Interlude 20

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

If Accord didn’t know better, he might have thought this little soiree was located here with the sole purpose of irritating him.

Wait, he did know better.  Tattletale.  She would have done this just to beleaguer him.

The Forsberg Gallery.  The building had once been a pristine, albeit distressingly asymmetrical construction of glass and steel.  Now it was a shattered ruin.  There was little rhyme or reason to the design, and navigating was something of a chore.

To his right, as he ascended a staircase, there was a wing that jutted out from the side of the building, six stories up, like an architectural tumor.  With the damage done by Shatterbird’s attack, the only glass that remained in the building was scattered across the floor like a winter frost.  The offending growth on the side of the building had sustained some damage, more likely a consequence of the vibrations than damage from the glass itself, and the reinforcements that had been made to shore it up only served to make it uglier.

Inelegant, unbalanced.

His power immediately began supplying answers and solutions.  He was on his guard, and the first thoughts to his mind were of offense and harming others.  As clear as if he were seeing it for himself, he could see a pendulum, disguised among the steel frame of the building, swinging from a point above, and he could hear the sound of steel on steel, like a sword being drawn from its sheath, only at twelve times the scale.

With the appropriate design, the impact would be clean, almost muted.  His enemies, isolated within the wing, would make more noise, screaming as the reinforcing struts and the rivets holding intact beams to the larger structure were shorn away.  The end result would see his enemies dead, and the building improved, more balanced.

Ten minutes to draw up the blueprint.  Eighty to a hundred minutes of labor, depending on the skill of the craftsmen.  Two hundred and forty five minutes of labor if he did it himself… and the result would be stronger, better and more efficient if he did.  One thousand, four hundred dollars plus salaries.

Impractical.  Getting his enemies into the area would be hard.  Impossible, if they had any intelligence at all.

He dismissed the thought, but others were already flooding into place.  Him and his two Ambassadors in the offending wing, connected to nearby buildings by an arrangement of steel cables.  Not one pendulum, but seven.

One pendulum would cut the tumorous wing free.  It would swing out on the steel cables, between the two buildings.  With the right angle, it would swoop between the two nearest buildings.  The right mechanism, and one cable could come free at the right moment, allowing a change of direction.  They wouldn’t even lose their balance, as the angle of the floor and centripetal force kept them steadily in place.

With attention to details, they’d even be able to step free of the platform, as though they were departing a ski lift.  The wing would then slingshot into the rubble of a nearby building, cleanly disposed of.  The Forsberg Gallery would be pulled apart, steel cut from steel by the shearing blades of the pendulums, the weight and movement of the mechanisms serving a second purpose by magnifying the damage, pulling individual pieces free of one another and setting the complete and total destruction of the building into motion.

The unseemly Forsberg Gallery would crash to the ground, with many of his enemies inside, while he and his Ambassadors watched from the point where they’d disembarked.

He loathed making messes, but cleaning up after the fact was so very satisfying, whether it was mopping up the gore or seeing the lot cleared of debris.

Thirty two minutes to draw out blueprints for the pendulums and work out the sequence needed for best effect.  Three hundred to three hundred and forty minutes of time to set it up.  He could estimate costs north of eleven thousand dollars, not counting salaries.  None of the materials were particularly expensive in and of themselves, and he had any number of businesses in his pocket where he could acquire those materials at a significant discount.

Somewhat more practical, but impossible.  He didn’t have the time to set it up, not for tonight.  It made for an elegant image, if nothing else, somewhat soothing.

No sooner had he turned away from the idea of violence than other thoughts were forcing their way into his mind’s eye.  The outstretching wing being transformed from an edificial cyst to a bridge, with similar connections networking the entire city, each bridge and connection point changing individual points of design into a series of gradients.  Architectural styles and building heights would change from a stuttering, jilted progression to something flowing, a seamless wave

Accord closed his eyes briefly, doing what he could to shut it out.  It didn’t help.  He had a sense of the building as a whole, could imagine reconfiguring it, removing the parts that jutted out and using them to fill gaps towards the building’s center mass.  He’d worked with his power to see things through the various lenses of viability: money, resources, time, personnel, but that was almost a detriment now.

He opened his eyes to search for something to take his mind off of the irritating aspect of the building’s design, but he saw only glass shards, discordant in how they had fallen throughout the building.  Some had been swept out of the way by people who’d taken up residence in the Gallery, but the heaping, lumpy piles of glass, dust and debris weren’t any better.  He caught a glimpse of a soggy sleeping bag and the scattered contents of a supply kit and wished he hadn’t looked.

Images rifled through his mind.  A network of wires, drawn taut by a weight plunging through the elevator shaft, moving in concert to sweep the glass shards and signs of human life into the elevator shaft.  The same wires would catch his enemies, mangling them as they were cast down after the rain of glass.  Between the long fall and the thermite that could reduce the mess to a fine, clean ash, even more durable capes wouldn’t be walking away.

No.  It wasn’t constructive to think this way.

On the uppermost floors, plexiglass and a large volume of water mixed with a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a sudsing agent, sweeping through the building.  Staggering it, so the water from the highest floor could clean away the soap-

Rearranging the glass shards into a kaleidoscopic-

“Citrine, Othello,” he spoke, interrupting his own train of thought.  “Distract me.”

“I’m not so comfortable with this vantage point,” Citrine said.  “The climb only tires us out, and the vantage point doesn’t suit any of our abilities.  It puts us in a weak position.”

“Sir,” Othello whispered.

“…Sir!” she belatedly added.

Accord was ascending the stairs just in front of her.  It might normally be impossible, but here, it was easy: to turn and deftly slice her throat with the folded blade within his cane.  Quiet, efficient.

He stopped partway up the stair case and faced her, saw her unharmed and unhurt.  His Citrine, young, blond, wearing a goldenrod yellow evening gown and a gemstone studded mask.  Her hair was immaculately styled, her makeup flawless, with a yellow lipstick that matched her outfit without being garish.

Accord’s left hand folded over the right, both resting on top of the ornate cane.

She stopped, glanced at Othello, beside her.  “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Everything and everyone in the appropriate place,” he said.  “Not just in terms of physical position, but socially.  Courtesy and acknowledgement of status are pivotal.”

“I know, sir.  It’s not an excuse, but I was tired from the walk and the climb, and I was thinking of strategy, in case we were ambushed.  I will endeavor to do better, sir.”

“We all have to do better.  We must all strive to improve.  A step backwards is a tragic, dangerous misstep.”

“Yes sir.”

As if he were watching himself on film, he could see himself pushing her down the stairs.  Not so steep a fall as to kill her, but the pain would enforce discipline, and the act of discipline would both help drive the point home for her and quiet his own thoughts.

But the bruises, cuts any broken bones, her inconsistent attempts at suppressing any sounds of pain as she joined him on the trek to the upper floor?  It would only make things worse.  More disorder.

The thoughts were so sharp they were difficult to distinguish from reality.  He shifted his hold on his cane, staring into her eyes.  She still stood before him.

With just the fractional movement of his hands, there was a change in her body language.  Muscles in her neck and shoulders grew more taut, her breathing changed.  She said, “Sir-”

“Shh,” he said.  She fell silent.

His left hand cupped her chin, his eyes never leaving hers.  More of a reaction: her eyes flickered, moving mere milimeters as she strained to maintain eye contact.  he could feel the warmth of her breath on his wrist as she exhaled slowly, the faintest of movements against his hand as she shifted her weight to stay absolutely still.

His thumb brushed against her cheek.  Soft.  He knew she dedicated an hour every morning to caring for her skin, another hour to her hair.  Unlike hers, his gaze was unwavering, assured.  In his peripheral vision, he could see her chest rise and fall.  He wasn’t a sexual creature, not in the base, animal sense.  The idea of intercourse, it didn’t appeal.  The mess of it.  But she was a thing of beauty, nonetheless.  He could appreciate her from an aesthetic standpoint.

Citrine had shifted out of place, though.  A square peg, just askew enough that it wouldn’t slide into the hole designated for it.  It jarred, and it cast a pallor on everything else that was right about her.

As his fingers moved, tracing the line of her jaw, drifting to her chin, the idea of cutting her throat invaded his thoughts.  A quick, clean severing of vital flows.  He could see the lines of tension in her neck as she stretched it, striving to keep it absolutely still.

Again, though, the disorder, the disruption.  Blood was so messy, and as much as he might relish the opportunity to take thirty minutes from his day and clean up back in a more secure area, others would see, and it would throw too many things out of balance.

There wasn’t a right answer here, and it bothered him.

Thinking rationally, he knew he was irritated.  The location, even this city, they didn’t suit him.  He couldn’t act on that, not yet, and the resulting dissatisfaction affected how he responded to the little things.

His fingers broke contact with her chin, one by one, as he contemplated his options.  By the time his index finger had dropped away, he’d decided.

“You’re my best ambassador, Citrine,” he said.

She was breathing just a bit harder than she had been, as the tension that had drawn her entire body tight was released.  A flush touched her cheeks as she responded, “Yes sir.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“Yes sir, I’ll do my utmost to ensure you don’t have cause to.”

“Please do,” he said.  He noted that the flush had spread down to her decolletage.  Not the result of fear or anger.  Another base emotion.  “Citrine?”

She glanced at him.

“Calm yourself.”

“Yes sir,” she breathed the words.

He glanced at Othello, who wore a black suit and a mask divided between alabaster white and jet black.  The man hadn’t commented or flinched as Accord addressed Citrine.

Accord turned and started ascending the stairs again.  “Quicken your paces.  I refuse to be late.”

Intrusive thoughts continued to plague him.  He’d once described it as being very similar to the sensation one experienced on a train platform, a ledge or while standing in front of fast moving traffic, that momentary urge to simply step forward, to see what might happen.

Except the thoughts were sharper, with more weight to them, more physical than ethereal.  His power was problem solving, and every problem demanded to be addressed. The solutions were posited whether he wanted them or not, one step and hundred-step plans alike.  And it never ended.

Every flaw needed correcting, every imbalance needed to be weighed again.  Mediocrity could be raised to greatness.

The greater the problem, the faster he could solve it.  He’d taken the time one afternoon to solve world hunger.  Six hours and twenty-six minutes with the internet and a phone on hand, and he’d been able to wrap his head around the key elements of the problem.  He’d drafted a document in the nine hours that followed, doing little more than typing and tracking down exact numbers.  A hundred and fifty pages, formatted and clear, detailing who would need to do what, and the costs therein.

It had been bare bones, with room for further documents detailing the specifics, but the basic ideas were there.  Simple, measured, undeniable.  Every major country and ruler had been accounted for, in terms of the approaches necessary to get them on board, given their particular natures and the political climate of their area.  Production, distribution, finance and logistics, all sketched out and outlined in clear, simple language.  Eighteen years, three point one trillion dollars.  Not so much money that it was impossible.  A great many moderate sacrifices from a number of people.

Even when he’d handed over the binder with the sum total of his work, his employer had been more concerned with the fact that he’d shown up late to work for his job.  His boss had barely looked at the binder before calling it impossible, then demanded Accord return to work.  A mind like his, in an office handling economic oversight within the PRT, looking for the precogs and thinkers who were trying to manipulate the markets to their own ends.

It was only one imbalance, one irregularity, but it had been an important one.  It had nagged at him, demanded resolution.  He had to prove it was possible.

So he’d siphoned the very funds that his department was managing.  It hadn’t been hard to redistribute some of the wealth that the villains and rogues were trying to manipulate.  One ambiguous evil for the sake of an undeniable good.  He covered his tracks flawlessly.

In the process, he failed to account for the full breadth of his newest coworker’s talents.  Thinker powers interfered with one another, and despite his ability to work with that particular drawback, even help them to work in concert, the clairvoyant had found him out.  He’d been caught, jailed, and subsequently freed by the jailbreak specialist he’d contacted well in advance.

Here he was, years later.  Nobody he’d contacted had taken to his ideas, and government after government had failed to thoroughly read the documents he sent them.  Nobody raised the subject of his work to the United Nations or any major political body.  They were too interested in maintaining the status quo.

His plans weren’t observably closer to fruition, but he had contacts and he had wealth, and that went a long way.  He would take the slow, steady path to victory.  The binder relating to world hunger had been expanded on, with the addition of further binders to detailing the specifics.  Other sets of binders had joined it, each relating to a major issue: disease, population, government, energy, and climate.  He spent an hour and a half every morning ensuring that everything was up to date with recent changes to the economy and international politics.

The recent altercation with the Slaughterhouse Nine in Boston had been a setback, but he remained confident.  Twenty-three years to see it all through.  Twenty-three years to bring the world into order.  Everything was a step towards those ends.

Even this, as much as the setting and the people grated.

They reached the top floor and came face to face with the Teeth.  Seven parahumans, wearing costumes that bristled with blades, spikes and spines.  They managed to wear the trophies of their defeated enemies without looking primitive.  Teeth, eyes, dessicated body parts and bones were worked into their costumes, a collective theme that promised aggression and violent retaliation for any slight.

Accord tightened his grip on his cane.  He itched to end them.  His mind burned with hundreds of ideas on how to do it.  Traps, ploys, ways to set them against one another, or ways to use the other people in the room against them.

The Teeth didn’t get in his way as he led his two ambassadors around the periphery of their group.  There were no windows, and the wind sent minuscule shards of glass dancing over the tiled floor, periodically glinting as they caught the light from the flood-lamps that were set around the room.

“Welcome, Accord,” Tattletale greeted them.

He surveyed the group at the end of the long table.  They weren’t holding back, in making a show of power.  No less than six dogs were chained in place behind them, each mutated and grown to massive size by Bitch’s power.  Their number was bolstered by the addition of a massive spider and a scorpion, both wrought of black cloth.  Silk?  Skitter’s silk?

Regent stood by Imp, a costume of predominant white contrasted by a costume of black.  They seemed to be exchanging murmured words.

Bitch wore a mask that looked much like her dogs did, bearing a black jacket with thick, shaggy fur around the edges of the hood and collar.  She didn’t flinch, even as one of her larger mutants growled and gnashed its teeth inches from her head.  The creature’s ire was directed at Accord, not her.

Parian’s style of dress had changed from the images Accord had seen in his research.  Her hair was no longer blonde, but black, her frock matching.  The white mask she wore had a crack running down one side.  She was very diminutive compared to the others, almost demure with the way she sat at one side of the table, hands folded, as though she didn’t want to be a part of this.

Tattletale, by contrast, was seated on the cloth scorpion, just beside a large monitor.  She was cavalier, her hair wind-tousled, disrespectful by her very body language, sitting askew.

He had to work to ignore her.  He turned his attention to the figures at the head of the table.  Grue stood behind the chair, one hand set on the backrest, a demonic visage wreathed in absolute darkness. Skitter sat at the end, backed by her forces, looking over the room.  Bugs swarmed her from the shoulders down, but Accord could note a shawl and hints of protective armor.  Neither the yellow lenses of her mask or the expanse of black cloth that covered her face gave any indication of her mood or expression.  Either the images that he’d seen had been misleading, or she’d done some work to her mask, making the mandible-like sections of armor that ran forward from her jawline sharper and more pronounced.

Dismissing Tattletale’s greeting, Accord spoke to Skitter, “We finally meet.  Good evening.”

“Good evening,” she said, her voice augmented by the accompanying buzzes and drones of countless bugs in the area.  “Have a seat.”

He took a seat midway down the length of the twelve-foot table, and his ambassadors sat on either side of him.

The Fallen must not have been terribly far behind him, as they arrived less than a minute after he did.  Valefor and Eligos.

Valefor wore a delicate-looking mask without eye-holes: a woman’s upper face with closed eyes.  Beneath the mask, he had a sly, perpetual smirk with tattoos that colored his lips black and extended from the corners.  The ink depicted fangs poking from thin lips that nearly reached his jaw, the points alternating up and down.  His costume was almost effeminate, with white and silver feathers featuring heavily on flowing white clothes that clung to his narrow body, including a corset that drew his waist in.

The costume was meant to invoke images of the Simurgh, no doubt.  Crass.  Eligos’ costume wasn’t so fine, suited more for a brawl, but it, too, conjured up thoughts of an Endbringer: the Behemoth.  Obsidian horns that swooped back over his head, heavy armor that resembled rhino hide in texture and claws built into his gloves.

“Valefor, Eligos, members of the Teeth, now that we’re all here, I’ll ask that you take a seat,” Skitter said.

“Why should we listen to you?” Valefor asked, his voice was incongruous with his outfit, bearing a slight southern twang.  He leaned over one chair, his arms folded over the backrest, taunting.

“It’s customary for there to be violent retaliation if someone causes trouble at a meeting like this,” Skitter said.  “Usually involving every other party that’s present.”

“I’m not saying I’m intending to cause trouble,” Valefor said.  “I’m wondering why we should follow the schoolgirl.  I’m sure everyone here saw the news.  Did you see the news, Butcher?”

“Yes,” the leader of the Teeth answered.  A woman stepped out of the midst of the group of Teeth.  She was elegant, long necked and long-limbed, with her hair tied up in a high ponytail.  Her mask and armor had an Asian style to it, though the costume were studded and trimmed with a number of wickedly barbed blades.  More incongruous, there were three bleached skulls strung to one another and hanging around one shoulder.

The costume, it was asymmetrical, lacking harmony, trying to do too many things at once.  The samurai, the headhunter, the bloodletter.  None of it fit the title she wore: Butcher.

Images flickered through Accord’s mind.  Ways to obliterate both costume and wearer. More difficult than it seemed, given just who she was.

As if to punctuate Accord’s line of thinking, she effortlessly lifted a gatling gun and set it down on the end of the table.  The sheer mass of the weapon was imposing enough that Accord momentarily wondered if the other end of the long wooden table would lift off the ground.

The woman very deliberately refused the offer to sit.  She’d spoken only one word, but managed to convey a great deal with her actions.

“Very embarrassing,” Valefor mused aloud.  “Really, I don’t see why you should get to sit at the head of the table.  A sixteen year old girl, a victim of bullying, it doesn’t conjure up the most imposing image, does it?”

“If everyone agreed to suspend the usual rules, I would be more than happy to go head to head with your group,” Skitter replied.

“Of course you would.  You outnumber us.”

“Just me,” Skitter answered him.

“That so?”  Valefor smiled, considering.

Accord surveyed the situation.  Valefor was a stranger, less in terms of his ability to hide, and more in his ability to engage in subterfuge.  He had only to look on a target with his naked eye, and the fight was over.  It was no small wonder, really, that he’d styled himself after the Simurgh.  The effect was all too similar, in how the victim was often unaware of what had happened until it was too late.

Yet Skitter didn’t seem to mind.  Was it a decoy?  An empty costume?  No.

A trap?

Accord studied the area around Valefor.  What would he do, with her abilities?

He saw it: almost invisible, except where the light caught it at the right angle.  Threads, surrounding Valefor, trailing from his corset, his elbows and knees.

They were all trailing in the direction of the window.  If they were pulled taut, Valefor would be dragged outside.  Depending on how well they held, he’d either dangle or fall to the street below.

“Valefor,” Accord spoke, the layers of his mask shifting to emulate his smile, “Trust me when I say you already lost the fight.”

“Is that so?”

“I won’t spoil the conclusion if you’re eager to see this through.  One less threat to worry about.  But if I may offer my own opinion, I think the response she gave, given the situation, was eminently reasonable.  I gained respect for her, seeing how it unfolded.”

“Then you’re a fool.”

“Regardless, I won’t condone fighting here.  It sets a bad precedent.”

“Yes,” Butcher said.

Valefor frowned.

“That’s that, then,” Skitter said.

Accord studied her.  He could see her swarm in the shadows behind the floodlights, moving in anticipation of a fight, no doubt.  Their presence nettled him almost as badly as if they’d been physically crawling on him.  They were all of the issues he’d had with the glass, but they were alive.  He knew he could make them stop, make them go away, simply by giving an order to his ambassadors.  Not that it was a possibility.

He glanced at Skitter.  “I think you and I both know you’d win the fight.  But how final would the outcome be?  You’re in the seat of power.  More villains will arrive with every passing day.  Are you prepared to kill?”

“Is this some kind of head game?” Valefor asked.

“It isn’t any manner of head game,” Accord responded.  “I’m curious.  Her response would shed a great deal of light on the discussion tonight.”

“Yes,” Skitter gave her belated response.  “But I’d like to keep to the unwritten rules, as abused as they have been, lately.  Killing should be a last resort.”

“I see.”  She has some other trap on hand?  The bugs at the edge of the room?  “Can I ask if- no, wait.  Don’t tell me.  I’ll enjoy it more if I discover it for myself.”

“Very well.  Now, if everyone would be seated, we can begin,” Skitter said, resting both elbows on the table.  

It wasn’t quite straight, Accord noted.  The table was askew, in relation to the rest of the room.  Solutions flickered through his mind’s eye, ranging from ones as simple as standing to push the table into a proper position to a flat-faced wrecking ball that could slam into the building’s side.

No, he had to focus.  He could distract himself by figuring out Skitter’s contingency plans.

Butcher seemed to come to a decision, but that was normal for her, to take some time, ruminate.  To discuss, for lack of a better word.  She sat at the end of the table opposite Skitter.  She was tall enough to be seen head and shoulders over the massive gun.  Her followers didn’t sit, but stood in a half-circle around her, a mirror to Skitter’s own group.

“Valefor,” Skitter spoke, and her voice was more ominous, hinting at the sheer number of bugs lurking at the edges of the room, “Either take a seat or leave.”

Valefor glanced over the room, then shrugged, as if he didn’t care anymore, sitting.  Eligos followed his cue.

And Accord realized Skitter’s contingency plan in the next instant.  Silk wasn’t just attached to Valefor, to him, even.  She’d connected silk to the furniture.

The table.  She could drag the table with the silk lines, each laid out to fit in the gaps between tiles, nearly invisible.  In doing so, she’d sandwich any one group between the table and a wall, or leave them clinging for a grip, almost falling.

How would she drag it?  Another mutant dog?  Some counterweight?

Regardless of the answer, Accord felt oddly pleased with himself.  The danger posed by this trap didn’t even concern him.

“Let’s talk business,” Skitter said.  “Whether you like it or not, the Undersiders have prior claim on this city.”

“A matter of a week and a half,” Valefor said.

“Prior claim,” Skitter repeated herself.  “We have rules, and if you bend or break these rules, we’ll be forced to act.”

“I’ve already discussed your rules with Tattletale,” Accord said.

“You had your chance to accept the terms we were offering then.  Now the rules we’re stipulating have changed.  No killing.  Cross that line and we kill you.  Several members of our team are capable of doing that without you knowing we’re anywhere nearby.  If you’re lucky, Imp slits your throat with you none the wiser, or Regent has one of your underlings stab you in the back, and you go quick.  If you’re unlucky, Bitch’s dogs tear you to shreds, and it’s a long, drawn out, painful process.  If you’re very unlucky, you get the worst of both worlds, and you deal with me.”

“What if there’s someone that has to die?” Valefor asked.  “Sometimes killing is necessary.”

“You come to me.  I decide,” Skitter said.

“There’s no new detail here,” Accord said.  “Tattletale outlined much the same thing, though with less in the way of threats.”

“I’m not even close to done.  Property.  We will find out about any territory you acquire.  Whatever you pay for the land, you pay us a third.  That includes the cost of buying the land itself, rent and taxes.  If you’re not paying property taxes or rent, we still expect an appropriate amount.”

“Expensive,” Accord said.

“You could have accepted our earlier offer,” Skitter replied.  “If you want out from under that particular constraint, any of you may fold your organizations into ours, coming under our direct authority.”

“This is a passive takeover, then,” Accord said.  “You intend to put the squeeze on us until we cave.”

“I am very, very tired of people telling me what I intend,” Skitter answered him.  “Our territory borders are marked with our individual signatures.  Traffic in anything illegal or harm someone within any of these areas, and we retaliate.  Target any of us, and we retaliate as a whole.”

“It doesn’t sound like it leaves us much elbow room,” Accord replied.  “I have yet to see an area that wasn’t already marked as being in one territory or another.”

“Then you grasp my meaning.” Skitter added, “My next point: during any Endbringer event, or the possible incident at the end of the world, you send half of your powered membership or three members to assist, whichever is more.”

“This is bordering on the ridiculous,” Valefor said.  “You expect us to fight the Endbringers?”

“You?  No.”

“You’re picking a fight,” Valefor said.

“I’m giving each of you the option of obeying, leaving or fighting,” Skitter said.  “The Ambassadors will accept the deal as posed.  They won’t like it, Accord may even hate me, because of my powers and my less predictable nature, but they’ll accept.”

“Is that so?” Accord asked.

“Yes.  You’ll do it because you have resources that you can use to leverage what unfolds when they’ve finished scouting the other side of the portal and open it up for business.  You wouldn’t come all the way here and then leave because you didn’t like the terms.”

“There are the other options.”

“Fighting us?  You have only two underlings that survived the attack in Boston.  As strong as they are, you’re not equipped to fight.  You’ll join us because it’s the fastest route to get what you really want.”

Ah, Accord thought.  Tattletale filled her in.

It made life a little easier, and a little harder, in very different ways.

Skitter leaned back, one hand resting on the table.  “What was it you said to Tattletale?  Everyone and everything has a place?”

