Interlude 15

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“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.

“Guys!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.

“Sorry.”

“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

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Colony 15.10

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I passed the invisible boundary between the neatly manicured lawn of the mayor’s expansive backyard to the tall grass at the glade’s edge.  My hands were shaking and my breathing was heavy.  I hadn’t done anything more strenuous in the past few minutes than talking to the mayor and walking at a good pace, but my body was reacting like I’d just sprinted halfway across the mayor’s property.

I put a hand on a tree as I walked, as if it could steady me and keep me from falling.  I wasn’t in any danger of falling that I was aware of, but it was reassuring nonetheless.

Damn him.  How big was his property?  And he could still afford to hire someone to cut his grass?  Eat a nice dinner on a huge wooden table, complete with courses?  Blithely ignoring what was going on in the rest of the city with his superhero son and superheroine date?

No, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to get angry.  Couldn’t blame him for what I’d done.

I’d deliberately let someone come within seconds of dying, and he hadn’t been a monster, like Lung or the Slaughterhouse Nine.  He hadn’t even necessarily been a bad person.  If I’d waited just ten or twenty seconds longer, he might have stopped breathing.  CPR would be that much more difficult with a closed airway, and he could have died or suffered brain damage while they attempted to revive him.

Of course, my first aid knowledge wasn’t all that recent or complete.

I let go of the tree, adjusted my sling and moved on.  Drawing my cell phone from the armor at my back, I made a call.  “Cranston?”

“What can I do for you, Skitter?”

My voice sounded too calm for how my body seemed to be reacting.  “Need an ambulance to the mayor’s residence, backyard.  There’s a young man having breathing difficulties.  Can you use untraceable channels to get in touch with emergency services?”

“I’ll do that.  Anything else?”

“Tell Coil the job’s done.”

“The second this phone call is over.”

I hung up.

Triumph’s family would probably do that anyways, but it made me feel a little better.

I couldn’t afford to dwell.  I headed for Genesis, stalling her movements by signaling her with my bugs.  I wrote out a message: ‘Job done.  Trickster hurt.  Need help taking him to Coil.’

I directed her to me with my bugs, drawing arrows in the air.  A minute or two passed before she caught up.

Genesis had decided on a form that was an overlarge woman’s face carved out of bone, surrounded by long, thin, branching tentacles.  She would have come up with that as a counter for Triumph and either Prism or Ursa Aurora; something that could take a heavy hit, either from a bear made of forcefields or Triumph’s shouts and punches.  It would also be pretty effective against Prism for the same reasons I was: Multitasking and the ability to handle multiple foes at once.

“Where’s Trickster?” she asked.

I brought him down from above the treeline, unconscious and strapped to Atlas’ back.  “I can’t carry him all the way back.  It’s too far, and it’ll be too slow.  Atlas is leashed to me by my maximum range.”

And as long as I’m on foot, I’m vulnerable to any attacks from Coil or Prism’s reinforcements.

“You want me to carry you?”

I shook my head.  “I want you to carry him.  Flying Atlas is hard enough as it is without an uneven weight on top of him, and if Trickster wakes up and starts moving, he’s going to fall.”

“Fine.  Damn it.  Making a new body’s slow when I’m this far from myself.”

“Can you make it at the far end of this glade?  I can jog there by the time you’re done, and I’ll bring Trickster.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she began breaking down into a gelatinous, blurry mess.  Her power was like mine, I supposed.  It took time to prepare.  I had to get my bugs to the battlefield, she had to put herself together.

I checked Trickster was securely in place, adjusted my sling so my arm wouldn’t bounce too much and then hurried for the meeting place.  Atlas followed, flying just above the treeline.

It was times like this that I felt less normal, less human.  It was dark, the foliage overhead dense, branches blocked my way and the ground was riddled with roots, stones and uneven footing.  It barely mattered.  My bugs flowed ahead of me to check surfaces, clinging to branches and carpeting the ground.  I passed through the trees as though I’d spent my life among them, memorizing where everything was.  I extended my foot just a bit further to accommodate the slope ahead of me, ducked a branch with wickedly pointed tips and found a handhold on another branch to help myself hop over a spot where water had pooled.

I liked running.  For months, I’d used running as a way to forget about whatever was plaguing me.  Before, it had been the bullying.  Then it had been the pressures of dealing with the Undersiders, my undercover ruse.  Separating from my dad.  Dinah.  The fallout from the Endbringer attack.  Coil.

The times I hadn’t run, I’d felt like I was losing my mind.  Did correlation equal causation, there?  Or was it just that the moments I was unable to run were the same moments I was  under the most stress?  When the Slaughterhouse Nine had been in town, when I’d been living in the shelters after Leviathan hit the city, before I rejoined the Undersiders?

Either way, it was good to break free of my thoughts on Triumph and what I’d done to him. I could focus on breathing, on putting each foot exactly where it needed to be, keeping my balance and letting my subconscious guide me through the woods.

I felt vaguely disappointed when I reached the point where the small forest ended and the roads began.  One of the busiest streets in Brockton Bay was desolate, a lone car cutting a path through the shallow water as it headed away from the city.  I stayed in the shadow of the trees until it was well out of sight.  I didn’t want to do this, didn’t want to step back into the city and face everything that waited for me there.  The threats on my life from an employer who divided and pruned realities was only a small part of that.

I would have left, if I could afford to.  If Dinah and my people could afford for me to.

My bugs found Genesis, and even with the indirect route I’d taken, I reached her before she was fully formed.  She looked like a bison with wings, but her back had a bowl-shaped depression, and she had stubby little legs and antennae.  Since she didn’t have the means, I was left to try to ease Trickster into the basin.  I could see why she did it, cradling him and ensuring he couldn’t fall, but it was still dangerous and tricky to move him with just the one arm.  I wondered if she’d seen the sling.

We took off, and Atlas proved faster than she was.  She had to ride the air currents and she was heavier overall.  I scouted forward some in case we crossed paths with Legend or any other heroes.

I paused on one rooftop while I waited for her to catch up again.  I drew my cell phone and called Tattletale this time.

“Skitter?” She answered on the first ring.

“Job’s done.  Already told Coil.  Triumph was there, along with Prism.  They hurt Trickster, took Genesis out of action.  I stopped them and finished the job, got the mayor to agree to the terms we wanted.”

“Are you still there?  At the mayor’s place?”

“No.  Just left.”

There was a pause.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she told me.

“What doesn’t?”

“We’re clear to talk, no bugs, I’m ninety-nine percent sure.  So listen, if Coil wanted to assassinate you, that’d be his chance.  Once you leave the mayor’s property, that’s it.  He doesn’t know where you’re going.”

“Trickster got hurt,” I told her.  “Maybe he was supposed to do it?”

“Maybe,” she admitted, “But that still feels wrong.  Why wouldn’t Coil have a backup plan?”

“Or maybe Dinah’s power is working, and he’s got some bigger plan in mind?”

“I’m at his base right now.  It doesn’t fit with his movements.  He’s not really visiting her.”

I shivered.  Visiting her, dosing her with drugs, interrogating her for answers about his grand plan… I hated the images that popped into my mind when I thought about Dinah in captivity.

“Listen,” she said, “I’m going to try to find out more.  I’ll call you back.”

“I don’t like that you’re there without backup.  You said he might want to get rid of you too.”

“I’ll know if he does.”

“Like you knew he’d try to kill me?”

Another pause.

“I’ll call you later,” she said.

The line went dead.

I reluctantly put my phone away.  I had a hollow feeling in the center of my chest.  A huge part of me wanted to call Grue, but I couldn’t convince myself that it was really what I was aching for.  I might have anyways, but I wasn’t sure what I would have said.  Would I have asked for a hug, another cuddle?  For advice, tactical suggestions?  For reassurances?

I wouldn’t have said the thought had ever explicitly crossed my mind, but somehow I’d always assumed that I’d know what to do when I got into a relationship.  I didn’t want this thing to be designated the nice memory that we avoided mentioning until things had returned to the old status quo.

But I wasn’t sure he was the person I wanted to reach out to.  The people in my territory?  Was I seeking some validation there, some cheers, smiles, hugs and other assurances that I was really on the right track, doing the right things?

I couldn’t be sure.

I met with Genesis in the air, flying just beneath her so our heads were as close to one another as possible.  “Is he okay?”

“He was awake a second, then went under again,” she said, “Might be a good thing.  He’s hurting.”

“Probably.  Why?  Why did he pick a fight like that?”

“It’s how he operates.  I’m not saying this is usual, or that this wasn’t an extreme case, but… it’s always how he dealt with things, big or small.  The worse things get, the more stubborn and cocky he gets in going up against them.  It worked when we were just messing around together, just playing around.  But we were never suited to be… I dunno, a family?”

“A family?”

“We’ve spent two years together, with just each other.  I don’t know what you could call us, if not that.”

“Why don’t you quit?  Split up?  Is it Noelle?”

“She’s only half of it,” Genesis said.  She didn’t volunteer anything more.

We flew in silence for a few long seconds.

“Don’t blame him, okay?  He has his way of handling stuff, but those methods don’t scale up so well when we’re dealing with stuff this screwed up.”

“Things are getting better.  The Nine are gone, we’re cleaning up the city, our enemies are getting driven out of Brockton Bay.”

“Better for you, maybe, but those are your priorities.”

I didn’t respond, wasn’t sure how to.

“Just… don’t blame him.  I’m sorry things got so bad tonight.”

“Okay,” I said.  I hadn’t meant to get caught up in a conversation.  I saw a chance to say what I wanted to, “Are you good with going to Coil’s on your own?”

She looked surprised.

It was too dangerous to meet with Coil right now.  I wasn’t thinking straight, and I wasn’t willing to walk into the lion’s den.  Another day, under different circumstances, with backup?  Maybe.  But not now.

“I’m going to head back to my territory,” I lied.

“Yeah.  Sure.”

“Okay.  Good luck?  Coil can call me if he needs anything.”

“Alright.”

I veered off to head north, leaving Genesis to continue in the direction of Coil’s headquarters.

As Tattletale had suggested, the window of opportunity had passed.  If I returned to my territory, would I be walking into a trap?  The same could be true if I went to any familiar place.  Coil had enough soldiers to have one lying in wait in any given area.

On the other hand, if I broke pattern and stayed somewhere off his radar, I’d be letting him know I was suspicious.  That might be all he needed to decide to step up his plans and go all-out.

I came to a decision, all my disparate thoughts and concerns snapping together into one simple, inelegant solution.

Too dangerous to go to my territory.  I set Atlas down on top of the tallest building in the area, climbed off and sent my bugs into my territory instead.  They flowed into my lair as a mass.  I left some in the appropriate terrariums to restock my supply of some of the rarer spiders and larger beetles.  The rest passed through the upper floors of my lair and retrieved the necessities.  They returned, surrounding Atlas as a cloud.

Once Atlas had landed beside me, I began getting everything in order.  Atlas held my rain boots in his front claws and carried my backpack and some of the clothes I’d had him pack on his back.  Using my hand, I swatted other items through the backpack’s opening as my bugs brought them into position – underwear, socks, wallet.

I ran one hand over Atlas’ rough exterior.  “What am I going to do with you?”

Atlas didn’t have the instincts to operate on his own.  He was an entirely unique creation, designed from scratch with no real blueprint or model for behavior.  He couldn’t move, couldn’t eat and couldn’t defend himself if I wasn’t in range to control him.

I’d have to figure something out.  Some place I could stick him so I could keep him close.

I picked out what I wanted to wear, checked there wasn’t anyone nearby and changed on the rooftop.  I had to take off the sling to free my arm, which maybe wasn’t the best idea, but I was gentle with my shoulder as I worked my way into a tank top.

When I was changed, I fixed my sling, I packed my stuff in my bag and bound my costume loosely in silk to keep it compact and tied that package loosely to Atlas’ back.  I wouldn’t be going anywhere without him, and wherever I was, he could probably bring my costume to me faster than I could access whatever hiding place I’d chosen.

I double-checked there wasn’t anyone watching, stepped up onto Atlas’ back and stayed standing as he lowered us to the street.  I skipped down with a bit of a splash, slung the backpack over my good shoulder and started walking.

Things were getting better.  The flooding was more under control, and less streets were sitting beneath inches of water.  The work my people had done in our district had helped, here.  We were downhill, and the efforts in clearing out the storm drains and dismantling the trash and rubble that was trapping water in certain areas had freed the water to flow down towards the beaches.

Still, that wasn’t saying a whole lot.  There were too many areas where it was dangerous to walk without proper boots, due to the glass and the wooden boards with nails in them. Piles of trash sat everywhere, with nobody to clear them away.  When people had run out of plastic bags, they began throwing the trash in cardboard boxes or plastic totes.  When those had proved too short in supply, they’d started throwing debris and litter wherever they pleased; out windows and into alleyways.  I could see rats in the spaces between some houses, not even shy about being out in plain view while I walked by with my oversized rain boots.

Plant life was alternately dying and flourishing, with trees and lawns drowned and algae and moss blooming.  Weeds were cautiously emerging wherever there was ground to take root.

It was funny how nature reclaimed this world in its own way.  It was silly to say humans were destroying the environment; we were simply changing it.  Nature would persevere until the world was a barren wasteland.  Whatever apocalypse Jack was supposed to set in motion, I suspected Jack was right in what he’d said to Bonesaw.  Something would undoubtedly survive, and this sort of thing would likely happen across the world, starting in the cracks, spreading out, only to overwhelm and bury the ruins of civilization.

A weird direction for my train of thought, but this was one circumstance where I didn’t want to think too much on things beforehand.

I stopped, not out of hesitation, but nostalgia.  The wooden staircase in front of me had rotted out on the bottom-most step.  Not recent, not a fault of Leviathan or the city’s conditions.  Older.  I skipped past it and headed up to the front door and rang the bell.

My heart pounded.  I tried not to think about anything particular.  Didn’t want to chicken out.

The door opened, and I found myself face to face with my dad.

It took all the courage I had not to turn around and run.  I was such a coward.  I’d been like this with school; I’d stopped going to classes for reasons that were more or less reasonable in the moments I’d made the decision, and somewhere along the line, I’d continued to avoid school because I didn’t have the courage to own up to my previous absences.

Only this wasn’t school.  It was my dad.  He still had marks all over his body where the glass had cut him, dried scabs in lines and circles all over his face and arms.  He had one large bandage on his shoulder.  Shouldn’t he have healed by now?  Or had it been that bad?

“It’s good to see you,” he said.  His forehead was creased in concern.  “You’re hurt.”

I looked down at the sling.  “It’s not major.”

“Is it why you-” he said, stopping himself as if he didn’t want to jinx things and scare me off with a poor choice of words.

“No,” I said.  I found myself searching for an explanation, opening my mouth to respond and then closing it when that explanation didn’t readily come.

He’s my boy, I could imagine the mayor’s voice, the pain and raw emotion I’d heard.  I only ever wanted what was best for him.

I just had to look my dad in the eyes, and I could see that same expression in my dad’s eyes.

“No,” I said, again.  “I just saw someone nearly lose her daughter.  It made me think of you and mom.”  I’d changed the genders on the spur of the moment to be safe.

As if I’d prodded a wound, I could feel that deep-seated ache from earlier come alive.  I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to meet my dad’s eyes.

“Do you,” he said, pausing, “Want to come in?”

I nodded.  He stepped out of the doorway and I stepped into the house for the first time since Shatterbird had attacked.  That had been the start of June, or thereabouts.  I hadn’t exactly had time to look around, nor had I really been in a stable state of mind.  The last time I’d really been able to look around the house had been the start of May.  Nearly two months ago.

I looked at the mantlepiece above the fireplace.  Things had been rearranged.  There was a small clock with a broken face, a family picture of Dad, Mom and me that had survived Shatterbird’s attack and a little statue/candlestick featuring a woman with a flowing dress.

I touched the statuette.  There were memories there.  Too many things in the house had them.  The statuette was part of a pair.  My mom had bought them at the market.  The overly tall, skinny, exaggerated figures had seemed to match my mom and dad, in a way.

“Where’s the husband statue?  Were you robbed?”

I looked at him, and he looked embarrassed.  “I traded it away.  More than a few things.”

“Why?  For what?”

“Selling and bartering for food,” he answered.

“But there’s supplies.  Did you not get enough, or…” I trailed off.  Why was I attacking him? Accusing him?  Was it guilt, failing to look after my dad and make sure he got the supplies he needed?

“The explosion with the glass.  I suffered some minor kidney damage.  The doctor advised me to up my iron and protein intake while we wait to see if it’ll scar.  Not nutrients you find in good supply in supply kits.”

Kidney damage.

“Is that the worst injury?  You’re otherwise okay?”

“I’m mostly okay.  Better than most, thanks to the warning you gave me about the Slaughterhouse Nine being in town.  Some of my coworkers owe you thanks as well.”

I nodded.  I was glad people were okay, but the fact that word was spreading, it put me in a dangerous spot.

“But I should be the one asking how you’re doing.  What happened to your arm?”

“Foreign body got trapped in there at some point,” I said, “Needed minor surgery.”

I could see the alarm crossing over his face.  Had he heard something?  Flechette passing on a message that people with injured shoulders-

Surgery?” he asked.

“It was only local anesthetic.  Really.  Not that big a deal.”

I looked over the bookshelves.  One of the better pictures of mom and me had been destroyed by the explosion of glass, ripped to shreds.  He had to have picked up that frame and stood it up on its own, sometime after Shatterbird’s attack.  I prodded at the picture, as if I could push the tattered remains back together.

“You’re so different,” he said.  “You’re standing straighter, dressing like you aren’t trying to hide in your clothes, moving with more purpose.  I think you’ve grown, too.  So many people, they seem like they’ve been burdened by what’s going on, they’ve given up a little, lost important things.  That just makes the contrast between you and them that much stronger.”

I turned around.  Was I?  “I don’t feel that much stronger.”

“I spent fifteen years raising you.  Two and a half of those years I spent raising you alone.  I can see a difference.”

“I’m not saying there isn’t a change.  There probably is.  I just- I dunno if I’m better because of it.”

“Oh.”

A silence stretched out.  Neither of us were adept conversationalists, and any familiarity we’d had was gone.

“Do you want to sit?” he asked.

I nodded and seated myself.  There were papers on the coffee table.  Two loose stacks, headed with the title ‘Know where you are’.  They looked as though they had been printed using a fifteen year old photocopier.  I picked one up.

‘Know where you are:

The area extending east of Captain’s hill is believed to be under claim by the supervillains Grue and Imp.  Both are members of a group known as the Undersiders, who have joined with the Travelers in an unnamed alliance.  These villains will not attack civilians unless provoked, and clean-up is tentatively progressing throughout the area with no objections from either villain.

Grue has the ability to create clouds of darkness.  Should you find yourself in one of these clouds, retreat to the nearest cover you remember seeing and assume there is immediate and present danger from vehicles, gunfire, moving pedestrians and fighting between capes…’

I put it down.  There was more, noting a lack of information about Imp as well as the gangs and possible rivals that Grue and Imp might be fighting with, but it was over a week out of date.

The second paper:

‘Know where you are:

The area extending west of the ferry station north, including the factories and the remains of the Boardwalk, is believed to be under claim by the supervillain Skitter.  Skitter is a member of the Undersiders, who are allied with the Travelers in an as-of-yet unnamed alliance.  Skitter is an unpredictable young woman tending towards acts of apparent kindness to those she deems her subjects and bursts of sudden and extreme violence towards those she sees as her enemies.  The city is not funding work in her territory, as Skitter is handling matters there.

Skitter controls insects and senses what they do.  Anyone with allergies to stings or insect bites would be advised to leave this area.  She offers food, shelter and care to anyone who agrees to work under her, but the Dockworkers Association cannot suggest that anyone accept her offers, as her ulterior motives are unknown.

This area is not currently the site of any ongoing disputes between capes.  There is limited power in this area.  There is limited cell service in this area.  There is not water service in this area.’

Again, a little out of date.  Our water was running.  Still, it was startling to see this here.  From the beginning, I’d wanted to keep that part of my life and this part of my life separate. It had been a fierce enough desire that I’d avoided taking revenge on the bullies because of it, at least a little, and it might have had something to do with my running away from home.

“Your DAU has been putting these up?”

“Yes.  Making sure people are informed.  Too many stories of people taking the wrong path through the city and getting cornered by a mutant dog the size of a small tank.”

“Right.”

“You said you were staying outside the city, with Lisa’s family?  At the North end?  How did you get here?”

“I walked across the market, down to the Boardwalk and crossed through Skitter’s territory.”

I was pretty sure I wasn’t acting strange as I said the name.

“They didn’t give you any trouble?”

“They stopped me at the border and I asked permission.  They were nice about it.”

“Okay.”

Lie after lie.

Another uncomfortable pause.

“Have you eaten?  I have some liver and mashed potato in the fridge.”

“I’ve eaten,” I lied.  No use taking some of my dad’s money when he was having to sell stuff to get food.

“Would you like some tea?”

“Please,” I said, grateful for an offer I could accept in good conscience.  He retreated into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I looked around.  It didn’t feel like my house anymore.  I’d only been gone two months, but things were different.  Things in the house had moved, or been sold, or they’d been damaged by Shatterbird’s attack.

The atmosphere was different too.  I wasn’t sure how much of that was the humidity, the lack of upkeep and the fact that the family of two had been just a family of one for nearly two months and how much of it was me.  It was all too possible that I was viewing my surroundings in a different light, tinting things with my paranoia about my dad making the connection between me and Skitter, viewing things more negatively because of my guilt over leaving him.

My dad rejoined me.  “If you give me a minute, I can make your bed-”

“I’m not staying,” I blurted the words.

“Oh.”  I could see the pain on his face.

In the mutual awkwardness that followed, the vibration of my cell phone was a mercy.  I picked it up and checked the display.  Heart-c-c-apostrophe-square.  Tattletale.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, hopping off the couch and hurrying out the door as I hit the button to pick up.

Please be okay, I thought, shutting the door behind me.

“Hey,” she replied.

“You’re okay?  Cactus-B.”

“Sun-Y.  Or Sun-N.  Whichever you prefer.”

“I’m not sure what color that’s supposed to be.”

“Neither am I.  Um.  So I talked to Coil.  Things have been clarified some.”

“Okay.  Should we-”

“It’s fine, pretty much, even if he’s listening in.  You’re not in danger.  No threat on your life at this present moment.”

“Okay,” I said, not sure how to expand on that.  She hadn’t precisely said it was Coil that was the threat, so maybe she was hedging her words to be safe.

“Which scares me,” she confessed.

“Scares you?”

“Um,” she said.  It wasn’t like her to be lost for words.  “I told Coil that Trickster got injured. I wasn’t sure if you’d told him.  He didn’t seem concerned.  There was zero indication that his plan had been disrupted.  Told him you were on your way back, again, no concern.  Everything that had been telling me he was harboring plans to assassinate you was telling me he wasn’t and hadn’t ever been, this time around.”

“Your power lied to you?”

“Um.  That’s what I thought.  I was thinking maybe I was working under a mistaken impression, tried adding and removing the elements to see if I could get a different result, interpret his earlier behavior differently.  No go.  And I was doing all this while having a perfectly normal conversation with Coil, until he says something like ‘Very dangerous.  You want to be careful who you’re picking a fight with.'”

I felt my blood run cold.  I had to sit down on the stair.  “He meant-”

“Oh, he totally meant.  If I was one-hundred percent sure he was planning on killing you before, I’m five-hundred percent sure he was telling me he knows what we’re up to.”

“What should I do?  What should we do?”

“I don’t know.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  I was still processing what he’d just said when he stepped toward the door to leave.  He put one hand on my shoulder, leaned close, and he spoke in this very quiet voice.  He said, ‘Be careful, Tattletale.  I value your service, but you should know your power isn’t as reliable as you like to think.'”

Sounding civil and caring while expressing a very clear threat.  “So the fact that it lied before-”

“It didn’t lie, Skitter.  I said he was testing me, before.  He was, just not like I thought.  He’s found a way to confuse my power, to counteract it.  This thing with the hit on your head.  It was just to scare us.  To let us know that any security my power afforded us, it doesn’t apply to him.  He can make us think you’re going to be killed when you aren’t, and-”

“And the opposite is true.  He can make us think we’re safe when we aren’t,” I finished.

“Exactly.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she said, again.  “Listen, I’ve got to call the others.  Are you with Grue?”

“No.  Maybe I’ll head that way before the end of the night.”

“We’ll figure something out,” she said.

Figure something out?  Coil was on to us, he’d effectively taken Tattletale out of the equation, and by all accounts, he seemed confident enough to continue letting us work for him, despite our intended mutiny.

I couldn’t bring myself to agree.  “Bye,” I said.

“Bye.”

I hung up.

Before I could convince myself to head back to my territory and start plotting some counteroffensive, I stood from the stair and walked back inside.

Seeing my dad’s face, I was reminded of the dream I’d had, where my dad had turned out to be Coil, where I’d taken too long and Dinah had died.  I looked away, made my way back to the couch.  My dad set a cup of tea down in front of me, then sat beside me.

I wasn’t religious.  Didn’t believe in a higher power.  Mundane government was crappy enough, the idea of a divine one simultaneously scared me and made me want to laugh.  As a consequence, when I thought of a soul, I was thinking more about some collection of the abstract parts of the mind that covered a person’s mental and emotional well-being, their psyche and the defining aspects of their personality.  A more religious view of the soul would probably add up to a rough equivalent.

Whatever my overall motives might be, some part of what drove me was some desire to patch up the damage, fix that part of myself that had been taking a beating ever since I’d gotten that call about my mom’s death.

Only it wasn’t working.

Try to help the city, help the heroes, shore up my sense of self worth, find myself fumbling, tearing and discovering fresh holes in my subconscious makeup, with Dinah and my betrayal of the people who’d become my friends, betraying myself by failing to keep to that overall goal.  And there were other moments, moments where I’d been brutal and violent, accidental or otherwise.  Moments I’d made sacrifices, or where I’d been callous.  It wasn’t subtle, either.  The stack of papers in front of me said it, clear as day.  Sudden and extreme violence.

Even coming here, it had been at least partially motivated by my desire to fill that hole deep inside, that spot where family was supposed to fit.

I sipped on the tea.  My dad had made it with sugar, not honey.

This… sitting here and drinking tea with my dad, my head someplace else entirely?  It wasn’t fixing anything.  Wasn’t mending or filling anything.

I sipped again, then drank it in big gulps.  It burned going down, and I pounded my collarbone, as if I could banish that sensation.

“Taylor?”

I stood and picked up my backpack and shrugged it over the one shoulder.  “I’ve got to go.”

He stood too.

“I’m sorry.  We’re- we’re heading back, and it’s dark, so we’re going with a group.”

“I’ll come.”

“No.  You’d be alone going back.  It’s okay.”

He looked hurt.  “A hug?”

I hesitated, then stepped close and hugged him with the one arm.  He gingerly wrapped his arms around my shoulders and squeezed.

“I’ll be back,” I mumbled into his shirt.

“No vague promises.  You’re going to promise,” he said.

“Day after tomorrow?”

“Okay.  I don’t have work then, with the mayoral elections.  We can eat lunch here and then go to the town hall.”

Oh shit.  If Coil had something for us to do-

I stepped away, thinking of a way to formulate an excuse.  I saw his forehead creased with worry.  As thin as he’d been before, he looked thinner now.  Looked years older, wounded, tired, lonely.

“I’ll see you then, then,” I told him.

“See you,” he said, smiling sadly.  No pressure to stay.  He had no idea what was going on, I hoped, but he was still letting me do what I needed to.

I felt the need to reward him, to express some kind of gratitude, but I had only one thing to offer that he really wanted.  “I-  don’t know when.  But maybe I’ll come home?”

Vague, again.  Just like with what I’d said before, there was no set date.  I’d said the exact same thing when I’d left in the first place.  It was almost an insult.

But I saw him smile.  “Anytime, any day.  But we can talk about that over lunch, day after tomorrow.”

I nodded and turned to leave.  I wasn’t half a block away from the house before I felt the tears welling up, running down my face.

I couldn’t say whether they were because of my love for my dad or my despair for Dinah.

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Colony 15.9

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I had two different heroes to deal with, one of whom I couldn’t identify yet.  That posed something of a problem: each likely possibility for the heroine’s identity made for a very different scenario in how this fight could play out.

