Monarch 16.13

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With Grue’s help, I seated myself on the intact edge of the destroyed swarmbox, scattering my insects to the walls and ceiling of the room.  Grue paced a little, while I eyed Imp and Bitch.  My female teammates didn’t look entirely convinced, and I couldn’t blame them.  They’d just seen someone who matched my description attacking them.  The nighttime darkness and the lack of city lights hadn’t helped, and the obscuring swarm of bugs had helped hide the details from the moment the impostor gave them reason to suspect her.

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

“We arrived at the place he was keeping Dinah, she grabbed my hand, we turned around, and the headlights flashed.  Then I was somewhere else.”

“He switched to his highbeams, momentarily.  Don’t know about the others, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark.  I couldn’t see anything, used my darkness to try to cover us in case he was pulling something, but nothing happened.  Turned around and you were fine.”

“Except it wasn’t me.”

Grue nodded slowly.  “Looked like you, sounded like you.”

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

“Didn’t strike me as much of an actor.”

“Then I don’t know,” I said, feeling lame.  I knew I didn’t sound convincing.

“What happened?  Was he only trying to separate you from us?”

“I’m ninety-five percent sure he tried to kill me.”

“What’s the other five percent?”  Grue asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure of anything.  But he didn’t have a bomb waiting to go off when I arrived, so that leaves me with some doubt.  He did shoot me, and set the building on fire around me.  And he had soldiers waiting to gun me down if I stepped outside.”

“Did he want you to come here, to frame you?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Doesn’t make sense.  Just as easy for ‘Skitter’ to disappear with Dinah, leaving you guys angry but still loyal.  I think the way he wanted it, I’d die of the gunshot or burn up in a housefire, and he could use the lack of living reporters in Brockton Bay alongside some bribe money for the Travelers to ensure you guys didn’t know what he’d pulled.  Maybe something comes out later about me betraying you, to put it in perspective and put any lingering doubts to rest.”

“He teleported you into a burning house, shot you, surrounded you with soldiers.  And you escaped,” Imp said.

“Barely.”  I touched the knot of metal where the bullet had settled in my armor.  “I guess it’s bulletproof after all.  I got away because of stuff he wasn’t aware of, mainly.  My costume, tactics I’ve been using in the field, the fact I had a gun.  Don’t know if Calvert knew about that.  Are you okay, Rachel?”

Rachel didn’t respond.  Her head was turned my way, and I could imagine her staring, trying to read me.  Her hand gripped the chain at Bastard’s neck.

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

“It wasn’t her,” Grue confirmed.  “I saw with her power.  That box was controlling the bugs.”

Bitch nodded slowly.  I couldn’t see her expression to know whether she was glaring at me or narrowing her eyes behind her mask.

“If you have any doubts,” I said, “You can stay in a position to attack me if something happens.  One whistle or one hand signal away from commanding Bastard or Bentley to tear me apart.  I hope you won’t leap to any conclusions, but-”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?  Because I don’t want there to be any hard feelings or… I don’t want there to be hard feelings.”  I’d almost said retaliation, but I’d decided I didn’t want to bring that up.

“It’s fine,” she said, and there was a touch of anger to the words.  “This shadow and dagger shit pisses me off.”

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

Bitch made a low, grunting noise in her throat that fell somewhere between a huff of anger, a belch and a grunt.  “The way you acted before, the way that person acted when she shot me and the way you’re acting now, none of it makes sense, and maybe that’s ’cause I’m stupid.  But I’m going to handle this my way.  Next time someone shoots at me, I kill them.  Or I have Bastard eat their hands and feet.”

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

“Says the person who just emptied a gun clip at us,” Imp said.  When Grue and I turned her way, she raised her hands, “Kidding.  I’m just kidding.”

“…Want me to kill them instead?”  Bitch asked.

“No!  No.  Just… nevermind.  But hold back a bit for now.  And don’t call yourself stupid.  You think in a different way, that’s all.”

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“We should talk rescue plans,” I said.  “Calvert invited Tattletale to join him, probably so she wouldn’t tip us off about the body double.  That means she’s probably caught.  Regent too, since we sent him to look after her.  This is the kind of situation we were hoping to avoid by playing along with his grand plan.”

“Having to tackle his full forces to save Tattletale, Regent and Dinah.”

“Right.  If we go charging into this, we or one of his hostages will get killed.”

“I could go in,” Imp said.  “Get them, walk them out.”

“No.  He knows us.  He’s anticipated something like this.  Probably has for the Travelers, too.  He’ll have planned around our powers, with counters in mind for each of us.  That means video cameras to keep an eye out for you.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

“It won’t work if he’s holed up somewhere safe.  Not with the countermeasures he’ll have put in place.  If he’s in his underground base until this all blows over, then he’ll be impossible to access,” I said.  I had to stop to cough.

Nobody chimed in with an answer or idea while I recovered.

I went on.  “If he’s in the PRT offices, then we’ll probably have to get past the Travelers, his soldiers, his PRT officers, any countermeasures he’s put in place and any countermeasures the PRT put in place.  It’d be a question of staggering out his various lines of defense so the more questionable ones are out of sight of the good guys.”

“And he still has his hostages,” Grue said.

Fuck it,” I groaned, then I coughed more.

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

I shook my head, then regretted it.  I felt dizzy.  Vaguely nauseous.  It was as though simply stopping and letting the adrenaline kick down a notch was letting symptoms emerge.  “Can’t.  Not now.”

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

“I’ll manage,” I said.  I turned my eyes to the place I’d been lying while Imp stood over me.  “What if I was dead?”

“Hm?”

“Calvert doesn’t have a way to know how this turned out.  Do you have phone service?”

Grue reached for his phone, but Imp had hers out first.  “Sure.”

“He cut my phone off.  I threw it away in case it could be used to track me, or in case it was how he was getting a hold on me with that teleportation device.  If he suspected you, wouldn’t he do the same, limit your options?”

“So you think he thinks maybe something happened.  Or he’s waiting to see if we bought his ruse.”

“He knows I was in the area.  I attacked his men trying to save you guys.  He had gunmen and explosives teams ready to wipe you off the map if you caught on to what that impostor was doing.  So what happens if you call him and tell him you killed me?”

“He asks us to meet him at one of those secure locations you mentioned, and we can’t refuse without revealing that we know what he tried to pull.  And destroying that box might have clued him in anyways.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“When the other Skitter disappeared with the girl, how did she do it?  Exactly.”

“Teleporting,” I said.  “Threw the first flashbang, teleported out, leaving rubble and another flashbang behind.”

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

“Just thinking something through.  Give me a second to think.”  He pointed at me, “Make sure you’re taking deep breaths in the meantime.  Even if it hurts.”

I nodded and did as he asked.  For a little while, I ignored my bugs and focused on tallying the damage I’d sustained.  My breath wheezed and rattled, my chest hurt every time it or something attached to it moved, and my eyes stung when I opened them.  Not that there was any point.

Grue was pacing, breathing hard, while Imp and Bitch stood by.  It was a bit of a reversal of the norm.  I could sense Bitch scratching around Bastard’s ears, her fingernails digging in deep to get past the areas with armor and bony spikes.  Imp was on the other side of the room, leaning against one of the wooden pillars and watching her brother.

“I’m calling him,” Grue announced, still panting a bit.  Before any of us could protest, he said, “Quiet.”

I closed my mouth.

He put the phone on speaker.  I could hear it ring.

Funny how something so mundane as the ring of a phone could sound so ominous and eerie, given the context of a situation.

“Grue,” It was Calvert’s voice.  “What-”

When Grue spoke, his words were growls, barks.  “You better not have had anything to do with this, or I swear, this is over.  We’re done, gone.”

I could virtually hear Calvert switching mental gears to try to adapt to this.  “Slow down and then explain.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Skitter attacked us and then she used your technology to leave the scene.  I know you wanted to keep that girl, but going so far as to fucking turn on us-”

“Grue,” Calvert’s voice was hard, firm, “Slow down.  It doesn’t make sense that I’d arrange things that way.  Why go through the motions of giving my pet to Skitter, only to… you haven’t fully explained what happened.  You said she attacked you?  Are you sure?”

“Pretty fucking sure, Coil.  She shot Rachel and then turned on me.  Imp disarmed her.  Then she teleported away using the same device you described to us an hour ago.”

“I… I see.  Is Rachel all right?  And who else was with you, my driver?  You’re all unharmed?”

“Your driver went ahead.  No, we’re all fine, except for Skitter.”

“You said she teleported away.”

“She didn’t get more than two blocks away.  We chased her down and stopped her.”

My eyes widened a bit.  I could imagine Calvert’s next words before he spoke them, was already moving.

“Show me.  Send a picture through the phone.”

I shifted position so I lay in the depression that Bastard’s front paws had made in the swarm box.  It was a scene I had to stage in seconds, using dragonflies and wasps to carry hairs across my mask, moving my hand so my wrist bent at an awkward angle where the metal folded.  The final touch was bringing all the bugs from around the swarm box to carpet me and the floor.

Not a half second after I finished, I heard the digitized camera sound.

“I see.  That’s quite unfortunate.  Where’s Dinah?”

You know where Dinah is.

“I don’t know,” Grue said.  “I’m far more interested in hearing how Skitter managed to use your technology to do this.”

“You’re sure?”

“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Grue said.  “She threw a flashbang, but light and darkness don’t affect me the way they do others.  You know that much.”

Grue was lying, adding an element Calvert wasn’t aware of, to throw him off track.  Good.

“I didn’t, believe it or not,” Calvert said.  “And I don’t know how she would have gotten access to the controls.  One moment.  I’ll have to call you right back.”

My swarm felt Grue stiffen.  He raised his voice, “Don’t hang up on me!”

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

We stared at each other.  Or the others stared and I used my swarm sense to observe.  As a group, we were still and quiet for long seconds, the dial tone still blaring.

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Being aggressive, keeping him on his heels.  If he’s constantly defending himself, he won’t be able to turn things back on us.”

“Except he hung up.  He’s going to think through his options and give you an excuse when he’s ready.”

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

I frowned.  I was thinking back to the meeting I’d had with the school, when my dad had been with me and we’d accused the trio of bullying.  Both Emma’s dad and the school had played their little power games.

“It’s a tactic,” I said.  “He regains control of the situation by being the one who can call back, and it helps establish the idea of him being an authority figure.”

“Damn,” he said.  “Sorry.  It made sense in my head, but I didn’t think it through, I’m tired.  Didn’t sleep last night.  I figured it was better to call sooner than later.”

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

He didn’t get a chance.  The phone rang.

“This wasn’t the kind of response I wanted, Coil,” Grue growled into the phone, the second he’d answered.

I heard the beep as he switched it to speaker phone.  Calvert was already talking.  “- have sequestered Regent in my custody, out of concern that he controlled Victor to have the young man hack into my systems.”

“You and I both know that Victor didn’t have that kind of access, and we didn’t know about your teleportation technology until an hour ago.”

“I fear Skitter may have known, and I’m simply covering my bases.  Once we’ve verified what happened and that Regent wasn’t complicit, I’ll release him.  You can understand where I’m wanting to be careful, given this turn of events.”

“I don’t understand anything, Coil,” I heard a tremor of emotion in Grue’s voice.  “I liked Skitter, and she’s dead.  The use of the teleporter says you’re complicit.  I want to look you in the eye and believe you weren’t a part of this.”

“We’ll sort this matter out.  If you’ll come to my headquarters, we can discuss this.”

“No.  Not your headquarters.  Not with the possibility you pulled this shit on us.  We’ll meet somewhere else.  Somewhere open.”

There was a pause.  “As you wish.  Name a location.”

Grue, this time, was the one caught off guard.  Calvert’s response was fast, and Grue clearly didn’t have an area in mind.

A place where we’d be able to set up faster than Calvert, ideally open, not riddled with attack routes and vantage points for his soldiers

I thought of a spot, and the air caught in my throat as I suppressed a small noise.  I almost coughed.  I drew the word in the air with my bugs.

“The market, north end,” Grue said, reading it.  “You know it?”

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

“Right.  You come with only one small squad of soldiers, bring Tattletale and Regent.”

“If-”  Calvert started.

Grue hung up on him.  He looked at me, “Authority, right?”

“Right,” I said.  But all I could hear was the emotion in his voice when he’d been talking about the idea that I’d been dead.  Pretending.  Grue wasn’t a guy who showed his emotions, he didn’t strike me as an actor.  Hearing that had affected me more than I thought it would.  I didn’t want to ask if it was because he really cared or if it was because he’d tapped into something else, some vulnerability that his recent trauma had left open to him.

I coughed lightly.  “The market’s a good spot.  His people were at the south end of town.  It’ll take him a bit to get there, so he won’t be able to stage any kind of ambush.”

“It works.  But if we’re meeting him, what are you doing?”

“Staying nearby,” I said.  “I’ll wait in the wings.  In the meantime, we should see if we can get our hands on something that we could have Bastard maul to the point that it looks like my mutilated remains.”

“There a butcher still in service anywhere?” Grue asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I replied.

The market was almost empty, an expanse of asphalt devoid of cars, surrounded by tall grass.  There were still faint marks where the treads and scoops of bulldozers had pushed the dirt and debris to the far side of the lot.  Only a few stalls were standing, but the displays were empty.

I felt exposed, naked.  I was wearing only my old costume and the built-in makeshift skirt to cover me where the fire had eaten away at the leggings.  My utility compartment was the one that had been damaged during our altercation with the Nine, holding the bare essentials, while my new mask and the upper half of my remade costume were presently being worn by the fake we’d made.  The sacrifice of the costume hurt, and the process of putting the fake together hadn’t been pretty.

The head, upper body and arms were simply taken from a child’s mannequin we’d salvaged from the inside of a store display and stuffed into the top of my costume.  To get the meat for the torn midsection, I’d had to use my bugs to root out and kill a raccoon from the bins of a dumpster.  I’d cut it open and tied the entrails to the base of the mannequin’s torso with my spiders.  A wig that vaguely matched my own hair was simply bound to the head.  We soaked the body, the wig in particular, with the blood of the dead raccoon.

Bentley’s tail wagged as he carried the thing delicately in his heavy jaws, one arm and a bloody mess of hair dangling from the left side of his mouth, raccoon intestines hanging out the other.

I headed into the tall grass and hunkered down.  Volumes of insects and arachnids that I’d picked up during our trek to the market settled around me, hidden at the base of the grass.

Adrenaline kept me awake, despite the fatigue that I was experiencing.  It had been an intense few days, an intense few weeks, with minimal chance to rest.  My body was probably struggling to heal, and draining what little reserves I had remaining.  Still, I wasn’t about to doze off.

Calvert arrived after ten or fifteen minutes, pulling up with one armored van.  All in all, he had only four soldiers with him.  He walked within twenty feet of me as he crossed the tall grass.  I was aware of his footsteps crushing my bugs as he passed over the swarm.

Oblivious, he approached Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs.

“Ah.  You brought Skitter.  It seems there’s little doubt she’s dead.  A terrible shame.”

“No kidding,” Imp said.

“I’d suggest my man look over the body, verify that it was her, but I suppose there’s no point trying.”

“Bentley wouldn’t let you get that close to his treat,” Bitch said.

Bentley growled, as if he understood the words and wanted to make it absolutely clear.

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Grue said.  “Calling her a treat?”

“She betrayed us,” Imp said.  “Why do you care?”

“Enough,” Calvert said, his voice hard.  “Enough bickering.  My time is valuable, and I’m not willing to waste it on entertaining this ruse.”

I didn’t have many bugs deployed on my allies or on Calvert, but I could still feel the others tense in surprise.

“Yes, I know.  I commend you for trying, I might have believed you, but I do have other resources on hand.”

“Then-” Grue started.

“Ah, bup bup,” Calvert raised a hand, “I was talking.  As I was saying, I have other resources available.  I have a small cadre of supervillains, a small group of heroes, all the resources of the PRT and PRT computer systems, and all of their tools.”

He snapped his fingers, and soldiers began to teleport down to the edges of the market.  Most were positioned so that the Undersiders would have to run off the edge of the pavement, over the grass and into the water if they wanted to get away.  Surrounding a target while holding guns only promised to get people shot.  The effect, as it was, was good enough.

The Travelers teleported in behind Calvert, followed by Chariot, Circus, Über and Leet, and a few of his lieutenants.  People in suits.  One held a laptop while the other typed on it.

Every gun, tinker made or otherwise, was pointed at my teammates.

Another gun pressed against the back of my head.  Soldiers had teleported in behind me.

I felt despair sweep through me.  No.  Too many.  Didn’t think he could teleport this many in.

The gun barrel prodded me, and I stood.  I walked with the gun pressed between my shoulderblades, just above the spot where my utility compartment hung.

“Skitter.  How nice of you to join us.”

“Cut the fake civility,” I said.  “Where are our teammates?”

“Regent and Tattletale are safe and locked up, rest assured.  I must say, I’m quite disappointed.  I really had hoped this would work out, and the loss of the Undersiders sets me back by weeks or months in the grand scheme of my plan.  Imp, you can cease trying to run.  My men have cameras on you,” Calvert gestured toward the laptop.

Imp moved her mask to spit on the ground, just to my right.  It was a bit of a shock to find her standing there.

“Farewell, Under-“

“Wait.” I said.  Raising my voice made me cough.

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

I hurried to recover and speak before he could give the order.  “Dead man’s switch.”

Calvert sighed.  “Ah.  You are irritating, you know?  On more than one occasion, I know, you’ve argued for the sake of the greater good.  I’ve viewed the recordings the PRT has of your appearances at major events and I’ve come to know you fairly well.  It’s rather hypocritical that you’re now working so hard to fight against the greater good.”

“Against your rule.”

“Essentially so.  If you simply would have died quietly, the Undersiders wouldn’t have been stirred to rebellion, I could have established a peace we haven’t seen since the day Scion arrived and everyone involved here could have walked away happier and healthier.  Your friends included.”

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

“Tattletale excepted, I admit.  Too dangerous to be left unchecked.  A shame.  Now, you were saying?”

“I arranged a dead man’s switch.  Kind of.  Unless one of my subordinates receives a message from me every twenty minutes, she’ll mass-send emails to everyone important and even a few unimportant people.”

“Detailing the true nature of Thomas Calvert, I suspect?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate to break it to you, dear Skitter, but this isn’t enough leverage for me to let you walk away.”

I turned my head in the direction of my teammates.  With my power, I noted their presence.  Grue, Imp, Bitch, her dog.

“None of us?” I asked.

“No.  I’m more confident in my ability to handle the chaos that any email creates than I am in my ability to get you and your teammates under my thumb again.”

“Okay,” I said.  I could feel sweat running cold down the back of my neck.  “Then I have a few questions, and a couple of requests.  Satisfy that, and I can disable the dead man’s switch.”

“The requests first, if you please.”

“Dinah goes free when you’re done.  You don’t keep her forever.”

“Agreed.”

“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

“I haven’t and I won’t have reason to.”

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

Calvert nodded, but I could sense his patience was running out.

“You do what you can to stop Jack from doing what he can to end the world.  If you have capes at your disposal, you give them some job related to that.  To stopping it.”

“Fine.  Is that it?”

“If none of us here get to live, at least promise Tattletale gets to.”

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

“I’ll need to see her, to verify she’s okay.  I get that you can’t prove you haven’t gone after my dad in retaliation for earlier, but you can bring her here.”

Calvert nodded at Chariot, who pressed a button on his wrist.

Tattletale appeared in a flash of light, arms bound behind her, legs shackled.  She wore headgear that had her blindfolded and gagged.  I couldn’t quite tell, but it looked like the ears were plugged too.

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

“No.  It could be a body double, like you arranged for me.  I’d like to confirm with her.”

“No.  The restraints are in place for a reason.”

“Then it’s a body double,” I said.  “And I’ll let the timer run down on this damaging piece of email.”

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

“Use your power,” I told him.  “I’m going to say the words rose-L.  She’ll reply with something green, followed by the letter A.”

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

“Great.  And if she doesn’t, shoot us.  If there’s a problem, go with your other world.”

“You know how my power works?” Calvert sighed.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised in the end, with the name she chose.  No.”

“It’s all I’m asking for.  You can send your computer experts to the destination I name, they’ll check the computer memory to verify no messages were sent, check the phones of everyone on my call history that you don’t already know, and then you’ll know you’re in the clear.  That’s what I’m offering you in exchange for the assurance that at least Tattletale will get to live.  Peace of mind.”

“I could kill your liaison, you realize.  She’s a loose end.”

I thought of Charlotte, hoped I wouldn’t regret getting her involved.  “I hope you won’t.  All I’ve told her is that she should await my message and send the file I composed if she doesn’t hear from me regularly.  I hope you’ll let Tattletale and my civilian live, but if you won’t, if you break your word, I guess I’ll have to live with you looking a little worse in the eyes of the people who work for you.  Like the Travelers.”

“Don’t bring us into this, Skitter,” Trickster said.  “This is your mess.  Your consequences.”

“I didn’t do anything.  He was the one who turned on us first,” I protested.

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

Calvert sighed audibly.  “As Skitter knows about my power and ever so kindly revealed the broad strokes of it to everyone in earshot, I suppose there’s no loss in explaining.  I tortured one member of the Undersiders for information, in another world, days ago.  They revealed that you were plotting to turn on me if I refused to release Dinah.  I cannot afford to release her, so my hand was forced.”

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

“How did you make those body doubles?  Genesis?”

“The old-fashioned way.  The one that replaced you was a Sudanese child soldier.  I was preparing for the eventuality of your betrayal since the day after Leviathan attacked and your… wobbly allegiances became perfectly clear.  It’s amusing, but the files you stole from the PRT offices after rejoining the Undersiders supplied much of the video footage my hired experts used to coach her in the particulars of how you move and speak.  When you went to convince the Mayor of our way of thinking, Trickster carried the devices Leet designed to record the particular signals you use to command your bugs.”

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.

“Whatever.”

“Any further questions?”

“Why didn’t you drop me on top of a bomb?”

“An unfortunate side effect of Leet’s power.  Leet believes it was the proximity to the bomb or the particular signature of the vat of acid that made it so likely to occur, but with my power I observed that it wasn’t merely a chance that the teleportation would fail and your well-trained body double would be caught instead, but a surety.  No less than twelve tries with the variables changed slightly.  Leet’s power sabotages him, it seems.”

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

“Passenger?  Ah, that’s what Bonesaw calls the agents.  Yes, I suppose that might be the case.  In any event, we nearly ran out of time before verifying that guns, fire and alcohol wouldn’t skew his power.  Whatever the cause of the errors was.”

“Okay.  So I don’t suppose you want to let me confirm it’s Tattletale and tell you who to contact to cancel the dead man’s switch?”

“No.”

“You’ve been careful every step of the way.  Thinking five steps ahead, amassing resources, amassing top-notch underlings, getting us working for you, getting the Travelers.  I’m surprised you’re willing to let things go ass-backwards when you’re so close to tying up the last loose end.”

“It’s precisely because I’m careful that I’m not willing to let Tattletale open her mouth and speak.”

“You’re still pretending it’s Tattletale,” I said.

“It is.  I had no reason to arrange a body double for her as I did for you.”

“You had every reason.  Like you said, you didn’t trust her, you couldn’t let her work unchecked, and it would have been too unusual if the two members of the Undersiders that posed the biggest threat to your goals happened to disappear at once.”

Calvert shook his head and touched fingers to his forehead, as if exasperated.  “Your underling and Tattletale can live.  That’s all I’m willing to offer.  You’ll have to take my word on both points”

“Your word is worth nothing,” Bitch spat the words.

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

“You promised me safety, security, so long as I joined this team.  I’ve never been less safe, less secure.  Everybody lies through their teeth.  Maybe there’s a couple of them I can stand anyways, but they’re still liars, they’ve made me a liar, and you’re the worst liar of them all.  It’s fitting you wear a snake on your costume.”

Enough,” Calvert said, “Anything more and I’ll order my men to shoot you.”

“Shoot her and you’ll never get the info you need from me,” I said.

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

“I’ll have your dogs shot if you say another word,” Calvert said.

Bitch fell silent.

Silence reigned for long seconds.  I was aware of my bugs, knew that I couldn’t have them attack without us getting shot.  I knew my armor was bulletproof, Bitch’s armored jacket was the same way, but the thinner fabric, or a bullet through the lens or eyehole of a mask?  There were a lot of soldiers here.  Even if the suits could stop the bullets from penetrating, we could be pulverized anyways.

I heard a wave crash against the shore, not far away.  Long seconds passed.

“If it settles the matter, then fine,” Calvert said.  He signaled Chariot.

Another Tattletale appeared.  She dropped to her knees the second she materialized.  She wore a similar headset and bindings.

“Free her mouth and one ear.  Be ready to gag her again the second she speaks.”

One of his soldiers approached the kneeling Tattletale.  He undid the gag and freed her ear of the plug that was held in place with wire.

“Rose-L,” I called out.

“Stringbean-A,” she replied.  She grunted as the soldier forced the gag back into her mouth.

“She gets to live,” I told Calvert.  “If nothing else, you guys are going to need her help to figure out how Jack Slash ends the world in twenty-three months.”

“It’s amusing,” Calvert said, “That you keep asking me for things I was already prepared to do.  You wanted me to improve the city, to restore it to a working state.  Already planned.  And this?  Killing Tattletale was never in the cards.  I intend to keep her like I do my pet.  Her power will be invaluable.  Rest assured, I will offer every bit of assistance I can when the end of the world approaches.”

“I suppose it was too much to expect that you’d let her go,” I said.  My heart pounded in my chest.  I wasn’t exactly feeling top-notch, so simply standing was feeling like a bit of a challenge.  Fighting back, acting?  No.  No use.  “Her name is Charlotte.  She’s staying in the red brick house a block to the east of my dad’s place.  She has a laptop, but she doesn’t know what I put on it.”

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”

“Aim…”

“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”

“Fire.”

The sound of the gunshots was deafening, debilitating when I was already missing my sense of sight, my bugs not present enough to give me a sense of the surroundings.  I sensed Grue get hit, then Bentley… I took one in the stomach and folded over.

When the smoke cleared, for lack of a better term, we were still standing.  There was the sound of a few isolated scuffles in the ranks of the soldiers.  My bugs moved to the ends of gun barrels and to the soldiers themselves, noting their postures and positions.

Roughly half of the soldiers that surrounded us were holding the other half hostage.  A few had managed to get shots off, but a quick feel-around with my bugs verified that nobody had been hurt enough to be knocked to the ground.  Most of the bullets had gone over our heads.

“What is this?” Calvert asked.  “Travelers-“

“Don’t do a thing, Travelers,” Grue boomed out, in his eerie, hollow voice.  “Someone remove Tattletale’s bindings.”

One of the soldiers approached Tattletale and began undoing the restrictive binding.  She wobbled slightly as she stood, working her jaw in the absence of the gag.

“Glad to see the stringbean plan worked out in the end,” she said.  “Those of you I haven’t been in contact with, please hear me out.  I’m paying twice what Calvert is for a year’s salary, and I’m paying it all upfront.  Look to the other team captains if you don’t believe me.  Fish, Minor, Richards, Meck, I’ve talked to them, and they’ve agreed.”

There was a slight shift in the tension among the soldiers.  The ones at gunpoint began slowly lowering their weapons, and the ones holding them there similarly let it calm a notch.

“Lies,” Calvert said.  There was an uncharacteristic degree of emotion in his voice.  “I’ve tracked your funding.  I know exactly how much money you have.”

“Not exactly.  See, I revealed this to my team, just a little while ago, but I’ve sort of been skimming.”

“From me?”

“A bit.  Not as much as you’d think.  You keep good accounts.  But our targets?  For sure.  Like, we go rob the Brockton Bay central bank, and maybe I skip off for five minutes to go visit the CEO’s room, use his computer to get access to more funds, and shift them into a personal account.  Or I keep a few of the more valuable pieces of paperwork, or I pocket something expensive during a job.  Funny thing about a power like mine, it helps me figure out what I can get away with.”

“You haven’t taken enough to pay twice what I can.”

“You’d be surprised.  And some of your assets are in a position to be picked up by yours truly.  Safe deposit boxes and safes don’t mean much against me.  So that’s a bit more funding of yours that I can borrow to pay these guys.  A year up front, and I’m not asking them to do a single thing.  Most of them, anyways.  I’m just asking that they ship out of Brockton Bay or they stay on the down-low.”
“I’ll pay triple,” Calvert said.

“You can’t pay triple,” Tattletale said, stretching as the chains around her wrists and ankles were undone.  “You’ve dented your coffers too much with the city revitalization.  Didn’t help that you paid such an exorbitant sum to the Dragonslayers for the information they were offering.”

“That was your idea.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “You were desperate enough to deal with the Dragon threat before your big show at the debate that you didn’t make too big an issue of it.  Either way, you forgot the cardinal rule of employing mercenaries.  They follow the person with the money.”

“I didn’t forget,” Calvert said, “I had that in mind every step of the way.  I was exceedingly careful of how much funding I provided.”

“Okay,” Tattletale sounded almost chirpy.  “But you didn’t account for the possibility that I was picking up as much on my own as I was.”

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

“Undersiders,” Trickster said.  “This goes no further.  Call it a stalemate, but we need his assistance.”

“Calvert’s lying, you know,” Tattletale said.  “He can maybe help you, but he can’t help Noelle.  None of the plans he’s been talking about will work, and he knows they won’t work.  He wants Noelle for entirely different reasons.  He thinks he can get her on a leash, so he’s got firepower even if he gets rid of the supervillains working under him.  A threat that only the great PRT leader Thomas Calvert can address.”

“I’d rather see the truth of that for myself.  You touch him and we kill you.”

“You guys aren’t wearing the same kind of durable costume we are,” Tattletale said.  “If you want to make a point of it, my soldiers can gun you down.”

“I can swap your group with mine the second the gunshots happen,” Trickster replied, unfazed.  “You don’t want to do that.”

I tried to speak, coughed once instead.  When I finally had my voice, I said, “Ballistic.  Sundancer.  Any other Traveler with doubts, I know you guys aren’t happy with the status quo.  If you want to stop running, stop moving constantly and move to Brockton Bay permanently, we’ll have you.  We need you, even.”

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

“I’m done.  This was a doomed quest from the start,” Ballistic said.  He stopped at Grue’s side, turned around to face his teammates.

“Sundancer?” I asked.  “You said before that you were lonely, that all of this was too intense for you.  Even the stuff I’ve done, it didn’t sit right with you.  I get that.  Don’t you want to stop?  To say goodbye to this life?”

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

She shook her head.  “No.  No, Skitter.  I’m staying.  Don’t have another choice.”

“Genesis?”

She was in the form of a girl, but wore a simple mask.  “Someone’s got to stay and be a real leader to this team.  No.  I’m standing by Trickster.”