“More or less.”

“Your place isn’t on a battlefield, opposite the Undersiders.  It’s in this city, building an infrastructure and gathering resources for your long term plans.  You’ll accept an expensive rent and a limitation on criminal activity for that very reason.”

“You would have me risk good help on fruitless fights against immortal killing machines,” Accord said.

“That too,” Skitter replied.  “I don’t expect the Fallen will accept the terms, with the restriction about fighting Endbringers, but I doubt they’re long for this city anyways.”

Valefor stood from the table.  Eligos joined him.  Together, they strode from the room, silent.

“That was a touch rash,” Accord commented, “insulting them.”

“I wasn’t lying.  Imp and Haven will handle them soon.”

“Valefor is more cunning than you’d assume.  An arrogant young man, impetuous and immature, but history suggests he’s rather cunning when he puts his mind to something.”

“Not a concern,” Skitter said.

“If you say so.”

Skitter turned her attention to the other leader.  “Butcher?”

“No,” the woman replied, standing from the table.

“I didn’t think so.  Do you have any other business you’d like to bring up, while we’re all here?”

“You die,” Butcher said.  “You can’t kill me.  I will win.”

With that, her longest statement yet, she turned and walked away.

“Not good enemies to have,” Accord commented.  It was just his group and the Undersiders now.

“We’ll manage.”

“The first Butcher had super strength, durability, and the ability to inflict enough pain at a distance that his enemies went into cardiac arrest.  His other powers only became evident later.  He was killed by a subordinate, and the man who would later be known as Butcher Two inherited a fraction of his powers and a share of his consciousness.”

“Butcher Three inherited it too, along with a share of Two’s powers and consciousness,” Tattletale said.  “He was a hero, though.”

Accord rankled at the fact that she’d spoken out of turn.  Her voice rang in his ears, as though each syllable were the echoing toll of a bell, growing louder with each iteration.  Out of turn, out of sync, out of place.

He bit his tongue.  “Yes.  And the two voices in the hero’s head worked together to drive him mad.  He was gone from this world well before he died in battle.  The Teeth reclaimed the power, and the legacy has largely remained within the group since, each successor inherting powers of the ones before.  The voices and consciousnesses only work with rightful heirs, members of their group who challenge the leader and beat him in a fair match.”

“Which one is this?” Regent asked.

“Fourteen,” Tattletale said.

“This one’s number fourteen?” Regent asked.  “Which means she’s got thirteen sets of powers?”

Another one, speaking out of turn, Accord thought.

Citrine was giving him a sidelong glance.  He met her eyes, shook his head fractionally.

Tattletale answered, “Only a small share of each power.  Don’t forget she’s got thirteen voices in her head, giving her advice and helping her work stuff out, and all the powers she brought to the table, besides.  Her attacks don’t miss.  She imbues them with an effect which means they bend space so they strike her target,  Bullets turn in midair, swords curve, all means she’s pretty much guaranteed to hit you if her attack reaches far enough.”

She hopped down from the scorpion’s head and walked around the table until she was opposite Accord.

One by one, the Undersiders who’d been standing behind Skitter found seats.  The other groups had left, and they were making themselves more at home, now.  Regent put his boots on the table, right in front of Imp, who pushed them away.

Overly familiar.  Presumptuous.

Accord closed his eyes for a moment.  The table was unbalanced now, in a metaphorical sense, but it felt very real.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you leave to sit.”

Tattletale raised her eyebrows.  “I don’t recall anyone giving you permission to complain.  Our territory, our house, our rules.”

I could kill you.  Car bombs, other traps.  I could manipulate the heroes into going after you.  When I direct my ambassadors, they win their fights.  You’d break in the face of what I could do, the pressure I could inflict, everything and everyone in the world suddenly a threat, with me pulling the strings. 

He drew in a deep breath.  Too much at stake, to say such things.  In his most patient tone, as though he were speaking to a well meaning but misguided eight year old, he explained, “I’m talking about the way things are meant to be, Tattletale, understand?”

Tattletale bristled as though he’d slapped her.

“Enough,” Skitter said.  Her voice was quiet.

The silence that followed was both surprising and relieving.  She had control over her subordinates.  Good.  It took a measure of talent to exert control over such disturbed individuals.

He studied the girl.  She was composed, despite the fact that less than twelve hours had passed since her identity had been revealed to the world.  And her bugs… it had grated how disordered they had been, but now that he was looking at the ones she wore like a second layer of clothing, he could see how they were ordered, all in formation.

Skitter was calm, collected, reasonable but willing to act with a heavy hand when needed.  Clever.  She thought at the scale necessary for a true leader.

“Do you accept the deal?” Skitter asked.  “Best if I ask now, because your answer dictates the tone of the conversation that follows.”

“I accept,” he replied.  She was right: he really had no choice in the matter.  He’d dealt with worse deals and worse circumstances before.  “I suspect there will be friction, and we will have our disagreements, but we’ll be able to find a common ground.  You and I are very similar people.”

She didn’t reply.  The silence yawned, and his fingertips twitched involuntarily, dangerously close to the trigger that would turn his cane into a weapon.

“In saying that,” he said, doing his best to remain level, “I was inviting a response.”

“And I was taking a second to think before giving it,” she responded.

Starting a sentence with a conjunction.  He grit his teeth and smiled, his mask moving to emulate the expression.  “Beg pardon.”

“Let’s talk about details,” Skitter said.

The city is too dirty.  Too disordered.  The thoughts were intruding again, oppressive, insistent.  They were at the point where they were repeating, cycling back on one another.  He’d have to do something to break the cycle.  It could be time spent at a workbench, sorting out the projects in his binders or eliminating some of the more chaotic elements.

Murder was out, but there were other options.  He’d sent capes to the Yàngbǎn before.  It was more constructive than killing.  Cleaner.  It also built relationships with the C.U.I..

“Talk,” he said, after too many long minutes of silence.

“We can take them, sir,” Othello said.  “Any one group, we could handle, but not two groups at once.”

“I agree,” Accord said.  “Do you think you could handle them if things went sour?”

“With little trouble, sir.  The only ones I’d wonder about are Tattletale, Imp, Valefor and Fourteen,” Othello replied.

“Imp and Valefor… your stranger powers against theirs makes for a troublesome fight.  Imp is the one I would worry about first.  Unpredictable, impossible to track.”

“I’m suspicious my power cancels hers out, sir.  My other self saw her get close to Butcher.  I think she had a weapon.”

“Interesting.  Citrine?”

“I don’t know, sir.  Forgive my saying so, but a lot of people have thought they could handle the Undersiders, and they were wrong.  I don’t know how my power would interact with theirs.”

“Very true.  Sensible.  I’ll need to recruit, regardless of whether we encounter them.  Focus on the Teeth and the Fallen for the time being.”

“Yes sir,” the pair echoed him.

Skitter and Tattletale, he thought.  They were the real issues for him.  Tattletale’s power might have seemed similar to his own, but it was almost the inverse.  He’d heard himself described as falling somewhere in between a thinker and a tinker, and perhaps that was apt.  It was how he applied his power, starting with the end result and building backwards, and the designs that he fashioned that were so tinker-like.  But his real ability was as a thinker, involving planning, awareness and ideas beyond the reach of the unpowered.

He hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but he had to plan for every contingency.

They’d reached their accomodations, a newly built office building.  He owned the two uppermost floors, and was buying the floors beneath as the owners agreed to the sales.  Soon he would have it set up his way, with escape routes and traps to target his enemies.

“Othello,” he said.

“Yes sir?”

“Send the five first tier employees with the best grades to my room.  I expect them in fifteen minutes.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Once you’re done, retire for the evening.  Rest well,” he said.  “There are big things on the horizon.”

“Yes sir,” the two ambassadors echoed him.

Only two.  It wasn’t enough.

He settled in his room.  Too much of the furniture was pre-made.  He preferred things he had made himself.  Cleaner, simpler.  He knew where it had all come from, knew how it was put together.  Accomodations he had crafted himself were as soothing as the outside world wasn’t.

The five employees arrived right on time.  Satisfactory.  He opened the door to his room and invited them in.  Three men, two women, immaculate, all in proper business attire.

His vetting process was strict, and each step up the ladder required both his invitation and the employee’s acceptance.  Each step required them to prove their worth, to face progressively more stress and heavier workloads, and to hold themselves up to his increasingly exacting standards of perfection.

It might have made for reality television, if it weren’t for the blood that was shed along the way.  Theirs and others.

“You are being promoted,” he said.  “After tomorrow, you will be my ambassadors, my representatives to the rest of the world.”

The displays of emotion were well hidden, but they were there.  They were pleased.

“That is all.”

Wordless, the five marched out of his room.

Withdrawing his cell phone, Accord dialed a long distance number.

He smiled a little at that.  He wasn’t much for humor, but it had its places.

The ringing stopped, but there was no voice on the other end.

“Accord.  Brockton Bay.”

The doorway opened at one end of his room.  His hair stirred as air pressure equalized between the two planes.

The Number Man stood on the other side, in the white hallway with white walls.

“Five vials.  Of the same caliber as the last set, same price.”

“Done,” The Number Man said.  “Where do we stand?”

“It’s promising, but I wouldn’t make any guarantees.”

“Of course.  Everything’s progressing according to plan, then?”

Accord nodded, once.  “As well as we might hope.  We lost Coil, but the Undersiders may serve as a model in his absence.”

“Good to know.  I’ll inform the Doctor.”

The gateway closed.  Accord sat down on the end of the bed, then lay back, staring at the ceiling.

Coil had been the focus of the test, unaware.  The man had also been Accord’s friend, the one who’d sold him the PRT databases.  His death had been a tragic thing, on many levels.  There were few men Accord considered worthy of being his friend.

Now it hinged on the Undersiders.  They’d taken up Coil’s legacy, after a fashion, and just like Coil, their ambitions fell in line with Cauldron’s.  The organization’s hopes rode on them and their decisions.  Accord’s hopes rode on them: his twenty-three year plan, saving the world from the worst kind of disorder.  In the end, they were responsible for billions.

Not that he could tell them or change his actions in respect to them.  It would defeat the point.

Everything and everyone had their respective places in the grand scheme of things.  For one sixteen year old, the decisions she made in the immediate future would have more impact than she imagined.

It all came down to whether she could embrace this new role, and whether the city could embrace her in turn.

Accord drifted off to sleep, his weary mind grateful from the respite from the endless assault.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 20 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“Park there,” Stan said, pointing to a space off the side of the road.

“We’ll be facing uphill, and we still have to unload the equipment,” Nipper piped up, from the back seat.

“There’s a method to my madness.  Park, Marshall.  I’ll even deign to help unload and carry this time.”

He got a glimpse of Marshall rolling his eyes, but the boy steered the van to a parking spot.

True to his word, Stan was out the door, rolling up his sleeves.  Didn’t hurt: the humidity was brutal outside the air-conditioned van.  His dress shirt was already sticking to his back.

They were on a hill, and the vantage point afforded them a view of the city.  Cranes dotted the skyline, and the buildings themselves were gleaming, the whites and colors brightened by the ambient moisture in the air.  It might have looked attractive, but there were spots where buildings were missing, whole areas where the construction was only just beginning.

He could see the white building, not too far away, which was taller than even the skyscrapers immediately around it.  He’d investigated it just a few days ago.  They’d erected a tall white tent, holding it up with a crane, they’d reinforced it with plexiglass panels and iron reinforcement, and now a more solid construction was going up around it.  Slow, painstaking, careful work, filled with redundancies.  The workers would be glad to be free of the hazmat suits in this heat.

Brockton Bay wasn’t lacking in stories to tell.  The quarantine building alone was one.

“Need a hand,” Nipper said.

He hurried around to the back of the truck.  The van had been parked at the side of the road, emergency brake cranked, wheels turned so it would ride up onto the sidewalk if the brake failed, but the steep incline was making it hard to unload the equipment.  Much of it was set up to be slid out of the back of the van at a moment’s notice, but that same convenience was an obstacle, here.  The stuff was expensive, and if it slid to the road…

He found a space beside her and reached to get a grip on the far end of the camera.  It might not have been a problem, but Nipper was short, petite, built more like a thirteen year old than a twenty-three year old college graduate.

She wasn’t suited for the job.  She knew the equipment, she was capable with a computer, she had good eyesight, and the tattoos and array of piercings on her right ear were as good an indicator of her creative edge as anything else.

But this wasn’t the job she’d been working towards.  She wasn’t one to complain, but she didn’t have stamina, she didn’t have strength, and this, all of this, it was too fast paced for her.  She’d have been better, maybe even happier in the newsroom, managing the feeds, maintaining the systems and working on post production.

Marshall hefted the bag out of the back of the van.  All the wires, the tripod, the lighting, packed into a dense case.  The boy didn’t look like a professional, hadn’t quite adapted to the job he’d been pulled into: from intern to a jack of all trades, filling in the gaps in Stan’s team.  Set up, interviewing, driving, gopher… anything and everything.  He was drawing in a paycheck, but he was definitely working for it, facing all of the hassles, the intense stresses and dangers of the job, for eleven dollars an hour.

Dangers, Stan thought.  Images flickered through his mind.  Everyone at the station had seen the feeds, had watched them several times over.  Purity taking the camera from Manzaneres, a guy from channel four, then setting her monsters on the man.  A man with a wife and a newborn had been murdered, just to make a point.

There was a reason for the shortage of field reporters.  It wasn’t limited to Manzaneres, either.  The problem was a chronic one.  This was a job that put ordinary people on the fringes of events that were dangerous for capes.

“Set?”

Marshall closed the back of the van and locked it.  “Set.”

Stan set off, with Nipper and Marshall following, Nipper almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.  “Reason we’re parked here is that the school’s on top of the hill.  We don’t know how much parking there’ll be, with students possibly taking up spaces, and if we have to drive by, searching for a spot, then someone’s liable to spot us and take measures.”

“Measures?” Nipper asked, a touch breathlessly.

Right.  She didn’t have the experience to know.  “You’ll see what I mean.”

There were students gathered outside the walls that bordered the school.  Police cars were parked at the front, along with PRT vans, but it was the uniformed guards with ‘Arcadia High School’ stenciled on their sleeves that caught his attention.

Guards?  It conjured up an image of a prison, rather than a school.

“Nip, get some footage of the uniforms,” Stan said.

She hefted the camera and trained it on the nearest of the uniformed guards.  She had to slow her pace to keep the shot steady, but she kept following him.  When a group of students obstructed her vision, she shut off the feed and hurried to catch up.

They reached the gate, where a woman with a colorful scarf was talking to a PRT uniform.  He signaled Nipper, and the young woman raised the camera.

“Damn it,” the woman with the scarf groaned, as she saw them.  The police officer took the opportunity to step away.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Stan said, “We’re not the enemy.”

“You’re here to bog down an overcomplicated situation,” she said.  “I have enough problems without vultures descending.”

“We’re here for the story, that’s all.  You’re in charge here?”

“I’m in charge of the school.  Principal Howell.”

He made a mental note.  Howell, Howell, Howell.  She wasn’t the prettiest woman, with old acne scars riddled across her cheeks, a short stature and a nose that didn’t quite fit her face.

“Stan Vickery, channel twelve news,” he flashed her his best smile and extended a hand.  She didn’t take it.

“You’re not allowed on school property.”

“I would be if you gave me permission,” he said, dropping his hand.  The job was politics as much as it was investigation, creativity and presentation.  What did she want?  Peace and quiet.  “Give us fifteen minutes to talk to your students and shoot a few takes in front of the doors, and I’ll get the word out that we got the story first.  Other stations are playing it safer, these days, less crew, less willing to act on sloppy seconds.”

The principal made a face.

Stan smiled, “Sorry.  You get what I mean.  Give us fifteen minutes, and we’re one less thing you have to worry about today.  With luck, I’ll be the only local reporter you see today.”

“With all due respect, Mr…”

“Vickery,” he said, already told you my name.  “But you can call me Stan, Mrs. Howell.  Fact of the matter is, you let me in the school, and I owe you one.  I pull strings or emphasize certain aspects of a story.  Not just this one either.  Who knows?  The next incident could be worse, or more sensitive.”

“Mr. Vickers,” she said.  “I’m fully aware that you’re trying to bait me into giving you a sound bite.  I won’t comment on this situation, and I won’t be letting you onto school grounds.  I don’t want you talking to any of my students.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go talk to the cops.”

“Seriously?  We’re giving up?” Nipper asked.

“Yes,” he said, he took long strides away from the front gate of the school, until he was sure the principal wasn’t in immediate earshot.  “No.  She’s liable to get on our case if we don’t pretend to play along.  Howell has no authority outside of the school walls, so we interview students there.  Marshall, head back in the direction of the van.  Talk to students, see if they want to be on TV.  Look for the talkative ones and the emotional ones, and point them my way.”

“What about the cops?” Marshall asked.

“They’ll be around later, and cops have better memories than civilians.  It’s the students who were at the scene.  Go.  We don’t know how long we have before other crews show.”

It was a shame the principal hadn’t let him into the school, Stan mused.  Silly of her, too.  That favor he’d offered her was gold, all things considered.  Something she could use to bail a superior out of an awkward position and advance her own.

Your guanxi could be better, Mrs. Howell, he thought.  He loved the idea behind the Chinese concept of guanxi.  It fit in the same general category as the concepts of friends, family, acquaintances, but it was more based in business and politics.  Guanxi was about being able to call up a person one hadn’t seen in years and ask for a favor.  To have enough people in one’s debt that there was more implied leverage to use when seeking favors from others.

He’d been introduced to the idea a few years ago, and he attributed much of his recent career advancement to it.  It was something to be aware of at all times, and it changed his perspective on things.

He approached a group of teenage girls who were gathered in a group, observing the police and PRT officers.  He flashed one of his best smiles at them.  He could see one of them glance him over, her body language changing subtly.  He directed the smile at her, “I bet you’re dying to talk about what happened here.  Exciting stuff.”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  “Supervillain doesn’t attack the school every day.”

“Wasn’t an attack.  She showed up, and they came after her in her civilian ID.”

“I know it wasn’t an attack,” the first girl replied.  “I was just… It’s what others have been saying.”

“Skitter, wasn’t it?”  Stan chimed in.  He snapped his fingers, and Nipper pointed the camera at the girls.

“Yeah.  The bug girl,” another girl spoke up.  “I guess she goes to Arcadia.”

“No way.  I heard she was a student at Winslow, before Leviathan came.  Geeky kid, was having a hard time with some jerks, apparently.  I think her name was Taylor, but you’d have to ask someone from Winslow.”

He prodded, “What happened?  Was there a fight?”

“Dragon and this new guy Defiant showed up, along with the two new heroes.  Don’t know their names.”

He’d memorized the names.  “Adamant?  Clasp?  Dovetail?  Halo?  Crucible? Rosary? Sere?”

“Sere and Adamant,” one girl replied.

“Sere and Adamant,” he said, making a mental note.

“And two of the Wards.  Clockblocker was one of them.  Anyways, she got away.”

“She didn’t do anything to provoke them?”

“Didn’t hear about anything.”

“And they mobilized on the school?”

“Sure.”

He started to ask for more details, then stopped.  Marshall was approaching, with a kid in tow.

“Cell phone video,” Marshall said.  “Long conversation between Defiant, Dragon and Skitter in the cafeteria.

Stan raised his eyebrows, looking at the girl with the phone, “Pay you twenty bucks to let us copy it.”

“A hundred,” she said.

“Twenty.  If you got it on camera, others did too, and someone‘s going to take the twenty.”

She glanced at Marshall, then back to Stan.  “Fine.”

“You have the equipment?” Stan asked Marshall.

“Laptop and a cord.  Give me a minute.”

“We’ll watch it later,” Stan said, absently.  He turned his attention back to the girls.

This wasn’t the first time he’d walked into a situation almost blind.  The job was a stressful one, but he thrived on stress.  Racing against the clock, to be the first to the scene, the first to report on the situation.  But even reporting was a kind of challenge unto itself.  The scene had to be investigated, the story teased out, details verified.  To top it off, it had to be presentable.

He’d been the producer, before Coil had blown up the camera crew and reporter that had been covering the mayoral debate.  He had an eye for this.  Had to, because there was nobody back at the studio that would be able to cover this base for him.  Sad and ironic, really.  There weren’t enough people in the bay, resources weren’t consistent.  So they’d reduced the size of the staff, cut back on hours.  Then six people had died, including their lead reporter.

Nevermind the rumors that the PRT was, on Miss Militia’s behalf, investigating ties between Coil and the killed reporters and camera crews.  He’d itched to look into that more, but it didn’t fit with his philosophy.

“Were you there, in the cafeteria?” he asked the girls.

“No.”

“Right.  Alright.  Any thoughts?  Were you scared, knowing there were so many capes in the school?”

Twenty more seconds, to grab more details and reaction clips, and then he was moving, searching for others to talk to.

Two more groups questioned, and he didn’t have much else.  He knew Skitter’s name, and Channel four had arrived, and the race was on.

“Got the video!” Marshall called out.

Stan took the offered laptop.  To watch now, it would mean delaying interviews.  Memories would fade.

But he needed the narrative.  How had things unfolded?  What were the key, crucial points at the heart of this?  That the school was unsafe?  It would work, grab attention and viewers, but it felt cheap.  No, the public knew that the Protectorate was imploding.  There had to be a connection, tying this to something greater.

“Thank you,” he said.  He’d decided.  “Now, I need you to find me someone who knew Skitter in her civilian guise.”

Marshall nodded.

“He or she will be one of the students who attended Winslow.”

“On it.”

Stan retreated to the van with the laptop.  He took the extra time to open the video in an editing suite before playing it.

Without being asked, Nipper hooked it into the van’s computers.  A little icon notified him that he was connected to the studio.

…There for the S-class threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

On a notepad of lined paper, he penned down ’20th’ followed by a question mark.  The video continued playing, and he noted down times and key phrases, along with questions.  When a critical comment was shown, he was sure to copy the clip.  There were a few times where the volume was too quiet, the voices too low or things were drowned out by background noise.  Nipper worked to tune the sound so they could make it out, raising the volume or filtering out the noise.

D&D picked fight?  Pushed by authorities?Drag past convo with Skitter.  When?
Putting children at risk
Violation of truce

“…And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months…”

What does Skitter know?  App’tly important.

“…the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them…”

S9?  D-check events post-Boston.

Hospital?  Skitter & Defiant?

D&D negotiating with villains?  Possible cooperation?  Corruption?

“…Stand if you side with me!

Both video and audio were distorted by the movements of students, rising from tables, pushing away from the jumble of bodies.

Stan smiled.  There.

He cut out the scene in question, the students siding with Skitter over the heroes, and gave the clip a title.  ‘The heart of this story?’

A second later, a note appeared on the side of the window.  The crew at the studio had a R.A.T. connecting them to the laptop, and freedom to make changes or add their own details.

Yes – Ed

He had it.  The editors at the station were on board.

Now to cobble it together into a story.

He opened a file and began sketching out the script.  At the very top, he put up notes, clips he’d need from the station.

There was a knock on the door of the van.  Stan opened it to see Marshall with an awkward looking young man.  Fifteen or sixteen.  He looked despondent.  Hangdog.

“He says he was her friend, once.”

“No,” the boy said.  “Not exactly.  But we sort of knew each other.  Had classes together, did group work.  And I owe her.”

Stan smiled.

…take you now to reporter Stan Vickery.”

Thank you, Nick.  One thousand and two hundred students made their way to Arcadia High for their first day back at school, earlier on this sunny day.  They hoped to readjust and get a taste of normal life after weeks spent away from home, or enduring the long series of incidents to afflict Brockton Bay.  Less than halfway through their day, those hopes were dashed.

A video clip replaced the blond man with the mustache and a face lined by years of stress.  A massive metal suit, looming at the far end of the school’s parking lot, a mechanized dragon.

The school became the site of a confrontation between Dragon, a heroine known across the world, and local warlord and leader of the Undersiders, Skitter.  Within moments of their meeting on school grounds, Dragon revealed Skitter’s identity as Taylor Hebert, a sixteen year old student.  With this revelation came a dozen more questions…

“Change the channel,” a boy in prison sweats said.  “News is boring shit.”

“No,” Sophia said.

Skitter was Taylor.  A dozen things fell into place.

Anger boiled within her.  Outrage.  That cringing, whiny, pathetic little scarecrow was the ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld?  It didn’t fit.  It demanded an answer of some sort.

But she couldn’t.  As the voice droned on, Sophia turned her attention to the bracelets she wore.  There was a live current running through them, and they could be joined together to fashion handcuffs, but even like this, they were bondage.  She couldn’t enter her shadow state without passing through the insulated sheath that protected her.

She couldn’t leave, as much as she wanted to, right this moment.

Glowering, a confused, impotent frustration building within her, she fixed her eyes on the television.  It swelled within her until she could barely think.  She clenched her hands, but she couldn’t squeeze hard enough to release any of the building emotion.  She unclenched her fists, extended her fingers, as if reaching for something, but there was nothing she could grab.

There was no release valve for this, no way to vent.

Taylor’s face appeared on the screen in the same moment she hit her limit.  She rose from her seat, aware of the guards advancing on her, and kicked the television screen, shattering it, amid the protests and swearing of her fellow inmates.