Process of elimination had told me that Rory would be one of the local heroes, because there weren’t any prominent male villains who I couldn’t identify with their masks off; Coil had outed Empire Eighty-Eight, which had split into the Chosen and the Pure and everyone else had been eliminated or driven out of the city.  I’d identified him as Triumph from his build.  Assault and Cache weren’t as muscular, the Wards were younger and smaller, and the remainder of local heroes were women.  That had been easy enough once I’d pegged him as a cape.

His ‘girlfriend’ was harder to pin down, both as a cape and in terms of her costumed identity.  I’d read her confidence and judged that she wasn’t terrified enough to be ignorant about Rory’s secret.  She probably wasn’t a civilian in the know, either, because she hadn’t been cowering behind Rory.

Going by her appearance, I didn’t think she could be Miss Militia or Battery.  Her blonde hair didn’t fit, for one thing, and she was too tall, too muscular.  She had to be one of the two female capes who came to Brockton Bay with Legend.  It was critical that I figure out which of the two she was before getting into a fight with her.  Prism was a duplicator who could consolidate into one body to get a temporary boost in strength, speed and durability.  Maybe other areas too.  Fighting her would mean staying out of close-quarters combat at any cost.

Ursa Aurora, by contrast, summoned ghostly ‘bears’ onto the battlefield.  On a level, she’d want to fight like I preferred to, relying on her minions while staying out of the thick of things.

Two possibilities, each requiring very different tactics to handle.

I set my bugs on her and her alone in the hopes of forcing her hand.  Atlas had returned to my side, and I made sure to collect Triumph’s phone before climbing on.

Triumph had picked up Trickster’s limp body and was mounting a fighting retreat in the direction the heroine and his family had gone.  He shouted again and again, controlling the magnitude, force and breadth of each strike to hit the maximum number of bugs with just enough force that he was killing or crippling them without destroying the house.

Walls of bugs pressed against the exits of the house.  If they escaped before I got there, I wasn’t sure I’d catch up.  Triumph would be able to run faster than I could, Ursa Aurora could presumably ride her bears like Bitch rode her dogs, and Prism had the ability to move faster after consolidating her clones into one person again; if she didn’t run faster than me, the little boost she got there would keep her far enough ahead.

There was the family holding them back, yes, but there was also the possibility that there was a vehicle they could all climb into.  I could maybe keep up while riding Atlas, but I wouldn’t be able to mount a serious attack while doing so.

I suspected the makeshift bug-barriers wouldn’t hold up.  They wouldn’t stand up to Triumph’s shouts, and Ursa Aurora could summon her ‘bears’.  That was if they didn’t choose to just charge through.

I needed more redundancies.  More fallback plans.  I began drawing out lines of silk at the lower half of the doorframes, while gathering the bulk of my bugs in the upper halves.

The question was, would they go through the doors or would they settle for the windows?  Would human habit triumph over slightly more abstract thinking?

The heroine led the way, already under attack from hundreds of bugs.  She grabbed a coat from the nearby rack and draped it over herself for cover against the swarm as she threw herself headlong into it.

Her legs caught on the tripwire and she tumbled down the stairs.  I rebuilt the barrier of bugs behind her, condensing it to the point that they couldn’t see through.

I directed fly-borne spiders to extend threads around the heroine’s arms and legs, as well as her fingers.  After a moment’s consideration, I started packing them in her pockets, sending bugs crawling beneath her clothes.

Right.  A gun at her ankle.  I set spiders to the task of binding that up too.

Maybe she’s a PRT officer?  Gun, no apparent powers?

None of the rest of the family seemed willing to try exiting by the same door after she’d disappeared into the cloud of bugs and promptly shrieked.  Okay.  That meant I’d separated the family from the woman.  Triumph would catch up to them in a moment, so I had to make the most of this advantage if I was going to slow them down further.

I began moving the bugs from the door towards the family, simultaneously bringing more bugs in behind them.

They quickly realized they were cornered and backed into the nearby closet, closing it behind them.  I could sense them throwing coats and boots down at the gap between the bottom end of the closet door and the ground, trying to block my bugs from getting in.

Not quite good enough to stop the bugs, but I could leave them where they were.

As I was arriving on the property, the heroine was partially disabled and Triumph was en route.  Genesis would be pulling herself back together in another body, I supposed, but that wasn’t so reassuring – the heroine had made a call to the PRT and there would be reinforcements on the way.

Okay.  How was I supposed to do this?  I had to deal with Triumph, but he was shutting down my swarm.  I’d probably lose in a straight up fight as well.  Whatever damage my bugs were doing with bites and stings, it wasn’t enough to bring him down.  He’d kicked a long oak table that had to weigh six hundred pounds at a bare minimum, sent it skidding across the room.  There was no doubt he had some superhuman physique.  That same advantage might be giving him the ability to hold out against what my bugs were doing.

I was forced to scale up, to start injecting more than the trace amounts of venom, and I was all too aware of how easy it was to go too far or go over the top.

Life would be so much easier if I didn’t give a damn about other people’s well-being.

But I wouldn’t be able to step up my attack without getting more bugs on him, and I wouldn’t be able to do that without a different tactic.  I began pulling my bugs out of the house and gathering them.  By the time Triumph found his way to the hallway where his family was hiding in the closet, the bugs were almost entirely gone.

There were too few bugs there for me to catch it, but someone in the closet must have made a noise, because Triumph made a beeline right for them.  He stopped when he saw the heroine outside the door, lying on the ground under a carpet of bugs.

He said something to his family that was probably along the lines of ‘stay there’ and headed for the door.  He could see the human shaped figures I’d molded out of bugs and positioned around the lawn and proceeded to gun them down one by one.  His shouts were short, on target and devastatingly effective.

The heroine was starting to get free.  Two additional versions of herself had appeared next to her, quickly searching out and cutting the silk cords that bound her.  At least I knew who I was up against, now.

Damn it.  Unlike Oni Lee, Prism didn’t materialize her duplicates along with whatever additional baggage her original self had.  None of the restraints and none of the bugs hampered her copies.  Not to mention that her guns were probably free as well.  I quickly directed Atlas to the roof and took cover in case she spotted me and decided to open fire.

“Sam!” Triumph shouted.

One of the duplicates turned to look at him, her eyes widening.  She shouted, “Careful!  Tripwire!”

He jumped at the last second, hopping over the tripwire.

Perfect.

He landed on the stairs and stumbled.  The entirety of his focus was on the tripwire, on the stairs beneath his feet and on his attempt to keep from falling down the stairs with his unconscious burden.  During the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, it had come up that our species was pretty bad at looking up.

I’d pulled bugs out of the hallway and from around the backyard and gathered them above the door, with airborne bugs helping by ferrying the slower moving ones up to a higher vantage point.  I gave the command at the same time that Prism shouted her warning, and the bugs dropped down onto Triumph’s head.

Bugs tended to be very durable when it came to falling from high places.  It had something to do with the amount of air resistance when compared to their surface area or mass.  Something like that.  Either way, it barely did any damage to my swarm when they fell to the ground.

For Triumph, on the other hand, he was dealing with the sudden appearance of enough bugs that I could have formed three or four densely-packed swarm clones from their number, on top of the fact that he was carrying Trickster, who had to weigh one hundred and thirty or one hundred and forty pounds.  It probably didn’t help that he was standing on a staircase and was already somewhat off-balance.

The timing proved to be lucky for me.  As strong as Triumph was, a strike at the right moment could still knock him off-balance.  I’d seen Alexandria do something like that to Leviathan, knocking something as big and horribly strong as the Endbringer to the ground.

Blind and struck at an opportune moment, Triumph fell.  I swept the bugs over him.  There was no room for holding back or playing nice.  I sent bugs into his nose and mouth, into his ear canals and biting at folds and crevices below the belt.

I could have been squeamish about that, but that would require thinking in too much depth about what I was doing.

I attacked his more sensitive areas, including the insides of his mouth, the sensitive edges of his nostrils and the insides of his ears.  Others stung and bit at his eyelids.  Some of my capsaicin-laced bugs flew from my cover at the roof’s edge to Triumph and Prism.  I directed them to the vulnerable mucus membranes of the eye, the nose, the mouth – and again, beneath the belt – the urinary tract and anus.

The most important thing was to keep him from getting his bearings and dealing with the bugs.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to catch him by surprise a second time.

There was a secondary goal, too.  We’d come here for a reason.  If it came down to it, the mayor might change his tune once he’d seen his superhero son brought low.  This was leverage.

Prism was back on her feet, alongside her two copies.  I was forced to split my bugs among them.  What rules did she follow in terms of consolidating?  How did she pull back together, and what happened to injuries?  I knew she could survive if one copy was taken out of action.  If she had a knife wound on one body of the three she had active, did it stay? Or did the damage get divided to only a third of what it should be?

Whatever abuse my swarm was inflicting on her, she wasn’t activating or deactivating her power like I might if I had her abilities at my disposal.  In her shoes I’d be splitting, spreading out, then consolidating into the body furthest from the bulk of the swarm.  My secondary goals would be getting to a vantage point where I could shoot down my assailant.  If I assumed she’d use the same basic tactic against me…

I began gathering bugs around myself for additional cover and for a potential counterattack.

I swept some bugs over the surrounding landscape while I waited for her to either decide on a plan of attack or succumb to the bugs.  No threat of imminent attack by Coil.

It was spooky, having that hanging over my head.  I almost wished he’d attack already and get it over with.

I couldn’t be sure how she spotted me, but Prism turned my way.  Maybe it was the size of the cloud of bugs I had around me.  It was almost a good thing that I had her attention.  I had to take her out of action as soon as superhumanly possible if I wanted to get Trickster out of here before the reinforcements arrived.

She backed up, spreading out across the lawn.  One copy swatted at the bugs that crawled on her, another was gagging and coughing from the capsaicin, but they seemed to be holding out remarkably well.

One by one, they started towards me, running across the lawn.  I did what I could to obstruct and hamper them, but the rightmost copy slipped past the line of my bugs and bent down, the other copies snapping back into her body.  She flashed with light as she leaped with incredible strength.  She arced through the air until she was higher than the rooftop, set to land in front of me.

I sent the swarm forward to meet her, lines of silk stretched between them.  If I could disrupt her landing or even push her back enough that she missed the roof-

She split into three copies in mid-air.  The swarm caught the central one and tangled it.  It landed hard on the roof and rolled, falling a solid twenty feet to the ground, while the other two landed and skidded for a grip on the shallow slope of the building.  An instant later, she split off a replacement third, surrounding me.

Okay.  This wasn’t as bad as it looked.  I had Atlas.  Yes, she could shoot him -and me- out of the air, but I had an escape route and this terrain suited me fairly well.  The shingled roof had a shallow slope leading to gargoyles and gutters at the edges, but I stood at the roof’s peak, giving me the steadiest footing.

She was pacing, each of her copies slowly moving clockwise around me as they searched for a glimpse of me or some weakness.  I was doing much the same, trying to think of an approach that would work here.

What did I know about her?  Prism was one of Legend’s people, which meant it was very likely she was being groomed to manage her own team somewhere.  Or she was considered effective enough to warrant fighting at Legend’s side.  She would be good, if nothing else.  In a way, that was useful to me.  Any points where I’d had the advantage would be pretty indicative of her limits and weaknesses, since I wouldn’t necessarily have to account for mistakes, accidents and idiocy on her part.

She hadn’t immediately opened with her duplicates.  Why?  Did she have a reserve of power she drew on?  Some restriction on when or where she could duplicate herself?

I’d seen her fight alongside Battery when they’d been tackling Mannequin.  They’d paced the fight so each of them took turns.  It made me think that maybe she needed to charge before she made her duplicates.  It would explain why she hadn’t made them the second I’d outed them as superheroes.  That, or she’d had another reason and she needed time to recharge after using her power.

One of her copies rubbed at her eye, then disappeared.  She replaced it with a version of herself that wasn’t suffering.  That’s one question answered, sort of.

It was all too easy to see how she’d gotten this far.  I couldn’t keep all three versions of her in sight at the same time and taking her out of action necessitated taking all three versions of her down before her power recharged.  Couple that with how hard and fast she could hit?  She could be a nightmare.

Could be a nightmare.  Emphasis on the could.  I countered her powers, in large part.  If my suspicions were right, I had some kind of enhanced multitasking as a side-benefit of my powers.  I wasn’t limited to seeing with just my eyes, so her circling me wasn’t such a drawback, either.  And I could easily attack all three at once.

The trick would be doing it without giving her an avenue for attack.  She seemed reluctant to charge blindly into the swarm, but I was equally reluctant to use those same bugs to attack when I needed them for cover.  If I waited, her reinforcements would arrive, which put the pressure on me to end this.

I let out one deep breath, then carried out my plan of attack.  I unwound the silk cords I’d gathered and climbed off Atlas, sending him out with one, taking hold of another.  Crouching to make myself a smaller target, I sent my bugs out to carry the string.

She moved to try to find a point where the swarm was thinner, while avoiding the clusters of bugs.  It wasn’t quite fast enough.

I’d used my silk to grab Triumph’s cell phone and yank it from his hand.  I did much the same thing here.  One silk cord wound around the throat of Prism A, masked by the presence of bugs.  Another wound around the leg of Prism B.

In the same moment I pulled on the cord leading to Prism B’s leg, Atlas pulled back on the cord leading to Prism A’s throat and my swarm bull-rushed Prism C, aiming to drive her off the roof through sheer force of numbers, surprise and the pull of silk cords.

A and B fell from the roof, then promptly disappeared, consolidating into C.  She flashed with a light I could see through the dense cloud of my swarm and charged forward.  In a heartbeat, she was out of my swarm and capable of seeing me.

Prism reached down to her ankle and grabbed for her gun.  It didn’t come free of the holster.

She could come with baggage she wasn’t aware of?  She had some control.  Maybe she had to go out of her way to exclude certain matter or material from her duplicates?

She formed two new duplicates, and I caught a glimpse of them pulling their guns free before I was back in the cover of my swarm.

At my bidding, Atlas flew low, close to the building where he was out of sight of the rooftop.  He circled around until he was behind me.

I formed a crude swarm-clone and then stepped back onto Atlas.  I didn’t sit, but relied instead on control of his flight and the angles he moved to help match my own balance.  We swiftly descended to the ground as the part of my swarm that wasn’t dedicated to forming my double moved forward to attack once more.  I could hear and feel Prism firing blind into the center mass of the swarm.  She was mad now.  I’d nearly taken her out.

Had to think ahead.  She would use the same tactic as before, consolidating to barrel through, she’d see my decoy and attack it, then come looking for me.

I reused the cord that I’d had around her foot, winding it around one gargoyle.  The trick was figuring out which copy I’d target.  This wouldn’t work if she unmade the copy to supercharge one of the other ones.

I’d have to bait her.

My bugs tied the silk around one of her wrists, letting the rest sit slack against the rooftop.

As I’d expected, the three of her appeared at the edge of the roof, looking down to the ground to find me.  I was already heading for Triumph, putting myself roughly between them and him.  It would serve two purposes, the primary purpose being that it would give them reason to think twice before shooting.

They leaped, then consolidated with a flash of light before they hit ground, to absorb the impact with superior strength and durability.

Only the silk thread connected the gargoyle to the Prism-duplicate closest to me.  She didn’t make it all the way to the ground.  In the blink of an eye, she was whipped sideways, one arm hyperextended.  She dangled for a second or two before the silk gave way and she fell to the ground.

The power boost was temporary enough that she wasn’t invincible as she made her awkward landing.

I hurried to where Triumph and Trickster were.

Triumph had managed to move a short distance away before collapsing again, and remained buried beneath a pile of my bugs.  He wasn’t doing well.  It was very much what I’d been concerned about at the outset, going a little too far.  On their own, the choking bugs, the inflammation from the capsaicin and the stings weren’t too bad, but together?

I eased up on him just a bit.

A quick survey of the area told me that there weren’t any imminent threats in the vicinity.  Prism wasn’t standing back up.  There was a kernel of something where Genesis was rebuilding a body.  The policeman Trickster had swapped with was making his way back here, and other cops were en route as well.  I still had a minute or two.  The mayor, I noted, had left the closet, heading for a room lined with bookcases and cabinets.

My swarm sense allowed me to feel him opening one cabinet, unlocking and opening a drawer beneath.  He retrieved a shotgun from the cabinet above and a box of ammunition from the drawer.

I could have taken him out right there, hit him hard with my bugs.  I didn’t.  I’d have to leave after that, and I could almost believe that he’d be angry, that he’d argue for the city to be condemned with even more fervor than he might have otherwise.  This could backfire if we simply left him wounded.

Instead, I focused on building up several swarm-decoys before he could make his way to the back door.  I lifted Trickster up and draped him across Atlas’ back, binding him in place with silk thread.

The mayor had loaded the gun by the time he was in the doorframe.  He must have overheard Prism shouting about the tripwire, because he moved fairly gingerly through the threshold.  His eyes roved over my massed decoys, his gun drifting from side to side as if he was getting ready to shoot at any instant.

“Mayor,” I spoke to him through one decoy, buzzing and droning the words.

He turned and fired, blowing a hole through its chest.

“Your son is-” another spoke, while the first reformed.

He fired again, blasting the head off the second decoy.

“-Dying” the first finished.

He was in the midst of reloading the shotgun when he stopped.  “What?”

“Suffocating,” I spoke through a third decoy.

“No.  He-”

“Stings aren’t helping,” I began rotating through the decoys, each speaking a different sentence.  “The allergic reaction’s causing his throat to close up.  He can’t swallow.  There are bugs in his mouth, nose and throat.  They’re making a dangerous situation worse.  He can barely even cough to clear his airways to breathe.”

“If I shoot you-” he tightened his grip on his gun.

“My power rewrites the basic behavior patterns of my insects from moment to moment.  If you shoot me, they’ll continue attacking, and there’ll be no chance of getting them to stop.  You’ll be sealing Triumph’s fate.  Rory’s fate.”

“He’s stronger than that,” the mayor said.  He didn’t sound sure.

“We all need to breathe,” I replied.  I could have said more, but I judged it more effective to let the thought sit with the mayor.

I cleared the bugs away from Triumph, giving the mayor a visual of his superhero son lying on the ground, struggling.  To make his struggles a little more pronounced, I briefly increased the pressure, shifting the bugs to limit the available oxygen.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much danger he was in, but he wasn’t doing well.  As much as I wanted to pressure the mayor, I was ready to apply the epipen the second Triumph’s breathing slowed enough.

For long seconds, the only sounds were the small noises that Triumph could manage, gagging, feeble coughing and wheezing.

“You’re going to kill him?”

“I would rather not.”

“He’s my boy,” the mayor said, his voice suddenly choked with emotion.

“Yeah.”  I blinked hard, to clear my own eyes of moisture.  I couldn’t meet his eyes.  I focused my attention on Triumph instead.

“I only ever wanted what was best for him.  I didn’t want this.  Please.”

I couldn’t muster a response.

“Please.”

This time, I thought maybe I could have said something to him.  I deliberately chose to remain silent.

“Hey!” he roared.  He raised his gun, cocking it, “Don’t ignore me!”

Triumph coughed, then his chest heaved.  I forced a bug down his throat to check and found it almost entirely closed up.  I moved the bug away so it wouldn’t block the already limited airway.

“He’s almost stopped breathing,” I said, almost in shock at what this had come to.  I’d been so preoccupied with Prism, I’d pushed things just a bit too far, I’d allowed my bugs to sting him because he was tough enough to take it, but I’d forgotten to account for the other variables, the pepper spray and the reduced air volume thanks to the bugs in his nose and mouth…

I looked at the mayor and found his gun pointing at me.  I spoke with my own voice.

With a calmness that caught me off guard, I said, “It’s not too late.”

The voice of the sixty-ish man who could address whole crowds with conviction and charisma sounded painfully feeble as he spoke, “CPR?”

“Yes.  But primarily this.”  I drew an EpiPen from my utility compartment and held it up.  “Do you know how to use it?”

He shook his head.

“I do,” I told the mayor.

Even as I was painfully aware of Triumph’s slowing struggles, his body swiftly growing weak in the absence of air, I waited.

“Use it!”

Again, I didn’t move, I didn’t respond.  I saw Triumph’s hand close into a fist and then stop.

A person can hold their breath for roughly two minutes… he’s still almost breathing, but how much breath is actually getting in and out of his lungs?

“Use it!” the mayor threatened me with a motion of the gun.

“We both know you can’t use that.  I’m the only one who can save Rory.”

He sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than me, “There’ll be instructions.  There’ll-”

“And if I break the needle in my death throes?  Or if I drop it and you can’t find it in time to read the instructions and deliver it?  Or if a stray shell fragment hits the needle?”

The mayor’s voice was a roar.  It was as if he could will me to act by sheer emotion and volume.  “He’s not moving!  He’s dying!”

“I know.”

Seconds passed.

How long can I wait until I break?

The gun clattered to the grass, the mayor dropping to his knees.  His voice was hollow.  “I’ll give you what you want.  Anything.”

I didn’t waste a second in stepping to Triumph’s side.  I tilted his head to establish the airway, swept my fingers and bugs through to clear away the worst of the blockages and mucus and then pulled his pants down.  I stabbed him in the thigh with the pen.

I couldn’t afford to stay.  I couldn’t be the one to administer the ongoing care Triumph needed.  Coil was still after me, the reinforcements were coming, and I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to leave if I stayed much longer.

“Do you know how to give CPR?” I asked.

“No.  But my wife-”

“Bring her here.  Hurry.”

He practically crawled on all fours in his hurry to get up the stairs and up to where his wife waited in the closet.

“Sorry,” I murmured to Triumph.  “I didn’t want this to go this far.”

He wheezed, a strangled squeal.

“Yeah,” I told him.  “I know.”

The older woman bent over her son and began administering CPR.  I watched a few seconds to ensure she was doing everything right.  I threw a second EpiPen to the mayor.  “In fifteen minutes, if the paramedics aren’t here yet, use that.”

His hands were shaking so violently I was momentarily worried he’d break it.

“Washington,” I told him.  “The city survives.”

He nodded.  There were tears in his eyes, this stubborn man who’d talked so casually with the supervillains who had invaded his home and threatened his family, who’d tried to take me on with a shotgun.

I turned to walk away, my swarm-decoys moving in the same direction.  Before he could think to go back for the shotgun and shoot me in the back, I had a swarm gathered around me, hiding me from view.

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Colony 15.8

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The benefit of using my swarm-clone to communicate with Parian was that I had relative privacy to talk to Coil.  He picked up on the fourth ring.  Not quite so prompt as Tattletale tended to be.

“Skitter.”

“I know you wanted me to use Ms. Cranston instead of calling you, but this is sort of important.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’ve talked with Parian, and we’ve come to a tentative agreement.  She’ll need to talk to other people before making a decision, but I think she’d join our alliance.”

“I see.”

There was a long pause.  I was getting ready to speak and ask if he was still there when he spoke once again.

“What are her terms?”

“She holds territory, she’ll defend it against all comers, but she’s not going to do jobs or do anything criminal.  As far as anyone else is concerned, she’s not a part of our takeover.”

“The implication being that we’re too weak to deal with her.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“It’s the conclusion others will come to.”

I felt a swell of frustration and anger, powerful enough that I might have snapped at him if I could have come up with what to say any faster.  I had to remind myself that I was anxious over the hit Coil had put on my head, and I felt betrayed.  I recognized that it was stupid to feel betrayed by Coil when I was actively planning to fight him if he didn’t cooperate on the Dinah front, but I also knew I didn’t tend to handle it well when someone I’d trusted stabbed me in the back.

Not that I’d ever trusted Coil but…

Okay, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking on that front.

I forced myself to calm down before saying, “I’m sure there’s a compromise.  Will you talk to her?”

“I will not risk revealing my identity, no,” Coil said.

Damn him.

“But,” he continued, “I will speak to her through a liason.”

“Thank you.”

“Though this could have been done more smoothly, I do appreciate your hard work.”

This from my would-be murderer.

“It’s not a problem.  Ballistic might be upset if he realizes I went behind his back on this, so maybe if anyone asks, she got spooked and came to you?”

“Perhaps.  I’ll be discreet, in any event.  It wouldn’t do to have friction between your two groups.”

“Right.”

“Speaking of inter-group relations, I believe Trickster is preparing to leave for the mission this evening.  You’ll want to contact him to arrange something.”

I’d been hoping to put this off.  It still felt like yesterday that I was watching my back every moment, waiting for an attack from any corner.  I wasn’t eager to return to that state.

“Okay,” I said.

He hung up without another word.

Parian first.

“I’ve raised the subject with others.  They’ll be in touch.  You should talk to Flechette and decide where you stand before then.”

“A lot of pressure.”

I don’t think you understand real pressure, I thought.  But I didn’t say it out loud.

“Yeah,” my swarm said.  The drones and buzzes that made up the syllables helped mask the lack of real sympathy.  I began working to use silk strands and flying bugs to lift a cell phone into the air.  I thumbed through the keypad and sent a text to Ms. Cranston to inform her about what I was doing.  “I’m flying a phone to you, it’ll be in your hands before you’re out of my territory.  Someone will use it to call you before the end of the day.”

“This is you subtly telling me to leave?”

“I’m in the middle of something, yes.  Thank you for hearing me out.”

“It was the least I could do, after the help you’ve offered my friends and family.”

“Whatever you decide, take care of yourself, Parian.”

“You too.”

I scattered the swarm, then paused to think.

The painkiller was starting to wear off, and I could feel the steady ache in my shoulder.  I still had a dart sticking through the bone.  Brooks had only removed the points on either end.  I could only hope the pain kept me sharp.

I’d hoped to take a break and formulate some strategy, some plan.  I had a few small ideas, but they weren’t broad enough to cover every base.  And there were a lot of bases to cover when someone as well equipped as Coil was after me.

Fuck.

I couldn’t do up all of the armor I’d removed with the one hand, so I enlisted Atlas’ help in putting the armor on my injured shoulder, using his forelimbs to hold things steady.

I took a deep breath.  It wasn’t confirmed one-hundred percent, but I had my suspicions that Parian was on board.  I didn’t want to die, exactly, I was prepared to fight tooth and nail to avoid it, but at the same time I was ready to die, now.

I didn’t really have friends, outside the team.  My teammates would miss me, but they’d recover in time.  Death was a reality in our business.

My dad hadn’t heard from me in some time.  If I died, well, perhaps not as great a shock as it might otherwise be.  I knew it would hit him as hard as my mom’s death had, that he’d be devastated… but again, he’d recover.  Maybe it would be easier, because at least here he’d have someone to blame, the city, the thugs, whoever Lisa told him was at fault for my murder.  I was pretty sure she wouldn’t reveal my identity to him when a simpler, to-the-point explanation would do.

And my people?  My territory?

I felt Parian receive the cell phone, a few blocks away, pulling it to her hand with telekinesis.  From the bugs that lingered on it, I could feel it vibrate pretty violently as it moved the short distance through the air.

If I died, Parian could take over my territory.  I had the feeling I could trust her to care about my people the same way I did, more than I could trust even my friends.  The transition wouldn’t be too difficult.

I took in another deep breath, then sighed.  For Dinah.  In any other circumstance, I’d back down, leave Coil’s employ.  But I was willing to brave this if it meant keeping her and her freedom in my reach.

I dialed Trickster.

Atlas carried me into the nice part of town, southwest of the Towers.  The Christian private school wasn’t far from here.  Immaculata.  New Wave was also based here.  I kind of hoped I didn’t cross paths with them.  If they shared any of Flechette’s opinions about me being at least partially to blame for whatever had happened with Panacea and Glory Girl, well, they’d be even less inclined to hold back.

I needed to find out the story there.  Had to ask Tattletale, when I had a free moment.

The area was riddled with hills and glades, with ridiculously large houses gathered in small neighborhoods.  Brockton Bay tended to zig-zag pretty drastically between the poverty-stricken areas and the wealthy.  The contrast seemed even greater here where things were largely untouched by Leviathan’s attack, compared to the rest of the city where streets sat under inches of water.

I didn’t join Trickster and Genesis.  Instead, I set Atlas down in one of the wooded glades close to my destination, glanced at my phone to ensure I’d followed directions to the right spot, and then got my laptop out to prepare.  I was a little early, which meant I could afford to take the time to prepare.

The range would be lower with the trees and any buildings between me and my destination, but I was still better off using my swarm-clone as a body double.  I double checked my equipment and weapons while I waited for my ‘clones’ to gather together.

