Interlude 18

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“Scout it,” Noelle gave the order.  “Recuperate while we wait.”

Marissa sent a hawk flying through the dense foliage.  Noelle could feel that dull thrum of adrenaline, feel as though time had slowed down, her perceptions and reaction times cranked up to the maximum as she assessed every skeleton and bog zombie between her team and the hawk’s ultimate destination – a clearing with a withered crone standing idle in the center.

Everything was a clue, the placement the enemy had chosen for each unit crucial, because it would force them to maneuver one way or another.  Was that treasure chest placed at the back of the swamp-dungeon because the enemy Overlord had wanted to put it as far out of reach as possible or was it because he wanted to bait them into a trap on that side of the room?

It would be impossible to guess from that one clue alone, but the position of the monsters, lighter on that end of the room-

“Stay to the right,” she ordered.

There were reports of assent from the others.

Like being aware one was dreaming without actually disturbing the dream, it was a rare thing to be in the zone and to be aware she was in the zone.  She knew she was right.

“Cody, go ranged.”

Cody’s Highwayman sheathed his rapier and drew twin pistols from his belt.

“Luke, wind magic, wind spirits.  Dimplecheeks doesn’t usually use casters as an overlord, but he’ll stick to old habits.  He’ll have teleportation.  Mars, circle around, poke at her from range.  Go!”

They charged into the clearing.  The hag, Dimplecheeks, summoned two Über demons as they breached the threshold, then teleported to the far end of the room.  Luke’s shaman was already setting down wind spirits who were spewing forth miniature tornadoes, casting out gusts of wind that would accelerate his team and slow down or push their enemies.

“Enemy team just turned around,” Jess reported.  “They’re backtracking for the portal.  They’re going to invade en-masse.”

“Fuck,” Noelle said. Her mind was racing, covering a dozen factors at once – positioning her Challenger to best benefit her allies in the fight, avoiding the hag’s spells, calculating the damage her team was doing, keeping track of her items, and those of her team.  “How many rooms?”

“They were one room past portal, they’ll be entering around now.”

Ten seconds at best.  “We can’t kill her before they show.”

“Want me to send troops?”  Jess asked.

“No.  Fortify your dungeon.  If they take us out, you hold them off.”

“You know my boss monster isn’t that strong.  They’re only three rooms from fighting it.”

Hold them off,” Noelle said.

Sure enough, the enemy appeared at the entryway of the boss room.  Her team was hurt from the fight with the hag, and the enemy team hadn’t ventured far enough in to burn all of their resources.

Dying was inevitable.  That didn’t mean that their efforts were futile.  She had to slow them down-  She challenged the enemy’s Chronomancer to a one-on-one duel, consequently shrugged off the vast majority of the damage the remainder of the enemy inflicted, and charged to close the distance to strike the mage down in three blows.

She challenged the hag the second her target was down, landed two good hits, dropping their target to a third of her total health.

Then Cody fell, with Luke falling shortly after.

Noelle managed to use her own body to absorb the worst of the enemy attacks while Marissa ‘kited’ across the area’s perimeter, maintaining a consistent distance as she fired arrows at them.

Caught between the approaching enemy and a cloud of poison fog the hag had cast, Mars chose to rush through the latter.  Her health dropped to zero and she collapsed.

“Fuck!  Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Cody was shouting.  He kicked something.

It was as though Cody’s tantrum were happening in a very distant place.  Noelle’s focus was entirely on slowing the enemy down.  She challenged the enemy’s barbarian, because he did the lowest damage and everyone she didn’t challenge would do less damage to her.  She took a swig of the potion she still had in her inventory from the start of the game.  It wouldn’t restore even five percent of her health, but there was a dim possibility that it would force the enemy to land just one more attack.  Take a half second, or invest a few magic points into an ability to catch her.  Magic points they couldn’t use to take Jess on.

The three remaining enemy heroes bum-rushed her, cutting off her fighting retreat and forcing her into one location.  The hag landed a toxin-bomb on her, and her health disappeared in an instant.  The screen turned to shades of crimson and black, and a timer appeared in the dead center.

Forty five seconds to respawn.  The enemy players were surrounded in flares of light.  Level ups.  It would make up for the expense of passing through the portal.  It had been a good maneuver, perfectly timed, so they could disengage from Jess’ own forces and backtrack through her dungeon.

“Fuck!” Cody shouted.

Cody would take thirty seconds to respawn.  Thirty to forty-five seconds before they spawned at the checkpoint…

No, the enemy’s bandit was backtracking through the dungeon.  Hacking away at the checkpoint flag.

Now twenty to thirty-five seconds before they spawned at the dungeon entrance.

She watched the clock count down, bought new items, continued to watch the clock.

Cody respawned.

“Go!” she shouted.

Luke appeared soon after.  So did the enemy Chronomancer, in Jess’ checkpoint room.  The enemy was on the second to last room, dispatching goblin grenadiers and goblin gunners, fighting their way past the trenches Jess had laid down.

They defeated the last of the monsters.  The blood gate was satisfied and opened, giving them free rein to fight Jess’ end boss, an ogre king.

The boss Dimplecheeks had put in the checkpoint room, halfway through his dungeon, was just as tough and more dangerous.

Mars and Noelle respawned, and they charged through the dungeon.

Jess had half her health remaining, the hag had one-third, but there were four enemies in Jess’ boss room and Cody hadn’t even reached the hag.

By the time Cody and Luke were in the hag’s room, it was thirty-twenty five in the enemy’s favor.  The ogre king was tough, but slow, easy to hit.  The enemy delivered damage steadily, while Luke and Cody were forced to adapt as the more fragile hag teleported to inconvenient spots, costing them precious seconds each time.

Noelle and Mars joined the fray.

When the fighting stopped and the screen went dark, Noelle wasn’t entirely sure if they’d won or lost.

Letters in gold script flashed across the screen.  ‘Victory!’

The others were out of their chairs, cheering.  She joined them.  They hugged.  She turned, saw Krouse perched on the desk in the center of the room beside Chris and Oliver.  He was smiling.

Noelle hugged him, and for once she was able to forget all her doubts and insecurities, all her issues, the way even physical contact would leave her with a pit in her stomach.  She hugged him tight, and it was good.  It felt right.

“We’re going to nationals!” Cody whooped.

“That was you,” Krouse whispered to her.  “You made the difference.  You won.”

Her breath was too hot as it passed through her lips.  The exertion, this body mass, it made her feel feverish.  Worse than feverish.  She felt like she had when she’d been camping as a child, standing too close to the fire, seeing how long she could endure it.

Only it was all over, inside her.  A prickling, almost unbearable heat.

I know why you showed me that, she thought. She looked at Trickster; he adjusted his hat, swapped Sundancer with one of the flying capes.  The sun fizzled out as she landed.  One threat out of commission.  Ballistic and the other cape he’d arrived with were down as well.

She tried to read Trickster’s body language.  Back straight, walking with confidence.  He’d hesitated when she’d asked for his help.  Now there wasn’t a trace of doubt.

She’d admired that about him, had been jealous of it.  The confidence.  The sense of pride.

But the memory that had flashed across her consciousness, almost more vivid than reality, the emotions very real as she recalled them, it hadn’t served the intended purpose.

You can’t convince me that way, she thought.  This victory and that one don’t even compare.

There wasn’t a reply, of course.

“Bitch!  Run!” Regent hollered. “Go to Tattletale!”

Only his head, shoulders and one arm were free of Noelle’s grip.  She tugged and pulled him in faster.  He put his free arm inside her flesh, found something more or less solid and managed to push back enough to avoid having his head pulled in.

Trickster and Noelle wheeled around.  Bitch, the girl with the dogs, was the last Undersider here.  Trickster couldn’t find an angle to swap the girl with anyone else.  The boy in the armor would be too large, and Trickster’s field of vision didn’t allow for him to get his eyes on her and someone more appropriate.

Noelle tagged several of the bodies in her internal stomachs, felt flesh constrict tight against them, felt the pre-prepared nuggets of flesh in her gullet forming into close replicas in an instant.  Timing was crucial; if she spat them out too soon, they’d be malformed, missing limbs or features.  Too late, and there was extra material.

She retched, sending them flying in the direction of the girl with the dogs.  Bodies for Trickster to use.

But the boy with the armor was already moving.  He slammed one hand into the ground, and a cloud of debris and dust masked him and Bitch.

She couldn’t wholly control the vomit, lost one of the powered ones.  Not one of the Undersiders, she was relieved to note.  It had been the big one, who’d been with the tinker.  He’d called himself Über.  She didn’t try to reclaim him.  He was more or less useless.  The loss still pained her.  Better to have him than one of the unpowered ones.

Her vomit caught Genesis, who was presently a charging bull with a jellyfish-like tentacles trailing behind her.  The vomit blinded Genesis, and Noelle struck her hard enough to kill.  The body collapsed and started disintegrating.

“Hey,” Regent said.  “Monster girl.”

Noelle snarled as she glanced down at the boy who was stuck inside one of her legs.  Only his face was left to be consumed.  Her voice was hoarse with emotion as she asked, “What?”

“When you make my clone, do you think you could give him a goatee?”

Noelle didn’t dignify the question with a response.  She flexed and drew Regent completely within her body.  She’d hurt him later.  For now, she needed him to help her escape so she could hunt down his friends.

She ran.  The simple act of moving flooded her body with endorphins and adrenaline.  It felt good, made her feel strong.  That was another avenue of attack, as her body tried to work its manipulations on her mind.  The hunger, the heightened emotions, rewarding her with pleasant memories and good feelings when she operated in sync with it.

It was a matter of weeks, days or hours before she lost enough ground that she was the one trying to manipulate her body into doing what she wanted, with it calling all the shots.  If the process continued, she would eventually be subsumed entirely, unable to do anything but observe, and maybe not even that.

The pavement had been cracked like a sheet of glass, and the footing was unsteady, but the mass of her body was crushing fragments underfoot, and she had four good legs, with five more for further support.  Falling wasn’t a concern.

Noelle passed through the cloud of dust that the one in armor had sent flying into the air.  She saw the armored tinker punching the ground once more, leaped to clear the ground that suddenly plunged into a pit in front of her.  She picked out a selection from those within her and, with her rightmost head, sent a stream of bodies at him.  He punched the ground with his other hand, and pavement tilted upward in a makeshift barrier, blocking the worst of the stream and flying bodies.

The ones who did land in his vicinity were on him in moments.  One was the little space-warper, another was a copy of the firebreathing acrobat with the rich smell, and three were copies of the unpowered people she’d absorbed.  They mobbed the armored tinker.

She hadn’t included the Undersiders in that stream.  Until they were more fully absorbed, there was a good chance that she’d spit them out if she tried to copy them.  Using any one person too frequently carried the same risks, and she suspected that it would be more difficult now that she was so full.

The girl in silver armor, with white flowing clothes was dashing toward her from the other side, not any slower for the shattered ground underfoot.  Noelle picked out unpowered individuals she could afford to lose, closed her muscles tight around them, and spat out the partially formed nuggets along with a mess of the internal fluids.

The girl ducked low, landing on a fragment of road, using her forward momentum to skid toward Noelle as though she were snowboarding.  There was an explosion of debris as she kicked off the ground, and the girl soared toward Noelle, twisting in the air to land a kick with that same foot.

It felt like getting hit by a cannon.  Noelle’s stride broke and she had to plant one foot to the side to keep from falling over.

She’d lost ground, and Bitch was swiftly increasing the distance between them.

Noelle hesitated, then decided to let the girl go for the time being.  Better to defend herself, establish a better position.  While stationary, she could spit up an Undersider, swallow them back up again.  She’d read up on them, had talked to Trickster about them.  She had a good sense of what they were capable of.

But which one?  She had three.  Regent might work against this girl in white, but his influence would be too minor in the big picture.  His smell was weakest of the three.

Not that it was really a smell… but she was peculiarly aware of the people with powers, active or otherwise.  Each had a texture and a tone and a flavor, something she felt like she could come to understand.  She might have said it was taste, might have compared it to when she’d tried wine that one time and tried to see what the wine aficionados looked for when they sampled a vintage.  Except the word ‘smell’ worked better, because smell and taste were really very similar and smell worked over distances.

There was a difference in Skitter, Grue’s and Eidolon’s smells, along with a handful of the other visiting capes.  A smell that set them apart from the other parahumans in the same way that the other parahumans were set apart from the people who could have powers but didn’t.  An intensity.

She wished she’d spent more time researching the powers.  She hadn’t been able to bring herself to, had wanted only to distract herself from the thoughts of what was happening to her.

Which one to use?  Skitter was more dangerous in a general sense, but she wouldn’t stop the girl in white now.  That left Grue.

She didn’t spit, but simply contracted and let the body spill forth.  Sure enough, the real Grue tumbled out, prostrate, unable to move.  A tongue snaked out of her center-mouth and caught him before he could try to escape.  She’d swallowed him by the time her Grue was on its feet.

Noelle only had a glimpse of her Grue’s real form before he started cloaking himself in darkness.  He was muscular, broad-shouldered, his long hair slicked to his head by the fluids of the vomit.  Angry red ulcers studded his dark skin at set intervals.

He cast a glance over his shoulder at her as the darkness crept up over his shoulders and the back of his head.  His eyes were black from corner to corner, his teeth too large, misshapen much like his fingernails were, tangled together to the point that he couldn’t open his mouth.  It forced him into a perpetual grimace with his teeth bared.

He turned his back to her as the darkness covered his face, squared his shoulders.  The body language was clear.  He was protecting her.

He’s one of the useful ones, then.  Her copies of the little space warper had been like that.  Naturally inclined toward teamwork, disciplined.  The other three were more likely to run off.  They were still useful, but they did things in their own way.

Spheres of darkness appeared in her Grue’s hands.  One after the other, he hurled them at the girl in white.  The first missed, and the second seemed like it might do the same, until it arced in the air to strike her from the side.

The darkness was more like gum than smoke, and she struggled.  Noelle’s Grue closed the distance, moving over the surface of the road much as the girl in white had.

Then Noelle saw why and how.  A thread of darkness, barely thicker than a finger, extended from the sticky darkness to her Grue.  That would be how he’d moved the projectile in the air, and how he was absorbing her power.

The boy in armor created a fissure that spat debris into the air as it parted, aiming to separate the Grue and the girl in white.  By intent or accident, he cut the thread of darkness in the process.  Noelle’s Grue stopped, turned to face the tinker and created more spheres in his hands.

Those two were occupied.  Noelle turned to see Trickster dealing with the flying heroes.  Two were on the ground, prone.  That would be the result of Trickster baiting them into shooting one another.  The remaining hero had a weapon in hand but wasn’t shooting.

Eidolon was there too. His smell was interesting.  Complicated, but somehow off.  If he was using any particular method of attack on Trickster, then Noelle couldn’t see it.

Trickster disappeared from the skirmish with the flying heroes, putting one of her creations in his place.

She sniffed him out.  He was in the midst of the one batch of bodies that had piled up against the tinker’s makeshift wall.  They were turning on him, grabbing for his arms and legs.  He teleported to keep them from getting any serious leverage, but the escape was slow.

“Leave him!” she ordered, and her voice came out with surprising volume.

They didn’t listen.  They struck him, gripped his costume and dragged him to the ground.

Trickster shouted in alarm as he was submerged in the mass of clones.

Noelle advanced on her creations in as threatening a manner as she could, the ground shaking with her advance.  They noticed and backed away.

Trickster, for his part, didn’t even flinch as she closed the distance between the two of them, stepping within a few feet of him.

It would be all too easy to just snap her tongue at him.  Catch him, swallow him.

She held off.  Instead, she faced Eidolon and the other flying cape.

Trickster adjusted his hat and did the same.  The two of them against the world.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” she said.

Krouse folded his arms.  ”You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  If I could only explain, I would…  She could feel her throat seize up.  Worrying that her voice might crack if she spoke at the normal volume, she lowered her voice to a hush as she said, “You’ve been great.”

He spread his arms, “I don’t get it.  I thought we were doing fine.”

Doing fine?  How many hours had she spent lying awake in bed, agonizing over this relationship?  Hating herself?

She’d relapsed because of it, and recovering was proving to be a long, hard road.

“We aren’t!” Noelle said, “This is… it’s not working.”

“I’m okay with it.  I enjoy spending time with you, and I didn’t get any impression you were having that bad of a time, either.”

“But we don’t- we aren’t-”  She stared down at her feet.  ”We’re stalled.  It isn’t fair to you.”

That’s what you’re worried about?”

Only part of it.

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, and the anger in her own words surprised her.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about,” Krouse said.

Her breath caught in her throat at that.  Had Marissa told him?  Or had he figured it out?  It wasn’t like she hadn’t left signs.

He continued without a pause, “…I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot. And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you.”  Noelle knew she was repeating herself, but it was the only argument she could make.  All of the others would involve discussing other topics, her issues.

And she couldn’t bring herself to do that.  Marissa knew, would keep quiet because she got it.  Marissa knew, wouldn’t bring it up, would back her up when needed.

Noelle loved Krouse, but she knew he wasn’t so graceful.  It would become something jarring, intruding on their everyday interactions.

“I’m not saying things have to be equitable or balanced or fair or any of that.  So who cares if things aren’t fair?”  Krouse asked.

“Don’t do that!”

She could see his expression change to bewilderment at her reaction.  He spread his arms, as if he were asking a question without opening his mouth.  I’m being irrational… but that’s the disease at work.

It took her a long time to find the words.

“Someone said, a little while ago,” Noelle spoke without looking at Krouse, “That I can’t really forge a good relationship with others until I have a good relationship with myself.

“You don’t?”  He asked.  I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

The words stung, nettled her, as if they personified his lack of understanding.  She said as much, “You don’t know me.”

“I’ve been getting to know you some.  And I have yet to see anything that’s going to scare me away.”

She couldn’t keep going down this road, couldn’t have an argument, or she’d let something slip.  She stared at her feet.  ”…I don’t think we should date.”

“Okay.  If you think that’s for the best.  But I just need you to do one thing.  Look me in the eye as you tell me that.”

Noelle glanced up at him, then looked back down.  She tried to find the words, but both brain and mouth failed her.

“Because,” he went on, “I think you’ve seemed happier than I’ve ever seen you since we started going out.  Marissa said so, too.”

It’s… it’s a bad time for me, she thought, as if voicing the words in her head would let her utter them out loud.  The wrong moment.  Any earlier or later in my recovery…

He continued, “If you really feel like us dating is making things worse in the long run, then I’m perfectly okay with breaking it off.  I can leave the club if that makes things easier on your end.  It was your thing before it was mine, and you’ve got enough on your plate with being team captain.”

“I don’t want you to leave the club,” she said, meaning it.

“Okay,” he said.  He paused very deliberately.  She didn’t take the invitation to speak.

He sighed, ”Listen, I get the feeling today is a bad day.  Don’t know why it is, but it is.  And that happens.  Fine.  But I’m not willing to end this if it’s because the stars aligned wrong.  So I’m asking you to tell me that you’re worse off because we’re together.  Not asking for an explanation, just-”

Can’t do this.  Can’t break it off.  Not when he’s being this good about it.  Not when it’s making the both of us this miserable. 

“Never mind,” she said, abrupt.  I’ll find another way.

“Never mind?”

“I’m- just never mind.  Can we forget this conversation happened?”

“Sure,” he said.

Her feelings were a chaotic storm.  Relief, quiet joy, fear, misery, self loathing, panic…

I’m not well, she thought.

”Want me to walk you home?”  His voice was gentle.

She nodded mutely, unable to find the words to speak.  A simple five word confession would simultaneously explain everything and spoil the tone of their relationship.  She knew it, knew she was being irrational, that her recent relapse was making her that way, was making her nasty and emotional and unpredictable.

How could he not notice?  The way she picked at her food, the way Marissa got on her case about eating?  The countless other clues?  Yes, she’d been in recovery for much of the time they’d known each other, but… hadn’t he been paying attention?

She simultaneously loved and hated him, in that moment.  He was the best thing in the world for her, and the worst thing in the world for her, both at the same time.

And it wasn’t fair to him, putting that on his shoulders.

She was fighting with Eidolon.  The realization startled her.  She’d been adrift in vivid memories, and she’d lost time.

She sniffed, for lack of a better word, and found Skitter prone on the ground.  Her tongue snatched the girl up, and she swallowed the girl anew.  The taste and smell were right.  Good.

That spooked her.  Her body wasn’t making good decisions when it was on autopilot.  Or, at least, it wasn’t making decisions she’d accept.  Almost losing an Undersider?  No.

She double checked.  Skitter, Grue, Regent and the little space warper were safely ensconced inside her, each tucked away in neat little wombs, unconscious and helpless and safe from the ongoing fighting.

Why did you show me that?  Why was that so important?

There was no reply.  Never a reply.

Eidolon reached out with one hand, and she instinctively rushed out of the way.

The gravity effect hit her, and she could feel her flesh tearing, feel the extremities ripping: her ears, nose, lips and all the little pieces of her monstrous lower half.  At her shoulders, the top of her head, the flesh above her spine on her lower half, the flesh was pulled down and away until it started to rip.

Eidolon fell out of the air, hitting the ground hard.

Noelle turned her head, saw Regent.  Her Regent.  He was only half-formed, one arm missing, the features of his face more like a fetus than a teenage boy.

She smiled.  Maybe her other half had made some good decisions.

Her flesh was already knitting back together, everything shuffling into their proper places or shifting around to fill in gaps.  The fluid that welled from a bottomless source in her monstrous lower half bubbled up and coursed through her veins to supply the needed materials.

The girl in white hit her again, striking the joint of one outstretched limb.  Noelle swiped at the girl in mid-air with her other forelimb, came within inches of making contact.

The ground underfoot shattered.  Noelle leaped before the tinker could repeat the effect and sink her into another sand trap.

There was another explosion from beneath her.  She leaped to avoid the worst of that one.  She vomited in the direction of the tinker, but he was anticipating the attack.  He provoked an eruption of rock shards and dust midway between them.  The bulk of the flying bodies and fluids were knocked off course by the plume of debris.  With a third strike he raised a barrier around himself.  Two of the three bodies that hadn’t been stopped by the debris were caught on the shards of pavement.  One suffered a broken back, the other hit the edge of a fragment with enough force that his stomach was ripped open.

The third flew over the barrier.  The tinker caught it with a punch, and the piledriver in his gauntlet extended twice in an instant, punching two neat holes through the upper body.

He didn’t even wait for the body to hit the ground before striking and creating another fissure that extended beneath the barrier and beneath her.  She leaped out of the way before it opened wide enough to catch her or one of her feet.

It was bad timing.  She had been distracted by the recent vision.  Eidolon hit her square-on with another gravity attack.  Her flesh was savaged and split, she was almost immobilized under the force of it.  If the tinker used his power now-

Trickster broke Eidolon’s contact with the gravity field by teleporting him.  The hero reacted in an instant, releasing a half-dozen blue sparks from each hand.  They grew until they were each three feet across, crackling with electricity, moving at a walking pace as they slowly homed in on Trickster.

He had to teleport to avoid the closest one.  Only some of the orbs followed him to his new destination, the others remaining where they were.

Noelle opened fire on the tinker, two streams of vomit, each directed to one side of him.

She considered vomiting on the electric orbs, then thought twice about it.

Trickster teleported again, trying to maintain distance, but Eidolon had created more of the sparks, and the things were spreading out evenly across the battlefield, moving closer to Trickster if he got within ten paces of them.

It threatened to hamper her own movements too, Noelle noted.

Eidolon raised a hand in Trickster’s direction, and Trickster was quick to teleport away.  The gravity slam hit one of Noelle’s creations instead.  Trickster wound up within two paces of one orb, and had to scramble back before it touched him.

Noelle looked at him, remembered the scene from the most recent memory.  In this moment, with so many other people to be angry at, so many others to hate, she didn’t feel that bottomless resentment for Trickster that she’d experienced ever since the transformations started.

It wasn’t you, she thought.  I keep saying it was your fault.  It wasn’t.

She was already moving towards him as the thought came to her.

I blamed you for giving me the elixir.  The potion.  Whatever you call it.  But it was me.  I heard you guys talking about how the people who drank the stuff were supposed to get tested for psychiatric issues.  I didn’t tell you the Simurgh showed me visions of my worst days, of my relapses, my lowest points.  That she drove me into a state where I was reluctant to take the full dose, eager for a compromise.

She started running.

I knew all this, and if I’d only had the courage to say it, maybe this all would have gone a different way.

Oh, the irony, that this was what she’d become.

She crashed into the first of the lightning orbs.  She felt the current surge inside her, settle in her bones, latent.

A heartbeat later, every single orb that Eidolon had cast out flashed with visible arcs of electricity, striking her.  The energy ripped through her, stripping flesh from around the bone of her arm, her ribs, her spine, and the larger bones of her lower body.  The electricity surged to the ground and out the top of her head, stabbing toward the sky in a visible lightning strike.

Noelle staggered, touched one hand to her face, where her flesh had been distorted by the strike, separated from bone so it hung down, large patches of hair at the crown of her head burned away. The ends of her fingers where she’d touched the orb were blasted away, revealing bone.

She could feel it growing back, flesh knitting together.

Even this wasn’t enough to kill her.

She touched another, and it was worse, drawing on the residual energy from the first contact.

The third was worse still.

She’d complained of the sheer heat of this body before, but this… it was heat and pain on an inhuman level.  Transcendant.  Were she regular Noelle, Noelle without the powers, without the monstrous lower half and warped brain, even a tenth of this would knock her out, stop her heart from the sheer intensity of it.

On contact with the fourth orb, her frontmost legs collapsed under her, with everything within a half-foot of the major bones being rendered to little more than ash.  There was nothing to connect flesh to bone, and she toppled.

She roared, and for perhaps the second time in the past hour, both she and her monstrous half were in agreement.  With her other legs, she pushed herself forward, and extended one of her long tongues for the orb closest to Trickster.  To Krouse.  She screamed in pain and fury as it ripped through her, and another bolt stabbed toward the sky.

Too much damage, too fast.  She wasn’t healing fast enough.

A series of lightning strikes nearby marked the deaths of some of her clones.

Eidolon was there, too, at the end of the street.  The glow beneath his hood and sleeves was almost blue in the reflected luminescence of the twenty or thirty orbs that hovered around him.  A further twenty or thirty orbs were spread out over their immediate surroundings.

The others… the tinker had created short walls of stone to shield himself and the girl in white.  The rest of the battlefield consisted of bodies and other fallen.

Eidolon spoke into his wrist.  Noelle realized that there were other capes nearby when they each came to a stop, resting on rooftops and behind cover a few blocks away.

Short of Eidolon, there was nobody for Trickster to swap himself with.  And given that Eidolon had so many orbs in his immediate vicinity… no, Trickster swapping himself for Eidolon wasn’t an option.

Her other half hated him, and she was realizing just how much her monstrous body had been influencing her without her knowledge, now that her emotions were all pointed at this one individual, this one target.  It left her feelings towards everyone else at an almost normal level.  Her feelings for Krouse, her hatred of the Undersiders, her anger at Coil, each had been twisted, magnified, warped.

“If he does another gravity attack, I’m kind of dead,” Trickster said.

“He won’t,” Noelle rasped,  “He’d knock those orbs out of the air, and he’s counting on them to destroy me.  They probably will.”

As some of her tendons and ligaments knit together, she got two legs under her and positioned herself as close to Trickster as she could without touching him, shielding him from the orbs that were approaching at a crawling pace.

“I’m sorry,” Trickster said.

Noelle couldn’t bring herself to reply.  She wanted to say she was sorry too, that his apology was unnecessary, but a kind of indignant rage was rising deep within her, threatening to overwhelm her.  All of it was directed at Eidolon.

And in the midst of that rage, she felt a killing instinct she hadn’t experienced before.  Even coming this far, she’d never wanted to kill.  She’d wanted the Undersiders dead, yes, she’d tried to kill people, but a part of her had always held back from wanting to kill, from wishing to carry out the act of murder herself.

To execute this man who sought to end her existence.

It wasn’t her desire, not really.  It was her body’s.

“You want to kill?” she asked.  “You really think you can fight your way through this?”

“What?” Trickster asked.  “What are you talking about?”

Not talking to you, she thought.  “I have two conditions.  Don’t harm Trickster, and make it a nice memory this time.”

Then she let her defenses down.  Her other self took over, and it wasn’t her memory that she experienced.

Some of the others departed early.  Others were readied to depart soon after arrival.  Still others, this one included, were to wait.

They were one, they were all.  A collective, a single entity, a trillion times a trillion entities.  Each with a function in the whole, each with a role in the cycles, each with an individual identity.

As one, they traveled.  The distance was immeasurable, the passage of time impossible to convey.  There was no standard, for there were realms they had traveled where time and space operated on different levels.

For all, their own kind was the only standard, the only thing that remained relatively static through the cycles.  When they met their own kind they shared with each other.  When a new cycle was carried out, everything of the parent was borne by their spawn.

And the collective moved toward their destination.  They operated as a whole to decipher it, to pick apart the permutations, see the futures and the possibilities.

But for this one entity, which existed as part of the whole, there was a target within that destination.  When it came time for this one to depart, it would seek out a particular individual, and it would bond with that individual.  This one would fragment itself if others met the criteria; if there was time and opportunity enough then it would move to better candidates, younger or more able ones with a greater ability to affect the cycle.  This one would wait until the time was right, and then it would activate, come into the identity and role that had been ingrained into its being.

All to serve this cycle.

With the help of the collective, this one could see its objective.  A single living being.  This one encoded that being, the time and place in its very makeup.  It would be ready.

Noelle’s eyes went wide.

It wasn’t me.

Whatever her body was, the intelligence and purpose that lurked inside her other half, whatever these powers were.  It had all gone to the wrong person.

Gone to the wrong person, askew from the beginning, then twisted further by her own psychological issues, messed up by the fact that she’d only taken half a dose.

The realization and the confusion that came with the vision were compounded as she stared at her surroundings.

Her minions surrounded her: two copies of Trickster; a skinny girl with long dark hair, covering herself with her arms and a carpeting of rodents, Skitter;  a Grue; a Regent; two blondes who would be copies of the girl in white; four of the civilians, and one she didn’t recognize as any of the civilians she’d absorbed.  The tinker.  Eight of them in all.