A second later, they were tackling her.  Two guards at once, forcing her to the ground.

She screamed something so incoherent that even she would have been hard pressed to interpret it.

Who was she?  And what motivated these professed heroes to mobilize on a school, risking the lives of students and staff?  Skitter herself wondered aloud about their willingness to put hostages within her reach…

A clip appeared on the screen.  Taylor, sitting on the edge of a counter.  She spoke, filled with confidence, almost nonchalant.  “You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…

A student abruptly shrieked, thrashing and falling to the ground in her haste to get away.

“Danny,” Kurt said, settling a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You don’t need to watch this.”

Danny shook his head.  Kurt looked down the man.  He hadn’t even spoken, from the moment he’d opened the door and Lacey had wrapped her arms around him.

This is bait, isn’t it?” Taylor’s voice, oddly out of place coming from the television.

The tone of the conversation even implied there were unspoken secrets that Skitter was aware of, that the Protectorate sought to silence,” Stan Vickery spoke, reappearing, with Arcadia High behind him as a backdrop.  “Raising questions about what those secrets might be.

…You seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months?”  Taylor’s voice, again.

Danny put his face into his hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead in the process.  Kurt rubbed his back, while Lacey looked on, sympathetic.

What did Skitter know, and does it relate to the event  on the twentieth of June?  Why were Defiant and Dragon willing to abandon their pursuit of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

“Is…” Danny started to speak, but his voice cracked.  He paused, then spoke again.  “Is this on me?”

“No!” Lacey said.  “No, honey.”

“Those aren’t questions I’d hope to pose any answers to today,” the news reporter said.  “The real question is bigger than that, and smaller at the same time.  What forces drive a child from this…

A teenage boy, his eyes downcast.  “She was nice, quiet.  I know people won’t believe me when I say it, but she was a genuinely good person.  Is.  Is a good person.  At heart.  I’m sorry, Taylor.

To this?

It switched to Taylor’s voice, calm, unruffled, accompanied by the same long-distance, low resolution footage of her sitting on the counter in the school cafeteria.  “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of-

Kurt turned off the television.  Danny was frozen, unmoving, staring down at his hands.

“It was context,” Lacey said, quiet.  “She was acting.  I’m sure-“

She broke off as Kurt shook his head.  Doing more damage than good.

“We’re going to stick by you, okay, Dan?” Kurt spoke.  “Let’s have you come by our place.  Better you aren’t alone right now, yeah?  And it’ll get you away from those reporters.”

Danny didn’t respond.  He stayed hunched over the kitchen table.

“Unless you want to wait here for her, in case?” Lacey asked.

“She already said goodbye,” Danny replied, pushing against the table to help himself rise to a standing position.  “I think that’s it.”

You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.

And what drives dozens of students to reject the heroes of this city in favor of the villain in charge?”  Stan asked.

The widescreen television showed the students rising from the tables, joining Skitter.  Another clip followed, showing students actively wrestling with the heroes.

“Christ,” the Director spoke.

Beside her successor, Piggot was watching in silence, elbows on the table, hands folded in front of her mouth.

“This could have been avoided,” the Director said.  “On multiple levels.”

“Most likely,” Defiant replied.  He stood at one end of the long table, Dragon beside him.

“If you would have cut off the feed, deleted the footage from phones, we would have had time to do damage control.”

“We won’t ignore people’s first amendment rights,” Defiant said.

…The PRT and the Protectorate have refused to comment, and the silence is damning, in light of what occurred today,” the reporting continued in the background.  “Brockton Bay has become the latest, greatest representation of the troubles the world faces in this new age, and perhaps a representation of the world’s hopes…

“You’re better than this, Dragon,” Piggot spoke.  “To the point that I’m left wondering… did you steer all of this in this direction?”

“If you try to place the blame on us,” Defiant replied, “I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

Director Tagg, Piggot’s latest successor, picked up the remote and muted the television.

Defiant shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back.  The body language was smug, somehow.

Piggot glanced at each of the people who were seated at the table.  Mr. Tagg, the Director of Brockton Bay’s PRT, Director Armstrong from Boston, and Director Wilkins from New York were all present.  Mr. Keene sat opposite her.  A camera mounted on the table gave the Chief Director of the PRT eyes on the meeting, where she watched from Washington.

Nobody else seemed willing to answer Defiant, some simply staring at him, others watching the segment on the wall-mounted television.  She spoke, “I would remind you that you are on a strict probation, with terms you agreed to.”

“I am,” Defiant said.  “Would you arrest me for being insubordinate?  Or would it take something more substantial?”

“Test us and you’ll find out,” Director Tagg responded.

“And what would happen then?  Would you send me to the Birdcage?” Defiant asked.

The question was heavy with the reminder that it was Dragon who maintained and managed the Birdcage.

Emily Piggot was caught between a desire to feel smug and quiet fear.  She’d warned them.  She’d communicated her concerns at every opportunity, through channels that Dragon wouldn’t be able to track.  She’d been dismissed, shrugged off, when she raised the question of what might happen if Dragon was killed in battle, or if Dragon turned against them.

“I’d like to hear a response from Dragon,” Piggot said.

Dragon turned her head to look at her, face hidden behind an expressionless mask and unblinking, opaque lenses.  There was something about the movement that seemed off.  Both the movement and the silence that followed was oddly disturbing.

“No?  No response?”

“A consequence of our recent visit to Brockton Bay,” Defiant said.  “I’m hoping she’ll be better in a few days.”

Curious, Piggot observed, the note of emotion in his voice, at that simple statement.

As if eager to change the subject, Director Armstrong said, “Mr. Keene.  Thoughts?  How does this affect your department?”

Piggot turned her attention to the man.  She’d only had limited interactions with him, but the man had earned her respect quickly enough.  He wasn’t a Director, but rather the liaison between the Protectorate and various other superhero teams worldwide, organizing deals, ensuring that everyone held to the same code of conduct, and ensuring that the groups could all coordinate in times of emergency.

“It’s catastrophic,” Keene said.  “I can manage some damage control, offer further aid, manipulate the grants available, but I can’t build on a foundation that isn’t there.”

“Where do our biggest problems lie?”

“The C.U.I. is first to mind.  The Suits and the King’s Men will cooperate, because they have to.  For the American teams, it varies from case to case.  But we’re in the middle of negotiations with the C.U.I., and this won’t reflect well on us.  That is, it won’t if we can’t get our footing here and make a strong showing at the next major event.”

The next major event.  The idea seemed to give everyone pause.

“Something needs to change,” Defiant said.

“Somehow, Colin,” Piggot replied, “I think our ideas on what needs to change are very different.”

“Very likely,” he said, his voice hard.  “But this was a last straw for us, in many ways.  We have a few stipulations for our continued assistance.”

“Defiant,” Tagg interrupted him.  “You’re not in a position to make demands.”

He’s a hard man, Piggot thought.  Army, PRT squad leader, a general, not a politician.  Ironic, that they’d butt heads.  “Director Tagg, you asked me here as a consultant, so allow me to consult.”

Tagg turned his attention to her.

She continued, “I don’t like this scenario any more than you do.  But let’s hear Defiant’s demands before you reject him out of hand.”

Director Tagg didn’t reply, but he turned his attention back to Defiant and he didn’t speak.

“Dragon and I have discussed this in-depth.  We need the present Directors to admit culpability for the incident, and we need to clean house, with in-depth background checks and investigations into any prominent member of the PRT.  We can’t maintain things as they are with the spectre of Cauldron looming over us.”

“You’d have us fire any number of PRT employees at a time when we’re struggling to retain members?”  Tagg asked, almost aghast.

“And relieving capes from duty at the same time,” Defiant said.  “With so few employees, it’s ridiculous to continue working to shut down leaks and control the flow of information.  Dragon has expressed concerns over having to do this in the past, and between the two of us, we’ve agreed that the censorship stops tonight, at midnight.”

Tagg rose from his seat, opening his mouth to speak-

“I agree,” Piggot spoke before her successor could.

Heads turned.

“It’s a misuse of resources,” she said, “And we do need to clean house.”

“You don’t have a position to lose,” Tagg replied.

“I wouldn’t lose it anyways,” she retorted, “I’ve had no contact with Cauldron.”

Keene clapped his hands together once, then smiled, “Well said.  We have nothing to fear if we aren’t connected to them.”

“You realize what they’re doing, don’t you?” Tagg asked.  “How does this investigation happen?  Dragon has her A.I. rifle through all known records and databases.  We defeat the sole purpose of the PRT, by putting the parahumans themselves in a position of power!”

“That ship has long sailed,” Keene commented, “With the revelations about Chief Director Costa-Brown, if you’ll pardon my saying.”

“You’re pardoned,” the Chief Director’s voice sounded over the speaker, crystal clear.  “I think this would pose more problems than it solves.  We’ll have to turn you down, Defiant.”

“Then I don’t see much of a reason for us to stay,” Defiant replied.

“And if you leave, the assumption is that we’ll be left without Dragon’s ability to maintain every system and device she’s created for us.  The PRT without a Birdcage, without our computer systems or database, without the specialized grenade loadouts or the containment foam dispensers.”

“An unfortunate consequence,” Defiant said.

“Not a concern at all,” the Chief Director replied.

There was a pause.  Dragon glanced at Defiant.

“No?” Defiant asked.

“No.  We’ve been in contact with an individual who has a proven track record with Dragon’s technology.  He feels equipped, eager, almost, to step into Dragon’s shoes should she take a leave of absence.”

“Saint,” Defiant said.  “You’re talking about the leader of the Dragonslayers.  Criminal mercenaries.”

“My first priority is and always has been protecting people.  If it’s a question between abandoning the security the Birdcage offers the world at large or requesting the assistance of a scoundrel-”

“A known murderer,” Defiant said.

“I wouldn’t throw stones,” Tagg replied, his voice a growl.

“-A known murderer, even,” the Chief Director continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I will take security without question.”

Defiant looked at Dragon.

“The second dilemma I have to pose to you two,” the Chief Director continued, “Is simple.  What do you expect will happen when the next Endbringer arrives?  Between Dragon’s brilliant mind and Defiant’s analysis technologies, I’m sure you’ve given the matter some consideration.  Without the Protectorate, how does the event tend to unfold?”

Piggot studied the pair, trying to read their reactions.  They were so hard to gauge, even if she ignored the armor.

“It doesn’t go well,” Defiant said.  “It doesn’t go well even if we assume the present Protectorate is coordinated and in peak fighting condition.”

“We can’t afford a loss,” the Chief Director said.  “You know it as well as I do.  Now, tell me there isn’t room for a middle ground.”

Dragon turned to Defiant, and moved with a careful slowness as she set one hand on his arm.

“We get through the next fight,” Defiant said.  “Then we clean house.”

“I think that’s an acceptable compromise.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

“Too rich,” Jack commented, smirking.  “Across the board, I love it.  Fantastic.”

Hookwolf, pacing on the opposite side of the television, grunted a response.

Bonesaw was crouched by the side of a machine.  She watched with hands on hips as Blasto ratcheted in a bolt at the base of a tall, black-handled lever, his movements jerky with the internal and external mechanisms that forced them.

The Protectorate declined to comment, and in light of recent events and allegations of deep-seated secrets, their silence is damning.

“Almost ready,” Bonesaw said, her voice sing-song.  “You’re next, Hooksie.”

Hookwolf glanced at her, and then at the contraption.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she said, her tone a taunt.

“Not of… this.  I’m questioning if this is the path we should take.”

“I’m expected to bring about the end of the world,” Jack said, still watching the television.  “But this is rather tepid for my tastes.  I’d like to hurry it along, inject some more drama into the affair.”

“…event at Arcadia High School is sure to draw attention from aross America.  We, the public, want answers.  The death of Vikare marked the end of the golden age, the end of an era where becoming a superhero was the expectation for anyone and everyone with powers, and even those who decided to work in business or public affairs with their abilities were termed ‘rogues’…

Bonesaw took ahold of Hookwolf’s hand and led him to his seat.  She stepped back, glancing over the contraption.  The only light was cast by a small desk lamp and the glow of a computer monitor, an island of light in the middle of an expansive, wide-reaching darkness.  Desk, engine, and tinker-designed seats, surrounded by an absolute, oppressive darkness.

“It doesn’t sit well,” Hookwolf said.  “I can’t articulate why.  My thoughts are still cloudy.”

Bonesaw hit a button, and the lights began to flicker, the engine beside her starting to hum with a progressively higher pitch.  With the flickering of the lights came glimpses of the things beyond.  Light on glass and wires.

“I’d rather a Ragnarök than-“

Bonesaw hauled on a white-handled lever, and Hookwolf’s voice cut off.  The flickering of the lights ceased, and the room returned to darkness.

Jack sighed.

…threatens to mark a similar occasion…

Bonesaw stepped over the body of a dead tinker in a lab coat, stopping in front of Jack.  “Strip.”

Jack shucked off his shirt, and then pulled off his pants and boxer briefs.  The blades that hung heavy on his belt made an ugly metal sound as they dropped to the tiled floor.

“…and cover yourself up,” Bonesaw said, averting her eyes.  “Shameful!  You’re in the company of a child, and a girl, no less.”

“Terribly sorry,” Jack said, his voice thick with irony, as he cupped his nether regions in both hands.  He stepped back and took a seat, leaning back against the diagonal surface behind the short bench.  Cold.

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

The segment ended, and the television turned back to the news anchors at their desks.

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack smiled.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The lights were flickering more violently now, to the point that periods of light matched the periods of darkness.  Between the spots in his vision, Jack could see more and more of their surroundings.

Row upon row of glass case lined the underground chamber, each large enough to house a full-grown man, though there were only fetal shapes within at present.  Each was labeled.  One row had cases marked ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’… ten iterations in total.  The next row had ten cases labeled with the word ‘Siberian’.  The one after with ten repetitions of ‘Chuckles’.

One column of cases dedicated to each member of the Nine, past and present, with the exception of Jack and one other.

“Makes for a greater fall?” Bonesaw asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He glanced at the one isolated case, felt his pulse quicken a notch.  It was the only one that was standalone.  ‘Gray Boy.’

“I guess we find out soon!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the whine of the engine.

Bonesaw only laughed.  She hauled on the switch with both hands, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Chrysalis 20.5

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The appearance of the heroine in gleaming power armor had brought the room to a hush.  The silence only allowed Dragon’s words to carry, bouncing off the hard floor, reaching the assembled students and staff of Arcadia High.

A low murmur ran through the room like an almost imperceptible aftershock, informing anyone and everyone who hadn’t been in earshot.

I could see Emma too, or I could see glimpses of her, between the students that were backing away from the front of the room.  Already pale in complexion, she was white, now, staring.

I exhaled slowly, though my heart was pounding as if I’d just finished a hard run.

Defiant advanced a step, with the door to the kitchens behind him, while I took a few steps back toward the rest of the cafeteria, putting both Dragon and Defiant in front of me.  Some of my bugs flowed in through the gaps around the door he’d rammed through.  He’d slammed it shut behind him, but the metal had twisted around the lock, giving smaller bugs a path.

He slammed his spear against the ground.  The entire cafeteria flinched at the crackle of electricity that ripped through the air around him, flowing along exposed pipe and the heating ducts in a path to the door.  Every bug in the hallway died.

No use bringing bugs in that way.

I looked around me.  This wasn’t an optimal battlefield.  There were counters all around me, limiting my mobility, while barely impacting theirs.  Someone had signaled Kid Win, Clockblocker and Adamant.  The three heroes were heading our way.  Sere remained tied up outside.

Five capes against me.  With the bugs that had flowed into the building with Kid Win, I had maybe a thousand flying insects and some spiders.  Not nearly enough to mount an offensive.  I had neither a weapon nor swarm to give me an edge.  I didn’t have my costume, either, but that wasn’t liable to matter.

Once upon a time, I’d had trouble getting my head around what Grue had been saying about reputation, about image and conveying the right impressions.  Now it was all I had.

I let out another slow breath.  Calm down.  I rolled my shoulders, letting the kinks out.  There was something almost relieving about the idea that things couldn’t get much worse than they were right now.  Let the tension drain out.  If they decided to drag me off to jail or the Birdcage, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

They weren’t attacking.  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.  Were they not here to arrest me, or were they covering major routes my bugs might travel, to minimize my offensive strength?

Or did I have leverage I wasn’t accounting for?

I backed up until I’d reached a counter, then hopped up onto the edge, tucking one leg under me.  It was a vantage point that gave me the ability to look directly at Dragon, with Defiant at the far left of my field of vision and many of the students to my right, Emma included.

“Low blow, Dragon,” I said, finally.  “Outing me?  I thought you were better than that.”

Another murmur ran through the room, at what was essentially an admission.  Emma was frozen.  Her expression wasn’t changing; eyes wide, lips pressed together.

“I try to be,” Dragon replied.  “I’m only following instructions.”

“I guess your bosses are a little annoyed at the armored suits my team trashed?  Are they demanding that you make up for it by dragging me into custody?”

Dragon shook her head.  “Putting the armored suits up against you Undersiders was a beta test, and identifying major flaws is par for the course.  I do wish you hadn’t melted down the Azazel… It was expensive.  But that’s not why we’re here.”

“There are rules, Dragon,” I said.  “Expectations.  I fought Leviathan, I fought the Nine.  I was there for the fight against the Class-S threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

“It wasn’t by choice.”

“You choose to follow them.  It’s not like twenty or thirty heroes haven’t walked away from the Protectorate, recently.”

“It’s not that simple, Skitter,” Defiant said.

“It’s never simple.  But sometimes you have to take the hard road.  Sometimes you have to recognize that the people calling the shots don’t know what they’re doing.  Because this?  Picking a fight in a school?  There’s no way this makes sense.”

“The Protectorate is doing what they can to pick up the pieces,” Dragon said.  “Things are a little disorganized.  The best of us are working twice as hard, with half of the information, or incorrect information.  If there are any errors in judgement on that front, I’d hope they’re somewhat excusable, given circumstances.”

“Sure, but it’s the rest of us who pay the price.  The last time we really talked, you were lecturing me about priorities.  Do you really want to have this conversation?  Where I have words with you about your priorities, in light of everything that’s happening with the Protectorate?”

I left the threat hang in the air.

“You won’t,” Dragon said.  She stepped closer, and I raised a hand, gesturing for her to stop.  I didn’t really think about it.  She stopped where she was.

Why?  Why was she actually listening when I told her to stop?  If she’d advanced on me, grabbed me, there wasn’t much I could do besides kick and scream.

When I didn’t say anything, she added, “It’s not in you, Skitter.”

“You’d be surprised what I’m capable of,” I said.  “I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.  Even Sere, outside at this very moment.  He’s not very happy.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a glance.

“Your swarm shouldn’t be able to get near him,” Defiant said.

I shrugged.  Image, confidence, reputation.  I hated myself for doing it, but I was thinking of Jack Slash.  He didn’t wear a mask or a costume.  His power didn’t make people shit their pants.  What he had was his presence, an atmosphere of confidence.

Weeks or months ago, I might have had a hard time wearing that confidence the way Jack did.  The history, the long sequence of events and conflicts where we’d come out ahead in our respective teams, it could just as easily be a burden, the accumulated weight of the various precedents we’d set, but we’d made it into our armor, something to make our enemies hesitate at a critical juncture.

“I’m guessing you’re trying to contact Sere somehow,” I said.  “And it’s not working.”

“Is he hurt?” Dragon asked.

I didn’t have to give a response.  Fear was a tool I could use, here, and I could achieve that through uncertainty and the unknown.

I’d been thinking of Jack Slash before, but now I was thinking of Bakuda.  She’d been the first one to introduce me to that concept.

“You’ve got me thinking,” I said, ignoring the question, “Why set me up like this?  You two are too smart to put me in a desperate situation with this many hostages in arm’s reach.”

“Is Sere hurt?” Defiant growled the words.

“You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…”

Emma was sitting to my right.  She hadn’t budged from her position, safe in the midst of several of the school’s staff.  I directed a centipede to crawl across her hand, and she shrieked.  In her haste to get up from the bench, she fell.  She scrambled to put distance between us.  Both Dragon and Defiant tensed.

I raised my hands in a placating gesture, assuring the heroes I wasn’t taking it any further. “…or you wouldn’t be worrying about Sere right now.  You wouldn’t have reacted like you just did.  Sere’s fine, by the way, though I’m not saying he’ll stay that way.”

Defiant relaxed a fraction.  I could see Adamant, Kid Win and Clockblocker entering the room behind Dragon.  She turned to say something I didn’t catch, and both Adamant and Kid Win retreated.  They’d be going to find Sere, I could only assume.

I met Clockblocker’s eyes, then looked to Dragon.  “This is bait, isn’t it?  You or the people who are calling the shots want me to take hostages.  Because you have an answer handy, something that will stop me before they’re put in any serious danger.  I take hostages to try to secure my release.  You… I don’t even know.  You gas us, or use some kind of controlled charge, like Defiant’s bug zapper, and every bug in the room dies.  You get to be the heroes, I go into custody, and word gets around that the Undersiders aren’t so benevolent.  The villains who own the city lose both their leader and the trust of the public, all at once.”

“It wasn’t our plan,” Dragon said.  Her voice had a faint accent, just barely filtering through the sound filter of her mask.  “I’ve studied your record.  I suspected it wouldn’t work based on the decisions you’ve made to date.  Defiant agreed, though he based his judgement on your powers and versatility.”

“But you went ahead with it.”

“Orders,” Dragon said, again.  “And because we discussed the matter, and neither of us really believe you’ll do any serious harm to any hostages.”

“You seem to be giving me a lot of credit, assuming I’ll play nice.  And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months, after you’ve played your last card and revealed my identity?  An identity you found out because I helped?”

“That wasn’t how I discovered it,” Dragon said.  “And you will keep quiet, because you know how important it is.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “Maybe not.  If I’m going to die or going to jail anyways, why shouldn’t I scream what I know to our audience, here?”

“Because you won’t,” Dragon said, “And you can’t.”

“Why don’t we move this conversation somewhere else?” Defiant asked.  He shifted his hold on his spear to a two-handed grip, threatening without being threatening.

“Out of earshot of all of these people?” I asked, extending an arm in the direction of the gathered students.  “I don’t think so.  If nothing else, I’m entitled to a jury consisting of my peers.  I’ll settle for you two taking a hit to your reputation if and when you attack or kill me.”

Which was why I was sitting on the counter.  I was less mobile, less able to get out of the way if they attacked, and that was a good thing.  A detail that our audience wouldn’t consciously register, but they’d take something away from the fact that my opponents were being aggressive while I was so defenseless.

“We’re not going to kill you,” Dragon said.  “We’ve been instructed to take you into custody.  I’m sorry we have to do it this way.  I’d hoped… we’d hoped to simply talk to you.”

“The both of you?  I wouldn’t have thought Arm- Defiant had anything to say to me.”

“We entered Brockton Bay’s airspace, and I was informed that there’s a major quarantine in effect here, relating to the portal downtown, and that the airspace is being strictly controlled.  We were forced to announce our reason for coming to Brockton Bay, and PRT members with higher clearance co-opted our mission.  We were ordered to confront you directly, here, and to bring you into custody.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Those suits you deployed against my team were supposed to be used to hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them.”

“That is something we can discuss while we are in transit,” Defiant told me.

“Defiant-” Dragon said, her tone a warning.

“I could say more here,” he added, “But there are too many prying ears.  If you were willing to move to a room nearby, I could explain.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“You’d still have your power, and I know you can communicate with that power,” Defiant said.  “You’re just as capable of communicating any secrets to them from elsewhere in the school.”

“If I moved somewhere out of sight and out of earshot,” I said, “My words wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect.  Besides, I suspect our audience is the only thing that’s ensuring that you play fair.  They have cameras, and you have reputations to uphold.”

“My reputation isn’t a priority,” he said.  Dragon nodded, but I wasn’t sure if it was approval or agreement.

“You have your organization’s reputation to uphold.  For those of us who stuck around in Brockton Bay, we had reasons.  Something kept us here.  There was something to protect, or people to support.  Some were just scared, because actually leaving was scarier than staying.  Others didn’t have any place to go.  With the Protectorate slowly folding in on itself like a house of cards, I’m thinking you had a reason to stay, a reason you’re following orders you don’t want to.  You’re not about to rough up an unarmed, uncostumed girl and make them look bad on camera.  Not when you have that big a stake in things.”

Defiant glanced in the direction of the crowd.  A handful of students had cell phones out, watching the scene.

“Remind you of the hospital?” I asked.  “Similar scenario.”

“Yes,” he replied.  He didn’t elaborate.

“We could grab you,” Clockblocker chimed in.  “I can, or he can just walk up to you.  No violence necessary.”

“No,” Defiant said.  Again, there was no elaboration.

It dawned on me.  Defiant and Dragon were playing it safe because they thought I might have a trick up my sleeve, like I had at the fundraiser.  I’d disabled Sere, despite the fact that he was supposed to counter my power, and I hadn’t even made a big deal of it.  They knew what I’d done to Echidna, and several other events besides.

They were worried I’d pull something.