Centipedes and bugs chained end-to-end for the hair.  Larger bugs formed the bulk of the legs, torso, and the core of the head.  Smaller bugs filled the gaps, while flying insects clustering together to form the arms and the parts too unwieldy to be supported by the rest, like the face.  Once the basic form was there, it was just a question of refining it so the general silhouette was right, and positioning the miniature camera and microphones so they had eyes and ears I could use.

Once they were ready, I gathered one swarm on top of Atlas and flew it to Trickster and Genesis.  I walked with my swarms at my side, my laptop open and held with my good arm so I could see the video feed.  As I gathered more bugs on top of my costume and in my hair to make myself resemble the clones, I used stray bugs to form similar laptops for the other clones.  They didn’t have glowing screens, but the generally rectangular shapes would serve for anyone looking at a distance.

If ‘I’ was in immediate danger, my clone on Atlas’ back would take the hit.  If my enemy or enemies saw through the ruse and came looking for me, they’d have to pick me apart from my clones.  That meant they would have to take the time to find a telltale clue, they’d have to guess with only a one-in-four chance of hitting the real me or they’d have to spread their attacks out among each of my clones.  I had the additional security of bugs filling the area, sweeping over surfaces and ledges to spot anyone who might be in place to stalk or snipe me, and my costume served as a final line of defense.

Redundancies.  It didn’t feel like enough.

Trickster and Genesis were waiting as Atlas descended.  They were crouched with their backs to a stone wall that bordered one property at the edge of a hill.  Trickster was holding binoculars, gazing down at the neighborhood below us.  Genesis was in the form of a ghostly woman wreathed with chains.  Her white hair was smoky, wispy, and covered her face, and her fingers were talons.  She had no lower body extending from the tattered poncho-style cloak she wore, and simply floated as though she were as light as air.  How had she done that?  Some basic flight mechanism?  A gas balloon in her stomach?

So powerful.

“Welcome.  Have a look,” Trickster said.  He extended one hand with the binoculars.  Binoculars I couldn’t use with my camera.

“Don’t need them.  Which property?”

He pointed.  It took me a second to relate the direction his arm was pointing with the camera angle and relate that to my own position relative to my clone.  I could have figured it out in an instant if I’d put a bug on his hand, but I didn’t want to clue him in if I didn’t have to.

The grounds of the building he was pointing to was nearly as large as the city block where I’d grown up and lived until a couple of months ago.  There was a fence, but it seemed to be directed at keeping the family’s dogs in rather than keeping intruders out.  Chain link, no barbed wire.  I knew he had dogs from the flies that were clustered on the feces in the back yard that hadn’t been picked up, and the larval young that festooned each clump.

Not too many bugs inside the house.  There were some in the walls, but the home seemed relatively new, and the insulation was packed tightly enough that nothing was really living in the walls.

It took me a minute, but I did manage to start a headcount.

“There’s guards?”

“There’s a police presence in this area.  I think they’re expecting trouble,” Trickster said.  “Anyways, the reason we’re here at this time and place is that the mayor always eats dinner with his family.  Tattletale says he’s only missed three meals in twenty years, and that was only because he was out of town for work.  His planned trip to Washington is going to be his fourth time away from home, so this is the one place we can be absolutely sure we’ll cross paths with him.”

I found the dining room and started counting the number of shoes under the table.  “Four adults.  I think two male, two female, judging by the footwear.  Two younger girls. Going by their size, I’d guess between eight and twelve.”

“He has a son and two twin daughters,” Trickster said.

I arranged bugs on the ground by Trickster to sketch out a rough floor plan of the house and show the pair where the family was relative to us.

“How do you want to do this?” Genesis asked.

“We scare the wits out of them, then we’ll introduce ourselves to the mayor,” Trickster said.  “You guys start us off.  I’ll keep an eye out for trouble and handle things if any cops show up or if anyone flees.”

“We’re attacking with their family there?” I asked.

“Sure.  Bigger impact if we threaten them too.”

“Not sure I like that.”

“When I was talking to Coil about what Tattletale said about the schedule, he suggested it.  Unless you want to go against him?”

He was talking to Coil.  I made a mental note of that.  Did I need to watch out for an attack from Trickster?  It would be as simple as swapping the positions of an active grenade with a stone near me.

It was possible.  He was ruthless, he didn’t seem to have many compunctions about killing and he was in the best position to do it.  I couldn’t sense any people who might be Coil’s soldiers.

There was the possibility that I was walking into a trap, that everyone in the house we were about to attack was a threat.  I could handle that much.

Too many potential avenues of attack.  Too many potential threats.  And with the possibility of long-range weapons, Trickster or even a surprise attack by Genesis, it could come at any instant.

“Skitter?”  Genesis asked.

“Hm?  Right.  Um.  I suppose not.  We just scare them, right?  We don’t do any physical harm?”

“Right,” Trickster said.

Well, I could do that.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d done in my first job with the Undersiders.  I’d terrorized hostages then for a greater purpose, and I could do the same with a family for the same reason.

“Just give me a second,” I said.

“I’m going, then,” Genesis said, floating over the edge of the hill.

“Not the first time you’ve needed time to get ready,” Trickster commented to me.

“Hm?”

“Just seems like a drawback.”

Is he threatening me?  Letting me know he’s on to one of my weaknesses?

“I’m a general, and it takes time to mobilize my army.  Better to hit hard with all my forces at once.”

“Not always.  You could have built up to a crescendo there.”

“And give them a chance to scatter?  I’d have to divide the swarm to cut each group of people off, which would mean less bugs for each, smaller effect overall.”

He shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You seem just a little more hostile than before,” I said.

“Do I?”

My bugs had gathered around the handful of entry points I’d been able to find.  Windows were open, but each window had been set up with either plywood or screens to compensate for the glass Shatterbird had destroyed.  There was a fan system for the bathrooms that was structured to discourage bugs from crawling through in reverse, with flaps that would presumably only open when the fan was active, and that was easy to bypass with some cooperation of the arthropodic collective.

“Yeah.  Any reason for it?”

“Not a huge fan of you stepping on Ballistic’s toes.  He’s sort of a friend.”

Not the way he tells it.  “I didn’t intend any offense.”

More bugs were entering through one of the doors at the side of the house, which was ajar.  I presumed it was to let the warm late-spring/early-summer air flow through the house.  The challenge there was keeping the bugs from being spotted before I was ready.

When I realized what Genesis was planning, I shifted my bugs to follow.  She headed straight for the kitchen window and crashed through the plywood there.  She was followed shortly after by my swarm, spilling into the room to spread over windows, ceiling and floor, only a small few darting around the people.

They turned to run, naturally, running for the door that led to the kitchen and to the hallway.  They were met by the remainder of my swarm, a thick cloud of flies, dragonflies, moths, roaches and beetles.  I could feel them backing away, four adults, two children.

“Police are on their way.  Gonna swap them with us the second they get to the house.  Warning you in advance so we can look confident.”

Damn.

“Appreciate that line of thinking, but there’s one small problem,” I said.

He looked at me, then frowned.  “I can’t get a grip on you.  You’re doing what you did when you were talking to Legend and Miss Militia.”

“A little more refined than that, but yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said.  Then he groaned. “And now I’ve lost sight of the cops.”

“I can deal with them, if you want.”

“Just find them and I’ll handle that.  Where’s your real body?”

I hesitated.  Then I had my clone turn and point to another clone.  Just in case he decided to go on the attack.

“I see you.  Right.  And the cops?”

“Over there, but don’t teleport me,” I said.  “I’ve got something else in mind, and the visual effect will be stronger.”

“If I don’t teleport you, I have to fight whichever cop I’m not teleporting,” he noted.

Cope, I thought.  I deigned not to respond, and dismantled the clone that was standing next to him.  I did draw an arrow pointing him to where the two officers had circled one corner of the property.

Rather than visit the house myself, I gathered some of the bugs I’d sent to the room and began forming a clone there.  From what I’d seen of the process, it was sort of spooky in its own right.  A person materializing from vermin.  I carried the small camera and microphone towards the swarm, using the video feed to remotely see the clone from a short distance so I could match the finer features and body shape.  When I was done, I added the remaining bugs to the swarm, the camera and microphone hidden in their midst, and shifted the camera into place.

I recognized our mayor.  Never someone I’d paid a whole lot of attention to, given how I wasn’t exactly a voter, but I recognized him in a general way.  His face tended to pop up in advertisements and media.  If the city wasn’t in the state it was in right now, it would be on every TV channel, well into the swing of things for the imminent mayoral elections.  He was fifty or sixty, with horseshoe-pattern baldness on a round head and large ears that sort of stuck out.

The woman next to him would be his wife.  She had the look of someone who had purchased their good looks, with stylish clothes, an expensive haircut and top-notch makeup and skin care.  She was clutching her husband, who was holding his two twin daughters.

There were two young adults there too.  Older teenagers or young twenty-somethings.  The guy looked seriously well-built, the girl statuesque;  I got the vibe of an athlete and his cheerleader girlfriend more than I got the impression of a brother and sister with good genetics.  The guy stood a little in front of his parents and girlfriend, as if he wanted to protect them.  Genesis and I stood on the other side of the dining room table.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“A conversation,” Trickster spoke.  He had hopped up to the ledge of the ground-floor window and was now hopping down, one hand on his hat.  He adjusted it.  “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

The mayor looked at each of us in turn.  Well, at Trickster and the fake-selves that Genesis and I were producing.  “To what do I owe this questionable pleasure?”

“We hear you’re going to Washington tomorrow.”

I saw the son turn to look over his shoulder at his dad.  I also noted that he was discreetly drawing a phone from his pocket, concealed by the way he’d turned his body.  If I couldn’t sense movements through my bugs, I would have missed it.

I could have said something, but I stayed quiet.  Instead, I drew Atlas to a point near the window and began uncoiling and stretching out the lines of pre-prepared silk I’d already drawn out for emergency use.

“I am.”

“Well, I think it would only be fair if you heard from all of your constituents,” Trickster remarked.  “Before you come to a decision.”

“You pay taxes?” The son asked, shifting his position again so his right hand was hidden behind his girlfriend.  I could feel him adjusting his grip on the phone.  As far as I could tell, he hadn’t actually done anything to it.  I waited for him to stop moving his hand, and then threaded a series of flying bugs between his fingers and the device, winding the thread around it.

“Rory,” the mayor spoke, his tone a warning.  He turned his attention to Trickster.  “And?  Which outcome are you hoping for?”

“I think it would be excellent if the city kept on going.  Things are getting better.”

“And you’re putting yourselves in charge,” the mayor noted.

“We’re just keeping the peace,” Trickster said.  “Doing a better job than your local heroes.”

“If you have a liberal interpretation of ‘peace’, maybe,” the mayor said.

Rory moved his fingers, tapping the screen, and I had Atlas fly away from the window.  The phone was torn from his hand and bounced off of the window pane before landing outside.  Atlas reeled it in further while Rory looked around in confusion and alarm.

“No phone calls,” I spoke, buzzing through my swarm.

“Give that back,” he said.

“Is your phone really a priority?” Trickster asked.

“Yeah,” Rory said.  “Yeah it is.”

“Then you should have known better than to use it here,” Trickster said, shrugging.

Give it back,” Rory turned to glare at ‘me’.  At my swarm-double.

Trickster chuckled, “Never really got that smartphone craze.  People go gaga over the things.”

No, I thought.  Something’s off.

What I wouldn’t give for Tattletale’s power.  Or even to have her present.  How would she pull the pieces together, fill in the blanks?  She could have looked at the big picture here and known exactly what was going on, while I was left to guess.

The obsession over the phone?  I couldn’t draw any conclusions.  What else?  The family dinner with the son bringing his girlfriend over?  Nothing too strange.

They weren’t scared.

The little girls were glaring at us as they clutched their dad, Rory was too focused on his phone when his family was in imminent danger, and Rory’s girlfriend was staying very still.  Topping it off, the mayor was too casual in how he was addressing us.

Ah.

“I think it would be in everyone‘s best interests if Brockton Bay kept going.  Not quite fair to judge the fate of the city at its lowest point,” Trickster said.

“Are you being ironic on purpose?” The mayor asked.  “You’re making a very strong case for why the city shouldn’t continue down the path it’s been going down, just by being here.”

Again, that confidence.  One didn’t trade banter with someone who was implicitly threatening them and their family with bodily harm.  Not if they didn’t have some measure of security their would-be assailants weren’t aware of.

I considered the various possibilities.  Not too hard to narrow down the options, with the process of elimination.

I drew the words against the wall, above and behind the gathered family.

Trickster didn’t seem to notice.  “I’m surprised you aren’t showing us more respect.  You’d think we’d almost be equal on a level, current guy in charge of the city talking to the aspiring rulers.”

“I earned my position through hard work, dedication and by convincing the people that it was in their best interests to vote for me.  Which it was.  You three?  You’re criminals.  Thugs.  You didn’t earn anything.”

Thugs?  Do Thugs take on the Slaughterhouse Nine and walk away?”

“All you have going for you is violence and intimidation.  You can’t accomplish anything but destruction that way.”

I made the words on the wall bigger.  Trickster didn’t see them, or he didn’t care.

“Trickster-” I started, speaking through my swarm.  I need to have a word with you.

“Well,” Trickster said, cutting me off, “If you insist, who am I to argue?”

In an instant, one of the two twin girls was replaced by one of the dining room chairs on our side of the table, and vice versa.  Trickster grabbed her hair and pulled her close, drawing a gun and pressing it to her head.

“Trickster,” Genesis said, in the same second I moved forward to stop him.

Was she trying to stop him as well, or had she seen the words?

She settled one talon on his shoulder.  I wasn’t sure what signal she gave, but Trickster paused.

Whatever it was, he must have looked up at the words I’d written, because Rory noticed.  He whipped his head around to see, and I couldn’t disperse the bugs fast enough.

‘Triumph’ written on the wall with bugs with a triangle beneath, pointing at his head.  Above his ‘girlfriend’ were the words ‘Prism or Ursa’.

The mayor’s son was the civilian identity of Triumph.  Enhanced physical prowess and a concussive shout that could punch holes through concrete.

He whipped his head around and stared at Trickster.  Before the teleporter could pull the trigger or do anything else, Triumph shouted.  His sister was untouched, but Trickster was sent flying into the wall hard enough that he was half-buried in the drywall.

“Duck, Kyla!”

The little girl threw herself to the ground as Triumph lunged forward, kicking the dining room table.  It slid halfway across the room, over ‘Kyla’ and into the wall. The side slammed into Trickster’s midsection, and the table’s contents flew into the villain and the wall around him.  Trickster went limp, his upper body flopping over the table.

I mobilized the swarm, but Triumph was already shouting again, slamming Genesis into a wall, much as he’d done with Trickster.  A third bellow annihilated my swarm-clone, and he turned to start eradicating my spread out bugs while his family ran for the hallway, led by the superheroine.

Couldn’t get a serious number of bugs together in one place to mount a serious attack without Triumph obliterating them and he was either too angry or too stubborn to surrender to the stings and bites I was managing to inflict.  The superheroine had her phone out and I wasn’t able to tug it from her hand like I had with Triumph’s.  They would be getting reinforcements shortly.  Even if I took all of them out of action, I’d still have to get Trickster out of there and escape with my own hide intact.

“Damn it,” I cursed.  I broke into a run, accompanied by my swarm-doubles, hurrying for the house.  I couldn’t leave him there, not without jeopardizing everything.  He struck me as being disloyal enough to offer information for his own sake, or information about the Undersiders, at the very leastAnd leaving him behind would leave a permanent rift between our team and the Travelers.  It could even mean being dropped by Coil, an excuse for him to separate me from my teammates.

That said, I couldn’t save him or mount a serious attack with just my doubles.  He was hitting too hard, handling my bugs too effectively.  I could have killed or critically injured his family with the few bugs I did have, brought them down with the more dangerous insects, but I wasn’t willing to go that far.  Not with people who didn’t deserve it.

Atlas wouldn’t be strong or versatile enough to carry an unconscious body to safety.  If I was going to haul Trickster out of there, it would have to be with my own two hands.

I could only pray I wasn’t exposing myself to whatever assassination ploy Coil had in mind.  Or worse, that I wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted me to do.

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #3)

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August 20th, 1986

She was being poisoned by people with smiles on their faces.

She hated those smiles.  Fake.  Pretending to be happy, pretending to be cheerful.  But she’d spent enough time here to know that her friends and family would be crying the second they thought they were out of earshot.  The strangers had a weariness that spoke to the inevitable.  The older they were, the more reality seemed to weigh on them.

Somewhere along the line, they had stopped telling her that the chemotherapy would make her better.  The smiles had become even more strained.  There was more emphasis on making her comfortable.  Less explanation of what was going on.

So when her mother came in to check on her, bringing the mug of heated chicken broth, she pretended to be asleep.  She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stand the lies, the fakeness.

If it wouldn’t have given her away, she would have winced as her mother sat down by her bedside.  It meant she might be staying a while.

“Becca,” her mother murmured from behind her.  “You awake?”

She didn’t respond, keeping her breathing steady.  She tried to breathe through her nose, so the sores that filled her mouth wouldn’t sing with pain at the contact with the air.

Her mother ran one hand over her head.  Her hair was mostly gone, and the contact was uncomfortable to the point that it was almost painful.

“You’ve been so brave,” her mom whispered, so quiet she was barely audible.

I’m not brave.  Not at all.  I’m terrified.  I’m so frustrated I could scream.  But she couldn’t.  Everyone had painted her as being so courageous, so noble and peaceful in the face of the months of treatment.  But it was a facade, and she’d passed the point of no return.  It was too late to break composure, too late to stop making bad jokes, faking smiles of her own.  She couldn’t complain or use her mother’s shoulder to cry on because everyone would fall apart if she did.

She was their support.

“My little superhero,” her mother said.  Rebecca could feel her mother’s hand on her bare scalp once more.  She wanted to slap that hand away, yell at her mother.  Don’t you know that hurts?  Everything hurts.

“You’ve been trying so hard.  You deserve better.”

And just like that, from the tone and the word choice, Rebecca knew she was dying.

She felt a mixture of emotions.  Relief, in a way.  It would mean the chemotherapy could stop; she could stop hurting.  There was anger too.  Always some anger.  Why couldn’t her mother just tell her?  When would they get up the courage to deliver that news?

Apparently not tonight.  Rebecca heard the scrape of the chair moving as her mother stood, the muffled footsteps as she retreated down the hall.

Tears had been harder to come by since the chemo had started.  Most days, her eyes were red and itchy, her vision blurry, too dry to cry.  But it seemed this occasion deserved them.  For a long time, she lay on her side, staring out the window at the cityscape of Los Angeles, tears running sideways down her face, across the bridge of her nose and down to her ear, soaking her pillow.

There was a sign that caught her eye, because it was so bright a yellow against its immediate background of blues and dusky purples.  The classic logo of a fast food restaurant.

It struck her that she would probably never get to eat there again, never get a special kids meal with the dinky plastic toy that was meant for kids ten years younger than her.  She’d never forget about the toy afterward, letting it clutter the top of her dresser along with the other colorful trinkets and keepsakes.

She’d never get to read the third book of the Maggie Holt series, or see the movie they were making of the first book.

She’d never have a real boyfriend.

It was dumb, but those stupid trivial things hit her harder than the idea that she’d never see her family, her friends or her cats again.  The steady tears became sobs, and her breath hitched, making her entire chest seize in pain.  The involuntary clenching of her empty stomach was twice as bad, and she started to think she might need to throw up.  Or dry heave.  Experience told her that would be worst of all.

She’d started moaning without realizing it, quiet and drawn out, trying to replace those painful lurching sobs with something else.

“Do you need morphine?”

The gentle voice startled her, interrupting both the moans and the sobs.  Morphine wouldn’t help the most basic, terrifying, inevitable reality she faced.  She shook her head.

There was a whispering.

“I’m going to increase the drip just a little, Rebecca Costa-Brown.”

“Who?”  Rebecca stirred, turning around to see who was speaking.  A black woman with long hair in a doctor’s get-up was messing with the IV bag.  But… no name tag.  And there was a teenage girl with pale skin and dark hair standing behind her, wearing knee-high socks, a black pleated skirt and white dress shirt.  “You’re not one of my doctors.”

“No, Rebecca.  Not yet,” the woman replied.

Quietly, Rebecca asked, “Are you one of the doctors that takes care of people that are dying?”

The woman walked around to the end of the bed.  The teenager stayed where she was.  Rebecca gave the girl a nervous look.  She was staring, her expression placid, hands at her side.

“Who are you, then?”

“Shh.  Lower your voice.  It would be a shame if the nurses happened to come by and eject me.”

“So…” Rebecca started, making a conscious effort to speak more quietly, “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“No,” the woman replied.

Rebecca closed her mouth.  She could feel the effect of the morphine.  If nothing else, it was helping ease the uncomfortable sensation where her stomach had been cramping, her skin feeling raw against the stiff hospital sheets.  She didn’t know what to say, so she fell silent instead.

“To answer your question, I’m a doctor, but not one that works in this hospital.  I’m more of a researcher and scholar than anything else.  And I came to make you an offer.”

“Shouldn’t my mom be here for this?”  My mother makes all of the decisions.

“Normally yes, when dealing with a minor.  But this is a private deal.  Just for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve heard about the superheroes?  On the television?”

“Yeah.  There’s, like, a bunch.  Twenty or something?”

“No less than fifty, now.  They’re appearing all over the world, with thousands upon thousands estimated to appear by the turn of the millennium.  I confess I have something of a hand in that.  Which is why I’m here.”

“You… make superheroes appear?”  Rebecca could feel herself getting foggy with the morphine.

“I make superheroes, but it’s not easy.  The risks are high.  The files?”

The teenager on the other side of the bed stepped forward, pulling off her backpack.  She reached in and withdrew a file folder.

The woman moved the wheeled, adjustable bed-desk that still held the chicken broth Rebecca’s mother had brought.  She moved the plastic container and put the file folder down.  Opening it, she spread out the glossy photographs that were contained within, until six images sat side by side.

A man with gnarled skin like the wood of a tree.  A woman with tentacles everywhere.  A beetle-man.  A boy with skin that seemed to be melting like wax.  A burned husk of a body. A little girl without eyes, only flat expanses of skin where they should be.

“Right now, in the early stages of my project, only one in seven succeed.  Two of those seven die.”  The woman tapped the pictures of the burned body and the boy with melted skin.  “Four experience unfortunate physical changes.”

“They’re monsters.”

“Yes.  Yes they are.  But of those seven, statistically there’s one who experiences no major physical changes, who gains powers.  All anyone has to do is drink one of my formulas.”

Rebecca nodded.  Her eyes flickered over the photographs.

“And I’ve stumbled on a little side-benefit, Rebecca.  I mix those potions a certain way, and it not only helps reduce the severity of any physical changes, but it also has a restorative effect.  The body heals.  Sometimes just a little.  Sometimes a great deal.  I think we could heal you.”

“Heal me?”

“I’m not asking for money.  Only that you take this leap of faith with me and help me build something.  I know the risks are great, I wouldn’t normally ask someone to face them, but I suspect you don’t have much left to lose.”

Rebecca extended a hand to touch the photos, but it was herself she looked at.  Her fingers so bony, her skin mottled yellow with bruising around the knuckles.  I’m already a monster.

She tapped the photo.  “If… if it was just this?  If you were offering to save my life and make me one of those monsters?  I’d still accept.”

August 21st, 1986

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the Doctor spoke.

Rebecca opened her eyes.  She’d seen something fragmented but profound, but it slipped away as fast as she could think to recollect it.  She staggered to her feet, wobbled.  The girl in the school uniform caught her before she could fall.

“I’m not a monster?”

“No.  In fact, I don’t know if it could have gone better.”

Rebecca extended one arm.  Her skin was a healthy pink, her hand thin but not so emaciated as it had been.

“I’m better?”

“I would guess so.  In truth, I’m not sure how the regeneration affected the cancer, it might even have exacerbated the symptoms.  For the time being, however, you seem to be well.”

“I feel really light.”

“That’s promising.”

Rebecca allowed herself a smile, letting go of the girl’s hand.  She could stand under her own power.  Everything around her appeared sharp.  She hadn’t realized how bad her vision had become.

Even her mind seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine.  Had the drugs and poison made her stupid?

No.  She’d never been like this.  It was like her brain had been a bicycle and now it was a Ferarri.  Even as her eyes flicked over the interior of the warehouse, she could tell she was processing faster, taking in details and sorting them better, as if her thoughts were no longer limited to the confines of her skull.

“What can I do?”

“I’ve yet to start categorizing the results.  For the time being, I’m playing a game of battleship, creating what I can and logging the results.  I hope to find the patterns and the factors at play, given time.”

“You’re going to keep doing what you did with me?”  Rebecca bounced in place.  It took so little effort to move so high.  She was better.  She was alive, like she hadn’t been for months and months.

“I’m going to find an alternative as soon as possible.  The risks are too high, at present.  You can understand that what I have is valuable, and every time I approach a potential patient, I face the possibility that I’m going to be exposed.”

“They’ll stop you?”

“They’ll try.  I have her to guard me,” the Doctor nodded in the direction of the dark-haired girl.  “But I’d rather work without interference.”

“So what do we do now?  What do I do?”

“I have ideas.  Would you object to accompanying me for some time?  I could use another bodyguard.”

“I don’t even know what I do.”

“Nor do I.  But I think it would be a bad idea for you to return home.”

Rebecca stared down at her hands, clenched and unclenched them.  What would her parents say?  What would the doctors and nurses say?

She walked across the empty building.  By the time she reached the other end, she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground.  She set her hands on the wall, dragged her fingertips through the concrete, then crushed it in her hands.  It should have ruined her skin, left scrapes or torn her fingernails, short as they were, but it hadn’t.

I used to be a shadow of a person, barely there.  Now I’m something more in every way.

When she turned around, the girl in the school uniform was whispering in the Doctor’s ear.

The Doctor spoke, “Two years, then you decide if you want to stay.”

Rebecca looked down at the concrete dust that had settled in the lines and folds of her hands, met the Doctor’s eyes and nodded.

May 1st, 1988

“Alexandria,” the Doctor called.

Alexandria waited patiently as Contessa adjusted her cape, then strode through the door.  The Doctor was there, of course.  Professor Manton, too.  The boy with the math powers was there, standing next to a boy who was staring off into space.

“She’s young,” Legend said, sizing her up.

“She’s also one of my best yet,” the Doctor said.

“I’ve heard of her,” Hero said.  “Los Angeles?”

Alexandria nodded.

“You took down Strongarm and Mongler.  It was impressive,” he said.

“Thank you.”

The Doctor spoke, “She’s as strong as any parahuman we’ve recorded.  Flies at speeds that match your own, Legend.  Near-perfect memory retention, accelerated processing and learning.”

Legend gave her another serious look.  She wore a black costume with a skirt, knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves.  A heavy cape flowed behind her back.  Her black hair was held back out of her face by the metal visor that covered the upper half of her face.

“It’s more typical for heroes to wear brighter colors,”  he said.  “It conveys a more positive image.”  His own costume was a testament to that philosophy, blue with flames and lightning stencils in white.

“Black’s more utilitarian,” the Doctor said.  “Harder to see in the dark.”

“And it’s easier to get the blood out,” Alexandria added.

Legend frowned.  “Do you get a lot of blood on your costume?”

“I hit really hard,” she said, deadpan.

He didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.  It didn’t matter.

“Okay,” Hero said, folding his arms.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alexandria.  But I’m not sure I see the point of this, Doctor.”

“You each committed to assisting my enterprise, in exchange for the powers I could grant.”

“Yeah,” Hero said.

“Now I have two things I’d like you to consider.  The first is… well, you could consider it a new arrangement.”

“Alright.  I can keep an open ear,” Legend said.  Eidolon and Hero nodded in agreement.  “What’s your proposal?”

“It’s not my proposal.  Alexandria?”

Alexandria felt her heart skip a beat as the three heroes turned their attention to her, but she kept her emotions from her face.

“This room, I would argue, contains the most powerful parahumans in the world, Scion excepted.  The good you accomplish is undeniable.  Even if villains outnumber the heroes, powers have come to benefit the world in the long run.  A golden age, if you will.”

Legend nodded.