Her flesh was knitting together.  Wounds as bad as the ones before, and worse ones.  Eidolon had apparently wanted to spare her captives, because the electricity had only affected her, her flesh as it surrounded her bones.  He had selected that power with their safety in mind.

And there he was, in front of her.  Eidolon, on his knees, covered in bile and blood.

“Why?” he asked, in an eerie, distorted voice.

You want to know why I did this?  Where would I start?  Why would I even tell you, when you tried to kill me, kill Trickster?

She was breathing too hard to respond, even with her nearly bottomless stamina.

“Why isn’t it working?”  He asked.

“I…” she had to stop for breath, “I don’t care.  Whatever it is.”

“I was supposed to get stronger, and there’s nothing.  Nothing at all to reach for.”

She turned, saw Trickster on his hands and knees, covered in the fluids of her vomit.

You weren’t supposed to hurt him.

You were supposed to give me a nice vision, for that matter, she thought.

“Why?” Eidolon asked.

“I don’t care,” she said, again.  She took a deep breath before speaking again, though there was little point, when it was this entire body that was so drained.  “I… it’s your choice.  We continue this fight, and my creatures run, they do whatever damage they can, and it’s weeks before you find every last one… or you let me go.”

Eidolon struggled to his feet.  “Let you go?”

“Three Undersiders down.  Three to go.  Then I give myself up.  Deal stands.”

“What’s to say you keep that promise?”

“Nothing.  But you don’t have another choice, do you?”

Eidolon didn’t respond.

“I’ll even let you call in reinforcements,” she offered.

“Your knight in shining armor took it,” Eidolon spoke.  “The wristband I use for communications.”

Noelle turned to Trickster, and he extended one hand, holding out one of the wristband displays.  Noelle took it.

Her Skitter was watching, looking concerned.

“Don’t fucking look at me,” Noelle spat the words at her minion.

Her Skitter turned her eyes to the ground.

“Trickster said you thrived on this kind of impossible fight.  Prove it.  Or die horribly.  I don’t care.”

Her Skitter looked up and smiled, lopsided.  Half the girl’s face was paralyzed, Noelle realized.  She wondered if the real Skitter had spaces between each of her teeth like that, or the gnarled twist of a nose.

Noelle turned back to Eidolon, waited for his decision.

“Okay,” he intoned.  She gave him a curt nod.

Tentatively, Eidolon slid the armband into place and pressed a button.  “Requesting reinforcements to my location.  In bad shape, need to mop up some clones.”

Her Regent said something she couldn’t make out.  He talked as though his tongue was too large for his mouth.  He had more muscle than fit on his frame, stretching his skin almost comically tight.  It was easy to believe the problem extended to the inside of his mouth.

“And they let me pass uncontested,” she said.

He spoke into the armband again.  “Do not engage target Echidna.”

Understood,”  a woman’s voice came from the armband.

“Echidna?” Noelle asked.

“One of the PRT members coined it,” Eidolon said.  He was eyeing her minions warily.  “Said he had a three year old girl called Noelle, didn’t want to associate her with something like you.”

“What was his last name?”

Eidolon gave her a wary look.  “Meinhardt.”

“Okay,” Noelle said.

Then she turned to run, leaving Trickster behind.

Her nose led her to the remaining Undersiders.

Back home, insofar as she had one.  The same place where she’d been kept contained for weeks.  Coil’s headquarters.

Surfacing from her dream, she’d temporarily supplanted the killer instinct that was demanding Eidolon’s head.  Now that she was closer, her thoughts were afire with thoughts of revenge, and that killer instinct was welling up again.  The idea that she’d maybe had the chance to get back to normal, that her friends had maybe been close to going home, and the Undersiders had taken all that away, it made her want to scream.  To inflict punishments worse than death on them.

Her vision from before lingered.  The entity.  The thing that was taking her over, that had made her a monster, it had an identity, now.  She wouldn’t say it had a face, but it was no longer a vague malevolent force, now.

Part of her felt sympathetic for it, because this thing that shared her body had been wronged by some nebulous circumstance.  In that, at least, they were kindred.

Another part of her was just bewildered.  The memory it had shared with her was so vast, it changed everything, had left her feeling like her problems here were so small, so miniscule.  Even this, this fight, her revenge, in a way it felt artificial, false.

It’s not my world, she thought.  It’s almost like a game.  Killing characters in some false, barbaric setting.

If she felt like she was more in sync with it, now, did that mean she’d lost ground in her perpetual war with the entity, her other half?  So much ground lost, so fast, in the heat of this battle?

She shook her head.  Focus.

The tunnels that Coil had used to move his trucks in and out of the base had been collapsed, and it had been recent.  She could smell the smoke from the explosives.  She spat out a Vista, then another, and another, until she had one that could give her a way in, shrinking the rubble and expanding the corridor.

In her restlessness, unable to shake the idea that her sanity was slipping away moment by moment, she pushed her way through the last length of the rubble, absorbing it into herself and spitting it out behind her, moving through it as though she were a thick fluid; even her bones dissolved when needed.  The only thing that slowed her down were the capes she’d stored within herself.  Each of the three Undersiders, the tinker, and the girl in white.  She used her strength to wedge gaps sufficient to squeeze the individual organs through.

She brute-forced her way through the last few feet of the barrier, and paced her way into the interior, the ground shaking with her footfalls.  The vault door was still open, crumpled, and the entire interior was lit only by red emergency lights.

Tattletale was on the metal walkway, hands gripping the railing.  Bitch was on the ground, with no less than seven dogs around her, each of varying size.

Noelle could smell the Protectorate and Wards members moving towards her location.  She was put in mind of the memory her entity had granted her only a little while ago, of the night her team had passed the qualifiers for nationals.  She’d passed the point of no return, and now the enemy forces were collapsing in on her.

She smiled a little.  She would almost thank Tattletale for this, if she wasn’t so eager to rend the girl limb from limb, to wipe the smile from her face and hear her screams.  All that aside, Noelle hadn’t felt more like herself in a long time, and she had these circumstances to thank.

The difference between this scenario and that one, really, was that the reinforcements were minutes away.  This fight wouldn’t last that long.

“Well then,” Tattletale grinned.  Her tightening grip on the railing betrayed the emotion she was trying to hide.  “Come on.  Do your worst.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

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Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”

Silence.

“Captain Adams, report.”

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.  He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”

“Please-”

“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.  I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”

“Why?”

“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

“Did he have a handle?”

“Christof.”

Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”

“C-H-R-I-S-T-O-F.”

A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.  She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.  It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

She led Elle to the bedroom, where Spitfire was pulling the last of her fire-retardant gear on.  Her own gear was in a separate suitcase.

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.  Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.  The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.  Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.  She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.  However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.  The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.  In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”

“Yes.”

“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

“No catch.”

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.  Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.  And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

“What do you want?  We’re not available for any jobs.”

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.  I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

Faultline considered hanging up.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.
-c

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Queen 18.8

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I signalled Bitch to stop so I could communicate with the others.

“I fucked up,” I said.

“What?”  Grue asked.  “How?”

“She’s been absorbing my bugs.  She’s spitting out some, and I can’t control them.  They’re methodically destroying my swarm, and they’re hunting down people and attacking them.”

“She probably absorbed some before she even ran into us,” Tattletale said.  “And she just needs one of a given type to make copies.  I wouldn’t blame yourself.”

“Did she absorb hornets, black widows, brown recluses?”

“Maybe not,” Tattletale admitted.

“Okay,” I said.  “Because there’s homicidal hornets and spiders out there now.  Because of my fuck-up.”

“Don’t focus on the mistake,” Grue said, “Let’s focus on making up for it.”

I took a deep breath.  “Okay.  Bitch and I will be going ahead to deal with some unpowered clones.  I’ll be in touch through the swarm.  You guys keep moving forward, and I’ll signal you about any clones that Eidolon or my bugs aren’t able to take down.”

“Eidolon’s gone quiet,” Tattletale said.  “He might be changing powers, chasing at a distance to safely keep track of her while he adjusts.”

“I’ll try to signal him,” I said.  “Let him know we’re here, and that we’re engaging Noelle if and when we’ve managed the clones and we see an opportunity.”

“Hopefully he doesn’t accidentally wipe us off the face of the planet,” Regent joked.

“Hopefully,” I echoed him, except I wasn’t joking.

“Then I’ll suggest that this can be where we part ways,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll take Imp, I can do more good with a phone and computer, and she’s no good to anyone right now.”

I nodded.  I helped Imp climb down to the others.

“Good luck.”

Bitch whistled, and Bentley sprang into motion once more.

The people inside the building lobby were only now starting to recover from whatever Noelle’s power had done to them.  Their clones hadn’t suffered any such drawbacks, though, and the abuse that had been heaped on the victims was more than making up for their recovery speed.  They were helpless.

None of the victims were standing.  I reached forward, putting one hand on the chain that Rachel was using to keep Bastard close.

She looked back at me.

“Clothesline!” I raised my voice to be heard over the rushing wind.

Rachel let some chain out and caught it under her left foot, forcing it lower.  She managed to hook it on one of the growths of bone of Bentley’s ribcage.

We stampeded into the building lobby, through the hole Noelle had made, and Bitch whistled, flicking the chain as Bentley and Bastard passed through the space.

“Left!” she shouted, while steering Bentley right.

The chain was just low enough to catch the standing and crouching clones.  The clones were caught by either the chain or by the bodies of their fellow clones, pulled back en-masse, drawn together into a tangle of bodies and distorted body parts.  I moved my bugs through their midst to ensure they were all mutants.  There was only one innocent who’d been dragged long with them.  His clone had a grip on his clothing, and hadn’t let go when the chain had caught it.

“Getting down,” I said, sliding off the dog’s back.  I hurried to the mass of clones before they could get themselves in order, drew my knife and slashed the hand that gripped the one innocent.  I managed to pull him free without any of the clones hitting or grabbing me.

I was left coughing by the exertion and the pain in my side.  Bitch steered Bentley to put his bulk between me and the clones.

“I got ’em,” she said.

“I’ll handle the others,” I told her.

“Right,” she grunted the word. “Bastard, hurt ’em!  Bentley, kill!  Kill!”

The canines threw themselves into the mass of clones the chain had caught.

There were three clones in the remaining group.  One continued thrashing her alter-ego, while the other two stood to face me.  I held my knife in one hand, drew my baton with the other and flicked it out to its full length.  Not nearly as threatening as either of the canines, but I’d make do.

It was odd that Rachel was having Bastard hold back, being limited only to a ‘hurt’ command.  Come to think of it, she’d had Bentley do the killing when fighting the Vista-clone, too.

My rib throbbed even now, just from riding Bentley and hauling the one victim out of the mass.  I was left breathing hard, though the exertion had been mild.  My stamina wasn’t a tenth of what it might otherwise be, to the point that I was worried I might get dizzy, start coughing or wind up too tired to fight if it came down to a straight hand-to-hand brawl.

I couldn’t afford to take it easy, though.  Where I might otherwise have tried to distract them or buy enough time for Bentley to finish off the others and deal with these guys, the person that the female clone at the back was thrashing wasn’t going to last long.  The two who were facing me were both men, both bigger and tougher than they might have been as humans, one fat, the other tall and broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted to the point of being a caricature.

My swarm was my best offense and my best defense, here.  My bugs went for eyes and ears, and that was excuse enough for the two mutants to charge me.

They were half blind, and the mass of bugs that clung to me billowed out to mask my location.  I started to move to my left, but I felt the fat one veer slightly in that direction and chose to head between them, instead.

The pair stumbled forward into my swarm, arms swinging wildly in a blind attempt to hit me.  I ducked low, then moved forward to the mass of fallen and wounded.  The female clone had her more normal self by the neck, and was repeatedly raising her and slamming her down.  If someone else’s leg wasn’t in the way, she might have had her head dashed against the ground.  As it was, a beating was still a beating, and something vital was bound to give sooner or later.

The clone looked up at me as I approached, still cloaked in a thick cloud of bugs. I realized why she hadn’t stood to face me.  Her left leg was gone, barely a flipper.  She raised her arms in self defense, and I batted one aside with my baton before stabbing her just above the collarbone.

They’re not people.  They’re mockeries.

The small, helpless sounds she made as blood bubbled around the throat-wound weren’t helping my attempts to assuage conscience.

Damn Noelle, damn her for making me do this.

“You leave Steph alone!” the fat clone bellowed.

The words caught me off guard as much as the fact that he’d seen the attack.  He charged, and I swiftly backed up, bringing my weapons to the ready.

He didn’t come after me.  He stopped by ‘Steph’, the one-legged clone with the fatal throat wound.

“You care about her?” I asked.

“She’s Steph,” he said.

“I… what?”  My train of thought was interrupted further by the snarling and gnashing of Bentley fighting the clones.  One tried to break away from the group to come after me, but Bentley caught him, striking him flat against the ground with both front paws, like how a cat might pounce on a mouse.

“She’s Steph.  She’s Steph.  Of course I care.  Fucking bugs!”  He lashed out with one arm, as if he could hurt the swarm, drive them away.  His arms folded around the clone-Steph.

I pulled the attacking bugs away, leaving only enough to track his movements.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to open up a line of dialogue, but my conscience couldn’t afford to let me not.  “But… what about the person she was beating up?  You don’t care about the real Steph?”

“Ignored me.  Looked down on me because I was fat.  Fuck her,” he spoke with such force that my bugs could feel the spit flying from his mouth.

“She’s still Steph, isn’t she?”

“Bitch.  Brushing me off.  Made it so we were friends, not boyfriend and girlfriend.  Bitch,” he said.

He let the mutant-clone Steph drop limp to the ground, clenched and unclenched a fist.  “Fuck her.  Fuck you for killing Steph.”

“Why do this?  Why hurt people?”

“I’m a soldier,” he said, his words dull.  “It’s what I am.”

I sensed his girth, used my swarm to sense his equally heavy alter-ego.  “You… don’t strike me as a soldier.”

“It’s what I am.”

“Is… is he a soldier?” I gestured in the direction of his other self.

“No.  Fat fuck could never be a soldier.  Kill him.  Dig my fingers into that gut and rip and tear until he dies.  Strangle him.  No willpower, hide from the world behind that disgusting fat.  Choke the life out of him.  He’s useless anyways.  Waste of air, waste of a life.”

Projecting much?

“And when he’s dead?  What will you do?”

He moved toward me, and I backed away a step, bringing my bugs closer to him.  He went still again, glanced around.  “Kill others.  Kill Dad and Mom and Sammy and the cats.  Kill teachers and classmates and burn my house and burn the school.  Fuckers.  All of them.  Looking down on me.”

His words struck a chord, and it was the closest experience I’d ever had to the sort of flashback that happened in the movies.  I could remember being in the school bathroom, dripping with juice.  Being so frustrated, so angry, so hurt that I just wanted to lash out.

Was that all he had left?  Was that all he was?

“And if they all die?”

“Kill others.  Burn this fucking disgusting city.  Burn this fucking country.  Keep burning, keep killing.”

“Do you really think that’ll make anything better?”

“No.”

“Then why?  Is there any way I can get you to stop?”

“No.  Won’t stop.  I’m a soldier.”

“Whose soldier?  Hers? Noelle’s?  The monster who spat you out?”

“No.”

“And you?” I asked, turning so my back wasn’t to the broad shouldered one in the midst of my swarm.

He didn’t answer.  He charged for me instead.  The obese one took the opportunity to come after me from a different angle.

Again, I drew my swarm around me, put each of my bugs on the offensive to distract, and used my swarm-sense to figure out where they were moving, getting out of the way.

Ducking low, I felt a sharp pain in my side.  I grunted in pain and barked out a cough.  The cough made me need to cough more, which only helped inform them of my position.

The coughing fit took the strength out of me at a time when I needed to move most.  Swimging blindly, the fat one struck me across the face.  My mask absorbed the worst of the impact, and I stuck my knife out in his general direction, sticking it into the general area of his chest, hitting bone rather than anything substantial.

“Bugs fucking hurt,” he growled, apparently oblivious to the pain of the knife wound.  “Stop it!”

He swung again, but I managed to get out of the way.  With the stinging, biting insects in his eyes, crawling into his mouth and nose as he talked to gag him, I managed to distract him enough that I could safely retreat.  My entire body shook as I suppressed coughs, and I dropped to one knee to try and catch my breath.  I hoped that being closer to the ground would mean I didn’t get hit; I was too breathless to move out of the way if he swung a punch at me.

The broad-shouldered one stepped close, his cheeks wet with the vitreous fluids of torn eyeballs and blood where my swarm had dug in deep.  I suppressed another cough and slid my knife’s blade against the back of his knees.  It might not have cut deep enough if he’d been wearing clothes, but he was naked, and there was nothing to stop the knife.

He collapsed just in front of me.  I hesitated a moment, then stabbed my knife into the side of his throat.

They’re not realNot real people.

Bentley had finished tearing apart the other eight or so clones, and at Rachel’s instruction was closing in on the fat clone.  I moved my bugs to give her a clearer view.

I was ready for him to make a break for it.  He didn’t.  He turned toward us, clenching and unclenching his fist.

There’s no saving them.  Whatever had happened to their heads while they were grown inside Noelle, they’re twisted.  Their perspectives are warped.

“Stop him,” I said.  “Finish them, Rachel.”

Rachel whistled, and Bentley leaped.  The clone tried to come after me, but didn’t make it two steps before the dog got to him.

“Feels wrong,” I said.  Rachel gave me a hand in climbing back up.

She didn’t offer a reply.  It wouldn’t feel wrong to her.

I started searching with my bugs, looking in the direction Noelle had last gone.

Without even the ability to tentatively feel Noelle out with my bugs, I was having trouble keeping track of her.  Every passing minute meant that there was more sunlight, but even with that I couldn’t see Noelle.  It was as though a painter was working with white and black paint, throwing handfuls of it onto a canvas from three feet away.  It didn’t convey a picture so much as a blurry, indistinct abstract.

I should have been able to follow movement, to track Noelle by the way the patches of light and dark changed.  The issue was that there were countless things moving across my radius.  Water was running where some streets were still draining, plastic bags blew in the wind and shadows shifted as the sun and clouds moved.  Each changed the canvas, altered the blurry, muddy blotches of light and dark.

I could hear Grue give an order, and his group started moving with purpose.

“Grue just saw her, I think,” I said.  I pointed the way.

I’d started another coughing fit by the time we caught up with the others, and I could feel my skull pounding as if it had a three pound heart inside of it instead of a brain.

“She found some of the other capes who were holding position,” Grue said, when I’d managed to get my breath.  “Lights in the distance.”

“Fuck,” I said.  I was about to comment on how we were too close to Ballistic’s headquarters for comfort, but remembered that Grace and Tecton were listening.  I stopped myself before the words left my mouth and coughed instead.

“You okay?” Tecton asked.

“Little worse for wear.”

“Sounds like more than a little.”

I shook my head.

As we got closer, I tentatively moved the bugs closer, until I had them on the flying heroes.  I made an effort to discover and eliminate the hostile bugs that Noelle had created, and tried to find identifying details on the capes we were approaching.

“One of the heroes is a guy with an emblem, I think it’s a book with chains around it,” I said.

“Maybe Chronicler,” Tecton said.

“Three more flying ones,” I said.  “One with antlers on his chest emblem.”

“All guys?” Tecton asked.  When I nodded, he said, “That’d be Strapping Lad, Intrepid, and Young Buck.  And the one you mentioned before would definitely be Chronicler.”

“Seriously?” Regent asked.  “Strapping Lad?”

“They’re from the Texas Wards team,” Tecton said, as if that was explanation enough.  “Lad, Intrepid and Buck are all about the harassment.  Flying, teamwork, hitting hard and adjusting their battle plans to match the enemy threat level, staying out of danger.”

“Up until they get too close and she grabs one,” I said.

“Could happen,” Tecton replied.  “Eidolon’s probably up there too, too quiet.  Might be waiting for new powers to finish manifesting before he makes any moves.”

“What can we do?” Grace asked.

“I remember those Wards from the Leviathan fight.  Some of them,” I said.  “They fly?  All of them?”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.

“Then we support on the ground,” I said.  “You, Grue and maybe Regent can slow her down.  Bitch keeps us mobile.  We stay ready to move at a moment’s notice if it comes down to it.  Staying safe is a bigger priority than anything else.”

Noelle was limited to moving on the ground.  It gave the young heroes a natural advantage: each of them flew, and two of the three were armed with long ranged tinker-made weapons.  The guns weren’t anything flashy or spectacular, more the kind of laser weapon that a fan of science fiction might create, but the young heroes apparently thought it was worth keeping up the onslaught, and the guns didn’t appear to rely on any ammunition or reloading.

The one without the gun was apparently Young Buck, going by the raised image of antlers on his chest emblem.  He would fly around Noelle, close to the ground, then turn himself, his gear and the bugs I’d placed on him into a living projectile.  Or, maybe, he was using some kind of uncontrolled breaker power to go faster than the speed of sound, unable to change course or take any action while he traveled.  Whatever he was doing, he flashed across the battlefield as a straight, living projectile before materializing again.  The ground shook with his impacts he delivered to Noelle.

The one I took to be Chronicler was casting out a hazy field around himself and the other two with the guns.  The field shifted, drifting closer to the ground, and then solidified in a semisolid image of the heroes, complete with the laser fire.  A quick check with my bugs verified that the shots were just as real as what the real selves were creating.  The aim wasn’t so hot.  It was more of a replay of the actions they’d just taken than proper clones.

Young Buck moved beneath Chronicler, and passed through the field as he turned into a beam.  When the images appeared, they mimicked the same beam attack, their paths a perfect parallel to the real Young Buck.

We stopped as she came into view.  For the others, anyways.

“Fuck me,” Regent said.  “Anyone else noticing what I notice?”

“Bitch’s dogs,” Grue said.

“Not that similar,” Rachel grumbled, but she didn’t sound confident.

“Pretty fucking similar,” Regent said.

I leaned forward, hand on Rachel’s shoulder, whispered, “What is it?”

“Her entire lower half, it looks like my dogs.  Bit on the back doesn’t look like it, though.  More like a hand, but same look.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

“We good to go?” Grue asked.

“Go,” I gave the order.

Tecton slammed his piledriver-gauntlets into the ground, and a fissure opened beneath Noelle.  The ground shattered around her, denying her the footing to move out of the way as Chronicler and Young Buck worked together to multiply Young Buck’s offensive power.  Tecton repeated the process, disintegrating the ground beneath her.

“I can’t do a lot to her,” Regent said.  “Only some of her is normal, and it doesn’t really connect together.”

“Try, or focus on the clones,” Grue ordered.  He sent a blast of darkness my way, enveloping me.  I could feel the quality of my bug-senses decline, my degree of control degrading.

A moment later, he withdrew the darkness.  Did he just want the view?  The sense of what was where?

Raising his hands above his head, Grue fired a thick stream of darkness at Eidolon.

The hero moved out of the way before the beam made contact.

“Work with me!” Grue growled.  “Damn.  I can’t throw darkness over Noelle without hurting our side as much as we hurt her.  I need powers.  Grace?”

“You want to copy my power?”

There was a rumble as Tecton shattered more road beneath Noelle.  With the way he’d directed the attack to place it off to one side, I suspected she was trying to climb out of the funnel-shaped depression the explosions had made.  Given her speed from before, it was surprising how slowly she was climbing.

Then it struck me.  An antlion pit.  The sides of the pit weren’t giving her any traction.  Any time she set her weight down, she only pushed the sand to the bottom.

“Let me test it, see what I can get,” Grue told Grace.

“Fine.”

I scouted the area with my bugs, and accidentally ran into Noelle with a handful of houseflies as she slid backwards into the pit.  I wasn’t going to agonize over the fact, but I didn’t want to give her any more ammunition.  My bugs did find a mess of vomit at the very bottom of the shallow crater.

“There’s vomit, but no clones,” I said.  “She’s trying something.”

“The two-dimensional Vista.  She’s ambushing,” Grue said.

“Ambushing who?”  Tecton asked.

“I don’t know.  Can you see them?” I asked.  “When they’re moving on a surface, are they visible?”

“Why are you asking us?” Grace asked.

“Tecton,” I said, “As much ground as you can affect, now!”

He didn’t hesitate, punching the ground and driving both piledrivers into it.  There were no fissures, this time.  The entire area rumbled, and the ground spiderwebbed with cracks in every direction, not leaving two square feet of ground untouched.  Bentley nearly lost his footing, and Bastard growled, until Rachel pulled on his chain.

The first clone stepped out of a piece of plywood that had been placed across a shattered balcony door.  An Über.  He pulled the plywood free and disappeared into the apartment, swatting at the bugs that I’d set on him.

A Circus emerged beneath the flying heroes, cradling a shattered arm.  Bugs began drifting toward her, as if a strong wind were pulling them in.  The normal Circus packed a pocket dimension she could put things into.  This one was only storing air, forming a strong vacuum around herself.  Chronicler’s cloud dissipated as it was sucked in, and the heroes with weaker flying abilities were swiftly being dragged her way.  Regent hit her with his power, and the effect slowed, but she recovered faster than the fliers did.

My swarm could see a large blob of shadow, Noelle, taking advantage of the distraction to climb free of Tecton’s antlion pit.

“Now!” Grue said.

Grace ran forward, having little trouble moving on the shattered road.  She leaped and kicked Noelle, no doubt putting her invincibility in one foot.  As the kick was delivered, Grace used Noelle as a foothold and thrust herself away.  Grue chased her attack with a stream of darkness, enveloping Grace as she stuck her landing, leaped, and did very much the same thing Grace had, slamming one fist into Noelle.

Noelle toppled with a rumble my bugs could feel, then slowly slid back into the crater Tecton had made before she could get her feet under her again.

The Über stepped out onto the balcony with a block of kitchen knives in hand.  Though they weren’t weighted for throwing, he had no problem throwing a knife to hit Young Buck as the hero flew by.  Young Buck spiralled out of the air, stopping himself only a moment before he hit the ground.  When he righted himself, his hands were pressed around the knife that had embedded in his stomach.

I sent more bugs after the Über, my bugs tearing at his eyes and hands in earnest.  He threw another knife blind, hitting Chronicler in the arm before he collapsed and started thrashing to get the bugs off himself.

The Circus, for her part, had used her pocket-dimension vacuum to draw one of the fliers close enough to get her hands on him.  The hero, Intrepid or Strapping Lad, was set aflame from head to toe, his costume ignited in entirety.  He kicked out, blind in the midst of the flames that were immolating him, and she ducked out of the way.

Grace saw the flames of the burning hero as Grue banished his darkness.  She made a break for the Circus.  Regent knocked the Circus off balance, momentarily interrupting the suction yet again, and Grace punched with enough force to cave in the clone’s chest.  The Circus dropped to the ground, dead.

Grace couldn’t see in Grue’s darkness, so they were limited as far as their partnership went.  He backed away slowly, searching for another opportunity or another power he could borrow.  Without Grace’s natural agility, the individual pieces of road made for unsteady footing, each tilting and sliding as weight was placed on them.

Noelle screamed with frustration and rage.  As far as I could tell, she was still at the bottom of the pit.

I couldn’t follow what was happening, not without giving her more bugs to work with, but then again, I wasn’t sure that anyone else was having more luck on that front.  Not with the pit around her.

“She’s pulling something!” Tecton shouted.  He raised his voice to be heard by the other capes, “Get back!”

Everyone moved away, excepting Young Buck, who was frozen, hands to his wound.  Grace retreated, holding onto the incinerated young hero.

When Noelle vomited, the slurry came out as one stream, a geyser that extended six or seven hundred feet.  Rachel steered Bentley out of the way before it hit, and the others danced off to either side to avoid getting splashed.  Grace got clipped, and went sprawling, almost glued to the ground under the weight of the fluid, the cape in her arms falling.

A dozen bodies began climbing free of the vomit.  Ten or so clones had been deposited on the street, along with a real Leet in civilian clothes.  One of the clones was a Circus, folding herself into her pocket dimension.

“She’s walking on the bodies,” Tecton said.  “Incoming!”

The bodies.  She vomited bodies into the pit to keep stuff from sliding underfoot.

Young Buck charged through Noelle, but he wasn’t flying when he finished his maneuver.  He tumbled to the ground, rolling after he landed.

I could hear armbands informing others of the fallen.

My arm jerked in pain, and I slapped at a hornet.  One of Noelle’s.

Noelle advanced on the burned cape and Grace.  Tecton slammed the ground, but the effect was muffled.  He’d shattered the ground for blocks around, had maybe killed or eliminated several of the two dimensional clones, but his piledriver gauntlets wouldn’t be as effective on this soft surface.

Two of the Southern Wards opened fire from above, pelting Noelle with laser fire.  I could sense her growing tall, or rearing up on her hind legs, and she vomited a stream into the air.  Chronicler and the other cape were splashed, caught by the clotted liquid and a flying body.  Chronicler’s power remained, the hologram images sustaining the same fire at the same angle, not adjusting as Noelle moved to one side.

Eidolon made his move.  My bugs could sense the air growing heavy and humid.  Vomit dried, and clones staggered and fell.

The humidity increased to the point that I could feel the moisture flowing through the air in thick clouds, rising from every surface, heavy off the bodies of the clone, off Noelle and the streams of vomit.

My bugs were dying.  The flying insects were first to die, their wings crinkling.  The ones closest to me were alive, but they were suffering too.

Dessication.

“You’re killing Grace!” Tecton bellowed at the sky.  I doubted Eidolon would hear from his vantage point.  I had only his word to go by.  Grace was in an area my bugs couldn’t reach.

“Acceptable losses,” Grue said.  Tecton whirled around to face him.  Grue’s voice was calm, “His plan isn’t working.  Tattletale said he wanted to experience enough danger to get a power boost, and I’m not getting the feeling he’s had that.  He’s too experienced to panic, but with everything he’s seen, everything he’s done over the past decades of work, maybe he’s thinking he has to do something here, and he’s decided he can’t let there be another Endbringer.  Can’t let there be another monster in this world.”

“She’s on our side!  She’s one of the good ones!”

“If it makes you feel any better,” I said, “Eidolon might be assuming she’s already dead.”

I’d positioned some bugs so that they could distinguish Noelle’s vague lumbering frame against the background of the dimly lit sky.  Her flesh was drying and flaking off in chunks as the moisture was pulled out with force.

But the ground still rumbled with the vibrations of her steady advance, and for all the dried flesh that was falling free, she wasn’t getting noticeably smaller to my bugs’ senses.