Defiant had a grasp on my powers, Dragon had a grasp on me as a person, and they’d gauged that I wasn’t a risk to the others in the room.  Which, if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t.  They had the upper hand, they lost nothing by letting this play out, and so they weren’t making a move.  They’d talk me down, so to speak, and if I did something, they’d use one of their gadgets or tricks to counter my play.

One of the worst possible things had just happened to me, with my secret identity becoming public knowledge, and here I was, unarmed without a single idea on how to get out of this… and the good guys were playing it safe.  I smiled; I couldn’t help it.

“Fuck me,” Clockblocker muttered to Dragon.  I might not have made out his words if it weren’t for the bugs I’d planted on the heroine.  “It just sunk in.  It’s really her.”

Why only just now?

Adamant had distorted his metal armor to create a completely form-fitting metal suit, with only the thinnest possible slits for his eyes, before venturing outside.  He’d waded through my swarm, mostly blind, and he’d only just found Sere beyond the wall at the school’s perimeter.  He reshaped an armor panel into a weapon to start cutting Sere free.

Could I have caught Adamant  too?  Probably.  But it wasn’t worth the effort, not when he could reshape metal, with enhanced strength and durability on top of that.

Now that I understood what was going on, I felt like I had something of an edge.  Now, how could I leverage it?

“I’m sorry,” Defiant said.

That threw my thoughts off track.  I tensed, but he wasn’t apologizing for an imminent attack.  “What?”

“In the past, when we’ve crossed paths, I should have made efforts to meet you halfway.  I didn’t.  I’ve had time to reflect, I’ve had another person to talk to and give me some objectivity, and I’ve come to regret how things played out between us.  I could say more, but it would come out like excuses, and I doubt either of us want to hear those.”

That’s what you came here to say?”

“In large part,” Defiant said.

“We’d hoped to talk to you, one cape to another,” Dragon elaborated, “About the immediate future, with the Undersiders running this city, and your expectations in particular, Skitter.  But both Defiant and I thought he needed to say something to you along those lines, and perhaps you needed to hear it.  If anything pushed us to come here, it was that.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  It was easier when the opposition were assholes.  Expressing remorse?  How was I supposed to parse that?

Except, they’d done one thing that was assholish.  One incongruent element in all of this.

“One last question, then,” I said.  “Why?  Why out me in front of everyone?  It doesn’t fit with the idea of Defiant being remorseful, it flies in the face of the unwritten rules, and I know my team has played fast and loose with those rules, but I wouldn’t expect you to break them like this, Dragon.  Not Defiant, either, if he’s reinventing himself.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s better you don’t know,” Dragon said.

“What is?  And better for who?”

“Better for everyone involved,” she said.

“Tell me.”

She glanced at Defiant, but he didn’t turn her way.  “A precog told us it was our best option for bringing you into custody.”

A precog?  The incongruous elements fit together.  A plan of action that was riddled with little flaws and contradictions when seen from an outside perspective, that made sense when seen through the lens of someone who’d seen the future and worked out what criteria needed to be met to get the desired end result.  This, mobilizing on the school, it was the same kind of setup I might expect from a plan that Coil would have hashed together after a long question and answer session with Dinah, his ‘pet’ precog.

Dinah.

“Who was this precog?” I asked, the question abrupt.

“Skitter-”  Dragon started.

Who?”

“You know who,” Defiant told me.

It knocked the wind out of me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with the revealing of my secret identity.  My blood ran cold, and all of my confidence just plummeted, as though it had fallen into a pit so deep I couldn’t even see the bottom.

It was.  All of the lengths I’d gone to, the lines I’d crossed, to get Dinah away from Coil, to get her home to her family, and… this?

I was acutely aware of the crowd to my right.  They’d backed away from the front tables, and were clustered at the far end of the cafeteria.  Still, they’d be hanging on every word they could make out.  They were watching my every movement, every facet of this conversation.  There were cell phone cameras turned my way, and every second of footage would no doubt wind up on Parahumans Online or some video site.

I barely cared.  I felt a little numb as I swung my legs around to the far side of the counter and hopped down.  I wasn’t standing as straight, and some of my hair had fallen down around my face, obscuring it.

“Did they force her to give up the information?” I asked.  My voice sounded funny.  I couldn’t pin down whether I felt angry, sad or any of that.  I had only the external clues, the way my voice had the faintest of tremors, and a strange hollow feeling inside.

I stepped away from the counter, away from Dragon and Defiant.  My foot had started to fall asleep where I’d been sitting on it, and I felt a touch unsteady anyways.

“You don’t want to hear the answer to that question, either,” Defiant spoke, behind me.

Dragon and Defiant had flown in, apparently to say hi, and so that Defiant could make something resembling an apology as part of his twelve step assholes anonymous process.  With the chaos the PRT had been facing as of late, and their own preoccupation with their mission, they hadn’t been notified of the quarantine procedures.  They’d been questioned, they’d divulged that I was here, and the bigwigs giving the orders used Dinah to plot out a means of attack that would be likely to get me into custody.

Each idea seemed so much worse than the other, if I considered it for even a moment: either the PRT was using Dinah just like Coil had, or that Dinah had volunteered the information of her own free will.

I was willing to take Defiant at his word.  I didn’t want to hear the answer.

“What are the odds?” I asked.  “Do you know?”

“I can ask,” Dragon said.

“Please.”

She paused.  “Ninety-six point eight percent chance we bring you into custody,” Dragon said.  “We have the numbers on general paths you might take to escape.  You understand if I don’t give you the chance of success on those numbers, but you should know that violence won’t work.  Less than one percent chance of success.”

“Ah.”  It was all I could bring myself to say.

It explains why they’re playing it safe.  It’s not just that I have a penchant for problem solving.  Dinah told them to watch out for it.

I glanced at the crowd.  They were still listening.  Emma was there, hugging her arms to her body, eyes wide and uncomprehending.

Not even a factor.  On the list of things I had to deal with, she wasn’t even in the top ten, not even in the top one-hundred.  I felt irrationally offended that she was here, as if she was only doing it out of some kind of self-importance.  As if she’d had a choice.

A part of me, bigger than I’d expected it to be, wanted to lash out.  To hurt her just because I could, to answer that outrage I was experiencing, in regards to something she had no control over.

It wasn’t like I had much to lose.

“Skitter,” Dragon said.  She made it a warning, almost like she had with Defiant.  I couldn’t be sure what she was warning me about.  Was my line of thinking that obvious?

“I never liked that name,” I said.  “Skitter.  Never quite fit.”

“If there’s something else you’d like us to call you…” she trailed off, inviting an answer.  Her voice was gentle, as if she were talking to someone on a ledge.  I noticed Clockblocker was standing beside her, his glove pointed at me, fingers outstretched.

Was I on a ledge, in a matter of speaking?  I could hardly tell.

“No idea,” I said, as I walked around a table to put students between myself and Clockblocker. “Felt like commenting on the subject.”

“You know how capable the precog is,” Defiant said.  “Come quietly, and we can all talk to the authorities together.  If it would help, I can admit some culpability in your current circumstance.  All of us together might be able to get you a more lenient sentence.”

I was aware of the eyes of the other students.  There was the cluster at the back of the room, the ones who were backing away from me, cringing, cowering.  Others hadn’t left their seats, and were arrayed around me, their heads turning to watch me as I walked down the aisle.  The ones who’d stayed, less afraid, or more willing to face their fear.

He was admitting it, loud enough for everyone to hear.  He was partially to blame for me being… this.  A crime lord.  A villain.  Partially.  Much of the fault was mine.

Strange, to be confronted with the realization here, at school.  Not the place where it all started, but close enough.

“Okay,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.

“Yes?” he asked, taking a step forward.

“No,” I told him.  He stopped in his tracks.  “That was more of an okay, I’ve decided what I’m doing.”

I could see him tense.

“Students!” I called out, raising my voice.

“She’s taking hostages,” Dragon said, her jetpack kicking to life.

“…a clear shot,” Clockblocker said.  He was walking briskly to his left, his glove still trained on me.

“I’m not taking you hostage,” I said.  “It’s really your choice how this plays out.  I’m not sure if you heard me say it before, but I described you as a jury.  Now it’s time for you to vote.”

“That’s not how it works, Skitter!” Defiant shouted.  He stepped forward, then whipped around to kill the swarm that was flowing in through the doorway behind him.  I could divert some to the air ducts, but it didn’t amount to much.  He was stuck near the door, unless he wanted to let the bugs stream in.

“Stand if you side with me,” I called out.  “I won’t make any big speeches here.  That’s not who I am.  I won’t feed you lies or guilt you into this.  It’s your call.”

What had I expected?  A handful of people, Charlotte included?  A slow, gathering buildup?

Of the three hundred or so students in the auditorium, nearly a third stood from the benches where they’d sat.  As a mass, they migrated my way, gathering behind me.  Charlotte stood just to my left, staring forward without making eye contact with me.

Since I’d entered the school, I’d been acutely aware of the distinctions, the difference between then and now.  The sense of the Undersider’s presence in the school had followed me, nagging at me.

What use were followers if we couldn’t use them?

I heard movement, and glanced over my shoulder to see Charlotte’s friend, Fern, breaking away from the mass of students at the very back of the room.  Nineteen out of twenty of them were the clean, pristine, bright-eyed kids who’d left the city when the trouble started.  As Fern advanced, eyes to the ground, others broke away from the crowd to join my group.  Not many.  Ten or twelve.  It was still something.

A hundred students and change, a small handful of bugs.  I could see Emma, standing on the sidelines, her fists clenched.  She was saying something, repeating it over and over, under her breath.  I couldn’t spare the bugs to listen in.  I wasn’t sure I cared.

“This is reckless,” Defiant said.  His voice had a strange tone to it, and it wasn’t just the digital twang that I was hearing at the edges of the words.

“Probably,” I replied, raising my voice enough that it could carry across the room.  “But not as much as you’d think.  We’re not fighting.  I stress, we’re not engaging you.”

“What are you doing, if you’re not fighting us?” Clockblocker asked.

“Defiant and Dragon wanted to use the hostages against me, putting me in a lose-lose situation where I was caught between them and having to hurt people to try to escape.  I think I’m turning the tables, now.  We’re going to walk out of this school as a group.  If you want to stop us, you’re going to have to hurt us, and you aren’t capable of doing that to people any more than I am.”

“Skitter!” Dragon raised her voice.

“Taylor,” I answered her.  “I’m just Taylor, for just a little while longer.  I suppose I’ll be retiring my civilian name, one way or another, by the end of the night.  Fuck you for that, by the way.  I won’t forget it.”

“… wasn’t me,” she said, and I doubted even Clockblocker heard her, from where he stood beside her.

“It wasn’t your choice,” I said, “But as long as you choose to follow them, you’re as culpable as they are.”

I hadn’t even finished my sentence when I raised a hand and pointed.  There was a moment’s hesitation, and then the group advanced.  I waited a few seconds, and then joined them, falling in step.

Clockblocker used his glove, and the fingertips shot out with explosive force, with what looked like gleaming white fishing line stretching between the digits and the glove.  The tips punched into a wall.  A fence of thin lines, not much different from my spider silk.

Dragon put her hand on the glove, and the tips retracted just as fast.  My bugs could hear her speaking.  “…’ll hurt … civilians.”

A few members of the group broke away before getting too close to the capes.  Others joined in.  The group marched forward, reaching the front of the room.

Someone pushed a piece of clothing into my hands.  A sweatshirt.  I pulled it on and flipped the hood up.  I took my glasses off, sliding them into a pocket.

Clockblocker was pressing through the group.  He’d used his power, but the press of bodies was actually causing some damage, as people unwittingly pushed others into the frozen individuals.  He was fighting to reach me.

“Link elbows,” I said, my voice low, “Surround him.  He’s only about as strong as you are.”

It took a second for people to get organized.  He passed perilously close to me, but his eyes moved straight past me.  A few heartbeats later, the members of the group who had managed to get themselves linked together had him surrounded.

“Everyone to my right, head for the front door.  Everyone to my left, to the kitchen.  Straight past Defiant.”

The man barred the door.  We were only a dozen feet away when he slammed the butt of his spear into the ground.  Electricity and hot air ripped through the serving area of the cafeteria, with visible arcs dancing along the edges of sinks and the metal rails meant for the trays at the front.

“Steady forward,” I said.  “First ones to reach him, grab him.  You don’t need to do anything except hold on.  Dogpile him, and he won’t be able to move for fear of hurting you.”

I saw some people hesitating.  The group almost lost its forward momentum.

“He might not be a good guy,” I murmured.  “But he’s a hero.  Trust in that.”

Or is it the other way around?  That apology sat oddly with me.

He held his spear out horizontally, barring our path.  It was Charlotte that quickened her step, reaching out to fold her arms around the spear and his left hand.

Others soon did the same.  He stood tall in his armor, nearly seven feet, and people almost had to climb on top of him to find a place to hold on.

I almost wondered if I’d had a second trigger event, if I was controlling them, the image was so bizarre.

Then I took a better look at them, at how some weren’t listening to me at all, retreating.  Others were being far less consistent, showing a wide variety of emotions.  Sheila, the girl with the side of her head shaved, was among them.  Her face was etched in anger, of all things, as she clung to Defiant.

A hundred students had joined me, and a hundred students had their individual stories.  Their sleepless nights, their individual tragedies and moments of terror.  That was all this was.

I wasn’t sure if that was a relief or if it was scarier.

Dragon flew over us, her jetpack carrying her into the air, over the crowd.  Students were following beneath her, running.  One or two leaped onto tables and jumped to try to catch ahold of Dragon’s foot, but she veered easily to one side.

With Defiant occupied, I was free to bring bugs in through the back door, not having to worry about them being bug-zapped to oblivion.  I directed them straight into the vents on the jetpack that were sucking in huge quantities of air.  One second it was like a vacuum, drawing in air, the next it was clogged.  She lost lift, floating to the ground, and deftly batted aside the reaching hands of the students who were getting in her way.

Her jetpack expanded with an almost explosive motion, fanning out to have four times the number of intake vents, four times the number of output charges, and two laser turrets that curved over her shoulders.

There was no way she could pack that much machinery in that much space.  Either it was all crammed into her torso, which was impossible, or Armsmaster-Defiant had tweaked it.

She had liftoff, and she was faster.

And I’d already slipped past Defiant, stepping into the kitchen, and into the narrow hallway.  She didn’t have room to navigate, with the other students who were crammed into the entryway.

She turned herself around a hundred-and-eighty degrees and flew out the entrance of the cafeteria, heading outside.

Only twenty or so students were with me, now.  Dragon was stopping beside Adamant and Sere.  Adamant took her hand, and she lifted off, carrying the pair of them.

Still had to deal with three heroes…

And the massive armored suits that the two had ridden in to arrive.  Two.

“No,” Defiant said.

“You were supposed to protect us!” a girl shouted.  Sheila, the one who’d been angry, who’d brought a weapon to school and had left the school rather than relinquish it.

“I won’t,” he said.

He was talking to someone else.  The vents on his mask were open, hot air flowing out.  Was he trying to disperse heat so he wouldn’t burn any students?

“It’s still crude,” he said, “… do more harm than good.”

There was a pause.

“…r freedom isn’t worth possibly losing you.”

Defiant, still at the serving area of the cafeteria, moved.  With nine students clinging to him, he was glacially slow, careful to a degree that I might have called agonizing, if it weren’t so much to my benefit.

He needed two hands on his spear to remove the panel in the middle of the shaft.  I filled it with my bugs, and he shook it, to try to get them loose.  When that failed, he disconnected his glove, letting it strike a student that clung to his leg, before falling to the floor.

I tried to use my bugs to bite his hand, but I found it was a smooth texture, not flesh.  Metal or plastic, or something combining the two.  He found three buttons in the mechanisms inside the spear and typed in a sequence.

Dragon veered toward the ground, depositing the two capes there before staggering forward in four or five rapid footsteps, dispersing the rest of her forward momentum.  She fell into a crouching position.

We made our way outside.  The armored suit that Defiant had piloted to the school loomed before us, a four legged mechanical dragon perched on the athletics field, replete with panels of knightly armor.  This thing… this wasn’t a fight I could win.  Simple A.I. or no, Dragon would have shored up any weakness in logic.

It didn’t move.

We walked between its legs on our way to the parking lot.  There wasn’t really another route.

Dragon stood, abrupt, and I flinched.

She turned her head our way, but she didn’t pursue, as we walked through the parking lot to the main road.  Adamant and Sere were too far away, Kid Win hadn’t been willing to venture outside a second time, after the faceful of bugs I’d given him before.

Stray bugs drew out an arrow, pointing him to his things.  No use letting some stupid kid get their hands on it and blow their faces off or something.

I watched Dragon with my swarm, for as long as she was in my range.  I was well out of sight by the time she finally moved.  The students had released Defiant, and he approached her side.

She extended a hand, and it tremored, the movement stuttering, palsied.

Defiant seized it in his right hand and pulled her close, wrapping his gloveless arm around her shoulders.  He set his chin on top of her head.

My escort and I walked as a group until we were three blocks away from the school.

“Stop,” I said.

They did.  The remaining members of the group backed away, turning towards me.

What was I even supposed to say?  ‘Thank you’ seemed so trite.  They were all so different.  There was Fern, and a boy who didn’t look like one of the ones who’d stayed in the city.  Some looked nervous, others showed no expression at all.  There was no response that encapsulated all of them.

I tried to think of something to say, but the harder I tried, the less anything seemed to fit.

“You saved my dad,” Fern said, as if answering a question I hadn’t asked.

Saved her dad?  When?

It didn’t really matter.

“Imp found the bastard who was threatening to do shit to my little sisters,” one guy said. “Tied him to a traffic post.  And you work with her, right?”

“You fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“…those bastard ABB guys…”

“Fed…”

“…when Shatterbird…”

“…Mannequin…”

“…Leviathan showed up at the shelter, I heard you were…”

“…Empire…”

A collection of voices, a jumble, to the point that I couldn’t take it all in.

I didn’t have a group with me as I walked down Lord street.  I turned right, onto familiar territory, my heart heavy.

It wasn’t long before I was close enough.  My range was longer, now.  Odd.  It was supposed to get longer when I felt more trapped, but ‘trapped’ wasn’t the word I would have chosen.

My bugs rose at my command, tracing over the area.  It wasn’t so unusual, that there were flies, bumblebees and ants about: the heat of summer, the humidity, the imbalanced ecosystem…  Nobody paid them any heed.

A small butterfly found its way into the house.  It traced over the glossy smooth armor and helmets of PRT officers, touched the badge on the chest of a police officer.

It touched my dad’s shoulder, moved down his bare arm to his hand.  He was sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

An officer swatted at the bug, missing.  The action drew someone else’s attention.

“It could be her,” the woman in the PRT uniform said.

“Fan out!” someone else ordered.

They spilled out of the house.  Orders were shouted, and people climbed into cars, peeling out.

Still at the kitchen table, my dad reached out for the butterfly.  I had it settle on his finger.  Cliche?  Overdramatic?  Probably.  But I couldn’t bear for my possible last contact with my dad to be through anything ugly.

“Taylor,” he said.

Six and a half city blocks away, I replied, “I’m sorry.”

The butterfly and I took off at the same time.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Chrysalis 20.4

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

From the moment Charlotte had sent her text, I’d been bracing myself for the worst case scenario.  I’d resolved the situation with Greg, and I’d had just enough time to let my guard down before things started falling apart for real.

A guard stopped me in my tracks before I was three steps out of the office, arresting me mid-stride by setting his hands on my shoulders.

I resisted the urge to fight him.  I wasn’t sure I could, without a weapon, my armor or powers, and it threatened to make the situation worse.  He peered down at me, but I averted my eyes, staring down at the ground so he couldn’t get a straight look at my face.

“No running, kid,” he said.

He let me go, and I resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief.

My thoughts were a mess, a jumble of half-finished thoughts, ten times worse than it had been earlier in the day.  Somehow, in the midst of it, I managed to establish a few priorities.  Slip out, get rid of evidence, assess the threat, and then address it.

I walked slower.  I had the papers I’d removed from the clipboard, and I started tearing them up as soon as the guard had disappeared through the doors of the office.

On a more strategic level, I drew on a share of the handful of bugs in the school to get a sense of my surroundings.  I’d be letting people know Skitter was present, if they noticed the odd movements of the flies and ants, but I had good reason to believe someone already knew.

Either the people after me were the good guys, and it didn’t matter if I clued them in, or it was one of my other enemies, and the heroes showing up could be a good thing.

Arcadia High consisted of two longer buildings joined by a third, joining them to form something like a capital ‘H’.  The main office, where I was, and all the other administrative and staff-related facilities seemed to be located around the center.  The only exits from this immediate area would open into an open space where I would be surrounded by walls lined with windows, all looking down at me.  Worse, the doors all had the heavy horizontal bars that suggested they were emergency exits, and an alarm would sound if I used them.

Assuming I had someone after me, I couldn’t afford to put myself in that position.

That left me two options.  I could head into the building to my left, which featured four stories of classrooms, the cafeteria and a gymnasium, with a door that led to the student parking lot at the front of the school, or I could head right, into a building that was much the same, though longer, with an auditorium and the front doors of the school in close proximity to one another, and quite a few more classrooms.

I headed for the front door, to my right, depositing the scraps of paper in a trashcan on my way.  I moved as fast as I could without drawing undue attention, discreetly placing bugs on all of the guards I could find.

I stopped in my tracks as my bugs made contact with two other individuals.  Adamant and Sere were in the company of two guards, moving from the front door to the intersection immediately in front of me.

Making a sharp right, I headed for the stairwell, ducking away before they could advance far enough ahead to get a glimpse of me.  I’d worried they were making a beeline straight for me, but they stopped at the junction where the two hallways met.  I was already reaching the hallway below.  The guidance counselor’s office and staff meeting rooms sat behind floor-to-ceiling windows with the same glass that the exterior windows had: hexagon-shaped cells blending near-seamlessly into one another.  Looking straight at it, I couldn’t tell the difference, but the light caught each cell differently if I viewed it at certain angles, making them stand out.  Measures against Shatterbird?

Behind one of the windows, I could see two guidance counsellors sitting in a circle with a dozen students.  Nobody, not even the guard who was standing on the other side of the glass door, gave me more than a glance.

The exterior windows of the building were all securely closed.  The building was cool despite being a greenhouse of sorts, but it made getting my bugs into the building a difficult matter, and that left me with a relatively small swarm.  I gauged the number of bugs I could spare, and situated the less mobile bugs on doors and at the points where the walls met the floor or ceiling.  I might have preferred a denser collection, to map out my surroundings, but it gave me a sketchy mental picture of how the hallways were laid out.

A small cloud of flies was only now reaching the front office, slipping inside as a student opened the door, navigating between legs and feet to make their way to the principal’s office.

Listening in required conscious thought, but I’d been working on training my brain to follow human speech with the insects’ alien hearing.  It was easier, the more I had nearby, but I’d have to make do.

“…fight on my campus…” she spoke into the phone.

I had some information now, for as long as she was on the phone.  Not much, and it required me to divert some focus to translating, but it was something.

“…of my students are …ly sensitive … to … them feel unsafe…”

It was an unfamiliar school, and while I had a basic sense of the layout, particularly on the exterior, the interior was something of a hurdle.  The hallway I was on ended in short staircases at either end, each of which led up to the main hallways of the larger buildings.  I made my way towards the one furthest from Sere and Adamant.

“…if that’s an order… yes… fine…”

The principal hung up the phone, placing it on her desk.  She didn’t act right away.  I quickened my pace.

The bugs I had on her pant legs informed me that she was swiveling around.  I had to think about the layout of her office before it clicked.  The computer.

I was at the top of the stairs, the door that led to the parking lot at my left, when the signal went through.  Every single guard in the building reacted in the same moment, as did Adamant and Sere.  Some withdrew things from their pockets -phones, I could guess-, while others were already kicking into action.

It wasn’t just the guards.  The bugs I had on classroom doors informed me of some students slipping out of class.  Two students, both boys.

My enemy was the Protectorate, or someone with strong connections in the Protectorate.  Nobody else would be able to pull this.

Guards stepped into the building and shut the doors behind them.  The heavy, mechanical sound of the doors locking echoed down the hall around me; the doors leading outside were all being sealed shut.

The gate at the front of the school was closed, and a guard was heading for the chain-link barrier at the edge of the parking lot as well.

Could I run?  Maybe.  Fight my way past the guards?  It was possible.  I could cloak myself in bugs, use my limited repertoire to disguise myself, to disable and/or distract them while fighting my way outside.  Could I get to the end of the parking lot in time?  That, too, wasn’t impossible.

All together?  With barely a hundred bugs available?  I wasn’t so sure.  Any fight took time, it involved a risk to myself, and I wasn’t wearing my costume.  If any of the guards had a weapon they’d confiscated or if one of the capes in the area caught up with me, I’d be more than screwed.

I didn’t have any bugs on my person.  I’d been concerned about a pat-down at the gate, and I didn’t want to have bugs crawling throughout the inside of my pant leg or in my pockets when a guard searched me for weapons.  I wasn’t wearing my costume for much the same reason.  Stupid of me.

I was stuck.