“But we know that trigger events tend to produce damaged, disturbed and unbalanced individuals.  Any traumatic event will do that, and a trauma punctuated by the acquisition of superpowers is going to leave a lasting impression.  Trigger events produce more villains. We know this.”

The Doctor cut in, “And I’m producing more heroes than villains.  For now, the proportion favors us, and you’ve been able to keep the criminal element in line.  For the most part.   But even as I expand my operations, I have come to the realization that I can only produce so much.  And the rate of parahuman growth is expanding.  The next twenty years are projected to produce a total number of six hundred and fifty thousand people with powers, worldwide.”

Alexandria spoke, “I’ve looked at the numbers, at the growth, the trends, checked and double checked them.  Even if the rate decreases, we’re going to get outpaced and we’re going to get outpaced hard.  The people with trigger events will outnumber the Doctor’s clients, and we’ll wind up with three to ten villains for every hero that steps forward.”

Legend, Eidolon and Hero were paying attention.

The Doctor spoke, “Alexandria and I have discussed this at length.  A recurring worry is that as much as I’ve been able to gift you three, you four with exemplary abilities, we could see other threats of comparable power.”

“Is there any evidence of this?”  Hero asked.  “You haven’t explained how you create the powers, but what you’ve said leads me to believe you’re producing something purer than what everyone else gets.”

“Purer?  Perhaps.  But the purer something is, the more fragile it becomes.  The process seems to be influenced heavily by psychological strain and stress.  Almost an inverse of the trigger event phenomenon.  You know there’s a possibility that the formula can become tainted, giving inhuman characteristics to the unfortunate subjects.  This is despite the most sterile conditions.  I’m improving the results over time, with Professor Manton’s help, but there are no guarantees.”

“The point we’re getting around to,” Alexandria spoke, “Is that even if the Doctor can get better results with time and effort, the explosion in the natural parahuman population is inevitably going to produce an individual with powers that outstrip our own.”

“So we lose in the long run?” Eidolon asked.  “We’re doomed?”

“No.  Because I’d like to propose a solution.  A way to assert control.  I want to band together.  Form a team.”

Legend leaned against the wall.  “There are teams forming already.  Yes, we’d be powerful, influential, but I don’t see how that addresses the problems.”

“Simple.  We do what the government’s been pushing for.  We regulate.  We bend to the government’s yoke, all four of us together.  We follow their stipulations and regulations.”

“That sounds like a horrendously bad idea,” Eidolon spoke.  “Why?”

“Because if it was us four, together?  We could afford to push back if they pushed too hard, and they’d know that.  And just by being there, we could make the project attractive enough to bring others in.”

Legend turned, “And how does this benefit you, Doctor?”

“It doesn’t.  Not directly.  That’s why this is Alexandria’s proposal.”

“But,” Manton spoke, his voice gravelly for his relatively young age, “We could send some of our clients to you.  Happier clients are better for business.”

Legend folded his arms.  “And you’d want to be in charge, Alexandria?”

“No.  I think you or Hero would be a better choice, to portray a kind face and a positive image.  You two wear the colorful costumes.”

“Not Eidolon?” Hero asked.

“He’s too powerful.  Not saying either of you aren’t, but we wouldn’t be able to convey the impression that it’s the government in control of the heroes if it was Eidolon front and center.”

Legend nodded.  “You’ve given this a lot of consideration.”

“More than a little,”  Alexandria admitted.  “I have an eight stage plan to incorporate parahumans into society, I’ve also researched and developed plans for marketing and monetizing capes.  America is the most powerful country in the world, and it’s a capitalist nation, first and foremost.  We’ll use that.”

“Seems to be getting away from the idea of doing good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds,” Eidolon said.

“It is, but that’s inevitable.  The post-baby boomer generation is growing up.  Couple that with the explosion in parahuman numbers, and this situation threatens to get well out of control.  We need structure and organization if we’re going to keep things intact.”

“There’s no guarantee your plan will survive contact with government,” Legend said.

“There’s one guarantee.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m estimating that it will take at least five years to establish this plan nationwide.  In that span, we’ll start with only a few groups in the largest cities, we’ll gradually and gratefully accept involvement and oversight from government and law enforcement.  We’ll also create a sub-group for minors with powers, so we can strictly structure their environment and development.  Those are the key points.  That gives me time to address your doubts.”

“Again, how?”

“I expect we’ll be able to employ the remainder of the plan, the eight-stage integration of parahumans with the public, because I will be in a position of power in the government.  I, my civilian self, can be in charge of the government-sponsored superhero teams within eight years.”

“There’s too many holes in that plan.  People will wonder why Alexandria and your secret identity aren’t in the same place at once.”

“There’s more than one solution to that.  For one thing, I can work faster and better than my unpowered peers.  For another, the Doctor thinks she can find a suitable body double with similar powers before the deadline.  I designed this costume to be elegant without being attention-getting.  No color, as you pointed out.  And I don’t seek leadership of the team.  Instead, I will content myself with working to guide legislation to where we need it.”

“It seems so manipulative.  Everything people feared we’d be doing,” Hero said.

“I have booklets of paperwork you can look over.  All of the math, all of the projected issues for the future, and all of my proposals and plans.  You don’t have to give me an answer right away.  Just consider it.”

“Okay,” Hero said.

“And,” the Doctor said, “I think it goes without saying that everything said in this room stays in this room?”

There were nods all around.

“Good.  Thank you.  There’s one more thing I would like to show you.  If you’ll accompany me?”

She turned to the girl in the suit and the young man with the thousand-yard stare.

“You know where to take us.”

The girl in the suit placed her hands on his shoulders, tapping one twice.  In response, the boy raised his hands, bidding the back wall of the room to fold out into an area that shouldn’t have been there.  Bright sunlight streamed down around them, a salt-scented wind blowing in their faces.

“My god,” Legend said.

“He gained a very valuable set of powers, but there was an unfortunate effect on his perceptions.  He sees too much at once.  He’s effectively blind and deaf.  He agreed to work for me in exchange for care and comfort.”

Eidolon and Hero advanced to the edge of the window, staring out at a landscape of tidy concrete buildings and overlarge trees.  There was a coast there, too.

“I will be locating my operations there in the future.  Doormaker will shuttle you to and from my base in the future.”

“Where is it?”

“Another Earth.”

“Like Earth Aleph?  The one Haywire opened the portal to?”

“In some respects, yes.”  The Doctor gestured, and Contessa squeezed the boy’s shoulders again.  The portal shut.  “My assistant will hand you the booklets Alexandria prepared for her project.  Doormaker will then take each of you home in turn.  Thank you.”

One by one, the others departed.  Legend was first through the doorway Doormaker created, taken to New York.  Both Eidolon and Hero made their way to Chicago.  Professor Manton and the others left.

Only Alexandria and the Doctor remained.

“You didn’t tell them about our long-term goals,” Alexandria spoke.

“No.  There’s issues that have to be addressed first.  We’ve already discussed several.”

“Anything I can do?”

“You have your end of the project.  I feel they’ll come around.  Focus on that.  I’ll handle the projected issues on my side of things.  Just need to find the right individual.  Someone I can groom, perhaps.  Between you and I, one of us is bound to succeed.”

Alexandria nodded.

“Your two years are up in three months.  Will you be returning to your family?”

“I nearly forgot.  I’ve been so busy.”  Alexandria frowned.

“It might do you good to see them.”

“Maybe.”  Why did she have her doubts?  Why didn’t she want to go home?

“Good.  I do expect you’ll return?”

“Of course.”

Maybe, she realized, it was because every memory of her family was tinged with the feelings of despair, of loss.  With the Doctor, she had hope.

December 13th, 1992

Big.

The clawed hand speared toward the sky, followed by an arm the size of an oak tree.  When it turned to slam against the ground, bracing for leverage, she could feel the impact rippling through the air.  The dry ground shifted, bulged and cracked as he shouldered his way up and out from underground.

Really big.

Forty-five feet tall at the very least, he climbed forth from underground.  His skin was crusted with black stone that might have been obsidian, layers of what might have been cooled magma sloughing off of him as he planted his feet on the ground and stood straight.

‘Straight’ might have been too generous.  He was built like a caricature of a bodybuilder, or a bear-human hybrid.  He rippled with muscle, his skin gray, thick and leathery like the hide of a rhinoceros or elephant.  His black obsidian horns were so heavy his head hung down.  They weren’t rooted in his forehead, but in the middle of his face, a half-dozen curved shafts of black crystal twisting their way out of his face and back over the top of his head, some ten feet long.  A single red eye glowed from between the gap in two horns, positioned too low.  His mouth was a jagged gap in his lower face, twisting up to a point near his temple, lined by jagged horn-like growths that were too irregular to be called teeth.

His claws were the same, not hands in the conventional sense, but mangled growths of the same material that made up his horns, many of the growths as large as Alexandria herself.  He could flex them, move them, but they were clearly weapons and nothing else.

The rest of the Protectorate was present, and the local heroes, the Mythics.  Rostam, Jamshid, Kaveh, Arash.

It somehow didn’t feel like enough.  They’d come anticipating earthquake relief.  Not this.

The creature roared, and as invulnerable as she was, it almost hurt.  A whirlwind blast of sand ripped past them.  Kaveh stumbled back, collapsed, blood pouring from his ears, one of his eyeballs obliterated.

The fight hadn’t even started, and they’d lost someone.

“Hero,” Legend spoke with the smallest tremor in his voice, “Call for help, as much as you can get.”

The creature, the Behemoth, stepped closer, raising one claw and pointed at Kaveh.  Kaveh the Smith, the builder, the forger.

The man ignited from the inside out, flame and smoke pouring from every orifice as he was turned into a burned-out husk in a matter of seconds.  His skeleton disintegrated into fine dust and ash as it crashed to the ground.

He can bypass the Manton effect.  She thought, stunned.  She flew forward, trying to draw his attention, interjecting herself between the Behemoth and the others.

He pointed his claw once more, and she braced herself, gritting her teeth.  Time to see how invincible I am.

But it wasn’t fire.  A lightning bolt flashed from the tip of Behemoth’s claw, arcing around her and striking one of her subordinates in a single heartbeat, before leaving only the smell of ozone.  She flew in close, slamming her hands into his face, driving him back, throwing him off-balance.

He struck her and drove her into the ground.  His flame burned through her, the sand was turning to glass around her, burning her costume, but it didn’t burn her.

But she couldn’t breathe.  She flew back and out of the way until she had air again.  She stared at the scene that was unfolding, the heroes beating a hasty retreat as that thing advanced, slow and implacable.

Shit,” Hero’s voice came over the communications channel.

“What?” she responded.  Legend was pelting the thing with lasers that could have burned buildings to the ground, and he was barely leaving a mark.  Eidolon was manipulating the sand, creating barriers while simultaneously drawing sand out from beneath their enemy, while pelting it with laser blasts that he spat from his mouth.

At least he’s too slow to dodge or get out of the way of trouble.

Guys back home say we’re close to some major oil fields.

She shook herself free of glass and dirt and threw herself back into the fray.  A bad situation was suddenly critical.  The creature roared again, and the force of the noise threw her flight off course.  Eidolon’s makeshift walls collapsed and more heroes fell, bleeding from heavy internal damage.

They’d been right after all.  Dumb luck had created a parahuman as dangerous as what the Doctor could create by design.

Fire, sonic, lightning.  And he hit me harder than he should have, even being as big as he is.  Kinetic energy, too.  

Her eyes widened.  Not individual powers.  Those were all the same power.  She pressed one hand to her ear, opening communications to the rest of her team.  “He’s a dynakinetic!  He manipulates energy!  No Manton limitation!”

How do we even fight something like that?

But she knew they didn’t have a choice.  She threw herself back into the thick of the fight.

January 18th, 1993

“I, Alexandria, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the director appointed over me, according to the regulations of the PRTCJ.”

Applause swelled around her.  As far as the eye could see, there were crowds and flashing cameras.  President Griffin extended a hand and she shook it.

He leaned close, “You do us proud.”

“Thank you, James.  I’ll give my all.”

He squeezed her hand and moved on.

“I, Eidolon, do solemnly affirm…”

She gazed over the crowd, saw her mother standing there with eyes glistening.  The lesser members of the Protectorate were in the front row as well, her subordinates among them.

Turning further right, she saw Hero looking at her, almost accusatory.  She turned and faced the crowd.  Regal, unflinching, dressed in an updated costume.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Vice President spoke into the microphone, “Let me introduce the founding members of the Protectorate of the United States of America!”

Invincible as she might be, she thought her heart might burst as it swelled with pride, the crowd cheering with such force that the stage shook.

September 15th, 2000

Alexandria and Hero were last to arrive on the scene, entering through the window.  Legend pressed one finger to his lips.

“We’ve got her cornered?” Hero whispered.

“Think so,” Legend replied, his voice as quiet.  ”We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.“

“She hasn’t tried to leave?”  Hero asked.  ”Why not?“

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

Alexandria spoke, stabbing one finger in Legend’s direction, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-“

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

I’m in this to save lives.  Sacrificing someone for the sake of the plan?  She knew it made sense, that it was even necessary, but it left her shaken, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

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

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

They operated with a practiced ease.  Legend blasted down the door and Alexandria was the first through.

Siberian was there, kneeling on the bed, her body marked with stripes of jet black and alabaster white, her arms slick with blood up to the elbows.  The man who lay on the bed – there would be no saving him, even if Eidolon manifested healing abilities.

She looks familiar, Alexandria thought, even as she soared across the room.

They’d underestimated their opponent.  Alexandria’s fists collided with Siberian and didn’t budge a hair.  She flew out of the way before Siberian could claw at her with long fingernails.

Legend fired beam after beam at Siberian, but the striped woman didn’t even flinch.  She was invincible on a level that surpassed even Alexandria.

Eidolon cast out a cluster of crystal that exploded into a formation around Siberian on impact, encasing her.

Siberian shrugged it off like it was nothing, lunged forward, going after Hero.

Alexandria dove to intervene, to guard her teammate, but Siberian was faster.  She reached Hero first, her hands plunging through his chest cavity.  When she pulled her arms free, she nearly bisected him.

Eidolon screamed, flying close to scoop up the two pieces of Hero, carrying them outside.

Siberian leaped after them, missed only because Legend shot his comrades with a laser to alter their trajectory.

Their enemy plunged to the street, landing on both feet as though she were light as a feather.

The ensuing moments were frantic, filled with screamed orders and raw terror.  Alexandria chased Siberian to try to scoop bystanders out of the way, to catch the PRT vehicles that Siberian flung like wiffle balls.

And they were losing.  Eidolon was trying to heal Hero, to teleport people out of danger when Alexandria and Legend proved unable, and changing up his abilities every few seconds to throw something new at Siberian in the hopes that something would affect her.  She waded through zones of altered time, through lightning storms and force fields, tore through barricades of living wood and slapped aside a projectile so hyperdense that its gravitational field pulled cars behind it.

Alexandria moved in close, hoping to stop Siberian, to catch her and slow her down, saw Siberian swing, pulled back out of the way.

Her visor fell free, clattering to the ground.  Then she felt the blood.

Saw, in her one remaining good eye, the chunks of her own face that were falling to the ground around her, bouncing off her right breast, the spray of blood.

It had been so long since she’d felt pain.

Legend called out the order and buried her in containment foam, hiding her from sight.

September 16th, 2000

Alexandria sat in the hospital.  Eidolon’s healing had only been able to do so much.  She held a glass eye in one hand, the remains of her other eye in the other.

She looked up at the Doctor.  “William Manton?”

The Doctor nodded.

“How?  Why?”

“I don’t know what predicated it.  His daughter’s in our custody.  One of our failures.”

“He gave his daughter the formula?  Without the usual preparations and procedures?”

“I suppose he thought he was qualified to oversee all that.  Despite my strict instructions that staff weren’t to partake.  Or he had other motivations.  It could have been a gift from a father trying to buy his daughter’s affections.”

“Or her forgiveness,” Alexandria looked down at the glass eye, then back up to the Doctor.

The Doctor’s eyebrows were raised in uncharacteristic surprise.  “Did you see anything suspect?”

“No.  I only met his daughter twice, and it was brief, her father wasn’t around.  But I know the divorce between Professor Manton and his wife was pretty bad, as those things go.  He was angry, maybe did some things he regretted?”

The Doctor sighed.

“So that was him?

“Almost certainly.  He gave his daughter one of our higher quality formulas, and she couldn’t handle it.  When he realized what he’d done, realized that he couldn’t hide it from us, he took one formula for himself and fled.  I didn’t know what it had done for him until tonight.  The resemblance between Siberian and Manton’s daughter is subtle, but it’s there, and the footage from Hero’s helmet-camera has been run through every facial recognition program I could find.”

“What did Legend, Eidolon and…”  Alexandria stopped when she realized that she’d been about to say Hero.  “What did they say?  About Manton?”

“They don’t know.  I suppose we should tell Eidolon.  He reacted badly when his powers informed him of our other plans and projects.”

Alexandria hung her head.  “How do we stop him?  Manton?  If he’s transformed into that…”

“The sample he took, F-one-six-one-one, it tends to give projection powers.  I suspect his real body is unchanged.  But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave him be.”

Alexandria stared at the doctor, wide-eyed.  “Why?

“So long as he’s active, people will be flocking to join the Protectorate-”

Alexandria slammed her hand on the stainless steel table beside her cot.

Silence rang between them in the wake of the destruction.

“I will not condone the loss of life for your ulterior motives.  I will not let monsters walk free, to profit from the fear they spread.”

“You’re right,” the Doctor said.  “I… must be more shaken by Manton’s betrayal than I’d thought.  Forget I said anything.”

If Alexandria saw a hint of falsehood in the Doctor’s body language, she convinced herself it was the strain of one eye compensating for the job she’d used to perform with two.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” The Doctor asked.

“That we’re no longer doing more good than evil?” Alexandria replied, bitter.

“No.  I still feel we’re working for the forces of good.  Manton was a selfish man, unhinged. The exception to the rule.”

Alexandria couldn’t quite bring her to believe it.

“No, this means we simply need to step up our plans.  If we’re going to go forward with the  Terminus project, we need to advance the overall efforts with Cauldron.  And we need the Protectorate effort to succeed on every count.”

“Or we need your project to work out,” Alexandria replied.

The Doctor frowned.  “Or that.  We still have to find the right individual.  Or make him.”

April 10th, 2008

Mortars, bombs and air-to-ground missiles rained down around her. It had been a decade and a half since she had really felt pain, and she still couldn’t help but flinch as they struck ground in her immediate vicinity.  Still, she continued walking, her cape and hair fluttering behind her.

Two people lay face-down on the edge of the street, a teenage boy and girl holding hands.  She knelt and checked their pulses.  Dead.

But she could see others.  She quickly strode over and kneeled by a young man.  His stomach was a bloody mess, and he was gasping for every breath.

“To gustaria livir?” She asked, in the local’s anglo-spanish pidgin.  Do you want to live?

His eyes widened as he seemed to realize she was there.  “Eres an gwarra engel?”

“No,” she replied.  She brushed his hair out of his face with one hand.  “No an engel.”  Not an angel.

Livir,” he breathed the word before slumping over.

She swept him up in her arms, quickly and carefully.  Keeping an eye out for any falling mortars, she quickly ascended into the air.

She was at the cloud-level when the door opened.  She stepped into the brightly lit corridors of Cauldron’s testing laboratory and strode down to the cells.

Thirty cells, filled with subjects.  Thirty-one now.  The cells didn’t appear to have doors, but  the individuals within were all too aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the perimeters of their cells, or of trying to harass Alexandria as she strode by.

Only two-thirds of them were monstrous, affected by the formulas.  Others would go free with alterations to their memories.  Some would have fatal weaknesses inserted into their psyches, reason to hesitate at a crucial moment against a certain foe.

But they would be alive.  That was the most important thing.  They had been destined to die, in places where the wars never stopped, or where plague was rampant, rescued from the brink of death.

Entering one cell, she brushed the hair from the young man’s face once more, then propped him up while she administered the sample the Doctor had left for her.

She stepped back while he convulsed, his wounds filling in, his breathing growing steady enough for him to scream.

His eyes opened, and he stared at her, wide-eyed, still screaming as sensations returned to him and pain overwhelmed every sense.

“Eres okay,” she said, in his language.  “Eres livo.”

It’s okay.  You’re alive.  She forced herself to smile as reassuringly as she could.

So long as they lived, they could have hope.  Living was the most important thing.

And here I am, administering poison with a smile on my face.

She turned and walked away.

June 18th, 2011

“…I guess we have another unanswered question on our hands,” Eidolon said.

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.  A small smile touched his lips.

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.”

“A month or two, either Simurgh or Behemoth if they stick to pattern,” Alexandria said.  She watched as Legend strode out of the room.  Eidolon paused, then gave the hand signal.  No bugs, and Legend wasn’t listening in.

The Doctor already had the booster shot ready.  Eidolon extended one arm, clutching his bicep to help make the vein more pronounced.  The doctor injected.

“The boosters aren’t cutting it anymore,” Eidolon said.  “I’m getting weaker.  Powers are taking longer to reach their peak, and their maximum strength isn’t what it used to be.  If this keeps up, then I won’t be able to offer anything during this end-of-the-world scenario.”

“We’ll find a solution,” the Doctor said.

“You were too calm,” Eidolon spoke.  “I was worried you’d miss my warning.”

“Very clever, burning the words into the paper in front of me.  Thank you.  Was I convincing?”

“You managed to feign skepticism over this apocalypse scenario,” Alexandria spoke.

“Well, that’s the most important thing,” the Doctor spoke.

“He’s suspicious.  He knows or suspects we’ve been lying to him,” Alexandria said.

“Unfortunate.  Will he expose us?”

Alexandria shook her head.  “No.  I don’t think he will.  But he may distance himself from us to lower the number of opportunities we have to see his doubt for what it is.”

“We’ll manage,” the Doctor replied.  “In the worst case scenario, we’ll explain the circumstances, explain our plan.”

“He won’t like it,” Eidolon spoke.

“But he’ll understand,” the Doctor said.  “If the Terminus project is a success, the end of the world isn’t a concern.  And I believe we will succeed.”

“Provided we come up with a solution to the bigger, more basic problems we’re facing,” Eidolon said.  “Or we’ll simply find ourselves in the same circumstances after we’ve gone to all this trouble.”

Alexandria nodded.  “The Protectorate is proving to be a failure on that front.  Recent events haven’t given me much hope in that regard.”

“So that leaves only my end of things,” the Doctor said.

“Coil,” Eidolon said.  “And if he fails?”

“Ever the pessimist,” Alexandria said.

“This revelation about the possible end of the world has decimated our projected timeline.  We don’t have time to prepare or pursue anything further,” the Doctor said.

“If we assist him-”

“No,” the Doctor spoke.  “If we assist him, there’s no point.”

“In short?” Alexandria leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  “He doesn’t even know it, but everything rests on his shoulders.”

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Colony 15.7

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How the hell was I supposed to get medical assistance when the guy I was supposed to ask was looking for a covert way to murder me?

And I did need help.  I was bleeding, for one thing.  It had only started when I’d moved my arm to unstrap my armor.  If I’d known, I would have tried to undo the straps with my bugs.

Worse, the spike had penetrated the bone of my shoulder and any movement of my arm rewarded me with scraping sensations in my shoulder socket that made my skin crawl, not to mention the pain.

I was surprised it didn’t hurt more.  I hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.  My fingers moved without a problem, but the lack of pain could still point to bigger problems.  Pain was a natural response, after all, and the lack of pain was unnatural.

I called Tattletale instead.

“Skitter?” she answered.  “How did it go?”

“Could have gone worse.  I paid Parian off, and she’s leaving the city.  No blood shed, mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Flechette was there.  I got stabbed.” I remembered that Coil could be listening in.  “I don’t want to bother Coil with it, busy as he is.”

“Being stabbed is serious.”

“It’s not too bad.  Can you lend me your medic?”

“You’re just leaving Dolltown now?”

“Flying home.”

“He should be there before you arrive.  I know you two haven’t gotten along in the past, but he won’t trouble you.”

He won’t trouble me.  Was that her way of informing me that he was safe?  Well, I still felt better than I would be if I were putting my life in Coil’s hands.

My desire to convey the image of someone who was confident, fearless and untouchable had led to me getting impaled in the shoulder.  It was something of a weakness, but I still found myself doing it as I reached my own territory.  I landed Atlas on the beach and made my way into the storm drain, wincing every time my arm moved.  By the time I was inside, however, I was pulling myself straighter, raising my chin and squaring my shoulders.  I tried to focus on my power to remove my attention from my body.  Checking the status of the various cleanup projects, some basic reconstruction, setting up dry and clean sleeping areas, stocking up on food and medical supplies…

Sierra and her little one-handed brother Bryce were there as I stepped into my lair, along with a small cluster of older kids and Tattletale’s medic, Brooks.  I sat down on the stool by the kitchen counter and Brooks started examining my shoulder.

“You guys get the most interesting injuries,” he said, in his characteristic, hard-to-place accent that seemed to put hard emphasis on syllables.

“Interesting?”

“Metal bonded to the bone.  You have some sticking through and into the cavity your socket sits in.  I have no idea how I’m going to get to the far end, cannot pull it out, and if I try sawing it off, I am not sure the shavings and flecks wouldn’t do catastrophic damage over the long run.  I would say you need surgery.”

“Damn it,” I said.  “She probably intended for something like that, and every hospital in the area’s going to be looking for someone with a spike in their shoulder.”

“I could try to handle it, but it’s going to take time to get necessary tools.”

“What tools?”

“At the very minimum, a small rotary grinder, suction, some fine wire, blood…”

“We have those things.”

He looked surprised.

I looked to Sierra, “We did get that delivery of stuff for Dr. Tegeler?”

“The dentist?  Yeah.  But it’s not unpacked.”

I turned to Brooks, “We have rotary grinders that we’ve been using for the cleanup, not sure how clean they’d be.  But the rest of that stuff, we’ve been having it delivered, so the people with medical training can start helping out.  Since we already have an able-bodied dentist, we’ve been setting her up.  It’s kind of surprising how many people will start having issues with their teeth over just a month.”

“Okay.  Let me pack this wound and then I will need to go there.  I’ll grab what I need myself.”

I waited while Brooks unpackaged and pressed bandages in place around the spike.

“How is the pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

“Ten high?  Maybe a three until I move it, then it’s more like a seven.”

“I am surprised you are not passed out already.  Do you have a high pain tolerance?”

“I wouldn’t have thought so.  But maybe.  Or maybe the way it bonded kept it from damaging or exposing nerve endings?”

“Maybe.  Okay.  Ginger girl, show me the stuff?”

Ginger girl?”  Sierra asked, archly.

Brooks smirked.

“Brooks,” I said, “Treat my employees with respect or I’m going to have words with Tattletale about you.”

“Yes.  I am sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all.  “Please show me where I can find the dentist’s equipment.”

Sierra looked at me, and I gave her a nod as my ‘go ahead’.

That left me with the kids and Bryce.  I studied him.  His black hair was cut so short he was nearly bald, and like Brooks he was wearing dark gray cargo pants and a beige sleeveless t-shirt.  He’d put on some muscle since I’d seen him last.  His still-bandaged stump of a wrist tapped impatiently against his leg.

And the kids… they were wearing some of the clothes I’d had shipped in, but they didn’t look like the typical bunch of kids one would see around a schoolyard.  Before taking advantage of what I had to offer, they’d been eating the bare minimum, spending all of their time outdoors.  But diet and exercise weren’t entirely to blame for the lack of softness in their faces or expressions.  They’d seen people they loved die.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Making small talk seemed like it would lower me to their level.

I used my power to check on progress in the area instead.  I’d had a hand in getting recovery efforts underway and ordering both tools and supplies, so I was fairly in touch with what was going on.  The streets were draining or drained in the areas we’d settled, with sandbags holding back or diverting the flooding.  Crews were filling more sandbags and loading them onto trucks at the beach.  Still others were working to clear the storm drains of blockages where they’d verified that both sides were clear of water and that the storm drains were intact.  The storm drain leading to my base had been classified unsafe for the time being, meaning I wouldn’t find strangers nosing around in there.

Burned buildings were being torn down where there wasn’t any hope of salvaging them, and small crews of people with the necessary skills were working to assess what could be recovered, assigning simple tasks to people who didn’t have the training or know-how.  Massive tarps were going up over roofs and being tied down.

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fantastic, but it was something.  My bugs noted a hundred and seventy people at work, one-seventy-four if I included the kids here.

One-eighty-four, I realized I’d nearly missed a crew that was working beneath the streets.  The numbers were growing.

It was a little intimidating.  I didn’t have any particular training or talents that really equipped me for a leadership position.  Now I was in charge of this many people.

Well, I’d do what I could.  Supply what they needed, keep an eye on things.

“Your name?” I asked one of the oldest kids.

“Guy.”

“Sierra didn’t have anything for you to do?”

“We’re waiting until Char comes back,” he said, pronouncing it ‘shar’. “She said she was going to put us in charge of some younger kids, then have us run water out to the people working.”

“Good.  For now, you can run an errand for me.  Head out the door, turn right, go two blocks.  There’ll be an open manhole with a cordon around it.”

“A what?”

“Tape and warning signs.  Ignore the warnings, just go to the manhole cover and shout down at them, tell them to get back to work.  I know they’re just sitting in the dark and drinking.  And tell them no power tools, now.  Not if they’ve got alcohol on their breath.”

“Okay.  If they don’t listen to me?”

“I’ll take care of that,” I told him.

He ran off.

“Big bad supervillain, giving orders to little kids,” Bryce commented.

Why did people insist on testing me?  Was it something about being in charge that demanded that they try to establish their dominance?  Did people like Bryce have a natural propensity for bucking authority, with me as the only clear target?  Or was it more that they were angry in general?

Either way, what did that mean for this city in the long run, if anyone who tried to change things for the better was facing this sort of resistance.

“I’m giving orders to everyone.  Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.”

“To be more specific, you’re having my sister give orders to everyone while you go out and get yourself injured in fights with other capes.”

“Don’t you dare,” Sierra said, stalking back into the room.  She put down a plastic tote of medical supplies.  She sounded angry.  And scared?  “Do not pick a fight with my boss.”

“I’m just saying-”

“Don’t.  Don’t ‘just say’ anything.  If nothing else, she saved your life.”

“I wouldn’t have needed saving if she hadn’t been there,” Bryce said.  He gave me a look that was just short of a glare.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sierra said.  “You were with the Merchants.”

“And things were cool.  Party all day, relax, had a girlfriend.  If she’d left things alone, I’d be okay.”

“I’m surprised Tattletale didn’t mention it,” I said.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine eradicated the Merchants.  Barely one in twenty survived.  The ones that are left are scattered across the city.  If you’d stayed with them, you’d be dead.”

“She did mention it.  But I would have made it.”

Cocky.  “Then you’d be starving to death, dirty, probably sick.  Going through withdrawal, maybe.  Don’t know what you were taking with them.”

He scowled, glancing at his sister.  “None of your business.”

“Hey!”  Sierra raised her voice.  She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, and he slapped her hand away.  She stabbed a finger into his chest, “Treat her with respect, damn it!”

Again, that note of fear.

“I treat people with respect if they deserve it.”

“She does.  She’s saved us, here.  That’s big.”

“Wouldn’t need saving if it wasn’t for the people with powers being around here in the first place.”

He wasn’t wrong.  As validating as it was for Sierra to stick up for me, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt at the idea that these circumstances were because of capes.  Hell, if I hadn’t provoked the Nine by humiliating Mannequin then this district wouldn’t have come under fire by Burnscar.  There was Dolltown too, and my complicity there.  I was personally at fault when it came to some of the damage that had been done across the city.

“You want a better reason?” she asked.  She stepped close and pulled him down to hiss words in his ear.  She wasn’t being as quiet as she seemed to think she was, trying to hide her words from me and the kids.  “…they attacked me and Char… mauled them…  Mannequin…

I shifted positions, and Sierra must have seen it, because she lowered her voice to an inaudible hush as she finished.

Rattling off a list of the things she’d seen me do.  Reasons that gave her cause to be spooked if her brother was mouthing off to me.

When we’d met, Sierra had commented that I wasn’t what she’d expected from a supervillain.  Somewhere along the line, I’d painted a different picture.  She clearly had no trouble with me on a day-to-day basis, but she also knew that when I was pushed… well, I’d gone easy on the three ABB members that had attacked her and Charlotte, but that was only in a matter of speaking.  I’d still left them fleeing in mortal terror.

Bryce looked at me and I could see him give me a once-over glance, as if assessing me in a new light.

“Go help Brooks,” I told him.  “I’ll direct you to him with my swarm.”

It took him a second to weigh whether he wanted to or not, but he did turn and step out the front door, following the thin trail of bugs that I was gathering between him and the warehouse we were keeping supplies.

“Want me to go, too?” Sierra asked.

“Your choice.  Might be better to give him space.”

“I keep having to do that.  When do we start being a family again?”

I’m not the person to answer that question.

“If you decide to leave him be, I could use a hand collecting some things so I can make effective use of my time.”

“Okay,” she said.  She seemed to pull herself together a bit.  “What do you need?”

“My laptop from my room, and the surveillance stuff from the cellar.  There’s another set of surveillance gear in the bag beneath the shelves.”

Sierra hurried off to gather the equipment.

The ensuing minutes were a little disorganized, as Bryce and Brooks both arrived with the last of the medical equipment.

“Blood type?”

“AB.”

He took one bag of blood out of the box and placed it on the counter.  “Want to do this in your room?”

“I have an armchair on the second floor I could sit in.”

“Need you reclining.”

“I have somewhere to be tonight,” I told him.  Though this would be something of an excuse to avoid the kill.  “Don’t put me under.”

“This is going to hurt.”

I had another reason for not wanting to be put under.  I wanted to keep an eye on him.  My conversation with Tattletale had suggested he wasn’t a threat, but I’d feel a heck of a lot better if I could verify that for myself.

“Do you have local anesthetic?” I asked.

“Yes.”  He tapped one finger on a tiny bottle.  Lidocaine.  I recognized the name.  “But will not prevent all pain.  I do not want to use too much.”

“We’ll try that, then.”

We headed up to the second level and I settled into my chair.  For additional lighting, I had my ‘switch beetle’ flick the concealed switch that was contained in his terrarium.  They lit up as I settled in.

Brooks hooked up the blood bag but left the tube hanging, unconnected.  Other supplies were arranged on the table he’d had Bryce bring up.  He seemed very particular about the order and what was being kept

“For a field medic you seem pretty well versed in this stuff.”

“Worked in many hospitals,” he replied.  “Many places.  Often with less than this.  Sometimes with more.”

“Okay.”

“We will have to dislocate your shoulder to access the inside of shoulder socket.”

“Okay.”

“You will take muscle relaxant to minimize damage from dislocation.  You will need to exercise arm to prevent more dislocations.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, the possibility that it was actually poison, but the muscle relaxant came from the bottle, and they had the brand logo etched into them.  One potential danger averted.  No way he’d arranged it this quickly.

“I can do that.”  I took the pills with a swig from the offered bottle of water.

Sierra arrived with the laptop and a large bag.  She handed me the laptop and then plugged it in beneath one of the lower shelves.  I balanced it on my armrest, turning sideways so I was sitting with my bad shoulder facing out front, my legs curled around me for as much stability as I could hope for.  Sierra began arranging towels and plastic cloth around the chair.

“This would be easier if you just lay down,” Bryce said.  I saw Sierra scowl at him.

“It is fine,” Brooks said.  He lifted my arm and let it flop back down.  I tried not to react to the pain that elicited.  “Only one that suffers is her.”

“Ever a charmer, Brooks,” I commented, but my attention was on the laptop.  I used the switch beetle to open all of the terrariums, and withdrew collections of spiders, dragonflies, large moths and roaches.

“They should not touch chair,” Brooks said.  “Or anything on table.  Must keep everything as sterile as we can.”

“I know,” I said.

I gathered the components from the bag, using my bugs to draw them out and airlift the miniature cameras, microphones and transmitters into the air.  One by one, I turned them on and used the laptop to connect to them.  I used my free hand to click through each camera in turn, making their feeds the focus of the main window.

Using my bugs, I drew forms around each, vaguely humanoid.  It wasn’t as intuitive as I was forced to use my own eyes to assess the accuracy.  Still, I managed to rearrange each until they vaguely resembled me.  I marched them down the stairs.

“Outside end first,” Brooks said, starting up the rotary saw.

Not my favorite sound.  And the sensation of it sawing at the metal, it brought back even more unpleasant memories.  Being on my back, Bonesaw trying to cut a hole through my skull…

I shivered.

“Don’t move,” Brooks said.

I focused on my swarm-clones, staying totally still while he worked on removing the metal end of the dart.  They were largely composed of flying bugs, but I was bulking each of the forms out as more bugs arrived, giving them a more solid mass.  I used my free hand to pop my ear-buds in.

I felt bad about leaving my territory as often as I had been.  People were spooked, scared and insecure.  Having a leadership figure that was never around wasn’t helping matters.

This would, I hoped, establish a kind of presence that had been lacking.

Sierra had been coordinating everyone, trying to put people with experience in charge of people who were lacking it.  It was interesting, trying to hold multiple conversations at once with the various project leaders.  Difficult, too.  For one thing, my speech with my swarms was somewhat lacking, missing consonants, but I could still make myself more or less understood.  For another, my ears could only process one thing at a time.  I managed by talking with one or more swarm-clone while listening with one at a time.  After too many misfires and moments of confusion, I scaled down my efforts to a single conversation at once, simply standing silently by with my other selves.

I made a mental note to try to practice with that.  Exercising the range of my power hadn’t done anything for me, and there didn’t seem to be any upper limits to how many bugs I could control at once, but there had to be other ways I could train my abilities.  Multitasking was one I hadn’t tried yet.  Trying to interpret the senses of my bugs was another, though I feared it would take a more concerted effort to effect any sort of change.

When Charlotte returned, I was in the middle of helping a foreman with the layout of a building, using spiders to draw out a loose web in the general shape of the planned shelter, lifting bits of wood to make the lines more visible from a distance.  I adjusted the threads as required to meet his needs.  Charlotte climbed out of a truck with five more of my people and made a beeline to my swarm-clone.  One hundred and ninety people working for me.

Word was apparently getting out about this being a safe haven.

My conversation with her was delayed as Brooks enlisted Bryce in twisting and pulling on my arm while Brooks held my neck and torso.  Bryce drove his elbow against my shoulder while it was being twisted to its absolute limits, effectively knocking my arm out of its socket.

I managed to avoid making any noise beyond a guttural grunt, then took a few seconds to try to avoid blacking out from the pain.

As heavily as I was breathing, back in my lair, my swarm-people didn’t show any sign.  I focused the whole of my attention on them, as if I could remove my consciousness from my real body.

“Any problems?”  I asked Charlotte, once I’d recovered enough to pay attention.  Glancing at my shoulder, I could see Brooks making an incision in the skin of my shoulder.  He’d managed to open the tear in my costume.  I hadn’t been paying attention to how.  I deliberately looked away as Brooks tried to forge a path  to the inside of my shoulder socket.

“Not sure,” Charlotte said.  “Have a look.”

It was Parian.  I’d been so focused on my shoulder, the three-dimensional web-blueprint and my swarm-selves that I hadn’t noticed her getting out of the truck.

“You didn’t leave,” I said, when she’d joined Charlotte and my swarm-clone.

“I didn’t think the money would be real,” she responded.

“Of course it was.”

“It’s… it was a lot of money.  Very generous.  But we were talking about it, and split between us, it’s not enough to give everyone all the care they need.  I told them to go ahead, that I didn’t need a share.”

“Sorry.  I was worried it wouldn’t be enough,” I said.  “Are you saying you want more money?  I might have to say no.  There’s a limit to what I can spare.”

“No!  No.”  She hugged her arms to her body, looking around at the people who were working.  “Just… I thought maybe I should hear you out.”

“Okay,” I responded.

“Except it’s not really you?”

My clone shook her head.

“Can I talk with the real you?”

“I’m in my lair, and I’m preoccupied.  You’ll understand if I don’t reveal the location, given who your friends are?”

“Yeah,” she said.  She was still looking around, watching as a group moved by, pushing wheelbarrows of burned wood.  “I… I was telling myself that there was no point to taking your offer, that I could use my power and make more money legitimately.  But that’s not true at all, is it?”

“Walk with me?” I asked.

She nodded.

I led the way through my territory with my clone as I talked.  “Crime does pay.  I made the offer to you because I thought it would be the best way to get your Dolltown residents the money they needed to get their old lives back.  Or get as close to their old lives as possible.”

“I kind of hate you,” she said.

“Why?”

“You’re making it out like I’m a bad person because I won’t betray Flechette and my own moral code to help them.”

“I don’t blame you for your decision.  I don’t think any less of you.”

“But you wouldn’t make the choice I’m making.”

“No.  I didn’t.”

“And you’ve done more to help my people than I have.”

“You’ve protected them to the best of your ability through this city’s darkest hours.”

“You really think we’re past that?  The bad days?”

“Yes.”

I winced as the grinding resumed, this time inside my shoulder socket.  A makeshift rigging inside the cavity caught the metal shavings, while Bryce held the tube to suction the metal shavings out.  So far, no assassination attempts.  Good.

“I don’t know what to do,” Parian admitted.  “This is… seeing it makes me wish I’d done something like it.”

“I’m not going to push you towards one choice or another.”

“I know.  You made that clear when you gave me the money with no strings attached.”

“Look,” I said.  “I know Flechette was saying my perspective is warped, but I think the system… you know, society, it’s like a series of rules and expectations that we established under some general expectations.  But recent events have made it pretty clear that those expectations, those assumptions, they might not apply.”

“Because of us?  Capes?”

“Yeah.  At the end of the day, barring some extreme examples like powerful dictators, there’s always the fact that any bad person who doesn’t have powers can be killed with a gun, a knife, or even a good punch in the right place.  That’s not the case with us parahumans.  The balance of power is pretty damned off-kilter.  Things aren’t fair.”

“Are you making that imbalance better or worse?”

“I’m… addressing the problem.  I’m saying there’s no point to trying to hold on to the old status quo when it’s based on a foundation that no longer exists.”

“So you’re going to take over the city.”

“Yes.  Because at least for right now, I can give these people what they need.”

I moved my clone’s ‘head’ and followed a group of kids who were running away from my lair, carrying six-packs of water bottles.

“And later?”

“I don’t know.”

We walked in silence, past a bonfire where scrap wood was being burned.  Brooks and Bryce, meanwhile, set to shoving my arm back into its socket.  All of the ambient pain disappeared in an instant.

Parian needed the money, she needed the assurance that she could help the people she’d failed.  I understood that.

“I can offer you one last compromise,” I said.

“What?”

“I can’t guarantee it’ll work, I can’t say if anyone else will accept the proposal, and I don’t know what’s going to happen long-term, but we don’t have to call you a member of our team.  We don’t have to call you a villain.”

“But I’d take territory for myself anyways?”

“Yes.”

“Others would call me a villain, just because I wasn’t fighting you guys.  They’d know I was cooperating with you.”

“Not necessarily.  Maybe the people in charge, the Protectorate and Wards, maybe they’d understand it, but the people on the ground level wouldn’t.”

“The media would out me.”

“I think we control the media.  Or enough to throw some doubt into the mix.  The rules are pretty simple.  You take territory, you hold it, and you ensure that there’s no crime or parahumans operating there without your consent.”

“And Flechette-”

“I don’t know her.  I can’t say how she’ll react, but maybe if you explain nicely, maybe if you frame it right, you could convince her it’s for the greater good.  So long as she convinced the other heroes to leave your territory alone, let you enforce the law there all by yourself, you wouldn’t have to fight them.”

“And if she didn’t-”

“That’s up to her.  Or you.”

She stared around my territory.  It wasn’t pretty, there was still devastation everywhere, but things were getting better.  It was maybe the only place in the city where things were improving as fast as they were.  We weren’t taking two steps forward and one step back.  It was all forward momentum.  Not even a week had passed, admittedly, but it was progress.  And it was apparent.

“I don’t think I could accept if Flechette doesn’t agree.”

“Okay.”  The alternative was unspoken.  If she does

“I hate you,” Parian said, and it was answer enough.

Brooks was finishing stitching up the incision in my shoulder.  I already had two pieces of scrap spider silk at the ready – one to cover the hole in my costume and another to serve as a sling until my shoulder was stronger.  If I adjusted my cape, I could cover the arm so the injury wasn’t too obvious.  I stood from the chair and stretched, then reached for my cell phone.

“I can live with that,” I told her, speaking through my swarm-clone.  I clicked through my contact list and called the man who was plotting to kill me.

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Colony 15.6

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Not my brightest move, I had to admit.  The problem with acting like I was tough enough to shrug off an attack from a knife wielder was that the illusion failed pretty damn hard when I actually got stabbed.

I’d been relying too much on my costume.

“If I see a single bug, I’ll be forced to use this,” Flechette said, angling the spike of metal in her hand so I could see it better.

“Isn’t that going too far?” Parian asked, her voice small.

“No,” Flechette said.  Her hand was still poised to strike the second I moved.

“She was just talking.”

“She just talked to Panacea, if you remember.  And I told you before, the last time Glory Girl was seen was in her company.  I’ve explained what happened after that.”

“You think she did it?”

Did what?

“I think the thinker-seven on her team might have.  Running theory is that Tattletale has a clairvoyance that lets her see weak points.  Finds the points to attack in people, security systems, patrol routes, reverse-engineers the results to get general information.”

Okay, she’d hit the key points, but sort of got it backwards.

“That was Jack,” I said.  “Jack was the one who got to Amy.”

“Occam’s razor.  Most likely answer is often the correct one.  Or something like that,” Flechette said,  “Is it going to be Jack, who has powers we already know?  Or is it going to be Tattletale, who has set down more than enough precedent for that kind of behavior and a still-unknown power?  It fits what your group’s trying to do, taking over the city for yourselves.  And I should point out that records do seem to point to people being left devastated or ruined wherever you go.  Panacea, Armsmaster, the Slaughterhouse Nine-”

“You’re complaining about us taking out the Nine?  And that wasn’t all us.  It wasn’t even mostly us.  That was everything going to hell and people with issues getting pushed past their limits.  We were only involved because we’ve tried to help every step of the way.”

“You think she was going to do to me what she did to Glory Girl and Panacea?” Parian asked.

“I’d say the possibility exists,” Flechette said. “And that’s reason enough to be very careful.”

Damn this.  “I’m not trying to fucking corrupt or psychologically traumatize Parian.  Or anyone else!  Yes, we’re trying to take over the city.  Yes, we’re currently working on eliminating the competition-”

“Mm,” Flechette murmured, her expression hard.

“But that’s not why I’m here, not exactly.  It serves our goals just as well if I recruit Parian.  It’s one person out of the way, and it gives us a way to help people who need it.”

“So you say.”

Fuck, I hate it when people do that.  ‘Everything you say is a lie, including any protests or arguments over the fact that you’re a liar.'”

There was a crash, further away than the last.  Ballistic had headed in a different direction.  For the moment, at least, we were out of harm’s way.

“You’re sort of well-known in the community for being deceptive and underhanded.”

“Because of what Armsmaster said at the hospital?”

“In part.”

“Is nobody paying attention to the fact that he was seriously bent in the head?  To the point that the Slaughterhouse Nine thought he was a good candidate for their group?”

“Mannequin targeted Armsmaster to mess with him.  It’s his M.O..  He goes out of his way to attack and ruin tinkers and other individuals who could do something for society.”

“I love how the so-called ‘good’ guys get to revise events to make stuff more convenient for them.”

“It’s a perk.  People tend to trust your version of events when you’re doing what’s right,” Flechette said.  The spike she gripped between two fingers tapped against my throat, but didn’t pierce the fabric.  She wasn’t using her power or she could have killed me.

“You’re implying that you guys are doing what’s ‘right’ that much more often than we are.”

“That should be obvious.”

“And you really believe that?”

“Have to.”

“Do you know why Armsmaster was arrested?”

“He wasn’t.”

“Unofficially arrested, then.  Do you know why he was cooped up in the local PRT headquarters, with no official title or role?”

“He was in therapy for his injury.  He lost an arm.”

“I know.  I was there when Leviathan tore it out of the socket.  I applied pressure to the wound to try to stop the blood loss.  But that’s not why they locked him up.  They could have given him an administrative position if it was just an injury, and they didn’t.”

“Maybe they did.  It’s not like either of us were there when the decisions were made.”

“With no job title?  They didn’t list one for him, and with the state of the city, they could have leveraged his reputation alone to boost morale, just by saying Armsmaster was in charge of the local task-forces.”

“There’s emotional stress with permanent injuries, too.”

“Plenty of people under just as much stress, if not more, after the Endbringer hit.  But I’ll admit your perspective’s better than mine,” I said, looking up at her.  “You joined the Wards just in time to see the aftermath of Gallant and Aegis dying.  How did they handle that?  If the PRT was that accommodating with Armsmaster, I’m sure they arranged for therapy and time off for all the Wards.”

“Yes to therapy,” she said.  “No to the time off.  Too much to take care of.”

“Oh?” I asked.  I hadn’t honestly expected them to enforce and allow for therapy.  It threw me off my stride.

“Why are you so surprised?  And where is this coming from?  Tattletale feed you this information?”

“Only some of the general details, like what Armsmaster was up to.  The bit about the PRT dropping the ball in taking care of you guys was mainly drawn from past experience.”

“But they didn’t.”

“Flechette,” Parian spoke up, “Weren’t you saying it was Weld who pushed for the therapy?”

Flechette shot her a look, as if she were thinking, Whose side are you on?

“Wards taking care of Wards,” I said.  “Okay, I think my argument stands.  No reason to suggest that Armsmaster was being coddled to that degree for any emotional or mental distress he went through.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I’m saying he was arrested.  Off the books.  And there aren’t really any reasonable explanations to the contrary.  People are still taking his word on events, taking his word on me, but he was as fucked up as any of us.”

“Given the choice, I’m going to take his word over yours, sorry.”

“That’s what I’m saying is screwed up!”  I hissed the last two words.  “Why?  Because of the label he chose to identify by?  He calls himself a hero and he gets more credit?”

“Because he put in a good fifteen years of hard work to improve this city, and because I think your perspective’s warped.”

Everyone has a screwed up perspective!  Especially here, especially now, with the way this city is.  My perspective’s fucked up because everyone I was supposed to rely on dropped the ball, and the only people I could count on were crooks!  Panacea got warped because her parents let her down, because nobody ever sat down and talked to her about who her dad was.  So she convinced herself that she was doomed to follow in his footsteps.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was there!  I, we, tried to help.  But she’s never had someone talk to her, so she didn’t know how to listen to us.  Which is probably a blessing in disguise, because she didn’t listen to Jack or Bonesaw either.”

Flechette gave me a funny look.  Her eyes were vague shadows behind her visor, but I could see one distort in size as she raised an eyebrow.

“What?”  I asked.  Something about Panacea and Glory Girl?  She’d said something earlier too.

She spoke, interrupting my thoughts before I could frame them into a question.  “Nothing.  I guess you’re going to tell me you tried to help Armsmaster too?”

“No.  I turned to him for help, and he tried to screw me over.  I joined the Undersiders to give him the details he wanted on their powers and methods and he not only hung me out to dry, but he tried to kill me.  He did kill Kaiser and Fenja, nearly killed Kid Win by accident, and there were others there too.  All for his own personal glory.  Because he had some kind of crazy tunnel-vision when it came to his personal ambition and successes.”

Flechette frowned.

I took the chance to hammer my point home.  “He knew I was just an undercover agent, but he thought my death and the casual sacrifices of the others who had chosen to risk their lives to stop Leviathan were worth getting a personal shot at killing Leviathan one on one.”

“What?” Parian asked.  “Seriously?  Doesn’t that violate the deal with-”

“Yes,” Flechette cut her off.  “Yes it would.”

I shrugged, looking at Flechette, Parian and the Dolltown residents.  “Probably going to get in trouble for revealing that, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what to do with that information.  I’m already a priority target anyways, pretty much, what with our intended takeover of the city.”

“You seem to be missing the point that you’re under arrest right now,” Flechette spoke.

I sighed.  “And nothing I say is getting through.”

“It’s exactly what I was talking about before, you’re just using information Tattletale fed you to try to screw with my head, fill me with doubts and paranoia.”

“And how would I know you’d be here?  I’d have to get the information from her in advance, remember?”

“Tattletale told you I’d be here.”

Okay, that’s admittedly possible.

“So your interpretation of events is that I knew you were here, I came prepared with all this made up information on Armsmaster to mess with you, and I just let you stab me?”

As if mentioning it reminded my brain, I could feel the pain radiating from my shoulder.  At least she’d left the spike in there.  It seemed even better at preventing the bleeding than I’d guessed it would be.  A snug fit?  I wouldn’t bleed to death in the next ten minutes.

She didn’t venture a response.

“Flechette, if you don’t believe me, you can look at the armband Dragon gave us for the fight against Leviathan.  Armsmaster fried it with an EMP to keep me from broadcasting Leviathan’s location to anyone, and then he moved in only after he’d thought Leviathan had killed me.  It’s on top of a ceiling panel in the shelter on Slater street.  Women’s bathroom, above the middle toilet.  I couldn’t keep it in case Dragon used it to track me down, but you can go grab it if she hasn’t sent someone already.  Get a tinker you trust to look at it.”

“The results could be fabricated.”

“Tell your tinker that.  He’ll keep it in mind, and he can tell you the likelihood of it being something I’m doing to frame Armsmaster versus it being Armsmaster’s work.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m trying to convince you that ‘right’ isn’t the exclusive property of the good guys, just like ‘wrong’ isn’t wholly on our side of the fence.  Armsmaster’s sense of ‘good’ was purely what was good for his own interests.  I’m trying to do the right thing more often than not, believe it or not, or I’m doing the wrong things for the right reasons.”

“And which were you doing here, trying to recruit Parian?”

I glanced at Parian, “I don’t know yet.  Thinking it’s more the latter.”

There was a rumble as Ballistic knocked over a building somewhere a distance away.

“We don’t need your help,” Flechette said.

“Don’t you?  I don’t know why you’re wearing that getup, but I’m assuming those other people are because of what Bonesaw did.”

I could see the people in the concealing costumes shifting uncomfortably.

“Why I’m in this costume isn’t any of your business.  I’m here to help.”

“I can help more.  I can get them medical attention, start reversing what the Slaughterhouse Nine did to them.”

Parian spoke, her voice quiet, “So you’re asking me to choose between being loyal to a friend who’s helped me, comforted me and kept me sane these past few weeks, or selling my soul for the… supposed greater good.”

“Saying you’d be selling your soul is a bit overdramatic,” I said.

“I’m an artist, I’m dramatic by nature.”

“Then let me make an emotional appeal.  Come to my territory.  Let me show you what I’m doing there, and what I want to help you do for your people.”

“You’ll just take the advantage of the situation to escape,” Flechette said.

“I don’t really think you can keep me,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.

“We’ll see,” she responded.

I sent a command to Atlas.

“Easiest option is that I send a message to Ballistic.  I really don’t want to do that, because it’s going to get people hurt or killed.”

“His files say he doesn’t kill,” she responded.

“With his power?  It’s easy to accidentally go too far.  Combine that with the sheer danger your own power presents?  It’s like playing tag with guns.  Not saying I don’t respect your power, with the damage you did to Leviathan, but he can escalate harder and faster than you.  If you two get in a shootout, someone’s going to get hurt.”

As if to punctuate my statement, there was a sound of a building collapsing nearby.

“Well then,” Flechette said.  She adjusted her grip on the spike of metal that she held between her fingers.  A dart.  She poked it through the armor of my wrist.  When I tried to move my arm, it was fixed to the ground.  “I guess I’ll come back for you later, after Ballistic’s left.”

“Undo it, release me,” I said, pulling harder.

“No.  And stop struggling.  Unless you can tear that costume, you’re not going to pull free.  It’s bonded.”

“You’re making a mistake,” I growled.  “I’m only trying to help.”

“And I’m doing my job.  I get that maybe your intentions are good, but I’m obligated to take you in, especially now that I’ve heard your confession of intent to seize the city.”

“How many wrongs have been done by people who were ‘just following orders’?” I asked.

I directed Atlas in through an open window.  Every set of eyes was on Flechette and I, which made it easy for him to slip into the room.  My bugs had identified tripwires Parian had set, and navigating Atlas around them wasn’t too hard.

“Stop it!”  Parian cried.  For a second, I thought it had to do with Atlas, but her shout followed within a second of my question to Flechette.

Flechette looked like she’d been slapped.  I stopped Atlas where he was, poised a few feet behind Parian.  I folded his scythe-like claws down and out of the way.

“Skitter… if we let you go, do you promise not to attack or interfere under any circumstance?”

“Parian?”  Flechette asked.  She sounded almost hurt.

“It depends, are you going to go confront Ballistic?”

“Honestly?  Yes.  You said he’d keep coming until he took us out.”

I frowned, but they couldn’t see that behind my mask.  Ballistic was angry, he was dangerous, and there was little to nothing tying him to Coil’s service, outside of some vague sense of duty.

“Are you going to arrest him?” I asked.

“No,” Parian responded, at the same time Flechette said, “Yes.”

“We could scare him off,” Parian said.  “Beat him up a little.”

“And he’d bring in the other Travelers and Undersiders to wipe us out,” Flechette said.

Parian looked at me, “He wouldn’t, would he?”

I nodded, “He would.”

Parian sagged, dropping into a sitting position.  Flechette turned to look at her and froze.  “What the hell is that?”

She’d seen Atlas.

“I brought him in here as insurance,” I said.  “I was thinking about taking Parian hostage if you went ahead with my arrest, but she started being reasonable and I told him to back down.”

“What is he?”

“Panacea made him for me, for fighting the Nine.  Just a big beetle with sharp claws.”

That’s what you were using to fly around, when we were fighting the Nine?”

I nodded.

“Creepy.”

“Look,” I said, seeing a chance to regain control of the conversation.  “I’ll extend my offer a third time.  Join us, Parian.  We’re not as scary or as bad as we look at first glance.  You’ll see that if you check out my territory.  I’m not threatening you or extorting this out of you.  You can say no-”

“Because I have a weapon at your throat,” Flechette said.

“Because it’s her call,” I said, my voice firm.  “Because I really do think she’ll be safer overall.”

“From those people who ‘aren’t as scary or bad at first glance’,” Flechette said.

“From all the other capes and unpowered individuals who would prey on her and her people.”

“I can’t,” Parian said.  “No.  I have to turn down your offer.”

I sighed.  Damn.  Damn, damn, damn.  “Can I ask why?”

“Flechette’s done too much to help me, to help us, for me to turn around and become her enemy.  Even if it’s for the greater good.  And maybe they won’t forgive me for it, but I can’t agree to short-term gains, to giving them some medical care and reconstructive surgery now, in exchange for becoming a criminal for the rest of my life.”

“What if this was temporary?”  Can’t reveal too much.  Can’t let them know Coil’s reign ends soon, if everything goes according to plan.

“I’d still carry the label, wouldn’t I?  Maybe I don’t agree with everything Flechette said, but I do agree that just calling myself a villain, even for a short time, it wouldn’t be something I could shake so easily.  We’ll find another way.  I can use my power to make money, I’ll heal them.  I’ll make up for failing to protect them.”

A woman with a cloth hood covering everything but one eye reached out and put a hand on Parian’s shoulder, squeezed.

She felt the same kind of responsibility for her people that I did for mine.  The realization made me all the more disappointed that she’d said no.

“Okay,” I said.  “Flechette, I’m going to reach behind my back.  I’m not drawing a weapon.”

“No,” she said, “Whatever deals Parian is making, they don’t change the fact that you’re under arrest.  I have to do my job, and with the Nine gone, your faction is a priority.  Especially with your suspected involvement in the incident with Glory Girl and Panacea.”

I frowned.  I needed another option.  My armor was loaded down with bugs, and that included the compartment.  I could feel what I needed.  It was just a question of getting it free.

Spiders drew silk around the object in question, then made their way across my shoulder and up the back of my arm, braiding the threads together as they went and hooking them against the edges of my armor to get traction in the right areas.  They reached my hand and encircled one finger.

I twitched that finger and tugged the thread.  Another, harder pull, and it came free.   My bugs muffled the sound of the object hitting ground.

“What was that?” Flechette asked.

As a mass, they carried the object into plain view.  My cell phone.

“You make the call, so you know I’m not trying something,” I said.

Flechette frowned.  “There’s no reason.”

“There’s a great reason, but I don’t think you’ll believe me if we don’t do things my way.  Password to unlock the phone is seven-two-eight-one.”

She picked up the phone and threw it over her shoulder at Parian.  Parian caught it.

“Me?”

“I’m keeping my attention on Skitter.  Don’t forget to watch that beetle of hers while you’re making the call.”

Parian nodded, too quickly.  “What was that number?”

“Seven-two-eight-one.”

“Okay.”

“Go to the contact list.”

“It’s all gibberish.  Symbols and numbers and stuff.”

“It’s a code.  First number that starts with heart-star-colon.”

“Okay.  It’s ringing.  Should I put it on speaker phone?”

“No,” Flechette said.

“Tell her you’re speaking on behalf of Skitter,” I said.

Parian nodded.  “Um.  Hi?  I’m speaking for Skitter.”

“Tell her-”

“She just said, um, Emerald-S.”

“Tell her Celery-A.”

“Celery-A.  Okay.”

“Upstairs, beneath the workbench, to the bottom-left of the painting, there’s a panel.  Tell her to remove it.”

Parian relayed the instructions.  There was a pause of no less than two minutes before she said,  “The girl on the other end says there’s a safe.”

“Six-one-one,” I paused to let Parian relay the numbers, “Two-zero-three… one-zero-zero… six-six-three.”

“It’s open.  She says there’s stacks of money?”

“Tell her to gather two hundred thousand dollars from the safe, pick five people who need a break from work, C included.  Only C should know about it, I don’t want the others to get greedy.  They can pack it into a truck, head north and meet you just before the ramp where Lord Street turns on to the ninety-five.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Leave this city, Parian.  There’s nothing good left here anymore.  That money’s yours.  Use it to heal and help the friends and family you still have left.  Get out of here, use the money to get yourselves settled, get some therapy for everything you’ve been through, and go pursue that career in fashion you said you wanted.”

Why?”

“There’s been too much ugliness here.  There’s bound to be more.  I… I guess I have the money, and you need it.  And I guess I feel complicit in what happened.  The Nine did what they did to Dolltown because we’d forced them into a corner.  Maybe they would have attacked anyways, they were headed your way.  I don’t know, but let me do this.  Let me… I don’t know.  Saying ‘clear my conscience’ sounds naive.”

“And to get this money, I have to leave this city?” Parian asked.  She looked stunned.

“Consider it a strong encouragement.  In the end, it’s your choice.  I’d appreciate it if you kept quiet about my role in your leaving, and about me giving you the money.  I think the Undersiders would understand, for the most part, but the Travelers might take issue with my interference.”

She didn’t have a reply.  I glanced at Flechette but I didn’t see anything in her expression.

“My employee is still on the phone,” I reminded her.

“Oh.  Um.  What was I supposed to say, again?”

I repeated the message.

While Parian relayed it, Flechette commented, “That’s a lot of money to be giving away.”

“I have more.”  I did.  The amount I was giving Parian amounted to a little less than a third of my current holdings.  The bank account Coil had assigned to me seemed to be growing in alternating stutters and huge bounds.  The benefit of having a bank account that was managed by a guy who called himself ‘the Number Man’, I supposed.

“Lucrative job you have there.”

I didn’t reply.  It was just enough money that it’d be just a little tight to manage in the immediate future, but I felt like it wouldn’t be meaningful if it didn’t inconvenience me somehow.

“Okay,” Parian said.  “She said they’ll be waiting.”

“My territory is closer to the destination than you are.  You should leave sooner than later.”

She nodded.

“This isn’t some trick?” Flechette asked.  “Some trap you pre-arranged with those code words?”

“The code was just to inform her everything was fine.  No trap.  But I think you’ll want to accompany her and the others, just to make sure they arrive safely.  There’s still dangerous people on these streets.”

Would she tell me Parian could handle herself?

Flechette turned to look at Parian, apparently considering the same thing.  “You play dirty, Skitter.”

“All things considered, I think I’ve been exceedingly fair.”

“I can’t guard her and keep an eye on you at the same time.”

“That was the idea.”

“I could nail you down to the ground.  Wouldn’t even be hard.  You’d have to tear your costume to shreds and run back to your territory in whatever you’re wearing underneath that.”

“You could.”  I didn’t point out that if she did do that, I wouldn’t have a chance of tearing my costume.

“I still think you have a warped perspective on things.  I don’t think you’re right.”

“I told you where the armband is.  Slater street, women’s toilets, on top of the ceiling panel above the second of the three toilets.  If Dragon hasn’t tracked and removed it.”

“Right.”

“Good luck,” I told her.  “Whatever happens.”

“We’re on opposing sides, you know?  The next time we meet, we’ll be fighting.”

“Doesn’t mean I wish you badly.”

“Right.”

She didn’t free my armor from the floor, but she stood and joined Parian, who was already walking away.  I heard her murmuring, “…to New York City.  I’ll be finished here in two weeks…”

And then they were out of earshot.  There was the sound of Ballistic continuing his rampage, tearing Dolltown to the ground.

Maybe it was good if this place was leveled to the ground.  I wasn’t superstitious, I wasn’t religious, but with what the Nine had done here, even their relatively short visit to this area, it felt darker.  Wrong.  There was too much death and sadness that had occurred here.

Was that true of the city as well?  Was it better just to raze it to the ground and start anew?

I reached over slowly, wincing at the coarse sensation of metal dragging against bone and the red-hot pain of my own tearing flesh..  The movement in my shoulder had shifted the metal spike Flechette had embedded there, pulling sideways against the hole it had punched in my shoulder. I could see the blood welling out, running down into the fabric of my costume.  Once I had my hand in position, I began unstrapping the armor panel from my wrist.

Free to stand, I used my knife and some kicks to get the armor free of the floor.  Rather than pull the spike free of the flooring as I might have with a nail, I wound up pulling out a roughly cone-shaped chunk of wood, the spike and everything it had contacted seeming to have bonded together.  I picked up the armor and tucked it under one arm.

This could have gone worse.  I might have to face some ramifications if the PRT took offense to my bringing up what had happened with Armsmaster, but somehow I felt like I couldn’t have let Flechette stay in the dark.  I just wasn’t sure if that was for my sake or if it was for hers.  The money I’d handed away would hurt, too, but it felt necessary.

I needed medical attention, and I felt like I had to check on my territory after I’d seen Parian’s.  I climbed onto Atlas.  His flight would be smoother and less jarring than walking.

I heard another crash as Ballistic continued tearing through Dolltown.  I could have notified him that Parian was gone, but… no.

Maybe this wanton destruction would give him a chance to vent and find release over whatever it was that was haunting him.

I’d have to get in touch with Trickster and Genesis to arrange our visit with the Mayor for tonight.  I’d have to deal with the threat on my life, whatever form it took.

I didn’t feel afraid.  Anxious?  Yes.  But not terrified, not quivering or panicking.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.  Grue had lamented my lack of survival instincts, not so long ago.  Had recent events worn them down even further?

I shook my head.  I’d have time for introspection later.  For now, I had to plan.

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Colony 15.5

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We fell silent as Regent stepped out of the cell with Victor in tow.

“How’s he handle?” Tattletale asked.

“Like a Mercedes with an invisible, sticky gear shift,” Regent said.

“Care to explain?”

Victor stretched, and said, “Everything moves well, peak condition, but his power doesn’t work so hot with him as a puppet.  Can’t tell what I’m borrowing or who I’m stealing from.  I think I’d need his cooperation-”

Our captive sneered a little.

“-And I don’t think he’s willing to give it,” Regent said.

“So the question is whether we want to take the time to try to convince him or take an indirect route,” Grue said.

“Skitter’s going to have to go in a few minutes, so let’s see what you can do in the here and now?”

“Sure.”  Grue extended a hand and smothered Victor in darkness.  A second later, he said, “I’m getting something.  Anyone here speak another language? Sug puppene til horemammaen din?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You’re getting that from Victor.”

“Can’t really use it.  Now how do I change what I’m stealing?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It could be you’re only picking up the surface stuff.  Here, Regent, try some martial arts forms.”

“Like what?  I don’t know this stuff.”

“Victor does.  You fight using your puppets’ muscle memory, right?  Try moving around, see what clicks and Grue will let you know if we’re accomplishing anything.”

There was a pause.  Victor’s hand briefly flashed out of the cloud of darkness as he shifted positions.

Grue rolled his shoulders some.  “Yeah.  There’s a martial art in there somewhere.  I’m picking something up, but it’s slow.”

Tattletale smiled.  “Take everything you can.  We’ll see what sticks.”

“It’s kind of depressing,” Grue said, settling onto a stool, “I always took some pride in honing my body, training, all that.  This feels like cheating.  Skipping the hard work.”

“You said you never had the time or interest to dedicate yourself to investing in a martial art,” Tattletale pointed out.

“I didn’t.  But that’s not to say I wouldn’t eventually.  A few years down the line, when things are quieter, I can see myself doing that, earning belts and learning to fight.”

“If you don’t want to do this,” Regent said, “I could do something else with my day.”

Grue shook his head.  “No.  It’s fine.  Doesn’t feel quite right, but I’ll be able to do more to help you guys if I can fight better, if I’m more versatile.  And I’m getting another language, again.  Latin, I think.  Get him doing the forms again?”

Regent sighed.

Tattletale frowned, “He’s trying to drag you off course.  Using his brain to bring other stuff to the surface.  Listen, I’m going to see Skitter off, and then I’ll talk to Coil, see if he has anyone who could drug Victor and mess with his mental functions without incapacitating him.”

Drugs, like the ones Coil’s using on Dinah, I thought.  And this would give Tattletale and me a chance to have some words about the hit Coil had put on my head.

I had to wonder why?  I was arguably doing the best among his underlings.  Why was it so hard for him to simply let Dinah go, maybe take countermeasures to ensure she didn’t betray him, and leave things alone?

I wouldn’t be any threat to him if he wasn’t doing something morally reprehensible.

We left Regent and Grue to their task and stepped out of the wing with the cells, venturing onto the metal walkway that overlooked the lower level.  I could see the Travelers at the vault door that kept Noelle contained, as well as the soldiers going about their business.

Which struck me as odd, when I thought about it.

“What’s with the soldiers?” I asked.  “He’s got, what, fifty or sixty here?”

“A little under that, but some are elsewhere.”

“Why?  I get that he was using them before, fighting Empire Eighty-Eight, but what’s he using them for now?  He didn’t send them against the Endbringer, he didn’t use them against the Nine.  I get that he maybe fought off the Merchants and the Chosen when they were thriving, kept them from gaining too much steam, but it seems like a lot of money to spend on soldiers he doesn’t intend to use.”

“Well,” Tattletale said, leaning on the railing.  “One, keeping them employed here means they won’t be hired by someone else.”

“Right.”

“And I think they factor into his plan.  Either as a contingency or a greater aspect of it.”

I nodded.  I would have asked what that plan was, but I didn’t want to say anything that would be too suspicious if overheard.  Not while we were on Coil’s turf, especially.

Tattletale didn’t seem to have those same concerns.  She leaned closer and murmured, “You’ve got two jobs back to back.  That means you’ve got a few things to do.  Number one, if we’ve got a mole in our group and our communications are compromised, that means we need a mole in Coil’s group.  Someone that can inform us about any of Coil’s movements he’s wanting to keep concealed from us.”

“Ballistic?” I asked.

“Mm,” she murmured a response.  “Sound him out.  Be careful about it, but try to get a sense of how tight he is with the rest of the Travelers.  Like Cherish said, Trickster isn’t tight with his team.  See just how un-tight Ballistic is with his boss, and maybe we can make some inroads.”

“Okay.”

“That won’t be easy, because I get the sense he doesn’t like you, and he’s upset you’ve stepped on his toes here.”

I frowned.

“The second thing?  About the possible murder attempt?”  She asked.

“Just a little worried about that.”

“He only decided it as recently as this morning, so anything he’s set up is going to happen later.”

“And you don’t know how he’s going to approach this, or what he’ll do?”

She shook her head.  “All I know is that Coil’s intending for it to happen tonight, probably related to your job with the mayor.”

“And you’re positive on this?”

“It’s one of those things where everything clicks into place perfectly if we acknowledge this one fact: he wants to kill you.  For example, he has more reasons to send Imp than to send Trickster.”

“How’s that work?”

“I’ve already filled Imp in on this, but Coil’s concerned about Grue’s emotional state and what it means for our team as a whole.”

I nodded.  Which means he wants to remove Imp from the picture to see how Grue handles himself.

“So we’re keeping that on the down-low.  I’m not sure when we’ll be able to do it, but I’ve talked with Imp and Regent, and sort of hinted on the subject with Bitch, and we might be looking at making you our team leader.  At least for a little while.”

I snapped my head around to look at her.

“It makes the most sense.  You have the best grip on who’s in play and how to use our abilities.  You think tactically,” she murmured.

“Why not you?”  I asked.  “You have seniority, you have more experience, you can apparently keep track of Imp, and you can identify our enemy’s weaknesses.”

“I’m not sure I have more experience,” Tattletale admitted, “Or at least, my experience doesn’t count for much.  Robbing software companies and casinos doesn’t really compare to going toe to toe with Mannequin.”

“My other points stand.”

“Just because we’re putting you in charge doesn’t mean I can’t still handle that stuff.  If you want to delegate to me at any point, that’s fine.  It’s just a question of who we turn to when we need a spur of the moment decision.”

“I’m not good at those.  I’m only good when I can plan, consider everything that’s at play.”

“I don’t think you give yourself credit.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, you’re good at improvising.”

“With just me, maybe.  Just my own abilities.  I’m not sure I can do that if I’m also worrying about the four of you.”

“We’ll have to see in the field.  Unless you’re really going to argue Grue’s going to be able to hold his own in a high pressure situation?”

I frowned behind my mask and shook my head.

“Of course, discussing this means nothing if you get killed.  Don’t.”

“Easy as that?  Don’t get killed?”

“You’re going into a tricky situation with the most amoral member and the most versatile member of their group.  Keep an eye on everything and try to be unpredictable so they can’t get you in a trap.”

I just had to figure out how to do that with a job this cut and dry.

“Ballistic’s coming,” Tattletale said.  I looked and saw Ballistic ascending the staircase at the far end of the walkway.  It would take him a minute or three to join us.

“Any final tips before I’m left with him?”

“He’s angry.  Coil’s roped in the Travelers by promising to help them with Noelle, but there’s two snags in that which we may be able to use.  For one thing, I don’t know if Coil seriously intends to offer any fix he does find.  For another, Ballistic cares less about that than anyone else.  Or maybe it would be better to say he almost doesn’t want to help with that because Trickster wants it so badly.”

“That sounds like it’s less about team friction and more about sheer enmity.”

“I think they were really good friends once and now they’re distant.”

Well, it wasn’t like I wasn’t unfamiliar with that idea.

“And,” she said, her voice low, “I can tell you the Noelle thing isn’t the only crisis they’re working on handling.  The focus on Noelle is something of a sore point with Ballistic.”

“Vague.  And I can’t really say anything about that without admitting the info came from you.”

“Yeah,” she said.  Then she straightened, turning toward Ballistic.

“That huddle looked like a conspiracy at work,” he commented.  He looked like he’d based his costume off of the capes of a different era, with only some concessions made to fitting in with his team’s color scheme; a costume in black with red patterns on the fabric, heavy on the armor panels and padding, making a big guy look even bigger.  His mask was square, with holes only for the eyes.  Belts and pouches were strapped across his entire body.

“Conspiracy?  Us?”  Tattletale grinned.

“You were whispering about something.”

“Boys,” she said, winking.

“Hm,” he didn’t look impressed.

“No, we really were talking about boys.  About Grue, specifically, and maybe replacing him as leader.”

“Hey,” I said, before I’d processed why she was saying that.  She wanted to earn some measure of trust by volunteering a secret.

She shrugged.  “They’re going to find out eventually.  We’ll have to trust Ballistic to not go running to Coil to tell on us.”

He folded his arms.  “Putting me in a compromising spot?”

“Sure.  You can handle it,” she told him.  She gave me a pat on the shoulder, “I’m going to see about those drugs for Victor.  Good luck to you two.”

“Tell me,” Ballistic said, as Tattletale strolled off, “Do you ever get past that point where you feel painfully uncomfortable around her?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You get over that with time.”

I didn’t add that the discomfort he was describing was largely linked to the number of secrets one was trying to keep from her.  It almost went without saying.

“You’re still insisting on coming along?” he asked.  “You know I can handle this on my own.”

“I don’t doubt that.  But I’m kind of wanting to see this place.”

Why?”

“I’m running my own territory.  Maybe there are ideas I can use.  And I want to see how people are coping in other districts.”

“I’d ask ‘why’ again, but I’m not sure I’d get it.”

“If this city doesn’t get condemned, you’re going to have people moving into your district.  Even after the city’s infrastructure is up and running again, those people are going to put pressure on you for certain things.”

“See, you’re approaching this like a medieval lord, managing her serfs and servants and I see this more as being a watchdog.”

I gestured toward the exit, and he sighed.  We began making our way out of the base.

“Do you really want to limit yourself to being a watchdog?”

“When I’m making this much cash?  When even the top guys in this town would run scared from me?  Sure.”  He held the door open for me.

“And that’s all it comes down to?  Cash and being feared?”

“I’m a living gun and my surroundings are nothing but piles of ammunition.  What do you expect?  You don’t think you’re scary?”

“I think you can have money and power, you can be fearsome where necessary, but you can still make a difference at the same time.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it, working your ass off to make some people a little happier and more comfortable before the world ends.”

“You’re one of the people that’s fixated on that, huh?”

“The world’s gonna end.  How can you shrug that off?”

“It might not.”

“Right,” he said, clearly humoring me.

This wasn’t working.  Tattletale had said Ballistic was angry, but I’d taken that to be the same sort of anger that Bitch harbored.  Whatever was going on with Noelle and the group dynamics that had Sundancer so unhappy, it had made Ballistic angry at the world, angry at circumstance.  A different sort of anger, really: he didn’t really care about anything or anyone.

How was I supposed to get through to him if that was the case?

I decided to call him on it.

“Okay, so your only priorities are money and power?  Then why are you so annoyed that I’m coming along?  What does it matter?”

“It’s my business, my territory, and I’m capable of handling her on my own.  It’s insulting that Coil thinks I’d need any help, and it’s rude that you’d volunteer yourself without checking with me first.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Hypothetically, just going by what you were saying earlier, why should I give a damn?  The world’s going to end in a few years anyways.  What does it matter if I get on your bad side?”

“That’s different,” he said, sounding annoyed.

“Why?  Because it’s you that’s getting shortchanged?”

“Because we’re basically coworkers.  If we’re going to have to fight alongside one another, we can’t be worried about this sort of thing.”

“Okay, first of all?  I have a closer working relationship with the people in my territory than I do with any of the Travelers.  If and when you get more people in your territory, you might find that’s the same with you, too.  So I’m not sure I buy that coworker thing.”

“You’re talking apples and oranges.  Capes and non-capes.”

“Fine.”  He’d left an opening for me to target.  “Then I’ll just point to your other ‘coworkers’.  The other Travelers.  There’s obvious friction.  There’s resentment.  Cherish said as much.  So I don’t think you buy the coworker thing either.”

“Again, that’s different.”

“You say that a lot.  Maybe this principle you’re living by isn’t that strong if it can’t hold up to the most basic arguments.  Unless you care to explain why that’s different?”

“You’re grilling me for info on my team.”

“I’m curious what’s going on there, yeah.  But I’m also trying to figure you out.  As you said, we’re coworkers.”

“Weren’t you just debating the coworker thing?”

“Decide if you really believe it, let me know, and I’ll change my argument accordingly,” I said.

He sighed.

“I’m not trying to get on your bad side,” I said.  “Really.  But I’ve dealt with some interesting personalities like Bitch, Regent and Imp for a little while now, and I know I won’t be able to communicate with you until I understand where you’re coming from.  So I’m willing to go the extra mile to figure you out now so I can understand you in the future…”

I trailed off, but I kept one eye on him to see if there was any hint that he knew about Coil’s plans to terminate my future.  There was nothing.  I couldn’t see his face, but nothing had changed in his posture, his stride or overall body language.

“You’re not going to stop digging and get off my case here, huh?”  He asked.

I was mentally categorizing him as very similar to Bitch in many respects.  He was smarter, though, and the weapons he wielded in a discussion were less about threatening imminent harm than, what?  Setting himself further apart from me?  Breaking ties, categorizing me as an enemy in his head and making dealing with him harder in the future?

It would explain why there was a schism between him and the other members of his group.

“If you ask me to?  I’ll back off.  But…” I made the call on the spur of the moment, as I might with Bitch if I were positive she wasn’t about to hit me.  “I think you and I would both agree that you’d be admitting I’m right if you did.”

“That’s dirty.”

“Sure.”

“So what do you want to know, then?  Shall I divulge my deepest, darkest secrets?”

“I’ll settle for knowing why you’re all so angry at Trickster, why you specifically are angry at him.”

“Nope.  Can’t say.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Won’t.  We made a deal, and that deal means we’ve kept some stuff from Coil, even.  I’m not about to tell you.”

“I don’t need to know specifics.”

“You don’t need to know the general details, either.”

“Not really.  But maybe you need to tell me?  One of your teammates said they were awfully lonely, and they’re closer with the rest of the team than you are.  Maybe you’re lonely too, nobody to vent to?”

“I’m a guy.  We don’t do the whole emotional sharing thing.  You trying to channel Tattletale here?  Why are you so intent on getting the details, here?  This isn’t just curiosity or wanting to know your coworkers.”

Because so much hinges on my ability to get you on board against Coil.

I didn’t have a good response, so I fell silent.  We continued walking down the streets towards the crater-lake, our footsteps sloshing in the shallow water.

“He took everything from us,” Ballistic said, breaking the silence.

“Trickster?”

“Trickster.  When everything started falling apart, he stepped up to make the calls.  Bad ones.  And now the group is all we have left.  No friends, no family, no home to go back to, no goals beyond fixing Trickster’s fuckups.”

I was thinking of how it had come out that Sundancer was reluctant to use her powers because of the damage she’d done in the past.  Civilian deaths?  Had they included their own families?  Had Noelle been included in that?

It might explain why they were so gun-shy about using their powers to their fullest potential and why they’d been so insistent on keeping Noelle locked up when we were up against the Nine.

He went on, “The others might hate Trickster but they still respect him.  Or they don’t respect him but they don’t hate him either.  Probably more the former than the latter.  But I don’t have any love for the guy, I don’t have any respect for him either, and I seem to be alone in that.”

“So where do you go from there?”

“Now we’re back to square one.  I already explained.  Money, being feared, respect and living in comfort as a badass watchdog.”

“All that stuff about hating him, blaming him for ruining your life, and you don’t want any revenge on him?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

“No.  I’m with the group for one reason.  I stick with shit.  Not going to turn on the guy.  I agreed to this thing with Coil because I thought it’d be a way to get back some of what we’ve lost, maybe.  But all I see is my teammates getting all starry-eyed with hope while Coil feeds us empty promises.  Saying Tattletale will find an answer, or he’ll make a request to some major scientists in parahuman study.  And of course there’s no answers.”

“There could be.”

“Nah.  Why would he give us what we want if it means losing our services?  But I don’t really care anymore.  I made a deal with Coil and I’ll stick that through until I have a good reason not to.  Way I figure it, fuck my team, fuck Coil, but it’s not worth confronting anyone over if it means I’m wasting the remaining two years of my life trying to get another gig this cushy.”

“That seems kind of claustrophobic, setting those restrictions on yourself, letting things with your team drop by the wayside.  Being all alone?”

“Won’t be alone.  Figure I’ve got enough cash and respect I can get groupies.  That’ll do for the next couple of years.  Unless you’re going to argue there’s some point to a committed, long term relationship when there’s no long term?”

I sighed.  There was no point in continuing this.  I could tell that Ballistic wasn’t going to budge, and I didn’t have a ‘good reason’ to convince him to join us.

We crossed several city blocks in silence.  When we’d reached the lake Leviathan had created downtown, we began to walk around to the north end to Dolltown.

“So how are we doing this?  Attack strategy?”  Ballistic asked.

“Any chance you’ll let me make the first move?”

