Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

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“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 14

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Lift!” Sierra grunted.

The tightness in her back was reminder enough to use her legs to rise to a standing position.  Her hands were blistered and every knuckle was scraped or bruised.  They were carrying a door, torn from its hinges; the peeling paint, the worn wood, and the weight of their burden made it less than comfortable to hold.

She held one end of the door.  Jay was at the opposite end, his back to the man who was draped over it.  She wanted to ask Jay to hold the other end; she doubted looking down at the figure as he carried the makeshift stretcher would even bother him.

But she didn’t ask.  She couldn’t spare the breath.  They’d been working so long already, it was easier to forge ahead than to stop for any reason.

Still, her silence meant she was faced with the corpse of the man who had once lived here.  Once upon a time, he’d had parents, had a first day at school, had made friends, even had a crush on someone.  He had probably worked.  He’d had things he loved about life, no doubt, and if he was living here, he probably had more than enough things about life that he’d hated.  Whoever he’d been, he was another one of Mannequin’s victims now.  Not quite so disturbing as the ones killed by Burnscar.  He didn’t have a wallet on him, so he was a John Doe for now.

When they’d started working yesterday, that sort of thinking had made her want to cry.  Now she felt numb.  She could have thought about something else, but a part of her wanted to pay John Doe his due respect.  If nothing else, he deserved to be looked at as a human being rather than another body.

She bent down to set the door on the ground.  Jay took hold of the man by the shoulders, she lifted by the pants legs, and they moved him three feet to the right.  John Doe was set down on the concrete floor.  He joined twenty-nine other bodies, now arranged in two rows of fifteen people.  Too many were fellow John and Jane Does.

A blister had popped on her hand as she’d carried the door.  It smarted, but her focus was on the man.  Forty or so, but the yellow of his skin pointed to liver problems.  He could be as young as thirty, prematurely aged by alcoholism; it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen enough drunks around the city to be blind to the signs.

She felt like she should say something, but the words didn’t come to her.  Had he been a mean-spirited lecher of a drunk?  Someone who’d worked hard at whatever job he could find to support his family, then drank his worries away with his buddies after a shift?  A lonely man without anyone to care for him?

She considered a simple ‘sorry’, not necessarily because she felt guilty.  She was speaking more for the fact that she couldn’t do more for him, and apologizing on behalf of the random, senseless events that had taken his life.

“Next?” Jay asked.

She looked at him.  He was tired, but she didn’t see any signs of the same emotional drain she was experiencing herself.  He’d been a gang member in the ABB, had preyed on others, maybe even killing.  This job didn’t faze him in the slightest.  Behind his shaggy hair, his narrow eyes were cold, uncaring.  He could have been carrying groceries for all he seemed to care.

It creeped her out.

“No,” she said.  “I’ve hit my limit.  Can you find someone else to move the last two bodies from the factory to here?”

“Okay.”

She stared at the bodies.  Hopefully they could arrange something early in the morning.  Maybe if she put together a group and sent them downtown to verbally request help?  It was only one of a growing number of issues she was having to solve.  She sighed.  “I’m going to go see how things are inside.”

“Okay.”

She watched as he left to rejoin Yan and Sugita, the other two ex-ABB members.  He must have said something to them, because Yan turned to look at Sierra.  The look was intense.  It wasn’t jealousy from the Chinese-American girl.  It was something else.  As creepy as Jay was, his girlfriend’s stare scared Sierra more.

Exhausted and unnerved, Sierra headed back to Skitter’s headquarters.  She double-checked that nobody was following before entering the storm drain.  It was pitch black inside.  Humid.  She walked with fingertips tracing the right-hand wall.  When that wall ended, she kept walking.  It was disorienting, uncomfortable, walking without a guide in darkness so absolute she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.

She felt the wall again, and she kept her hand on it as she rounded the next corner.  There was a wet patch where some small amounts of water were trickling down from the street above… two more paces, then a left hand turn.  She fumbled around briefly to find the opening.

That was the hardest part.  The rest was easy – finding the doorway, entering the cellar, then heading upstairs to the main floor.  She was glad to see light, to let go of that fear that she’d miss the gap and find herself wandering the storm drains and getting lost, unable to find a way back to the surface or the beach.  She wondered if Skitter had felt the same way.

She nearly tripped over a small child as she made her way into the kitchen.  Charlotte was there, and she was busy emptying the cupboards.  Everything edible was on the counter or on the floor, neatly arranged.  Sierra estimated roughly twenty children were on the ground floor.

“There’s more than there used to be.”

“O’Daly clan.”

Sierra frowned.  “They need to take care of their own kids.”

“They’re kind of preoccupied.  They were hit harder than anyone else by the attack.  I think only six of the twenty who were with us are left.”

“I know.  But they still need to take care of their kids.”

“Give them one more day to mourn?”  Charlotte asked.

“It’s your call.  You’re the one babysitting in the meantime.”

“I’m trying,” Charlotte said.  “But they’re switching between playing and being pretty normal kids to crying because their parents are… you know.”

Dead.

“Yeah,” Sierra confirmed.

Charlotte had taken off her mask and was using it to tie her hair back.  She straightened it and tied it over her forehead again.  “Isn’t the city supposed to handle this?  There should be something like foster care, or a special evacuation plan for orphaned kids.”

“I don’t think the city knows.  It’s not just the kids.  We’ve got thirty dead bodies and it’s not exactly cool out, and there aren’t any ambulances or anything showing up to handle it. We just spent the entire afternoon moving them to a new spot with Jay and two locals.

We were talking about burning them in a mass grave, but I’m worried that’s against the law.  And since half of them don’t have ID, we might ruin any chance of their families identifying them.”

“Not easy.”

“No,” Sierra admitted. “How’s the rationing?”

“It’s less like she went shopping and more like she wanted to stock this place like it was a miniature grocery store.  A little bit of everything.  I’m trying to organize it by expiry date so we can prioritize eating and serving the food that’s going bad now, in case she never comes back and the food starts to get low.”

“I know it’s a bit late, but there’s a lot of us who’ve been working hard, cleaning up the mess from the attacks…”  Sierra hedged.

“You want dinner?”

Sierra pressed her hands together in a pleading gesture.

“Maybe soup?  I figure we need to eat these vegetables, there’s stock, and if we water it down so we can split it up more…”  Charlotte trailed off.  “I never really cooked at home.  I helped my parents cook, but that’s not the same thing.”

“It works.  Prepare some rice from the supplies, since we have more than enough of that.  Bulk it out.  We have a lot of mouths to feed.”

“Okay.”

All she wanted to do was stop.  Instead, she stepped into the living room, where makeshift beds had been arranged with piles of blankets and sleeping bags.  Only two kids were sleeping there, both clearly brother and sister.  It was as much privacy as she was going to get.  She plucked the satellite phone from her pocket.

This scenario wasn’t what she’d expected, on any level.  Even as Skitter had explained the job duties as being helping out, rebuilding, organizing, Sierra had maintained doubts.  She’d been waiting for that one job where Skitter tested her limits, asked her to do something a little dangerous, something morally ambiguous.  It would be subtle, or it would have consequences she wasn’t immediately aware of, but it would set her on the road to something darker.

Except it hadn’t happened yet.  Even the scope of what she was doing here caught her off guard.  There were innumerable dead, and yet more people forced out of their homes by the fires Burnscar had started.  It seemed like everyone was walking a narrow line between banding together as a community and killing one another.

It felt strange to identify as one of the key people who were pulling for the former.  She was organizing everone, keeping in touch with the groups handling the other cleanup jobs and working tirelessly at the hardest and most unwanted jobs in the hopes of inspiring others to keep going.  When the smell of shit and rot that accompanied the dead got to someone, Sierra was at their side, helping calm them down, always ready to name another place where they were needed.

It was almost too much.  A huge part of her wanted to call Skitter, to get some guidance, to order supplies and defer on the harder problems, like the bodies.

Another part of her was scared to.

She dialed another number instead.

“Yes?” the voice was deep.

She was put in mind of being a little kid, calling a friend and hearing an adult on the other end.  It felt awkward.  She sort of resented it.

“I’d like to talk to Bryce?”  It came out as more of a question than a statement.

“One moment.”

She watched with the phone pressed to one ear as Charlotte recruited some of the older children to prepare dinner.  They started putting things back in cabinets, ordered not by the type of food, but by how long it would last.  One of the children found a cutting board and began to cut lettuce.

“Sierra?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Well?  What do you want?”

“Checking up on you, moron.”

“I’m fine,” Bryce said.  He managed to sound sullen.

She crossed the room to approach the kitchen counter and mimed proper cutting technique for the ten-year-old that was preparing the lettuce.  It wouldn’t do to have the kid lose any fingertips.  Or maybe she was sensitive to the idea while talking to Bryce.

“Is that it?” Bryce asked.

“I was hoping for more than two words of response.  How’s your hand?”

“Hurts.”

“That’s going to happen.  You lost all four fingers.”

“No.  It hurts like my fingers are still there and they’re being crushed.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.  I’m sorry?  You deserved what you got?

“Ask Tattletale about it?”

“She’s gone.  Has been for more than a day, now.  Jaw said she’s not to be disturbed with phone calls or anything like that.”

Skitter had been gone for roughly as long as Tattletale.  According to Charlotte, Skitter had invited a bunch of local villains over and then left shortly after.  They were probably the other eight territory bosses who were working to occupy the city.  That had been over forty-eight hours ago.

“Jaw gave me some painkillers,” Bryce said.

“What kind?”  Sierra felt a stab of alarm.

It must have been audible, because Bryce replied, “Relax.  Over the counter stuff.”

“Okay.  What have you been doing?”

“Nothing big.  Keeping track of some members of the Chosen as they move around.  Hookwolf’s guys.”

“I know who they are.”

“They’ve been moving in.  I thought we were going to get in a fight, but Jaw had us all retreat.  I think because I was with them.  It’s annoying.”

“It’s a good thing that you’re not being dragged into a firefight.  Especially one with capes.”

“They’ve been teaching me how to fight with a knife, how to throw one, how to use a gun-”

“I don’t want you learning that stuff.”

“I have to, in case we get ambushed or something.  And I’m not bad at it.  We could have fought those guys.”

“Did Tattletale tell you that you should fight them?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Like I said, Tattletale isn’t around and hasn’t been for a while.”

“So the answer is no, she didn’t give you the go-ahead.”

“No.”

“That’s a good enough reason to back off, then.  I don’t know exactly who she is or what she does, but she knows what she’s doing.  Trust her in that.”

“Always awesome to talk to you, Sierra.  Thanks.  Bye now.”

“Don’t hang up on me.  Put me on the phone with Jaw.”

Bryce hung up.

He’s supposed to be getting better, more disciplined.  Had she made the wrong call?  If Bryce was getting training with guns and knives, and still failing to shape up, this thing with him being recruited by Tattletale could be disastrous in the long run.

She waited a minute, then called the same number.

“Yes?”  Again, Jaw’s deep voice.

“He hung up on me.  I wanted to ask you how he was doing.”

“The boy is learning.”

“I’d rather he wasn’t learning how to use weapons.  If he’s getting in a situation where he needs to fight, you guys aren’t keeping your end of the deal.”

“That would be Pritt.  He thinks she’s attractive, and listens to her best, so Minor has her accompany him much of the time.  She is a former child soldier, she would have thought self-defense was a good way to regain confidence after the boy lost his fingers.”

She could imagine Jaw saying that with Bryce overhearing, her brother getting simultaneously annoyed and embarrassed.  She liked it.

“Have her cut it out?  I don’t want to sound like I’m giving you orders, but I don’t want my little brother shooting people.”

“It’s fine.  Tattletale told us to do whatever you required as far as the boy is concerned.  I will tell Minor, and he will order the others to keep the boy away from weapons.”

“Thank you.”

“I will also decide on a punishment for the boy for being rude and hanging up on his sister.  I think we would all like him to learn some respect for his betters.”

She could imagine him looking at Bryce as he said it.

“Nothing too serious?  As punishment goes?”

“Nothing serious.  It will build character.”

“Thank you.  Any word on what Skitter and Tattletale are doing?”

“No.  All I know is that it will be dangerous, and every squad is on high alert.  We are sleeping in shifts, maintaining combat readiness and doubling patrols.  We were informed three hours ago that the downtown area is off-limits.  I know Lieutenant Fish was deployed there when the order came down, and he has ceased all communications.”

All of downtown?”

“Yes.”

She hung up and headed for the bathroom to tend to the damage her hands had accumulated over the day’s work.  Disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, bandages.  Every time she thought she’d found the last small scrape, she found another.

By the time she was done, her hands had as much in the way of bandages as there was exposed skin.  She flexed her fingers to make sure she could still move them, adjusted two bandages, and then returned to the kitchen.

“Progress?”

“Nearly done.  It hasn’t cooked very long, and I’m worried it’ll just taste like boiled vegetables in water, but you said people were hungry.  How do you want to get the soup out there?”

“There’s three spots where people are sleeping tonight.  Let’s mobilize the kids and get some food out to everyone.”

“The kids?”

“Everyone needs to contribute.  Maybe if they see seven-year-olds doing their part, the O’Daly clan will get the message.”

“Sierra,” Charlotte made a pained expression as she spoke, “They’ve been through a lot.”

“They’re using our sleeping space, they’re eating our food supplies.  We can’t hold their hands and baby them.  Everyone’s having a hard time these days.”

“That’s cold.”

“Maybe, but I’ve been working from sunrise to well after dark, here, and they were just sitting around, getting in the way, complaining and crying.”

“Most of their family died just a few days ago.”

Sierra didn’t have a response to that.  They were still eating far too much and taking up too much room for people who hadn’t lifted a finger to help.  “Anyways, think I can use the kids?”

“Don’t push them.  Some are pretty emotionally sensitive.  But yeah.”

Sierra turned around, “Hey, munchkins!  Got a job for you.  Help out and we’ll give you first dibs on the after-dinner treats!”

Roughly half of the little ones approached her.  Six to ten years old, boys and girls, a variety of ethnicities.

“Who’s the oldest?  Raise your hand if you’re ten… okay, if you’re nine?  Eight?”

She mentally sorted them out, then directed them, “You, you’re in charge of those three.  You’re in charge of these two… You’re in charge of this pair, okay?”

Older kids looking after little kids.  They sorted into their groups.

“You’re carrying soup out to the sleeping areas.  We’ve got something to carry them in, Charlotte?”

“Yeah.  Just give me a minute.  Don’t want them to burn their hands.”

“Everyone carries what they can.  Take the soup out there and then come back here.”

Charlotte put the lids on the first few containers of soup, and the kids scampered off.

Sierra didn’t give it a second thought until she heard the shutter sliding open.

“Not the front door!”  Sierra called out, but the kids were already out the front door.  She sighed.

“They’re afraid of the storm sewer,” Charlotte pointed out.

“I know.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go out with the next group, just to keep an eye on the delivery process.”

“Okay.  I’ll prep some for you to carry,” Charlotte said.  “Find more tupperware or pots I can put this in?”

Sierra nodded and turned to do as she’d been asked, but the kids were already hopping to the task.  She let them go ahead.  It seemed they were glad for something to occupy themselves with.  Maybe they recognized how shitty the overall situation was and they wanted to help fix it.

She suspected she’d find the necessary tupperware faster than the four kids combined, but it wasn’t a big deal.

“Well, well, well.”

Sierra whirled around before the man was even finished talking.  Not a man, exactly, but boy didn’t fit.

It was Jay.  The Japanese-American boy glared at her through his mop of hair.

“Jay.  You weren’t invited here.”

“I can see why.  Electricity, running water, food… you’ve got it made.  Was wondering where you were going, tried following you, but you disappeared.  Thought we’d missed our chance until we saw some ankle-biters running down the street with plastic containers of food.  Seems you’re hoarding the good shit.”

“We’re not hoarding,” she spoke.  She had to swallow to clear her throat.  She knew she had to sound confident, “This is Skitter’s place.”

“Skitter’s, sure.  If she’s still alive.  But not your space.  Don’t see why you can have this stuff and we can’t.”

“Skitter gave us permission.”

“We supposed to believe?” Sugita asked, his voice heavily accented.

“Yeah.”

“No,” Yan spoke.  She reached behind her back and drew a handgun.  “Don’t believe you.”

There are kids here, Sierra thought.

“Stupid,” she spoke without thinking.

Yan pointed the gun at her.  “What did you say?”

“You know Skitter gave us the go-ahead to use her place.”

“That so?  I overheard someone complaining that Skitter left without announcing anything, after the fires,” Yan said.  Her tone was mocking.

“You assholes.  Least you can do is drop the bullshit and admit you just want to take our stuff.”

“Was thinking about it, sure,” Jay said, “Doesn’t look like Skitter’s coming back.  Two days, situation like this?  But you’re dreaming if you think we’re going to just walk away with some food.  I think we’re going to evict you.”

“Evict us?

“Move out of the way,” Yan ordered Sierra, twitching the gun to her left.

“Why?” Sierra asked.

“Because I’ll shoot you if you don’t,” Yan said.  “I can’t believe you’re not listening.  You’re either stubborn or stupid.”

“I’m tired,” Sierra replied.  “And what you’re doing here isn’t exactly brilliant.  Think about it. Where did this food come from?  The equipment?”

“Skitter bought it.”

“From who?  From where?  It’s pretty obvious this place was set up after Leviathan came, but where’d she get it?  She had it delivered.  And the same people who make deliveries like this to a supervillain are going to be pretty ticked off if they find out someone’s messed with one of their customers.”

The argument was feeble, and she knew it.

“If these people exist, they won’t show up tonight.  We’ll spend the night.  I figure we’re overdue for a party.”

“Leaving us to clean up the mess?”

“Sierra,” Charlotte spoke, her voice quiet, “Not worth it.”

Yan gestured with the gun, and Sierra listened this time, stepping out of the way.

Sugita and Jay headed past the counter and into the kitchen, while Yan stood where she could block the front door.  Sierra could see Charlotte shrinking away.  Like a shark that smelled blood, Sugita turned his attention to her.  He stepped close, invading her personal space.

Don’t show fear, Sierra prayed.

But Charlotte did.  In an instant, it was as though she was a different person than she’d been five minutes ago.  Weak-kneed, cringing, not even resisting as Sugita grabbed at her wrist.

There was something at play there that Sierra hadn’t been told about.  “Leave her alone!”

“Shut up, bitch,” Yan stepped closer, waggling the gun, “You want to get shot?”

“Just let us go.  Do whatever the fuck you want here, it’s on your head, but let us go.”

“Don’t think so.  I hate arrogant bitches.  Going to spoil my mood if I don’t do anything about it.  Your choice.  I can shoot you through your palm, shoot you in a knee, or I can shoot one of the kids.”

Sierra glanced at the kids who had shrunk back against counters, cabinets and the wall.  There were tears tracking through the dirt on their faces, but they were mostly managing to keep quiet.

“Well?” Yan asked, raising her voice.

Sierra couldn’t bring herself to speak.  Being shot in the hand- she might never use it again.  But the knee was supposedly the part of the body that had the hardest time recovering from a major injury.

Yan bent down and grabbed one of the oldest boys by the hair.  Ten years old, blond hair in bad need of a cut and a pugnacious nose.  He squealed and writhed in pain at the grip on his scalp, until he wrenched himself out of Yan’s grip, falling flat on his back.

The girl jammed the gun in his mouth before he could recover, and he froze.

“Choose!”

“My hand.”

Yan smirked, taking the gun out of the boy’s mouth.  “Put it flat against the wall.”

Sierra started raising her hand, then stopped.

A figure stood behind Yan.  Her costume was barely recognizable – She wore a short cape of tattered black cloth over her body armor, a skintight black suit beneath that, and there were folds of black cloth draped around her legs like a dress or a robe.  The entire fabric seemed to ripple and move.  It took Sierra a second to realize it was crawling with a carpet of insects.

The disconcerting part was the girl’s face, or lack thereof.  Her expression was masked behind a shifting mass of bugs that moved in and out of her hairline.  Sierra couldn’t even tell where the bugs ended and the scalp began, as the small black bodies crawled into and onto the black curls.  There was a hint of something like glass where Skitter’s eyes were, but the bugs ventured far enough over her eyelids and around the frames that nothing was visible in the way of goggles, glasses or skin.

Skitter hadn’t made a sound as she entered.  She hadn’t spoken, and her footsteps had been quiet.

Yan pointed the gun at Skitter.  “You’re back, huh?”

The villainess didn’t speak.  She pointed to her right instead.

Advancing toward the group was a beetle the size of a small pony.  It didn’t use its forelimbs to walk, but held them up so the razor edge was both visible and ready to strike.

“Call it off or I shoot!”

“Shoot and you die,” Skitter’s voice was distorted, not really resembling a sound from human lips.  The beetle seemed to offer a deep buzz to accompany the ‘oo’ sounds.  “It won’t be pretty.  Brown recluse venom makes your muscles necrotize.  That means it decays while you’re still alive.  It takes days, but the only real cure is taking a knife to the area around the bite.  That might be okay if you have one bite, carve out a half-pound of flesh, let the wound drain, stitch it up.  But what if you have three or four bites?  Or ten?”

“You’re bullshitting me,” Yan spat the words.

Skitter ignored her.  “It’s excruciatingly painful.  Nothing you experienced during your initiation into the ABB even compares, I can guarantee it.  You’re rotting alive, your flesh turning black as it liquefies.  So maybe you shoot me.  Maybe you even kill me, though I doubt it.  Either way, whether I walk away from here alive or not, you get bitten.  They’re already on you.  All three of you.”

Yan glanced down at her body.  In that same instant, the beetle took flight.  It crossed the room in the span of a heartbeat and slammed into her.  Its blade-like forelimbs caught around Yan and pulled her to the ground.