May I have your attention please?”  Principal Howell’s voice sounded from speakers throughout the school.  “The school is now being locked down.  For your own safety, please remain in your classrooms.  Students not in an assigned classroom should proceed in a calm and orderly fashion to the nearest seating area.  Students in the north wing of the school will need to make their way to the auditorium.  Students in the south wing should gather in the cafeteria.  Remain calm and rest assured: there is no immediate danger.

The noose was constricting around me.  The students would be contained in select areas, and classrooms would be cleared one by one.  If the Protectorate was involved, I wasn’t even sure I could find a proper hiding spot.  Didn’t Kid Win have some ability to see through walls or detect heat signatures with his goggles?

The two boys had reached a room on the bottom floor, near the gymnasium, and were quickly changing into their costumes.  Clockblocker and Kid Win.

What did the good guys know?  They’d been alerted that I was in the school.  I’d been in the office only minutes ago, and the principal had put my name into the computer.  That was probably the catalyst, given how fast things had proceeded in the minutes since.  The principal got the phone call, and had ordered the lockdown as a consequence.  The fact that she’d warned me, it didn’t jibe with the lockdown: she probably hadn’t wanted to do it.

It struck me that they didn’t know that I was in the school now.

Inside of the building, I was largely defenseless.  Outside, I did have my bugs.  I doubted I could get out without drawing attention, but I could theoretically get them to call off the lockdown.

My bugs moved from the surrounding blocks and collected near one of the fire doors I’d noted earlier.  They formed into a decoy, a rough copy of my general silhouette, covered in bugs, and then began moving toward the school gates.

One of the guards standing by the auditorium saw and shouted for Sere.  The white-shrouded hero hurried for the door.

Sere was a long ranged cape, probably capable of killing my swarm with little difficulty.  I split my swarm off into further copies, maintaining their movement towards the gate and the walls.

Another announcement was broadcast throughout the school.  “A supervillain is currently near the school entrance.  Students in the central areas of the school should relocate to the cafeteria.  Anyone already in a secure place should please remain where they are.

The office was emptying, now, and guards were breaking away from their groups to ensure that every student that had been sitting around in the hallways was moving to the appropriate areas.  Emma was among the forty or fifty students heading toward the cafeteria, nestled in the midst of the group, while the principal followed at the rear with two guards in her company.

Behind me, the guidance office was evacuating as well.  The glass door opened, and the soundproof seal broke.  I could hear one of the counselors speaking to the twelve or so teenagers around him.  “Let’s go to the cafeteria.  If this takes a while, we’ll at least be able to eat.”

He spotted me and gestured for me to join the group.

I could have argued and asked to go to the auditorium instead.  There were any number of excuses that could have worked, including ‘I have an issue with one of the students who’s in the cafeteria’.

But I was more interested in being invisible.  Better to play along, to think of a plan and execute it, while doing as little as possible to draw attention to myself.  Here, at least, I’d be hidden among others.  I joined the crowd moving in the direction of the cafeteria.

More guards were directing other students to the cafeteria, the groups merging into a single mass, with the cafeteria doors as the bottleneck.  Inside, everyone was spreading out to find tables.  Again, I noted the distinction between the two varieties of student.  The bright and cheerful ones were collecting together, filling up every space at the tables closest to the door and to the front of the cafeteria, where all of the food was available.  Others were spreading out, alone or in groups of two to five.

The principal and other staff members were standing by the door, seeing that everyone filed peacefully into the room.  Emma was sitting at one table with all of the secretaries and a few of the teachers who I supposed hadn’t had a class to teach.  She glared at me as I walked into the room.

I found Charlotte, too, identifying her by the cube of paper with the ladybug inside that I had my more prominent minions carrying these days.

“Taylor!” she hissed, as I made my way towards a table at the back of the room.

I was dimly aware of Sere striking down one of the decoys.  The moisture in the air zipped to his hand, and nearly half of the decoy was ruined, the bugs dazed or unable to move.

The spiders, I noted, suffered worse than most.  They used a kind of biological hydraulic system to move.  Shit.  I liked my spiders.  They were particularly useful.

I reached Charlotte and murmured, “Best if you don’t know me.”

“Hey, Taylor,” she hissed the words, twisting around in her seat.  When I didn’t reply, she repeated herself, “Hey.  Is this about you?”

“I think so,” I muttered.

I took a seat at a table near the back, folding my arms in front of me and resting my chin on the back of my hands.  Staying out of sight, while keeping an eye on everything.  It also allowed me to focus on my swarm.

My bugs were discreetly tracing back routes and other options.  Was there a place where the cafeteria staff unloaded the day’s food?  Some back way leading from, say, a gym or custodial entrance?  A way onto the roof, even?  I didn’t have enough bugs to spare that I could leave them on walls.  I was forced to personally memorize every corridor and feature of the building that might be important.

Outside, Sere was working at destroying my decoys.  I split off more copies, and then moved one group to him to see if I could blind him.

The bugs were being sucked dry of moisture as they got too close to Sere; I wouldn’t be able to disable him with just my swarm.  He drew more water from a cloud of bugs, desiccating and killing hundreds.

The number that died was indicative of something, though.  As devastating as the attack was, the effect didn’t cover a massive area.  It was a roughly cone-shaped area, with a long reach, but narrow breadth.

If he was surrounded by moisture, maybe I could use that against him?  My flying bugs started doing bombing runs.  They picked up small stones and dirt, using the fine tarsals that helped them cling to walls.  There wasn’t the suction, but it served to allow them to pick up specks at a time.  They flew in tight loops, staying high over Sere as they dropped the fragments, touched ground to collect more dirt, and repeated the process.  I was careful to spread them out and collect the fragments from multiple places so he couldn’t kill too many at a time.

Dense moisture and dirt could become a thin mud, and it might serve to blind him or distract him where my bugs couldn’t.

In the cafeteria, another group of students was filing inside.  Fifty or sixty in all, they each bore telltale signs of the kids who’d stayed.  Many were drenched in sweat, and the teacher with them held a basketball.  Had they been in the gym, burning off nervous energy, working on building social bonds and all that?

There were maybe three or four hundred people in the cafeteria, now, as students from all over the school streamed in, including most of the ones from the auditorium.  With the increasing number of students, it was impossible for anyone to have a table to themselves.  A group of three boys claimed the far end of Charlotte’s table, and she stood up.

She had issues around unfamiliar men.  It might have served as a push for her to do what she’d been debating doing anyways.  She joined me at my table, sitting close enough that our shoulders touched.

“What’s going on?” she whispered.

“You know when Tattletale vetted everybody?”  I whispered back.

Charlotte nodded.

“She made a list of names, some vetted people along with some others who were safe.  Mixing it up.  She gave the list to the principal, with the idea that maybe she could cut us some slack and we’d help keep the peace in the school in exchange.  So she had an idea that I was related to the Undersiders, she told me to run and hinted someone might be after me,” I said.

Charlotte nodded again, mute.

“I tried,” I whispered, “but I couldn’t cover enough ground in time.  Someone forced her hand and ordered her to put the school on lockdown.  I can’t slip out without drawing attention to myself, I’m not in a position to fight, and it’s only a matter of time before they find me.”

Shit,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.  “I won’t blame you if you want to move somewhere else.”

“I’ll stay,” she said.

“Char-”

“I’ll stay,” she repeated.

I relented.  I couldn’t afford to focus on this, when I needed to control my bugs and memorize any possible escape routes or hiding places.  “If anything happens, get clear.  You don’t know me.  Your ‘little brother’ is counting on you, and he should be your priority.”

“Little brother?” she asked.  I saw the realization as she remembered our code word.  ‘Little brother’ referred to all the kids in her charge.

“Oh.  Right,” she said.

Kid Win was making a beeline for the front door.  I clustered bugs on the surface of the door, blocking his line of sight as much as I was able.

It didn’t work.  The thermal gogglesWhich means he can tell there’s no body inside any of the decoys.  He pushed the door open and shouted, “Sere!”

That was about as far as he got before my bugs descended on him, filling his open mouth.

“What are you going to do?” Charlotte asked.  With the degree of attention that I was devoting to what was going on, she sounded almost distant.

Even with the murmuring of hundreds or so students conversing, the cafeteria was eerily still and quiet compared to what was going on outside.  Adamant was standing at the doorway to the auditorium, simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the stray students from the north building and the fighting outside.  Clockblocker was making his way to the front.  He was slightly different; he wore what seemed to be a gauntlet, out of proportion with the rest of his body.

“I have a few options,” I whispered my response.  “I could be aggressive, take on the people at the door.  I think I could slip away.”

“Why didn’t you do that already?”

“They were too guarded, and they were anticipating trouble from within the building.  My bugs are causing some chaos outside, now, and they’ll have their backs turned.  I’ll have time to improvise a mask, which I didn’t, before.”

“You have to get out of the cafeteria first.”

“I’m not too worried about that,” I said.  “There’s two or three possible escape routes I’ve been able to find, if I can get my hands on a set of keys or create a big enough distraction to get away with making some noise.  The principal has my back, and she might make it easier.  I’d ask her for a key, but I’m not sure she would be willing to risk it, and there’s too many people around her.”

Including Emma, I noted.  One person I could count on to pay attention to me.

“What if she’s the one who made the call to these people who are after you?”

The principal?  I shook my head.  “Her priority is keeping this school and its students safe.  Besides, I overheard her communicating with someone on the phone.  If she was playing both sides, there’d be no reason for her to maintain the ruse when I wasn’t anywhere nearby.”

“Unless she knew you could hear through your bugs,” Charlotte added.

“Unless she knows,” I echoed her.  “I don’t think she does.”

Kid Win was suffering at the hands of my swarm.  He drew a weapon, but my swarm was already prepared with lengths of silk.  They constricted the weapon and prevented it from unfolding.  Sere, for his part, had his hands full trying to take down the decoys.  A large part of what I was concentrating on was the decoys, getting enough details right, and splitting them off in a way that suggested I could be any of them, while simultaneously keeping them far enough apart that he couldn’t attack more than one at once.

“Taylor,” Charlotte whispered.  “If they know who you are, they know.  They could find you again, or put your face on the news.”

“If they did, it would be breaking a good few unwritten rules.  Especially if they only knew who I was because I helped with the Echidna situation.  They can’t afford to punish villains for helping against the big threats.  It would mean fewer people showed, and they need all the help they can get.  Here, at least, they could say I was intruding on neutral ground.”

The explanation felt feeble.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Charlotte whispered, echoing my line of thinking.  “Doing it here, at a school, with so many potential hostages around.  Breaking the code?”

“I’m thinking…” I replied, “I’m thinking everyone knows the Protectorate is falling apart.  Legend’s gone, Eidolon’s announced he’s leaving as soon as things get quieter, the head of the PRT stepped down, a whole bunch of rank and file members left, and so did Weld and a lot of the more monstrous capes.  Maybe there’s pressure from the top to put one in the win column, remind people why the Protectorate exists.”

And who better to take down than the creepy teenage supervillain who’s leading the team that took over a city?

“But in a school?”

I didn’t have any guesses to offer on that count.  I focused on the fighting outside instead of responding.

Getting too close to Sere was killing my bugs just as easily as his long ranged absorption attack.  I had to attack him from range, and the rain of dirt and small stones wasn’t doing anything, as far as I could tell.

I turned to a tactic that had crossed my mind while fighting Echidna.  She, like Sere, had been tricky to get close to.  Unlike Sere, she’d been too big to really tie up.

Spiders drew out lines of silk and formed them into cords, weaving them into one another to form extended lines, fifty or so feet long.  With the combined efforts of dozens of flying insects, half gripping one end and half gripping the other, the lines were flown in Sere’s direction, so he was caught by the middle.

The bugs holding the ends then continued onward, keeping the cord taut as they circled him, one group flying clockwise, the other flying in the opposite direction.  In this manner, they orbited him, winding him up in a single length of cord.

With five cords being wound around him in that fashion, I soon had him hampered, his arms and legs restricted in movement.

He kept moving forward, attacking my decoys.  As he passed a signpost, I hurried to have my bugs wind the remaining lengths of cord around it.  Lines went taut, cords constricted around him, and he fell.  He struggled, but it didn’t seem he would be on his feet anytime soon.

With Kid Win on the ground, thrashing, that was two down.

The other two, I was pretty sure I could deal with them if it came down to it.  I wasn’t sure what Clockblocker’s glove did, but I had a suspicion.  Adamant’s armor was just begging to have silk cords wind through the chain links and armor plates.

My bugs rifled through Kid Win’s pouches and armor compartments.  Masses of bugs and teams of the larger, stronger bugs working to pull silk cords helped to divest him of various tinker tools and components.  His smart phone, a cylinder with a trigger on the front and a button on top, a sphere with a hole through the center, with screw-like rifling and electrical connectors in the interior.  There were two devices like tuning forks, too, with tines that wound around one another without touching, and wires beneath the handles.  Bugs in his ears helped to work an ear bud out of position and carry it off.

Once he was denied as many of his tools as I could move, I dragged them away.  It was only when I was sure that he wouldn’t be able to use them against the swarm or against me that I eased up on him.  I let my bugs drift in the general direction my decoys had gone, as though I were leaving or gone.

He stood, gagging and choking.  Sere wasn’t in sight, and I’d taken Kid Win’s phone.  There was only one place for him to go if he wanted to communicate with the others and touch base.  He headed back into the school.

I was ready.  Bugs flowed out of his pockets, gaps in his armor and from where they’d clustered at the small of his back.  I tied his wrist to the door handle.

It took him a long few seconds to realize the door wouldn’t swing shut until he moved.  That bought the remainder of my swarm time to turn around and flow through the open entryway.  They headed straight for the guards, and swept into their pockets the same way they had with Kid Win’s pouches.

Keys?  Yes.

While Kid Win and the guards were blinded, my bugs fetched the keys.

I stood from the bench of the lunch table.  “I think I’m set.”

“Just like that?” Charlotte asked.

I looked at the front of the room, where other students were feeling hunger and teenage appetites overcoming their fear of what was going on elsewhere in the school.  Only a dozen or so.  Maybe they don’t have a steady supply of food where they are, I mused.  There were areas of town which weren’t in good shape.

There’re pizza slices, I noted.  It was a reminder of how the day wasn’t going as I’d planned.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.  Get out, then see what Tattletale can manage as far as damage control.  “Wish me luck.  I’ll send you a message and meet you at the lair after school if everything goes according to plan.”

I crossed the cafeteria, heading for the buffet tables and sneezeguard-protected counters with empty trays waiting to be filled by staff.  Emma was at her table, I noted, surrounded by secretaries and teachers.  I was joined by other hungry students, eager for their free food, and their bodies helped to block me from the sight of both Emma and the staff.

Confidence, I thought.  I stepped around the counter and through the doors that led into the kitchen.  Confidence made it look like I knew what I was doing; being furtive would only arouse suspicion.  My bugs were still carrying the keys, bringing them along an air vent.  I’d need to find a way to open a vent cover and retrieve them, but it was among the smallest of the problems I’d face today.

I found a door to the outside.  My bugs clustered on the other side, my hand pressing against my own, separated by an inch and a half of door.  I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t been followed, then started looking for a way into the air conditioning duct.

The smallest of the problems I’d face today.

There was an impact, heavy enough that the lights flickered.  Even the bugs I’d gathered on the door were knocked loose, both by the force of the landing and the flying dust and debris.

Right outside the door.

I didn’t need to move my bugs to search out the identity of this antagonist.

A figure strode through the swarm of bugs.   He tapped the door with the end of his weapon, and the breath was knocked out of me.  Every bug within thirty feet of the door died, including the ones in the air conditioning duct.

I was still reeling as he pushed against the door.  It was deadbolted, but the metal of the door’s surface buckled, and it tore free of the frame.

He was wearing armor, forest green and gold, with the stylings of a lizard’s frills or bat wings on the trim, and a faint etching of scales to the green portions.  His spear, too, bore a distinctive design, with an etching like a lizard’s skull worked into the heavy spearhead.

He advanced, his spear point leveled at my chest, and I backed up, maintaining a distance between us.  To do otherwise would mean letting him drive the weapon into my chest.

On the other side of the campus, another heavy armored suit touched ground, somewhat more gently.

He stopped when we were at the front of the cafeteria.  I kept backing up, knowing it was futile.  Dragon had exited the other suit, and was using a jetpack to navigate the hallway, flying towards us with an accuracy and ease of movement that belied how fast she was moving.

I didn’t have an escape route.  The woman stopped directly behind me, at the entrance to the cafeteria.

“Dragon,” I said.  “And Armsmaster.”

“The name is Defiant,” Armsmaster corrected me.  His voice had a funny sound to it.

“Skitter,” Dragon answered me, loud enough for everyone to hear.  Her voice was almost gentle.  “I’m sorry it worked out this way.  My hand was forced.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Chrysalis 20.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Yes,” I said.  “I’m trying to avoid you because I have someplace to be.”

“I’m hurt, Taylor.  It’s been a while since we had a chance to talk.  We used to be friends, don’t you remember?”

“I remember,” I replied.  Didn’t want to get caught up in this.  At the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to back down, either.

I glanced around at the others.  I needed a better term for the people who’d stayed, a name for that particular clique.  They’d approached us, interested, but were hanging back enough to indicate they weren’t about to jump to my defense.  Couldn’t blame them.  The last series of events in Brockton Bay weren’t the sort that rewarded heroes.  These people had made it through by playing it safe and avoiding trouble.

Emma’s friends weren’t the same way.  They approached, offering Emma backup and support.  They didn’t join in, though.  Emma was point-man here.  She was in a mood to start trouble, I could tell, and everyone present knew it.

The guards?  They hung back, even further away than the ones on the periphery.  Two or three of them.  As I saw it, they were backing Emma up.  If I smashed her teeth in or tore her ear half-off like Sophia had once done to me, they’d stop me, and I’d get in trouble.  I’d get delayed from getting to where I wanted to be.

“Changed your look?  I have to say, you manage to make any style look great.”

The sarcasm was subtle.  There was also a glimmer of a memory in there; she was referencing something.  I brushed it aside.  I doubted I wanted to think too hard on it.

“You’re not impressing anyone,” I said.

“So hostile,” Emma said.  “Is that part of your new image?  Being rude?  Keeping everyone at arm’s length?  If anyone’s trying too hard, it’s you.”

Oh, I just had to take one look at her expression to see that she was reveling in the irony.  She didn’t give a damn that the accusations she was directing at me could be turned against her.  For her, it was all about the reaction she got out of me.  Victories, both big and little.

And all the while, she was oblivious to what I was holding back: tens of thousands of bugs, insects and arachnids, worms, centipedes, snails and slugs.  I restrained them in the same way I might keep my fist clenched, resisting the urge to swing it at her.

It wasn’t just the idea of hurting her.  That was almost secondary.  It was the idea of catching her right now, when she had less of a hold over me than she’d had in years.  To see the look on her face in the moment before the bugs forced themselves into her airways.  The dawning comprehension, the realization of what she’d brought on herself.

One action, and she might experience a share of the fear, the frustration and disgust I’d experienced over the years.  The hopelessness, the helplessness in the face of someone with more power to throw around.

I could imagine the bugs flowing into her mouth before she thought to cover it, flowing into her nostrils until she covered that.  I could imagine the moment she realized she’d have to swallow if she wanted to breathe.  I might even dismiss the bugs from flying around between us, just so I’d have a clear visual of it.  More likely that she’d throw up, but I’d have a minute or two before the heroes mobilized-

“Zoning out on me, Hebert?  Or did you spend too long outdoors and bake your brain?”

“I don’t know what to say,” I admitted.

“Big surprise.”

“…because I don’t really think much of you anymore.  I’ve dealt with drug dealers, vandals, looters and thugs, and the gangs that were roving the city trying to get their hands on young girls.  Hell, I was there when Mannequin attacked the boardwalk.”

All true.  Except… I ‘dealt’ with them in a more direct fashion than I was implying.

“Big girl.  So brave,” Emma said.

I saw one or two people on the periphery of the crowd shift position, irritated.  They weren’t my allies, not exactly, but Emma had just lost points, belittling what they had been through.

“I have a bit more perspective,” I told her.  “I’ve seen how shitty people can be.  I’ve seen people who were desperate, fighting just to get by.  Others preyed on people, in the midst of it all.  I can’t say I respect them for it, but maybe I understand it.”

“You’re-” she started.

I cut her off, talking over her, “And the thing is, even after seeing all of the starving people, the ones who ate trash or stole to make it through the next twenty-four hours, I think less of you than I think of them.”

I could see her eyes narrow at that.

You’re insulting me?

“I’m stating facts,” I replied.  “Talking to you even now, I’m realizing how small your world is.  You think of popularity and high school, of looking nice.  That’s not even one tenth of a percent of what’s going on in the world at large.  Yet you’re trying so hard to climb to the top of this tiny, sad little hill.”

“You’re missing one key fact there,” she said.  There was no smile on her face now.  “You’re beneath me on this little hill.  So what does that make you?”

“Emma, you’re snarling at me and insulting me, trying to make jabs as if each little gesture will give you a higher spot on the totem pole, but there’s no point.  I’m not even a student here.”

“You’re a dropout.  A failure.”

I sighed a little.  “I really like this approach of yours.  You started off really subtle, and in the last minute alone, you’ve descended to flinging basic insults at me, trying to see what sticks.  Except I’m really not bothered, and you’re doing more to make yourself look bad.”

Maybe I should have let her play it out a bit more and try a few more aimless jabs before I called her on it.  Didn’t matter.

One member of her entourage piped up, “Who do you think you are?  Talking to her like that?”

Another.  “You think you sound so smart, telling her what she’s-”

The girl stopped as Emma raised one hand.  Emma was glaring at me.  How long had it been since I’d seen anything besides glee and mean smirks?  Something substantial, and not just a look of fear as she huddled with her family at some fundraiser, or being shocked when I’d slapped her in the shopping mall.

Was Emma actually angry?

The Taylor of months ago would have appreciated at the realization, she might even have found it healing.  Not caring about what she said now came with an equal measure of not caring about her reaction.  I was almost disappointed.

“I’ve seen you break down in tears one too many times to buy that you don’t care.  You’re a wimp, Hebert, a coward.  You just want to look strong, pretend you’re something other than what you are.”

“No,” I replied.  “I just want to go to lunch with my dad.  If you want to stroke your own ego, you can do it after I’m gone.”

I didn’t feel better, as this played along, somewhat in my favor.  I was still angry, I still wanted to hurt her, to see the look on her face.  But that feeling, in combination with what I’d mentioned to her earlier, when I’d said how small high school seemed in the grand scheme of things, it made my emotions seem out of proportion.  Monstrous.

And punctuating that monstrous line of thinking was the bugs.  Reflecting my feelings, it almost made for a throbbing sensation, insistent, the swarm working to move toward me, being pushed back with a semiconscious thought the next moment.

She was getting to me.  It just wasn’t the way she’d intended.

“You keep trying to run, Hebert, like a coward.  You should thank me.”

“Thank you?  I’d love to hear this one.”

“God, if you just would have pretended to grow a spine a little sooner, everything would have been fine.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

“People who stand up for themselves get respect.  If you would’ve tried this a little sooner, laughed more at the pranks and jokes, stood a little straighter instead of cringing like a whipped dog, it would have worked.  We would’ve been friends again.  You’d have been part of the group, and things would have been peachy.  But you put it off too long, you made yourself into a victim.  It wasn’t us.”

I could feel a few ideas fall into alignment.

“You’re talking about Sophia.  You mean she would have let me into the group.”

“That’s part of it.”

Now we were talking about Sophia.  About Shadow Stalker.  Emma knew that the two were one and the same, and I knew as well, but I couldn’t let on.

Still, it was leverage.

“That’s a lot of it, I bet.  How demented are you, that you think I’d fucking want to be your friend, after all the shit you pulled?”

“Are you really better off where you are?”

“Now?  Yes.  Then?  Fuck, even then, yes!  I called you pathetic a minute ago, but Sophia’s worse than you.  She was a sad little basket case who lashed out at people with violence and barbed words because it was the only way she could deal.  The only real advantages she had were the fact that she was attractive and how you were misguided enough to look up to her, which is laughable unto itself.”

“Watch it,” she said.

“I would’ve thought you were better than that, but no.  She brought you down to her level, and you saved her from becoming a deranged thug, and made her a popular deranged thug instead.”

One of her friends stepped forward, no doubt to bark a retort, but Emma pushed her away.

“Watch it!” one of the guards called out.  “Hands off!”

He was perfectly content to let this argument slide, but a push was too much?  Whatever.

Emma turned to her friend, “Sorry.”

“Whatev,” the girl muttered back.  She didn’t look too happy.

Emma turned to me, and she had that mean, sly smile, like she had all the confidence in the world.  “You want to play hardball, Taylor?”

“I want to go meet my dad for lunch.  I’ve already said.  You’ve been playing hardball for years.  You can’t really top using my mom’s death to taunt me unless you’re willing to pull a weapon.”

“Sure I can,” the anger had faded, and she was cool, calm.  She seemed to relish her words as she said them.  “You killed your mom.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  My thoughts were momentarily a jumble, as I tried to process how that was even possible.

“Remember?  You were at my house when you got the call?  You were supposed to call your mom.  She was dialing for you when she got in the accident.”