“And take all the credit?”  His voice hardened.

“I’ll let you take half the credit if I’m successful.  You can take all the credit if I fail.”

“Nope.”

“What?”

“I get what you’re doing.  You want to make us Travelers look bad.  Get yourself a bigger slice of the pie somewhere down the road.  More respect, more power, and you’re doing that by wedging yourself into everything, getting hyperinvolved.  Gotta be in first place.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Right.  Then explain why you’re going overboard with your territory.”

“I’m getting the job done, taking care of my people.”

“Nah.  It’s more than that.  There’s something driving you to work that hard.  You’re looking to supplant us.”

He’d stopped walking.  I paused and turned to face him.

He chuckled lightly, “I don’t blame you for it.  I mean, it’s pretty scummy, when we’re supposed to be working together, but I get that you want to be on top.”

“We are working together.”

“I may be taller and in better shape than average, but I’m not dumb.  You think I didn’t catch the wedge you were trying to drive into our team?  Sounding me out for any hard feelings I might have for the others?”

Shit.  This sort of thing was Tattletale’s field, not mine.  Now it was going south fast, and I could imagine how this would explode in my face.

I cleared my throat a little and clarified, “I was sounding you out because it was clear you did have hard feelings for the other members of your team, and I wanted to give you a chance to talk about it.”

“Ah, so the creepy bug girl is really a softie in the end,” his voice was laced with sarcasm.  “No ulterior motives at all.”

“Whatever,” I said.  “Nevermind.”

“So fuck you,” he said.  “No, I’m not giving you first dibs on this doll woman.  Second I see her, I’m taking her out of action and making it a hundred percent clear it was all my doing.  You’ll get what you wanted, which you said was to see the territory, and I get what I want, which is to finish up my territory so I can kick back.”

This wasn’t how I wanted things to go on any level.  I could have groaned in frustration.  Instead, I sent out a command to my bugs and took a deep breath.

“Okay,” I told him.

“Yeah?”

“But I think I’ll stay out of the line of fire.  I get the impression I offended you, so maybe we give each other some breathing room?  Avoid getting shot?”

“I wouldn’t jeopardize the setup I’ve got with Coil for that.  But maybe it’s best you do stay out of the way.”

I nodded and turned to go.

Okay, so no mole inside the Travelers.

I could still hope to achieve something here.

Using my bugs, I tracked Parian’s movements within Dolltown.  She was moving quickly, joined by a small collection of people.  Many were shrouded in cloth, leaving me to guess if they were real people or something new she’d done with her creations.

I drew out directions with my bugs, guiding her away from Ballistic.  She didn’t listen at first, but that changed when Ballistic fired off his first attack, creating a deafening crash.  From the sound of it, he’d done something to send a car flying into a building.  A moment later, he did it again.  I walked faster.  I could call Atlas to me, but I didn’t want to get spotted in the air.

Dolltown was ugly.  It had been hit hard by the Nine and the fight between them and Hookwolf’s army.  There were scars on the buildings where Hookwolf had struck, holes and marks in the wall where Purity had fired her beams.  Menja had done some damage here and there, with some handprints marking various pieces of architecture where her gauntlets had bit into stone and metal.

I pushed open a doorway and stepped into a ruined building.  Parian faced me.  Her mask had a crack in it, and there was blood staining her worn frock.  She was surrounded by a half-dozen of her remaining people, each of whom wore masks and costumes.  A life-size doll, a man who was wrapped in fabric to the point that he looked something like a mummy, a little girl in a skintight suit of flannel with holes cut out for the eyes, one blue and one green.

Did Parian have capes working for her?  Or-

No.

They were the people Bonesaw had done surgery on.  The ones she’d altered to look like members of the Nine.  They were covering the faces and bodies Bonesaw had given them.

“What do you want?”  Parian asked.

“To negotiate,” I said.

“Your buddy isn’t too interested in negotiating, by the sounds of it,” she said.  She flinched as another crash sounded somewhere nearby.

“I took a gamble here, warning you about him.  He wanted to hurt you, make you into an example.  I don’t operate that way.”

“Don’t think I can trust you on that.”

“You’ll have to.  Because I’ve gone around Ballistic’s back, I’m kind of counting on you hearing me out, because if I fail here, it’s going to fuck up things with this alliance my team has with the Travelers.”  And with Coil.

She glanced around.  I could sense someone moving nearby.  One of her people, sneaking up behind me.  No gun, a light search with my bugs told me, and more of the same cloth costume the other Dolltown residents were wearing.  I ignored my potential assailant.  I could handle an attack from a knife.  I’d just need to be on guard in case they aimed to club me over the head.

“I know about the person that’s circling around to ambush me,” I said.  “Can we just talk, without someone trying to hurt me?”

“What are you wanting to talk about, then?”

“You got dealt a raw hand.  The Nine targeted you, like they targeted some people I care about.  People I love.  That’s not fair.  So I was thinking, I’ve got a lot of money.  I have access to resources.  I know it’s not much, it’s not really enough, but maybe we could get doctors for your friends and family.  Fix what’s been done to them.”

“And what would you want in exchange?”

“Join my team,” I said.  “I-”

“No.”

Listen,” I hissed the word, “It’s the best way to guarantee safety for everyone here.  It gets Ballistic off your back.  Even if you avoid him today, he’s going to level half of Dolltown, and he’ll come back tomorrow to level the other half.  Everything else would stay the same, you’d have the same freedoms, only we’d supply you with everything you need.  Not just rice and fresh water, but good food.  Medical care.  Proper shelter.  All you need to offer is lip service and we can fix so many of the things that have gone wrong here.”

The person behind me stepped closer.  I turned to keep an eye on her and she lunged in that same instant.

Three spikes of metal were sticking out from between her fingers, like improvised brass knuckles.  When she punched them into my shoulder, they went straight through my costume, piercing through the bone as though they were hot knives and I were nothing but soft butter.  She swept my feet from under me and pushed me to the ground.

“The lady said no,” Flechette told me, one hand holding me down, the other hand raised to strike me again.

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Colony 15.4

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Sundancer had once described her life in costume as intense, violent and lonely.  I’d had a hard time understanding the last point.  That had been about the same time that I had been riding the high of having friends for the first time, after a couple of years spent in almost total solitude.

Maybe, if the subject had come up again in recent weeks, I might have understood, nodding my head in sympathy.

Powers raised us above the common people.  It was maybe arrogant to think that way, to say I was better than the likes of Sierra, Charlotte or my father, but I sort of was.  I had all the potential they did and then more.

Even if I looked at how powers elevated us, though, I had to admit we weren’t raised to the same level.  We weren’t all raised up together.  If anything, the powers drove us apart: our trigger events, our reasons for wanting to use our powers, the agendas and missions we took upon ourselves, and even how those powers made us think and operate in different ways… they put barriers between ourselves and others.  I just had to think of Panacea or Bitch, and I had some damn good examples of that.

I couldn’t think of two capes who were in a committed relationship where there wasn’t some degree of fucked-up-ness.  Night and Fog were, if I’d understood Tattletale right, essentially functional sociopaths.  They’d acted out the role of a married couple with none of the affection or fondness.  Victor and Othala were screwed up in a different way, burdened by a shared event in their past.  Brandish and Flashbang?  If their kids were any indication… yeah.  Fucked up.

It was no small wonder we were all so fucked up.  It was the human condition, to need a supporting hand now and again, and yet we could barely help ourselves, let alone each other.

Worse, if by some small miracle two capes managed to find comfort and support in each other, there was no guarantee that those other two points that Sundancer had raised wouldn’t ruin things.  The intensity of our lifestyle and the sheer violence.  Lady Photon had lost her husband in the Leviathan fight.  Glory Girl had, if the magazines and papers were any indication, maintained an on-and-off relationship with Gallant.  He’d died too.

So this?  Lying here beside Brian?  It was sort of bittersweet, with maybe a 60-40 split on the sweet vs. the bitter.

I couldn’t see Brian’s face without raising my head, and I didn’t want to do that and risk waking him.  I’d left my glasses on the table with the knife and gun, so I couldn’t see that well anyways.  I settled for studying the fabric of his sleeveless shirt, the nubs of lint, the weave of the textile, and how it shifted with the slow, deep and rhythmic breaths he was taking.  I could smell his sweat, with the faint traces of his deodorant beneath.  It was funny, because when we’d settled in, I hadn’t been able to smell anything.

I felt warm in the core of my chest.  That wasn’t just the morning light streaming in through the windows.

Not happy, exactly.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, not with the responsibilities I wasn’t attending to right now, not with the mistakes I’d made and the people I’d failed.

But I could convince myself that this was something I should be doing.  It was one of the tasks that I had to tend to, no matter how the coming days and weeks unfolded, and we’d settled on making those tasks a priority.  We had to support Grue if we wanted him around to help us when everything started going down.

I wouldn’t rest any hopes on this, not with the way every other parahuman relationship seemed to go.  I’d take these individual moments for what they were.

All of which amounted to a pile of excuses and rationalizations I was layering on top of one another, trying to convince myself this wouldn’t end disastrously, that I wasn’t being irresponsible or that I wasn’t going to regret this on a hundred different levels.  It was enough that I could feel at peace, here.

Mostly at peace.  I had to pee, and yet I didn’t want to move and disturb him.

Nothing was easy, it seemed.

My body won out over my willpower, and I decided to extricate myself.  I didn’t even try to get to my feet, instead easing myself down to the ground as I unwrapped myself from Brian as slowly as I could.

Once I’d disentangled myself from Brian and the couch, I grabbed my glasses, knife, cellphone and gun and rushed to the washroom.

The cell phone rang while I was on the toilet.  Tattletale.  For Brian’s sake and my own sense of decency, I refused the call and texted her instead:

What’s up?

She replied soon after:

R is done.  Bird in the pen 4 now.  C wants a meeting neways.  Get G I and come 4 11am?

So it was time to see if Brian could glean anything from Victor’s power.  I responded:

G sleeping.  Don’t want to wake him.

I could guess her reply before it appeared:

hate to break u 2 lovebirds up but we r tight on time and C is impatient

I texted her an a-ok before hanging up and putting the phone away.

The kitchen had been cleaned up, but my bugs hadn’t alerted me to anyone coming in.  Had Aisha returned and used her power to stay quiet?

I decided to assume she had and began preparing breakfast for three people.

If I had to rouse Brian, I’d do it with the smells of bacon, coffee and toast.  It was as inoffensive a method as I could think of.

Aisha woke up before Brian did, venturing downstairs in a long t-shirt.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” I said, quiet.  I could remember her reaction the last time I’d been talking to Brian, and added, “And for not getting upset.”

“I can’t help him, don’t know how.  So I’m putting it in your hands.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me.  If you screw this up, I can and will make your life a living hell.”

I frowned.  “Honestly?  That’s not very fair.  I think I probably will screw up along the way.  This isn’t going to be smooth sailing, whatever happens.  So maybe it’d be better if you just trust that I’m going into this with the best intentions for him.”

She plucked a piece of bacon from a plate and popped it into her mouth.  “Maybe.  But no. Don’t fuck this up.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.  It’s the little things, convincing someone they’re going crazy, nothing they put down is where they left it.  Things go missing.  Furniture gets moved.  Then it gets more serious, they find the stash of drugs they were supposed to barter for stuff is missing-”

“I don’t have any drugs,” I told her.

“Talking hy-po-theticals.  I get them in trouble with people they know.  Then they have little injures they can’t remember getting.  Splinters under their fingernails, papercuts between their fingers or at the corners of their mouths, little cuts on the back of their hands.  That’s usually when they freak out.  They run, go somewhere else, and it stops, just a little while.  Until it comes again, twice as bad as before.  They snap.  Then I leave them a message telling them that it all stops when they leave the city.  Put it on their walls in blood or put it on their bathroom mirror in soap so it shows up when the room gets all steamy.  They’re glad.  They’re happy to have a way out.  Except I wouldn’t leave you that note.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brian asked, from behind her.  “And where are you getting that blood?”

Aisha wheeled around, not appearing even half as guilty as she should have.

“I asked Coil’s lieutenant for some.  He asked me how many gallons I wanted.  How weird is that?  I mean, seriously, who needs gallons of blood?  Or maybe I could use it.  Paint someone’s house, see if I can’t freak them out hardcore,” Aisha smiled wickedly.

“Ignore that question.  What were you saying to Taylor, about not giving her a note?”

“It’s fine,” I told him.  “She’s being protective of her big brother.”

Aisha plastered a fake smile on her face.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Brian told Aisha, with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’m dropping this only because Taylor’s sticking up for you.”

Aisha rolled her eyes and began serving herself.

It was nine-thirty.  Assuming it would take us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get to Coil’s place, that left us only about an hour to get ready.  We ate in awkward silence.  Aisha took the first turn in the shower, leaving Brian and me alone once again.

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  We had taken a step forward, but I didn’t exactly have any experience on this front.  What was I supposed to do?  What did I say?  I wanted to hug him, to hold his hand or raise the idea of spending time together later, but I didn’t know what was allowed, or what would be pushing boundaries or taking things too far.

He sat down on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table, and I grabbed a glass of orange juice before sitting down next to him.  Would he put his arm around me, or-

“This thing with Coil.  Do you have a plan?”

Opportunity missed.

I shook my head.  “More like I have a bunch of smaller plans.  Can’t commit to anything, in case things unfold in an unexpected way.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about them.  Plan A?”

“I whip my territory into shape, Coil decides that it’s more valuable to keep me in his service.  The idea is that he values my ability to keep an area stable more than he values having Dinah.  He lets her go.”

“Not likely.”

I frowned.  “I almost gave up on it after Burnscar torched everything.  It isn’t that impossible.”

“Think about what it would mean in terms of security leaks.  If he let Dinah go home to her family, she wouldn’t be able to return to her normal life.  If Coil was dumb enough to let her go with no safeguards and without people to watch her, then the heroes would swoop in on her and use her to get him.”

I nodded, glum.

“And really, can you honestly say that your services are worth the cost of everything you’re taking from Coil in the way of resources, plus the cost of the agents he’d need watching Dinah at all hours?”

“So you think he’ll say no.”

“Tattletale thinks that Coil may be considering dropping you from the team once he has what he needs.”

I turned to look at Brian.  His forehead was creased in a frown.

“You think I’m expendable.”

“To Coil?  Possibly.”

I nodded.

“It’s something to keep in mind,” he said.

“Thing is, I don’t know how that really changes anything.  Should I stop helping the people in my territory?  I’m not going to.  It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it would tip Coil off.”

“I think it was a bad idea to tip him off by making the deal in the first place.  Now he knows you’ve got pretty strong morals.  On a level, anyways.”

I nodded.  On a level.

He went on, “I imagine it’s troublesome to have someone with those sorts of moral concerns that could throw his long-term plan off course.  He might be looking to replace you.”

“And with his power, that might make for a bit of a pinch.”

“His power?”

I paused.  “Tattletale clued me in.  He creates parallel realities.  Makes two different decisions, and he gets to see the outcome of each as they unfold.  Decides which he wants in the end.”

Brian frowned.  “And he’s been doing that with us?”

“Since before I joined the team.  Send us on a job in one reality, keep us back in another.  If we succeed, great.  If we fail… well, nothing lost.  He deletes the reality where he sent us out.”

He rubbed his chin.  I noticed he had stubble.  “So he gets two tries at everything.  Including dealing with any of us who cause him any trouble.”

I nodded.  “Which is why we need to play along for as long as possible.”

“Fair.  What’s your plan B?”

“Plan B… well, it’s not so much a plan as a fallback.  If I get found out before we make any headway, it means fighting Coil and his underlings.”

“The Travelers and Circus included.”

“Tattletale and I have talked about how we might approach that.  The problem is that Coil would be backing them up.  Normally I’d suggest we go on the offensive, so they don’t have time to go after our weaknesses, but with Coil at work, we have to assume that it’s all the more likely that the Travelers would get that one lucky hit off, or that they’d pick the plan of attack that would work out for them.”

“And they’re powerful enough that they’d really only need to get lucky once,” Brian said.  I saw his expression darken.  He was staring off into space.

“Sorry,” I said.  Impulsively, I leaned closer, so my arm and shoulder pressed against his arm.

“Hm?”

“If you want to talk about something else-”

“I want to make sure we come out of this alive.”

“But it’s stressing you out.”

“I’ll manage,” he answered, putting one arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

But he didn’t raise the subject again.  Aisha got out of the shower, he took the next turn, ostensibly to clean up after her.  I took the brief period of quiet to get my stuff in order.  I’d worn my costume under my clothes, the top and dress portion  bound around my waist, beneath the sweatshirt.

Once I was free to use the shower, I pulled off the costume and hung it up.  The steam would help with any wrinkles for the parts that weren’t skintight.

I had to admit to being a little disappointed with the way the morning was unfolding.  Part of that was with myself, not knowing how to act, but part of it was with the lack of romance.  RationallyI knew that the movies, TV, books and all that, they didn’t paint a realistic picture.  I knew that we wouldn’t instantaneously click, that everything would be fixed.

But at the core of it all, I wasn’t a hundred percent rational.

Had to take what I could get.  Last night, cuddling?  It had been nice.  Really nice.

All in all, we were ready to move out well ahead of time.

I wracked my brain, trying to think of things to say.  Everything social or romantic seemed forced or awkward, especially with Imp there.  Everything related to our costumed selves seemed too delicate, fraught with reminders for Brian.

Each time I entered Coil’s headquarters, it seemed like it had transformed.  On our first visit it had been a bare bones setup with piles upon piles of crates, and soldiers congregating wherever there was room.  Our last visit had seen some organization.  Now it had finally taken form.

The interior was divided into two levels.  The lower level sported a cafeteria, a bar, a small computer lab and bunk beds for the soldiers on standby.  Doorways leading to what I suspected were washrooms.  I knew that Coil had squads positioned across the city by now, in quarters not unlike the lairs he had assigned us, if a little more austere.  Anyone who stayed here had the bare necessities.

There was an area with more of a focus on the actual ‘war’ part of soldiering, with men at the ready to hand out the guns and ammunition that were tidily arranged on racks and shelves, a massive laundry room that appeared to be devoted to washing and preparing the uniforms and two more stations for heavier gear and more esoteric stuff like walkie-talkies and explosives.

The upper level was pretty plain, with a metal walkway bridging the gaps to the doorways that were recessed in the concrete walls.  Still, things had been added, including whiteboards with shift schedules and maps very similar to the one I’d seen in Tattletale’s base of operations.

I glanced at one map; our territory had expanded somewhat.  Or maybe it was better to say that the pockets of enemy forces that had lurked at the edges of our territory were collapsing.

Cranston, the blond woman who served as one of Coil’s liasons to us, who was my contact when I needed something, was standing outside the door to the conference room.

“Skitter.  How are you?”

“I’m fine, Ms. Cranston.”

“You’re a bit early.  Can I offer you anything while you wait for Coil to arrive?”

I shook my head.

“Grue?  Imp?”

They refused as well.

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Grue and Imp stepped away to talk to the fat, short man who I took to be their liason.  I stepped over to the railing and watched the scene below.

A group far to my left caught my eye.  I ventured closer.

Trickster, Sundancer, Genesis and Ballistic were gathered around Tattletale, joined by Coil and a blond boy with striking good looks.  I couldn’t really get a good look at it from my vantage point, but the wall jutted out beneath the walkway, and there was a heavy vault door set into the concrete, similar to the ones I’d seen at the shelters.

Noelle.

Tattletale was shaking her head as she talked.  She gestured toward the door.

I could see the Travelers respond to that.  Trickster folding his arms, Sundancer turning away slightly.  Genesis, in her wheelchair, hung her head just a bit, her mop of hair blocking the view.

They weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear.

Tattletale touched the wall, some panel or button system, said something, and then turned away, walking towards the staircase.  The Travelers and Coil followed behind.

“Everything okay?” I asked Tattletale, as she joined me.

“Oh, not really,” she gave me a tight smile.

“Fill me in later?”

“Can’t.  Sworn to secrecy.”

“Uh huh.  You know, for someone who calls herself Tattletale, you’re way too fond of keeping secrets.”

“Believe me, some secrets aren’t so fun to keep.”

I frowned.  What was going on there?

I could only trust that she’d inform us when we weren’t in earshot of Coil and the Travelers.

Bitch and Regent were waiting outside the conference room as we approached.  I gave Bitch a small nod of acknowledgement, and she returned it.  All together, we got seated; Travelers on one side of the table, Undersiders on the other, Coil at the head.

“I understand that things have been hectic since the Nine departed the city.  Communications are difficult to establish, there’s still lasting damage from the Endbringer attack, and everyone has their individual concerns.  Before our focus fell on the Nine and eliminating Jack Slash, I told you to establish your territories and do what you could to effect some sort of control.  As Tattletale may not have all of the necessary information to draw the right conclusions, I’d like each of you to inform us on your progress.”

He gestured to Trickster.

“Putting me on the spot, huh?”  Trickster asked.  “Dunno.  Nobody’s doing business in my neighborhood, and there aren’t any crooks there that the public knows about, but Purity and her people are still hanging around, and I’m waiting on my teammates to wrap up their stuff so they can lend me a hand.”

“Infrastructure, recruitment?” Coil prompted.

“I’ve made a few small steps forward for each of those things.  I offered some of the low-level thugs the option of moving out of the city or serving under me.  Got a half-and-half split of each, more or less.  Enough people to deal product, if you want, or to scare some people.”

“Good.  Sundancer?”

Sundancer had the posture of someone who’d desperately hoped to avoid being called on in class.  “I don’t know.  I’ve been working with the maps Tattletale provided me, but I’m not good at this.  I burn them out of whatever place they’re holed up in, they run, then half the time it’s like they settle somewhere else that’s nearby.”

“You have to scare them more,” Trickster said.

“I burn their houses down.  I don’t know why that’s not scary enough.”

“You’re too soft about it, being too careful to let them know what you’re doing and when, because you don’t want to hurt them and they can tell.”

Coil cleared his throat.  “How far along?”

Sundancer didn’t look happy.  “I dunno.  I’ve maybe cleared out one in four of the local groups?”

“Genesis?” Coil asked.

“Mostly clear,” Genesis replied, leaning forward and putting her elbows on the table, “Not sure how to get anything going in the way of operations.  It’s not exactly heavily populated territory.”

“You’re keeping Noelle company tonight, yes?”

Genesis nodded.

“Then we’ll discuss it then.”

“Okay.”

“And Ballistic?”

“Further along than him,” Ballistic jerked a thumb toward Trickster.  “Nobody doing business in my area, only two capes hanging around.  Got that girl from Dolltown who’s pretty insistent on holding onto her neighborhood, even if pretty much everyone that lived there is dead, now.  It’s the only spot that I haven’t taken over.”

“I see.  And the second cape?”

“There’s a kid from the old Merchants group.  Has powers.  Going to try to scare off the Doll girl and recruit the Merchant kid.”

“You might start with remembering their names,” Genesis pointed out.

“I’m not a cape geek like you.”

“You’re a cape.”

“Parian and Scrub?” I spoke up, hoping to keep them from going off on a tangent.

“Sure.  Sounds right,” Ballistic conceded.

“If you’re dealing with Parian, can I come along?”

“Actually,” Coil said, “I had a request to make of you, Skitter.”

I turned my attention to him.

“After,” he told me.  “Let me get to the main topic of this meeting before I address it.  For now, I’d like to hear how the Undersiders are coming along.”

“Been busy helping everyone else out,” Tattletale admitted.  “Like Trickster, I guess, I’m waiting for others to finish what they’re doing.  I’m pretty solid for business, though.  Bringing in more cash than I’m spending.”

“What’s the business?”  Trickster asked.

“The big one is reclaiming items and homes.  I offer goodies to any people from the shelter willing to band together and scare them off, anything too difficult, I use the mercenaries you provided.  Coil’s hooked me up with some banking services so we can actually make the transactions.  People don’t have a lot of use for money with the way things are right now, and they do have stuff that they value.  Figure a few hundred to a thousand dollars per job, three or four jobs a day, and they’re sort of doing my work for us, dealing with the gang members.”

“With the idea that your teammates will claim the areas at a later date,” Coil said, his voice firm.

“Right.”

“Grue and Imp?”

I saw Grue hesitate.

“Seventy-five percent clear,” Imp said.  “The Chosen and leftover Merchants mainly moved into our territory and Regent’s.  Maybe we’re not a hundred percent done, but when we scare people off, they stay gone.”

“Good.  Can you drive out the remaining threats in the next two days?”

“Got this far in three, don’t see why not.”

“Excellent.  Regent?”

“About the same.  Nobody wants to cross Shatterbird, but lots of people keep popping up, moving in because they’re oblivious that she’s there.  With no radio or TV, they’re clueless.”

“Make it more obvious, then.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch?”

“Nobody left in my territory.”

“No threats?”

“Nobody.”

Coil sighed, “I did tell you that you could run your territory as you wished.  Still, that’s not ideal.  Would you object to a rearrangement of territory?  I would grant you more overall area to control, but it would be limited to the outskirts of the city.”

“So long as it’s mine.”

“Good.  And Skitter?”

I shrugged.  “No threats, nobody’s daring to pop their heads in.”

“Then consider working on rooting out the individuals too afraid to show themselves, before they cause a problem.”

“They’re dealt with,” I said.

“Explain?”

“I’m doing two sweeps through my territory every day.  Only one yesterday, but we were busy dealing with the Chosen.  I’m checking every building for trouble.  If I find contraband, drugs or weapons, I confront the individuals in question.  Past two days, I haven’t had to confront anyone.”

“The only people with weapons are your people, then?”

I nodded.  “I’ve got sixty people working under me, and maybe a hundred more who are working for me in an indirect way, joining the community that’s started on the cleanup projects.  Filling, moving and placing sandbags to control and reroute the flooding, clearing the area Burnscar burned down, and setting up accommodations.”

“Impressive,” Coil said.

I nodded.  “I feel like I’m cheating, though.  My power’s suited to this.”

“It remains impressive.  Let me explain just why I find this of interest, Undersiders, Travelers.  The mayoral elections are in one week.  Before this occurs, I would like to have this city firmly in my control.  It will shift the tone and the aim of the election, which would be to my advantage.  Our advantage.”

“So you’re saying we have less than a week to wrap stuff up in our territory,” Trickster said.

“Yes.  I also have some other issues I would like you to address.  Skitter, Genesis, I trust you’re able to step away from your territories to give me a hand?”

Tattletale leaned forward over the table, looking at me.  I glanced at her, then turned to Coil, “Yes.”

“Sure,” Genesis said.

“And Trickster, if you’re idle while you wait for your teammates to come assist with Purity’s group, I’m sure you can lend your assistance for one night?”

Trickster nodded.

“The mayor and several members of the city council will be traveling to Washington to discuss the state of Brockton Bay and the possibility of condemning the city.  Skitter, Imp, Genesis, I would like you to visit him and ensure he argues towards our ends.  Brockton Bay will stand, and it will recover.”

I nodded slowly.  “Sure.  I think I can do that and still help Ballistic with Parian.”

“I haven’t asked for your help,” Ballistic said.

“Coil’s call,” I responded.

“If Skitter feels she can spare the time, I would be glad to have the extra assurance the job will get done.”

Ballistic folded his arms.  Didn’t look happy at that.

“That’s the last point of discussion.  I will provide anything you need to see your tasks to completion.  If there’s no questions, that will be all.”

After a brief pause to check that nobody wanted to speak, we all stood from our seats.  The Travelers headed out the door and turned a right to go back to where Noelle was sealed up.  Tattletale led our group to the cells where Shatterbird and Victor were.

While we waited for Regent to go and bring Victfor out of his cell, Tattletale stepped close, so she was right next to Grue and me.  She murmured,  “One piece of good news, two pieces of bad news and one spot of catastrophic news.  The good news is that Coil is impressed with you, Skitter.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s what we were hoping for, right?”

“But something tells me we’ve got a major snag.  I’d say odds are pretty fucking good that he’s on to us.”

I felt my heart drop.

“How sure are you?” I asked.

“Not positive, but pretty damn sure.  And I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance one of ours informed him of our aims.”

“A member of the Undersiders?” Grue asked.

“That, or he’s got our places bugged.  But I didn’t get the sense that anyone who built the place or brought our stuff in knew about any electronic bugging.  Like I said, fifty-fifty chance.”

I nodded.  I glanced around, looking at Bitch, Imp, and the door Regent had disappeared through.

“Fuck,” Tattletale swore under her breath.  “I was trying to signal you to say no to Coil’s request, but you weren’t looking at the right moments and I couldn’t exactly tip anyone off.  I’m positive he’s asking you to go on that errand with Genesis and Trickster because he’s planning on eliminating you.”

I felt Grue’s hand squeeze my shoulder.  He’d gone rigid, as if he was more spooked than I was.

“And of course, he knows I know.  So this is a loyalty test, I’m betting.  If you don’t go, I flunk.”

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #2)

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He pummeled the bag, one hit after another.  There wasn’t any real rhyme or reason to his strikes.  Only his training persisted, hardwired into his brain: the joints of his hands were stacked, his weight shifted back and forth over the balls of his feet, and the room was filled with the muffled thumps of fist against vinyl.

His dad would be yelling at him right about now, shouting at him about how he was risking injury.  Didn’t matter.

Just needed to hit something.

Needed to release.  To feel some relief, push himself to a point where he was too tired to think.

Except all he felt was a mounting frustration.

It spooked him, just a little.  He couldn’t help but wonder if this was his new default state.  If this was how he’d be for the rest of his life.

He twisted his body to strike the bag with a roundhouse kick.  The bag swung from the chain.

He turned away.  Sweat streamed down his body, his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t control his breathing.

“Jesus, bro.  You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”

He snapped his head around to see Aisha in the doorway.  Cognitively, he’d known who she was the second he’d heard her voice, and he recognized her at a glance.  Still, that initial alarm that came with being surprised sang through his nerves, not a momentary sensation, but a thrum of tension that wouldn’t go away.

She didn’t seem to notice.  It was like they were two different people in two very different scenes.  She had her mask in one hand, her black scarf loosely piled around her neck.

For a half second, he could see Bonesaw standing there instead, about the same height, dress, bloodstained apron glittering with tools and wide eyes darting about, taking in everything in her surroundings as if there was inspiration or tools to be found anywhere.

He blinked, hard, and that fleeting image slipped away.  It wasn’t the same.  Aisha’s investigation of the area was casual, comfortable and idle, surveying his room.  At the top floor of the headquarters he shared with her, his room had a punching bag, weight bench and sink in one corner, a bed and a stand for his costume in the opposite corner, and a television placed where he could watch it anywhere in the room.  Not that there was much available in the way of channels.

“You’re back,” he grunted.  “Didn’t tell me you were going.”

“You mean I didn’t ask permission.  No.  I totally wanted to hang around here with you wound as tight as a new clock.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” he said, still panting for breath.  His chest hurt.  He stepped over to the sink and splashed water on his face.

“Sue me.  Not like I’ve ever seen a wind-up clock.  Not like you’ve ever seen one either.  Don’t pretend you’re so much more civilized.”

“Grandpa had one.”

“Really?”

He only nodded, still trying to get his breathing under control.  This isn’t just the exercise.  Something else.  Can’t let her see it.

“Still good to see…” he had to pause to catch a breath, “You’re okay.”

“Of course I’m okay, dumbass.  Nobody knows I’m there.”

“Not good enough.”  He began peeling off his gloves.

“I’ve got the costume Skitter made me.  I had no idea she was wearing something like this,” Aisha pulled at the fabric between her fingers, stretching it.  “It’s so smooth and so light, I thought she was bullshitting about the fact that you couldn’t cut it.  But I tried and she was right.  It’s crazy.  But yeah, I’m as safe as any of you.  Safer.”

That’s not saying that much.  He examined his hands, where the skin was torn.  Blood had welled out from the open wound and been pressed into the creases and pores. He turned on the tap again and put his hands under, washing where his skin was raw and bleeding at the knuckles.

“Jesus fuck,” she gasped, looking past him to his hands.  “Any time I’ve spent in the gyms, it’s ’cause Dad dragged me there, so I wasn’t paying attention so much as I was looking for the nearest exit.  But I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be bleeding like that.”

What was he supposed to say to that?

“Why did you do that to yourself?”

“Just trying to tire myself out.”

“You’re already tired, you dumbass!  This isn’t going to improve the situation.  How long were you fucking hitting that thing?  The entire time I was gone?”

I’ve handled worse, he thought.  He’d meant it as a joke, a moment of personal humor, but the amusement didn’t come.

“Incision here… saw through the breast bone, there we go.  You’re cooperating so nicely!  Not that you have much of a choice.  Oh, here.  This part is always cool.  See, the ribs are flexible, and with the sternum separated, a little bit of help from Spider thirty-three here, they unfold like a bird slowly spreaaaaading its wings.”

He leaned over the sink, gripping the edges.  That pressure in his chest was getting worse.

Her tone changed.  “Hey, seriously, are you okay?  You’ve been breathing really hard for a bit now, and now you’ve gone really quiet for, like, a minute.  I didn’t use my power, either, so I know it’s not you ignoring me because of that.”

He bit back the harsh retort, telling her to shut up, to stop being annoying and go away, that he wanted to be alone.  If he did, she would; she’d run away from home six times in four years, had gone from their mother’s house to their father’s, back to their mother’s and then to foster care.  Every time, there was a reason, some argument or incident that had pushed her.  Any excuse would do, even a criticism at the wrong moment.  The child services workers would put her somewhere else, praying for some stability that she would never have.  She was flighty, like a wild animal that would bolt at a loud noise.  That might forever be the case.

If he lashed out like he had with Taylor, he doubted Aisha would forgive him so readily.

“I’m okay,” he lied.  “Tired.”

He couldn’t scare her away like that, but he was afraid he would, anyways.  Couldn’t trust himself like this, feeling like he was on the verge of snapping.

The fact that he was spooked over the idea only contributed to the problem, compounded that restless anxiety that seemed to have nestled deep in the core of his body, which gave him more reason to worry.  An endless cycle.

If he were more rested, he knew, more rational, he could break the cycle, deliberately focus on something else.  He’d hoped the exercise would help there.  It hadn’t.

He flinched as a hand settled on his arm.

“Hey,” Aisha said.  “Zoning out again.”

“Mm.”

“I was going to go out on a patrol near the school.  Tattletale said there’s some leftover members of the Merchants hanging around over here, thought I’d scare them off.  Maybe see if I can drive them into Ballistic’s territory, if I can’t push them out of the city.”

“Don’t antagonize him,” Brian said.

“Just saying, he’s better suited for a straight-up fight, and these guys are low-level mooks. We want them to panic, to see there’s no place to go.”

No place to go.

“I’ll come,” he decided.

“No!” She said, with a little too much emphasis.  “No you won’t.  I’m perfectly capable of handling this.  I’d stay to keep an eye on you, if I didn’t think it would do more harm than good.”

“Alright,” he conceded.  “Alright.  Some quiet sounds good.”

“I don’t want you doing this again, okay?” she gestured toward the bag, then his hands.  “Really, it’s more than a little creepy.  I know I don’t have a nurturing nature, like, at all, but I’m gonna feel pretty terrible if I come back and you’re a bloody mess.”

“Oh,” Taylor’s voice, a croak.  “Oh, Brian.”

He winced.

“Poor choice of words,” Aisha said.  Quieter, she added, “Sorry.”

“We shouldn’t be going anywhere alone,” he said.  He was only now feeling like his breathing was getting under control.

“Tattletale did.  Skitter did.  Regent sort of did.”

“Tattletale and Skitter can see trouble coming.  Regent’s got Shatterbird so he’s not alone.”

Aisha shook her head.  “Which doesn’t do him any good if he gets shot.  Shatterbird would get free, and then everyone loses.”

Don’t want to argue.  Don’t want to get too deep into this.  There’s already too many things to keep track of, too many variables to consider.  “Hopefully everyone has more common sense than that.  He really should be keeping her in containment unless she’s needed.”

“We were taking on the Chosen, and some of Purity’s people.  It’s all good.  We picked up Victor, and Tattletale’s hoping you’ll try your power on him, see if you can’t pick something up.”

Brian nodded, “After.”

“So I’m gonna go now-”

He grimaced.  “I don’t want you going alone.”

“I’m going with Regent.  Relax.”

Not sure that makes me feel better.  “Not sure that’s the company I want you to keep.”

He was well familiar with the annoyed look that flashed over her face before she forced it away.  She said, “It’s fine.  He’s your buddy, and our powers actually work well together.  You and me, we can’t… what’s the word?”

“Synergize.”

“We can’t synergize.  I do my thing, you do yours, but we get in each other’s way.  You blind me, I wipe myself from your memory.  With Regent and me, I can set people up for him to mess with, give him a chance to use his power.  Or we mix it up a little, so I spook people, then he uses his power to make them feel like they’re being pushed around while I deal with others, to freak them out.  Or I go in first and then give him word on what’s going on.”

“You’ve been out with him before,” he realized.

“Couple times.  Just doing what you asked, not going out alone.  You weren’t exactly up to it.”

He looked down at his hands and picked off a peel of skin.

“Um.  So yeah.  You stay right here, try to take it easy?”  She sounded a little tense.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Maybe we could go for a walk later?  Check on one of the ‘rents?”

It sounded so unlike her.  He could count on one hand the number of times she’d been this conciliatory and gentle.  He couldn’t remember a single case where she’d acted like that when she hadn’t wanted something.

Brian forced a smile.  “Maybe.  You go.  Be safe.”

He was both relieved and terrified when the door shut behind Aisha.

So many things were like that, now.  Bad with the good, or just plain bad.

Didn’t realize she’d been out with Regent.  Need to catch up on things.

He flexed his hands, feeling the pain where he’d damaged himself, and made his way into what he liked to call the war room.

The war room sat opposite Aisha’s room, on the same floor as his.  It wasn’t large, but it didn’t really have to be.  Satellite images of various locations around the city had been printed out onto four-by-five foot sheets of laminated paper, rolls shelved on the wall with labels in marker.  They varied in size, with some extending over the whole city, while others covered the various territories.

He picked the roll for his own territory and unfurled it.

His territory was marked out in black marker.  Southwest end of the Docks.  Lots of residential areas, lots of schools, small businesses, restaurants.  Lots of hiding places for troublemakers.  People he was expected to deal with in short order.  More problematic, he was expected to keep anyone else from coming in and setting up shop.  Wasn’t right that Tattletale shouldered the full load, when she had her own territory to look after.

Coil had provided the map, and Tattletale had provided the details.  Various symbols and gang symbols marked out spots where enemies were lurking.  Stars for the nobodies, the M with the two ‘dollar sign’ vertical lines struck through it for the stragglers from the defeated Merchants, and a wolf’s head for Fenrir’s Chosen.  His own were marked out in clear, blocky letters, noting priority, naming locations for what they were and briefly covering the nature of the operations these crooks and gangs were conducting in his territory.  Low level drug dealers and looters here, some Chosen dragging families from their home and selling them off as slave labor over there.

But the map had been altered.

Red ‘x’ symbols crossed out a solid two-thirds of the symbols.  Barely-legible handwriting in the same red marker was squeezed into any space that wasn’t too dark to obscure it – filling the white border at the edge of the map.  ‘Gone’.  ‘Left city’.  ‘Hospitalized’.  There was a circle around one of the Merchants’ symbols at the school. The next target.

He knew he should feel relieved.  Knew that he should appreciate that Aisha had tried to do something to help him even if she wasn’t the best at expressing concern or affection.

He only felt guilty.

He’d been wallowing, stumbling around their headquarters in a fugue, and Aisha had apparently been going all out, taking out their enemies and clearing their territory of threats.  It had been a big task for the two of them, and she was doing it on her own.

Why am I here?  He wondered.  He wasn’t a leader anymore, he wasn’t doing his job with his territory, wasn’t protecting the people he was important to, wasn’t working towards anything…

He shook his head, as if to shake off the thoughts that were plaguing him.

It had been four or five days since the Nine had left the city, and he’d been, what?  Spinning in place?  Sinking deeper and deeper into this well of negative emotion?

Hated this.  Hated that his body, which he’d always seen as something under his absolute control, a tool to be honed, was betraying him with this anxiety, panic and weakness.  His power, too, was a tool that now carried so many negative connotations.

He hated that everything seemed so ugly now.  The city was soiled, ruined, and festering.  His friends and family were tainted with negative associations.

Seizing territory felt both hollow and it reminded him that this business with Coil might collapse soon, or the city would be condemned, and he would have nowhere to go and nothing to do after that.  Except dwell on memories he didn’t want to dwell on.  It was hard to convince himself to care, especially with the alleged end of the world.

Of course, he couldn’t not deal with Coil.  Taylor wouldn’t stick around if they didn’t, for one thing, and he knew that the little girl deserved to be rescued.

I spent three hours in that refrigerator.  Dinah’s spent nearly that many months with Coil.

And though it was nebulous, he feared the future.  He’d spent so many years of his life so sure in what he was doing, how A led to B led to C, that he wasn’t sure what to do now that the possibilities were so open-ended.

Even the simplest things were screwed up, now.  Sleep in particular was hard to come by, and was riddled with terror dreams that left him more exhausted than when he’d put his head down to the pillow.

He clenched his fist, feeling the sting where his hand was still bleeding.

He’d go after Aisha, lend some assistance, maybe, or make sure that everything was going okay.

He couldn’t even explain his own line of thinking to himself.  He didn’t always like her, but he was barely able to think straight when he thought about Aisha suffering anything close to what he’d been through.

Aisha would be annoyed, even upset.  She was already feeling pressured, but he had his own pressures, his own concerns.  It would reach a critical point one way or the other, but for now he needed to check on her.

He paused when he’d re-entered his own room and found himself facing his costume as it hung on the stand.  The eyes were surrounded by ridges of horns, the teeth curled and curved into one another.  A demon, a creature of nightmare.

“…I could give you a skull face like that helmet of yours, only real… and crank your power up to the max, always on, give you some biological imperative to encourage cannibalism, see how long it takes for them to eliminate you if they can’t see or hear you…”

“You’re gone,” Brian growled to the empty room, seizing the mask in both hands and pulling it free of the stand.  “We won.  Shut up.”

Her giggling was so vivid in his memory that it sounded like she was right next to him.

He stared at the mask, glad it wasn’t the skull mask that Bonesaw had referenced.  Hard to explain why.

He was reaching to pull his mask on when he felt something brush against his bare arm.

A moth?

“I sure hope that’s you,” he said.  “Because I’m talking to myself too much already.”

The moth flew in a lazy circle in front of him.

“Right.  Meet you at the door,” he said.

He hesitated, then put the mask back on the stand.

A few minutes passed as he waited.  He found himself debating whether he’d misunderstood the moth’s movements as something they weren’t.

I remember when I didn’t have these doubts about what I was doing.

She wasn’t in costume.  It was odd, seeing her approach from a distance, observing her uninterrupted over a longer span of time.  She conveyed an eerie kind of confidence that he knew she didn’t have at her core.  Some of that was how she unflinchingly looked forward.  She didn’t react as the wind blew her hair across her face, didn’t turn to look around the street as she crossed an intersection.

He might have to say something about that.  If that was her using her power to assess her surroundings and keep an eye out for trouble, she should avoid doing it when she was in civilian wear.

She stopped a short distance away, holding grocery bags in one hand and tucking her hair back into place with the other.  She wore a black tank top, jeans and rubber boots, with a sweatshirt tied around her waist.  That last article of clothing would be to conceal weapons, he guessed.  Her glasses caught the light from the sun to the west, turning almost opaque in the glare as she looked his way.

“Decided to check in on me?”

“Imp asked me to,” she said.  Her stare was uncomfortable, analyzing him.

He nodded.  Imp’s earlier behavior made some more sense in light of that fact.  She’d wanted to keep him here so he wouldn’t miss Taylor’s arrival.  He felt self-conscious of the wounds on his hands.  She’d seen them, but she hadn’t commented.

“But I wanted to anyways,” she added.

Again, he nodded.  What could he say to that?  He changed the focus, asking, “The bag?”

“I thought I’d make dinner for the two of us, if you wanted.  You can say no.”

“Okay.  Sure.”

He moved out of the way to let her inside, then shut and locked the door.

Not that a lock would do anything against the kinds of people who haunted his nightmares.  It was the uglier side of dealing with capes, knowing that there was no measure of security that would ever stand up to all of the bad guys.  There would always be people like the Nine, like Leviathan and Behemoth.  Forces as inevitable and unstoppable as a natural disaster.  The best analogy he could come up with was the Cold War, the sense that bombs could start dropping at a moment’s notice, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.

Unlike the major players in the Cold War, the monsters he was thinking about weren’t so rational that they’d stand down with Scion in the picture.

“Hey,” Taylor spoke up, “You okay?”

“Hm?”

“You’re sort of staring off into space.  Come on, sit down and talk to me.”

Brian nodded and followed her into the kitchen.  He opted to stand instead of taking the stool.

“Chicken breasts okay?”

“Sure.”

She reached into the grocery bag and retrieved a ziploc baggie with chicken in marinade.  “Was going to bring pork chops, but I just served this huge pork shoulder roast for everyone in my territory the other night, and then we had leftovers so I’ve had it for lunch a few times.  Kind of sick of it.”

“Ah.”

“We’ve got lots of kids running around.  It’s kind of nice, but hard.  It’s like they’re totally unrestrained, so when they’re happy, they’re ecstatic, and when they’re unhappy they’re miserable, you know?”

“I haven’t spent a lot of time around kids.  Only Aisha, when I was younger, and I think she might have been a special case.”

“She’s really coming into her own, getting comfortable with her powers, figuring out where she needs to be and when.  Can’t be easy, when the rest of us don’t know where she is half the time.”

“Did she put herself in any danger?”

Taylor started frying up the chicken.  “Yes and no.  She took down Night, but Night wasn’t able to use her power, had no idea she was there.  She was safe.”

Took down Night.  Aisha?

That bothered him, and he couldn’t say why.

“We got Victor.  Not sure if I like how Lisa sprung that on me, but we got him.  We were thinking you could try borrowing his power, see if you don’t get any permanent boosts.”

“Sure.  Aisha mentioned that.  I don’t know if it’ll work.”

“No?”

Brian tried to organize his answer about why in his head.  What had Bonesaw said?  Something about passengers.

He glanced over at Taylor, who was busy with the sides, something with sweet potato, some parsnips.  She looked over her shoulder at him, and he was struck with the image of her lying on the ground, Bonesaw straddling her, her forehead a bloody mess, a small electric saw grinding through the bone of her skull with an ear-splitting whine.

He looked away.

“What is it?”

“Trying to get my thoughts in order.  Tired.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shook his head.  “Victor’s power… If we supposedly have these ‘passengers’ in our heads, guiding our power use, giving us the brain structures we need to manage the powers, I don’t think I have that with any powers I borrow.  They’re weaker, but I don’t have that knowledge about what’s going on, or that extra measure of control.”

“Want to try on me?  I know I wasn’t ok with it before, but I think I can handle it if I know it’s coming.”

He considered for a moment.  “Okay.”

He reached out and let the darkness stream from his fingertips.  It wove in and out of itself, coiled at things that weren’t there, alternately creeping and lunging forward.  Heavy, it drifted to the ground to spill out there.  It didn’t obscure his sight, but he could tell where it was, almost as if he were seeing in strict black and white when he looked through the darkness, but the color was still there.  Bad analogy.  The difference was stark, but he couldn’t pinpoint what separated it from anything else.

The contact with Taylor was like having his eyes shut and then opening them as a firecracker burst spectacularly, seeing the sparks scattered over half a mile.  Only the sparks were alive, moving.

Unsure about how to use the ability, he pushed out.  There was no control, no sense of what he was controlling.  He was the gust of wind, and Taylor’s bugs were the leaves that blew in that wind.

She pushed back, and won with little effort.  He could feel her moving the individual bugs, the casual hand with which she picked out the ones she wanted.

“It’s sort of calming, when you think about it,” she said.  “You realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things.  We’re not really the rulers of this planet, we’re just tenants, and it’s the small stuff, the bacteria and insects and the plant matter that really runs it all.  Even the big stuff, the nasty, scary stuff, it’s all pretty small in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?”

Is that a good thing?

“I know I sound a little crazy when I say that, but really, you get a glimpse of these bugs as they go about their lives, almost mechanical in how they follow their instincts, you see them breeding, eating, building nests, and dying, and you see how they just saturate every aspect of our existence, in the air, the dark corners, the insides of the walls, they eat our dead.  I can’t sense them, but there’re skin mites all over our bodies and in our eyelashes… I guess it takes me out of myself when I think about it, reminds me that we’re only one part of this vast system, we’re cogs in the universe, in our own way.  Seeing the little details makes me feel like the big problems aren’t so personal, they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Rambling aside, she looked more at ease than he’d ever seen someone in his darkness.  She was blind, deaf, and she leaned against the counter, staring off into space as she talked.  Even the talking, it caught him off guard.  Being blind, unable to see the reactions of the person you were talking to, not getting any feedback, most people would struggle more, much for the same reasons they found it awkward to speak to an answering machine.

“I don’t know if that makes sense, but I usually try reaching out to these guys when things get bad.  In retrospect, it kind of centers me.”

“I wish I could find the same comfort in my power,” Brian murmured.

“Did you say something?  I think I just felt some vibrations in the air, but it’s hard to tell with your power out there.”

He didn’t reply.

Instead, he looked at Taylor.  She wasn’t conventionally attractive, he had to admit.  Her mouth was wide for her face, her ears large enough that they stuck out of the mess of black curls that draped over her shoulders.  And her shoulders: narrow, bony, deceptively delicate in appearance.  She somehow managed to be self-conscious and yet unaware of the way she held herself.  The seeming fragility of her body was accented by the angles she seemed to settle into when she rested: her wrist bent at a right angle as she picked at one of her cuticles with her thumbnail, her leg raised so her right foot could rest flat against the cabinet, her shoulders tilted forward a fraction.  It was as if her skin didn’t fit and she couldn’t stretch both arms or both legs out to their full lengths at the same time.

It wasn’t so dramatic that he’d notice if he wasn’t already paying attention, but it was a quirk he could note as he studied her.  It made him think of a bird, or one of her insects, but… he didn’t feel he was being unflattering by thinking it.

In fact, as he looked, he could note how long her arms and legs were, the length of her neck and torso.  She was still growing, she had grown even in the months they’d known each other.  Somehow, he could see how the groundwork was being laid for the finished product, a body that wouldn’t be skinny, but slender, long-legged.  If she was still growing, and if her dad was any indication, she’d be tall.

Would she be a trophy wife, or turn heads?  Probably not.  But he could see how someone might come to look past the quirks, even come to like them, and they’d find nothing to complain about in her.  How someone might want to hold her in their arms-

She spoke, interrupting his train of thought, “Okay.  You probably have some reason for keeping the darkness up this long.  I won’t complain, since you’re probably working things out in your own way, like I was talking about with my bugs, but maybe keep an eye on the chicken?”  She offered a small laugh, “I could use my bugs to check on it, maybe, but I don’t think either of us want that.”

He glanced at the stove, prodding the chicken.  No problems.  He turned down the heat to be safe.

“Look, Brian, I don’t want to stir up any unhappy thoughts, but I don’t want to ignore the subject either.  I did some reading, and there’s a pretty scary number of people who have their second trigger events and then have a bad ending shortly after.  I think it has to do with the toll it takes on you, the event… I’m… I’m not good at this.  At the people stuff.  But I have been through some dark spots.  My mom died not too long ago, I can’t remember if we really talked about that.  And there was the bullying, I sometimes wonder how much that influences what I do and why.  I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but I guess I’m saying I’m here for whatever you need.”

He expected there to be a swell of that dark anxiety that had plagued him as she raised the subject of what had happened, but when his heart pounded, it wasn’t the same as it had been earlier.  Through the sliver of power he had borrowed from her, he could feel the bugs at work, performing a hundred subtly different tasks, sweeping over areas in formation, drawing lines of silk across doorways and roadways, marking the people elsewhere in the neighborhood, keeping an eye on their movements, gathering en masse when people weren’t in a room to check tabletops and cabinets.

And Taylor was just standing there, leaning agains the counter, calm.  She was blind, deaf, and the person at the other end of the conversation hadn’t responded for at least a minute.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have her own ugly thoughts plaguing her, a thousand responsibilities, a hundred reasons to feel angry or guilty, but she’d somehow found a way to let herself be at ease here.

Or was that the same deceptive confidence she’d displayed as she’d approached his headquarters?

He idly wondered if that veneer would crack if he surprised her here.  But he didn’t want to be mean as he did it, that felt wrong.

Something else.  Almost on instinct, Brian stepped forward, reaching for her, then stopped, letting his hands drop to his sides.  If he reached out to hold her, that would be a breach of trust, wouldn’t it? He-

“Hey,” Taylor said, her voice so quiet he could barely hear it.  Slightly louder, she said, “Go ahead.”

She knew?  But-  He felt out with her power, saw the ‘spark’ of the bugs she’d placed on the cuffs of his pants, on the edge of his sleeve.

How did she keep track of all that?

And how was he supposed to respond, now?  He barely had any friends, outside of ‘work’, his contact with girls had been limited to flirting, more ‘work’ and fighting with his sister.

Swallowing, he reached out and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, gently pulling her close.  He couldn’t shake the idea that she’d break if he squeezed too hard, so his touch was light.

She hugged his lower body, pressing her head against his collarbone, both actions surprising him with their strength and ferocity.

He willed the darkness away, banished the sparks that, as Taylor had suggested, painted them as very small people in a big world.  As the light returned, it was just them.

“This is what you wanted?” she murmured.

“You’re so still,” he replied, not even sure what he meant.

“That’s good,” she answered him, her non-sequitur almost matching his own.

They stayed like that for some time, his chin resting on top of her head.  He could feel her breathing, her heartbeat, and the warmth of her breath against his chest.  He felt tears in his eyes, blinked them away, unsure why they’d even come in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t be.”

He couldn’t be quite sure what he was sorry for.  This awkwardness, the length of time this had gone on?  For putting her in a position like this, when she knew he was vulnerable and would have a hard time of saying no?  He didn’t get the sense that she minded.  If she had, he suspected, there would be some sign, some movement, some attempt to pull away.

Maybe he’d said it because it had taken him this long?

He dismissed the doubts and hesitation.

“Can we?” he pulled away slightly, and looked in the direction of the couch.

“Um,” her eyes widened a fraction.

“Not… not that.  Just-” he paused, trying to find a way to say what he wanted to say without putting her in a position where she couldn’t say no.

“Okay.”  She seemed to get his meaning.  She led him by one hand into the living room.  He laid down first, arranging the cushions into a makeshift pillow.  She took that time to remove the knife, the gun and the various contents of her pockets, placing them on the nearby coffee table.

Once he was arranged, he was the one to pull on her hand.  Moving gingerly, as if she expected him to react badly with every motion she made, she found a way to lie across him without lying on top of him, her head on his shoulder, both legs draping across his pelvis, her upper body pressed against his side.  If he hadn’t noted that quirk of hers, how she bent herself at odd angles, he might have thought she’d be uncomfortable.  As it was, he somehow didn’t feel the need to worry.  He pulled her closer with one arm.

For days, he’d been seeking some way to get centered, to stop that downward spiral where anxiety and fear gave him cause to be more anxious, more afraid.  He’d hurt himself doing it, and he’d very nearly hurt his relationship with Aisha.

He’d been trying to do it alone.  He’d needed a rock, an anchor.  If he’d been asked months ago, weeks ago, even days ago, he wasn’t sure he would have believed that was true, or that it would be Taylor, of all people.

“The stove,” he said, starting to sit up.

“Handled,” Taylor replied, pushing him back down.

He looked over and saw the dials had been set to ‘off’.

“Thank you,” he said.  It took him a second to raise the courage, but he kissed the top of her head.

She nodded, her head rubbing against him.

“Really,” he said, reaching over to tilt her head so she was looking up at him.  He kissed her on the lips this time. “Thank you.”

She didn’t reply, only smiling and nestling in close again.

Taylor fell asleep before he did.  He laid there for some time, trying to match his breathing to hers, as if he could copy her and fall asleep the same way.  It was almost as if he’d forgotten how.

He wasn’t all better.  Wasn’t sure he would ever be.  He just had to think about it, and he could almost see Bonesaw in the kitchen, waiting, watching.  Whatever barriers he’d erected between reality and the uglier possibilities, they’d taken a beating.

But he could breathe, now.

His eyes closed.

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