Sierra turned her attention to the other two, saw Sugita lunging to one side.  She practically threw herself between him and the countertop where the knife still lay on top of the cutting board.  Jay drew his knife, but dropped it in the same motion.  His other hand clutched his forearm as his eyes went wide.

“That’s one bite, Shaggy,” Skitter said.  “Giving you two seconds to kick the knife under the stove before I give you another.  One-”

Jay kicked the knife across the kitchen floor.  It slid out of sight.

“And you, I think you were the one with the bad accent?  You can step away from Charlotte now.”

Sugita scowled, but he did as he was asked.  He backed away from Charlotte until he stood beside Jay.  Charlotte let one sob escape before she hurried across the kitchen and moved to stand behind Skitter.

She’s been through something, Sierra thought.  She knew Charlotte was staying in town only because of her family, that she’d been captured by the Merchants and held for at least a short while… and there was some reason she couldn’t explain that to her family and just leave the city.

“I hope the rest of you are okay?”  Skitter asked.

“Where were you?” Sierra returned the question with one of her own.

“Dealing with the Nine.  They’re not a concern anymore, at least for now.”

It was surreal, hearing the girl talk about dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They weren’t in the same category as your average villain.  They were like monsters from horror films, the killer who always got up at the end of the film, the monster who never died.

“You mean they won’t attack anytime soon, or-”

“They’re dealt with.  Burnscar’s dead.  Crawler’s dead.  Mannequin’s probably dead.  Cherish and Shatterbird wish they were dead.  Found Siberian’s weak point, and it’ll be international news soon, if it isn’t already.  She, Jack and Bonesaw ran.  Tried to pursue, couldn’t track them.  It’ll be a while before they bounce back.”

“You took on the Nine and won?”

Skitter ventured toward Yan, then used one foot to hold the girl’s arm down against the ground.  The beetle pinned it there, pressing the point of one forelimb into her palm with enough pressure that a bead of blood appeared.  Skitter stepped around the girl so the beetle could do the same.  When Yan clenched her fist, Skitter stepped on her fist, crushing it underfoot.

She took her time responding.  When she did speak, all she said was, “I didn’t say we won.”

She lifted her foot, Yan unclenched it, and the beetle stabbed down with another pointed forelimb to pin it to the ground.

“What are you doing?” Yan asked, a note of desperation in her voice.

Skitter didn’t respond.  “Sierra?  Charlotte?”

Charlotte didn’t venture a reply, but Sierra managed one.  “Yeah?”

Were it not for the accompanying buzz of the bugs, Sierra suspected she wouldn’t have heard Skitter speak.  “You’ve been working hard.  Thank you.  I didn’t expect to have anything to come back to.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra said.  The words were a bit of a non-sequitur, but Skitter seemed to accept them.

“Thought you would have left,” Skitter said.

“Anyone that’s still in the city probably has some reason they can’t go.  But things here aren’t good.”

“We can fix that,” Skitter said.  It sounded more like she was talking to herself than to anyone in the room.  It would have been reassuring if she hadn’t been staring down at Yan.

“What are you going to do?” Yan repeated herself.

“Charlotte, would you take the children into another room?”

Charlotte seemed relieved to have the chance to escape.  Every child that was present flocked to her and she hurried into the bedroom.

Yan raised her voice, “You left!  You abandoned us!”

They were as insecure as the rest of us, Sierra thought.  Not that it excuses their behavior.

“Hand or knee?” Skitter asked.

“Fuck you!”  Yan shouted.

Then she convulsed.  She thrashed, dragging her hands against the pointed forelimbs with such violence that she opened ragged cuts in her palms.  She stopped as quickly as she’d started, her eyes going wide.

She’d been bitten, more than once.

“Shaggy-hair, hand or knee?”

Jay’s eyes went wide, but he very calmly stated, “Hand.”

His eyes went wide as a spider crawled down the length of his arm to the back of his hand.  He jumped like he’d been electrocuted.

“And Mr. Accent.  Hand or knee?”

Sugita glanced around, then lunged for Sierra.  Going for the knife on the counter yet again.  She blocked him for the second time, he tried to shove her aside, and she used the distraction to drive her knee into his stomach.  He grunted and folded over.

“Both, then,” Skitter said.

Sugita was too busy reeling from the knee to the gut to respond or react.

“Attacking my people?  That was dumb.  Attacking a little kid?  Dumber.  Consider my territory to be a very bad place to be from now on.  My bugs can see you, they can hear you, and I’ll know if you slow down even a little as you leave, give you a few more bites.”

The beetle climbed off Yan, using its forelimbs to pick up the gun by driving the points through the trigger-guard.  It moved to Skitter’s side.

Yan, Sugita and Jay all took that as their leave to climb to their feet and head toward the door.  None of them even looked at Skitter, but they stopped when she pushed the door closed.

“There’s no safe haven for you in Brockton Bay.  My allies have control of every district, every territory.  No shelter will host you, and our individual forces will be searching every other place you might want to sleep.  Before you get far enough to find a doctor and get those bites treated, my contacts will have spread the word.  The doctors may have to treat you, but we can have our people sitting in the waiting rooms, or working as assistants to the doctors.  If you show your face, you’ll get attacked.  Maybe it’ll be a direct attack, maybe it won’t.  Trust me when I say you won’t be in any shape to defend yourselves.”

“So you’re condemning us to die?”  Any bravado Yan might have had before had been excised and replaced by wide-eyed fear.

“No.  Leave the city as fast as you can, and you can get help somewhere else.  I don’t really care, so long as you’re out of my city.  You’ll have some ugly scars if you don’t hurry.”

Skitter gestured to the door, and the three were quick to leave.  “Sierra, the shutter.”

She hurried to obey, stepping into the open doorframe and reaching up to bring it down to the ground.  It latched at the door’s base.  She shut the door after it.  “There’re kids still on an errand, I think.”

“I’ll let you know when to open the shutter again.”

“Okay.”

Skitter scattered the bugs around her face and ran her gloved fingers through her hair to straighten it.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra replied, not quite sure what the apology was for.

“Couldn’t focus on this place and the Nine at the same time, and I thought this place was a lost cause.”

That stung, but Sierra didn’t voice the thought.  “Might be.  We’ve got bodies to get rid of-”

“I’ll handle that tonight.”

“The Chosen have been moving into the edges of your area, here and elsewhere, according to Tattletale’s soldier.”

Skitter let herself drop into a chair.  “Anything serious?  Ongoing attacks?”

“Just occupying the territory, I think.  Maybe making trouble for minorities nearby, but nothing so serious that I’ve hard about it.”

“Then I’ll deal with them after an afternoon’s rest.  Maybe open a discussion before I try anything more serious.”  Skitter’s voice buzzed as she spoke.  She pulled off the mask that covered the lower half of her face.

“Your voice.  You’re still doing the thing where your bugs talk with you.”

“Sorry,” Skitter said, the swarm suddenly quiet.  “I don’t even think about it anymore.”

“Your gang’s a lot smaller.  A lot of people died.”

Skitter put her elbows on her knees, removed her glasses and buried her face in her hands.

Crying?

Sierra hesitated.  What was she supposed to do here?

She ventured forward and reached out to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  She stopped when she saw the carpet of ants, cockroaches and wasps.

“I’m okay,” Skitter said, without looking up.  She removed her hands from her face and leaned back.  There was no sign of tears – her eyes were dry.  Just tired.  “Could I bother you to make me a cup of tea?  Milk, drop of honey.”

Sierra nodded, “I remember.”

Silence reigned as she filled the kettle and set it down on the stove.  Still have to deliver the soup.  Sierra tried to surreptitiously examine Skitter.  The girl was removing all of the bugs from the surface of her costume and the gaps in the armor.  The swarm flowed up the stairs as a single mass.

“Those three… are they going to die?”

“No.  The bites weren’t from a brown recluse.  They’ll hurt, they’ll swell, and the three will probably leave the city to find a doctor.  Even if they realize I conned them, I think I scared them enough that they won’t be coming back to challenge me.”

“Ah.”

They say we fear the unknown, Sierra thought to herself.  So why does she freak me out more as I get to know her?

She brought her employer tea in the largest cup she’d been able to find.

“Things are going to get better now?” she asked.  “You’re not worried about the Chosen?”

“No.  I think their leader is gone, and after facing down the Nine, somehow I’m not worried about dealing with them.”

Facing down the Nine.  Sierra shivered a bit.

“No,” Skitter thought aloud.  “I think the biggest challenge I face comes from within our organization.”

That gave Sierra pause.  Had Skitter intended to include her with that ‘our’, or was it just vaguely phrased?

“An ally?  One of the other people with their own territories?”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Skitter said.

There was a pause.  Sierra thought of how she would excuse herself, go tend to the soup and check on Charlotte, but Skitter spoke first. “But no.  Not an ally.  At least half of them might get involved, and that could get pretty ugly, fast, but I’m thinking the biggest issue right now is the man at the top.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I continued my search for the pair, but my tentative explorations of the trails of extermination-mist made a sweeping search all but hopeless.

It felt like I was facing a series of decisions where every answer had some merit, but picking the wrong one would spell disaster.  I’d had to make the call between staying at the school in case Jack and Bonesaw were preparing a trap for Amy and Glory Girl, or leaving in case they’d made a run for it.  I’d left, and I’d been lucky enough to be right.

Except the Nine were now covering their tracks with a dozen decoys, mechanical spiders leaving trails of bug-killing smoke, leaving me to guess which direction they’d gone.

Two solid possibilities dwelled with me.

The first was that they’d headed back downtown to rendezvous with Siberian.  If I was drawing the right conclusions from what I’d overheard, Bonesaw had drawn together a cocoon for Siberian similar to the one that Amy had created for Glory Girl.  They could be recovering her real body, maybe doing something to recover Mannequin or Crawler.

It hadn’t even crossed my mind while I was under the miasma’s influence, but I also had to wonder whether Regent would have maintained his control over Shatterbird.

The second possibility was that they’d gone after Cherish.  My conversation with Coil had clued them in.

I checked my phone.  No service.

Damn the Director.  Damn her for making this so hard, and for complicating matters.  We’d been playing by Jack’s rules, more or less, and she’d given him an excuse to pull out all the stops.

He probably would have anyways, but she gave him an excuse.

If I headed away from the downtown area, toward the water, I could put myself in a position to track down Cherish, or to get to another point where the satellite phone would work and make a call to Coil.  If they were checking the harbor for Cherish, going by what she’d revealed on the phone, then I could get there first.  Lay a trap, or get in position to shoot them again.  I figured out how to remove the magazine from the gun and checked the number of rounds remaining.  Six.

The problem was that the whole reason I’d let Panacea keep using her power on me instead of giving chase to Jack was that I was supposed to cure the others.  I could kill and replace the parasites that were carrying the prions.  The sooner I did it, the less damage they’d do in the meantime.  Some of the damage would be permanent, and the potential victims included Brian and Lisa.

wanted to head back downtown, to help my teammates and friends, but I couldn’t shake the nagging doubt in the back of my mind.

The difference between Jack and Bonesaw going downtown and their going to the coastline was that the former was almost kind, taking care of a teammate.  The latter case allowed them to inflict some terrible torture on an ex-teammate of theirs.

It was the most inconvenient possibility, but my gut told me they’d go after Cherish.  If I had to put numbers on it, I’d have said there was a sixty percent chance they’d go that route, a thirty-five percent chance they’d headed downtown.  And there was always the possibility I was wrong, that they had something else in mind, so I was leaving room for that extra five percent.

But if I was wrong, if I went to the harbor to try to get ahead of them and Jack didn’t go that way, then my friends would suffer for it.  Brian had been through enough, and while Lisa had seemed to deal okay after she’d been scarred, I was willing to bet she valued her mind more than she valued her face.

I headed downtown.

No matter which way I chose to go, I’d have that awful feeling of regret in my chest.  I tried to quiet it by telling myself that with Tattletale and the others, I’d actually be able to do something against the Nine.  A gun and knife didn’t cut it, no matter how scattered or few in number they were.

I couldn’t quite manage to convince myself.

As it didn’t cost me anything significant in terms of forward momentum, I let Atlas carry me higher.  I was getting more comfortable flying him, and there was little difference in being a hundred and fifty feet above the ground and being five hundred stories up.  I wanted to assess the situation.  Was my dad one of the people who was depending on this cure?

The topography of the city had impacted where the miasma was spreading.  As far as I could tell, it wasn’t really advancing into the north end of the city.

Bakuda’s bombing campaign and the militarization of the ABB had predominantly focused on the Docks.  Leviathan had arrived in the Docks, and his destruction of the city’s water infrastructure and power had hit that part of the city hardest.  I wondered if this would be the first real instance where the Docks weren’t hit as hard by the ongoing series of disasters and attacks in Brockton Bay.

I descended back to a safer distance, where falling wouldn’t be terminal, and tried to plan.

Finding Tattletale was number one.  With her assistance, everything else would be easier.  As much as I wanted to make Grue my second priority, I knew that there were other things that took precedence.  Siberian was a big one.  Finding a way to distribute the cure was another.  Once I started, it would set up a chain reaction, but I had to decide how to start it off.

Tattletale first.  She could help me find Siberian and figure out how to distribute the antidote.

I tracked the trails of extermination smoke as I flew.  I was faster than they were, but they were elusive, staying out of sight and moving through awkward positions.  I spotted one mechanical spider moving through a trash-littered alleyway and changed my route to close in on another trail.

My second confirmation of a mechanical spider left me with the feeling that I’d made the wrong call.

But it was too late to turn back.  It would be faster to go help Tattletale and get her assistance than to turn around and fumble along on my own.

They were traveling on foot, I hoped, and they still had to find Cherish.  She was bound to be in a remote spot, and they didn’t have many clues to work with.  It would take time.

Things hadn’t exactly been quiet while I’d been gone.

“Calm down!  If we all just stop fighting, then this doesn’t end in tragedy.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as I can think of a convincing reason!”

Tattletale was on the street, alone, facing down Bitch, two dogs and one wolf on full-tilt mutation-mode.  They advanced with measured steps, keeping close to their master.

I landed beside Tattletale, and the two of us made eye contact.

“L-mist.”

“A-Carnelian,” she answered.  “You understand if I don’t trust you implicitly, here?”

“I do.  Listen, I’ve got a cure-”

“Who the fuck are you!?”  Rachel shouted.

I shut my mouth and turned to face her.

I was secretly glad the dogs hadn’t turned on her, as that probably would have meant the death of a teammate, but I was getting a firsthand look at what our enemies had to deal with.  The dogs were big and vicious enough that if they attacked, there wasn’t a whole lot I could have done.  Heck, Tattletale and I together couldn’t have managed much of a defense against one of the creatures, let alone three.

“We’re teammates,” I told her.  “I was just fighting the Nine, I’ve got a cure for this thing.”

“Or you’re going to kill me the second I let my guard down.”

I’d been conned by the Nine.  Tricked into letting them get access to certain information.  Bitch wouldn’t have fallen for that, but that came with the caveat that she was that much harder for us to reassure.

“I can put my weapons away.  Or give them to you.”

“I’m not that stupid,” she growled the words.  “Don’t treat me like I’m retarded.  I’m not.  I know you have powers.”

“That wasn’t what I wanted to say,” I said.  I kept my voice low, my tone as calm as I could manage.  “I was just saying I’d disarm myself if it would reassure you.”

“The only thing that’s going to make me feel any better is getting the fuck away from here.  But she wouldn’t get out of my way.”

“If you leave,” Tattletale told her, “You’ll go straight to the Trainyard, to your other dogs, and you’ll get worse.  You’ll wind up isolated from the rest of us.  And I think the Nine want that.  They wanted people for their group, and doesn’t this set their candidates up for easy recruiting?  Separate them from their previous attachments, leave them vulnerable and lost, then give them the hard sell.”

“Not that you’re wrong,” I said, glancing at Tattletale while trying to keep the dogs in sight, “I saw Jack trying that with Panacea.  But Bitch tends to see it as slimy or conniving when someone talks a lot.”

“I see.  You want to try, then?”

Bentley growled.  It didn’t sound like a dog growl.  What worried me, though, was Bastard.  He was untrained enough that he wouldn’t necessarily listen to Bitch, and big enough to feel confident about attacking.

Not that I was positive she would stop him if he attacked.  As much as she felt like she’d feel more secure on her own, Bitch might well decide she could resolve this situation by killing anyone who threatened her.  It wasn’t that she was the murdering type, but she didn’t have the innate sympathy for her fellow humans.  She cared as little about murdering us as I might feel about killing two dogs if I felt like my life was on the line.

I’d been in a similar headspace, trying to figure out who was friendly and who wasn’t.  Jack had been more on the ball than I, and I’d fallen for his ploy.  I’d deal with the guilt over what that might mean at a later point.

“A little while ago, we spent some time in one of your shelters.  I’m guessing you don’t remember who, but you remember chilling out and eating Greek food with someone?”

“You could have found that out through someone else.”

“I know.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m just wanting you to think about that feeling.  I’d like to think we got along, as far as people like you and people like me can get along with others.”

“Doesn’t mean anything to me now.”

“Okay.”  I let my arms drop to my sides.

“That’s it?  That’s your argument?”

“I don’t really have much better.  I know that if I tried to convince you using logic and a well worded argument, you’d feel like I was being manipulative.  All I can say is that we had a good time then, we were friendly.  I know we parted ways some time after that, but I’d really like to get back to that point.  So I’m appealing to that emotional attachment, I guess.”

“You think I’m attached to you?”

This again.  This situation seemed to be highlighting the worst parts of people and twisting others.  Amy’s paranoia, Legend’s battle instincts, Bitch’s antisocial tendencies, and my… whatever it was, that led to me trusting Jack.

“Yeah.  I’m making that assumption,” I told her.

“Fuck you.”

She advanced, and I stayed put.  Sirius growled.

“I’m not your enemy,” I said.

“We’ll attack you.”

“If you do, maybe the cure will get transmitted to your dog, and then to you.”

“You’re not that stupid.”

I shook my head.  “Not really.  But I don’t think you’ll attack me, either.”

She advanced closer.  Sirius growled again, and she held one hand out to stop him.

So glad they still listen to her.  This would be a disaster if the dogs were on a rampage.  I supposed the miasma was slower to affect them, given their mass, or the vectors it affected weren’t present or as predominant in dogs.

She stepped close, until her nose was an inch from mine.  She stared unflinching into my eyes.  I met her gaze with that same unforgiving hardness.

“No way I could like someone like you.”  The words were like the twist of a knife.  Hostility and aggression combined with pure, petty malice.

“Just going by looks, when you can’t see half my face?” I asked.  Without breaking eye contact, I reached up and pulled down the lower half of my mask.  “You don’t recognize me?”

She didn’t glance away from my eyes.  “No.  Now move.  I will order them to attack.”

She would.  She could.

I leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on her lips.

Her punch knocked me off my feet and sent my glasses flying off my face to land in the water somewhere nearby.

“The fuck!?”  She shouted.  One of the dogs growled, deep, as if to complement her anger with a threat of his own.

“You’re cured,” I told her.  “That’s it, that’s all it takes.”

She stared down at me.

If this doesn’t work, she might kill me for real.

Tattletale helped me to my feet and handed me my glasses.  I got my mask in place around the lower half of my face and then gathered bugs over the mask and glasses to hide my features.

“How’s that work?”  Tattletale asked.

“The effects are being generated by a parasite.  Panacea changed the parasite to some kind of symbiotic species that overrides the effects of Bonesaw’s work and heals the effects on the brain.  My bodily fluids are carrying it.  That means that right now, the parasites in Bitch’s bodies should be dying or getting replaced or transformed or something.  I hope.”

I dusted myself off, wiped at my costume where I’d landed in the water, and made sure none of my belongings had dropped from their positions in my armor or my belt.

I didn’t hurry to meet Bitch’s eyes, because I knew that when I did, I’d have to maintain that gaze.  Only when I was done did I meet her eyes.

She took her time responding.  “I was going to have Bentley break you.”

It worked.

“Glad you didn’t.”

“Why?”

Why had I done it?  I’d tried to explain it to her so many times.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it again.

“Doesn’t matter.”

Tattletale pointed down at the water just behind me.  I turned around and looked.  Where I’d landed on my back, the water was changing from red to a relatively clear state.  ‘Relatively’ only because the water hadn’t been that clear to begin with.  “Guess it’s working.”

“Good,” I said.  The last swirls of red disappeared from around my feet, and the water around me began to change back to normal.  With increasing speed, the water around us began to transition back to normal at nearly the speed the effect had spread in the first place.  It extended out in every direction, promising to revert most or all of the affected bodies of water.

“You couldn’t have waited until after you’d cured me before you put the bugs on your face?”  Tattletale asked.  She was smiling as she asked it.  “Unless you want me to drink that water.”

“Sorry.  No, I’ll help you out.”

She gave me a stern look, pointed at me, and said, “No tongue.”

I rolled my eyes, scattered the bugs, pulled my mask down and leaned over to give her a quick peck on the lips.

“Now fill me in.  I’ll fill in the blanks as you explain, and hopefully it’ll work fast enough that I can catch up.”

“Jack and Bonesaw tricked me and Coil to figure out where both Cherish and Amy were.  I gave chase, and Jack left before he accomplished anything more than head games.”

“State she’s in, head games are pretty serious.”

“Maybe.  But at least she didn’t cave on his demands.”

“Sure.”

“The bad thing is… Jack knows about Dinah’s prophecy.”

Tattletale looked as though I’d slapped her.  “Shit.”

“I mean, her numbers weren’t that good as far as our mortality rate going up against the Nine, so maybe she’s wrong about-”

I stopped as Tattletale shook her head.

“Depends how you interpret it,” she said. “The kid sounded pretty certain.  Anyways, keep going.”

“Siberian’s somewhere downtown, her real body in some kind of case, maybe.”

“I think we might have run into her,” Tattletale said.  “I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to details, mostly just trying to avoid trouble.  But I’m pretty sure she was hauling around something big.  Fuck, I think she might have had a friend.”

“A friend?”

“Hookwolf.”

I nodded slowly.  “Where was she headed?”

“North.”

“Where did Coil stick Cherish?”

Tattletale made a face.  “North.”

If there had been a wall in reach, I would have punched it.  “Wonderful.”

“Explain?” Bitch asked.

“They’re heading over to Cherish’s location, I’m almost a hundred percent positive,” Tattletale explained.  “If Siberian’s heading there to rendezvous with them, then any further encounters with them are going to be ugly.  Doubly so if they have new blood on their team.”

“Hookwolf’s under the influence of Bonesaw’s miasma,” I added.  “Don’t know what his reasons were for staying here, but the miasma seems to have eliminated that.  He’s with the Nine.  Maybe permanently.  Bonesaw will keep it from killing him, I guess.”

“So they got their candidate?”

“And,” I addressed Bitch as I spoke, “They might be looking for more candidates to round out their group.  If they left Siberian behind to try to recruit Hookwolf, and they tried a pretty aggressive strategy against Panacea, then they might make another stab at recruiting you.  Or Regent.”

“Or Noelle,” Tattletale added.

Why did that give me such a bad feeling?

I sighed.  “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  I think we should give chase.”

“Head to where Cherish is?”

I nodded.  “It hasn’t been too long, so they won’t have much time to prepare any counterattack.  It does still leave the problem of finding the others and curing them before something bad happens.”

“If the cure is contagious…  Bitch, you think you could work on finding and curing the others?”

“How?”

I spoke up, “Cure your dogs.  Spit in their mouths, whatever.  Then see about tracking down the others, ambushing them, and having the dogs lick their faces?”

She scowled.  “I haven’t trained ’em to do that.”

“You’ve got ten minutes to teach them,” Tattletale grinned.

“Whatever.”

“You’ll see about curing the others?”

“Yeah.”  Bitch pointed, “But it won’t work with my dogs.  They kill any parasites while my power’s working.”

Right.  I could remember curing Sirius of heartworm.

I shrugged.  “Another way?  Maybe if you dose some fresh water with the new parasites, spit in it, then splash people?  People are going to start getting better fast, with the water changing, but let’s make sure our side is okay?”

Bitch nodded once, curt.

“And can you loan me Bentley?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m starting to wonder why I’m on this team,” Bitch grumbled.

“You have to ask?” Tattletale grinned as she approached Bentley.

“I know it’s just words,” I told Bitch, “But I’m glad you’re back.”

She stared at me like I was speaking Klingon.

“Let’s go,” Tattletale said, as she climbed onto Bentley.  He growled, but she didn’t seem to mind.  Maybe his bark was worse than his bite and she knew it?

Either way, I decided to trust her and took off.

I’d done my part, and I’d have to trust Bitch to complete the task.

I was making more forward progress than Tattletale, though I could feel Atlas fatiguing.  It wasn’t the same as the fatigue I experienced, but he was slowing down fractionally in his wingbeats per second.  It stood to reason.  He was big, and he hadn’t eaten since he was created.  That was compounded by the fact that he’d been going full-bore with minimal chance to rest.

Still, we had the advantage of being able to fly over obstacles, which was something I was gaining a greater appreciation of since I’d gotten the hang of flying him.

With Atlas being tired, not wanting to lose track of Tattletale, I kept our flight close to the ground.

“Where is she?” I called out, as I met her pace.

“Boat Graveyard.  Beached ship, she’s in the hold.”

“Coil told you this?”

“No, but he’ll forgive me for figuring it out, given circumstances.”

“If you’re sure.”

It wasn’t a short trip.  Our destination was north of the market, and the market was a distance from my house.  We were making our way from downtown to the Boat Graveyard.

When the local industry had collapsed, the Boat Graveyard had been something of a staging ground for the irate dock workers.  Shipping companies based in Brockton Bay saw the signs of what was coming and trapped other boats in the harbor as a form of protest, to ensure they weren’t walking away empty-handed.  Police had made arrests, but actually moving the ships out of the way required sailors, and the move had mobilized enough of them that clearing the upper areas of the docks of the ships became all but impossible.  Things capped off with fights, gunfire and a deliberate sinking of a container ship by one of the protesters.

Opinions varied on whether the incident had been a symptom or a cause of the collapse.  Either way, the result was the Boat Graveyard- an entire section of the coastline where boats had sat for so long that they’d rusted or taken on water.

We paused at the top of a hill overlooking the scene: forty or fifty derelict ships, some bigger in sheer mass than the skyscrapers downtown.  Leviathan’s waves had slammed them all into the coastline, smashing them against one another and turning more than a few into something unrecognizable.

Even with Tattletale’s hint, I wasn’t sure I could have found where Cherish was lurking.

“How do we find her before she finds us?” I asked.

“We don’t.  She knows where we are.”

I scanned the wreckage with my eyes.  Would Siberian pop out?  Hookwolf?

“They aren’t attacking.”

Tattletale shook her head, but she didn’t speak.

My bugs began searching for signs of life.

“You outrange her,” Tattletale spoke.  “You detect them, you attack before she can whammy us.”

“Yeah.”  Fat lot of good it’ll do with Siberian there.

I was getting a sense of why there wasn’t any foot traffic here.  Even on land, the force of Leviathan’s tidal wave had sent age-worn sheets of metal flying over the landscape.  Ragged edges of rusty sheet metal waited under every step I took, scraping and stabbing against the soles of my costumed feet.  Tattletale was relying on Bentley’s weight and durability to handle anything that waited underfoot.  He was still panting hard from the run.

My swarm sense alerted me to life in the hold of a ship.  The space was half-filled with sand, and water had leaked in through a hole in the side of the ship.  If supplies were delivered by way of remote control, that was a likely route.

Seven people.  Three male, four females, one of whom was young.  A child, long-haired.  That would be Bonesaw.

“There?”  I pointed at the location.  It was barely visible from where we stood; two ships had been slammed against one another, nose to nose, and they formed a precarious arch over the ship in question.

“Yeah.”

“I’ve found them, I think.  I think Siberian’s there.  There’s a lot of people, anyways.  Seven.”

“How much damage do you think you can do?”

“Not enough.”

We paused.

“Cherish should be alerting them,” Tattletale spoke.  “I’m surprised they aren’t mounting a counterattack.”

“Maybe they can’t?  If they split up, Siberian won’t be able to protect everyone,” I said.

“Well, getting closer is a pretty bad idea.”

“Do we have a choice?”

“We hang back, we follow them, we strike if we spot an opportunity.  Between Bentley and Atlas, we can keep at a distance.”

I shook my head.  “Bentley’s tired, and I don’t know how long Atlas is going to be able to keep flying.”

“They’ll manage.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

Pretty sure.  So she wasn’t positive.

“There’s another possibility,” she ventured.

“Do tell.”

“Cherish might not be saying anything because she wants us to attack the others.”

“Or,” I pointed out, “The Nine are giving us that impression because they want us to think that so they can turn the tables.”

“That line of thinking leads to madness.”

“Call me crazy, but I’d rather not gamble.”

“So?  What’s the plan?”

“We wait?  At least a little while.”

“Sure.”  She gave the bulldog a pat on the head.  “Give Bentley a chance to rest.  You can feed Atlas.”

“Pretty narrow window of time,” I added.  “Bitch’s effects on the dogs don’t last that long.  Figure twenty minutes, and we took at least fifteen to get here…”

“But she gave them more juice than usual.  I’d say roughly ten minutes before he’s too small to carry me,” Tattletale said.

“Ten minutes.”

We settled into a position behind cover, and I began drawing bugs to me to feed Atlas.  I wasn’t positive about his diet, and Grue had said that he’d given Atlas a more human digestive system, which left me uncertain.  That said, Atlas was made of bugs, I figured he required the nutrients they provided on a sheer logical level, like how humans would generally get most of the nutrients they needed by eating other humans, if they had to.  That, and I’d pointed out to the rest of the group how bugs were something we could eat as humans, so his digestive tract could probably manage them.

It was also the easiest thing to provide.

“You have eyes on them?”

“Minimal.  My interpretation via the swarm’s eyes and ears is still garbage, as always.  And I didn’t want to have so many around them that they get suspicious.”

“Can’t make out what they’re saying?”

I shook my head.  Still, I could tell that they were talking.

Seven of them.  One of the men was garbed in smooth body armor that covered everything.  Mannequin.  There was another man who could have been Siberian’s real self or Hookwolf.  Long haired, shirtless.  My bugs traced the edges of knives at one man’s belt: He was the quietest, and was pacing without cease, sitting down, then pacing again.  Jack.

Three women, none of whom were Siberian if I accounted for the presence of clothing and the texture of their skin.  Rounding out the group was a little girl with long hair.  One of the women was doing most of the talking.  Would that be Shatterbird or Cherish?  Who was the third?  Had the Nine gotten their hands on Noelle?

It unsettled me that Jack wasn’t taking more of a lead in the conversation.  Maybe Cherish was just dishing out the dirt?

“The dynamic seems wrong,” I said.  “Something’s off.  Not sure if Siberian’s present or not, Bonesaw’s quiet and Jack is mute.”

“Maybe Cherish took control?” Tattletale ventured.

It was a scary thought.  The Nine were strong, and one of the only reasons they weren’t a bigger problem was that they were their own worst enemies.  Most of our victories to date had been because we exploited their character weaknesses.  Under a leader…

“No.  Bonesaw took measures.”

“Maybe Cherish found a way around it?”

I didn’t have a response for that.  Minutes passed, and the Nine lapsed into silence.  Some were resting.  Or pretending to rest.

“They’re napping or something,” I said.

“Could be baiting you.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“And Bentley’s getting too small to help me make an exit.”

“Atlas can manage with just me,” I told her.

“Going alone?  No.  Grue would kill me.  It’s senseless.  I can call Coil, so we can get a squad of soldiers in place to try and take someone out.  Or maybe we get the Director to bomb the area.”

“Because that’s worked so well this far.”

Tattletale smiled a little.  “What would you rather do?  Going in is suicide.  You’d be opening yourself up to Cherish’s power.”

“She’s resting.”

“You think.”

“Not sure which person she is, but her breathing is really regular, has been for a while.”

“And she could be faking it, a hundred percent aware that you’re thinking what you’re thinking.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“Why are you so fixated on this?  On going in?”

“I want to end this.”

“That’s not your real reason.”

“And I feel like something’s wrong.  The details don’t jibe.”

“That’s a less than stellar reason to put yourself at that kind of risk.”

“There’s a chance Siberian isn’t here, or isn’t in a state to defend her allies.  But… I can’t bring myself to attack.”

“This is a shitty time to have an attack of conscience.”

“You sound like Jack.  He tried to push me to kill while I thought he was Grue.”

“You’ll have to explain how all that happened at a later date.  Jack’s good at fucking with people’s heads.  It could still be a trap.”

“It could.”

“But?”

“I’ve got this feeling in my gut, like I had when I was around Jack and Bonesaw, and I wish I’d trusted it then.  I don’t want to doubt it now.”

“A gut feeling?”

I nodded, once.

She sighed.  “What can I do?”

“Get out of here.  I don’t want to hurt you if I fall under Cherish’s control, which is supposed to be pretty short-lived.  In case she plans to make it more long-term, maybe call the PRT director and arrange a firebomb if I don’t report back?”

Tattletale made a face.  “This is dumb.”

“I’ve done dumb things.  I somehow don’t feel like this is one of them.”

“Go, then.  Call me as soon as it’s safe.”

I nodded.

She headed out of the graveyard with Bentley.  I waited a few minutes, until she was out of my power’s range.

Atlas and I crossed the gap to the ship.  I waited for the hit of Cherish’s power, but it didn’t come.

My bugs sensed more of Bonesaw’s traps – areas heavy with fog, or where vials had been thrown, placed or dropped.  I was glad there wasn’t any of the extermination smoke.  I set foot on the tilted deck and began slowly making my way into the ship.  My soft soled costumed feet were quiet, barely audible to myself.

I drew my gun, readying myself to fire the second I was in range.  If Cherish was setting up the Nine for me, I was pretty sure I could hit one and get away before trouble arose.  It was a feeble thought – even Jack, one of their most vulnerable members, hadn’t fallen to gunfire.  Still, it was reassuring.

More traps forced me to make slower progress through the labyrinthine ship’s interior.  It was a while before I could stop at the outside of the door at the lowest point of the ship.

I heard sobbing.

I stepped through the doorway and took in the room’s interior.

The floor sloped one way.  Half of the room was metal flooring covered in sand, the lowest half was submerged.

Three men, three women and a girl.  The man with knives in his belt stood, then began the ritual pacing once again.  His feet were raw where the rusted metal deck had cut at them.  The others sat and stood in various points around the hull.

I withdrew my phone and called Tattletale.

“That was fast.”

“It’s not the Nine.  Decoys.”

I stared at them.  The disguises had been rushed but thorough.  Jack and Bonesaw had clearly changed clothes with the people in question, and Bonesaw had whipped up something approximating Mannequin’s armor for one of the men.

“Call Coil, get medics here.  It’s Bonesaw’s work, so he might need to call on some expert surgeons to undo whatever she did.  I’ll use my bugs to mark out the traps that Bonesaw set up inside.”

“On it.”  She hung up.

Paralysis, compulsive movements.  Puppets.  Decoys.  Had this been Jack’s attempt to make me betray my morals?  Setting up decoys with the idea that I’d attack first and check later?  If I’d gone with my first impulse and tried to kill them, I’d have seven civilian deaths on my hands.

“Help is on the way, guys.  I’m sorry about this.”

“Thank you,” the twenty-something woman I’d guessed to be Cherish spoke.  The others were mute.

I saw drag marks in the sand, leading to the water.  Who had that been?

The knife was the last thing I spotted.  It had been slammed into the metal hull of the boat.  I stepped over the chain and collar that had probably been attached to Cherish.  I pulled the knife free of the wall and used my bugs to catch the note before it fluttered to the floor.

We concede our loss to you, Brockton Bay.  As per my agreement with Miss Amelia, we’ll be leaving your fascinating city.  It was fun.

Don’t worry about Cherish.  She’s sleeping somewhere at the bottom of the bay.  Bonesaw was kind enough to crank up her receptive range toward negative emotions and remove her filters.  The girl will personally experience every awful feeling Brockton Bay’s inhabitants do- and with the benefit of Alan’s tech, she’ll get to do it for a very, very, very long time.  

A departure marked not with a bang, but a whimper.  I’m sure you understand.

Yours truly,

Jack.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Arcadia high was the school every kid in Brockton Bay wanted to attend.  A big part of that was the fact that everyone knew that the Wards attended Arcadia, and attending meant that any one of your classmates could be a superhero or superheroine.  To anyone else, you could just as easily be one, too.  It wasn’t a rich kid’s school like Immaculata, but it was a good school.  Every classmate treated other classmates with the utmost respect.  Both the students and the school itself maintained a certain status and pride as a consequence.

Now it was something else, and it inspired entirely different feelings.  The front gate looked like it had aged a thousand years, the sharp corners of the cut stone had rounded off, the ivy that once wound around it had withered.  The windows of the building were all shattered, empty of glass, and the fields were a patchwork of overgrown grass and mud.  With the faint tendrils of colored mist that surrounded the grounds, it looked like a prime location for a horror movie.

I had little doubt I was in the right place.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor.  Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinkerPanacea’s the healer on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist.

I recited the words as a refrain, as if I could hold the names and identities of the major players in my short-term memory by constantly reminding myself of who they were.

The school was on a hill, meaning the water that was producing the miasma was far enough away that only traces of it reached this far.  The little vapor that got to the school was held at bay by the stone wall that ringed the school.  The design suggested it had been intended more for aesthetics than for utility, but it was serving a purpose nonetheless.

Panacea’s the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl the chemist-tinker.  Panacea is the healer, top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

It seemed like the mechanical spiders had lost track of me.  They would probably give up the chase and return to their master, but it was one less thing to worry about for the time being.

Jack and the tinker would have gone in through the ground floor.  I decided to land on the roof.  The second I was on terra firma, I reached for my phone to check.  No signal.

I needed to signal someone about what was going on.  I was woefully underequipped, and I doubted my ability to win this alone, especially when my opponents weren’t as disadvantaged as I was.

I could use something like a giant nine crafted out of bugs floating over the school to signal that the pair was here… but there was no guarantee that someone would come.  There was also the possibility that it would lead to the good guys dropping another bomb on us.  That would get the healer and maybe even me killed.  Panacea had to survive, or everyone in the city would die in the aftermath of Bonesaw’s miasma.

Panacea is the healer, she’s on the top floor, Jack is the slasher, the blond girl is the chemist-tinker.

I tenderly touched the cut on my face.  Jack must have pulled back as I used the tinker as a shield, because the cut was fairly shallow.  It was long, though, and my fingertips were wet with blood after I touched my hand to it.  I couldn’t distinguish the blood from the black fabric of my gloves, so I couldn’t tell how much it actually was.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

There was a door on the rooftop, and I used my knife to pry the doorknob partially off, then gave it a firm kick to remove it.  The lock was built into the handle, and it didn’t take long to figure out how to open it when I could see the internal mechanisms.  It wasn’t exactly high security, more intended to keep kids from getting onto the roof than keeping people on the roof from getting in.

Just past the door was a set of stairs that led down into the top floor of the building.  It looked like a janitorial closet.  I sent Atlas down to check before venturing down myself, and I began distributing my swarm through the school.  I prepared silk lines across doorways and hallways to inform me of others passing through, placed ants, earwigs, centipedes and pill bugs on the walls to give me a sense of the layout, and sent flies to scan the interiors of each room to see if I couldn’t find anyone.

Again, I repeated the refrain in my head, reminding myself about who was in the building.  I wasn’t sure it was helping, but I didn’t want to get tricked again.

There were two hallways and three classrooms my bugs couldn’t enter without dying on the spot. That marked out a relatively small area that the Nine could be.

The biggest issue was that I couldn’t find Panacea.  Did that mean she was in close confines with the enemy?  It wasn’t a good thought.

As I laid silk lines across possible entryways to alert myself about enemy movements, I was careful to check each area before I advanced further into the building.  My eyes searched for details while my swarm scanned the walls and the ground.

I was a short distance away from the Nine when I saw a wet spot on the wall, complete with discoloration of the paint.  I sent bugs in, and they felt shards of glass on the floor around the patch.  I wouldn’t have said that the swarm smelled anything, but there was something heavy in the air as flies beat their wings, the muscular action simultaneously drawing oxygen in.  Whatever it was, it was dense, cloying, odorless and colorless, only extending a dozen feet around the spot.

I backtracked and picked a different route.  My pace slowed to half of what it had been as I searched for other telltale details.  Twice, I found similar traps, both with that odourless smoke, and twice I had to change my route.

I paused outside the bug-killing zone.  Flies had ferried spiders to me, and I started organizing them to produce lengths of silk cord.  I left them behind while I creeped closer and listened in.

“…minds do think alike.  I did something very similar for Siberian.”  A girl’s voice.

“Shut up.  We’re nothing alike.”  Another girl.

“We could be!  Haven’t you ever wanted to start over?  I could make you younger!  We’d be the same age!  And wear matching outfits!  Oh!  I could do plastic surgery, we could be twins!”

“Did- did you do that to yourself?  Make yourself young?”

“No.”  A male voice.  “Rest assured, Bonesaw’s immaturity is genuine.  Both an asset in how it makes her that much more creative, free in her ways.  A detriment in other ways.”

“Doesn’t… that bother you?  Him saying that about you?”

“Jack knows what he’s doing.”

“I do.  I know a lot of things,” Jack spoke, his voice smooth, almost seductive.

“Don’t.  I know you’ve got a silver tongue.  I don’t want to hear it.”

“You prefer the alternative?”  Jack asked, his voice cool.

I could picture him holding that knife of his, the threat all too clear.

There was a long pause.

He spoke, “I suppose not.  So let’s dialogue.”

“Go ahead,” Panacea’s voice was small, almost defeated.

“What’s holding you back?  You’re capable of so much, of changing the world, of destroying it, but you’re so very small, Amelia Claire Lavere.”

His voice was almost mocking as he said her name.

“That’s not my name.”

“It’s the name you were born with.  Imagine my surprise when I found out your relation to Marquis.  In my last visit to Brockton Bay, I crossed paths with each of the major players.  I met the man.  I must tell you, Amelia, he was a very interesting character.”

“I don’t really want to know.”

“I’m going to tell you.  And I have another motive, but I’ll get to that in a moment.  Marquis was a man of honor.  He decided on the rules he would play by and he stuck to them.  He put his life and limb at risk to try to keep me from killing women and children, and I decided to see if I could use that to break him.  I admit I failed.”

“He killed Allfather’s daughter.”

“No, Amelia, he didn’t.”

There was a pause.

“Did you kill her?”

“No.  What I’m saying is that Marquis would not have killed the girl, even under duress; that was one of the rules he set for himself.  If he was going to violate that rule, he would have done it when I’d tried to break him.”

“Allfather put a contract on my head before he died, because of what Marquis did.  Because- It’s how I found out he was my dad.  A letter from Dragon to Carol.”

“Carol… Ah yes, Brandish.   Well, I suspect either Dragon was manipulating you, or your father was manipulating Dragon in an effort to get a message to you.”

“A message.”

“That he’s there, that he exists.  Perhaps he sought to ensure he wasn’t forgotten by his child.  He was an old-fashioned individual, so it makes sense that he’d seek immortality through his progeny.”

Bonesaw piped up.  “That’s stupid.  Why do something like that when someone like me could make you immortal for real?”

“Shush, now.  Finish sewing yourself up while Amelia and I talk.”

“Okay,” Bonesaw said.  Her voice overlapped with Panacea saying, “Stop saying that.  It’s not my name.”

“Isn’t it?”

There was another silence.

“You’re your father’s daughter.  Both of you are bound up in rules you’ve imposed on yourselves.  His rules defined his demeanor, the boundaries he worked within, the goals he sought to achieve and how he achieved them.  They were his armor as much as his power was.  I would guess your rules are your weakness.  Rather than focus you, they leave you in free fall, nothing to grasp on to except your sister there, and we both know how that has turned out.”

Sister.  I made a mental note of that.  There were four people in that room.

“I- how do you know this?”

“Our emotion reader picked up on some.  I’ve figured out the rest.  As you might expect, I’m rather familiar with damaged individuals.”

Bonesaw giggled.

I didn’t like the way this was going.  I looked down the hall to see the doors.  Each door had once had a window on the upper half, but there were only slivers left, the rest scattered over the floor.  In an ideal world, some distraction would present itself, or the conversation would become a heated argument and they would distract each other.  I could rise from my crouching position, step forward, aim my gun and fire.  Unload the gun’s clip on Jack and Bonesaw.

Or I’d miss, resulting in the messy deaths of Panacea, her sister and I.  I really needed that distraction if I was going to do this.

“I’m not… not that type of damaged.  I’m not a monster,” Panacea protested.  As an afterthought, she added, “No offense.”

“I’ve been called worse.  I almost relish being called a monster.  As though I’ve transcended humanity and become something from myth.”

“Myth.”

“And according to Cherish, it may well be a destruction myth.”

“What?”

“She recently informed me that the world is going to end because of me.  Not quite sure how or when.  It could well be that I’m the butterfly that flaps his wings and stirs a hurricane into being through a chain of cause and effect.”

“I don’t want the world to end,” Bonesaw said.  “It’s fun.”

“It is.  But I expect it won’t end altogether.  There’s always going to be survivors.”

“True.”

“And it makes for an interesting picture.  After everything’s gone, there’ll be a new beginning.  Who better to craft the remains into a new world than you and Mannequin?”

“And Amelia?”

“And Amelia, if she so chooses.  We could be like gods in a new world.”

“You’re crazy,” Panacea muttered.

“According to studies, clinically depressed individuals have a more accurate grasp of reality than the average person.  We tell ourselves lies and layer falsehoods and self-assurances over one another in order to cope with a world colored by pain and suffering.  We put blinders on.  If we lose that illusion, we crumble into depression or we crack and go mad.  So perhaps I’m crazy, but only because I see things too clearly?”

“No,” Panacea’s voice was quiet.  “Um.  You’re not going to kill me if I argue, are you?”

“I’m liable to kill you if you don’t.”

“It’s not that you see too clearly.  I think your view is warped.”

“Over the course of millions of generations that led to your birth, how many of your ancestors were successful because they were cruel to others, because they lied, cheated, stole from their kin, betrayed their brothers and sisters, warred with their neighbors, killed?  We know about Marquis, so that’s one.”

How many were successful because they cooperated?  I wondered.

Jack probably had a rebuttal to my question, but I wasn’t about to speak up to hear it, and Panacea didn’t ask.  She fell silent.

I was tensed, ready to move and shoot the second an opportunity arose.  Anything would suffice.  Anything would do.

I visualized it, the steps I’d take to open fire, and I realized that the shards of glass on the ground between me and the door could provide them with a half-second of warning.  Slowly, carefully, I began brushing the shards aside, keeping my ears peeled for some clue about a key distraction.

“Survival of the fittest, it sounds so tidy, but it’s really hundreds of thousands of years of brutish, messy, violent incidents, billions of events that you’d want to avert your eyes from if you were to see them in person.  And that’s a large part of what’s shaped us into what we are.  But we wear masks, we pretend to be good, we extend a helping hand to others for reasons that are ultimately self-serving, and all the while, we’re just crude, pleasure-seeking, conniving, selfish apes.  We’re all monsters, deep down inside.”

Again, one of those pauses that suggested something was going on that was visual and out of sight, rather than something I could overhear.  Jack offered a dry chuckle.  “Did that hit home?”

“I’m… not that kind of person.  Not a monster.  I’d kill myself before I became like that.”

“But you see how you could be like us.  It wouldn’t even be very hard.  Just… let go of those rules of yours.  You’d get everything you ever wanted.”

“Not family.”

Yes, family.”  Bonesaw cut in.

“You guys kill each other.  That’s not family.”

“You’re derailing our conversation, Bonesaw,” Jack chided the girl.  “Amelia, when I say you could have everything you ever wanted, I’m telling you that you could live free of guilt, of shame, you could have your sister by your side, no more doubts plaguing you, no more feeling down.  Haven’t you laid in bed at night, wondering, praying for a world where you could have something like that?  I’m telling you that you can have those things, and I promise you that the transition from being who you are now to being who you could be would be much quicker than you suspect.”

“No.”  The defiance was half-hearted.

“Amelia, you could let yourself cut loose and love life for the first time since you were young.”

And just like that, her resistance crumbled.  “I’ve never felt like that.  Never felt carefree.  Not since I could remember.  Not even when I was a kid.”

“I see.  From your earliest memory, what was that?  In Marquis’s home?  No?  Being taken home by the heroes and heroines that would become your false family?  Ah, I saw that change in expression.  That would be your earliest memory, and you found yourself struggling to adjust to your new home, to school and life without your supervillain daddy.  By the time you did figure those things out, you had other worries.  I imagine your family was distant.  So you struggled to please them, to be a good girl, not that it ever mattered.  There was only disappointment.”

“You sound like Tattletale.  That’s not a compliment.”

“My ability to read people is learned, not given, I assure you.  Most of the conclusions I’ve come to have been from the cues you’ve given me.  Body language, tone, things you’ve said.  And I know these sorts of things and what to look for because I’ve met others like you.  That’s what I’m offering you.  A chance to be with similar people for the first time in your life, a chance to be yourself,  to have everything you want, and to be with me.  I suspect you’ve never been around someone who actually paid attention to you.”

“Tattletale did.  And Skitter.”

I startled at that.

“I meant on a long-term basis, but let’s talk about that.  I imagine they were telling you ‘No, you aren’t.  You can be good.'”

“Yeah.”

“But you didn’t believe them, did you, Amelia?  You’ve spent years telling yourself the opposite.  You’re a bad person, you’re destined to be bad, by circumstance and blood.  And even though you didn’t believe them, you’ll believe me when I tell you no, you aren’t a good person, but that’s okay.”

“It’s not.”

“You say that, but you believe me when I say it.”

There was another pause where Panacea didn’t venture a response.

“Isn’t it unfair?  Through no fault of your own, the blood in your veins is the blood of a criminal, and that’s affected how your family looks at you.  You’ve been saddled with feelings that aren’t your fault, and doomed to a life without color, enjoyment or pleasure.  Don’t you deserve to follow your passions?  A decade and a half of doing what others want you to do, doing what society wants you to do, haven’t you earned the right to do what you really desire, just this once?”

“That’s not really that convincing,” Panacea spoke, but she didn’t sound assertive.

“I know.  So I’ll offer you a deal.  If you indulge yourself, we’ll surrender.”

“What?”

“I won’t even make you do it now.  Just look me in the eye, and honestly tell me you’ll do it. Drop all of the rules you’ve set yourself.  I don’t care what you do after, you can wipe your sister’s memories, you can kill yourself, you can run away or come with us.  And your side wins.”

“Aren’t we winning anyways?”

“Up for debate.  I’m really quite thrilled with the current situation.  Very enjoyable, and we’ve certainly made an impact.”

“This deal is a trap.  You’ll make me do it and then you’ll kill me.”

“I could, but I won’t.  Do you really have anything to lose by trying?  If I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you regardless of what you say or do.  Three and a half words: ‘I’ll do it’, and we leave the city.”

I almost stood right then, to open fire before she made a decision one way or another.  I had to convince myself to wait, that no matter what they were saying, they wouldn’t leave right this instant.

Then I heard the sound of glass crunching in time with someone’s footsteps.

With the length of time I’d waited for an opportunity, I was going to take what I could get.  My heart pounded, my hands shook even as I gripped the gun as hard as I could, but I let out a slow breath as I drew myself smoothly to a standing position and stepped into the doorway, pointing the gun through the window frame in the door.

They hadn’t heard me move.  It left me a second to take in the scene and make sure I was shooting the right people.

They were in a music room that had been arranged with seats on a series of ascending platforms, backed by windows that had exploded inward, scattering the area with glass shards.  At the bottom ‘floor’, there was a podium waiting for the teacher.  Jack was walking up the steps to approach a girl.  I knew he was Jack because he was the only male present.  He was wreathed in thin white smoke, wore a light gray t-shirt marked with blood stains and black jeans tucked into cowboy boots.  A thick leather belt had a variety of knives, including a butcher’s cleaver, a stiletto and a serrated blade.

His teammate Bonesaw, was standing in the corner of the room just to my right.  I could see the edge of a dress, an apron with tools and vials in the pocket, long blond hair curled into ringlets, and that same shroud of smoke around her, moving out to fill the room.  The rest of her was obscured by the wall to my right and the shelves that stood behind the podium.  It put her in an awkward spot for me to shoot.  If I’d known she was there, I would have crawled over to the door at that end, gunned her down at point-blank.

Panacea stood at the far end of the room, at the highest point. She had brown hair that was blowing slightly with the breeze that flowed in through the glassless windows behind her, topped with a flat top cap.  Freckles covered her face, and she was dressed in a tank top and cargo pants.  More than anything else, she wore a look of fear on her face that marked her as the victim, not the threat.

And process of elimination meant the thing beside her was her sister.  I would have called it a coffin, but it was clearly made of something living.  It resembled a massive growth of flesh that had been shaped into a vague diamond shape, gnarled with horny callous and toenail-like growths that protected it and reinforced it at the edges.  On the side closest to me, a girl’s face was etched into an oversized growth of bone.  It was unmoving, decorative, with locks of long wavy hair that wrapped around the sides of the diamond.  The ‘sister’ floated a foot over the floor.

It was so startling to see that I nearly forgot what I was doing.  I drew in a short breath, then let slow breath out as I aimed the gun at Jack and squeezed the trigger.

I’d mentally planned to unload the gun on Jack and Bonesaw, but I’d forgotten about the recoil.   At the same time Jack was struck down, my arm jerked up, and my mental instruction to fire nonetheless carried through.  The second bullet hit the ceiling.

I whipped the door open and turned to my right to fire on Bonesaw, but my arm was numb, and her reflexes were sharp.  She was already opening a door at the other corner of the classroom before I could shoot, making her way into the hallway.

I had a split second to decide if I should chase her or go after Jack.  I glanced at Panacea, saw her staring.  As if the eye contact snapped her out of a daze, she lunged toward Jack, one hand outstretched.  She stopped dead in her tracks as he lashed out blindly with the knife.  Reversing direction, she went for her sister instead.

Jack hadn’t been incapacitated.  Aside from the impact of the gunshot, he didn’t even seem wounded.  He was on his feet in a flash, spinning a hundred and eighty degrees to face me, his knife in motion.

I ducked back through the door, the knife delivering a glancing blow to my back.  It failed to penetrate my costume.

Oddly enough, moving into the hallway and putting my back to the wall made me feel like I’d committed to fighting Jack, even if I might have been in a better position to go after Bonesaw.

“Wake,” I heard Panacea speak.  She said something else that I missed.

I felt a jolt, but it wasn’t physical.  It shook me on an emotional level.  My voice abandoned me, not that I wanted to speak.  I felt as if I stood on the very edge of the grand canyon and any movement, even one to step back onto solid ground, was guaranteed to send me falling to certain death.

The levitating construct of flesh slammed through the door and the door-frame that Bonesaw had used to make her exit.  The mask of bone drew upward like an opened lid, to reveal a clear sphere, containing vitreous fluid and a teenage girl with blond hair.

Her eyes were open, but she looked half asleep, her hair fanned out around her, floating in fluid that seemed thicker than water.  Her arms were outstretched, but her hands and lower body were hidden by the meat that surrounded her.  The edges of the shell that were unfolding around her were curved forward like the horns of a bull.

If the sister had come after me, I wouldn’t have been able to fight back.  Like a deer in the headlights, I stood there, unable to think or compel my body to move.

She rotated in mid-air slowly, as if getting her bearings.  As ponderously as she had moved one moment, she went tearing after Bonesaw in the next, slamming through walls as momentum carried her too far and as she turned a corner too tight and sheared through the drywall, tile and window frames.

I could hear Bonesaw laughing with childlike glee as she fled.

“Not smart, not smart, either of you,” Jack chastised us.  “See, with Victoria gone, you’ve left me here with a hostage.”

I stood with my back to the wall, gun in hand.  Ten bullets in here, four spent, if I’d counted right.  I’d always sort of rolled my eyes at how movies treated guns and counting bullets, but it was harder than I’d thought.  The shock and disorientation that came with firing a gun tended to disrupt even basic arithmetic.  I couldn’t remember how many times I’d fired during the fight in the parking lot.

“I’ve been turning every microbe that touches my skin into an airborne plague, Jack,” Panacea spoke, her voice low.  “You should be dead now.”

“And me?” I called out, feeling a pang of alarm.

“I didn’t know you were there.  You should be dead too.  Sorry.”

“A benefit of little Bonesaw’s smoke,” Jack answered.  “If I recall correctly, it’s something of a safeguard in case she accidentally deploys a concoction she hasn’t immunized herself or the rest of our team against.  The fact that it works against bugs and small rodents is a side benefit, rather than the intent.  Bonesaw’s work has made us members of the Nine more or less immune to disease anyways.”

“And the gunshot?”

“Subdermal mesh.  There’s more protection around the spine and organs, and you landed that shot pretty close to my spine.  It hurts quite a bit.”

“Skitter!  I don’t care if I die,” Panacea called out, “I’d rather live, if only to turn Victoria back to normal, but… just don’t worry about the hostage part.  If I have to die so you can kill this fucker, I will.”

It isn’t that simple.  Killing a monster like Jack or Bonesaw?  That was one thing.  I could push myself to do it.  Killing a bystander in the process?  That was something else entirely.

Jack seemed to be able to interpret my pause.  “I suspect, Amelia, that she is worried about the hostage.  The monster that dwells in Skitter’s heart is very similar one to yours.  It’s a lonely thing, desperate for a place to belong, and the only thing it wants to be brutish to is her.”

“Don’t pretend you know me, Jack,” I called out.  “You already tried to fuck with my head, you guessed wrong.”

“I had bad information.  Cherish has her uses, but she was never going to be a long-term member of the group.  The people who can are truly special.  Bonesaw, Siberian, me.  Perhaps Mannequin, but it’s hard to say.  He’s not terribly social, but he’s been with us for some time.”

I stayed silent.  I could hear his voice changing in volume as he spoke.  Was he moving?

There were two doors leading into the classroom.  Was he moving toward one, aiming to leap out and strike at me?  I glanced down the length of the hall.  Bathroom, janitorial closet, another bathroom, storage room… it made sense that there wouldn’t be other classrooms adjacent to a music room with minimal soundproofing.

“You two have your differences, of course.  Amelia, you’re burdened by guilt, as you’re burdened by your rules and so much else.  I’d like you to think again about how nice it would be to be free-”

“No,” Amelia’s interruption was curt, almost defensive.

“Alas.  Well, while I’m interpreting you two, I’d say Skitter is driven by guilt.  What makes you feel so guilty, bug girl?”

He’s trying to distract me.

I scampered along the length of the hallway, keeping low enough that I wouldn’t be visible from the window while I moved to the point just beyond the effects of the bug-killing cloud.  I could send bugs after Bonesaw and the sister -Victoria, was it?- but Bonesaw would still have that cloud of smoke around her.  I doubted my ability to achieve anything on that front.

“There’s always some guilt related to family.  Tell me, what would your mother think, to see you on an average day?  Or can’t you remember her with the miasma?  I’d almost forgotten.”

Even if I couldn’t remember her face, who she was, or even where she was, I could feel a pang of regret that knotted in my gut.  I grit my teeth to remind myself to keep from opening my mouth and grasped the cords that my bugs had threaded together.  I looped them around Atlas’ horn, and then I ran down the hallway, still keeping low.

Just to check, I tried bringing bugs into the hallway.  The smoke was still present, if thin.  They still died, just a little slower than before.  I returned them to their previous location.  No use wasting them for nothing.

“Skitter,” he called out in a sing-song voice.  With the acoustics of the hallway, I couldn’t pinpoint his location.  “Aren’t you going to reply?”

Just as I was trying to locate him, he was attempting to do the same for me.

I decided to give him what he wanted.

“You’re pathetic, Jack.”

I’d intended to provoke him, and I’d succeeded.

I’d also intended to pull the silk cord taut as he stepped into the hallway, tripping him.

Instead of opening the door, he leaped through the open window in the upper half of the door, tucking his knees against his chest.  He landed with a short roll, spotted me, and slashed.

I brought my arms up around my face to protect it.  The feeling of the silk cord’s weight dropped to virtually nothing as the slash cut it.

I’d been given tips on fighting, even if I couldn’t remember by who or by whom.  Catch them off guard.  My arms around my face, nearly blind, I charged him.

He caught me in the side with a kick, but I had enough forward momentum that I crashed into him anyways.  We fell to the ground, and I reached for the smoking vial that hung around his neck.

Jack already had the stiletto in one hand.  He jabbed it toward my face, my eye, and I jerked my head back out of the way, abandoning my attempt to get the vial.  Using one elbow, he shoved me to one side, then flipped over, simultaneously reversing his grip on the knife in his other hand and driving it down toward the side of my head.  I rolled with the momentum he’d given me to escape before it could pierce my ear or my temple.  He was already following up, slashing both knives at me, one after the other.

He knew how to fight, of course.  He’d said he’d been at this for a while.

Hated this.  Hated fighting without knowing enough about my opponents.

I tried to get my feet under me, but it was slow and awkward as I was unable to use my hands.  I had to wrap my arms around my head to shield my face against the continued flurry of slashes. Jack had a knife in each hand now, and he wasn’t giving me a half second between cuts, if that.

My forearms and hands didn’t cover enough of my head.  I could feel the cuts nicking my ears, slashing through my hair by my temple.  A few slashes made their way through gaps between my arms and fingers.

Blindly, I rushed for the classroom.  Needed a second to breathe, to think, before I was whittled down to a bleeding ruin.  I could hear footsteps behind me.  I felt a hand seize my shoulder.  I whirled and knocked it away, felt another knife slash crossing the back of my head.  I had blood in my eyes, my ears were a bloody ruin, and cuts burned like fire around my scalp and neck.

A shout.  Not Jack’s.  I heard it again, the same words, but I couldn’t make them out.  There was blood in my ears.

I stumbled into the classroom, and Panacea was at my side in a moment.

“Fix me,” I gasped.  I couldn’t tell where Jack was, and I was hurting enough that I couldn’t think to strategize.  He hadn’t followed.  “Fast!”

She touched my forehead, and I could feel the cuts knitting together.

But there was another injury that wasn’t mending.

“The red miasma took away my ability to recognize people.  I don’t know anything about the people I’m fighting.  Fix my brain.”

“I don’t- I can’t.”

“If you don’t fix me, Jack could win, and billions could die.  If you don’t cure whatever it is that Bonesaw’s done with this miasma, I and tens of thousands of others could die of a degenerative brain disease.”

“You don’t understand.  I can’t cure brain damage.”

My heart fell.

“I- my- the last time I did it, the last time I broke my rules, everything fell apart.  You’re asking me to do the exact same thing Jack was.  To break my rules again.”

“They’re just rules.”  Where was Jack?

“They’re the only thing holding me together.”

He’s getting away.  This stupid girl.  “You were willing to die if he took you hostage.  I’m asking you to sacrifice yourself in a lesser way.  Fall apart if you have to.  But undo what Bonesaw’s started.”

“This is worse than dying,” she said, her voice quiet.

“Ask yourself if it’s worse than the slow, degenerative death of thousands and the potential end of the world.”

She stared at me.

Even as she looked at me, aghast, I felt something awaken in my mind, barriers crumbling.

“This is bad.  Every second is time you’re suffering more permanent damage.”

“That’s not a huge priority.  I’m more worried about Jack, and all the others who got hit harder by this stuff than I did.”

“It’s a parasite that’s producing the improperly folded proteins.  I can stop it, and I think I can make them create a counter-agent that counteracts the proteins and promotes healing in the brain.  Can’t make them fix the lesions, but I can promote plasticity in the brain and new connections to old information.”

Her voice was so quiet I barely heard it.

But I could remember the others; I remembered Tattletale and Brian.  Rachel.  I could remember Alec and Aisha.  The dogs.  Our enemies.  My dad.  My mom’s face popped into my mind’s eye and I could feel a relief as I let go of an anxiety that I hadn’t been consciously aware of.

“The parasites will replace existing parasites over time, and they’ll die if it gets cold, now.  Or if you raise your blood alcohol content.  Get drunk after a week or two to clear them from your system, and don’t drink tainted water.  If everyone clears them from their systems, the miasma’s effects will be gone by the end of winter.”

“They’re probably what she seeded all over the area, before using the catalyst.”

“I’d believe it.”

“And the damage, can you reverse it?”

“The minor damage, yeah.  But I can’t do anything for the people with more serious brain lesions unless I attend to them directly.  There’s other healers out there, I know they’re not as good, but maybe they can do something to fix that.”

I nodded.

Precious seconds passed.

“Let me know the second I can go,” I said.  “Jack’s going to attack, or pull something.”

“Trying to engineer a large-scale solution to help as many people as soon as possible.  The parasites will leave your body through your sweat, spit and urine, and enter the local water supply to override the others, and anyone you cure will cure others in a sort of reverse-epidemic.  I have to make sure this is engineered right, or nobody’s going to get cured.  If I screw it up, it could be worse than what Bonesaw did.”

My leg bounced on the spot with anxiety and anticipation.  Jack was up to something and I was sitting there.

I tried to distract myself with a change of subject, “Where did you get the material for what you did for Glory Girl?  That sarcophagus thing.  You have to use living material, so…”

“They weren’t human.”

“That’s not that reassuring.”

“I used pheromones to lure stray cats, dogs and rats to us, then I knit them together.  Victoria didn’t have enough body fat to stay warm, and she was wearing out faster than I could get her nutrition.”

“She’s going to return to normal, though?”

“Just a little more time.  I have to ensure she’s totally together inside the cocoon, then disconnect her from it, and make sure she reaches a physical equilibrium afterward.  Once I know she’ll recover…” she trailed off.

“Amy-”

“Go.  You’re done.  Go after Jack.”

I hesitated.  There was a look in her eyes, dark.  She wasn’t meeting my gaze.

I turned and ran.  Atlas was waiting on the rooftop as I ascended the stairs.

Too much time lost.  My body was a counter-agent for Bonesaw’s prion generators, but I had to find Jack and Bonesaw.  I could scout the area with my bugs, vaguely sense the areas they’d traveled by seeing what spots murdered my bugs on contact, but I still had to track their movements.

Glory Girl was hovering over the school, searching for Bonesaw.  The ‘cocoon’, as Amy had called it, was damaged much as the school gate had been, but Glory Girl was still intact inside.

The fact that she was looking made it very possible that we were facing the worst case scenario.

The bug-killing smoke extended outside of the school gates.  It was hard to verify if they’d gone that way and corked the flow of the smoke or if it was traces from before.  My only resource and means of detecting it was my bugs, but testing it meant killing them by the dozens, if not hundreds.

If they stayed on the grounds and I left, it could mean something ugly for Amy and Glory girl.  Conversely, if they’d left and I stayed, it could mean disaster for everyone else.

I left, flying Atlas in an ever-expanding circle, reaching out with my bugs to scan the surroundings.

With a mixture of relief and fear, I realized that Bonesaw’s extermination smoke was stronger a half mile away.  I’d been lucky enough to guess right.

They’d split up.  Two trails, extending down different streets.  My bugs felt around to see where the death-zone was, a few dropping dead each time, their numbers whittling down.  It was like a game of battleship, with constantly moving ships and limited ammunition.

Three trails.  I stopped in mid-air.

Three?

I gave chase to the nearest one, abandoning Atlas to pursue the subject into an alley, through a hole in the wall and into a derelict building, past a pile of rubble… this wasn’t right.  It was too nimble, moving through spaces too small for even Bonesaw.

And before I even returned to Atlas, there were a half-dozen trails in total that were branching out around us.  In another few minutes, there were a dozen.

Our group had used this method some time ago, using Grue’s power to slip away from the bank robbery.  But how were they doing it?  It wasn’t just the wind carrying the gas down misleading alleys.  Were there living creatures carrying vials of the stuff?

Mechanical spiders.  They’d found their maker, and Bonesaw was using them to distribute the vapor and cut off my swarm sense.

They’d escaped.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Your powers are working alright?” Tattletale asked.

I nodded.

“Bug powers, was it?  Don’t want to get it wrong.  Control them, see through their eyes-”

“No.  I can’t see through their eyes or hear what they do.  It’s mainly touch.”

“Just wanted to check.”  She paused.  “If I asked you what my power was?”

I shook my head.

“Okay.  And if I said I was born in Mexico, could you tell me where I was born?”

“Didn’t you just say?”

“Yeah.  Repeat it back to me?”

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Your short-term recollection is still good, at least.  That would be why you can retain the information Grue and I have shared over the past few minutes.  That big beetle of yours, you named it?”

I glanced at Atlas, who was crawling a short distance away.  “Atlas.”

Tattletale nodded.  “That would be the short-term memory, again. Your power probably gives you enough contact with it that you don’t lose track of who and what it is.”

“Right.”

“So long as that keeps working, we don’t need to worry about you and Grue forgetting who we are in the middle of a conversation.  But for us, we might lose track of each other if we split up, so let’s stay close, okay?”

“Okay.”

She reached out and took my hand.

“Can you use the bugs to scout our surroundings?  This will go more smoothly if we don’t need to worry about running into people.”

It made sense.  I sent my bugs out to cover the surrounding area.

The red mist was everywhere.  Color was strained out, leaving everything a monochrome red.  I could still make out the surroundings, but just enough light was filtered out that the area had settled into an oppressive gloom, with many existing shadows made nearly opaque as a result.  The drifting movements of the mist and the subtle shifts in color and shadow made me feel like things were prowling in every corner and in the edges of my field of vision.

That deep, primal prey-animal part of my psyche kept telling me something was wrong, that I was in danger.  I tried to tell myself that it was just my fear working itself up, my brain playing tricks on me.  There was nothing out there.

The weight of the gun in my hand was both a reassurance and a burden.  It would be so easy to do something I would regret for the rest of my life.

“Hate this,” I muttered.

“Me too,” Grue answered.  He put his hand on my shoulder to offer some reassurance.  “But we manage, we cope because we’re a team.  We belong together.”

My awareness snagged on someone who was walking a distance behind us, measuring their pace with ours.

“We may need to stand together as a team sooner than later,” I said. “We’re being followed.”

“By who?” Tattletale asked.  She paused, then laughed.  “Silly question, I guess.”

“Tie them up?”  she suggested.

“Right.”

My bugs gathered in out of the way spots, and the spiders began drawing out lines of silk in preparation.  I didn’t want to inform this person that I was on to their tail.

Then, just in case they decided to drop the tail and attack us, I began to gather bugs together into decoys.  Human-shaped lumps and clusters of bugs gathered in alleys and at the edges of rooftops.  Still more gathered in the street, standing in alcoves and in other hiding spots.  I invested less bugs in the ones that were further away from our pursuer, trusting that the shadows the miasma cast would help round them out.  There were no decoys our pursuer would see from where they stood, but there were now enough to give them pause.

Grue drifted away from our group to approach one of the decoys.  He extended one hand and traced his fingers through the massed bugs.  “You’re versatile.”

I felt a little uncomfortable at the compliment.  “We should keep moving.”

“You’re not tying them up?”

I shook my head.  A miscommunication on that front.  Hadn’t I recently been thinking about chemistry and intuitively understanding how your teammates operated?  The miasma might be throwing us off in that department.  “Sorry.  Need to prep for it first, I’ll make my move in a minute.  For now, we should act normal.”

“Fine.”  He dropped his hand to his side and rejoined us.  We kept walking.  I had to admire them, the way they were confident enough to avoid looking over their shoulders.  I had my bugs to track our pursuer with, and I was still feeling nervous having them behind me.

“Is paranoia a side effect of this mist?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Could be.  As the symptoms progress, you could have fits of anger, paranoia, hallucinations…”

I swallowed.

“Or it could progress in another direction.  A broader agnosia, with the inability to recognize anything, not just people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She nodded.

“I’m going to bind her now.  If it doesn’t work, or if she has a way of breaking free, we should run, with the decoys for cover.”

Tattletale just smiled.

The bugs swarmed our pursuer.  I’d minimized the number of bugs on them, just to be safe, with the drawback that I wasn’t getting a full picture of who they were.  The bugs couldn’t get to her flesh to sting or bite her, but they were telling me she was female in general shape.

I had them deploy the silk they had prepared.  I focused my efforts on her arms and legs.  It took only a couple of seconds to get the threads in place.

She tripped as the silk went taut mid-stride.  Raising one hand to try to catch herself, she found silk threads hampering those movements as well.  To avoid landing face first, she twisted herself in mid-air so she hit the ground with her shoulder instead.

“Got her,” I said.  “Let’s keep going.  We can lose her.”

“We should investigate,” Grue said.  “Make sure she isn’t a threat, and deal with her if she is.”

“With this miasma affecting us, there’s no way to be sure of exactly of just who we’re dealing with,” I pointed out.

“We have Tattletale.  She can tell us if this person’s a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Tattletale’s not-”

I stopped.  Where had that come from?

“What?”  Grue tilted his head as he looked over his shoulder at me.

“I was going to say she’s not always right, but I’ve still got that black hole in my memory of her, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”

Grue rubbed his chin.  “Something to keep in mind, but I still think we should check this person out.”

“I agree,” Tattletale said, a slight smile on her face.  She tugged on my hand.  “Come on!”

We had to stick together.  I reluctantly followed, knowing that separating from the group could mean losing them altogether.

We stopped a few hundred feet away from the woman.  The silk strands had formed a cord around her arms and legs, and the work of the spiders had tightened the binding as she allowed it to slack.  She hadn’t made it back to her feet after falling to the ground.

Grue drew a knife.

“Hey,” I said.  I grabbed his arm.  “What are you doing?”

“She’s obviously a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Tattletale said.

“Fill me in?  Because I must have missed something.  Doesn’t seem that clear to me.”

“Think about it.  Why is she wearing a mask like that, if not to filter out the miasma?  She knew about it in advance.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I could make out something like a gas mask or filter, now that Tattletale had pointed it out.  “Maybe there’s another explanation.  It could have something to do with her power?”

“It doesn’t,” Tattletale said.

Thinking about killing someone was one thing.  I’d always assumed I might have to do it out of necessity to save a teammate… I’d even come close to doing it when attacking the Nine, not long ago.  Couldn’t recall who it had been, but I’d gone all out, used potentially lethal stings and bites.

That had been at a distance.  Now we were looking at killing someone face to face.

The mask, there was another reason for it.  The-

Tattletale interrupted my thoughts.  “If you guys aren’t going to do it, I can.  She was following us, she was prepared for the miasma, and I’m positive she’s a bad guy.  My power, you know.”

“We can’t be certain,” I said.

“With my power, I’m five hundred percent sure.  Trust me,” she said, grinning.  She started toward the heroine.

“No,” I said.

“Skitter’s right,” Grue said.  “She could be playing possum.  Best to avoid being reckless.  Keep our distance and finish her.”

“That’s not what I meant.  Let’s just leave,” I said.  “I’ll make that phone call to, um-”

“Coil,” Tattletale supplied.

I nodded.  “We’ll get the information we need, get ourselves cured, or track down the Nine.”

“Cherish could lie,” Grue said.

It took me a second to place Cherish’s name.  Names were slipping from my mind too easily.  “Maybe.  We’ll use our own judgement to corroborate her facts.”

Tattletale scowled, “Have you forgotten how aggressively we’ve been going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?  The attacks, the harassment, capturing Cherish and Shatterbird.  And now you want to leave one of them there?  We don’t have to get close to her to take her out.  You have the gun.”

I stared down at the weapon in my hand.

“Trust me,” she said.

“No.”

Both Tattletale and Grue turned to look at me.

“No?”  Grue asked.  “We’re a team, Skitter.  We’re supposed to trust one another when the chips are down, have each other’s backs.”

I didn’t like the implications of that.  Like I was failing them.

But I shook my head.  “No.”

“Explain?” he asked.  He looked calm, but I could see the irritation in his posture.  Was the mist getting to him?

“The miasma… if it makes us paranoid, it could be coloring our perceptions here.  Even Tattletale’s.”

“I would know if it was,” she said.  She seemed impatient.

“Maybe.  But I’m not certain enough about that to take another life.”

“You nearly took Siberian’s,” she retorted.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But that was different.”

“I don’t see how.”

I stared at the bound woman who was prone on the ground, half-covered in my bugs.  She was looking in my direction.

“It bugs me.  This is too easy.  If the Nine were this easy to take out, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Sounds like a pretty thin justification for backing out,” Grue said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale added.

This kind of social pressure wasn’t the sort of thing I was good at coping with.  Just going by my recollection of how we’d planned many of our capers, I could usually trust some of the others to have my back when I was arguing a point.  Or I’d had some other motive or reason to go along with them.

“Why are you pushing so hard for this?”  I asked.

“Did you forget what they did to me?”  Grue asked, his voice cold.

Him specifically?  I had forgotten, yes.  But I could remember that scene, the emotions then, every feeling that I’d experienced afterward.  Frustration, hate, pain, sympathy for the pain he must have experienced himself.  I could remember the feeling of heartbreak, because someone I cared about was gone, in a sense.

“No,” I replied.

“Where’s your anger, your outrage?  Or don’t you care?”

“I care!  It’s-”

“Then end this.”

I shook my head, as if I could clear it.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly, necessarily.  It was that my thoughts kept hitting that dead-end where I couldn’t reach back for context about people, about Tattletale and Grue and the Nine.  I was in the dark.

What I did know was that I’d done too many things I regretted.  I wasn’t about to add something as serious as murder to the list.

Grue must have seen something in my posture, because he shook his head and turned away.  “Give me the gun, then.”

“Just use your power,” Tattletale told him.

“I want Skitter to acknowledge that she doesn’t care enough about this team or about me to do what’s necessary.  She can do that by admitting she doesn’t have the courage to shoot and allow me to do it.”

“That’s not what this is about,” I said.  “Murder is serious.  You don’t kill without being absolutely certain it’s right.  And nothing’s certain for as long as we’re under the influence of this miasma.”

He scoffed.  “And you call yourself a supervillain?”

“I call myself Skitter.  If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

“You’re not giving me the gun?”

“No.”

He shrugged, “So you don’t care at all, about what happened to me.  You don’t care about this team.  And you’ll even look down on us while you do it.  Your contemptible friends.”

“I care.  More than you know.  But you told me, not long ago, that I should follow my heart, trust my gut.  Fine.  That’s what I’m doing.  You attack her, I’ll fight to save her.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’ll fight me?  You’re a traitor now?”

The word hit home.  I must have flinched.

“A traitor again,” he added.

I snapped my head up to look at him in surprise.

“I wonder what it says that the notion of you being a traitor is so ingrained in my impression of you that it jumps to mind, even with the mist affecting me?”

“That’s enough,” I said.

“I know you like me.  I can read it on your face, I could see the way your eyes widened when you heard my name.  You’re an open book in some ways.  And I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

I felt a nervous feeling deep in my gut.  It wasn’t pleasant, at stark odds to what he was saying.

Grue’s words spoke to that feeling of trepidation.  “But this?  It’s telling me I could never have a relationship with you, never be close to you, because I’ll always wonder if you’ll stab me in the back or fuck me over, fail to do what’s necessary in a situation like this.  I’ll never be able to shake that image of you as a traitor.”

He kept saying that word, traitor, hammering it in.

“Unless I take this gun and shoot that woman, who you’re convinced is a member of the Nine,” I guessed what he was getting at.

“Guess I had the wrong impression of you,” he said.  The emotion in his tone was so different that it caught me off guard.  Almost contemplative.  If I thought of it as him emotionally closing down, it almost fit with the impression I associated with Grue.  At the same time, it didn’t quite jibe with what I was seeing.  Again, I felt that distinct discomfort.

Is this how I lose my mind?

I shrugged.  “I guess you did.”

I carefully holstered the gun, as if hiding it could keep it from coming up again in conversation.

A long pause reigned.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.  Then he smiled.  He turned and began walking away.  “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“We’re leaving her?”  Tattletale asked.

“Seems we have to.  Tattletale, can you use your power to make sure the lady from the Nine doesn’t pose a danger?”

Tattletale nodded, smiling.

“Then let’s hurry.  We wasted too much time here.”

“Let me know when she’s not in your range anymore,” Tattletale said to me.  “I’ll try to use my power to make sure she isn’t following us.”

I nodded.

She hugged my arm, “You’re stubborn, but we’re still friends, right?”

I nodded again.  I felt like I was back in school, in a situation where I couldn’t say anything without saying the wrong thing.  Strange, to recall being around the bullies rather than in the company of my team.

The argument weighed on me, as did the things Grue had said, the judgements.  Had I been wrong?  Were we risking letting one of the Nine get away, to murder others?  Was I arguing because I was still clinging to old ideals, or because the miasma was making me divisive?

Even if the miasma was to blame, I hated the idea of failing the others yet again.

This situation was fucking with my head.  I still felt like I was in the middle of a fight, that heart pounding mode where I was ready for bullets or laser blasts to start flying, for me or a friend to be in mortal danger, where a split second response meant the difference between life or death.

Except there was no danger here.  The only people nearby were the woman we were leaving behind, Grue and Tattletale.

I glanced at Tattletale as we ran.  Could I trust them?  They had been in the miasma for a little longer than I had, and I was already experiencing what I could only label as paranoia.  With only a difference of minutes, Legend had been thrust into a paranoid state where he was taking a reckless, offensive course of action, eliminating everyone from the battlefield, regardless of whether they might be friend or enemy.  How much was it affecting these two?  How would it influence their actions?

More to the point, what was my best course of action here?  If I worked on the assumption that I could trust them, would they drag me into a situation that was just as bad as what we’d gone through with the bound woman?  Or if I didn’t trust them, if I allowed myself to become suspicious and take countermeasures, would that be a slippery slope that led to me trying to kill them, in fear for my own life?

We’d come close to fighting just now.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Tattletale said.

“Leave her be,” Grue told her, his voice low.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t trust myself to handle this alone, not with the speed at which this general unease was building up.  But I wasn’t sure I trusted them either.  Something about the argument, it felt off.  Wrong.

“She’s out of my range,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“I’ll keep an eye out!”  She grinned.

Traitor.  I could almost hear the accusation.

I’d lied.  The woman was still in my range.

“Is there service?”  Grue asked.  I must have looked confused, because he clarified by saying, “The phone.”

I pulled my phone out of the space between my breasts and the armor at my front and checked the display.

“Yeah,” I said.  Why does that bug me?

“Call Coil,” Tattletale reminded me.  “We need to know where Cherish is.”

I found him in the contact list and made the call.

“Speaker phone?” Grue suggested.

I nodded, selected the option and hit the button.

As the first ring sounded out, my swarm sense alerted me to the bound woman breaking free of the silk strands, as if it was effortless.  Had she been playing possum after all, hoping we would get close?

I looked at Tattletale, trying to see if had any inkling that this supposed member of the Nine was free.

Nothing.  Tattletale turned to me and grinned.

“No trouble incoming?”  I asked, as the phone rang again.

She shook her head.  “All good.”

Was her power not working as well as she’d thought?  I couldn’t even recollect what it was, but she’d said she would keep an eye out… and there was something alarming occurring this very moment.

“Skitter,” Coil answered the phone.  “I’ve been made aware that Bonesaw has deployed the ace she had up her sleeve.”

“Yeah.  Agnostia… Agnosia-inducing mist.  Permanent, according to Tattletale.”

“I see.”  I could hear the sounds of typing on a keyboard.  “Agnosia… Panacea can’t reverse the effects?”

“She’s not here.  We’re trying to find her.”

“And you need Cherish for that, I suppose.”

I was grateful that he was supplying the names, because it meant I didn’t have to bog down the conversation by remembering or asking.  Grue, Tattletale and I had brought them up recently enough that it wasn’t a huge leap to remember their names.

The woman who I’d tied up with the spider silk was walking towards us.  Her progress was hampered by the decoys.  I kept my mouth shut.  It wasn’t an imminent problem, and I was more interested in gauging just how far gone Tattletale’s power was.

“Except that with the agnosia, we can’t remember where she is and go meet her.”

“Meeting Cherish would be a grave error,” Coil spoke.

“Just put us in contact with her, then?”

“Tattletale informed me of your code.  You remember how it’s put together?”

“Yeah.  My memory’s fine, it’s just my ability to identify people and remember stuff about them that’s fucked up.”

Tattletale glared at me.  Right.  She didn’t like swearing.

“Then, using a name we’re both familiar with, D-gangrene.”

“I can’t remember names.  I don’t think I can use the code.”

“Troubling.  You must understand my predicament.  For all I know, you’re a third party using Skitter’s voice to make the request.  With shapeshifters, empaths and other methods of coercion, I have to be very careful about the dissemination of information.”

“I know.”

The woman was still approaching.  Tattletale and Grue weren’t talking.

Something was wrong.

“What if we kept you on the line?”  I suggested.

“That will suffice.”

There was a pause, then the sound of background noise.  A ring sounded, different from the one before.  It was interrupted as Cherish picked up.

“I have never been so sorry to miss out,” Cherish said.  She sounded a bit hoarse.

“We’re requesting your help,” Coil spoke.

“Oh, you need my help in more ways than you’re aware of.  Not that I’m going to provide it.  Skitter’s on the line, I believe?”

“She is.”

“I’m here,” I confirmed.

“And Tattletale and Grue, of course.”  She chuckled.  “How amusing.  Seems like I’m in high demand.”

“They’re looking for Panacea,” Coil said.  “Identifying her for us would be one way to achieve revenge on the Slaughterhouse Nine for turning on you.”

“Revenge?  Not my interest in the slightest.  I’ve learned my lesson and I’ve become the poster child for team loyalty.”

Coil paused, then said, “I’m prepared to offer you some enticements.  I imagine your current quarters can’t be too comfortable.”

“Don’t suppose these enticements will be hand delivered?”

“They will be provided by remote control, as your food has been.”

“Some headphones and music would be nice,” she said.  “The sound of the waves banging on the hull is driving me crazy.”

“Such could be arranged.”

“Nah, I’m totally fucking with you.  Music, as if.”

There were too many things that seemed off.  Cherish’s tone among them.  I glanced around.  The woman was still following us, throwing herself after decoys, verifying they were false, then retracing her steps.  She was slowly closing in.  I positioned Atlas so he would be ready to distract her if it came down to it.

“You’re stalling?”  Coil asked.  “I don’t see the point.”

“Just trying to see if I can provoke a reaction from you.  There’s only so many times I can read the labels of the shipping containers before I lose my mind.  Have to amuse myself somehow.”

“What will it take for you to tell us where Panacea is?”  Coil asked.

“Oh, I’m feeling generous, and I want to see what happens.  I’ll tell you that as a freebie.  They’re at Arcadia.  Somewhere in the top floor.”

A freebie.  Something was going on, and I wasn’t aware what.  I had to piece it together, but I had so little information.

“And maybe I could offer you something, in exchange for some goodwill.  Maybe you’ll even want to let me go free, no obligations.”

The feeling of dread that had been following me wasn’t getting worse as the woman approached.  It was staying steady, like someone had a gun pointed at me, and they’d had it aimed my way for some time now.

“I’m listening,” Coil said, “But if this is frivolous or another waste of our time-”

“Nah.  Critically important.  I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s simple.  Going by what I’ve been able to observe around the city, there seems to be a major concern.  Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur.”

“I’m not versed in Latin,”  Coil spoke, sounding annoyed.

“For shame, Coil, for shame,” Cherish said.  Her voice was too cheerful. “You can’t sell the cultured supervillain image without the ability to make quips in an ancient language.  I had the benefit of my power, languages are easier to learn when you can get a sense of what the other person’s feeling.”

“That was something about Jack?”  I asked,  “Repeat that in English?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” she replied.  “The message was delivered.  I’ll leave you to think about it.”

If only I could have blamed the miasma for my idiocy.  Everything clicked into place.

I kept my voice level, “I don’t think you’ll get much goodwill if we don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.  Coil?  We’re moving out now.”

“Report back when you’ve found the healer,” Coil told me.

I hung up before Cherish could speak, then I glanced at the others.  “Let’s go?  Arcadia high?”

They nodded.

My heart pounded with such force that my vision wavered.  I turned to head toward Arcadia high, joined by the two members of the Nine.  Stay calm, don’t let on that you know.

If I could direct the woman to us…

The miasma’s effects had almost made me lose track of her.  She was fighting, grappling with mechanical spiders.  She went from fighting like an ordinary individual to moving at high speeds and throwing crushing punches, then back again.  I couldn’t think of how to help her, and she was obviously unable to help me.

Cherish had been engaging in double-speak, saying one thing to us, while addressing the two people with me the entire time.  She’d told them about where she was being held captive, and she’d offered the most valuable information she had to avoid getting tortured to death after they’d freed her.  From the way she’d talked about the message being received, one of the people with me had to be Jack.

Jack was slated to bring about the end of the world if he left Brockton Bay, and now he knew.

Couldn’t meet their eyes, didn’t want to speak, in case I let on that I knew.  I could barely breathe, I was so afraid of letting my emotions show.

My gun was in the compartment at my back.  I’d put it away at the conclusion of our argument, and with the compartment broken in my fall from Atlas’s back, I’d been forced to put it in a place where it wasn’t easy to draw.  I couldn’t be sure I would be able to draw it and fire.  I was still handicapped, unaware of their powers.  I was fighting blind.

If Jack or the girl killed Amy, just about everyone in the city would die violently from the miasma’s effects.  But I couldn’t stop them without letting on that I knew.  Fighting them put me at a clear disadvantage, and-

“Skitter,” Jack spoke.

I didn’t waste time turning to face him.  I gripped the hair of the blonde girl beside me and virtually hauled her off her feet as I dragged her around to a position between Jack and myself.  Jack was already swinging his knife.

The knife cut the girl more than it cut me.  I could feel it raking across the exterior of my costume, failing to penetrate, but he was swinging it underhand, and it caught me in the chin, slicing through the side of my cheek and up to my temple.

I tried to keep a hold on the girl for the sake of using her as a human shield, but I saw her reach into her dress and withdraw some vials.  I shoved her toward Jack, then stepped forward to kick her square between the shoulder blades.  She collided with him, interrupting his follow-up swing.  For good measure, I drew the bugs from beneath my costume and sent them chasing after her.  Some capsaicin-laced bugs, just the few I had remaining.

Jack caught her shoulders and spun her around so she faced me.  The vials were already billowing with a chemical reaction.  She threw them at me.

I backed away, and they hit the ground between our two groups, black smoke joining the crimson mist around us.

“You’ve outlived your usefulness, Skitter,” Jack spoke.

If I’d just had a minute or two more to decide on a course of action.

“It was fun.  I almost wish I’d nominated you for the Nine.  You’re versatile, and there’s so many weak points I could have exploited if I’d had more time.  If Cherish’s information on you wasn’t so misleading, I think I could have made you shoot the heroine.  To corrupt you like that, it would have been amusing.”

I fumbled for the gun, using my bugs to get a sense for where it was.  In the same motion that I pointed it, Jack slapped it out of my hand with two slashes of his knife.  He was a dozen feet away, but the knife nonetheless connected with my weapon.

My bugs began to gather like a dark cloud, their mass casting a shadow on the already gloomy surroundings.

“So I end the world?  Interesting.”

“The source is a little unreliable,” I lied.

“Still, I would love to see how that comes about.”

“You won’t live to,” I told him.

“I’ll make sure he does,” the girl informed me.

My swarm could feel others approach from the heroine’s direction.  They were the size of dogs, and they skipped forward on mechanical legs.  The mechanical spiders.  Dozens of them, coming straight for me.

If I was judging right, they were running faster than I could.

I sent the swarm after Jack and the girl, massed into thousands of bugs.  Some groups clustered so tight together that they looked like massive, amorphous black entities, amoebas floating through a cityscape painted in shades of red and black.  Atlas heard my call and headed my way from the place I’d positioned him, too far away to join the fight for a minute or two.

The girl was already mixing something else together.  Plumes of white smoke billowed around her, almost luminescent after so long spent in the crimson mist.  My bugs died on contact with the gas.

Everything I’d learned about my enemies had been blocked.  I had no information on them, no sense of what to expect.  They weren’t so handicapped.

She tipped half the vial’s contents into an empty container and handed it to Jack.  Both protected from my power, they started backing away.

I moved to edge around the cloud of black smoke, but Jack struck me with the knife.  I had to use my forearms to cover my unprotected face.  I just had my glasses, some bugs, and a layer of cloth protecting it.  Nothing that would guard against Jack’s cuts.

When I’d lowered my arms, they had already turned a corner, running in the general direction of Arcadia high.  Running around the cloud of black smoke cost me a precious minute.  I made my way around the same corner they’d rounded, and stopped short as I came face to face with another black cloud.

Couldn’t match their speed, not with these noxious clouds slowing me down.  With the heroine lying unconscious in the street, several blocks in the wrong direction, I had no allies to turn to.  Worse, anyone I came across was as likely as not to be a threat. It was down to Atlas and me, and Atlas was especially vulnerable to both of my opponents.  I couldn’t even fly after them without risking being cut down in midair.

I had minimal information on my opponents, while they knew enough about me to completely counter my powers.  Topping it all off, the mechanical spiders were steadily, inexorably closing in on me.  I’d lost my last fight with the things, and there were dozens more this time around.  Couldn’t fly without exposing myself to Jack’s power, couldn’t stay on the ground without getting swarmed.

I swallowed hard and held out one hand to grab Atlas’s horn as he landed.  In a moment, we were in the air, giving chase.

I wasn’t thinking about winning anymore.  I was thinking in terms of minimizing the damage when we lost.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“How did it go!?”  Tattletale called out to me before I’d even landed.

I set Atlas down on the ground and hopped off.  “Whatever the fuck they just dropped on the city, it apparently took out Crawler and Mannequin.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tattletale said.  “I think that was Bakuda’s stuff they just used.  What about the other members of the Nine?”

“They’re on the run.  Last I saw, Siberian’s creator looked pretty rough.  Not sure if the spider bites and stings will kill him or if Bonesaw will manage to counteract it.  Depends on whether Legend and the other heroes can keep up the assault long enough to keep Bonesaw from getting to work.”

I could see Bitch react to the mention of Siberian’s creator.  She looked startled, then scowled.

“You found them?”  Tattletale asked.  “Siberian and Legend?”

“Yeah.  Legend told me to scram, in case Bonesaw deploys the threat she’s been holding over our heads, and so I don’t get in the way.  I would have fought to stay, but he’s an intimidating guy to argue with.”

Grue nodded.  “I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  It means we can serve as backup if the heroes lose.”

“And this threat?  Do we know what it is?  Some zombie apocalypse?”  Regent asked.

“No.” Tattletale shook her head.  “She sees herself as an artist.  She’s going to want to do something that catches us off guard, something that scares us in a way that simple horror movie monsters don’t.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sundancer spoke up, “But monsters scare me enough.”

“Says the girl who can vaporize buildings and give Leviathan pause for thought,” Regent said, giving her a sidelong glance.

“Leviathan broke half the bones in my body.  The only reason I’m standing here is Panacea,” Sundancer said, a little defensively.

“You two do raise a point, though,” Tattletale cut in.  “Capes are powerful.  If she wanted to scare the locals, she’s done that.  I’d be willing to bet the ace she has up her sleeve is going to be more aimed at scaring people like us, like Legend.  She wants to terrorize the strongest, target people who everyone looks up to and fears.”

Just us?” I asked.

“She’s shown she knows how to disable powers,” Trickster said.  “If she did that on a larger scale, then-”

“No,” Tattletale shook her head.  “She wouldn’t have used the dust and the darts if that was the big reveal.  It doesn’t make sense tactically, because we could have come up with a way to deal, and Skitter’s partially immune anyways.  And it doesn’t make sense artistically, either.  You have to think of her as less of a scientist or doctor and more of a performer.”

A thirty story skyscraper tipped over and crashed to the ground in the distance.  The rumbling crash of the building’s collapse seemed delayed in getting to us.  I could see Legend, more through the flashes of his lasers than anything else, but everyone else was out of sight, specks I couldn’t have made out if they weren’t on the ground.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to worry about Bonesaw’s plot,” Trickster said.

“Plan for the worst,” Grue replied, staring into the distance, “If you’re right, you’re prepared.  If you’re wrong, you’re pleasantly surprised.”

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

“Can’t plan for this,” I said.  “I’m growing to hate tinkers.  People with enhanced senses and tinkers.  And fire manipulators.  Sorry, Sundancer.”

She shrugged.

I turned back to the subject at hand, “We can’t guess what she’s come up with because her tinker abilities make her so versatile, and that means we can’t preemptively set up any countermeasures.”

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear.  “Fits in a vial, assuming that vial she was showing off was the real weapon, something to do with water, she said… you guys haven’t been drinking anything except bottled water?”

There were head shakes and the occasional muttered “No” from the rest of the group.

“I’ve even been making my tea with it,” I said.

“And we know there’s going to be a strategic purpose behind it, beyond causing terror,” Tattletale went on.

“You’re getting into that headspace again, Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Tunnel vision.”

“Right.  I’m done now,” Tattletale replied.

“Is it such a problem?” Trickster leaned forward, “If you can give us answers about this thing, that’s good, right?”

Tattletale shook her head, “If I’m digging deep enough for answers that I’m losing sight of other things, it means I’m probably speculating, and that tends to mean I’m generating false positives, heading down the wrong path to the wrong conclusions.  I told Grue to stop me if I’m doing it, and Skitter’s right when she says we can’t anticipate what Bonesaw’s going to do, so it’s pointless anyways.”

“If we did want to take countermeasures,” I said, “We should maybe think about tracking down Amy.  Or figuring out where she is.”

“Panacea?”  Grue frowned.  “She didn’t exactly leave us on good terms.”

“I know.  But she can counteract whatever Bonesaw does.”

“Unless she falls victim to it,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “After two bad incidents downtown, I’d lay odds she’s heading up toward the docks.  It gives her the best odds of finding a place that’s empty, where she and Glory Girl can hide out for-”

“Heads up!”

I wasn’t sure who had shouted the warning, but I turned to look in the direction of the fighting, and I instantly knew it was Bonesaw’s work.

The water was turning crimson.  Where it was only one or two inches deep above the pavement, it turned a dark red that resembled blood.  That alone might have been spooky enough, but it was spreading over hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, and there was a thin red mist rising in its wake.

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

I was on top of Atlas in an instant, and in the air a second later.

“How is it spreading so fast!?”  I asked, while the others seated themselves on the two dogs.

“She must have set it up beforehand!”  Tattletale called out.  “Just needed the catalyst!”

She checked to make sure Trickster and Sundancer were seated and had Bentley at an all out run a heartbeat later.  Sirius followed just two steps behind, carrying Grue, Imp, Bitch and Ballistic.  Regent joined me in the air, hanging in a less than dignified way from Shatterbird’s embrace.

I needed only one glance to know they weren’t running fast enough.

“Sundancer!”  I shouted.  “Cut it off!”

It took her three or four seconds to pull an orb together, no larger than a basketball.  It grew to twice the size as it flew, raking across the street to turn the pooled water into clouds of steam.  I rose higher in the air to avoid being caught by the plumes of hot water.  The steam turned from a clean white to pink and eventually red as the effect reached it.

Sundancer’s miniature sun had slowed the progression down our flooded street, but it wasn’t enough.  From my perspective, I could see the water on adjacent streets undergoing the same transformation, moving forward until it was adjacent to the others, then extending forward.  It was a matter of time before it reached far enough forward that it passed through the side alleys and cut them off.

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

Bentley leaped for the side of a building in an alleyway, scrabbled for a hold, then leaped to the building face behind him, attempting the zig-zag movement that the dogs had done so many times before.

Except he wasn’t as agile as the other dogs, and I suspected he wasn’t as practiced at it as Brutus, Judas and Angelica had been.  Added to that, he was carrying a heavy burden.  One of his paws went through a window, he slipped, dug his claws into the wall and shifted to climbing the wall instead.

It was too slow.  The water turned crimson beneath him, and then the vapor began to rise, faster than Bentley was climbing.

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

I massed thick clusters of bugs between them and the vapor, while Regent and Shatterbird followed Sirius and the others.

It was enough to buy them time, but that meant precious little.  No matter how much I pressed the bugs together into an airborne barrier, the vapor made its way through.  Worse, the mist was rising to either side of them, approaching the top of the building.

They reached the rooftop and Bentley heaved himself over the edge.  They hopped off his back as they reached solid ground, and Tattletale stepped over to the corner of the roof to watch the rise of the red vapor.  It was only a floor beneath them.

Trickster pointed at the top of a building nearby, then looked up at me.

I gathered my bugs there, again, pressing them together.  Trickster looked increasingly impatient as the bugs massed, and the vapor reached the edges of the roof.

I hurried over to the building, instead, then hopped off, sending Atlas over to the other rooftop.  Trickster swapped me with Tattletale, and I hopped over to ferry myself to the roof again.

Didn’t trust my ability to use Atlas to carry someone else, when I had to struggle to process his sensory inputs.  Add someone else’s shifting weight and movements, and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t drop them.

I was on the building again when Trickster swapped me for Sundancer.  It left him, myself and Bentley standing on the rooftop.

I was on top of Atlas a second later, flying.  The red mist crept in from the outside edges of the rooftop.  He got on top of Bentley, looking less than comfortable holding the reins, and Tattletale whistled.  It wasn’t as good as Bitch’s whistles, but Bentley perked up and ran, leaping for the side of a nearby building.

He and Trickster reached the second rooftop quickly enough.  The mist was still rising, not just below us, but up around buildings nearly as far as the eye could see.

“Shit,”  Tattletale said.  “Not good.”

“There’s a taller building over there,” I pointed.  “We should head there before the mist gets up here.”

“I’d call it miasma,” Tattletale said.  “And is there really any point?”

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

“What does it do?”  I asked.  “Poison?  Something else?”

“Probably something else.  Or it’s poison, but it’s designed to do something besides kill us.  How are the others doing?”

I looked for Grue and Regent using my swarm sense.  Grue, Bitch, Ballistic and Sirius were on a rooftop lower than us, Regent directly above them.  Cursory exploration with my bugs revealed a glass dome extending around the rooftop.  My bugs could fit through gaps in the glass, which meant the miasma would as well.  I did what I could to block up the holes, and I knew it was useless.

Brian.  Rachel.

“I think they’re caught,” I said.  “I-I don’t know what to do.”

“You have a gun.  You have your bugs.  If the Nine are going to let their guards down, it’s going to be now.  All the ones who are still left are priority targets.  Finish off Siberian and taking Jack and Bonesaw out of action will be doable.”

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at the rising mist.

“No.  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s get you to higher ground.”

“It’s futile.  You’d be buying us a little time, but this is looking pretty inevitable.  Your time is better spent going after the Nine.  If you can’t find them, or if it’s too dangerous, find Panacea.”

“This isn’t negotiable.  I- I can’t do anything for Grue and Rachel and Ballistic, Regent tried and he failed.  Let me do this for you.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Fine.  But you’ll have to hurry.  That’s a lot of distance to cover, and the miasma’s nearly here.”

Trickster cut in, “Gather bugs together like you were doing, remember that they’re not as dense as our bodies are, so we need more than you’d think if I’m going to swap them for one of us.”

I nodded and flew for the tallest building in the area.  I turned around and waited for Trickster to swap me.

He didn’t.  They stood at the roof’s edge, looking my way, and the dark red miasma climbed up the sides of the building around them.

It felt like my heart dropped out of my chest.  Brian, Rachel, now Lisa?

I couldn’t afford to turn around and confront them -time was too short- so I focused on gathering my bugs.  I clustered them together, pressing them into a largish human shape.  How many was enough?

I felt a jarring sensation as Trickster swapped my bugs to his location.  Sundancer appeared beside me.

“Why?”  I asked.

She shook her head, “They didn’t say anything.  They were both really quiet while you flew off, and then Tattletale said ‘It doesn’t look like her plan will work out.  Tell her I’m sorry.’  Trickster teleported me here before I could say anything or ask what she meant.”

“Why isn’t he telporting Tattletale out?  Or himself?  There’s still time for…”  I looked at the cloud.  Not enough time to save both, now.  “He could save one of them, and I could probably get Atlas there and get out of harm’s way before the miasma reached me.”

“His power gets slower with distance and difference in mass,”  Sundancer hugged herself, “Maybe it’s too slow, and he doesn’t think you’d have time to run.  Or-”

“Or.”  I said.  The sentence didn’t deserve to be finished.  There was the other reason.  The notion that he was deliberately avoiding using his power, because he knew I didn’t have the time to get back to them before the miasma reached them.  “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.  When you’ve left, I’ll use my power, and I guess I’ll wait here until-”  she stopped.

Until when?  There was nothing saying this miasma of Bonesaw’s would disappear or settle anytime soon.

“I hate being alone,” Sundancer said.  She settled into a sitting position.  “It’s like, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been on my own.  When I was little, I was always with my mom, or always in school, always in afterschool activities.  Ballet, violin, lyrical dance, voice lessons, acting lessons… never a moment to think for myself.  Even after I stopped all that, I was with my friends.  Always in a group.”

I stared at Tattletale and Trickster.  I couldn’t make out their faces, but my bugs could make out the shapes of sounds that had to be words.  They were having a conversation, just like we were.

“I remember you said it was lonely, being in the Travelers.”

“It was.  It is.  But I was still with them.  Part of the group.  The time I’ve spent in my territory is the longest I’ve spent on my own.  Actually managing the territory, scaring off Hookwolf’s people, that was easy.  Being all on my own was unfamiliar ground.  Soul crushing.  I wound up going back to Coil’s base and spending time with Noelle and Oliver.  But being alone, agonizing over everything that’s been going on, no distractions…”

The miasma had reached the rooftop where Tattletale and Trickster stood.  Trickster was pacing, while Tattletale stood with her back to me, her hand rubbing Bentley’s blunted snout.

It took only a few seconds for the mist to close in around them.  There was no immediate reaction.  The two teenagers and the dog simply stood, silhouettes in a stirring cloud of vapor that ranged from ruby-red to crimson in shade.

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

“And now I’m alone,” Sundancer said.  “You’re going to go after the Nine, and I’ll wait here, all on my own, going crazy as I wait and watch and see just what happens to them.”

“If I’ve picked up on anything over the last few months of wearing a costume, it’s that humans are stronger than you’d expect,” I said.  It was as much to myself as to Sundancer.  “We can endure a hell of a lot of punishment before we break, and even after we’re broken, we tend to keep on going.  Could be physical punishment: getting stabbed, getting scarred, broken bones.  Could be mental: losing a loved one, being tortured, even the way I feel like breaking down and crying over the fact that just about every other member of my team is probably fucked, but I’m holding myself together?  Humans can put up with a hell of a lot.”

“I don’t think this is the right time for optimism,” Sundancer said, bitter.

“Optimism?”  I shook my head.  “No.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If we weren’t so resilient, so tenacious as a species, I don’t think we’d be having this much trouble with Jack.  I don’t think Mannequin or Siberian would even exist like they do now.  I’d almost call it pessimistic.  Almost.”

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

I left, taking off and heading for the spot I’d left Legend.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see Sundancer creating her orb and bringing it down on top of herself.  As it had done back during our fight with Lung, it didn’t burn the area directly around her.

And Tattletale and Trickster… were still standing in the midst of the miasma.  They weren’t reacting or doing anything, but they weren’t signalling for me to come back, either, and they weren’t hopping on top of Bentley to rejoin the action.

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

I consoled myself with the bittersweet idea that Bonesaw would want to draw this out.  It wouldn’t be as simple as murdering my teammates.  It wasn’t exactly reassuring, especially when I thought back to what had happened to Brian, but it gave me hope that this wasn’t the last time I’d see my teammates.  My friends.

I rose higher as I approached the epicenter of the miasma.  It had continued to rise, and the place she’d used the catalyst was the place where the vapor had spread the most.  I could see how it was threaded through the streets like veins, surrounding buildings in a crimson embrace, spilling out into the ocean.

The water of the bay, I noticed, hadn’t changed.  Was the salt killing whatever organisms she’d designed to spread this effect?

There were areas of high ground where the effect was diminished or gone.  There were hills here and there where the area hadn’t flooded and miasma wasn’t reaching so far into those spots.  Hopefully that meant the civilians wouldn’t be so affected; the high ground where flooding wasn’t an issue would also be the place where people congregated for shelter.

A series of bright flashes caught my attention.  Between the distance and the cloud of red vapor, I could only barely make him out, but the staccato lasers let me identify him as Legend.  He was fighting.

I sent my bugs down into the miasma, drawing them together into a swarm and placing them strategically, painting a mental picture of the area, the layout, and the positions of the combatants.

Just to be safe, I drew closer to a rooftop.  It wasn’t safe to land, but I had hopes the building would offer me some cover against Jack.  I held the bulk of my swarm at bay, waiting for the moment I could assist Legend in fighting the Nine.

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

Legend was shooting at teammates.  He shouted something, but neither my ears nor my bugs were able to pick out the words.

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

No.  I could sense others hiding.  In fact, it seemed to be the primary concern of the people in the miasma.  Hiding, staying out of trouble, putting distance between themselves and the others.  Even Legend was pulling his punches.  His lasers were nonlethal, as far as I could see.

Paranoia?

Weld, who I identified by his lack of a costume and the metal growths on his shoulders, was standing with his back to a wall.  His hands were blunt weapons, and he was swinging them through the air to threaten anyone who approached.  A small figure who could only be Vista was backing away from two adults.  She got too close to Legend, and he fired a spray of laser blasts at her.  None hurt her or penetrated her costume, but she staggered and fell.

I could sense the ground bulge, spearing up in a pillar.  As the ground beneath them stretched in the pillar’s vicinity, others staggered or got disoriented.  At the pillar’s top, a roughed-up Vista bent the growth she’d created to place herself close to the rooftop and hopped down onto solid ground.  She coughed.

Okay, at least she wasn’t someone who could kill me if this went the wrong way.  I called out, “Vista!”

She whirled on the spot to look at me, then swiftly began backing away.

I raised my hands to show her I meant no harm, “Hold on!  I’m safe!”

“That’s just what they would say!”  She retorted.

They?

“Who?  The Nine?  In what universe would I be a member of the Nine?”

“Shut up!  Don’t try to convince me!  Just… just back off!  Leave me alone until all this stops!”

She was breathing so hard I could see her shoulders rising and falling through the protective suit she wore.

A thought struck me.  It was working through the suit?  The mask had to have filters for smoke, why hadn’t it worked against this miasma?

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

She used her power, extending the pillar she had used to ascend to the rooftop.  It missed me by a wide margin, but the threat was clear enough.

I regretted it the instant I did it, but I moved forward to avoid any further movements from the shaft of asphalt.  If I was going to fall, I wanted to land on the roof, instead of the alleyway a dozen stories below.

“No!”  The word was as much a scream as anything else.  She extended the shaft well over my head and then pinched it off so the top part fell.

I’d seen her fight Leviathan, and she’d done the same thing then, if on a somewhat bigger scale.  I had Atlas carry me out of the way and watched the teardrop shaped piece of asphalt crash to the floor of the alley.

That, apparently, was enough to get Legend’s attention.  He rose from the street level and surveyed the scene.  He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn.  His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.

“Legend,” I started.  How was I supposed to address him when he was like this?  When I didn’t even know what was going on with them?

Not that it mattered.  He raised one hand in my direction, and I veered away, taking evasive maneuvers.  It missed me by a foot, circled around and struck me off of Atlas before I could cancel out his momentum and change direction.

Legend had clearly set his lasers to ‘stun’, but it still hurt.  Hitting the rooftop hurt more.  I could feel a piece of armor crack beneath my weight, hear my things spilling to the ground.

I coughed out half a lungful of air and involuntarily sucked in another breath to cough again.  It was humid, tasting slightly off, almost stagnant.

When I opened my eyes, I was seeing red, and not in the metaphorical sense.  I was in the midst of the miasma.

Still coughing, I struggled to my feet.  The back compartment of my armor had cracked as my weight had come down on the lip of the roof.  My weapons, the epipens, the cell phone and the changepurse lay on the ground.

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

If I hadn’t still been reeling from my fall, I might have been able to avoid it.  As it was, the section of rooftop behind me bulged up into a wall and then folded down over on top of me.  It bent to accommodate my shape rather than crush me, leaving only my head and shoulders sticking out.

“If you try that trick on me, little girl, I’ll shoot you,” I heard the threat from the air above us.

This was going south, fast.

“I’m going to turn my back and run,” she responded.  “If you try shooting me in the back, I’ll show you what I can really do.”

There was anger in the threat that caught me off guard.  Was it this miasma that had pushed her to that level of anger?  I wasn’t feeling anything like that.  Had something about the way he had talked provoked her?  Or was that the norm for her?

I tried to think back to my prior experiences with her and found nothing.

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

I did a series of multiplication, addition and subtraction in my head and found no problems on that front.  Not general brain damage, apparently.

Amnesia?

My name is Skitter, I thought, Taylor Anne Hebert.  Sixteen.  Born in Brockton Bay.  Student at Winslow High.  Ex-student.  Member of the Undersiders.

No problems on that front.

My line of thought continued absently, as if I wanted to reassure myself that I was mentally intact.  My parents are Dan Hebert and Annette Rose Hebert.

I struggled, wiggling to try and free myself from the hump of solid concrete.  I could inch myself out.

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

I could have been hit by five more of those laser blasts on ‘stun’ and it wouldn’t have hit me as hard as the realization that I couldn’t remember my mother.  Couldn’t remember her face, the details, her mannerisms.  Even the happy memories we’d shared, the little moments I’d clung to over the past two years, they were gone.  There was only an empty void where they should have been.

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

The other Undersiders, their faces, their costumes, their personalities and mannerisms, all gone.  I could remember what we’d done: the bank robbery, fighting Purity’s group, lazing around in the old loft, even the general progression of events from the moment I’d met them.  But the people were blanks waiting to be filled in, and I couldn’t go from thinking about one name to thinking about the events that were related to it.

I felt a rising panic as I struggled to work myself free.  I didn’t know the people who were on the rooftop with me: the man who floated in the air, wearing a sturdy hazmat-style firesuit and a blue and silver mask that left only his mouth, chin and wavy brown hair exposed.  I couldn’t recognize the girl he was shooting in the back.  I saw her fall face first and writhe with pain.  He shot her two more times, and she went limp.  Out cold.

I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.  If I didn’t have the benefit of being able to remember my actions over the past few minutes, it would have been impossible to say whether the two people here were allies or enemies.

Everything suddenly made sense.  The infighting, the tactics they were using, the mixture of hostility and paranoia.  Legend was attacking with nonlethal blasts because he couldn’t be sure if he was attacking a teammate or one of the Nine, so he was striving to take everyone out of action with as little permanent damage as possible.

Sundancer’s worries about being alone struck me.  We were all alone, now.  Every single one of us.  From teams to individuals, everyone was fending for themselves because they couldn’t afford to trust the others.

And it would ruin us.

It would be impossible to mount any kind of defense against the Nine if we were fighting them as individuals.

The man with the blue and silver mask floated over to where I was, ready to dispatch me, to knock me out, just in case I was a threat.

“Help?”  I called out.  It was a spur of the moment response.  My mind raced as I tried to form a plan.  Even a bad one would serve.  I lied, “I’m stuck.  Break me out?”

I stared up at him.  His face was riddled with conflicting emotions, his body language tense.  There was a nervousness there that belied simple amnesia.

We’d been warned about drinking the city’s water.  It might mean the effects were more pronounced for the people who hadn’t been informed.  Or there might be side effects.

“Stay,” he ordered.

He stayed at the level of the rooftop as he floated out above the street, aiming more blasts at the others.

This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him.  That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.

I waited for long minutes as he continued firing down on the others.  He cast me one sidelong glance, then flew off in pursuit of someone I couldn’t see.

Even after I was able to start wiggling myself free, it was slow.  I measured my progress in half-inches.  My chest, small as it was, proved an issue.  Coupled with the armor at my front and the remains of the armor at my back, it made getting free an issue.  Several times, I stopped breathing for a good minute before I forced myself back under the concrete sheet to be able to breathe again, then I did it again.  As much through the wear and tear on my armor as anything else, I managed to slide my upper body out on the fifth attempt.  I took a second to breathe and rest, and then began the slow process of getting my midsection and hips past the mouth of the concrete shelf.

I directed every curse word I knew at the belt and armor panels I’d placed around my hips as I tried to work myself free.  My hips and rear end were proving as difficult as my chest had been, and with my upper body being further away, I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.  Minutes passed as I grunted and struggled.  I could hear inarticulate screams, shouted threats, screamed warnings and the noise of destruction on the street below as paranoia gave way to violence.  I brought Atlas to my side, but even with his strength and his horn, he wasn’t strong enough to affect the concrete.  I used his help to squeeze myself out, bracing his horn against the lip of the concrete sheet and pulling.

When I was free, I gathered my knife, baton and gun from where they had fallen and fit them into the few remaining elastic loops in my ruined utility compartment.  Cell phone was a yes, but I didn’t have a spot for it, so I tucked it in the chest compartment of my armor.  Similarly, I stuck the epipens and changepurse through the space between my hip and the belt, wedging them in next to the straps.

I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.

There was destruction below, and signs of the mad fighting between capes.  Sheets of paper frozen in time, a mailbox destroyed, a light-post toppled, all still in the midst of the red water.  Everyone had fled or been knocked out of commission.  The fighting had migrated to several scattered spots nearby.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I focused on helping the wounded, making sure they were okay.  I turned an unconscious girl over into the recovery position, and started to drag a wounded man out of the middle of the road.  I stopped when he started struggling and fighting with me and just left him there.

I felt lost.  Was I helping the enemy when I was propping someone up to make sure they didn’t choke on their own vomit or drown in a puddle?  If I used the plastic cuffs I had in the changepurse, would I be tying someone up, leaving them helpless against one of the Nine?

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

I was alone here.  Everyone in the world was a stranger.

Vibrations rocked the street.  I saw the wounded man stir in response.

A monster.  Bigger than a car, fangs, teeth, claws, and a thorny exterior.  It didn’t act like it had seen me.

One of Bitch’s dogs?  Or is it Crawler?

If it was Crawler, and I acted like he was friendly, he’d tear me to shreds.  I could draw my gun to threaten him, defend myself… except that wouldn’t do a thing to slow Crawler down.

If it was one of Bitch’s dogs sans rider, then there was little point in staying.  I didn’t even know if it was suffering from the miasma’s effect.  If it was Crawler…

I drew my bugs around me as a shroud, simultaneously forming decoy swarms.  I ran, my footsteps splashing, and called Atlas to me.  The second I was out of sight, I climbed on top of him and took to the air once again.

Couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stop.  I had to treat everyone I met as an enemy.

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

The smile dropped from her face.  She brought both hands to her mouth as she shouted, “It’s me!  Tattletale!”

I hesitated.

How tragic would it be if I shot my friend, so soon after I’d wanted to scream at the heroes for fighting among one another?

“How did you get here?”

“On the dog.  I don’t remember its name, but it wasn’t as affected as we were.  This effect is tailored for people.”

I looked in the direction of the creature I’d seen.  Had that been the dog they’d come on?

I drew closer, but I kept the gun aimed at her.  I glanced around.  “Where are the others?”

“Most are hiding,” she said.  “My powers kind of let me work around this gas, I think.  I brought Grue, too.”

I looked around.  What she was saying felt right, even if I couldn’t remember her powers, specifically.  “What is this?  Amnesia?”

Agnosia.  We haven’t forgotten.  Just… can’t use the knowledge we have.  Looking at the others, I think they’re hallucinating.  If it’s prions, like Bonesaw used with the power nullification darts, it fits.  Hallucinations would match with heavy prion exposure.”

“Prions?”

“They’re small enough to pass through water filtration and gas masks.  Badly folded proteins that force other proteins into identical shapes, perpetuating the problem.  If she found a way to guide them, or specifically target the parts of the brain she wanted, she might get results like we’re experiencing.  In a really bad case, it’d cause lesions in the brain and give you hallucinations.”

I looked around.  “How long does it last?”

“Forever.  It’s incurable and it’s terminal.”

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

She nodded, then smiled wide.  “There’s hope, right?”

“Right.”

She jerked her head to one side, then used one hand to brush the hair back out of her face.  “Let’s grab Grue and formulate a plan.”

She turned to leave, but I stayed where I was.  After three steps, she turned around.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t lower the gun.  “Sorry, a little paranoid.”

She frowned.  “That’s fair, but we’re short on time.  If others are getting lesions on their brain, then that means they could die soon.  Seizures, violent mood swings, loss of motor control…  Creutzfeldt-Jakob was a prion disease, but the progression here’s faster.”

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

“Neurological disorder caused by eating the meat of a cow infected with mad cow disease.  You get the prions in your head, and you slowly die while suffering personality changes, memory loss and vivid hallucinations.”

“And it’s faster here.”

She nodded.  Her expression was solemn.  “Hours instead of weeks.  And as people experience mood shifts with anger and fear, or if the hallucinations get worse-”

“The fighting among teammates will, too,” I finished.  “It could get ugly.”

“If we’re going to save everyone, we need Amy.  For that, we need to ask Cherish.”

I shook my head.  “Who?”

“Um.  You remember capturing a member of the Nine?”

Did I?  We’d ambushed them, walked away with captives, yes.  But we’d lost someone too.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

I nodded.  This was working.  I could piece together the information.  We’d called that person on a phone, hadn’t we?  “Cell phones aren’t working consistently.”

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

He stepped out from around the corner to stand by the blond girl.  “This is Skitter?”

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

I didn’t recognize him any more than he recognized me.  I kept the gun trained on them.

“This is slowing us down.  What’s it going to take to get you to trust me?” she asked.

What would it take?

“The fight with Empire Eighty-Eight’s mooks.  When I made the human-shaped tower of bugs for the first time, and they shot into it while I crouched inside…”

She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

How many people had I been with, then?  I would have said one, but I felt like someone else was involved.  Had they arrived late?  I could remember hurrying off.

She spread her arms wide.  “I’m sorry.  I might not look like it, but it’s affecting me too.  I’m just using my power to uncover the answers we need.”

I nodded.  That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.  It was like two blind people playing hide and seek.

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

“You can keep the gun.  I’ll keep my hands above my head.  Grue, stand back.”

He stepped away and leaned against a wall, his arms folded.

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

She got on her knees, and with her hands above her head, she walked through the flooded street on her knees until her forehead was pressed against the barrel of the gun.

“I trust you.  I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know we’ve had our ups and downs.  I know I’ve kept way too many secrets for someone who calls herself Tattletale…” She smiled. “But I trust you.  Now, even if you don’t recognize me consciously, what’s your heart telling you?”

In truth?  It wasn’t telling me much.  If I didn’t think on it, if I just went with the vague impression I associated with the name Tattletale, the smile, the fountain of information…

I backed away a step.  “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to trust you.”

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

“Do you want to go ahead without her?” the guy asked.

I turned to look at him.  The idea of being left alone here-

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

“If the Slaughterhouse Nine find Panacea first, or if things get much worse-”

“I want to help, really,” I said.  “But it’s just that…”

I trailed off.

“You want to help, but you’re suspicious.  And you feel bad for being suspicious, because of everything we’ve been through, our close calls?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was double checking everything he said against my own awareness.  Was he saying anything that indicated he knew something I couldn’t?

“I know how scared and suspicious you feel because I feel the same way.  Except I trust Tattletale.”

“I do too,” I said, “And I’d trust her if I could be sure she was Tattletale.”

“Trust your heart.”

I wanted so desperately for it to be like in the movies, where people could trust your heart.  Where you were holding the gun and you had to choose between shooting the evil clone and shooting your friend, and you just knew.

He gestured around us with one hand. “This doesn’t work.  This is going to lose us the fight, and all the danger we’ve been through in our fight against the Nine will be for nothing if they win here.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t disagree, but that line of thinking isn’t going to make me drop the gun.”

“Then can I try acting from my heart?”  he asked.

Before I could respond, he started approaching me.  I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me.  My forehead pressed against his shoulder.  It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many.  It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy.  But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

He was warm.

Grue?

Then, without waiting for me to give an answer, Grue stepped back, taking hold of my left hand and pulling.  I followed without complaint.  I couldn’t complain.  If I doubted him now, after this-  I’d be ten times as angry at myself as he was with me.

“Priority number one, we get in contact with Cherish,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “From there, we can decide whether we want to track down Panacea or go after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Right,” I said.

“Keep checking your cell phone.  The second we have service, call Coil.”

“Coil is?”

“Our boss, and since he’s hidden away, he won’t be affected, so he’ll be able to place the name and fill us in on the details the agnosia has blocked from us.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the end of the world after all,” Tattletale smiled.

I nodded.  I was acutely aware of the gun in my right hand.  I felt like I should put it away, but with the way we were moving and my general sense of unease, I couldn’t stop and do it.  Hated this.  It reminded me of school.

The reminder made me angry, and it somehow made all of this seem worse.  I muttered, “Sooner we’re fucking cured of this miasma, the better.”

“Hey!”  Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face.  “Don’t swear!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Three places nearby they could have gone,” Tattletale said.  “Two that fit with the direction they were running.  The shelter underneath the central library, and the one near where Scion confronted Leviathan.”

“I remember that one,” I replied.  We were walking at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the bomb site.  The area to our left still burned, and Sundancer was in the lead, clearing away the worst of the fires ahead of us.  I was walking with Tattletale and Grue, Atlas following behind us.  The others rode the dogs behind me.

“If we’re going to check those locations, then…” Tattletale trailed off.

“If I had a preference, I’d rather we check the library first.  Bad associations with the other spot.”

Tattletale turned her head at that.  “I thought you’d be proud.”

I shook my head.

“I only heard secondhand, so I didn’t get the full story, but you stabbed Leviathan with Armsmaster’s weapon and distracted him from going after the civilians that were inside that shelter.”

“Don’t know how many I really saved.  He had a good thirty seconds to a minute to unload everything he had on the people in there, and we all saw how much damage he did to some of our toughest capes.”

Tattletale nodded.

“I dunno.  I think of what happened back then, and I get this ugly feeling in my gut, like I did something wrong, or I didn’t try as hard as I could have because there was someone in that shelter who I sort of hate.  Hated?  I’m not sure if I should use past tense.”

“One of your bullies?”  She asked.

“Teacher.  I think that when I left the Undersiders, I guess I was thinking of considering becoming a hero or something.  But with what happened at that shelter, I almost feel like it was the turning point.  It was the first time I did anything that someone else could point to and call it heroic, and somehow I can’t find it in myself to be proud about it.  And it’s like, that dream of being a hero that I always had just kind of faded away in the face of reality.”

“We’re glad to have you, whatever your reasons,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I told her.

I looked at Grue.  “You okay?”

“I’m getting annoyed that people keep asking that,” he spoke.

“Don’t be a dick,” Tattletale replied.  “She’s asking because she cares.  We’re asking because we care.  And you know that if it was one of us that went through what you did, you’d want to make sure we were in the right headspace to go up against the Nine.”

Grue sighed, but he didn’t respond.

“You’d tell us if you weren’t feeling right, yeah?”  Tattletale asked.

“If I had any idea what I felt, and it wasn’t good, yeah.”

“Good enough.”

We watched as Sundancer cleared away the flames with her flickering sun.  Flames bent toward it as if being influenced by a strong wind, thinned out and disappeared.

She cancelled out her power and turned back to us.  “One minute to cool off and we’re probably okay to go!”

“We should decide where we’re going and how we’re going to make our approach,” Grue spoke.

“If they’re waiting for their teammates, they’ll stay inside the shelter for the time being,” I said. “We’ll be in a better position if we don’t try anything overly complicated, like a pincer attack, if there’s more than one exit.  We can hit them hard enough with Sundancer, Ballistic and my bugs.”

Grue nodded.  “I don’t disagree.  You two will have an idea if they’re making their way out the other exit.”

“The two shelters are close to one another,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m still a little worried they’ll leave one location while we’re checking out the other.  I almost want to split up.”

“Is that worth the risk of having half our group caught off guard by the Nine before the other half can arrive?”  I asked.

“A better question,” Tattletale said, “Is whether we can afford to let them get away.  If we miss this chance to go on the offensive and let them escape, they go into hiding and work out a strategy.”

“And we’re not exactly in their good books,” I said.  “So we’d be a primary target.”

Was I imagining it, or did Grue’s darkness expand around him by a fraction?

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Hm?”  He turned towards me.

No use making it worse, if I was prodding a sensitive area by raising the threat the Nine posed.  “Nevermind.”

“Saddle up!”  Tattletale called out.

Sundancer turned and sprinted back to the dogs.  Regent hopped down from his seat and grabbed Shatterbird’s wrists so she could lift him into the air.  I climbed on top of Atlas.

“What if-” I started.  “No.”

“Keep talking,” Tattletale prodded me.

“What if I scouted the library, while you guys checked out the other site?  I can fly, it’s faster for me to get there.”

“And we’d be one mistake away from you being killed,” Grue said.  “If not worse.”

“Hear me out.  Their only real long-range attacker is Jack, right?  If I’m flying, the others won’t be able to touch me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  But if Jack’s at the location, I’d be able to sense him before he got a bead on me.  If that’s the case… I can just attack without exposing myself, and I can alert you guys.”

“Assuming he’s not two steps ahead of us and waiting at some vantage point somewhere nearby,” Grue said.

“He functions like a sniper,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore the fact that he slashes and stabs, he’s a long-range combatant with a good sense of what the enemy is doing and how his teammates move on the battlefield.  He stays out of the way and makes surgical strikes, then relocates to another vantage point.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that all the time is how he has to stay involved with his team and keep them under control.  Can’t make it look like you’re in charge if you’re not there.  With less teammates to manage, he’s liable to go on the offensive.”

“But I have the ability to find him,” I pointed out.  “Before he finds me.  Amy gave me bugs that increase my range.  I’ll be taking on some risk, but it means we’re able to check both locations at the same time and keep an eye out for the Nine.  It’s the best way to strike the balance we need.”

“The balance,” Grue said.  He was clearly unimpressed.

“Minimal risk to maximum effect.  Your group will be safe because you’re all together and you’ll vastly outnumber them.  I’ll be safe because I’m airborne, and I’ll have the advantage of an early warning.  Offensively, you guys will have the Travelers and Bitch.  I’ll have my bugs.”

“Bonesaw countered your bugs last time around,” Tattletale pointed out.

I nodded.  “I have a few things in mind.”

“If you’re sure.”

“She’s not the only person who gets a say,” Grue said.

“Name a better option, then?” I said.

“We all go to the library’s shelter, then we all go to the shelter Leviathan attacked,” he said.  “Safer, smarter.”

“If you’re worried about me being defenseless,” I suggested, “Regent could come with me.”

“There’s a reason we’re keeping that pair close to us,” Grue said.  “If he gets taken down, you’ll have to deal with Shatterbird on top of everything else.  We’re capable of handling her, I think.  I don’t know if you are.”

I frowned.

Tattletale looked back at the others, then back at me.  “Go.”

I looked at Grue.

Tattletale pointed.  “Go!  Stay in contact!”

I turned and lifted off.

I kept to the cover of nearby buildings, and I flew erratically, so Jack wouldn’t be able to hit me if he saw me coming.  I was getting more used to flying Atlas.  I wouldn’t have said he felt like an extension of my own body in the same manner as my swarm.  He felt more like a prosthetic limb, or how I imagined a prosthetic limb might feel like.  At first, it would be clumsy, every action requiring some level of careful thought and attention.  Over time, it would become more second nature, a learned skill on my end.  It would never match up to the real thing, but I could deal.

Already, I was getting more used to correcting orientation and keeping him level in the air.

We set down on a rooftop a distance away.  There was a shed with a doorway that led into the building’s interior, and we headed there to take cover.

I chained relay bugs together so one connected to the next, then extended them well beyond the range of my power.  Their progress was relatively slow, but it did allow me to sweep over an entire region around the library.  Bugs stirred into action at my order, and they crawled or flew within a few feet of every horizontal surface that Jack or Bonesaw could be standing on.

No sign of them.  The vault door beneath the library was closed and sealed.

I was about to return to the others when an explosion of dust and rock fragments ripped through a group of bugs a few blocks away from me.

A woman, no clothes.  My bugs slid off her skin.  Even the slightest abrasion on the surface of the skin served to tear through the legs and bodies of the bugs.  Had to be Siberian.  If the general shape of the large object she was holding was any indication, she still held the truck.

A handful of my bugs were wiped from existence a fraction of a second before more explosions of varying size ripped through the area around her.  Legend was somewhere up in the air.

I drew my bugs together around Siberian’s head, in the hopes that I could distract her.  It was pretty thin, but there wasn’t much I could do.  Even a direct hit with Legend’s lasers wouldn’t affect her.

I shifted locations, flying half a block before landing again.  I could just barely make out the pair of combatants with my swarm sense.

Something about what Legend was doing seemed odd.  He wasn’t firing constantly.  Rather, his shots seemed to be strategically placed.  He ripped apart the side of a building a moment before Siberian landed there, then tore through the five or six floors beneath her so she had nowhere to go except straight down.  The instant she stepped free of the building’s ground floor, he tore into the ground with a series of laser blasts that expanded outward, thinning as they went.  It created a bowl-shaped indent, with rubble covering the storm drains that had been exposed by the lasers.

Carrying the truck, Siberian headed for the storm drains anyways, tearing through the piles of debris.  Legend unloaded on the entire street, collapsing them around her.  Some of my bugs descended with the pieces of the shattered street, and they could feel the warmth of the outside air mingling with the cold, stagnant air of the storm drains.  He’d exposed her.

I’d seen Legend go all out, and this wasn’t it.  Why was he holding back?  Granted, there was little point in hitting Siberian with everything he had, and it was easily possible that trying to drill a hole in the ground around her could theoretically give her the chance to escape, if she found some underground cavern or tunnel, but it could just as easily drown her.  So long as she had the truck, Siberian had to stay places where there was oxygen.  She couldn’t, I was assuming, dive beneath the water and make her escape from there.  Legend seemed to be going out of his way to keep her aboveground and exposed, attacking only when he had to.

He was conserving his strength.  As much as both he and Siberian were powerhouses with more offensive capability than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet, this was a strategic battle.  It was easily possible he was planning to keep this up for hours, harrying her, keeping her from getting her feet under her.

And with Siberian’s master or controller in that truck, she was forced to move more carefully.  If Siberian’s creator didn’t have food and water, this could turn into a battle of attrition.  One Legend might even win.  He was fit, healthy, athletic.  Siberian’s master, according to Cherish, wasn’t.  Added to that, being in that truck as Siberian leaped around couldn’t be fun.

I felt like I was still missing something.  Why was Legend fighting here, of all places?  Whatever else was going on, they were causing pretty horrific property damage, and it had to be hard to fight Siberian in a place with this many high-rises.  She could disappear into building interiors, and even if he lowered the height he was flying at, Legend was probably having to penetrate three or four stories of building to get to her.

I kept my distance from the fight as I directed Atlas toward the library.  With my bugs, I was able to more or less follow the fight.  I couldn’t touch Siberian directly, but I could sense where Legend was directing his attacks, and how he was positioning himself.

I continued to do what I could to help Legend, sending bugs at Siberian in the hopes of distracting her or finding some way into that truck.  They searched the windows but failed to find a gap.  Some crawled into the exhaust, others into the undercarriage-

She fell into a trench as Legend leveled another series of blasts at her, and the movement of the truck coupled with Siberian’s power and its rough texture murdered a solid ninety-percent of the bugs I’d used.  The remainder made their way deeper inside.

The bugs could scent something they registered as food.  A heavy smell, fetid, like garbage.  It was rank in there.  They crawled through the air conditioning vents and into the truck’s interior.

The driver’s seat was empty.  I sent the bugs into the back.  Nothing.

The truck was empty?

With my bugs, I drew out words in mid-air high above me, informing Legend: ‘TRUCK EMPTY – SIBERIAN BLUFF.’

Had she assessed what Legend was doing, turned it around on him?  If her real self was somewhere safe, somewhere with food and water, that meant Legend would lose any battle of attrition, if that’s what he was aiming for.

I couldn’t think of another reason her creator would leave the safety of the truck.

Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

“Tattletale?”

“Sup?”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck.  I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

“Someone’s sealed over this door with a heavy pad of metal, because Leviathan or someone tore it down.  My gut’s telling me the Nine didn’t gather inside and weld it shut behind them, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Bonesaw’s spiders did it.  One in twenty chance, I’d guess?  We’ll know in about thirty seconds, after Sundancer burns through.”

“Right.  A few more things that are bugging me.  Can I use your brain?”

“Go ahead.”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here.  It feels wrong.  He’s working to pin her down, slow her movements as much as he can.  I know he’s probably buying time, trying to wear her other self out, but why not a place with flatter terrain?  Why not a place where there’ll be less cover for her and less collateral damage?  I know Siberian goes where she wants, and if her other self is in the shelter, that’s probably a big reason she came, but-”

“Your gut is saying something’s off.”

“My gut is saying something’s off.”

“Okay.  I’d guess the Protectorate have more of a plan than the one firebombing.”

“They’re going to do it again?”

“No.  The first one, going by what you’ve said and what I’ve picked up, hasn’t done much for our side.  It’s going to be something else.”

“And we don’t know what?”

“No clue.  What else?”

“Minor, but if her other self is in the shelter, where are Jack and Bonesaw?  And if they’re in the shelter, where’s Siberian’s real body?”

“She’s spent years with them, they have a rapport, and they’re dependent on one another. Maybe he felt it was safe to approach them.”

“Maybe.  Nothing more specific?”

“Don’t have much to work with.  What else is going on?”

“Legend’s holding back.  Conserving his strength.  I get that he’s trying to win a fight of attrition, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed his tactics or the pacing of his attacks much since I informed him that the creator isn’t in the truck.”

“He’s buying time for something?  Someone?  Maybe Scion is headed this way?  No.  Don’t get that vibe.  Hmm,” Tattletale mused.  “We just got inside.  They aren’t here.”

I looked down at the library.  “Vault door, how do I open it?”

“Can’t say until I see the control panel myself.  The shelters are supposed to open with a command from the PHQ-”

“Which was annihilated,” I said.

“Right.  Or the PRT headquarters, on the Director’s order.  There’s bound to be another code that can be used in case those places get knocked out of commission.”

“How did they get in?”

“They have a tinker,” Tattletale said.  “She may work primarily with biology, but that’s not going to be the full extent of Bonesaw’s knowledge.  Look at those spiders.  Some basic hacking isn’t out of the question.  Anyways, I can figure it out when I get there.  Unless you want to take the brute force route.”

I looked down at Atlas.  “I don’t have enough brute force, and neither does Atlas.”

Legend does.  We’re on our way.  See you in a few.”

“Right.”

I hung up.

I drew more words in the air with my bugs, near Legend.

‘FOUND THE 9.  UNDERGROUND SHELTER.’

As an afterthought, I added:

‘MAYBE CIVILIANS INSIDE.’

I drew an arrow by the words.  Then, to make it as clear as possible, I drew a giant arrow in the sky, pointing down at the shelter door.

I was going to look foolish if they weren’t inside, and maybe cost Legend in whatever plan he was operating under.

I could feel him changing directions.  He kept facing Siberian, unloading laser blasts, but he was flying my way.

Siberian dashed forward.  I could feel her cutting a swath through the swarm as she ran, the truck in one hand, one corner of it dragging on the ground, cutting a line into the pavement.  She leaped into the air, out of the reach of my swarm-sense.  I felt something massive collide with the bugs that were in the air around Legend, felt more die as he shot a laser and caught them in the area.

She’d thrown the truck, and he’d obliterated it.

Legend shifted into high gear, flying out of reach of Siberian as she lunged for him.  He dove, hard, and I could imagine her leaping off the side of a second building, trying to get her hands on him.

Legend turned my way and flew towards the library.  I hurried out of the way, directing Atlas to higher altitude, just in case Legend decided to level the place.

The leader of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene, and I could sense Siberian on the ground, hot on his heels.  He raised one hand, and a laser beam shot forth, splitting into eight smaller beams that bent in the air.  They hit the outside edge of the vault door with precision, evenly spaced out, then drifted in a clockwise direction.  The door toppled free.

Legend spread his arms, and hundreds of individual beams radiated out from his body.  Three quarters of them turned in sync to spear towards the library, stabbing through the architecture.  Other beams split off to strike through doorways and windows and across rooftops.  No less than three struck me.

I flinched and nearly lost my seat on Atlas, but found it wasn’t much hotter than steaming tap water, and it only lasted two or three seconds before cutting out.  Siberian had approached close enough to demand Legend’s attention, and he’d terminated whatever it was he’d been doing.

I turned my mind away from whatever the beams had been intended to do and toward my own contributions to this fight.   Had to strike before they got their bearings.  I took advantage of the pause to send bugs flowing into the shelter.

I could count a number of people, young and old.  The mosquitoes in my swarm could scent blood.  Twenty or so people were inside the shelter, standing there.  There was metal on their bodies, like backpacks or prosthetic body parts, but they didn’t seem to be hurt.

There were three more inside, but I wasn’t feeling so generous as to call them ‘people’.  They stood apart: two men and a preadolescent girl.

It was them.  The Nine.

I couldn’t trust my ability to get to Legend and communicate the necessary details in time, and I might even be endangering him by getting too close to Siberian.  I couldn’t say for sure how he would really act in the field, but his PR sold the idea of a legitimate good guy who would balk at attacking an enemy with a hostage.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.  It could even be a mercy, sparing someone from one of the Nine’s clutches.  Siberian devoured people alive.

Either way, it was better to try to catch his attention with a written message: ’20 CIVILIAN, JS, BS, SIB’.

He was too distracted by Siberian to see it.  She wasn’t as fast as Battery or Velocity, but she had the physical power to move quickly, and she was leaping between buildings to throw herself at him with the speed and aim of an arrow shot from a bow.

I tried leaving another message for Legend, stating the same thing.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him looking at me.  Our eyes met.  He nodded, and I turned my attention to the shelter.

I didn’t want to do this half-assed.  No mistakes this time around.  I gathered a swarm of generous size, but I held it at bay.  There were more preparations to carry out.  I drew the capsaicin bugs from beneath my armor and added them to the swarm.  I drew out silk threads and held them suspended in the air, ready for use.  For a final measure, I withdrew a lighter and the changepurse from the utility compartment at my back.

Primary swarm in first.  As one singular mass, they flowed inside.  The capsaicin-laced bugs joined them, going straight for the eyes.

Jack reacted, as did the man, but Bonesaw was unfazed.  I saw Siberian flicker.  Legend noticed as well.  He snapped his eyes to me, and then the shelter.

The creator needs to concentrate?

My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it would dislodge me from Altas.  Bugs settled on the three members of the Nine and then they attacked.  It wasn’t the sort of attack I’d ever done before.  I’d had bugs bite, I’d had them sting, I’d even used them to deliver payloads of their various venoms.

I’d always held back to some degree.  The only ones I hadn’t held back against had been untouchable.  These three weren’t so lucky.

Mandibles bit into flesh, seeking not to pinch and inflict pain.  Ants scissored flesh away, beetles tore and rent into the flesh, flies spat their digestive enzymes onto the exposed flesh.

I buried them in every kind of insect I had that could eat, cut or pierce meat.  The bugs didn’t eat their fill: they simply bit, chewed, let the food fall from their mouths, then bit again.

Bonesaw’s hands were smooth as glass as she reached for her belt.  She was cool and collected, even as the bugs slowly flayed her.

She was stopped short as the silk strands tangled her ceramic fingers.

My bugs could hear her speak.  Though I could barely make out the words, I thought maybe the first one was ‘Jack’.  She held out her hands.

I tried to bind him, but tying his arm to his side was harder than using silk cords to lash fingers together.  At least partially blinded by the capsaicin, he swiped his knife a few times in Bonesaw’s direction.  He cut her several times, and my bugs could feel her flesh part around her collarbone and face.  Some of the cuts were on target, however, and the threads around her fingers were severed.  An instant later, she was free to put together her anti-bug smoke, working her hands to break the threads as I tried to tangle her fingers again.

Okay.  Not the end of the world.  The bugs were still devouring the three, and I still had a plan in mind.  An idle hope.

I withdrew the tissues I’d wadded in the changepurse to keep the contents from jingling or rattling around.  My bugs took hold of them and carried them into the air, two or three dozen in all.

I tested the lighter, then held it out to ignite the first tissue.

It was a slow burn, taking fifteen or twenty seconds to consume the paper.  The flies that carried it died as the flame reached them, consuming them.

By the time the first was burned, my bugs were positioning the second, allowing it to ignite.  In this manner, I chained them one after the other.  A slow-moving relay of flame.

Bonesaw had her smoke going, despite my efforts to rebind her fingers, and I could feel it murdering my bugs en-masse.  I pulled them away and out of the shelter, leaving only a few to track the movements of the Nine.

The trail of burning tissues made their way inside the shelter.  I ignited the last few tissues and sent them to Bonesaw.  I could feel the bugs die as they hit the smoke.

Nothing.  I swore.

It had been too much to hope for, that the smoke was flammable.  Even if the smoke had exploded in the mildest possible way, it would have at least given me a countermeasure.

I turned away from the area.  I’d told the others I would play safe.  I’d tried what I could, I’d maybe even done a little damage to them, now I’d back off.  I’d earned Siberian’s attention by attacking her creator, but she was preoccupied with Legend, so that was one threat I didn’t have to worry about.  The rest of the Nine were still inside.

Legend, for his part, was keeping up the measured, carefully paced assault.  I saw him raise one hand to his ear.

A communication from his team?  Had something happened with the rest of the Protectorate?  Or the other members of the Nine?

He dove straight for the shelter.  Siberian gave chase, and without slowing in the slightest, he raked a laser across the street to render her footing less stable.  It couldn’t have bought him more than a fraction of a second, if it even made a difference at all;  I could see her placing one foot on a shattered piece of road that wouldn’t have held a squirrel without collapsing.  She used it to kick herself forward, soaring after Legend, hands curled into claws.  He was ahead of her by only ten or fifteen feet.

The scattered bugs I had at the fringes of the extermination smoke gave me only a half-completed picture.  Legend inside, blasting a laser in the direction of the cloud where Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian’s creator were.  He grabbed one of the civilians that were standing dumbly in the shelter, only to get mobbed.  She latched onto him, and the others did the same, trying to drag him down.  My bugs felt a flash of heat as he used his laser to blast at them and free himself.  Another laser speared out of the top of the Library, followed soon after by Legend, spearing up toward the sky.  He directed another laser straight down at the library, continuing to fly straight up.

That was reason for me to do the same.  I rose with one hand on Atlas’ horn, and I drew my phone with the other.  I speed dialed Tattletale.  Trusting to her penchant for picking up the phone on the first ring, I started shouting before I heard any response, “Something’s up!  Take cover and get back!”

The stealth bomber streaked across the sky, just as it had before.  Its payload this time was smaller, barely visible.

The devastation wasn’t so easy to miss.

The only word for it was chaos.  I could hardly pick out the individual effects as they mingled.  A cloud of yellow-green smoke being pulled into a spiral around a vortex, which was causing the section of the library that had turned to glass to shatter and implode.  There was a flare of brilliant mixed colors I could barely look at, frying a scattered assortment of boneless, faceless, fleshy monsters.  One monster made it four steps before being turned to dust.  Where the dust touched, more dust was created, until the vortex expanded enough to start pulling it all in, stopping what might have been an endless chain reaction.

I could see time slowing in one spot, I could see pavement heating into a liquid in another.  I could see one area that was serene, untouched, a bubble where a newspaper that had been scattered on the ground was flapping violently with the movement of air.  Half a building was annihilated by the flash of an explosion, and it toppled into the midst of the bomb site.  In seconds, it was obliterated and chewed up.

The effects spread and expanded all down the street, a stripe of this madness three blocks wide, extending into the midst of the blaze from the previous bombing run.

I drifted toward Legend, raising my hands over my head to show I meant no harm.

“Thank you for the assistance,” he spoke, when I was in earshot.  “Some was misguided or off target, but it did make a difference.”

I could only nod.

He put one hand to his ear, then paused for several long seconds.  When he spoke, it was vague.  “Acknowledged.”

I waited, staring down at the disaster area below.

“Crawler and Mannequin observed to be in the blast site.”

“How did they disengage while keeping them there?  They- they did disengage?”

“Clockblocker managed to tether Mannequin in place.  Crawler freed himself from the same trap by tearing himself in two against the immovable object.  It was Piggot who managed to keep Crawler in the blast area.”

“How?”

“She had Weld pass on a message, telling Crawler what we had planned.  He was so tickled at the idea that we would be able to hurt him that he stayed where he was while the teams made their retreat.”

“Just like that?”

“Apparently so.”

“If he survives-”

“He didn’t.”

There was a series of smaller explosions below.  I could see a section of ruined building glowing red, then detonating in a blast of light that sent a nearby glacier spinning into a patch of burning ground.

“And the other three?”

“Remains to be seen.  The civilians are dead, but it’s something of a mercy.  Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders were welded to their skeletons, allowing her to remotely control them.  Like zombies, only they were aware and in incredible pain.  I expect she had measures to inflict agonizing deaths on them if we attempted to disconnect them from her spider-frames.  Maybe I could have saved them, can’t say.  From the glimpses I saw of them, I don’t know if they would have thanked me.”

We spent a minute staring down at the devastation.

I ventured to ask him a question, “Can Brockton Bay take this?  It feels like it was on the verge of collapse already.  Add this mess, the firebombing… can we really come back from it?”

“You know this city better than I do, I’m sure.  I like to think people are stronger than they appear at first glance.  Perhaps the same goes for cities as well?”

“I’d like to think so.  But if I’m being realistic-”

I stopped mid-sentence.

My bugs had found a group of individuals on the edge of the blast radius.

“No fucking way.”  I pointed.

Siberian flickered violently as she crouched beside Jack and Bonesaw, one hand on each.  In between the three of them was a man, hunched over.

Legend raised one hand, but he didn’t shoot.

“Legend?”

“They haven’t seen us.  I would like to take out Jack or Bonesaw while they’re distracted and unguarded, I just need Siberian to step away or let go of them.”

The group shifted positions, so the man had an arm around Jack’s chest and an arm around Bonesaw’s shoulders, Siberian behind him.

“See that?” Legend asked.

“What?”  I could barely make them out from our vantage point.  “I can’t.”

“My eyes are better than most.  A minor benefit of my powers.  The backs of his hands, perhaps you can make out the tattoos?  A cauldron on the left hand, a swan on the right.”

“I- I don’t follow.”

“No,” he sighed a little.  “I suppose you wouldn’t.  It does mean we know who he is.”

“Someone I’d know?  An old costume?”

He shook his head.  “A scholar.”

Jack glanced up, and Legend fired in the same instant.  With Siberian’s strength, the group  of the Nine lunged to one side, disappearing behind cover.  I sent bugs after them.

My swarm sensed other arrivals.  The Undersiders and Travelers came from the west, taking a circuitous route around the top end of the bomb site.  Legend fired a series of blasts after Siberian and gave chase, but she was keeping a building between her group and Legend.   He stopped where he was, one hand outstretched, and touched his ear.

“My teams are on their way,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “The Undersiders and Travelers are too.  I’m going to go fill them-”

“We need them to back off,” he interrupted.

“Another bombing?”  I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  It seems we’re facing the worst case scenario.”

“We’re winning,” I said, incredulous.  “You guys took out two of them, we’ve got them on the defensive-”

“Exactly,” he interrupted me.  “We’re winning.  And we’ve broken enough of Jack’s rules for his ‘game’.  Now I fear we’re about to see whatever ‘punishment’ it was that Bonesaw prepared for us.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

Piggot nodded.  “Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

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