“Pretty weak, Emma.  I don’t really buy it, and I don’t think even you buy that I’m at fault.”

“Oh, but there’s more.  See, your dad thought so.  Your dad blamed you.  He blames you. Remember?  He kind of disconnected?  Stopped caring about you?  You eventually went to my parents to ask if you could stay over some, until he found his feet?”

I could remember.  It had been the darkest period following one of the darkest moments of my life.

“My dad gave good old Danny a talking to, and your dad said he couldn’t get over it.  He thought you were responsible, blamed you because you didn’t make the call you were supposed to, and your mom had to drive over, worrying something was wrong.”

I could visualize it, fit this information into the blanks.

Emma continued speaking, and her words were in parallel with my own train of thought.  “Ever think about how distant he got?  Maybe how distant he is, even now?  He loves you, maybe, but he hates you too.  He dished all the dirt to my dad, and told him how if you’d just called, if you’d picked up when your mom tried to call you from home, he’d still have his wife.  He’d still have a woman who was fantastic and smart and beautiful, someone way too good for him.  Now all he’s got is you.  You, who he took care of more because he had to than because of anything else.  Does he even like you, now?”

Did my dad love me?  Yes.  Did he like me?  That was up for debate.

A hollowness had settled in me.  I wasn’t sure how much of it was what Emma was saying, how much was my thinking back to those days, and how much was an extension of the dissonance I’d been feeling since I stepped foot on school grounds.

I glanced at the others around us.  They were quiet, watching.  They weren’t leaping to my defense or joining in on Emma’s side.  Observers.

Emma, for her part, was smiling, mocking me with her smugness, waiting for the reaction.

I exhaled slowly.

With all the time I’d spent around Tattletale, it wasn’t hard to see what Emma was doing.  Identifying the weak points, then making educated guesses, making claims that were difficult to verify, but devastating in their own right.  She didn’t have powers, but she did have the background knowledge of me, my dad and that period of my life.

If I’d ever been close to using my power on her, it was here, now.  The fact that she was using my parents against me?  Trying to fuck with me on this level?

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled again.  Be calm.

Was it true?  Possibly.  But it would be next to impossible to verify, unless I was willing to discuss old, ugly memories with my dad.  Right here and right now, the information had only as much weight as I gave it.  I had to react to it like I might one of Tattletale’s headgames.

“Okay,” I said.  “Are you done?  I’d like to go now.”

The anger was bleeding out of me.  If that was all she could do, on the spur of the moment, I didn’t need to worry anymore.

The smile on her face remained, but it wasn’t quite so smug, now.  “I’m sorry.  I should have realized you’re a heartless bitch.  You don’t even care.”

“I don’t think I really believe you,” I replied.  “But even if I did, whatever.  I’ve dealt with people who are smarter than you, I’ve had to handle people who are scarier and meaner than you.  I’ve even had to work with people who are better at manipulating others than you.  You don’t have the slightest-”

I stopped.  My phone was vibrating.

There were too many possibilities for what it could be.  Issues with the Ambassadors, my dad, Charlotte…

I turned away and answered the call, putting the phone to my ear.

Taylor,” my dad spoke.

“Hi dad,” I said.

How’s the work?

“It’s not,” I said.  “I got a call from someone I’ve been working with on and off, and stopped by the school.  Where are you?”

The boat graveyard.  We’re trying to do some problem solving, and it’s slowing us down.  Which school?

“Arcadia.  Want to meet me halfway?  The…”

Through the single fly I’d planted on her, I could tell that Emma was striding towards me.  With only a split second to decide on a course of action, I decided to let her hit me.

She struck the phone out of my hand, and then shoved me into the wall that marked the perimeter of the school grounds.

Emma didn’t say a word, but she was panting.  Was she trying to think of something to say?  She pulled me away from the wall, only so she could slam me against it again.

I could have laughed.  She wasn’t strong, she wasn’t intimidating.

I thought about saying something.  You’re out of cards to play.  You’ve dropped past insults and you’ve descended to brute force, now?

I didn’t get a chance.  A guard advanced on us and pulled her off me.

The guard sounded almost casual as he kept a grip on the back of her shirt and one of her wrists, fighting to stop her from struggling.  “Now we’re off to see the principal.”

Figured.  I glared at him.  “So you stand back until a fight erupts, and get both attacker and victim in trouble?”

“The job’s to stop students from hurting others or getting themselves hurt.  Not about to step in the middle of an argument, or I’d be running around all day,” he said.

“I’m not even a student here,” I replied.

“Didn’t figure you were, with how fast you were in and out.  That’s why it’s your call.  You can go, do that thing you were talking about with your family, or come back to the office with me and the girl.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

He shrugged, then grimaced as she continued to struggle.  “We’re supposed to take any troublemakers to the office along with students who might be willing to testify.  You’re not a student, but maybe you plan to be, so it’s up to you.”

I didn’t respond right away.  For one thing, I was going to relish the sight of Emma finally getting the short end of the stick.  For another, I couldn’t shake the notion that this was some kind of trap.  For so long, it had been two steps forward, and one step back.  Why should things be any easier now?

I picked up my phone and put it to my ear to see if the call was still connected.  “Hello?”

Taylor?” My dad was still on the other end of the phone.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I met Emma’s eyes.  “Emma tried to pick a fight.  They’re taking her to the front office now.”

There was a pause on his end.  “…Do you need me to come?

“You said you were busy with something.  I doubt anything will come of this, so don’t stress over it.  Want to meet tomorrow?”

OkayGood luck.

“Thanks.  Love you,” I said.  The memories Emma had just stirred up flickered through my mind’s eye.

“You too,” he replied.

I hadn’t taken my eyes off Emma.  She glared at me up until the moment the guard hauled her around, forcing her to march toward the school.

“You, in the sleeveless t-shirt, and you, girl with the haircut,” the guard said, “And you, the blonde in the purple shirt.  You’re witnesses.  Inside.”  He’d named two of the people who’d been hanging outside, both with the telltale look of people who’d stayed in Brockton Bay, and one of Emma’s friends.

There was some hesitation from a girl with the right half of her head shaved.  Her friends nudged her, and she joined the group.

Eyes were on us as we collectively headed in the direction of the office.  Emma pulled her hand free of the guard’s grip, and sullenly marched at the head of the group.  Once or twice, she tried to change course, but the guard gave her a little push to keep her moving.  It meant that every set of eyes was on her from the moment where we entered the school to the point we reached the front office.

Principal Howell had given up on managing the late arrivals when we turned up, and was on the phone at the very back of the office.  Seeing us, she looked almost relieved to have a distraction.  One finger pointed the way to her office, and she quickly wrapped up her call, cupping one hand around the mouthpiece to drown out the babble of voices from the gathered students.

We had to take very different routes to get there, with the counter in the way.  By the time we arrived, she was seated behind her desk.  Emma and I took our seats in front of the desk, with the guard and the three witnesses lined up behind us.

The principal wasn’t terribly attractive, and her roots gave away her bleached hair.  Just going by her appearance, and by the colorful blouse and scarf she wore, she didn’t give me a sense of an authority figure.  I didn’t get the sense she’d stayed in Brockton Bay these past few months.

Then she spoke, and my initial impressions were banished the instant I heard her hard tone.  “Collins?  Thirty words or less, give me the rundown.”

The guard answered her, pointing to Emma, “Extended argument was initiated by the blonde one.  The one with the glasses tried to back out.  Blonde escalated to pushing and shoving, I stepped in.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Witnesses, any commentary?  Keep it short.”

“What he said,” the girl with the half-shaved head said, sullen.  “The one who started it, I think her name was Emma?  Yeah.  Um.  She’s a bitch.”

This was somehow surreal.  I wondered if I was caught in some kind of trap.  The Ambassadors didn’t, to my knowledge, have anyone with a power that could mess with my head.  Maybe Haven or the Fallen had someone like that, capable of trapping me in some kind of warped world where things actually turned out okay, leaving me in a state where I never wanted to leave.

Such a world wouldn’t necessarily have Emma in it in the first place, though.  Or Greg.

“Emma didn’t do anything wrong,” the blonde in the purple shirt said.  “There’s a history.  She was only responding to some stuff that happened before.”

“I don’t care about what happened before,” the principal said.  “I care about keeping the peace.  We’ve already had three fights with weapons, and the day isn’t even half over.  No less than ten fistfights.  Nearly a third of the students attending this school were in Brockton Bay during the recent crises.  Some were Merchants, others were members of the white supremacy groups, and many more either found or are still taking refuge in a territory held by the current crime lords of Brockton Bay.  Friction is inevitable, I’m certain many of my students have post traumatic stress disorder, and any number of students haven’t yet made the transition from being a survivor to being an ordinary student.”

She leaned her elbows on the desk.

“That’s fine.  I’m willing to accept trouble as a fact of life, given recent events.  It would be unfair to hold you-” she paused to eye me, the girl with the hair and the boy in the sleeveless t-shirt, “-to the same standards as any other student, given what you’ve been through.”

“That’s not fair,” Emma said.

“Emma,” the principal said, “What you did was monumentally stupid and dangerous.”

Again, that surreal feeling.  This would be the point that I woke up to find I was still buried in Echidna, experiencing some warped reflection of past events, only in a more pleasant vein.  Or maybe this scene twisted around and I’d realize I was in some modified agnosia fog and everyone around me was a member of the Nine.

Principal Howell continued, “You there, your name?”

“Terry,” the boy in the sleeveless t-shirt said.

“Did you bring a weapon to school today?”

“No.”

“Have you been in a fight, in the last few weeks?”

“A few.”

“Okay.  And you, miss?”

“Sheila, and yeah.  Brought a weapon.”

“Do you have it on you?”

Sheila reached into a back pocket and withdrew a keychain.  A piece of metal dangled from the end, a bar that could be gripped, and two spikes that stuck out in front.  It was like brass knuckles, but not quite.  The same principle applied.

“Thank you.  If you could hand them to Collins, I’d appreciate it.”

Sheila gave Collins a wary look.

“Or you could step outside,” Howell suggested.

“Yeah,” Sheila replied. “I’ll do that.”

She turned on her heel and stepped out of the office.

“And you?  Your name?”

She was looking at me.  I responded, “Taylor Hebert.”

“Were you armed?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“She handed over her weapon without a fuss,” Collins said.  “Cheap knife, basic sheath.”

“And, if pushed, if you’d had it, would you have used it?” the principal asked.

I hesitated.

“You won’t get in trouble if you say yes.  Be honest.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Define ‘pushed’.”

“Nevermind.  Have you used it?”

“That one?  No.”

“But you have used a knife?”

I nodded, reluctant.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that the walls were going to close in around me, screwing me over.

“I hope you’re getting my point,” the woman said, turning back to Emma.

“You’re saying they could have hurt me,” Emma replied, sullen.

Would have, in some cases.  This isn’t the city you’re used to, nor the same students.”

“It’s fine,” Emma said.

“We’ll see.  Just putting you into the computer.  Emma… what was it?”

“Barnes,” I supplied.  “E-S at the end.”

She typed on the computer keyboard to her right.  “And Taylor… Hubert?”

“Hebert.  E-B-E.”

More typing.  “Hebert.  Just give me a second to pull records… damn.  Fancy new school, you’d think they’d give us better equipment.”

She hit the power button.  The computer took a minute to reboot.

Long seconds passed.  Nobody spoke.

The screen flared back to life.

“Hm,” she murmured.

“What is it?” Collins asked.

“A number of past incidents.  And we got the emails from Winslow High School, I did a search for their names, and there’s one that post-dates the Endbringer attack.  It’s apparently a series of text messages between an Emma Barnes and Sophia Hess.  There’s a great deal of discussion of the ongoing bullying campaign against Taylor here.”

I glanced at Emma.  She’d gone pale.

A final ‘fuck-you’ from Sophia?  Guess she wasn’t a friend after all.

The principal looked me square in the eye.  “Would you like to press charges?”

I couldn’t even think straight, hearing that, it was so out of tune with my expectations.

No.  I was still seated on the hard plastic chair, Emma to my immediate left.  This was reality.

This was everything I’d wanted, as far as the Emma situation: to enjoy a small victory, to see her house of cards come tumbling down.  To actually get to press charges?  To see justice?

“No,” I said.  Emma’s head snapped to face my direction with enough speed that I thought she might have given herself whiplash.

“Why not?”  Principal Howell asked.

Because I’m a supervillain, and I don’t want the scrutiny.  Because her dad’s a lawyer with connections, and it won’t work…

“Because she’s not worth the trouble,” I gave her the first answer that I could think of that wouldn’t cause any more problems.  Time spent on this is time I can’t devote to my territory.  I don’t want more conflictNot with all the other issues surrounding this.

“The school can take action against her without your consent,” she said.

“Feel free.  I want to be done with her, that’s all.”

“Very well.  Emma?  I’ll see you again in September.”

“September?”

“The summer classes we’re offering are very much a privilege.  Now, I’m sure you’ve faced your share of stresses in having to relocate twice in a short span of time, but I’m not inclined to extend the same leniency to you that I’m extending to those who’ve been through so much more.”

I suspected Emma was at least as stunned as I was.

“When you return, we can discuss whether you’ll repeat the tenth grade, and whether you’ll repeat it here.  I’ll have had time to review the emails and past records…”

She tapped a few keys on the keyboard, then frowned.  “…What was I saying?  Right.  Given the possibility that Taylor might choose to attend in the future, and even just the basics I’m reading here, it may not be conscionable to let you attend as well.”

“This is ridiculous.  My dad’s a lawyer.  There’s no way he’ll let this happen.”

“Then I expect we’ll have a great many discussions in the future.  Collins?  Would you please take her to the front?  I’d like a word with Ms. Hebert.”

“Will do.”

Maybe not a delusion.  A trap?  Head games from Accord?  Or was she an Ambassador, trying to curry favor?  I wasn’t sure what every member of the Fallen or the Teeth could do.  Could one be a shapeshifter?  Something else?

The door shut behind Collins, leaving the principal and I alone in the room.

“Satisfactory?” she asked me.

“What?”

“Is this end result satisfactory?  If you were holding back because you were afraid your membership among the Undersiders might come to light, rest assured I can be discreet.”

She did know something.

“I- I’m not sure I understand.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I got the impression you didn’t want to be treated any differently.”

“Who are you?”

“A vice principal in well over her head,” she said, leaning back in her chair.  “I didn’t see it firsthand, but I’ve felt the effects of this… long series of disasters.  My predecessor made it through, past an Endbringer attack, past food shortages and disease, past the roving gangs, the thugs and looters, past the Slaughterhouse Nine, an amnesia fog and a takeover of the city.  So many things.  And at the end of it all, just when things started to get better, he couldn’t adjust.  He got in a fight, was punched in the head, and died soon after of an embolism.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Seventeen years working together.  He was like a brother.  I told myself I would keep the peace.  Someone gave me a list of names, and I recognized your name on that list.  So perhaps I support certain students and keep an eye on the ones who would inevitably cause trouble anyways.”

Tattletale.  She arranged this.

“I’m not confirming or denying that I am such a student-”

“Of course.”

“-but why?  What do you get out of it?”

“Peace.  It’s an ugly road to travel to get there, but it’s peace.  I lost one good friend and boss to the crises here, I won’t lose anyone else.  Particularly not my students.”

Why did she have to tell me?  I would have been content to be ignorant here.  This was a perversion of justice.  The fact that it was perverted in my favor didn’t matter.

“Treat me like you would anyone else,” I said.

“I will.”

I couldn’t quite believe her.  If she was currying favor with Tattletale, helping to solidify Tattletale’s hold and perhaps feeding Tattletale information on more troublesome gang members, I wasn’t sure I could trust her to stay impartial here.

I’d won, so to speak, but this small revelation had taken the justice out of it.

“I’m going to go,” I said.

“I need you to fill out some paperwork, so everything’s organized for Emma’s suspension.  Are you a student?”

“No.”

“Are you intending to be a student?”

“No.”

“Okay.  Then I’ll have you fill out a form as a visitor.  Let me reboot my system again, print what you need, you can fill out one short page, and I’ll manage the rest.”

I was about to protest, to give some excuse and go, but the phone rang.  She picked up and pressed one hand over the mouthpiece.  “Wait at the front, a secretary will bring it to you.”

I couldn’t refuse without intruding on the conversation.  I stepped outside.

Emma was at the front, too, slouched in a chair with Collins standing beside her.  No doubt she’d had a secretary let her call her dad, or would as soon as the opportunity came up.

I stood at the opposite end of the room.

I felt numb.  A little disgusted with how things had turned out, that the only reason this system seemed to be working was because it was already corrupt to a fundamental level.  I could still feel some of the anger and irritation from the argument with Emma, the thrill of adrenaline…

I raised a hand to adjust my glasses and found my fingers were shaking.  I was trembling, and I couldn’t identify why.  None of the emotions I could single out would account for this kind of response.  Even all put together, they shouldn’t have gotten me halfway here.

I had a lump in my throat, and I felt like I might cry, and I wasn’t sad.  Was I happy?  Scared?  Relieved?  I couldn’t sort anything out in the jumble.

Was my emotional makeup that fucked up?

I found a chair and fell into it, rather than sitting.  I focused on deep breaths, on using my power to contact my bugs and detach myself from things.

“Hebert?  Taylor Hebert?”  A secretary was calling out for me.

I stood and made my way to the front, where I got the paper, already attached to a clipboard.

Some had already been automatically filled in, and there was a header asking me to double-check the details.  My name, my age and grade, the address…

I stopped.

Address:  911 Incoming St.
Alt Address: 9191 Escape Ave.

I looked up in the direction of the principal’s office.  She was standing at the window, staring at me, a phone pressed to her ear.

She mouthed a word at me.  ‘Run’.

Someone knows I’m Skitter.

I ran.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Chrysalis 20.2

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

It couldn’t be easy.  No.  Everything was finally starting to settle down, and then this.  Inconvenient timing, inconvenient in every way.  It had to be at the high school, of all places.

Tattletale and Grue would be meeting with the Ambassadors soon.  That took them out of the running, as far as people I could call.  Forrest was just a little too old and a little too attention-grabbing to be seen lurking around the local high school.  Regent, Imp or Bitch?  I was trying to fix the situation, not make it worse.

I pressed Charlotte for more information:

RT:
You see him?

Charlotte:
no.  no bars here. had to leave to make call.

Right.  Arcadia was one of the schools that had a Faraday cage, if I was remembering right.  Something to stop kids from texting and making calls in class.

RT:
What was he doing?

Charlotte:
asking about u in hallways, checking with ppl to see if u were around.

Charlotte:
i approached him and asked how he knew u.  he said he didnt.  seemed too intense for that so i called u.

RT:
GJ.

All in all, almost exactly what I might have told her to do if I’d been in direct contact with her at the time.

RT:
This is Eric with blond hair?  Blue eyes?  Talks like he’s going to run out of breath and pass out?

Charlotte:
Yes.

My suspicions were confirmed.  Greg.

Charlotte:
is break btween class atm.  have 2 go soon.  what shld I do?

No time to think or plan.  It was annoying how these codes and protocols that Tattletale and I had come up with were costing us precious seconds.

RT:
Go back inside to see if there’s drama.  Tell him I’m not at school, if you can, but that I can meet him later.

Charlotte:
k

While I waited, I patted the mattress dry where the cleaner had soaked into it, then dragged it upstairs.  My phone buzzed before I’d dressed to take it out to the balcony.

Charlotte:
he gone.  class starting.  no drama I can see.

Damn.  Not as bad as it could be, but the situation wasn’t resolved.

RT:
What’s your next class?

Charlotte:
Eng.

RT:
Go.  I’ll see if I can track him down.  Will find you if I need you but don’t worry.  Good job.

I’d let her return to business as normal: I didn’t want her too caught up in this.

There was something to be said for having good help.  I felt more than a little guilty.  Much like Sierra had during the worst periods, Charlotte was picking up my slack.  In managing my territory while I was going home to sleep at my dad’s house, she was earning her wage twice over.  I would have increased her pay but she didn’t want me to, claiming it would arouse suspicion.

Maybe I could get Tattletale to arrange some kind of scholarship for her.  We had funds.  Tattletale had acquired everything Coil had owned, and it had been easy enough to assume his false identities and take over the dummy corporations.  Now that the city was starting to pick up and people were talking about the potential the portal in the downtown area had, the land was skyrocketing in value.

Not to mention that the Ambassadors had given us a healthy lump of cash when they’d arrived in Brockton Bay, and were paying rent in the thousands of dollars so we’d be copacetic with them just being around.

Apparently that was villain protocol, in a way, doing jobs or giving gifts when intruding on another’s territory.  I could see why: it let one ask for permission and show respect while still giving evidence to a measure of power.  If these guys were willing to hand over tens of thousands in the same way other people gave gift baskets, it showed they had that kind of money to spare, and they were confident.  The side benefit for us specifically was that it kept Tattletale from complaining too loudly.

With luck, there would be others like them.  Which wasn’t to say I trusted them.

I dressed, pulling on my running shoes, a tank top and the lightweight cargo pants I’d worn to run.  I left the grungier clothes laid out on the bed, and made doubly sure I had my cell phone, identification and my knife.  I doubted I could have it in plain sight, so I stuck it in my sock and pulled my pants leg down around it.

It was nine fifty in the morning, and I figured I had an hour and forty-five minutes before the second class of the day ended and the lunch hour began.

I had to find a way to drag Greg out of class and talk to him without alerting others.  That, or I’d have to wait until lunch started and postpone plans with my dad.  Inconvenient.

The bus was running on a reduced schedule.  There were fewer intact vehicles, fewer drivers in the area, and routes were longer with the detours that they had to take.  It wasn’t as bad as it might otherwise be: a twenty-minute wait.

I stewed in my own frustration.  There had been occasions in the past where I’d had to leave my territory to handle greater threats.  It irritated me more than it should have, to be forced to leave for this.  Such a minor thing, but prickly enough that it had the potential to become something major if ignored, and awkward overall to handle.  How did I even approach the conversation?

I’ve faced down a handful of the scariest sons of bitches in the world, I’ve been intentionally trapped in a burning house, blinded, had my back broken, I’ve been paralyzed and at the mercy of no less than two lunatic tinkers, and I’ve killed a man, I thought.  And going back to school stirs up old feelings of anxiety.

I could feel the building tension and a shift back to old ways of thinking, and the ridiculousness of it made me smile.  It was the middle of the morning, the bus was almost empty, and I stretched as though I were just waking up.  One or two people glanced my way, and I allowed myself to not give a fuck.

It helped, as though I were physically shrugging off the old burdens that were settling on me.

The wind from the open windows of the bus stirred my hair, and I exhaled slowly, turning my face into the sun, letting it warm me even as the breeze cooled me off.  I couldn’t do anything about the time it took to get there, so I might as well take the opportunity to get a breather.

Arcadia High.  I’d seen it in the midst of some of Brockton Bay’s worst days, but effort had been expended to fix it up and get everything sorted out.  New windows, that caught the light in a way that made them look almost like compound eyes.  Some kind of sub-layer or something worked into them that made for a number of quarter-sized hexagons.  The front gate had been rebuilt, cracks paved over, and vandalism cleaned up.  It was pristine, with panels of white tile and glass that almost glowed in the morning light.

The thing that caught me off guard was the people.  Classes had started, but there were forty or so students gathered around outside, sitting and talking, texting or simply enjoying the sun.  A half-dozen adults in outfits that were uncomfortably similar to the enforcers of the old Boardwalk were stationed at the gates and at points around the school grounds that let them keep an eye on things.  Security?  Volunteers?

That wasn’t the entirety of it.  The students fell into two groups.  One was very much what I might have expected, kids in new clothes or casual summer wear, smiling and talking.  Months ago, I might have felt like the smiles and periodic laughs were directed at me, and not in a flattering way.  I’d always rationally understood that they weren’t, but not to the point that I could convince myself.  Now I reveled in my anonymity.  I knew what it was to have every set of eyes on me, people covertly trying to gauge who I was and what I was doing every time I moved a finger.  This wasn’t it.

The other, larger group of students, adding up to maybe thirty-five of the forty kids present, was something else.  They were the Sierras, the Charlottes, the Ferns and the Forrests.  They were the Jessies and Bryces, the Taylor and Danny Heberts.  The people who had stayed.

I just had to look at them, and I knew it.  Some had dressed in new clothes, but others wore the clothes that had weathered the last few weeks and months, worn and frayed at the edges.  Physically, some were frayed.  They had lines in their face that spoke to weeks with a bare minimum of sleep, and both skin and hair bore the coloration that resulted from days spent outdoors.

One or two, I noted, carried weapons.  One had a knife displayed visibly at his hip.  A girl with a burly frame very similar to Rachel’s was sitting beneath a tree, eyes closed, her hands on a stick with an electrical tape grip.  There wasn’t anything definable, only little clues that added up, and a general atmosphere about them.

I didn’t miss the division between the two groups.  The five or so fresh-faced teenagers weren’t hanging out with the ones who had stayed.

“You just arriving?” one of the enforcers at the gate asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.

He studied me just long enough that I felt acutely aware of my bare shoulders and arms, and how my top clung to my stomach.  I glared at him, and he met my eyes with an ease that suggested he didn’t care I’d caught him looking.  Creepy.

