I gradually lost my glimpse into what they were thinking, what they were communicating.  Whatever view they’d had of the future, they were losing it.  It was too much to pick through on their own.

Where have I seen this before?  I thought.

But somewhere in the course of forming and finishing the thought, I’d broken away from whatever it was I’d seen.  It was slipping from my mind.  The void I was in was not the world of the entities, but Brian’s world.  Brian’s power.

The darkness coiled around me, through me.  It was different, slithering past my skin to brush against my heart, tracing the edges of my wounds, the gouge in my skull that Bonesaw had made with her saw, slithering over and through my brain.

I could feel my power slip just a little out of my reach, my range dropping, my control over the bugs just a touch weaker.

But I could still see through my bugs.  I could still feel what they felt.  They’d gathered for the barrier I’d tried to erect between Parian and Bonesaw, and they’d dispersed in the time since, touching everyone present.  Burnscar had put out her flame, was cradling her hand to her chest.  I could feel Bonesaw and Jack, standing a short distance away.  I could feel Trickster, Sundancer, Tattletale, Parian, Ballistic and Imp.  I could feel Grue, hanging from the wall of the walk-in freezer.

I could feel another person, someone who hadn’t been there a moment ago.  A man standing in the darkness.

The man strode forward, uncaring about the darkness.  He caught Burnscar around the face with one broad hand, and he brought it down hard against the counter.  I was dropped to the ground.  Burnscar fell across me, limp and unmoving, and the man flickered out of existence.

The darkness slipped away, retracing its steps through my body, undoing its passage between my organs and joints, through and inside my blood vessels.

A clearing formed.  An expanse of dim light, lit only by one shaft of light that managed to come in through the corner of a window.  Burnscar’s head was pulverized, unrecognizable.  She lay limp, unmoving, dead.

“Interesting,” Jack said, looking down at his fallen teammate.

“Yes!  I’m almost positive I got this on record!” Bonesaw squealed.

“Which you’ll have to leave behind.  We’ll retreat.”

“I just need the hard drive!  I’ve been trying to get data like this for ages, and it’s a new system!”

Bonesaw started to head for the walk-in fridge where Brian was, but Jack grabbed her by the back of the neck.  “No.”

“It’s ‘kay!  Two seconds!  I’ll be right back!”  She slipped out of his grip, running into the freezer, opening one of the cases that looked Mannequin-made.

The darkness continued to dissipate around Brian, and I was aware as a masculine figure flickered into existence in the midst of the cloud, in one corner of the walk-in freezer.

It was Brian, but it wasn’t.  It was colored in monochrome, with one eye open, the other half-formed.  Markings in white covered his flesh, spiraling out from one pectoral, covering his chest and stomach.  His hands were white to the elbow, and he was sexless.  A ken doll with only more white patterns between his legs.

Or maybe he was white and the markings were in black?

Almost casually, he reached out and seized Bonesaw’s hands, which gripped the drive.  He raised her off of the ground, her feet kicking, and she grunted as his grip tightened.

“The things I put up with,” Jack said, seemingly unconcerned.  He whipped out his knife, slashing at the pseudo-Brian.  There was no effect.  “Hm.”

Grabbing a meat cleaver from the kitchen counter, he hacked at Bonesaw instead.  It took three swings to sever her arms at the wrists.  She hit the ground running, her stumps jammed into her armpits.  They disappeared over the counter of the dining hall, Jack helping Bonesaw up.

Monochrome Brian lunged after them, but the floor of the freezer shattered beneath one foot.  He lost his orientation, then flickered out of existence once more.

I could see Brian from where I lay, as I struggled to breathe with the one-hundred and whatever pounds that were piled on top of me.  He hung there, haggard, glaring at nothing in particular.  The man didn’t reappear, but the stream of incongruent events continued; I could see one of Brian’s ribs twitch like the limb of a dying insect.

With a glacial slowness, his body parts began retracting back into place.  The metal frames holding his intestines and organs into place bent, then gave way in the face of the inexorable pull.

It took a long time.  Five minutes, maybe ten.  But his skin crept back, tearing where it had been pinned to the wall, joining back together, then healing.  Even the scratches that had criss-crossed his chest since he’d fought Cricket began to mend.

The healing stopped before it was entirely finished.  I saw the figure appear again.  The monochrome, half-formed Brian.  Mercilessly, it tore out the metal studs that had impaled Brian’s limbs to the wall.  It caught Brian, then laid him carefully on the ground.

He couldn’t walk, so he dragged himself towards us.

He had another trigger eventTwo new powers?  Three, if I counted the way his power was diminishing my own?

He touched my hand, held it between his own.  I could feel something thrumming through me, willing me to take hold of it.

It took me a minute to figure out how.  The exposed bone of my forehead itched, then sang in an exquisite agony as it mended.  My skin was next.  My seized up muscles were last.  My power was last to mend, and I regained my control, though the diminished effect continued.

I clenched my fist, struggled into a standing position.  Brian hurried to Aisha’s side, grabbing her.

Four new powers?

I hadn’t heard about anything like this.

“Come on,” he said, his voice hoarse, “Don’t have long.  I-  Damn it!”

His darkness flowed out from his skin, heavier than I’d ever seen it, slow to expand, but it seemed to generate itself.  It slithered through me yet again.  Slithered through my bugs.

It was minutes before the darkness dissipated.  When it did, Tattletale was standing.  Parian was standing on the other side of the room, eyes wide.  The three Travellers were huddled together.

“What the hell was that?” I asked.  “Brian, hey-”

I stopped.  He was on all fours, his head hung, his cheeks wet with tears.

I reached out for him, but a hand seized my wrist.  Tattletale.  She shook her head at me.

While I backed off, Tattletale reached for Imp, whispered something in her ear.

Imp bent down and took off her mask.  In a voice far gentler than any I’d heard from her before, she said, “Hey.  Big brother?  Let’s get out of here.”

Brian nodded, mute.

Aisha could approach him, but I couldn’t?

He stood, refusing Imp’s offer for help in standing.  He clutched one elbow with one hand, the arm dangling; it wasn’t an injury, I was pretty sure.  He’d healed the worst of it.  It was something else, some kind of security in the posture or something like that.

Darkness boiled out of his skin, a thin layer.  It moved slower than it had before, thicker, more like tendrils sliding against one another than smoke.  Just like the arm he had across his chest, gripping his elbow for stability, it was a kind of barrier, armor or a wall erected against the world.  He walked slowly.  Nobody complained, despite the proximity of our enemies and the fact that the darkness he’d spread out had to have alerted Hookwolf’s contingent about our existence.

I watched Brian as I walked behind him.  I’d just been paralyzed, about to receive involuntary brain surgery.  Now, in a much different way and for different reasons than before, I was again unable to offer him a hand.  I couldn’t even talk to him without being afraid I’d say the wrong thing.

Even compared to being in Bonesaw’s clutches, I felt more helpless as ever.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“I was a lot more comfortable with the risky plan when it was something I thought of,” I said.

“You said calculated recklessness, right?”  Trickster asked.

“Part of that ‘calculated’ bit is control.  Keeping the chaos to a minimum, so we can anticipate and plan.”

Trickster leaned against the door of the vehicle.  “That may be a bit of a problem.”

“You think?”

The truck passed over a pothole.  Our teams were out in force, our members divided across three trucks.  I rode with Trickster, Sundancer and Tattletale.  Regent and Ballistic were in the second vehicle.  Bitch and her dogs rode in the third.

This was Tattletale’s first time venturing out of Coil’s base in a little while.  Her power was limited when she could only get information by what we communicated to her, and this was the kind of situation where we needed her at full strength.  If nothing else, it felt better to have another teammate on the field with us, with Grue’s absence.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.  I know Grue isn’t your teammate.  You didn’t have to come to help.”

“We’re all in this together, right?” Trickster said.  “You mind if I smoke?”

I shrugged and Tattletale shook her head.  He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, placing it through the mouth-hole of his hard mask.

That would be his way of dealing with stress.  We were all tense, and we all had our ways of coping.  Trickster smoked and stared off into the distance.  Sundancer fidgeted.  She frequently realized what she was doing and forced herself to stop, only to pick up something else.  Her leg would bounce in place, then she would stop doing that and start drumming her fingers on her kneepad in some complicated pattern.  It made me think of a pianist or a guitarist fingering the strings.  Tattletale watched people, her eyes roving over the rest of us.  Her cheek bulged slightly where she touched the tip of her tongue against the backside of the wound Jack had left her.

And me?  I retreated into my headspace, I supposed.  I was maybe similar to Tattletale in that I took note of each of the others, but my thoughts were less about simply observing than about cataloguing and mentally preparing.  What options did we have?  What tools, weapons and techniques did we have at our disposal?  Who was going to be backing me up during this operation, and how reliable were those people?

It was constructive, maybe, but exhausting.  There were so many angles to consider, and the stakes were high.  Brian’s life, Brian’s quality of life.  The rest of us weren’t in the Nine’s clutches, but it would take only one mistake before any one of us could be in the same boat, wondering just how horrible things were going to get for us.

Maybe fatigue factored in, but the more I thought on our allies, the less secure I felt.

The information Cherish had volunteered about Coil, true or not, had left me with lingering doubts.  I was also acutely aware of the distinct lack of chemistry and camaraderie among the Travelers.  They were keeping secrets, with no promises of divulging the information in question.

The last time we’d all been in a car with Trickster, he’d noted that there were two major problems that Coil was helping them with.  Noelle was obviously one.  A part of me could buy that there was something serious going on with her, something that necessitated the help of someone like Coil.  Another nagging part of me was thinking that there were still too many unanswered questions.  What was holding them together as a group?  How fragile was that tie?

Was this really what I needed to be dwelling on?

I thought over my arsenal and the options I had with my power.  I’d developed enough techniques that I was starting to have trouble keeping track of them all.  Should I name them?  It seemed like something out of a kid’s show, shouting out the names of the abilities as I used them.  ‘Firebug attack, go!’  ‘Silkwrap Strike!’

I shook my head a little.  I was tired.  My mind was wandering.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had more than five hours of sleep, and I’d barely slept at all last night.  Fear and adrenaline usually clarified things, so it probably said something that I was feeling a little dazed despite what we were going into.  Some of that was the constant aggression.  Since the Nine had made their presence known, I’d barely been able to relax and let my guard down.  After Mannequin had started killing people in my territory, taking even a moment to myself made me feel like I was insulting their memories, that I was failing the next batch of people who would become victims of my enemies.

“We should stop here,” Tattletale said.

That was apparently order enough, because the driver pulled over.  The long seconds of stillness after the truck had stopped said volumes.  We didn’t want to get out of the car, we didn’t want to face the Nine, deal with their traps as we tried to catch them in our own.  Two or three seconds passed with tension thrumming in the air, every one of our nerves on edge, ready to act, react, even now.

The sound of a slamming door from one of the other trucks was the little push we needed to move.  We climbed out of the truck and joined the others.  Bitch had been the first one out.  She had Sirius, Bastard and Bentley with her.  We ventured over to a fallen section of wall, peering over it to get a better glimpse of what would be the battlefield.

The final two members of our group arrived a moment later.  Shatterbird landed, stumbling, and Genesis began to materialize in a massive form.

We were close to the site of our last fight.  The Nine had been on their way to Dolltown, and we’d ambushed them, divided them, and then provoked them into extending out of position.  Having done that, we’d kidnapped Shatterbird as she lagged behind and then looped around to capture the wounded Cherish.

Now the Nine were inside Dolltown.  I could only hope the noise and fighting of our last encounter would have given most of the residents the time and the motivation to run.

“How’s she handling?” Tattletale asked Regent.

“Not the easiest power to use,” he muttered.  “It’s not a physical power, so I’m learning to use it from scratch.  Doesn’t help that she’s really, really, really pissed off.  I think she’s a serious control freak.  My control’s slipping a bit.”

“How much is it slipping?” I asked.  “Is there a chance you’ll lose control of her?”

“Always a chance.  But I think I’m okay, so long as she and I remain pretty close to each other.”

“Tattletale, Where are they?” I asked.

Tattletale pointed at a squat building a few blocks away.  It had the look of a small library, maybe, or a hardware store.  A place meant to accommodate a lot of people for one job. “Somewhere in there.”

“Then we wait,” Trickster said.  “And we cross our fingers.”

Waiting.  The last thing I wanted to do.

Using my bugs, I tried to scope out the area.  Please don’t let there be people here.

There were.  I had to be subtle, not giving the Nine any reason to suspect I was around, but even if I counted only the people who had bugs on them already, there were far too many people in and around Dolltown.

“Regent, can you stop Shatterbird from listening in?”  I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  Shatterbird shut her eyes and covered her ears with her hands.

I asked, “Tattletale, do you know where the Nine are, specifically?”

She shook her head.

“There’re people here.  I’m counting thirty or so, but there could be twice that many.  I haven’t even taken a serious look at the building the Nine are in, because I don’t want to alert them.”

“Ignore them,” Trickster said.  “This is risky enough without splitting our focus.”

“If I know where the Nine are, I can tell these people where to run, give them a chance.”

“It’s not worth the risk,” Trickster stressed.  He glanced at his teammates, “There’s still five or six of the enemy in the area.  If they see what you’re up to and get any advance warning we’re here, this all goes balls-up, and we suffer for it.  Grue dies for it.”

Regent nodded in agreement.

I looked at the others for help.  Tattletale remained quiet, and Sundancer, the one other person I’d hoped would be sympathetic, looked away.

“Those are people,” I said.  “Real people.”

“So’s Grue, and so are we.  We look out for ourselves first.  If we can take out members of the Nine, we’ll save more people in the long run.”

“The ends justify the means?  You realize that when this all goes down, they’re going to die?  Almost guaranteed?”  I’d directed Sundancer to attack a group of people who included bystanders, but they’d been goners already, dead for all intents and purposes.  This was something else.

“Thirty people for the sake of hundreds.  It balances out,” Trickster said.  “If we stick to the plan and if we’re successful.”

“I can’t agree with that.”

“Then make your call.  If you’re absolutely certain you’re not going to fuck us over and give away the plan, if you’re positive that the lives you might save are worth risking our lives and Grue’s, you can go ahead.  You don’t have anyone’s support here, and it’s all on you if you fail.”

Tattletale spoke, “If you’re going to do something, you better do it fast.”

She pointed, and every pair of eyes in our group turned to look.

Purity streaked across the sky, followed by Crusader and a floating rock carrying a whole contingent of their group.  The rest would be moving along the ground.

“Shatterbird, Genesis, go!”

Shatterbird took flight, calling up a storm of glass shards to accompany her.  She flew low to the ground, relying on the surrounding buildings and ruins to keep out of sight.

Genesis had finished pulling herself together.  Her form resembled Crawler, but with some additions.  Growths on her back resembled Bonesaw and Jack.  She tested her limbs, then looked at us.  At me?  I couldn’t tell.  She had too many eyes to tell.

Then she ran, stampeding off.  Not quite as graceful as the real Crawler, but that was one more area where we just had to cross our fingers and hope she could sell the ruse.

There was the dull rumble of a distant impact as Purity opened fire on Genesis.  Genesis dodged into a nearby alleyway, leading Purity and the rest of her group off to one side.  Shatterbird fired on Purity and her allies, guiding a torrent of glass shards toward the incoming enemies.  Not enough to kill, or even to maim.  It was enough to hurt and to piss them off.

Coil had informed Hookwolf’s contingent about the general location of the Nine.  Sure enough, they’d gathered, girded themselves for battle and marched on, hoping to overwhelm through sheer firepower and force of numbers.  Odds were good that it wouldn’t work.  It hadn’t in the past.

But, we were hoping, it would put the Nine in a position where they had to decide whether to hold their position or respond to the immediate proximity of this many enemies.

Shatterbird and Genesis were tasked with distracting Hookwolf’s forces and preventing them from mounting a direct attack on the Nine’s real position.  We couldn’t save Grue if Purity leveled the building.

So much hinged on how the next few moments played out.

“The Nine are distracted.  I’m going to help the people run.”

The lack of response was as damning as anything they could have said.

I waited until Purity fired again, then used the rumble as an excuse to stir various bugs into action.  I did a body count, placing bugs on people’s right feet, trying to calculate how many there were and how they were distributed.

There was a crowd inside the building with the Nine.  People huddled in a room with Crawler, who lay on the ground with his chin resting on his forelimbs, facing them.

I couldn’t find Grue.  Was he in that group?  No.

On the other side of the building, four people were gathered at one window.  A grown man, two grown women, one of whom was nude, and a child.  A man clad in hard armor crouched in one corner, working with tools.  There were enough cool bodies around them that I would’ve known who they were even if the body types hadn’t fit.

“Found them,” I said, pointing, “They’re watching.”

“They’re not stepping outside?”  Trickster asked.

I shook my head.

“Damn.”

I could see Menja leap from Rune’s floating rock and grow as she fell.  She was nearly thirty feet tall when she landed, the road cracking under her weight.  Rune leaped off the rock and landed on the husk of a building that hadn’t survived Leviathan’s attack.  A few seconds later, a large section broke off and lifted into the air.  She didn’t stay on top of it for long, choosing instead to gather more ammunition, moving on to other ruined walls and sections of building.

This would be a balancing act.  Unless the Nine didn’t plan on defending themselves or running, there would be something of a sweet spot.  A point where the enemy forces got close enough that the Nine were forced to act, yet not so close that anyone else was endangered.

Now that I knew where the Nine were, I could focus on the civilians.  I drew out messages for everyone who was hiding in their homes, along with arrows pointing them away from the Nine and Hookwolf’s army.  If someone decided they didn’t want to move, I nipped them with a biting insect or two to prod them.

Dozens of people made their way to safety, following my instructions and running for their lives as they headed out back doors or out of windows to avoid being seen.

There were still way too many people in the room with Crawler.  And I still had no idea where Grue was.  Slowly and carefully, I navigated my bugs through the rooms of the building the Nine had occupied: A makeshift dining hall with a kitchen, a room solely for storing garbage, then a small open shower with three stalls.  It had been some sort of office building with no computers, desks or cubicles.

Something big, firm and formed of cloth… one of Parian’s stuffed animals?  It lay prone on the ground, on the other end of the building from where the Nine were poised, so large and fat that it wouldn’t be able to fit through any of the doors.

I found another cluster of people on the top floor.  Three adult women and two children that ranged from toddler age to five feet or so of height.  Damn it, why did there always have to be kids?

“I can’t find Grue.”

“He’s in there,” Tattletale said.

“How sure are you?”

“Pretty darn sure.”

“Then how long before we can move on to the next phase?” I asked.  “I found some people, which solves one problem.”

“As soon as the Nine act,” Trickster said.  “Tattletale?”

“They’re not wanting to move.  Something about the hostages.”

“Hookwolf doesn’t care about hostages,” I told her.

“I know!  But the Nine are still holding back.”

“Regent-” I started.

“Don’t distract me,” he said, rushing through the words, “I can barely dodge all this shit they’re throwing at me.”

I followed his line of sight to Shatterbird.  Purity opened fire, and Shatterbird used a cone of glass to block the worst of the kinetic energy and refract the light.  Or something.  It didn’t work that well.  Shatterbird was knocked to the ground.  She managed to take flight just in time to avoid Newter, trapped the boy in a cage of glass shards, and then flung a barrage of tiny glass shards at Purity and her group.  I could see the glints of the shards catching the light as it flew through the air.

“Draw some fire towards the Nine’s location, if you can,” I said.

“I said don’t distract me!”

But he listened.  Shatterbird interposed herself between Hookwolf’s advancing group and the building holding the Nine and their hostages.  Purity fired, and again, Shatterbird’s glass couldn’t absorb the full brunt of the hit.  She was hammered down into the ground again, and what didn’t hit her struck the building, not far from where the Nine were peering through the window.

“Come on, come on,” I whispered.

The Nine reacted.  It just wasn’t what we’d hoped for.

Crawler stood and rumbled some words my bugs couldn’t make out, and the hostages fled.  The Nine made no move to try to stop them.  Just the opposite.  They revealed why they’d kept them on hand.

The hostages made their way out the doors and into the streets surrounding the building.  Purity was so distracted by Genesis and Shatterbird that she didn’t seem to notice what was happening at first.

Tattletale watched with her binoculars.  “Oh no.”

“Oh no?”  Trickster asked.

Tattletale looked at me, “Track their movements.  The Nine!  Don’t lose sight of the Nine!”

The hostages scattered in every direction, and some invariably headed towards us.  I saw what had concerned Tattletale.  Even though I knew where the Nine were, I was still caught off guard.

Bonesaw’s talents apparently included crude plastic surgery.  If ‘crude’ was even the right word.  Every hostage wore the appearance of one of the Nine.  The group that headed towards us had three Jacks, a Siberian and a Bonesaw.  Their expressions were frozen, their eyes wide with terror.  None of them were perfect, one was too heavy in physique to be Jack, and the Bonesaw had apparently been a short-statured woman who’d had her shins and forearms sawed to a shorter length and reattached.  The resemblance was close enough that someone could mistake them for the wrong person at a glance, and that was all the Nine needed.

“Decoys,” the word was hollow as it left my lips.

“And the Nine are moving out,” Tattletale reported.  “Leaving the front of the building.  Get ready!”

I used my bugs to draw a message for the people still hiding in another part of the building.

Crawler was the first to leave the building, charging out the front door, plowing through one or two of the Nine, and barreling towards Hookwolf’s army.

The other members of the Nine headed out.  A real Burnscar, Jack, Siberian and Mannequin at the tail end of their mass of fleeing decoys.

“Bonesaw’s not leaving,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter!  Now!”  Tattletale shouted.

Trickster hurried to my side, binoculars in hand.  I pointed, and I could feel a pressure building around me.  It was slower than his other teleports, more jarring.  It didn’t matter.  Our group was soon indoors.  Me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic.