Eidolon hit her with a gravity slam.  More flesh came free.  I saw a change, with that, but the edges of the silhouette filled in.

“She isn’t dying?” I asked, my voice a murmur.

“She’s regenerating,” Grue said.

The effects of Eidolon’s dessication were starting to get to me.  The air was too dry.  I coughed once and briefly held my breath to keep from succumbing to another fit.

There was a sound like a firecracker taking flight, and Noelle lurched.  Even with my bug’s less than stellar sight, I could see the aftermath.  A hundred slightly different angles.  Noelle’s true body, the human half perched on top of the monster, arched her back, her chest out, head turning toward the sky.  A spray of blood and gore marked a small explosion ripping out the front of her chest.

And another, a shot from behind, tearing through her cranium.

My bugs ventured into the dessicated area.  They would only last for a minute at best, but they’d serve to scout, to give me eyes.  They found Ballistic.

He hadn’t come alone.  Scrub was with him, and Trickster swapped rubble out of the area to move his teammates in.  He swapped himself in for Grace, appearing in the middle of the vomit-slurry.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed at the dry air instead.

“You decided to help?” Grue called out.

“She’s our responsibility,” Genesis said, “We made a promise to each other.  To get home, no matter what it took.  But there were other parts to it.  Things we added on when the whole situation became clear.  Fixing Noelle was one of those additions.”

Getting home?

“We knew it was fucked up,” Sundancer said.  “But we promised ourselves that if it came down to it, we’d step in before it got bad.  And this is bad.  So we’re acting on it.”

Her orb burned above her head.  Its crackle sounded slightly different in the dry air.

Noelle’s growl was accented by a noise from one of the larger canine mouths.  “Traitors.”

She’s alive.  Shot through the heart and brain, and she’s talking.

“If you were thinking straight, you’d agree with us,” Genesis said.  “You’d agree this is right.  That we can’t let people get hurt, just for your revenge.”

“I didn’t ask for this,” Noelle said.

“I know,” Trickster spoke.  He looked up toward the sky, tilted his head, and then Eidolon disappeared.  I could sense Eidolon’s new location, a few blocks away.  He tried to fly closer, and Trickster teleported him again, keeping him a distance away.  Eidolon had given up his power invulnerability.

“I… I’ll use my sun, Noelle,” Sundancer said.  “We’ll burn you.  It’ll be complete, thorough.  And this ends.  There’ll be no more hurting people.  And we put all this behind us, remember you the way you were.  It’s better if it’s us.”

“I don’t want to be a memory,” Noelle said.

“You already are,” Ballistic said, from behind her.

She turned, and a low growl sounded from one of her lower mouths, deep enough I could feel the rumble of it.

Ballistic shook his head.  “The old Noelle’s long gone.  Do you think she would have survived getting shot like that?”

Noelle didn’t answer.

“You have her memories, nothing more,” Trickster said.

“Krouse,” Noelle said.  “You turn on me like this?”

“I don’t know what else to do.”  He teleported Eidolon away again.  This time Eidolon stayed put.  Choosing a new power?

“You did this to me.  This?  The old Noelle disappearing?  It’s your fault.  You know it.  You created me.”

He’d created her?

He’d dosed her.

“Yeah,” Trickster said.  He lit a cigarette, put it in the mouth-hole of his mask.

“And I listened to you.  I bought your promises.  Your hollow assurances.  I listened and cooperated when you said I should be locked up.  I listened when they shut me in that vault, in the dark, alone, with that fucking beeping that wouldn’t let me sleep.  I waited all this time because you said I could get better.”

“I know.  It eats away at me.  But I don’t know what else to do.”

“I spent the past two years listening to you.  Doing what you wanted.  Just do what I want here, and I’ll let it all end.  I’ll let her burn me, and then you guys can find your own way home.”

“I know what you want,” he said, “But the consequences-”

“-Don’t matter,” she said.  “It’s not our world.  It’s… it’s as screwed up as the things I make.  They’re just dark twisted copies of people in this dark, twisted, fucked up world.”

“No’-” He started.

“You owe me this.”

Trickster sighed, spat out the barely-touched cigarette.  Even though I couldn’t identify tone, I felt a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Shit,” I said.  “Grue-”

Trickster was already turning.  Grue was only beginning to raise a cloud of darkness around us when he disappeared, Trickster standing in his place.

“Grue!” I screamed.  He was where Trickster had been, half a city block away from Noelle.

Noelle lunged.  Trickster could have moved out of the way fast enough.  Grue wasn’t so lucky.  The shattered ground under her feet shifted, and she slammed into him, her lower body catching Grue, adhering to him.

He was giving her us.

Trickster was already gone from the midst of our group. There was gunfire and incoherent shouting as people tried to identify his location.  Ballistic was gone, replaced by a piece of rubble.  He was taking the most immediate threats out of the picture.  Eidolon, Ballistic, Grue…

Who came next on that hierarchy?

Me.

I found myself only five paces away from Noelle, plucked from the midst of my cloud of bugs.  There were too few to hide me from Trickster’s sight, with the way the dessication had thinned their ranks.

She caught me with the back of one claw.  There was a sound like a gunshot going off, my ribs feeling like my bones had turned to white-hot brands, and I stuck.  She set her claw down on the ground, and my back exploded with pain as I struggled to contort my body, get in a position where I wasn’t being folded in half under the weight of an eight ton monstrosity.

I was spared being snapped in two not by my own struggles, but by the pull of her flesh as it folded around me.  It simultaneously consumed me and pulled on me, as if by a hundred hands.  The process was smooth and inevitable, flesh flowing around me like hot candlewax, even as I was drawn upward and inward.

I could sense Regent appearing nearby.  Noelle turned to face him.  He didn’t fight, didn’t try to run.  He said something, but I couldn’t make out the words, couldn’t hear them with the dark, hot, rancid-smelling flesh that had enveloped me.

The last of the flesh closed behind me, my power stopped working, and I was left with only absolute darkness and the pounding flow of Noelle’s blood in my ears.

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Queen 18.7

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“He’s talking to her about Cauldron,” I said.  “And Coil.”  I’d signalled the others to exit the van, and we were gathered around Bentley and Bastard.

“Cauldron?”  Tecton asked.

“Cauldron worked out a formula that could give people powers, and the capes with monstrous features are the failed results,” I said.

“The Case 53s,” Grace said.

Tattletale nodded.

I raised my finger to my lips.  To where my lips were behind my mask, really.  I wound up sliding my hands beneath the sides of my mask to plug my ears.  I’d hoped to shut out other sounds and allow myself to focus.  It wasn’t too helpful.

Tattletale murmured something to Grue, and he surrounded us with darkness, leaving a clearing so we could communicate.  It took me a second to realize why.  Were he and Tattletale hoping to mask us from Noelle’s other senses?

Rachel’s dogs could smell through the darkness, couldn’t they?  It wouldn’t stop Noelle if she really was smelling us.

“…saying he knew them…” Noelle said.  Is that a question?  I was having trouble discerning tone.

“…m saying exactly that, Noelle,” Eidolon replied.  “… … very beginning.  Coil involved … … people who made you like this.”

“I don’t believe… No.”

“Eidolon just said Coil was involved with Cauldron.  And that Cauldron is responsible for Noelle,” I informed the others.

“Another of Coil’s schemes?” Grue asked.  “But why would he make Noelle?  What does that serve, really?”

“He didn’t make her,” Tattletale said.  “But the rest is very possible.”

I’d spoken because I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance later, between fatigue affecting my memory and the possibility of an imminent fight.  I’d missed some of what Eidolon said in the process.  “…help you.”

“I’ve had too many…” she said one word that was too complicated for me to make out.  “…of help.  Can’t get my hopes … …”

I was disappointed in how limited these senses of mine were.  They were useful, but the tactile nature of my swarm-sense left me blind as to people’s changes in expression, and listening in like this, I could only catch the individual speech sounds, working out how they fit together into words while trying not to fall too far behind.  I wished I’d devoted more time to trying to figure out my swarm-sight and swarm-hearing.

Eidolon said something, and I couldn’t decipher the word.  He paused, so I grasped that there was some meaning there.  Ended with -tive or -shiv… prerogative?

Alternative.  It connected just as he started speaking again.  “Do you want to die…”

“Yes,” Noelle’s answer was clear.

“I’m …red to die too,” Eidolon said.  There’d been another longer word in the middle there that I couldn’t afford to stop and work out.  “My danger sense tells me you … alone.”

“No,” Noelle said.  She bumped into more of my bugs as she shifted position, moving one large leg that was likely so thick around that three people together couldn’t have reached around it with their hands meeting.  The bugs disappeared from my power’s senses.

“Why don’t you … us…” Eidolon said.  Introduce.  It only made sense as a question:  Why don’t you introduce us?

“Show my hand…”

“Why not…” Eidolon said, and I missed the tail end of it.  Another question?  I was starting to get a headache, trying to process all this.

Something peeled away from Noelle’s side, and when it bumped into my bugs, they weren’t absorbed.  The stature, the length of the hair… another Vista.

I thought maybe Noelle had produced another clone, but others started to emerge from the surrounding architecture, peeling away from nearby walls as if they’d been inside the surfaces.

And they weren’t all Vistas.  I noted the presence of what had to be a Circus, disproportionate and thin, with a hunched back, using her knuckles to walk.  There was another Vista, two large figures who might have been Übers, and on the second floor of the building behind Eidolon there was a narrow young man, shirtless, with a gun bigger than he was.  Leet.

“…not expect you to … a trap,” Eidolon said.  He hadn’t budged, and as far as I could tell, his tone of voice hadn’t changed.

Noelle didn’t reply.  From her vantage point, she had to be able to see through the open, glass-less window behind Eidolon, see the Leet silently setting up the gun.

“Trouble,” I said.

Grue banished the darkness.  “Trouble?”

“She’s ambushing him.  There’s a Leet with a gun inside the building behind him.  Tinker made, has to be.”

“Eidolon knows what he’s doing,” Grace said.

“And if he doesn’t?” Tattletale asked.  “If that gun just happens to be able to punch through any invincibility or whatever it is he’s given himself?”

“He’s better than that,” she said.  “He’s Eidolon.”

“He’s human,” I said.  “Humans make mistakes.”

“He’s Eidolon,” she repeated.

“I’m with Grace on this one,” Tecton said.  “Too dangerous to go.  She has a vendetta against you guys.  It’s not worth the risk that you’d throw his plan into disarray.”

“Then why are we here?” I asked.

“If things fall apart,” he said, “We can act then.  Eidolon’s powers are weakest just after he changes them.  If she creates a clone of him, the clone will be picking the powers for the first time.  There’ll be a window of opportunity where we can take them out.”

“Assuming we can get close enough,” Grue said.

“And there’s a good half-dozen capes around her,” I said.  “One Circus, one Vista that can apparently hide people in two-dimensional space, two Übers and the Leet with the gun.”

“We compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Skitter, draw arrows on the ground, discreet but easily readable.  Point the way to the Leet, okay?  The rest of us hang back, and we wait to make sure we can get Eidolon out of a bad situation if one crops up.”

I started to draw the arrows.  I was going to ask why, but I realized I was missing what Eidolon and Noelle were saying.

“…think you can win…” Eidolon said.

“I hope I don’t,” Noelle replied.

“… … want to die, why fight…”

“Can’t think straight.  My … wiring is all screwed up.  Won’t let me give up.  Too angry, too …less.”  Ruthless? Restless?

Leet was still setting up.  He’d had to find a point where there was an open door, just so he had enough space behind him that the weapon could be positioned horizontally.  The design was crude, hodgepodge.  It resembled Squealer’s work, just going by what I was interpreting with my swarm-sense.  That meant there was an excess of openings and gaps.  The part that burned hottest had to be the power source.  It was at the very back of the gun, at the point furthest from the mutant Leet.

I sneaked cockroaches in through the gaps in the weapon’s exterior and started them chewing through the wiring.

“… … you so sure that you’ll be any calmer when they’re dead?” Eidolon asked.

“I’m not.  … I’m angry, and it’s like the … have been taken off my emotions.  My anger, my …tion, the pain, the hate, … so much deeper.  … it’s not mine.  Not my emotion, so I can still think … .”

“They’re both stalling,” I said.

“Eidolon’s picked the powers he thinks will win the fight,” Tattletale said, “And is waiting for them to get up to full strength.  Noelle’s waiting for her evil-Leet to shoot.”

“I’m trying to sabotage the gun,” I said.  “But it looks like he’ll be ready to shoot any second now.”

Tecton and Grace simultaneously looked at one another, but they didn’t speak.  What was that about?  Was their faith in Eidolon faltering as I described the situation, or was it more about me?

“Less than a minute,” Tattletale said.

“I’m pretty sure we don’t have that long,” I retorted.

The words had only just left my mouth when Leet dropped to a position at the side of the gun, putting one eye to the scope.  The entire weapon shifted on the tripod mount as he aimed.

Eidolon’s head turned slightly, as if he were looking at Leet out of the corner of one eye.

Leet pulled the trigger.

“There we go,” Eidolon said.  The gun wasn’t firing.  He pulled the trigger again, and an arc of electricity ripped out from a space by the power supply, toasting half of the bugs I’d positioned on Leet and sending him sprawling to the ground.  He was back on his feet seconds later, tearing one panel away to get at the sparking power supply.  Tougher than a normal person.

“Attack!” Noelle screamed.

Her minions started to move on Eidolon, but it was Eidolon who acted on the command.  He swept one arm out in front of him, as though he were brushing a curtain aside or waving away some bugs.  There was a crash we could feel where we were huddled together, making the ground shake.

In that very instant, Eidolon had killed the vast majority of the bugs I’d placed in the area.  It took me a second to process what he’d done.

The bugs that were still alive were unable to move, pressed hard against the ground to the point that they were sinking into the soft earth.  Even the more durable cockroaches had died where the ground wasn’t soft enough for them to be pushed down into it.

Through the few surviving bugs, I could get a sense of what was happening.  Tufts of weeds that had stuck up between slats in the pavement now laid flat against the ground, as though they’d been starched and ironed in place.

The effect only lasted a few seconds.  I tentatively moved more bugs into the area to do an inspection, found the air both dense and strangely warm.  The ground had shifted, and both the pavement and the concrete panels of the sidewalk had cracked.  Chunks of rubble had been pulverized, piles of debris pancaked against the ground.  Plywood, siding and wood paneling had been torn from the faces of nearby buildings, rendered into unrecognizable fragments of wood and plastic.  Each fragment had been mashed flat or shoved into cracks and crevices.

The Übers and the Circus were dead, pulverized against the ground with their limbs broken in multiple places, their chest cavities and skulls cracked like eggs.  The Vista was nowhere to be seen.

Eidolon hadn’t moved, and a tentative search told me that Noelle was still standing.  My swarm noted the presence of blood dripping to the ground beneath her massive body.

Eidolon said something, but I didn’t have enough bugs in the area to hear him.

“He just crushed everything around her,” I said.  “Almost as if he dropped a house-sized, invisible anvil around her.”

“Around Imp?”  Tattletale asked, gripping my arm.

“Around Noelle,” I said.  “What do you mean, Imp?”

“The building where Leet was-” Tattletale started, grabbing my arm, “Did he hit it?”

“No.”

“Turn the arrows around!  Give every warning you can!  We just sent Imp in there to deal with Leet!”

I did as she asked, using every bug I could to draw warnings, turning the arrows to point to a retreat.

Damn it!” Grue said, “Why did we send her in there!?  We need to get in there, in case anyone-”

Stay,” Tecton warned, “Evacuate your teammate, but don’t get in Eidolon’s way.”

There was another crash.  Once again, the vast majority of my bugs in Noelle’s vicinity disappeared.  Only a small few who were lucky enough to be in the right place and tough enough to endure the pressure survived.  The bugs who had been flying above Noelle sank into her flesh.

Through them, I could sense her advancing, moving one massive leg forward, relaxing and letting the pressure Eidolon was generating slam the limb into pavement with enough force to crack it.  Then she moved another leg forward.

Eidolon floated higher, maintaining the same relative distance between himself and her.

She dropped lower to the ground, as though she were succumbing to the pressure, then leaped in the same instant the last of the bugs who’d sunken into her flesh were absorbed.  I couldn’t follow what happened next.

There was another crash, another earth-shaking rumble, and even the bugs who’d survived before were obliterated, leaving me utterly blind.  I moved a few bugs closer, to gauge if the effect was still active, and they died as though they’d moved beneath a falling hammer, going splat against the ground at the effect’s edge.

Behind Eidolon, Leet had finished fixing the gun, helped by the fact that the electricity had killed my saboteur-cockroaches.  In the same instant he moved to take position by the trigger, Eidolon turned around, raising one hand in his direction.

And Imp was there.  She drew her knife across the psycho-Leet’s throat.  Eidolon froze as Leet staggered and slumped against the windowsill, blood pouring from the open wound.

I felt a momentary confusion.  Leet was dead?  Eidolon seemed to be reeling as well, but he recovered faster.  He wheeled around to strike out with the effect again.

“Leet’s dead,” I said.

“How?” Tattletale asked.

“Throat slit.”

“Imp.  She’s not listening to instructions.  Did Eidolon attack Leet?”

I shook my head.

She released my upper arm from the death grip she’d been maintaining since Eidolon had attacked.

It wasn’t like her to get that upset.  She usually had more information to work with, so she had a better idea of what was going on, but that couldn’t account for her full reaction.  I wished I could read her expression.

Leet slumped almost entirely out the window.  In a dying gesture, he feebly reached out for the end of the gun, gripping the barrel.  When he fell from the window, he kept hold of the gun.

The tripod skidded, and momentum coupled with Leet’s weight pulled the gun after him.

Eidolon glanced over one shoulder at the body falling from the second floor window, then soared straight for the sky.

I was already sliding from Bentley’s back, heading toward the ongoing battle.  The movements, Eidolon’s reaction, everything spoke to something deliberate, something devastating on Leet’s part.

The weapon’s power supply detonated on contact with the ground.  I didn’t have many bugs in the area to track it, only experienced a momentary sensation from the bugs in the area, much like I sensed when they were burned or electrocuted.  When the sensation disappeared, they were gone, dead.

I could see the actual explosion, a flare of white that I could most definitely make out with bug eyesight and with my own damaged eyes, a glow that rose above the buildings around us.

No,” Grue said, just behind me.  The both of us had stopped in our tracks in the wake of the explosion.

My bugs flooded into the area, to give me a better sense of what was happening.  I caught Noelle stampeding toward a tall building. She had been in the blast radius, and she hadn’t slowed down.  I hoped she hadn’t slowed down, because she was damn fast.

She wasn’t in Leviathan’s speed class, but she was moving at the sort of speed I might expect from a car on the highway.  Maybe the comparison wasn’t so apt, because she was a living thing.  Like a predator, she shifted from a standstill to eighty miles an hour in a heartbeat.  She was more like a rhino than a jungle cat, though, and she was ungainly.  My bugs could track the vibrations of her footfalls better than they could trace her outline, and I could sense how her movements weren’t synchronized.  There was no pattern to how her legs moved; rather, it was as if each leg had a mind of its own.

Still, the sheer power of her movement carried her forward, while having six or more legs meant she always had several feet on the ground for balance.

She reached the base of the tallest skyscraper in the area and scaled it just as fast as she’d moved over ground.  Chunks of concrete were pulled and clawed away as each of her feet found or made footholds.  The debris fell in her wake, but her movement was steady and unfaltering.

Eidolon turned her way, laid down that same pressure he’d applied earlier, tearing a full  third of the building to the ground.  A large part of the upper floors cast straight down, torn free of the building’s housing.  The debris moved straight down with such force that it punched through as many as five or six of the floors below.  Noelle was already moving out of the way as the attack landed, circling around to the other side of the building, still climbing.

She reached the top before the dust from Eidolon’s destruction rolled past us.  I held my breath.  I couldn’t afford another coughing fit.

We made our way to the spot where their fight had started.  Where Eidolon’s power had struck, the pavement had depressed until it was a good two feet lower than where we were standing.

“Imp,” Grue breathed the word, stepping down to the depressed pavement and breaking into a run as he headed for the explosion site.  Tattletale gave me a hand in stepping down as we followed.  It wasn’t necessary, but I didn’t turn her down.

The explosion had shattered one exterior wall of the building, and scorched the inside.  My swarm fanned out to search the building’s interior.  It didn’t take long to find her on the second floor; she was so caked in dust and debris that I’d almost mistaken her for a piece of wreckage.

“Second floor, near the back.  Stairwell is this way.”

Noelle, I realized, was vomiting from one of the three mouths on her lower body.  The slurry contained a human being, naked, with ulcerous growths all over her body.  Circus.

And Noelle wasn’t in contact with Circus.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“Is she hurt?” Grue asked.  It took me a second to realize he meant Imp.

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.  I was swearing because… It’s Noelle.  She’s creating clones, and she apparently doesn’t need to be in constant contact to do it.”

“She does,” Tattletale said.  “Everything the Travelers said indicated it, and my power corroborated.  She’s touched people before and hasn’t produced any of them in the time she was with Coil.”

“Maybe it’s a short duration thing,” I said.  We’d reached the staircase.  I was a little slower than my teammates in ascending the stairs.  My stamina was nowhere near where it needed to be, and my chest was aching as I breathed harder.  It made talking harder.  “She absorbs someone and she can create clones for a little while after.”

“Maybe,” Tattletale said.

We reached the top of the staircase.  The floor wasn’t entirely intact at the landing, so Bitch and her dogs hung back.  With the damage the explosion had done to the exterior wall, I could feel the saltwater scented air stirring my hair.

We reached Imp’s side.  She’d slumped against an intact wall.  I worked with Grue to clear away the pieces of wood and concrete that had joined Imp in being thrown against the wall.

“Turn around,” Tattletale ordered Tecton and Grace.

Tecton listened.  When Grace didn’t immediately obey, he grabbed her by the shoulder and forced her around.

Grue took off Imp’s mask.  My bugs traced her, and I could sense the trail of blood running from one of her ears.

“Hey,” Aisha murmured.  “Owie.”

“Are you hurt?” I asked.

“Ear hurts.  Hurt all over where I hit the wall.”

“That ear’s a ruptured eardrum,” Tattletale said.

“Shitty,” Aisha said, “Least I save money, not having a reason to buy surround sound when I get my own entertainment system.”

“You’re not so lucky.  It’ll heal,” Tattletale said.

“Did you hit your head?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale and Imp answered in the same moment.

Grue smacked his sister lightly across the head.  “Idiot!  You’re supposed to listen when we give you orders.”

“I know why you were giving that order,” Imp said.  “You wanted me to clear out in case he smooshed this building.  Except I knew I couldn’t get out fast enough.  I figured I’d take out that gun guy.”

“Leet,” I supplied.

“Leet, yeah.”

Grue cuffed her across the head again.

“Hey!” Aisha said.  Then she cringed, or winced, as if she was in pain.  “Ow.”

“What?”

In a quieter voice, she said, “Ear hurts when I speak too loud.  Stop hitting me.  It was the right call.”

“You still didn’t listen,” Grue said.  He took the mask from Tattletale and helped Aisha put it on.  “Get up.”

Imp stood, then wobbled.  “Dizzy.”

“Ruptured eardrum will do that,” Tattletale said.  “Let’s go.  We should see what we can do to help against Noelle.”

Grue and Tattletale supported Imp between them as we made our way to the stairwell.  I turned my attention to the fight.  “Eidolon’s holding his own.”

“Told you,” Grace said.

“He’s using that pressure-”

“Gravity,” Tattletale said.

“Right.  He’s using supercharged gravity to try to pin her down and simultaneously take out any of the clones she spits out.  He’s staying out of reach with flight, and he said something before about a danger sense.  Precognition, I guess?”

“Didn’t help him stop the explosion,” Regent commented.

“It let him move well out of the way before it went off,” I said.  “And it’s helping him when Noelle tries to trick him.  She’s… I don’t even know how to put it.  She’s wearing a Vista that can turn two-dimensional, and the Vista is helping keep her other clones alive.  Whenever Eidolon moves like he’s about to drop that gravity magnification on them, she folds Noelle’s clones against whatever surface they’re touching and then pastes herself into Noelle.”

“Can we help Eidolon by taking the Vista out?” Grue asked.

“I don’t know how we’d get the Vista without attacking Noelle,” I said.

“Eidolon can hold onto about three serious powers at a time,” Tecton said.  “If he’s packing flying, danger sense and gravity manipulation, that’s it.  Sometimes he does four, but two or three of them are usually pretty minor.  Enhanced accuracy, whatever.”

“Unless the flying’s an extension of the gravity manipulation,” Tattletale pointed out.  “I’d guess he’s maintaining a kind of power immunity, in case Noelle manages to close the distance or one of her underlings tries to hit him from range.”

I could follow the fight as Noelle leaped to another rooftop.  Being airborne, she might have been vulnerable if Eidolon had been able to devote his full attention to her, given how it wasn’t possible to dodge while midair, but she’d timed the jump to coincide with a killer-Circus’s pyrokinetic attack on Eidolon.

The hero destroyed the Circus with a use of his gravity power, and I could guess that the same power had destroyed any incoming fireballs she’d thrown his way, because he wasn’t even touched by any hot air.  The top floor of the building the Circus had been standing on was still collapsing as he directed another gravity-slam in the direction of Noelle’s landing point.  She was already moving on, leaping to a building face that Eidolon wouldn’t have a line of sight to.

The degree of mobility the pair had meant it was hard to get bugs in a position where I could follow what was going on.  I moved the bugs up through the various buildings, spreading them out as best as I could.

In tracking the movements of the bugs through the buildings, I got a sense of where Eidolon had done damage and where the civilians were.

“He’s doing a fantastic job of avoiding hitting any civilians when he uses his powers.”

“Told you,” Imp said, mimicking Grace’s tone, in the same moment Grace said, “Of course.”

Imp laughed, then winced at the pain it caused her.

“Could be an extension of his danger sense,” Tattletale suggested.

We’d reached the stairwell, and the others declined to go back for the van.  Imp and I got on Bentley’s back.  I sat behind Imp so I could help keep her from falling.  We weren’t broadcasting it to Tecton and Grace, but I wasn’t in great shape, myself.  Even if Bentley wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel with a cracked rib, it still beat running.

I pointed the way, and we headed for the site of the battle.  I wasn’t exactly sure what we could do.  This was a fight between titans.  Eidolon had hit Noelle a thousand times as hard as any of us were capable of, and she hadn’t even slowed down.

I was getting increasingly worried that there was some factor here that would decide the battle, something I should grasp but wasn’t.  It didn’t help that both Noelle and Eidolon had powersets that I didn’t fully understand.  Noelle was apparently pulling clones out of nowhere, despite not having contact with Vista or the other villains.  Getting a sense of any given power and accounting for all the possibilities was hard enough, but Eidolon had a bunch of them at any given time, and they could change.

Eidolon struck at one cluster of clones that were lurking in a half-destroyed building, then hit himself with a gravity attack.  He and his costume were left untouched, but the bugs I had on him were annihilated.  I was left blind.

Why?  The attack was pointless.  There hadn’t been any of Noelle’s servants in the area.

Was he sending me a message?  Did he want us to back off?

Noelle was consistently managing to avoid being struck by any of the gravity attacks, or scrambling out of the way of trouble after sustaining a glancing blow.  She was keeping tall buildings between herself and Eidolon.  He used the gravity manipulation where he could.  He had changed up his tactics, sending chunks of building flying, then spiking them down to the ground with the gravity-slams.  He wasn’t changing powers, though, even though Noelle had adjusted to them.  It was very possible he couldn’t: that if he gave up one power for another one more suited for the situation, he’d be too vulnerable while it grew to full power, or it would be too hard to catch up after the fact.

One of the heads of Noelle’s lower body vomited up a slurry of flesh, with two naked bodies in the midst of it.  A Vista covered in fingernail-like plates of hard flesh and a Leet with one forearm and hand as big as his torso.  The two clones were on their feet in seconds.  The Vista ran in Eidolon’s direction, while the Leet made a beeline for a nearby mall entrance.

I sent a swarm of bugs after them, focusing predominantly on going after Leet.  They weren’t fast, but they would hopefully interfere with his efforts to build anything.

We arrived at the edge of Eidolon and Noelle’s battlefield.  As I drew a swarm together with the bugs in this new area, I found Eidolon and tagged him with some houseflies and wasps.  Best if I knew if he was moving in our direction, so we could clear out of the way.

“Circle around,” I said.  “We keep eyes on one another, but our goal is to clean up clones wherever we can, so we need a broad perimeter.”

“Got it,” Grue said.  Tecton nodded as well.

Rachel signaled, and Bentley ran.  Tecton and Grace moved as one pair, while Regent, Grue and Tattletale formed another group.

The Leet had entered a mall.  The place had been looted, but he stopped somewhere long enough to grab some basic clothes.  He wrenched a piece off a clothing rack and used the ragged end to cut a sleeve off and open up the shoulder enough that he could fit his oversized left hand through it.

The activity bought my bugs enough time to catch up to him.  As they attacked, he started thrashing.  I was in the middle of changing my focus to other things when I noticed something curious.

A rat.

The rat itself wasn’t so unusual.  Large for its size, maybe.  But it had moved in the same general direction as my swarm, and it was wet with fluids.

The vomit?

I’d been flying bugs over surfaces at a height sufficient to catch humans.  It was a waste of energy and bugs to fly them over the ground level, when I generally knew that a road was flat, and any obstacle that was shorter than one or two feet wasn’t worth dwelling on.

Moving my bugs closer to the ground, I found more.  Rats, wet with the fluids of Noelle’s vomit.

She’d absorbed rats?  She wasn’t limited to cloning people.

I made a point of searching the vermin out and killing them with my bugs.  I’d played exterminator once before.  Not over so large an area, but I’d done it.

I pointed the way to Noelle, and Rachel changed direction.  Eidolon was dealing with the last Vista-clone that Noelle had spawned.  The girl wasn’t going on the offensive, but she was using her power to move quickly, using every spare moment to raise lumps of pavement and concrete from the ground, sculpting them into rough images of Noelle.  It would be sunrise, now, but in the dim light, they would be something that distracted Eidolon and potentially drew his fire.

He paused in his attempted murder of the mutant girl and eradication of the statues, striking himself with another gravity-slam.  Again, he killed every insect I had on him.

Was he aware of something we weren’t?

Noelle turned toward a group of people who were evacuating one of the buildings that had taken damage.  Before I could open my mouth to shout a warning or take an action, she lunged into the lobby of the building.

The people she touched were absorbed as quickly and easily as if she were quicksand.  Some were almost drawn in.

It took a minute and a half for her to form the clones within her.  We closed the distance as her body swelled.  When she’d reached critical mass, each of the three mouths on her lower body opened to heave out a tide of blood and gore, along with eighteen or twenty people.  Half of the people she’d heaved out had clothes.  The other half had mutations.  The mutants were on their feet as soon as they could find traction in the sludge, the innocents seemed as though they could barely move.

One of the people was Vista, I realized.  Not a clone – she was costumed.  An extremity, a tentacle or tongue, extended from one of Noelle’s lower mouths to wrap around Vista’s midsection.  The girl was hauled into the mouth and swallowed in a flash.

“She’s keeping them,” I said.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“The capes she keeps spitting out.  Circus, Über, Leet and Vista.  She’s holding the four of them inside her, so she can keep creating more clones.”

“She doesn’t have to let people go,” Tattletale said.  “Fuck me.  We won’t be able to kill her without killing whoever she’s holding inside her.”

As the mutant clones around Noelle began to thrash and strangle the near-helpless victims, their maker shifted position, stepping on arms and legs.  Her body was oriented more towards Eidolon.  I wasn’t willing to sacrifice bugs to know her exact position, but I got the sense she was looking up at him, despite the fact that there were several buildings between her and him.

She made contact with the bugs I had in her immediate vicinity as she twisted her body to look towards us.

Then she ran in the other direction.

“We rescue the people she just vomited out, clear away the clones,” I said.  I used the bugs I’d gathered near the other two groups to speak to them.  “Then we signal Eidolon and chase Noelle.  We need to get in contact with the heroes.  Whatever Eidolon’s plan is, it’s not working.”

I could track the rats that were crawling out of the vomit.  A dozen of them, and they were homing in on people, savagely biting and clawing into any flesh they found.  I made sure to cluster my bugs in as dense a swarm as I could afford, to keep them contained.  The bugs I didn’t devote to the task worked to disable and distract the more mundane clones.

I might have missed it if I hadn’t had the bugs pressed together to contain the rats.  I had missed it already, countless times.  Wasps, hornets and cockroaches were crawling free of the slurry of flesh that Noelle had vomited into the building’s lobby.  They were attacking my bugs and any people they found.

I couldn’t sense them, and I couldn’t control them.

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #3)

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Thursday, June 16th, 2011, 22:11

“Are you comfortable?  Is there anything I can get you?” Jessica Yamada asked.

“A… okay,” the staff employee said.  What had her name been?  Worthwhile?  No.  Worth-something.  She was elderly, and took more time than was necessary to go through the letters, “M… okay.  M, n, o, p, q, r,s t, u…”

A… M…

“Stop,”  Jessica said.  “I can guess.”

“I have to continue,” the older woman said.  “Patient’s right to communicate.  T, u, v, w, x, y… Y.  Third letter is Y.”

“We’ve been over this, Victoria,” Jessica said.  “You know that’s something I don’t have any power to give you.”

Victoria blinked three times, the signal for the alphabet.  The older woman started.  As Victoria’s right eye was the only one open, she started with the second half.  “M, n, o, p… P, okay.”

Victoria switched eyes, closing one and opening the other.  First half of the alphabet.

“A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h…”

Another blink.

“H.  Okay.”

“Phone?” Jessica interrupted, before the reading started again.

A blink.  Affirmation.

“I’ve explained you can’t phone her.  She’s gone to the birdcage-”

Jessica paused.  Her own heart rate was climbing, her breathing involuntarily quickening.  She felt a bead of sweat running down the back of her neck.  The old woman had stepped out of her chair, backing away.

“Stop that,” Jessica said, her voice firm.  She’d managed to keep her voice from trembling.

The sensation didn’t fade.

“She went to the birdcage because she wanted to,” Jessica said.  “And we let her because there were serious concerns about her unleashing an epidemic if she had another psychotic break.”

Three blinks.  To the old woman’s credit, she stuck to doing her job.  “A, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i… I, okay.”

“Victoria,” Jessica said, and she wasn’t able to hide the tremor this time, “if you want to communicate with me, I’m going to insist that you turn your power off.”

Victoria reduced the effect of her power, scaling it down to a general sensation of unease.

“Thank you.  Returning to our previous topic, Amy had to be contained somewhere.  Everyone involved agreed on that point.  There was too much danger, otherwise, with the possibility of uncontrollable, incurable plagues that could eat through plastic or metal.”

Jessica waited patiently as the staff member went down the list.  I.  D.  O.  N.  T.  C.  A.  R.  E.

I  don’t care.

“Others do care, Victoria,” Jessica Yamada informed her patient.  “Amy cared.  She knew her own limits and her own potential, for good or for ill.  It wasn’t an easy decision, for her or for the authorities, but that decision was made with everyone’s best interests at heart.”

Again, the letters.

N.  O.  T.  M.  I.  N.  E.

Not mineNot in my best interests.

“She didn’t feel that she could fix you, or that it was right to use her power on you again.”

Two blinks.  Negation.

“You… that’s not what you meant?”

Blink.  Agreement.  Three blinks to signal for the board.

A.  L.  O.  N.  E.

“Not entirely, Victoria,” Jessica said, her voice gentle.  “There are others who care about you.”

No blinks, now.  Long seconds passed.

“Back to my original question.  Is there anything we can do to make you more comfortable?”

B.  A.  T.  H.

“Excellent,” Jessica said.  “We’ll see what we can do.  Anything else?”

Two blinks.  No.

“I’ll be seeing you for a longer appointment next Tuesday, then,” she said.  “Tell any of the staff if you would like to get in touch with me before then.  I’m on-call, twenty-four-seven.”

One blink.

Jessica exited the room.  The door sealed shut as it closed behind her.

“Well?” the head nurse asked.

“Some headway,” Jessica said.  She took off her suit jacket and folded it over the nearest chair.  Her back was drenched with sweat, shoulder-blade to belt.  “Hard to endure.”

“She’s upset.  Understandably.”

“I know.  But I’ll take her on as a patient, and hopefully we can get her in a better head space.  Thank you again, for letting me overstep my duties.  It helps me to open a dialogue if I can offer her something she wants or needs.”

“You can’t offer her what she really wants.”

“But a bath is a good starting point.  Is it doable?”

“Yes.  We’re well equipped for disabled patients.  We’ll lower her in with hoists.”

“She won’t break?  Or tear?”

“No.  She’s far more durable than she appears.  For better or for worse, she retains her invincibility.”

“I see.”

“Who’s the next patient on your caseload?”

“Sveta.”

“Garotte.  I know you’ve heard the instructions about the protective safeguards a thousand times-”

Jessica sighed.

“-But I have to go over them anyways.  There are regulations, Jessica, as you well know.  You’ll be wearing a type-C reinforced protective suit.  The suits include both an inner and outer layer, the inner layer-”

“Has a button in the palm.  I can withdraw my fingers from the outer glove and press the button.  At random intervals, you’ll buzz me surreptitiously…”

“And we expect you to press the button to verify that you’re okay.  You can press it twice in the event of an emergency.”

“The damn thing has malfunctioned and interrupted three of my last seven sessions with her.”

“It’s what we have for the time being.  If you don’t verify your own safety or if you signal an emergency, we’ll employ containment foam through the sprinkler system.”

“And I’ll be stuck here for another hour, with another four pages of paperwork after the fact.”

“Is she your last patient for the day?”

“No.  I’m scheduled to see Nicholas after.”

“Sadboy.”

Jessica didn’t correct the head nurse.  She hated using the codenames; it reinforced the idea of the patients being less than human.  “Yes.  I’ll see him, then I’m done for the day.  I’m on rotation with the PRT for Friday-Saturday, then I have Sunday all to myself.”

“Any plans?” the head nurse asked.

“I’ve learned not to make any.  There’s always a crisis of some sort.”

They’d reached the changing room, and Jessica pulled on the protective inner-suit.  The suit fit close to her body, smelled faintly of someone else’s sweat, and consisted of a stretching mesh covered in fine chain link.  The entire thing was reinforced by a grid of metal bars, complete with oiled hinges at each joint, so she had a near-full range of motion.  Zipping it up, it went straight up her neck, the bars running vertically down her throat.  She couldn’t look down without getting jabbed in the soft flesh beneath her jaw.

It made it harder to get the outer suit on.  The entire thing was one piece, like footie-pyjamas, and the fabric was heavy, with alternating layers of insulated fabric and more chain mesh.

She liked to go into situations armed with knowledge.  When she’d been new to the job, fearing her first week of work at the asylum, she’d researched all of the protective measures, even running down the patents that were public access to see what they entailed.

Odd as it might have sounded, she’d stopped doing that as of late.  It wasn’t due to a growing confidence.  Just the opposite.  Now that she had a better grasp of what her patients were capable of, it was easier to hope the people designing the safeguards were doing everything they needed to.  It was better than researching it and knowing they weren’t.

The heavy fabric exterior suit fit her like hazardous materials gear, bulky, broad, leaving a great deal of empty space between her body and the fabric.  Protective airbags of more reinforced cloth inflated to fill that space.

She stepped into the dock, and the door behind her shut.  The next door opened.

The room was empty.  The wall had a mural painted on it, ocean waves and beautiful architecture that Jessica couldn’t place as belonging to any particular era or culture.  There was a short, translucent table littered with painting and drawing supplies, and what looked like a cat’s tiered scratching post, extending floor to ceiling, securely bolted to both.  Mirrors were fixed to the wall, to show that the room’s resident wasn’t hiding behind it.

“Come on out, Sveta,” she said.  She clenched her teeth and braced herself for the ambush.

Sveta had been waiting above the door.  Tendrils snaked around the neck of the protective suit, and cinched tight in a moment.

Even with her full knowledge of the suit’s protective qualities, Jessica felt her heartbeat quicken.

Deep breath.

Her breath caught in her chest as she heard the faintest, almost inaudible sound of metal creaking.

More tendrils had caught her legs and arms, and even lashed across the room to catch the only points available to hold, the two-inch diameter bolts that held the scratching post ‘bed’ to the ground.

“So sorry,” Sveta whispered.  “Sorry.”

Jessica felt her arm jolt as one set of tendrils lashed up the length of her right arm to catch her gloved fingers.  Each finger was pulled in a different direction, but the metal reinforcement in the outer glove held, and her hand wasn’t crumpled like tissue paper.

“Relaxation exercises, Sveta.  Don’t try to fight the instincts all at once, don’t worry about me…”

Sveta convulsed, contorted, and every part of her drew tighter.  Jessica heard something metal give way, felt a small component tap her shoulder, bouncing around the interior of the outer suit before settling in her boot.

Calm.  Sound calm.  “…Just focus on your extremities.  Flex them, release them, repeat.”

Another contortion.  Jessica forced herself to take a deep breath, simultaneously cursing whoever had let this defective equipment go back in the changing room.

“I’m so sorry,” Sveta said.  “I’m trying, but it’s making it worse.”

“Take your time,”  she replied, defying every instinct that was telling her to get out of this dangerous situation: to press the button, fight or panic.  Like Sveta’s, her instincts weren’t serving her best interests here.  Unlike Sveta, she could fight them.

Sveta contorted, and an airbag gave way in the suit’s midsection.

“Oh!” Sveta said.  She’d noticed, and the realization coincided with further constriction.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs. Yamada!  No, no!”

“It’s fine,” Jessica lied.  Too many things were going wrong with the suit, all at once.  Why?  There had to have been an altercation between another staff member and a violent patient.  The only reason this many safeguards would be giving way would be if the suit had sustained recent damage.

Except it had gone unreported, and the suit had gone back on the shelf.

“Should have- we should have done this through the glass,” Sveta moaned.  “I’m sorry.  I like you.  I don’t want you to die.”

“We’re striving to socialize you, right?  That’s our goal?  We can’t do that without regular human contact.”

“I’m going to kill you.  I don’t want to but I’m going to.  I’ll-”

“Hush,” Jessica said, sounding far, far calmer than she felt.  “Take-”

She nearly said take a deep breath.  She corrected herself.  “-a few seconds and keep doing your relaxation exercises.  Flex your extremities, relax them.  Flex, relax, steadily work your way up, inch by inch.  Look at me.  I’m not worried.  I’m in this suit.  I feel safe.  Okay?”

“O-okay.”

“I want you to think of all the progress we’ve made since the start of the year.”

“But something popped in the suit just now.”

“We wear the same suits for multiple patients.  That was a safeguard to protect any patients that might collide with us.  It’s not meant for you.  Don’t worry.”

Jessica hated lying to her patients.

“It’s not- it’s okay?”

“It’s okay,” Jessica soothed.  “You remember our goal, right?”

“Christmas?”

“I think you’re well on your way to your goal.  That’s what you think of when you’re trying to be positive, right?  You can celebrate Christmas with a few other patients, people who you can’t hurt.  I just met one of them, I think.  A new patient of mine.  She’s someone who could use some friends.”

Like a dozen frog’s tongues, tendrils snapped across the length of the room to the ‘bed’, encircling it. In another second, as though each tendril were elastic bands stretched to their limits, Sveta had shifted there, her tendrils gripping the post as she hung from it.  Jessica was free.

Sveta was little more than a very pale face with thin tendrils streaming around it like hair.  Small organs dangled from the largest of the tendrils that extended from the back of her face.  A small symbol marked the girl’s cheekbone: a stylized ‘c’, in black.

It took Sveta a second before she relaxed enough to let the tendrils uncoil from the post.  The tendrils settled in the air, in a rough facsimile of where a person’s limbs might be.  She’d positioned herself so that the organs could rest on the ‘shelves’ on the post.

“I’m sorry,” Sveta said, eyes downcast.

“I’m fine.  I understand,” Jessica soothed.  She shifted position, and one tendril snapped out to catch her leg, gripping her around the knee, squeezing and twisting with a strength that could have torn every ligament in her knee and wrenched Jessica’s calf from her upper leg.  Sveta flinched, closed her eyes for a second, and the tendril moved back to the post.  The suit had held.  No damage done.

“Can… can you tell me about her?  The girl you just saw?”

“I can’t talk to you about my patients, just like I couldn’t tell them about you.”

Sveta clutched the pole harder.  “I understand.  Was she… was she a bad guy?  Like me?”

“Do you think you were a ‘bad guy’?”

“I killed people.  Yes.”

“It wasn’t you.  It was your power.”

“I still killed people.”

“I think that’s a good topic for today’s session.  But there’s a few things I want to cover first, before we get into the meat of it, so let’s put a pin in that topic for now.”

“Okay.”

“She was a superhero, I can say that much without betraying any confidence.”  And you’ll hear it from the staff sooner or later.  Better to hear it from me.  “There may be wiggle room.  Maybe I could convince one of the hospital staff to stop by, and she could tell you a bit about the new patient through the intercom?  If the patient gives consent?”

Sveta’s eyes lit up.  “Yes please.”

“I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“Now, have you been keeping that journal?”

Sveta snatched a notebook off of the small table with the art supplies, reaching out and bringing it to her faster than the eye could follow.  She passed it to Jessica with just as much speed and force.  Even with the air bags filling the void in the protective suit and offering a cushioning effect, Jessica had to take a step back to catch her balance.

“May I?”

Sveta nodded, bobbing the mask with the mass of tendrils behind it.

The bed-post contorted into an ‘s’ shape as the girl twined around it.  It indicated some kind of negative emotion.  Jessica paged through the recent entries.  The letters of the words were exaggerated, and they got more so as the writer got agitated.  Worries, daydreams about being human, the vividness of her imagination when she pictured places like she’d drawn in the mural, her day-long spell of depression after waking up from a dream where she’d been human, in bed with a boy…

Jessica closed the book.  None of this was so unusual, capable of explaining the sudden anxiety she saw now.  “Can I ask what’s bothering you?”

“I… why aren’t you scared of me?”

“Because I have no reason to be,” Jessica lied, meeting the girl’s eyes.

The truth is that it’s because I’ve spent more time in the company of monsters than Legend, she thought.  Trust me, honey, you aren’t the scariest I’ve run into, not by half.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 10:15

“You’re not the person that was here last week,” the redheaded boy said, shutting the door behind him.

“We rotate.  The PRT doesn’t want any therapist developing a bond to the point that they could manipulate a cape.  By rotating through three or four for a given area, they can ensure that one therapist will be able to identify manipulations on the part of any of the others.”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the point?  Not letting us develop a bond, no trust?”

Yes, Jessica thought, but she said, “It’s not my place to say.  Is that what you’re hoping to get, here?  A one-on-one relationship?  A bond of trust?”

“And now it begins,” he said.  “Answering questions with questions.”

“An unfortunate fact of the job.  Would you like to sit?”

The boy let himself sink into the chair.

“What should I call you?” Jessica asked.  “I prefer to use real names wherever possible, but I understand if you’d prefer the confidentiality of a codename.”

“Clockblocker.  Dennis.  Whatever.  You get crucified, drawn and quartered if you betray our secret identities, right?”

“Nothing that graphic, but the penalties are severe, and they include extensive jail time, and forfeiting the credentials it took me eight years to get.  You strike me as someone who’s paying a great deal of attention to the workings of the system.  Where people are, how they’re operating.”

“I have to, don’t I?  You ignore that stuff, you get fucked,” Dennis said.

“That’s the second time in two minutes you’ve brought up consequences.  Is that something that concerns you?  Consequences?”

“In the last three months, my dad’s leukemia came back, Leviathan destroyed a third of my hometown, the Endbringer killed my best friend and teammate, and another of my teammates, the Undersiders abducted one of my teammates-”

“Shadow Stalker.”

“Yeah.”

“I talked to her after that incident.  Anyways, I’m sorry to interrupt.  I’m trying to frame it all in my head.”

“They left her so fucked up she went and broke her parole.  Um.  It’s all been unravelling.  People I care about and rely on are getting knocked around, screwed over by dumb luck or because they let their guard down.  Aegis, Gallant, Amy and Victoria, Battery, Shadow Stalker…”

“Did you care about Shadow Stalker?”

“She was a teammate.”

“I know.  But the way your thoughts seemed to connect there, it sounded like something more.”

Dennis shrugged.  “It makes me sound like a sleazebag if I say it, but I can get away with that here, right?”

She let herself smile a little, “Yes.”

“She was hot, and when you spend four or five hours a day with the same people, and you’re a guy, and the one girl in the group that’s around your age is that good-looking, maybe you look forward to seeing her.”

“That doesn’t make you sound like a sleazebag.  It makes it sound like a perfectly normal teenager with a mild crush.”

“Maybe?  Not really; I couldn’t stand her as a person.  It still sucked balls, hearing what I did about her going to juvie, on top of everything else.”

“Did you see yourself in her shoes, at all?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very mindful of consequences and the dangers you’re facing.  Are you afraid you’ll suffer a similar fate?”

“I dunno.  No.  If I’m worried about anything like that, it’s that there’s a worse fate waiting out there for me.”

“A worse fate?”

“With all the stuff the capes bring to the table, there’s a hundred bad endings that are possible that wouldn’t have been possible thirty years ago.  You hear about what happened to Victoria and Amy Dallon?”

Victoria.  The vivid mental picture disconcerted her briefly.  “Um.  Yes I have.”

“Case in point,” Dennis shrugged.  “And there’s all the stuff that went down with the Slaughterhouse Nine, too.”

“Scary business.”

Dennis shrugged.

“Are you sleeping well?”

“Way I’ve been working, sleep isn’t a problem.  Head hits the pillow, I’m out.”

“And the stress of all of this, it’s not affecting your diet?”

“No.  I mean, my diet’s not great, but that’s just trying to work around shift schedules and crap, you know?”

“I know,” Jessica smiled.  “Work makes it hard on me too.  I was going to walk you through some coping methods for anxiety, but it seems like you’re getting by.”

“Too busy to think, really.  I prefer it that way.  I don’t know if anxiety’s the right word.”

“No?  What word would you choose?”

He paused.  “I dunno.”

“Take your time.  It’s not a big deal if you can’t come up with one.”

“It’s… I feel like there’s probably a word, in another language, but English doesn’t have it.  Not despair, but… that feeling you get when you’re losing?”

“You feel as though you’re losing?”

Dennis nodded, leaned back in the leather seat.  “We’re fighting a war.  The consequences don’t seem to hit the bad guys as hard.  We fight Leviathan, and people act like we won, because the casualty rates were lower than they’ve been in nine years.  Slaughterhouse Nine come, and again, there’s a lot of people who act like it was a victory because only half of them made it out of the city.  Nobody but me seems to notice that, hey, those guys still lived.  They escaped.”

“Maybe they share the same thoughts you do, but they don’t want to face that reality because it scares them.”

“Maybe.”

There was a long pause.

“Looking at the general notes from your last appointment, you gave the a-okay for him to mention that you were working on some coping mechanisms for your anger?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to keep working on that, or do you feel like it’s more under control?”

“It’s pretty much under control.  I was… my dad was dying, then.  Amy healed him.”

“I see.”

“I… I regret this.”

“Regret what?”

“Joining the Wards.  The rules, the bureaucracy.  It’s… fuck, I mean, I appreciate having the resources.  Guys to make the costume, even this.”

“Talking to me?”

“Sure.  Make sure my head’s screwed on right.  But at the same time, being stuck in a classroom after Leviathan attacks, because the rules say I have to be in school a certain number of hours a day?  It’s fucked.  I wonder if the villains are winning because they don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

“Could be.”

“I don’t get it.  I almost think I could be okay with things if I understood them.  Why the fuck do they get away with this shit?”

“I can’t give you the answers you want, and I’m afraid that answers to questions of that magnitude aren’t going to appear nearly as fast as we want them to.”

“I know.”

“But you’re very observant, Dennis.  I’ve already said as much.  I find that we often find what we’re looking for the moment we stop actively searching for them.  Perhaps spend less time looking for the answer, and keep an eye out for opportunities to learn the answer.”

“Psychobabble,” he said, smiling a little.

“Sorry,” she said, returning the smile with one of her own.

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 13:01

“Jessica?” Weld asked, peeking his head in the door.

“Come in,” she said.  “It’s good to see you, Weld.  It’s been a little while.”

Weld closed the door and settled in the reinforced chair she’d brought into her office in anticipation of the appointment.

“Have you picked a name?” she asked.

He chuckled lightly.  “I’m Weld.  That’s it for now.”

She nodded.  Studied him, at ease in his chair, hands folded across his stomach.

“So.  A lot’s happened,” she said.

“Endbringer, Slaughterhouse Nine.  Losing control of the city.  Did you come from out of town?”

“Yes.”

“Was it on the news?  What’s been going on here?”

“It has been.  I try to catch the eleven o’clock news, and it seems there’s a new story every night, detailing recent events in Brockton Bay.”

“What kind of picture does it paint?”

“Of?”

“Of the city.  Of us?  The villains?”

“Things look worse than they are, if you go by what’s on television.  It paints a positive picture of the local heroes, I have to say.  Not entirely undeserved, if you ask me.”

“Thanks for saying so,” Weld said.

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  It’s only been five days since the Slaughterhouse Nine fled.  Smoke’s clearing, and I’m not liking where we’re at.”

“Where are you at?”

“Villains who took territory before everything went to hell are still holding the territory after.  Us?  We’re not in good shape.  We lost Battery.”

“I heard.  I’m sorry.”

“We got hit harder, and while they’re picking up the pieces, nobody’s jumping to help us.”

“No?”

“Flechette’s going back to New York before too long.  Nobody’s replacing her, or any of the ones who died.  Maybe they think we’re cursed, or maybe it’s career suicide to try to help a city that can’t be helped.”

“Does that matter to you?  Career?”

“Some.  There was mention of me maybe climbing the ranks.  I’m marketable, but I’m a freak, too.”

She thought of Sveta.  “It sounds like you’re being unfairly harsh on yourself.”

“It’s how it was explained to me.”

“I see.  That’s unfortunate, that a colleague would make you out to be a freak.”

“Water off my back.  Honest.  It doesn’t bother me.”

“Is there anything-“

She stopped as his phone rang.

“Sorry,” he looked genuinely guilty as he reached for the phone, “Way things are-“

“I totally understand.  Please, go ahead.”

He answered.  “Weld here… yes.  Skitter?  With Parian.  I understand.  No, I get it.  We’ll see if we can track her.”

He was already out of her seat.  “If it’s okay-“

“Go.  You have a team to lead.”

“Flechette said the local villains in power just made a move on a Rogue friend of hers.  I’ll… could I wrangle a longer session next week?”

“That could be arranged.  Go,” she said.

He was at the door when she called after him, “and Weld, I want you to pick a proper name!”

Friday, June 17th, 2011, 18:01

“Fuck them!  Fuck her!”

“Lily-“

“Fuck!  Fuck!”  Lily paced.

“Lily, please, could you sit?”  Jessica asked.

Lily stopped, resting her hands on the back of the armchair.

“It’s clear something happened,” Jessica said.  “You ask me to come, and that’s totally, one hundred percent okay, but I can’t do anything to help until you explain what happened.”

“They got her.”

Jessica felt her heart sink.  “Who?”

“Parian.  Skitter got to her.”

“The Rogue your teammate mentioned.  Was she hurt, or killed, or-“

“Turned.”

“Turned?”

“She changed sides.  Ran into Skitter, with Ballistic wreaking havoc in the background.  Knew something was up.  Tattletale fucking with our heads or something.  Then Skitter goes into this good cop bad cop routine, but she’s using Ballistic as the bad cop, the idea that if we don’t go along with her plan, he’ll try to kill us.  Makes Parian an offer she can’t refuse.”

“Power?  Money?”

“Money.  Two hundred thousand dollars, so that Parian’s friends and family who were mutilated by the Slaughterhouse Nine could pay for surgery.  So Parian could go to school.”

“A lot of money.”

“And she asks Parian to leave.  And it’s… it rips my heart out, because she’s my one good friend here.  Because she’s more, I… I can’t remember if I’ve talked to you about it.  You PRT therapists all sort of blend into each other.”

“We’ve talked about it.  You had feelings for her.”

Lily folded her arms on the back of the chair, rested her forehead against her wrists.

“Did you tell her about those feelings?”

“No.  No I didn’t.  I was thinking about it, but now I can’t ever, because if it pushes her away, she’ll be totally, completely beyond my reach.  Completely on their side.”

“Do you think she reciprocated?”

“I don’t know.  Sometimes, I thought yes.  Other times, I thought yes, but not nearly as much as I had feelings for her.  And there were other times I thought definitely no.  But I couldn’t ask because by the time I got up the courage, the Slaughterhouse Nine had murdered most of her family and her friends, and the ones who weren’t dead were… altered.  Fuck, my feelings weren’t even on the third page of the list of priorities there.  It was about taking care of her, helping her.  It’s what you do for friends.”

“It is.  It sounds like she was lucky to have you.”

“And then Skitter waltzes in and… it’s like, she slithers right past your defenses.”

“How’s that?”

“I can’t even put it into words.  You run into her, and you can’t even look straight at her without feeling your skin crawl.  Like when someone’s got something wrong with their eye and your own eye starts watering… only with her it’s because of the bugs.”

“Okay.”

“And then she talks, and she sounds so idealistic, and naive.  I don’t know how you sound idealistic and naive with a swarm of cockroaches and bees crawling over your face, but she does.  And so you let your guard down.  And then she starts making sense.  And that was the point where Sab- where Parian started lapping it up.”

“Did she make sense to you?”  Jessica asked.

“I had a feeling about what was happening, said as much.  Now, I don’t know.  There’s only two good answers for it.”

Lily walked over to the door and picked up the satchel she’d brought into the office.  She returned to the chair and sat, plopping the satchel down on the coffee table.

“What is it?” Jessica asked.

“The thing that lets me know which of the two it was.”

“And what are those two answers?”

“Either my gut was right, and Skitter was just feeding us info that Tattletale prepared, just to fuck with us… or Skitter was right.”

“And this satchel contains the answer?”

“It does.”

“May I?” Jessica leaned forward.

“No.”

Jessica stopped.

“I can say no, right?  You don’t have the right to search my things.”

“You can,” Jessica said, leaning back.  “And I won’t touch it.  What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Lily said.  Her eyes were damp.  “Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change what happened with Parian.  Won’t change the choice she made.”

A tear fell free, and Lily wiped it away with her sleeve.

“Fuck, so stupid.  I go up against Leviathan, go up against the Slaughterhouse Nine, and this is what fucks with my head?  This is the moment I want nothing more than to go home, to go home and just crawl under the covers?”

“You could.”

“Can’t.  I… It’d mean I couldn’t do the costume thing again.  Not the same way.  Gotta tough it out.”

Lily didn’t look tough, Jessica observed  She looked like a heartbroken, homesick teenager.

She couldn’t say that, though.

Jessica stood from her chair and approached the girl.  When Lily realized what Jessica was doing, she gratefully accepted the offer of a shoulder to cry on.

Lily’s cell phone rang.  She pulled away, breaking the hug, but she didn’t answer the phone.  “Never fucking ends.  Didn’t think it would be like this.”

“Are you going to answer?”  Jessica asked.

“Can’t.  Not like this.”

“May I?  I’m not sure if it’s against the rules, but-“

“Yes.  Please.  But-” Lily paused, and the cell phone rang again before she spoke, “Don’t mention I was there?  With Parian?  I wasn’t supposed to be.”

Jessica nodded and answered.  “Mrs. Yamada answering for Flechette.”

Miss Militia here.  Could you please inform Flechette that Triumph has been hospitalized?  Anaphylactic shock.”

“Which hospital?”

“Oh god,” Lily said, eyes going wide.

The one attached to the PRT headquarters.  Flechette knows where.

“We’re in the building,” Jessica said.  “I understand if you’re busy, but could you contact me in my office, when you have a free moment?”

I will.

Jessica hung up and returned the cell phone.  “The hospital in this building.  It’s Triumph.”

Lily stood, pocketing the phone.  “What happened?”

“Anaphylactic shock,” Jessica answered.

“Skitter.”

Jessica didn’t answer.

Lily wiped the tears from her face.  She drew in a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  Her expression hardened, her shoulders squaring.  There wasn’t a trace of the emotion she’d shown just moments before.  “Do I look okay?  Presentable?”

Jessica nodded.

“Thank you.”  Lily was already moving, snatching the satchel from the table, striding for the door.  It slammed shut behind her.

Jessica sat in her chair and tried not to dwell on just why it bothered her that Lily had been able to switch personas so easily.  Did the career demand it?  Why couldn’t a teenager just be allowed to be vulnerable, at a time they felt vulnerable?

The phone rang five minutes later.

“It’s Miss Militia.  You wanted me to contact you?”

“Yes.  I just… I’ve seen half your Wards today.  They aren’t doing well.”

“I know,” Miss Militia said.

“They’re losing faith.”

“I know.”

Saturday, June 18th, 9:01

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in?”

“Hi.  I’m Kid Win,” the boy said.  He wasn’t in his suit, though.  He looked like he’d just come from the shower, and his brown hair was still damp.  He extended a hand and Jessica shook it.  “Clockblocker said we had a different therapist this week.”

“Protocols.  Can I ask how Triumph’s doing?”

“He’s okay.  Recovered.  Assault and some of the others are more upset over it.  We’re calling in the big guns.”

“That must be a relief.  To have others pick up the slack.  To deferring some responsibility, after having a heavy burden on your shoulders for some time.”

Kid Win shrugged.  “Dunno.  I am excited to see Dragon’s stuff.”

“I can imagine.”

A silence stretched on.  Jessica tried to get a grasp on this boy, reconcile him with the one filled with self-doubt that she’d read about in Mr. Camden’s files.

“Um.  I still don’t really get what we’re supposed to do here,” Kid Win said.

“We talk.  It’s safe territory.  A place where you can vent about your issues.”

“I kind of prefer to work through problems on my own.”

“It’s very common for tinkers to be introverts.  But sometimes we all need a person to bounce ideas off of.  Non-tinker ideas.  Sorry, it’s a rule I have.”

Kid Win smiled sheepishly, “I kind of subjected Mr. Kiles to a rant about types of modular equipment, a few days ago.  I think he needed therapy by the time I was done.”

“Do you have any ideas you want to bounce off me?  It’s been a rough month.”

Kid Win shook his head.

“Nothing?”

“I don’t know if this is me.”

“If what’s you?”

“Needing to bounce ideas off people.  Needing therapy.  All my problems so far, they’ve stemmed from me trying to fit myself into everyone else’s mold.  It’s only when I broke away from that, started thinking on my own, that things started to make sense, all the pieces of the machine working in unison.”

“Given your tinker background, I’m not sure I can tell: is that a metaphor, or a literal machine?”

“Metaphor.”

“Okay.  Your life didn’t start making sense until you stopped worrying about what others think.  But I’m not being judgmental, and I don’t intend to change your mind about anything.  I don’t want to make you conform.”

“I’m… I still don’t think I want the therapy,” Kid Win said.  “Can I opt out?”

“I’m afraid not.  Why don’t you want it?”

“I’m more comfortable going the other route.  I’d rather walk my own path and be a little screwed up, than walk everyone else’s path.  I’m okay with thinking in a way that’s outside of the norm.  I’ve been happier since I started down that road.”

“How does that impact your duties with the Wards?”

“It doesn’t.  I mean, I stick to the rules,” Kid Win said, with a measure of confidence.  “Funny, how it’s easier to do that when I’m being more unconventional.”

“I’m still not sure I understand.  Can you give me an example of what you mean by unconventional?”

“It’s like… if I did this therapy thing, and I mentioned how I’m not bummed and pissed off about what’s going on with the villains and all that, if I talked about how I’m actually happier now, when everyone else is miserable and stressed, I feel like you’d talk me out of it.”

“I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“If you ask me a question,” he asked, “Do I have to answer?”

“You wouldn’t get in trouble, no.  Is there a particular question you don’t want to answer?”

“It’s not that.  I… I guess I’m saying I’m done here.”  He reached into his pocket and withdrew a pair of headphones.  “No offense.  But I feel like having thirty minutes to kick back and take some notes on stuff is going to be a hell of a lot better for my mental health than talking.  No offense.”

She was offended, but she didn’t say so.

Saturday, June 18th, 11:06

“Um?  Hi?”

“Please come in.  Would you rather me call you Vista or Missy?”

“Vista.”

“Vista it is.  Nice to meet you.”

Vista sat down in the armchair.  It took her a second to get comfortable.  Her feet didn’t touch the ground if she sat all the way back, and she was forced to sit awkwardly upright if she couldn’t lean against the chair back.

“I heard they called in the big guns.”

“Dragon.”

“Pretty big as guns go,” Jessica said.

“Are you doing that on purpose?”

“What?”

“Talking down to me.”

“No.  I didn’t think I was talking down to you.”

“It sounded condescending.”

Jessica took a deep breath.  “What can I do for you, Vista?  Is there anything you want to share?”

“Have you been here?”

The non-sequitur caught Jessica off guard.  “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Have you been in Brockton Bay since this all started?”

“No.  I travel for work, and stay in hotels.  On the weekends, or when I’m not working, I stay in Boston.”

“How are you supposed to help when you don’t understand?”

The question might have sounded accusatory, but it rang as more curious instead.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’ve been trying to help the others, and a lot of the time I can’t.  So how can you do it, when you don’t even know?  When you have no idea what we’re talking about?”

“I went to school for a long time.”

“Does that teach you how to talk to someone when their mentor’s just been attacked?”

“Are you talking about Triumph?”

“Is it why you ask a lot of questions?  Because you don’t know?”

“I ask questions,” Jessica said, “Because only you can give your perspective on things.  I know a lot of what’s happened.  Some from research, some from your colleagues.  But the only opinion and viewpoint that matters to me when you’re in that chair is yours.”

“Hmph,” Vista huffed..

“Where do you stand?” Jessica asked.  “What’s your view on things?  Summing it all up?”

“Sucks,” Vista said.

“I can believe it.”

“When I go on patrol, I can’t go alone, not until I’m fourteen.  So I spend the most time with everyone.  I hear what they say, and we talk about everything.”

“If there are doctors and field medics, maybe you’re the equivalent of a field therapist?” Jessica suggested.

Vista wasn’t amused in the slightest.  “Don’t be condescending.”

“I’m talking the same way I would with anyone else.  I promise.”

There was a pause.  Jessica sat quietly, letting it stretch on.  In a pinch, a resounding silence could prompt a patient to open up.

Vista finally said, “Weld said I’m the team’s heart.”

“I can imagine him saying it.”

Vista gave her a dirty look.  “I couldn’t help Shadow Stalker, but Weld said she was beyond helping.”

Jessica nodded.

“…But I think I got through to Clockblocker.  For a while I thought he’d fly off the handle at Weld.”

Jessica almost replied, but kept her mouth shut.

“I feel like there’s two ideas and they’re playing tug of war with my head,” Vista confessed.  She gave Jessica a look, as though she were daring her to say something.  “Yeah.  One part of me, it’s like… I want us all to stay together.  Aegis died.  Gallant died.  Battery died.  Velocity died.  Dauntless died.  Browbeat left, Armsmaster retired and Shadow Stalker went to jail.  And now even after it’s all over, Triumph gets hurt?”

“I think I’d feel pretty spooked, after all that,” Jessica said.  “It’s a lot of people to be losing, in the space of a month.”

“I just… I want to do what I can to keep us together.  Keep people fighting.  But..”

“But what?”

“The other part of me?  The colder part that’s being very logical, very rational?  It says that won’t happen.  We won’t stay together.  Can’t.  One by one, horrible things will happen to us.  My friends will die, and if they’re lucky, they’ll die fighting. And I’m somehow okay with it.  What does it really matter when the world’s supposed to end in two years?”

“I… I’ve heard about that.  It’s pretty strictly limited to the PRT, though, and there hasn’t been any strict confirmation.”

“We don’t have very good precogs,” Vista said.  “Not ones that can see that far ahead and still make sense of it all.”

“Does it… are you bothered?  Looking at things that way?  Thinking that your friends will die violently?  That the world will end?”

“No.  I’m… very okay with it, when I think about it clinically.  It’s the way things are, isn’t it?  The way the world works.”

“I don’t think so,” Jessica confessed.

“That part of me, that feels like that?  It’s telling me I’m going to die.  It’s inevitable, it’s soon, and it’ll be horrible,” Vista said.  “Therapy that.”

Was she serious, or was it a challenge?

“Okay,” Jessica said, somber  “I’ll try.”

“Just like that?”  Vista’s eyes widened a little.

“Just like that.  Believe it or not, I’ve handled worse things than a young woman torn between fatalism and wanting to help her friends stick together.  I can’t tell you anything about your teammates, but I can arm you with some tools, so your field-therapy is more effective.  If that part of you is better equipped, maybe it’ll get a bit of an edge in that tug of war that’s going on inside your head.  Sound good?”

Vista nodded.

Sunday, June 19th, 17:39

Jessica fumbled to find the ringing phone.  She had to move the pizza box and the bag of chips to reach it, reclined back on her bed the second she hit the call button, muting the television.  The pants she’d put on only for long enough to answer the door and pay the delivery guy slipped to the floor.

“Yeah,” she said, suppressing a sigh. “No, I’m not busy.  Isn’t he Richmond’s patient, though?  He’s away?  Fuck me.  Okay.  I’ll be there in an hour.”

Monday, June 20th, 12:50

Jessica paced back and forth in her office.

Somehow, when she’d left after seeing the Wards on Saturday morning, she’d let herself believe that things were largely resolved.  Dragon had been en route.  Not just one suit, either.

When she’d heard, on Sunday, that the suits had left the city, unsuccessful in their mission, she’d allowed herself to believe that things, at least, hadn’t gotten worse.

She’d seen Clockblocker in the morning.  There had been a shift conflict with Weld having to watch Vista on her shift, and he’d rescheduled for the afternoon.

Now this.  She’d never felt more useless.  The Wards had intervened to stop a mad villain from attacking the local debate, and it had all gone tragically wrong.  They hadn’t finished tallying the dead.

The Wards were okay, at least.  Physically.

Nobody came to her office all day.  Too much to be done.

Waiting nervously, restless in her inability to offer any assistance at all in a crisis like this, she headed up to the roof and bummed a cigarette from one of the interns, smoking for the first time since grad school.

Tuesday, June 21st, 6:10

Jessica sat on the edge of the roof, legs dangling.  She was on her fifth cigarette.

“Mrs. Yamada?”

The voice startled her, because it didn’t sound quite human.  She turned around.

Oh.  Wow.

Eidolon.

“Could I ask for a few moments of your time?” he asked.

“I… yes.  I should warn you I predominantly work with juveniles.”

“I know.  I’m not looking for therapy.”

“Oh.”

He didn’t say anything as he crossed the rooftop.  Somewhere downstairs, the local heroes were gathering.  The Undersiders were present as well.  Another threat.  Flechette had been right.  It didn’t end.

She felt a pang of sympathy for her Wards.  Vista had asked her how she could dispense advice, when she hadn’t experienced it for herself.  The response that Jessica had been unable to frame was just this.  That if she did, if she found herself under that same pressure, she wouldn’t have the objectivity.  Besides, if she was unbalanced, how could she hope to offer any aid to another person?

It was a bittersweet thing that nobody had asked her to.  She wanted to help, but she was glad she didn’t have to, because she wasn’t sure of her own emotions, now.

Except Eidolon was asking.  One of the most powerful men in the world.

He sat down beside her.  He pulled his hood back, letting it fall around his shoulders, then undid the clasp for his mask. He set the glowing mask down on the edge of the roof, beside her cell phone and cigarettes.

He looked so average.  Heavy cheeks, thinning hair, a big nose, thick brows.  More ugly than attractive, but not so much that he’d draw attention walking down the street.

And still, she felt like it was hard to breathe, as though his very presence sucked the air away.  She felt like she might if someone had a gun to her head, with no intention of pulling the trigger.  It was there, devastating power that could end her existence in a heartbeat.  The fact that he didn’t plan to use it didn’t matter.

This, Sveta, she thought, is why I can be around you and be so calm.  Because I’ve been around monsters like this.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Eidolon said, sounding very normal, “because there are few I can trust to listen.  I might have found a priest, but it’s late, and there are so few good ones out there.  I’ve used psychometry to view the past few days of your life.  You’ll do what I need you to do.”

How am I supposed to respond to that?  “I… okay.”

“I’m losing my powers.  Slowly but surely.  If this goes much further, mankind may lose this war.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Against the Endbringers, there are really only two individuals who can stop them, drive them away.  Scion is one.  I’m another.  Each of us is worth a hundred other capes, if not more.  I’m not boasting when I say this.  But my powers are getting weaker every day, little by little.  Whatever vast, improbably deep well parahumans tap into to use abilities, I suspect mine is running dry.”

“And only Scion will be able to stop them, after you’ve lost your powers?  I’m sorry.  I’m thinking slowly tonight.  Been awake for a long time.”

“It’s fine.  You’re exactly right.  They really only need two or three critical victories, and it all ends.  And they will win more without me there.”

Jessica nodded.  I can’t process all this right now.

“When I fight, Mrs. Yamada, I feel as though my lost power is somehow within reach.  Reserves I have not yet touched, maybe.  Or a fresh well.  It is something, but it is there.  The problem is that I rarely get to truly fight.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.  I think so.”

“I hope that tonight is one of those moments.  I hope to fight, to fight seriously.  With the information we have about this threat, I can feel confident that the situation would be salvageable if I fail.  Even in the worst case scenario, this could be ended with a strategic missile strike.  In my absence, the heroes would have weeks to adjust, to change their battle plans and compensate, before the next Endbringer arrived.”

“You’re talking about dying?”

“Here, at least, I can fight this monster, and where I might never make the gamble against an Endbringer, I hope to fight this thing to the death.  Hers or mine.”

To the death.

He continued, “If I can find that untapped well of power, then it will be worth it.  If I can’t, then there’s no point to me existing anyways.”

“Surely you have something else to live for.”

He gave her a look that was both incredulous and pitying.  She felt a pang of sympathy for Vista, and how she’d reacted when she felt like she was being condescended to.

Maybe life doesn’t offer anything suitably interesting or profound to a man who’s been as powerful as Eidolon is, she thought.

“I…” Jessica said, “Why me?  What am I doing?”

“You know, now.  If I die, you can explain what happened.  But I’ve read you, and I don’t think you will tell others until the fight is over, and you won’t tell others what I planned if I succeed, tonight.”

She stared at him.

“If you were a priest,” he said, “I would have you say a prayer and bless my endeavor tonight.  I will settle for having you wish me luck.”

“Good…” she had to get her words in order, “Good luck.”

He nodded.

Then he took off.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.6

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Help is on the way,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the armband.

“Three Vistas,” I said.  “And Noelle is probably north of our location, going after-”

“Skitter!”  Tattletale shouted, interrupting me, “lose it!”

“What?”

“The armband!  Toss it!”

I pulled at the straps.  As I gathered bugs onto the armband to get a better sense of what I needed to do with the straps, I could tell that the entire thing was swelling, distorting.  I could hear the screen crack.

I pulled it free and threw it, simultaneously climbing to my feet and scrambling away.

“Grue!  Cover it!”  Tattletale shouted.  “Use your power on anything that one breaks down!”

Grue threw out a stream of darkness, then dissolved the darkness that wasn’t covering the area where the armband had been.  Without the ability to see, I had only my bugs’ senses to go by, but I could track where he’d laid down the darkness by the way the air seemed thicker.

From Tattletale’s words, I’d expected an explosion, but it simply twisted away into wisps of thick smoke.

“It’s radioactive,” Tattletale intoned.  “Everything she’s dissolving like that.”

“Unless I cover it?” Grue asked.

“Unless you cover it.  Should cancel out the effects.  But you did want me to let you know when I’m making an educated guess.  This is one of them.” Tattletale said.  “I hope I’m right.  We could win this fight and still wind up dying in a hospital bed a few years from now, because we got too close as that stuff dissolved.”

Oh shit.

“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Regent said.  “World’s ending in a few years anyways.”

“Let’s avoid the extreme radiation poisoning,” I said.  “Regardless of whether the world’s ending or not.”

The other Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were out of the van, and we were collectively backing away from the nega-Vistas.  More specifically, we were retreating from the one who was creating the radioactive dust.

The first one I’d noticed was still on the rooftop, spreading out her efforts, thinning walls and twisting supports.  Her progress was slow, but I was willing to bet that half of the city block would be collapsing onto us in a matter of minutes.  If not sooner.  If I had to guess, her power operated in a different manner than the original Vista’s.  It affected a wider area, it was slower, and she didn’t seem to be suffering for our presence.

The bugs that I was sending her way were having a hard time approaching.  They kept veering around so they flew clockwise around her instead of straight.  I had only a few bugs attacking her, but the same effect that I’d seen with her face had hardened her skin and there weren’t many places left to attack.  Her mouth was little more than a lipless slit across the lower half of her face, firmly closed, and only the smallest bugs could get at her eyes.  She barely flinched at the bites and stings my swarm was delivering.

Meagre as my efforts were, they still should have left her blind, filling her eye sockets with ants and no-see-ums, but her power was still steadily working on the buildings around us.  Another peculiarity of her abilities?  The ability to sense the layout of whatever structures she was affecting?  Did that extend to sensing us?

The second one had arrived, creating footholds and handholds to ascend the section of road she’d raised into a vertical wall, twelve feet high.  She was now perched on top, crouching.  In the time that it had taken me to lose the armband, she had started to work on cutting off our best avenue of retreat.  The road we’d traveled on to get here was raising behind us, bulging upward into a similar barrier.  As far as I could tell, her powers were most in line with the regular Vista, and she seemed to be reacting most to the bites and stings.  I wished that would make me feel more confident about these circumstances.

That left the freakishly tall one.  The Vista with limbs that zig-zagged, who was apparently turning matter into radioactive dust.  She’d climbed past the wreckage of the fallen building and now stood on solid ground again, facing us.

“We off the radioactive one first?” Tecton suggested.

“No,” I said.  I used my bugs to draw an arrow in the air.  “Priority’s the one on the roof, over there.”

“There’s a third one?” he asked.

Apparently he hadn’t caught my message to Miss Militia.

“She’s going to bring down more buildings if we don’t take her fast,” I said.

“Raymancer,” Tecton ordered, “handle it.”

Raymancer stood like he had before, feet together, one arm extended.  I didn’t sense any energy blast or ray from his hand.  The Vista didn’t act as though she’d been shot either.

“She bends light!?”  Wanton asked.

“She’s bending space,” Tattletale said.  “You won’t get a straight shot.”

“Don’t need one,” Raymancer said.  His second shot left a shallow crater in the Vista’s chest.  She sprawled onto the roof, hands pressed to the injury.

The thinning of the walls didn’t stop.

“How the fuck does that work?” Regent asked.  “The laser didn’t even-”

“She’s still alive!” I called out, interrupting him.  There was a small explosion as  Raymancer directed a shot at the Radioactive Vista and missed.  I could sense how the barrier behind us abruptly stopped growing and how the space to one side of her warped to let her evade more easily.

“Vista to our three o’clock is assisting her!” I said.

“Grace!” Tecton shouted.  “Leaving rooftop to you!  Launch!”

Grace leaped toward him, onto the back of one outstretched hand.  She had no trouble maintaining her balance as she placed the other foot on the back of his other gauntlet.

She bent her knees, and extended them to jump in the same instant the piledriver attachments on the gauntlets extended with explosive force.

Most of the bugs I’d placed on her were torn free by the force of the wind ripping past her, as she turned into a human projectile.  She had to have used her selective invincibility to augment her feet and legs so they weren’t annihilated by the piledrivers, and she would be using her enhanced agility to ensure she stuck the landing.

Except the landing wasn’t going to happen as planned.  If I’d understood what they’d planned, I would have warned her.  Her trajectory shifted as she ran into the rooftop-Vista’s power.  Grace fell short of reaching the rooftop.  Very short.  She hit the ground with both feet together, arms spread, and left a shallow crater around her impact site, a half-block away from the building.  Grace was running toward her target a heartbeat later, unhurt.

Some of the flying capes that had been assigned to watch over us were targeting the Vista on the rooftop, and I saw that as excuse enough to focus on other, more immediate problems.

Rachel and her dogs went for the Vista to our right, with Regent doing what he could to hamper their target’s movement, forcing her to use her power to maintain the distance from the beasts.

Which left the rest of us to face off against the radioactive one.

“One on the rooftop’s occupied,” I said.  “Now we can fight her.”

She extended her hand toward us, and the ground between us and her bulged, as though a cartoon mole had crawled beneath the pavement.  Raymancer fired at her, clearly hoping to distract her, but each shot missed by a fair margin.

My bugs were covering every inch of her skin, and I had them biting and tearing at her flesh.  Her skin was hard, gnarled, and calloused, but I did the damage where I could at the elbows, knees and neck, drawing blood.  I tried to tell myself that she was a monster, a mockery of a real person, and she was too dangerous to be allowed to live.  With that kind of unhinged mental state, and her ability to irradiate people…  I grit my teeth.  No choice.

Grue finished covering the bulging ground with darkness.  Tall-Vista didn’t react.  Her hand was still pointed at us.

“It’s a feint!”  Tattletale shouted.  She spun around.  “There!”

My swarm moved in the direction Tattletale was looking.  I found the bulge, a basketball-sized blister on the side of the containment van, felt it erupting a mere foot from Raymancer’s head a half-second before Grue’s darkness covered it.

Too late.  Raymancer stumbled, coughing.

Grue turned and extended a hand toward the tall Vista.  With my swarm spread out around her, I could sense miniscule explosions appearing all around her, see the flashes of light with the bugs’ distorted vision.  The individual detonations weren’t much larger than golf balls, and even the direct impacts weren’t enough to kill my larger bugs.

“How the fuck do you use Raymancer’s power?”  Grue asked.

“You copy powers?”  Wanton asked.

“Thought you guys read up on us,” Tattletale quipped.  “Grue, focus the beams with the lenses.  The beam appears from the center, so line them up to refine the beam into something more effective.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only got the one lens there.”

Lenses?  My bugs weren’t sensing anything.

Wanton was closing the distance, now that the other Vista was distracted trying to avoid Bentley and Bastard, still hobbled by Regent’s power.  As he got halfway to her, the ground around her began to distort and twist into curls.  Wanton disintegrated as he entered the area.

For a heartbeat, I thought she’d used her power on him.  When the debris, dust and chunks of building began stirring and orbiting a central point that continued his general trajectory, I realized it was his power.

Wanton didn’t hesitate as radioactive dust exploded around and inside his new body.  If anything, it proved an advantage, as the dust provided more material to work with and the damage to the street let him pull up chunks of pavement.  He closed the distance to our opponent and began thrashing her.  One of her arms snapped and dangled as one large chunk struck her.

Grue’s attacks weren’t terribly effective.  There were only half the number of explosions, but they were sufficient to kill bugs if they happened to hit one.  He abandoned Raymancer’s power and cast out his darkness toward the Vista.  A moment later, the ground under her feet was contorting, and dust was rising around her.

To our right, Rachel and Bastard were closing in on the Vista.  Her foot was contorted by Regent’s power, and her neck was craning at awkward angles, making it harder for her to focus on them and use her own abilities.

She backed away, raised her one good hand in their direction, and promptly bumped into Imp.  Before the pseudo-Vista could react, she had a taser pressed to her neck.

Rachel closed the distance, Bentley loping forward.  My bugs caught her voice.  An order, not too hard to make out.  Not with the context.

“Kill,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.  The bulldog picked up the Vista in his jaws and bit down until an audible series of cracks marked the breaking of a dozen major bones.  He shook her like a rag doll, no doubt snapping her neck and aggravating every injury he’d just inflicted.  The girl was dead in an instant.

Rachel’s ordered him to drop the body, ordered Bastard to back away from the carcass, and then took hold of Bastard’s chain.  She started to wheel Bentley around to rejoin us, but I was already drawing arrows in the air.  Wanton wasn’t at risk from the radiation in his new form, apparently, but Rachel and her dogs were.  There was nothing saying that any radiation wouldn’t be able to penetrate the monstrous flesh and hit the dog nestled in the core.

Kicking Bentley into an all-out run, she led Bastard in an all-out toward the one on the rooftop.  No hesitation.  No apparent remorse.

Rachel and I had grown closer, to the point of maybe being friends on top of being teammates.  Whatever rifts had formed between us were largely mended, and she trusted me as a leader.  With all that in mind, it was sometimes hard to remember that she was still Rachel at the core of it.  If her psychological wiring didn’t give her any real empathy for her fellow human beings, it wasn’t about to give her any for human-esque beings.

Tecton slammed one gauntlet into the ground, creating a crack that rushed toward the taller Vista.  It exploded in a geyser of debris and dust as it reached her.  She staggered, then staggered again as Grue landed a shot with Raymancer’s power.  She tried to raise one hand to defend herself, but the thin, curved bone of her upper arm had been shattered.  Her broken arm dangled in front of her.

With the topographical map my swarm provided, I noted the presence of thick veins standing out on her arm, where the weight of the dangling limb pulled the skin tight against the shattered bone.  I barely thought about it, sending my bugs to the area, biting deep into the largest one, working together so that one hornet might pull one way, a beetle pulling another, to better rend the flesh or positioning it for a stronger bug to bite into.

She jerked in reaction, and blood began flowing.  Beads of it at first, but the skin was pulled tight and the bugs were relentless.  It virtually tore between the combination of damage and strain.  A small river of blood flowed, intermittently spurting.

That would be an artery, not a vein.  Fuck me.  I tried to suppress the quiet horror that took hold of me as my bugs tracked the blood pouring down her arm, trickling off her fingertips in individual streams.

Still fighting to avoid being brained by Wanton’s telekinetic storm, the tall Vista let out a drawn out half-moan, half-scream, equal parts despair and anger.  It didn’t sound exactly normal, but that didn’t surprise me.  What made my blood run cold was that she almost sounded like a young girl might.  A little too close to reality for comfort.

She went all-out with her power, aimless, directionless.  Street signs, mailboxes, piles of debris, walls and sections of road began twisting and bulging.  Grue laid down a blanket of darkness all around us, aiming to dampen the spread of the radioactive particles.  I wasn’t sure how that worked, but Tattletale thought it did, and I wasn’t about to complain.  I’d settle for a white lie if it meant we were able to stay focused on fighting, rather than the cancer we’d have five years from now.

It took ten seconds before the Vista collapsed.  Only ten seconds to bleed out to the point of unconsciousness.  The blood continued pumping free, and nobody leaped forward to staunch the flow.

I sensed some of the faster capes from Miss Militia’s group making their arrival on the scene.

The wound the rooftop-Vista had sustained from Raymancer was shallow, the majority of it consisting of surface damage to her artificially smooth, thick skin and to her ribs.  I’d only peripherally been aware I was doing it, but my bugs had seized on the opportunity to dig in and attack the more vulnerable flesh of the open wound. She barely seemed to care, focusing her efforts on diverting incoming fire and trying to distort the rooftop to force Grace to fall off.  That changed when several bugs found a hole leading into the empty space surrounding her lungs.

In that same moment, the Vista started trying to claw the bugs out of the shallow cavity.  The distraction afforded one of the heroes a chance to catch her in the head with a gobbet of foam.  A smaller containment foam blaster?

Flying capes closed the distance and settled around her.  There was a brief dialogue that I couldn’t make out with the unfamiliar voices.  Someone said something about foam, there were a few words of argument from a pair, and one pressed a finger to their armband, saying something about a captive.

It was Miss Militia who responded through the armband.  She gave a curt order, and several capes turned away.  One of the capes who hadn’t took aim and shot the fallen girl between the eyes.

The fight was over.  The heroes were already moving north in pursuit of Noelle.  I signaled for Rachel to return.

That moan-scream the tall Vista had made was still ringing in my ears.  It had been way too human for my tastes.

There was no doubt she’d been going all out.  Raymancer was on his knees, supported by Tecton.  He’d taken a hit of the dust straight to the face.  If Tattletale was right… he’d just taken a lethal dose of radiation.  The clone hadn’t even flinched in delivering the attack.

I’d had fights like this.  Dealing with the Nine had been much the same, had demanded we hold nothing back, had involved enemies who didn’t hesitate.  The difference was that the Nine had demanded it because anything less wouldn’t cut it.  Fighting these clones, they were vulnerable.  They only defended themselves so they could keep causing damage.  When I tried to hurt them, they got hurt.  It sounded so lame when I framed it like that, but… it shook me.

Even knowing they were deranged, that Tattletale had confirmed they weren’t really people, I couldn’t ignore how brutal we’d been.  My actions.  The clones weren’t innocent, but they were innocents.  If that made any sense.

And I knew I’d have to do it all over again, the next time we ran into a clone.

Tattletale touched Grue’s arm, and he banished the darkness around us.

“I’m going to die,” Raymancer said, his voice barely above a whisper.

“There’s a good chance, yeah,” Tattletale said.

“Hey,” Tecton said, “Don’t be a bitch.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she touched her armband, “Raymancer down.  He needs immediate medical attention for acute radiation poisoning.  Quarantine this location, you’ll want stuff for radioactive decontamination, mobile showers if you’ve got them.  Oh, and Skitter’s armband is out of commisison, we need a replacement before someone mistakes her for a clone.”

Keep close to her, Tattletale,”  Miss Militia said.  “And we’ll deliver one shortly.  Quarantine, civilian evacuation and decontamination are en route.

“We’re moving on to check on Ballistic.  Your man can meet us there.”

“If they can track us with the armband, they can follow us to his headquarters,” Grue commented.

“He can move bases,” I said, “Finding him fast is a bigger priority.”

“He won’t like that,” Grue said.  “Going from a well set-up base of operations to some place improvised?”

“He didn’t want to come today, he deals with the fallout,” I said.  I waved as Rachel approached.  She was still holding Bastard’s chain.  “Let’s go.”

“Tecton?” Tattletale asked.

“I… I can’t leave Raymancer here,” Tecton said.

“Wanton can watch him,” she said.

I looked at Wanton.  He was still in his telekinetic form.  To my swarm sense, he gave me the impression of a miniature galaxy, with dust and various objects orbiting a central point.  When he moved, the outer edges took longer to catch up than the bits closer to the center, almost like a jellyfish in water.

“Hey, W,” Tecton said.  “Fight’s over.”

“He can’t change back,” Tattletale said.  “If he does, that dust he drew into his t.k. body is going to settle, and then he’ll be in the same shape Raymancer is.  Maybe everyone in his vicinity will.”

“But-”

“But they can stick him in a decontamination shower,” Tattletale said.  “Just needs to hold himself together long enough for that to happen.  Not to worry.  Fifteen minute decontamination and he’s clean.”

“Longest he’s ever held that form was twelve minutes.”

“Then he’ll need to hold together for longer.  But we’ve got to get ahead of Noelle before the next trap is set up.  We need you to come with us.”

“You want me to leave my team,” Tecton said.

“We could run into more Vistas.  She warps space, distorts architecture.  If the next batch is organized enough to cut off all avenues of retreat while keeping their distance, or drop more buildings on us, we’d need you to help.  Rachel’s dogs aren’t going to be able to get us free if Vista buries us, or if she traps us under some bubble of stretched building.”

“Go, T,” Raymancer said.

“But you-”

“I’ll get looked after, and I’ll give Wanton he encouragement he needs to break his old record.  Get Grace and go.”

“You heard the man,” Tattletale said.  “You want to drive?”

“You go ahead,” Tecton said.  “Driving with the suit is a hassle.”

“All the better,” Tattletale said, cheery.

Tecton didn’t reply as he got into the van.  I climbed onto Bentley’s back.

The van had to take a detour, given the three sections of road that had been raised as barriers and the one fallen building.  Bentley wasn’t so disadvantaged.  We crossed the ruins of the toppled building.

I could smell the thick, metallic scent of blood in the same moments that his hot breath wafted past me.

I wondered if I should be in the van.  I could communicate with Tattletale and Grue if I was, and it would mean I wasn’t experiencing an agonizing pain in my side every time he set his feet down with too much force or leaped an obstacle.

That said, I wasn’t sure I wanted to turn Rachel away if she was being friendly.

The van stopped to pick up Grace.  They traveled down a different street, moving parallel to Rachel and I.

“…so fast?” Tecton asked.  I couldn’t make it all out.

I caught the tail end of Tattletale’s reply: “… a trap.”

I drew out letters on the dashboard with my bugs: ‘Trouble?’

She shook her head.  I didn’t catch what she said.  She repeated herself.  “…ventative measure.”

Preventative measure.  She was picking up the speed so any other enemies that were lying in wait would have less time to spring any surprises on us.  I scattered the bugs, left a brief ‘ok’ and then removed those.  I caught Tecton saying something, but couldn’t make it out.  His mask didn’t help.

I redoubled my efforts to check our surroundings and find any possible clones of Vista, Uber, Leet or Circus.

We caught up to a group of the faster-moving heroes who’d flown ahead.  They were dispatching another Vista.  She was shorter, thicker in the arms and legs, with a neck as thick around as her head was.  The space around her was twisted into jagged shapes, with some raised into points.  Two of the capes had been injured but were still fighting.

We rode past, and the van with the others gave chase.

The flying capes weren’t moving with purpose.  They were roving the area, going west-to-east and back again as they moved in a general northerly direction.

We were nearly at Ballistic’s base when a digitized voice sounded over the armband.  Not Miss Militia.  Dragon’s A.I.   “We have a sighting.  All cooperating capes are ordered to stand down.  Remain at your present coordinates until further notice.

Stand down?  I tapped Rachel on the shoulder, and she pulled Bentley to a stop.

The armband buzzed again, but it was Miss Militia’s voice this time.  “Eidolon has found our primary target.  He has requested that all capes in the area remain in position.”

I caught Tattletale pressing the button on her armband.  She asked, “Why?”

Whatever program was managing communications, it didn’t see fit to convey Tattletale’s message.

The van caught up to us.  Tattletale rolled her window down, and opened the back.  The others climbed out to join the conversation.  Grace folded her arms and hung back.

“What’s going on?”  I asked.

“Don’t know,” Tattletale said.  “But if Eidolon is fighting Noelle…”

Regent finished her sentence for her, “We might not have to worry about the end of the world happening in two years.”

“Why is Miss Militia letting this slide?” I asked.  “She has to know the risk.  Everyone has to know the risk.”

“She’s letting this slide because Eidolon outranks her and she has no choice,” Tattletale said.  “And he’s doing this because he’s got an agenda.”

“An agenda?” Grace asked.

“Yeah.”

“He’s the top hero in the Protectorate.  His agenda is doing the right thing.  Is this what you guys do?  You analyze the situation until you’ve twisted it into a scenario where you just have to do something?”

“Yeah,” Regent said.  “We’re really good at it, too.”

“Ha ha,” Grace said, without any humor.

“Look,” I said.  “Fine.  You guys are helping us, so you get a say.  If you guys are willing to hear me out and you decide that there’s no merit to what I’m saying, we can go along with what you want to do.”

“Hear you out?”

“Yeah.  Look, you can’t deny that putting one of the most powerful people in the world in close quarters with someone who could turn Vista into those things is a fucking bad idea.”

“Sure I can.”

“Play nice, Grace,” Tecton said.

“No, I’m going to make my arguments.  He’s not stupid.  He knows what he can do, and he’s heard what she can do.  You don’t get to be a member of the Triumvirate if you’re an idiot.”

“He’s desperate,” Tattletale said,  “He’s losing his powers.  He knows putting himself in dangerous situations makes his power stronger, like how one of my teammates gets a little stronger when outraged, and another gets a little stronger when feeling protective.  Fighting Noelle is nearly as dangerous as fighting Endbringers.”

Endbringers.  When Leviathan had attacked, it had been destruction layered on top of more destruction.  Noelle was being pretty damn subtle for someone who could tear vault doors apart and generate an army of superpowered soldiers.

Even in terms of the overall impact of her assault, as far as I knew, it had been limited to one fallen building, two injured capes and one in critical condition.  It felt like too little.

Then again, the sun wasn’t up.  Dinah had said Noelle wouldn’t do any real damage until dawn.  Would things get worse?

“How long until sunrise?” I asked, cutting Grace off just as she started to voice a response.

“Nine minutes,” Tattletale answered.

“Dinah said the situation doesn’t start getting really bad until dawn…” I trailed off.

“You think this is why the situation goes south,” Grue said.

“It’s a possibility.”

Tattletale pressed the button on her armband.  “This is really bad timing on Eidolon’s part, M.M..  Shit’s due to go down at sunrise.  Can you call him off?  Remind him?”

There was no indication the message went through.

“Fucking computer,” she said.  “Let’s go.”

“No,” Grace said.  “You said it was our call.  I don’t buy the argument.  We stay put.”

“Tecton?” I asked.

He was still in the passenger seat.  “I don’t know.  Are you willing to disobey the order and have Miss Militia okay a kill order on you?”

Try to okay a kill order on us,” Imp said.

“Oh, well then,” Tecton said.  “That’s not a problem.”

I thought about the possible scenarios that could unfold.  Deranged Vistas had been brutal enough.  Deranged mutant Eidolons?

“Yeah,” I said.  “If it comes down to it, I’m willing.”

“Be it on your heads,” Tecton said.

“Get in if you’re coming,” Tattletale said.  “Get out if you’re not.”

Tecton hesitated, but he stayed in his seat.

“Tecton?” Grace asked.

“They believe it enough to go this far.  They’ve either got an unhealthy amount of conviction or they’re insane-”

“Or both,” Imp said.

“Or both.  If it’s conviction, I can accept that they might know what they’re doing.  The same argument you made about Eidolon being an upper echelon member of the Protectorate applies to them.  They didn’t get here by being terrible at what they do.”

“They did get to the point where they’re about to get kill orders put out on them, and you stand to get in trouble with the Wards.”

“What’s the worst they could do?  As a tinker, I’m a protected species.  Not like they’re going to fire me.  If these guys are right, they might need our help.  If they’re wrong, maybe I get in a bit of trouble.  I’m willing to take that bet.”

“And if they’re trying something?  Or if they are insane?”

“Then it’s better I’m along for the ride, isn’t it?”

Grace didn’t respond.  Instead, she turned around and walked away.

When she reached the back of the truck, she hopped in.  “You fucking owe me, Tec.”

She slammed the one door closed, as if to punctuate her irritation with the situation, leaving the other open for my teammates.

Tattletale dropped her armband out the driver’s side window.  The rest of the Undersiders discarded theirs.  There was a pause before Tecton and Grace followed suit, throwing theirs free of the van.

That done, Tattletale put the van in gear.   It was already starting to move by the time Imp and Regent had climbed in and slammed the doors behind them.

With Tattletale’s ability to identify Eidolon’s general location and my ability to narrow the result down with my bugs, it only took a few minutes to find them.  The issue was that we only had a few minutes to begin with.

Eidolon was in the air, flying a safe distance above Noelle.  And Noelle…

I couldn’t get a read on Noelle.  My bugs disappeared into her as they made contact, their signal distorting and cutting off.  It left me with a hazy picture.  She was big.  African elephant big.  I didn’t get much more than that.

They were talking.

Eidolon had his hands folded into his sleeves, like an ancient sensei, legs dangling, his costume billowing around him.  His voice was calm, quiet, in stark contrast to the hot breath that billowed around Noelle as she panted with no less than five mouths.  Four of the mouths were considerably larger than the one owned by the rough human shape on top.

I only caught two words as he spoke to her.  Coil was one.  Cauldron was another.

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Queen 18.5

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The television screen went dark.

Transmission over.  Damage done.

“Well,” Tattletale said, “Funny thing is, that was only the second worst thing she could have done to screw us over.”

“That so?” asked one male cape I couldn’t identify.

“Oh yeah.  I was worried she’d disappear for a few days or weeks, leave us to go looking for help.  Then we’d look crazy when she didn’t show, and whatever concessions we’d made to get you on board would cost us… like how you have us in custody right now.  Either she’s not as smart as Ballistic implied, or she’s feeling some kind of pressure.  I’d lay odds she’s losing the inner struggle for self-control.”

Someone slammed his hands down on the end of the table, interrupting her.  I sent bugs in that direction to identify the speaker.  “Does it fucking matter?”

My bugs traced his armor.  Assault.

“It matters,” Miss Militia said.

“This monster killed one of the good guys.  One of our best.  We let it slide when the Undersiders took Shadow Stalker.  We accepted it when the Nine got to Glory Girl and Panacea.  When they killed Battery.  We let the Undersiders take the Director, and they may have taken the man who’s replacing her.  Are we really going to ignore the most obvious option here?”

“You’re saying you want to turn the Undersiders in.”

“They broke the code.  They’ll break it again.”

“And now we’re effectively on trial,” Tattletale said, “When we should be hunting her down.”

“Which may be exactly what she wanted,” Grue added.

“You may be giving her too much credit,” someone said.  I was having trouble keeping track of who was talking.  There were too many people in the room, and gathering more bugs would potentially give someone cause to think I was massing a swarm in anticipation of a fight.

Not to say I wasn’t.  I’d been collecting a swarm, hiding them in shadows and beneath cars.  I drew them closer to the building, as surreptitiously as possible.

It was strange, to have more awareness of the world beyond the local PRT headquarters than I had of the room I was currently in.

“Did you miss the part where there were six Vistas?”  Tattletale asked.  “She’s a pain to deal with, trust me.  If anything, you’re underestimating Noelle.”

“I’m forced to agree.  Let’s not underestimate any opponent,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m going to put in my recommendation right here, with full knowledge that there are several people present who outrank me, and I will extend my full cooperation if they should decide on a different route.  I think we should put old issues aside and accept any assistance the Undersiders are willing to offer.  With what happened with Vista, it’s all too apparent how this situation could get out of control, with each of us fighting friends.”

She paused, and nobody cut in.

Miss Militia continued, “We treat this situation as we would an Endbringer attack.  Our side is smaller than we might hope for, but our enemy is more vulnerable.”

She looked to one man, and I realized she was checking with the Deputy Director.  Her superior, so to speak.

He offered a single nod.

“I agree,” Triumph said.  My bugs were still on him, from earlier.  “But we’d need you on board, Assault.”

Assault was standing, hands still on the table.  He didn’t respond.

“We can’t get the Undersiders on board if they’re wondering if we’ll backstab them,” Triumph said, calm.  He wasn’t someone I’d anticipated as an ally, here.

“You mean like they backstabbed us during the Leviathan attack?” Assault asked, his voice a growl.  “Broke the truce?”

“What?” I couldn’t stop myself.  My voice sounded so small and feeble, between the recent spell of coughing and the lack of bugs to augment it.  I wished I could have conveyed more of a presence.  How to word it so it didn’t sound like feeble protests?  “I think you’ve been grossly misinformed.”

Fuck me, I sounded like Coil.

“Would Battery want you to put your feelings and prejudices before duty and the safety of this city?”

Assault slowly turned to Miss Militia.  “You want to play that card?”

“I’ll play it.  And if the Undersiders decide to play it fast and loose with the rules again, I’ll be right there beside you, ready to see them answer for it.”

“We’ve talked about that before.  Nothing came of it,” Assault said.

“This time,” Miss Militia said, “Given precedent, the stakes and the dangers posed by villains unwilling to follow the written and unwritten rules of the cape community, I’d be willing to argue and testify for a kill order.”

I felt a chill.

A kill order.  It was what they had in place for the Slaughterhouse Nine.  No holds barred, official heroes would be allowed to shoot us on sight.  Any villain or vigilante that came after us would be allowed to go free with only a brief questioning for the paperwork after killing one of us.  To top it off, anyone would be able to donate or post amounts for our heads; amounts would be added to running totals.  We’d be waiting jackpots for any bounty hunter or assassin looking for a big score.

I wondered if any of Coil’s wealthier investors or contacts would hold a grudge.

There were any number of arguments against her statement.  We’d done good.  Even Clockblocker had been willing to argue that the calls I’d made weren’t entirely without merit.  I could have pointed out that any number of people in my territory would argue I was a force for good, and that it was ludicrous that we were the ones being held to this standard when they’d been at fault for Armsmaster’s breaking of the truce.  Armsmaster, who had gone free because of hero’s prerogative.  But that same bias meant things had been twisted around, and apparently popular sentiment held us at fault for the breaking of the truce.  It was an unpleasant surprise.

Hell, to give us the ‘one last chance’ line with a situation where there was every possibility of friendly fire?  It was tying our hands, putting us at mortal risk one way or another.

“I’m… willing to accept that,” I said, suppressing every argument and every bit of indignation I was feeling.  I looked in the general direction of my teammates.  “If my team is.”

“You’re the boss,” Tattletale said.  She was quick enough on the draw that I suspected there was a reason she’d said it.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  My bugs caught Imp and Regent nodding.

Rachel’s response was last.  “Whatever.”

“Well then,” Tattletale said.  “Now that that’s settled, in the spirit of being allies, I have some news.”

“News?”  One of the unfamiliar capes asked.  A woman with a deeper voice.  “Good news?”

“Oh, it’s terrible news,” Tattletale said.  “Noelle’s lying.”

“About what?” Miss Militia asked.

“About Vista being dead.”

“That’s terrible news?  Is she in danger?”  Triumph asked.  I sensed him leaning forward to get a better view of Tattletale, past the crush of bodies at the end of the room.

“No.  I can’t say how Vista’s doing, because I don’t know the specifics on Noelle’s power, but she was trying to mislead us, talking about how she’d use us up.  Too much stress on it.  If she’d only said it the first time, I’d be more inclined to think it was part of her stream of consciousness, but then she hammered it in, used it to threaten us.  It felt forced.  Didn’t ring true.”

“Can we believe her?”  This from another unfamiliar cape, a man.  It was apparently directed at Miss Militia.

“She’s… frequently correct,” Miss Militia said.

“Vista’s alive and Noelle’s trying to keep that secret?  What’s so terrible about it?”  Triumph asked.

“Because it means she’s capable of producing more clones.  She’s capable of keeping Vista captive somewhere, continually producing agents to sow destruction and apply the kind of pressure she was talking about, and she’s lucid enough to recognize that fact.”

“How the hell do you keep Vista captive?”

“People,” Tattletale said.

“Then let’s wrap this up fast.  Essential details only,” Miss Militia said.  “Any objection to me taking point?  Eidolon’s not usually comfortable with it, and I’m the ranking parahuman in Brockton Bay.”

There was no dissent.

“Then we’re splitting up into teams.  Stick with the teams you arrived with.  Best to fight alongside people you know.  Standard stranger countermeasures are in effect with the clones.  I’ll assume they retain the memories of the original, based on what she said about the clone going after Vista’s family?”

“They do,” Tattletale said.

“Then we’re restricted to visual ID checks only.  No passwords.  I already got in contact with Dragon.  She’s on a mission and will only deploy here if it’s absolutely essential-”

I caught a sigh from Tattletale.

“-But she’s set the armbands up for the coming conflict.  They’ll display a green screen up until you remove them, and the screens will flash and identify other armband wearers at a range of fifty meters.  Be vigilant.  Keep track of every one of your teammates, maintain a visual, no splitting up.

“Chevalier, take your team, follow after my Wards.  If she can detect capes, we’ll need to assign her a thinker classification, and we’ll need to assume that any isolated groups are at risk.  Undersiders?  Take Myrddin’s Wards and pursue Flechette and Parian.  Ensure they aren’t intercepted.  The rest of us will track down Noelle.  Any indications about her location from the video?”

“Yes, but there’s no point,” Tattletale said.

“You know her location?”

“I know her location as of the time of the call, but she’ll be moving already.”

“Where?”

“The west end.  By the mountains.”

“She went from just east of Downtown to the west end?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’d stake money on it.  But again, it’s no use.”

“It doesn’t make sense in terms of timeline,” someone said.  He sounded slightly nasal.  “The distance covered-”

“Think about it,” Tattletale said.

“Vista,” Miss Militia supplied.  “She had Vista’s power.  And she will have that power at her disposal for the duration of this conflict.”

“And Noelle’s fast,” Tattletale said.  “Put those points together and she’s highly mobile.  Ergo, she isn’t going to be anywhere near where she was.”

“Good intel.  In the interest of finding her, I’d like you to accompany my group, Tattletale.”

“No can do.”

No?”

“I was just about to say I was wanting to stop by my headquarters.  I have a few theories on how we could handle this situation, and one off-the-wall idea that needs some verification before I do anything about it.”

“Nothing that puts any of us at risk?”

“No.  It mostly involves the other Travelers.  But I think it’s worth pursuing.”

“If she comes after you-”

Tattletale cut her off.  “She will.  I’ll join the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards as far as going to Ballistic’s territory to fill him in, ensure he knows that she may come after him.  I’ll see if I can’t bribe him into coming with me.  It’ll be a narrow window of time where it’s just me, him and hopefully his flunkies.”

“You make a high value target,” I said, “Especially with Ballistic in tow.  She wants you dead, and she wants his power.”

“I have ideas.  Don’t worry about me.” Tattletale turned.  “Miss Militia, I’ll be in touch by phone, so you know where you’re going.”

“Fine.  I’m ordering more capes to patrol the area around you, then, if you’re sure you’ll be a target.  Are there any other isolated parahumans in the city that we aren’t aware of?”

“Scrub,” I said.

“He’s working under Ballistic,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll get him on board by any means.  He’s one of the few people, short of Flechette, who can deal guaranteed damage to an Endbringer or Endbringer-Lite, and I have ideas about him and how I could use him.”

“Scrub?” one of the visiting capes asked.  The deeper-voiced woman.

“Uncontrolled matter-annihilation bursts in his immediate vicinity,” I said.  “Ex-member of the Merchants, a local gang of dealers and users.”

“Blaster-eight, easy, if not a straight ten, despite his relatively short range,” Tattletale supplied, “But I’m not sure he does what Skitter thinks he does, and that’s why I want to talk to him.”

“See to it,” Miss Militia said.  “Anyone else?”

“Circus, Leet, Uber,” Grue said.  “They were leaving, but-”

“They’re dead,” Assault said.

“They’re very much alive,” Tattletale retorted.  “And they would have gone west to leave the city.  The same direction Noelle went after targeting Vista.  I think that speaks for itself.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “It does.  If anyone has any questions, communicate them while on the move.  Go!”

The capes began flowing out of the room.  We had seated ourselves at the furthest point from the door, so we were stuck inside until the way was clear.

A small group of younger capes hung back.  Miss Militia had left us a contingent of out-of-town Wards.  I couldn’t get much of a sense of them just with what my bugs could give me on their costumes.  They probably weren’t a full team from a city as big as Chicago; they’d be limited to the ones who’d agreed to fight an unknown, A-class threat.  Three boys and a girl.  They were watching us, and I couldn’t even guess at their expressions without the ability to see or feel things out with my bugs.

I was getting tired of this, and my fatigue was wearing on my already thin patience.

“Bitch,” I said.  “Do me a favor and clear that window?”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t hesitate either.  She was on her feet as soon as she’d lifted Bastard off of her lap, and kicked the plywood free of the frame before anyone could protest.

I brought every bug I’d had outside the building into the room.  They swirled around me, the Undersiders, and the handful of capes on the far end of the room.  I could sense three of the four Wards getting into fighting stances, noted how two of the boys and the girl shielded the one other boy, forming a loose triangle formation between him and us.

The movements of the bugs gave me the ability to feel them out, drawing a complete map of what they were wearing and carrying.

The boy in the very front, the tallest and largest of them, would be a tinker.  The rods that supported his heavy gauntlets were oiled, suggesting they were pistons, and I noted the presence of blunt-tipped spikes inside his gauntlets.  The setup wasn’t unlike the blades in Mannequin’s arms, but these weren’t extending into his body, and I somehow got the impression they were intended for something very different.  His armor was heavy, supported more by engineering than by his own strength, and his helmet covered his face, but not the back of his head, with a single lens on a telescoping nozzle, dead center.

The other boy in front was narrower, with flowing clothes.  He sported a surprising lack of equipment and weaponry.  It gave me the sense of someone who thought of their body as a weapon.

The girl was similar, but I did note that her gloves were reinforced for striking, a framework of some sort of metal, with rivet-like bumps over each knuckle, each etched with a fine design I couldn’t make out and metal filigree feathers at the edges.  She had padding with a similar design and near-identical feathers.

The one in the back wasn’t in a fighting stance.  He stood with his legs together, heels touching, back straight, one palm extended toward us.  He wore a mask that covered one eye and put an oversized lens in front of the other, with spikes radiating from it like the rays of a sun.  His costume was a very lightweight covering of layered and interlocking metal plates, more stylized than functional, but there was a coat-tail length of cloth extending behind the back, hanging to his knees.

I was careful in how I condensed the bugs around me.  I kept my team obscured as I pulled the bugs away from the four wards, leaving enough bugs on them that I could covertly follow their movements.  They hadn’t been stung or bitten, and they didn’t have a clear shot as the bugs moved away from them.  It meant, at least, that they’d get a chance to realize they weren’t under attack.

The bugs filled the necessary pockets of my costume, then carpeted the exterior, including my mask.  They connected to the ends of my hair, and moved beneath it, giving it more volume and helping it come little alive, the ‘ends’ moving in the absence of wind.  Where I had excess, they trailed several feet behind me like the hem of a royal gown.

“That’s better,” I said, augmenting my voice a touch.  It was.  I felt more centered, more secure and confident with the bugs close.  I’d just alarmed the people we’d be working with, but a small show of power would help ensure we got respect and cooperation.

“Your names and powers?” Tattletale asked the Chicago Wards.  She gestured toward the door and we started walking briskly toward the exit.

“Tecton,” said the power-armor wearer.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over his heavy footfalls and the rattle of furniture around him.  He indicated the boy to his right, then the girl, “This is Wanton and Grace.  Our ranged attacker here is Raymancer.”

“Isn’t Wonton a kind of noodle?” Regent asked.

“And Raymancer?” Imp asked.  “They’re really running out of stuff to call superheroes.”

“Play nice,” Grue warned.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said, “A wonton is a kind of dumpling, not a noodle.  Get it right.”

Wanton,” Tecton said, stressing the pronounciation, “Is a breaker-stranger class cape.  He can turn into a localized telekinetic storm.  Raymancer is our long-range fighter.  The three of us are more close-combat types, but Raymancer manages to make it work.

“Grace is a martial artist.  She’s got a power spread.  Faster perception of time, enhanced agility, and a striker-class enhancement for select body parts at a time; invulnerability to both powers and general harm, as well as increased effect on contact.

“And you?  Tinker?” Grue asked.

“Tinker and thinker both.  Architecture and geology sense.  Armor lets me ‘ground’ kinetic energy like you might do with electricity.  These are piledriver gauntlets,” he patted one gauntlet, “For creating fissures, generating localized earthquakes and other controlled demolition.”

“Having tinkers against Noelle is probably our safest bet,” Tattletale said.

“Because she won’t copy their gear,” I said.

Tattletale nodded.

“Good.  Thank you, by the way, for sharing,” Grue spoke to the Wards.  Tecton nodded. Our groups had reached the door that led into the stairwell.  There were officers handing out armbands, and the elevator was in use, forcing us to wait as people got their armbands and hurried downstairs.

“You need our info?”

“No,” Grace said.  Her voice was hard.  “We know who you are.”

Imp cackled, “We’re famous!”

I hung back a second as one officer held an armband and my armor compartment out to me.  I gripped it, but he didn’t let go.

He wanted to play it that way?

I let my bugs drift away from my armor to surround it.  He acted as if I’d set it on fire, letting go and backing away.  I handed it to Tattletale as we passed through the door to the stairs, then strapped on my armband.  I spoke into it, “Skitter.”

How had things gone with Leviathan?  My username would appear.  I held my armband to Tattletale, and she pressed a button.

“No trackers hidden in your stuff,” she said.  “Want help putting this on?”

“Please.  When we’re at the bottom.”

We were at the tail end of the group, and consequently we were the last ones out the door.  The dogs were already mostly grown, and we paused as Bitch increased Bentley’s size to the point that we could ride him.

“We have too many people and not enough dogs,” Grue commented.

“We’ll drive,” Tecton said.  “Just need to requisition a van.”

“I’ll ride,” I said.  “Rachel?”

She nodded.  She was up first, and she gave me a hand in getting up.  I had to fight coughing for a minute.

“Assault’s going to try to screw us over, if we cross paths,” Tattletale said.

“I suspected,” I answered.

“And if this goes south, they will come after us.  The bit Miss Militia said about Battery?  That loses its cachet when people start to feel like the people of this city would be better protected if they turned us in than if we were helping.  We’re going to have to stay on top of this.  Turn around, I’ll help strap on your armor.”

I nodded and turned around.  I moved my bugs out of the way as she fiddled with the straps, threading them through the appropriate areas.  I blinked a few times, looking towards the nearest light source to try to gauge if my vision was any better.  No improvement.  Short of a thorough check by an ophthalmologist, I wouldn’t find out if I’d regain my sight, or how much I’d recover if I did.

Everything I’d been through, and I got the long-term injury as a civilian.

Within two minutes, the Wards had pulled a containment van up beside us, with Tecton behind the wheel and Raymancer sitting in the passenger-side window, holding the headrest of the chair inside to help maintain his position.  The back popped open, and Imp, Regent, Tattletale and Grue climbed in.

Ballistic as our first stop.  Then Parian.

I winced at the pain in my side as Bentley started running.  And maybe collect Atlas while we’re in this area of town.

Tattletale was right.  This situation being classified as a level-A situation instead of a class-S situation wasn’t doing us any favors.  I just had to note how things were different from Leviathan’s attack.  There were no air raid sirens.  People weren’t being evacuated.

Helicopters flew overhead.  I could hear them, even if my bugs didn’t reach that high.  I knew Miss Militia had assigned us capes, for the inevitable event of Noelle sniffing us out and coming after us.  I didn’t sense them on the ground, so I could only assume they were in the air.

Was it better that people weren’t being evacuated?  They weren’t on the streets, in the line of fire if the psycho-Vistas or Noelle came after them.  It meant we didn’t need to deal with unpowered clones.

But it also meant that there were that many more people here if things went south.

There was a potential kill order on our heads, and there were innumerable heroes in the city who had reason to throw us to the wolves, or to Noelle if they thought the situation called for it.  The stakes were higher, and there was a lot more room to fail.  Noelle just needed one lucky maneuver to go from class-A to class-S threat in moments, and we weren’t getting half the backup this situation deserved.

Not to mention that I was worn out.  Physically, emotionally, I felt like I’d been pushed to the limit, wrung out and then pushed to the limit all over again, and that was just dealing with Coil and rescuing Dinah in the past twenty-four hours.  If I got into the past few months, or how the very way I thought had changed-

I felt a touch dizzy just thinking about it.

No.  It wasn’t dizziness.  My surroundings really were off kilter.  The buildings around us and ahead of us were stretching and shifting en-masse.

“Trouble!” I informed Bitch.  I used my bugs to notify the others in the containment van: Vistas.

I had to sweep my bugs over the area before I could find any of them.  One was perched on a rooftop, one block ahead.  She wasn’t in costume.

It had been dumb of me to expect them to be in costume.  I hadn’t even considered it, but Noelle wouldn’t spit out anything but the people themselves.  The bugs noted the hardness of her face, more like a mask than flesh, her angular, almost artificial chin, and the thin hair on top of her head.

The others… too many places to check… I found another, three blocks over, making a beeline towards us.  Noelle had ordered them to space out, to catch us if we crossed her perimeter.

Bastard yelped to my left, skidded to a stop.  Rachel seemed to read something in his response, because she pulled Bentley to a hard left, veering straight into the van’s path.

She was going to hit it?  I had to adjust my grip, lifting my leg out of the way before she could follow through and have Bentley bodycheck the vehicle.  I sensed Raymancer dropping from the window to his seat as the dog hit, only an inch away from serious injury.  The van turned and skidded to a stop, and I fell, rolling.

A block ahead of us, a building toppled.  I ducked my head low and covered it as dust and debris rolled past us as a thick cloud.  The building wouldn’t have hit us, but the debris and dust might have left us incapacitated long enough for the Vistas to act.

We’d ground to a halt, and sure enough, the pseudo-Vista on the rooftop was slowly starting to work on the buildings around us, thinning walls and twisting supports.  She was spreading out the work and laying the groundwork for future collapses, I realized.  The second psycho-Vista, busy trying to close the distance by folding the space between us and her and stepping across the shortened distances, was raising the street between two buildings, creating a steep incline that even Bitch’s dogs would struggle to climb, cutting off one avenue of retreat.

And I was aware of a third one.  The tall Vista Grue had described.  She’d stretched like taffy, her bones curving to the point that each was more a crescent than straight.  Narrow, so thin it felt like she’d break, with a face twisted into a perpetual, distorted scream, she was picking her way through the rubble of the fallen building.  Her power was twisting the largest pieces of rubble around her until they were wisps, chunks of concrete slowly corkscrewing in space until they were nothing more than dust.

Three of them.

And Noelle nowhere to be seen.  Not in my power’s range of four-ish city blocks.  She’d be going for the others.  For Ballistic, or Parian.  These troops were only to slow us down, buy her time to make another move, find another set of powers.

Fuck me.  Noelle was employing the same basic tactics I did: sensing the opposition, strategically deploying the offensive troops, acting as the heavy hitter and problem solver in the center of the chaos her minions generated, working towards complementary or wholly different goals than the ‘swarm’.

Worse, she was better at it than I was.  She was faster, her senses reached further, and the individual at the center of her army was a nightmarish force unto herself.

We couldn’t afford to get caught fighting.  Not while Noelle hit our other allies.

Still flat on the ground, I choked back the next spell of coughs and touched the button on my armband, “We need reinforcements, fast.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #2)

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“Water torture,” Justin said.  “It’s what the C.I.A. uses.”

“No, please.”

Justin shook his head.  “What good is begging going to do?  There’s hardly a point to torture if you want it.”

“The victim can aspirate water during water torture,” Dorothy commented, as though she were commenting on paint shades.  “But I could have been doing it wrong.”

“Burning, then.  Start on the back, chest and stomach, work our way to the extremities.  They say a burn hurts worse than any other pain, inch for inch,” Justin said.  “By the time we work our way to the face, the armpits, or the soles of the feet…”

“Oh god.”

“Scarring,” Geoff said, looking up from his newspaper.  “Chance of infection.  He’d be facing as much risk as he would with the water torture.  It might even be harder to treat.  Harder to explain if we had to go to a doctor.”

“Razors?”  Justin suggested.

“Razors could work,” Dorothy said.  “I’m good with a razor.”

“Hear that?” Justin asked.  “She’s good with a razor.”

“Please.  There has to be another way.”

“There are a number of other ways,” Dorothy said.  “Tearing out your teeth, fingernails and toenails is one.  Castration, force feeding, breaking bones, rats, flaying…”

“I meant besides torture.”

“Psychological methods,” Justin suggested.

“Isolation,” Dorothy offered.  “Sensory deprivation, intoxicants.  Would you like cream in your coffee, Geoff?”

“No thank you, dear.”

“The bacon is done.  Why don’t you two come and eat?”  Dorothy offered.

Justin sighed. “Come, Theo.”

The boy gave them wary looks as he stood from the armchair and crossed the length of their hotel room.  Dorothy had laid out a veritable feast: bacon, eggs, english muffins, toast, french toast, a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of blueberries, and a bowl of fruit salad.  There was orange juice and pots of both coffee and tea.  She was just setting down a plate of bacon, leaving barely enough room for anyone’s plates.

It would have been too much for eight people to eat, but she didn’t seem to realize that.  She smiled as Justin ushered Theo to the table and sat down.  Her clothes were more fit for a job interview than for a fugitive, with a knee-length dress, heels, earrings and makeup.  Geoff, like his wife, was too well dressed for the occasion, wearing a button-up shirt beneath a tan blazer, his hair oiled and combed back neatly.

They can’t act, Justin thought.  They follow their routines like bad actors following a script.  A housewife preparing a meal for her family, the husband at the table.

He’d known that the pair started every day with the same routine, like clockwork.  Wake, don bathrobe, and collect a newspaper.  Geoff would step into the shower as Dorothy stepped out, and she would be done grooming by the time he was through.  Once they were both dressed, they’d head to the kitchen, and Geoff would read the paper while Dorothy cooked.

But always, the details would be off.  Things any ordinary person would take for granted were forgotten or exaggerated.  Dorothy inevitably prepared too much, because it was harder for her to consider how hungry everyone was and adjust accordingly.  Only two days ago, Justin had noted that Geoff would take a few minutes to read the front page of the paper, turn the page, and stop.

Now he couldn’t help but notice.  It was the same thing every day.  For the twenty or thirty minutes it took Dorothy to put everything together and set it on the table, Geoff would stare at the second and third pages of the newspaper.

Justin had asked about the headlines and the articles.  Geoff never remembered, because he wasn’t reading.  He could read, but he didn’t. He spent nearly forty minutes in total, every day, like clockwork, doing little more than staring into space, pretending to read.

Put the paper away, it’s time to eat, Justin thought.  Yes dear.  Mmm.  Smells delicious.

“Put the paper away, it’s time to eat,” Dorothy said.  She was holding the coffee pot, stepped behind Geoff, putting a hand on his shoulder, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.  Automatic, without affection.

“Yes, dear.  ” Geoff said, smiling up at his wife.  “Mmm.  Smells delicious.”

Jesus fuck, they scare me, Justin thought.  But he plastered a fake smile of his own onto his face, grabbed one of the oven-warmed plates and served himself.  Theo did much the same at the other side of the table, minus the smile.

Kayden emerged from one of the bedrooms, her hair still tangled from sleep, wearing a bathrobe.  Mousy, shorter than average, looking exceedingly human, she was Dorothy Schmidt’s antithesis.

“Aster slept well last night,” Justin commented.  “Didn’t hear her crying.”

“She slept through the night.  We just have to maintain a routine as we keep moving,” Kayden said.

“We were just discussing ways to force Theo’s trigger event.”

“It’ll come on its own,” she said.  “We have two years.”

“One year and eleven months,” Theo said.

Kayden glanced at him but didn’t respond.

“It should have happened already,” Justin pointed out.  “It’s easier for children with inherited powers, and Theo’s the son of Kaiser, who’s the son of Allfather.  Third generation.”

“Maybe I didn’t get powers,” Theo said, not looking up from his plate.

“Or maybe you’ve lived a sheltered enough life that you haven’t had a reason to trigger,” Justin retorted.

“I don’t want to get tortured.  Physically or psychologically.  There has to be another way.”

“Torture?” Kayden asked.

“It’s one line of thought,” Justin said, trying to mask his annoyance.  He’d purposefully brought it up while Kayden was out of the room.  “We were trying to think of methods that wouldn’t leave him unable to fight Jack when the time came.”

“No torture.  Theo’s right.  We can find another way.”

Justin frowned, “Every day we wait is a day we don’t have for training his abilities, and he’ll need all of the training he can get.”

“Because I have to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine and Jack Slash.  And he’ll kill a thousand people if I don’t,” Theo said.  “Me and Aster too.”

Justin glanced at the boy, saw the white-knuckle grip he had on his knife and fork, looked at Kayden, who had french toast speared on her fork but wasn’t raising it to her mouth.  She stared off into space as the maple syrup slowly dripped down to the plate below.

She doesn’t know what to do any more than we do.

“You come from a good pedigree,” Justin commented.  “Kaiser was strong enough to rule over the better part of Brockton Bay, as Allfather did before him.”

“Which doesn’t do us any good if I don’t get powers,” Theo mumbled.

“If worst comes to worst,” Kayden said, “We fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Night, Fog, Crusader and I.  Okay?”

Justin frowned, but he didn’t speak.

Theo voiced half the doubts that Justin was keeping silent, “You didn’t fight them last time.  I’m not saying you were wrong to leave, but-”

“But we didn’t fight them then.  You’re right,” Kayden said.  “I’d hoped the others would stop them.  The heroes, the Undersiders, Hookwolf…”

“And they didn’t,” Justin said.  “Which means we have to assume Jack’s going to follow through.  That gives us a time limit.  Theo needs powers, he needs training, we need to find the Nine, and we need to stop them.  What if we went to the Gesellschaft?”

Kayden glanced at the other two who were sitting at the table.  Dorothy and Geoff.  Neither of the two had reacted to the name of the organization that had created them.  Or, at least, they hadn’t reacted outwardly.

“I’m more concerned that they’d help the Slaughterhouse Nine if it meant killing a thousand Americans,” she said.  “And I’m not sure I want Theo to recieve the kind of power they offer.”

“If we contacted them through Krieg…”  Justin trailed off.

“What?” Kayden asked.  She let her knife and fork drop to her plate with a loud clatter.  “You think they’d give us assistance with no strings attached?  That we could call in a favor with Krieg and they’d give Theo powers, without the follow-up attention?”

“No.  No, I suppose not.”

“They turn people into weapons,” Kayden said.  “Then they decide where those weapons are best positioned, for the cause.  There’s two good reasons why they wouldn’t have given fresh orders to Night and Fog since the Empire collapsed.  Either they can’t get in touch with us-”

“I somehow doubt that.”

“Or Night and Fog are forgotten.  Presumed dead or ignored,” Kayden finished.  “In which case we don’t want to remind them that we’re still around.”

“I somehow doubt that, as well,” Justin said.  “They have to know we’re alive.”

“Then what?  Why leave these two in my care?”

“Because it serves their agenda,” Justin answered.  He finished off his plate, spooned some blueberries onto the side, and poured himself some orange juice.

“What agenda?”

“The Empire fell.  The Chosen fell.  Only Kayden Anders and her Pure remain.  If they hope to retain any foothold in the Americas, it’ll be through you.”

“I don’t want to give them a foothold in the Americas.”

“By the sole fact that you exist, you’re giving it to them.  Your reputation, your success, it gives the Gesellschaft the opportunity to say, their cause is being furthered in the West.  Even if your goals and theirs are only aligned in abstract.  So they leave Night and Fog in your care, because it keeps you dangerous, it helps ensure your success, and maybe because it gives them a way to strike at you if they decide you’re a danger to the cause.”

Kayden glanced at Dorothy, studying Night’s civilian appearance.

“More coffee?” Dorothy asked, smiling.

“God, yes,” Kayden muttered.  She held out her cup for a refill.

“What about you?” Theo asked.

Justin turned to look at the boy.  “Who?  Me?”

“Where do you stand, with the cause?”  Theo asked.  Justin didn’t miss the inflection at the end.

“I’m a simple man,” Justin said, smiling.  “I like steak and potatoes.  I like a good fight, a serious game of baseball or football.  American football.  I like a good woman’s company-”

Kayden cleared her throat.  When Justin met her eyes, she was glaring at him.  Not jealousy, more of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Justin smiled a little, more with one side of his mouth than the other.  “-And I believe that they are fucking things up, out there.  And the rest of the world’s letting them.”

“People with different colored skin.”

People with differences,” Justin said.  “Faggots, gimps, mongoloids.  Kaiser got that.  I talked to him one on one, and he had the right ideas.  He got that America is ours, that they’re polluting it over time, letting these people in.  But he was too focused on the big picture, and he was working with the Gesellschaft, which was way too big picture for my tastes.  Still, birds of a feather.  I worked under him because I wasn’t about to find others elsewhere, and I didn’t feel like going it alone.  Then he introduced me to Purity.”

Theo glanced at his onetime stepmother.

“And I think we’re more in sync, Kayden and I,” Justin said.  “If Kaiser was the visionary, the guy on top, the guy with the dream, working to achieve something over decades, then Purity’s the detective working the streets.  And that’s the kind of simple thinking I can get behind.”

“So you don’t support the Gesellschaft?”  Theo asked.

“I can’t support what I don’t understand,” Justin said.  “And what I do understand is that we need to give you your trigger event before it’s too late.  Because Jack and his gang of psychopaths are the sort of freaks I can’t stand, and I’ll be fucked if we let him beat you on this count.  They don’t get to beat us, and you’re one of us.”

Theo drew in a deep breath, as if he was going to say something, and then heaved it out as a sigh, slow and heavy.

“Whether you like it or not,” Justin added, just under his breath.

Theo glanced at him.  He hadn’t missed the comment.

At a normal volume, Justin said, “You’re vetoing the torture, where we’d be trying to get him to a trigger state in a safe, controlled environment.  We need another game plan.”

Kayden sighed.  “For now?  We’ll let Dorothy clean up.  Have you two done your morning sparring?”

Justin shook his head.

“Give Theo some training while I shower, then you two can wash up.  Get dressed to go out.  I have one idea regarding Theo’s trigger event.”

Justin stood with a plate in hand, but Dorothy was already walking around the table, her heels clicking on the tile.  She took the plate from him, smiling.

“Come on, then,” Justin urged the boy.  “Let’s see how much of it’s sinking in.”

“Not much,” Theo said.

“Probably not,” Justin replied.  He reached for his power and stepped out of his body, a spiritual mitosis.  A ghostly image of himself, wearing the same clothes, crossed the ‘living room’ of the space the hotel had given them.  He created two more replicas of himself, one walking until its legs were sticking through the couch.

“Four against one?”  Theo asked.

“You think the Nine are going to play fair?  Now, do you remember priority one?”

“Self defense.”

“Protection comes first, always.  The core of any martial art or self defense.  Perception’s second.  Know what’s going on, because it’ll help you protect yourself, and it’ll help you identify the right moment to strike.  Arms up.  Let’s see your stance.”

Theo raised his arms in the ready position, positioned his feet further apart.

Justin looked the boy over.  He’d lost a little weight, though he wouldn’t look much skinnier if he kept exercising like he was.  He’d put on muscle, and look just as bulky, at least for a while.

But that stance…

Justin suppressed a sigh.  Those one thousand people are fucked.

“Harvard,” Justin said.

“This way,” Kayden said.  She had Aster in a harness, the baby’s head resting against her chest.

“You know your way around Harvard?  Color me impressed.”

“I looked it up online.  This way.  I’d rather not spend too much time in public.”

Justin noted the crowd of older teenagers and twenty-somethings.  It was summer, but the school wasn’t empty.  With the warmth of summer, the students were wearing shorts and short sleeves, as well as short dresses.  Justin smiled at a group of girls as they passed by.  One of them looked over her shoulder at him, gave him a glance that roved from head to toe and back up again.

“Justin,” Kayden said, raising her voice.

“Coming,” he said.  Damn.

They made their way across the campus.  Dorothy and Geoff had stayed behind, leaving Kayden, Justin and Theo to carry out the errand with Aster in tow.

They reached a tower, built to match the other buildings of the campus.  Justin held the door for Kayden and Theo, pausing to note the lettering across the entrance: ‘Dept. Parahuman Studies’.

Fitting.  Kayden’s plan was clear, now.

They entered the elevator, and Kayden checked a slip of paper, hit the button for the ninth floor.  She tucked it into a pocket behind Aster’s back, then kissed her sleeping daughter on the forehead as the doors closed.

“We should get in and out fast,” Justin commented.

Kayden pursed her lips.

“Always have to consider that someone made us, and that they’re calling the authorities.”

“I know,” she said.

“Fuck Coil,” Justin snarled.

Kayden glared at him, and her eyes and hair both glowed with a trace of light.  Some free strands of hair lifted as the light touched them, as if they were buoyant, or as if Kayden was underwater and slowly sinking.  “Watch your language around Aster.”

“She doesn’t understand.”

“But she will, one day.  Get in the habit now.”

Justin sighed.  “Will do.  We going in hard or soft?”

“You could rephrase that.  But this is a soft entry.”

“Right.”

They departed the elevator as it reached the ninth floor.  Kayden double checked the slip of paper, and they began the process of figuring out where the room was.  It wasn’t intuitive, as the rooms didn’t seem to be numbered sequentially.

They stopped at one door that was labeled ‘914’, with a nameplate below reading ‘Dr. Wysocki’.

“What the hell kind of name is Wysocki?  Polack?”

“He’s one of the top researchers on Parahumans,” Kayden said.  “The best in the Massachusetts area.”

“You’re the boss, and it’s your call,” Justin said, shrugging.  “Just saying I pointed it out in advance.”

“What difference is it going to make?” Theo asked.  “Doesn’t make any difference to his ability to do his job.”

“So cute,” Justin said.  He gave Theo a pat on the cheek, and the boy pushed his hand away in irritation.

Kayden knocked, and the door swung partially open.

A young man, no older than twenty-five, hopped out of his swivel chair, pulling earbuds from his ears.  “Ah.  Hi?”

“We had a few questions,” Kayden said.

“I’ve never had a student bring their family before.”

“We’re not students,” Kayden said.  She strode into the room, and Justin gave Theo a push on the shoulder to prod him forward.  When everyone was inside, he closed the door and stood with his back to it.

“Huh.  I thought I recognized you, would have been from class,” the man said.

“We’re not students,” Justin echoed Kayden’s words.  His tone didn’t have the intimidating effect he’d hoped for.  The young man’s forehead was wrinkled in concerns of a different sort.

“You’re not here for the office hours?  Figures.  I sit around for three hours twice a week, five straight weeks, someone finally shows and they aren’t a student.”

“You’re Wysocki?” Justin asked.

“No,” the young man gave him a funny look.  “You’re really not students.  I’m the T.A.  Filling in while he’s at an event.  Peter Gosley.”

He extended a hand, but nobody accepted it.

“Fuck,” Justin said.  “This is a waste of time.”

“If you have questions…” Peter trailed off, letting his hand drop.

“Trigger events,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

Peter’s eyes fell on the boy, widening slightly.  “You have powers?  You just got them?”

“I need them,” Theo answered.

Peter gave them a funny look.  “I… I’m not sure I understand.”

“Tell us what you know about trigger events, and perhaps we’ll explain,” Kayden said.

“I… that’s a broad field.  What do you want to know?”

“How to have one,” Theo said.

“Trust me, there isn’t a single government out there that isn’t trying to pull it off.  None have had much success with the various methods they’ve tried.  Not to the point that anyone else has been able to copy their methodology.  If anyone was succeeding, it’d be off the radar.  Maybe the Protectorate.”

“What methods have they tried?” Justin asked.  “The governments.”

“Anything?  Everything.  Drug induced panic attacks.  Kidnappings.  Torture.  Some with willing participants, some even with participants in the dark.  The Queensland Trials-“

“Stop,” Kayden said.  Peter stopped.  “Participants in the dark?  And nothing worked?”

“It sometimes worked, a lot of stuff sometimes worked.  The problem is, the act of getting a trigger event tends to throw a controlled situation into disarray.  A government or organization pours hundreds of man hours and half a million dollars into identifying people who might be parahumans, by whatever metric they’re using, tracking them, covertly acquiring them, and inducing the parahuman state… and it’d work one in two hundred times.  Half of those times, they’d wind up with a parahuman in an agitated state and things would fall apart.  So a lot of the successes end up being failures of a diffferent sort.”

“But they haven’t found a consistent way of getting people to trigger?” Kayden asked.

“No.  Fact is, it’s harder when you’re trying to provoke a trigger event.  Even if the participant doesn’t know you’re trying it.”

“Why?”  Kayden asked.

Peter shrugged.  “There’s theories.  There’s the specific trigger theory, which suggest that each individual demands a particular kind of trigger event, so any attempts to force it are essentially attempting the wrong form of trigger.  There’s the specific circumstance theory, which is different, because it suggests that it’s not just a particular type of trigger that’s demanded, but the specific time or event.”

“You’re saying it’s predestined,” Justin said.

Some scholars say it’s predestined.  I don’t.  Um.  Other theories… there’s intelligent intervention.”

“Phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin said.

“There’s no need for rudeness,” Peter said.  He adjusted his glasses and frowned at Justin.

“Please phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin clarified.

Please explain,” Kayden said, shooting Justin a look.

“It means there’s someone or something that’s deciding who gets powers and when.  There’s subtheories… Aesthetic analogue, where they’re saying the powers tend to relate to the trigger event somehow, so obviously someone’s doing it on purpose.  Uh.  Intelligent powers, where they say the powers are sentient and they’re making the call on their own.  Ties into other areas of study, and it’s a favorite of mine.  There’s the-“

“This isn’t helping us,” Justin cut in.

“Quiet.  Everything helps,” Kayden said.

“We’re short on time.”

Peter gave him a funny look.  “Look, I’m not fully understanding what you’re getting at.  It’s great that people are interested in this stuff, but this notion you have that, because your son wants powers, you’re somehow going to give him a trigger event?  That’s a little freaky, it’s not really possible.  And, uh, it’s borderline abuse, if not actual abuse.”

“It’s a complicated situation,” Kayden said.  “What else can you tell us about trigger events?  Beyond theories?”

“The manner of trigger event seems to impact the powers.  That’s frosh level stuff.  Physical pain, physical danger; physical powers.  Mental pain, mental crisis?  Mentally-driven powers.”

Justin frowned.  And being the brother of a dying, half-blind, deaf retard of a girl who got all the attention?  All of the gifts, the money?  Being made to get surgery for her sake, give up years of my lifespan so she might live?  Getting caught pulling the plug, only for it to do little more than set alarms going?

Was his power really a mental power?  He’d always considered it more physical.

He looked at Kayden, studied her concerned expression.

Peter was still talking, responding to something Kayden had said.  “Drugs tend to create conditional powers.  It’s not hard and fast, but you get situations where the power is directly linked to one’s physical, mental or emotional state.  We think it’s because the power works off a template it builds as the powers first manifest.  If someone is riding an emotional high as they trigger, their powers will always be looking for a similarly excited state to operate at peak efficiency, often an emotion or drugs.  When people were caught trying to fabricate trigger events, sometimes they were intending to use this so the subject would be more easily controlled.”

“I wonder if lack of food and water could create similarly conditional powers,” Kayden commented.

“I’m… are you talking about starving him?”  Peter’s eyes were wide now.

“Not at all.  I’m… speculating.”

Justin could follow her train of thought.  He’d heard the story through the Empire’s grapevine, once.  A sixteen year old girl, driving for the first time, down a side road, getting in an accident where her car rolled off the road, out of sight of anyone passing by.  Trapped… starving, dying of thirst.

Getting powers that fed off and required other resources.  Light.

He glanced at her, and she offered him a curt nod.  Without speaking, they’d come to a mutual agreement that this ‘Peter’ knew what he was talking about.

“What’s the impact of being the child of a parahuman?” she asked.

“Um.  I love that you’re interested, and yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything, but maybe if you have this many questions, you should take a class?”

“He’s the son of a parahuman,” Kayden said, pointing at Theo.

Cat’s out of the bag now.

“No kidding?  Wow.  Who?”

“Kaiser,” Kayden said.

Peter’s eyes widened as he looked at Theo.  Then something seemed to click, and he looked up at Kayden and Justin with a note of alarm in his expression.

“Yeah,” Justin said.  “Smart man, and you’re only figuring it out now?”

“I saw the stuff on the news.  Thought I recognized you.  Purity and…”

“Crusader.  So maybe now you understand we’re serious.  And how we’re not interested in taking a class,” Justin said.

“If he’s Kaiser’s son, and Kaiser’s Allfather’s son… he’s third generation.”

“And he doesn’t have powers,” Kayden said.  “It’s crucial that we fix that.”

“I… I don’t really know.  It’s supposed to be ten times easier to get powers if you’re second generation.  But we don’t have research on third generations yet.  It’s only pretty recently that we had the first third-generation cape on record.  The baby in Toronto.”

“Didn’t hear about that,” Kayden said.  She frowned.  “A baby?”

Peter’s eyes fell on Aster.  “Oh.  Wow.  Is she third generation too?”

“Pay attention,” Justin said.

“The… yeah.  Each successive generation seems to produce younger capes, by lowering the barrier to entry, the severity of the requisite trigger event.”

“So why haven’t I triggered?”  Theo asked.

“I don’t know.  There’s a lot we don’t know.   Maybe… maybe you don’t have powers.”

“I have to.”

“It’s a question of luck.”

“You don’t understand.  If I don’t get powers, a lot of people will die.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Justin said.  “Give us all the information you have.  Every way you’ve heard about people trying to trigger, and how well they worked.”

“That’s a six month lecture series unto itself!”

“Talk fast,” Justin said.

“Um.  There’s meditation.  Either to tap into your deeper psyche or to tear down the walls between yourself and your worst fears.  There’s theories that the powers themselves are intelligent, and they’re worked into the host’s head, before or after the trigger event.  Sometimes the meditation’s related to that, but it’s usually people trying to have a second trigger event.”

“That’s not relevant to the boy, is it?” Justin asked.

“The research is related!  There’s a lot of research into second trigger events because it’s a lot easier to find willing parahumans than it is to find potential parahumans.  The methods that people try tend to be similar, too.  It’s just… a lot of the time, they fail for opposite reasons.”

“Opposite?”  Kayden asked.

“It’s not confirmed, it’s just an idea, but the idea the powers are sentient?  Well, either the second trigger event opens up communication, frees the powers to act on their own more, or if you don’t buy that stuff, it breaks down the mental barriers between the altered part of the brain that controls the powers and the part that doesn’t.  At least, that’s going by the patterns we’ve seen.  Except… well, we think sometimes the reason people can’t have a second trigger event is because they’ve already had one.  You can’t really distinguish a single trigger event from having two in quick succession.”

“Like a multiple orgasm,” Justin commented.  Kayden glared at him.

“More or less.  There’s more parallels than that, but yeah.”

“Crusader is right, this isn’t helping him,” Kayden said.

“What kind of trigger events did Kaiser and Allfather have?”

Kayden and Justin exchanged glances.

“No idea,” Kayden said, frowning.

Peter frowned.  “That would have helped.  At least we know they both had similar powers.  Allfather could conjure iron weapons from the air immediately around himself, send them flying.  Kaiser could call metal out of any solid surface.  Both are the kind of powers you’d see from almost purely mental trauma.  If the trend continues…”

He trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging.  Theo would probably require mental trauma to trigger.

“Hard to imagine Kaiser having mental trauma.  He seemed so confident,” Kayden said.

“His dad was Allfather.  Not so hard to imagine,” Justin replied, absently.  He thought of the college girls and stepped over to the window, curious if he’d be able to make out any from this high up.  He froze.

“Kayden,” he said.

“What?”

“Cops.  And containment vans.”

“Someone made us?”  Kayden asked.

“And saw us enter the building,” Justin finished.  “They’re surrounding us on the ground.”

Shit!”  Kayden swore.

Aster whimpered, then started crying.

Didn’t you tell me to watch my language in front of Aster?  Justin thought.

Theo was sitting in a swivel chair, hands clasped in his lap, his eyes watching Kayden, waiting for her cue.

Justin noted the tension of Theo’s grip, the way he seemed to retreat into himself.  The fat little boy who was nothing like Kaiser.  Maybe he hadn’t inherited powers at all because he wasn’t his father’s son.  If his mother had cheated on Kaiser, gave birth to this pudgy blob, it would explain why he didn’t have powers.  It would mean he wasn’t a second generation cape, let alone a third.

“Hmm.”  Justin watched more PRT vans arrive.  They were spreading out, clearly anticipating Kayden’s artillery-level attacks, and they had the damn foam-bead nets they used for dealing with fliers.  “Theo, who’s your mom?”

“Heith.”

Justin sighed.  Heith was Fenja and Menja’s cousin and guardian, Kaiser’s first wife, killed in a turf war with the Teeth, back in the old days of Brockton Bay.  She has powers after all.

Somehow, all of this would be easier if he could believe that Theo was illegitimate.

“Crusader,” Kayden said, “Can you stall them?  We have more questions.”

He nodded, shut his eyes, and drew on his power.

It was as simple as stepping forward while staying in the same place.  A ghostly phantom appeared, followed by another, and another.  One headed for the elevator shaft, while the other headed for the stairwell.  He directed the remainder to sink through the floor.

“What else can you tell us?  Something we can use,” Kayden said.

“If the authorities are here, I don’t know if I should say.”

“You should,” Justin said.  “Because we’ll hurt you if you don’t.”

“Don’t,” Theo said.

Justin gave the boy his best dispassionate look.

“He’s been helpful,” Theo said.

“He hasn’t solved your problem,” Justin said.  He was dimly aware of his other selves engaging with the enemy as they moved into the building.  One fought them in the stairwell, immune to any strike or bullet, yet fully capable of pushing a man down the stairs, into the people behind him, fully capable of strangling a man.

Peter shifted positions nervously.  His voice rose in pitch as he spoke, “I don’t know what you want.  I can’t give you an answer because there aren’t any!

Think,” Justin suggested.

“You expect me to do in five minutes what the best scholars in the world haven’t figured out in thirty years?”

“Well put,” Justin said.  More clones were still splitting off, breaking away from himself to sink through the floor.  Some had moved beyond the building to attack the men who were manning the turrets on top of the van.  With luck, he and Kayden would be free to fly to safety with the children.

“This… this is insane!  What am I supposed to tell you?  I’ve outlined some of the best theories we have!”

“If it helps,” Justin said, leaning towards Peter, “I’m going to kill you if I don’t leave here satisfied.  Think about that.”

“Kayden,” Theo said, “You’re not going to let him, are you?”

“Crusader,” Kayden said.  “Is that really necessary?”

“I can’t even think straight under this pressure!” Peter cried.

“I imagine you feel very similar to someone about to have a trigger event,” Justin said.  “Maybe that will inspire something or fill in the blanks for some half-baked idea you had once.”

“I don’t… There’s isolation.”

“An isolation chamber?” Justin asked.

Peter shook his head.  “No.  More basic.  It’s a common trend.  People who have trigger events, they don’t usually have a good support system.  Their family, their friends, they tend to fail them, or be the cause of the problem.  I… I wrote a paper a while back about how Masters tend to have loneliness as part of their trigger events, and how maybe that was why Masters tend to be villains.  Because you need support and social pressure to be more of a good guy.  My professor then, the guy who I work for now, Dr. Wysocki, he tore me to pieces.  Too many other parahumans have it as part of their history.  Isolation.  It wasn’t enough to suggest a correlation.  He said you could call it a common theme for nearly all of the trigger events out there.”

Justin was in the middle of creating another ethereal copy of himself when he stopped.  It snapped back into place.  He thought back to something earlier in the day.

“Kayden, let’s go.”

“What?”

“I’ve got our answer.  Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

Justin nodded.

“To the roof?” she asked.

“As fast as you can move with the baby.”

Kayden rose into the air, her hair and eyes lighting up.

“Come on, Theo,” Justin said, “I’ll carry you.”

He spawned a ghostly replica as Kayden left the office.  Theo hesitated as the replica got closer.

“What’s wrong?” Justin asked.

“What he just said…  You’re going to leave me.  Isolate me.”

“Yeah,” Justin said.  His ghost-self lunged, and Theo threw himself back with such force that he fell over in the chair.  The ghost was on him in a second, pinning him down to the floor with one hand around his throat.

“Don’t.  You heard what he said.  If you force it, it won’t happen,” Theo protested, his voice barely above a wheeze with the hold the ghost had on his neck.

“I’m willing to take that chance.  In the worst case scenario, you’re their problem, not ours.  The heroes can look after you and figure out what to do with you.”

“Justin!  Crusader!”  Theo managed a strangled scream, but Justin was already in the doorway, not even pausing or hesitating at his words.  “It won’t work if you try to make it happen!”

Justin left Theo behind, stepped into the stairwell, noting a gap between the stairs that was big enough to fly between.  He created a clone and left it overlapping his body, using its flight to lift himself into the air.

Kayden hadn’t flown for safety yet.  She was waiting on the rooftop, Aster writhing in the harness, screaming bitterly.

“Fly,” he said.

“Where’s Theo?”

“Would you believe me if I said he was coming?”

He could see her expression shift in time with the realization.  “You didn’t.”

“I did.  And you won’t go back for him.”

“Like hell I won’t.  He saved Aster when Jack was going to kill her, he might have saved me in the process.  I owe him-“

“-And we’re paying him back by leaving him.”

“No.  No, we aren’t.”

“He’s one of our own, kind of.  I get that.  But… he was never going to help the cause.”

“The cause,” Kayden spat the word.

“Purifying the world, cutting out the rot, becoming a symbol of better things.  It’s not him.”

“He’s my stepson.”

“And isn’t that the problem?  Remember this morning, at breakfast?  He was worried he wouldn’t get powers.  That he wouldn’t be able to stop Jack.  And how did you respond?  You reassured him.  You told him we’d fight the Nine if he couldn’t.”

Kayden only glared, eyes shining with painful brightness.

“When you said that, part of me, I thought we didn’t fight the Nine then, how could we two years from now?  Theo said it outright.  He’s sharper than he looks sometimes.  Sharper than he acts.  But here’s the thing, at the same time, a part of me felt like I’d realized something, and it took me until now to get it sorted in my head.”

“What?”

“You’re reassuring him, when that’s the last thing we want.  When there’s a crisis, he looks to you.  The most basic requirement for a trigger event is you get to a point where you can’t go anywhere.  Pushed to your limit and then pushed further.  He can’t get there so long as we’re there as a safety net.  As a support system.”

“So we’re supposed to abandon him?”

“We just did,” Crusader said.  “The authorities are just getting to the ninth floor now, my clones are letting ’em by.  By the time we got there, they’d have him secured, and they’d be ready to spray us with that foam.”

“You could use your power, disable them without any risk.”

“I could.  But I won’t.”

Kayden flared with light, and for a second, he thought she was going to shoot him.

The blast of solid light didn’t come.

Justin sighed, “He’ll be hurt, he’ll be pissed, and he’ll be alone.  They’ll quiz him on us, get every detail they can, and if I know him at all, it’ll tear him up, because he might not like us, but we’re the closest thing he’s got to family…”

Kayden glanced toward the door.

“…And that’s the best thing we can do for him right now,” he finished.

“I never was the mom he needed,” Kayden said.

“Well, it’s too late now.”

She walked over to the roof’s edge, peered down.  “Any net launchers?”

“Nobody to aim them now.  Everyone’s fighting my doubles.”

She glanced back toward the door, absently cooed for Aster to stop crying.

There was a flash of light.  By the time it cleared away, she was merely a glinting speck in the distance.

He glanced at the door, then flew after her.

Up to you and you alone now, boy, he thought.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Miss Militia didn’t respond.  She stared down the length of her gun at Tattletale.  I could believe that if we gave her cause, any of the rest of us were an instant away from getting shot.  We had bulletproof armor, but there wasn’t anything saying she wasn’t using the fanciest armor-piercing rounds.  Her power supplied whatever hardware she wanted.

“We didn’t take Vista,” I told her.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Tattletale said, “We’d take her, do that sort of damage, and then come back?  Approach you guys peacefully?”

“I’m beginning to see why Armsmaster was so frustrated with you, Undersiders.  Every time we run into you, we’re left in the dark, vast amounts of information missing from the overall picture.  There’s always surprises.  So I’m paying very close attention to what you are saying.  Case in point, you say Vista was taken, and not murdered.”

“I don’t think she was killed,” I said.  Tattletale nodded.

“That’s good to know,” Miss Militia said.  She sighed, “When you’re going on the offensive, there’s nothing held back, you don’t pull any punches, short of murder… and you apparently came damn close with Triumph, Skitter.”

Triumph folded his arms.

She continued, “If you’re not trying to kill us, you’re approaching us with open arms, asking for help, putting us in a situation where we can’t accept without breaking our rules, but refusal comes at a cost.”

“It’s that second bit,” Imp said.  Some of the heroes wheeled around to find her standing on the opposite side of her group.  I managed to hide my own surprise.  Imp added, “We’re here because we need help.  This is a nasty one, too.”

Miss Militia turned back to me, and her voice was a little harder.  “I thought so.  It’s your pattern.  Except there’s always information missing.  Information withheld.  You said you were indirectly responsible for this?”

“You caught that,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me.  “Should we dish out the dirt?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have to anyways.”

“Full disclosure,” Tattletale said.  “We were working for Coil.  The Travelers were too.”

Miss Militia didn’t move a centimeter.  Some of the other heroes did.

“He’s dead, in case you weren’t aware,” Tattletale said.  “And the Travelers are a little upset, because they were counting on him to help them out.”

I could imagine Tattletale smiling.  She’s misdirecting them.  They think he died at the debate, but she’s talking about the real death.  The death at my hands.

Miss Militia shook her head.  “I doubt this was the Travelers.  We heard howling, and this wasn’t Genesis.  Analysis of her file by some of our top guys suggests she has limits to the strength of whatever forms she’s chosen.  Strong, yes, but not enough to tear half the wall off the front of a building in the time the witnesses described.  I would, however, believe Hellhound’s dogs could do it.  Besides, Genesis has never been on record shapeshifting to resemble someone or something.”

Never? I thought.  She crafted her bodies in a dream state.  I knew she’d made a body that resembled her real self, but the rest…  Did it take too much effort to get the aesthetic details exactly right, to the point that it cost her in other departments?

“When the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked,” I said, “Do you remember who they targeted?”

“Armsmaster, Regent, Hookwolf, Panacea.  Two more.  With the appearances Mannequin and Burnscar made in the Boardwalk, we belatedly discovered Hellhound was another, and we were theorizing you were the last of them, Skitter.”

“I got in their way too many times,” I said.  “But they didn’t want me.  But the last one was Noelle.”

Her gun shifted a fraction towards me.  I wasn’t sure she was aware she was doing it. “Noelle?”

Tattletale spoke up, “The Travelers have two other members who don’t see much action.  Oliver handles their day-to-day stuff.  Finds and prepares places for them to settle down, gets food, looks after Noelle.  Noelle…”

“New York,” Miss Militia interrupted.  “She’s the one that’s responsible for the disappearance of those forty people?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Tattletale said.

“The reason the Travelers have been operating like they are,” I told Miss Militia, “Going for the quick and easy cash grabs and constantly moving, it’s been for her sake.  Trying to find someone who can help.  They found Coil, or Coil found them, and they thought they had the answer they needed.  Except now Coil’s dead.  Noelle’s snapped, and it’s very possible Vista was her first captive.”

“What does she-” Triumph started.  He stopped as Miss Militia raised one hand.

“You’re good at this, Undersiders,” she said.  “But I do learn my lesson.  I won’t get caught up in your story, I know you’ll have to give me the details, if this situation is as serious as you say.  But let’s postpone that for a minute.  Why don’t you start off by explaining how you’re indirectly responsible for this.”

I turned to Tattletale.  She gave her head a small shake.

“What aren’t you telling us?”  Miss Militia asked.

“Stuff,” Tattletale said.  “Surrounding the circumstances of Coil’s death.  But getting into the particulars would create more problems than it solves, for you guys and for us.”

“I dunno,” Assault said, from behind Miss Militia, “I doubt staying quiet is going to help you much.”

“Did you have something to do with the explosion at the town hall?”  Miss Militia asked, and there was a note of anger in her voice, “The way things went wrong?  The deaths of those reporters, the injuries sustained by the retired Director and the candidates?”

“No,” I said.  “I swear on everything I stand for that I, we, didn’t play any part in planning or setting that in motion.”

“You can understand if we don’t take you at face value on that, nice as it sounds,” Assault said.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Get your hands on the evidence from the scene, some of the blood and bits from the bodies.  Send them out of town.  Discreetly.  Get another lab to run DNA tests.”

“Why?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It’s pig meat.  Almost all of it.  Glued together with transglutaminase.  Human bone, and human blood, probably, but if you look for it, you’ll find antifreeze.”

“Antifreeze?”

“Glycerol.  It’s how they store it at blood banks.”

“You’re saying it was staged,” Miss Militia said.  “Despite the fact that we had Wards on scene, innumerable witnesses.”

“Despite that.”

Miss Militia straightened a fraction, “And of course, we can’t check it now.  So you’re expecting us to work with you in the meantime, help you with whatever problem you’re suggesting you’re partially to blame for setting in motion, and when the lab tests come in, long after the situation’s resolved, we’ll find you were lying.”

Assault added, “And somehow, conveniently, you come out ahead when all’s said and done.  A handful more of your enemies injured or dead.”  There was a hint of emotion punctuating the end of the statement.  Battery.

“Telling the truth,” Tattletale said.

“This situation’s serious,” I told Miss Militia, “And if you do what we’re suggesting, I can assure you, we don’t wind up in a better position at the end of this.”

“Why’s that?” Miss Militia asked.

It was Grue who answered her, breaking his silence with his deep, eerie voice, “Because we’re recommending you call in the big guns.  Call in everyone.”

“Class S threat,” Tattletale said.  “Or damn near.”

The tip of Miss Militia’s gun wavered as she started to react and then stopped herself.  Neither she nor any of the heroes moved or spoke for long seconds.

When she did speak, she said, “There’s six class S threats active in the world at large.  The Endbringers make up three of them.  The Slaughterhouse Nine as a group are a fourth.  You’re saying this Noelle is on par with one of them?”

“She’s a nascent Endbringer,” I said.

“Bullshit!”  Triumph shouted, not a half second after I’d said it.

“Fuck me,” one of the Wards said.  It was only after he opened his mouth again that I saw it was Weld.  “Please tell me this is another one of Tattletale’s mind-games.”

“Explain.” Miss Militia demanded.

“She’s maybe a nascent Endbringer,” Tattletale said.  “It’s one theory.  Her powers are transforming her, and she’s getting less human, getting tougher and more desperate every day.  Coil was keeping her contained, with heavy vault doors and promises of a fix.  Now she’s free and she’s pissed.”

“And this hypothetical individual has Vista?” Clockblocker asked.

“It’s very likely she has Vista,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Coil’s precog said she wouldn’t cause any real damage until dawn.  That’s… one hour and twenty-nine minutes from now.  I guess this kind of incident doesn’t count as anything serious.”

“You have Coil’s precog in your custody?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Dinah Alcott?”

“I took her home,” I said.  “Her powers are currently disabled, so resist the urge to go to her and ask her for help with this situation.  Everything she’s been through, she deserves some peace.”

“Assault,” Miss Militia said, “Let’s get some confirmation that at least some of what they said is the truth.  Get in touch with the Alcotts.”

“On it,” he said.  He drew a rugged smart phone from his belt and put it to his ear.

“I think it’s time you guys offer the particulars on this ‘Endbringer’,” Miss Militia said.

“She’s as strong as Leviathan, physically,” Tattletale said, “She’s not as tough, based on what I’ve seen.  Have you read the notes on what I told Alexandria after Leviathan’s attack?  About the density of Leviathan’s body?”

Miss Militia nodded.  “Higher density as you penetrate deeper to the core, to the point that it bends the rules of how molecules and atoms should work.  It makes sense.  Armsmaster had a molecule-severing weapon that couldn’t cut through all of Leviathan’s hand, and it explains why nearly all the damage we do is so superficial.”

“Noelle doesn’t have that yet.  I’m not sure if she ever will.  We don’t know if she’s really becoming an Endbringer or not.  What I’ve seen of her was only partial, a camera feed with dim lighting on the other end,” Tattletale said.  “But everything she eats gets added to her biomass, and I think she’ll probably reach a critical point and stop growing, start fortifying what’s already there instead.”

“She’s big?”  Weld asked.

“She’s big,” Tattletale said.  “And if she gets her hands on you, she’ll eat you whole.  Spit you out along with a copy.  Copies with powers like yours.  Stronger, tougher, meaner.  Understand?  When this fight starts, it starts for real.”

“She duplicates people,” Miss Militia stated.

“And the duplicates aren’t on our side,” Tattletale replied.  “You’re going to have to call for backup at some point, it’s just a question of whether you do it before shit goes down or after.  When you do get in touch with the PRT heads and get the a-ok to call a red alert or whatever it is you do, you’re going to want to be very careful about the kind of cape you request, because we might wind up fighting them.”

Assault had finished his phone call and was waiting for Tattletale to finish talking.  Miss Militia turned her attention to him, and he said, “Story checks out.  Kid’s at the hospital, recovering from a long stint of drug abuse.”

“The situation they’re describing is too dangerous to be ignored.  We’ll move forward with this.  Tentative cooperation,” Miss Militia announced.  “In exchange for our trust and our assistance, the Undersiders will give us one hostage.”

“How about me?” Imp offered.  Her tone was light, joking.

“Someone who we can keep track of,” Miss Militia said.  “Rachel Lindt.  Hellhound.  If you’d please step into the van?”

“Fuck that,” Rachel replied.

“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Grue said.  I couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“You, along with Skitter, are problematic due to the sheer amount of damage you could do in the enclosed space of a van.  Tattletale’s more damaging in other ways.  It would help if we knew exactly what her powers were…”  Miss Militia trailed off, inviting a response.

“Not sharing,” Tattletale said.  “And I just had my turn at being a hostage.  Not sharing the details on that either, for the record.”

“Regent’s too dangerous.  We don’t know exactly how long it takes for him to achieve full control, and our records suggest he can regain control instantly.  Even if we assume it takes an hour or more, we can’t trust that we won’t end up in a crisis situation where Regent’s being kept in custody for an extended period and gets the opportunity to use his power on someone.  Not to mention the possibility that he could call Shatterbird to his location.  Separated from her dogs, Rachel Lindt is the least threatening and most vulnerable member of your team.  The optimal hostage, if you will.”

“And she won’t accept being separated from her dogs or being kept in custody,” I said.  “I will.  I can hand you my weapons and send my bugs away.”

“Skitter,” Grue said, “No.”

Miss Militia folded her arms, unconvinced.

I reached over my shoulder, slowly, and unbuckled my utility compartment.  Tattletale grabbed it for me as it came free, and the straps fed out through the rings beneath the shoulder panels.  She handed it to me, and I drove away the bugs I’d gathered inside.  When they were gone, I sent away the bugs that were nestled in the midst of my hair, beneath each of my other armor panels and the ‘skirt’ of my armor, where it covered the scorched leggings of my costume.

“So many fucking bugs,” Clockblocker said.  “They have to weigh as much as she does.”

“No, not as much as you’d think,” I said.  I turned to Miss Militia.  “Satisfied?”

She extended a hand for the concave, spade-shaped piece of armor, her gun turning into a handgun in the meantime.  “Triumph, pat her down.  Everyone else, get ready to mobilize. Assault, you’ll be riding my bike.  I’ll sit in the van.  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, and Kid Win, with me.”

I waited while Triumph roughly pat me down, running his fingers into the folds and crevices of my armor and beneath my belt.  He found the two pieces of paper I’d folded and tucked inside, shook them out as if there might be powder inside, unfolded them, read them, then put them back the way I’d had them.

I felt like saying something to him, but wasn’t sure what.  Sorry for attacking your family and nearly murdering you?  It sounded almost taunting.

Miss Militia led the way to a containment van, and I followed, feeling oddly lightweight.  She opened the back, indicating we should gather inside.

They arranged themselves with Clockblocker and Weld sat to either side of me, Miss Militia, Flechette and Kid Win opposite me.  The door slammed shut as Kid Win got himself seated.

I had only a few bugs in place to get a sense of their positions.  Few enough that I might have lost track of who was who if I wasn’t careful.  Using one of these bugs, I did a minor, peripheral sweep.  They didn’t have weapons pointed my way, but Flechette and Kid Win did have weapons on their laps, a crossbow and laser blaster.

“You’re shorter, looking at you like this,” Clockblocker said.  “Tall for a girl, but… not tall.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You didn’t get rid of all your bugs,” Clockblocker commented, as the truck started moving.  He was looking in the direction of the patrolling mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

He noticed.

“Not all,” I agreed.

“Why not?”

Because I’m blind, and I’m utterly helpless if you take all the bugs away, I thought.

“Too much of it’s automatic,” I said.  “I got in the habit of using my power to survey the situation, and now it happens even without my thinking about it.”

“Thinker one,” Weld said.  “Because your bugs let you sense things to the point that you might be a short-range clairvoyant.”

“That’s about what the Director said,” I replied.

I heard a click, and bugs moved to the source of the noise to investigate.  Miss Militia had my utility compartment in her lap, and she was holding a handgun.  Mine.

“Only one shot remaining.  Two reasons that might be the case,” she said.  “Saving it for yourself, or it was used and you haven’t reloaded.”

“The latter,” I replied.

“Who have you been shooting?”

Your Director.  “Mannequin.  And shot through some boards so I could break them.”

“Oh?”

“Long story.  I haven’t really thought to reload it.  I don’t use the gun much.”

“Obviously,” she said, but she didn’t elaborate.  “String?”

“Can you leave stuff where it is?”  I asked.

“I’m curious why you have coiled string in your backpack here,” she said.

“It’s a utility compartment, not a backpack.  It’s so I don’t have to have the spiders make it in the middle of a fight.”

“Spider silk,” Kid Win spoke his realization aloud.

Miss Militia continued, “Pepper spray.  Changepurse with… cotton swabs?  I see, it’s to mask the rattle of spare change.  And smelling salts, needles.”

“Please leave everything where it was,” I said, a little firmer.

I’d collected a few bugs on the various objects she’d withdrawn from the interior of the compartment.  I sensed her putting things back, watched to make sure she was putting everything back properly and in the right place.

Clockblocker, though, leaned across the back of the van and picked up the baton.

“You’ve got stuff like this that’s high quality, but then the other stuff’s so mundane,” Clockblocker commented.  “Odd for someone half the nation’s paying attention to.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said.  “Not really watching TV these days.”

“You guys took over the city, which is something that’s usually limited to psychos like Nilbog or the third world nations.  I guess with Coil gone, you’re queen of the local underworld.  Or is it Tattletale who’s taken that position?”

“We’re partners.”

“You sound so matter of fact about it,” Clockblocker said.  “You’re not ashamed?  Guilty?  Or proud?”

“Stand down, Clockblocker.  She was gracious enough to be our guest.  Don’t provoke her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“I’m not bothered,” I said.  I’m more annoyed at you picking through my equipment.  “And I don’t feel anything about being in charge.  It is what it is.”

“And you’re not afraid at all, being a hostage?” he asked.

“Should I be?”

“You violated the code by association when you took someone, took control of someone.  The same someone who you saw unmasked.  You violated the code again when you attacked Triumph’s family.  So what’s stopping us from tearing off your mask right now?  The same code you’ve disrespected and broken?”

“Look me in the eye,” I told Clockblocker, turning my head to face him, “And tell me you don’t think Shadow Stalker was a deeply damaged, broken person before we ever got our hands on her.”

He faced me square on, “She was also a hero.”

“She was a hero because the other choice was juvie,” I said.  “In the months leading up to our kidnapping her, she was using real crossbow bolts.  Shooting them at people, Grue included.  If I remember right, she wasn’t supposed to have or be using any lethal ammo, on penalty of jail time.”

“Do you have evidence?” Miss Militia asked.

“Would it matter?  Does it matter?  Judging by what I saw, in my limited interaction with her, she was pretty psychotic.  There’s no way you guys spent all that time with her without something crossing your radar.  The night we took her, I baited her out and she tried to cut my throat.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Miss Militia said, “But again, I have to ask for evidence.  I can’t take you at your word, there’s procedures to be followed.”

“Procedures that tie your hands,” I said.

“And they protect us at the same time.”

“If you’re looking for a reason why we’re in charge,” I said, turning towards Clockblocker, “That’d be a good place to start.  You guys knew you had someone bloodthirsty and fucked up working beside you.  You accepted it, probably accommodated her.  Probably cut her slack in other areas, because I doubt she was an angel outside of costume, either.”

I let that sit with them for a moment.

“Yeah,” I said.  I shifted positions on the bench.  “We aren’t limited by oversight and bureaucracy, and we don’t pretend our lunatics are kid-friendly.”

“And without that oversight, you’re free to kidnap people like her and subject her to torture,”  Clockblocker said.

“That’s enough,” Miss Militia said.  She wasn’t quite as sharp as before, but her words were somehow more effective.

We rode on in silence for a few long moments.

“You smell like smoke,” Clockblocker said.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said, “I reserve every right to adjust your patrol schedule if you won’t stop engaging Skitter.”

“I’m really okay,” I told her, keeping calm.  If I’m ever going to shake the idea of Skitter being this unpredictable, dangerous felon, it’s now.  “I’m not going to flip out and hurt someone because I don’t like what they’re saying.  When I said I shot some boards, it was to escape a burning building.”

“Coil wasn’t lying when he said he set your headquarters on fire,” Weld commented.

“He was,” I replied.  “This was something different.”

“Fuck it, give me shit patrols,” Clockblocker said.  “I’m not going to just sit by and obey orders, when I have a chance to get answers.”

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said the name in a warning tone.

“That’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” I muttered.  “Recognizing when the bureaucracy is hindering more than helping, pushing against it.  I can respect that.”

“Don’t compare me to you,” Clockblocker said.

“Okay,” I said, smiling a little behind my mask, “I won’t.”

“I’m wondering how the fuck you can justify doing any of the shit you’ve pulled and act high and mighty.”

“I won’t deny I’ve done stuff,” I said, “But I somehow doubt it’s the same stuff you’re thinking about.  But I had reasons for everything I did.  If you want to tell me what you think I’ve done, I can try my hand at explaining myself.  Provided you’re willing to hear me out.”

“Clockblocker,” Kid Win said, “Listen to Miss Militia.  This is the kind of stuff that goes on your record.”

Clockblocker shook his head.  “Fuck my record.  Let’s start with the takeover.  Justify that.”

“It put me in a position to help people.  Visit my territory.  People there are healthier, happier, safer, because of what I’ve done.”

“Except the ones Mannequin and Burnscar killed.”

I didn’t have a ready reply to that.

“No comment?”

“I tried,” I said.  “I did what I could to help the people in my territory.  Maybe my being there did more harm than good.  I don’t know.  But I tried to help.”

“Let’s call that one a draw, then.  What about how things turned out with Panacea and Glory Girl?”

“I already quizzed her on this,” Flechette said.

“I want to hear it from her myself.”

“That was Jack, not me,” I said.  Flechette nodded, snorted just loud enough that she knew I’d hear it.  It was very ‘I thought she’d say that’.

“But you were one of the last people seen with Glory Girl.  You were sighted in Panacea’s company,” Clockblocker said.

“I tried to help her.  Talk to her.  We invited her to join the Undersiders, because she was in a bad headspace, she needed other perspectives beyond her own.  But she finished giving Glory Girl medical care after Crawler’s spittle had burned through half her body, she refused our offers to help and refused Tattletale’s suggestion that she fix what she’d already done to Glory Girl’s head… Tattletale knows the full story there, though I have suspicions.  The next time I saw her, she was talking to Jack, and he was getting to her, fucking with her head.  Stuff happened, I went after him, and it was the last time I saw her.”

“She had a freak-out, you know,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in a bad headspace, sure, but she was a good person.  Healed people I really care about when she didn’t have to.  That’s why I’m pressing you on this stuff, no matter what Miss Militia might put on my record or do to my patrol schedule.  Because Amy deserves to have someone stand up for her, in her absence.”

“I’m sorry she freaked, but it wasn’t my fault.”

“It was bad.  She took Glory Girl with her, you know.  When Gallant died, Vista saw the body.  When Aegis was mashed to a literal pulp by Leviathan, to the point that he couldn’t function anymore, when he died, despite his power?  I got to see the remains to verify for myself.  But Victoria Dallon was still alive and they didn’t let us see.  A select few adults and family members got to see her, they carted her off to a parahuman asylum and none of the rest of us got to say goodbye, because the end result was that fucked up.”

“I didn’t know, I’m sorry,” I said.  “But that wasn’t my fault.”

“Fine.  I’ll concede a point for you, then.  You tried, maybe.  One-naught.  What about Battery?”

“I was with Jack and Bonesaw, affected by the miasma, thought they were my friends.  Battery was giving chase.  Around the time I figured out what was happening, she got attacked by the mechanical spiders.  She was fine when I left her.”

“Assault blames you.  Probably why Miss Militia didn’t have him riding in the van with us.”

“Okay.  If I’d been in a better headspace, I would have backed her up.  But there was the possibility Jack would get away, and the miasma-”

“It fucked with all of us.  Fine.  Let’s call that another draw.  Can’t judge you either way with that stuff in play.  Triumph?  His family?”

“Didn’t know he was Triumph until we were in the thick of it,” I said,  “But I did it for Dinah.  It doesn’t excuse it, but I did it for her.”

“How’s that work?”

“To get into a position where I could free her, I had to get close to Coil.  He’d already clued into the fact that I was planning on betraying him if he didn’t let her go, put the screws to me, basically.  Forced me to do what I normally wouldn’t.”

“It had nothing to do with keeping control of the city?”

I hesitated.  “I didn’t say that.  I could try to justify it, explain how I really felt like I was doing more good than harm and what all that meant, but it would take too long, cover too many details I’m not willing to share, and I’m not a hundred percent convinced I’d buy it myself.  I’ll concede that one to you.  Not in a position to defend or explain it.”

“One-all, then.  Let’s talk Shadow Stalker.”

“We’re back to that?”  I asked.

“She was an asshole, dangerous, didn’t even like her, but she was still a teammate of mine.  Some of your teammates might fall into that camp, so maybe you know how I feel.”

“Maybe.  But like I said, we weren’t holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue.  You guys were.”

“Our focus right now is you.  You, who drove Shadow Stalker into a corner, to the point where she flipped out on her mom and tried to hang herself with an electrical cord.”

What?

“…I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.

“Do you feel bad about it?  I’m genuinely curious.”

“I feel… less bad than I should,” I said.  “But yeah.  It isn’t nice to hear.”

“Because of what happened, because she was still reeling from the time she spent as your meat puppet, she attacked her mom, who called the authorities.  They caught up just in time to catch her in her room, electrical cord around her neck.  Cost Shadow Stalker her probation, meaning she got stuck in some parahuman detention center until she’s eighteen.  And word is her mom doesn’t want her back when she’s finished the three-year sentence.  Last straw and everything.  Her life, put on hold, her family shattered.  Maybe she was damaged like you said, but you took her captive and tormented her until she went off the deep end.”

“I’m not happy she was pushed that far,” I said, “That’s ugly.  You’re right.  But getting her off the streets?  Yeah.  That’s worth it, at least.”

“What I don’t get is… why?  Was the data from that computer really so important?”

“Coil needed it, and I needed Coil happy.  Either he’d like my work enough to free her on my request or he’d trust me enough that I could catch him off guard and help her escape some other way.”

“I’m sure Dinah would be thrilled to hear that,” Clockblocker said.  “Some other girl’s life ruined for her sake.  How does a supervillain warlord react to that sort of news, by the way?  Finding out a heroine tried to hang herself?  Do you sit in your swivel chair, stroking your tarantula and pull off your best maniacal laugh?  One more enemy out of the way?”

“I didn’t know,” I said.  “Not until you told me what happened to her.”

“That seems to be a recurring theme,” he commented.  “You do stuff, you have reasons, like your apparent feeling that, oh, it’s okay because she was a violent personality, but you don’t pay attention to the ending, to everything that comes after.  A whole lot of people have been screwed up and hurt in your wake, Skitter.”

“I react like you see me reacting.  I don’t enjoy it.  No maniacal laughing here.”

“But you plan to continue doing what you’re doing.”

“I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing in the future,” I said.  “Aside from stopping Noelle.”

“That’s a good point to end this particular discussion,” Miss Militia cut in.  “I will be adjusting your patrol route and noting this minor infraction on your record, Clockblocker.  I hope you’re more or less satisfied with this discussion.”

“More or less,” Clockblocker said, handing the combat baton to Miss Militia.  “Unless our local Supervillainess-in-chief wants to pursue further debate.  I think I was ahead by one.  Two-one.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said.  I left it at that.  No, I’m not entirely sure I want to hear the full details on any of the other stuff.  Quit while I’m only a little behind.

If he knew me a little better, I wondered just how targeted those questions could get.

I’d killed a man, and I still didn’t feel bad about it.  I didn’t feel anything in particular when I thought about it.

In a way, I’d taken the perspective that I didn’t feel bad about it because it wasn’t wrong.  He was a bad person, irredeemable, and it had been the only option.

Except now Clockblocker’s words and his tone were resonating within me, and I was left just a little less confident about the conclusions I’d come to, in terms of the stuff we’d discussed and all the little events that had added up over time.  I’d made peace with who I was and who I was becoming in part because my peers were limited to other villains and civilians who I could dismiss because they didn’t have the full perspective of life on the battlefield.  My dad was among those civilians, it almost pained me to admit.

I wasn’t entirely certain I felt so peaceful now.  Most things, I couldn’t imagine I’d really do them differently, given the circumstances and the knowledge I’d had at the time, but the decisions weren’t sitting quite so easily as they had been.

It was several minutes before the van stopped.  Assault was the one who opened the door, and Clockblocker held the front door of the PRT offices open for me, in a very ironic manner.  My team was already waiting in the lobby.

I’d entered once as a prisoner and thief, once as an invader and kidnapper.  It was an eerie thing to be entering as ally to the good guys, when I’d never felt further from being one.

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