“Got a weapon?”  he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Can’t keep it if you want to go inside.”

I was only keeping myself armed as a matter of practice, and I was aware I wasn’t alone on that front, or I wouldn’t be doing it so casually.  I reached into my sock and withdrew the sheathed knife.  It says something that we can even take this conversation in stride.

I handed it to him.  It wasn’t worth the time it would take to argue.  “What’s with these people outside, here?”

He shrugged.  “Easing into it.  We asked if we should round ’em up and take them inside, but the principal said we should give them a few days to depressurize if they wanted it.”

“Depressurize,” I said.

He glanced at the knife, “All I know is we’re not enforcing a lot of rules yet.  Sometimes a few take a break and come outside, smoke, talk, get some fresh air and sun.  Those ones don’t tend to stay long.”

He was looking at one group by the front door, three of the ones who didn’t have that weary, worn, and wary sense about them.  The ones who’d no doubt fled the city when things turned ugly.

I’m not the only one who sees the distinction, I mused.

“I think they’re intimidated.  Or you and I see it as a nice sunny day and they see it as being outside in a shithole of a city.”  When I didn’t keep the conversation going, he shrugged, “If you’re going in, you’ll want to go to the office.  They’ll sort out where your classes are.”

“Okay,” I said.  There was no need to explain that I wasn’t here for classes.

By the time I’d reached the front door, a trio of teenagers younger than me had already approached the same guard.  It would be another litany of questions.

It did something to explain why the guards were there.  The two kids who hadn’t been willing to part with their weapons were no doubt another part of that.  The whole dynamic was skewed, now, and they were mediating the worst of it.

I’d been in Arcadia High once, and it had been more of a life or death situation, one where I had been able to tentatively use my bugs.  In this unfamiliar territory, with a thousand or more students throughout the building, I had to actively work to suppress the powers I’d been using on an almost automatic level.  I couldn’t be sure that a small cloud of flies would go unnoticed as they traced the contours of a hallway.

Much like I’d seen outside, there were a handful of students who hadn’t yet made their way to class, or had stepped out for a breather, congregating in pairs and trios, or standing alone.

I knew I could have asked them for directions, but I wasn’t keen on approaching people who were in the process of avoiding socializing.  The men and women in uniforms that were stationed at the intersections where the halls met?  More of a possibility, but there was no need.  Directions were posted on the wall.

I glanced at a note on the wall.  One sentence, with no punctuation, and a big black arrow pointing one way.

New sudents go to front office

If I’d had a little bit of hope that things were working out here, they faltered some when I saw the typo.

I noticed another set of papers that were arranged on the wall, not because of what it said or the title, but the cartoon etched on the wall in permanent marker.

The heading of each of the sheets read ‘Know where you are’.  The paper with the graffiti was Rachel’s; a crude drawing of a dog was violating one corner, which had been torn slightly to accommodate the dog.  A speech balloon over the smiling dog’s head read ‘you don’t know shit’.

Fitting, if it was one of Rachel’s followers.

I headed in the direction of the office, feeling strangely out of place.  This entire thing was surreal.  There were the hallways with gleaming floors smudged by the passage of hundreds of feet, the bright primary colors in trophy cabinets and on bulletin boards, all contrasted with the security guards that were set up and standing to attention as though they expected a fight to break out any moment, and the innumerable teenagers who were being allowed to roam the grounds, some hanging around with weapons at hand.

But more than anything else, it was the notion of where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  Growing up, attending school, there had always been this general sense of the local gangs and powers and their influence.  It was the little things.  The gang tags scrawled on walls, the posters informing Asian students of who they could contact if the ABB started pushing them to join or pay tribute.  There had always been the rougher kids who wore certain colors and symbols of their affiliation.  It had meant something when a teenager wore yellow, or when an adult had an eight-ball tattooed on them.

was aware that Arcadia High had been scrubbed clean, and that things wouldn’t become fully apparent until people had gotten more settled and more comfortable.  Even with that, though, it was unsettling to notice that for the first time since I was eleven, I couldn’t see anything relating to the hostile gangs in the area.

There were no real gangs except for ours.  Grue, Tattletale, Bitch, Regent, Imp, Parian and I were the vague, intimidating forces that people worried about crossing.  We weren’t as bad as some of the ones that had come before us, sure, but people still saw us as something to warn others about.

I’d seen all the people working for me, sensed them with my bugs.  I’d read about myself on Parahumans Online, and in news articles.  At the same time, high school was sometimes described as a microcosm of the world at large.  There was something else about being in the midst of a three-dimensional model of it all, seeing it have a concrete impact on a place that was more familiar.

Four teenagers were sitting along the side of the hallway as I walked by.  They stared at me as I passed.

I had to work to reassure myself that there was no connection between what I was thinking and the fact that they were looking at me.

It did remind me that the Wards were here, and whatever else had happened, they might have seen my face.  Not my face, but they could easily have seen a deformed evil clone of me.

There was that surreal sensation, again.  Was it weird that I felt most like Taylor at school?  That I was all the more cognizant of the weirdness of all the cape stuff?

They were still looking.  I gave one a curt nod, and she nodded back.

I quickened my pace as I headed to the office.  I wanted to be gone.

There were a lot of students in the office, and I was soon aware of why.  There were capes present.  Ones I only barely recognized.  Adamant and Sere.

“Listen!”  a woman behind the counter raised her voice to be heard over the general babble.  She had more authority than I might have expected of a secretary.  “Get in a line! If you’re here to look at the superheroes, you can do it later!  They’ll be here all week!”

Nobody listened, of course, and the secretaries weren’t really helping, taking requests and giving out information to whoever was closest to the front.  It only encouraged the press of bodies.

I headed to the other end of the room, hoping I’d be able to work my way around the end of the crowd.

I glanced at the clock.  Ten-forty.  I had maybe twenty minutes before my dad called me, and getting back in time would be difficult, even if I was lucky enough to have the bus show up at a convenient time.  I could postpone, plan a late lunch, but I really didn’t want to.

“Please,” Adamant spoke, and his voice was filled with confidence, “Do as Principal Howell is asking and form lines.”

That worked, but not all that well.  People elbowed and pushed against me as we arranged ourselves into loose columns.  I’d never liked the feeling of being in a press of bodies, and it made me think of other unpleasant situations: Bonesaw straddling me, being drawn into a massive, monstrous lump of flesh.  It made me exceedingly uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable made me instinctively reach for my bugs.

That was another reason to not be in classes.  How long would it be before my power did something while running on autopilot and drew attention?

I studied Adamant and Sere while I waited.  Adamant, naturally, wore a metallic costume, featuring metal bands and panels that were loosely linked together by chains, fit over a black bodysuit.  He’d been at the fight against Leviathan, if I remembered right.  He was a member of Legend’s team in New York.  Or he had been.  Legend was gone now.

Sere wore cloth, in contrast to Adamant.  He wore a kind of nomadic, desert-tribe style of robe, all in pristine white with a fine pattern embroidered onto it.  His mask was more stylistic than representing anything, a solid white plate with light blue lenses for the eyes and no opening for his nose or mouth.  What made him stand out was the moisture that flowed from the gaps in his handwraps and from around his mask.  It swirled around him like a breath outdoors in winter, pale.  Almost an inverse of Grue.

Powerwise, I knew Adamant was a bruiser, though I didn’t know the specifics.  Sere, I did know about, but only because I’d once come across a cell phone video of him brutally taking down a number of thugs, posted online somewhere, months ago.  Some capes shot fire from their hands.  Sere was the opposite – he could draw moisture to himself with surprising speed and violence.  It didn’t matter if a foe was armored or behind a forcefield, he could dehydrate them in a flash.  It was the kind of power that might have earned him a villain label if he hadn’t had all of the Protectorate’s PR at his back.

I idly wondered what had made the pair stick with their employer, in the wake of the recent events that had so many leaving the Protectorate with little to no explanation, Legend among them.

More than that, I was wondering how I’d fight them if it came down to it.  With the way the armor and chains of his costume were arranged, Adamant was just begging to be tied up. Sere would be trickier.

“You’re next, black curls,” the secretary closest to me spoke.

I focused my attention closest to her and approached the counter.

“What do you need?”

“I need to get in contact with someone.”

“We can’t give out personal information.”

“Not even if it’s an emergency?”

“If you need to inform a student of something critical, we can make an announcement.”

“No.  That’d be the opposite of what I need to do.”

“You could always look for them during the lunch break.”

I frowned.

“If there’s nothing else, there are others in line.”

“What’s the procedure for signing up for classes?”

“You tell us your old schedule.  We slot you in as well as we’re able.  Core classes are in classrooms.  We’ve adopted another system for non-core classes.”

“Non-core?”

“Anything besides maths, science, phys ed, and all those.  Non-core classes are held in the computer labs.  You’ll have a rushed curriculum, alternating reading assignments with quizzes and worksheets on the computers.  There are teachers at the front of the lab if you have any questions.”

“I don’t suppose you could tell me all the classes that are second period?”

She gave me a stern look.

I was feeling the pressure.  This maybe wasn’t the brightest move, but I wanted to find Greg, get this solved, then return to life as normal.  Lunch with my dad, in an ideal world.

What classes did Greg take?

I could remember him talking in Spanish.  God, it felt like years had passed, not months.

“World issues-”

“Grade?”

“Ten.  World Issues, Spanish…”

Not English.  Charlotte’s in that class and she probably would have slipped out to send me a text.

“…History and Music,” I finished, picking two more that weren’t likely to be on the computers.

“World issues is a non-core class.  That’ll be your fourth period.  You have History now.”

She struck a key and the sheet began printing.

“You don’t need my name or ID?”

“We have zero notice on who’s going to be here or not.  For now, everyone is to go to classes.  Do your best to catch up for the tests in one week, where we evaluate where everyone is.  We’re adding students to the system on a priority basis.”

I nodded.  Something of a relief, that this wasn’t set in stone.  She handed me the paper and I took it, turning on my heel to head out of the office.

Computer labs first, I thought.  I hated to do it, but I drew on my bugs to find the labs in question.  With my luck, Kid Win would have put something together something to track unusual bug movements, and I’d get found in a second.

The first lab was a bust.  Nobody got in my way or spoke up as I entered the room.  There was only an older teacher who pointed wordlessly at a space where computers were unattended.

I walked up between the rows and looked at the students.  No luck.  I left through the back door at the other end of the class.

Halfway through the second lab, I saw Emma, clustered with a group of others.  Her hair was dyed blond, done up in a french braid, and her clothes were brand new.  Their eyes were on a computer screen where they were watching a video on a streaming site.  I wasn’t surprised that she’d drawn people to her so quickly.  She had that magnetism to her.

She looked up and noticed me, no doubt expecting to see a teacher, and I could see her eyes widen a fraction in recognition.

But I was already walking, moving on with my search.  She wasn’t a priority.  I deposited a single fly in her bag so I could keep out of her way and headed out of the room.

Ten minutes passed as I moved from area to area.  I was aware of the moving timeline, and felt a knot of anxiety in my stomach that had nothing to do with school.

Fuck him.  Seriously.

By the time I found him in the smaller gymnasium, where long tables and computers had been arranged to form an impromptu computer lab, it was past eleven.  My dad would call any minute.

I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

The change in his expression when he saw me, with the spreading smile of a child that had torn open the wrapping paper to find the very present they’d wanted… fuck me.  I could see where Charlotte had been concerned.  There was zero subtlety to him, and a bare minimum of restraint.  Or maybe it was the other way around.

He pointed at the door, and I nodded once by way of reply.  I headed in that direction without waiting for him.

At least he didn’t blurt out ‘Skitter!’ in front of everyone.

“I can’t believe you came, you-”

Seeing his awe, the unrestrained excitement, I decided on a strategy.

“Are you stalking me?” I asked, cutting him off.

I could see his expression change, shifting from enthusiasm to confusion.  He looked decidedly deranged for the split second he was midway.

“No,” he said.  “The reason-”

Can’t let him get going or it’s all over.  He’ll keep talking until he says something we’ll both regret.  “Then you have a grudge against me.  Some vendetta or something?”

“No!”

“Because you barely know me, and a friend said you were being seriously creepy with the way you were trying to get info on me.”

“I wasn’t!  I was trying to help!”

Help?

I fumbled for a question that wouldn’t give him an excuse to say anything vital aloud.  I felt like I was channeling Rachel as I spoke, “I don’t need your help.”

“I-”

“In fact,” I cut him off.  “I’m offended you would say it.”

I know!” he strained the words at me, two words said in a way that was too excited to be a successful whisper.  He wasn’t talking about me being offended.  He was talking about my secret identity.  Fuck me.

“Greg,” I said, reaching out to put the flat of one hand against his shoulder, as if pushing him away, “You don’t know anything about me.”

“We’re not that different,” he said.  He’d shifted gears to bewilderment.

“In what way are we the same?” I asked.  Safe question, unless his answer included a confession that he had powers.

“We’re… not social people.  We like reading,” the answers were weak, and from the look on his face, he knew it.  There was a benefit to him being this transparent, and I was counting my blessings that he wasn’t very good at articulating what he was thinking.  “We like computers.”

And, fuck me, I couldn’t help but admit that he was nice.  Part of the reason he was struggling to provide an answer was that he was couching his statements to avoid hurting my feelings.  The answer was short: we’d both been the losers, but he wouldn’t say it outright.

I let him flounder for a little bit longer.  I didn’t want to tear him down, but every second that his confidence wavered was an advantage to me.

“You don’t know anything about me,” I repeated myself for effect, then quickly added, “You kind of messed up my day doing this.”

With the reaction I got, someone might have thought I’d slapped him.

“I wanted to help,” he said.

“I was spooked,” I said, feeling like shit even as I continued to leverage his better qualities against him.  “All I got was a friend texting me to say someone’s looking for me like they have a vendetta.”

“That’s not it…” he said, trailing off, but his enthusiasm was crushed.  He was visibly sagging, as though someone had let the air out of him.

“And I found out it was you, and all I could think was that you were angry and you wanted to hurt me, or maybe you had some crazed infatuation with me and you were stalking me.”

I could see the look on his face.  Horror mixed with panic.

“Fuck, Greg-”

“No.  That’s not what it was-” he said, breathless.  His face betrayed the lie.  It was at least part of it.  “It wasn’t like I was crazy over you, it was a little thing, a while back.  That’s not-”

“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out the words in my haste to cut him off again.

It was like kicking a dog.

He went silent, and I took the opportunity to get my mental footing and plan out what to say next.

A boy stopped in his tracks on his walk way down the hall.  A little shorter than me, red haired.  Apparently our atmosphere was screwed up enough that he’d noticed.  “Problem?”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We’re in the middle of resolving it.  Personal stuff.”

“That’s-” Greg started, then he stopped, looking at the boy.  Even he wasn’t so clueless as to say something in front of a stranger.

The boy looked between us, and then gave me a curious look.  He was one of the ones who’d stayed, I could tell at a glance.  Unlike some, though, unlike me, he hadn’t gotten much sun.  Odd.  Maybe he’d holed up in a house or a shelter for the last few months.  Staying indoors would have been safest.

From the way he was looking at me, I wondered if he saw something like that.  Difference was, I had a secret to keep.

“Thank you, though,” I told him, before he could figure anything out.

He took it for what it was: me saying ‘go away’ in the politest way I could manage.  He left.

“Greg,” I said, “I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want to be your enemy.  You have to understand, the last while has been scary.  I’m guessing you didn’t stay in town?”

“I did,” he said, then he stopped, breaking eye contact.  “I was on the outermost edge of the city.  Other side of Captain’s Hill.”

There’s a mountain on the far side of Captain’s Hill, I thought.  Which meant he wasn’t close enough to matter.  I would have hesitated to call that area a part of Brockton Bay, but I could see where maybe Greg had convinced himself it was close enough to count.

“You didn’t stay in town, then,” I said.  “That’s fine.  Smart.  But maybe you don’t get what it’s been like here.  All I want is peace and quiet.  I want to spend time with my dad, who I very nearly lost.  I don’t want trouble.  I don’t want complications.”

“I was trying to help!” he protested.

“Greg-”

He bowled over me this time, “But I was thinking, you know, if I could figure this out, others could too.”

I glanced over my shoulder to ensure there was nobody in earshot.  A few fruit flies ventured out of a locker and checked around the corners.

“Greg, what is it you think you know?”

You’re Skitter,” he whispered.

“No, Greg,” I said, calm, quiet.

“I was reading online, and it’s like, there were people wondering if you were an adult, and it got me thinking what Skitter must be like in real life, and then it clicked.”

That was just about the most horrifying thing he could have said, barring near-impossibilities like, ‘I got powers and I ate your hair to get pregnant with your child.’

“A feeling, Greg?”

“It’s more than that!  It all makes sense!”

“I was going to spend time with my dad,” I said.  “That was my whole goal for the day, it’s my only goal.  I just want to unwind and relax after weeks and months of living in this hellhole of a city.  And you pull me away from all that because of a hunch?”

“It makes sense.  Your age, your location, your attitude.  Even with the bullying, your trigger event-”

I cut him off, “Trigger event?”

“Yeah, you-”

“What’s that?” I asked.

He stopped, trying to think of a way to parse the answer, and I could even see a flicker of enthusiasm, as he imagined explaining the concept.

The enthusiasm drained from his face.

“You’re playing dumb,” he said, but the confidence had taken a hit.

“You know that capes hurt my dad?” I asked.  “Both times he got hospitalized.  Shatterbird the first time, the explosion at the town hall the second.   Superpowers are really the last thing I even want to think about.  We can talk, but I really don’t want to talk about the superhero stuff.”

Fuck me, I felt slimy, playing him like this, using my dad for leverage.

“I can’t talk about this without talking about capes.”

“About me being one of the villains?  Isn’t it kind of insulting?  No, Greg.  I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.”

“But the proportions, the appearance-”

“You’re wrong,” I repeated.  I was feeling enough sympathy for him at this point that it wasn’t hard to inject some into my voice.

“Everything fit,” he said, his voice small.

Fit, not fits.  He’d already come to the conclusion I’d wanted.  I kept my mouth shut.  I wanted nothing more than to be gone, to arrange things so I could meet up with my dad with a minimum of questions, but I stood there and waited for Greg’s response.

“I’m sorry,” he said, in the end.

“You’re not a bad guy, Greg,” I said.  “Sorry I’m not the person you wanted me to be.”

He nodded, mute.

“Take care of yourself.  Good luck with school.  Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“I hope your dad’s alright,” he said.

“Thanks,” I answered him.  Then I turned to leave.

God damned people.  I felt like crap, both for manipulating him and the way I’d manipulated him, but there’d been no other choice.  What the hell had he even expected?  That I’d admit it and be bursting with gratitude that he’d let me know I needed to take some extra measures with my secret identity?

Probably.

I headed for the front door of the school.  As crummy as I felt, I could relax a bit, now.  Crisis averted.  I’d send Charlotte a text, then see about meeting up with my dad.  I wanted to leave.  There was nothing for me here.  Only ugly feelings.

Except the difference from then and now was that I felt a hell of a lot more like an Emma than a Taylor.

Speak of the devil.  I could sense her by the front door, hanging out with a group of her new friends.  I changed routes and found a door in a stairwell, and stepped outside that way.

The problem was the gate.  A short wall surrounded the grounds, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb it, not with the attention it would attract.  Going through the exit at the parking lot would take me in the opposite direction I’d wanted to go, and I was in something of a rush.

And maybe a part of me didn’t want to run.  Avoiding her was one thing, but going five or ten minutes out of my way to circle a whole city block just to keep out of her way was something else.

I walked briskly for the gate.

She saw me, walked to intercept.  Fuck her.  Of course she’s starting something.  It can’t be easy.

She placed herself between me and the gate.  She was almost playful as she stepped right, then left to cut me off as I changed direction.  I was forced to stop.

A sly smile was plastered on her face.  I was aware of the others looking.  The people who were sitting outside, the guards… her friends were approaching to join her.

“Sneaky, sneaky,” she said.  She looked like she was having a ball.  “Trying to avoid me?”

I didn’t reply.  I was a little spooked at how quickly my bugs were responding to my irritation.  Half of my psyche was saying ‘fight’, the other half was saying ‘ignore her’, and the bugs were only listening to the first half.  The second half was needing a bit of a push on my end.

There were few people in this world that had truly earned my hate.  I’d put a bullet through the last one’s brain.

Emma?  I couldn’t care less about her.  That was what unsettled me.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Chrysalis 20.1

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

I stepped out of the shower, but I didn’t dry off.  It was hot out, and the cold beads of moisture on my skin offered something of a reprieve.  I felt acutely aware of the breeze blowing into the room, as it traced frigid lines against my body.  My hair was wet, plastered to my neck, shoulders and back, and water ran down from the individual locks of hair in thin streams.

More than anything, the cool sensation of the wet hair on my head was a contrast to the workings inside my skull.  It wasn’t even seven in the morning, and in purely mental terms, I was hitting the ground running.  Had to.

I leaned over the sink, letting the droplets fall from my eyelashes and run down my face.

I reached out, and my toothbrush found its way to my hand, as much as my hand found it.  The toothpaste was much the same, maneuvered to my hand by a dozen threads and twice that many insects.  I took two minutes brushing, another minute to use some mouthwash, and then stood straight, stretching.  My skin felt tight, contracted by the temperature.

Like the act of rubbing one’s stomach while patting their head, I was moving out of sync.  I held out one hand for the hairbrush, closed my fingers around it, then set to tugging the plastic bristles through the tangles and knots, slow, strong, deliberate movements, a patient, calming exercise.

My mind?  I was watching, studying, sensing and experiencing ten thousand things at once, an engine going full-bore.  I could follow my dad as he moved through the house, picked work clothes out of his closet, threw away a sock and its matching pair.  I watched every entryway into the house, the windows and doors, tracked the movements of the neighbors, and our neighbor’s neighbors.  With fleas, I could track the movements of the neighbor’s outdoor cat, a surprisingly violent creature with a sizable body count of local frogs and mice, many killed purely for sport.

I could track each of these details for roughly a thousand feet around me, to the point that I was aware of every person and every piece of terrain in the area.  There were bugs crawling inside walls and the dark corners of houses all up and down the street, and I had only to pay attention for a moment to grasp the layout of each house and home.  I could feel the worms crawling through the earth, the ants navigating the surface, struggling but surviving in the humid heat of the outdoors.  I could feel the maggots that were devouring one of the cat’s abandoned victims, the ants working to collect the food before descending into their labyrinthine hive.

And I thought of my own hive, of jobs that needed doing and positions that needed filling, of threats and threat assessment.  I was prioritizing, knowing it would be impossible to do every job in the time I had.  I had to check in with everyone, to look after the individual groups, get more information on construction and finances, to make sure everything was running smoothly.  Each and every task could potentially be interrupted at a moment’s notice, so I had to ensure I had people at hand that I could delegate to in a pinch.

It was a lot to take in, a jumble of half-formed thoughts that I only considered for moments at a time before categorizing them, making or postponing a decision.  There were too many I wouldn’t be able to address yet.  Tasks that I needed eyes on, people I needed to talk to for information.

I toweled my hair dry, brushed it again, had the bugs clean up the silk strands that littered the bathroom, and then wrapped a towel around myself to venture to my bedroom and get dressed.

By the time my dad descended to the ground floor, I was already halfway done preparing breakfast, standing by the stove with my damp hair tied back into a loose ponytail, wearing a strapless top and loose-fitting, lightweight cargo pants.

Preparing breakfast was another of those routine activities, rubbing my stomach.  I was still patting my head, thinking of how to address one sensitive issue.  When my dad entered the scene, though, I made a deliberate attempt to break from that mode of thinking, to shift mental gears.

“You’re going to school wearing that?” my dad asked.

“I’m going running like this,” I replied.

“In this heat?  Take some water with you.”

I pointed at the kitchen table, where I’d set two water bottles by the salt and pepper shakers.

“Good.”

“Crepe?” I asked.  “And fruit salad?  We have some left over from last night.”

“Please.”

I slid the crepe out of the frying pan and onto a plate, then handed it to him.  I dropped some butter on the pan, poured more batter on, and then tilted it until the batter was spread thin over the surface.

“You’re usually out the door by now, and back fairly late.”

“Trying to do my part,” I said.  “And I wanted to talk.”

“Okay.  I like talking,” he said.  “Unless this isn’t the kind of conversation we look forward to?”

He made a face as he eased himself down into his chair.   He’s still not completely recovered.  I admitted, “It isn’t.”

“Ah,” he said.  His expression was placid, his eyes watching me carefully.

“I was thinking… I don’t think I’ll go back to school.”  I turned my eyes to the crepe.  I poked the spatula at the corner to verify it was more solid, lifted it, then flipped the thing over.

I could hear him pouring orange juice.  Flies hidden on ledges and on a shelf between cookbooks could see the vague movement as he raised the glass to his lips and drank before he spoke.  “It’s a month and a half of classes.  Everyone will be catching up, not just you.  We couldn’t ask for better circumstances.  A new environment, new people, a new dynamic.  You’re different.”

“I am,” I said.  I slid the crepe onto a plate.  I didn’t use the fruit salad, but instead went straight for the blueberries I’d defrosted, adding a spoonful of cream.  I rolled it up, spooned some fruit salad onto the side of the plate, collected my mug of tea by the side of the stove and then sat down opposite my dad.