The interior was rank.  They were smells I’d gotten to know since Leviathan’s attack.  Blood, death, and the dank smell of sweat.

Trickster had replaced all of the kids and the three adults that had been accompanying them.  He hadn’t brought Regent, because Regent was focused on Shatterbird.  That was part of the plan.  Leaving Bitch behind wasn’t.  I could understand it if it was because of a lack of mass to swap with, but my doubts about the Travelers and about Trickster specifically led me to ask, “You figure Bitch will cover our retreat?”

“And if one of the Nine is here,” Trickster said, his voice low, “We don’t need her dogs making noise.”

“Right.”  Okay.  Made sense.

I led the way, as I had the best sense of the layout.  Bonesaw was excitedly pacing back and forth.  The rest of the place was quiet.  “There’s only a few places Grue could be.  Confined spaces my bugs couldn’t get to.”

“Makes sense that they’d improvise a cell to contain him,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, swallowing.

Worn and damaged posters and fliers referred to yoga and pilates classes.  Makeshift signs and notices had been raised since this building had been used for the rich-person exercise classes.  These were more pragmatic, detailing chore schedules, contact information and watch rotations.

These people had been getting by, maybe in the same way I’d been trying to get my own people organized.  I felt a growing outrage at what had happened here, what had happened to my people.

Why?  What purpose did this chaos serve?

We checked a small sauna.  No luck.  No less than three storage rooms, sealed tight to keep vermin out, turned up empty.

The place I’d mentally labeled the dining hall turned out to be something of a restaurant.  More notices about food rationing covered menus and signs advertising healthy eating.

I headed around the long counter and into the kitchen.  Crates of supplies had been opened, the contents sorted into piles.  There were also other supplies that didn’t look regulation.  Several 5-gallon jugs of water that were designed to fit into water coolers were stacked in one corner, and neither I nor my bugs had seen any water coolers in here.

I stopped outside the walk-in freezer and stared at the handle.

“Skitter?”  Tattletale asked.

“There’s only three places left where Grue could be.  The other two places are the regular fridge over there and a closet in the basement that I think is too small to hold him and still let him breathe.”

“So if he’s not in here…”

“Right,” I said.  “Trap free?”

“As far as I can tell,” she replied.  “No, if they were going to trap it, they’d lock it first, chain it shut.”

Swallowing, I gripped the handle and hauled the door open.  It took me a second to process what I was seeing.

Brian was in there.  And he was alive.

I couldn’t have been unhappier at that realization.

There was no power to the walk-in-freezer, so it was warm.  The interior was maybe ten by twelve feet across, the walls were metal, with racks on either side.  Brian was hanging by the wall at the far end, propped up enough that his shoulders were pressing against the corner bordering the wall and the ceiling, his arms outstretched to either side like a bird hung up for display, his head hanging forward.

It was some sort of collaboration between Bonesaw and Mannequin.  He’d been partially flayed, the skin stripped from his arms and legs and stretched over the walls around him.  His ribcage had been opened, splayed apart.  An improvised metal frame held each of his internal organs in place, some several feet from their intended position, as if they were held out for display, others placed on the shelves of the freezer.  Cases covered in a ceramic shell seemed to be pumping him full of water, nutrients and other fluids that must have been helping keep him alive.

His head was untouched.  He looked up at us, and he looked harrowed.  The look in his eyes was more animal than person, his pupils mere pinpoints in his brown eyes.  Tiny beads of sweat dotted the skin of his face, no doubt due to the warmth of the room, but he was shivering.

“Oh.”  My voice was a croak.  “Brian.”

I took a step forward, and he seized up, his entire body twisting, his hands clenching, eyes wrenching shut.

“Get back!” Tattletale gripped me by the shoulder and forced me out of the freezer.

“I- what?”  I was having trouble processing.  “Trap?”

Tattletale had a dark look in her eyes.  “No.  Look closer at the walls and floor.”

Numbly, I did as she’d asked.  They looked like hairline cracks, spiderwebbing across everything from the walls to the shelving and even the ceramic cases that Mannequin had set up.  Except they were raised, over the surfaces.  “Veins?”

“Exposed nerves.  Artificially grown, connecting from him to the rest of the room.”

I stared up at Brian, and he stared back at me.

There was no way to help him.  I couldn’t even get inside the room to try to comfort him in the smallest ways, not without causing him unbearable pain in the process.

Brian moved his lips, but no sound came out.  He tried to raise his head, as much as the ceiling allowed, his eyes raised towards the sky.  There was a cauterised scar just above his collarbone.

“I could make it quick,” Ballistic said.

“No,” I told him.

“It’d be a mercy.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “No.  We have options.  Panacea-”

“Is nowhere to be found,” Tattletale told me, “And given what happened with Mannequin, she’s going to be as far as she can get from downtown.”

“Then Bonesaw,” I said, clenching my fists.  “Bonesaw can fix him.”

“She’s not going to fix him.  I doubt she’d do it on pain of death,” Tattletale told me.  “Skitter-”

“We’ll try,” I told her.  “At least try.”

I looked at the others.  Sundancer was on the other side of the kitchen, hands on the edge of the sink.  Ballistic had his arms folded.  Trickster leaned against one counter, silent, not looking at the scene.

“Every second you make him go on like this is cruel,” she said, her voice hard.

“So is every second you spend arguing with me.  I’m not negotiating, here.  I’m willing for him to suffer if it means there’s a chance we can help him.”

She met my eyes, looking like she wanted to slap me, yell at me, or both.  “Fine.  Then let’s hurry.”

I gave Brian one last look over my shoulder before I hurried off, leaving him behind.  The others followed.

I was using my bugs to track the positions of the Nine, where Siberian and Crawler were in the thick of the enemy.  Mannequin apparently wasn’t aware of my presence, so I had my first real opportunity of tracking his movements as he scaled walls and disappeared into manholes to emerge half a street away.  Burnscar used her fire to bombard the enemy and divide them.

Jack was more pragmatic, striking from hiding, threatening his decoys to get them to run out of cover and draw enemy fire, and using every hiding space that was available.  He was quick, smart, and devastating in how he operated.  No movement was wasted, and every time he emerged from cover and swiped his knife, someone suffered for it.  As far as I could tell, he was evading Night and Fog.  My bugs could detect some noise from him that I was parsing as a mocking laughter.  Maybe my imagination.  Probably my imagination.

I was getting a sense of what Brian had described, once upon a time; that anger and outrage that didn’t even come close to connecting with a fire inside, with burning rage or anything like that.  It was cold, dark, and numb.

We found her in one of the exercise rooms.  Yoga mats had been stacked together to serve as mattresses, forming a kind of sleeping area.  Most of the Dolltown residents who had been living in this facility were dead now, their cold bodies lying in pools of blood.  One of the culprits was at the window, clutching the frame.  Bonesaw.

I gathered my bugs, directing them her way.

“Wait!”  Tattletale cried out.

I turned to see her stagger.  I whipped around to see Bonesaw.  She was whirling around in response to Tattletale’s shout, her eyes wide.  There was a chain stretching from her wrist to the base of the window.

Not Bonesaw.  Decoy.

Tattletale crashed to the ground, followed soon after by Trickster.  Sundancer and Ballistic crashed to the ground a second later.

“Why won’t you go down!?”  The voice was petulant.

I followed the voice and saw one of the corpses move, rising to its feet.  Bonesaw unzipped the covering of dead flesh she’d covered herself in and shucked it off.  She was wearing a yellow sundress and yellow rubber boots with a short blue jacket, but her hair and each article of her clothing were stained dark brown with the blood that had been on the corpse.  A small tube was in one of her hands, “I shot you with three darts!  It’s rude!”

I glanced down.  Three pea-sized darts with flesh-toned feathering were stuck in the fabric of my costume.  One in my dress, one in a panel of armor on my chest, and another in the side of my stomach.

“Bonesaw,” I growled.

“Skitter, was it?  Bug girl!  I really want to find out how your power works!  I’ll take your brain apart and find the mechanism so I can copy it!  Is your costume spider silk?  That’s awesome!  You know the right materials to work with!  No wonder my darts didn’t work!”

“What did you do to them?”

“Paralyzed them, obviously.  Living flesh is so much easier to work with.”

Paralyzed.  I glanced at my teammates.  Why couldn’t I have finished their costumes?  Stupid.  I’d spread myself too thin.  I should have finished one costume, then moved on to the next.  Maybe then I would have saved someone.

“Oh, and I dosed them with a little something extra.  Because Jack said there’s no point in doing anything halfway.”  She gave me a sage nod, as if sharing some universal truism.

“You’re going to give them an antidote to whatever you injected into them, then you’re going to go to Brian and you’re going to fix him.”

“Brian?  Oh!  You mean the boy we put in the freezer!  I’m still trying to figure out where his power comes from.  The darkness comes from inside him, but what’s the source?  Besides the usual, I mean.  So I took everything apart to see, but he wasn’t cooperating.  I told him I’d make the pain stop forever if he would just show me, but he was so stubborn!”  She stamped one foot.

I’d let Brian’s name slip.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  I wasn’t thinking straight.

“But no, I’m not going to do that,” she said.  “I don’t censor my art because it offends people.”

“I could convince you,” I told her.  My swarm flowed forward, and she backed away.  Her eyes, one green and one blue, flashed as she took in the breadth of the swarm, the composition of it.  She was probably already brainstorming some solution.

I wasn’t going to give her a chance.  I drew my weapons, one in each hand, and charged through the swarm, straight for her.

My bugs served to give me a half-second of early warning as they felt her jam one hand into the side-pocket of her dress.  I turned on my heel, the burn on my leg screaming in pain as I did it, and threw myself to the right as she brought one hand to her mouth and blew a billowing cloud of powder into the space I’d been occupying.

I got my feet under me and lunged forward again.  I didn’t get two steps before I was tackled to the ground.

It was a mechanical spider the size of a large dog.  It had been folded up inside one of the bodies.  Its legs latched around me.  There wasn’t much strength in them, and even with my less than fantastic upper body strength, I managed to pry the first two legs apart.

I had almost got the spider off me when another caught me from behind.  A third and fourth caught me an instant later, seizing my head and shoulders and my legs, respectively.

Bonesaw exhaled a second cloud of dust into my face.

I held my breath for as long as I could, but there was a limit.  When I did breathe, my chest seized up, and my ears immediately started ringing violently, a headache settling into place.  The muscles in my arms and legs locked up.

She sprayed an aerosol around herself, killing my bugs.  Not that it mattered.  My facility with my power was getting clumsier and clumsier as the headache increased in intensity.

No, no, no, no, no, no.

“Bring them,” she said.  The mechanical spiders leapt to obey.  Within moments, me, Tattletale, Trickster, Sundancer and Ballistic were being dragged inch by inch towards the dining hall.  Towards Grue.

No, no, no.

It took long minutes for us to get there.  I could hear faint rumbles of the ongoing battle and Bonesaw’s humming.  It was all I could do to keep breathing.  It was like my body had forgotten how, and it demanded my constant attention to maintain that simple rhythm.

With the aid of her spiders, she stacked us like logs.  Ballistic and Trickster went on the bottom.

I couldn’t even grunt as the spiders leveraged me onto the pile alongside Tattletale.  I stared down at the mask of the third person below us.

Imp.  She’d got Imp.

Bonesaw crouched so her face was level with mine.  “This is going to be fun.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Where is he?” I growled.

“As if I’m going to tell you.  To think Jack called you the clever worm.”

“Don’t call me that.”  I felt a flare of irritation that bordered on anger.  Was that me, or was it her power at work?

Tattletale put a hand on my shoulder.  I shut my mouth.  She asked Cherish, “What do you want in exchange for your help?  You want us to let you go?”

Cherish laughed a little, and it reminded me of Alec’s own dry chuckle.  “No.  Definitely not.  In exchange for the information about what the Imp is up to, you’re going to give me medical treatment, you’re going to keep me here, and you’re going to keep me safe.”

“And for the info on Grue?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m thinking a billion-”  Cherish winced as she moved mid-sentence and pulled at the wound.

“A billion dollars so you can scamper off to the other side of the world and live the good life while you hide from those bastards,” Tattletale finished.

“Right.  Or are you going to tell me that’s too much?  Is your teammate’s life worth a smaller amount?  Where do you draw the line, Ms. Frowny-face?”

Tattletale glanced at me.  I looked, in turn, to Coil.  He gave me a barely perceptible shake of his head.  He wouldn’t fork over the amount.

“You’re not really in a position to be making demands,” Trickster said.  “You’re bleeding to death, and we do have the ability to hurry the process along.”

Cherish shrugged.  “Bonesaw gave me the works.  Mesh sheaths for every major artery and organ, wire reinforcement for my skeleton.  It’s not going to kill me anytime soon.”

I made a mental note of that.  Chances were good that Jack, Bonesaw and the other more vulnerable members of the Nine had some similar protection.  How differently would things have played out if Ballistic had used his power and blown them up?

I could,” Trickster threatened.  “Or we could wait and see which happens first: Either you agree to share the information we want or you slowly bleed out.”

“A game of chicken?  I’m down.”  Cherish prodded her injury with a fingertip.  It was clear it hurt, but she still stuck a finger into the hole and investigated some.  “The auto-injection pump is dosing me with painkillers and antibiotics now.  First time feeling this stuff work.”

“Letting that… lunatic perform surgery like that?” Sundancer asked, shivering a little.  “How?  Why?”

“Not much choice in the matter, but I was awake for the entire thing, and I read her emotions as she did it.  No hint of any traps or dirty tricks.”

Tattletale glanced at the bullet hole in Cherish’s chest.  “I’m suspicious it’s so routine for her that there wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar if she did try something.”

Cherish leaned forward, “Are we going to do this?  Test your perceptive abilities against mine?  Some intellectual jousting?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “She’s stalling.  She knows time’s on her side, because we need to rescue Grue sooner than later.  Longer we wait, the worse our position.”

“I admit I’m at something of a loss.” Coil sounded pensive, as he looked at our captive.  “Where do we put her?”

“Jack did research on you assholes,” Cherish cut in, still trying to distract us, “I know your schtick, Tattletale.  Pick at people’s weaknesses, tell them stuff they don’t want to know.  I can do the same thing.  I’m better at it than you are.”

“It’s a bit of a crazy idea,” I said, ignoring her.  “But what if we didn’t stash her in this base?  Or any of the others?  We put her anywhere in the city, there’s the risk that some unwitting John, Dick or Harry will come by, and she’ll get them to help her somehow.  Can’t station guards on her, so… why not the water?”

“A boat?” Ballistic asked.

“I could tell you a story,” Cherish said, “Little girl grows up with money.  Daddy pulls in six figures, maybe seven.  Massive house, I expect.  Maybe horses, a mercedes, indoor and outdoor pools…”

“I was thinking about a buoy,” I replied, speaking over her.  “Could even rig things so she’s out of sight.  Cuff her to it, we can be pretty damn sure she won’t be getting free.”

“But what about boats coming by?” Sundancer asked.

“Almost no boats on the water,” I replied.  “Coastline is a mess, thanks to Leviathan.  Ships can’t dock here.”

“Good,” Coil said.  “Then as soon as she is given some basic medical care, I’ll have my men take her out there.  I’ll need to work out measures to ensure she doesn’t escape.”

“So the little girl who wanted for nothing still found a reason to run away from home.  Spent life homeless on the streets.  Stealing and dealing for petty cash so she could eat.  What would make someone leave home like that, Tattletale?”

Coil turned to the soldier next to him, “Can you go find Pitter and bring him here?  I want her sedated sooner than later.”

The soldier nodded and headed off to find the medic.  He winked at Tattletale as he jogged by.  I’d met him.  Not one of Tattletale’s soldiers, but I’d crossed paths with him.  Fish?  Seemed like he and Tattletale were getting along.

“That’s a mistake,” Cherish smiled.  “Without my cooperation, you won’t find them.  You won’t be able to contact Imp or know where to look for her brother.”

“Tattletale?” Coil spoke.

“You already informed us on most of that,” Tattletale told Cherish.  She leaned against the wall.  “Your method of communication with Imp.  You’re planning on meeting her.  Afternoon?  Evening?”

“As if I’m-”

“Late afternoon. Thanks.”

“What?”  Cherish frowned.

“What time in the afternoon?  Four… five… six.  Six o’clock.  There we go.  Where?  Upper end of town or downtown?”

“I’m not saying anything!”

“You’re telling me everything.”  Tattletale must be reading Cherish’s tells.  Her body language, eye movements, her tone and word choice.  “Let’s see, you’re meeting Imp downtown around six.  You would have made it a place where you could talk with her for a minute while you were out of sight of the others.  Bathroom?”

Cherish didn’t move a muscle.  Maybe she realized what Tattletale was doing.

“Bathroom, then.  Same building as the rest of the Nine?  Now we just need to dig up where they are, and you’ve got no cards left.  Unless you want to share that information in good faith.”

There was no response from our prisoner.

“Hmmm,” Tattletale said.  “She’s cornered, and she’s probably contemplating something like suicide by cop.  Or whatever the term is when the other group aren’t cops.  She’d rather die than have us turn her over to her teammates, so she’ll try a gambit like using her powers, knowing we’ll probably gun her down.”

“Got any ideas?” Trickster asked her.

“She liked the dead man’s switch for her suicide collar.  Why don’t we set up something similar?  Put a soldier on guard somewhere nearby.  We schedule it so he receives a note  from us every fifteen minutes.  If he doesn’t get it, he passes a message to the Nine telling them exactly where to find Cherish?”

I could see Cherish tense.

“How do we get a message to them without them killing the messenger?”

“We can work it out.”  Tattletale shrugged.  She looked at Trickster, “You think Oliver could handle it?”

Trickster nodded. “I’ll get him on thinking up some way to arrange this.”

“Tattletale.” Coil spoke, “Can you gather the rest of the details from her before we secure her offshore?”

“So long as she doesn’t get stupid and try to do something more than talk.”

Cherish decided to speak up.  “Who’s next?  Who should I dish the dirt on?  Feeling homesick, Trickster?  Scared little boy pretending to be a leader.  It’s your fault, you know.  She blames you.  Everyone does. They’re even starting to hate you.”

“Can we talk without her in earshot?” I asked.

Coil nodded and gestured for us to leave.  His soldiers moved to Cherish’s side and gripped her arms.

“No point!”  Cherish grinned, “I’ll know what you’re talking about.  Can’t keep secrets from me!”

“But you won’t be sidetracking us,” I replied.

“You failed, you know,” Cherish said, changing tacks.  “When someone has an obsession like you do, it’s like a giant neon sign to an empath like me.  All it takes is for me to peek into Coil’s head, peek into the hearts of everyone else in this base, and I know you’ll never get what you want.  You won’t save her.  You can’t.  Window of opportunity is long gone.”

I jabbed her where the bullet hole was.  The strength went out of her legs and she fell to her hands and knees.  I stepped back, drew in a slow breath and then kicked her in the face.  She fell to the ground.

“Skitter.” Coil’s word was without inflection.  There was no admonishment or warning to it.  I took it as a reminder of where I was, which might have been his intent.

“We can talk about that later,” I told him, “My priority right now is Grue.”

Coil nodded.

I glanced down at Cherish.  “Hope Bonesaw reinforced your teeth while she was fixing you up.”

“She did,” Cherish muttered, one hand to her mouth.

I kicked her in the head once more for good measure, and then turned away, my hands raised to assure the others I was done.

“That’s enough,” Coil said.  He signaled his men.  “Take the prisoner to the coastline and find a spot to depart.”

Cherish was dragged off to a point further down the catwalk.  Her shouts reached us well after she was out of sight, “Your boss is screwing you!  All of you!  You have no idea how badly!  You’re cogs in his machine, and he’s only steps away from pulling it all together.  Get rid of the Nine, stage the final play with everyone in their proper spots, but then he doesn’t need you anymore!”

“Sowing dissension in the ranks,” Coil said.  He sounded remarkably calm given what Cherish had been saying.  “Nothing more.”

“Right.  She could be lying,” Trickster ventured.

“She is.  Mostly,” Tattletale said.

I doubted anyone believed what the three were saying.  At the same time, nobody here was in a position to walk away in response to this unconfirmed information.

“Tattletale, see to the interrogation,”  Coil ordered.

“Okay.”

“That leaves the remainder of us to decide on a way of rescuing the others.”

I fidgeted.  The idea of Brian in the hands of the Nine was… daunting.  Was Siberian eating him alive, literally?  Was he at the mercies of Mannequin?  Jack could be torturing him for details on us.  Or he could be in Bonesaw’s clutches.

Chances were good that they were pissed.  Jack excepted, maybe.  He’d seemed to like our ambush.  In any event, any anger or sadistic tendencies were likely to be taken out on Brian.

Fuck.  I kept imagining uglier and uglier possibilities.

“They’re going to be waiting and ready.  We’ll need help, I think,” I said.

“Help?” Trickster turned my way.  “You’re forgetting that the rest of the factions in the city have made a pact against us.”

“Not everybody there agreed,” I said.  “There was one group at the meeting that didn’t agree to the pact.”

“Am I remembering wrong?”  Trickster asked.  “Coil, Merchants, Chosen, Faultline’s group…”

“That’s right,” I said.

“What are you thinking, then?”  Sundancer asked.

“Coil,” I said, “You got some surveillance gear for Tattletale, right?  Can I see it?”

Trickster accompanied me.  We didn’t get the benefit of Bitch’s dogs.  She’d wanted to check on her territory and take care of her dogs.  I’d grudgingly agreed that she should take care of that, and Trickster and I had set off alone.

I gave him a sidelong glance as we ascended the stairs of the empty apartment building.  What had Cherish said?  Scared little boy?  She blames you.  They all do.  I could remember Sundancer’s remarks on the drama in the group and how lonely it was to be around them.  I recalled Genesis seeming less than thrilled when her team arrived last night.  Was Trickster at the center of it?  He was more ruthless than his comrades, which was interesting because his power was the least lethal.  It might have been a point of contention.  But what would he have done that the others would blame him for?

Could I comment on that?  Should I?

I remained silent.  We exited the stairwell at the fifth floor and entered a dark hallway.  I clicked on a flashlight, and we made our way down the hall.  Trash was piled everywhere, and I was all too aware of the maggots that were crawling on the floor, barely visible in the dim light.

“Which way?” he asked.

I pointed.  A side benefit of my power was that it made it pretty damn easy to maintain my sense of direction.

We tried the doors for the two apartments that led in the right direction.  Both were locked.

Trickster touched the doorknob, then looked across the floor at the trash in the hallway.  The doorknob disappeared, and a chunk of wood fell to the ground.  He repeated the process with the internal mechanisms, and the lock was effectively transported away.  He opened the door and walked inside, going straight for the windows.

“Done this before?” he asked.

I shook my head.  I was gathering my bugs, the stronger fliers, and drawing out lines of silk.  Trickster handed me the individual components.  A small spy camera, no larger than a tube of lipstick, and a similar microphone.  My bugs bound them together with silk and then stretched out more to distribute the lifting among the dragonflies, bumblebees and wasps.

“Okay, let’s see,” I muttered.

Testing, testing, one, two, three…  My swarm managed some semblance of the words I wanted, a mix of buzzing, chirps and clicks to form the right pitch.  Some sounds were hard or impossible to make.  The ‘puh’, ‘buh’ and ‘muh’ sounds didn’t form, and I struggled to form something that sounded like a ‘t’ in the middle of a word.  It was intelligible, but only barely.

It would have to do.

I ensured the rigging around the camera was more or less steady and then sent the swarm out the window.  I relied on my power to keep track of it while I opened the laptop Coil had provided and turned on the video feed.  When it had arrived outside the PHQ headquarters, I drew it together into a densely packed human form.

It took six and a half minutes for the Protectorate to react to the figure.  That bothered me, on a level.  Were they disorganized?  Or was it difficulty in communicating and marshaling their forces when they didn’t have phones or other means of passing on alerts?  They gathered in the lobby.  I adjusted the camera the insects were carrying and made out Weld, Kid Win, Clockblocker, Miss Militia, Battery and Legend.  There were three more capes I didn’t recognize.  Members of Legend’s team?

Seeing them gave me pause.

As Miss Militia stepped outside, I pulled on the headphones, and Trickster did the same.

“Skitter?” Miss Militia asked.

Something like that,” I replied using my swarm.  “I wanted to talk.

“Given what happened the last time you were here, I’m not sure we’re on speaking terms.”

We have two of the Slaughterhouse Nine in custody.  We are prepared to turn one over into your custody.”

“What?  I didn’t hear that.”

Damn.  It sounded natural in my head, as I got them to make the noise, but I wasn’t quite there yet.  Maybe it would have been better to just pass a phone to her.  I’d gone this route for the dramatic touch, and because I hadn’t wanted them to trace us.

I rephrased, “Shatterbird and Cherish have been captured.  We will deliver Cherish to you if you wish.  We are done interrogating her.”

“Interrogation.  You mean torture, don’t you?” Legend asked from where he stood in the doorway.

No.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Why the offer?”

You can put her in secure custody, and we need your help.

“For?”

The Nine have captured Grue.  We mounted one successful attack this morning, we got two of theirs for one of ours.  They will be ready for a rescue attempt.  They know our powers.  Help us attack.  Help us catch them off guard a second time and stop them for good.

“You’re not only asking us to fight the Nine, but you want us to fight alongside notorious villains.”

So I was notorious now?  Huh.  Couldn’t let that distract me.  “I’m offering you Cherish.

I could make out Miss Militia shaking her head.  “I’ll be blunt, Skitter.  I’m not Armsmaster.  I don’t have a stake in personal glory or renown.  I’m not going to pussyfoot around, either.  Put a bullet in her skull and be done with it.  There’s a kill order on them, nobody’s going to charge you for murder.”

Then work with us because it’s the best way to stop the Nine.”

“I refused Hookwolf when he made the same offer, and I’m going to refuse you.  The capes on my teams are good people.  I won’t throw away their lives with a reckless attack.  We’re going to develop our own strategies, plan, and find a safe way to target them.”

And civilians die in the meantime.”  I retorted.  Grue dies in the meantime, if he wasn’t dead already.

“We’ve tried the same strategies we use against Endbringers.  Multiple teams, allying with locals.  Sometimes we get one of them.  Sometimes we get three or four.  But we lose people, lots of people, in the process.  The remaining members of their group always find some way of escaping. The fact that we tried and failed in going all-out gives them notoriety.  They bounce back after an attack like that, and they bounce back hard, with creeps, lunatics and killers flocking to them for the chance at that same sort of glory.”

The difference between us and Hookwolf is that we’ve succeeded.  We have two of them in our custody.  You can’t bide your time, organize, and wait for an opportune moment.  They have years of experience fighting people who do that.  Anything you try, they’ve probably dealt with.  We win by catching them off guard with powers they don’t know about, powers they can’t expect and interactions between powers.  Calculated recklessness.

“We can handle that on our own, with more calculation and less recklessness.”

He’s studied you.  For any member of your team with more than three months of experience, he already knows everything they can do, their tricks and individual talents.  You have powers we need.  We have knowledge on their location, firepower of our own and two captives.  We’ll only pull this off if we work together.”

“Putting our lives in your hands,” Miss Militia replied.

Only as far as we’d be relying on you,” I answered her.

“Who are you, Skitter?”  Legend asked.  He floated closer to my swarm-decoy.  “I can’t get a read on your personality or motivations, and that’s without touching on what came up at the close of the Endbringer event.”

My teammate is in the hands of the Nine, they could be murdering more people right this second, and you’re talking about me, of all people?”

“If we’re going to offer you help, we should know who we’re interacting with,” he said.

I glanced at Trickster, then back at the image on the screen.  “What do you want to know?

“We’ve talked with the people in your territory.  Between what they say and what came out at the hospital, I can’t help but wonder at your motives.”

There’s someone specific I want to help.  If I can improve the lives of others at the same time, then all the better.

“So where do you stand, then?  Where do you see yourself in terms of the sliding scale of good and evil, heroes and villains?”

I almost laughed, and some of my humor must have translated in a mental direction to my bugs, because they started making a noise that wasn’t speech.  I stopped them.  It wouldn’t have sounded much like laughter anyways.  “All of the above?  None of the above?  Does it matter?  Some of us wear the villain label with pride, because they want to rebel against the norms, because it’s a harder, more rewarding road to travel, or because being a ‘hero’ often means so very little.  But few people really want to see themselves as being bad or evil, whatever label they wear.  I’ve done things I regret, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve walked the roads in between.  The sliding scale is a fantasy.  There’s no simple answers.

“There can be.  You could do what’s right.”

I was getting an inkling of what Bitch referred to as ‘words’.  Prattle that meant so very little in the face of what was happening in the present.  Was this the kind of irritation, impatience and anger she felt with so many social interactions?  I clenched my fist.  “Speak for yourself.  You want to hide here while my group and Hookwolf deal with the brunt of the Nine’s attention.  Just like you did with the ABB.

“That happened under Armsmaster’s leadership.  You can’t blame us for being intelligent about how we go about this.”

I was disappointed my swarm couldn’t convey my anger.  “I can blame you for being cowards.  I’m going.  If you want to talk about morality, start by talking to Armsmaster.”

“Can’t.  He’s gone.”

I paused.  Did the Nine get him?  “Dead?

“Escaped from his hospital room.  With our attention on the Nine, we don’t have the resources to track him down.”

Does he know about the Nine’s threat to hit the city with a plague if he leaves?

“I hope so.”

Fuck.  Not only was that one more uncertainty stacked onto everything, but Armsmaster was the closest thing I had to a nemesis.  Having him running around the city was not a good thing.

For a brief moment, I contemplated having Trickster teleport me to ground level, so it was me talking to the local heroes, and not just my swarm.  I could tell them that I was putting my well-being in their hands, risking them arresting me, as a gesture of good faith.

Except I couldn’t help but see myself from their perspective.  Warlord of the Boardwalk.  I’d rotted off Lung’s manhood and carved out his eyes.  I’d played an undefined role in Armsmaster’s downward slide.  I’d robbed a bank, terrorized hostages with poisonous spiders, attacked their headquarters and used insects dipped in capsaicin to cripple their junior heroes with incapacitating pain.  All the while, I’d acted with a seemingly ambiguous morality.  Was I a good guy doing all the wrong things?  Or did they see me as dangerous and unhinged?

There was no way I could put myself in their hands without knowing what they thought about me, and frankly, I wasn’t sure how to think about myself.  How the hell were they supposed to make a call?

So.  You in?”  I tried, instead.

I could see him look back at Miss Militia, who shook her head.  “Miss Militia runs the local team, so it’s ultimately her call, but… we’ve talked about it, and I agree with her.  No.  The risks outweigh the potential benefits.”

My heart sank.  “Then one final tip.  You should know that Bonesaw’s done some surgery on all of her people.  Implanted protection for the more vulnerable parts of their bodies.  They’re tougher than they look.

“Thank you,” Legend said.  “You might not believe me, but I wish you the best of luck.”

I snarled as I shut the laptop and turned away from the scene, calling my swarm back to me.

“That didn’t work,” Trickster said.

“No.  And we just wasted a lot of time.”

“We’ll have Shatterbird working with us, thanks to Regent, and we’ve got Imp as our man on the inside, maybe.  We’re going to outnumber the remaining five or six of them, right?  It’s not hopeless.”

“They’ll be ready for us.  They’re entrenched, they have a hostage, and we’re totally unable to fight two of them.  How long is it going to take to extricate Grue from whatever cage they have him in?”

“It’s not hopeless,” he repeated.  “Whatever they’re doing to keep Grue prisoner, if I can see him, I can free him.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Would it reassure you to know that your conversation with the local heroes gave me an idea of my own?”

My head snapped in Trickster’s direction.

“Come on.  We should hurry,” he said.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We set up and act the second they stop moving,” Grue’s voice sounded through the walkie-talkie.  “Be ready to move the instant Cherish alerts them.  We maintain unbroken line of sight over the Nine and between our squads.  Notify us and change position if you lose sight of ’em.  Everyone knows what they’re doing?”

Various assents could be heard through the walkie-talkies.

“Maybe I should ask if anyone’s unsure about what they’re doing?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Good.  Hold positions.”

The strategy was mine, but Grue was more comfortable than I was as a battlefield commander.  I was okay with him taking charge here.  Preferred it.

I raised my binoculars.  Seven members of the Nine were strolling down the street.  Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian were at the head of the group, and Jack was using his knife to try to cut down anyone he saw who didn’t get under cover fast enough.  It was almost an idle amusement, rather than some mission or task he’d undertaken.  Most escaped, and he didn’t go to any particular effort to chase them down, as though he were conserving his strength.

Cherish, Mannequin and Shatterbird were in the middle of the group, Crawler behind them, trailing behind with languid, casually effective movements that resembled those of a cat.  At the very back of the group, trailing even behind Crawler, was a hulk of a man who I took to be Hatchet Face.  He looked like he was rotting alive, and there were grafts of flesh and mechanical replacement parts filling in the gaps.

The majority of my attention was on Cherish.  Through the lenses of the binoculars, I focused on her face.  I watched the movements of her eyes, her facial expressions, and the tension in her hands.  Nothing she’d done thus far had indicated she was aware of us. Her attention seemed more focused on the handful people Jack had cut down.  As they walked, she looked down at each of the wounded and dying with the detached interest one might have for a car accident by the side of the highway.  She hadn’t opened her mouth since we’d caught up with their group.

so wanted to jump in and save those people.  But it would be suicide.  Our priority was stopping the Nine.

Part one of the plan was simple.  Up until the point we engaged, we stayed as far away as we could while maintaining a visual and some ability to act.  We knew Cherish’s power was more effective as she was closer to her targets.  If there was any element of surprise to be had, we’d have it by striking from a distance.

I spared a glance at Mannequin, changing the focus of my binoculars to the man in white.  Again, he’d replaced his parts.  His form resembled what I’d seen the first time I’d encountered him.

I turned my attention back to Cherish.  Shatterbird was saying something to her, her lips moving in the rhythms of speech beneath the glass beak/visor that covered the upper half of her face.  She was using her hands to punctuate her words.  Cherish didn’t respond.  From the length of Shatterbird’s speech, I took it to be some kind of monologue or lecture.

“Hey,” Sundancer said from beside me, “Ten or so seconds until we lose them behind that building over there.”

A quick check confirmed she was right.  The direction their group was traveling would take them out of sight.  I picked up the walkie-talkie, “Moving forward.  You guys have eyes on them?”

“Yeah,” Grue reported.  That would be our second squad.

“Yep,” Trickster said, from the third.

I was already sitting side-saddle on Bentley, with Bitch ahead of me.  My burned legs didn’t afford me much grip with my calves, so we’d taken a loop of the chain that surrounded Bentley and wound it under and over my lap and around my waist to secure me in place, connecting it with a carabiner in case I needed to get off fast.  I put one arm around Bitch for further support, and scooted forward to make room for Sundancer.

“Go,” Bitch hissed the words the second Sundancer was in position.  Bentley lunged forward, leaping to the next rooftop and landing with enough force that I wasn’t sure I could have stayed seated if I’d been riding normally.

Bentley was more of a bruiser than the other two dogs, with his front half adding up to almost twice the mass of the rear.  It made him weaker at the long distance leaps than any of the dogs I’d ridden thus far, but his powerful upper body also made him a strong climber.  It also meant he had the raw strength to carry three of us and the pair of heavy metal boxes that we’d strapped to his sides.  Our progress wasn’t fast, but we did make our way up the side of the next building, Bentley’s claws digging into the windowsills as he slowly and methodically ascended.  From that building It was one more leap and a short climb to the roof of the tallest building in the area.  I released my deathgrip on the chains and got the binoculars and walkie-talkie out.

“In position on the Demesnes Soft Tower.  Location of the Nine?”

“Lord and Tillman,” Trickster answered me.

I found the intersection.  Once I had the right general area, it wasn’t hard to spot them.  Crawler was conspicuous.

“Found them,” I informed the others.

Our setup put Grue, Ballistic and Sirius directly behind the Nine, along with the metal cases of supplies we’d strapped to Sirius’ sides.  Trickster and Regent were mounted on Genesis, who had taken a form not unlike the dogs.  The trio were positioned to the Nine’s left.  By contrast, my group, with Sundancer, Bitch and Bentley, were positioned to their right.

Each of us were a little over a thousand feet away from the Nine, three city blocks, give or take.  It meant my allies were out of range of my powers.  It was a drawback, but I hoped it would balance out.

“They’re moving with purpose,” Tattletale sounded over the walkie-talkie.  Trickster was sending her ongoing video with a camera and directional microphone.  “I think they’re heading to Dolltown.”

“Dolltown?”

“Parian’s territory,” Ballistic said.  “She controls these giant stuffed animals.  Cordoned off an area in my district before I made my claim.  I haven’t gotten around to dealing with her yet, with the Nine and all.”

“They’re probably trying to bait the heroes out,” Tattletale said, “Killing in the streets, then attacking one of the safe territories that aren’t controlled by us.”

“ETA for them getting to their destination?” I asked.

“One minute,” Tattletale spoke.

“Moving up,” Grue reported.  “You guys maintain visual.”

Jack was still attacking everyone he spotted.  How many lives would be lost in the meantime?  Worse, would Cherish notice our presence, or would Jack look for civilians and spot one of us on a rooftop blocks away?

Going into this with the element of surprise was almost too much to hope for.

I put my walkie-talkie down, but I kept my eyes on Cherish.  She hadn’t spoken, and there was no change in her posture.

“Grue,” Trickster said, “Get in position fast.  I see the area where Parian marked off her territory.  If they’re going to stop, they’re going to stop here.”

I used the binoculars and found the area in question.  Yellow spray paint, rain coats and scarves had been used to form a line across a street.

Grue didn’t respond, but that could easily be because he was focusing on riding.  Just in case, I asked, “You have eyes on him, Trickster?”

“Yeah.  Grue and Ballistic are heading up to a spot where they can see everyone.  No danger.”

No danger.  It was a loaded statement.  Burnscar wasn’t here, but Tattletale was ninety percent certain that the pyrokinetic teleporter was off tracking down one of the ‘hero’ candidates or Hookwolf to give them their tests.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I knew that between one of these heartbeats and the next, one of the Nine could spot us.  If it was Jack or Shatterbird, we could be dead or bleeding out less than a second later.

“Set up,” Grue ordered.

I unclipped the carabiner and hopped down.  Working alongside Bitch and Sundancer, I helped bring the boxes we’d strapped to Bentley’s side to the edge of the rooftop.  We hurried back, Sundancer giving me a hand up.  I almost didn’t feel the pain of my legs with the tension and adrenaline that thrummed through me.  Or maybe that was the industrial strength painkillers Coil had provided.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that the drugs I’d taken might be the same ones that he’d used to drug Dinah.

A quick sweep verified that the area around ‘Dolltown’ was largely empty of people.  The flooding was bad here, and only Parian’s place was really on high enough ground to be free of it.  Just to make sure, I asked, “Tattletale?  How many bystanders?”

“Going by the video feed?  Guessing there’s between eight and twenty people in the buildings around you.”

“Then I’m set,” I replied.  I strapped the ‘seatbelt’ chain around my waist and hips and reconnected the carabiner.  Other voices echoed mine, confirming they were ready.

Halfway across the roof, Sundancer began forming her miniature sun.  I checked on the others with my binoculars.  Trickster and Regent were crouched at the corner of one building, and Genesis was dissolving.  Good.

Grue and Ballistic were arguing.  I was pretty sure.  I could see Grue grabbing Ballistic’s shoulder with one hand and pointing at the Nine with the other.

“What’s going on, Grue?” I asked.

“He’s chickening out.”

He’s supposed to handle Cherish.  I glanced at the Nine.  No sign of anything from her.  She was standing apart from the rest of the group, her arms folded.

“She looks like someone I used to know,” Ballistic said, as if that was some kind of answer.

“Who?” Trickster asked.

“Sadie.  From seventh grade.”

“Nope,” Trickster replied.  “Not in the slightest.  Your head’s fucking with you.  Get the job done.”

“But-”

Trickster’s voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it.  “Now.  Remember the deal we made.  Our promise to each other and to Noelle.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Ballistic hesitated.  Through the scope of my binoculars, I could see him holding the foot-ball sized warhead in his hands.  “She’s a human being, someone with feelings, and tastes and-”

Regent was the one who cut him off this time, “And she’s someone that has forced parents to mutilate and kill their kids and she made them enjoy it.  Then she left them to live with the aftermath.”

Regent sounded remarkably calm given the situation.

“She’s my sister.  If anyone has a right to get sentimental, it’s me, and I’m saying it’s okay to off her,” he finished.

“I-”  Ballistic broke off.

I shifted my attention to the Nine.  Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw were moving past the yellow lines.  And Cherish… Cherish was turning to look in Grue and Ballistic’s direction.  I could see her almost bounce in place as she got her feet under her and started sprinting, her mouth opening.

“Cover blown!” I shouted into the walkie-talkie.  Taking my finger off the button, I called out,  “Trickster, Sundancer!”

Sundancer sent her sun soaring around to the Nine, taking the long route so it could cut them off.  In that same moment, Trickster pointed a sniper rifle at a corpse on the street and swapped Cherish’s position with it.

Part two of the plan, after finding them and getting into our positions, was to remove Cherish as fast as humanly possible.  If we accomplished nothing else, our goal was to do that and then make a run for it.  It would pave the way for future attacks and it would slow them down.

We’d left that task to Ballistic, with the idea that Trickster would take care of Jack.  Ballistic decided he didn’t have it in him at the worst possible moment, forcing us to shift roles.

Damn him.

Cherish was struck by Trickster’s shot, blood spattering the pavement.  Her teammates left her behind.

“Don’t have line of sight to Jack!” Trickster reported.

“Hit the others,” I told Sundancer.

“You mean kill them,” her voice was quiet, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Kill them, then.”  I could see the sun growing as it flew.  It was maybe eighteen feet in diameter now.

“Just… just tell me there aren’t any civilians there, no bystanders.”

I looked through my binoculars.  The remainder of the Nine were making a break for it.  Mannequin and Siberian stood still, watching Grue and Ballistic, Crawler was barreling towards them, and Shatterbird had taken to the air.  Jack and Bonesaw were taking cover around a corner to stay out of Grue and Ballistic’s line of fire.

The thing that had once been Hatchet Face scooped up the wounded and anyone he could catch and deposited them with his group.  Bonesaw had a scalpel out and was cutting the second the people were in her reach.  A throat slashed here, a stomach cavity opened there.  Intestines and muscle strung from one individual to another, connecting them together as their faces contorted in pain.  Some struggled to stand, to strike Bonesaw or push themselves away, but deft slices with the scalpel severed tendons and ligaments.  It was a kind of grim reversal, the adults utterly helpless and weak when faced with the child.

We’ll never have another shot like this.

“No,” I said.  I even managed to sound convincing.  “No civilians!  Go!”

“Then tell me where to move it,”  Sundancer’s eyes were closed.  “I can’t see that far.”

“Out further, left, left, left,”  the miniature sun slid twenty or so feet with every order I gave as I tracked the enemy’s position and the movements of the orb with the binoculars.  “Short bit left and then out!”

I couldn’t look directly at the thing, but I saw Mannequin and Siberian wheel around as the blinding light of the orb caught their attention.  Mannequin ran, and Siberian lunged forward.

The orb slid out into position around the mouth of the alley and then rolled over Jack, Bonesaw and Hatchet Face.

“Report!” Tattetale’s voice came from the walkie-talkie.  “I don’t have visual.”

“Sundancer just hit Jack, Hatchet Face and Bonesaw.”

“Where are the rest?”

“Crawler heading for Grue and Ballistic, Mannequin running down Tillman in Regent and Trickster’s general direction.  Shatterbird’s going for the bird’s-eye view.  I don’t think she’s seen any of us except Grue and Ballistic.”

“Siberian?”

“Missing.”

Shit.  Assume they’re all alive, then.  Sundancer’s power still in that area?”

Alive?  “It is.”

“Then keep it there!”

I glanced at Sundancer and she gave me a grim nod.

Crawler had reached Grue and was scaling the side of the building with surprising speed.  I’d taken him for a quadruped, but apparently his joints were modular.  His proportions were more simian, now, and he was climbing up the side of the building twice as fast as I could have run it if it were laid out horizontally.

Part three of the plan had been to hit them as hard as we could.  Trickster was using his rifle to take shots at Mannequin, but I couldn’t see if it was having any effect.  Ballistic finally decided to contribute, and fired a warhead at Mannequin.  Then he reached into the box he and Grue had unloaded from Sirius’s harness and grabbed two more.  He fired them into the smoke cloud that had expanded around Mannequin.

I could see Crawler reaching the edge of the roof, not twenty feet from Grue and Ballistic.

Part four of the plan?  Avoid direct confrontation.

“Trickster,” Grue said, the one word buzzing over the walkie-talkies.

Crawler disappeared, and an empty pickup truck toppled from the edge of the roof to the ground.  Crawler was back in the vicinity of the other Nine, not far from Sundancer’s burning orb.  Blocks away from Grue and Ballistic.

The monster lunged after Grue and Ballistic again, and was supported this time by Shatterbird, who conjured up a storm of glass shards to pelt the pair.  Ballistic retaliated by firing a warhead at Shatterbird, who prematurely detonated the explosive with a thick cluster of glass, shielding herself against the worst of the blast with another wall.  She drew more walls around herself and maintained her assault.

Bitch whistled, and Sirius started bounding across rooftops to head our way.  I could see Shatterbird turn and notice us.

That was fine.  I sent a payload of bugs her way; wasps and bees each carrying several spiders, and more expendable caterpillars and the like that were smeared in capsaicin.  I wanted to make absolutely sure she knew where we were and that she wouldn’t ignore us.

Crawler reached the base of the building only to be switched with yet another car, resetting his position a second time.  He roared in frustration, then turned toward the miniature sun, breaking into an all out run as he charged for it.

“Sundancer, switch off!”  I called out.

The orb disappeared, and Crawler crashed through the alleyway, only barely avoiding Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw.  The edges of the alley were unrecognizable, and the walls were on fire, but the trio were untouched.  Siberian had Jack draped over one shoulder  and another hand clasping Bonesaw by the back of her shirt, holding her high.  The pavement was a molten liquid beneath them.

I clicked the button on the walkie-talkie and informed the others, “Siberian’s granting her invulnerability to Jack and Bonesaw!”

Tattletale said something, but I missed it over the roar of noise that came with Sundancer using her power.  She was forming another orb.  Everyone else was busy with their own things.

Siberian was protecting Jack and Bonesaw.  That was both good and bad.  We’d planned this strategy under the assumption that Siberian would come for us and we’d use the dogs, Grue’s Darkness, my bug-decoys and Trickster’s teleportation to keep our distance from her until we decided we needed to make a run for it.  All of that was in line with part four of the plan, maintaining our distance and avoiding a toe to toe fight.  In the meantime, we’d intended to use our ranged abilities to take out Jack, Cherish, Bonesaw and Burnscar.

She was protecting them, which we hadn’t anticipated, but she couldn’t do that and come after us.

Or maybe she can.  I saw Siberian virtually toss Bonesaw in the air, the girl wrapping her arms around the woman’s neck as she landed.  Holding her two teammates, Siberian sprinted for Trickster and Regent.  She was fast, but it was a speed borne of her peculiar powers, more enhanced strength than augmented acceleration.  Not so different from Battery on that count.

Air resistance and inertia didn’t hamper her in the same ways.  More than that, whatever it was that made her invincible and untouchable to any outside force, she had the ability to snap it out to affect any surface she touched.  Her strength was virtually limitless, and the pavement didn’t shatter with her footfalls because she made it as untouchable as she was.

Shatterbird, meanwhile, was drawing closer, using the glass-storm to bar Ballistic’s access to the crate of explosives.  Grue’s power was serving to counter hers, and any glass that entered the darkness seemed to drop straight down like rain, bereft of her abilities.  Momentum still carried, however, and any glass shards that entered at a high enough velocity seemed to exit at roughly the same speed.

I wasn’t sure about Ballistic, his costume was among the best money could buy, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.  Grue, at least, should be able to endure a beating.  Beneath his motorcycle leathers, he was wearing the costume I’d made for him and nearly finished.  It wouldn’t protect his head, but his helmet would serve in a pinch.

Even if they wouldn’t be cut to shreds, I wasn’t sure they would survive if Shatterbird detonated that case of rocket launcher rounds with a shard in the right place or a large enough impact.

“Bitch,” I spoke.  “The boxes!”

Bitch was sliding off of Bentley’s back, opening the first metal box and stretching out the contents.

The case was a piece of camping gear I’d noticed ages ago, when I’d first been buying things for my costume.  A watertight case for luggage with a metal frame inside that campers could stretch out to use as a drying rack for clothes and towels.

We didn’t have luggage inside.  No, the box held parts of the mannequins I’d been using for costume design.  Strung together with silk, two mannequins dangled from the frame.

Bitch adjusted the way one mannequin hung and headed over to set up the other case.

My bugs had reached Shatterbird and started attacking her.  Brown recluses, capsaicin, wasps, hornets and bees.  I’d never attacked someone like this.  Not someone who couldn’t heal.  I could see her thrashing, trying to stay aloft even as her concentration faltered.  The brown recluses were insurance of a sort.  If we happened to take out Bonesaw, it could mean Shatterbird was out of the equation as well.

The darkness Grue had generated around the rooftop disappeared all at once.  Grue and Ballistic crouched at the far corner.  Canceling the darkness was a signal.

The mannequins hanging from the first rack disappeared, replaced by the two boys.  Grue and Ballistic disentangled themselves from the metal frames and hurried to our side.

Trickster and Regent appeared soon after the other frame was up.  I could see Siberian on the rooftop.  They’d escaped just in time to avoid being caught in a melee with her.

Trickster rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck and adjusted his hat.

“Don’t waste time,” Grue growled.  “Do it.”

“Times like this call for a certain flourish,” Trickster said.  Trickster withdrew a small remote from his pocket and depressed the button.

The rooftops the other two teams had been situated on virtually shattered with the explosions.  The bazooka rounds had also carried a small collection of plastic explosives.  Since Trickster’s team had only needed the sniper rifle, their case held a hell of a lot more.

Part five done.  Baiting the hook, reeling them in, then hitting them as hard as we could.

It wouldn’t stop them, of course.  The only ones that explosion might have hurt were Shatterbird and maybe Mannequin, if he’d survived Ballistic’s attack and slipped around through some other angle.  Ideal world, it would also slow down Siberian.  More realistically, I was hoping that they’d get pissed, and they’d get sloppy.

I chanced a quick look through the binoculars.  Crawler was stampeding towards the site of the explosion, Cherish was still prone on the ground, bleeding out from Trickster’s sniper fire, and I couldn’t make out the others.

Wait, no.  I could see rubble shifting as Siberian shrugged it aside.  It was enough debris that Crawler would have been hampered, but even with her hands tied up in holding her teammates, she cast the chunks of concrete and brick aside with the same sort of ease that I might walk through a pile of balloons.  She shook her head, and her hair fanned out behind her, draping partially over Bonesaw, who was riding her piggy-back.

Jack wasn’t folded over her shoulder anymore.  He was standing, holding her hand, a wide smile spread across his face.  He said something, some exclamation, without dropping his grin for a second.

And Shatterbird?  I looked through the rubble that had been cast over the street around the building.  She was lying on the ground, struggling to her feet.  The glints of glass shards sparkled for a hundred feet around her.  I quickly tossed my binoculars aside.  They’d be a liability if she attacked us, now.

Here was the gamble.  We’d hurt them, injured their pride, we’d maybe killed Mannequin and we’d incapacitated Cherish.  If Ballistic had been on the ball, he would have blown Cherish to smithereens.  As it was, a stray bullet wouldn’t cut it.  Bonesaw’s known talents included the ability to raise the dead.

Grue used his darkness to form a dozen false-images of shadow-shrouded silhouettes on nearby rooftops.  I did the same with my bugs, but mine were animated, moving.

We’d have to run pretty damn soon.  There were seven of us, but only two dogs.  It was less than ideal.  I’d tried to get Bitch to bring another dog, but she didn’t feel any of the others were trained well enough to bear riders.

The remaining members of the Nine charged, Shatterbird rising from her position to fly straight for us, barriers of glass surrounding her.  Siberian carried Jack and Bonesaw with leaping bounds, while Crawler headed for us.

I crossed my fingers, watching intently.

Two ways this could go for the final phase of our plan.

Well, three ways.  But I was hoping the third possibility -my team getting caught and slaughtered- wouldn’t happen.

The first way this could play out was that Shatterbird’s flight over the buildings would make her faster than Crawler or Siberian, who had to climb or circumvent the obstacles.

When I’d brought this up during the meeting, assuming it would happen, it had been Tattletale who pointed out that I was maybe underestimating how fast Crawler and Siberian could be.  She was right.  Despite her ability to fly, Shatterbird was falling behind.

Which meant we went with plan B.

“You up for this, Grue?” I asked, “I could do it.  My plan, and I was first to volunteer.”

“No, you can’t run fast enough with those burns.” Grue replied, as he hurried to the side of the rooftop furthest from the Nine.  He glanced down. “Trickster, I’m ready!”

“Just need an opportunity,” Trickster said, watching the incoming members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They were closing a little too fast for comfort.  Sirius had arrived, and we were all getting saddled.  Bitch, Sundancer and I on Bentley, and Regent, Trickster and Ballistic on Sirius.  At Regent’s orders, Sirius moved to Grue’s side.

“Sooner than later!” Grue said.

“Do you want to die?” Trickster asked.

“No, but I’m willing to break something!”

“Your call,” Trickster said.  “Three, two, one!”

Grue leaped from the edge of the roof.  In that same instant, Trickster swapped him with Shatterbird.

She tumbled for a second, got a grip with her flight, and then steadied.

Then Regent hit her with his power.  Shatterbird flew into the corner of the roof, was thrown off-balance and tipped into the gap between buildings.

And Grue?  I cast a glance backward.  He’d dropped out of the air where Shatterbird had been flying, landing on a rooftop a distance below.  I could see him struggling to his feet.

“Go, go!”  Trickster screamed the words.

Our mounts leaped down into the same gap where Shatterbird had fallen.  We made the usual zig-zagging descent down, leaping from wall to wall, and landed on either side of Shatterbird and Genesis.

Genesis looked like a cartoon caricature of a sumo wrestler, grotesquely obese and yellow skinned with eyes like black buttons.  She was hairless, unclothed and sexless, and her skin was translucent and oily.  Through the skin, I could make out the vague figure of Shatterbird, pounding on the walls of the stomach, her mouth opening in a scream that didn’t reach us.  Glass shards were stirring around her, a blender whir cutting at the insides of Genesis’s belly.

“She’s going to cut through,” I said.  “Bitch, Regent, get the chains.  I’ll try to stop her.”

Using my bugs, I formed words against the surface of Genesis’s belly.  ‘Stop’.

Shatterbird only intensified her attempts.

I gathered some black widow spiders and pressed them gently against the shiny, translucent skin.  They were absorbed, drifting inside, and were soon crawling around the inside surface.  Genesis obliged me by opening her mouth, giving me a direct route for the bugs to travel.

“Hurry,” Regent said.  He was winding the chain around the jello-like yellow hand.  Fingerless hands gripped the chain for further traction.

Shatterbird noticed the spiders.  Her eyes widened as the volume of deadly spiders trapped in the bubble with her increased.  I raked my finger beneath the message I’d drawn with the bugs, as if to underline it.  ‘Stop’.

She did.  Glass shards fell into a pool around her feet.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran, the two dogs side by side, pulling Genesis behind us like a chariot.

Drawing my bugs together, I covered us as best as I was able, creating other decoys, vague chariot-shaped lumps here and there, huddles of figures.

It would all be for nothing if they returned to Cherish, revived the girl and tracked us down.

“Left!” I ordered.

Bitch steered left.  Regent hadn’t heard, but as the tension on the chains pulled Sirius to one side, he caught on and turned as well.

My bugs served as a navigation system, feeling out the shapes of our surroundings so I could work out a suitable path.  We charged onward, with me giving occasional directions, until we found Cherish lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

“Get her!”

Bitch rode just to Cherish’s left, Regent rode just to the right, and Genesis rolled right over the girl.  Cherish caught like glue, suffered an unfortunate few seconds of being dragged over the road’s surface, and was then drawn into Genesis’ bubble of a body.

My bugs gave me a sense of the Nine’s locations, and my decoys gave them pause once or twice.  We could track them more easily than they could do the reverse, and we were soon far enough away that I couldn’t sense them.

We only slowed when we got to Coil’s underground base.  We parked the dogs and then headed for the series of barred and locked doors.  I glanced at Shatterbird and Cherish where they knelt in Genesis’ rotund body.  We weren’t really giving away information here. Crawler had apparently come this way, not so long ago.

It was a fifty-fifty chance whether Siberian and the other Nine would come this way.  Cherish wasn’t around to give them information, but she might have provided details at an earlier point that Jack or one of the others could use to connect the dots.  We’d cross that bridge when we got to it.

Coil was there to greet us with a Tattletale and a contingent of armed soldiers.  We waited patiently as one of the soldiers scanned Shatterbird with a plastic wand.  He looked at Coil and shook his head.

“This way,” Coil ordered.

How did he set this up so fast?

Shatterbird’s cell was large, twenty feet by twenty feet across, and the walls had the same textured black rubber soundproofing as the sound recording booths I’d seen in movies and on TV.  I couldn’t see the speakers, but there was a noise similar to radio static filling the room, so loud I wouldn’t be able to hear if someone spoke.

With our weapons trained on Shatterbird, we stood by while one of Coil’s soldiers reached into Genesis’s stomach and hauled her out.  She was chained to the ceiling with her arms stretched out to her sides, then divested of her costume, left only with a silk camisole and slip.  Coil’s people wheeled in an x-ray machine and a tank of containment foam.

Shatterbird glared wordlessly at us until we’d exited the room and the heavy vault door blocked our view of her.

“She will be cavity searched and x-rayed to identify any hidden weapon or any devices Bonesaw or Mannequin might have implanted in her,” Coil spoke, after the doors were closed and the white noise was blocked out.  “Regent, we have a protective suit waiting for you.  In the event that she does acquire something she can use her powers on, or if she has concealed anything on her person that is small enough to avoid radiographic detection, the suit will shield you until you’ve finished.”

Regent nodded.

“She was bitten by brown recluses,” I said.  “I’d give her a full physical examination every thirty minutes, to be safe.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know standard treatment for bites of that kind,” Coil said.

Brooks stepped out of the crowd of nearby soldiers.  “Sir?”

“Brooks.”

“I’m familiar with the treatment for the more dangerous spider bites,” he looked at me, “It’s a protein-based venom?”

So the jerk is useful sometimes.  I hadn’t liked Brooks since Lisa had introduced me to him, but I could respect someone who knew his job.  “Yeah.”

“Seems I can leave it to you, then,” Coil said.  Brooks nodded.  Coil added, “Failing everything else, it might serve as incentive to cooperate.”

“Or cause to get desperate,” Tattletale said.  “She might do something stupid if she thinks she’ll die or suffer lifelong effects if she doesn’t get back to Bonesaw.”

“Let’s not give her the opportunity.  Regent, how fast can you seize control?”

“A few hours.”

“Start now.”

Regent headed off to get changed.

“That leaves our unexpected guest,” Coil said.  “Cherish.”

Regent hadn’t yet escaped earshot.  He turned back to us.  “She’ll have a trap on her.  Small explosive looped around her neck with a lock and a deadman’s switch.”

“Thank you,” Coil said.  “Tattletale?  See to it at the first opportunity.”

“Not a problem.”

We approached Cherish and Genesis. Cherish knelt in the small pile of glass shards that sat at the very bottom of the bubble.  Her hands were pressed against the inside of the stomach, causing it to bulge like a small child in a womb.  She was awake, but bleeding severely.

Coil gave the order, “If anyone acts out of character, take them out of action as swiftly as possible and shoot the girl.”

There were nods all around.

Cherish’s mouth moved, but the sound didn’t reach us.

“I did not expect her, and I did not take measures for containing her,” Coil said.  “Keeping her on the premises may prove exceptionally dangerous.”

“The alternative being?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her go?”

“In the euphemistic sense.  Her value as a captive is minimal and we have no way to secure her until Regent can finish using his ability on her.”

“He’s resistant to her power,” Tattletale said, “But that goes both ways.  Don’t know how well he’d be able to control her.  She might break free.  Benefits of being family, I guess.”

“Then I would suggest, as Trickster said earlier, ‘letting her go’.  We execute her and remove her from the equation,”  Coil stated.

I looked at Cherish, and her eyes narrowed.  She knew exactly what we were saying.  Killing someone in cold blood?  A little different than killing someone on the battlefield.

“Not giving you the go ahead,” I said.  “But I’m not about to stop you.  I’m washing my hands of this.”

“The intent was to remove individuals from the Nine before they could conduct their round of tests, yes?  This seems to be the most expedient route.”

“Not disagreeing,” I said.  “But I didn’t sign up to be an executioner.  I manage my district and I help defend your city from outsiders, right?”

“Quite right.  No, I think your service this morning has been exemplary.”

I only barely managed to avoid bringing up the deal about Dinah.  No, it was premature, the wrong people were listening, and I was worried he would point out the fact that my territory had been torched by Burnscar.

Best to keep quiet for now.  Rebuild, re-establish myself as leader of my territory, then raise the topic.

Whatever happened, I needed his respect.

We turned our attention to our captive.  She had raised her hands above her head in a surrender position, despite the hole in her shoulder.

“Do we risk it?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her out?”

“Nothing she can’t do outside the bubble that she couldn’t do inside,” Tattletale replied.  Coil nodded, and that seemed to be signal enough.

Genesis began to dissolve, and in moments, Cherish spilled out, wincing as she cut her hands and knees on the glass that Shatterbird had detached from her costume and weaponized.

Tattletale bent down and looked at the device that hung around Cherish’s neck.  “Small explosive, combination lock.  A bit paranoid?”

“No such thing as too paranoid,” Cherish said, glaring.  “Between my brother and the crap that Bonesaw and the rest of the team want to subject me to, knowing I’ll die if I leave that thing alone long enough actually helps me sleep at night.”

“Can’t have that,” Tattletale said.  Changing the topic, she asked, “You like computers?”

“Computers?” Cherish startled.  She seemed to intuit what Tattletale was doing.  “Not saying.”

“Clever girl, but even that’s enough of a clue.  Let’s see… four, five, four five.”  Tattletale tugged on the lock.  “Nope.  Three, seven, three, seven.”

The lock popped open.  Cherish’s eyes opened wide.

“There goes your bargaining chip.”

“I’ve got more,” Cherish said, her chin rising a fraction.

“Do tell,” Coil said, dryly.

“Certain teammate of yours paid me a visit.  Imp, I think her name was?  So hard to remember.”

“What did you do to Imp?” I asked.  Grue is going to freak out.

Cherish smiled, “She decided to help me get back at the Nine.  They’re planning on inflicting a fate worse than death on me, you see.  There was a reason I pretended not to notice you were all waiting in ambush.  Thought maybe the brat passed on word somehow, until you used that sucker-teleport on me and shot me.  Suppose you’ll have to give me medical attention and keep me alive if you want the rest of the story.”

“And your other bargaining chip?” Trickster asked.

“Grue.  I can sense him with my power.  I can also sense my team.  They got their hands on darkness boy.”

I swear my heart stuttered mid-beat.

Cherish smiled, but her glare didn’t fade in intensity.  “My teammates and I already talked on the subject of Jean Paul, aka Hijack, aka Alec, aka Regent…  You got Shatter, and you got me.  We’re compromised.  No way they’re going to accept us back with open arms.  They’d kill us first.  So no, don’t get your hopes up.  My teammates aren’t going to agree to a hostage exchange.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Bentley had been turned on his back, and Sirius had one side of Bentley’s ribs in his jaws, pulling. Bitch was holding the other side, tugging on it with her entire body in an effort to pull it apart.  Bastard was chained to a streetlight, lying on the ground with his chin on his front paws.  He had shrunk from the size he was before.

She’s alive.  After Bitch had gone incommunicado, I’d worried Burnscar had gotten ahold of her.

The flesh of the bulldog’s monstrous form was decaying, sloughing off and putrefying into a liquid slop over the span of seconds.  As the tissues connecting the bones disintegrated, they became loose, bending in place.  Bitch was trying to get the ribcage apart before the remainder of the flesh collapsed in on the dog’s real body.

“Found her,” I spoke into my phone as I hurried towards her, my rain boots splashing.  “Yeah.  Contact the others about meeting.”

The pain in my legs made me gasp if I stretched my foot out the wrong way, and each gasp only triggered the pain in my ribs.  The air was heated, though there were no fires in the immediate area.  The hot, smoke-filled air combined with the pain in my ribs to punish even my shallower breaths.

“The fuck are you doing here?”  Bitch asked.

I drew my knife and held it by the blade, extending the handle towards her.  “Helping.”

She didn’t respond, but she took the knife and climbed partway into Bentley’s body to start cutting him out of the protective sac.  I stepped in and used my shoulder to help leverage the ribcage open.  My legs screamed with the strain, but I could deal with the pain.  It would be better to suffer some pain than let Bitch get crushed inside Bentley’s chest cavity.

She climbed out with the bulldog draped over her arms, falling to her knees the second she was free.  She laid Bentley down on the ground.

“Is he okay?”

She checked.  “He’s breathing.”

“Good.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t act like you care.”

“I do care.”

“Fuck you.  You heard what that psycho whore said and now you think I like you.  I don’t.”

“I’m not thinking anything along those lines.”

“You’re probably already trying to figure out a way to use it against me.  Fucking hate people like you.  Manipulative, two faced-”

“Hey!” I shouted, cutting her off.  Sirius growled at me.

Bitch brandished my own knife, pointing it at me.  “Do you know how much fucking simpler my life gets if I get rid of you?”

“It doesn’t.  You might get the Nine off your case for a few days, but you’d be facing every test after that all on your own.  Believe it or not, I’m on your side.  I want to help you through this mess.”

“Don’t bother.  Go, leave.”  The knife didn’t waver.

“I’m not going anywhere unless you’re coming with me.”

“Getting cocky because you think I can’t cut you.  Don’t forget that you can be chewed.”

I gave Sirius a glance, making sure to keep my head still so I didn’t give off any sign of hesitation or doubt.

“If you were going to hurt me, you would’ve done it while Burnscar was threatening you.”

“I don’t like being told what to do, so no, I wouldn’t have.”

I doubt that, I thought.  You don’t like being told what to do by a stranger, maybe, but I’d bet you could be happy if you had a stable environment and consistent leadership.  “If you carry out their tests and join them, they’ll be telling you what to do for the rest of your life.”

“I don’t care about the test!” she shouted.  I could see Sirius tense, ready to attack.  “I just want to be left alone!”

“I know the feeling.”

“You don’t know anything!”

“Screw that!”  I jabbed a finger in her direction.  “Maybe my life hasn’t sucked as much as yours did, but I’ve been there!  I’ve been hounded every fucking day by people who only wanted to make me miserable!  Every day, getting so tense that I’d feel like throwing up in the shower before leaving for school, and I’d have headaches before noon!  I spent weeks hiding in the bathroom during lunch breaks because they wouldn’t fucking ease up on me!”

“Boo hoo.  I could tell you what I put up with.”

I shook my head, and took a deep breath.  I forced myself to calm down before I spoke.  “I’m not interested in a pissing contest, Rachel.”

“Because you’d lose.”  She poked the knife in my direction, as if to punctuate her statement.

“Because this isn’t a competition, and yeah, I’d lose.  I’m trying to tell you that we’re not that different.”

She scoffed.

God, my legs and feet hurt.  My ribs weren’t exactly sunshine and rainbows either.  I felt like I had to do something to distract myself.  If it hadn’t been my legs that hurt, I would have wanted to pace back and forth, or run, or something.  I tried to focus on Bitch.  “Fine.  Don’t believe me.  Here’s the nitty-gritty facts, then.  You’re a member of our team.  We need you, and whether you like it or not, you need us.”

She scowled.  “I-”

“Don’t say you don’t.  Don’t say you could manage on your own.  You’ve seen these guys, and you’re not stupid.”

She looked down at Bentley, putting one hand in front of his snout, as if to check he was still breathing.  “All you’re spewing out of your mouth-hole are words.  You only want to help yourself.”

I wished there was something I could have hit, something I could have thrown.  I settled for an enraged groan.  “What’s it going to take to convince you!?  Why can’t you understand that I can and have put myself in harm’s way for you?  That despite all the shit between us and everything we’ve gone through, you’re my friend?”

“You are not my friend,” she didn’t look up at me as she uttered the words.

“Fine!  I’ve accepted that.  But you’re my friend, even if I don’t like you half the time.  You’re my teammate.  We’re similar.  The only difference is that you went through your shit years ago, and I just got through dealing with mine a few weeks after I joined this team.  We’ve traveled down the same paths.  Whether you like it or not, we’re kindred spirits.  We both struggle with the social-”  I trailed off.

Bitch had reacted to something I’d said towards the end there, flinched, almost.

I sighed.  This isn’t accomplishing anything.  I looked at my territory.  The plumes of smoke had turned the sky a gray-black in color, some of which glowed faintly orange with the reflected light of the fires.  The occasional spark floated through the air from one of the fires that burned around a nearby corner.

She broke the lingering silence, “Coil told me that people would leave me alone if I got powerful enough.  If I had allies, if I had money, if I scared my enemies enough.”

“When was this?”

“Before I joined the Undersiders.  He didn’t tell me who he was.  Left me a phone with some cash, then called me a while later.  Fucking words that sounded good.  Learned my lesson.”

She’d spent years on her own, on the streets with only the company of her dogs, running any time a cop or cape came after her.  I itched to ask her if she’d suddenly had an increase in the amount of trouble she faced before she came to Brockton Bay.  Trouble that could be precipitated by a certain ambitious supervillain?

No, it wasn’t the time.

“You know that joining the Nine would get you the opposite of that.  It wouldn’t be the kind of power that gets you left alone.  It would be a life of being constantly chased, always in the company of people who are ten times as manipulative and two-faced as you think I am.”

“I know,” she spat.

She picked up Bentley, then adjusted her grip to touch his nose with one hand.

Whatever.  Down to brass tacks.  I gave her a second to cool down, then spoke, “They killed your dog, hurt Bentley, killed my people and torched my territory.  I want to take these fuckers down, no holds barred, and we’re going to need your help if we want to pull it off.  Screw going on the defensive, I-”

“You had me at no holds barred,” she growled, rising from her crouch.

I didn’t dare to open my mouth, not with the risk of angering her and changing her mind.  I nodded instead.

Together, we limped back to my lair.  Every step I took was a chore.  Where Grue and I had supported each other, Bitch didn’t offer me anything.  It bothered me a little; we could have ridden Sirius if we’d cooperated to help each other onto his back, but that wasn’t apparently in the cards.

My bugs found Genesis a few blocks away.  Or, rather, they found something that approximated a blend between a slug and a rabbit.  My bugs identified two bulbous eyes, two tentacles or floppy ears and a body that hugged the ground.  The insects I had resting on the surface of the water could feel it flowing up and to the sides of the slug.  A small mouth jetted streams of it at the fires of a building near her.  I assumed it was Genesis.  Educated guess.

One of these days, I was going to run up against something strange and assume it was her, only to be unpleasantly surprised.

I drew words and symbols with the bugs.  Shortly after, the flow of the water stopped and the consistency of her body began to break down.  She was on her way back.

Charlotte had taken the kids away, so my lair was empty as we made our way inside.  Bitch assessed the area and then headed into the bathroom, going for the first aid kit.

“Want help?”

She glared at me.  Answer enough.

I headed upstairs and stripped my mannequin of the costume I’d largely completed.  Then I removed my rain boots and began the torturous process of peeling out of the costume I was wearing.  I’d put off investigating the damage in favor of finding Bitch sooner.

Removing my mask wasn’t a problem, but unstrapping my armor and getting my arms out of the sleeves made my ribs ache.  A fresh bruise had layered on top of the old one, black and purple over a purple-green.  I had to pause for a minute to catch my breath before I began on the legs.

I’d been wearing waterproof tights under my costume, and I cringed to think of the fact that I’d been wading in filthy water with the injuries exposed.  I got the first aid kit I’d brought down from my room and found a pair of tweezers.  Tatters of melted plastic from the leggings clung to the creases and edges of the burn.  Slowly, carefully, I worked my way down, removing the black fragments, digging in where necessary.  Every area I cleaned, I disinfected.  The largest burn covered my right heel, the top of my foot, and half of my calf, but the toes were okay.  The other marked the left ankle, heel and a patch small enough to cover with my hand on the shin.  There was less damage, but there was more melted spandex crusting it.  If I had second degree burns, it would be there.

The disinfectant virtually hissed as it touched my burns.  I applied it liberally, then got out the gauze and antibiotic cream.

It hurt as much as the lingering effects of Bakuda’s pain grenade, but there was also the knowledge that it would take forever to heal.  I wouldn’t be able to wear skin-tight leggings over the injured area.

Bastards.  This pain was nothing compared to what they’d subjected my people to.  How many people had lost parents, loved ones, friends?  Homes?  I couldn’t even complain to myself about the burn without feeling guilty.

Genesis was the first one to arrive upstairs, carried by one of her remotely controlled images, a crude rendering of a man who draped her in a chair and then faded as she woke.

“I couldn’t put out any of the major fires,” she said.  For someone who had just spent four fifths of the day sleeping, she looked exhausted.

“Thank you for trying.”  I took the wire cutters to the inside of my burned costume’s leggings.  Each squeeze got me only half an inch of cut material.

“What next?”

“I’ve outlined a basic plan with Grue.  He contacted the others.  They should be arriving shortly, and we’ll all discuss it together.  Tattletale doesn’t think Burnscar’s going to come back anytime soon, but I’ve laid out spider-silk tripwires over the area, just in case.”

“A plan?”

“Of attack.  It’s easier if we wait until everyone’s arrived before I get into it, so I’m not repeating it too many times.  Might even be smarter, if Cherish is looking in and trying to read my emotions to figure out what we’re doing.”

Attack?”

“Being careful and being on the defensive isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“It’s keeping us alive.”

I shook out my costume and examined it.  Progress was too slow.  I put down the wire cutters and got the plastic lighter from my utility compartment.  I proceeded to burn through the material on the inside of the leggings, from the cut I’d made all the way to the crotch, then back down the other side, putting out any flame that lingered.  I was nearly done when I finally responded,  “I don’t think it is.  We’re still dying.  It’s just… slower.  Can you honestly tell me we’re going to survive another two confrontations like this?”

“So you want to be aggressive instead?  Suffer a fast death?”

“Yes to the first part, no to the second.  Look, they’re good because they’re experienced.  Jack has been doing this for years.  He knows the exact balance he needs to strike, to be unpredictable enough that we can’t plan against them, but clever enough that we can’t catch them off guard.”

“But you want to try.  To catch them off guard, I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s suicide.  Like, what are the odds you’re going to make it through a third round?  If we have a fifty-fifty chance of dying in a given confrontation, that’s, what, a one in eight chance?”

“You’re better at math than I am.  Sure.  Except we’re not going to fight them head on.  Tell me, what are the limits on your abilities?”

“There really aren’t any.  If it makes sense, if it’s self-sustaining, with organs and an energy supply, it’s easier on me.  I don’t need to take up as much of the load with personal effort.  Bigger and denser forms are more taxing, too.”

“What about materials?  What can you use to put a body together?”

“I… don’t know.  I can control it, sorta, but my power chooses for me.  I visualize it as I use my power, I drift off, and I go into that sort of twilight state when you’re just barely almost asleep, and your mind wanders.  Anything I haven’t firmly put together in my head gets filled in with the stray thoughts and imagination.  I never put too much effort into the material, unless I wanted something like armor or stone skin.”

So ridiculously powerful.  If I had her power… damn it.

“And special abilities?  You can give them to your forms?”

“I have to visualize the mechanism, the organs or whatever that make it work.  I only have a limited time before I’m knocked out, so time I spend on that is time I’m not working on other stuff.  Like the form I was just using, you didn’t see it, but-”

“I saw it.”

“Right.  The bugs, right.  Well, I visualized the water suction system and the water gun, but because I didn’t focus on the body, it didn’t have arms or legs, and it was slow, and because it didn’t have vital organs, it drained me.”

“Okay.”  I held up my costume with the legs and feet reduced to tatters.  I turned my attention to a box behind my chair, tucked beneath a shelf of terrariums.  A small tide of roaches lifted it and carted it to me.  Inside were the scraps of fabric and mask left behind after Mannequin’s first retreat.  I hadn’t wanted to spare any material.

“Why are you asking?”

“Trying to assess the resources we have at our disposal.”

I heard a car door slam outside.  That would be either Grue or a collection of the others.

Genesis used her hands to shift her position in her seat.  I glanced at her legs.  They were thin.  Atrophy.  She’d been in a wheelchair for a while.  When I looked up, I saw she’d caught me looking.

“If you have a question, I’d rather you ask than keep wondering.”

I felt my face heat up, and quickly turned my attention to the fabric of my old costume.  I used the roaches to arrange a patchwork on the floor, using the tattered scraps.  My spiders crawled from the terrariums to begin connecting the pieces.  It didn’t have to be pretty.

“Really.  Ask.”

“Were you disabled because of your power?  A side effect, or something that happened in costume?”

She shook her head.  “I’ve been in a chair since I was four.  No, if anything, it’s the other way around.”

Other way around?  My first thought was trigger event.  The second was, maybe that idea about people being stronger if they get their powers at a younger age is true after all.

As I mentally categorized my musings, I felt them connect with a bunch of other thoughts.  Of the six Travelers, three were among the more powerful capes in Brockton Bay that I’d met.  In terms of sheer destructive effect, Sundancer and Ballistic were top-notch.  Genesis was top of the line in sheer utility and versatility, a combatant that could endlessly return to the battlefield with whatever form she wanted, provided that her real body was left unmolested.  Topping it off, Noelle was apparently so powerful she had to be kept in quarantine.  Trickster was impressive, if not quite in the same class as his teammates, and I had no idea what Oliver was all about, since he didn’t have powers, as far as I knew.

How had they come together?  If I ran with the theory that Genesis somehow had her trigger event at four and was more powerful as a result, did that mean the other powerful members of the group had done something similar?  If so, how were they connected?

Or was I thinking along the wrong lines?

My bugs counted the people who’d exited the car and were heading through the storm drain.  A group.

“The others are coming in.  Your team and Regent.”

She smiled a little, but it was almost a sad expression.  Resigned.

Back when I’d first talked with Sundancer, I could remember asking her about her experience with the Travelers.  What was it she’d said?  Intense, violent, lonely.  Lonely despite the fact that they were constantly in each other’s company.  I couldn’t exactly remember what Sundancer’s explanation for that loneliness had been.  It had been vague, hadn’t it?

Seeing Genesis’s expression, I suspected Sundancer wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

The others made their way upstairs, followed by Bitch.  They gathered around my room, all standing.  I moved to stand, myself, but Trickster gestured for me to stay seated.

“You okay?” Regent asked.

“Alive.  Hurts like hell.”

Through my swarm-sense, I felt a truck park outside.  Grue let himself in through the front door.

Before long, all were present.  Grue dialed Tattletale and put the phone on speaker.

“Yo,” her voice came through.  “Me and Coil here.”

“Skitter wants to attack the Nine, remove a tester before they get their turn.”

Trickster whistled.  “Risky.”

“Look at it this way,” I said.  “Um.  How many police forces and superteams have tried to beat the Nine?  How many divisions of the Protectorate or alliances of cape teams have tried to beat them?”

“Lots,” Trickster said.

“Too many to count.  The Nine play things like my team does on good days.  They pick their fights, avoiding confrontations or disappearing when they aren’t certain they can win.  When they do fight, they hit where it hurts.  We do that.  Look at what Regent did to Shadow Stalker, what I did to Lung on both occasions.  And they terrorize their victims.  We do the same thing, unintentionally or not.  Grue is scary with the darkness, Bitch’s dogs make people shit themselves.  Me?  Everyone’s at least a little creeped out by bugs.  Tattletale and Regent are unnerving in a whole different way.  The Nine are us on steroids.”

“That’s not a very flattering comparison.”  Grue folded his arms.

“No.  But I think it’s on target, and I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that they wound up considering two members of our group for the Nine, Cherish’s motivations aside.  So let’s avoid playing things like Jack wants us to, let’s not do things the way better heroes have tried and failed.  We play this like they play this.  Unpredictable, calculated recklessness, we don’t get caught up in a fight, and we think through every part of the plan.”

Grue shook his head a little, as if in response to some thought that crossed his mind.

“You will have my assistance,” Coil said, “Jack Slash needs to die, and you’ll have access to all of my resources should you move forward.”

“Alright.  Thanks.  Bitch is on board, I think?”

Bitch nodded.

“Everyone needs to be willing to do this if we’re going to move forward.  I’m not just talking about attacking these guys.  Sundancer, Ballistic, you guys have been holding back for a long time.  I know it’s asking a hell of a lot, but… are you guys prepared to kill?”

Silence hung in the air for a few long seconds.

“Yeah,” Ballistic said.  “If it’s monsters like that?  I think I could.”

Sundancer hesitated.  She hugged her arms against her body, lips pursed.

“Mars,” Trickster said, his voice quiet, “You’ve killed before.”

“Accidentally.”

I thought back to her hesitation to use her power, back when we’d fought Oni Lee and Lung together.

“These guys aren’t bystanders, they’re not people,” Ballistic said.  “They don’t even resemble people.  They’re freaks, monsters.  The worst this planet has to offer.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“By killing them, you’re saving dozens, even hundreds of people,” I said.

“It’s not that simple!”

“It really is,” I replied.  “I don’t think we need an answer now, but you need to let us know before we begin.”

“What else do you need?” Lisa asked, through the phone.

“We can’t do anything until you find them.  I know the local technology is down, but-”

“But the local police and capes brought in emergency communications, just like Coil did for us.  I’ve been listening in on the radio transmissions.  Narrowing it down.  I could pull an all-nighter, listen in, and figure it out.”

“That’s as good an excuse as any,” Grue said.  “If I’m going to help with this, I need to know that you’re on the ball.  I don’t do this unless everyone that’s going to be on the battlefield gets six hours of sleep before we begin.  By that time, Tattletale will have a location.”  He faced me square on as he said it.

“I don’t have normal sleep patterns,” Genesis replied, “In fact, I need to be awake to recharge.”

“Exceptions allowed, of course,” Grue said, without turning away from me.

Six hours of sleep, with everything I had on my conscience?

“Sure,” I lied.  “But we attack first thing in the morning, or as soon as Tattletale pins them down.”

“First chance,” he agreed.

“Is there any possibility that we could deploy Noelle?”  I asked Trickster.

“No,” Trickster said.

“If she’s as powerful as you say-”

“If Noelle used her power in this battle you’re talking about, everyone loses.”

The Travelers were way, way too fond of that line.

“Then, Coil, what kind of munitions do you have?”

“Most.  I can provide virtually anything, given time, but for tomorrow morning?  Well, tell me what you need.”

“I’m thinking explosives.  How much can you provide?”

“Hold on,” Lisa cut in.  “You’re talking about Ballistic and Sundancer using their powers without limits, you want to use Noelle, now explosives?”

“And I’m talking about me using black widows, brown recluses and every nasty bug I have at my disposal.  I’m talking about us packing guns and grenades.  All of us.  No holds barred.”

Trickster rubbed his chin.  “Okay.  They broke the unspoken rules between capes, so there’s no reason to actually follow those rules.  Sure.  But do you actually have a plan?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Keep in mind that this could change pretty dramatically depending on where we find them and what they’re up to when we run into them.”

There were some nods from the others around the room.  My bugs had finished connecting the tattered pieces of fabric.  It wasn’t pretty, but a few tugs to test it showed it was as sturdy as anything I’d made.  I draped it over my lap.  Until my legs healed, I’d be wearing my new costume for my upper body, with the tattered cloth as a skirt to protect my burned legs.

Then I told them what we’d be trying to do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.4

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Bad, bad, bad, bad.

Burnscar stood with Mannequin just behind her, sporting a red shirt and black jeans, cigarette burns running down her cheeks, and a dead look in her eyes.  Bitch, Grue, Sirius, Bastard and I stood a dozen feet away, walls of flame like bonfires barring our escape routes to the rear or sides.  Droplets of rain fell all around us, making ripples on the inch-high water that flooded the street.  The air was thick with the smell of smoke.

We’d at least had time to mentally prepare for the idea of facing Mannequin.  My strategy had been last-minute, but I’d been in the right frame of mind to fight a tinker, to anticipate ambush and tackle someone with decent offensive abilities, strong defenses and a crapton of tricks up his sleeve.

Burnscar had flipped things on us; she was in a totally different ballpark from Mannequin.  If I had to guess, her offensive capabilities were top-notch, even if they didn’t break the scales like some other members of the Nine.  I couldn’t even guess where she fit on the spectrum of defensive ability, but she’d been with the Nine for a little while and she was still alive, so that was some indication.  And utility?  She had every trick a pyrokinetic like Lung had at his disposal and she could teleport through flames as well, opening up a mess of tricks and avenues of attack.

“Happy now?” She asked Grue.

“Not so much.”

Burnscar’s voice was flat, without humor, like an actor reading the lines from a script without actually emoting them.  “I am following the rules, now.  Let’s see.  Trying to remember how this is supposed to go. Test you, you pass or fail, and then I kill you.”

“You only kill Bitch if she fails,” I said.  Opening my mouth was more automatic than intentional.  The majority of my focus was on our current situation.  Options.  What avenues of attack did we have?  What about self-defense or escape?

I had my pepper spray.  My knife and baton were available too, though I doubted my ability to dish out more hurt than I suffered in an exchange of hits with Burnscar.  Grue had his darkness, and both of the remaining dogs were in okay shape.  I had my bugs, but neither my costume nor my bugs would do well against the flame.

“I can still kill tall, dark and eerie and the alien girl,” Burnscar said.

“Bug girl,” I corrected.

“Don’t really care.  Bitch, the test is an old one, but it’s good.  We don’t get to do it often enough, because it requires research.  Got to do it with Cherish because she gave us the necessary info.  Wasn’t very bright, but she did.  Now that she’s on the team, she can give us all the info we need.”

“You talk too much,” Bitch snarled.  “Get to the point or go the fuck away.”

“You’re going to have to face your greatest fear.  Destroy any hold it has on you with violence, blood and death.  I don’t want you to just conquer your fears.  I want you to murder them, before anyone else can use your feelings for them against you.”  She put a special inflection on the word ‘murder’, making it clear she was being quite literal.

I expected Bitch to say something along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of anything’.  She didn’t. Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m not going to fucking hurt my dogs.”

“Not asking you to.  Dogs are easy.  Replaceable.  Sure, you might cry when they bite the dust, you love them.”  The lack of inflection or emotion in Burnscar’s voice made the words sound almost mocking.  “It’s sweet.  But that hole in your heart mends, time heals the wound, you get more dogs and you bounce back.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much she loves her dogs,” I said, “A wound like that never heals.”

Bitch turned her head just enough to give me a hard look.

“I’m not saying she doesn’t,” Burnscar shrugged.  “I’m saying the idea of losing them isn’t what scares her the most.  So forget the dogs.  I’m not asking you to hurt them, maim them, murder them or anything like that.”

Bitch glanced at Bastard.  He was growling, barely audible, low and steady, and his hackles were raised.  Were they still hackles if they were mostly fragments of calcified muscle and bone spikes?

“Kill them,” Burnscar said.  She pointed at Grue and I.

Bitch laughed, if you could call it that.  It was more of a snort, with zero humor to it.  “That’s supposed to be my biggest fear?  I don’t give two shits about them.”

“You do.  They’re the closest thing to a human connection you’ve had your entire life.  Maybe you haven’t thought it out loud to yourself, but you’re terrified at the idea of losing them.  You know as well as anyone else that this relationship with your team, it’s like winning the lottery for you.”

Bitch scoffed.

“Sure, it’s shitty as relationships go,” Burnscar continued, “Anyone else would find it depressingly lame.  But they’re the best you’ll get.  The best you can hope for, because you’re fucked up.  Believe me, I know when someone’s fucked up.”

“Like I said, you talk too much.”

“They’re the best you’ll ever get, and according to Cherish, you’re losing them.  Whatever bond you made with them, it’s fucked up now.  Maybe you did it, maybe them.  Maybe both.  But it’s dying a slow death, dog girl.  Rip off the band-aid and finish off these losers who aren’t going to be your friends in a few weeks anyways.  Do it, and I let you and your dogs walk away.”

“Why the fuck should I listen to you?”

“Because if you say no, if you try to run or walk away, if you attack me, I’ll consider your test a fail.”

“So?”

“I’ll have no reason to hold back.  Your team dies, your dogs die, and you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch retorted, but she glanced at Grue and I, and I could have sworn I saw doubt.  Was it indecision?  The way Burnscar had framed this, Bitch either had to admit she cared about us and fight for our sake, or Bitch could attack us to secure her safety and her dogs.

I couldn’t say which road she’d take, not with any kind of certainty.  My gut told me it wouldn’t be the answer I wanted.

She’s considering it.

Which meant I had to take matters in my own hands.  Burnscar held the advantage, and Bitch was leaning her way.  I needed to flip things and take that certainty away from her.

I drew from the capsaicin-treated bugs in my armor compartment.  There hadn’t been any point in using them against Mannequin, but they might incapacitate Burnscar.  The trick was catching her off guard.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Did you even read the rules Jack gave us?”

“Yes,” Burnscar frowned.  “I did.”

“Then why are you doing it differently than he did?”  Grue pointed at Mannequin.

He was buying us time, using Mannequin’s inability to talk and Burnscar’s less than firm grasp to throw her off her stride.  He didn’t know it, but he’d also provided me with a distraction.

My capsaicin-laced bugs made their way down my back and the backs of my legs.  Near the surface of the shallow water, they spread out, sticking to shadows, the cover of burning rubbish and the darkness that swirled around Grue.

“Doing it differently?  This isn’t that complicated,” Burnscar said.

“How’s it going to look if you do it wrong?  I imagine Mannequin’s going to get punished for fucking up,” Grue said, “But he at least tried.  If you screw up here, right at the beginning, you really think your team is going to be impressed?  No, they’re going to be embarrassed.  And I bet they’ll take it out on the person who embarrassed them.”

Mannequin tapped on Burnscar’s shoulder.  She turned, and he parted his mouth slightly before drawing an ‘x’ over it with one finger.

“Mannequin says you’re lying.”

Crap.  My bugs weren’t in position to attack yet.

“You really going to gamble on that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Burnscar said.  The flames around us swelled in size.

I had no time left for subtlety.  I gave the order for my bugs to attack directly, closing the distance by the fastest and most obvious routes available.

They rose from every corner and shadow in the area, approaching Burnscar from every direction.  I directed them towards the exposed skin of her hands, ankles, face and neck.

The second they landed, they bit, stung and clawed at her.  I even felt a few touch her face.  Then I felt her move.  For an instant, I thought she had some kind of enhanced strength or speed that let her throw herself to one side like she did.  Except it wasn’t her.  It was Mannequin that moved, throwing her to one side, so she landed in the midst of a flaming pile of trash.  The bugs on her were burnt to a crisp and she promptly disappeared.

“Run!” Grue shouted.

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain, shouting, “Go!”  She climbed halfway onto Sirius’ back, unable to climb up higher with her injured leg.  Grue and I followed as Bastard crashed into  one of the walls of flame, sending burning trash flying and spreading out the flaming water.  Bitch rode Sirius through the break, and Grue and I hurried after.

Hot.

I stumbled as the heat built.  I was supporting Grue as best as I was able with the pain in my ribs protesting even the slightest movements of my arm, let alone trying to support a nearly-grown teenage boy.  The heat of the flames increased.  I think we could have made it if it was just one or two steps, but it wasn’t.  Five paces failed to carry us out of the flames.  We were too slow to keep up with Bastard and make use of the way he was scattering the flames for us.

I fell in the same moment we finally got free of the flames, and Grue fell with me.  There wasn’t fire underneath us, but I could still feel the heat, intense, accompanied by a blinding pain.  I was on fire.  The water was too shallow to extinguish the fires as they licked around us, and even rolling in it failed to do anything substantial.

Grue smothered us in darkness.  I’d fought alongside him before, I’d been under the effects of his power countless times, but this was different.  I was hurting, I wanted to find solutions, and now I couldn’t see.  I couldn’t even use my swarm sense to assess the situation, because the flames Burnscar had spread around the area were limiting my bugs’ movements.  Our enemies, Mannequin and Burnscar, were similarly out of my reach.  I felt a swelling panic as I thrashed, trying to immerse myself.

I felt something heavy on top of me, then three quick taps on my shoulder.  A signal?  Grue.  I didn’t fight him as he used what must have been his jacket to pat me down and splash water onto me.  I felt the water touch bare skin.

The pain and the heat continued as Grue hauled me to my feet, but the rational part of me knew he wouldn’t do that if I was still on fire.  I was burned.  It hurt, but I wasn’t in imminent danger from anything or anyone except Burnscar and Mannequin.

Using my power, I found difficulty at every turn.  Everywhere I sent my bugs, I encountered fire.  I felt like a blind person tapping their cane around himself to get a sense of the surroundings, encountering only danger, destruction.  A picture was gradually unfolding, and it was an ugly one.

We ran, Grue leading the way.  We fell four times.  My legs and back were burned, Grue had his injured leg, and we were running slightly downhill.  He was clutching my shoulders hard enough that it hurt, and leaning heavily on me with every other step, while my legs had none of the strength needed to support him.

When we moved past the darkness, we were standing in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk.  We half-slid and half-climbed down the ruined area to the beach, and walked over to the water’s edge.  From our new vantage point, we could see what Burnscar had done.

My territory was on fire.

Grue’s shadows still covered the ground levels of the area, but I could make out the tops of the taller buildings.  Not every building burned, but there were enough.  Rain fell around us, but it wouldn’t matter against a blaze like that.  In the gloom, the plumes of smoke that were as thick around as any building appeared black against the light gray backdrop of gray rainclouds.

“Come on, Taylor,” Grue said.  He tried to pull me to my feet, and I didn’t move.  “We can deal with all that later.  Right now, we’ve just got to get away.  We survive.”

“Survive,” I muttered.

I’d been prepared to die against Mannequin if it meant removing one monster from the world.  It was a pretty good indication of how much I valued my life at these days.  I’d cut ties with my dad, dropped out of school, helped get Lung arrested and started chain of events that had led to the ABB terrorizing tens of thousands of people.  I’d served as a distraction so a power-hungry supervillain could kidnap a girl and keep her drugged up in some underground cell for months.  I’d stood by to let a man die.  I’d become a full-fledged villain.  Pledged to protect people and then let them die horribly.  Not once, not twice, but three times.

What the hell had I been thinking, wanting to become a superhero?

“Come on,” Grue urged me.

I stood, leaning against the concrete wall that divided the beach from the street above.

“Genesis is going to be there,” I said.  “We need to go find her and help her.”

“We’re too hurt to do anything,” Grue answered, “Genesis can handle herself.  She can always make a new body with her powers.”

“And her real body?  She had it sent to my lair.”

Grue paused.  “Your lair could be on fire.”

“Exactly.”

He considered for a few moments.  “Alright.  Just let me call Bitch.”

“Don’t.”  I stopped him as he got his phone in hand.

“What?”

“A call at the wrong time, her ringer going off, it could mean alerting the enemy about her position or distracting her.  Wait.”

He nodded, and we ran.

Grue was letting his darkness dissipate, for the most part, as we were under cover and out of the way.  We made our way to the storm drain, using the wall for support.  We headed through the secured doors and into my cellar, then up the stairs to the main floor.

My lair wasn’t burning down, but I could see the faint flicker of flame on nearby buildings through the slits on the shutters.  A quick investigation with my power showed that it wasn’t anything serious.  I set bugs in place as an early warning system.

We headed straight for the bedrooms.  I wasn’t expecting to see what I did.

There must have been fifteen of them.  Kids, none of them older than ten, some as young as four.  There were three to a bunk, sitting up or lying down.  Charlotte was with them, the eldest.

“Don’t be mad,” she said, in a small voice.

“Mad?”

She spoke quietly, as if the kids wouldn’t hear, “I didn’t know where else to take them.  Sierra said we had to hide, that Mannequin was coming.  I saw him killing people without even moving.  He went after families, but he was focused on the parents, not the kids.  He killed them and let the kids run-”

“Stop.”  My voice was harder than I meant it to be.  “I don’t want to hear it.”

This is my failure.

“I didn’t know where else to take them.”

“You did good,” I said.  I sounded like Burnscar did.  No emotion behind the words.  “Someone else should have come here.  A girl or a woman, probably with an escort.”

Charlotte didn’t answer, but moved aside.

Genesis.

Genesis slept on one of the bunks I’d set aside for my employees.  Her face was contorted in an expression of concern.  Average looks, if a little round-faced, she had long eyelashes, and her auburn hair was a mop.

She had to sleep to use her power.  Could we afford to disturb her?  If we tried to move her and she woke up, would it mean taking her out of the middle of a fight where she could do something to Burnscar or Mannequin?

“Where are the rest of my people?” I asked.

“Sierra divided us into teams and sent each of us in a different direction, telling us to get people to evacuate.  I almost ran right into Mannequin.  I hid and saw him attack.”

I felt out with my power, sticking exclusively to the building interiors, to avoid inadvertently barbecuing my bugs and frittering away my resources.  I used the bugs in the area to try to get a headcount.  The geography and the spread of people in this area was becoming familiar to me.  Very few were still alive and in this area.  Too many had died.  How many bodies were there?  Thirty?  Forty?

I didn’t want to think about it.

“Charlotte, did you come in through the front door or the other entrance?”  I asked.

“Front door.  I was thinking about taking these kids and running for it, but I didn’t know if you’d want-”

“Secrecy is not that important right now.  Take them down to the storm drain and stay there.  It’s more or less fireproof, it’s not going to collapse on their heads, and it’s a better hiding spot than this.”

It seemed like getting orders invigorated her.  “Okay.  Come on, guys.  Get ready, shoes on, this way.”

The kids began to get sorted and follow Charlotte’s instructions as she herded them out of the room, staying by the door to ensure nobody was left behind.  There were no complaints and there was nothing like chatter or crying from the kids.  How many of them had watched their parents die for them?  They were so stoic, or shocked.

Grue looked at me, “What are you thinking?”

“They take cover, we stay.  I’m going to try to use my swarm to get a sense of where Genesis is and how the fight’s going.  The second things go south or this area gets too dangerous, we get her out of here.”

“You’ll need this,” Charlotte said.

I hadn’t noticed it with all the people in the room.  At the foot of the bunk, in the corner of the room, there was a folded up wheelchair.

Can’t ever be easy.

“That might complicate things if we have to run for it,” Grue said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Charlotte left with the kids, and we took the time to manage our wounds.  I headed into the ground floor bathroom to run cold water over the burns on my legs and back.  Grue sat on the toilet’s lid and began gathering the necessary things from the first aid kit.

My power found Genesis, but only briefly.  She was big, some sort of flying pufferfish with a hard exterior and tentacles.  It was a hard image to piece together.  She floated slowly over the streets, and the bugs that I had on her died as Burnscar pelted her.  I tried to send some bugs after her, but she disappeared into the side of a burning building as they approached.  I tried and failed to find where she’d teleported to.  Frustrating.  Whatever her destination, it was a place my bugs couldn’t touch, so I had to wait for her to move away or start attacking from another vantage point.

Nearly half a year ago, I’d gotten my powers when I was trapped in a locker, wanting to be anywhere but where I was then.  I’d reached out, my mind extending out for something, anything to distract me and draw my focus away.

I wasn’t trapped in a locker, but I felt very close to how I had then.  Except it wasn’t the feeling that I was trapped.  My power’s range hadn’t increased.  It felt like that in a different way.

“We can’t do this,” I said.

“Hmm?”  Grue had torn open his pants leg and was suturing one of the cuts.

“We can’t endure this.  We won’t last.”

“We got unlucky and took the brunt of it.  We’ll get a breather.”

“Will we?  These guys are experts in preying on weakness!  They’re going to target us and come after us until we can’t defend ourselves, they’ll kill us, then they’ll go after Panacea, or Armsmaster, or Hookwolf, or Noelle, and they’ll do the same thing!”

“Taylor.”

I pushed myself to a standing position.  “They’re going to do the same thing they’re doing to us, and they’re not just going to win.  They’re going to ruin everything while they do it!”

“Stop!”

I hobbled past him, and he grabbed my wrist.  Between anger and the fact that my sleeve was wet with the water of the shower, I managed to rip my hand from his grip.  “Don’t.  Don’t do that.”

“What do you think you’re going to do?”

“I’m going out there.  They’re just bullies.  They’re powerful, they’ve got every advantage, but that’s all the more reason we can’t let them get away with this.  I’ll bait them out, or find where they’re hiding.  I can take Burnscar down if I can get the right bugs to bite her, or sting her enough times.  I just have to do something.  I can’t just stay here and let them get away with this.”

“You’re so hurt you can barely walk.  If they find you, you won’t be able to run.”

“Sick of running.”

He stood and followed me.  He got ahead of me despite the fact that he was probably hurt worse than I was.  I ducked around him, and he pushed me against a wall.  “Don’t do this.  If you want to get revenge on those guys, if you want to help your people, you need to stop, rest, recover and plan.”

I struggled briefly, but the pain in my ribs and the burn on my back made that far more trouble than it was worth, and it was already pretty futile.

Hated this.  Hated feeling weak, even if it was Grue I was comparing myself to.

My bugs alerted me to movement from Genesis.  I didn’t say anything to Grue, and simply waited as she grabbed her wheelchair, unfolded it and transitioned into it, before wheeling out into the hallway.

“Did we wake you?” Grue asked.

“No.  I can’t be woken by anyone except myself if I’m like that.  It’s more like a coma than sleep.  You were watching me?”

Grue and I nodded.  He must have felt self-conscious, because he backed off, letting go of me.  I did note that he positioned himself between me and the end of the hallway.  I wouldn’t be able to run for the cellar or the front door without going past him.

It didn’t really matter.  He was right.  Maybe I would have gone on if he hadn’t stopped me, using my anger and frustration to drive myself forward until I got myself killed.  Grue and Genesis had, in their individual ways, interrupted that.  I felt simultaneously angry at him and embarrassed that he’d had to stop me.

“What happened?” I asked Genesis, trying not to look at Grue.

She glanced between the two of us.  “Realized Mannequin was using a gas, got a form together to fight that and occupy him, like you recommended, but he wasn’t there when I reformed.  Burnscar was.”

“Mannequin forfeited his turn.  Burnscar went up next,” I explained.

“Ah.”

“You manage to stop her?”  Grue asked.

“No.  I wasn’t prepared to fight her, but she couldn’t really hurt me either.  She left.”

“Can you get a body together to fight the fires?” I asked, hugging my arms against my chest.

“I’ll try.  My reserves are low.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop them.”

Grue got his phone out while Genesis retreated back to her bunk.  I made my way upstairs to curl up in the armchair.

So many dead because I couldn’t save them.  I felt doubly guilty because my reasons for regretting their deaths were partially selfish.  It was a deathblow to my plans to seize my territory, earning Coil’s respect and make inroads into saving Dinah, one way or another.

I took off my mask and let it drop to the ground.  My costume, I saw, was in tatters where it had burned.

Our enemies were good, they were smart.  Mannequin had been toying with us, and we’d taken that advantage and beat him to the ground with it.  But every action was calculated.  Cherish was informing them, Shatterbird was apparently smart in other ways, and Jack was the brains of the operation.

Had Jack calculated things so everything would play out the way he wanted, like Mannequin was?

Grue appeared at the top of the stairs.  “Bitch isn’t replying.  We should go look for her.”

“Okay.”

“You okay?” Grue asked.

Pissed.”

“Me too.  Though I get that you have more reason to be angry.”

“I just-” I stopped, clenching my fists.  “I don’t-”

I blinked back tears.  Fucking contact lenses.

He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

My face was mashed against his shoulder, his grip was too tight, my back was sore where his hand touched a spot near the burn.  There was also that mess of awkwardness from when I’d confessed my feelings for him, that now seemed so minor and distant compared to everything that was going on.

“We’ll get through this.”

“No,” I said, pulling away,  “Not like this, we won’t.  We fight them every time they come, we’re going to be worn out, exhausted from always being on our guard, and if these past fights have been any indication, we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.”

“The way you phrase that, you don’t sound like you did in the shower.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Because I’ve realized Jack wants us to focus on each of his people, one by one, because he knows it’s going to play out like it has so far, and that we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.  Let’s change that dynamic.  We take out testers before they get their turn.  We go on the offensive.”

“Offensive?  Dinah said that a direct attack would be suicide.”

“So we go for the indirect attack.  They want to play dirty?  Let’s play dirty back.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.3

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How the hell was that motherfucker that fast?

He wasn’t even trying to avoid my bugs, so I had a sense of where he was as Grue, Bitch and I tore down the street on our dogs.  I rode behind Grue on Sirius, my arms on his shoulders, while Bitch rode Bentley, Lucy’s corpse lying across her lap.

We’d lost a couple of minutes as we helped Bitch retrieve Lucy’s real body.  It was eerie to see.  When the dogs grew, they really appeared to be adding mass, literally growing and stretching.  Somewhere in the transformation, after they weren’t recognizable as the animals they had once been, their real bodies were reformed inside a placenta-like sac.  Mannequin’s gunshot had opened a hole in Lucy’s chest and penetrated that membrane to kill the real dog within.  We’d used my knife and Grue’s raw strength to help pull the dog free in a grim sort of anti-childbirth.

It might be seen as a waste of precious time in a crucial moment, but I doubted we would have had Bitch in our corner otherwise, and without her, we wouldn’t have a ride, so to speak.

I’d consoled myself with the fact that we had a pair of massive, muscular steeds that could outpace any car you’d see on the street, and Mannequin was limited to his two legs.  The thing was, somewhere around the point where he stopped trying to evade my tripwires and my bugs and picked up speed, when he really started moving, I realized he was actually faster than the dogs.

Mannequin covered a lot of ground with his long legs and seemingly endless energy, and he didn’t have any injuries.  The dogs, Bitch and Grue did.  Mannequin had been aiming at the animals more than he’d aimed at Grue or Bitch, so the damage to my teammates was more or less limited to a few flecks embedded in the legs, buttock and feet.  The injuries were small, but one in Bitch’s stomach worried me.  There were way too many vitals that could be hit with that location, and it was bleeding worse than any of the others.

She wanted to press on, and I wasn’t about to try and change her mind.  I wouldn’t be able to stop her, for one thing, and I did want to help my people.

Mannequin moved in a straight line, onto rooftops, down to the ground, or halfway down and through windows that had been stripped of glass, emerging from the far side.  My bugs swarmed him where I could get them to, trying to snag him with lines and threads of silk and hamper his movements, but I could only get him with a small few at a time.  He was approaching the edge of my effect’s reach, and I knew I’d lose track of him shortly.

Once I did, I wasn’t sure I’d catch him again.  He could apparently see my bugs and since our last confrontation he’d gained the ability to see the spider silk I was placing on him or in his vicinity.  It was remarkably high-resolution vision for someone who hadn’t been able to notice that I didn’t have a pool of blood spreading out beneath me during our last fight.  Or was his inability to see that because he was calibrated to see the small things?

It wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t find him or catch up to him.

“He’s veering left!” I shouted to my teammates, “Faster, Sirius!  He’s getting away!”

I could feel a tremor in Sirius’ body, like the momentary tremor of a twitching muscle, but in every muscle.  My legs spread a fraction further apart as he grew larger, his ribs expanding further in either direction.  The increase in his speed was small but noticeable.

I cast a glance over my shoulder at Bitch.  Her mask had fallen off at some point when we’d been retrieving Lucy or during our ride.  She looked drawn, the lines of her mouth and the bones of her face that much more prominent.  Had I failed to notice she was like that before, was it pain from her injuries that did it, or was it anger?

Whatever it was, I suspected this use of her power was drawing on reserves she didn’t have.

Mannequin disappeared into the penthouse floor of an apartment building, and I positioned bugs at the very periphery of my range to prepare lines of thread and to gather so they could land on him as he emerged.

Somehow, I couldn’t say how, he emerged from a lower floor, mere seconds after he’d entered the building.  He brushed past a small handful of insects, and then he was out of reach of my swarm.

“He’s out of my range!” I shouted.

Nobody responded.  I had to double-check that Bitch hadn’t fallen from Bentley’s back.  She didn’t look any better than she had a moment ago, and she looked out of breath.  I expected the pain of her injuries was taking its toll.  As for Grue, I couldn’t really see anything but the back of his head and his shoulders while I clung to his waist.  I didn’t get the sense that he was about to pass out, either.

No use in responding when you couldn’t spare the breath and everyone knew what the answers would be.  We’d search for him at the last place we’d seen him.  My territory.

Giant paws pounded on the wet pavement as we raced for our destination.

How the hell were we supposed to fight him?  If we could even find him?

He’d have some countermeasure for my bugs and my cocoon strategy.  There was no way he’d let himself get caught up in the same trap twice.  Grue’s power didn’t affect him.  Bitch’s dogs did affect him, but they weren’t bulletproof.

That was without factoring in any additional weapons he had.

One arm around Grue’s waist, I drew my phone from my utility compartment and dialed Genesis from my contact list.

“Genesis here.  What?”

“Mannequin en route to my territory for some kind of revenge against me for our last fight.  How fast can you pull a body together?”

“Two minutes.”

“He’ll be there in five.  Clear people out of the way, and put together a form that can take a beating and hamper him.”

“On it.”

Sierra was the first and only contact I’d entered into the phone beyond the ones Coil had put in prior to giving them to us.  I contacted her next.

“Sierra here, boss.”

“Clear people out of the area, and contact everyone you gave a phone to, telling them to hide and take cover.  Mannequin’s coming back to make trouble.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  With the jostling movement of the dog’s running, I didn’t trust my ability to put the phone away in the compartment, so I held it in one clenched fist.

During the six or seven minutes it took us to cross from Ballistic’s territory to my own, my teeth were clenched so hard I thought I’d break something, my neck and shoulders so tense they felt more like stone than flesh.

I valued my ability to come up with answers, but my mind was empty.  I wasn’t sure how I’d deal, and the worst part of it was that it wasn’t me that was necessarily going to pay the price.

As we entered my territory, I felt strangely composed for the anxieties that tore through me, a little detached from things.

My bugs swept through the territory, and I did my best to recall where tripwires had been set and figure out which had been broken.  I checked on my people, using bugs to make sure they were standing and that they were somewhere safe.

Could I sweep through my territory using squadrons of flies with dragline silk stretched out between them, to the point that he couldn’t slip past them?  It would take time to set up.

No.  There was no need.  As I approached the heart of my territory, near my barracks, I found him, standing in the middle of the road.

“There!” I called out to my team.  We changed direction and charged toward the street in question.  We stopped when he came into our view.

Mannequin stood in the center of the road, his back to us.  Half a dozen of my people were lying on the road, unconscious or dead.  I couldn’t see any blood.  There were a couple more people in nearby buildings that had fallen as well.  How had he reached them?  Why hadn’t Genesis and Sierra been able to get everyone out?

A quiet horror ran through me like ice water.

Genesis, too, was on the road, in the process of dissolving.  She’d taken on the form of something like a stegosaurus crossed with a scorpion, all brawn and armor plating, with a long, prehensile, wickedly spiked tail.  He’d beaten her.

Very little of the silk I’d laid on him was still intact.  My bugs settled on him, and began to draw out more silk, binding him.

He turned our way, and his mouth opened like a ventriloquist dummy or a christmas nutcracker.  It jiggled up and down, silently, mocking.  Laughter without sound.

“Fucker!” Bitch screamed.  Then she whistled, with a volume and pitch that could make crowds stop in their tracks.  Bentley charged.

The bugs I had on Mannequin began to die.

That took me a precious second to process.  “Bitch!  It’s a trap!”

She turned to look over her shoulder, and Bentley took some cue from that, because he turned slightly.  Maybe that helped, because she hauled him into a hard left turn, wheeling around.

Whatever it was that Mannequin was doing, it spread fast, knocking my bugs out of the air and reaching out past Bitch and Bentley before they realized the threat and started running away from him.

“Get back!” I shouted.

Bitch urged Bentley into a run.  They made it four steps before Bentley collapsed.

Tumbling to the ground, Bitch landed and couldn’t sustain her own weight with her injured leg.  She landed flat on her stomach, and then began making retching sounds as she gasped for air and continued to crawl forward.

Mannequin’s mouth continued jittering up and down, and he took a step closer to us, his hands upturned at his sides.

Gas.  Colorless, scentless, swift to spread and it incapacitated in seconds.  If my bugs were any indication, it also killed its victims shortly after.

I looked around, hoping and praying for some sort of outside assistance.  Nothing.

It was down to me, Grue, Sirius and Bastard.

Bastard looked unnerved.  His master and alpha were out of action.  He took a step forward, then back.  He was unnerved by Mannequin, and I suspected he could smell the gas.

“Bastard!” I said.  He whipped his head around to look at me.

Here’s hoping that Bitch trained him well.

“Get your master!  Go!  Fetch!” I pointed at Bitch.

Bastard turned, started forward, and then stopped.

“Go!  Fetch, fetch!”

He bolted.  Mannequin continued walking slowly towards us.  He didn’t move as Bastard approached and picked Bitch up by the back of her pants.

It would be so easy for him to simply shoot Bastard and slow him down long enough for the gas to take effect.  He didn’t.

“Bastard, come!  Come on!”

The puppy ran back to us.  There was nothing we could do for Bentley.

I hopped down and grabbed Bitch as Bastard came back to us.  He growled as I approached, but he didn’t protest as I took Bitch into my arms and dragged her back toward Grue and Sirius.

Grue didn’t dismount, but I doubted he would have managed well if he had, given his injured leg.  I tried to ignore Mannequin’s steady approach as I propped Bitch’s limp form up against Sirius’ side long enough to lift her arms up to Grue’s waiting hands.  Together, we hauled her up so she was lying astride Sirius’ shoulders, just in front of Grue.

“Gas,” I muttered.  “There’s a cloud of gas around him.”

“Fuck me,” Grue said.  “I’d hoped we could at least hit him.”

I looked at Bastard.  Too small to ride.  He was the size of a pony, but he wasn’t built for riding in the same way, and the spikes and bony plates that covered him were too densely packed for me to find any sort of flat patch to sit on.  I reached for the chain that trailed from his muzzle.

He growled again, vicious.

I was taken aback for half a second.  Then anger set in.  I barked, “Enough!” and I snatched up the chain.

He growled again, and I hauled on it.  The way it was rigged, it looped around his snout so it would tighten around the end of his nose when the chain was pulled.  It was like a choke collar, but focused more on the sensitive snout than on the throat.  He recoiled and tried to pull away, and I tugged again.

This time, he went still, resisting less.

“You’re with me, puppy,” I said, pulling on the chain as I backed away from Mannequin.  “Grue, take Bitch and get to cover.  I can’t see inside your darkness so long as that gas is wiping out my bugs, and he isn’t bothered by it, so remove it as fast as you apply it, but try to push the gas away or displace it or whatever.”

“We need a plan to win this,” he said.

“Priority one is surviving until we think of one,” I replied.  “Genesis will be back in action in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes is a long time.”

“I know,” I looked at Mannequin again.  He’d closed his mouth and was standing still.  I pointed.  “You go that way, I go this way.  Keep an eye on the sky.  If there’s trouble, we signal each other.”

He nodded once.

“Go!”

We split, and Mannequin broke off, chasing Grue.

I headed the opposite way.

Think, Taylor, think!  Mannequin was a smart guy.  Everything he did would be calculated to achieve some specific goal.

Why was he here?  He wanted to hurt me.  He wanted to hit me where it hurt, and he’d done it.  He’d killed no less than ten of my followers.  Charlotte and Sierra could easily be among them.

He had let us find him because he wanted to bait us into a trap.  It had worked against Bitch, for the most part.  She wasn’t dead, I hoped, but she was out of action.

What about the small stuff?  The little things?  After he’d caught Bitch, he hadn’t shot her, and he hadn’t shot Bastard when the puppy was making its rescue attempt.

Why?

He could have been conserving ammunition.  What was that term for ‘the simplest answer is often the correct one’?  It didn’t matter.  It was possible.

I moved my bugs closer to Mannequin, to test his presence for gas.  Only a few perished.  There wasn’t much, if any.  His mouth was closed.  He was catching up to Grue.  Grue must have noticed, because he directed Sirius up into an alley and towards a roof.

Mannequin stopped and raised one arm, then fired.  My bugs felt the concussion of the shot, but no reaction from Grue and Sirius.  There was a pause, then another shot.  Again, no reaction.  Two misses.

Okay.  So Mannequin was shooting now, when he hadn’t been before.

Were there other clues?  What had changed after he’d closed his mouth?

He’d started running, for one thing.

So he hadn’t been running, he hadn’t been shooting…  What had been holding him back?  It could have been him trying to look intimidating, but he could have achieved the same ends by shooting Bastard and making me watch Bitch die.  He could have been just as scary running towards us as fast as he’d sprinted from the ambush site to my territory.

The gas.  If the gas was coming from his mouth, and he was being careful in how he moved, that meant there was something about the gas.  I even had an idea about what it was.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to blow himself up.

He’d been invested in terraforming, once upon a time.  Making inhospitable environments hospitable.  Chances were he was loaded down with custom-made organisms that were primed to generate the gas he was using, maybe even storing it in a compressed form.  Given his tinker abilities, they could be advanced enough to account for the sheer volume of the gas.  It could even be how his guns operated: with compressed, combustible gas used to fire the shot.

There was no way to say for sure, but my gut told me I was right or I was pretty close to the mark.  His actions, both the obvious and minor ones, make a complete, logical sense if I assumed he was spewing out massive volumes of flammable gas.

Could I even take advantage of that?  The amount of gas he seemed to be putting out would make for a devastating explosion.  It could potentially hurt him, but I couldn’t say if the shockwave or the blast itself would kill me or any nearby innocents.  If there was enough gas, it could even damage or destroy nearby buildings.  Some of the structures around here weren’t exactly sound.

If nothing else, it gave me a clue about what to watch for.  It also gave me a last-ditch weapon if things really went south.  I ordered my bugs into the building I’d designated as my people’s barracks and collected some small items with silk and clouds of bugs working in unison.

A spear of darkness soared towards the sky.  When it lost momentum, it began billowing outward and drifting slightly with the wind. A signal.

“Come on, Bastard!” I ordered.  I bolted for Brian’s location.  I crossed the street, glancing at the fallen Bentley, and I headed toward an alley.

My bugs crossed paths with me, and the items made their way into my hands.  A cheap plastic lighter and a packet of matches.  I stashed the matches between my belt and my hip and slid the lighter into a small pocket in my utility compartment.

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use them.

Entering the alley, I swept through the area with my bugs, directing them to extend outward with lines of silk between them.  They were gathered close enough to one another that Mannequin wouldn’t be able to avoid them.

I found Mannequin and the black smudge of Grue’s form at the opposite end of the alley.  Sirius and Bitch were a distance away, both sprawled at the base of a building, covered in rubble.  I wondered how this scenario had unfolded.  How had Mannequin hit them that hard?  Grue had reached the roof, the last I saw, and I’d missed what came next because I hadn’t wanted to lose precious bugs from my swarm by getting them gassed.  Whatever had occurred, Mannequin had turned the tables and brought them back to the ground, hard.

Mannequin looked at me, and his mouth was open, engaged in that same shuddering up and down movement as before.  I raised one hand to the fabric that covered my nose and mouth and backed away.  Were Bitch and Sirius close enough to be getting gassed too?  I could feel bugs crawling on them.  Both were breathing, though Bitch’s breaths were rapid and hoarse.  My bugs were alive, as well, which meant they were safe where they were.  A quick test with my bugs told me the cloud around Mannequin was small, with a radius of about four or five feet.  There was no gas around me, either.  The bugs on me weren’t suffering, and they’d be the first to die or feel symptoms.

But Grue?  Grue had surrounded himself in a thick cloud of darkness, to the point that I couldn’t make out his arms and legs in the midst of it.  From what I could gather, he was getting some benefit from it, and was pushing the gas away.  How long could he sustain that, though?  Was the darkness filtering it out, or was he holding his breath, slowly suffocating?

“Mannequin,” I said, sounding a million times more calm than I felt.  “You’re going to back off and you’re going to let him go.”

He cocked his head to one side.

I raised the matchbook and, after checking again that my bugs were gas-free, lit it.  A handful of my bugs carried it into the air.

“Or I light you up,” I said.

Could I?  I believed I could.  Maybe it was fatigue speaking.  Maybe it was the grim recognition of the fact that Mannequin had spoiled any hopes I’d had of winning Coil’s respect and saving Dinah when he’d murdered the people in my territory.  He’d singlehandedly destroyed my reputation and dealt a grave blow to the thing that had been driving me forward.  Maybe a teeny-tiny part of it was hopelessness, knowing that I couldn’t  beat him otherwise.

So yeah, if he was going to snatch my hopes of saving Dinah from me, if Bitch and Grue were about to die anyways, I could turn the tables and blow us all up.  I might not save Dinah, but I could save all the people Mannequin would murder otherwise in the course of his career.  No bluffing.

He stepped back, and I realized his foot had been on Grue’s chest.  I watched as Grue stood and then began limping toward me.  Bastard growled and tugged on the chain I held.

I was in the process of reaching out for Grue to help steady him when I saw Mannequin move.  He closed his mouth, raised one hand, and I could see a hole appear in the base of his palm.  The barrel of a gun.

“No!” the word was as much a grunt as anything else as it came from my throat, too choked for me to say anything normal.  I grabbed for Grue as I’d planned and I shoved him to the ground.

In a movie, that might have been the heroic sequence that occurred in slow motion, where the lunatic villain missed the pivotal shot by a hair and blew himself up in the process.  We’d be left bloody but victorious.

But Mannequin didn’t fire.  He was too collected to do any of that.

He adjusted his aim, directing his hand-gun to where I’d pushed Grue to the ground.

“No!” I said, and the sound wasn’t a grunt this time.  I stepped in the way, putting myself between Mannequin and Grue, arms spread, half-kneeling.  Bastard tugged on the leash again as he stepped forward, and I almost fell on my face.  I could let him go and sic him on Mannequin, but he’d almost certainly die like Lucy had.

“Bastard, back,” I said, tugging him to one side.  I wasn’t about to let a dog take a bullet for me.

Besides, a part of me suspected that Mannequin was going to let me live so he could make me watch while he killed my friends and followers.

I stared at his blank, featureless face, praying my instincts were telling me the truth.

Then he shrugged, and my heart fell.

Three things happened all at once.  The first and most painfully obvious was that I got shot full in the chest.

The second was that I realized Grue was using his power to shroud us in darkness.  He’d probably started the second Mannequin shrugged.

The third was the explosion.

Long, disorienting seconds passed in the aftermath.  The pain hit me like a summer rain.  There was a second of nothing at all, I realized it was starting, and then I was treated to buckets of it.  I writhed, my ribs screaming in agony, trying to find some position where the pain would be less and failing.  I felt like a hot poker was being shoved into the spot on my ribs where I’d taken the hit the previous night.

“Hey, hey,” Grue said, “You’re okay.  You’re in one piece.”

I shook my head, unable to catch my breath.  Each time I inhaled, it seemed to double the pain.

“You gotta stand, T-  Skitter.  Stand up.”

More through Grue’s efforts than my own, I was helped to my feet.  Every movement exacerbated the pain in my chest.

I gingerly touched the site of the gunshot.  Flecks of what looked like glass fell as I ran my hand over the cloth.  Still couldn’t breathe.  The explosion had ignited every piece of rubbish at this end of the road that stood taller than the inch-high water level.  Grue and I weren’t, thankfully, blazing.  My hair hadn’t been ignited either, and perhaps most importantly, we hadn’t been pulverized by the shockwave.  It hadn’t been a huge explosion, but it had been substantial enough.

I looked for our opponent, and I saw Mannequin virtually unscathed, lying in the shallow water.  The blast had knocked him sprawling, but he’d disconnected his parts so only lengths of chain attached each.

An application, perhaps, of that martial arts principle.  How did it go?  An oak is broken by the hurricane’s winds, but the supple willow only bends?  He was already pulling himself together.  There was barely a mark on him.

“Run,” Grue said.

I was about to voice an agreement when I saw Bastard lurch to his feet.  The chain leading to his muzzle wasn’t in my hand.

Bastard pounced on Mannequin, taking one of the villain’s arms in his jaws.  Clenching, he began whipping Mannequin around like a rag doll.  Twice, Mannequin’s lower body was bludgeoned against the nearby wall.

Yeah, didn’t expect us to be that tough, did you?

Mannequin turned the tables in a second.  Between one of Bastard’s shakes and the next, the villain stopped flopping around.  I realized he’d ejected the knives from his toes and staked them in Bastard’s neck and snout for leverage.  His one free hand dangled at his side.

Moving was agony, but I was lurching towards them in a half-run before I fully realized why.  Mannequin raised his free hand and pointed it at Bastard’s left eye.

I caught his arm and hauled it back in the same moment he fired.  Bastard repaid my kindness by whipping Mannequin to one side, striking me.  Both Mannequin and I fell sprawling to the ground.

No sooner had I fallen than Grue was there to help me up.  He was slower than I was with that granular buckshot in his leg, so he’d only just caught up.

Mannequin on the ground, Bastard off to one side, largely untrained with no master and nobody holding his chain, Grue and I both helping one another stand.

That vibrating mouth of Mannequin’s was going again, puffing gas into the air, maybe to buy himself some breathing room from the dog.

“Bastard, stay,” I said.  What commands had I heard Bitch give her dogs?  “Off!”

Couldn’t say whether Bastard obeyed or if he just didn’t want to attack anyways.

I had to check twice to see that there wasn’t anything burning in Mannequin’s immediate vicinity.  No stray garbage to ignite the gas, sadly enough.

I looked behind me, and saw that the flames were raging.  Even the water’s surface was on fire.  How?  Had there been some chemical nearby, or something in the gas that transferred to the water’s surface?  Our avenue of retreat was shrinking.

Whatever.  I reached behind my back and retrieved two items.  The change purse was the first.  I popped it open.  A variety of quarters, dimes and nickels, all kept in place with wadded tissue, and a few small paper packets of smelling salts.

It was stupid to be carrying change around, really, but I’d wanted to have some on hand since it had crossed my mind during my first night out in costume.

I grabbed a tissue and tore it, once, then twice, until I had a series of strips.  Then I ignited them with the lighter, the item I’d grabbed with my other hand.  Dragonflies gripped the burning tissues in the instant I let them fall from my fingers.

Mannequin shut his mouth, stepping back.  Half of the tissues went out or were dropped by the burned dragonflies before they got close enough.  Which meant that the other half made it.

The gas ignited for a second time, but I didn’t get to see it.  Grue shielded us with his darkness once more.  Whether it was to dampen the shockwave or keep us from being blinded by the light or something else, I didn’t know.  I could only trust that it worked.  The darkness dissipated, we were standing, Mannequin wasn’t.

A whistle from Bitch’s direction and a signal that was too brief for me to catch sent Bastard forward.  With Bitch’s condition, I couldn’t imagine how she handled it, but she managed to pump Bastard up.  He grew to half-again the size he’d been, roughly as large as a small car, and when he bit down on Mannequin’s arm this time, he broke the material.  He adjusted his grip until he had Mannequin’s lower body and legs in a hold, but the material there proved sturdier.

Two arms in two fights, I thought, with a grim satisfaction.  The flames at our back were getting a touch too close for comfort, so I stepped forward, supporting Grue.  His arm around my shoulder, we approached as close as we dared to Bastard’s mayhem.

Sirius was hauling himself out of the rubble, with Bitch in the arch that formed with his front legs, chest, and the ground.  She stood, shaky, still breathing funny, making rhythmic facial motions like she was swallowing convulsively or gagging.

Grue limped over to Bitch’s side.  She couldn’t stand without Sirius’s support, but Sirius was shoring up the rubble with his body.  Grue gave her the support she needed and the pair of them made their way towards us.  Sirius stepped away from the wall and the rubble he’d been holding up tumbled to the ground, and he returned to his master’s side.

“Bastard,” Grue said.  “Monster.  Freak.”

Grue took Bitch’s hand and placed it on my shoulder.  She didn’t pull away.  Once he was sure we were both standing, he stepped away.  Bending down with an excruciating slowness, Grue picked up a piece of rubble that had to have weighed fifty or sixty pounds, roughly cone-shaped.

Bitch seemed to follow his line of thinking.  “Sirius, hold!”

The dog lurched forward and placed both front paws on Mannequin’s body, pinning his arm and chest. Bastard growled at the one who was intruding on his quarry, and Sirius growled back.

Bastard quieted.  It seemed he didn’t fully realize that he was bigger, more dangerous and less injured.  He was too used to being the puppy, with Sirius as the full-grown one.

Grue limped around the scene until he stood over Mannequin’s body.

“Ignore the head,” I said, quiet.  “Nothing important in there.  I’m not joking.  It’s a decoy.  Get him in the chest.”

Grue nodded and hefted the chunk of rubble until it was over his head, point facing forward.

Would it puncture?  Hard to say.

Worth a try.

“Do it,” Bitch growled, beside me.  “Killed Lucy.”

“Bentley too, maybe,” I said, quiet.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know if he made it.  There was no way to save him.”

“Do it,” she repeated herself.

Grue didn’t get a chance.  An eruption of fire tore through our surroundings.  Not an explosion.  There was no shockwave, and barely any noise.  It was more like a push, intensely hot and brief.  We were knocked sprawling, dog and human alike.  The agony in my ribs hit me worse than ever as I was knocked flat onto my back in the water and a huff of air was struck from my lungs.

“No,” Grue said.  “You can’t interfere!”

The Protectorate?

It would be disastrous if the Protectorate-

No.  I fixed my eyes on the scene.  Much worse than the Protectorate.

Burnscar tapped her finger to one side of her nose.  “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“You can’t assist him.  They’re your rules.”

“Jack’s rules, not mine.  But fine,” Burnscar said.  Something about the tone in her voice: it sounded casual, but there was something in it that reminded me of Shadow Stalker and Sophia.  It wasn’t angry like Shadow Stalker was, but it had the same emptiness.  I just hadn’t really picked up on it in the past.

Burnscar gave Mannequin a hand in getting to his feet.  Cracks marred his lower body, and his left arm was a mess of cracked ceramic and pale gray organic pulp.  I heard her murmur something.

Mannequin shook his head.  Burnscar said something else.

He raised one hand, and Burnscar slapped it in a lazy high-five.

She turned towards us.  “There.  He just tagged me in.  Forfeited his turn.”

She cracked her knuckles, and every flaming piece of debris on the street became a pillar of fire, stretching vertically for the sky.  The fire snaked over the surface of the water to cut off our avenues of retreat.

“My go.  I’m taking round two.”

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Interlude 13½ (Donation Bonus)

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“Sam!  Sam!”  Celia’s voice was grating and nasal.

“I’m coming!”  The heavyset man grumbled, as he made his way into the living room.  Celia sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  The white of her t-shirt and panties was a stark contrast to her dark skin.  Sam leered at the woman.  She was good-looking for her age, slim, though her breasts sagged behind her shirt without the benefit of a bra.

“You said you were five minutes ago, asswipe.  Takes you five minutes to find your wallet?”

“Needed to piss.  Your fatass friend was in your bathroom, so I pissed in your sink.”

Celia kicked under the coffee table to strike his shin.

Sam just smiled and stepped back.  “Kidding.  I went off the fire escape.”

“That’s not any better!”

“It’s all water and shit down there.  Any place that doesn’t smell like hot garbage smells like a toilet.  Here.  Stop bitching.”  He threw a plastic movie rental card at her.

She cut open a plastic wrapped block of powder and shook a small amount of the powder onto the coffee table.  She used the laminated card to cut it into lines, a set on each side of the table, with none in front of her.

“You’re not having any?”

“I told you.  I’m pregnant.”

“You’re too old to be pregnant,” Sam commented.  She kicked him again.

“Not that old!”

Jennifer emerged from the washroom and stopped in the doorway, staring at the scene.

“I didn’t think you’d actually use any of the stuff.”

“Jen, hon,” Celia said, “We’ve got enough to go around.  Even if we only sold half, we’d be made in the shade for five or ten years.”

“And you just took it?”

“Leaders of the Merchants got killed, everyone else decided to run off with what they could carry of the stockpiles.  Sam and I decided to play it smart.  Sam got his truck, and I guarded the stash from the other assholes.  Paid off.”

“I… what is it?”

“Little bit of everything.  Come, sit.  Try some.”

“What is it?”

Sam seated himself at the table, by one set of the lines of powder.  He picked up a pinch and put it on his tongue.  “H.”

“No way,” Jennifer said.  She dropped into one of the felt-covered chairs at the far end of the room.

Aisha had to hop out of the way so she didn’t get sat on.  She watched the dialogue between her mother, her mother’s boyfriend of the week and her mother’s new friend with a dispassionate expression.  Seeing this scene, she didn’t really feel much.  A little disappointment.  Embarrassment.  Disgust.

No, it was less this scene and more the discovery that her mother was pregnant that nailed her in the gut with a profound kind of sadness.

The first place her mind went, before joy at the idea of having a brother or sister, before anger at her mom for letting it happen and not using protection, was hope.

“Sam, do you have any papers?”

“Rolling papers?  I thought you were going clean.”

“It’s just weed.  I need to have something.”

“Isn’t that bad for the kid-in-progress?”

“It’s weed, dumbass.  Nothing they tell you about it is true.  Kid isn’t going to wind up addicted from birth or anything, ’cause it’s not addictive.  Right?”

“Sure,” he reached into his back pocket and slipped a packet to her, along with a dime bag.

Aisha bit her lip.  Maybe hope was the wrong word, because she didn’t really feel anything on the subject.  But she knew it would probably be better if her mom miscarried and the kid was spared this shit.

How much of Aisha’s problems were because of her mom’s lack of self-control and how many others were because of this environment?  She’d grown up with a mom who’d never mentally or emotionally aged past fourteen or fifteen.  A new man in the house every week or two, with his own idea of how things should work, Celia generally content to let him run things however he wanted.

Aisha tried not to think about the men.  It was like having a broken arm; so long as she didn’t move it, so long as she didn’t think about it, it was okay, a dull throb in the back of her mind.  Something she could ignore.  But even a stray thought could remind her that the arm was broken, and then it sometimes took days before she could get out of that head space.  There was no distraction that worked, because the fact that she was consciously looking for a distraction only reminded her of what she was trying to distract herself from.

Of course, there was no way to avoid the countless reminders in everyday life that would remind her of Guy, or Bridge, or Darren, or Lonnie.  Thinking about a broken arm was one such reminder.

Being ignored by her teammates and told to go to her room and play along for everyone else’s sake was another.  How many afternoons had she come home from school, only for her mom or one of her mom’s boyfriends to shoo her off or bribe her to leave the apartment for a bit?

Pissed her off.  She didn’t need that from her brother, too.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Celia urged her friend.  She took a long draw from the spliff she held in her fingers. “Oh fuck!  Sam, you jackass!  This isn’t just weed, is it?”

“Thought it was.”

“There’s a kick to it.  Amp or something.”  Celia took another puff.  “Amp.  Hey, Jen, join in. Have some of what Sam’s having.”

“But H is fucking scary,” Jen protested.

“So you hear.  But why is it scary?”

“It’s addictive.”

Aisha tuned out the sound of her mother and Sam cajoling the woman and walked over to the table.  Her mom didn’t notice her.  Nobody ever noticed her, and they noticed even less ever since she’d gotten her power.  It was like a dark joke, a grim comedy.  Just when she’d started to figure things out, grow up and catch people’s eye, the world went to hell and she got her powers.  Now she became invisible if she lost her concentration.

Not that it was invisibility, really.  It was memories.  People forgot her as soon as they saw her, to the point that they didn’t register her presence.  She could feel it, her power rolling over her skin, jabbing outward, invisible to sight, touch and anything else, making contact with the people around her and pushing those memories away.

And like her metaphor comparing her memories to a broken arm, her power seemed to respond to the attention of her subjects; the harder they tried to remember and focus on her, the faster she slipped through their minds.

The metaphor applied in another way, too.  Her power operated on its own, doing its thing, and if she very casually noted what it was doing, without pushing it forward or holding it back, she could feel it doing something else.  As if it was ready to push away memories that didn’t relate to her, exactly.  It never did.  Any time it built up enough that it came close to doing anything, she noticed, and it retreated like a turtle pulling its head into its shell.

Frustrating.  Her power didn’t do anything because she wanted it to.  It worked only if she surrendered to it, let it act on its own.  Pushing it to work harder had the opposite effect.

How easy would it be to just carry this stuff away?  She could hand it to Coil for some brownie points, and he could decide what to distribute.  It would be out of her mother’s hands, and money would become a limiter on her mother’s habit.  If the drugs weren’t around, maybe Sam would leave.

Maybe, if Aisha got rid of the drugs, her mom would have an excuse to get things back on track, somehow.  The city was paying people who joined the clean-up crews.  Three square meals, simple and bland but they gave the essential nutrients, and they gave you twenty dollars for nine hours of work.  Fuck around or slack off, and they just kicked you off the crew for the day, no pay.

Idle hopes.  Aisha had spent long years wishing her mom could pull it together, dating back to just after the divorce, when a bad day was still better than most good days were now.  Or maybe that was nostalgia and a child’s eye view.

No.  If she got rid of the drugs, it was more likely that someone would erupt in anger.  Sam or her mom, getting violent, verbally or otherwise.  It would do more harm than good.

She sat down on the coffee table, directly opposite her mother.  Reaching forward, she plucked the spliff from her mother’s lips and dropped it, grinding it under her toes.

Her mother blinked a few times, then reached for her rolling papers.

Aisha used her hand to cover the papers and whispered, “No.”

Again, the dazed blinking.  Her mother asked, “Sam?  Got any more papers?”

“I just gave you a full package.”

“The hell?  Maybe that hit me harder than I thought,” Aisha’s mother giggled.

Aisha stared her mother in the eyes.  She didn’t deactivate her power.  “Mom.  You gotta stop.”

“Where are the rest of the papers, Sam?” her mom asked, oblivious.

“Kitchen.”

“But I don’t want to get up.  I’m comfy,” Celia whined.

“You keep going down this road, your kid is going to be born without a face or something,” Aisha said, her voice quiet.  “You know how hard school was for me?  Even as far back as kindergarten, I couldn’t sit still.  Teacher tells me three things, and by the time they’ve gotten to the third, I’ve forgotten the first.  And Brian doesn’t have any of that.”

“Go get some papers, Sam.  Sam McSamsam.  Sammy-sam.  Samster-”

“I don’t want to get up any more than you do,” Sam growled.  “You’re not one of the talkative ones, are you?  I like it quiet.”

“Mom,” Aisha said, as if she could get her mom’s attention.  Ironically enough, she knew that if she deactivated her power, she’d have even less chance of talking to her mom.  It wasn’t just the horned mask and the black costume.  She’d never had anyone just sit down and listen to her.  Dad ignored her, mom was self-centered and Brian was too focused on what needed to be done that he ignored everything else.

“Mom.  You’re going to have some fucked up kid, and then you’re going to die of an OD before it’s even grown up.  It’s not fair that you leave some kid that’s more retarded than me, or some deformed freak for Brian to take care of.  Not fair on him, and it’s not fair on the kid to make them put up with the dick, either.”

“Fine,” her mother said, standing.  “I’ll get the papers myself.”

Aisha sighed.  Was it cowardice that kept her from confronting her mother, or the knowledge backed by years of experience that it wouldn’t make a difference?

Maybe, if everything with the Nine worked out and Coil got control of the city, maybe she could get her mom some help, or report her to the police.

But not now, not when things were like this, when she had to prove she deserved her place in the group.

Abandoning her mother to a noisy search of the kitchen, Aisha headed into her old room.

Her room smelled like sex, and faintly of urine.  Her mom had apparently had a party since Aisha had left.

Holding her breath, she opened her closet door.  She pushed past the clothes she’d stolen, shoplifted and bought, and past the old clothes she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear anymore.  Her closet was in layers, and each layer held clothes and trinkets from a different era.

Her girl guide stuff was in the very back, too wrinkled by years to wear.  Her dad had pushed her into that.  He’d wanted her to have structure.  After a year and a half, even he had pulled her out.  A bad fit.  She didn’t have the personality type for it.

Around the girl guide stuff, she found a small tape recorder and an old pair of binoculars.  After finding an old backpack that had never been emptied of the school supplies, she found some notebooks that had only been filled in about a third of the way.  She tore out those pages and tucked the notebooks under one arm.

Everything went into a compact black handbag, along with her taser and knives.

Small things.  Nothing she couldn’t have bought in a well stocked convenience store, maybe.  But she would operate best if she was relaxed, and having some personal items made her feel better.

That only left the problem of finding them.

They’d attacked the Merchants, and observing her mom had given her the chance to find out where.  It was a starting point.

It was worse than she’d expected.  She ducked under the police tape and pushed one officer out of her way as she stepped into the area.  Police cars and PRT vans had formed a broad perimeter, with police tape strung between them.  She momentarily wondered why they didn’t have the wooden barricades.  It was flimsy as security went.

It was drizzling, and the small amounts of rain did little to clean the streets of the blood that spattered it.  Water soaked into the white and brown sheets that had been draped over the bodies that still waited for someone to clean them up.  The brown, she realized, was dried blood.

Aisha picked her way through the fallen.  The worst of the carnage was at the edges, as if some invisible line had been drawn that nobody was permitted to cross, and in the center, where the masses of people had gathered before being murdered together.

She’d hoped for a lead.  A piece of evidence, or an overheard tidbit of information from the cops.

No such luck.

There was an overabundance of evidence.  By the time the cops processed everything here and managed to identify the bodies, the leaves would be falling off the trees and the Nine would be long gone, one way or another.  The cops weren’t talking, either.  They were working silently, or the things they were saying weren’t interesting.  Catching the Nine wasn’t their job.  If they found something worthwhile, they would pass it on to the local capes, probably.

No.  If there was something to be found, it wouldn’t be here.  She headed to the edge of the scene, where the police cars had all stopped.  There were still spots and spatters of blood here and there, and bloody footprints, but not much.  She walked around the police and the cars to check each set out.  In every case, it seemed, the bloodied victims had either fallen where they lay or disappeared.  Ambulances?

Having checked the area, she moved further down the street to see the next closed-off alleyway.  The same thing.  A few more bloody footprints, but nothing beyond that.

The third blockade offered something.  There was a spot where the blood was thicker, which didn’t match up with the other spaces.  The trail extended further than it did elsewhere.

Looking around, she spotted a smear of blood on the side of a building, three stories up.

Okay.  So maybe they’d gone this way.

The trail of breadcrumbs that the blood provided were slowly being eroded or masked by the light rain.  The water raised the oils from the cracks in the road, giving the ground a rainbow sheen.

The signs of blood faded too soon, and Aisha could only guess whether she had taken the wrong road, gone too far or if the rain had cleared it away.  She might have given up right then, but she saw a group of men standing outside of an apartment building.

It was only when she got close that she saw the badge clipped to the front of one of their jackets.  A detective.  There was blood on the door that led into the apartment lobby.

The elevator wouldn’t be working.  She headed for the stairwell, only to find more blood.  It was as though a body had been dragged.

Going forward was a stupid idea, she knew.  Brian and Skitter had gone into way too much fucking depth about the risks.   Still, that hadn’t stopped her before.

She got her taser and knife from her bag and made her way upstairs.

Third floor up, blood on the door leading into the hall.  More blood trailing down the hallway, stopping at one apartment.

She double checked that her power was active and pushed her way inside.

Only a few of the Nine were present.  Crawler slept with his ponderous head on paws that were crossed over one another, his back rising and falling with each deep breath.  He was large enough that the highest part of his back rose nearly to the ceiling with each breath he drew in through his nostrils.  Only half of the eyes on his body were closed, covered with thick, dark gray lids.

Shatterbird and Burnscar were on the couch, Burnscar stretched out with her head on the armrest, her feet propped up on Shatterbird’s lap.  She held a graphic novel on her stomach with one hand and created flames in the other, shaping them to match the people she saw as she flicked from page to page.  Shatterbird was sitting upright, a novel in her hands.

Bonesaw stood over the dining room table, with a mechanical spider-thing on the opposite side of the table, assisting her.  A young man was on the table itself, his wrists and ankles tied down.  His torso was open from collar-bone to crotch, his ribs splayed apart.  Bonesaw and her mechanical spider were elbow deep in the contents of his torso.

The spiders.

Aisha moved quickly aside as a spider moved from the kitchen, past her and to the table.  Whatever cameras or artificial intelligence it used, it didn’t seem to notice her.  It handed Bonesaw a diet cola that the little girl opened with bloody fingers and drank.

With a little more confidence, Aisha moved further inside, giving a wide berth to Crawler and Burnscar’s foot-high images of flame.

Holding her weapons, Aisha stood next to Shatterbird, at one end of the couch.

Aisha had never killed anyone, but here she was, holding a lethal weapon.  She could slice Shatterbird’s throat and they wouldn’t even realize she was there.

They would, she suspected, realize that Shatterbird was dead or dying.  There was a fifty-fifty chance, anyways, that it would force them out of whatever effect her powers had on their brains.  It had happened to her before.

Except that Shatterbird would kill her in her last moments, using the glass that had been swept to the corners of the room, or one of the others would.  Burnscar or Crawler could deal a hell of a lot of damage, even if they didn’t know who they were attacking.

Slowly, she walked over to Bonesaw, navigating around the drones.  Could she kill the kid?

On the one hand, Bonesaw was the one who kept the other members going.  Removing her would take a lot of problems off the board.  She could finish off Bonesaw and run for cover in the kitchen, out of Burnscar and Shatterbird’s line of fire.  From there, it was only steps to the front door and safety.

On the other hand, it was still murder, and it was a kid.  A kid that had a hundred kills under her belt.

A squeaking sound distracted her from her thoughts.  It was like air being let out of a balloon, but in shorter spurts.  Bonesaw?  No, the girl wasn’t making any noise.  The mechanical spider?  No.  Not the spider either.

Stepping as close to Bonesaw and the spider as she dared, Aisha investigated the sounds.  Where were they coming from?

Bonesaw smiled, “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to hear you, Jonathan.”

Jonathan?

Aisha looked down at the body, and realized the heart was beating inside Bonesaw’s hands.  The man’s eyes were moving, and his lips moved as he struggled and failed to make words come up through his windpipe.

The surge of horror and disgust gave Aisha the strength to cast aside her doubts.

“Sorry kid,” she said.

She plunged the knife into Bonesaw’s bare throat.

Bonesaw screamed, shrill and loud, which caught Aisha off guard.  With a knife in her throat, the girl was screaming?

Reacting more on instinct than wit, Aisha pulled the knife out and then slashed it horizontally across Bonesaw’s throat.

She’d expected a spray of blood or gurgling.  Neither happened.  Bonesaw screamed again.

So she pulled the knife free and stabbed Bonesaw in one eye.  The blade scraped against the bone of Bonesaw’s eye socket.

Flame erupted and pieces of glass came to life around Aisha.  She backed away quickly as a wall of flame rolled over Jonathan on the table and divided her from Bonesaw.  There was a rumble and the sound of falling furniture as Crawler stood.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”  Bonesaw shrieked.  “It hurts!”

Why isn’t she dead?

Aisha yanked the knife out and then gripped her taser.

“Is it Jack?” Burnscar asked, looking around, then turning to the window, “What the hell?”

“It’s not Jack,” Bonesaw said.  She snapped her fingers, and the mechanical spider leaped on top of her, beginning to suture the wounds in her neck.  “I gave Jack the same safeguards I gave us, he would have succeeded if he tried it.”

Shatterbird scowled.  “Then who or what was that?  Crawler, do you know?”

Aisha backed toward the front door.  She stopped as Crawler appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the front hall, looking through to see his teammates on the far end.  His voice was a mangled mess of sounds that only barely approximated anything like speech.  “I don’t smell anyone.”

Smells can’t find me, then, Aisha thought.  Still, she didn’t have her escape route.

“Torch the apartment and make a break for it?” Burnscar asked.  “We can meet up as a group later.”

“No.  Cherish has a hard time tracking Mannequin, and he won’t know how to find us,” Shatterbird said.

“I’m okay,” Bonesaw piped up.  She held one hand to her eye socket, which had trails of smoke rising from it.  “You don’t need to worry.  I can put my throat back together easy, after I get my kit out to check the sheaths for my vitals to make sure there’s no abrasions, and I’ve got spare eyes.  I could go with green eyes.  Or one green and one blue, or if I alter them, I could have-“

“Quiet,” Shatterbird cut in.  “It’s less about you being hurt and more about the fact that someone had the audacity to attack us here.  Burnscar, put out those fires.  We don’t want attention.”

The wall of flame shrunk and faded away.

“Really hope you don’t have another way of sensing me, big guy,” Aisha said to Crawler, ducking between his legs and stepping towards the door.  “I’m gonna make my exit now.”

None of the Nine reacted as she shut the door behind her.

Lesson learned.  The more ‘vulnerable’ members of the Nine weren’t as vulnerable as they looked.  Sheaths, Bonesaw had said?

Stepping into the lobby, she stopped in her tracks.

One of the detectives who’d been standing by the door was dead, his throat slit.  He laid in the center of the lobby.  Two more blood trails ran to the side of the lobby opposite the stairs.

Manager’s office?

Her weapon drawn, she reached for the doorknob, and collided with Jack as he strode out of the office.

“What’s wrong?” Cherish asked.

Aisha backed away.

“Nothing,” Jack said.  “You grab the last body and then find a mop.”

“Me?”

“I think I’ve been exceedingly generous, giving you a second chance.  You can repay me by doing the heavy lifting.”

“Ever the gentleman.”

“Go on, now.  I’ll wait here.”

Aisha watched as Cherish walked past her, grabbed the heavyset detective and began dragging him inch by inch toward the office.

She only remembered one other time when her heart had pounded this hard.  It had been when the fledgling Merchants had attacked her and her father.  It was another chance.  While they were separated, she could go after one.  But which?

She held the taser and the knife, adjusting her grip so she was secure.

Jack was the key figure.  Aisha knew she could attack him, knew she maybe should, but would she succeed any more than she did against Bonesaw?  Cherish might be able to lash out with some kind of blind fire, affecting the emotions of everyone nearby.

No.  Cherish was the newest member, wasn’t she?  There were better odds that Cherish didn’t have the protections that Jack and the others did.

Exhaling slowly, Aisha followed behind Cherish as the girl tugged the body into the other room.  She stepped inside and shut the door.

“Put the weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet.

Aisha gulped, realizing the trap she’d just stepped into.  “You can hear me?”

A second passed, and there was no response.

“Put it away, or I’m going to leave you quivering in a corner, shitting your pants.”

“You can’t hear me.”  Aisha gripped her weapon and stepped closer.

Cherish whirled around, her eyes flitting right and left, searching for Aisha.  “I’ll scream.  He’ll come in here, and a couple swings of his knife, he can cut you down, invisible or no.”

“It’s not invisibility,” Imp said, uselessly.

“Put your weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet and carefully measured, “We only have a few seconds before Jack gets suspicious.  Listen.  I want to strike a deal.”

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