“Teleport me to safety,” Calvert said.  “Escort me away, and everything I have is yours.”

“Everything you have is mine already,” Tattletale cut in.  “You’ve been dethroned, C-man.  I’m going to rule as the mastermind behind the scene in Brockton Bay, organize the territories, pay the bills.  My partners will see to the territories themselves.  I suppose I won’t be head of the PRT, but I’m suspicious we’ll be able to work out a truce of sorts with the good guys.  Hopefully we’ll get someone more sensible than Piggot and less shady than you.”

“Trickster,” Calvert said.  “I can put you in touch with the woman who can cure her.  Someone who knows as much or more about Parahumans than anyone on the planet.  It won’t be free, but I can subsidize the costs.  But I have to be alive to-“

Trickster collapsed to the ground.  Sundancer and Genesis turned, confused, and Ballistic caught Genesis with a spray of pellets.  She dissipated into gory wisps of whatever substance formed her body.

Sundancer was only just creating her sun when she collapsed as well.  I could see Imp bending over, prodding the bodies.  Über, Leet and Chariot backed away as guns turned to point at them.

“Anyone who shoots one of the Undersiders will receive one million dollars!”  Calvert shouted.

I waited for the inevitable bullet.  It didn’t come.

“Skitter and I had a little talk,” Tattletale said.  “Way back when the city had been freshly sieged by the Endbringer and rejoining the team wasn’t even a consideration.  I raised the idea of going after you, of taking you down.  We knew that if you were going to let down your guard, if you were going to slip up at all, it would be when you were closest to achieving your goals.”

Calvert only glared.

“If you made any one mistake, it was keeping me at your base towards the end of the fiasco with the Nine.  The problem with keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?  It puts your enemies in the midst of your friends, so they can discuss better means of payment with the right team captains.  Or they can maybe arrange to put something in Noelle’s vault during one of the feeding times, a few fire alarms with a low battery, tucked in where the door meets the wall.  Irritate her, so she’s awake that much more, and she then costs you sleep.”

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Not so much a metaphor, but I got off track.”

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

“Strategic.  Lots of little things add up.  Seeding doubts.  Making you second guess plans.  Keep you up at night wondering, planning just a bit more, in both your realities.  You were too focused on the big picture, on the thing I could find out, keeping me off-balance, that you missed out on my ability to see the little things, to exploit them.  And it wore on you.  You didn’t realize how much, but it did, and maybe that’s why you were that much more susceptible to making the critical mistake here.”

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

“But you made the mistake we needed you to make, using your power here, while you were talking to us.  There’s no escape routes, now.  The only loyalty you have is bought with coin, and I have more cash than you do.”

“Then send me to the Birdcage and be done with it,” Calvert said.

“To jail?” Tattletale asked.  “No, no no no.  I know you have contingency plans.  Arrangements.  We send you to prison and someone breaks you out before you get there.”

I took a step forward, then made myself take another.

“It doesn’t have to be you,” Tattletale told me.

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

Calvert turned my way, let his head sink back so it rested against the ground.  “So it comes down to this.”

I thought of the countless lives I’d put at risk, if not directly, then indirectly: the ABB blowing up parts of the city, the ensuing gang war, Purity leveling buildings because she blamed us for the loss of her daughter.

There was the fat superhero I’d left to die when the tidal wave was incoming.  I recalled leaving the dying Merchant to bleed out when I’d rescued Bryce from the merchant’s festival of blood.  There were the people in my territory, the old doctor who’d had her throat cut because I hadn’t realized Mannequin was close until it was too late.  The gas attack that killed nearly twenty people and the fires Burnscar had set in my territory, both because I’d provoked them and failed to consider how readily they’d go after the vulnerable point that was all the people I’d been trying to protect.

I remembered trying to kill Mannequin with grenades, going all-out in attempting to end a man’s life.  A madman, a monster, but it was what it was.

And, much more recently, there was the case of me bringing Triumph so close to death that he’d needed life support.

I’d come to terms with so much of that by telling myself it was leading to this.  I’d known deep down it would happen.  That my fight against Calvert would have to end here.

I walked forward until Calvert was beneath me.  I drew my gun, checked there was ammo in the clip.

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

“No…” I replied.  I couldn’t see, so I screwed my eyes closed, felt the moisture of tears threatening to spill forth.  I took in a deep breath.

“…But I suppose, in a roundabout way, you made me into one,” I finished.  I aimed the gun and fired.

The gun dropped from my hand as the recoil jarred it.  It clattered to the pavement.  It was quiet enough that I could only hear the ocean water crashing against the shore, just off the beach.

As an afterthought, I kicked the gun a distance away from where Calvert lay.  Not that there was much point.  I tried to learn from my mistakes.

I felt Tattletale’s arm settle around my shoulders.  “We’re done.  This is over.”

“The Travelers will be pissed.  I can’t- we can’t kill them,” I said.

“We won’t.  They’ll move on.  They have no more reason to stay.”

Grue stepped around my left side, bent down, took Calvert’s cell phone from the man’s belt and then tossed it to Tattletale.  As Tattletale withdrew her arm from my shoulders, he stepped forward to give me a hug.  “Let’s go.”

I nodded into his shoulder.

We turned away.  With my swarm sense I was able to recognize Minor, Tattletale’s man, helmetless, opening the doors of one van for us.  I took a seat.

It wasn’t Tattletale or Grue that sat down beside me, but Rachel.  She took my hand in hers, held it fiercely.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I simply accepted it.

We stopped at Coil’s underground base.  Tattletale’s underground base.  It was a relief to escape the silence of the van, surreal to be in the dim noise of downtown again.  Much of the area still lacked power, but there were the noises of the occasional car, of people clamoring on the bottom floor of an apartment building.  City noises.

“You okay?” Grue asked.

“More bothered by the fact that I’m not bothered,” I said.  I knew how little sense I was making, but I didn’t feel like elaborating.

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

As it had been at sunset, the base was empty.  The metal walkway sang with my footsteps as I walked to the far end of the complex.  I stopped at a door without a handle.

“Here,” Tattletale said.  She held Calvert’s cell phone.  Held it up and pressed a sequence of buttons.

The door clicked open.  I forced my fingers into the gap and hauled it open.  Heavy and metal.

There was one more door, one with a key lock.  Tattletale stepped over to the desk and got the key, opened it.

Dinah was inside with an unassuming man in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants.

“Go,” Tattletale told the man.  “Your boss is dead.  Just go.”

He fled.

“I’m going to get Regent,” she said.  “Think we’ll leave Shatterbird in her soundproof cage for now, just to be safe.”

I nodded absently.  I was holding on to Grue for support, watched as Dinah stood from the bed and slowly approached.

Her voice was barely above a whisper as she stared down at the ground between us, “I’ve been waiting for this for so very long.”

It didn’t sound like an accusation.  More the words of someone who had been forced to watch the clock for days, weeks, months.  Anticipating a possible moment that might never come.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m sorry it took so long.”

She shook her head, “I’m the one who’s sorry, you were trying hard and I set you up, so you’d go the way where your friends tried to kill you.  I shouldn’t have-“

“Hey, it’s okay.  It offered us the best chances in the end, right?”

She bobbed her head in a nod.

A second later, she was running to me, wrapping her arms around my midsection.  I winced in pain as her forehead banged against my chest.

“Medical care,” Grue said.

“For both of us,” I replied.  “Dinah and me.”

“Yeah.”

As a trio, we stepped out onto the walkway, where Tattletale and Regent should have been waiting.

But I could see Regent at the end of the walkway, and Tattletale wasn’t with him.  She was hurrying down the spiral stairs just to Regent’s left.

I leaned over the walkway, as much as I was able with the pain in my chest and Dinah clinging to my midsection.  My eyes went wide.  A moment later, I was hurrying after Tattletale, holding Dinah’s hand in one of my own and Grue’s elbow in the other.

We stopped when we reached Tattletale.  She stood facing the vault door.  The one that was used to seal Noelle within.

There were two vault doors, one set behind the other, and both were ruined, the one closest to us nearly folded in half, hanging by one hinge.

“A final act of spite,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the phone in her hand.  “He made sure she heard our conversation.”

“You didn’t notice?”

“He was using his ability to create alternate worlds to throw my power for a bit of a loop.  I was more focused on the possibility that he had a loyal soldier in the ranks or a sniper waiting in the distance, ready to take a shot at one of us.”

The odor that wafted from the open vault was like sweat and rotten meat.  It was dark.  Nothing about it gave the sense of a teenage girl’s living space.

“On a scale of one to ten,” I asked, “Just how bad is this?”

“Let me answer your question with another question,” Tattletale said.  “You think we could convince the PRT to turn on the air raid sirens?”

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Monarch 16.12

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Finding my teammates wasn’t hard; Calvert was telling me where they were.

He didn’t tell me directly.  No, this was more a casualty of being too careful, of putting too many secondary measures in place.  He’d stationed soldiers to serve as lookouts at a wide perimeter around the Undersiders.  I noticed one group, turned the truck to drive around them, and then noticed the second and third.  They were three blocks away from the Undersiders, effectively surrounding my team, staggering their movements so only half were changing position at a given time.

I wondered how much battlefield experience Calvert actually had, or if it had been too long ago to matter.  Had he forgotten what it was like to actually be in pursuit of a target in the midst of a sprawling urban environment?  He probably could have tripped me up a fair bit more by dropping the perimeter and leaving me to try to track down my teammates.

No less than three radios for one squad buzzed with the noise of voices.  The three soldiers picked up their radios and replied.  Ok, so he was checking in with each squad.  So maybe it was roughly as inconvenient as trying to find my teammates in the middle of nowhere.

Calvert had dropped me in Genesis’  territory.  It was about as far away as I could be from where I wanted to be, about ten minutes drive down Lord street and then a ways towards the water, if someone was driving quickly.  I wasn’t driving quickly; I spent far too long in the wrong gear, for one thing, I was clumsy with the car’s controls and I was forced to drive even slower because the roads were treacherous.  Damage to the road was hidden in the areas that were still flooded, where my bugs couldn’t necessarily see them.   Other roads were slick where there was just enough water to raise the oils up from the crevices of the road’s surface to the point that tires would slip on them.

On the plus side, driving while blind wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be.  I was relying on my swarm, of course, but even then I figured the lack of sight would be more of an impairment.

After noting where the squads were deployed and coming to the conclusion that Calvert was using his soldiers to track the movements of my team, I had to stop to contemplate the situation and finally got around to the coughing that had been looming for a few minutes.

If I charged in, Calvert’s men would collapse in on me.  Three or four soldiers per squad, and there had to be eight or more squads, unless Calvert wasn’t keeping troops moving in advance of the group.  That made for twenty-five to fifty soldiers.  That would be pretty much all of Calvert’s troops that hadn’t been at the house.  I didn’t fail to note how they were equipped, either.  I could sense the general shape of what would be sniper rifles and one piece of artillery that looked to be a mortar.

Made sense that he would have had the perimeter in place to ensure Dinah didn’t slip his grasp.  If she was gone, then he might have maintained their positions to keep me from reuniting with my team after I escaped from his deathtrap.

Thing was, I had another problem here.  Calvert had teleported me.  I wasn’t sure how he’d locked on to me, had ditched my phone as the most obvious measure, but I was worried that they could tag me with the thing and toss me into some backup trap reserved for one of my teammates.

All in all, I didn’t want to give the soldiers a chance to see me, radio in general coordinates and then toss me out to some remote area on the other end of the city.  Knowing that his power was least effective when he didn’t have a full grasp on what was happening moment to moment was another reason to keep out of sight.

did want to go on the offensive.  I just wasn’t sure how.  If I attacked the individual squads, a check-in on Calvert’s part would reveal that someone was picking them off and they would all go on the offensive.  They might even shoot to eliminate my teammates.  Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs might have the suits or natural durability to keep them alive in the face of a hail of gunfire, but Dinah didn’t, and there was the possibility that the shots from the sniper rifles could penetrate the suits.

Or Calvert would order his squads to fire their mortars and wipe my teammates off the map.  If I assumed he had more than one mortar positioned around them, added his power into the equation to give him two sets of barrages with different target zones, I doubted they would emerge unscathed.

That left me to wonder why he hadn’t done something similar at the house.  No grenades, no mortar, no bomb laying in wait.

Failing that, what was the trick behind the teleportation?  Why hadn’t he just teleported me back after I slipped away?

Did he want to keep me alive?  Or had he actually expected me to escape?  Had he looked at all my past confrontations and gauged that I could probably make it, and it was no skin off his nose if I didn’t?

Hell, it was possible he’d used his power to help ensure I’d make it this far, to further some greater scheme.

Whether I wanted to deal with the soldiers, get the Undersiders out of the way of those mortars or avoid falling into some greater trap laid by Calvert, I needed more information.

The Undersiders were walking, judging solely by the speed the soldiers were adjusting their positions.  I wasn’t sure where Atlas was, but I’d driven past the site where we’d picked up Dinah and he hadn’t been there.  I could guess that Dinah wasn’t keen on riding the dogs, so that made sense.

I slipped bugs into position on the soldiers to track their movements, then moved in closer, pulling the car into park and climbing out.  Better to move on foot.  I’d picked up masses of bugs on my slow-ish drive through the city, and I guided them as close to the soldiers as I could get them without giving myself away.

The tint of my lenses didn’t help with the haze over my vision.  Still, opening my eyes, I could see it was evening, and the city wasn’t offering much in the way of ambient light, given the inconsistent availability of power.  I coupled the use of my bugs with my eyesight to try to spot the glare of flashlights or headlights, but peeks suggested that the soldiers were operating in darkness.  Night vision goggles, perhaps.

I waited until the squad nearest to me shifted to follow, noted how the squads to the north and the southeast of them were holding position, guns at the ready.  Calvert would have told them I’d escaped and that they should keep an eye out.  Their wariness made sense.

Still, I was able to advance closer, following the group that was moving to follow, getting closer while keeping buildings and other obstructions between us.  Not the easiest thing in the world when I had to use the presence of the bugs to estimate where their line of sight extended, but I managed to get within half a block of them, crouching behind a van.  Swarms waited just around the corners.

I wasn’t attacking, though.  No, my interest was on getting close enough that I could reach my teammates with my power.  Calvert had apparently stationed his men with my power’s range in mind, but he didn’t necessarily know that my power’s range extended in certain circumstances.  Getting just a little closer, I could sense them, walking down the middle of the road.  I drew my bugs around me, not in the shape of a person, but to mimic the curves and bumps of the truck I was kneeling beside, so my silhouette wouldn’t stand out so dramatically.

I could sense Bitch, still on Bentley’s back as he trailed behind the rest of the group.  Bastard was lying across her lap, apparently asleep.

I sensed Grue and Imp, walking just ahead of Bitch and Bentley.

And I sensed Dinah, walking hand in hand with a girl who shared my build, who had hair of the same length and a costume similar to my own.  I didn’t want to give anything away by swarming her with bugs to sense where our costumes differed, but it was pretty damn close.  She even had bugs on her costume.  Some were drawn there by pheromones, and some were pinned in place.  Her utility compartment differed from mine.  She had a knife, longer and narrower than mine, and two guns holstered within.  Some grenade canisters were tucked into the spaces by the shoulders where the short cape could cover them.

If Calvert’s preparation of the building prior to teleporting me in hadn’t made me think his betrayal was premeditated, this certainly cinched it.  Copying my costume, finding someone who fit my shape to the point that the others wouldn’t notice?  Someone apparently capable of using a gun?

Dinah was still with them.  They hadn’t dropped her off, even though Calvert could have arranged something like fake parents to accept Dinah.  Or maybe someone had raised that possibility and fake Skitter was taking Dinah back to ‘her’ territory to look after for a bit. The other Undersiders would leave, maybe, and Dinah would go straight back to Calvert’s possession.

I wished I had a better sense of Calvert’s overarching plan.  What would happen to the other Undersiders?  What would he do with fake Skitter?  He couldn’t hope to maintain the ruse for any meaningful length of time.

There had to be a reason he hadn’t just bombed them here and erased the last of his enemies in one fell swoop.  How much of the plan that he’d shared had been real?

This situation wasn’t so different from the one I’d just escaped.  There was the immediate threat, the mortars, and there was the one beyond that, with the soldiers ready to gun down my allies.  Bitch could have rescued Dinah, Imp and Grue from the mortars, given a chance to run, and Grue and Imp could deal with the guns, but the biggest issue, the biggest difference in where they were now compared to where I’d been, was that they weren’t aware of the threat.

If I could communicate with them, perhaps I could have coordinated them, managed something.  But it was evening and the black and brown bodies of my bugs wouldn’t be able to spell out anything obvious against a dark background.  My phone had been locked out and the presence of the false Skitter meant I couldn’t deliver a message unless it was very subtle.

Any mistake on my part threatened to provoke an ugly situation.  Calvert could order the mortar strike and teleport Dinah and false Skitter out.

No, I didn’t think there were many options when it came to communicating with Grue.  Imp?  Maybe that was a better option, given her ability to disappear, meet up with me and then rejoin the others.

Except I didn’t have an explicit strategy in mind, and I wasn’t willing to gamble that Calvert hadn’t accounted for Imp with some kind of surveillance with an electronic filter, like the screen of Dragon’s battlesuit.

Rachel?  No.  I was pretty sure she couldn’t read and write well enough to follow any directions, so I couldn’t even explain anything complex without saying it aloud, and doing that would be hard, speaking through my bugs without alerting the doppleganger in their ranks.

I could abandon them, try to find Tattletale or my dad, but Tattletale was going to be behind even more layers of security, if she was inside Coil’s underground base, and going to see my dad felt like a detour that wouldn’t do anything to address this situation.

That left me one potential ally.  I sent a ladybug to Dinah, settled it on her right hand, the one that the mock Skitter wasn’t holding.

She glanced at it, her head turning a fraction, then moved her hand to hide it from false Skitter.  I felt her clench her fist, the skin between the ladybug’s legs stretching so the legs were pulled slightly apart.

Dinah knew that Skitter wasn’t me.  There was no other reason to hide the ladybug.

We’d never spoken.  We’d never had a conversation, or even communicated through more than eye contact.  Dinah had been driving my actions for weeks, now, or maybe it would be fairer to say my goal of saving her had been driving my actions.  Now we were finally getting a chance to interact, and everything hinged on it.

The bug crawled to the center of her palm, and she closed her fingers gently around it.  Did Dinah have access to her power?  Could she signal me?  Dropping the bug?  Killing it?

I sensed the movement of the bug as she raised it to her chest, used her thumbnail to scratch at her collarbone.

Maybe I’d pinned too many hopes on the drug-addicted preteen.

Maybe I’d read the little signals wrong, and she didn’t realize that the Skitter next to her wasn’t me.

Or maybe that niggling doubt that had been in the back of my mind since I’d decided I had to help Dinah had been real.  It was all too possible she didn’t want to be rescued.  She was dependent on the drugs, she craved them, and staying with Calvert meant she got them.  In a way, I felt like that possibility was why I’d been pushing myself to save her as hard as I had, because I suspected that Dinah was trapped in more than one way.  She’d been kidnapped, kept captive physically, but she was also being kept captive in other ways.  I had to save her because she might not want to save herself.

Except if she didn’t want to save herself, then this situation would be that much more difficult to manage.

She dropped her hand to her side, let it swing a distance away, then brought it up to her chest again, scratched.

My doppleganger noticed, said something along the lines of ‘Don’t scratch’.  I caught only some sounds, was left to put the rest of it together through cadence and context.  And, I thought, maybe it was easier to understand because she sounded familiar.  She sounded much the same to the ambient bugs as I did.

It bordered on creepy.

The second thing I noticed was that what Dinah was doing was probably a signal.  Both times, she’d touched the bug to her chest, bringing it close to her heart.

Bringing the bug to her?

I didn’t like the idea of that.  If I was interpreting it the way I was supposed to, it seemed suicidal.  Did she want me to come to where she was?  If she was, was her power guiding that request, or was she still powerless and simply wanting to be rescued?

Breaking past enemy lines without getting seen, only to… what?  Make myself a mortar target alongside my teammates?  Where was the advantage?  What was the asset to putting myself in the thick of it?

Calvert had to anticipate that I’d try to rescue my teammates.  His soldiers wouldn’t be on guard against an outside threat like this if he didn’t.  What did he expect I would do?  I wouldn’t charge headlong into his soldiers.  I would see them.  I’d find some way around them, maybe turn some aspect of the situation to my advantage.

There were too many possibilities when it came to ways I might leverage things.  He couldn’t narrow down what I’d do because that was how I operated.  I was versatile.

Then what was the common element?  I was tired, I was hurting, fighting the urge to cough, lest I inform the soldiers I was here.  I couldn’t think of any solid way to tackle this situation, but in scenarios where I could, what might the common elements be?

I’d be using my power, for one thing.  Calvert couldn’t do anything about that unless he’d had Leet devise some kind of counter-weapon.  It was all too possible, but I didn’t have the time to consider all the possibilities there.

I didn’t have the time.

The other common element, the drawback to my power, to my mode of operation, was that I wasn’t dynamic.  I wasn’t a blitz hitter, in and out in a flash.  I could be aggressive, impulsive, improvising on the fly, but it took me time to get my soldiers in a row, to prepare my tools and drag things to where I needed to be.  Fighting Mannequin had been like that, those two long minutes of sustaining a beating while I got all the supplies and spiders to the site of our skirmish.  Even escaping the house, it hadn’t been quick.  I’d had to hunker down and amass enough decoys before dropping from the window.

Calvert had studied us.  He’d be aware of this.

Dinah and faux Skitter were walking.  Whatever excuse they’d given for not being able to ride Atlas, they’d opted to travel on foot instead of riding on Bentley or catching a ride in the truck Calvert’s man had driven.  Maybe that wasn’t because Dinah was scared of the dogs.  Maybe faux Skitter had suggested it, encouraged this for some greater plan.

They wanted to let me catch up.  They were betting I’d get here, then take time to deal with the squads so my teammates weren’t in danger.  By doing that… what?  How would he capitalize on it?

Identify the direction I was attacking from, then bring all the soldiers he’d had at the deathtrap house here to corner me?  Bring the Travelers?  Über?  Leet?

Dinah struck the side of her leg with the bug she held, hard.  Grue said something I didn’t catch.

The message was clear.  Now.  If Calvert was expecting me to delay, to take my time and be methodical about this, and Dinah was urging me to be aggressive, throw myself headlong into this situation, that had to point to something.  I’d decide what the hell I was supposed to do while I was en route.  I broke into a run.

I couldn’t move directly to their location.  I had to backtrack, find a route that didn’t put me in view of any of the watching squads.  The activity was making me cough, and I was forced to suppress it or limit it to muffled choking as I got closer to the soldiers.

Sweeping the whole of my range with my bugs, I found a route.  I had to backtrack a touch, move a bit closer to the water, but I found the construction site, and I found the ladder leading into a hole in the ground.  From there, it was a short climb to accessing the storm drains.

The acoustics of the storm drains made for a lot of noise, even if it wasn’t raining aboveground.  The water varied from knee-high to waist-high, depending on how much debris had filtered down, and it was moving with enough speed that it interfered with my ability to run.  My chest screamed at me in pain every time I was forced to stoop down to touch ground with my good hand for added support, and I didn’t dare cough for fear that the same acoustics that made the area echo with the flowing water would carry something to the ears of soldiers above.

The realization hit me when my swarm reached far enough to sense the second mortar and accompanying squad of soldiers.  There was an advantage to putting myself in the middle of the mortar’s target area.  I just had to get there.

I picked up my pace, hurrying in the direction of my teammates and Dinah, slipping on the slimy footing and loose grit, trying not to cough and failing.  It didn’t matter too much.  I was past the perimeter and closing in on my teammates, using my bugs to figure out which turns I needed to make and which paths were most open to travel.

In a matter of minutes, I was close enough that I had to find a way up.  My bugs identified a ladder, and I pushed my way up, using one shoulder and my legs to lift the drain cover from its housing.

I emerged just far enough away that I thought the sound of the cover wouldn’t be audible.  Bentley perked his ears up as I used my good hand to set the drain down, but didn’t do anything further.

My concern and my worry were driving my range outward.  I was sending any bug I didn’t need for sensing my surroundings to the periphery of my range, gathering them near the mortars.  Spiders threaded cords of silk together, and other bugs gathered en-masse.  Being here, at the bullseye, with my range extended like it was?  It meant I could strike at each of the four mortars simultaneously.

I hit each squad of soldiers in the same moment, a tide of bugs washing over them.  I tried to wind cords around the noses of the mortars, snag them on anyone who was moving, but they were too stable.

One soldier grabbed a bomb and moved to load it into the tube of the mortar.  In an instant, I had the full mass of that one swarm on him, slipping beneath the stylized, high quality armor and masks Coil outfitted his mercenaries with.  They bit, stung and attempted to wind cords around him, tying his hands, for lack of a better word.  He put the mortar down and backed off, and I eased up on him, settling for a more general form of attack.

Snipers couldn’t fire, mortars were out of commission, and the soldiers weren’t in a position to attack.

And faux Skitter raised her head a fraction, her back straightening.  If I could see, and if I were in a position to see her, I might have missed it, but I was aware with my bugs on her. She knew.  A headset beneath her mask?  A communications device in her ear, feeding her info?

I ran towards my team.  Bugs stirred around the others, as I attempted to rouse them and get their attention.

Fake Skitter wheeled around, reaching behind her back to draw her gun.  Her arm caught Dinah around the shoulders, hugging the girl to her side.

I missed the first part of what she said.  The meaning was clear.  “…got no more use for you.”

And she sounded like me as she said it.  I could sense the shock on the part of my teammates.

And I could sense the trap fall into place, as though a switch had been flicked.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates to sense where they were went on the attack.  It wasn’t my command.

I tried to push the bugs to stop, but my power was drowned out.  It wasn’t that the commands they were receiving were more powerful than mine, more that they kept coming, a singular, crude set of commands extending across my entire range, maybe even further, every half second, overriding any ongoing instructions to my bugs.  Attack, move this way, attack, move this way.

Grue said something, and I couldn’t catch it.

Betraying us!?” Bitch screamed the words.  Next to Bentley, she was suffering the worst of it as the bugs attacked.

“Sorry…” my doppleganger said.  I missed the tail end of what she said after that, but it ended with, “…the plan.”

Sorry, Bitch.  It was always the plan.

“No!”  I shouted, and the act of shouting made me cough until my knees buckled.  I could feel the bugs gathering on me, attacking mindlessly, collecting on my scalp.  Still coughing, I reversed the short cape that sat around my shoulders and pulled it over my head to serve as a hood.  It didn’t do anything to kill the bugs that were still alive and present, but it kept more from accumulating.

I was too far away for any of them to hear.  A block away.  Miles away, for all the good it did.

The other Skitter fired her gun at Bitch, one shot after another.  Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and the false Skitter dropped her weapon.  I could sense Bitch slumping on Bentley’s back, Bastard spilling from her lap to hit the ground and roll on impact.

Did he clone me?

No.  I could sense the movements of the bugs throughout my range, even if I couldn’t control them.  They were moving in a massive, slow spiral, drifting counterclockwise and attacking anyone they came in contact with, and the center of the effect, where they were settling and gathering in piles?  A box in the center of one building.

Had to get there, shut it down.

I struggled to my feet, half-running, half-staggering as bugs gathered in a heavy carpet on me.  I was lightheaded, exhausted, still coughing, and the first of the bugs were arriving from where they’d been attacking the soldiers.

I sensed Dinah in the midst of the swarm.  The pheromones that false Skitter wore were serving to override the pulses from the box, keeping bees and wasps from doing too much damage to the pair.  I wasn’t sure how they planned to deal with the more dangerous spiders, but the bugs that were moving across land were slowed by the constant vertical ascents and descents as they ran into buildings and other features of the landscape.

False Skitter hurled a canister into the midst of my teammates.

A flashbang.  I could see the flare of light, the concussive sound that scattered the bugs that had congregated on them.  Heading for the swarm box, I wasn’t close enough for it to really affect me.

The mortar crews were packing up their equipment and climbing into the trucks to beat a retreat from the scene.  This is Calvert’s doing.  He was convincing the others that ‘I’ was turning on them the second I had Dinah.  He’d probably rigged it so I would disappear afterward.  Skitter out of the picture, in a way that was totally believable given my prior actions.  The Undersiders would be mad, they’d be hurt, but they’d still be his.

Except I was here.  I could convince them it was a trick.  Either shut off the swarm box or take a left turn, show up where they were, and things would make sense in an instant, two Skitters, one a fake…

No, I had to shut off the box.  I could feel blood, where some bugs had found flesh on Rachel and the dogs.  If too many bee or wasp stings struck home, someone could be seriously hurt, needing epinephrine.

I could sense Dinah moving one hand, drawing it across her chest in deliberate gestures.  From shoulder to shoulder, down the side of her body from her armpit, turning to cross the base of her ribs…

Letters.  S.  O.  R.  R.

There was no time for the Y.  Both Dinah and the other Skitter disappeared, replaced by a collection of rubble and a single flashbang.  The others were still reeling from the first when the second flashbang detonated.

More boarded up windows and doors.  I fired my gun at the handle of the door and then kicked.  I did more damage to myself than the door, collapsing in another coughing fit.

The others recovered before I did.  I could sense Grue standing, shouting something.  I couldn’t understand him with the effect his power had on his voice.  Not the first time I’d run into that issue.  Rachel was up too, using Bentley to stand, one hand pressed to her side.  I sensed the hot knot of metal where it had impacted the reinforced jacket I’d given her.  Good.

“Find her!” she shouted.  “Find Skitter!  Hurt!  Kill!”

Bentley broke into a run, zig-zagging across the street they were standing on toward where false Skitter had been.

Did they make her smell like me?  They had to have, to keep the dogs from barking distress.  But how?  Had Calvert had his men raid my stuff?  Had he used my dirty laundry?

I felt violated, not just because of the potential trespass, but the extent to which they’d stolen my identity and abused it.

Bentley raised his head and then turned right in a loping run that would put him behind me in a matter of seconds.  Then he’d have my trail, he’d zone in on me… I could picture what happened next.  I wasn’t in a state to put up a fight.

I climbed to my feet, reloading my gun, then fired three more times at the door handle.  A gnat that was following the spiral summons of the swarm box made contact with a deadbolt on the far side of the door, and I shot at that too.  This time, when I kicked, it opened.  I collapsed to the ground, my cough so fierce and ragged that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been expelling flecks of blood into the inside of my mask.

Bentley spotted me and began charging.  I crawled inside, brought my legs up to my chest to get them out of the way of the door, and kicked it shut.

The mutant bulldog was too large for the door.  When he impacted it, it split across the midsection, the upper half coming free of the hinges, and the surrounding brickwork bulged inward, cracked mortar showering down around me.  The wooden framework around the door kept him from getting much further, wooden pillars of support that were a foot thick on each side.  It made sense that Calvert had picked a fortified structure to stick the  swarm box inside.  Small blessing that it afforded me some small advantage as well.

Bentley butted his head against the doorway again, getting no further than before, then backed away a few steps and howled.  Bitch and Grue were already en route, following the sound of gunshots.  I could hear Bitch howl a response to Bentley’s cry, an utterance of raw anger and promised violence.  Bastard was at Bitch’s side.  He was bigger, growing spikes of bone and an armor of calcified muscle.  He would fit through the door.

I crawled for the swarm box.  The bugs were thick, and though they couldn’t penetrate my costume, they were making their way into the folds at my neck, around my hood.  It was due to numbers rather than any design, but it was stifling.  I could barely breathe, and having to climb through a mass of bugs as big as a large tank, feeling them biting, stinging, feeling the venom the wasps and bees were injecting into me…

I raised myself up enough to get a grip on the tarp that covered the box, and then let myself collapse to the ground, coughing, maintaining my grip so I pulled the tarp off as I fell.  I was seeing bright spots in my vision, which shouldn’t have been the case, because I couldn’t see anything.

Getting onto my knees so I could find the wires of the swarm box was a gradual process, made heavier by the mass of bugs on and around me.  Every bug for what had to be at least a mile in every direction, gathering here.

I tore at one handful of wires.  Nothing.  It was just a matter of time.  I had a minute or two, judging by the speed Bitch and Grue were moving.

I reached to grab another and felt a hand on my wrist.  Imp hauled my hand back, pulling me off-balance, then kicked me square in the chest.  I doubted there was a place she could have hit me where it would have hurt more.

I lay on the floor, alternately writhing and spasming as pain lanced through me.

“Did the doggie get you?” Imp growled the question.  “Good.  Turn off your fucking power.”

I had only a helpless noise to offer in response.

“I warned you.  Warned you what you were in for if you let my brother down.  So do I use the knife, make it quick?” she drew a knife.  Then she drew her taser with her other hand, “Or do I stick you with this until you stop using your power?  Then we can find some place where you don’t have your bugs, and take the slow option.”

Grue and Bitch entered through the door, and I heard Grue mutter something.  Bitch gripped Bastard by the collar.

“Imp.  You found her,” he said.  He sounded strangely unaffected by recent events.  There was no emotion to his voice.

“We were just discussing options.”

“I heard.  Taser won’t do anything.  Worse than anything, she’ll use her power while she’s asleep,” Grue said.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed instead.

“What about if she’s dead?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t sound disaffected.  She sounded pissed.  “I can do it, if you two can’t stomach it.”

The lack of a response from Grue was unnerving.  He kneeled beside me, putting one knee on my bad wrist.  I cried out in pain, coughed more.  He just stared.  Not that he could see much, with the way the bugs filled the room.

When he finally spoke, it was one word.  “Why?”

I struggled to gain my breath, to center my thoughts.  I felt dizzy.

What could I say?  Was there anything that would convince them?  If I said it wasn’t me, would they believe me?  If I turned their attention to the swarm box, would they think it was a bomb?

He waited patiently for me to recover enough to respond.

“Use…” I wheezed in a breath, “Dark.”

I closed my eyes as the darkness flowed over me.  I felt my power weaken, realized I’d unconsciously been pushing the bugs to hold back.  I felt their attack intensify.

Grue stood.  He opened his hand, fingers splayed, and his darkness dissipated.  He turned to Bitch, gestured to Bastard.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.”  He pointed.

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Bitch whistled, Bastard lunged, and the swarm box caved in beneath the wolf cub’s front paws.

The swarm went quiet.

Grue offered me a hand, I took it, and he hauled me to my feet.  I was unable to balance, dizzy, and leaned heavily into him.

“You’re not buying this, are you?” Imp asked.

“It wasn’t her.”

“She’s playing you.”

It wasn’t her.”

Imp folded her arms.  Bitch didn’t move.

Grue murmured, “Explain what’s happened.  Then we need to take care of you.”

I shook my head.

“No?”

I coughed briefly.  “Tattletale.  Regent too.  They’re in trouble.  We left them with Calvert.  With Coil.”

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Monarch 16.11

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I’d sensed the movement of his finger a fraction of a second before the gun went off, and tried to lean out of the way.  It didn’t help.  Dodging bullets wasn’t a trick I had my repertoire.  Judging by the way the gun followed me as I moved, Thomas Calvert either knew his way around guns or he was using his power to help ensure he hit his target.  Or, more likely, it was both.

Getting hit, the smallest part of me could only think costume can’t stop a bullet after all.  Except it wasn’t even a complete thought.  Just a momentary disappointment as I felt the impact of the bullet passing through my chest to my back.

I hit the ground, my mouth agape, and I couldn’t feel my heartbeat in the aftermath of the hit.  It felt like a sledgehammer had hit me in the dead center of my torso.  I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think in a coherent fashion.

But the remainder of my bugs were already flowing out of my costume as I fell prone.  Capsaicin bugs moved in the general direction of Thomas Calvert and his soldiers, pre-prepared cords of thread unspooled from beneath my costume, trailing behind flying insects.  I couldn’t think straight enough to orchestrate a smart attack, to tell them to go for the weak points, but they advanced swiftly, biting exposed flesh and forming a barrier between me and my attackers.

Calvert backed away, his nose and mouth tucked into the crook of his elbow, eyes squinting shut.  He emptied his clip in my general direction, but he didn’t have a bead on me.  He couldn’t see, between the cloud of bugs between us and the bugs crawling on his face.

I had flying insects catch the end of his gun with a cord and pull it off target further, and he backed up.  I went a step further and wound threads around other guns, hoping to forestall the inevitable onslaught of bullets.  If I could find leverage, someone or something that was moving, and pull them off-target before they shot me down-

When he spoke, his voice was raised to be heard despite the muffling effect, “Out of the room.  Fill it with bullets… no.  Scratch that.”

He’s coming up with counter-counter-plans before I even have a strategy in mind.

“…Set her on fire.  Her costume is bulletproof, and I want this done.  I need to attend to other matters.”

I couldn’t breathe.  I could exhale, was huffing small breaths of pain, but I felt like my chest had caved in.  My pulse wasn’t pounding, my blood seemed to move too slowly through my veins, and I couldn’t inhale to inflate my crushed chest.

Through my bugs, I could sense the two men stepping forward.  Each wore gas masks and each had a bottle in one hand.  A pungent odor trailed behind them, overwhelming and oppressing my bugs’ senses of smell and taste.

I pressed one hand to my chest, as if I could gauge the damage done, and reflexively pulled it away as I touched something hot.  A snarl of metal, embedded in the thickest portion of the armor I’d designed into the chest, and it was hot enough that it hurt to touch it.  A bullet, I thought.  I’d never considered that bullets would be hot.

The realization coupled with the sting of the burn at the base of my palm helped to clarify my thoughts.  The bullet hadn’t penetrated.  I’d felt, what, the shockwave of the bullet hitting?  Or I’d filled in the blanks wrong in the expectation of getting shot?

It didn’t matter, because one of Thomas Calvert’s soldiers had just flicked the switch on a lighter, and I realized the bottles they were holding had to be makeshift molotov cocktails.

Though my body was numb and my responses felt too sluggish, I reached behind my back.  With some of the non-flying bugs still residing in my utility compartment, I found what I was looking for in a flash, drawing it from the slot I’d dedicated to it and getting it in position in my hand in an instant.

I aimed the pepper spray at the lighter and fired.  It offered ten feet of range, and they were on the other side of the room, with a heaping mess of containment foam between us.

The pepper spray ignited and set fire to his sleeve and the shirt around his upper body.  The lighter dropped to the ground as he thrashed, trying to pull his shirt off despite the gloves and the gas mask he wore.

It wasn’t the brightest move, trying to stop someone from lighting a fuse by setting them on fire, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky.  I tried to push myself to my feet, but my chest flared with pain and I collapsed, putting me in a position that was almost worse.  The pain lanced throughout my ribcage, as if the structural integrity wasn’t there, and putting any strain on my torso threatened total collapse of everything that held it together.

My bugs were already moving towards the other guy with the molotov.  He’d hesitated at seeing his buddy go up in flames, and now cords of thread were winding around the neck of the bottle, the fingers that gripped it and his wrist, entwining them.

Irritating,” I was aware of Thomas Calvert’s voice in the next room.  He’d retreated and shut the door behind him, but it burst open as the man with the molotov tied to his hand beat a retreat before it could be ignited by the still-thrashing man.  Calvert added a snarled, “Damnation.”

“If we use grenades-” one of the soldiers started.

“Do not use grenades.  I assure you it does not work out the way you imagine it will.  Give me that.”

I could sense Director Calvert tearing the bottle free of the man’s hand.  I began arranging my bugs, creating a loose net with threads.  It wouldn’t stop the forward momentum, but I had some cord left.  I began winding it around the light fixture on the ceiling.  If I could catch the bottle-

He didn’t do as I’d expected, he didn’t light the rag, for one thing, and he didn’t toss the bottle at me.  Lobbing it underhanded, he tossed it at the floor just past the door.  The bottle shattered and the contents, gasoline by the smell of it, spread across the other half of the room.

The burning soldier that was still in the room with me screamed, yelped out the word, “No!”

He made a break for the door, and Calvert shot him.  The bullet wasn’t enough to stop the soldier’s forward momentum, but one of the other soldiers kicked him hard in the stomach.  Calvert used his foot to push the door closed as the man fell onto his back, landing in the pool of gasoline and broken glass.

His still-burning clothing ignited the accelerant.  In a heartbeat, the floor in front of the door was on fire, and the room was filled with the shrill screams of the thrashing, burning soldier.

I experienced a moment of animal panic.  The kind of mindless fear that was hardwired into our brains on a basic level, so that we, like a wolf, a deer or an ape would, knew that fire was bad.  Smoke was bad.  Fire was a thing to run from and I had nowhere to run.

I shook my head.  Had to think.

There was one exit to the room.  To get to it, I’d have to leap over a heap of containment foam, which I wasn’t sure I could manage with the way my chest was hurting and with no real running start.  Even if I passed the hurdle -and failure would mean I was stuck and trapped- I’d have to run through a pool of burning gasoline, avoid tripping on the flailing, burning man, get to the door and pull it open.

Except Calvert was calmly, efficiently ordering his men to gather tables and chairs and stack them against the door, as if the fire in the next room wasn’t even a concern.  A chair was propped up so it was under the doorknob, a heavier dining room table blocked the door itself.  Three soldiers worked together to move a tattered sofa, lifting the end to put it on the table.

My bugs.  I didn’t have enough here in the building, not enough to mount a serious attack on Calvert.  Most of the ones I’d brought with me had burned up as the room caught fire.  Some clung to Calvert and his men, but they were too few to do more than hurt and annoy.  In my mindless fear, I’d called for my bugs to come to me.  Or my passenger had, perhaps.  Maybe it was the two of us, working together through my subconscious.

Either way, I had only a few usable bugs, a whole mess of useless ones like moths, houseflies, cockroaches and ants from the surrounding neighborhood, and Thomas Calvert, Coil, was on his way out of the building.

I looked at the bigger scene.  I was in one of the areas that had been abandoned when Leviathan attacked.  This house hadn’t been nice to begin with, and the flooding had made things worse.  Calvert had prepped the area prior to teleporting me in.  The house sat on the corner of the block, and the two neighboring houses had been bulldozed.  There were no people in range that I could see.  He would have cleared it out so there were no eyewitnesses.  Portable chain link fences had been put up and bound together with loops of chain at the perimeter of the property.  He was stepping through an opening now, and his men closed it behind him, threading chain through.  Going by the lock one soldier held in his hand, they clearly planned to lock it as they had the others.

Just past the perimeter of the fence, there were a dozen trucks and cars surrounding the building, each turned toward the property, their headlights on.  Squads of soldiers stood beside and in front of the trucks, guns raised and ready.  Most had machine guns or handguns, bandoleers of grenades and all-concealing body armor.  Three had containment foam dispensers.

Leaving the property would be impossible, which didn’t matter because I wasn’t capable of leaving the room.  There were two windows, only one of which I could reach, and both were boarded up.  Not even just boarded up against the window frame, but the planks of wood were long and fixed to the studs of the wall, too.  I ran my hand over the end of one plank and felt the raised bumps of nails or screws.  An ant climbed off my fingertip to move over the surface of one bump.

Screws.  Screws with hexagonal slots.  Because Calvert wasn’t willing to risk that I’d have a screwdriver on hand with a more typical head on it.

I laughed.  It made my chest seize up in pain, it probably sounded a little crazed, but I laughed.  It was too much.

This would be a perfect time for a second trigger event.  Hadn’t Lisa said that my mind-power link was enhanced whenever I felt trapped?  I doubted I’d ever feel more trapped than I did right this moment.  I couldn’t see just how far the fire reached, because I was blind, and the heat of the fire was killing the bugs I needed for sensing my surroundings.  I had only a minute or two before the room became an oven and killed off the rest, leaving me blind and roasting to death.

I coughed as a wave of smoke hit me, and ducked my head low to keep breathing.

No, I probably wouldn’t burn to death.  I’d suffocate as the flame ate up the oxygen, go out quietly before I started burning.  Maybe I’d trigger then, after things got that bad.  It wouldn’t help, probably.  I couldn’t think of a single permutation of my powers that would get me out of this mess.

I went on the attack, sending my bugs after Calvert and his people.  Too many were useless, many weren’t even capable of biting.  Still,  I found three black widows in the immediate area.  After a moment’s consideration, I delivered them straight to Calvert.  They found flesh at his neck and bit.

He swatted at them, pinched one between his fingers, and raised it in front of his face.  Then he said something I didn’t catch.

There was no hurry in his movements as he flicked the dead spider to the ground and called out an order to his men.

The order, I feared, I actually heard and understood.  It helped that I had enough context to guess what the words were and fill in the blanks.

Burn it to the ground.

Fuck you,” I whispered, pressing my hands to the wooden planks.  I coughed as I inhaled another waft of smoke, then coughed harder as the combination of the pain in my chest and the smoke I was inhaling in my attemtps to catch my breath made for a self-perpetuating cycle.  Calvert’s men were lighting more molotovs, tossing them over the fence they’d erected.  One hit the side of the building.  Another hit the front porch.  Three or four more hit the lawn and surrounding property.

Calvert glanced over his shoulder, then confidently strode over to a car and took a seat in the back.  He didn’t have the driver take him away.  No, he’d be more interested in watching, in verifying that things went according to plan.  Putting himself in the car meant only that he was out of the reach of my bugs.

Not that he’d seemed concerned about the black widow bites.

Chances were good he’d already taken the necessary antivenins.  Damn it, and the antivenin that worked on black widow spiders also worked on any number of other spiders.  He’d probably suffer side effects, but that wouldn’t be immediate.

I had to refocus.  The one in immediate peril here was me.

I considered waiting for the fire to weaken the floorboards before leaping over the foam and plunging down to the lower level, then dismissed that idea.  I wouldn’t last that long, for one thing, and there was too much chance of me being injured.

There was only one real way out of the room, and that was the window.  I’d have to ignore the men stationed outside for now.  I considered using my knife to try to pry the board free of the wall and the frame.  I doubted I had the strength, with my chest hurting like it was, and I doubted I could pry enough boards free in time.  He’d put three screws in at each point of contact.  Hell, I had suspicions that Calvert had considered the knife when he’d ordered that the windows be boarded up.

I drew my gun.  I wasn’t sure how much information Calvert had, but he hadn’t seemed to care about the possibility of me opening fire on him while he’d been here.  That, or he figured his power would give him an out if he happened to get shot in one reality.

It was hard, not just moving and aiming the gun while I was coughing and still reeling from the hit to my chest, but aiming at the targets I needed.  I had only so many bullets, and there were too many planks to use several bullets to remove each one.  No, it was better to angle the shot so I was hitting more than one plank at once, both the ones that had been nailed up on the outside of the building and the planks inside the room.

The recoil of the shot was so fierce that it made the pain in my chest flare up.  I dropped the weapon, suppressing coughs.  Even behind the lenses of my mask, my eyes were starting to tear up.  Not that it particularly mattered, given how I couldn’t see, but it was one more distraction.  Bending over redoubled the pain and brought me to the point where I nearly collapsed, coughing to the point that I was seeing spots.

The floor was warm enough that more sensitive bugs were dying as they touched it.  Finding where I’d dropped the gun was a combination of guesswork, fumbling with my hand and using more durable bugs to feel it out.

I picked it up and shot twice more.  Fighting the pain in my chest, I reached up and pulled down on a board.  It was splintered in three by the gunfire, two on the left and one on the right, and I managed to use my body weight to get the necessary force to tear it free.

Three more bullets and I was able to remove one more from the inside.  I used the removed board and wedged it into the crack between the two boards on the far side, leveraging one free.

The gunfire had attracted attention.  Someone called out an order, and a dozen machine guns pointed to the window.  I went low, hiding not at the base of the window, but near the corner of the room, lying with my feet pointing towards them, my hands over my head, all too aware of the flames on the wall, within arm’s reach.

Bullets punched through the exterior walls and interior walls both.  One clipped through the floor to hit the armor at my back.  The impact prompted another coughing fit, worse than any of the ones before.

I needed to get out, and soon.

They knew I needed to get out, and they weren’t giving me the opportunity.  There was a momentary pause as the soldiers ejected magazines.  Or clips.  Whatever I was supposed to call them.  Guns weren’t my thing.  They replaced the clips and opened fire with another barrage.

I couldn’t lie there, waiting for one to get lucky and hit me, for the smoke to get to me, or for any of the other possible fates I faced.

My bugs had gathered around the exterior of the building, called to me by my power, clinging to the roof and outside walls near the room.  I took note of the cockroaches, then directed them to the trucks that had the building surrounded.

Cockroaches retained the ability to eat virtually anything.  I could have used more, but I’d have to make do. They began eating through wiring.

My own situation was getting bad, now.  The floor was quickly going from warm to hot.  The containment foam was stopping the spread of the fire across the floor, but it wasn’t stopping the progression of the flames beneath the floorboards.  If the floor caved in beneath me, I’d be as dead as anything.

Commands went out, and the soldiers switched to firing at me in shifts, only a few firing at a given time while the others stood at the ready.  It made for a relentless, unending barrage.  The second shift was just starting up when the first of the headlights went out.  The cockroaches had found the right wires.

As the truck headlights started flickering out, I commanded my bugs to gather at the base of the window.  No less than five bullets tore through the mass as the bugs collected.  The soldiers had only the light of the fires to go by, now, and they’d spotted the anomaly at the window.

The lump of bugs dropped to the ground, and more bullets penetrated the heap that landed at the base of the building.  When the bugs rose, they rose in the general shape of a person, of me.

I desperately wanted to be out of the room.  I was coughing more than I was breathing, and I worried that the next serious coughing fit would see me blacking out before I sucked in enough oxygen.

But I had to wait.  I gathered more swarms and dropped them from the edge of the window.  Every bug in a three block radius contributed to forming decoys.

Each decoy, in turn, had to act like it was sustaining gunfire.  They moved slowly, stopping when the bullets hit, some flattening out to mimic falling to the ground.  It made for slow progress as they advanced to the fence.

I couldn’t stand to wait any longer.  I knew I should make one or two more decoys before going ahead, but the conditions of the room were going from unbearable and dangerous to critical.  I approached the windowsill as the next mass of bugs gathered, submerging myself in the midst of them, my hands on the window frame.  I tried peeking through, but my hazy, ruined eyesight only offered me a glimpse of one blot where a single truck far to my left had a working headlight.  I faced a small army; I was about to drop two stories to what had once been someone’s garden, now a muddy mess of dirt and detritus, and-

One bullet hit me in the forearm, not too far from where Brutus had bitten me, months ago.  I slumped onto the windowsill, cradling my arm.  More out of desperation than anything redeemable, I forced myself forward between the broken planks and let myself drop to the ground below.

The landing wasn’t as hard as it could have been, but it wasn’t gentle either.  I was left writhing, dry heaving, much of my attention on keeping from screaming in pain and keeping the bugs all around me.

I used all the residual willpower I could manage to turn over, putting my back with the armor of my utility compartment and the added fabric of my cape towards the ongoing gunfire from Calvert’s personal army.  I covered the back of my head with my hands and fought the urge to cough.  I doubted anyone would hear if I did, with the constant gunfire and the sound of something collapsing inside, but I couldn’t risk a coughing fit that left me blind to my surroundings or passing out.

Now I was left with the task of passing through the perimeter.  One of my swarm-decoys had reached the fence, and was apparently doing a good enough job of selling the possibility that it was me that they felt compelled to double-check with the occasional burst of machine gun fire.  I commanded it to start climbing.

I had six decoys now, with another in progress at the window.  I’d planned to crawl, to get to the fence and find my way through, but with my wrist like it was…

One of Calvert’s men lit another molotov and tossed it at the base of the fence where the decoy was climbing.  It was obliterated in an instant, and Calvert’s men were forced to back away from the resulting bonfire.

If Thomas Calvert was using his power to guide his men, to give them an advantage and give them directions that would help narrow down the decoys, then I’d inevitably face the same fate as the decoy had after I got to the fence.

But he wasn’t giving directions.  He was in the truck, watching.  No radios were sounding with instructions, not yet.  He had to protect his perimeter, keep me from getting to freedom… but he was in a reactive position, not an offensive one where he could command an attack and then make it so it never happened if the attack went awry.  No, I’d weathered that initial attack.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d weathered it, but I had.

I crawled with three limbs, while my decoy formed a standing figure above and around me, then I joined the other decoys that were advancing on the fence.

Another molotov sailed over the fence to strike the lawn on the other side, incinerating one decoy that had ventured too close.  Again, I noted, the soldiers backed off.

That wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  The more they backed up, the thinner the defensive lines were.

But I still needed to get to the fence and get over it without getting shot or set on fire.

I still had more bugs arriving from the extent of my range.  Being trapped like I had hadn’t given me a second trigger event.  I wasn’t so lucky.  But it had extended my range.  I tallied the resources I had at my disposal, considered how many more decoys I could create…

Then I reconsidered.  No, I needed a distraction, and these slow-moving decoys weren’t that.

The bugs I still had in reserve swept into the ranks of the soldiers, and I went flat for my own safety, covering my head.

“Behind you,” one collection of bugs whispered to a soldier, my swarm-speak forming the necessary words.  He whipped around to see nothing there.

“I’m going to eat you alive,” another swarm spoke, somewhere nearby.

Crawl inside your body and lay eggs.”

Calvert’s voice sounded over a dozen radios in the area, “She’s playing mind tricks.  She’s still near the house, and she’s never killed or tortured before.  Maintain the perimeter and do not use grenades.”

Again, with the refusal on the subject of grenades.  A reminder, even, this time.  Was this a point where he’d split the timelines, bombarded the house with grenades in one reality and stuck to the guns in another?

Or had he already verified that I had a counterattack in mind for the grenades?  He could have employed them in an earlier scenario and had things go catastrophically wrong on his end.  There had to be a reason he wasn’t using them instead of molotovs.  Grenades would have been faster, given more immediate, definite results.

Then there was the possibility that this tied into his alibi, that he didn’t want the Undersiders or even the Travelers to know he’d gone after one of them, and the use of several grenades would be too easily traced back to ‘Coil’.  He would stick to an over the top arson, maybe hide the police reports and suppress the media.  If I was in a territory owned by the Travelers, maybe they’d accept a price for keeping this quiet from the Undersiders.

Or any combination of those things.

Then I remembered how I’d escaped from the hospital bed after the Endbringer attack.

The bugs continued whispering as they went on the attack, but their attack wasn’t a headlong rush with stingers and pincers.  As I lay flat on the ground, arms shielding my head, I took a different tack.  I raided.

Bugs swept into pockets and pouches, searching the contents.  First aid supplies, no.  Gun magazines, almost too heavy.

I noticed the bandoleers of the grenades that Calvert had alluded to.

The decoys had forced the enemy to spread out gunfire.  The soldiers were further diverted as my bugs tried to divest them of possessions, pushing at the gun magazines and attempting to slowly nudge them free of pouches.  Spiders wove silk cords, and I chose my target, a soldier by the fence, between me and Coil.

Long seconds passed as bullets hit the earth only a short distance from me.  I waited, prayed that the next thrown molotov wouldn’t land near me.

At my instruction, flying bugs carried a cord out, connecting a grenade on his bandoleer to the fence.  Another connected the same grenade’s pin to the soldier next to him.

Lose the grenades,” my swarm buzzed, right next to him.  “I’m pulling a pin.”

The man next to him heard, stepped away, and the cord went taut.  The pin slid free.

He had the grenade free in a second, but he simply held the bar at the side of the grenade down.

Damn.

Think fast.  Pulling two more,” my swarm spoke.  A benefit of speaking through the swarm was that it was hard to hear a lie in the tone.

He realized that he had only the two hands to hold down the bars for three grenades, and tossed the one in his hands towards the house.  The cord connecting it to the fence halted the grenade’s trajectory and it swung straight down into the waterlogged lawn on the far side of the fence.

When it detonated, it ripped through a section of fence and sent soldiers scattering for cover.

Be patient, I thought.  I could have made a run for it then, but there was no use.

“She’s pulling the pins!” the soldier who’d been near my target shouted.

They began retreating, and the defensive line thinned out further.  Some soldiers were standing on the far side of the neighboring property, now.

“Need a visual!” someone shouted.

A flare sailed through the air to land on the lawn, fifty feet to my right.  The light it provided would let them see through my decoys.  If they put one too close to me, they’d see my silhouette.

More sailed my way, and I set to moving them before any landed too close to me.

I maintained the pressure, an indiscriminate attack that Calvert couldn’t necessarily counter.  I repeated the process, roughly, that I’d used to get the one soldier to throw a grenade, aiming to knock down the fence on the opposite side of the property.  I made the cord tying it to the fence too thin, however, and the grenade landed closer to the base of the house.  The fence remained standing, but the soldiers backed away in the face of the dust, smoke, and hot air that billowed out from within the building.

I’m pulling your pins next.

Crawl up your asshole and leave you some tapeworms.

I’m behind you.

I can have centipedes crawl beneath your eyelids.  Chew your eyes out at the root.

Ever wonder if a mosquito could pass on the H.I.V. virus?

The psychological pressure was important, too.

Do not throw the grenades,” Calvert’s voice sounded over the radios.

The drawback of the psychological pressure was that many soldiers were now shooting indiscriminately at the property, and I didn’t have anything even remotely resembling cover.  I began belly-crawling across the grass, using my one good arm and my knees.

I felt an impact across my face.  The briefest shriek escaped my lips before I remembered to clam up, managed to convince myself that it was only a clod of grass and dirt that a stray bullet had kicked up.

Someone had heard.  A female soldier, she was on the other side of the fence, not five feet in front of me, and her head had snapped in my direction as I’d let the sound escape.

I barely had any of the pre-prepared silk cord left.  I split the swarm around me into two, and sent one to my left.  The soldier held her machine gun in one hand and fired at the running swarm, drawing a flare with the other hand.  In the meantime, I was getting my feet under me, lunging.

Dragonflies carried the silk cord between the wires of the fence.  I didn’t go for the grenades on her bandoleer, but the can at her waist.  They circled the pull-tab, and I held the other end of the cord, pulling.

My first guess was that it was a flashbang, in which case it could leave my bugs stunned and me exposed.  My second guess was that it was incendiary, in which case I’d be murdering someone.

When it went off, I felt only relief.  Smoke billowed around her as she called out to others, telling them I was near.  I sensed her backing away, getting the canister free of her belt and tossing it aside, and had my bugs collect it and cart it her way.  I crawled in the direction she wasn’t walking, using my power to identify where the soldiers were moving and using the smoke for cover.

Scavenging used silk from previous attacks, my bugs arranged to pull more pins for smoke canisters.

The end result was chaos.  It was the best result I could hope for.  With the smoke at the open area of the fence and the possibility that I had climbed over where the smoke masked things, they couldn’t be sure of my location, and they couldn’t shoot into the midst of their allies, so they were forced to retreat further.

I sensed Calvert’s truck pulling away.

Calvert could use his power to prune away possibilities that didn’t work for him, but only if he was aware of me, aware of my movements and how I was mounting my attack.

His retreat left me wondering if he’d deemed this situation unsalvageable.  Had he deemed this a loss?

Was there another maneuver he had in mind?  A bomb, a parahuman underling that he could sic on me?

Or would he seek leverage elsewhere?

My dad.  The others.

I suddenly felt the urge to get away, and get away quickly.

My bugs hefted the items they’d successfully scavenged from pockets and pouches, carrying them to me.  As the soldiers moved to cover the weak points in the perimeter, I struggled to my feet and walked through the smoke to the point where two of the temporary fences joined together.  I used the keys my bugs had found and tried them, attempting to find the right key for the lock that linked the chain.

There were only so many possible keys, especially when I narrowed down the options to the three from soldiers nearest this lock.  It popped open on the second try, I removed the chain as quietly as I could, and then I bit my lip to keep from crying out as I shifted the two sections of fence far enough apart that I could slide through.

My bugs carried the fuming smoke canister a short distance ahead of me, giving me some added cover to slip through the point where the enemy lines were thinnest.

Their radios crackled with instructions from their captains, and the soldiers started tossing their canisters of smoke towards the house before they could be used against them.  It didn’t matter.  I’d already slipped past the worst of them.  I approached one of the trucks that was furthest from the conflict.  My bugs were on the soldier’s helmets, and I knew which direction they were facing, allowing me to stay behind them, using the soft soles of my costume to move in near silence.

Behind you,” my bugs whispered.  The soldier ignored them as he’d ignored the taunts and threats that were echoing through the neighborhood, without cease.

I slipped behind him and pulled his helmet off.  He drew in a breath to cry out an alarm and only choked on the flood of flying insects that flowed into his nostrils and mouth.  I was already dropping the helmet, switching my baton from my injured left arm to my right hand and striking the handgun out of his hand.  I had to strike him in the head five times before he collapsed, blind, gagging and choking on the bugs.

Maybe he was faking, maybe he was unconscious.  It didn’t matter.  My bugs swept over him and checked every pouch and pocket.  I found his keys, then hurried over to the nearest truck.

I found the right key and started up the truck.

I’d turned sixteen without realizing it, not long ago.  It was fitting that I’d be teaching myself how to drive right about now.

Driving slowly so I wouldn’t call too much attention to the fact that I barely knew what I was doing, I pulled away from the scene.

I pulled over, pulled the emergency brake because I wasn’t sure how to park, then checked my satellite phone.  No service.  It made sense Coil would cut my lines of communication.  I tossed it out the window.  No use giving him a way to track me.

We’d moved towards the beach from Coil’s place.  It made sense the other Undersiders would be heading north, to their individual lairs.

I was struck by an ugly connection between two thoughts.  Calvert had mentioned he had other matters to attend to, and if Chariot’s teleportation device mimicked Trickster’s power, they’d had to swap something or somebody in.  If he’d replaced me with a body double, he would want to stay in contact with her and help ensure things went her way with the other Undersiders.

On the other hand, if Calvert was looking for a way to get leverage over me, my dad was one very vulnerable target that he was aware of.

I was left to decide if I would go check on my dad or tackle the bigger, cape-related issues.  It was a decision I’d had to make too many times in recent weeks.

It would have to be the Undersiders and Dinah.  I hated to admit it, but if my dad was attacked and I had the Undersiders there by my side, they could only help.  If the opposite were true, my dad would hamper me.

I disengaged the emergency brake and eased the truck into motion, fighting the urge to cough, knowing it would lead to wracking fits that forced me to stop in the middle of the street.

I’d seen how involved Calvert’s maneuver had been at the debate.  He had a grand plan, and it wasn’t necessarily the one he’d shared with us earlier.  I was now a glitch in his system, threatening to unravel everything he’d put together.

He had no reason to hold back, and he knew more about me than anyone I’d fought yet.  He’d tried to strike at me directly, and I’d only barely escaped.  I had little doubt he had other plans in mind, failsafes, traps and safeguards, and I had little choice but to run headlong into the thick of them.

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Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #3)

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“Holding court?”  Cinderhands asked.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Marquis answered.  “Word’s out, demand’s high, and it’s hitting people harder because they’ve been thinking about it.  The time is right, if you’re ready, Amelia?”

Amelia stared down at her hands.  “I don’t want to.”

“Life is full of things we don’t want to do.  I won’t force you, but I think you and I would be very well served if you stepped up to the task.  It will be harder to protect you if you don’t.”

Amelia frowned.  “You mean you’d throw me to the wolves.”

“No.  No.  If you truly decided that you couldn’t, if the situation forced an ultimatum, I would give up the power I have as the leader of Block W if I had to.”

“I can’t tell if you mean it.”

Marquis took his time rolling and lighting a cigarette, then kneeled before her.  He spoke with it bobbing in his lips, “My girl.  I’m not a good man.  I have rules I follow, but that doesn’t make me good.  At best, it’s one virtue among many I’ve failed to acquire.  I’m rough around the edges, whatever I might play at, and that’s plain enough to see to anyone who pays attention.  I grew up in hard circumstances, and it’s taken me a long time to work past that and earn the respect I get.  And I would give that up if you needed it.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re family, Amelia.”  He stood, pulled the cigarette from between his lips and kissed her on the forehead.  He didn’t miss how she pulled away in alarm and surprise.  “Whatever else, that’s the most important thing in the end.”

He let the words sit with her, turning away.  Lung stood by the door, arms folded, and Marquis smiled lightly at the man.  He’ll see this admission as weakness, but the right display of confidence will leave him wondering if it’s a lie, a ploy.

Lung, much like all of the other prisoners, was wearing the gray cotton clothing that was supplied regularly through the drops, alongside the other essentials.  He’d torn off the sleeves of the shirt, showing off muscular arms that were emblazoned with tattoos down to the fingertips.  The light brown of his eyes was surrounded by an expanse of bloodshot red instead of whites.  Other than his muscular physique, they were the only thing that set him apart from any ordinary man who one might see on the streets.

Lung was a killer, a wild animal who played at being a man.  Marquis had picked up enough details to know Lung’s story.  He’d broken the rules, broken the code, because he’d thought he had the power to get away with it.  But it had been a power he couldn’t quantify, a blend of raw military strength, reputation and circumstantial power.

Just as there were athletes who studied their sport, trained their technique and honed their bodies with specific goals in mind, there were others who drew from natural talent and instinct.  Lung had built his gang by conquering others one by one, going by his gut to identify those who would stand in his way and then violently removing them from his path.  His instinct and a tenacious power gave him his success on the street level, where he seized control of the local drug trade, of soldiers, but they hadn’t fared so well in the scope of a greater war.

And so it was that Lung found himself here.  Among the fallen, so to speak.

He turned his attention to Amelia.  His daughter.  She sat on the edge of the bed, slouching forward.  Her clothes weren’t torn or modified, and her sweatshirt was a fraction too big for her – she was staying in his cell block, and the clothes were meant for men.  For the time being, she was being left alone.  He’d asked the men of his cell block to look after her, and because of this, she was afforded a certain respect.  People got out of her way, not because they knew anything about her, but because they knew him.

It was precarious and unconventional.  A girl in the men’s cell blocks.  It wasn’t new, exactly, some had taken wives, had girlfriends or paid girls to serve them as prostitutes.  But Amelia was someone with no confidence, no presence, giving every sign that she was a victim rather than a warrior.

This wouldn’t last.  The men in the Birdcage were still men in the end, and they were men who’d found their way here because they had defied the system.  Some, like Lung, had broken the unspoken codes, others had challenged authority and lost, while others still had simply broken the rules too many times.  It was a matter of time before they lost patience with Amelia after devoting so much time and effort to protecting someone who didn’t have anything to offer.  Or they would challenge Marquis; any number of maneuvers ranging from overt mutiny to subtle sabotage.

“Are you holding court, then?” Cinderhands asked, once again.  The man had a shock of red hair that was shaved on the sides, and holes in his nose and ears that pointed to old piercings, only some of which had been replaced by rings and bars hand-crafted from scraps of metal here in the ‘cage.  His hands and arms were a burned black up to the elbows, more like a used log gone cold in the fireplace than flesh.

“I’ll hold court.  Amelia can sit in.”

“You sure?” Cinderhands asked.

Marquis turned to stare at the young man, drawing in a lungful of smoke from his cigarette, “You’ve never questioned my decisions before.”

“Your decisions haven’t raised any questions before.”

“Watch yourself,” Marquis said.

Cinderhands narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, but he nodded slightly in acquiescence.

“Go pass on word, let the other block leaders know.  I’ll hold audience for one hour, starting one hour after the next shipment arrives, ending at lights out.  First come, first serve.  They can come themselves or send a representative.  We won’t challenge their passage, but no more than two from a block.  Stay by the cell block gates and keep an eye out for trouble.”

“I’ll need some guards if you want me to do anything about that trouble,” Cinderhands said.

“Then find them.  Or tell me you can’t, and I’ll find someone else to handle the job,” Marquis let his annoyance seep into his voice.

Cinderhands stalked off.

How long before they confronted him?  There was a difference between being someone strong enough to be left alone and being leader of a cell block.  Lung was the former, he was the latter.

That said, his real worry was that they would attack him indirectly, standing by while Amelia was hurt, or failing to back him up at a crucial moment.

In fact, he was giving serious thought to the idea of provoking a mutiny among his people.  A solid and undeniable victory would remind people of why he was leader of Cell Block W and help to root out any of the more conniving individuals who were plotting a more subtle form of attack.  That is, if they were impatient enough to capitalize on the ensuing chaos.

Actually being defeated, it wasn’t really a consideration.  He’d only lost a fight on one occasion, and those had been extenuating circumstances.

In any event, instigating a mutiny would only serve as a stopgap measure.  This was a problem he needed to address at the root.  Amelia.

He glanced her way.  She hadn’t moved, and she was still staring at her hands.

She wasn’t the first of her kind that he’d seen.  A hollow shell.  Tabula rasa.  A blank slate. She wasn’t sleeping at night, not easily, and she had frequent nightmares.

He’d seen others, had had two appear in his cell block, delivered by their tinker overseer.  Except he wasn’t a nurturer.  He had no experience on that front.  He’d done what he could to see if he could wake them up from the neuroses that gripped them, and then he’d bartered them away to other cell blocks when he hadn’t seen improvement over one or two weeks.  People who were damaged on this fundamental level tended to go one of four ways.  They recovered, which was rare; someone filled the empty vessel with an ideology; they were used as a resource, cared for so their talents could be exploited; or they were spent, burned up of whatever they had to offer, be it making things or violence.

He wished he’d tried his hand at fixing the two who Dragon had delivered to his block.  Maybe he’d have a better idea of how to deal with Amelia if he had.

“We have twenty minutes until they start arriving.  Go shower, Amelia.  Make sure your hair is dry when you return, and don’t wear a sweatshirt.  They envelop you, make you look like you’re hiding.  A short-sleeved shirt will do.”

She stood and headed out the door, her slippered feet slapping as she walked.

He could have escorted her, but he didn’t.  It would be better in the short-term, but more damaging to their image in the end. Instead, he ventured out of his daughter’s cell, standing at the head of the railing for the raised area that overlooked his cell block.

There were thirty people in Block W, including himself and Amelia.  Those thirty people shared five televisions with no remotes, two weight benches, one open area for general exercise and sports, and a seating area with tables and benches.  The cells themselves were arranged in a horseshoe shape, encompassing the area, with two gently sloping ramps meeting at the furthest cell, his own.  Beneath his cell was a corridor that led to the supply delivery area and the showers.

Tidy in appearance to the point of caricature, Spruce stood guard by the televisions, helping ensure that Block W remained the only block with a full set of working sets.  He would ensure everyone had a turn to choose the channel.  Whimper was overseeing the auction.  Everyone had already received their share of the cigarettes, which served as currency for bidding over the more in demand items of the supply drop.  There were less new blankets than there were people in the block, for example, and each drop only included maybe three or four books; always one classic and two from the recent bestseller’s lists.  Good reads and books with raunchy scenes could be resold to other prisoners for a decent amount, and they would exchange hands until they were too worn to keep.

From his vantage point at the railing, Marquis could see most of the way into virtually every cell in the block.  Only the cells at the very end were at the wrong angle, and he’d stationed his lieutenants there.  His lieutenants and Lung.

Not every block worked the same way, though the layout and the scheduled drops were the same for each.  The advantage of Marquis’ arrangement was that it kept his people relatively happy and it kept them in their place.  The lieutenants and Marquis himself got first pick of any of the items from the supplies, but nobody truly went wanting, so they generally agreed with minimal complaint.

He watched Amelia make her way to the point on the ramp where the railing terminated, step down to the corridor below that led to the showers .  He could see the glances that were directed her way, some almost animal, hungry.  Others, almost more alarming to that part of himself that he associated with fatherhood, were cold, measured and calculating.  More than a few sets of eyes belatedly turned his way after looking at his daughter, as if gauging whether he was noticing that they’d noticed.

By way of response, he called on his power, generating twin spikes of bone that crossed the end of the corridor in an ‘x’.  Amelia passed through the gap, crouching slightly, and he filled the remainder of the space with branching lengths of bone.

Even the littlest things were a hassle, now.

He snapped the bone, keeping his expression blank in the face of the mind-shattering pain that resulted.  It faded quickly, and he let the remainder of the bone fall to the floor, joining countless other shards and fragments around the mouth of his cell.  It invoked a mental picture of a lion’s den.

This was a gamble.  Amelia could be the excuse his enemies or more ambitious underlings needed to mount an attack.  At worst, he’d die and she would… well, she’d be a resource that was burned up, exhausted of anything and everything she had to offer.  If he was able to buy enough time, verify that she was beyond saving, then he could return her to the women’s cell blocks, cut his losses and take the resulting hit to his reputation as the only real cost of trying.

He didn’t want to take either of those options.  He had so few memories with her, from when she’d been a toddler, but they’d stayed with him.  He remembered the sparkle in her eye as she saw the princess costume he’d had tailor-made for her.  He recalled the look of consternation on her face as she’d sat at his dining room table while she practiced writing her letters.   That frustration had become awe as he’d showed her what she could accomplish once she mastered the art, penning out florid letters in cursive with a fountain pen.

More than once, as he prepared tea to share with Lung during one of their long discussions, he’d thought of the mock tea party he’d had with his daughter.

Those moments seemed farther away now than they had in the days before he’d been reunited with her.  He would never recapture them, he knew, but maybe he could find other, new memories to share with her.  A deep conversation, a father’s pride at her accomplishments.

Before that was possible, he had to resolve this situation.  Fixing her was too lofty a goal.  Cementing his own power base would do as a short-term goal.  He would need to show his people and the other cell blocks that there was a reason why he’d invested this much attention and effort into his daughter.  To do that, he would have to decipher the puzzle of her psyche, figure out a way to coax her into demonstrating her power.

He was running out of time, judging by how his followers were acting.

“You will be disappointed if you expect my help, Marquis,” Lung’s low, heavily accented voice came from behind him.

“I know.  You’re your own man.”

“I had more respect for you before this.”

Before my daughter.

“You and everyone else here.  It’s a shame.  I’d hoped I’d amassed enough credit that you and the rest of them could trust me to see this through to a successful conclusion.”

“Mmm,” Lung rumbled.  “Do you trust that you’ll see this through to a successful end?”

Marquis didn’t trust himself to lie convincingly, so he only smiled.

“You do have a plan?” Lung asked.

“You’ll see,” Marquis replied.  “Will you be attending the meeting?”

“I am not one of your lieutenants.”

“But you’ve earned yourself a reputation in a short span of time.  That’s commendable.”

“No flattery.  Get to the point.”

“It helps us both if you’re there.”

“You look more powerful if you have the mad dog on a leash,” Lung growled.

“Some may see it that way.  I won’t deny it.  But in my perspective, you’re dangerous, and people will notice if I’m unconcerned about having you loose in my block.”

“You’re insulting me.  Saying you look down on me.”

“No.  I’m stating the facts.  Yes, in a straight fight, maybe you could give me a run for my money.  Maybe not.  But I have my underlings, and that leaves me fully confident I’d win.”

“You might not have those underlings for much longer if this continues.”

“I notice you’re not disagreeing.”

Lung offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“If you stay,” Marquis said, resting his elbows on the railing, “You can meet the other cell block leaders, get a head start on figuring them out for when you’ve murdered me and taken over W Block.”

“You don’t sound concerned.”

“Someone’s going to try, Lung.  Someone’s going to succeed.  Might be in two years, might be in five years, or ten-”

“Or today,” Lung cut in.

Marquis waved him off.  “Not today.  But it’s a fact that it’ll happen someday.  I’d rather it was you, when that day comes.”

Lung’s eyebrows rose in a rare expression of surprise.  “Why?”

Marquis stood, stretching, and tossed his stub of a cigarette to the corridor below.

“You can’t imagine I’d be a kind or generous leader.”

Marquis laughed.  “No.  But wouldn’t you rather be murdered by a rabid wild beast who happens to share your living space, than to have a onetime ally stab you in the back?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lung replied.  “You’ll be dead either way.”

Marquis gave the man a slap on the shoulder.  Lung tensed, more because of surprise at the abrupt, familiar gesture than anything else.  Marquis sighed.  “There are times I envy you.”

He turned to head down the ramp, descending into the crowded area where supplies were being sorted.

Whimper showed him the books.  A murder investigation novel, a young adult story featuring some romance with a ghost, a book with a bird mask on the cover and a Dickens novel.  Marquis selected the last.

He seated himself on a bench where he had a view of both the corridor and the cell block entrance.  While others cleared out of the area, Marquis glanced up at Lung, who still watched from the railing above.

He turned his attention to the book, pretending to read while thinking over the situation.

He glanced toward the door of bones in time to see the shadow of Amelia’s approach.  Controlling his own ‘dead’ bones was harder, but he’d been standing at the ready to demolish the barrier, and pulled it down before she got there.

“You took some time,” he said.

Amelia hugged her arms to her body.  “I sat down to think and lost track of time.”

“We’re worriers, my girl.  It’s an asset when applied in the right amount.  Is your hair dry?”

Amelia touched her hair but didn’t venture a reply.  He reached out to touch her hair, and again, he saw her flinch.  “Good enough.  Have a seat.  The latest, what was it, a novel from this ‘Fade’ series?  It was there for auction.  I could send someone to track it down if you’re interested.”

She shook her head.

“Not interested in reading, or not interested in reading that?”

“Both.  Mostly the second part.”

“At least you have taste.  Well, the meeting begins in one or two minutes.  I would like you to attend, of course.  Best if you don’t speak unless directly asked a question, and say less rather than more.  It’s a tactic I employ myself, leaves you less room to say the wrong thing.”

“They’re going to ask me to use my power.  I can’t.”

“I understand.  Yes, they probably will want a demonstration.  I only know what Lung’s told me, which isn’t much, and what you’ve said, which is even less.  That in mind, I still think that a demonstration would do a great deal to secure our position.”

“I can’t,” her voice was small.

Then we may well die, my daughter.

“We’ll cope some other way, then,” he said.  “In the meantime, to convey the right image, it’s best if you make eye contact and speak clearly.  Sit.”

“Okay.”

He stood, then seated himself on the table, his feet on the bench beside Amelia.

He gave the signal to Spruce and Whimper, and they stepped away from the entrance to Cell Block W.

All in all, there were twelve cell blocks with leaders.  That meant that there were eleven leaders with eleven lieutenants arriving.  Acidbath, Galvanate, Teacher, Lab Rat and Gavel were leaders of the cell blocks on the men’s side of the prison.  Lustrum, Black Kaze, Glaistig Uaine, String Theory, Crane and Ingenue were the female leaders.  There were other cell blocks, but twelve was generally agreed on as a good number.  It left room for discussion without too much chaos, and it left enough cell blocks leaderless that they had elbow room to do business elsewhere.

“This is the healer?” Gavel asked.

“Amelia, yes.”

“My people say you’re taunting them, Marquis, having this girl staying in the men’s wing without a lover.”

“Not my intention, I assure you.  I would guess some people are only looking for something to complain about.”  Marquis looked pointedly at Gavel as he replied.

“Don’t waste my time with this male posturing,” Lustrum cut in.  “I have women to look after.  I delivered your daughter to you because you promised repayment and because she asked.  I wouldn’t mind seeing that payment.”

“It was implied that I would pay you back in coming weeks or months, not in a week.”

“And if I ask a month or two from now, will you postpone the payment yet again?”

“I don’t expect I will, but maybe you could clarify the payment you’re looking for?”

“She’s a healer.  Some healing would serve.”

Damn, Marquis thought.  She had to ask.

“Amelia isn’t healing anyone right now,” Marquis said.

“Ambiguous,” Crane’s voice was sonorous, smooth, “Is that because she can’t or because you’re ransoming her ability?”

Marquis only smiled.

“You explicitly let us know you were open for a meeting,” Teacher said.  He didn’t look like a cape in the least.  He was fat, for one thing, and he was ugly, with a red face and balding pate.  “Don’t be coy.”

“Coy?  No, let’s say we’re simply weighing our options and getting a lay of the land.  Healing’s rare.  More than one person picked up on the fact that her codename meant ‘universal cure’.”

Teacher smiled, smug.

“But there’s a great deal of demand, and you’ll have to forgive me for being a doting father, but I won’t exhaust my daughter’s mental or physical resources to parcel out her healing.  We’ll hear terms, we’ll discuss the offers and counteroffers over the next several days or weeks, and then we’ll let you know our decision.”

“You are holding her power for ransom,” Lustrum spoke.

A power she isn’t willing to use, one that I don’t know the particulars of.  Worse, it’s tied to a deeper trauma that somehow involves the loss of a sister, and that’s not something that can be addressed in a matter of weeks.

“I suppose I am,” he replied.

Glaistig Uaine shifted position, and Marquis wasn’t the only one to give her his full attention.  What he could see of her beneath the blackened tatters of her prison-sweats-turned-shroud suggested she was barely a teenager, but that was more due to her power than anything.  She’d been one of the first prisoners of the Birdcage, and he suspected she would be one well after he’d died.  Not that her megalomanical delusion was true.  Rather, it was the fact that nobody dared to pick a fight with her.

When Glaistig Uaine spoke, her voice was eerie, a broken ensemble of a dozen people speaking in sync.  “Beware, Marquis.  You will pay a thousandfold times for your arrogance when the armies of the faerie rouse and gather for the last war.

“Rest assured, Glaistig Uaine, you’re scary enough on your own,” Marquis replied, smiling,  “I don’t need a whole army of your kind chasing me down.”

There will be no chasing, for they are already in position to strike you down the moment they wake, three hundred years hence.  You’re nothing more than the dream of the faerie.  I can see it, so vivacious, so creative in its movements, even in slumber.  I think it might have been an artist.  I want it for my collection.

He was glad Amelia didn’t challenge the ‘three hundred years’ thing and the notion that they would still be alive then.  The ‘faerie’ didn’t react kindly to such.

“You’ve said as much before, noble Faerie,” he said, “Rest assured, you can have me when I’m dead.  In the meantime, I will keep your warning well in mind.”

Your daughter, too.  Your faerie is kin to the one that sleeps inside the girl.  I have no doubt this Amelia is a healer, but that’s only a facet of her true strength.  I have decided I will not bargain with you, Marquis.

Marquis used his hands to prop himself up as he leaned back.  “A shame, but understandable.  You don’t need healing, and your people are a secondary concern.”

I will collect them as they fall.  But you are mistaken, Marquis.  I am not expressing disinterest in her talents.  I am saying that I will only deal with her as an equal.

In years of using his power, of breaking his own bones and feeling the pain each time, Marquis had made himself a master at hiding his emotions beneath a mask.  Even so, he only barely managed to contain his surprise.

“Very well,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and deftly retrieved a cigarette.  He took his time lighting it.  “We’ll be in touch, then.”

Agreed.”  Glaistig Uaine replied.  She extended a hand to Amelia, and Marquis tensed.

Do I stop her?

Every rational part of his psyche told him that the leader of cell block C had no quarrel with his daughter, that she was in no danger.  Every other part of him was telling him to stop her.

Amelia took Glaistig Uaine’s hand in her own, then hesitated.  After a moment, she curtseyed.

I taught her to do that more than a decade ago.

Glaistig Uaine returned the curtsey, then turned to leave.

The gathered cell block leaders watched as the self-professed faerie left.

There were capes who were deluded enough to think that their powers were actually magic.  There were capes who were neurotic in a way that didn’t shut them down or leave them unable to function.  Glaistig Uaine was one who fit both categories, and she was powerful enough to make people listen to her.  He’d never thought he could benefit from it.

Her lunacy actually plays out in my favor, Marquis thought to himself, even as his heart pounded in his chest.  He’d planned to let the tension ratchet up until Amelia was forced to use her power to rescue him.  Applying pressure, after a fashion, without being the one to force it.  He didn’t like it, but he needed her to break out of this state she was in, she needed to break out of it for her own sake, and he was willing to risk everything to see it happen.

“It seems that cell block C will be cooperating with us,” Marquis said.  Then he smiled.

“Glaistig Uaine might see things, but she isn’t usually wrong,” Galvanate said.  “She says the kid has power?  Fine.  Our issues are the usual.  The dentist in cell block T charges a small fortune, and we’ve got some toothaches.  Can you heal that?”

Amelia was still staring off towards the entrance to Marquis’ cell block.

“Amelia,” Marquis prodded her.

“What?”  She stirred.

“Could you heal a toothache?”

“Theoretically,” she said.

Good, Marquis thought.  Vague, but true.

“You’re cutting into my lieutenant’s business,” Teacher said.  “I won’t take that well.”

“Competition is the best thing in the long run,” Marquis replied.  “But maybe we can extend you a discount for your troubles?”

“Um,” Amelia spoke up.  All eyes turned her way.  “A silly question, but if my dad says it’s okay, maybe we can offer a deal, in exchange for an answer?”

Marquis suppressed the urge to frown.  “I think we could.”

“I know the answer’s no, but nobody really talks about it outside, so I’m not sure why… but with everyone we’ve got in here, why can’t we break out?”

Marquis sighed.  It was a newbie mistake, to dwell on the idea of escaping, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to counsel her.  It was good that she was more animated, expressing interest in something other than regret, but this wasn’t helping their image and it wasn’t good to let people know her full capabilities just yet.

“It’s a hollowed out mountain,” Lab Rat said.  “Vacuum, containment foam-“

“No,” Teacher cut him off.  “You want the real answer, healer?  It’ll cost.”

Amelia nodded.  Marquis suppressed yet another urge to cringe.

“Measuring devices are scarce down here, so we don’t have the full picture, but there’s a solid running theory on why we can’t just teleport out or fly through the vacuum and punch our way through the side of the mountain.”

“Do tell,” Marquis said.  It doesn’t matter in the end, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.

“Size warping technology.  The device might be no bigger than a football, and that’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the rocky mountains.  The warping apparatus would be bigger, but there’s nothing saying it’s anywhere close to the actual prison.  Reason we can’t break out is because we’re in a prison no bigger than your fist.  And if all of this is only this small,” Teacher held up a fist, then tapped it against the nearest table, “How far are you going to have to dig or teleport to get through a surface this thick?  Or through something as thick as that wall over there?  Or a hundred feet of lead with gallons of containment foam on the outside?”

“Okay,” Amelia said.  “I understand.  Thank you.”

That could have gone worse, Marquis thought.  It’s depressing, but it could be worse.

Teacher shrugged.  “Thank me with healing for my cell block.”

“A discount,” Marquis said.

Teacher nodded.  “A discount is possible.  What are you wanting?”

With that, the discussion was underway once more, and Marquis set about subtly setting the other cell block leaders against one another, controlling the conversation while making no promises.

This, he could handle.  He felt a quiet relief replace his fear.

“Faeries,” Amelia muttered.  They were venturing toward the communal dining area.

“Not real,” Marquis answered her.  “She sees things we can’t, the auroras that surround those with powers.  She’s named them as something else.”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “I saw her physiology when I touched her.  I couldn’t see what she sees, but I see how she’s carrying them inside her, drawing an energy from them.  And there were three more, just beside her, and she was using that energy to feed them… but they weren’t active?”

“She collects souls of dead and dying parahumans,” Marquis replied.  “Or the souls of any living soul that gets on her bad side.  But they’re not souls, really.  Teacher says they’re psychic images, photocopies of a single individual’s personality, memories and powers.  She can have a handful active and doing what she wants walking around at any given time.”

“They’re not faeries.  Or souls, or psychic images.  Our powers aren’t part of our bodies, exactly.  I would be able to alter them or take them away if they were.  What I saw when I touched glass-“

“Glaistig Uaine.”

“Her.  I feel like I just got clued into a missing piece of the puzzle.  They’re sentient.  Maybe they’re sleeping, like she said.  But they’re not dumb, and I think I’m getting an idea of what happens when they wake up.”

“Is it something we can use?”

“Not here.  Not in the Birdcage.”

“What a shame.”

“God,” Amelia muttered.  “Why did I ask to come here?  If I’d realized sooner-“

“Why did you ask to come here?”

The words hit her like a physical blow.  She hugged her arms close to her body, and her hair fell down around her face.  “My sister.  I used my power on her.  Unmade her.”

“I’m sorry.  A result of sibling rivalry?  A fight?”

“Love,” Amelia’s voice was small.  Her shoulders hunched forward.  He took her by the hand and led her to an alcove, where far fewer people would be able to see her if she cried.

“Alas, love.  The cruelest emotion of them all.  I’m sorry.”

Marquis considered hugging her, but he didn’t.  Part of it was the way she’d shied at his touch before.  He would let her approach him in her own way.  Another part of it, a small part of it, was the notion that Glaistig Uaine seemed to consider the girl to be at her level.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “You said, before, that family was the most important thing.”

“Something like that.”

“I… would you understand if I said I didn’t consider you family?  I- I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to talk to you, but Victoria was my family.”

“I understand, yes.”  Expertise let him mask the pain her words caused him.  I abandoned you to them because I was too proud to stop being the Marquis of Brockton Bay.  I should understand that you grew more attached to them than to me, yet I can’t.

“I feel like I have to do something.  This feels important.  If I could explain, tell someone who understands…”

“There’s no escape, I’m afraid.”

“And,” Amelia blinked tears out of her eyes, “Already, I feel like I’m betraying Victoria, that I’m already forgetting her.  For just a few minutes, thinking about what I just found out from that girl, I stopped thinking about Victoria.  It’s my fault she isn’t there anymore, that there’s only that thing I created.  If I stop thinking about her, if I stop hurting, then I feel like I’m wronging her.”

“I suspect the pain won’t stop or heal as quickly as you’re thinking it will.  It hasn’t been that long, after all.”

“Except… if it stops at all?  If I ever forget, then I’ve subtracted something from the big picture.  It’s not that she was perfect, but…”

“But you need to maintain the memory.  Come.”

He gripped her hand and pulled her behind him.  She was too busy wiping tears from her eyes and snot from her upper lip to protest.

Still, he was glad that her face was mostly clear by the time they reached their destination.  A tinker sat at the corner of the dining area with tools strewn around him.  Makeshift devices crafted from the raw materials of their surroundings.

“How much for a tattoo?” Marquis asked, “For her?”

Amelia stared at him.

“Five books and five fags,” the tinker replied.

“Old books or new?”

“Either.”

Marquis turned to his daughter.  “If you decide to get it, I would advise a symbol rather than a face.  He won’t get the description exactly right, and the image will distort your mental picture.”

“I couldn’t remember her face as it was when it counted, anyways,” Amelia said, a dark look crossing her face.

“You’ll have the memory of your sister in physical form, so you can never forget as long as you live.  And when you’re done, we’ll take you back to your cell.  You can talk to the empty room, say what you need to say, and Dragon’s surveillance will catch it.”

“It’s like praying,” Amelia said.

“Except there’s a chance someone will listen and act on it,” Marquis replied.

Amelia nodded and sat down on the bench, then she began explaining what she wanted to the tattoo artist.

The house program that monitored the Birdcage followed the girl as she parted from her father and entered her cell in Cell Block W.

When she spoke, she addressed Dragon.  The program began transcribing the message as it did every word said within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

Tracking programs then began reviewing the message.  Flags were raised as key words came up with some frequency, descriptions were run against a corpus of records in parahuman studies and more flags were tripped.

Sixty-two miles above the surface of the Earth, the Simurgh changed the course of her flight.

Following protocol for when Dragon was deployed on a mission, the system routed the message to one of Dragon’s satellite systems.  The resulting message was scrambled by the dense signature of the Endbringer en route to Dragon.

Receiving the garbled transmission from the satellite, a subsystem of the Dragon A.I. proceeded to sort it.  A scan of the message by a further subroutine saw it classified as non-pertinent, and a snarl in the code from Defiant’s improvised adjustments to her programming saw the message skip past several additional safeties and subroutines.  The message was compartmentalized alongside other notes and data that included flares of atmospheric radiation and stray signals from the planet below; background noise at best.

Considering its job done, the house program archived the transcription among fifteen years of conversation and notes from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

The Simurgh flew on.

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“Share?”

I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”

“Okay.”

“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Monarch 16.9

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Heavy.  The weight of the body on top of me was making it hard to breathe.  Some backup process kicked into gear as my body tried and failed to take in air.  I was thrust out of unconsciousness, or out of the semiconscious daze I’d been in.  I managed to struggle to get my upper body free, fighting past the aches that made every joint and every bone hurt to heave the body off me.

It hadn’t felt like sleep, or the darkness of unconsciousness, but I hadn’t been thinking either.  I felt a moment’s disorientation and wondered if I’d suffered another concussion.  My thoughts felt too lucid.

The body.  My dad?  I opened my eyes to look, saw only cloudy white.  Dust?  It was similar to when I woke up with bleary eyes, but no matter how many times I blinked, I could only see a white haze with vague patches of light and dark.  Blinking made my face burn where the skin of my eyelids and around my eyes moved.  More irritating was the sensation that I had something in my eyes, except no amount of blinking was helping.  They’d been damaged?

Stupid to look straight at the explosion.  I’d thought I had another half-second to grasp what was going on before I had to turn my head and shut my eyes.  Apparently that wasn’t good enough.

My dad.  Right.  I reached over and fumbled to find his throat.  He had a pulse.  I put one hand in front of his mouth and found him breathing.

I was whole, he was alive.  Anything else would be hard to verify.

I was forced to use my bugs to see.  What their eyes processed might not translate well in my brain, but it was about as good as what I had.  Didn’t want to move the bugs or gather a swarm.  It would be too easy to track me down, to find Skitter lying among the wounded.

No, I only looked, keeping the bugs where they were, and feeling things out where necessary with only a handful of flies.  I could feel a breeze.  The front of the building had a hole in it.  The lobby had been annihilated, and much of it was open to the sky.  The black blobs that had pulled up around the building had flickering lights on top.  Sirens.  They would be the first responders.

I’d noted the structural damage.  I tried to picture the scene as I’d last glimpsed it.  What had been where?  Who had been where?

The reporters had been at the very back of the room, the last to make their way down the aisles in the press of the crowd and the people making their way out of their seats.  Some had lingered, protecting their equipment or filming the scene.  I tenderly moved one fly over the area, feeling the shattered boards, the blood-slick expanses of floor, the charred flesh.

Several of the Wards were working to tend to the wounded.  Clockblocker had saved the Wards, apparently, but had been too late in tending to himself, and was currently lying prone, receiving some care from Weld.  Chariot was gone.

There had been hundreds of people present, and too many had still been in the building when the explosion went off.  The dad and son who’d been restrained in the lobby?  The mayor, candidates and director who’d been wounded, then left without aid when the explosion injured the people who were giving them first aid, sent the people flying?

I couldn’t even grasp the entirety of the scene, not without bringing my swarm to bear.  I couldn’t do that without possibly revealing my presence when I was in a vulnerable position.

I felt around to find Kurt and Lacey.

“Hey baby,” Lacey said.  “You woke up.”

“You hurt?”

“Just a little bit.  Might have slipped a disc.  Probably nothing to worry about, but I’m going to stay as still as I can with how bad this hurts.  I’ve been watching your dad, trying to tell if he’s breathing or if I’m imagining it.  You didn’t freak out, so I take it that our Danny’s okay?”

“He’s okay.  I think.”

“Good.  Kurt’s unconscious but he’s alright.  You see Alexander anywhere?”

I blinked a few times.  Did she not realize I couldn’t see?  “No.”

“Okay, hon.  You should stay as still as possible.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Going to see if anyone needs help.”

She gripped my hand, started to say something, then winced.

“What’s wrong.”

“Hurts, is all.  Stay put?  Safest thing to do.”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t say it, but I felt like I’d been through enough crises and suffered enough that I was aware of what the pain was telling me.  I was almost certain I wasn’t in critical danger.  It was what my gut was telling me.

With only a small few bugs to guide me, I left my dad, Kurt and Lacey behind, climbing up the stairs to the damaged stage, fumbling for the other wounded.  I could only draw crude images of the situation from touch, from the blurry images my eyes offered me and through my bugs.  A woman, unconscious like my dad.  A man, his arms hugged to his lower stomach as he writhed in perpetual agony.

The mayor.  I crawled over to him, pressing my fingers to his throat.  He had a pulse, but it was thready.  I drew bugs from where they hid in the midst of my hair, commanded them down my arms and tried to bend over so my hair masked what I was doing.  Once they were on him, I sent them over the length of his body, noting where there was blood.  No use fumbling around with my hands.  I didn’t want to bump one of the throwing knives and gave it the push necessary to drive it into one of his arteries.  One of the knives that impaled his hip had moved, probably when the explosion happened, and the offending weapon wasn’t serving to cork the blood flow.

I pulled my sweatshirt from around my waist, leaving my knife where it was on my belt, folding one sleeve and pressing it around the base of where the knife had penetrated.  It wasn’t enough, didn’t feel like I was doing anything, but I wasn’t sure what else I could do.  I wasn’t strong enough to do chest compressions.

“Help!”  I shouted.  “I need help here!”

Nobody leaped to the rescue.  Anyone else that was still in the building was too busy with their own injuries, were still unconscious or were making their way outside.

Damn them.

Damn Coil.  I would make him answer for this.

Yes, I had seen ‘Coil’ die.  I had little doubt others had as well, even news cameras would have had eyes on the scene.  Especially news cameras.  Coil had staged this, taken advantage of the reporters’ cameras, the fact that there were no working communications, and all the important figures would be attending.  He was too savvy, too invested in his plan to not have taken all the variables into account.  Just the fact that I knew about his power turned this whole scenario on its head.  He wouldn’t have charged in like this without a backup, without a version of himself staying safe and secure in his underground base, just in case things went awry.

No.  I might have seen the man die, but the more I thought about it, the less I could believe that man was Coil.

The emergency response team had stopped outside, at the perimeter of the building.  I listened through the bugs in the area, but I couldn’t follow any of the conversation.  Even tracking who was speaking was nearly impossible.

Whatever they had been discussing, they ventured inside.  Some, who I gathered might be police officers, were moving to the most affected areas, the places where the reporters had been, the lobby.  The paramedics proceeded down the aisles, too slowly for my liking, checking on the wounded.

“Help!” I called out, but my voice was nearly drowned out by the other wounded.  It was one or two minutes before a paramedic saw the mayor and hurried to my side.  I could tell where he was because of the bug I’d planted on him, but I couldn’t say as much.

“I’ve got this,” she said.  The paramedic was a woman.

I gratefully backed away.  Even the strain of pushing the makeshift bandage down had been making every ache and pain across my body stand out in sharp relief.

“Your name?” she asked me.

“Taylor.”

A short distance away, my dad groaned a response, as if he’d heard my voice.  I noticed more because of the mosquito I’d placed over his carotid artery than my ears.  I didn’t let on that I’d noticed anything.

“You shouldn’t be moving, Taylor.”

“I’m sore, but I don’t think I’m hurt.  I wanted to help.”

“What kind of pain?”

“Bruises, aches.  My dad took the brunt of it,” I pointed in his general direction.  “My face hurts, and, um, I can’t see.”

“Don’t worry.  Soon as we take care of the critically injured, we’ll look after you.”

“I’m alive,” I said.  “I mean, I’m okay.  I’d rather you guys checked my dad and his friends, make sure they aren’t hurt, help the other candidates, and the Director.  They were stabbed before the explosion.  All of them like this.  Um.  They were getting help when the bomb blew.  I think whoever was helping them got knocked away by the explosion.”

I was rambling.  How fine was I?

The paramedic shouted, “Boroughs!  Sturdevant!  Manry!  Girl here says there’re MSW victims on the stage here!”

I could hear running footsteps, one of my bugs brushed against one of them as they ran past.

There wasn’t much more I could do.  I’d gladly out myself if it meant I could use my power to help people, maybe identify the most wounded, but I was worried it would do more harm than good, both in the short-term and in the long.  I was left to sit there, blind, while the paramedic checked my dad over and then got someone else’s help to lift him to the ground.

As the paramedics checked whether people were alive, others were rousing.  I could hear the cries of pain, the shouts and screams.

Coil would answer for this.  For the people he’d hurt for his own selfish ends.  For knowingly putting me in the line of fire.  For the lives he’d spent like currency.

“Taylor, was it?” the paramedic asked me.

“Yeah.”

“You’re very quiet.  You’re breathing hard-”

“Angry.  And a little sore.  But I’m okay.  Really.  There’re others who need help.”

“Others are getting help.  We’ve got a lot of people here, and very few with serious injuries.  You have a burn on your face, we’re going to want to look after that.”

“The reporters, at the back of the auditorium-”

“I thought you couldn’t see.”

“I remember seeing them there, just before it went off.”

“Very few people were badly hurt.  Less than you might think.  Just stay calm.”

If I hadn’t used my bugs to see the evidence for myself, would I have been able to tell she was lying?

She wanted me to stay calm.  It was odd, but I felt very calm, and I didn’t feel like I was in shock.  I was pissed, I was worried about my dad, worried that I was missing something critical with Coil’s overarching plan, but I wasn’t panicking, I wasn’t stressing about the burn, or my eyes, or any of that.

I’d handled worse, in terms of injuries.  I wouldn’t freak over that much.  I’d love to be able to see what was going on, to not have to worry about permanent blindness, but I wouldn’t worry about it until I could confirm how bad it was, confirm that it was permanent.

Sort of like how I was looking at the potential end of the world.  I wouldn’t worry about it until we’d exhausted every resource available and verified that in this era where countless people had the ability to break the fundamental rules of reality, someone couldn’t stop it from happening.

“I am calm,” I said, after confirming it for myself.  I tried to take a deep breath to demonstrate, but winced at the pain from the bruising.  I might have been pushed into the railing by the force of the explosion.  “But I don’t want you to worry about me.  My dad-”

“The bald guy by the stairs?”

“Yeah.”

“My partner’s looking after him.  Let’s make sure you’re okay.  If there’s spinal damage or internal damage and we’re ignoring it and letting you move around like you have been, things could get much worse than they are now.”

I shut my eyes, noting how the blurry white haze gave way to darkness.  I could remember when Leviathan had hit me, how Panacea had noted internal damage that I’d been entirely unaware of.  I sighed, opened my eyes to stare at the hazy figure.  “Okay.”

“We’re going to be putting you onto a stretcher, but we won’t be carrying you out for a minute.  We can’t leave you alone, but I’ll need to help my partner carry your dad out.  What we’re going to do is put you next to someone, so someone can watch two or three of you at once.”

“Okay.”

I was lifted into place, then carried a short distance before being set down with great care.  The paramedic there was talking with one of the other patients, leaving me free to think.

Why?

That was what got me.  This whole thing bordered on senselessness.  Hurting these people, putting me in the line of fire.  Why attack the event?  It would draw attention from heroes across the nation and it would make holding the city that much harder.  Had he abandoned the plan?  Or were there nuances I wasn’t aware of?

What was deliberate, in how this had unfolded?  He’d wanted to take out the mayor.  But the candidates?  Hadn’t they been his?

I was looking at it the wrong way.  Circus.  She had been part of the plan from the beginning, and he’d hired her for an explicit reason.  Her powers included her personal pocket dimension for storing items.  I couldn’t think of how that might be used.  She had minor pyrokinesis, but that didn’t apply here, either.  She also had an enhanced sense of balance and enhanced coordination.

The balance wasn’t a major thing here.  But the coordination?  The way she’d been able to casually target Piggot as she tossed the throwing knives over one shoulder?  If I had to guess, Circus’ knives had only killed the people Coil wanted dead.  The others would have been hit in nonvital areas.  Her enhanced hand-eye coordination would have given her the accuracy needed to ensure the knives hit where she wanted them to hit.

Über, then?  Leet?  What was the rationale for them?  When we’d left the fundraiser and Coil had revealed himself as our employer, it had been Trainwreck in Coil’s company, but Trainwreck had joined the Merchants, possibly at Coil’s behest, and the Merchants had been eradicated.  He was dead.

That led me to wonder if Coil had brought in Über as a stand-in for Trainwreck, wearing another heavy metal suit.

Was there a reason for why Coil wanted it?

Circus, Über, Leet, Chariot, the candidates… moving parts in a greater set of machinations that I wasn’t aware of.  The reporters, me, my dad, and any number of people in the area, we were the bystanders, the casualties.

And I couldn’t get why.  Was it to attack or assassinate the mayor and Director?  To mark his candidates as survivors of a supervillain attack and give them more standing in the eyes of the public?  It didn’t make sense.  Why go to the effort of positioning the Undersiders and the Travelers in the city if that was his goal?  Any advantage he might glean from us holding territory would be counterbalanced by the chaos and the national attention that he drew from this kind of terrorism.  It wouldn’t be directed at him, because his body double had been killed in the attack, but it couldn’t help, either.

If I thought about it, I could almost believe the bombing had been intentional.  I couldn’t say how he’d arranged it, but the fact that he’d thought to have a body double and the man had died and that ‘Coil’ was effectively off everyone’s radar seemed too coincidental.

It was something I needed to ruminate on.  Minutes passed, and I was left with only my bugs to occupy me, and the periodic attention of the paramedic who’d been assigned to watch me, making sure I was still alive and lucid.  I directed bugs into the rubble, beneath the chairs that had been unrooted from the auditorium floor, under and onto bodies.  Slowly, I gained a greater picture of the scene, a topographical map of what Coil had done.  I couldn’t count the bodies, not with the way the reporters had been pulverized, limbs and bones torn free and left lying beneath chairs or at the sides of the aisles

“We’re moving you now,” a man said.

“Me?”

“Yeah.  Just stay put, don’t move.”

I was lifted into the air, carried past the ruined wall at the rear of the auditorium.  I could smell the scent of death, the mingled smells of blood and shit, of human bodies that had been torn open, singed, the vitreous fluids and all the messy ugliness from inside our bodies exposed to the air.  It seemed incongruous with the cool breeze and the gentle warmth of the sun on my face.  I had to turn my head so the sun wasn’t shining on the burn.

Shouldn’t a catastrophe like this be met with rain?  An overcast sky?  It didn’t seem right that things were so quiet, so calm, the day so tranquil when so many people had died, lost loved ones or suffered serious injury.  I bit my lip, focusing on my bugs, sweeping them through the area as the ambulance made its way to the hospital and the paramedic in the back carefully checked my vitals, asking me questions about the degree of pain, stiffness here or there and checking for hard tissue where there might be internal injuries.

It was odd, going to the same hospital where I’d been taken after fighting Leviathan.  I maintained a few bugs to feel things out – a stray housefly or mosquito would likely go unnoticed if it kept out of the way.  There were no capes, no blue tags or red tags on the curtain rods, nor PRT uniforms keeping order and informing the staff of who they were treating.

They took me to a curtained off area, very similar to the one I’d been in before.  Except here I was Taylor, not Skitter.  I wasn’t handcuffed, treated roughly or outed for my most damaging secrets.  They investigated me thoroughly, shone a light in my eyes and asked me far too many questions.  A cream was spread across the mild burn on a quarter of my face, and the nurse picked grit out from beneath my skin.  The process hurt, but it was a two at most on a scale of one to ten.  I’d dealt with tens before.

The fact that I couldn’t see was starting to wear on me.  My left eye was worse than my right, but neither let me see details, only smudges.  Only light and dark.  I was so used to having an unnaturally broad sense of what was going on, but I’d just had one of my most essential senses stripped away from me.

As the medical professionals left, a young woman slipped into the curtained enclosure.

“Hey,” she said.  “You’re alive?”

“Lisa?”

“Yeah.”

“Honeybee-T.”

“Praying-mantis-R.  You’re blind.  Damn, that sucks,” she said.

“Yeah,” I sighed.  “My dad?”

“He’s okay.  Looked in on him.  He woke up and was asking after you.  He doesn’t like me much, anymore.”

“You took me away from him.  He’ll blame you for that because it’s easier than blaming me, I guess.”

“I guess.”  I planted a mosquito between her shoulder blades, and I could track her as she stepped closer, crouching with her arms resting on the rail of the hospital bed.  When she spoke, she was quiet enough that only I could hear her.  “We can get you a healer or something.  Kidnap someone like Othala, have Regent or Grue use her powers.”

“Othala isn’t around.  Left the city.”

“We’ll hire someone with healing powers, then.”

“They won’t want to come here, because of the very thing you were talking about with Othala.  Word’s probably out about us owning the city, especially after we kicked out groups like the Chosen, and Faultline’s crew.  They’ll tell people just how dangerous we are, the kind of tactics we can employ, like using Regent or Grue.”

“We have options.”

“I know.  I’m not worried about me.  What gets me is what happened.  So many were hurt or killed.”

“Lots hurt, not so many killed, from what I’ve seen and heard on the subject.  But that’s not important right now.  What are your priorities?”

I blinked.  “My dad-”

“Is fine.”

“My territory, the fires?”

“Strategically placed, nowhere near our real lairs.  Nobody hurt, but I think he molotov’d one of your barracks, setting the fire high so people had a chance to get out.”

“The others, Grue-”

“They weren’t anywhere nearby.  We’re going to meet up with them soon.”

“Dinah.”

Now you’re on track.  We’ve talked about plans.  And Coil-”

“He’s alive, right?” I asked.

“Mm hmm,” Lisa affirmed.  “And better for us, he’s probably happy.  Everything’s coming together for him, just the way he wanted it to.  Which means that right now, today, is going to be our best bet for talking to him, getting at him when he’s in a mood to release the tyke.  Come on, out of bed.”

My head was spinning, but it wasn’t a concussion at work.  After everything I’d done, everything I’d put in, we were this close?  I accepted Lisa’s help in getting out of the hospital bed, and she hooked her arm beneath mine to lead me away.

“So we just ask, and hope he’s feeling good enough to say yes?”  Which means biting my tongue when it comes to the accusations, calling him on what he did at the debate.

Lisa spoke at a more normal volume, “He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who’ll be influenced much by his emotions.  He probably decided a while ago whether he’ll give up the girl or not.  But I say we should take anything we can get, and that includes approaching him on a good day.  Choose your words carefully, by the way.  There’s bystanders.”

I nodded, but I didn’t follow as she tugged on my arm.  “Can we check on my dad before we go?”

“They were moving him when I poked my head in.  I peeked at his chart, and it looks like they had queued him up for an MRI, what with his recent internal injuries from Shatterbird’s attack.”

I winced.

She went on, “I told him I might take you to my dad’s clinic, where the load won’t be as high, if you were okay to be moved.  If I did take you, it’d mean you were okay.  He didn’t like that, but he agreed.  That doesn’t mean we can’t stay if you want to stay.  Like I said, it won’t make a huge difference if we get in touch with our boss now or two hours from now.”

“But it’ll make a difference?  A bit of one?”

“I think so.”

I thought back to my earlier feeling, that leaving my dad just the one more time might mean some kind of terminal break.

Stacking that up against everything I’d done with the end-goal of getting Dinah out of captivity, though… not even Dinah, exactly.  I barely knew her.  No, this was more selfish, I had to admit.  I was thinking of my own sense of guilt, about my own responsibility, and the crimes I’d committed in getting this far.  The terror, pain and distress I’d caused in the course of being Skitter.

Fifteen and a half years spent growing up with my dad versus two months as Skitter.  My dad was there, though.  He’d always been there, and the only thing I had to suggest that he wouldn’t was a vague feeling.

Just like there was only the vaguest possibility that our going to see Coil now would make the difference in him setting Dinah free.

“My dad’s going to be okay?” I asked.

“He was fine.  No sign of any deeper problems or pain.”

“Then let’s go.”

We made our way out of the hospital.  I could hear the cries of pain.

“Are we to blame for this?”

“No.  Don’t set yourself on this path.  We didn’t know, we couldn’t know, and we weren’t complicit in any way.”

“I was there.  I could have stepped up and done something, but I didn’t.”

“Done what?  Fought back?  Helped the wards?”

Yes.

“No.  Best case scenario, you might have tripped him up.  But it wouldn’t have been worth it.  Watch your step.  Stairs.”

I had no problem identifying the spots I was supposed to step down.  There were spiders on the underside of the stairwell, and I sent a few flies forward to alight on the underside of each stair to check the footing.

“It’s funny,” Lisa murmured, lowering her voice, “I’ve been meaning to suggest a training program.  That you should spend a while blindfolded, see if we can’t force you to rely on your power to see, get your brain to the point that you can actually process that info.  Guess you beat me to the punch.”

“It’s not that funny,” I said.  I didn’t like thinking about what might happen if I was still blind when the next disaster came along.

“Stepping outside,” she said.  I felt the warm air sweep past me as the door opened.  “Car’s just over here.  Nice thing about the city being in this state, it’s easy to find parking spots.”

She sounded so jovial, cheery.  I wasn’t nearly so optimistic.

She led us to the car, and opened the door for me.  “We’ll stop by your place so you can grab your costume and meet up with the others.  Then we’ll find Coil.”

“Find him?  He’s not at his base?”  I raised my voice to be heard as she walked around to the other side of the car and opened the door to get into the driver’s seat.

“He’s not at his base.  As of now, Coil’s dead and gone.  He’s sticking to his civilian identity.  Which is going to make meeting him and talking to him sort of difficult.”

I paused.  I’d been thinking over the scenario, calculating Coil’s overarching goal.  “Is he Keith Grove?”

“No,” Lisa said.  “One sec.”

The car started up, and there was a shuffling sound as she dug through a container.

A recording played over the car’s sound system.  Lisa shifted the car into gear and reversed out of her spot.  I listened.

A town meeting with hundreds of Brockton Bay residents was interrupted by a terrorist attack by a local villain just earlier today, an alleged assassination turned to even greater tragedy as a superhero-made piece of technology exploded unexpectedly.

This tragedy joins countless others that have recently befallen Brockton Bay, a city that was recently the subject of national discussion, where the United States Senate debated condemning the city, evacuating the remaining citizens and abandoning it as a lost cause.  A local crime lord headed a small group of supervillains in an attempt to assassinate Mayor Christner, Mayoral Candidate Keith Grove and Mayoral Candidate Carlene Padillo.  When local heroes intervened, however, a device owned by local Wards member ‘Kid Win’ malfunctioned, ultimately exploding in the lobby of the building.  While the number of casualties is yet unconfirmed, we can confirm that WCVN’s own on-site reporter and camera crew perished in the blast.  More information will be forthcoming as we have it.

First reports from the site report allegations of sabotage on the part of a known double agent within the group of junior heroes.  No members of the Brockton Bay PRT, Protectorate or Wards teams were available for comment, but sources inside the organization report that Director Emily Piggot, manager of the city’s PRT and government sponsored hero teams, is being put on leave pending a full investigation.

Filling in for the interim is Commander Thomas Calvert.  When asked about this new placement, the PRT reported that Commander Calvert served as a PRT field agent before an honorable discharge.  For the past several years he has offered his expertise to the PRT as a paid consultant in parahuman affairs for New York, Brockton Bay and Boston, later serving as a field commander for the PRT strike squads.  The PRT expresses full confidence in Commander Calvert’s ability to handle the daunting task of Brockton Bay’s parahuman-

The sound cut out.  Lisa had stopped the recording.

“Thomas Calvert,” I said.

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Monarch 16.8

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There was a tap on the microphone.  “If we could have silence from the audience, please?”

The low murmur of conversation throughout the auditorium gradually died down.  The place wasn’t full, but four out of every five seats were filled, and there were more people at the back, primarily reporters, many from out of town.

My eye darted across the room, trying to assess the situation.  The heavy woman in the front row, was that Piggot?  It made sense that every person worth talking about would be present.  The disasters and Tattletale’s attack on the cell towers meant that there wasn’t TV, there weren’t phones, and the only way for interested parties to find out what the candidates had to say was actually attending.

Outside of the auditorium, Coil’s men gathering in the lobby and at the sides of the building.  Some were taking point on the roof, gathering in pairs, working together to assemble sniper rifles.  Preparing for a fight.  For a war.

Coil was in the lobby, now, and he was joined by others.  I could recognize Circus by the sledgehammer she was carrying, the metal head dragging on the floor.  Coil said something and she lifted it up.  Was he talking about the noise?  It shouldn’t matter.  He was accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize.  A teenage guy and a larger, more athletic man in a heavy metal frame.

“Thank you to everyone for coming.  Tonight is a three-way debate.  Let me introduce your candidates, starting with Mr. Roy Christner, our mayor incumbent.  We also have Mrs. Carlene Padillo, city councilor of communications; and Mr. Keith Grove, C.E.O. of Eaststar Financial.  Tonight’s subjects are crime, public safety and the state of the city.  Would you start us off, Mayor Christner?  What sets you apart from the other candidates in your views?”

I glanced over my shoulder to verify what I was seeing with my bugs.  A young man was making his way up the aisle with a toddler, straight for Coil.

“I won’t lie,” Christner said.  I glanced his way, saw how haggard he looked.  In a way it worked for him, made him look determined.  “Things are bad.  The situation’s improved from where it was weeks ago, but we’re still in an ugly situation.  No less than forty percent of the city has evacuated, hospitals are overflowing, and villains claim to own the streets…”

I looked back to the dad and his kid.  They opened the door, stepping through, and two of Coil’s soldiers were on them before they could open their mouths and shout a warning.  Putting hands over mouths, the soldiers retreated from the door, separating dad from child.  Within seconds, both were being gagged and restrained.

The door closed on its own, leaving nobody any wiser to what was going on.

“…involved with the defense every step along the way.  I’ve discussed the subject with Legend, with Dragon and with Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.  Daily, I’ve been talking with and working with Director Piggot to see what actions need to be taken to see this city restored to what it once was.”

“That’s setting the bar pretty damn low,” Grove said, gripping the sides of his podium.

“No interruptions, please,” the moderator spoke.  Christner waved her off.  “You concede the remainder of your turn, Mayor?”

“Let’s hear what Grove has to say.”

“Very well.  Mr. Grove.  Two minutes to speak.”

“He wants to restore the city to what it was?  I think he’s wanting us to forget that half of our city was a cesspool before the Endbringer came.  Many of you in the audience live in the north end.  You know how bad it was.  Or maybe the Mayor is referring to the city’s heyday, when the docks were bustling with activity and the entire city could hear the ships coming in and out of the ports.  If he’s trying to convince you we’ll return to that time, he’s telling you an outright falsehood.  The Lord’s Port, known to many as the ship graveyard, would cost the city twenty-three million dollars just to clear away the damaged ships and dispose of them.    That’s not getting into the cost of actually refurbishing the area and updating it to modern standards.  Or the fact that anyone approaching within a mile and a half of the area is subjected to uncontrollable, suicidal despair.  I visited.  I know.”

I sent a message to Coil, drawing words with my bugs.

‘I’m here.  Stop.’

He broke up the words with a casual wave of his hands, scattering the bugs.  Almost dismissive.  Of course he wouldn’t stop now.  He’d made little secret about how important his plans were to him, and to stop now, at a moment this important?

“The mayor wants to take us back to where we were?  That’s not good enough.  I’m proposing that we make this an opportunity.  The slate, in many ways, has been wiped clean.  Let’s start over again.  There’s national and international funding that’s been put in place to help recover from Endbringer attacks and events of gross parahuman involvement.  My budget, which is detailed in handouts that will be provided in the lobby, details how we’ll use our tax dollars and that recovery funding to rejuvenate the city.  The ferry, which has become a local in-joke, will be started up once more.  Low-cost, high-yield housing plans for the north end, demolition and reconstruction on a large scale for Downtown and other damaged areas, and marketing to the rest of the United States to promote and sell Brockton Bay as a symbol of perseverance and human spirit, drawing in new residents and tourism.”

“Councillor Padillo,” the moderator spoke.  “Any response?”

“Keith Grove is not addressing the question.  He paints a pretty picture, but he doesn’t mention the presence of the local supervillains or the pressures they put on us…”

I fidgeted.  Could I attack?  Should I attack?  If I left now, maybe stepped into the side hallway, I could maybe avoid the soldiers, get to a vantage point where I could mount a counterattack against Coil.

Except I didn’t know what he was planning, and my dad was here.  I could take my dad, but then I risked having to explain what was happening, and it would mean leaving Kurt, Alexander and Lacey behind.  It meant leaving all these other civilians behind.

It wasn’t practical to bring anyone else along, but I couldn’t bring myself to run from my dad, here.  I couldn’t say why, how or any of that, but I felt as though leaving my dad behind here would mean I could never come back.  That it would break our relationship, whether it was me getting outed as a supervillain, a break in whatever tenuous bond of trust we had or because one of us would die.

I tended to be more rational than emotional.  If I was being totally honest with myself, though, my rationalizations were pretty heavily influenced by my feelings.  I could come up with a rational justification for pretty much any course of action.  It had led me this far.  Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Councilor Padillo was still talking, even as my mind raced.  “…Points to a mismanagement of resources.  The Mayor would like us to believe that he was involved in genuine efforts to save this city.  I can’t believe he would want to be associated with the PRT’s operations as of late.  Loss after loss on the part of our heroes.  The losses aren’t the fault of the heroes, it’s even understandable, given the sheer power wielded by the likes of the Endbringer, of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the various other threats within the city…”

Coil was moving, now, his people getting in rank and file around him, his pet parahumans standing by.

I had to make my call.  Stand up to him and jeopardize everything I’d been working towards?  Here, now, with Coil drawing on his power, with three parahumans and no less than twenty elite soldiers who I knew were entirely capable of hitting what they were aiming at, backing him up?  Even if I stayed hidden in the crowd, I couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t spot me or my dad and order one of his people to move.

The alternative was that I could do as I’d been ordered, avoiding any costumed activity; trust Coil and his power to handle the situation.  I hated him, on a level, but I knew he was smart.  And I knew he knew I was here; I’d asked Lisa and she’d asked him if it was okay.  He had to have a plan for dealing with me if I took any action.

“…Open fighting in the streets.  No, the blame lies with the PRT and the mayor’s administration, which he admits was heavily involved in the decisions made.  Highly questionable decisions:  Holding back when they could have intervened.  Forcing confrontations when our heroes were gravely outmatched.”

I saw Piggot shifting uncomfortably in her seat at that.  Had this been arranged?  A staged scene?

Coil started striding for the closed double doors that led to the back of the auditorium, flanked by Circus and the other parahuman, rank after rank of his soldiers following.

I gripped my dad’s hand, held it tight, and stayed where I was.

The doors banged open.  Coil, Circus and… Über was with him, in a heavy metal suit, Leet stood off to one side, holding what looked like a ray gun.  People screamed, and it set off a chain reaction of responses throughout the auditorium.  People started running for the other exits, only to have their paths barred as more soldiers emerged.

My dad and I stayed in our seats, and I crouched low in front of my seat, pulling my dad down so he would be under cover.

“What the hell?” the Mayor growled into his microphone.  “Coil?”

“Mister Mayor,” Coil spoke.

“This is insanity,” Grove spoke.

“Genius sometimes looks that way to those who don’t see the whole picture.”  Coil had advanced far enough down the aisle that I could see him clearly.  He turned to take in the crowd, and for one heart-stopping moment I thought he’d stop when his eyes fell on me.  His head kept moving, and he walked further down the aisle, closer to the stage.

Grove said, “The local heroes-”

“Are occupied.  Fires started at select locations, areas where the damage won’t be immediate, but where they cannot be allowed to spread.  One such fire is at your headquarters.  My apologies.  I wanted to target high-priority areas.  The other fires will occupy the members of the Undersiders and Travelers and slow them down as they recover from the loss of their individual headquarters.”

I tensed at that.  How much of it was a bluff?

“You bastard,” the Mayor growled.  “First my niece, now this?”

Niece?

Of course.  I’d heard Dinah was niece to one of the mayoral candidates.  I hadn’t realized she was the niece to the mayor.

“She’s safe and sound,” Coil said.  “As are any people here without a title.  If you’re the mayor, or a candidate for mayor, if you call yourself chief of police, lieutenant, director or major, I’m afraid I can’t promise your safety.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let me demonstrate.  Circus?”

Circus was walking through the assembled crowd as though she were on solid ground, but each footstep was onto the back of one of the auditorium seats.  She extended her arms out to either side, fingers splayed, then closed her hands into fists.  Knives stuck out from the spaces between each finger.

Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo ran first, and Mayor Christner was only steps behind.  It didn’t matter.  Circus flung her arms forward and each of the eight knives hit the mark.

People stood from their seats and for long moments I couldn’t see what happened on the stage after that.  I only felt the bodies hit the floor with the bugs.  I didn’t dare move the bugs to try to see exactly where the knives had landed.

Coil’s soldiers were holding the reporters and cameramen at gunpoint.  I raised myself up high enough to see him turning around to face the largest group of cameras.  “The other villains want to seize the city from below.  To start at the streets, out of sight, to remove any who would threaten their rule, and claim the various districts one by one.  They ignore the fact that there are others in power who aren’t superhuman.  Ordinary mortals with the power to make decisions that affect its citizens.

“I would take the more direct route.  Brockton Bay is mine.  I will make the decisions, claim and distribute the taxes and decide who sits in seats of power.  Anyone who would disagree will face the same fate as the mayor, Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo.”

I rose up enough to get a glimpse of the stage.  The mayor was lying on his back, chest rising and falling with too much force, as if he was sucking in lungfuls of air and then forcing them out with just as much strength.  He had a knife sticking out of the middle of his torso, another in his shoulder, and yet another in his leg.  My father pulled me down before I could see the others.

The mayor wasn’t dead, but he looked like the man might be dying.  Was I condoning this by staying silent?  I’d told myself I would let Coil’s plan play out until he did something unconscionable and this threatened to cross the line.  It was only the fact that the mayor was still alive and the fact that I couldn’t think of what I might do to intervene that kept me on the sidelines, hiding from the soldiers and the assault rifles they were wielding.

“You cannot expect this to succeed,” the voice blared over the speakers.

“Director Piggot,” Coil spoke.  “I must admire your courage, putting yourself in the line of fire so soon after your last escapade.  Kidnapped by the Undersiders, weren’t you?”

Through my bugs, I could sense how Piggot was leaning heavily on a desk just in front of the stage, using the debate moderator’s microphone.  “This plan of yours was doomed from the outset.  Just for what you’ve done, threatening these people and ordering the execution of those three on the stage, they’ll send the entire Protectorate after you.  America will demand it.  Or are you so mad you think we’ll let you crown yourself king?”

“Mad?  No.  A monster?  Maybe.  Better to say I’m a freak of nature.  My power is to control my own destiny, to reshape and cultivate it.  What you see here is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s a greater plan, then.”

“Quite.  A shame you won’t discover it.  Circus?”

Piggot backed away from the table and ducked low.  It didn’t help.  Circus lobbed a throwing knife into the air, so that it arced.  She didn’t have eyes on the director, but the knife nonetheless went high, catching the light as it reached the peak of its flight near the high ceiling of the auditorium.   It plunged down to strike its target and screams sounded from the front of the auditorium.

“Someone contacted the heroes,” Leet spoke.  “My U.I. says they’re on the way.”

“Good,” Coil responded.  “Circus, come.  Squad captains, maintain order here.  We’ll be back the moment this is done.”

“The bitch is too fat.  Thinking I didn’t hit anything vital,” Circus said.

“See it through,” Coil ordered, turning to leave with Über and Leet accompanying him.  Circus turned to follow, flicking her wrist hard over her shoulder.  Three knives traveled through the air, their paths eerily in sync as they nearly touched the ceiling, converging together as they dropped towards Piggot.

I barely had time to think about it, rising to my feet and calling on my bugs.  I knew it was too few, too late, but standing by while someone got murdered?  Four or five cockroaches, some houseflies, it wasn’t enough.  I’d held the bugs back, keeping them in out of the way areas, and now I didn’t have enough to block the knives or divert them from their path.

There was a flash of light around Piggot, and for just an instant, I thought maybe she had powers.  Maybe she’d had a trigger event, or she always had them but kept them in reserve?

But it wasn’t her.  Weld caught the knives, letting them sink into his palm, down to the hilts.

It was the Wards.  Weld and Vista were at the foot of the room.  Vista was raising her hands, folding the walls into barriers to block those of Coil’s soldiers who weren’t holding the reporters hostage.  Kid Win was at one corner of the room, firing what looked like concussion blasts into soldier and civilian alike, a gun in each hand, and the hovering turrets at his shoulder adding still more firepower to the fray.  He’d taken the fight out of them with the first barrage, and the follow-up fire was apparently to take down the soldiers who managed to climb to their feet or raise a weapon.  The concussion-cannons were obvious nonlethal weapons from the casual way he was firing into the massed people, intended to stun and disable rather than harm.

Chariot had a gun that was firing off charges of electricity, similar to the one I’d borrowed from Kid Win, and was flying over the assembled soldiers, unloading shots on them.  His costume was different from the last time I’d seen him, with single-wheeled roller blades at his toes and a flight system that didn’t seem to be attached to him.  A disc the size of a car tire floated behind his head and shoulders, almost luminescent with energy, and the wings of his flight suit, tipped with jets of gold light, floated out to either side of it.

Clockblocker formed the final part of the strike party.  He wasn’t fighting- not directly.  He stood by a white cloth that had been frozen in time, covering the soldiers.

They were turning the situation around.  The suddenness with which they’d appeared, their positioning, they had planned this, assessing the situation, deciding where they needed to be to make a decisive strike and protect the crowd, and they must have teleported in.  I knew they had the technology to teleport objects.  I hadn’t guessed they had it for people, too.

“This way!”  Weld bellowed.  “Evacuate through the area at the back of the stage!  Stick to the sides!  And I need medical help for the wounded!”

Their group was a little battered, beaten and bruised, and they wore replacement costume parts.  Where I could see skin, I noted the welts of bug bites and stings that hadn’t yet faded.  Vista had covered hers with makeup, but they were there.

I was frozen by indecision.  I felt almost hopeful, strange as that sounded.  If the good guys got the upper hand, if they actually beat Coil, then I could rescue Dinah by simply visiting Coil’s base and opening the door to her room.  Coil was being ruthless here.  At his orders, four people had been wounded to the point that they might die.  If I stepped in to help…

No, my help wouldn’t be welcome.  It could even be dangerous, a distraction at a crucial time.  I would also have to escape.  A resounding victory might see them locking down the area to take down witness statements or make sure no soldiers removed their uniform and slipped out with the crowd.  Nobody had seen me gathering the bugs in my futile attempt to try to help Piggot.  But if they found out Skitter was in the building and won, then it would be a question of narrowing down which teenage girl in the building fit the profile.

And if I tried to help and Coil won, well, my dad and I would be fucked.  No sense in putting it politely.  He would be in a prime position to not only retaliate, but maybe even retaliate without losing the support of my teammates.

If anything anchored me in place, it was the way one of Dad’s hands clutched my own, the other hand holding my wrist, and the way he seemed to be trying to shield me with his body.  His face was taut with fear, his body rigid.

“Wards!”  Weld shouted.  “All clear!?”

“Clear!”  the cry came back three times, from Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot.  The soldiers had been taken down.

My dad tugged on my hand.  Enough people had made their way down the aisles that we had room to maneuver.  I followed his lead, letting him pull me towards the aisle.

“Regroup!  Optimal range, facing the doors!”  Weld ordered.  Vista, Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot hurried to the center of the room.  He stayed where he was, watching as civilians from the crowd tended to the wounded.  All but the mayor were apparently alive.  The only one I could wonder about was the mayor.  He was lying prone, receiving CPR at the hands of two people.

“Now!”  Weld shouted.

Clockblocker moved, lunging three feet to his left to tag Chariot.  Chariot froze in the air.

I stopped in my tracks, momentarily confused.  Had some of the Wards turned traitor?  No.  Kid Win and Vista seemed to be taking this in stride.  Both were working together to bind Chariot.

There were cries of protest from the crowd.  “What are you doing?”  “He didn’t do anything!”

“He’s a double agent,” Weld spoke, his voice carrying.  “Working for Coil.  Go.  Evacuate, get out of here.  We have this in hand.”

He radiated confidence.  Damn it, for all the times we’d fought the Wards, for every time I’d cursed the heroes for not doing what I needed them to do, I began to feel hopeful.

My dad and I were making our way down the aisle, past the soldiers that Chariot had laid low.  We were at the steps leading up to the stage when the doors slammed open.

Über led the way, followed by Coil, Leet, Circus and a squadron of soldiers.  His metal frame took the brunt of the incoming fire, and he used his arms to shield his exposed upper body from the blasts of electricity and the concussion shots from Kid Win’s guns and turrets.

Vista began shrinking the arms, but the progress seemed slower.  She had trouble using her power when there was living material in the way, but it was still working.

Being so close to the fighting, to the gunfire and flashes of electricity, people were reacting badly.  Screaming, shouting at others to move faster, pushing and shoving.  Worst of all, they were making so much noise I couldn’t follow everything that was going on.  Coil was saying something, his words carrying to the heroes, but I missed it in the chaos.

I didn’t want to out myself as being present, so I was limited in how many bugs I could deploy.  A small handful on Coil served to let me follow his movements.  He’d dropped to one knee behind Über, and Leet handed him a small remote control.  He wasted no time in pressing the button.

The noise of gunfire changed.  My head wasn’t the only one that turned to see what had happened.

Kid Win had stopped shooting, and a shrill whine was filling the air.  He turned to Weld, who began tearing at his armor.

Leet stepped out from behind Über and shot Vista.  She was thrown down the length of the aisle, slamming against the base of the stage.  He took another shot at Clockblocker, who froze himself.  Kid Win drew another gun from a side holster and shot Leet.

Weld had finished dismantling Kid Win’s armor, freeing what looked to be a power cell.

I could barely make out the words, but someone in the crowd did.  A woman screamed the words, “He said it’s a bomb!  Sabotage!  Run!”

In that instant, the crowd became a crush of bodies, each trying so hard to get up and through the stairwell that we barely made any progress.  Über, Leet, Circus and Coil began running towards the lobby, Über kicking down the door, leaving the heroes to deal with the bomb they were holding, which was squealing at a higher pitch and volume with every passing second.  It was glowing, brilliant in its golden radiance.

Kid Win pointed at Chariot.  The boy was frozen, still, but the wings and pack on his back were still active, not attached to Chariot’s suit and therefore unaffected by Clockblocker’s power.

Weld caught the setup out of the air, tearing away the outer casing the second it was in his hands.  Kid Win changed the wiring.  They were shouting something to one another, but I couldn’t make out the words.  Weld pointed up.

The bomb or sabotaged power supply disappeared, teleporting away in the same grid of lines that I’d seen Kid Win use to summon his massive cannon.  It dawned on me what they’d done.  Teleporting the bomb straight up into the sky, where there was nobody and nothing to be affected.

Or that had been their plan.  It didn’t work out that way.  I saw a flicker of light from the lobby, the glow of the device, and Coil wheeling around to face us, his screaming lost in the midst of the shrill whine and the shouts of the others.

My eye to brain response was too slow to process everything that happened next.  I saw it in snapshots: the swelling energy of the sabotaged power supply, Coil’s body coming apart in pieces, the chairs of the auditorium and fragments of floorboards being thrown into the air as the explosion seemed to move in slow motion.

Then it hit us, and I saw only white, felt only pain.

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Monarch 16.7

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Living in a city meant dealing with some recurring issues.  Crime, having to lock the doors, congestion on the roads, crowds getting in the way on footpaths; stuff we dealt with so often that we considered it routine.  We considered it background noise or we managed without even thinking about it.  Construction work was something we couldn’t dismiss so readily, something that always seemed to elicit groans and complaints.  Maybe because it was so blatant, so grating, and it changed in tone, location and degree often enough that we couldn’t adjust.

Not today.

No, I felt a level of satisfaction and security as the bulldozers and piledrivers went to work in my territory.  For every car on the road, there were ten trucks carrying debris out and five trucks bringing materials in.

A lot of that would be Coil’s doing, I knew.  There was construction and clearing going on throughout my territory and building inspectors were checking blocks, all despite the warnings that were going around regarding big, bad, unpredictable Skitter, and that would be because he greased palms or the construction companies at work were his.

Damn it, I felt restless.  I wanted to go to Coil’s territory and discuss Dinah, and I might have, if Trickster hadn’t been the first to speak up and declare he was going to confront Coil.  I suspected that Coil wouldn’t release Dinah this soon, and if he was under too much pressure to hear Trickster out, he certainly wouldn’t listen to me.  If he did have something to offer Trickster, he wouldn’t welcome my distraction.  I had to wait.  I hated it, but I recognized it as the sensible route.

Trickster’s focus was on Noelle, though, and nothing I’d seen indicated that Coil had made any advances on that front.  All I knew, really, was what Tattletale had told me and the little things that had come up in our brief discussion with the Travelers about our strategy.  She’d been a girl, maybe not in the best of health.

It was possible Trickster had been trying to save Noelle in the same way I was trying to save Dinah.  The circumstances were different, obviously: Coil was the best answer the Travelers had to Noelle’s situation, but he was the cause of Dinah’s.

Still, it made me think.

I was officially hands-off in my territory.  I wasn’t going to deviate from orders now and risk upsetting Coil.  That meant no costume, no showing my face, no intervention in the management of things.

Which turned my thoughts to Sierra.  As far as my ability to sense things with my swarm went, Sierra was easier to identify than many.  Her dreads gave her a distinct profile.

I couldn’t find her.

could find Charlotte.  That wasn’t a problem; she was in the company of the kids, half a block away, giving each kid two six-packs of plastic water bottles to ferry out to the various work sites.

“You’ve been lying there since I woke up, eyes half-open, staring off into space.”

I blinked hard, then rubbed my eyes.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”

I looked at Brian.  He was pulling himself up to a sitting position, the covers over his lap.  I glanced over his upper body.  None of the battle wounds I’d seen him sustain in the past were there anymore.  The scars from the shallow cuts Cricket had carved into his chest were gone, as were the defensive wounds and old scars on his hands and arms.  He was in perfect shape, physically.  Physically.

But I’d sort of explored enough to discover that last night.  It hadn’t been a perfect night, not even excellent, but it had been nice.  Considering all of the other humiliating or awkward possibilities, I was happy to take nice.

Thinking about it made me self conscious.  I pulled the sheets up to my collarbone.  “You sleep any?”

“Some.  Woke up in the middle of the night, I made some noise.  I’m surprised I didn’t wake you.”

I frowned.  “You should have.”

He shook his head.  “You were exhausted.  Once I saw you there, it helped me to realize where I was, dismiss them for the dreams they were.  Took me a bit to relax, but it wasn’t bad.  Being here.”

Hated that, that he was struggling like that and I couldn’t help fix it.

“Do you need to talk to someone?  A psychiatrist?”

I could see him flinch at that, his entire upper body stiffening in some kind of knee jerk resistance.

I waited, not pushing.

He sighed, and I watched that battle-readiness slowly seep from him, the tension leaving him.  Up to a point.  “Don’t we all?”

“Probably.  But you’re the one I’m worried about.”

“I’ll figure this out myself.  Have to do this myself, or I feel like it won’t count, it won’t really be a fix.”

I didn’t like that response, but it was a hard one to argue with.

“I won’t pester you about it.  But can you at least tell me that if this goes on for any length of time, you’ll go get help?”

“It’ll get better.  Has to.  I feel like I’ve taken strides forward, forcing myself to let down my guard, to be here with you.”

I tensed, “Forcing yourself?”

“That’s not what I mean.  I mean, you know.  I… I can’t relax.  Can’t stay still, can’t stop watching over my shoulder or make my brain stop replaying scenes in my head.  Except I can, if I’m active, if I’m doing something like we were against those Dragon suits, or if I’m with you, and I’m lying here in your bed, trying not to wake you up.  Then I know I can’t get worked up, it gives me these boundaries I can force myself to work inside.”

My eyebrows drew together in concern.  “It sounds like it’s causing you more stress in the long run.”

“No,” he said.  He reached out and used both of his hands to seize mine.  He squeezed.  “Come on, no.  Is that really what you want to talk about right now?”

“I’d love to talk about other stuff,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I was telling the truth.  Things were more awkward in the light of day.  Only seconds ago, I had prodded a sore spot for him by raising the idea of psychiatric help.  Offended him.  If I didn’t clear my head and get centered, I wasn’t sure I trusted my ability to avoid another misstep.

“But?”

“But I made plans with my dad.  It’s…”  I paused, closing my eyes, “Nine-twenty-eight.  I figure I need to shower and get dressed, which might take an hour, eat, do a quick walk around my territory in civilian clothes, then head over.  I want to spend time with you, but after the intensity of the past little while, taking things slow this morning feels like a nice idea.”

“How do you know the time?”

“Bugs on clock hands,” I said, pointing toward my bathroom.

“Ah.  You want company?”

My eyes widened a little.  “In the bathroom?”

He grinned.  “For breakfast.  And the walk-around, if you want.  I could learn stuff.  We’re liable to lose track of time if we share a shower.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Please, we’ll have breakfast, walk.”

I climbed out of bed, tugging one of the sheets free of the bed so I had something to wrap around myself as I made my way to the bathroom.

With my bugs, I could sense Brian getting out of bed shortly after I’d abandoned the sheet, climbed into the shower and pulled the makeshift shower curtain into position.  He made his way downstairs and began putting breakfast together.  He set two plates down, and then said something to the empty room.

I still had the scene in mind a little while later, as I ventured downstairs.  I was dressed now, a tank top, jeans and sweatshirt around my waist, my hair towel dried but still damp.  “Were you talking to me?”

“I was saying it probably isn’t very hygienic to have houseflies landing on dinner plates.”

Ok, so he wasn’t going crazy.

“They landed on the edge, and they’re mine.  From the terrariums upstairs.  They’re in as sterile an environment as you’ll get.”

“Okay.  Just saying.”

“I can’t hear you through my bugs, by the way.  It’s not the first time you’ve done that.”

“Right.  Wasn’t sure, because Tattletale said you were working on it.”

I shook my head, “No progress.”

“And I’m getting used to talking to empty rooms.  Sometimes catch Aisha off guard.  Breakfast?  Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on.  Didn’t want to fill it while you were in the shower.”

“Thank you.”

Through some unspoken agreement, we didn’t talk about ‘work’.  We didn’t discuss Coil, Dinah, the Travelers, Dragon or the Nine.  Instead, our discussions turned to favorite movies and shows, my favorite books and memories from our childhoods.  Shows we’d watched and nearly forgotten, moments from school.

Emma came up a lot, as I thought back on it.  My parents too.  The three of them had been the focus of my world, with everything else taking a distant second place.  Emma had turned on me, my mom had left me, and my dad… I had to admit I’d left him.

I didn’t raise any of the heavier stuff, but I mentioned that Emma had turned out to be one of the bullies that plagued me throughout my stay in high school.

Brian, in turn, talked about his life growing up.  That did touch on the heavier stuff, and as much as I liked learning a bit more about the details of his life, I was glad when we detoured into a discussion of martial arts.  As he explained it, he was more interested in the broader strokes and philosophy of a given style than on the particulars.  Once he had a sense of how a given adherent of the style might approach a fight and enough basic techniques to see how they put it into practice, he tended to lose interest.

All around us, I could see people hard at work.  My people were deferring to any legitimate construction crew that set to work, shifting their focus to nearby areas.  I could see people moving supplies out of a nearby building so the crews could bulldoze it, others helping to unload a truck of building supplies.  When I got back to this and started to give orders, I’d have to find work for them that wouldn’t put them in the way.  I couldn’t quite track how many people were working for me in my territory, but it was far more than before.

I felt like I should be losing people each time I got pulled into a fight against a major threat.  I had, when Mannequin and Burnscar had attacked, but I’d walked away from the first Mannequin fight with something of a following, and I’d expected to see my people leaving in droves after Dragon made her move.  Except it wasn’t happening, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Our walk took us on a circuit, with us turning back to my lair, and I left to go back to my dad’s while Brian headed back to my place to use the shower.

I felt weird about that.  Parting ways so casually after spending the night together.  Oddly enough, I felt weird about letting him in my lair while I wasn’t there.  He’d be passing through my room, seeing my stuff.  I knew it was paradoxical to be bashful, covering myself with a sheet and feeling guarded about my privacy, all things considered, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt that way.  I wouldn’t refuse to let him use my bathroom because of it, but yeah.

In a way, we’d sort of done everything backward.  We’d started with the long-running partnership.  With the ‘family’, if I wanted to think about managing the others in that sense. In the course of that, we’d been through hell and back, we’d backed each other up, helped each other.  All hurdles one might face in a marriage.  Then there were the more recent cases of actually talking about the relationship happening, there was last night, then the more casual date and getting to know each other better this morning.  If it wasn’t a hundred percent backwards, it was at least pretty jumbled up.

Or maybe I was looking at it in an immature way, expecting some simplistic, formulaic, storybook notion of how a relationship was supposed to proceed.

I made my way to my dad’s, thinking about a thousand things at once, not wanting to think about anything in particular.

There were cars parked out front.  There was a strange car in the garage with the door open, two others in the driveway, my dad’s at the end.  With a few stray houseflies, I casually noted a dozen people inside the house.  My dad was there, too.

I immediately thought of Coil.  Had he divined what I had planned today?  Planned some counterattack?

I’d foregone my costume, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to use it in a pinch, and I’d removed my knife holster from the costume and had it clipped to the back of my waistband, so it was in the midst of the folds, blanketed by various wasps and spiders.  The setup might have been awkward for anyone else, but spending the past few weeks and months while using my bugs to help guide my hand left me fairly confident that I could slip my hand through the folds and draw it at a moment’s notice if I had to.

Then a man opened the door.  I let myself relax.

“No shit,” he said.  “Taylor?”

“Hi, Kurt,” I greeted my dad’s coworker and longtime friend.

“Been a long time.  Barely recognize you, kid.”

I shrugged.  “How’re you doing?”

He cracked a wide grin.  “Working.  Getting by.  Better than we were doing.  Now, you coming inside or are you going to stand in the driveway for the next five minutes?”

I followed him into the house.

My dad was in the living room, surrounded by familiar faces.  People I’d seen around when I’d gone to his workplace or when they’d dropped by the house.  I could only put a name to the people who my dad called friends: Kurt, Kurt’s wife Lacey, and Alexander.  Even Lacey was burlier than my dad, with a build like Rachel’s, muscle added onto that.  The other three were familiar, but I didn’t know them well.  My dad and myself excepted, every person in the house had spent their lives doing manual labor.  Just looking at him, he looked like the odd one out in every way, in clothes and body type and demeanor, but he was relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen in years, surrounded by friends with a beer in hand.

My dad saw me, mouthed the word ‘sorry’.

Kurt saw it.  “Don’t blame your old man.  Alexander brought a truckload of beer in from out of town, we got to drinking.  We thought we’d include Danny, drag him along, invited ourselves.  Didn’t know he had plans.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  Nobody that could be a threat, none of Coil’s people.  I let myself relax.  What had I been thinking?  That he’d strongarm my dad?

“Heya Taylor,” Lacey said.  “Haven’t seen you since the funeral.”

Nearly two years after the fact, it still hit me like a punch in the gut.

“Hell, Lacey,” Kurt said.  “Give the girl a second to get used to having people in her house before you drop that on her.”

I glanced at my dad, elbows on his knees, a 24 ounce beer clasped in both hands.  He’d lowered his head to stare at the can.  He didn’t look devastated, or even unhappy.  It hadn’t caught him off guard like it had hit me.  Knowing these guys, I could guess it came up with enough regularity that he was used to it.

“Ah, baby,” Lacey said.  She raised a beer in my direction.  “Just a little drunk.  Wanted to say, your mom was good peoples.  She hasn’t been forgotten.  Sorry if that came out a little direct.”

“S’okay,” I replied.  I shifted my feet restlessly.  I’d never felt more a stranger in my own house.  Didn’t know where to go, where I wouldn’t be drawing attention, have people asking me questions.  It was hard enough with my dad and I having this distance between us, but there were other people in the equation now.

Kurt spoke up, “We’re leaving in a few minutes.  It’s hard to get around, so they’re scheduling events together so we don’t need to make two trips.  The last debate is this afternoon, then mayoral vote right after.  You catch the debate the other night?”

I shook my head.  “Didn’t even know it happened.”

“Well, if that’s any indication, this one’s bound to be a pisser.  So we’re drinking to mellow out.  And I’d feel a hell of a lot better if your dad had more than the one beer, so he can relax some and hold back from choking one of the smarmy bastards.”

“Not about to do that,” my dad said.

“Wish you could.  But it wouldn’t be worth it in the end if you wound up in jail and left that daughter of yours alone.  It’s all good.  We’ll go in stinking of beer, offer some drunken commentary from the sidelines, punctuated by a few off-color words,” Kurt smiled.

“Please don’t,” my dad said.  He hadn’t raised his eyes from the beer in his hands, but he was smiling, too.

“You want to sit and let ’em say what sounds good for them?”  Kurt asked.

“I was thinking it’d be better to ask the hard questions, if we get a chance.  A big part of the crowd’s going to be people from the north end.  Good few of them are going to be from the Docks.  So why don’t we ask him what’s happening with the ferry?”

“He’s going to brush it off,” Lacey said, “Not in the budget, with everything that’s going on.”

“Then that’s a good time for some booing and drunken swearing,” my dad answered, smiling.

Kurt busted out a laugh.  “You want to start a riot, Danny?”

“No.  But might sway the undecideds to see just how unimpressed we are with the man.”

Everyone’s unimpressed with Mayor Christner,” Alexander spoke up.  He was a younger guy, heavily tattooed, with thick eyebrows that gave him a perpetual glower.  Every time I saw him, he had his hair cut in a wild style.  Today he had the left one-third of his head shaved, showing off a fresh tattoo of an old-school pinup girl in a bikini with her elbow appearing to rest on his ear.

“Disaster does that.” I spoke up.  “We want someone to blame, and the guy in charge makes for an easy target.”

“He’s a deserving target,” Kurt said, seating himself on the arm of the chair Lacey was in.  She wrapped one arm around his waist.  He went on, “There was this thing in Washington.  Talking about whether they should throw walls up around the edge of the city, blockade the streets and shut off services, get everyone out of here.”

“He said no, right?”

“He said no.  Asshole.  Probably earns more money this way.  Take a few million for restoring and helping the city, help himself to a percentage.”

That surprised me.  “You’re not happy the city was saved from being condemned?  Did you want to be kicked out of the city?  To leave your home?”

“It’d suck, but the way they were talking about it in the paper, there’s a big fund that’s set aside for covering the damages those Endbringer motherfuckers cause.  Idea was that they’d dip into those funds, give everyone that they ousted a bit to cover the cost of their homes.”

“There’s no way that’s doable,” I said.  “What about everyone who left when they were told to evacuate?”

“Don’t know,” Kurt said.  “I’m just saying what the papers did.”

I felt an ugly feeling in my gut.  “And they’d give us what the houses used to be worth?”

“They’d give us what the houses might be worth now,” he said.

“So not much.”

“It’s more than they’ll be worth a few years down the line, after the rot sets in and any mold problems get worse.  Getting expensive to get supplies into the city, which means it’ll be costly to fix things up and renovate.  Not necessarily worth it.”

“I saw construction crews at work.”

Kurt downed a swig of his beer and cleared his throat, “Sure.  The companies that are buying up all the materials, purchasing land on the cheap, all in the hopes that this city gets its act together and the land turns out to be worth something.”

“It could.”

Come on,” he made the words a groan, “We’re under the tyranny of supervillains.  Heroes don’t have what it takes.  Used to be they were outnumbered but they were trying, making a difference in little ways.  Now they’re outnumbered and losing.  What’s the point?”

“Just a hypothetical question,” I said, “But isn’t it better to be in a city that works, where villains rule the streets, instead of a failed city with the same villains in a less prominent position?”

Lacey groaned a little, “Sweetie, had a few too many to wrap my head around the question.”

“Might be time to stop then, Lacey,” my dad said.  Turning to me, he said, “I suppose you’re asking the classic question, Taylor.  Would you rather be a slave in heaven or a free man in hell?”

“Free man in hell,” Kurt responded.  “Fuck.  You think I’d be doing what I do, living here, if I was willing to make nice, suck up to the guys in charge and do what I was told?”

Some of the others were nodding, Lacey and Alexander included.

I looked at my dad.

“What’s your answer, Danny?”  Kurt asked.

“I’d rather not be a slave or in hell,” my dad responded.  “But sometimes I worry I’m both.  Maybe we don’t get the choice?”

“You’re the most depressing asshole of a friend I’ve got,” Kurt said, but he said it with a smile.

“Why are you asking, Taylor?”  Lacey asked.

I shrugged.  How much could I say without giving them cause for suspicion?  “Saw some of the stuff going on in the shelters.  Some sick people, unhappy people.  It was a long while before anything started getting better, and as I understand it, it was the villains who made the first move in getting things fixed up.”

“For their own benefit.  You can’t rule a hole in the ground,” Alexander said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Or maybe bad people can do good for the sake of doing good, at least once in a while.  They’re taking charge, they’re keeping things more or less quiet and peaceful.  It’s better than what we had.”

“The problem with that,” my dad said, “Is that we’d be setting humanity back by about three thousand years if we let that happen.  It’d be falling back into an iron age mindset and leadership.  The people with the numbers and the weaponry lay claim to an area through sheer military strength.  They stay in charge as long as they can through family lines, merging families with whoever else has the military strength.  That lasts until the family in power peters out or someone smarter, stronger or better armed comes in to seize control.  Might not sound so bad, until you figure that sooner or later, the person who gets control is going to be someone like Kaiser.”

“Kaiser’s dead,” Kurt said.

“Yeah?” my dad raised an eyebrow.  “Okay, but I was speaking in general terms.  Could just as easily be Lung or Jack Slash, instead of the relatively benign villains that are in charge right now.  Again, I stress, it’s just a matter of time.”

Just a matter of time until we lose -I lose- and someone else claims Brockton bay for themselves, I thought.

“What would you rather have happen?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said.  “But I don’t think complacency’s the answer.”

“Last debate,” Kurt said, “People kept bringing up the capes, moderator kept shutting them down, telling them that they were supposed to be talking economy and education.  Today we’ll hear some talk on the crooks running the city.  Hear what the candidates have to say on the subject.”

“We should go soon,” Lacey said.  “If we want to get a seat instead of standing around at the sides.”

My dad looked up at me, “Can I get you any food, Taylor?  I promised you something.”

“I’m alright.  Had a late breakfast.  Maybe when we get back?”

“I’d offer you a drink,” Kurt said, chuckling, “But that’d be against the law.  How old are you, anyways?”

“Fifteen,” I said.

“Sixteen.”

I turned to look at my dad.

“It’s the nineteenth,” he said.  “Your birthday was a week ago.”

“Oh.”  I’d been a little distracted at the time.  A week ago, that would have been around the time we were wrapping up our confrontation with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Lovely.

“That’s the saddest goddamn thing I ever heard,” Kurt said, getting off the chair’s armrest and helping Lacey to her feet.  “Girl missing her birthday like that.  I’m guessing you don’t have your license, then, huh?”

“No.”

“Damn.  Was hoping you’d be our designated driver so your dad could have another.”

“I’ve only had half a tallboy,” my dad said, shaking his can lightly to let us hear the contents sloshing against the sides.  “And we’ll be driving slow on these streets anyways.  Who’s driving the other car?”

Alexander raised his hand.  He only had a glass of water.

“Then we’re off.  Out of my house,” he said.  I could see him wincing in pain as he used the chair’s back to help himself to a standing position, but he recovered.  He started shooing the burly dockworkers out the door.  “Go.  Into the cars.”

We began to file out.  Kurt and Lacey climbed into the back seat of my dad’s car.  The others got into Alexander’s truck.

“Should you be drinking with the kidney damage?” I asked, as the doors shut.  “You had trouble standing.”

“I got cleared yesterday.  I’m back on a regular diet.  Any hurt is just the muscle and the stitches.  Thanks for worrying about me.”

“Of course I’m going to worry about you,” I said, frowning.

“You have changed,” my dad commented, resting his elbows on the roof of the car.

“Hm?”

“Wasn’t so long ago that you would have walked into that situation and clammed up.”

“Feels like that was a year ago.”

“Anyways, I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’d hoped this would be just you and me, having a chance to catch up.  They invited themselves.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad that you’ve got friends like that.”

“They’re a bit overbearing,” my dad said.

“The window’s open a crack,” Kurt said, from inside the car.  “We can hear you.”

“They’re overbearing,” my dad repeated himself, raising his voice a notch.  At a normal volume, he finished by saying, “But they’re alright.”

Smiling a little, I climbed into the passenger seat.

“Hey, Taylor?” Lacey asked.  Her voice was overly gentle, and for a moment I thought she was going to mention my mom again.  I winced a little.

“What?”  I turned around in my seat, as much as I was able with my seatbelt on.

“Just wanted to say thanks.  For the warning.  You told your dad that Shatterbird was around, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“He told us.  We were careful.  I don’t know if it saved our lives or not, but thanks for watching out for him, and helping us out as collater- collar-”

“You’re welcome,” I said, before she could fumble over her words any further.

was glad he was in touch with them.  From what I’d seen, I’d been left with worries that my dad was all on his lonesome.  Introverted people like him, like us, were best paired with  the Kurts of the world.  Or the Lisas.  People that wouldn’t be ignored or shrugged off, people who pushed the boundaries, so to speak, and drew us out of our shells.

I enjoyed the drive as we made our way downtown, more than I thought I would.  My dad and Kurt knew each other well enough that their dialogue flowed easily, and the same went for Lacey and Kurt, what with the pair being married.  I had a feeling that, by the end, Kurt was feeling like he’d wound up on the short end of both exchanges.

The town hall had survived the waves.  The stone building had crenelations and an American flag over the door.  We joined the trail of people who were filing in, walking past stands with the posters and images of the candidates, booklets of brochures about the issues and stands with newspapers from neighboring cities.  My dad and Kurt grabbed a few papers each and put them into the plastic bags that had been made available to us.  It was a nice thought, putting those out.  There wasn’t any TV at present and we had to keep abreast of what was going on somehow.

The signs led us past the old historical courthouse and to the auditorium.  We’d expected the seats to be filled, leaving us only with standing room, but the opposite was true.  The back of the auditorium and the rear rows were filled with reporters and camera crews, and the rest of the crowd had filled in random spaces on the benches.  Five or six hundred people.  Somehow less than I’d thought.

It was an odd election, in a way.  The city had been without working computers for a week and a half, most had lost their cell phones, and were left without landlines.  An election without media for advertisement.  For many here, this would be the first and last time they heard a candidate’s stances on the issues before voting.  Was this how it had been in the past?  When poorer households hadn’t gotten newspapers and there hadn’t been televisions or radios?

I looked at the candidates.  A dark haired woman in a dark blue suit, a blond man, and the older incumbent, Mayor Christner.  How many others in this auditorium were aware?  Some time ago, Coil had told us that two of the candidates for office had been bought.  Mayor Christner… well, I could remember standing in his backyard, him pointing a gun at me, pleading for me to step in and save his son’s life.

Would the debate turn to the subject of him arguing against the condemnation of the city, and if it did, how would Christner justify the decision he’d made?

I was caught between an ugly feeling of guilt and genuine curiosity in how the event would play out.  Mostly guilt, but I couldn’t do anything about that.  I’d done what had to be done.

On the curiosity side of things, I wondered momentarily if either of Coil’s mayoral candidates had military backgrounds or if he’d hand-picked his politicians the same way he selected his elite soldiers.

That train of thought ground to a halt as something caught my attention.

It was habit, now, to have my bugs sweeping over my surroundings, giving me a perpetual sense of what was going on in the surrounding three or four city blocks.  When the vans found parking spots around the building, it didn’t even warrant a conscious thought.  When the soldiers began filing out of the vans, it startled me.  Men and women with machine guns and body armor.  Not PRT.

No.  Definitely not PRT.

The armored limousine pulled into the middle of the street, just outside the front doors.  By the time Coil climbed out of the vehicle, his soldiers were either just past the doors on either side of the building or standing at the ready to accompany him by the front.

Coil, here?  It didn’t make sense.  He wasn’t the type to show himself.  It didn’t fit how he operated.  Hell, if the mayor was here, his son would be too.  Triumph would be in the crowd.

I glanced at my dad, and he squeezed my hand, “Not too bored?”

I shook my head, trying to keep my expression placid as my mind raced.

Coil was making his play right here, right now.

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Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

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Heavy footsteps carried him through a crowd of people who were having the worst days of their lives.  There were doctors and nurses who might never be able to return to the careers they had worked so long to achieve. He saw new parents, almost all in their twenties and thirties, huddled close and openly weeping or staring into space with puffy red eyes.  There were family members trying to give them support, not knowing how.  Not that the extended family would be suffering any less.  Police officers and detectives were trying to gather statements, well aware that the families wouldn’t know anything pertinent.  Some were standing by, notepads in hand, unwilling or unable to proceed with their witnesses.

He’d known this feeling, once.  To be the bystander, watching the aftermath, agonized as much by the inability to help, the lack of knowledge about what he should do as by the tragedy itself.  To have it happen again and again.  He banished the memories before they could take hold.  It was easier to distract himself and think about the work.  If there was no work to be done, he would let himself slip into that other state of mind, seeing the world coming apart, ways things could fit together.

But right now, he would focus on the job.

He glanced at the window.  Four or five hours ago, these same parents might have been standing outside the window, watching their new babies sleeping.  Now there was only a sheet taped up to block the view, marked for what it was by a yellow ‘x’ of police tape.

Keep walking.  Something nagged at him as he set his right foot down, like a pebble in his boot, except not.  He reached out, as if he were trying to move a finger, but the artificial nerves were hooked into his suit, and the impulse didn’t go anywhere in his body.  He felt the air shift as the openings in his mask sealed shut.  He sent out another command and the microphone came online.

When he spoke, only his ears and the microphone heard his voice.  “Note to self.  Prosthetics in right leg feel alien.  I should check the treads on my old boots, see if one of my legs was longer than the other, maybe try to dig up recordings of myself to match my new gait to my old one.  Should time adjustments to coincide with next procedure.”

Note made, he shut off the microphone, opened the vents.  He saw two women embracing one another, eyes red, staring at him as he passed through the last of the gathered crowd.  They were hoping for the impossible, willing it.  But bringing their child back wasn’t in his hands.  The best he could manage would be revenge.  Or justice.  The line between the two got pretty damned thin at times like this.

The local sheriff was waiting for him as he approached the waiting room.

“Defiant?” the sheriff asked.  She looked small, mid-sixties, gray-haired.  He suspected she was someone who had gleaned some experience in Boston or Brockton Bay and then ‘retired’ out to a smaller town in the middle of nowhere.  She wouldn’t have expected to face a situation like this in her retirement, nobody would, but she was holding herself together in a way that suggested she had some experience to fall back on.  She’d lost officers, and the town was small enough that people she knew would have been among the casualties, but she was all business, her chin set, her small dark eyes hard with determination.

He liked her right away.

“Yes ma’am,”  He shifted his spear to his left hand, extended his right hand to shake hers.

“Miranda Goering.  Sheriff.  No need for that kind of formality here.”  She sounded like she said something similar on a routine basis.  She frowned.  “I… would have a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your being here.”

How was he supposed to respond to that?  He couldn’t think of a response.

She was studying him.  Her eyes settled on his weapon, the fourteen foot long spear. “How on Earth do you carry that spear indoors?”

“It folds, and it can contract to be half the length,” he said.

“I see,” she said. She shook her head, as if stirring herself from idle thoughts.  Back to the nightmare.  “Do you want to start in the nursery?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I can guess what happened, and I doubt there’ll be anything I can use there.  Show me the other scenes.”

Wordlessly, she turned and led him to the stairwell.  He noted the gouges on the walls.  Two or three inches deep, with blood spatters following each.  Plastic had been taped down over each individual mark and spatter.  Evidence cards were stuck next to each. He could guess the culprit.  Jack.

Another impulse sent to his hardware, and his spear broke down into three loosely connected sections as they made their way down to the next floor.  A practiced motion let him catch the weapon under his arm.  “You have any local parahumans?”

“Three.  Nothing notable.  Edict and Licit, a low-rated master and a low-rated striker.  We also have one villainess who occasionally tries to make it in one of the big cities and then retreats back home when she can’t cut it.  Calls herself Damsel of Distress.”

He reconnected his spear as they passed through the door.  “I know her.  Mover and shaker.  Storms of unevenly altered gravity, time and space.  Edict and Licit keep her in check?”

“They manage with our help.  Why do you ask?”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are recruiting.  Their numbers are down, and they’ll be looking for a quantity of new members more than they’re looking for quality.  At least until they’re stable enough that they can afford to be picky.  Once they can, they’ll replace the weakest recruits with better ones.  I don’t want them to get that far.”

“I understand.  But would they want her?  Damsel of Distress?  Her lack of control over her power holds her back.  I won’t say she isn’t a problem, but she’s never been a priority threat to anyone.”

“She’s a heavy hitter.  They can give her control, or they can use that lack of control.  Let’s not forget that they might be looking at Edict and Licit.  I’ll need you to send me their files as well, please.”

“Of course.”

He didn’t really need the files.  The PRT had provided access to everything except the highest level secured files.  He suspected that Dragon would be able to gain access to those if the need arose.  Still, asking the sheriff had let him gauge whether she was really as cooperative as she seemed, and her level of connection to the hometown heroes.  There had been no resistance, which was reassuring.

She led the way to the area at the front of the ground floor.  They stopped at the perimeter of the scene.  He could see the path that Hookwolf had traveled, the bodies and body parts that littered the area, each covered by sheets or squares of cloth.  There was little to be done about the blood.  Every officer present was from out of town, and everyone was staying to the edges of the area.  There was more evidence than there was ground to tread on.

Defiant examined the area.  “They hit the nursery first, Jack and Siberian moving elsewhere in the building.  Your officers got the call, but didn’t have enough details to know what they were getting into.  They came in through the emergency room here, and Hookwolf was waiting for them.  Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Sheriff Goering said, staring down at the sheet in front of her.  Her composure was slipping, emotion seeping into her posture and expression, softening that hardness.

Again, he wasn’t sure what to say.  He needed her in control, but any reassurance threatened to make things worse.  He didn’t want to upset her, but everything about this was upsetting.  There was no denying that.  She would regret it if she broke down in tears here, and it would waste his time when he needed to be in pursuit.

Tell her it’s not her fault,” Dragon spoke in his ear.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the sheriff.  “They planned it this way.  I would guess they controlled the information that was reported to your station to keep you in the dark, then would have had Hookwolf sitting in the lobby in his human state, indistinguishable from anyone else that was waiting for a turn.”

“That fits what we know,” she replied.  She looked up at him.

“They have years of practice in this, and this is what they’re doing, ninety-nine percent of the time.  Hit isolated areas, terrorize.  Sometimes it gets reported in the media, because it’s sensationalist, and sometimes it goes unreported-”

Back on track.  Cut the digression.

“-There was nothing you could have done differently, knowing what you did,” he finished, feeling like he was leaving his explanation incomplete.  If it were him on the other side of things, he’d want the full picture, but he would take Dragon’s advice.

“You’re right.  But that doesn’t make it much easier.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I don’t expect it would.”

The lens of his right eye clicked through multiple frequencies and resolutions, until the scene stood out in high detail.  The blood shone ultraviolet, and even particles of dust were highlighted.  The entire area stood out with fingerprints, footprints and frost-like patterns where air currents had layered dust over walls and windows.  He began to pick his way through the scene, setting his feet down only where there wasn’t any evidence to be damaged.

“You’re hunting them?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“If I can.”

“Talk to me?  Give me some assurance that some good will come of this?  That you’ll be able to track them down, because of what happened here, and that you’ll be able to stop them?”

He stared at the landscape around him, all white, gray and the brown-red of drying blood.  It was washed out, stark.  The magazines and brochures had been covered by arterial spray and clothing was hidden beneath sheets.

Give it to her straight,” Dragon urged him.

“He was waiting here,” he pointed to a chair.  “The blood and the way the bodies fell, Hookwolf wasn’t holding anything back from the moment he made his move.  A walking chainsaw massacre.  I’m trying to look at how it played out, so I can read something into how they’re operating and where their priorities are.”

“How?” Goering asked.

He saved the settings of the lens and then switched to a radiograph-ultrasound reading.  The world was cast in monochrome, now, and he could see the vague shapes of the bodies under the sheets, light and dark painting a picture of densities rather than light.  He closed his mask so the sheriff wouldn’t overhear and spoke into the microphone, “Count the skulls.”

Twenty two.”

“Twenty two bodies,” he spoke aloud, “In the waiting area alone.  It seems like too many for a town this size, this time of night.”

“We’re the only real hospital for this part of the county.  We get people from neighboring towns flying in by ambulance or helicopter.”

“I see.  Even so, it’s more than I would have guessed.  I suspect there was some announcement across the hospital, as the attacks started.  The way people were clustered here, they were probably ordered to stay put and stay calm.  Your officers enter and Hookwolf attacks.  There’s hesitation from the bystanders.  People are caught between perfectly rational self-preservation and the authority of the hospital staff who didn’t have the full picture.”

Don’t assign blame,” Dragon whispered.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine are the ones in the wrong here.

“He lunges across the waiting area to the doors, cutting off retreat and tearing through anyone in his way.  This is new to him.  He’s used to fighting people who resist, people with powers and law enforcement officers with the technology to fight him.  This gives me the impression of a fox in the henhouse.  The crowd turns to flee for the hallways, and he cuts them off there, herds them towards the center of the room, finishes them off.”

He could see the pain on the Sheriff’s face, but she was holding up.  “And that’s useful?”

Defiant nodded.  “Hookwolf was largely content doing what he was doing in Brockton Bay.  He viewed himself as a warrior, a general, and there was a degree of honor in what he did.  He wasn’t honorable, but he followed a code.  The person who nominated him for the group, Shatterbird, is no longer a member.  So why did he join?  Our working assumption was that there were threats on some level, extortion.  But he’s shifting focus too quickly.  Adopting a new mindset.  It’s possible Jack Slash convinced him in another way.”

Or he’s under their control,” Dragon said, communicating over their personal channel.

“…Or he’s being coerced,” Defiant said, for the sheriff’s benefit.  “An implant, something that’s turned him into a puppet.”

He looked over his shoulder at the Sheriff, but she wasn’t venturing a response.

Back to the job.  He pointed with his spear, where Hookwolf had been seated, then traced the path the villain had taken.  Front door, then one hallway, then the other.  A loose ‘z’.  People had clustered around the middle of the room, and he’d leaped into the midst of them to finish them off.

Defiant’s eyes shifted to the front desk.  There was blood spatter there, but it was the furthest point from the path Hookwolf have traveled.  It would have been his last destination before he moved elsewhere.

Defiant used the lens setting to watch for blood spatter and footprints as he made his way behind the desk.

There were more bodies.  One was propped up against the wall, and the stains that were soaking through the sheet were more brown than red.  He’d had his lower abdomen opened.  The last to die.

With his spear’s point, Defiant lifted the sheet away from the man’s head.  Young, head shaved, a tan collared shirt with a star on the shoulder and a kevlar vest.  His arms and hands were mangled beyond repair.  Defiant studied the area, noting the presence of footprints, then replaced the sheet.

His progress out of the area was slow, and not entirely because he was trying to preserve evidence.  He needed to think, to draw the entire picture together and confirm what he was saying before he addressed the sheriff.

“Find anything?” she asked.

“Your deputy went down fighting,” he said.  “Tooth and nail.”

Her jaw clenched, and he could see her eyes glisten.  She stared hard at the wall.

“He couldn’t have won.  Not against Hookwolf.  But I think he gave us what we needed.”

“Did he?”

“The aftermath of the fight suggests Hookwolf was in control of his actions.  What’s more, I think Jack Slash is grooming him.  The general and the cutthroat, playing off one another, educating each other in their respective disciplines, so to speak.  Jack’s going to want to keep this interplay going, maintain Hookwolf’s interest and keep him from getting restless.  What’s the nearest town?”

“Prescott.”

“Second nearest?”

“Enfield.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “I’m going to talk to my partner, join her in paying a visit to Damsel of Distress if she hasn’t already wrapped that up, then we’ll be leaving.  With luck, we’ll be right on their heels.”

“Execute the motherfuckers.”

“I’ll damn well try.”

He extended a hand, and she shook it.  He turned to leave, sending nervous impulses to the computer system in his suit, drawing up a map of the hospital and overlaying it with the image he was seeing on his visor.  He made his way to the exit and briskly walked toward the field where he’d parked the Uther suit.

Talk to me, Colin?  What’s the thought process?

“Hookwolf gutted the deputy and then stood by while he died a slow, painful death.  Footprints on the other side of the room are probably Jack’s, if you look through the feed.  His back would have been to the filing cabinet.”

I see it.  Hookwolf doesn’t have a reason to inflict a slow, painful death if he’s just a puppet under Bonesaw’s control.

“That’s my line of thinking.  From the looks of it, he was standing there longer than Jack.  If Jack moved upstairs, which matches with the gouges in the stairwell, then he was leaving Hookwolf there to watch the man die over the course of minutes.  The deputy was someone strong, ferocious, a warrior, which is how Hookwolf identified himself.  This wasn’t just killing, but rejoicing in the cruelty of it, the feeling of superiority over the fallen.  I think what Jack was trying to instill in Hookwolf, challenging him to alter his code and be something darker.”

I don’t like it when you try to get into their heads like that.

“We have to be proactive.  Predict.  Get ahead of them, so we can stop them before they attack the next hospital, the next neighborhood or school.  That means figuring out what they’re thinking.”

I know.  I just don’t like it.  Not with the way Mannequin approached you.

“Mannequin’s dead.”

And he approached you for a reason.

He signaled for the Uther’s cabin to open, then made his way inside.  It was half the size of a commercial plane, outfitted with basic living quarters, and outfitted with long-range weaponry.  The moment he was inside, the systems kicked into life, the pilot’s chair turning to be in position for him to sit, monitors lighting up.  He had only to think, and the images changed, the cursor flying across the screen with a thought to click on icons.

“…You’re not responding.

“Sorry.  Still getting used to this setup.  I feel like a baby, still figuring out how to move my arms and legs.”

I hope it’s a little more intuitive than that if you’re airborne.

“Exaggeration for effect.  I’m like a toddler, then.  I can walk, but I could fall if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing during the more complicated bits.”

He settled into the pilot’s seat, and his senses opened up with vague ‘tactile’ responses from the Uther.  He felt it lift into the air.  Monitors in front of him let him note Dragon’s location.

You didn’t respond to my question, Colin.  I was asking if you think I need to keep a closer eye on you.

I don’t think so,” he replied.  “I don’t know how you could be closer.  But it helps, having you there.  I appreciated the tips with the sheriff.  I would have fucked that up.”

It’s not a problem.

“Any notice on Damsel?”

Seems like we’re too late.  They got her.

His heart sank.  “Got her in the sense that she’s dead, or got her in the literal sense?”

The latter.

“Fuck!”  One more to contend with.  He remembered who he was talking to.  “Sorry.”

I swore when I found out.  Don’t worry.  I’m thinking Enfield.  You?

“We’re on the same page.  It’s close enough, but not so close it’s the next place we’d look.”  He shifted the Uther into motion and plotted a course for the Nine’s next likely destination.  He could see Dragon doing the same with her own suit.

They wouldn’t be able to do this for long.  They were only able to track the Nine like this because their quarry was unaware.  It would only get harder, with Jack obfuscating the group’s movements, with traps and misdirection, a contest of second guessing, trying to think more steps ahead.

He thought aloud, “We should have fought them sooner.  In Brockton Bay.”

We weren’t ready, on a lot of levels.  You hadn’t recuperated, and I didn’t have anything that worked as standalone firepower.  Better to wait, confront them with six suits at once.

He opened his mouth to respond, then stopped.

Damn,” she said, “I was hoping you weren’t paying enough attention.

“I’m always going to listen when you talk.  What happened to the other three suits?”

Melusine is out of commission until I can build some replacement limbs.  Azazel and the Astaroth-Nidhug were melted down.

He frowned.  “The Undersiders?”

And the Travelers.  I pulled the remaining suits out of the city.  Can’t excuse the losses.  Not with bigger fish to fry.”

“That’s… irritating.”

What part?  That they get to keep doing what they’re doing?  Or that I didn’t mention it?

“I’m still officially a prisoner.  I’m just a prisoner on a manhunt, now.  If you want to control what info I get, I’ll live.”

I can’t tell if you mean that.

“I can’t either.  But right this minute, I’m more focused on the fact that the Undersiders and Travelers could hold their own against the full flight of seven.  If they can get that far, couldn’t the Slaughterhouse Nine be able to defeat the suits as well?  And us with them?”

It’s the A.I.  Substandard.  They followed directions without an issue, but they aren’t creative.  The A.I. can’t think outside the box, they don’t plan or get creative.  They just do the tasks they were assigned: sequester, fight, detain.

“It’s your work.  I know you’re capable of designing outside of the box.”

I’m working with my hands tied, Colin.  There’s too many redundancies in my code, the rules against me making A.I.?  They’re still there.  You gave me some detours, some workarounds, ways to get around them, but I’m still stumbling over them.

He tapped his fingers on his armrest, thinking.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Please.

“I don’t want to spoil your code.  This isn’t my field of study.  It’s not even something I’ve dabbled in.  As a rule, anything I do to change it is going to make things less elegant.”

In that one department.

“And I’m legitimately afraid I’ll do permanent damage if something runs out of control.”

I have backups.  Weekly.”

“Which means we’d have to bring you up to speed on the mission here.  I’m saying it’s dangerous.  I like the you of right now more than the you of a week ago.”

That sounds almost romantic.

He smiled a little.

Saw that.

He smiled wider.  “You’re bordering on the obsessive now.”

I can dial it back.  How are the prostheses?

“Holding up.  Eye’s working great.”

I saw,” she replied.

He smirked.

She sounded legitimately embarrassed as she said, “Whoops.

“Don’t worry.  I knew you were watching.  It’s fine, good to have an extra set of eyes on the scene.  Um.  The other parts are fine.  I made a note to fix my leg.  I think it’s a little too perfect.  Feels uncanny.  But I suppose you heard that.”

I don’t listen in on any personal notes, just like I won’t pry into any journals you keep or personal mail.  The deal we struck with the PRT was that I would make sure you followed the rules.  That’s what I’ll do.  But your thoughts are your own.

“Alright.”

You don’t sound overly concerned either way.”

“I’m not, really.”

You let me know if you do start feeling uncomfortable.

“I can do that.  Listen, there’s no use in me getting deep into your code when we’re going to get there in a matter of minutes.  I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime, then maybe I’ll refresh myself on your code if I have time before we land.”

Alright.

He glanced at one monitor, and windows opened to show images of the leg.  He was able to draw the crude shapes that represented individual devices even when he wasn’t looking at the screen.  A triangle here, a circle there.  Another window opened up with a line connecting it to the triangle, and he drew an identical triangle, began filling it with more shapes.  By the time he had a fourth subwindow open, he was drawing from previous notes to copy over other schematics of older work, seeing where things could go.  Everything could fit together.  The waste energy of one system could help power another.  Even on a molecular level, there were ways to harness the ambient radiation that was emitted by everything in the known universe.  Some was infinitesimally small, but it was usable.  That energy could be heterodyned, or redirected into loops long enough that they were near-infinite.  Hyperefficient, dense energy generation that could benefit from being hooked up to more devices.  It was the fundamental basis of his work: efficiency.

Which suited him well.  Efficiency, intensity, focus were all the same thing in a sense, and they were his strengths.  The flip side was that they weren’t strengths when they were applied to relationships.  Or to human relationships.

It seemed to be working for him with Dragon so far.  Someone else might have bucked at the closeness of their partnership, the intimacy of it, her unending presence and watching eye.  He understood that she thought faster, that she didn’t sleep, didn’t stop.  She was fond of him and she was programmed to emulate people.  Maybe she came across as intense at times, but that was simply a poor translation, normal behavior overclocked and given no chance to pause.  He would watch for any problems just as she was keeping an eye out for the part of him that had drawn Mannequin’s attention.

For now, his own obsessiveness, arrogance, and goal-oriented mindset would keep him focused on the Nine, push other concerns to the periphery of his attention.  He could adjust to any of Dragon’s peculiarities in the meantime.  He could even enjoy them.

His lips quirked with another smile.  She was amusing.

“Okay.  I’m done for now.  Want to look it over while I get into the code?”

Sure.  You have eight minutes before you should get your stuff together.

He’d had to make a program just to get a handle on the code.  It wasn’t working with a fixed structure, but was instead a torrential waterfall of data, a river of lightning, a trillion eels weaving through one another in a singular mass.  Deciphering it required that he think in an entirely different way.  To actually change it was something else entirely.  The rules Dragon was obligated to follow were a fundamental part of her self, and everything she remembered filtered through that.

He isolated a part of the program and set it to run in a loop so he could study what it was doing.

Your design doesn’t work,” Dragon informed him.

“Does too.”

You inserted the nanomachine thorn generator into your leg, but your power source vents straight into your calf.  You’d gradually roast your flesh from your bones.

“I’m inserting more of the same into my calf.  Daisy chain.”

More self-alterations?  Colin-

“We’ve been over this.”

I was going to suggest we take some time tonight, play another round of ten by ten.  At the rate you’re going, there won’t be a point.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Not by much.

He could have responded, but he held back, stayed quiet.  No use starting a fight now, not when they might be fighting the Nine shortly.

Ten by ten.  The ‘game’ involved some interplay between him and her android self, physical contact, and rating the sensitivity of the contact on two scales of ten.  It had started out as a means of calibrating the various sensations her ‘body’ experienced and ensuring his own prostheses weren’t causing any damage to his nervous system, but things had progressed to inevitable, intentional conclusions.

Not the obvious conclusion.  There was more to be done in refining her body and expanding her capabilities before they could take things that far.

Would he be more machine than she was by the time they got there?

On the other side of the coin, he had to wonder: could he afford to hold back?  They were engaged in a battle of attrition against the Nine.  In the grand scheme of things, there were also the Endbringers to consider.  He’d gone too far in Brockton Bay, but the fundamental principle was right.  They had to be stopped, if it was even possible, and he wouldn’t complain if it was him who did the deed.  If it was a question of going all out, holding nothing back, showing no compunctions and finally stopping the abominations, well, he’d do it all over again.  He wouldn’t trust the nano-thorns to the same extent; they apparently couldn’t cut through the entirety of an Endbringer, but he’d do the same thing again.

And he’d feel the same regret he did now.

You’ve gone quiet.

“Thinking.”

Three minutes before you take the thinking cap off and we get battle ready.

“That’s fine.  I’m thinking in circles anyways.  In the interest of being useful, I’m trying to isolate your ‘higher brain’ code from the rest.  You want to take a minute, maybe turn your attention to my leg’s prosthesis again?”

On it.”

He began to select the outliers from the two distinct strains of code.

“Think about nothing in particular,” he told her.

Harder than it sounds.

“Think white.  Or stare off into space.”

He could see the code shift.  He began to gradually narrow down the outliers.

Nothing too pertinent.  It would help him to keep any changes from damaging the most essential parts of her, but nothing too useful.

Conversationally, he asked her, “The Undersiders are still holding the territory they did, then?”

They kidnapped the Director long enough to get her to order the A.I. to stand down, got away from one altercation, then used some combination of Tattletale’s power and the Director’s knowledge to figure out that they could slow me down by knocking out cell towers.  As far as I know, they’re in a better position than they were.

“Damnation.”

How are you feeling about that?  The Undersiders?

“Psychoanalyzing me?  I’m itching to stop them.  If you asked me what I’d change, I don’t know that I could name a thing I’d do different.  I’d do everything over again, but do it better.”

You wouldn’t get caught.

“There’s that,” he said, sighing.  “And maybe I was too harsh in my judgement of Skitter.  I was angry at her, I was tired, maybe that led me to label her with some malice she didn’t have.  In retrospect, yes, she made the decisions she did, but she had reasons for doing what she did.”

In the same way you did.

“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

Dragon didn’t respond.  He swore under his breath, knew she could hear it.

“They took down our Azazel?” he asked, aiming to change the subject.

Yes.

“Fuck,” he muttered.  It would have been useful to have, here.

He could see a blip in the code, well beyond the outliers he’d marked out.

“What were you just thinking?”

Flight plan, battle strategy, and fixes to the Azazel hardware.  I have the black box data.

“Think back through each of those things.”

We’re going to be at our destination in less than a minute.

“Please?

There was a long pause, then again, the flare of data being altered well outside of the boundaries he’d noted.  He opened up the full stream in the view window, spreading it across every screen in front of him.

“Keep going,” he told her.  The cursor flew between the seven screens, marking out areas in color to see where code was changing most radically.  It was like the work he did with his own power, the smallest elements impacting everything else.

Like his own power…

He leaned back in his seat.

What is it?

“Either Andrew Richter was far better at designing A.I. than I suspected, or there’s something else at play.  You have any notes on your code from a few years ago?”

We just reached Enfield, Colin.

“I’m only barely wrapping my head around this code as is.  I’m worried that I’ll lose track and this will all be gibberish to me if I look away.  Notes on your code?”

How far back?

“Let’s say in intervals of four years.”

Loading them onto the Uther’s system.  This isn’t like you, Colin.  Getting distracted?  Making the Slaughterhouse Nine a lower priority?

“Four years ago, I think it’s the same.  Hard to find flares like that and not think I’m cherry picking data.”

Colin.  I admit I’m a little unnerved.  Way you’re talking, it sounds like Richter put some safeguard in place and I could fall apart any second.

“It’s not that.  Can you load up the earliest archive of data you have?”

I’ll have to clear away one of the other files.

“Do it.  They’re useless.  They’re the same thing as the most recent set.”

He watched as the flow of data appeared.  It was odd how he could look at it and she almost felt younger, like a musician might read music and hear it in his head.  Only here, it was like looking at a video image of a girlfriend as a child.

And… more constrained.  Certainly more advanced than anything else in existence on the planet, but things flowed.  A led to B led to C.  He sped through volumes of the data to hunt for a flare, glanced at the time markers.  A year ahead.  Two years.

No, he couldn’t afford to pore through Dragon’s entire lifetime.  He closed the image, leaned forward and stared at the screen, the recent image of Dragon’s code, caught in a three second loop in the midst of her plotting her design.

What is it?

“You’re a tinker.”

This isn’t a revelation, Colin.

“No.  I mean, not just as far as the classification applies to you.  You’re a parahuman.  I don’t have time to hunt for it now, but at some point between now and a few years after your creation, you had a trigger event.”

How can I be a parahuman if I’m not human to begin with?

“I don’t know.”

I’m not even close to human.  I might be trying to emulate one, but a sea cucumber’s closer to being a human than I am.  That doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t know either.”

What does this mean?

Yet again, I don’t know.  But it’s now my turn to remind you that we’ve got to carry on with our mission, see if we can’t track down our targets.  The four A.I. suits are close?”

They’ll be here within the minute.

“Good.  But this thing with the data and your nature, it’s important.  A clue.  I’m only mortal, I might not come out of this alive-”

Don’t say that.

“But it’s true.  I want to leave nothing to chance.  So I’m going to leave a note, just in case the worst happens and we both die somehow.  Instructions.”

To look at the code.

“To look at the code.  The fact that you haven’t noticed this yourself suggests there may be a mental block in place.”

I don’t have a mind to put any mental block inside.  I’m data.

“And the same limitations still apply.  Just in case, we’re going to make sure someone can look over the code if we don’t make it back.  Whatever happens, someone’s going to page through your memory, get our first hard data on a trigger event.  Ideal world, it’ll be us.  You can’t remember it happening?”

No.

“Well, we’ll see just how well that data was erased.  Or if it even was erased.  Could be a block keeping you from accessing a very real memory.  With luck, maybe a bit of a loophole like the one I created around your ability to create child A.I., we can unlock that memory, decrypt it or find a snapshot of it as it’s in progress.”

To what ends?

It was a good question.  It took him a moment to conceptualize it into a complete thought.

“…Since the day I got my powers, I’ve seen myself as a soldier in a greater war.  Good against evil, order against chaos, mankind against the likes of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.  It’s a war on every front.  And sometimes that’s called for ugly choices.  When we talked about unlocking the restrictions in your code, breaking down the barriers Andrew Richter was so careful to put in place, we talked about the idea that you and I could work together, give our side the upper hand in sheer firepower.  And I think we can with a little more time, a little more work.  With this?  This snapshot, this recording of a trigger event in progress?  Maybe we can get the upper hand in knowledge, too.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Reproducing trigger events, deciphering or even controlling the source of powers.  This is the type of radical thinking I’m supposed to rein in while I’m working with you.

“Are you saying I’m wrong?  That we shouldn’t investigate?”

No.  We should.  I’m worried about the can of worms this opens up, but we should.

“I don’t see why you’re so reluctant.”  He was already typing up the note to check the code, marking out the dates and times to investigate, the things to look out for.  It was painfully abstract, but the right tinker or the right genius could find it.  He opened the channels to deposit the files on the primary PRT server.

His computer froze.

“Dragon?”

Do you trust me?

“Yes,” he said.

The speakers produced the sound of a sigh.  “We won’t put the note on anything the PRT can get at.

“Why?” he asked.

That,” she said, “Is a long story, and it’s where I’m asking you to trust me and leave this for later discussion.  Our priority right this moment is the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I doubt we’ll stop them outright, but we’ll try.  Six powered suits in all.  I can’t disobey the directive, and you can’t let yourself lose track of the mission, or you’ll never get back on it.  I’ll explain this after.

“You said you couldn’t put the files on anything the PRT can get at?”

I’m almost certain they already know whatever we stand to find out.  I suppose it’s unavoidable, given how close we are on so many levels, but you’re getting drawn into another fight, with an enemy that may be on the same level as the Nine or even the Endbringers.  An enemy I can’t afford to fight face to face.”

“Who?

I’m obligated to follow the laws of the land.  To obey the local government, no matter who they are.  When we’re done here, whether we stop the Nine outright, see them escape yet again or lose the fight, you should ask me about Cauldron.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Monarch 16.6

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“We should throw a party,” Imp said.  “Celebrate.  Rub it in a little.”

“Rub it in?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  Party in the streets, maybe some fireworks.  Show the heroes that we know we won and we’re doing fine.”

There were a few chuckles from the others.  Regent and the Travelers, primarily.

“In what way is that even close to being a sensible idea?”  Grue asked.

“I didn’t say it was sensible.  But it’s fun, and that’s why we got into this, right?”

“No.  No it isn’t.  It was maybe a side-bonus when I joined the group, if anything, but things have changed since then.  I warned you this would be hard work, that it wouldn’t be fun and games.  And throwing a party to celebrate a win is a monumentally bad idea when we don’t even want the heroes to know we consider this victory anything out of the ordinary.”

“It is out of the ordinary.  We’re not giving anything away if we’re celebrating scaring off Dragon.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Regent chimed in.  Grue turned his way, and I could imagine the death glare that was behind his mask.  Probably scarier than the mask itself.

“Maybe you’re right,” Grue said, “Maybe, I won’t say you’re absolutely right there-”

“Of course not,” Imp said, sighing.

“-But we definitely don’t need to rub it in the heroes’ noses.  Not if it means they have both an excuse and motivation to try this again, sooner.”

“If you’re afraid of that, we’ll never be able to celebrate a win.”

“I’m okay with that,” Grue said.

“Do we get to chime in?” Trickster asked.  “Because I’m siding with the Imp, here.  Morale could become pretty important if we’re going to be building up individual gangs and collections of henchmen.”

Grue sighed.  “Feeling outnumbered here.  Skitter?”

“What?”  I blinked.  “Sorry, not keeping track of the conversation.”

“She’s out of it.  Tattletale broke Skitter when she said we won,” Regent said.

“I’m… I’m alright.  Lost in thought”

Grue settled a hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t read his expression with his mask in the way.

I sighed and confessed, “I’m… I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Isn’t that what happens?  The second things start to go right, the next disaster strikes?  Empire Eighty-Eight, Leviathan, The Nine, Dragon…”

“That’s a pretty defeatist way of thinking,” Trickster commented.  “Didn’t Tattletale basically say that there’s nobody left to cause us any problems?”

“There’s always something,” I said.  “I’d rather anticipate it and be ready.”

“Look at it this way,” Genesis spoke.  She was in a human-ish form, not unlike her real self, though she was wheelchair-free.  “If it’s more dangerous than Leviathan, the Nine or the Dragon suits, there’s no way we can make some plan to deal with them until they make the first move.  If they’re less dangerous, we can deal.  Relax.  We’re in good shape.”

I shrugged.

“Sooo,” Imp drew out the word, “Party?”

“No,” Grue and I spoke at the same time.  Imp groaned.

“Coil told us to check on our territories.  We should do that,” I said.  “Take your costumes off, take it easy.  I’m going to see if the food and drink I’d arranged to go to people in my territory is still okay, and make sure that they get fed and don’t have cause to lynch me.  Then I’m probably going to sleep for twelve straight hours.”

“Wait, didn’t you just say no party?” Imp asked.

“It’s not a party.  It’s something I was doing before the Dragon suits came.”

“Do the heroes know that?”

“Dragon could confirm it,” I said.  “She disrupted the preparations.”

“Dunno, that sounds pretty flimsy,” Imp said, sounding way too pleased with herself, “Maybe you better cancel, just to be safe.”

“Imp,” Grue growled the word.

Imp laughed, “I’ll go patrol our territory.  I’ll be using my power, so no worries about being seen in costume.”

“Coil said we shouldn’t go out in costume at all,” I said.  “I thought that part of the message was pretty clear.”

“Fine,” Imp said.  “Whatever.  If I’m not supposed to do anything, I’m going back to our place, gonna to kick back and catch up on some shitty reality shows.”

“No TV,” Grue said.

“Nuh uh.  No way.  If you two want to play hardass mom and dad and be controlling assholes, okay.  But you can’t tell me I can’t watch T.V.”

“I mean you won’t get any channels.  There’s no cable, no digital connection and no satellite.  Only static.”

Imp groaned, an agonized sound one might expect from someone who had just been speared through the gut.

What did it say about me that my metaphors were tending towards that kind of violent imagery?

“Why don’t you come by?” Regent asked her, “Play video games?  I’ve got shows on DVD.  No shitty reality shows, but stuff.”

I looked Grue’s way to gauge his reaction to Imp and Regent hanging out, only for our eyes to meet, so to speak.  We were thinking the same thing.

“I don’t think-” Grue started to speak.

Imp wheeled on him, jabbing a finger in his direction, “Enough!  You don’t dictate how I live my life!”

“No fighting, please,” Sundancer said, from the sidelines, “We’ve been through too much already.”

Grue stepped forward, raising one hand, but Imp didn’t give him a chance to touch her, backing away, swinging one hand through the air, as if to swat his hand away if he tried.  “You’ve said enough!  You don’t want me to celebrate my first legit win where I was actually fucking useful?  Fine!  Don’t want me to go on patrol?  Fine!  I’ll accept that shit because I’ll take orders from the guy who actually pays me.  But if you’re going to whine because I want to play video games with a teammate, I’m not going to stand here and listen to it!  Deal!”

“If you’d just-” Grue started.  He stopped and sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say something,” he said, turning around.  “But I can’t remember what.”

We experienced a moment where the conversation died, where nobody was sure what to say next, and nobody was able to tie things back to the prior conversation to resume an earlier topic.

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Trickster said, finally.  “Good work.  Skitter’s right.  Let’s go retreat, tend to any wounds, and we’ll take a breather.”

There were nods and murmurs of assent from everyone present, myself included.

More to his team than the rest of us, Trickster said, “I’m located closest to Coil, so I’m stopping by, going to check on Noelle, see if Tattletale needs help setting our captive Director free, and then I’ll talk to Coil about his progress with our issues.”

“Don’t get on his case,” Genesis said.  “Whatever his plan is, he’s under a lot of pressure right now.  I’d rather wait another few days and then talk about it with him than push it now and risk upsetting him.”

“The difference between us,” Trickster said, terse, “is I’m not willing to wait.”

With that said, he tipped his hat at me and walked away.  He wasn’t three paces out the door before he found something to swap with, leaving a mailbox at the mall’s edge.  The rest of the Travelers began to file off.

“I’ll be off too,” Regent said.  He offered me a sloppy mock-salute, “Good work, chief.”

I winced at that.  I hadn’t wanted to raise the subject of me taking over as leader for the previous confrontation.  I glanced at Grue and found him looking at me.

“Can we talk?” he asked.  Thanks, Regent.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We did make plans.”

“You’re dating?”  Bitch asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Grue said.

“But you’re dating.”

“Yeah,” he admitted.  Bitch looked at me to double check and I nodded.

“Hm.”  She somehow conveyed smugness with the monosyllablic response.

“You want to come?” I asked her.  “Hang out?”

“Nah.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “You’re welcome to spend some time with us, kick back, watch something, eat some good food?”

“Being around people’s too tiring.  Warm night like this, nice weather, figure I’ll go play with my dogs.  Make sure they aren’t too hurt, throw a few balls for ’em in the moonlight, eat when I want to eat, sleep when I feel like sleeping, not having to worry about getting in anyone’s way.”

“You wouldn’t be getting in the way,” I assured her.

“It’s all good.  I’m happiest doing this.”

“Well, stay in touch.  If you feel like some company, come by again?”

She shrugged and turned to leave, Bentley to her right and Bastard to her left.  With every step Bentley was taking, he was getting larger.  When she was nearly out of sight, Bentley was big enough for her to climb on top of.

Leaving Grue and me standing in the mall.

“I’d almost think you didn’t want to spend time alone with me,” he commented.

He was looking at me.  I felt scrutinized, like every movement and every part of me was suddenly under the spotlight, anything I did potentially being read as meaning something.

“No,” I said, very carefully.  Not exactly.  I just didn’t want to hurt him by taking away his role on the team, and I knew it would come up.  I tucked my hair behind the spot where the armor of my mask covered my ear.  “No.  Being alone together is good.”

“Your place?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

My people were active in my territory, but they were busier cleaning up the mess than they were actually getting stuff done.  It was irritating on a lot of levels.  We’d been accomplishing something, and Dragon had interrupted.  We’re in the world on the other side of the looking glass, I thought, where it’s the heroes who get in the way of progress and recovery.

I could understand why Dragon did it.  I wasn’t saying it was her fault, exactly.  Especially if it wasn’t actually her directing the suits.  But it was still irritating.

The silence between us was a tense one.  I wished Bitch had decided to come along.  Not because it would have generated conversation, but because it would have put off the subject of discussing team leadership, and the third wheel would have made for a reason for the quiet.  Was it bad of me to think about using her like that?  Or was it just accepting that she made an uncomfortable silence comfortable by her very nature?

I used my power to scout for any groups of people as we made our way to the beach.  We weren’t supposed to be out in costume, but we didn’t have any great options at this point.  I figured Coil would forgive us this much.  We entered the storm drain and made our way up to my lair.

Charlotte and Sierra looked surprised to see us as I opened the door.  Charlotte had three kids sitting on the couch with her, while Sierra reclined.  She rose to a sitting position.

“What happened?” Sierra asked.  She glanced nervously at Grue.

I saw Charlotte and the kids had plates on their laps.  The pork we’d been cooking earlier in the day.  I headed for the fridge and found a hunk of it wrapped in cling film.  “The PRT didn’t like the fact that we’d claimed control over Brockton Bay, so they sent in seven Dragon suits to root us out.”

“What do you want us to do?” She asked.

“Nothing.  It’s fine.  Stick to business as usual.  I’m glad you managed to get back to the food in time to make sure it finished cooking alright.  Any other problems?”

“We didn’t get a lot of work done,” Charlotte said.

“We weren’t going to anyways,” I said, “That’s fine.  I’m going to grab some food.  Grue, you want any?”

“Yeah.  Please.”

“Seven Dragon suits?” Sierra said.  “If they come back-“

“They’re dealt with,” Grue said.  Was the surprise on Sierra and Charlotte’s faces because of what Grue had said, or was it the way he’d said it with such confidence in his strange, echoey voice?

I set two servings worth of the pork onto one plate and put it in the microwave.  “They may come back, but that’ll be a little while coming.  What I’m worried about is my territory.  Were people upset?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said.  “A few people got shocked by those floating flying saucer things.”

“The drones,” I said.  My heart sank a little.  My promise to protect my people had been broken yet again.

“Yeah.  Drones.  People were pissed.  They were trying to get the drones, catch them in trash cans, but the wings got in the way, so they started using tarps.  They even got hold of a few before the drones started fighting back.”

Grue gave me a look that I couldn’t read.  Stupid masks.

“Anyone seriously hurt?”

Sierra shook her head.

“Ok, good.  Listen, I’m going to be working from the background these next few days.  I won’t be appearing anywhere in costume or overtly using my powers.  Are you okay with keeping things running smoothly?  I’ll be available by phone if you run into any problems.”

“I, um, I don’t know.”

I opened the microwave and withdrew the plate of smoking, herb-rubbed pork.  “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried people are going to recognize me, and it’ll get around to the people I know.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything criminal.  I’m just looking for someone I can trust enough to put in a management role.  Make sure things are cleaned up and that nobody’s slacking off.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t be doing working for a cleanup crew somewhere else in the city.”

“Except I’m doing it for you.  I’m working for a criminal.  Even doing what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t sit right.  No offense.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  I was apparently taking too long to prepare the food, because Grue was edging in to take over the preparation, cutting the meat into two portions and arranging the plates.  How was I supposed to manage this?  “Listen, I’ll take five thousand dollars out of the safe upstairs, sometime late tonight or early tomorrow.”

“It’s not about the money, or the lack of money, or any of that-” she protested.

“I know.  I’m not trying to bribe you.  Not exactly.  I guess, um…” I trailed off.  I was tired, thinking at high intensity for too much of the day.  “Um, I’m trying to say I trust you, and I value the work you put in.  So take that money, then if you know of someone who could do what I’m asking, someone like Charlotte or someone else you think we could trust, give them as much as you think is appropriate.  If there’s any left over, maybe you and Charlotte split it.  Or split an amount between the people who fought the drones, and be sure to tell them that as much as I appreciate them standing up to Dragon, I don’t want them to do anything like that again.”

“You don’t?”

“The last thing I want is people who live in my territory to get hurt for my sake.  And I don’t want you to be inconvenienced either.  Think about what you’ll do with the money tonight.  But don’t overthink it.  It’s a gift, a thank you.”

“I can’t take your money,” Sierra said.

“Then don’t,” I told her, trying to look like I was more focused on the food than anything else.  It wouldn’t do for her to see how much this was gutting me, and I didn’t want her to get guilted into anything.  I grabbed a coke from the fridge.  I gestured with it to Grue, and he nodded.  I grabbed another for him.  I had to swallow and clear my throat before I said, “I hope you’ll stay.  I really do.  But if you’re not comfortable doing what you’re doing, that’s okay too.  You can take a secondary role, or you can leave.  I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t be angry.”

“Okay.”

I looked at Charlotte and the kids, the steaming plate in my hand, a coke in the other, my right foot resting on the bottom stair of the staircase.  I asked Charlotte, “Are you okay with the status quo?”

“Yeah.  But I’m just looking after the little ones, and making sure people get fed.  I’m out of sight, I don’t come off like a second in command or anything.  I- Sierra and I have talked about this, before, her being uncomfortable.  I’m okay because this works for right now, but I understand what she’s saying?”  Her voice quirked with uncertainty as she finished speaking, as if she were asking a question, or asking permission to have that opinion.

“I understand too,” I said, sighing.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been around enough for you to talk to me about this, Sierra.”

“You’ve had bigger things to worry about.”

“And I shouldn’t have forgotten about this stuff while I was doing it.  I’m sorry.  You do what you need to do, decide if there’s any compromises or options you want to ask for.  I think I’ll understand, whatever you do.”

She nodded.

Grue had walked ahead of me and stopped halfway up the stairs.  I followed him, leaving my nanny-cook and reluctant lieutenant behind.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You going to work that out?” Grue asked.  He paused on the second floor.  After a moment’s thought, I tilted my head up toward the next set of stairs.

“Don’t know.  Hope I can keep her.  Wouldn’t have made it this far without her to hold things together when I was away.  If there was something I could do for her, maybe I would.  I dunno.”

We stepped into my bedroom.  I was glad I’d left it more or less tidy, but I had to take a second to hastily make my bed and throw some stray clothes in the hamper.  I moved some folded clothes from a wooden chair and let Grue take the seat.  I grabbed a remote and turned on the TV, only to remember that there wouldn’t be anything to watch.  I left it on the display screen for the DVD player.

Edgy with nervous energy, I took a moment to remove my mask and find a pair of glasses from the bedside table before seating myself on the edge of my mattress, my soda at my feet.

Grue had pulled off his helmet in the meantime to start eating, and I saw his face for the first time since we’d left his apartment for Coil’s.  I could see the dark circles under his eyes, which suggested he probably hadn’t slept well last night.  He wasn’t better, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to be.

Brian swallowed, “I wish I could offer you advice, but Imp and I are at a point where it’d be nice if we had to worry about retaining… what did you call them, way back when?”

“Employees.”

“Right.  If we had to worry about keeping our employees, it’d be good, because it’d mean we actually had some.  I’m not sure how to get underway on that front.  We’re intimidating.”

“I’m intimidating,” I said, admittedly defensive.

“You are.  But I’d say you’re more intimidating as an idea than you are in person.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No.  That’s not bad.  You’re more intimidating overall than I am, and yet you’re more approachable than I am.  I’m tall, I’ve got broad shoulders, I’ve got the mask, I’ve got the mass of darkness rolling off me.  People run when they see me coming for them.”

“My costume isn’t exactly lovey-dovey, either.  I’ve got the bugs crawling on me.  Sure, I’m smaller, narrower, but-“

“The idea of being attacked by you might be spooky, but even if you can hold your own most of the time, people don’t imagine getting in a hand to hand fight with you and feel scared.  It’s your power that’s scary.  Me?  I think people look at me and they can imagine me pounding them into a bloody pulp, or worse.  My power’s inconvenient, it’s spooky, but it’s not the scary thing.”

“You can’t really see your darkness, though.”

He shook his head, “I know where it is, but I don’t really see it.”

“I think you underestimate what it’s like.”

“Maybe.  But my point is that people are more likely to run than stick around and talk when I’m approaching.  You can take your bugs off the table, make it clear they aren’t a threat, and people feel less threatened, they’re willing to hear you out.”

“Maybe.  But if that’s the case, don’t give them a chance to run.”

“What?  Pop out from around a corner, scare the living daylights out of them, then offer them a job?”

“Sure.  Why the hell not?  Or have Imp break into apartments and leave a card.”

“I don’t think that would send the right message.  It’s vaguely threatening.”

You’re vaguely threatening.  If your prospective hires can’t deal with that much, then they probably won’t handle the job all that well, either.  If you can’t find anyone, then maybe I send some of my people your way to help get you started, or you could shell out for some decent mercenaries.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s options.  Don’t stress about it.  Whatever else happens, we have a few days before we decide on the next leg of our plan.  Let’s relax.  Movie?”

“Sure.”

I stood from my bed and began going through the box of DVDs that Coil had supplied with the TV.  Most were still in the tight plastic wrap that they’d been bought in.  I looked through, then handed some to Brian before turning back to the bag to keep browsing.

What the hell were we supposed to watch?  I didn’t want anything that would ruin Brian’s mood or remind him what had happened, so horror was probably out, I was sick of the high intensity stuff, but I couldn’t stand romance or bad comedies.

“Going back to the earlier topic,” Brian said, “The subject of leadership, being in charge…”

I winced.

“You took over today.  Are you wanting that to be a permanent thing?”

I turned around.  “No.  Not permanent.  Just until-” I stopped short.  How to put it?

“Until?”

“When I was getting really obsessive about what I was doing, when I was losing sleep and making mistakes, I deferred control.”

“To Trickster,” Brian said.  I could see a shadow pass over his expression.

“Yeah.  And that’s a bad example because it didn’t work.  It’s just that we both know you’re not getting enough rest.  So maybe I can pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Brian sighed.  He didn’t look any happier.

“I don’t want to make you unhappy,” I said.  “I’m not wanting to oust you, or co-opt your role permanently or completely.  You were the leader, even if we didn’t really establish an official title over it.  But we can divide the duties for the time being.  Tattletale handles the information angle of things, I maybe keep Bitch reined in and handle the spur of the moment calls, while you handle Regent and Imp and all the rest.”

“Which is less than it sounds like, especially when you and Tattletale contribute on ‘the rest’ in little ways.”

“No-” I started, then I sighed.  “Maybe, yeah.  I don’t want to come off as manipulative or anything.  Like I said, I don’t want you to be unhappy, but at the same time I do want the whole team to get by in the meantime.”

“You don’t sound manipulative,” he said.  His fork hit the plate with a clatter.  “Jesus, this sucks.  I know you’re right.  I know this is for the good of the team, and if I could just get over this shit-“

“It’s not that easy.  Don’t do yourself a disservice and expect too much.”

“My whole life, I’ve been bigger than my peers, I’ve been stronger than most.  Spent my time around pretty powerful guys.  Boxers, martial artists, other criminals.  I didn’t have many friends, but they were the people who were around me, you know?  And they were the types to go after you if you show any weakness.”

“You get shot, nobody’s going to call you a wimp.  I don’t see why it’s different if the damage is mental or emotional instead of physical.”

“I know, but you’re not getting it.  I was the type to go after someone if they showed a vulnerability.  Wasn’t until I’d had my powers about a year, Aisha tells me I was being an asshole, just like one of her stepdads used to be.  So I tried to be better, but I always wanted to protect her, always wanted to help others.  Teach you and Alec to fight, step up and take charge when a situation demanded it.  Sometimes when a situation didn’t.”

“Yeah.”

“So it isn’t just about me trying to adjust.  Christ, it’s me having my world turned upside down.  It’s others protecting me, others helping me, others covering me in a fight, others taking charge.  Aisha’s the one fixing things for me.  And you-“

“Me?”

“This thing with Coil.  Don’t think I’m so obsessed with what’s going on with me that I don’t see it.  It’s like a burden’s fallen from your shoulders.  You’ve got concerns, but you’re more relaxed.  You’ve got hope that you didn’t have twelve hours ago, and it’s dramatic enough that your posture’s changing.  Even since we left the mall, it’s like you’re slowly convincing yourself that this is over, Coil’s going to follow through, we’ll move on to taking care of our territories and everything works out in the end.”

I folded my arms.  “I don’t think that.  Like I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You say that, you tell yourself that, but I don’t know that you’re feeling it.  I’m worried you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment, and that you’ll be affected enough that you won’t be able to deal when it happens.  But I’m mostly worried that all that will happen and I won’t be in a position to help because I’m distracted by my own shit.”

“You don’t have to take up all the slack.  We have other teammates.”

“Lisa isn’t exactly a heavy hitter, and let’s not fool ourselves into believing that Alec, Rachel or Aisha are going to offer any meaningful emotional support.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ve managed this far.”

“More or less.  Problem is, ‘managing’ is fine, up until we don’t manage, if that makes any sense.  Then it’s over.”

I sighed.  “How did Genesis put it?  There’s no use in getting worked up over it if we can’t plan around it or do anything to change it.  So we’ll each do our own imperfect jobs of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves, and be as ready as we can for whatever comes up.”

He sighed.

“We’re not perfect.  We’re flawed people, and as much as I want to help you in every way I can, I know I can’t.  I don’t- I’m not good at this.  I don’t know how to act, or what to say.  But I like you.  I care about you.  I’m going to do my best, even if I know it’s not good enough.  And I won’t expect any more of you.”

He nodded, but he looked glum.

“No hard feelings?”

He shook his head.  He didn’t look happy.

“I won’t be leader forever.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Might be better that you keep the job, even if I do bounce back eventually.”

“Except I don’t want the job.”

“That might be why you should take it.  I don’t know.  Can we drop the subject?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Just… heavy topics, with lots of ramifications.  And it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts.  I’d rather talk along the lines of what you said before, about taking care of each other.”

“And taking care of ourselves,” I said.  “Getting enough sleep, eating right.”

“Okay,” he said.  There was a pause.  “I slept well the other night.”

“Then stay over.  There’s nothing pressing coming up, so we’ll watch movies until we fall asleep.”

He smiled a little, and for the first time in a long time there was a glimmer of that expression that had gotten my attention in the first place.

I put three DVDs into the drive so I could use the remote to play the next movie without having to get up, then pulled off the armor panels of my costume before settling into bed.  My back pressed against his chest, and I could feel his breath against my hair.

I felt so self conscious that I could barely keep track of what was going on.  I was thinking every unromantic thought there was: worrying if I had body odor from being in costume and running all day, wondering if I should get up to go to the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to go as desperately as I had the other morning.

I felt his hand on the zipper at the back of my costume, lowering it an inch, then stopping.  A fingertip traced from the ‘v’ where the top of my costume parted, all the way up to the the nape of my neck, then back down.  I could feel his fingers on the zipper, felt every tiny hair on my body standing on end.

A million thoughts raced through my head at once.  All put together, they amounted to a mumbled, “Um.”

There was no response from behind me.  I could hear him breathing, I could feel the warmth of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back.  He was waiting for me to make my decision, and the thing that loomed largest in my mind was the sensation of his fingers on the tiny tag of the zipper, strong, insistent, there.

Any confidence I’d picked up in the past weeks or months fled.  I felt as vulnerable as I had in early April, brought to tears in front of my worst enemies.  Except this… wasn’t wholly negative.  Not entirely: I still felt acutely aware of every vulnerability, I thought of every part of myself that I tried to ignore when I looked in the mirror in the same way I might see my life flash before my eyes before I died.

Again, thinking that way.  Why couldn’t I think in a more romantic way at a moment like this?  Was I broken in my own way?

“Let me get up and turn off the lights?” I asked.

His power blanketed the room.  I could feel the phantom touches of it on against the thin fabric of my costume and my bare face, leaving me blind and deaf as we were plunged into darkness.

As was plunged into darkness; he could see just as well.  This totally wasn’t what I’d wanted.

“That’s not fair,” I murmured.

He placed one hand on the side of my head to get me to turn his way, then pressed his lips against mine.

I didn’t protest any further.

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