He looked so old.  Two serious sets of injuries, one he hadn’t fully recovered from, and a measure of stress that I was partially responsible for, all adding up to artificial years.  I felt a pang of fondness mixed with regret.

“If I asked you to, would you?” he asked.  “Hypothetically.”

“If you did, I would,” I admitted.  “But it’s not where I want to be right now.”

He nodded, taking a bite.  A dribble of fruit juice ran down from the corner of his mouth, and he thumbed it away.  I reached for a roll of paper towels, tore one off and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he said.  It wasn’t a response to my statement.

If he asked, I’d find a way.  Work things out.  Reprioritize, filter out the nonessential tasks, shift things around.  Everything would take longer, there would be issues in countless areas, more things I couldn’t do and people I couldn’t protect.  But I’d do it.

“What will you do instead?”

“What I’ve been doing.  I’ll work,” I said.  “There’s cleanup work, still.  It pays pretty well, all things considered.”

“It’s not easy,” he said.

“I’m tough,” I said, flexing an arm.  I had some muscle, but it looked pretty sad on my thin arm.  I let my arm drop.  “At least it’s not all heavy lifting.”

“But it wears you out.  I won’t say it’s bad work, we both know how many hundreds of people I’ve worked with who are employed along those lines.  I’ve been employed along those lines.  But you’re smart.  Your mom and I both expected you to go on to college.  The idea that you might never graduate high school never crossed our minds.”

Bringing Mom into it.  I sighed.  “I will graduate.  I promise.  But I can wait a year, study online.”

“Why?  Why put things off and study for half a year to a year, when you could pass tenth grade in two months?”  He didn’t sound angry or upset, only confused.

Prioritizing, weighing every action against the costs involvedSpending most of my day at school, everything else takes a back seat.

“Like you said, I’m different than the person I was,” I replied.

He looked up at me, met my eyes, and I could feel my blood run cold.  That searching, studying look…

He knows?

“You are,” he said, simply.  Not a confirmation of my fears, not dismissing them either.  It was only an admission of what we both knew as truth.

“If you want me to go, you can tell me to go.  I will.  You’re my dad.  You can tell me to do something, and I have to do it.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “We both know that’s not true.”

I took another bite of my crepe instead of replying.

“Being a parent, there’s always that niggling fear, that notion that maybe one day your child will realize you’re not all-knowing, not all-powerful.  That they don’t really have to do anything you say.  But you spend years growing up together, parent and child, as a parent you get accustomed to acting like you’re in power, believing it as much as your daughter does.  For some, for most, that confidence gets worn down after the child hits adolescence, and the parent changes from being one of the most important figures in their child’s life to being an embarrassment.”

“You were never embarrassing to me,” I said.

“I know,” he said.  “But that makes it harder, doesn’t it?  For all those other parents, it’s a transition, a transformation, as their children gradually test their authority and discover how very fragile a thing it is.  For me?  I didn’t have nearly enough time to get used to it.  One night, one conversation, and you decided I didn’t have any say in your life anymore.”

“You do,” I said, feeling alarmed, in a way I couldn’t articulate.  “I want you to have a say.  I’m saying you can set curfews or demand that I go to school, and I will.  I might complain or argue, but I’ll listen.  I’ll let you have a say.”

He reached across the kitchen table, taking my hand.  He pulled it towards him, and I let him stretch my arm out straight.  He bent over and kissed the fingers.

His voice was quiet, “I hope that, if and when you ever have a child of your own, you never have to hear them say anything like that.”

He released my hand, and I withdrew it.

“You’re sure you don’t want to go to school?”  He asked.

I nodded.

“It’s your decision,” he said.  “Yours, not mine.  Where would you work?”

“The Boardwalk,” I said.  “It’s close, it’s good pay, good food, and it’s safe.”

“A little more directly involved with the local supervillain-in-power than I’d recommend for  any employees of mine that were looking for a job,” my dad replied.

I didn’t have a response to that.  I ate the last bite of my crepe.

“Will you still be there at lunchtime?”

I nodded.

“I’ll meet you.  Things are busy, things are good, but I’d like to set aside a block of time.  We can pick up lunch, or I’ll bring something.  How’s that?”

It was awkward on a dozen different levels.  Even staying here caused me any number of problems.  It removed me from a place I needed to be, it made for awkward transitions between my civilian and costumed life, and every conversation with my father stressed me out, left me wondering if he could guess.  Or maybe when I stepped in the door, I might find out that the local heroes had recognized me, using one of the mutant clones that had been running around, or any number of other possibilities.  My dad waiting to ambush me with the fact that he’d received a telling phone call, like he had when I’d skipped school, only he’d be backed up by superheroes.

The last big conversation in that vein had done irreparable damage.  Enough that I found myself checking my house and making sure there wasn’t an ambush waiting for me on the other side.  On my dad’s side of things, well, we’d just discussed that in some depth.  Our relationship wasn’t any better for it.

Taking time away from everything else I had to do, to eat lunch, to fill in the details and arrange things so my dad didn’t discover I was bending the truth yet again?  To have another awkward conversation?

I was willing.  “I’d really like that.”

He smiled.

I grabbed the notepad by the phone that we usually used for writing down numbers and put down my cell number.  “Call me when you’re coming around, so we can find each other.”

“Your cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

He looked sad for a brief moment, then perked up a little, “I suppose you need it if you’re going to stay in touch with the others.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should go.  I want to get a light run in and maybe catch up with some people before I start working.”

“Take care of yourself.  I’ll be in touch around eleven or eleven thirty.”

I nodded.  I gathered a billfold with some ID and cash, a fresh tube of pepper spray, and then a sheathed knife from the backpack that hung by the back door.  It wasn’t my good knife: I wouldn’t be able to explain how I had a knife of that kind of quality.  This one was serviceable for self-defense, the kind that was currently being worn by countless people around the city.

I glanced at my dad, but he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid looking as I did everything necessary to prepare myself for venturing out into the city.

Was it him suppressing his worry for my well-being, or were my doubts on target?  Did he suspect, and simply not want to know for sure?

I couldn’t ask, couldn’t hint or try to get clarification, not without potentially seeding the idea in his mind, or prompting him to give me an answer I didn’t want to hear.

I stepped outside, and the hot air was like a physical barrier.  I’d known it, had anticipated it with the knowledge my bugs provided me, but there wasn’t anything quite like that first faceful of eighty-five degree weather, so humid it went straight through both skin and clothing.

The second I was out of sight of the house, I had my phone out.  I re-checked the messages that had come in last night and this morning.  Twenty in total.

Charlotte:
I know its already pretty late, not a big deal, but was wondering if u wanted to go out and grab ice cream?  terrys craving some.  we can grab jelly beans and a chocolate for my brother on our way back.

Charlotte:
eric stopped by.  no drama.  you should say hi while he’s around.

Forrest:
saw Eric 2nite.  shuld say hi.

Forrest:
n/m Char already sent you msg.

Charlotte:
taking my little brother to school today.  if I dont see u, have a good day, will see u tonite.

All code.  Mostly code, anyways.  The names dropped were a shorthand for specific kinds of situations and people.  ‘Eric’ was trouble.  ‘Little brother’ meant the kids Charlotte was looking after.  ‘Terry’ was the catch-all term for people in my territory.

There were two for me, as well.  ‘u’ and ‘you’, as odd as it sounded.

People were probably craving some luxuries in the food department and some treats for the kids wouldn’t hurt.  There was some kind of trouble while I’d been out, but it was handled and I should pay a visit in costume to make sure it was resolved.  Charlotte would be going to school, taking all the little ones with her.

There were other messages.  Among them, there was a mess of some sort one of the side streets hadn’t been cleaned up and ‘Terry’ had been complaining, there were some vague concerns about the food supplies for lunch later today, and Lisa had called about a nebulous ‘party’.

I ran the rest of the way to the Boardwalk.

There weren’t many people up and about yet.  Some cars on the road, the sounds of construction starting to get underway, and some parents with kids to see off to school and no cars getting an early start.

I passed by my headquarters and found someone unfamiliar inside, in the main room with Charlotte.  She was helping a little boy put a shirt on.  Forrest was in the kitchen, mass-producing kids’ lunches with the supplies I’d had brought in yesterday.

I made my way to the beach, entering the storm drain that led, in a roundabout way, into my base.

The original plan, as far as I was aware, had been for this entrance to be temporary.  Work would continue on the Boardwalk, and it was inevitable that someone would run into the storm drain, either where it was deliberately blocked off or entering from the beach as I was.  It would have changed, with Coil leveraging his resources to set up something else that would serve as a covert entrance.

I’d have to contact Tattletale, though she was probably busy enough that my to-do list looked trivial.

Bugs flowed down the stairs, surrounding me as a thick cloud that would hide me from sight. I could sense the kids reacting as I made my appearance.  Fearful starts and backing away, taking shelter behind Charlotte.

I singled out a handful of butterflies and sent them towards the kid nearest me.  They flew in formation, forming a circle around her hand.  She stretched it out, and one butterfly landed on her thumb.

As other children reached out, I settled butterflies on their hands as well.  The distraction was good enough that I could walk past them and head upstairs without causing anyone to burst into tears.

I locked the door behind me and quickly changed.  I draped the shawl-cape over my armored shoulders, and then covered it in bugs.  Wearing black in the summer would be uncomfortable, especially with the added heat and weight of the bugs, but maybe I could provide myself with some shade using a swarm overhead.

It would make me a target to any heroes paying a visit, though.  The PRT had recognized the potential for trouble that surrounded the door, Tattletale’s improvised portal to another universe, and out-of-town capes were being given permanent positions on the local Wards and Protectorate teams. It said something, given the state of the PRT these days, that they were willing to devote the manpower.

A pair of villains from the Fallen were lurking somewhere in Imp’s territory, and their presence meant that Haven felt obliged to send two or three capes our way as well.  Until the Fallen were dead or gone, Haven would have something of a local presence.

I’d done my part to try to help find the two Fallen, just a few days ago, but even with Tattletale’s help in identifying the general area, I hadn’t been able to root them out.  Her gut told her that one of the two was Valefor.  Despite the intimidating names and the fact that they called themselves an Endbringer cult, the Fallen didn’t pose a grave threat.  They were thieves and vandals, allegedly committing incest in the belief that it would guarantee that their entangled family produced more kids with powers, but only a few people in the controlling body of the family were demonstrably capable of murder.  They were far from being the Slaughterhouse Nine.

Still, both Imp and Valefor were what the PRT termed ‘strangers’.  Capes with abilities that tended towards subtlety and subterfuge.  That wasn’t a fight I wanted to get caught up in.  I would if it came down to it, if people were in danger or Aisha needed my help, but I was perfectly content to not be in a position where I was looking over my shoulder every few seconds.  I’d dealt with that enough.

All of that wasn’t even touching on the other villains seeking a foothold in the city.  The Ambassadors were looking for a slice of the Brockton Bay pie, and both Grue and I were tentatively willing.  The group of villains was willing to play by our rules and participate in our alliance, they would add their own strength to ours, and they were more interested in shady but legitimate dealings and preying on other villains than they were on causing trouble or bucking with the local authorities.  I couldn’t be entirely sure whether that was because of their general ethos or because they were recuperating from being nearly wiped out, but their simple existence and their membership in our alliance would help scare off troublemakers.

It all added up to making the Ambassadors as ideal a partner-group as we could hope for.  The only sticking point was that their leader was a Thinker, and Tattletale almost automatically disliked him.  It would take a great deal more convincing to get her to play along.

The Teeth had tried to take a bite out of Parian’s territory.  They had a history in the bay, and like the Ambassadors they had been nearly wiped out, only it was nearly a decade ago.  They’d settled elsewhere while they bounced back, with a turnover rate high enough that none of the original members persisted.  There was only the name, and an ethos of violence, anarchy, and profit at any cost, not unlike the ABB.  Parian seemed to be making a point of not asking for our help, and I wasn’t intending to offer it until she did.

I had others to take care of, and I could only trust that she knew what she was doing.

“Skitter,” Charlotte said, as I returned downstairs.  I could see the other girl, plump, with a shorter haircut that only seemed to accentuate the roundness of her face.  She seemed more scared of me than the kids were.

Forrest, by contrast, was almost bemused.  He leaned over the kitchen counter.  He had a barrel chest, a burly build, a natural glower, a thick black beard and coarse, unkempt hair.  He might have looked savage if it weren’t for the tight-fitting striped polo shirt and the nerdish thick-framed glasses.  It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d helped sway the outcome of my fight against Mannequin, putting his life on the line to help take down a monster that even some top-tier capes had been scared of.

I’d asked Charlotte to find someone who could serve as my second in command.  I considered it serendipitous that she’d nominated him.

“Any urgent issues?” I asked.  She shook her head.  I let myself relax a touch and gestured toward the new girl, “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked guilty.  “She’s an extra set of hands.  Don’t worry.  Forrest and I blindfolded her while bringing her here.  I didn’t think I’d be able to manage looking after the kids all by myself, and I was ok with paying her.”

“I can cover that cost,” I said.  “No trouble on that front?  Taking care of the kids?”

“We’re just about ready to go,” she said.  “Kids are washed, fed and clothed, lunches nearly finished.  They have their bags…”

“Good,” I said, “The school bus is arriving soon.  Can you spare a minute to fill me in?”

“I can’t even remember all of the stuff that’s been going on.  I’m kind of frazzled.”

I felt a pang of sympathy.  This was the cost of me staying with my dad.  “The pertinent points only, then.  Who or what is the ‘Eric’?”

“Forrest can explain.  Some thugs were causing trouble for some people living further north.  Your guys caught them.”

“The mess in the alley?”

“The garbage trucks couldn’t get down the road.  Shale avenue is still in rough shape, and nobody told the residents they shouldn’t put their trash on the sidewalk there.  It’s piled up and it’s hot, so it’s smelling.”

“I’ll resolve it.”  Wasn’t so long ago this whole city stank, and people weren’t complaining this much then.  “The lunch supplies?”

“One of the pallets of vegetables you ordered was in bad shape.  Past ripe.  I’d planned to have something done last night that Forrest could warm up for people’s lunches today, but I couldn’t work with what I had, and I thought you’d want something better than a thin soup.  Then I was occupied looking after the kids and forgot.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’ve done an excellent job.  Better than I could have hoped.  I’ll figure something out for lunch.  Maybe reach out to a local business.  What’s a food most people would enjoy, which we haven’t had available for a good while?”

“Pizza!” one boy in Charlotte’s herd of children piped up.

“Pizza it is,” I said.  “With luck, there’s someone trying to get set up somewhere in the north end.  We can order a batch for everyone that’s working here, then another batch for tonight, for the kids?  If they’re good in school and they do their homework.”

The children almost crowed, and one literally jumped with glee.

“Forrest,” I said.  “Can you see them off to the bus stop?  I need to have a word with Charlotte.”

Wordless, Forrest stood straight, gathered up the paper bag lunches in two hands and then approached the kids.  Like magnets, two kids gravitated to his legs and clung to him, and he walked stiff-legged to the front door with them hanging on him and the rest trailing after him like my bugs trailed after me.

My bugs kicked into motion, blocking the line of sight to the door.  No use giving Charlotte’s friend a view of the street outside and a clue about our location.  She made a small frightened sound and backed away.

Did Charlotte honestly bring in someone who’s afraid of bugs?

I glanced at the two girls.  Charlotte’s eyebrows were knitted in concern.  Her friend, by contrast, looked terrified: her fingers were knotted together, her eyes wide.

“Jessie’s still wetting the bed, I see,” I noted.  My bugs could feel the damp on one of the bunk beds in one of the other rooms.  Something mundane, so we don’t frighten the new girl further.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  “Shit!  I was so busy trying to get things organized-”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “I’ll handle it.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” she said, “Fern-”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to mention.  Your friend-” I glanced at the girl.  She didn’t look any less spooked.  Why did Charlotte bring her here if she’s going to be so afraid?  “Did Tattletale vet her?”

“It was a spur of the moment thing.  I know it was sorta dumb, but-”

“I don’t want to be hard on you,” I said, “But this is something I’m going to be strict about.  Someone comes here, they have to be vetted first.”

“I’ll be more careful.”

“Please.  And are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to thank you for your help?”

“You’re paying me more than enough.”

“Let me know if anything comes to mind.  In the meantime, pizza and some candy for the kids tonight?”

“It’s tough, going back to school, trying to get back to something even resembling a normal routine.  They’d appreciate it, I think.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t mention the candy.  Let it be a surprise.  I think the bus is coming, so you should head to the stop.”

“Blindfold on, Fern,” Charlotte said.

A minute later, they were gone.

I sighed and set to tidying up.  Bugs carted away the unused paper bags and scraps of lettuce.

And everyone’s off to school, I thought.

I felt a pang of regret.  A part of me wanted to go, to prove to myself that I’d grown past it, to have another normal thing in my life, like breakfast with my dad.

At the same time, there were so many reasons not to.  My face having been exposed in a roundabout fashion, the presence of the Wards somewhere in that school, the time it took away from other things that needed doing…

Better to keep out of it.

Forrest returned.  “Want to see ’em?”

I nodded, and we ventured out into my territory.

All around us, the Boardwalk and what had been the shadier parts of the Docks were coming together.  New streets, new sidewalks, new buildings.  There were more people out and about than there had been just ten or fifteen minutes ago, and everyone present was getting ready to work or even starting early.  Building something as a community.

Conversations died as I approached, power tools were turned off, and heads turned.

My bugs followed behind me like the trail of a fancy gown, rising from my shoulders and hair like pitch black sparks from a fire.  Image.  I’d done what I could to earn the loyalty of my people.  I’d tried to be even-handed, tried to be generous, but image and attitude was a big part in keeping that loyalty.

I was put in mind of my dad’s thoughts on a parent’s authority.  Was this so different?

“The attackers were leftovers from the Chosen,” Forrest explained.  “I’m not even sure they were full members.”

“Is the family okay?”

“They’re okay.  Scared, they lost a few possessions, but nothing really valuable.”

“The little things matter most when you have the least,” I said.

“Profound.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, and I couldn’t see his face without glancing over my shoulder, so I didn’t say anything..

The cells were hidden in one building, much like my base was.  A few of the O’Dalys were lingering at the front.  They stood at attention as I approached.  The closest thing I had to foot soldiers.

A Japanese couple stood nearby as well.  The man had a bandage across his nose, blood crusted around his nostrils.  Bruises stood out on both of them.

I walked past them to step inside, and looked at my prisoners.  Three thugs, no younger than fifteen, nor older than twenty-five.  They wore so much face paint I couldn’t make a good guess beyond that.

My soldiers and the couple had followed me inside.

“You came for revenge?” I asked.

“N-no,” the man said.  “I came to ask for leniency.”

“Fuck you, faggy ass fagass!” one of the people in the cell shouted.

“For them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“They hurt you.”

“Out of ignorance,” he said.

You’re ignorant, assfaggot!”

“My wife and I consider ourselves good Christians,” the man said.  “He would want us to show mercy, to turn the other cheek.”

“Why don’t you spread those cheeks and get fucked, faggot!?”

“Quiet,” I said.  A handful of bugs flowed into the cell, the boy opened his mouth to retort and choked on a fly.  To the man, I said, “You’re tying my hands here.  I can’t let them leave unscathed.  It would send the wrong message, and that would do everyone in this territory a disservice.  You, me, them, everyone else.  People need to know they’re safe, especially after everything that’s happened.”

“The police can take care of them.  Call it a citizen’s arrest.  We won’t mention your name.”

“And if they go free?  If the police decide there’s not enough evidence, or the officers are too busy to give your case their full attention, and these three get to go on and hurt others?”

“If that’s the cost of having a system that otherwise works.”

I glanced at the three thugs, and my bugs flowed over them.  Silk was threaded in strategic locations, and bugs deposited where they wouldn’t be able to reach.

“Open the cells,” I said.

I could see the fear on the faces of the couple as they backed away.  Forrest pulled the switch, bidding the three iron-barred doors along the hallway to slide open.

One of the thugs glared sullenly at me, but he was smart enough to not mouth off.

“There’s a small police office nearby,” I said.  “You three can head down Shale avenue, stop one block short of Lord street, and turn left.  It’s a tent, and there’s two officers and a police car there.  They’ll take you into custody.”

“Right.  We’ll totally turn ourselves in,” a second guy said.

“Do I need to repeat the directions?”

“Nah,” the first one smiled.

“Go,” I said.  My bugs cut the silk threads binding them to the bars.  If they’d lunged or tried to attack us, they would have fallen short, possibly choking or tripping.

“Seriously?” Forrest asked.

“Cool shit,” the lead thug commented.  He gave Forrest the finger as he headed to the door.  Forrest moved as if he was going to hit the punk, and the thug flinched, but there was no follow through.

They bolted the second they were out of sight of the O’Dalys who were stationed at the front of my miniature jail.

I commanded the bugs I’d planted on the three thugs to bite, then gestured for the contingent of people around me to follow me.

All three boys were still lying on the ground, writhing, when we arrived.  One was screaming as though he’d been jabbed with a hot poker.  Another was arching his back, as though his ribcage was trying to force its way free.

“What did you do?”  Forrest asked, in mixed horror and awe.

The third thug’s screaming joined his friend’s.

“Bullet ants,” I said.  “Their bites top the scale in terms of sheer pain caused.  People have compared their bites to being shot.  Thus the name.”

The thug was still screaming, albeit with less volume and more intermittent whimpers.

“It’s also known as the twenty-four hour ant,” I added.

“Why?”

“That’s how long the pain lasts.  Get up,” I ordered them.  “Now, or you get bitten again.”

It took them a second, but they were making a halfhearted effort, and I didn’t follow through on my threat.  They stood, one of them hunched over, two moaning audibly.  They glared at me.

“You brought that on yourselves,” I said.  “This is your second chance.  Get yourselves to the police station and turn yourselves in.  This time, I’ll have them bite each of you periodically to hurry you along.”

“What the fucking-”

He broke off mid-sentence as he screamed and fell to the ground, thrashing.

“If you think of doing anything but admitting your full crime to the police officer right then and there, I’ll try figuring out how many times those ants can bite you before they run out of venom.  Now go.  Run.”

Two of them ran, stumbling as they twitched and flinched at the continuing pain, while the third crawled.  I had an ant bite the mouthiest one when he was only a few paces away, to hurry them along.

I turned to the others.  The Japanese-American man was staring at me.

“You should go to the police too,” I said.  “Give your side of the story, let them take photos.”

“I will,” he said, his tone curt.  He turned to leave, then paused.  “I asked you to be lenient.”

How can I even explain?  I’ve seen the worst of the worst.  I want to protect each and every one of you from it.  The system won’t stop them, not all on its own.

But if I explained, they would argue, and every counter-argument would make me look weaker, damage my image and hurt people’s confidence in me.  There were people who would be happy with a firm hand being used to deter criminals, there were others who wouldn’t be happy, but they’d accept it as the price that came with everything else I had to offer.

I didn’t like it, but I’d do it.

He was still staring at me, his question lingering.  I asked you to be lenient.

“I was,” was all I said.

I returned to my lair, and took the time to strip out of my costume.  It stuck to my skin as I pulled it off.

I’d need to design something lighter for the warmer months.  More porous, while still offering protection, maybe a paler color, if I could manage it and still have it blend into the swarm…

The major tasks were done.  I’d called Lisa, and through her I’d gotten caught up on all the other essential details about what was happening around the city.  She and Grue had a meeting with an Ambassador – not the leader of the Ambassadors, which I was thankful for.  I would have wanted to be present for a meeting that volatile.  As it was, I could hope that Grue was in a good enough headspace to keep Tattletale on course.

I’d contacted everyone necessary to clear garbage out of the alley, to order pizzas for lunch and to order more food in to make up for the bad batch of vegetables.  I’d shown my face as Skitter and now a swarm-clone lingered on a rooftop, standing in plain view of the people on the street, overlooking a construction in progress.  ‘Skitter’ would appear here and there over the course of the day, just to reassure others she was here.

Which she was.  I was.

I stripped out of the rest of the costume.  I laid out a grungier change of clothes.

I hadn’t been lying to my dad when I said I’d work.  I’d put in the hours, work alongside the other members of my territory.  It was easier to do my share and be working here on a legitimate basis, even part-time, than to try to sustain the lie.

Before I started, I had only one minor chore.  I headed downstairs and I pulled Jessie’s mattress off the bunk bed, dragging it into an open space so I could clean it.  The mattresses were thin, and would dry after a day in this heat.  The humidity was a problem, but I could put it in direct sunlight.

My phone buzzed, still in the utility compartment upstairs.  My bugs brought it to me.

Charlotte:
I met someone in class.  I think it could be big Eric?

Big trouble?  I contemplated sending a reply, but the next text wasn’t far behind.

Charlotte:
says hes an old classmate of urs.  asking where u are.  loud insistent intense.  wouldnt believe that u werent at school.  sounds like he might want to talk to you.

I didn’t miss the distinction.  ‘u’ meant Taylor.  ‘you’ was Skitter.  If this person was careless enough that Charlotte had caught on… Fuck.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter