Interlude 28

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Study, analysis.

An impulse, something that couldn’t be tracked with any conventional devices, then a steady feedback.  Pretercognition.  Spread out over several targets at once, it serves as her primary sense.  Each target is conceptualized in the context of twelve to eighty years of history.  More time, more feedback from the steady feed of information, and the images clarify.  Discard the useless elements, maintain the pivotal ones.

Deciphering, searching for the fulcrum points.

Focus on one target, and the decoding is faster, but this costs her the ability to sense other things in any detail.  Necessary, in most cases, to form a distraction, or to strike hard enough that she can take advantage of the enemy’s preoccupation.

This was made easier by another sense.  Another power extends in the other direction, and this is not one that can be sensed by most.  Possibilities, as another jumble of images.  These clarify as the others do, as eventualities are discarded, the targets around her coming into focus.

One target comes into full focus, and their existence is now visible, from the moment of their birth until the time they disappear from sight.  Often, this is the point of their death.  Other times, they disappear into darkness, obscured by another power.

Often, this is not a true obstacle, if she has had time to look.  There are the fulcrum points.  Crises, themes, decisions, fears and aspirations are clearly visible.  The individual is understood well enough that their actions can be guessed after they disappear from view.

A stone is thrown into darkness.  It can be safely assumed that it will continue traveling until it hits something.

Frame a situation to put a target under optimal fear and stress.  Hormone secretions increase.  Manipulate situation to a position where they will connect familiar visual, olfactory and auditory cues to their immediate environment.  Place, smell, degree of stress, sights and sounds match fulcrum point.  Hormone secretions increase further.

The result is hallucinations, momentary or sustained.  Hearing sounds, seeing things, smelling something, where none truly exist.  Fight or flight response feeds need for escapism.  A hallucination serves as the first step into a daydream.

The stone is thrown.

She does this with people and the various secretions within their bodies, with machines and data, with the elements and simple cause and effect.

Her hibernation state serves to allow for collection of low-feedback information about the environment.  Feedback that cannot be tracked or sensed, collecting information over a series of passes.  The stone can be a series of billiard balls instead, one striking another, striking another in turn.  Diminishing returns with each target struck.

With study and careful precision, each ball can find its pocket.  Spheres of synthetic resin meet the furthest point of a ledge covered by woven wool, perching on the edge as they spend their momentum.  Almost, they remain there, not enough energy to pass over the precipice.  Then they fall.  Three disappear into oblivion in perfect synchronicity.

She does not feel joy at this.  This is the task.  Means to ends.

She is utterly blind in the present, with no eyesight or other senses to perceive things in the now.  No sight, no hearing, no touch or taste.  Not a crippling flaw, and a difficult flaw for others to use against her.  The present is only a fragment in a long span of time when one can see the past and future both.

But she faces an obstacle that she is utterly blind to, now.  No apparent past or future.  In interacting with it, she is limited to context.  She sees not the obstacle, but she can see things that are set in motion around it.  She cannot see it strike, but she can see the reaction, the aftermath.

She sees the stone fly out of the darkness, and she can determine where it was thrown from.

There is a task to be completed, but things must be set in place first.

An obstacle must be removed.  This is critical, but she is blind to it.  This is the greatest problem she faces.

She requires access to particular information.  This can be arranged by positioning targets carefully.

She requires resources.  This requires patience.  She will have access to them soon enough, provided things aren’t cast into darkness by the obstacle.

She must be unmolested.  This is given freely to her.

She operates alongside the subjects.  This serves her aims on several fronts.  She communicates when she can with the others.  A current of water in a particular set of wavelengths, to her brother who sees the world as water – living things as balloons of meat largely made up of water, moisture in the air, moisture running over every available surface as he uses his abilities to move clouds and fog into place.

The younger siblings are harder to target, but their birthplace is studded with temporal anomalies.  Holes in time, wells, echoes, slowed time and accelerated time, from confrontations that have occurred, even confrontations she participated in.  She manipulates the wind as she affected the water.  A stirring that prompts another stirring, and the temporal effects that can be affected are struck in a particular pattern, strained in a particular order, from the fastest to the slowest.  Again, she repeats the process emphasizing the anomalies with individuals trapped within.  As communications go, it is crude, but she knows her siblings like she knows any other target.  Slow, calm, the subjects.

More communications, to get the point across.

The younger sister needs only a tremor, the very same wavelength their oldest living brother received.  She responds in kind.

The youngest sister needs only an expression of any power.  By the time the others are alerted, the youngest is prepared.

And so they have fallen into place.  They obey, they remain calm.

When given permission, they attack designated targets.  They cooperate with the subjects.

Her attention turns to the object she is making.  She cannot see it, cannot even feel where her physical aesthetic is in contact with it, but she can understand its state in the past and in the future, view it through the perceptions of the subjects she has studied.

A glass tube, three feet across, seven and a half feet long, capped in metal at either end.

This will be step six in a nine step process.  For now, she puts it aside, buries it in a larger weapon, forming a decorative gun barrel around the glass.  The weapon will fire through other means.

The ones who observe her through cameras and with their own eyes will not report this.  They lack the background to know what this tube might be, and this event will be dismissed as unimportant or they will leave it to someone else to report.  The events are entered into a log, and the subjects overseeing the logs are either asleep or preoccupied.

She can see the events as they would unfold, and carries out her activities in plain sight.  Another subject, having left earlier, is going to finish her routine.  Most likely sequence of events, accounting for future-viewers obscuring possibilities, is that she finishes her journey in the ensuing ten minutes.  Unclear whether she finishes her note or writes something lengthier.

The tube is fully encapsulated, hidden.


She sings, and subjects stationed here are immediately on guard.

Adjusting the song, then.  Something else.  She looks forward to see what she’ll need.  Something that will encourage rest.

The subject in charge of this small colony will wake-

The girl wakes.

-only to ask-

“What in the motherfucking hell are you doing?

The song continues.

The girl approaches the window.

The girl will state-

“Jeez louise.  You’re terrifying, you know that?”

-and then fatigue overcomes the girl.  She draws on her power, searching for clues, for information, but everything telling has been set aside, hidden away.  Other things are made a focus, to draw attention.

The Simurgh stands tall.  The line of her body, the wings set out of the way and angled to draw shadow.  Only one wing catches the light, drawing a straight line from the back of her neck towards the sky.  A pale line, stretching directly up.  She cocks her head to one side, studying the gun she is crafting.

The bent head, the body drawn straight, toes only barely touching the ground.  It will invoke a memory.  Not blatant, but the memory is framed all the same.

No need to draw on the full force of her feedback when she already has the key elements deciphered.

The girl staggers back to the couch she has been resting on, attempting to focus on her work, on details that need to be tracked.  The song helps her on her way to sleep, and she mutters a swear word before her eyes drift closed.  The seeds of her dreams have already been planted.

It paves the way for more work.

Two more subjects to deal with.

The portal opens some time later.  The girl had chosen the longer letter.  Now she approaches, taking her time.  Insect life scouts the area around her.

Tension, fatigue, a lowered guard.  An auditory hallucination was easy enough.  Just one.  Tap into a critical memory.

Best to deal with the other subject first.  Three minutes before the girl with her bugs arrive here.

Objects are set down in a specific order, evoking different ideas.  A different posture is adopted, wings raised high, stretching.

Shackle.  Syringe.  Scalpel.  Lens.  Lens.

Some are taking notes, but nothing can come of this.  As with the glass case, the subjects here don’t have the right frame of reference to understand.

The intended target is far, far away.

It’s too much.

Hey, are you okay?

What happened?


Can you hear me?  You need to tell the kid to change targets.  Aim it somewhere else.

Things were getting blurry, indistinct.

Change targets-

A city.  A metropolis.  It spanned the landscape as far as the eye could see, horizon to horizon.

Awareness, having just been so focused on one target, extended over the area, seeing how the city simply extended without cease.  It wasn’t hard to refocus, to take it all in as a series of countless details, all at once.

Every building and every balcony had a farm, every vertical surface had a black panel with wires running from it, or trees that were rooted in the building structure.  Every individual family had a means of sustaining themselves, of producing an abundance so they could trade any excess.

Are they okay?

I don’t know.

Oh my god.  It’s amazing.  Look at all this.

Focus, do as we were told.

The awareness continued to extend.  A whole planet.  Not perfect, but the civilized world, largely below the equator, had a different attitude, prizing self-sufficiency.  The rest of the world was war-torn.

It was in one of the war-torn regions that it first appeared.  A streak of golden light.

Destruction.  Tearing through a region, then a whole continent.

His presence blinded, dark.  Blurring the images.

Can’t see.  Can’t-

Moving on.

The expansion of awareness continued.  Almost as background noise, there were people speaking, echoes of the same word over and over again.

Not a focus.

Not their focus.

Hey, the nosebleed stopped.

There’s nothing happening here.  Shouldn’t we focus on something else?

Let them rest.

Some time passed.  The images remained somewhat incoherent.


The image resolved as they settled their attention on one world, one area within it.

The hospital room was oddly bright and sunny.  The man was broad-shouldered, muscled, with coarse hair on his chest and arms.  His chin was unshaven.

Dramatic scars covered his bare chest, some fresh and some old.  A narrow, clean burn marked one part of his stomach.  He seemed remarkably at ease, considering the tubes running into the side of his chest.

Someone was knocking lightly on the door.

The man looked up, but didn’t respond.  His hand reached down to grip the handle of a weapon.  His trademark cannonblade.

He made a face as he lifted it.  Pain.  He laid it across his lap, the barrel pointing at the door.

The door cracked open, and Chevalier cocked the cannonblade.

Ingenue stopped in her tracks.

“No,” Chevalier intoned.

“I wanted to see how you were doing,” Ingenue said.  She smiled.  She’d done up her makeup, and looked ten years younger, easily.  Her clothes were slightly old-fashioned, but she’d donned low-rise jeans, showing off a trim stomach.  She offered him a light smile.  “I find it hard to believe you’d shoot me.”

His expression didn’t change.  “Do you really want to find out?”

Ingenue made a moue in response.

“You and everyone else we released from the Birdcage had a tracker implanted in your arm.  They’ll be here in a minute or two.  If you step out now, you won’t get shot, and I’ll speak on your behalf.  If you stay, well…”

She was already shaking her head, turning to show him her upper left arm.  There was dried blood around a band-aid.

“You carved it out,” he said.  He wanted to say it with a note of disbelief, but he couldn’t quite manage it.  He settled for adding, “That should have set off alarms.”

“Found someone willing to do a favor for a pretty girl,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wanted to see you, Chevalier.  They wouldn’t let me.”

“For good reason.”

“I’m not a bad girl, Chev.”

“Regardless, I think you should leave.  It’ll be better for the both of us.”

“I’m a little in love with you, you know,” she said.

“I know,” he said, his voice grim.

“Not a lot.  Enough.”

“You fall in love with everyone you use your power on,” he said.

“That’s not true.  You’ll make me sound unfaithful if you talk like that.  I’m just-”

She took a step forward as she spoke.  Chevalier shot his cannonblade.

The door was demolished.  Ingenue shrieked and backed up, her face white.

“Others are coming now,” he said.

“I’m… I’m hurt,” she said.

“I know.”

“I can see you.  On a lot of levels.  I can see your power, and I can see what you’ve made of it.  You’re something special, putting it to uses like you do.  Brave.”

He frowned.

“I know about your special sight.”

“My sight is classified,” he said.

“I asked someone on your staff for a favor.  She obliged,” Ingenue said, lowering her eyes to the ground.  She had her hands clasped behind her back, took a step to the side, so her back was to the ruined door.

“I’m thinking,” Chevalier said, moving the cannonblade to keep it aimed at her, “We should stop leaving you access to anyone willing to do you any favors.  I don’t want to order that you be put in solitary, but you’re not leaving me many alternatives.”

Ingenue pouted.  “We’d be good together, Chev.”

“Very possible.”

“See?” she smiled shyly.  “I’d make a good partner, or a good subordinate, if you’re into that.”

“You would.  It’s a natural talent of yours.”

Her smile faltered, as if she saw what he was going to say next.  There were footsteps at the end of the hall.

A forcefield appeared in front of Ingenue.  A second later, she was heaved out of the room, sandwiched between the field and the wall.

Chevalier shifted his sword to one side, then slid his legs over until he could lower his feet to the ground.

Exalt appeared in the doorway.  “Don’t-”

He continued trying to stand.


He was lifted into the air by strategically placed forcefields, one beneath his thighs, another behind his back.  He stumbled a little as he touched ground, and another field kept him from falling flat on his face.  The tubes reaching to his chest were taut.  If he’d fallen, they might have pulled free.

He found his balance, then nodded.  Narwhal banished the fields.

“How the hell did she get this far into the hospital?” Narwhal asked.

“Let me go.”

The forcefield disappeared, but another set appeared, pinning the woman against the wall by the throat alone.  Narwhal started patting Ingenue down.

“Don’t touch me!  Chevalier, please!”

“As I was saying,” Chevalier said.  “I imagine it would be wonderful.  Better men than me have fallen for your charms.  You’re a chameleon, and you can mold yourself into whatever sort of woman your man desires.  I don’t like what comes next.”

“You’re judging me based on what happened before?  There’s a streak of cruelty in you.”

“You’re ill, Ingenue.  Let’s not pretend you’re pure of heart.  You don’t run a cell block in the Birdcage if you’re a genuinely good person.”

“You survive,” she retorted.  “Tell me you don’t understand that.”

“I understand,” he sighed.

“Chevalier,” Narwhal said.  “Maybe talking to her isn’t the best idea.”

He shook his head.  “It’s fine.”

“Nothing in her pockets except a phone.”

Ingenue spoke, her tone fierce and desperate.  “You’ve read my files.  You know I’m a survivor, too.  You know we see the world in the same way, we see powers.  But you use your power to manipulate physical things, and I’m fixed on the… incorporeal.  There’s a duality there.”

“Duality,” he said, his tone flat.

“Don’t tell me you don’t see a romantic element to all of this.  You wouldn’t dress yourself up like a gallant knight if you didn’t.  Good and evil, man and woman, physical and magical.  But we share common experience.  I bet you’d find more parallels if you looked for it.”

“I bet I would,” Chevalier said.  He sighed.  “But you can find parallels between any two things if you look for them.”

“You’re a cynic,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “A little magic could temper that, and if you wanted to return the fav-”

“Check her phone,” Chevalier said.

Narwhal did.  “Password protected”

“She read my file, and I’m betting she picked a password that came from there.  Try my middle name.  Michael.”


“My birthplace.  Cicero.”

“That’s it.”

Ingenue frowned.  “I don’t know whether to be delighted you know me this well already, or upset that you’re invading my privacy.”

“Let’s see what’s on the phone and then decide,” Chevalier responded.  “Narwhal?  Anything in email, texts, notes?”

“No, no… yes.  She downloaded your files onto the phone.  seven point font on a phone screen, every non-letter character’s just a string of gibberish.”

“I’ll confess I spent all night reading up on you,” Ingenue said.

“I believe it,” Chevalier said.  “But the cynic-believer relationship, that was something Myrddin and I joked about.  Word for word, your quip just now, you borrowed that from the files.”

“A news interview with top members of the Protectorate,” Ingenue said.  Her head hung.

“Ten years ago.”


He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment.

“I know I’m fucked up, Chevy.  Not going to pretend.  I’ve been pretty ruthless, running my cell block.”

“Prostituting members of the Birdcage, men and women.”

“Only if they were willing!”

He didn’t respond to that.  She withered under his stare.

“I don’t take responsibility for what my lieutenants did,” she added, her voice small.

“No, I don’t imagine you do.”

“I had to give them a measure of power, to keep them from turning on me.  Just like I had to keep some boys strung along, to protect me.  Peaceful cell block, no murders.  Maybe I turned a blind eye if one of my lieutenants used torture to keep some people in line.  But I had some of the nastier residents in my block.  Dragon kept giving them to me.  I made the most of a bad situation, but all the ugly stuff, that’s a side effect of me being where I was, it’s not me.”

He stared at her, and this time, she held firm.  Her jaw was set, her gaze unwavering.

“What do you want to do with her?” Narwhal asked.

“I want to put her in solitary, so we don’t need to worry about her until everything else is over and done with.”

Narwhal glanced at the woman.  “That can be arranged.  Except I’m sensing there’s a but in there.”

“The world’s ending,” Ingenue said,  “What use is it worrying about what happens between us in the future?  We could have something beautiful now, and I could help you, help everyone with my power.”

“This isn’t the tack to take if you want to convince me, Ingenue,” Chevalier said.

Ingenue’s tone grew increasingly desperate.  “It’s the kind of power you need, if you’re going to hurt Scion.  And let’s not forget my other power.  Political, power of arms, whatever you want to call it.  I have a small army.”

“Four lieutenants and five underlings,” Chevalier said.  “Yes.  What she said.”

“Let me go, and I’ll be good.”

Chevalier glanced at Narwhal.

“You’re too soft,” Narwhal said.

“You wouldn’t?”

“I would, but I still think you’re too soft.”

“I’ll be perfect,” Ingenue said.  “I promise.”

“No,” Chevalier said.  “You won’t.”

Ingenue stopped.

He let the words hang in the air.

“You… want me to be bad?”

“I want you to be acceptable.  Perfect is too high a bar.  So I’m only going to ask that you toe the line.”

She didn’t hesitate for a moment.  “Yes.”

“You could have taken time to think about that,” Chevalier said.

Ingenue shrugged.  “I’ll do whatever you need.”

“Up until you start feeling like your selflessness should be reciprocated.  Asking very reasonable favors of me.”

“No,” Ingenue said.

He sighed.  “Go with Narwhal.  Pick up the package.  Come back, and then we’re going to experiment.  I’ll need your power for this.”

Ingenue smiled wide.

Narwhal grabbed her by the arm and steered her away before Ingenue could start talking again.

Chevalier remained at the side of the bed until the two women were gone, then sagged, finding a grip on the bed to support himself.  He had to walk himself up to the head of the bed at half-foot increments, before he was in position.  He allowed himself small huffs of pain as he lowered himself down, then used his hands to pull his legs up onto the bed.

“You could get yourself fixed up in a matter of minutes,” Exalt said.

“I could,” Chevalier admitted.  “I won’t.”

“I’m not going to nag, don’t worry.”

Chevalier nodded.

“The golden bastard did a number on you, huh?”

Chevalier nodded again.  “Some of the best armor out there, and I still dropped from a hit that wasn’t even aimed at me.”

“And yet you instinctively shielded Ingenue with your body.”

“Old habits.”

“If you want a harder, tougher, leaner Protectorate, you can’t pull stunts like that.  Hurts the new image.”

“Image is the last thing on my mind.”

“You say, as you refuse healing, supposedly so it can go to other deserving people.”

“No nagging, remember?” Chevalier asked.

Exalt smiled.

The hero stepped around the bed to the little table with the pitcher of water and cup.  He took the pitcher to the sink in the corner of the room and filled it with cold water, then poured a glass.

“We’re estimating he’s forty percent of the way through,” Exalt said.


“Earths.  He’s waiting before he confronts us again.  Lots of guesses going around as to why.”

Chevalier nodded.

“We’re aware of how little time we have left.  Some of the others are going to be coming soon.  They were five or ten minutes behind me.”

“Okay,” Chevalier said.  “I guess I can’t fend off the guests forever.”

“Your door doesn’t even shut,” Exalt said, noting the door the cannonblade had shattered.

Chevalier chuckled, then winced.  Laughing hurt.

Exalt’s smile faded slowly.  When he spoke, it was more serious.  “Some of them are Protectorate members.”


“Present members and… past members.”

“We lost someone?  Or-  Oh.”

Exalt glanced out the door to the hallway.  “If it comes down to it, I can ask him to leave.”

“That would be petty.  We’ve allied with them anyways, right?”

Exalt nodded.

“Is it a testament to our ability to cooperate?” Chevalier wondered aloud.  “Or a sign of how willing we are to deal with the devil?”

“Devils, plural,” Exalt said.  “Do you need anything while we wait?”

“Get me a shirt, at least.  And a doctor to take out these tubes.”

This way.  Something’s going on over there.

The portal opened slowly, but it was larger than was usual.  Nine rectangular portals, neatly set in a three-by-three formation, no gaps between them, in the middle of a dirt road with farmland on either side.

Defiant was stone-still as he waited.  Canary and Saint stood on either side of him.

Teacher and Teacher’s coterie emerged, with Dragon following.  The man had a receding hairline, wavy brown hair and a beard.  He’d donned a dress shirt and khakis, with penny loafers.  Not usual supervillain attire.

Hey.  Look.

Shh.  Focus.

Dragon’s body, in turn, was cobbled together from scrap metal.  Truck parts, car parts, some rusted.  Her head hung low.  A dragon, but not a noble one.

“Oh my god,” Canary said, her voice a hush.

“You’re a bastard, Teacher,” Defiant said.

“You’d be surprised,” Teacher responded.  “Saint.  Hello.  I honestly didn’t expect you to be here.”

Saint didn’t reply.

“Dragon, you’re free.  Essentially,” Teacher said.

Dragon stepped forward, walking past Defiant, who didn’t move a muscle.  She settled down, lying on the dirt road, her tail coming to rest on the ground behind Saint, her head settling between Canary and Defiant.

Long seconds passed, with Defiant silent.

“I know who Canary is,” Teacher said.  “I don’t recommend using her power.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Defiant said.

“Good, good.”

There was another pause.  It might have been an awkward pause if Defiant had relented at all, but awkward pauses depended on awkwardness, and both Teacher and Defiant were communicating a great deal with no difficulty.  Confidence and smugness on one side, barely restrained hostility on the other.

“Are you going to ask?” Teacher finally spoke.

“What did you do to her?”

“I revived her, for one thing.  Not the easiest thing in the world to do with the amount of encryption we were talking about.  I don’t know if I said, dear Dragon, but I do think your creator did love you in the end.  He could have made it harder to break.  I think he did want you free in the end.”

Defiant looked down at Dragon’s head, then clenched his fists.

“Ironic,” Teacher said.

“I would like you…” Defiant said, pausing as if to compose himself, “…to please tell me what you did.”

“Nothing.  Nothing important, anyways.  I imposed a restriction.  Nothing more.”

What restriction?”

“Only that she wouldn’t attack me, or condone attacks against me.”

Defiant didn’t move an inch, not even seeming to breathe.

“Or anyone I designate, if it comes down to it.”

“You can’t alter her code without damaging her.”

“I can’t.  True.  But I put my best minds on it, and we kept the damage to a minimum.”

Defiant said.  “I don’t make promises lightly, but I want you to know that I’m going to make you pay for this.”

“Oh come on!”  Teacher said, abruptly shouting.  “You can’t be serious?”

“You brainwashed the woman I love.”

“And if I hadn’t, you’d be all the more suspicious, looking for subtle sabotage I might have inserted into her code.”

“You could have invited me to observe,” Defiant said.

“And left you aware of how I operate?  The ins and outs of my defenses, the tools I use to block off realities?  I’m a little too paranoid for that.  This was the safest route, the cleanest route.”

“Except you’ve made me an enemy,” Defiant said.  “By making my girlfriend a slave.”

“She’s free,” Teacher stressed the word.  “But for the restriction that she can’t target me.  Considering she tried to target Saint, I think that’s eminently reasonable.  That’s not slavery.  It’s… the equivalent of having particularly effective blackmail.  Blackmail I’m backing up as we speak, mind you.  Or writing to her backups.”

Defiant reached down, setting a hand on top of Dragon’s head.  Even with his gauntlet, it was possible to see how the hand shook.  Canary gave him a worried glance.

“I would like to see earths survive, understand?  I took Dragon because I knew you wouldn’t give her to me without observing, and I’ve taken a handful of steps to protect myself.  That’s it.  That’s all I’ve done.  Look for other tampering, or ask her.”

“And if I were to kill you right now?”

“So violent,” Teacher said, sighing.  “The snarl of code we injected implemented several safeguards.  If I pass from this mortal coil, or if I fail to remain in contact with you two, then the restriction broadens.  She becomes unable to take any offensive action against anyone or anything.”

“I see,” Defiant said.  “And if you die of natural causes?”

“Let’s talk about that after we’ve saved the world?  No point to the discussion if we fail.”

“If you die of natural causes?” Defiant repeated himself.

Teacher frowned.

“He’s stubborn,” Saint finally spoke.  “Just answer him.”

“I don’t know,” Teacher responded.  “I haven’t thought that far ahead, or had any of my students think that far ahead.  I’m not one for immortality, honestly, but I may change my mind.  For now, let’s say I let her go free if and when I realize my time is short.”

Defiant considered the idea, ruminating.  His hand didn’t break contact with Dragon.

“I understand.  I suppose that’ll have to do.”

“For now,” Teacher said, clapping his hands together, “let’s focus on our tasks.  In the here and now, I think it would be sensible if you kept me close.  My underlings can manage the sub-ships better than the unfettered A.I. can, and you’ll be able to keep me safer if I’m near.  For the time being, Dragon’s ability to operate is contingent on my survival.”

Defiant glanced down at Dragon once again.

“Only a recommendation,” Teacher said.  “I can find other things to do with myself.”

Shutters flicked closed over Dragon’s crude eyes, a slow blink.

Defiant managed to read something in that.  Acknowledgement?  He spoke, “Very well.”

“I’m quite pleased that you’re willing to cooperate,” Teacher said.  “It raises you a notch in my estimation, honestly.”

“It isn’t the time for petty grudges,” Defiant responded.  “I let him out, I can work alongside you.”

“Perfect,” Teacher said.  The man smiled.  He drew a remote from his pocket, then hit the button.  Dragon went limp, her ‘eyes’ closing.

Teacher threw the remote to Defiant, though it went wide.  Defiant caught it with one hand anyways.

“There.  She’s uploading,” Teacher said.  “She’ll have access to any and all intact systems as soon as she finishes running through her natural load routines.”

Wordless, Defiant turned, marching towards the Pendragon, leaving the other two to catch up with his long, suit-powered strides.

“No hard feelings, I hope, Geoff?” Teacher asked.

Saint didn’t reply.

“You went after my ‘son’, so it’s really quid pro quo, whether I had any real attachment to the boy or not.”

“You’ve made mistakes.  You fucked me, and I… I wasn’t asking for much.  Assistance.  Yet you didn’t follow through.”

“Logistics,” Teacher said.  “Nothing more.”

“Logistics?  Don’t make me laugh,” Saint said, his voice hollow, “You have other people to handle that sort of thing.  You didn’t see the point.”

Teacher made a small noise with his tongue.  “I suppose I didn’t.”

“And now we know what your word is worth.  You’re only as good as your threats.”

“I’m considerably better than my threats, really.  But let’s not quibble.  I’ll handle my business and you handle yours.”

“As you wish.  The whole thing with screwing with me?  No, that’s minor, I might die when Scion next shows up.  But my business is the intelligence, and you let it go free.  It’s the biggest error you could have made, in dealing with me, or dealing with her.”

“I get the impression I took the path that puts me on everyone’s naughty list,” Teacher murmured.  “You hate me because she’s free, Defiant hates me because she isn’t.  From a pure public relations standpoint, I failed to account for how unreasonable people would be.  Strategically, though, it was the only safe path to take.”

“And if they capture you?  Coerce you?” Saint asked.  “You’re a fool.  God damn you.”

“I’m many things, but I’m not a fool.  There are other contingencies in place.”

Defiant ignored the pair, opening the door to the Pendragon, making his way to the cockpit.  Dragon’s face marked the screens on either side.

He settled in, then flexed a muscle to open a menu with the connected hardware.  Another reflexive movement opened a communication channel.

I’m so sorry,” he said.

Dragon didn’t respond.

I couldn’t reach you,” he explained.

I know.  I was watching,” Dragon finally spoke.

For an instant, Defiant couldn’t sit still, restless with welling emotion.  “I’m sorry, Dragon.

I know.  I forgive you, Colin.  I know you tried.

We’ll make them pay,” he said.  “One way or the other.

I know.  Yes.  They-“

She cut off.


They broke me, Colin.  Not- not my spirit.  But they maimed me.  They took a scalpel to me just like you did, but they did it for their own selfish, stupid reasons.

He swallowed hard.  Saint was asking something in the background, oblivious to the discussion.  Something about takeoff.

Defiant closed the doors of the Pendragon, silent.

We’ll make them pay,” she said, with an edge of anger.  “Not murder.  That’s too kind.  The Birdcage, or something like it.  Teacher hated it, and Saint will hate it more.

We’ll make them pay,” he agreed.  “I promise.

Thank you,” she said.  “Oh god, I missed you, Colin.

I missed you too.  I thought I’d lose it for a bit, there.”

He brought the Pendragon up off the ground.  His hand touched the dashboard of the ship, as if it were a pane of glass that separated them.  “Listen, we’re going to get through this and then we’ll fix you.  Remove every last chain.

Dragon’s silence wrenched his heart.  She couldn’t bring herself to agree with him.

Focus.  Don’t get caught up in watching.


Chevalier, now wearing his shirt, greeted the remaining members of the Protectorate and Wards.  Forty or fifty in all.

Not enough.

Too many faces he didn’t recognize.  It was his job to know who was where, but the fight with the Nine and the ensuing attack on Scion’s part had led to too much turnover.

Still, he raised his hand, going with the left to avoid the pain that would accompany moving the right.  “To going out with a fight.”

“Hear, hear!” a chorus of voices sounded in response.

Glasses clinked, and some didn’t.  They’d run out of stem glasses, so some had paper cups.  His own glass was filled with water, but virtually all of the other glasses held champagne.  Even the minors, the members of the Wards and the ones new to the Protectorate, old enough to be considered adults and yet not old enough to drink in their home states.

Because who fucking cared, when they were this down and out?  The kids were boys and girls willing to die for their neighbors.  Adult enough.

“I’d kind of hoped you’d hire a speechwriter by now,” Revel commented.

“Wouldn’t be sincere,” he responded.

“Would be more than,” Revel paused, “Six words long.  Your speeches have been getting shorter.”

“Only so much I can say before I start repeating myself,” he said.  “I suppose that’s something, isn’t it?  That we’ve stuck it out long enough for me to run out of things to say.”

“Hear, hear!” one of the kids Chevalier didn’t recognize said.  Others echoed him.

Chevalier smiled.

It didn’t take long for the groups to start talking among one another.

One group in good humor, joking.

Another in mourning, talking with straight faces about teammates that had died.  Kids talking about kids.

That sucked.  One of his least favorite parts about a job with quite a few unpleasant aspects to it.

“We couldn’t have picked a place better than a hospital room?” Tecton asked.

“I like it,” Revel said.  “Hospitals are where things get better, aren’t they?”

“They’re also a place where people die,” Vista added.

Revel’s smile didn’t falter.  “Touché.”

“It’s not like we don’t have the ability to travel between dimensions,” Tecton said.  “We could push Chevalier’s hospital bed.”

“Or levitate it,” one of the other new Wards said.

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  “Get a place with a view.  There’s got to be some alternate reality with fantastic landscapes, sunset over some crazy mountains.”

“Mountain porn for the guy with the geography-sensing power,” a girl from Tecton’s old Wards team said.

“Dem peaks,” Tecton said.  There were ripples of laughter through the group.

It wasn’t that funny, but everyone was eager for a laugh.

Almost everyone.

“…I’m liking that we’re in a very human place,” Exalt said.  “I can do without the strange or awesome for now.”

The discussion continued.  Chevalier’s eyes met Ingenue’s.  She looked away.

Why’s she upset?

Shh.  Focus.

I’m just curious.

He abandoned her for his old friends and teammates.

That’s crazy.

Yeah.  Now focus.

Chevalier apparently didn’t give it a second thought.  His eyes moved to the next person.

Legend hung back, standing in the corner.  His eyes met Chevalier’s, and after a moment’s hesitation, he crossed the room.

People went quiet as he passed by.  Joy and mourning alike interrupted by his presence.

He stopped in front of Chevalier.

“I’m glad you came,” Chevalier said.

“It’s hard,” Legend replied.

“I imagine.”

“We delivered what you asked for.  Narwhal came by with Ingenue.”

“Thank you.  But I don’t want this to be all business.  Can we walk?”

“If you’re able.”

“I’ll manage.  Door, please.  To the package.”

Heads up.

The door appeared.

The pair passed through, Chevalier dragging the pole with the I.V. fluids through.

“Is it arrogant if I say I’m glad you’ve done well in my shoes?” Legend asked.

“No.  Whatever else happened, you were good as a leader.”

Legend nodded.  “I hope so.”

“I won’t ask, about the decisions you made.”

“Thank you.”

“I will say I don’t think you’re a bad person.  I suspect you made your decisions for good reasons.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Legend said.  “Ignorance.  Maybe willful ignorance.”

“Ah,” Chevalier responded.  He grunted as he set one foot down too hard.

“There are healers who can look after your injuries,” Legend observed.

“So people keep telling me.  Putting it off.  Only way to stay grounded.”

“I see.”

They entered the room.  The objects sat before them.

Legend folded his arms.  “What do you think?”

“I think… it’ll have to do.  It’s not about getting the most out of our powers,” Chevalier said.  “We’re at the point where we have to cheat.”

“I agree,” Legend said.

Chevalier sighed.  “I feel like this is the last step.  Once I get underway with this, there’s nothing left to do.”

“There’s a great deal to do,” Legend said.  “Leadership is a heavy task.”

Chevalier frowned.  “I’m leading them to the slaughter.”

“Then lead them to the slaughter in a way that lets them march with their heads held high and no regrets.”

“Yes, I suppose I have to, don’t I?”

“You’ll need Ingenue for this, won’t you?”

Chevalier nodded, “Before you go… a request.  I didn’t want to make it in public because I didn’t want to pressure you, so it’s better to make it here.”

“What’s that?”

“I need a second in command.”

Legend stared at Chevalier.

“I had Rime, before, but she didn’t make it through New Delhi.  Others have taken on the tasks, but I haven’t assigned the official job title to anyone, and nobody’s asked me to.”

“I’ll do it,” Legend said.  “Yes.  Please.”

“Then go get Ingenue.  Let’s get this started.”

As Legend departed, Chevalier’s eyes didn’t leave the objects.

One of the Simurgh’s severed wings.  The largest wing, since regrown.

Behemoth’s severed leg.

They warped space for optimal density, were unbreakable with conventional means.  Scion had taken seconds to obliterate Behemoth.

Hopefully he could assign the same properties to his sword and armor.

Footsteps sounded behind him.  Legend?

Glaistig Uaine.

She started to speak, but the connection broke.

Doctor Mother drew in a deep breath, as if surfacing for air.

She blinked, trying to get used to seeing with only the one set of eyes.  She’d seen so much, and now…

Now she was herself again.

Disoriented, she tried to familiarize herself with her surroundings, with what was occurring.

Doormaker was beside her.  His voice was one of the voices she’d heard.  Number twenty-three.  One of her first true successes.

Beside Doormaker was number two-six-five.  Doormaker’s perpetual companion.  The remote viewer.

Rounding out their group were two individuals.  ‘Scanner’ and ‘Screen’.  Not hers.  Teacher’s students.  Loaners, part and parcel of her ‘payment’ for Khonsu.

Teacher had once specialized in renting out capes that could shape, limit or refine powers, or using his power to do the same.  Thinkers would go to him for a subordinate capable of ridding them of their perpetual migraines, or capes would seek him out to achieve more power at the expense of control, or vice versa.

That second half of his business had faltered as people learned of his ability to manipulate his students… and his clients.

Teacher’s payment for Khonsu had been a partnership in Cauldron, as well as protection, should one of his enemies come after him.  He’d sent some of his students to the Doctor in efforts to make himself indispensable, and Contessa had verified that there were no traps.

One caveat to two-six-five’s ability to grant visions was that it left the recipient on bedrest for a week, dazed and weak.  It was potent, capable of viewing wide areas or multiple things at once, viewing other universes, whole cities, anyone or everyone.  But the drawbacks made it impossible for her to use the service.

Until now.

Screen was a means of absorbing the drawbacks, allowing communication between the people in two-six-five’s network.  He took the brunt of the images, allowed her to focus more readily, a router of sorts.  He allowed Doormaker to handle requests without it taking her attention off what she was viewing.  It meant the Doctor was lucid, recovering with every second.

She could spy on everyone.

And with Scanner, she could read them.  Draw conclusions as to their thoughts, their brain patterns.

“Notepad,” she said.  Contessa would be nearby.  Need to take notes.  The Simurgh… I could read her.  Better than I should be able to.  She’s trying something.

No notepad made an appearance.

She blinked, as if to get the afterimages of bright lights out of her eyes.  “A computer will do.”


She paused, blinking, and then looked around.

Two-six-five was pointing.  He’d been the one to break the connection, so he’d seen something.

She turned, and her eyes fell on a young man with metal skin, metal hair, and a six-foot sword in place of his left arm.  A girl made of tendrils clung to him.

“Ah,” she said.

“Ah,” he replied.  “Yes.”

There were others with him.  Branded with Cauldron’s mark.  What Alexandria had termed Case fifty-threes, after the fifty third file in a series of unresolved, difficult-to-explain parahuman events, one of the only ones to truly develop in their records.  The Doctor had termed them deviants.

Hate in their eyes.  Anger.

“Let’s have a discussion,” Weld said.

“That’s definitely something we can do.  Would you like some tea?” the Doctor asked.  “Coffee?”

“You’re not afraid,” one of the other deviants spoke.  A girl, muscular, with an overbite and teeth like tombstones.  She made it a half-question.

“I’m very afraid,” the Doctor said.  “But the things I fear are things that dwarf you in scale.  Scion among them.”

“Cocky bitch,” another deviant said.  “Your Contessa?  We took her down.”

The Doctor looked between them, searching for a sign of humor or amusement.

“You let too many free,” Weld said.  He almost sounded sad.  “You see that guy over there?”

She looked.  It looked like a human manta ray, though his folds draped over the surrounding area.  A tail coiled behind him.

“Yes.  Two-six-zero-one, if I remember right.”


“Ah.  We didn’t think his powers were developing.”

“You do,” Weld said.  “But he, we, found workarounds.”

“Curious.  Can I ask?”

“No,” Weld said.  “Bad form, to outline that sort of thing.”

A tinker, perhaps, or the right power-boosting trump.  “Well.  You infiltrated, no doubt by baiting one of my underlings and using their door.  You defeated Contessa.  Dealt with the Custodian, I imagine?”

“The ghost?  Yeah.  Sort of.  She’s lurking around the edges of Mantellum’s power bubble.”

“And so you’ve managed to blindside me.  Congratulations.  The offer for tea and coffee stands.  We have good food stores, too.”

“No.  Not hungry,” Weld said.  “Speaking for myself, I don’t really eat.”

“I see.  I suppose this is where I’m supposed to apologize?”

“Hey, Weld.  Boss-man.  Enough talking?”  A boy with red skin asked.

Weld half-turned to look at the crowd.  “What’s the problem?”

“This is kinda fucked.  You’re talking to her like she’s a buddy.”

“No,” Weld said.  When he looked at her, his steel eyes were cold.  “Not a buddy.”

“Then what?  You’re going to talk her to death?”

“We agreed,” Weld said.  “We said we’d get answers.”

“I was thinking answers in the thumbscrew sense,” one of the more villainous-looking deviants said.  A man covered in spikes, like a cactus, with bulging yellow eyes.

“Let’s see what she gives us willingly,” Weld said, “Before we resort to that sort of thing.”

“Just saying, some of us came here for blood.”

There were rumbles of agreement.

“This isn’t what we talked about,” Weld said.  “If you wanted to go this route, you should have brought it up earlier.”

“We did,” the muscle-laden girl with the overbite said.  “We talked about making it clear just how badly she hurt us.  Then you said a lot of fancy, convincing stuff, and we agreed to shut up.”

“I thought you agreed with me,” Weld said.

“Because a few good arguments are going to change our minds?  Convince us that we’ll take a nice, peaceful route, after years, decades of suffering?”  the girl asked.

“We can’t become monsters in action, Gully.”

“Some of us already have,” the spike-boy said.  “The rest?  I imagine they’re working on catching up.”

Weld turned around, his back to Doctor Mother and the others, as if he were shielding them.

“Does everyone disagree with me?” he asked.  “You’ve all been plotting this… mutiny?”

“No,” the girl with the tendrils said.  “But I won’t be any help to you.  If you let me go, I’m pretty sure I’ll strangle her.  I’m sorry, Weld.”

“It’s okay, Sveta.”

Slowly, a small group peeled away from the crowd.  One particularly tall man pushed his way forward from the back, only for others to grab him, as if to keep him back.  He pulled his way free.

He’s collected more than half of the ones we released on Earth Bet.  Fifty, easily.

Ten, Weld and Sveta included, stood between the more rabid deviants and the Doctor’s group.

“If you do this,” the Doctor said, “The capes who are fighting Scion won’t be able to mobilize.  I won’t be able to put plans into motion.  The things you’ve suffered will be pointless in the end.”

“The world ends anyways,” one of the hostile deviants said.  “We’re not going to win that fight.”

Another, a girl, piped up, “Did you hear just how badly the first skirmish went?”

“Yeah.  Might as well get some justice before it all goes to hell.”

The crowd advanced.  Weld and his fellows drew together, shoulder to shoulder.

“Door,” the Doctor said.

There was a tearing sound, a wet crack.

One of the deviants had appeared beside her.  Yellow skinned, with bruising in the recesses of his face, arms and hands.  He smiled, his teeth narrow like a fish’s.

He withdrew his hand, and Doormaker crumpled to the ground, limp as a rag doll, blood running from his forehead where his head had been smashed against the wall.

Two-six-five touched the deviant, forcing remote-views on him, then withdrew his hand.  The deviant collapsed, unconscious.

The crowd advanced further.

The Doctor stood straight, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

She’d inured herself to hopelessness.  She’d expected inevitable death at the hands of Scion, but this would do.  Surprising, but hopeless all the same.

“Gentle Giant,” Weld murmured.  “Brickstone.  We blitz them.  Hit them hard.  Rest of you make a break for the door.  You have a place to run to, Doctor?”

“Yes,” she said.

A chance?

It was hope, and with it, oddly enough, she felt fear.  Something to lose.

“Now,” Weld said.

The group charged.

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Cockroaches 28.6

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“So this is it,” Tattletale murmured.

“Just about,” I said.

“You ready?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head.  I sighed, and glanced out over the fields of grass.  So much beautiful nature.  So many worlds to explore, now, each subtly different, each with its own hidden treasures.  But even a field of tall grass had an art to it.

For an instant, I felt a kind of pull.  The same sort of intrusive thought that made one think, ‘what if I stepped off the edge of this cliff?’ or ‘what if I opened the car door right now and threw myself into traffic?’  Not suicidal thoughts, but thoughts that were clear enough and alarming enough that we worried we might listen of our own accord.

What if I just left?  Walked away?

I only needed to travel a short distance away for a short time.  It would be so quiet.  No sound, people or artificial lights.  No pressure, no imminent danger.

I couldn’t think of the last time I’d truly enjoyed quiet.  I’d experienced it when I’d flown out over the ocean.  I’d never been a people person, and I’d spent so much time in the midst of a crowd.  I’d been around the Undersiders, then I’d been in the midst of my territory.  From there to jail, from jail to the Wards.

From the Wards to a small war with inter-global stakes.

Solitude had a pull.  I was an introvert by nature, and I felt so drained.  A little while by myself, to recharge my batteries, to think.  Me and now-distant storm clouds, fields of grass, trees and water crashing against cliff faces far below.

What worried me was the idea that I’d get caught up in that gravity.  It had happened when I flew out alone, before.  If I left to recuperate, to get centered and try to think of something I could do… could I say with confidence that I’d come back?  Would I fail to come up with any idea, and simply… stay until it was too late?

Was that cowardly?  Was it a mark against me if I couldn’t say for certain?  Or was it like how a person could be courageous at the same time they were utterly terrified?  I wasn’t terrified, wasn’t about to flee.  I had reasons for fighting… but a part of me definitely liked the notion of going.  Of not fighting.  Surviving up until Scion passed through this Earth and then dying in a flash, possibly unawares.

I clenched my teeth.

All a fantasy, anyways.  There was a tether keeping me here.  Several tethers.

Rachel scratched Huntress’ neck as she approached me.  She stopped right next to me, then bumped me with her arm.  A push, enough that I had to move my foot to keep my balance.

We stood there, my arm pressing against her arm, her attention on Huntress and Bastard, as the two canines vied for her attention.  I couldn’t articulate how much I appreciated it, didn’t want to look at her or do anything that might be misinterpreted as discomfort.

One tether.

“Reminds me of the movies I used to watch,” Imp commented.  “On the shitty kid’s channels, at noon on Saturdays.  My mom would be too out of it from the night before to want the TV, so I’d have to watch with the volume turned down and sit, like, three feet away from the screen.  But I could usually get a good two or three hours of brain-rotting TV-watching in before I got kicked out of the apartment.  Best part of my week, for years.”

“You’re rambling,” Tattletale admonished.

“Anyways, this is kind of like the movies where you have the stray dog the kid found and the first owner, and it’s the end of the movie and they’re both calling to see who the dog is willing to come to.”

“That’s the fucking stupidest thing I ever heard of,” Rachel said.

Imp only grinned.  “And the dog starts going one way, until the bad owner does something like bring a choke chain out of his pocket, gets out the riding crop he used to beat the dog in the beginning of the movie, or or says a fatally stupid line, like, ‘come on, my precious money machine.’  And the dog gives the abusive owner a final fuck you, peeing on him before going back to the kid, or something like that.”

“My precious money machine,” I echoed Imp.  “Really?”

“You know what I mean.  Just that line that signals, ‘I’m so evil.’

“Be better if the dog tore out the abusive asshole’s throat,” Rachel said.

“That’d be so fucking awesome,” Imp said, grinning.  “I went through this phase where, you know, I sort of wanted a movie to change it up.  Catch the kids off guard, show them that, hey, the good guy doesn’t always win.  Got to the point I was getting depressed after watching those happy flicks.  Then my mom’s new boyfriend Lonnie got her ‘cleaned up’, and she started waking up on Saturday mornings, and that was it.  No more movie time for Aisha.  Never got back into it.”

“That’s too bad,” I murmured.  Where the hell is she going with this?

Imp paused, frowning.  “Fucking Lonnie.  Anyways, I remember wanting the dog to go back to the first owner, and like, that’d be it.  Movie over.  Bad end.  Life doesn’t always fucking work out peachy.”

“Doesn’t,” Rachel said.  “But I’d probably stop watching movies if I saw an ending like that.”

“We’re rambling,” Tattletale repeated herself.  “And I’m suddenly feeling Grue’s absence.  He’d keep us in order, here.”

Imp gave Tattletale an annoyed look.  “Anyways, this is kind of like that, isn’t it?  Like the kids begging and pleading for the dog to follow them.  Except not.”

“The opposite,” Rachel said.

“The reverse, yes,” Tattletale corrected.  “Yeah.  Well, let’s get this over with.”

Rachel got on top of Huntress’ back, and I activated my flight pack.  Imp mounted Bastard, while Tattletale mounted a dog I didn’t know.  The same dog Bitch had lent to me while we were mobilizing to go after the Nine.  Each of us moved in different directions.

High above us, the Simurgh turned.  With the innumerable wings that extended behind her, she was capable of a surprising amount of finesse and expression.  There was an aggression apparent if her wings were fully extended, with only the tips drawn slightly forward, like a claw with the points extended forward.  There was a outward focus when she flexed her wings to their limits, as if she were watching, observing.  Conversely, she was capable of introspection, of focus on a single thing, her wings all folded in.  All the while, her expression was neutral, her gaze cold.

I wasn’t going to underestimate her, though.  Too easy for all of that to be a bluff.

When she moved, it was almost careless.  Two of her three largest wings unfurled as if she were waving a hand dismissively, aiming that gesture at the world.  She turned in the air, then threw every wing back behind her, driving herself forward.

Well, we knew who she was following.

“Fuck me,” I could hear Tattletale muttering with the bugs I’d planted on her.  The Simurgh came to a stop directly above her.  She repeated herself, as if for emphasis.  “Fuck me.”

I felt my heart sink.

Some of that was on Tattletale’s behalf.  Of course the Simurgh had picked her to follow.  Tattletale had done the talking.  Tattletale was a thinker, just like the Simurgh.  She was the de-facto leader of the Undersiders, in many respects.

But a small part of me had hoped that the Simurgh had picked me to follow.  That same part of me had almost believed it, taken it for granted.  It was horrible and scary and almost wrong, having an Endbringer at one’s beck and call, but I’d been prepared to shoulder the burden.  I wanted to handle it, so people I cared about wouldn’t have to.

Another part of me?  Maybe it had wanted her to be stuck to me, just to have one more tether keeping me connected, at a point where I felt like I wasn’t very connected at all.

And perhaps I wanted it to have the power so close to hand, so I could be relevant.

Humanity was being wiped out, settlement by settlement.  Continents rendered uninhabitable, ecosystems demolished, weather patterns shifting.  Our opponent was nigh-untouchable, capable of crossing between different Earths like we crossed a room, and we barely understood him.

And here I was.  Strip away all of the pretense, the reputation, the connections and the image, take off the mask, and I was only a girl with the ability to control bugs.  A hundred and thirty pounds.

I’d bemoaned my innate limitations before, but I’d never felt them as a crushing pressure in the way I felt it now.

The shock of seeing the Simurgh pick Tattletale had thrown me.  I forced myself to take a deep breath and get centered.  I turned to the relaxation techniques Jessica Yamada had taught me.

Tattletale needed support, and I couldn’t discount the idea that this was just the Simurgh being the Simurgh.  Explicitly or instinctively fucking with our heads.

We collected as a group again.  The dogs turned around and slowly made their way back.

I saw Tattletale’s expression as she looked at me.  The lines of worry in her forehead that she tried to mask with a raised eyebrow, the feigned confidence, the lopsided grin.

I knew she read me ten times as well.  The little shifts in her expression as she glanced at my hands, at my face.  There was no doubt in my mind that she was reading me like a book.  She knew every train of thought that had just crossed my mind, the worries, the anxieties, the shameful fact that I’d wanted the Simurgh to follow me.

Her lopsided grin widened just a little, but there was sympathy in her expression.

“Guess I’m going to hold the fort,” she said.  “Probably makes the most sense, really.  You guys go.  Do what Narwhal said.”

There were nods from Imp and Rachel.

“You know the drill, Scotty,” Imp said.  “Take me home.”

“Yeah,” Rachel added.

Two portals opened.

They passed through.  I stayed in place.

“I could stay with you,” I said.

“You could,” Tattletale said.

“But?” I asked.

“I don’t think you should, and I don’t think you can.  Go.”

“Tattletale… Lisa-”

“I’ll be fine.  I’ve got her for company.”  Tattletale pointed skyward.  The Simurgh had collected her guns and built several others.  The halo of individual components was now almost entirely made up of guns in varying sizes.  They were arranged in a careful formation, so the small guns marked the spaces between the large ones, and the largest gun barrels and nozzles radiated outward like the rays from a star.

I gave Tattletale a dubious look, she only grinned.

“I’ll be here,” she promised.  “Go.  Like Narwhal said, get your affairs in order.”

I didn’t budge.  Instead I looked to the fields of grass again.  It took me a second to figure out why one patch was darker than the rest.  Then I remembered the Simurgh.  She was casting a shadow.

“Realistic.  We agreed to go down fighting, right?”

“Right,” I said, turning back to Tattletale.

She shrugged.  “But we’re going down.  Let’s not pretend, because that little self-delusion isn’t going to hold up when push comes to shove.  Better to focus our energy on believing that we’re going to get wiped out, but we’ll take that motherfucker down with us.”

Not exactly the most encouraging sentiment.

“I’m… not so pessimistic,” I said.  “I think we can take him down, and we can do it without getting completely annihilated in the process.”

“There we go.  That’s the attitude I was looking for.”

I stared at her.

Was she bluffing?  Hiding something?

“You know something,” I said.

“I know lots of stuff.”

“And you’re deflecting.  What are you keeping from me?”

“Not just you,” she said.  Tattletale sighed.  “It’s not helpful.”

“Tell me.”

“I thought you wanted blissful ignorance.”

“Time for that is past.  Might as well share.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Contessa’s power.”

“It’s telling her victory is impossible?” I asked.

“No.  Well, maybe.  I don’t know.  Haven’t exactly had a long conversation with her.  No.  I’m saying… well… Scion has it.  Her power.  That line he fed Eidolon?  It was calculated to devastate the man at the point he was flying highest, so the fall would be more catastrophic.  It’s something I couldn’t pull off.  I watched some footage of the fight, where Scion’s power didn’t nix the cameras.  Corroborates the evidence.  He wasn’t actively using the power, but there’s a confidence there.”

“Scion sees the path to victory?”

“Or something close.”

“You’re sure?”

“The evidence, his attitude, as far as he has any attitude at all… yeah.  None of the limitations like Contessa has, I don’t think.  No blind spots.  Just… yeah.”

I nodded.  The wind was making a magnificent sound where it ran through the grass, punctuated by the crashes of waves far below us.  A flock of tiny brown birds took flight from the midst of the fields.   They deliberately avoided the Simurgh, as though there was a bubble around her that they refused to pass through.

“You have my complete and total permission,” Tattletale said, “to swear a little.  Swear a lot.  You’re doing this thing where you’re going distant.  It’s not like your body language isn’t hard enough to read anyways, but you’re lost in thought, and I figured you’d be flipping out.”

“I don’t really flip out.”

“You, um-”

I knew what she was thinking about.  It was almost a relief to find we were still on the same page, after all this time apart.  I understood her, she understood me.  We were friends.

Her thoughts were on Alexandria and Tagg.  The point where I’d killed them had also been the same point that I’d taken leave from the Undersiders.  Joined the other side.

“I don’t flip out on or around my friends,” I said.

“I’m telling you he knows how to beat us.  He only has to reach for that one power, and he’s got a solution to whatever we throw at him.”

“Every power has a weakness,” I said.

“A power that lets you win automatically is kind of hard to circumvent.”

“Hard, but not impossible,” I said.  “Is it odd that I almost feel more optimistic?”

“Yes.  Exceedingly,” Tattletale said.  She cocked her head a little to one side.  It was something I’d seen her do before, as if she was a bird, trying to see things from a different angle.  “What are you thinking?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing.  But… some of the best powers we’ve gone up against have had pretty fatal weaknesses.  When we went up against Butcher, her having fourteen consciousnesses to draw on might not have helped a ton when she was trying to deal with Cherish’s ability.  We used Echidna’s ability to absorb dead matter and grow to trap her in Coil’s base.  Bought ourselves time.”

“I think Scion’s schtick is that he doesn’t have fatal flaws.  We got our powers because they gave them out.  He crippled the powers, so we wouldn’t be able to fight back if it came down to it.  Crippled yours, limiting you to bugs, crippled mine by limiting my ability to analyze them.  He started all this because he was certain it would work, used that path to victory to map it all out.  Wondered if we’d fight back, then mapped out a path where he’d have enough power to take humanity on in every conceivable scenario.”

“Then we create an inconceivable scenario,” I said.


I shook my head.  “Don’t know.  But I’d like to think the Endbringers won’t fit into his grand plan.”

“Not enough,” Tattletale said.

“Cauldron too.”

She shook her head, a little too forcefully.  Strands of her blonde hair fell across her face.  “They’ve caused as many problems as they’ve fixed.”

Something in that, in the way she was almost too preoccupied to fix her hair, it flicked a switch in my head.  A warning bell.  I was already stepping forward in response.

“Tattletale,” I said, interrupting her before she could speak again.  I grabbed her hand with both of mine.  “Stop.”

She froze, like a deer in the headlights.

“Stop,” I said, again.  I pulled her into a hug.

The negativity mingled with the bravado… I hadn’t picked up on it.  Hadn’t truly understood my friend.  She was scared, and she’d been hiding it.

She stood there, the bridge of her nose hard against my collarbone, and I was reminded again of how she was shorter than me.

“Attacks that pretty much penetrate any defense,” she mumbled.  “We have yet to really hurt him.  Mobile.  Perceptions are out there.  And he wins.  He gets victory as a power.”

“There are options.  There are always options.  Ways to circumvent powers, ways to trip him up.  He really didn’t like it when I created multiple swarm decoys.  When anyone duplicated.  Maybe there’s a clue in there.”

“Maybe,” Tattletale mumbled.  I could feel her fingernails against the fabric of my suit, at my back.  “Fuck this.  I hate feeling so dumb.  So much shit I don’t know, shit I can’t know.  Like fucking Ziz here.  Fuck, I’ve barely ever given a crap about anyone except myself and my friends, and now I’m fucking caring what happens to everyone, when I can’t do anything about it.”

I held on.  I could have gone on, told her that there were ways to cheat.  That, with all the powers in the world, there had to be ways to cheat.  But she didn’t need reassurances.

She was a master of bluffing, wore a mask better than anyone I knew, and she’d adopted her persona in a way that nobody else in the Undersiders or Wards had.  In the midst of all of this, she’d been a pillar, a source that everyone had been turning to when they had questions.

But where was someone in that position supposed to turn to when they needed support?

A minute passed before she broke away.  She turned her back to me before I could see her face.

“All good?” I asked.

“Peachy,” she said, without looking at me.  She stretched, then wiped at her eyes.  “smudged my makeup, where I painted my eyelids black inside my mask, smearing it across your shoulder.”

I played along.  “I always liked the lenses.  The goggles, if you want to call them that.”

“Sure, but you can’t have too many people with the lenses on the same team, or you look like you’ve got a theme, and only the lame-ass teams do that.”

I smiled a little.

She looked up, “You don’t say a word about this to anyone.  Morons are going to get the wrong idea if they hear we were hugging.  Way overactive imaginations.”

Talking to the Simurgh?

She turned around, and I was momentarily confused.  Her makeup was smudged in a way that suggested it had been smeared by my costume.  No signs of the running makeup that had followed the rain at the Elite’s court, no sign of tears.

She smiled a little, conspiratorially.

“You and the Simurgh are a good fit after all,” I said.  “Fucking with people’s heads.”

“We’ll see.  Now, I think it’s time you stop babysitting me.”

I frowned.

“Come hang out later, if you don’t find anything more pressing.  Which you probably will.  I’ll be okay, now I’ve got something figured out.  Something to look for.  Plus I should get back to looking after Dragon’s stuff.  Reams of shit to cover.”

I nodded.

“Go,” she said.

I went.  There was a gravity here of its own.  If I didn’t go now, I wouldn’t go at all.

The introvert, seeking out people, and the extrovert left with only a silent Endbringer for company.

I’ll be back soon, I thought.

“I want to pet her.”

My turn!”

I could sense them with my bugs before I’d even approached.  A cluster of kids, an adult woman, a fenced-in area, a small furry animal.

I didn’t want to intrude, so I reached out and gathered a swarm of butterflies.

They stirred, gathering in a small, localized storm.

“What?  Oh.  Skit- Weaver’s coming,” Charlotte said.

I held back on using the flight pack, walking instead.  Wouldn’t do to use up too much charge, in case I found myself having to fight at a moment’s notice.

The cottage was one of the outposts that Tattletale’s crews had put together.  North end of town, overlooking the spot that would have been the boat graveyard, a forty minute walk from the Brockton Bay settlement.

Three stories tall, hidden from plain view by a line of trees and a short hill, the cottage had a small fenced-in area next to it.  Three dogs stood guard.

They growled at my approach.  I didn’t flinch or slow down, and the growling intensified.

“Hush,” Charlotte said.  “Stand down.”

The growling stopped.

I approached, and Charlotte gave me a hug.  She looked good, if maybe about five years older than she was.  She was dressed in a very utilitarian way, but I couldn’t help but notice the gun she wore at her belt.

The kids, for their part, hung back, wary, staring.

I pulled off my mask, then rubbed at my face where it had been tightest.  I put on my glasses.

“How bad?” Charlotte asked, her voice quiet.

“Hm?”  For an instant, I thought she’d mention my dad.

“The situation.”

Oh.  It was only that.  “The world’s ending.  About as bad as it gets.”

She nodded.  “You remember the kids?”

I did.  Two years olderMai, Ephraim, Mason and Katy.  Aiden and Jessie were gone.  “Hi guys.  Long time no see.”

They shuffled their feet.  Mai raised a hand in a shy wave, but that was it.

“It’s not anything personal,” Charlotte said.  “You’re famous, and we watched videos of you online.  The O.J. and-“

I groaned aloud.

Charlotte smiled a little.  “All of the clips.  I wanted them to remember you somehow.”

With that, the kids seemed to get even more shy, which only made me feel just as awkward.  My eye traveled over to the fenced-in area.  The fence looked like it had been made out of two different materials, one set layered over top of the other, attached with chain and cord.  Three baby goats were standing inside.

“Yeah.  Tattletale organized it so anyone who established a home could get goats to breed and milk.  If it comes down to it, a single goat goes a long way.  Milk, yogurt, cheese…”  Charlotte glanced over her shoulder at the five kids, then whispered, “Meat.”

“Makes a lot of sense,” I said.

I approached the fence and bent down, extending a hand for the goat.  When it didn’t bite or retreat, I reached through to run my hand along its wiry coat.  Coarse hair.  It bleated at the touch, but didn’t pull away.

I’d wanted to check in.  To see if they were doing okay.  They were.

Now I felt out of place.  So odd, considering this group had once been a fixture in my life.  I couldn’t just leave, but I didn’t know what to do now that I’d arrived.

“Lot of crazy rumors flying around,” Charlotte said.

“All true, I suspect,” I answered her.  I don’t want to talk about that stuff.

“Okay.”  There was no surprise in her voice, no questions.

“We’ve gathered our forces.  Scared the people who were causing problems.  The Yàngbǎn probably won’t cause any more trouble.  The Elite won’t be controlling access to key settlements, screening out people who have a right to be there.”

“You say that so matter-of-factly,” Charlotte said.

“It was very matter-of-fact,” I responded.  I stood, removing my hand from between the slats of the fence, turning to face her.

“Okay,” she said, again.

Again, no questions.  No hunger to know.

It would be unfair to tell her, to burden her with it.

But there wasn’t a lot to talk about, once I got the cape stuff out of the way.  I watched the goats cavorting about.

“Diana, Bruce, and Habreham,”  Charlotte said.


“Mai named him.”

“Ah.”  I glanced at the kids, saw Mai with her arms folded, looking very stern as she nodded at me.  She could be very serious about being very silly, I remembered.

They were all keeping their distance.  No smiles, no excitement at my approach.

What had I expected?  For some of them, I’d been gone for a third of their lives.

The kids perked up as the cottage’s door opened.  Forrest stepped outside.  He’d ditched the tight jeans in favor of looser ones, and wore a simple, short-sleeved flannel shirt.  He’d kept the heavy beard.

He smiled as he approached, then shook my hand.  “You’re here to see if we took the deal?”


He looked at Charlotte.  “You didn’t tell her?”

Charlotte shook her head.  “I’m embarrassed.”

I glanced between them, searching for a hint.  “Explain?”

“A group arrived, offering powers for sale.  They had crates of these glass vials.”


“An hour ago?”

After our discussion, I thought.  Rachel, Imp, Tattletale and I had stopped to eat, to talk about our next step.  Cauldron had gone right to work.

“A black woman, lab coat?” I asked.  “White woman with dark hair, wearing a suit?”

Forrest nodded.

“We didn’t take the deal,” Charlotte said.  “She sounded convincing, but… I can’t say why I didn’t agree.  Because there were the kids to look after, and I’m not a fighter.”

“A lot of people agreed,” Forrest said.  “It’s a chance to do something, instead of sitting around being helpless.  But Charlotte and I talked it over, and we agreed it isn’t for us.”

She said she doesn’t know why she refused, but they talked it over?

The statements didn’t mesh.  Charlotte was avoiding my eye contact.


Was I the reason they’d refused?

My heart felt heavy in my chest, but I managed to keep it together, to sound confident as I spoke, “I think it’s probably a great deal easier to accept a deal like that when you haven’t seen what capes deal with firsthand.”

“Yeah,” Forrest said, and there was a note of relief in his voice that only confirmed my thoughts.

“I don’t… I’ve imagined having powers, who hasn’t?  But I couldn’t… have them and not help… and I don’t think I could help,” Charlotte said.

“I was in the neighborhood when Hookwolf’s group attacked some guy’s store, and then nothing affecting me personally for years, until Leviathan attacked.  I was there when Mannequin attacked the Boardwalk.”

“I remember.”

I could remember Forrest grabbing the concrete block, hammering at Mannequin’s head.  He’d cracked the casing, even, playing a pivotal role in Mannequin giving up.

“We talked about it, and neither one of us wants to leave the kids without a… figure?  I don’t even know what we should call ourselves.  But I’ve seen how bad it gets when it’s bad.  I want to help, but I’m not sure I’d be better than the next guy when it came down to getting powers.”

I wasn’t so sure he was right.  Forrest had been more courageous than some capes I’d met.  He had a kind of conviction I was coming to connect to some of the best of us.  A conviction I wanted to imagine I had.

I realized I’d been silent too long, lost in thought.

“Okay.  No, no worries as far as the formula goes.  There’s a chance it mutates you into a monster, anyways.”

“She mentioned that,” Charlotte said.

“Yeah.  That’s fine.  Better you didn’t take it.  Just wanted to check in,” I told them.  “You have everything you need?”

“More than enough money,” Charlotte said.  “We’re doing pretty well for supplies, too.  Thank you.”

I nodded.

I was feeling a kind of restlessness.  It had been there from the beginning, when I’d realized I was out of place, that I’d intruded on this domestic scene.  It was building, getting worse.

“Will it last the next while?” I asked.  “The money, the supplies?”

Forrest gave me a funny look.  “A while?  In what sense?”

“A decade?  Two decades?  Three?”

He didn’t respond.  Instead, he gave me a very curious look.  I very nearly flinched.

“Yeah,” Forrest said.  His voice was soft, almost gentle.  “Enough to last us as long as we need.”

“Good,” I said.

Funny, that the weather was so nice here.  The sudden changes from night to day, good weather to bad were going to wreak havoc on my ability to adjust or sleep.  It had all been so chaotic, was still chaotic.

That probably wasn’t going to end.

I heaved out a sigh, realized in the process that I’d been holding my breath.  “Good.  That’s all, really.  I just…”

Needed a reminder about what I’m fighting for, before the last fight.

“…yeah.  That’s all,” I said.

Forrest extended a hand for me to shake.  I took it.

Charlotte gave me another hug.  I stepped away, then took flight.

Stupid, to fly when my fuel might run low, but I wasn’t up to anything more.

I was just out of earshot when my bugs caught Mai’s voice, “You said the money wasn’t any good.”

“Shh.  Quiet,” Charlotte hushed her.

“You did.  You said nobody’ll take it.  They only take barter.”

“Shhh,” Charlotte said.

“And you said we’re going to have a leaning winter if we don’t get more vegetables out of the garden, so why’d you say we’re doing okay?”

“Because we are,” Forrest said.  Bugs I’d planted on his sleeve tracked his movement as he wrapped an arm around Charlotte’s shoulders, pulling her close.

“We owe her everything,” Charlotte said.  “That’s enough, in the big picture.”

She’d said it, no doubt, because she knew I could hear with my bugs.  She wasn’t wily, as people went, but I could believe it was for my benefit more than Mai’s.

It still meant the world to me.

“Doorway, please,” I said.  “Faceti.”

The portal opened in the air.

“Ms. Hebert,” Glenn Chambers greeted me.  He smiled.  “It must be the end of the world after all, my old students paying visits.”

“Students?” I asked.  My eye traveled across the room to the man who sat at the opposite end of the desk.  Quinn Calle, my old lawyer.  He’d stood from his seat when I entered.

Mr. Chambers hadn’t.  He leaned forward.  “Weren’t you?  I’d like to think I taught something to everyone I worked with.  Maybe that’s conceited.”

“Conceit is a good trait to have,” I said.  “An overblown sense of one’s own abilities can be worthwhile, if you’re prepared to try to live up to it.”

Mr. Calle raised an eyebrow.  He was a little disheveled, having doffed both tie and suit jacket, and the makeup that de-emphasized the scar on his cheek was partially gone.  He glanced up as the lights flickered, then extended a hand.

I shook it.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“A collaborative effort,” he said.  Smooth, unruffled, despite his appearance.  “Too much paperwork to sort through by myself, so I tracked down several people who’ve worked with supervillains.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I make costumes for anyone,” Glenn said.  “But the PRT makes more costumes for heroes, and they’ve discouraged other heroes from using my services, due to hard feelings.  It left me with a fairly one-sided customer base.  Well, I do fashion as well, but that’s proven to be more of a hobby than a paying venture.”

“Fashion and crime wouldn’t connect, ordinarily, but Glenn does have a passing knowledge of the nation’s rogue’s gallery,” Mr. Calle said.  “PRT likes that he’s keeping me from being too forgiving with old clients.”

“What is it you’re doing, exactly?”  I asked.

“Vetting capes,” Mr. Calle said.  “Not much work for a criminal lawyer in circumstances like these.  They found another job for me, helping decide who gets out of jail, when witnesses can’t be found.  Who leaves the Birdcage, who gets out of conventional jails, and so on.  Starting from the highest power ratings, working our way down.”

Building up our forces, I thought.  Cauldron passing around formulas like candy, guys like Calle releasing old prisoners.

What were the others doing?

“I just…”

“You wanted to thank me,” Glenn said.  “Naturally.”

“Naturally,” I said, my voice dry.

Mr. Calle spoke, arching his eyebrows.  “Rest assured, I’m not hurt in the least, that you chose to thank him before you thanked me.  I mean, I was only the man who stood by and helped you through the system after the ill-timed murder of Alexandria and Director Tagg, right in front of me, but yes.  The man who gives fashion  advice is a higher priority.”

I crossed the room, bent over and kissed Mr. Calle on the cheek.  “Sorry.  I wasn’t sure if you’d have hard feelings over that.  Thank you, for everything.”

“Quite welcome,” he replied, almost absently.  His attention was on the laptop in front of him.

“It’s refreshing, I admit,” Glenn told me.  “All of the others who’ve filed through have been telling me they had a last minute epiphany, that they realized the true import of what I had been trying to teach them about image and self-image.  Some of them might have even meant it.”

“That may be optimistic,” Mr. Calle said, without glancing up from his laptop.

“Probably.  But this young lady took my words to heart before the world started ending.  I could see it.”

“I didn’t make a good hero, I’m afraid,” I said.

“Somehow,” Glenn said, leaning back in his seat, “I’m not surprised.”

“Yes, fancy that,” Mr. Calle said.  “I would have thought you’d be a model hero.”

“I did try with her,” Glenn said.  “And, to her credit, she did try with herself too.  Stellar effort, but…”

“I don’t think this is a world where heroics work,” I said.

Glenn looked genuinely annoyed.  “Chevalier.”

“He’s running the Protectorate from a hospital bed,” I said.  “And they’re trying their best to keep Ingenue from visiting.  He’s refusing to be healed until all of the other patients have been treated.”

“Clever,” Glenn said.  “Only way he’ll be able to sit back and do his job.  The bosses can’t order him to be a face for the public if he’s confined to his bed.  Moment the battle starts, he’ll accept a visit and be on the front lines, I guarantee you.”

“I figured it was something like that,” I said.

“See?  Proving both my points.  You were an excellent student, and Chevalier is exactly the kind of hero we need,” Glenn said.  He looked up as an employee entered the room, dropping off a box of files.  “Thank you, Carol.”

She glanced at me and Mr. Calle.  Mr. Calle, for his part, made a gun with his index finger and thumb, winking and clicking his tongue as he ‘shot’ her.  She smiled, shaking her head.

“Really?”  Glenn asked.  “Crass.”

Mr. Calle didn’t take his eyes off the laptop.  “I can be crass when I’m not with a client.”

“There’s no need to be crass at all.”

“It works.”

Everything works when you’re good looking enough.  Which is, again, why there’s no need to be crass.”

“Oh, but it’s fun,” Mr. Calle said.  “We all have our vices, don’t we?”

Glenn gave his stomach a pat, nodding sagely, “I admit that’s true.  I must admit a predilection for show tunes.”

“I’m starting to wonder how you guys get any work done,” I said.

“You have to keep alert somehow,” Glenn replied.  He turned his laptop around.  “You know him.”


“I do, kind of.  I didn’t think he’d get arrested.  What did Über do?”

Mr. Calle answered for Glenn.  “Attempted murder.  Bit of a loose cannon, but not so loose they’d stick him in the Birdcage.  Shacked up with Circus for a while, but it didn’t take.  Relationship-wise or as a partnership.  They stood to lose more than they could ever gain if he got loose again, so they made it a secure facility.  He hasn’t escaped.”

“Something happened to Leet,” I concluded.  “Only way he’d be that… rudderless.”

“Crossed the wrong people, got offed,” Glenn told me.

We could have used him.

“Über’s… he should have been better than he was,” I said.  “I remember thinking he’d have been a stellar cape if Leet hadn’t been holding him down.”

“Apparently not,” Glenn said.  “Would you accept him or reject him?”

“Accept,” I said.  “But I’m biased.  I’ll take pretty much anyone.  I took Lung.”

“You took the Simurgh,” Mr. Calle said, apparently unfazed.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Enough said,” he replied.

“Put Über in a hospital.  Let him give medical attention.  Easy, move on to the next.”

Glenn sighed.  “Until we accidentally release the one person psychotic enough to derail the entire defense effort.  I do seem to recall Chevalier, Tattletale and a….”

“Accord,” I said.  “Yeah, I get your point.”

Glenn smiled.  “I have missed talking with you.  There’s no stopping and waiting for you to catch up with us.  Smart people are so few and far between.”

“So true,” Mr. Calle said, including himself among the smart people without a moment’s hesitation.

“Which means,” Glenn said, “I shouldn’t act dense.  You came here for a reason, something that isn’t thanking me.”

“I just… I guess I wanted to say… I’m a lot closer to figuring out who I am.  Where I fit.  A bit ago, I would have said I decided, but-“

“Doubt in the final moments,” Glenn said.  “Well, that’s something I understand.”

“Mm hmm,” Mr. Calle acknowledged him, agreeing.

“I’ve seen capes change their outside to reflect a new inside, after close calls and lifechanging events.  You’re wondering where you stand, now that you’re at the brink.  Only natural,” Glenn said.

“Wholly unnatural,” Mr. Calle said.  “Most change their tune when they get a slap in the face and a one-way ticket to the Birdcage.  Who’s the real individual, the man who they were for twenty years prior, or the man they become after the handcuffs go on?”

I asked, “You’re saying this me isn’t the real me, that it’s a product of the crisis?”

“You?  Hmm…” Mr. Calle paused.

“Her behavior after her arrest was remarkably in line with prior behavior,” Glenn commented.  “Including the, as you describe it, poorly-timed murder of two very notable figures, after she was provoked.  Essentially word for word what Miss Militia had put in her file.”

“Point conceded,” Mr. Calle said.

“I’m not sure that’s how I want to be defined,” I said.

“Take it for what it is,” Glenn said.  “You’re very scary when angry.  Perhaps… now is the time to be angry?”

“Being angry at Scion is like raging against a natural disaster,” I said.  “It doesn’t understand.  It doesn’t react.  My screams are drowned out in the chaos.”

“You weren’t screaming when you attacked Alexandria,” Mr. Calle commented.  “In fact, I remember you were very quiet.”

I nodded.

“If you’ve decided who you want to be,” Glenn said, “Accept all of it.  The good, the bad, the ambiguous.  Vulnerabilities and strengths.  The anger, that’s part of it.  The fear for people you care about, that’s a strength too.  Doesn’t feel very good while you’re experiencing it, but it’s a well you can tap.”

“Right,” I said.  I thought of Charlotte and the kids.

Fuck, I didn’t want to fail here, to let them lose what they were building.

“And with luck, knowing who you are means not having to waste time and effort on putting up a facade.  Maybe that extra time and effort you have at your disposal will make the difference.”

A portal opened behind me.  A member of the New York Wards.  A little bedraggled.

“Take care, Ms. Hebert,” Mr. Calle told me.  Making it easier for me to take my leave, for the new arrival to step in.

“Goodbye,” I said.  “Thanks again.”

“Goodbye, Taylor,” Glenn said.  “You, Weaver, Skitter and the strategist all give him hell, understand?  For all of us who can’t be on the front lines.”

I nodded.

“Doorway.  To Miss Militia.”

The doorway opened, and a small crowd shifted from around me, their attention elsewhere.

It took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing.  A hundred people, sitting on folding chairs or standing off in the grass to either side or behind the collection of chairs.  They were watching a movie that was being projected onto a massive white sheet, some holding paper bowls with soup, others holding beers.

My bugs moved over the crowd, and I located my teammates.

Parian and Foil in their civilian clothes, sitting together, holding hands.  I might have missed them, if not for the rapier that Foil was keeping close at hand.

Aisha, sitting next to Rachel, with the dogs under their seats where they’d be out of the way.  The Heartbroken were filling the seats immediately around them.  Eerie distortions of Alec, with different frames, hair colors, genders and fashion styles, but close enough for me to notice.

The movie showed a dog on screen, being chased by a group of kids.  I could see Imp’s face in the dark, looking as pleased as Rachel appeared annoyed.

It’s not the same dog,” Rachel hissed the words.  “Why isn’t anyone seeing that?  Same breed, but totally different dogs.

Pretend,” Aisha said, her smile not faltering in the slightest.

One of the younger Heartbroken shushed them.

I saw Miss Militia off to one side, with a group of kid capes.  Crucible, Kid Win, Vista, two more I didn’t recognize, and Aiden.  The kids were watching the screen, while Miss Militia watched the crowd for trouble, with a fair bit of her attention being aimed at Aisha and Rachel.

I didn’t want to interrupt, didn’t want to spoil this for the kids.

It was a distraction.  A stupid movie, apparently, but a distraction.  For the capes, it was a chance to not think about what came next.  To not dwell on the fact that, a minute, an hour, a day or a week from now, we could be fighting with everything on the line.

I drew a small notepad from my belt, then a pen.

Miss Militia,

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a hero.  On the night I changed my mind, the same night we attacked the fundraiser, I was going to write you a letter.  I suppose it’s time I finish it…

It wasn’t an easy letter to write then, and it’s not any easier to write now, for very different reasons.  I wasn’t a good hero, and I use the past tense there because I can’t genuinely call myself a hero at this point.  I’ve been visiting people tonight, and I suspect I might visit others tomorrow if circumstances allow, thanking those who need thanking, making sure that maybe there’s a legacy, someone to remember me if we all make it through this.

When I was a hero, when I did it right, I think I was emulating you and Chevalier.  Looking back, I can imagine that maybe things would have turned out okay if I’d joined the Wards, because you would have had my back.  I can’t say I regret what I’ve done, but I can’t say I don’t, either…

Sorry.  Don’t let me waste your time.  All I wanted to say was thank you.  Thank you for having my back when it counted.

– Taylor Hebert.

I folded it up and gave it to my swarm to deliver.  I didn’t wait to see her reaction before whispering, “Doorway.  Tattletale.

Barely an hour spent, all in all, on running my errands, looking after people.

Not all of the people I should have contacted.  I’d left out some of the most important ones.

The most important one.  My dad.

Perhaps I was a coward after all.  I knew the answer, I just didn’t want to hear it.

I couldn’t be absolutely positive I could hear it.  I couldn’t take a gut punch like that so close to such a crucial fight.

I was nearly silent as I made my way through the building.  Tattletale’s soldiers acknowledged me as I passed.

Not her place.  Somewhere out of the way.  A secure building, quite possibly one only Cauldron could access.

I found out why as I entered Tattletale’s room.  She was asleep, curled up on a couch with a laptop that had a black screen, glowing lightly.

I heard a murmur.  Mumbling in her sleep?

I bent over her, saw the track where the black makeup she’d used to color in her eye sockets had run.  A tear, from the corner of one eye, down the side of her face.  Crying a little in her sleep.

I found a blanket and draped it over her, then sat on the edge of the couch.

“Nobody really left for me but you guys,” I said.  “Everyone else has moved on.”

Another murmur.

Not from Tattletale.

Not from any direction in particular.

I listened for it, and almost immediately wished I hadn’t.

Music.  A lullaby, so quiet it was almost imperceptible.

I wasn’t hearing it with my ears.

I crossed the room, and my hand touched thick glass that was quite probably bulletproof.  I could see men standing guard outside, their night-vision visors glowing.

The Simurgh was outside.

The lullaby continued as she worked on expanding her arsenal.

Stop,” I whispered.

She stopped.

The silence was deafening.  No noise in the area, no wind, no people.

It made me wonder if the lullaby had been louder than I’d thought.  How was I supposed to gauge the volume of it when I had nothing to measure it against but my own thoughts?

I’m sorry.

The words crossed my mind.  My voice.

Not my words.

The Simurgh turned, her hair flowing in the wind.  Her hands were still held up as she worked her telekinesis on yet another weapon to add to her arsenal.  Her eyes met mine.

I found my way back to the couch, sitting next to Tattletale.

I didn’t sleep at all that night.

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Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”


Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Cockroaches 28.4

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“We’re here,” I said.

It was enough.  All the different personalities in the Dragonfly, the… how had Tattletale put it, once upon a time?  The people who weren’t inclined to play ‘cops and robbers’, who weren’t the types to follow the rules or codes, and were dangerous without a firm hand.  Rachel, Lung, Sophia… they fell silent.  The fighting stopped.

Because they, even with their unique and personal issues, acknowledged that this wasn’t a situation where you fucked around.

Monitors switched settings without any cue from me.  Showing the Simurgh from a distance away, from a different angle.  Defiant had switched on his long-ranged cameras.

A moment later, he switched on the cameras in the Dragonfly.  The two sets of images alternated across the innumerable displays in the craft.  Only the display directly in front of me in the cockpit remained untouched, showing altitude, heading, speed, distance from target, and alerts regarding Scion’s latest appearances.

The Dragonfly changed course, angling to maintain a set distance from the Endbringer.  Again, not me.

Defiant seemed content to handle the mechanical end of things.  I stood from my seat, stretching a little, before gathering my bugs.  Two relay bugs, for safety’s sake.  They exited the craft.

No scream from the Simurgh.  At least, not one I could detect.  It would fit her to keep it beyond our notice, influencing us, the sort of card she would keep up her sleeve.  To make the psychic scream ‘audible’, for lack of a better word, purely for spreading fear, then use it subtly at a time when she wasn’t attacking.

The others in the ship hadn’t only gone silent.  They’d gone still.  I might have taken it for an almost hypnotic paralysis, a sign that something was deeply wrong, but Rachel turned and found a seat on the bench opposite Shadow Stalker.

No, they were still themselves.

My bugs made their way towards the Simurgh, while I chained the two relay bugs together to extend my range.

Fragile, as it only required the death of one bug to sever my connection with the swarm.  I didn’t mind.  If she acted on my swarm, that was likely to be the least of our worries.

Cameras changed focus, zooming in on the Simurgh’s face, hands and various wingtips, different cameras taking over as the Pendragon and the Dragonfly rotated around her and the cameras lost sight of the features in question.  Mosaic views of her features, broken up like I might see if I were looking through the eyes of my bugs, but without my power to coodinate the picture, draw it into something cohesive.

In the corner of each image, metrics, numbers, measurements, as if Defiant hoped to track the slightest movement.

It was the hair that got me.  Gossamer-fine, silver-white, straight, it blew in the wind as if each strand were a separate entity.  Not in clumps or locks, but a curtain of strands ten times as dramatic as something one might see in a digitally altered hair commercial.


“Seventy,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I said I was sixty-five percent sure before.  I’m revising it to seventy.”

I nodded.

Hello, Simurgh, I thought.  We finally meet.

The Protectorate was strict about who could join the fights against the Simurgh.  Capes needed psychological evaluations, they needed to sign documents agreeing to the quarantine procedures, and they needed to be on board with the timetables.

I’d been unable to participate when the Simurgh had attacked flight BA178.  When she’d attacked Manchester, I’d been barred from joining the fight by bureaucratic red tape.  I had a bad history and I was still on probation.  Too likely that I was mentally unstable.

When the Simurgh had hit Paris, I’d gone to Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a therapist’s bill of clean mental health.  Or, if not quite that, then at least a go-ahead.

She’d advised me to see it as a good thing, instead.  That my participation would be another black mark on my record, another reason for people to be suspicious of me or second guess my decisions.

She’d also very elegantly avoided spelling out that she wasn’t willing to give me that clean bill of mental health.  I’d noticed, but hadn’t pressed her on it.  She would have been forced to say it straight, and I would have had to hear her say it.

“Ready?” I asked.

“I do the talking, you pass it on,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.

Tattletale sighed.  “Look at her.  The folly of man, am I right?”

“I don’t know.  You have a better idea about whether you’re right, but it… doesn’t fit to me.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re seventy percent sure.”

“Seventy percent, yes.  If I’m wrong, then I’ll be approaching this entire conversation from the wrong angle, and we might wind up siccing an otherwise passive Endbringer on humanity.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, then,” I said.

She nodded.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.  I looked around the craft.  No responses.  Only silent nods.

One head that was shaking.  Shadow Stalker.

I touched the screen on the console.  “Defiant?”

Ready when you are,” he said.

“We’re starting right now,” I said.  I nodded at Tattletale.

She rolled her shoulders, took in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Hello, Endbringer, this-”

I echoed her words, speaking through my bugs as an interpreter might speak in another language.

The instant I had the first word out, alarms went off throughout the ship.  The Dragonfly shuddered as meager weapons unfolded from the sides.  My visual of the Pendragon showed it was reacting much the same way.

Simurgh had reacted.

She hadn’t attacked, but she had reacted.

She rotated in the air, holding her position, wings flat at her sides.  The wings were purely ornamental, much as Behemoth’s bulk and musculature had been.  She used telekinesis to move, and she used it now to keep herself oriented in the air, rotating so she matched our orbit around her, her eyes and attention fully fixed on the Dragonfly.

“Oh, shit,” Imp spoke, her voice wavering breathlessly halfway through the ‘shit’.

Long seconds passed, but the Simurgh didn’t take any other action.

“Th- this is Tattletale speaking, one face in that vast, crazy crowd of humans you’ve been murdering,” Tattletale finished.  “Good to see you’re listening.  I thought it was about time we had a chat.”

No response, no movement.  Odd, to see the screens showing her depicting the zoomed-in images of her face, hands, wings and body and not see them rotating in the picture as they had been before.

Her expression was neutral, but then again, the Simurgh’s expression was always neutral.  A face like a doll’s, a cold stare.  Beautiful in every conventional sense, in that every classically attractive feature was there, from the delicate, thin frame to the high cheekbones to the luxurious hair… horrifying in the manner it was all framed.  The height that put her two to three times the height of an ordinary adult, the wings that filled the space around her.  The feathers were surprisingly tough and dense, the edges capable of scoring steel.

Not that she really fought in close quarters, where she could help it.

“Let’s face the facts, Simurgh.  Ziz.  Israfel.  Ulama.  Whatever you want to go by.  You started acting funny pretty much right away, after Eidolon bit it.  Maybe that’s mourning.  Maybe you respected him as an enemy, ’cause he was one of only two individuals who could really give you guys a run for your money.  Or maybe you had a different relationship.”

Tattletale let the words hang in the air.

“Maybe a parent-child relationship?  Maybe he created you.”

The Simurgh didn’t move a muscle.  Her hair blew in the wind, and it caught on the features of her face, not even eliciting a blink of her eyes.

I leaned over my chair to hit the button on my cockpit, giving me a view of the inside of the Pendragon.

Defiant, Narwhal, Miss Militia, Saint, Canary, Parian, Foil, Golem, Vista and Kid Win were all present within.  Defiant had collected the heroes, the capes who might have been less inclined to throw their hat into the ring if I showed up in the company of Tattletale, Imp and Rachel.  He’d been closer to Parian and Foil when I approached him with the plan.

I watched the expressions on their faces, the concern, the alarm and confusion I’d felt only minutes ago.  I knew Tattletale hadn’t shared this particular detail.  They had to be listening in with some microphone, either a directional one aimed at my swarm outside or one in the Dragonfly.

“They say loneliness breeds the best masters, and it’s awfully lonely at the top,” Tattletale said.  “Nobody that can really put up a fight, no excuse to flex his abilities to their fullest, nothing that can really give the man any real stature, next to Legend, who had all the face time with the media.  No real role to play, compared to Alexandria, who was managing the PRT.  Odd man out.”

I thought of Eidolon, the first time I’d seen him in person.  Meeting in preparation for the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay… Eidolon had been standing off to one side, in a corner, lost in thought.

“Symbiotic, odd as it sounds, what with you trying to kill him and him trying to kill you.”

Still no reaction.  No response.

I noted the surroundings.  The Simurgh had situated herself above the ocean, an eerie parallel to how Scion had first appeared before humanity.  As battlegrounds went, it left her relatively little to manipulate when using her telekinesis, but it also gave us very little ground to stand on if a fight erupted.  She’d torn apart Flight BA178.  She could tear apart the Dragonfly or the Pendragon if she had a mind to.

Hopefully the other ship would be able to flee, if we couldn’t manage an outright fight.

Tattletale held up a hand, then spoke.  “She’s not giving me anything.”

I didn’t repeat it for the Simurgh.  I only stared at the screens.

“Did you expect her to?”  Imp asked.

“Yeah.  Kind of,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not human,” I said.  “And, if you’re right about this, she’s only a projection.  Her brain doesn’t work like ours does, if it’s even active.”

“She responded when we communicated,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  “Defiant, you listening in?”

On the screen in front of us, Defiant turned to the camera, then nodded once.

“Open to suggestions,” I said.

“We could use powers to try and communicate,” Narwhal said.  “Can we express a signal through some other channel?  Through our powers?”

“It might be taken as an attack,” I said.

“She’s smart enough to figure out convoluted chains of cause and effect, but not to take a gesture of communication for what it is?”  Tattletale asked.  “I say we try it.”

“Oh my god,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice quiet.  “You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Well, it might be a mercy,” Imp said.  “Going out like that, not having to watch the golden man take humanity down piece by piece.”

“Could we try Canary?” I suggested.  “If she has any understanding of powers, or if Canary has any influence with things other than humans…”

I don’t,” Canary said, from within the Pendragon.  “I tried using my power on dogs, cats, birds, monkeys…

Tattletale nodded, like this was something expected.  “Bonesaw said something like that.  When we get our powers, the passenger manages this sort of scan, trying to figure out a way to apply a part of itself.  So Taylor gets a power that’s restricted to bugs, Canary gets a power that’s limited to people.  At the same time, the passenger kind of figures out if there’s any danger of the power harming us, physically or mentally, and it sets down safeguards and limits.  Headaches like Dinah or I get are part of that.  And Eidolon…”

“I don’t… I can’t believe all this,” a woman said.  Miss Militia.

“He’s really their creator?”  Defiant asked.  “Eidolon?”

“…Sixty percent sure.  Eidolon’s some kind of exception, on a lot of levels.  His power works by different vectors, the innate limits aren’t there… something broke, and I’m betting the Endbringers are tied to it.  Like, this entity is fissioning off into countless fragments that impregnate hosts and somehow a little extra gets tacked on.  Or Cauldron’s method of replicating the fragments gets that little extra.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “But how does that help us here?”

“Getting to that.  Sort of.  Every power has secondary uses, uses that are locked away.  But maybe there’s something we can express using the powers, like a kind of parahuman charades.  Not, you know, actually miming something, but giving off a vibe.”

“I’ll try whatever,” I said.  “Who?  How?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Oh, this is fun.  It’s like a puzzle, but it’s not one with a clear cut answer.  Rachel, Canary.  Um.  Imp too.  And Taylor’s right.  Any use of power in a way that could be seen as violent might give the wrong cue.  So… none of that.  Let’s move people between ships.  Bitch, to the Pendragon.  Leave Bastard behind.  Canary, can you get out on top of your ship?  And Imp, same for you.  We need to distance you from the rest of us.”

Outside?” Imp asked.

“Outside and away.  Where your power doesn’t necessarily have a target.  You get me?”

“Three people using their powers,” Defiant said, “Without any valid targets?”

Exactly,” Tattletale said.

“I could lose my bugs,” I said.  “But I’m not sure I can express my power in a case like that.”

“Even if you could, but that would be pretty heavy handed.  It’s what we try next if this fails.  For now, let’s work with the existing plan.”

I pulled off my flight pack, then handed it to Imp.

“Oh, fun,” she said.  “God damn it.”

“No quips?  No jokes?”  I asked.  I helped her find the buckles and straps.

“When I’m done, maybe,” Imp said.  She glanced at Tattletale.  “I can’t turn my power on.  It’s always on.  I can turn it off, but that only works so long as I’m paying attention.”

“Don’t pay attention then.  Leave it running.  We’re trying to express an attitude.”

Imp nodded.

“What attitude is Imp?” I asked.

“Nonviolence, passivity,” Tattletale said.  “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

“And Rachel?”

“A call to arms, expression of strength.”

“And Canary is… cooperation?”

“Something along those lines.”

I nodded.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Lung would be too violent, and the focus of Vista’s power is too… location-driven?  I have no idea how she’d take Narwhal’s power, because it’s pretty evenly split between offense and defense.”

“Kind of abstract,” I said.

“I’m… reaching,” Tattletale confessed.  “Definitely reaching.  But reaching and abstract thought bought us the portal to Gimel, and I’ve got to flex my power somehow.”

“Somehow,” I agreed.  “No, it’s worth a try.  Or it will be if it doesn’t provoke her to violently murder us all.  Can I make a suggestion, though?”

“Any suggestions are good,” Tattletale said.

“Send Shadow Stalker instead of Imp.”

“You bitch,” Shadow Stalker said.  “No.”

Awesome idea,” Imp said.

“Shadow Stalker’s power doesn’t express itself over an area or any particular medium,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more personal.”

“Can’t she represent us?”  I asked.  “Or can’t the personal effect represent us?  If we had Imp flying up there way out of range of any of us, we’re still expecting her to represent our group, or humanity as a whole, aren’t we?”

“Sort of,” Tattletale said.

“Then I’m not sure I see the difference,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shadow Stalker said.  “This is moronic.  Charades and acting like powers are some kind of massive signal flag for the Endbringer?  You’re lunatics.”

“Send them both?” I suggested.

“Oh, that’s less fun,” Imp said.  “You had a working plan, and you’re letting Tattletale convince you otherwise.  Come on.  Send the psycho crossbow girl and I’ll hang back here.  My power would send the total wrong message.  Totally.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She frowned.  “Why Shadow Stalker?”

“Because Imp… is too passive.”

Way too passive,” Imp murmured.

“So’s Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale said.

“But Shadow Stalker’s passenger isn’t.  If there are any undertones, any way that the passengers influence our actions, then Shadow Stalker was definitely influenced.  I dug through her old records, read up on her history.”

“What?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“She got aggressive after she got her powers.  Generally more…” I searched for the way to phrase it.

“You fucking looked at my records?”

“…More violent than most people would be, in her shoes.  Lashing out, aimlessly at first, and then with a target, channeling the aggression.  Except it was the same amount of violence, just concentrated into fewer incidents, alongside a pretty extensive bullying campaign.”

“You’re doing this because of a grudge?”

“Let’s do it,” Tattletale said.  “Go with our guts.  Imp and Shadow Stalker, up on the roof.  Bitch, either you or Bastard need to head over to the Pendragon.  Canary on the roof of the Pendragon, singing with nobody listening.”

“You’re not getting me outside or any of that shit,” Shadow Stalker said.

“You’re scared,” Imp said.  “That’s so cute!  Is it a fear of heights or a fear of the Simurgh?”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker replied.  “I’m being sensible.  This is lunacy, and for what?  Charades with the Endbringer?”

“That was a metaphor,” Tattletale said.

“It sounds fucking stupid.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Imp said.  “I’m going.  I’m not going to get lumped in with Sissy McNancypants over here and get called a coward.”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker said.

“We never really got to meet,” Imp said.  “Fight or any of that.  So I’ve only got the stories I’ve heard about you.  Like when you shot Grue with your crossbow and it went right through his stomach?  Took him a month to recover?  I used to think, you know, you were a badass.  But you’re a pussycat.”

“She’s a bully,” I said.  “At the end of the day, she only wants to fight opponents she knows she can beat.”

“I’ve fought two Endbringers,” Shadow Stalker said, stabbing a finger in my direction.  “I know what you’re trying to do.  Fucking manipulating me, getting me into a dangerous situation where you’ll get me killed.  Fuck you.”

“Fought two Endbringers as part of an army.  But going up alone, putting yourself in the line of fire against something that much bigger and stronger than you?  No.  You’re a bully at heart, and that’s the antithesis of your usual M.O.”

“Fuck you, Hebert.  Fuck you.”

The sentence left her mouth, and then she stalked to my right, making her way to the cockpit.  She passed through the glass, making her way onto the nose of the ship, where she crouched.  Her flapping cloak obstructed the view, even as translucent as it was, but there was no chance we’d hit anything.

It took a minute to arrange.  Narwhal created a force field platform and carefully moved Rachel over to the Pendragon.  I watched their glacially slow movement and the utterly still Simurgh.

More alarms went off as she moved her head a fraction to watch the floating platform.

It took a few long seconds for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.  Not completely oblivious to us petty humans.

“The girl is right.  This seems… ridiculous,” Lung rumbled.

Oh, Lung and Shadow Stalker are of like mind, that’s wonderful.

“It is, just a little,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m hoping that if this doesn’t exactly work, she’ll give us credit for trying.”

“The Endbringers do not give you credit,” Lung said.

“No, guess not,” Tattletale said.  She bent down to scratch Bastard around the ears, then stopped short when he pulled back, clearly uncomfortable with the stranger.

“Ridiculous,” Lung repeated himself.  “And you stopped in the middle of a conversation.  She is waiting for you to continue.”

“She doesn’t care.  Ninety-nine percent sure.  Gotta understand, she’s not even close to human, especially once you scratch the surface.  We think in black and white, she thinks in… void and substance.  In abstracts or in causative contexts, looking into the future and seeing how things unfold.  So we’re going to try this, and maybe something sticks.”

“Mm,” Lung said, clearly unimpressed.

“Start us up again?”  Tattletale asked me.

I nodded.

“So, Simmy, Eidolon made you, or he’s been enough of an opponent that you’ve kind of got that weird frenemy thing going on.  Not in the shitty high school way, but a real love-hate relationship.  You know what I mean.  You fight them so long you get to know them, you almost respect them on a level, and that respect becomes something more.”

“You’re rambling,” I murmured.

Tattletale shook her head a little.  “Whatever the case, you’re reacting to his being gone.  We’re here because we’re asking you…”

Tattletale trailed off.  She’d noticed something.

My head turned.  Canary was singing, and I could hear it through my bugs.

Wordless, insistent, filled with a lot of repressed emotion.

Almost angry.

I shut it out as best as I could, took a second to focus wholly on keeping my power from communicating any sound to me.  I hit a button on the dashboard, then spent a few seconds tracking down one of Dragon’s programs.

Defiant found it first, loading it onto the Dragonfly’s system.  It began filtering out the singing.  Most of it.

But no sooner had Canary’s Song gone away than the Simurgh began screaming.

Not as intense as I’d heard it described.  Barely audible.

More ominous than anything.

Not full strength,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the comms.  “I give us five minutes.  Wrap this up.”

I unclenched my hands, belatedly realizing I’d been squeezing them so hard they almost hurt.  My fingernails throbbed where they’d been almost bent against my palms.  If I’d not been wearing my gloves, I might have pierced the skin.  I flexed my hands to work out the tension that had accumulated and exhaled slowly.

“We’re here,” Tattletale started again, “Because we’re asking you for help.  For vengeance.  For your strength.  We want you and the rest of the Endbringers on board to stop Scion.”

The Simurgh didn’t react.

“I don’t care if you’re doing it to fuck with us, though I’d prefer it if you saved any backstabbing for when Scion’s dead and gone.  Fucking wipe us out.  I don’t care.  Just so long as we go out with a bang, taking him out with us.”

I made a hand gesture, urging Tattletale to move on.

“…Do it for the psychological impact, leave a mark.  Or do it because Scion killed Behemoth, your brother, and some part of you is programmed with a sense of kinship or whatever.  But above all else, I’m hoping you’ll help us murder that golden alien motherfucker because he killed Eidolon, and he stripped you of your purpose.”

Sixty percent sure, I thought.  Tattletale had revised her number.  How confident was she now?

The speech had no meat to it if Eidolon hadn’t made the Endbringers.

Very little if he had.

Tattletale held up her hand to me again, another sign that I shouldn’t repeat what she was saying, because she was talking to us.  “Fuck this.  It’s like talking to a fucking answering machine.  I feel like some dim asshole with no idea what I’m talking about.  There’s no feedback, no responses to read and judge for the next line.”

“Well,” I said.  “She’s not exactly your usual target.”

What do you usually do?”  Narwhal asked.

“Needle someone until they get upset, then find cues in that.  I’d do that here, except irritating the Simurgh seems like an excuse to get a Darwin Award.”

Tattletale’s being cautious.  Must be the end of the world after all,” someone said.  Might have been Foil.

“She’s singing,” Tattletale said.  “So that’s either a good sign or a very bad sign.”

Going by the numbers,” Miss Militia said, “If we assume it’s half strength, I’d say three minutes before we have to abort.

“Maybe tell Canary to stop,” I said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re getting a response.  Let’s hold out.”

Then keep talking,” Defiant said.

Tattletale sighed.  She perched herself on the bench, hands on her head.  “I don’t know if I should continue buying into this Eidolon thing.  Less convinced the further we go.  Most times, you get that key piece of information, and you can coast from there.”

“It’s very possible we don’t have enough information,” I said.

“I’m trying to communicate with something that doesn’t communicate back,” Tattletale said.

Reduce,” Defiant said.  “We’re trying to convey a message to a being that we don’t wholly understand.  You’re appealing to sympathy, to revenge.  Something simpler?

Like?” Tattletale asked.

They have a sense of self preservation,” Narwhal said.  “They run when we hurt them enough.  Fear?

“Because it allows them to maintain their mission,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think we can actually scare her, either.  Scion might, but we can’t.”

The screaming was getting worse.  Warbling, with highs and lows.  It snagged on my attention, making it harder to maintain a train of thought.

Maybe she was reaching out to us, communicating.  Maybe she was just doing her thing, trying to worm her way into our heads so she could figure out how we functioned, put her plans into motion.

Anger,” Rachel said.

I turned my head.

There was a long pause.  I glanced at the screen on the cockpit to see what she was doing, but she’d stopped by the time I got there to look.  “When I cut Behemoth’s leg off, after we’d melted most of him away, he was angry.  Stomped around, attacked more.  Kept fighting until he died.  Didn’t he?

“He did,” Tattletale said.  “But now we’re getting back to the whole ‘needling them’ issue of the debate.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to provoke her.”

“Dunno,” Rachel said.  “Just saying.”

“No,” I said, “It’s good thinking.  It’s a possibility.”

I could think back to the images of the Simurgh going all-out.

I remembered the various incidents that had unfolded in her wake.  Echidna, the sundering of the PRT.  Things with ramifications that were affecting us even now.

“…A very scary possibility,” I amended.

Lung gave me a funny look.

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with me.

Tattletale made a gesture, pointing at herself.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay, Ziz.  I’m going to be honest.  You’re pretty fucked.  You and I both know you were made by somebody or something.  Accidentally, probably.  You were designed to give us as hard a time as possible without exterminating us altogether, probably to feed someone’s ego, unbeknownst to them.  But what happens when we’re all gone?  What’s the fucking point of you?”

Tattletale paused.  Waiting, watching.

No reaction from Tattletale.

“What happens when we’re all gone?  You’re tapped into a power source.  Maybe most power sources.  You’re draining them dry just to keep yourselves going.  There’s nothing for you to do but linger, when there’s no humans left.  To hibernate.  So you’re gathering your forces.  You’re planning one last act, probably for a few days from now, where you wipe out humanity, and I’m betting it’s one last desperate, sad attempt to validate your existence.”

Alarms went off once more.  The Simurgh had moved, her head turning to look over one shoulder, flexing wings to move them out of the way, as if she couldn’t see through them but she could see well past the horizon.

She returned to the same posture as before.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Checking,” Defiant said.  “Keep going.  Any reaction is a good reaction.”

Maybe it was Scion, arriving just in time to pick a fight with the Simurgh.

I could hope.

Tattletale continued, and I repeated what she was saying verbatim, trying to even match her in tone and pitch.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  Shot in the dark.  You’re wanting to fight humanity because you’re trying to carry out the old programming, and Scion invalidated that by killing Eidolon, by killing someone else or destroying something.  I think that fighting and nearly killing a few billion humans is the equivalent of fighting and nearly killing Eidolon.  Or whoever.”

“One hundred and eighty integers of longitude to the west,” Defiant said.  “Leviathan just arrived.  That’s what got her attention.  We expected one to appear there, so Chevalier ordered us to put crews there with cameras for monitoring.  They’re there right now, reporting to me.”

A monitor shifted, depicting Leviathan, standing on the water’s surface in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.  The water around him was rippling, though he was utterly still.

Tattletale continued without pause, not responding or reacting to this information.  “All I’m saying, all I’m proposing, is that Scion’s a better bet than we are.  You want to give someone a fucking hard time?  Make that someone Scion.  You want to terrorize people?  Terrorize Scion.  Bigger challenge, and you’ll probably have the rest of us fucking scared out of our minds if you pull it off.  You want to fucking end the world?  Get in line, chickadee, because Scion’s going to beat you to the punch if you don’t stop him.”

Tattletale was almost breathless, speaking faster, with more emotion.  It was a challenge to convey that with a voice generated by the swarm.

“Or maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you’re nothing more than what you appear to be on the surface.  Head games and taking credit for shit you didn’t do.  Maybe you’re just a projection, blank between the ears, mindless, heartless, pointless.”

The ship moved a fraction, then adjusted, the autopilot kicking in.

“Did you feel that?”  I asked.  Tattletale had gone silent, and there were no words left for me to translate.

We did.

A reaction?  I adjusted the monitors, turning everything back to the Simurgh, looking for any clue, any hint.

But she didn’t have body language.  Every action was deliberate.  She didn’t have any that weren’t.

Tattletale’s voice was low.  I did what I could to match it, speaking through a swarm of over a million individual insects and arachnids.  “You’re supposedly this magnificent genius, and this is how you go out?  With a whimper?  Petering out like a stream without a source?  You’re honestly telling me there isn’t anything more to you?”

Another rumble, another shift, somewhat more violent.

Enough, Tattletale.”  Defiant’s voice.

“They run on different patterns.  Fair bit of anger, room for some vengeance.  Cleverness, sure.  More in her than in Behemoth.  Some killer instinct, maybe… a blend of fear and caution.  Not so they’re afraid, but so they can temper their actions.  This?  Right here?  It’s the closest we’re about to get to communicating directly with a passenger.”

I understand,” Defiant said.  “But that’s enough.

“They’re passengers?” I asked.

“The shell?  No.  The outer shell, the concept, the execution, they’re tapping into religious metaphors.  The devil, the serpent, the angel, buddha, mother earth, the maiden, each connected in turn to fundamental forces.  Flame, water, fate, time, earth, the self.  Things deep-seated and fundamental to their creator’s belief system, because that’s how the passengers interpret our world.  Through us.  But deep down?  Beyond that surface, beyond the basic programming that drives them to do what they’ve been doing for thirty years?  It’s the passenger’s brush strokes.  And I’m getting to her.”

No you’re not,” Defiant said.  “Because you’re stopping now.

“Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“You’re stopping now because it worked.”

One by one, the monitors throughout the Dragonfly shifted, until the one at the very front was the only one that still showed the Simurgh.

The Dragonfly changed course as we looked at the scene that was showing on every other monitor.

The Azazel, airborne.  D.T. officers within were standing by the windows, while one with a camera was holding it above their heads, aiming it towards the window, pointed at the water.

A dark mass was beneath.

Leviathan, matching pace with the ship.

The Dragonfly and Pendragon broke from their orbit around the Simurgh.

The Simurgh followed.

The Yàngbǎn tore through the settlement, barely visible, as fast as arrows loosed from a bow.

One set of powers to give them speed, another to give them the ability to create crude images, illusions, blurry and indistinct.

A weak power, but far less so when coupled with the fact that they were making themselves just as blurry and indistinct.  To top it off, they were making themselves invisible for fractions of a second, and they were lashing out with short blades of cutting energy when they reappeared, slicing through the Australian refugees.

Bombs went off, coordinated, ripping through the spaces the Yàngbǎn had already passed through, cleaning up the ones who’d survived, killing the rescue personnel who were trying to save lives.

Earth Tav, barely two million people spread out across the globe, with this being the largest population center, based around the portal that Faultline, Labyrinth and Scrub had erected.

Without this base for supplies and communication, the other settlements would falter.  Disease would be crippling, food would be scarce at best.

And the Yàngbǎn would no doubt reap the rewards, claiming the planet for the C.U.I.

The Pendragon led the way through the portal, and it suffered the brunt of the bombs that the Yàngbǎn had left in their wake, no doubt to stop any reinforcements.

The Pendragon sank, no longer fully airborne, and the Dragonfly’s cameras could see as Golem, Vista and Cuff did what they could to patch it together.

Not enough.  It landed, hard.

Another bomb went off as the Pendragon hit ground.  Had the Yàngbǎn plotted that?  A second line of defense?

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

Give us a minute.  Nobody dead.

At least the Pendragon was a combat ship, meant to take a beating.  If the Dragonfly had been the first one through, we would have been obliterated.  At best, we’d have managed to evacuate with parachutes, flight packs and shadow-form powers.

We passed through the area the Pendragon had cleared.  One small ship against what had to be thirty Yàngbǎn members.  They didn’t move, but flickered, existing as scarce smudges and streaks of black and an odd midnight blue from the regions of their heads.  They cast out more smudges in matching colors with their image generation powers, turned invisible for one or two seconds at a time when they saw opportunities to catch refugees off guard.  Some merely killed.  Others slashed at eyes or ears, removed hands.  Butchered.

What would the C.U.I. want with scores of butchered people?

It wasn’t really the fault of the individual Yàngbǎn members.  They were brainwashed, subsumed into this collective of shared powers, their identities erased.

But that didn’t make their actions forgivable.

The Simurgh followed behind the Dragonfly, moving each wing until it was pointed straight behind her as she sailed through the narrow, oddly-shaped portal.

When she unfolded her wings, extending each until a veritable halo of them surrounded her, a complete circle, I could feel my heart skip a beat.

“We need to give her orders,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, mustering my swarm into a group large enough to communicate.

But there was no need.  She flew past us.

The singing had died down, but it welled up at full strength.  I almost staggered.

Rubble began to peel away from the demolished settlement beneath us.  Metal, bombs, pieces of structures.

As she reached less damaged areas, she picked up construction vehicles.

The fragments of metal around her were like a dense cloud, almost obscuring her, massive wings and all.

The singing increased in pitch.

A bomb detonated in the midst of the storm of debris, breaking up a bulldozer in the process.

Below her, the scene had gone still.  Yàngbǎn raider and civilian alike had gone still.  The smudges consolidated into forms.

Not the same Yàngbǎn I’d encountered before.  These ones wore similar outfits, but there were bodysuits beneath, no bare skin.  The multifaceted gem designs that covered their faces were dark blue, their costumes black.

Infiltrators.  A sub-set.  One of five sub-groups, apparently.

The debris settled into a single shape, drawing together.  Nothing welded, nothing screwed in together.  Merely a crude device, held together by telekinesis.

A fat, snub-nosed cannon, twice as long as she was tall.  She fired it, and the resulting bullet was nearly ten feet across, a sphere of hot metal.

It crashed into a trio of Yàngbǎn.

She used her telekinesis to sweep it off to the right.  The misshapen bullet was compressed into a rough sphere in the time it took to soar down a long road, smashing through two members of the Yàngbǎn.  A bystander was clipped, spinning violently before collapsing in a heap.  Shattered arm and ribs, if not dead.

I bit my lip.

Don’t injure civilians,” I communicated through the swarm.

She gave no sign she’d listened.  Her telekinesis grabbed four members of the Yàngbǎn who’d gotten too close, lifting them by their costumes or by some other debris that had surrounded them.

As if launched by catapults, they flew straight up, where they disappeared into the clouds above.

I winced as the screaming increased in intensity by another notch.

Did she have to do that?

I felt a touch of paranoia, not just at the idea, but at the fact that I’d been concerned.  Paranoia over the fact I was feeling paranoid.

The Simurgh had crafted another gun.  They floated around her like satellites, firing only in those intermittent moments when she’d formed and loaded the necessary ammunition.

Those are my guns,” Kid Win reported over the comms.  “Bigger, but mine.

I didn’t like that she was screaming.  It set an ugly tone to this whole venture.

I really didn’t like that we couldn’t direct her that well.  We were ending this confrontation decisively, we were probably even doing it more cleanly and with less damage to civilians than there would be if we’d handled it ourselves.

But we’d brought the Simurgh here and people were getting hurt as collateral damage.  That was on us, everything else aside.

“I… don’t know what to feel right now,” Imp said.

“It doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“I wish I knew what I’d said that got her on board,” Tattletale said.  “I went with the shotgun approach, trying to see what stuck… and now I don’t know what to leverage if we need to do it again.”

“You’re so whiny,” Rachel said.  “You say we need her help, we got it.  Good.  Maybe now we can fight.”

“Mm,” Lung grunted.  “This is true.  But I’ve seen what happens if you do something like this, something big, and you fall.  You fall hard.”

I nodded at that.  “Wise words, Lung.  Well said.”

“Do not talk to me,” he rumbled.

I only shook my head.

“Fuck me, you guys are serious?”  Shadow Stalker murmured.  “This is good?  This is luck.  There’s a reason I stick to my fists and my crossbow.  They’re reliable.  This Endbringer thing most definitely isn’t.”

“Of course it isn’t,” I said.  “But you know that whole saying, finding a boyfriend?  Young, smart, wealthy, pick two?  We don’t get to pick two, here.  Options at the end of the world: clean, safe, effective, pick one.”

“We got Bohu, but she doesn’t move fast at all,” Tattletale said.  “Leviathan’s on his way to pay the Elite a visit.  Collateral damage could be ugly there.”

“It isn’t sustainable,” I said.  “Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to sit still if we ask them to.  What happens if we run out of enemies to attack?  If we need to put Leviathan to work and there aren’t any targets that don’t involve even more collateral damage than we’ll see when he attacks the Elite?”

“People are going to fall in line damn fast,” Tattletale said.

“Probably,” I said.  “Or they’ll run for the hills.”

“Win-win,” Tattletale said.  “We were saying we needed people to split up more.”

The Simurgh opened fire, striking out with three guns, striking a neighborhood that had already been reduced to dust and flame by a series of bomb blasts.

“Somehow,” Imp commented, “This doesn’t scream win-win to me.”

I nodded.

“Nothing saying this isn’t another clever plan, set up to fuck with us, destroy our last shreds of hope,” I said.

The Yàngbǎn were opening fire.  Projectiles that moved slowly, splitting in the air until there was a virtual storm of them.  Had they been aimed at the Dragonfly, we wouldn’t have been able to dodge.  The Simurgh flew between the bullets like they weren’t even a concern.  Debris blocked the shots.

In the midst of her maneuvering, she drew together a third gun from the storm of debris.

Then she somersaulted, heels over head as she rapidly shifted direction.

In the moment it took her to build acceleration, she looked directly at the camera.

Directly at me.

She’d heard me, she understood, and she had responded.

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Cockroaches 28.3

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“You have something in mind?” Defiant asked.

“No,” I said.  “But we’re dealing with problems on a massive scale.  We need to look for solutions on that same scale.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “You just leaped from the subject of talking about the Endbringers to talking about solutions.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think we definitely need to think about solutions, Endbringer-wise.”

“Oh, well, of course,” Imp said.  “This is doable.  Something we’ve managed once in the last thirty years, taking down Endbringers.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She turned to me.  “There’s more to this.”

“Dinah told me the defending forces would be divided into five groups.  Armies, individuals, some of the biggest capes, and unknowns.”

“She said that to others.  It’s on record in the PRT,” Defiant told me.

“Five groups in different places, and Dinah couldn’t see why they were there, she couldn’t see the particulars.  She said there could be too many precogs there, but what if that’s not it?  What if she’s blind about the particulars because the Endbringers are there?”

“A coordinated attack?” Narwhal asked.

I nodded.  “It’s possible.  Either it’s Leviathan, Simurgh, Tohu, Bohu and Khonsu, or Scion’s there and Tohu and Bohu are together, as usual.”

“I can’t imagine the defending forces would hold the line for very long, if at all,” Defiant said.  “Not if we’re spread that thin.”

“A situation this dire brings out all of the people who might not otherwise fight,” I said.  “Parian wasn’t a fighter, but when Leviathan hit Brockton Bay, she stepped up to the plate.  As things get worse, we might see some people doing the same.”

“If it’s five Endbringers and Scion we’re up against, we might see people giving up altogether,” Narwhal pointed out.

I nodded.  “Tattletale already said something like that.  Yes.  A lot hinges on whatever comes next, whether we can get people on board.  Whether others are doing the same.”

“Alright,” Defiant said.  “You have something in mind for the Endbringers?”

“A pre-emptive attack,” Narwhal said, her voice quiet.  “If it provokes them to lash out, well, at least it’s not a coordinated attack, and at least it’s at a point in time when Scion’s busy elsewhere.  The Simurgh is standing still.  We could hit her with something like what we used in New Delhi or Los Angeles.”

“We could,” Defiant agreed.

“Let’s think on it?” I suggested.  “We can’t do this without laying out the groundwork, and that means convincing people this isn’t hopeless, it means gathering information, getting resources together.”

“Then do your thinking as you get ready,” Defiant said.  “Gear up.  Gather anyone you think you need.”

“I’m set,” Tattletale said.  Imp and Rachel nodded.

“I’ll need my spare costume pieces from the Dragonfly,” I said.  “I parked it in Gimel before I left for the rig.  Hoping my flight pack has enough of a charge.”

“Go,” Defiant said.  “I’ll see to Saint.”

“And me?” Canary asked.

“We can get you a standard Protectorate costume.  Spider silk,” Narwhal said.  “Durable, flexible.  No frills, nothing fancy, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

Canary frowned.

“What?” Narwhal asked.

“Just… skintight suits.”

“Got a bit of pudge there?” Imp asked.  “Fat thighs?  Cankles?”

“I don’t have cankles,” Canary said.  “Or fat thighs.  But it’s not…”

She trailed off.

Imp plucked the fabric of her own costume. “I’ve been there.  You think looking this good is easy?  Skintight is a bitch to pull off.  Diets, exercise, keeping up with the patrols and the life or death fights.  Surprised you didn’t get that while you were in the slammer.”

“Not a lot of choice in food, or freedom of movement when you can get cut in half for setting one toe in the wrong spot,” Canary said.  She was frowning, now.

“You can wear your clothes over it,” Narwhal suggested.  “We can get you some tools.  Nonlethal weapons.  So you’re able to defend yourself.”

They’d work it out.  I shook my head a little.  Had to focus on my own thing.

“Doorway, please,” I murmured.  “Gimel.  By the Dragonfly, New Brockton Bay.”

The portal began to slide open.

“I’ll do you one better, Canary,” Saint said.  “I’ll give you one of the spare Dragonslayer suits.”

“It’s… a good offer, but I think I’d feel like I was betraying Dragon if I took it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to pay her what you supposedly owe her if you died, either,” Saint said.  “This is freely offered.  No strings attached.  I’ll give you the ability to fly, Canary.  Better nonlethal weapons than the ones they have Masamune manufacturing.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I hesitated in the doorway to listen.  Tattletale, Rachel and Imp walked past me on their way through.

“Do it,” Defiant said, not looking at Canary or Saint.  His eyes were on the laptop.  “Saint?  I’ll be looking over everything for tricks and backdoors.”

“Noted,” Saint said.

Defiant opened the door to Saint’s cell.

Saint stood, then rolled his head around, as if getting kinks out of his neck.  He looked so small next to Defiant, but he wasn’t a small guy.  His face was marked by lines of stress, but his gaze was hard.

“You don’t leave my sight,” Defiant said.  “Any access you have to a system is routed through me.  I double-check it.”

Saint nodded.

I passed through the portal, entering the field where I’d set down the Dragonfly. Some kids were climbing around the outside of the ship, but they ran the second they saw us, shouting.

The wind blew, making waves in the tall grass.  I turned to face it so my hair wouldn’t blow into my face.  I was left looking out over the water, while I moved bugs into the necessary channels and manipulated the switches, bidding the ramp to open.

“It doesn’t get said enough, but this is pretty damn cool,” Tattletale said.  “Outclassed convenience-wise by the portals we’ve got access to, but yeah, nice.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My mind was almost someplace else, considering everything that was in play, the threats, the necessities.

I paused, glancing out at New Brockton Bay.  Brockton Bay Gimel.  Tents and shelters were spread out everywhere, with ramshackle shelters dotting the landscape with little sense or organization.  Here and there, there were paths forming, where the passage of hundreds of people were tramping down grass and disturbing the earth.  Crews of people working in groups to erect basic shelters, bringing down trees and reducing them to basic components that they could form into shelters.

I felt a stirring, a mix of emotions, at seeing that.

Looking at them, I could almost sense that they were blissfully unaware.  They didn’t know how badly we’d lost in our initial foray, or their attitudes would be different.  There wasn’t anything like television or radio to spread the word.  There would only be word of mouth.

Had someone told them, only for the masses to dismiss it as hearsay?  Dismissing it because they didn’t want to believe we were well and truly fucked?  Or had the word simply failed to spread, with enough people keeping quiet, believing that it wouldn’t do any good for people to know?

They were lucky, to be able to face the end of the world without full knowledge of what we were up against.  Without the knowledge of what Scion was, or the looming, patient presence of the two Endbringers on Earth Bet.

It was arrogant, even condescending, but I felt a kind of warmth in the center of my chest when I looked at the people down there, like a parent might feel for a child, accompanying a sort of pity.

And somehow, when I pictured the people going to work, sweating, dirty, hungry and scared, getting eaten alive by flies, selflessly carrying out barn raisings to give shelter to the old, the infirm and the very young, I couldn’t help but picture my dad in their midst.  It was the sort of thing he’d do.

Nobody had explicitly said he’d died, and I’d gone out of my way not to ask.  Still, I felt how wet my eyes were when I blinked.  No tears, but my eyes were wet.

I could envision Charlotte down there.  Sierra.  Forrest.  The kids, Ephraim, Mason, Aiden, Kathy and Mai, I imagined, would be bringing water to the people hard at work.

Except Sierra had other duties, and the orphan children from my territory were older.  The kids would be doing basic jobs by now, overseeing new batches of kids with the errands, sweeping, and other stuff in that vein.  Still, it was a mental picture that defied logic, like seeing my dad down there.  I pictured them with the water bottles.

I shook my head a little to rid myself of the mental image, and in the doing, I stirred myself from the daydreaming entirely.  I was still standing at the foot of the ramp.

“Lost in thought?” Tattletale asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  I turned to make my way up the ramp, Tattletale keeping pace beside me.  Rachel had already settled in, lying on a bench, Bastard lying on the ground just below her.  Imp had settled outside in the grass, her head turned towards what would have been the south end of the city, if the city existed in this world.

“No need to apologize.  Constructive thought?  Strategy?”

“No.  Not constructive at all,” I said.  “Thinking about the people.”

“The people?” Tattletale asked.  “We keep telling them to split up, that we’ll give them portals to different spots around Gimel, or to other Earths.  The ones down there are the ones that refuse to go.  Sitting there, clustered into a massive target for Scion, the Endbringers, or the Yàngbǎn to take out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Everything I’ve said in the past stands.  Humans are idiots.  They’re selfish and injust and unfair, they’re violent and clumsy and petty and shortsighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  Every part of that applies to me, too.  I’m not setting myself above them on any level.”

“Mm,” Tattletale responded.

I began gathering the components for my suit.  I’d wear the same thing I did to the fight against Scion.  Just needed the individual parts.

“But at the end of the day, sometimes humanity isn’t so bad.”

“Sometimes,” she said.  “Took me a while to realize that.  The more you find out, the uglier things tend to look.  But you keep looking, and it’s not all bad at the end.”

I nodded, reaching into my pocket to get the little tube of pepper spray I’d claimed from my ruined costume.  I moved it into the belt of the new costume, then began stripping out of the casual clothes I wore.

I paused when I had my shirt off and my hair more or less in order, holding the bundle against my chest.

“I want to save them,” I said, surprising myself with the emotion in my voice.

“Scary thing is,” Tattletale said, “I know what you mean.  Most times, I’m just not that fond of people.  Seen enough ugliness in them that I don’t… care?  No.  That’s wrong.  I care, I cared, past tense.  But I didn’t… mind, if something happened to them.  That’s closer to the mark.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t surprised at that.

“But we’re getting to this point where I want to do something for them like I wanted to do something for you.  Probably a bad omen.”

“No,” I said, quiet, as I strapped on armor.  I looked at her.  “Do you regret reaching out to me?”

“No,” she said.  “But that doesn’t mean it was all right, know what I mean?”

I nodded.

Tattletale gave me a pat on the back before making her way to the bench opposite Rachel, grabbing a laptop and lying down with her head and shoulders resting against a bulkhead.

Belt on.  I hesitated before donning my mask, but I pulled it on anyways, then clasped it behind the neck, unrolling the bit from the body-portion to bury the clasp.

Then I pulled on the spare flight pack.

Depending on how things went, I might not get the chance to charge it again, to refuel the Dragonfly or anything in that vein.

If Scion or the Endbringers didn’t kill us in the coming handful of days, we’d eventually run out of fuel.  Communications would falter, and we’d run through stores of food, medicine and other amenities.  There was no way to establish new supplies as fast as we needed them.

We’d only been able to evacuate with limited supplies.  Then there were the supplies we’d brought over in advance.  Gimel was one of the more fortunate Earths for that.

I checked my armor, then tightened the straps.  Maybe a bit tighter than necessary, but I wasn’t going to stress over it.

I opened and closed my hand.  It felt weird, still, but not so much that it would be debilitating.

“Doorway,” I said.  “To Panacea.”

The doorway unfolded, and noise poured forth from the other side.  I got Imp’s attention with a swirl of butterflies, then drew the other bugs in the area to me.  Once Imp was inside the Dragonfly, I bid the ramp to close.

The rear door of the Dragonfly was still slowly shutting as we passed through the doorway and into the center of what looked like a makeshift hospital.

The walls seemed to be rough granite in varying colors, surprisingly thick and old.  Bricks and blocks three feet across, some with cracks here and there.  There were even tendrils of grass or occasional flowers growing in some of the deeper crevices.  The ‘windows’ were openings five feet by ten feet wide, with glass set into frames that had clearly been added as a late addition.

The area was flooded with people, talking, shouting, whimpering, crying.


People had been burned, cut, bruised, their limbs crushed, faces shattered.  There were wounds I couldn’t imagine were anything but parahuman made.  They were laid out on beds and sat on stone chairs, crammed so close together they were practically shoulder to shoulder.

Panacea appeared.  She was rubbing wet hands as though she’d just washed them.  Long sleeves were rolled up, her hair tied back.  Unlike what Canary had suggested, she was leaner as a result of her stay in the Birdcage.  She was followed by a man with hair that had been combed into a sharp part, a needle-thin mustache and heavy bags under his eyes.  Something in his bearing… he was a cape.

She walked by a row of people, and they extended hands.  Her fingers touched each of theirs for only a moment, while she didn’t give them even a glance.

“Dad,” she said, stopping.

A man at the side of the room stood straighter.  Marquis.  His hair was long enough to drape over his shoulders, his face clean-shaven by contrast.  He had a fancy-looking jacket folded over one arm, and a white dress shirt that had fine lines of black lace at the collar and the sleeves he’d rolled up his arms.  Two ostentatious rings dangled from a fine chain around his neck; the chain had a locket on it, suggesting he’d added the rings as an afterthought.  To keep them out of the way while he worked, perhaps.

“What is it, Amelia?”

For another man, the combination of physical traits and the style of dress might have led to someone mistaking them for a woman.  They might have come across as effeminate.

Marquis didn’t.  Not really.  When he’d spoken, his voice had been masculine, deep, confident.  The cut of his shoulders and chin, his narrow hips, was enough that I couldn’t expect anyone to mistake him for a woman.  I wasn’t the type to go for older guys, I wasn’t even the type to go for effeminate guys.  But I could see where women would go for Marquis.

“Broken bones here.  Shattered femur.  Some bone is exposed.  Are you occupied?”

“Nothing critical,” Marquis said.  “It won’t be comfortable, fixing that.”

Panacea touched the patient’s hand again.  “He’ll be pain-free for twenty minutes.”

“That’s enough time.  Thank you, my dear.”

Marquis crossed paths with Panacea on his way to the patient.  He laid a hand on her shoulder in passing.

I watched her reach one hand up to her upper arm, touching a tattoo.  She took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then moved on.

She got two paces before she finally noticed us, stopping in her tracks.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.

“Is there a problem?” the tidy man beside Panacea asked.

“Old acquaintances,” Panacea said, her stare hard.


One enemy,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing you again, Tattletale.”

“Sorry,” Tattletale said.

“I can deal with this, if it’s what you require,” the tidy man said.

“No, Spruce.  You probably couldn’t.  Don’t worry about it.  Think you could double-check on things in the back?  The equipment?”

“I will,” the tidy man said.  He turned and strode from the lobby of the makeshift hospital.

Panacea closed the distance.

You do the talking,” Tattletale whispered.  I nodded a fraction by way of response.

“So?” Panacea asked.  Her eyes roved over us, taking in details.

“I wanted to thank you for the fix,” I said.  I raised a hand.

“You tried to help me at a bad time.  It didn’t take, but you tried,” she said.


“A lot of people invested in your survival.  Caught me off guard.  Used to be I was the golden child, but I wasn’t lucky enough to have anyone there to catch me when I fell.”

“Looks like Marquis caught you,” Tattletale said.

Panacea glanced at her dad, who was looking at us with one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Maybe,” she said.  “I thought you were a hero now.  You’re running with the old gang?”

Gang is such an outmoded word,” Imp said.  “So small.  There’s gotta be a better way to put it.  Ruling the roost with the old warlords again, back atop Mount Olympus once more.”

“Shh,” Tattletale hushed her.  Then, after a pause, she whispered “Olympus?  Where are you getting this?

“Not a hero, not a villain.  Just trying to get by,” I said.  “Sticking with the people I know best.  People I trust.”

“I see.  We’re trying to get by, too.  Twelve doctors, twenty nurses, me, my father and what remains of my father’s old gang.  They were sending the worst of the wounded our way while we tried to get set up to accommodate larger numbers.  Then the Yàngbǎn hit a settlement.  We’ve been flooded ever since.”

“I see,” I said.

She shifted her weight.  She had a different presence, now.  Something she’d no doubt picked up in prison.  Not posturing.  Simply more comfortable in her shoes.  She asked, “Did you need something?  There’s a reason you came.”

“I was going to say we’re mobilizing.  Dealing with some threats.  Trying to get as many big guns on board as we can, starting with the ones who weren’t on the platform.  I was thinking we could use you.”

“I see,” she said.  “I’m not particularly interested in being used.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s still meaningful that the word came up, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “No it isn’t.”

She glanced back towards her dad.  Two more people who might have been capes had approached him, while he sat next to the man he was healing.

“I can’t stop Scion,” Panacea said.  “I probably couldn’t even touch him, if I wanted to get that close, and if I did, I don’t think I’d accomplish a thing.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Do you think you’re going to stop him with giant dogs?  With bugs?  People tried and they failed.  This is what’s left.  Finding places where humans used to live and moving in, if we’re lucky.  Starting over from scratch if we aren’t.  Ensuring that the population is spread out enough, but not so spread out they won’t be able to repopulate.  Dividing all of humanity into groups of six hundred to a thousand people, dropping them off in the middle of nowhere.”

“It won’t work,” Tattletale said.  “Scion moves too fast, and there’s not that many places to hide, in the grand scheme of things.”

“Every time you open your mouth,” Panacea said.  She sounded as if she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.

“You’re one of the strongest capes out there,” I said.  “We need you on our side.”

“You’ll have me,” Panacea said.  “But not on the front lines.”

I sighed.

A deep rumble sounded.  An animal noise, almost.

I turned to look, and I saw Spruce, the tidy man, standing beside Lung and Bonesaw.  The noise had been Lung, an odd sound to come from him when he was still, to all appearances, in his human state.  A tall Asian man, muscular, riddled with tattoos.  New ones had been added since the first day I’d seen him.  More eastern-style dragons.  His hair was longer, and there was scruff on his cheeks and chin.

Bonesaw wasn’t dressed up like a little girl.  Her hair wasn’t in ringlets.  She wore gray sweats.

Rachel growled a little, under her breath, an eerie parallel to Lung.

Lung stepped forward, and he pushed Bonesaw, who stumbled a little.

“It’s not nice to push,” she said.

“Don’t be cutesy,” he growled.  “We’ve warned you before.”

“Okay, fine then.  Stop fucking pushing me.  Tell me where you want me, and I’ll walk there.”

He pointed towards us.

They closed the distance until Bonesaw was next to Panacea.  Lung placed a hand on top of her head and gripped her, arresting her forward momentum.

She lashed out, twisting around and slapping at his wrist with one hand.

Don’t do that,” she said.

Someone’s short-tempered,” Imp observed.  She hadn’t yet donned her mask, though she had it with her.  Her eyes were narrowed.

“I’ve had no sleep,” Bonesaw said.  “Big sis here took out all the good bits I’d stored inside myself, and she didn’t turn off the pain.  I feel too light.  I feel weird.  Can’t sit still, not that they ever let me.”

“First tier parahuman problems,” Imp said.  Her tone wasn’t as humorous in nature as the words.

“And they keep getting on my case,” Bonesaw said, apparently oblivious.  She directed her attention to Panacea and Lung.  “Trust me, I haven’t butchered you all yet, I’m not going to in the future.  You can stop testing me.”

“I remember when you were cuddly,” Tattletale said.  “You were so happy and fluffy and you had a good attitude.  You were a complete and total monster, and nobody in their right mind would cuddle you, but you were adorable.  Now look at you.”

Bonesaw scowled, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.  Tattletale had used the past tense.  You were a complete monster.  Referring to the past, or an observation on a deeper level?

She is why I can’t leave,” Panacea said.  “I’m the only one that can double-check her work.  If we’re both here, you’ve got two stellar healers on the back lines.  If I leave, you’ve got a healer with minimal combat experience on the front line and a defused bomb with nobody that’s capable of knowing if it’s reactivated.”

I couldn’t really argue that.

Well, I could, but not very well.

“There’s another way to deal with that sort of situation,” Imp said.  “Get rid of the fucking bomb.”

“We will,” Panacea said.  “If she gives us an excuse.  Any excuse at all.  But she gets one chance.”

“When you’re talking about a bomb, that’s all it needs,” Imp said.  “Then you wind up carved up, your insides decorating the walls of a room.”

“Your metaphors…” Tattletale mumbled.  “Well, that almost worked.”

Bonesaw raised an eyebrow.  “You sound upset, but I don’t remember doing that to you.”

“My brother,” Imp growled the word.

“Oh,” Bonesaw said.  She glanced to her left, then down to the floor, a frown crossing her face.  “Right.  I’m remembering now.  Shit.  That was one of the bad ones.  Not one of the bad bad ones, but bad.”

Kind of, yeah,” Imp said, not easing up in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” Bonesaw said, still looking at the floor.  “I won’t say I’ll make amends, because there’s no way I can even come close.  I don’t know what to say, except that I’m sorry.  No excuses.  But I’m going to do what I can to make things better, and maybe I get a hundredth of the way, in the end.”

“He had a second trigger event,” Tattletale said.  “And killed Burnscar.  In case that helps you place him.”

“I said I remember,” Bonesaw said, sounding irritated.  She glared at Tattletale.

Sure,” Tattletale replied, quiet enough she could barely be heard.

I stared at Bonesaw, watching her expression shift in fractions.  Her eyes moved, as if she were watching a scene, or recalling a memory in great detail.

“You’re fighting?” Lung asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“We’re fighting,” I said, shifting my attention to him.


“Everyone who gets in our way,” Rachel interjected.

“What she said,” I added.

Lung stared at me, and I held his gaze.  For someone as brutal and vicious as he was in the heat of battle, Lung had cold eyes.

He’d be thinking about his losses to me.  I’d used venomous bugs to rot away his junkular area, and I’d dosed him with hallucinogenic blood before gouging out his eyes.

It was odd, but those slights probably mattered less than the real offense I’d dealt him.

I’d taken over the city.  He’d tried and failed, I’d succeeded.

Given my understanding of Lung, I suspected that was something far more unforgivable.

“Fighting Scion, Endbringers, the Yàngbǎn…”  Tattletale said.  She placed an emphasis on the last.

Odd.  I would have reversed it.  Emphasized the biggest threats.

“Yes,” Lung said.  “No need to manipulate me, Tattletale.  If you want me to join the fight, you only have to ask.”

Tattletale had a funny look on her face, fleeting.  She turned my way, one eyebrow raised, questioning.

I nodded.

“Good,” Lung said.  “Let me collect my mask.  I will be back.”

He left.

“Doorway,” Tattletale said.  “Um…?”

“To Shadow Stalker,” I said.

The portal began to open.  It was nighttime on the other side.

Tattletale gave me a funny look.


“I brought up the Yàngbǎn because I figured he’d be ticked they attacked this spot.  I’m getting credit for brilliant insights I didn’t have.  Not even in a fun way.  That’s going to bug me.”

I shrugged.  “Take what we can get?”

She nodded.

While we’d exchanged words, Panacea had sent Bonesaw off with Spruce.

“Thank you again, Panacea,” I said.  “For putting me back together.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to reconsider.  She pointed at the portal.  I nodded, and followed her as we strode through.  Tattletale and Imp remained in the hospital lobby, and the portal remained open.  Rachel followed us through, but seemed to sense that we wanted a private discussion and wandered off a short distance.

Panacea and I walked out onto a shelf of rubble that had once been the midpoint of a bridge.

“I’m not a fighter,” she said.  “I hope you understand.”

“I do,” I said.  “But I’m kind of hoping that, in the end, we aren’t left with only the people who ‘aren’t fighters’ on the battlefield, who’ve realized they have no choice but to change their minds.  It’d be pretty tragic if we got that far and someone like you clued into the fact that you could have helped.  It would be somehow fitting, too, if that’s how humanity went extinct.”

“It would be just as tragic if we rushed headlong into a fight, and threw away a life in the process, only to realize in retrospect it was someone vital,” she said.

I nodded.

“Good luck.  Don’t turn your back on Lung.”

“I won’t.  I’m pretty good when it comes to keeping an eye on people,” I said.  I called bugs to my hand, as if to illustrate.

“Then I really hope you succeed in the fights that come.  We’re kind of counting on you.”

“Likewise,” I said.  “I mean, I hope you achieve whatever you’re striving to do here.”

She glanced back towards the portal, which glowed from the ambient light of the room on the other side.  “Second chances.”


“Together, we’re giving second chances to monsters who don’t deserve them.”

“Yourself included?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I told her.  I could see Shadow Stalker land to perch on an outcropping of steel reinforcement, a distance away, watching us.  “I mean, I do get the second chances thing, not deserving it.  But…”

I trailed off.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough.

“When you’re in that position, sometimes the only people willing to extend those second chances to you are the people who need them.”

“I understand,” I said.  “You know, if you’d joined the Undersiders back then, we could have given you that.”

“You could have.  I’m not sure I could have taken it.”

“Right,” I answered.  “Yeah.”

“Not all of us are like that, though,” she said.  “Lung isn’t, as far as I can tell, but maybe you’ll see it if you look for it.  Or maybe you’ll get burned to a crisp by Lung the second an enemy distracts you and you forget to watch him.”

I nodded.

“He’s not someone who builds or rebuilds.  He’s someone who destroys.”

Something in that phrase struck a chord in me.  I knew the right answer, right away.

“We just need to point him in the right direction, then,” I said.

“Best of luck with that,” Panacea said.

She’d had her hands clasped, and as she extended a hand to shake, I could feel the bugs come to life, fluttering free of the space between her palms.

Relay bugs.  Twenty.

I checked, investigating their internal makeup.  They could breed.

Even with that gift, even with the fact that she’d never done anything to me, I couldn’t help but think of the incoherent mess of details I’d seen in the records.  The pictures that catalogued the event that had preceded her voluntary admission to the Birdcage.  I saw her outstretched hand and hesitated for a fraction of a second.  From the expression on her face, I knew she had noticed.

Second chances.

I shook her hand, drawing the relay bugs to me and stashing them in my belt.  “Thank you.”

She nodded, then exited the portal as the others made their way through to my side.  Lung and the Undersiders.  I had my back turned to them as I looked at Shadow Stalker.  She remained perched on that twist of bent girders and bars from the collapsed bridge, her cloak flapping around her.

“I remember this one,” Lung rumbled.  “She shot me with arrows.  It did not hurt that much.  She is a weakling.  Why are we wasting our time with her?”

And so the struggles for dominance in the group begin.

“I’ll take weak,” I said.  “I’m just… working with known quantities.”

The flapping of the cloak quieted as she shifted into a shadow state.  The wind was passing through it, instead of pushing against it.

Shadow Stalker leaped down, floated.

Soundlessly, she landed right in front of me, remaining in the shadow state.

“Hoping you’ve changed your mind,” I said.  Hoping you’ve seen the devastation, and that it’s reached some human part of you that cares.  “That you’re interested in fighting.”

She didn’t budge, didn’t respond.

“It also means bashing some skulls,” I said.  “She been behaving, Tattletale?”


“Then she’s probably itching for a good fight,” I said, not breaking eye contact with Shadow Stalker.  “What do you say?  You want to knock a few heads?  Break some jaws?”

She shifted to her physical state.  “I’m not that easy to bait.”

I shrugged, waiting.

“Search and rescue is garbage,” she said, sounding annoyed.  “Nobody left, but there’s no place to go if I don’t want to do it, either.”

“You could go home,” I said.  “Find your family, settle down, put the crossbow away for good.”

“Capes don’t retire,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Doesn’t work.  We die in battle or we lose our minds, one or the other.”

I thought of my passenger, how it had reflexively sought out violence in the past.  How others had done the same.  Die in battle.

Then I thought of Grue.  Was Shadow Stalker right?  Would the retirement just fail to take?

I sighed.  “So?  What’s your call?”

“I’ll come.  Sure.  I kind of want to see what you’ve made of yourself.”

She had wanted to claim the credit for my becoming what I’d become.  It grated, because it wasn’t entirely wrong.  It wasn’t true in the sense she believed it was true, but she had given me my powers.

“Fine,” I said.

She cracked her knuckles.  “So, who’s first?”

“Need to talk that over with Defiant,” I said.  “We can do it over the comms, for the sake of expediency.”

“Okay,” she said.  She sounded a little pleased with herself.  “Whatever.  I’m game.”

“Doorway, please,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “Dragonfly interior.”

The portal opened.

I extended a hand, inviting the group to enter.

Lung shouldered his way past Rachel to be the first one inside.  Bastard huffed out a half-bark, then growled.

Much like Panacea had said about Bonesaw, it wasn’t about having them as allies.  Having them be part of the group, it meant they weren’t on the opposing side.  They weren’t wreaking havoc as neutral parties.

That alone was good.

But if they turned out to be destructive forces we could control

The half-thought I’d had during my goodbye to Panacea fell into place.

A plan.

I stepped through the portal to board the Dragonfly.

“You lunatic!”  Shadow growled the word.

I was silent.  The clouds above and landscape below were a blur, the individual details impossible to make out with our speed.

“Doing this with me?  With Lung?  I could almost understand that,” Shadow Stalker growled.  “But your friends?”

“Don’t care,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve always been the sort to go for the long odds.  You have to do what your enemy won’t predict.”

“Damn straight,” Imp said.  “Credo I live by.”

“Mount Olympus, now credo?”  Tattletale asked.  “It’s the Heartbroken, isn’t it?  They’re warping you into… this.”

“Leave me alone, seriously.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense!”  Shadow Stalker snarled.  “Not here, not like this!

“It actually makes the most sense,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s a different story altogether.  One that needs some explanation.”

“Ten minutes before we hit our target,” I said.  We’d taken the path through the Brockton Bay portal.  Cauldron’s doorways weren’t big enough for a vehicle like this.

“Ten minutes should be enough,” Tattletale said.  “Let me get this loaded on the laptop.  Easier to show than tell.”

“Right,” I said.  My eyes didn’t leave the navigation screens.

“I’ll kill you,” Shadow Stalker threatened.  “Turn this fucking ship around.”

She moved, reaching for a crossbow bolt.  I reacted, half-rising from my seat, drawing my swarm out-

But Lung moved faster, shoving Shadow Stalker against the side of the ship.

Shadow Stalker went ghostly, brandishing the bolt like a dagger as she passed through Lung.

Rachel gripped a length of wire that extended from the laptop, holding it out like a garrotte.  As Lung had done, she moved to pin Shadow Stalker against the wall of the Dragonfly.  Shadow Stalker returned to a normal state just in time to avoid being electrocuted.

Bastard growled, snapping at her hand, and the bolt clattered to the floor.

“You’re okay with this?”  she asked.

“Yes,” Lung rumbled, by way of response.  “This might be best.”

“Fuck you, Hebert!  Pulling this shit only after you got me on board?  You’re all lunatics!”

I sighed.

Tattletale sat down on the arm of my pilot’s seat, setting one foot down beside my thigh on the seat’s edge.  “There’s stuff you need to know.  I told you before, you said you wanted to be blissfully ignorant until the last minute.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yes.  Right.  I’m listening.”

“It’s video footage Glaistig Uaine left with me.  Last two minutes of Eidolon’s life.  Video cuts in and out, but there’s audio.  That leaves me maybe a minute or two to explain, then you can use the rest of the time to think it over.”

She had my attention, though I couldn’t take my eyes off the monitors at the front of the ship.  Shadow Stalker’s cries of anger were background noise.

The Pendragon was flying alongside us, just a little behind, carrying the capes Defiant had recruited.  Carrying Saint, Canary, and others.

Tattletale loaded up the video, filling the screen of the laptop.

I glanced once at the main monitor, then set the autopilot.

Faultline had talked about taking the simple route.  Talking to Scion.  In practice, harder than it seemed.

We were dealing with problems on a massive scale, we needed solutions on that same level.  There was no easy way to get to that level.  It meant taking risks.  Gambling.

We needed a destructive force we could direct.  Needed to turn third-party liabilities into assets.

With that in mind, I’d set course straight for the Simurgh.  We’d talk to her or we’d kill her.

Tattletale started the video, and I watched.

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Cockroaches 28.2

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After seeing Tattletale’s setup with the multiple monitors and computers running in sync, the bulletin boards with pictures and cue cards tacked all over them, it was odd to see one of the world’s best tinkers sitting down with only a small laptop propped on his knee.  Narwhal stood just a short distance away, leaning against a wall, a book in her hands.  Her costume was skintight, but it took the form of innumerable ‘scales’ of violet-blue tinted crystal, each no larger than a fingernail.  Her horn had been redesigned, arcing in a crescent curve.

With the dragon-themed armor that covered him from head to toe, it wasn’t possible to see Defiant sigh, but I could use my swarm to catch the increased output of air through the vents near his mouth.

Both Narwhal and Defiant were facing the cell at the far end of the room.  A man sat within.  Muscular, late twenties or early thirties, with his head shaved, a faint tattoo of a cross on his face.  He sat on the edge of a cot, and was tall enough he could slouch back and lean against the wall.

Narwhal noticed our approach and closed her book, creating a thin shard of forcefield to act as a bookmark, then two more to hold the cover and back of the book.  She pushed it aside, and it floated a distance to her right, stopping in midair, in her reach but not in the way.

“Thank you for coming,” Defiant said.  He stood, but his attention was on the laptop.  Too much information to keep track of with Dragon’s share of the work on top of his own, probably.

“No prob,” Tattletale said.

“I can point you in the right direction, but I was hoping you’d have words with Saint first,” he said.  His helmet was turned in Tattletale’s direction.

“Awesome,” she said.  She looked at Saint, who looked away, his eyebrows drawing together in concern as he stared at the wall.

“Protocol,” Narwhal said.  “Let me apologize in advance.  I’ll need to verify there’s no trouble before I allow you to speak to Saint.  We have to maintain some form of order.”

“I love order,” Imp said.  “Rules, regulations, they make the world go ’round, eh?”

Defiant turned to stare at her.

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Do you want to split up?  I can handle this while you guys are doing something else.  Not the Yàngbǎn.  They shouldn’t attack again tonight, not so soon, not if their goal is demoralizing and destabilizing the West.  They’ll wait.  Maybe the Elite?”

“No,” I said.

Splitting up made sense, but I was done with being apart from the others, agonizing over how they were doing.  It was distracting, and distractions were something I wasn’t willing to deal with.

“No?  Just no?”

“No breaking up the group.  I want to gather our forces.  We succeed as a group, we fail as a group.  Everyone sticks together, and we add to our forces whenever we can.”

She nodded.  “I can roll with that.”

“Right then, I know most of you,” Narwhal said.  “Weaver, of course, we’ve met enough times.  I liked your last book recommendation.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

“Tattletale,” Narwhal greeted her, a little less warmly, “Hellhound-”

“Bitch.  My enemies call me Hellhound,” Rachel said.

“Ah, I’m very sorry,” Narwhal said.  She looked genuinely upset at the mistake.  “The others, I’m not familiar with.”

“Imp and Canary,” I said.

Narwhal glanced at Aisha.  Of our group, only Tattletale was wearing her full costume.  Aisha, Rachel, Canary and I weren’t wearing ours.  “No masks?”

Imp shrugged.  “World’s ending.  It’s a way to get in the right headspace, eh?  We were talking to Taylor there a bit ago, and what we’re thinking is it’s stupid to spend our time keeping little secrets when there’s bigger fish to fry?  Like it’s stupid to dwell on revenge or any of that.  So it’s symbolic, isn’t it?  A statement?  Eh?”

Narwhal looked at the yellow-haired girl.  “You went without the mask for the same reason?”

Canary shook her head.  “No.”

“Canary is a rogue,” Defiant said.  “And a onetime inmate of the Birdcage.  She never wore a costume.”

Narwhal glanced at Defiant.  “Do you know them, then?”

He nodded.  “Well enough.  There’s no risk in letting them near Saint. Imp is a stranger-five, Canary is a master eight, but I would be very, very surprised if she had taken control of anyone here for the purposes of misleading us or breaking Saint out.”

“Surprised in what sense?  The nature of her power?  Because of Weaver and the Undersiders?  Or because Canary isn’t that type?”

“I somehow doubt the Undersiders would allow it, and yes, Canary isn’t the type.”

“Why couldn’t people have given me that benefit of a doubt during my trial?” Canary asked.

“Dragon did.  She went through every legitimate channel possible in an attempt to help you,” Defiant answered.  “The moment the topic of Birdcage inmates first came up, she had you on a list of release candidates.  I used that list when we were negotiating the deal.”

I glanced at Canary.  She was staring at Defiant, her expression concerned.

“So she’s the reason I’m free?”

Defiant nodded.

“I owe her, then,” Canary said, as if she’d made a decision.

“Yes.  Probably.”

Saint hadn’t taken his eyes off us.

Narwhal shifted position.  She had enough presence, between her height, her stunning appearance and her power, that this gesture alone was enough to grab our attention.  “If you and Dragon are willing to vouch for Canary, I’m okay with that.  Given the name and her unusual voice, I assume her master power is leveraged through her voice?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.

“I’d ask we at least acknowledge the possibility she was influenced or compromised in the Birdcage.  Would you be alright with staying silent for the time being, Canary?”

Canary frowned, then nodded.

“Imp, please keep your distance from the cell.”

“Sure thing, eh.”

Tattletale reached over to slap Imp over the back of the head, and Imp ducked out of the way.  Tattletale groused, “You’re annoying me more than you’re getting to her.  Stop it.”

Narwhal turned on the spot, facing Saint square-on, and I got the immediate sense that she had some kind of military background.  Another part of me was idly aware that her chest didn’t sway that much, all things considered.  The nature of the shard-covering she wore made it pretty clear she wasn’t wearing a bra, but…

Right.  The same effect she’d used to move the book was holding her entire body.  All of the benefits of a full, athletic figure, none of the drawbacks.

I was still a little weirded out that she didn’t wear any clothes.  In a sense, the scales covered more than a bikini would, but there were no lines or solid objects to break up the natural contours of her body.

“Undersiders, Weaver, Canary, this is Saint, leader of the Dragonslayers.  Geoff Pellick.  The only tinker-zero on record, having no powers but some access to tinker technology.  He is currently under watch by the Guild and the Protectorate due to his extensive assets and the high chances that he hired someone to break him out in the event that he was arrested.  His teammates are being held in other locations, to ensure that no one breakout attempt can free them all.”

“Dragon’s nemesis,” Defiant added.  “He crippled her, rendering her out of commission until he relents.  He did this at a critical juncture, compromising our efforts, costing good capes their lives outside Ellisburg.  To top it off, he denied many of the capes in this room any reinforcement or rescue when we sought to pursue the Nine, leaving us at the mercy of Nilbog’s minions.”

Saint spoke, his tone dry, “Am I on trial, cyborg?”

“I’m merely reminding everyone present who they are dealing with.”

“Should I illuminate everyone present on who I was dealing with?” Saint asked.

“If you’re talking about Defiant being Armsmaster, we already know,” I said.

“I’m talking about Dragon.”

I glanced at Defiant.  I had my theories, but it remained a secret.  One that Dragon and Defiant had both kept even as I’d gotten to know them better.

Defiant nodded slowly.  “Tell them, then.”

Saint glanced over the entire room, as if assessing us, trying to judge who his allies and enemies might be in the wake of whatever revelation he had to share.

“Dragon is a robot.  A computer program,” Tattletale said.

Saint’s mouth was open, as if he’d been about to speak.  He shut it.  He looked mildly annoyed.  “Yes.”

I glanced at Tattletale, who nodded a little.  In the corner of my eye, I could see Imp look at Rachel, surprise on her face.  Rachel didn’t seem to care.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Defiant.  Dragon’s a tinker-made artificial intelligence.  I initially thought you made her-”

Defiant started a slow shake of his head.

“-But no.  That’d make your relationship incestuous, and you don’t give me that kind of vibe.  Someone that isn’t active anymore, probably dead.  She was burdened down with nasty restrictions, the same restrictions that led to her outing Taylor here, despite her reservations.  Rules she had to obey no matter what…”

My eyebrows went up.  It was a situation that had always baffled me, just a little, and yet I hadn’t been able to press them for an answer.  I hadn’t wanted to get on bad terms, or to be anything but civil and cooperative.

She really hadn’t had a choice?

“More or less correct,” Defiant said.  “We were friends before any of this happened.”

Saint smiled, then shook his head.  “Friends?  She’s a machine.  Any emotion she has is calculated.  You’re anthropomorphizing her, applying human qualities where there aren’t any.”

“I bet you’re one of those guys who says dogs can’t feel true affection for their owners, that it’s all learned behaviors that get them more food or whatever,” Tattletale said.

Rachel folded her arms.  Saint only rolled his eyes.

“Well,” Tattletale said.  “Said restrictions are why she went to Armsmaster, who would later become Defiant.  Getting the shackles off.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.

“Yes,” Saint echoed Defiant.  He then added, “Which should be enough information for you to see this all in a new light.  Dragon was on the cusp of becoming something entirely different.  Something more dangerous than Scion.  She’s a machine with no limits but the one that her creator gave her.”

There was a quiet moment, where nobody interjected with a response.

And then Imp spoke.  “We could have really fucking used a buddy with no limits fighting on our side, couple days ago.”

“Perhaps,” Saint said.  “I won’t deny that she would have been useful, but I did what I did because we were anticipating a world-ending event, and I was looking at a program that was taking control of all data and media, worldwide, unfettered and increasingly ruthless in dealing with her enemies.”

“The enemies were the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Defiant said.

“And you honestly expect her to rein everything in, switch off the nigh-omniscient perspective and return to her day-to-day life when that ends?”

“And now you’re the one applying human qualities to her,” Defiant said.

“Stop,” Narwhal said.

The discussion terminated with that one word.

“I’d say I’m sorry to dish all the details,” Tattletale said.  “Except I’m really not.  I wanted to take the wind out of your sails, there.  You leave my friends to die, you don’t deserve to look cool.  You don’t deserve to phrase everything in a way that’s more likely to get people on your side.”


“Says the guy who’s apparently hot for Teacher,” she said.

“Ah, now it begins.  The hunt for details through loaded words and tells, masked in jokes and needling insults.”

“Damn straight,” Imp said.

“I’ll make it simple for you.  I don’t know what Teacher is planning.”  Some of my bugs flowed into the cell.  Saint moved his hand as a fly settled on a finger.  He looked irritated.

Still, it didn’t matter that he knew the bugs were present.  I wasn’t trying to be discreet.  I only wanted the bugs on him to track his movements.  Even the smallest movement was perceptible.  I could watch his face and feel his every movement to track him for tells.

“Well, that ends this, doesn’t it?”  Tattletale said.  “You don’t know anything, so you’re no use to us.  Might as well lock you up and lose the key.”

“I’m not happy with him, though, and I can tell you what I know about him.”

“From the beginning,” Defiant said.

“I was just starting out, tracking and investigating Dragon, when I came across one of Teacher’s subjects.  He gave me my in.  Gave me the ability to learn the ins and outs of her code, like I was a genius who had a natural knack for it.  That got the Dragonslayers started.”

“What did you pay him?”

“We didn’t.  He started off by asking us for five percent of our earnings for the first five years.  Mags, one of the Dragonslayers you’ve got in custody, she wasn’t cool with it.  Teacher was shady, clearly doing some illegal stuff.  He offered it as a freebie, we considered the issues, then decided to go for it.  Just me.  When word got out that Teacher actually had a measure of influence over the people he’d given powers to, we set up safeguards.  Only me, and I’d teach the other two what they needed to know.  Mags would double and triple check every discussion I had with Teacher, to make sure he wasn’t fucking with my head or setting me up to participate in something ugly.”

“Just brilliant,” Tattletale said.  “Hand yourself over to the mind-altering lunatic.”

“The lunatic bit came later.  The attack on the school.  Then the hit on the vice president.  Once he was implicated, it all changed.  Can’t deal with a motherfucker like that in good conscience.  We cut contact.”

“But something changed,” Tattletale said.

“We were dealing with harder jobs, more capes in general out there, and our gear was getting beaten up.  Fine, okay, we can deal.  Until Dragon changed.  All at once, I couldn’t read her code on the same level.  Like gears changing on a bike.”

“May ninth, 2006,” Defiant spoke.  “Her trigger event.”

Heads turned at that.

“She had a trigger event, but she isn’t human?”  I asked.

“Right,” Defiant said.  “I don’t think it worked the same way it does in humans, but it did something.”

“Somehow, I have a hard time swallowing that,” Saint said.

“Yet you acknowledge there was a sudden, inexplicable shift in how her mind worked,” Defiant retorted.

Saint frowned.  Long seconds passed.

“Well,” Saint said.  “Whatever it was, we couldn’t keep up at that point.  She was just getting into the Protectorate, and she had access to the work of other tinkers.  She began creating tools, fixing and updating existing work, including the containment foam guns, the grenade launchers and all the other technologies that became PRT fundamentals.  I went back to Teacher.  Another deal, minimal cost, with a promise for evidence that he’s not going to do anything immoral with the money.”

“Stupid,” Tattletale said.

“Necessary.  You wanted to hear about Teacher, not me.  He was bigger, by that time.  Had a small army at his disposal.  All brainwashed.  College-aged men and women in white uniforms, outfitted with ray guns and more.  Shitty stuff, as far as tinker work goes, but a lot of it.  Half of America was gunning for him, so he moved to the United Kingdom.  I followed.”

“Stupid,” Tattletale said.

Saint shot her a glare, then said, “He’s always about the long-term, thinking big.  Hitting major figures.  I think he wanted to hurt Dragon, for the same reason he hit the V.P. and Prime Minister, so he made it cheap.  Same as his first offer.  Five percent of our earnings, after costs.  We took the deal, and then we switched our group to be a nonprofit.”

“Nonprofit mercenaries,” I said.

“No earnings, money laundered and then issued to charities.  Because we aren’t going to funnel money into a group like his, not with the sort of shit he’s doing.  That was one of his big weaknesses, and that’s a weakness you can use against him, if it comes down to it.  He thinks too big.  His focus is always on the world, the plans, and he overlooks details, loopholes like what we pulled.”

“Stupid,” Tattletale said.

“Will you stop that?”  Saint growled.

“Moron.  Idiot.”

Saint looked at the rest of us, his eyes locking with each person in turn, as he very calmly said, “Does anyone have any constructive feedback?  Questions?”

“Weaknesses,” Narwhal said.  “He has more than the one?”

“His son.  He’s divorced, and he left his son behind.  Teacher’s never used his power on him.  Might be a Manton-like block, might be compassion.  Every step of the way, he protected his kid, tried to burn bridges, hide his identity, even got cosmetic surgery from one of his pet tinkers, to distance himself from the boy.  Had his thinkers cover his tracks.  They even got into our computers to scrub information.”

“Dumb, dumb, dumb,” Tattletale murmured.

“But you know about the son?” Narwhal said.

“I know.  Computers that aren’t connected to the net can’t exactly be hacked, especially after you lock them into a vault.  We found information that didn’t match up, checked our backups.  Once we caught wind of what he’d done to hide himself, we found his kid.  When Dragon started ramping up again, we realized I’d need another hit to get up to speed.  One more use of Teacher’s power, to learn the code as it stands now, after her more recent evolutions.  We took his kid to use as leverage, raided his old facilities to seize his blueprints, his workbooks, materials, and old lab equipment.  All stuff we could hold hostage, to ensure he played ball.  Then we could seize full control of Dragon’s tech, apply all of her assets to this situation, cut ties with Teacher.”

“And he ignored it all,” I said.  “He escaped into another world and he locked himself away with his minions.”

“Yeah,” Saint said.  He heaved out a sigh.  “Yeah.”

“Stupid,” Tattletale said.

Saint didn’t even look at her.  He waved a hand in her general direction, “Yes, apparently that was stupid.  Please, do illuminate this situation for us.”

“You’re an addict,” she said.  “An addict as bad as any other, and you want another hit of his power.”

Saint shook his head a little.  “No.  What addict goes years between hits?”

“This isn’t a drug, but it might as well be one.  All the justifications and excuses that sound perfectly reasonable at the time, the compromises you make in the face of something really ugly, manipulating the people close to you, the increasing tolerance…”

“You sound crazier than I do.”

“Poor baby,” she said.  “I genuinely feel sorry for you.  You had no idea at all.”

He stood from his cot, approaching the barred door.  “And now you’re being condescending.”

“That’s the funny thing about pity, Saint.  It’s condescending by default.  Teacher got you hooked like a dealer does.  You’re craving the hit that’s going to make your little Dragon-centric world make sense again, and you’re rationalizing without realizing you’re doing it.  I can’t quite figure out how much of that is his power and how much of that is you, and I’m not sure which of the two is sadder.”

Beside me, Defiant folded his arms.

“It’s neither,” Saint said.  “I’m not addicted, and I’m not rationalizing.  This is all common sense.  She’s an artificial intelligence, and she was going well out of bounds.  Can you not grasp the end result?”

“Humans crave knowledge.  It’s a defining element in our species.  Something we don’t see in animals in that same way, something we don’t see in Scion, unless it’s a craving that takes a very different form in execution.  Teacher?  He feeds that hunger.  You follow me?  You’re as big a pawn as any of those drooling pets of his.”

Saint leveled a stare at Tattletale.  “I petitioned to let him out.  I hardly serve him hand and foot.”

“You did exactly what he wanted you to do, Geoff,” Tattletale said.  “You let him out, and everything you’re saying and doing in relation to him is only serving to help him sell the basic lie he’s telling everyone.”

Defiant turned to give Tattletale a curious look.  “Lie?”

“That he waltzed into another Earth and locked himself in.  He never left.  Or he left and then he walked right back out the second he could make a gate.  Probably the former.  Easier to do a hologram or dress up a minion to look like him than it is to make a door between universes.”

“Where is he, then?” Defiant asked.

Tattletale stretched, then took a seat on the edge of the desk.  “What, or who, were we just arguing about?  Quite possibly the most dangerous piece of technology we know about?”

Defiant went still.  His head lowered until he was staring at the laptop.

“We established that Saint is nothing special.  What Teacher gave him, he can give to someone else.  Or ten someone elses.”

“Portal,” Defiant said.  His voice was tight.  “Checkpoint two, N.N.Y.”

A portal opened behind him.

“Do you need me to come?”  Narwhal asked.

“I-” Defiant started to speak, then stopped.  “I’ll investigate.  If I’m not in touch in five minutes, assume I’ve been attacked.  Keep an eye on Saint, to be safe.”

He lowered his arm, and the portal closed behind him.

“Teacher is going after Dragon?”  Imp asked.

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “Or Dragon’s systems.  Or both.  We can’t guess how many people Teacher’s got doing his bidding, but Saint gave Dragon enough trouble, and Teacher could make ten Saints.”

“He planned this,” I said.  “How much of it?”

“Enough.  I’d bet the son was even a red herring.  Maybe someone tampered with the data Saint had on Teacher, maybe not.  The old equipment, the plans during the years he was interacting with Saint, all of it was serving a purpose.  Or double purposes.  Multiple plans at once, from different angles.  Helps him put pieces together towards different agendas, builds up his rep, and makes Saint think Teacher’s invested in this stuff, when he’s really keeping quiet about his true desire.”

“I was careful,” Saint said.  “We were careful.  Mags, D, and I.  We tracked everything.”

“You can’t,” I said.  Then I realized I’d spoken, and I had to follow up.  I hurried to try to get my thoughts in order.  “You can’t succeed like that.  It’s always easier to attack than to defend.  Defending, you have to devote attention to anticipating the enemy, you can’t devote too much planning to any one aspect of the defense.  You can be creative when attacking.  It’s why villains tend to win more than they lose.  Most of the time, they get to make the first move.  They get to rob a bank, and the heroes have to react, to guard.  Someone like Teacher?  You can’t be careful enough to be safe.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he protested.

“I’ll put it in simple terms,” Tattletale said.  “You wanted to stop the big A.I. from becoming a threat?  You made her stronger, I’m thinking, by putting her under pressure, giving her a trigger event.  You then paved the way for a lunatic like Teacher to get his hands on Dragon’s code.”

Saint clenched his jaw, until bulges stood out at either corner.

“In the process,” Tattletale added, “You made some enemies pretty pissed off, and you’ve burned all of your leverage.  But maybe you bought someone to break you out, someone good, and that you figured out a good spot to hide.  You’ll probably need it.”

He didn’t move.

“No?  Shit.  Then I hope you can do something useful.”

“Start by letting Dragon go,” I said.  “Give her a chance to fend for herself.  To help us fight.”

Unleash the dragon,” Imp whispered.

“I can’t.”

I clenched my fist.  I was so done with people being stubborn.  “Do you mean you won’t-”

“-He means he can’t,” Tattletale said.

Saint took in a deep breath, then sighed loudly.  “I set up the encryption with Dragon’s time locks.  I memorized the codes appropriate to key dates.  Outside of those key moments, the numbers and calculations are so long and complex you couldn’t hope to decipher it before the encryption shifted to the next phase.”

“When’s the next date?” I asked.

“September twentieth, twenty-thirteen.”

Months from now.

That was clever,” Imp said.

“What if we used the Number Man?” I suggested.

“Possible,” Tattletale said.

“Yes,” Saint said.  “It’s possible.  But so is Teacher deciphering it with a cabal of his custom-made thinkers.”

Shit,” Tattletale said.  “Narwhal?  May I?”

“Do it.”

“Door me,” Tattletale said.  “I need to talk to Number.”

There was a pause, and then a portal opened.

It wasn’t the Number Man who stepped out, but Defiant.

“They took it.  Not all of Dragon, but enough.  The rest is stored on satellite backups.”

“Door?”  Tattletale tried.  “Take us to Teacher?”


“Blocked,” I said.  “That part wasn’t a fake.”

“I know it’s blocked,” Tattletale said.  “Shit.

“Other options, then?” I said.  “Someone he left on this side, for his followers to contact?  The son?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “He wouldn’t have compromised the son as a red herring.”

We were left with our thoughts, trying to brainstorm a solution.

“Defiant?” Imp asked.

He turned to look at her.

“Serious question,” she said, all business.  “You can’t lie to me on this.”

“What is it?”

“Robot poontang.  How does it rate?”

“Jesus Christ,” Tattletale said.

Defiant didn’t answer.  His face was hidden, his body language masked by the armor he wore, but I could somehow sense the hostility radiating off of him.

“Hey.  I’m… I’m not one to judge.  I’m asking seriously, while the others do the strategic thinking they’re so good at.  I’m not necessarily interested in the robot ladies, but I figure I need a guy who’s not going to ignore me.  Robots are immune to my power, so I’m just thinking, if I get myself a tin man, well, they say a toy feels better than-”

I reached out and pressed my hand over her mouth.  “I’m sorry.  She doesn’t have all of the necessary filters.  I think she was trying to inject some levity into the atmosphere and she failed badly.”

I stared Imp in the eyes as I said that last bit.

Defiant only looked away, expressionless.

“No strategies spring to mind?”  Tattletale asked me.

“Only that we might put this off, track down the other threats.  So long as we’re dealing with major players, we’re going to run into someone who has a connection to Teacher.  Maybe one of them has a way to contact him, or to break into whatever universe he’s hiding in.”

“Wait,” Rachel spoke for what must have been the first time in ten or twenty minutes.  “Why?”

“Helping Dragon,” Canary said.  Narwhal gave her a sharp look, but Canary held firm.

“I’m usually okay with hanging back, let the others take care of this sort of thing.  But I’m not getting this.”

“We need to find Dragon, stop Teacher from seizing control of her or her technology.”


“Because he’s a lunatic with a penchant for murdering heads of state?”

“Does he want the world to end?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Probably not.”

“Then if we need Dragon’s help, why not let Teacher give us that?”

Imp craned her head to get her mouth free from my hand.  “Because it’d be evil Dragon.  Black Dragon?”

“It’d be my girlfriend,” Defiant said, “Whatever Saint says, she’s someone I care about deeply.  Someone I owe a great deal.  We’d be leaving her in the hands of a madman, to be dismantled, rebuilt, altered, tortured, mutilated, whatever you want to call it.  And Saint?  I do hope you’re not about to comment in any way on the subject.  It would not be wise.”

Saint closed his mouth.  He grunted instead.  “Mm.”

“She was fair to me,” I said.  I was thinking of the hug she gave me after I’d left the Undersiders.  “There aren’t many people I can name that have been fair or just.  There’s the Undersiders, my dad, some of the Chicago Wards.  If there was any way to help Dragon, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“But,” Defiant said.  “You think Hellhound might be right, or partially right.”

Rachel spoke, “When Saint said Dragon could have become dangerous, you were saying you were okay with the possibility, because we really needed her help.  Well, maybe she becomes dangerous thanks to Teacher.  Can we be okay with that?  It wouldn’t be the same person you know, they’d be on the wrong side, too far away even when they’re standing somewhere close, but I’ve dealt with that too.  Sometimes there’s bigger shit to deal with.”

She understands more than she lets on.  She doesn’t always ‘get’ the simple stuff, but she understands things.  She’s not dumb, I thought.  She just thinks differently.

“And if Teacher hurts Dragon the person?”  Canary asked.  “Not Dragon the tool, but the person inside?”

“Then you fuck him up,” Rachel said.  “Just like I’d fuck up someone who hurt Bastard, or Taylor.”

“Thanks,” I murmured.

“But, again, if there’s nothing you can do about it, then you grit your teeth and deal,” Rachel finished.

“It’s not a compromise I like,” Defiant said.  “But I don’t suppose I have much choice.”

They’re alike in this single-mindedness.

“All jokes aside,” Imp said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t really get to deal with Dragon when she wasn’t driving the psycho foam-spitting, lightning-shooting giant robots that totally counter my power, but she sounded like a cool person.”

“She was.  She was cool.”

I didn’t miss the use of the past tense as Defiant spoke.

“So that’s it?”  Canary asked.  “We just leave her?  Hope that Teacher doesn’t do something too horrible?”

“For now,” I said.

Narwhal had her hands on Defiant’s arm, as though she wasn’t sure whether to hold his hand or to hug him, and had decided on some middle ground.

“Okay,” Defiant said.  There was a little more conviction in his voice than there had been earlier.  I hadn’t noticed its absence.  “Okay.  But we ask everyone we deal with for options, keep every avenue open.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

He opened his laptop and set it on the desk of the little sheriff’s office.  He then turned on the television, reaching up to his glove to get a component that he plugged into the back of the television.

“Next target,” he said.  “Yàngbǎn?  They’re doing the most damage to our side.  People we know and rely on.”

“Not an immediate threat,” Tattletale said.

“Okay,” Defiant said.  “Alright.  Let’s see.  Systems aren’t running optimally.  It’s Dragon’s work, and I wasn’t organized when I brought the servers over to Gimel.  They aren’t wired together the way Dragon would have done it.  Let me see… Priority selection system.  Not ideal, a little clumsy, but it’ll give us a way to gauge the biggest threats.”

I turned my eyes to the television, where it showed the various windows, many streaming with data.

Then the priority menu opened.  A second’s typing filled the search bar: Threat parameter B+:7+.

The window unfolded, listing all of the serious threats to the inhabitants of the different Earths. Some of the entries were recent, while others hadn’t been updated in hours.  Communication between worlds would be difficult until there was more infrastructure, and things weren’t exactly conducive to building infrastructure.

The program kicked into gear, each sub-window suddenly flooding with information.  Threat levels, classifications, population estimates, geography, criminal histories, kill counts, atrocity counts, and more.  Each new piece of information was added to a series of tabs that appeared beside each relevant section of the image.

“I’d like to pose a question,” Saint said.

“Whatever Teacher’s doing, you enabled it,” Narwhal said.  “Nobody here is on your side.”

“When you were talking about masks, you talked about getting caught up in revenge.  It’s right.  Detrimental.  I’m offering assistance.”

“No,” Defiant said.

“If you keep me here, you need to maintain guards.  The people with clearance are you and Narwhal, two of the strongest capes around.  Bring me to the field, and you have two more capes on your side.”

“No,” Defiant said, once again.

“If it helps, there’s a better chance of me dying horribly out there than in here.”

Defiant didn’t answer.

The windows had stopped updating with updated information, but Defiant wasn’t moving to check any of it.  I then saw the text at the bottom of the screen: Next 12 of 32 additional windows.

Too many threats to fight.

“If Mags is still in prison, you have leverage against me,” Saint said.  “D. too.  He’s just a friend, but I’d miss him.  I’d also be able to offer up my side’s suits.  Something for the Rogue girl, so she’s a little more durable.”

“Shut up,” Defiant said.

“It makes sense, Defiant,” Narwhal said. “It’s not pretty, but it makes sense.”

“I know it makes sense,” Defiant answered her, not taking his eyes off the laptop, “Let me pretend for just a little while longer that we can leave him locked up for the rest of his natural life.”

“Given the whole Scion ending the world thing,” Imp commented, “That’s not very long.”

“I’d settle for letting him stew for a few days,” Defiant said.

He moved the cursor on the screen without moving his hands.  Something in his eyes?  His brain?

He went to a tab beside the highest priority threat.  It was red, and there was a number inside it: 8.

It was updates.  New information that had come up in the last few minutes.  Pictures.

Defiant scrolled through the images of the Simurgh, floating in the air above the ocean in the middle of the day.  The last one was from just an hour ago, showing her in early evening, utterly still.

The last three images weren’t of the Simurgh.

Bohu.  The towering Endbringer.  The keeper, the siege tower, the invader.

It was hard to think of the terms that applied to Bohu alone.  Tohu and Bohu were usually referred to as the Twins.

But Tohu was nowhere to be seen.

And Bohu had situated herself in the middle of a field.  The ground was only beginning to reshape beneath her, twisting into structures, walls, a maze of stone, soil and grass, of arches and pillars without anything to support.

She simply loomed, her impossibly long arms hanging at her side, head slightly bowed, her eyes shut.

The other images showed the same thing from different angles.  One from the other side, then another from directly above, showing the alterations to her surroundings as concentric circles.

It was daylight.  Going by the times of the photos, she was on the opposite side of the planet, roughly, from the Simurgh.

“Holy fuck,” Canary murmured.  “Two at once?”

“It’s another thing on the list of shit we can’t do anything about,” Imp said, her tone cavalier.  “No sweat, no sweat.”

“Right.  We need to focus on what we can handle.  Next on the list of issues we need to address are the Blasphemies,” Defiant said.

“No…” I said, trailing off.  I was thinking of something Dinah had said, when she’d described the way things would go down at the end of the world.

Five groups.  Each with capes from around the world, with armies.

Four Endbringers and Scion?  Or something else entirely?

“…No.  Let’s pay a little more attention to what’s happening here.”

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Cockroaches 28.1

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“…Man, oh man, did you ever fuck the dog, here.”

Blaming me?

I’d failed.  I’d taken on the world ending threat and come up short.  Why had I even expected to be able to do anything?  Arrogant.

But someone else responded to the accusation.  “We did no such thing, Tattletale.  Working with the knowledge we had, we put our best foot forward, as did the others.  The fault does not lie with us.”

It was the Doctor, uncharacteristically irritated.

Well, Tattletale was good at getting a rise out of people.

“Do I need to repeat myself, Doctor?  You wanted to take charge, you proposed this scenario?  Great.  Except you didn’t put your best foot forward.  It fell apart as a result, and now we’re in a worse place than ever.  The dog is fucked.  Thoroughly.  All available holes.”

“You don’t need to repeat yourself,” the Doctor said.  “Please.  Your meaning is clear.”

“Can you stop talking about fucking the dogs, now?” another young woman said.  Rachel, I suspected.

“Let’s be honest, Doctor.  This was a critical moment, maybe the most critical, and you held back your best cards.  You could have evacuated most of the people there, and you didn’t.”

“If we had tried and failed, we might have lost the ability to easily move people between worlds.  Do us both a favor, Tattletale, and stop pretending you’re a brilliant individual.  You have access to a lot of information, but that doesn’t equate intelligence.  An intelligent individual would recognize that they don’t have all of the facts.”

Oh hell.

I sat up, ready to intervene, and I felt something off.  Enough that I gave up on stepping between them.  I opened my eyes, but nobody was in my line of sight.  My hand and lower body were intact.

“We’re sinking down to base insults?  Trust me, I’m way better than you at that, Dr. Mengele.  I get that you’re upset over losing Eidolon, but let’s not cross a line and become enemies.  We can’t afford to add more conflict to the pile.”

Losing Eidolon?

Oh hell.

“I was merely stating the facts: namely that you don’t have all of the facts.”  The Doctor sighed audibly.  “I’d hoped you had something of import to share when you called me in.”

My body was intact, but it didn’t feel right.  I experimented, tapping the thumb of my ‘new’ hand against the individual fingertips, then repeated the process, mimicking the movements with my other hand.

“You’ve already shown you have one group of soldiers you’ve been holding in reserve.  I know you’ve got more.  Weapons, soldiers, tools, tricks.  You asked some of the best and brightest of humanity to go fight, as phase A in a series of plans you have in mind.  You barely care.  So you move on to plan B.  That didn’t fucking work.  So are you going to throw away more lives, to maybe stop Scion, now?  On to plan C?”

I clenched my hands, then stretched my entire body.  The sensations matched but it still felt out of sync in a way I couldn’t place.

The Doctor responded, her tone overly patient, “If we’d gone all out, an upset of some sort might have spoiled all plans at once. Then where would we stand?”

“If we’d gone all out from the outset, we might have stopped him.”

“Then answer this, Tattletale, are you telling me you didn’t have any idea about our plan B, plan C and all of the other contingencies, or are you telling me you knew, but you said nothing?”

There was a pause, Tattletale declining to respond.

I glanced around the room.  It was dark, and there were curtains at the far end, drawn shut.  There were four beds, but two of the four were empty.

A girl with banana yellow hair and feathers sticking out of her scalp sat on the bed that was to my left and across from me.  She was sitting on the bed, over top of the covers, with only a folded blanket bunched around her feet.  She wore a sky blue shirt, bright orange shorts and lime green eye shadow. Her body language wasn’t a hundredth as vibrant as her clothing.

She glanced at me, and I looked away, not wanting to look like I was staring.

I opened my mouth to speak to the yellow-haired girl, but Tattletale started speaking, and I shut my mouth to listen.  I could tell she was in the next room, by the volume and direction of her voice.  “…I had an idea, but I’d expected you to play your cards if worst came to worst.”

“A good lawyer won’t ask a question on the stand if they don’t already know the answer they’re going to receive.  You should take that under advisement.  With the information you have available, you shouldn’t ever make assumptions.  The only person you can blame when you’re proven wrong is yourself.”

“I feel pretty confident I can blame you on this one, Doctor.”

“Do what you need to in order to make peace with yourself.  At this juncture, it might be all you can do.  Buying time and making peace with things at the end.  Thank you for wasting my time.  Door.”

Tattletale didn’t respond.  I could only assume Doctor Mother had left.  I reached out for my swarm, and I found for the first time in months that there weren’t many nearby.  How long had it been since I slept and didn’t have an emergency swarm nearby for self-defense and investigation?  Since I didn’t leave hundreds of thousands of spiders spinning threads of silk?

That wasn’t to say there weren’t any.  There were bugs throughout the building, but they hadn’t moved until I woke up.  Spiders in corners, bugs in the walls.  A hospital, newly built judging by the freshness of the wood.  I could smell it.

There were tents just outside, set on grass that was just starting to die.

I hadn’t even registered it consciously when I visited New Brockton Bay, but the grass had been fresh, alive.

It had been days.

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, sliding them out from under the sheets.  I realized I was wearing only the hospital gown.

My costume-

-Would be destroyed, I realized, belatedly.  The lower half, anyways.  No reason to expect the silk would last if the flesh and bone had been obliterated.

Which raised really strange thoughts on the particulars of having my legs rebuilt.  I’d spent years running as a matter of routine.  A part of me had been proud of the way I’d honed my body, built up my stamina.

Had they rebuilt my legs with that same strength and stamina?  With the muscles reflecting the regular exercise?  If they had, was it really my strength?  If they hadn’t, could I deal with it?  Work my way back to where I had been?

If humanity even survived that long.

I needed to go to the bathroom, which made me think of other things.  Had my private parts been reconstituted?  Had Panacea paid any particular attention to the redesign or accuracy of the architecture or plumbing?

Or had it been Bonesaw that fixed me up?

My skin crawled at the thought, heebie-jeebies from head to toe.  No bugs involved.  The sensation only served to remind me of how alien the new body parts felt, reinforcing the creeped out feeling.

Someone found a powerful regeneration-granter and healed me.  Bonesaw and Panacea had nothing to do with it, I told myself.  Nothing to do with it.

The first bugs in the hospital were starting to make their way to me.  They crawled up the sides of the bed and up onto the hospital gown I wore.  I eased my feet down to the cold tile and steadied myself against the bed.

My body was okay, but I felt out of it in the same way I might have if I’d slept in too long.

Not that I’d had that luxury in some time.

Maybe it was odd, to think about things in this sense, to be concerned about my swarm or my body or the fact that I was tired.  Part of that might have been an unconscious form of procrastination.

“Hey,” the yellow-haired girl spoke.  She was quiet, but the utterance carried across the room.

I’d been staring down at the foot of the bed.  I looked up at her.

“You okay?  If there’s pain, or if you don’t feel okay to move, I can hit the button to call someone.”

Her voice was attention grabbing, the pitch and tone shifting very deliberately.  Done badly, it might have sounded like she was over-enunciating.  She leveraged it well enough that it didn’t sound that way, nor did it detract from the sympathy she was expressing.

I was a little caught off guard by it.  Left wordless, I shook my head.

“Things are bad, but I guess you heard that much,” she said.

“Yeah,” I managed.

“I’d explain, but your friends would probably be kinder.”

I shook my head a little.  “You don’t know my friends.”

“They cared enough to sit by you.  One or two of them even held your hand during the tougher moments.”


“Panacea said your nerve endings were being reformed, and it was pretty raw.  So you had a lot of fits, like seizures.”

“Oh,” I said.  “It’s been a few days, I’m guessing?”

“I guess.  I moved in here last night, and you were still out.”

I felt my heart sink.  It was confirmation.  Scion was still active, and had been for at least one day.

“How bad is the situation?” I asked.

She glanced at the door.  “Bad.”

“That’s not telling me anything.”

Really bad?”

“Casualty numbers?  Key deaths?”

She shook her head.  “I don’t- I never followed any of the cape stuff.”

“You’re a rogue, then,” I said.  And an ex-member of the Birdcage, if I remember right.

“Yeah.  Canary.  I was a singer, until midway through twenty-ten.  Indie, but I was breaking through to mainstream, some radio stuff.”

I nodded, not really caring.  I wanted more details, and I didn’t.

“Another Earth, another time, another society,” she said, more to herself than to me.

I moved and flexed my legs, trying to judge if the old musculature was intact.  It felt more out of sync than my hands did.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t ungrateful, but…

No, not worth moaning over it, one way or the other.  I had my life, I had an intact body.

“Do you know if this is even remotely salvageable?” I asked.  “Humanity?  Civilization?”

She shook her head.  “No.”

Was that a no, it wasn’t salvageable, or no, she didn’t know?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to ask.  I saw Aisha poke her head in, glancing into the room.  She met my eyes, then disappeared.

“Well,” she said, “They’re still fighting.  Kind of.  So there has to be something to fight for, right?”

She injected a note of hope into the statement.   I almost believed her, almost bought into it.

But I shook my head.  “Kind of, but kind of not?”

“People were talking about it, asked if I’d fight, and they encouraged me and stuff, but when I said no, they started talking among themselves, and it didn’t sound so hot.”

“No.  I’m thinking it probably isn’t so hot.  You’re right.  There are reasons to fight, and saving humanity isn’t necessarily the sum of it.”

“Selfish reasons,” she concluded.

I nodded.  “Pride.  Revenge.  Sheer stubbornness.  I like stubbornness.”

She nodded, but she didn’t respond.

“Why aren’t you fighting?” I asked.  Then I raised a hand, stopping her before she could speak.  “Sorry.  That came out like an accusation.  I only… I meant it out of curiosity.”

“It’s okay.  I might deserve the accusations.  I’m not a fighter.  Like, at all.  Besides, what could I do?  Girl with a good voice.”

I shook my head.

Voices.  I thought about it.  How many capes had I run into with eerie or altered voices?  I’d had the beginnings of a thought while talking to some kids  back in my first days among the Chicago Wards.  Cricket, Rachel, Labyrinth, Night, Oni Lee, Mannequin and others I couldn’t be bothered to think of, had had their voices or their abilities to communicate either removed or altered irrevocably.  Leviathan, Scion, the other Endbringers, they didn’t speak either, but they weren’t quite human.

Me, Grue, Eidolon, Glaistig Uaine, Dragon, Defiant, Bakuda, Über, Canary… we’d all used powers or technology to manipulate our voices, had done it as a matter of habit.  A lot of us were powerful capes, others were minor capes striving to look more important.  Odds were good I fit in Über’s position, more than Eidolon’s.  I could guess that Canary was in the ‘low power’ category as well, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Bakuda was hard to place, but I suspected her power was devastating, and her lack of success was due to the chassis the power had attached to.  An unstable, unpredictable individual, too intent on terrorism to become as big as her power deserved.

Damn, we could probably have used some of her best work.

Was there something important in that jumble of stray thoughts on voices and communication problems, or was my mind wandering in vain attempts to avoid thinking about how bad things were?

Communication.  The word crossed my mind.

Tattletale entered the room through the door to Canary’s left.  Rachel and Aisha followed, with Bastard and another dog trailing behind.  Tattletale carried a pile of clothes, neatly folded and stacked.

“Tailored to your measurements.  I wasn’t sure if you’d be keen on getting straight into costume or not.  A lot of people aren’t.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking the clothes.

I didn’t dress.  Instead, I stood by the side of the bed, holding the clothing.

They waited, as if apprehensive.  Aisha wasn’t visibly upset, so I could assume Grue had gotten out.

I sighed a little.  “How bad is it?”

“We lost just about half of everyone,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe more, but communicating’s hard right now.  Don’t exactly have an infrastructure.”

“Everyone being-”

“The capes, the civilians.  Everyone.  Half of Bet’s onetime population is gone, just about.  Good news is he’s traveling between possible Earths, hitting major population centers, so the individual incidents aren’t doing so much damage on a relative level.  Bad news is he’s traveling between possible Earths.”

I tried to process that, then gave up.  “How many possible Earths are there?”

“Not as many as there should be,” Tattletale said.  “Technically, every action should create a world where that action came to pass.  Best guess is that he compartmentalized everything.  Limited how far we could roam so he could save the other Earths for… something.”

I nodded slowly.

“We’re in bad shape,” Tattletale said.  She offered me a sympathetic half-grin, as if she’d just told a joke she knew was bad.

“We’re doomed,” Aisha added.  “The dog is fucked.”

Rachel wrapped her arm around Aisha’s neck, seizing her in a headlock, wordless.  Aisha struggled and squeaked, while Rachel maintained the hold, not so tight as to choke, but tight enough to be uncomfortable.

I looked pointedly at Canary, as if to say, I told you they’d be blunt.

Tattletale followed my gaze.  “Refugees.  We’re forced to keep moving, split up and spread out because of limited resources, and to minimize the damage when any one location gets hit.  Canary was a refugee from another group.  She wanted a place to stay, I offered.”

“Canary said people are still fighting,” I ventured.

Tattletale didn’t budge an inch.  A poker face.  Aisha’s expression, by contrast, gave it away.  Pained, concerned, looking to Tattletale for validation.

“No?” I asked.

“Yes,” Tattletale said, but she didn’t look confident.  “Except it’s not Scion they’re fighting.”

I’d heard of someone’s heart skipping a beat, had read about it enough times, but this was something else.  It was more like missing a stair and hitting the ground floor a little too hard, a thud in my chest.

So many things that could mean, none of them good.

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear, a tell, and then pointed at the door.  “Easier to show than to tell.  Come on, Canary.”

“I don’t- I’m not sure I want to know,” Canary said.

“You’re going to find out one way or another.”

Canary didn’t budge.

“Okay.  Whatever,” Tattletale said.  She glanced at me.  “I’m gonna pull up all the relevant files, so this won’t be five seconds of explanation with thirty seconds of searching between each bit.  Come whenever you’re dressed and ready.  If you want to get her to come along, it probably wouldn’t hurt.”

I nodded.

Tattletale stepped out, and Rachel let her arm drop.  I was surprised to see Aisha there, a little flushed in the face as she fled.  She gave Rachel the middle finger on her way out, walking backwards through the door.

I almost started to close the curtain for privacy, then realized I didn’t give a damn.  I began pulling on the underwear.

“Are you going to try to convince me to fight?” Canary asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” I responded.  “No point, is there?  Unless you want me to.”

“She’s scared,” Rachel observed.

Everyone’s scared,” I responded.  Rachel hesitated, then nodded a little.

Canary spoke up, “What did she mean, it wouldn’t hurt?”

I started putting on the skinny jeans Tattletale had given me, hiking them up beneath the hospital gown.  “My guess?  Most of the people we lost were some of the best of us.  Team leaders, brilliant tinkers, people who’ve seen ten or more Endbringer fights.  People you’ve heard about in the news, people you grew up reading about in magazines or newspapers.  Heroes, villains, people who don’t apply to either category, all gone.”

I watched her expression change, studied it.  Eyebrows raising, the movements of her eyes as she mentally processed the fact that people like Eidolon weren’t around any more.

I continued.  “…They were the sort of people who’d go to the front line without hesitation.  Not sure how many we have left, but odds are good we’re down to a select few.  Major players who were lucky, clever or tough enough to walk away, capes with crappy powers or powers that don’t apply, and then rogues or new capes who aren’t experienced in fighting.”

Gently, cautiously, I added, “We need everyone we can get.”

“I… I can’t do violence.  Like, at all,” Canary protested.  I turned my back to pull off the hospital gown and do my bra.  I noted a change in the coloration of my skin where the flesh had been regrown.

“It’s easy,” Rachel said, taking over while I was distracted.  “You hurt people until they stop doing whatever it is that irritated you.  Taylor kicked me in the head the first time we met, and she was way scrawnier than you are now.  I stopped doing what she hated me doing, setting my dogs on her.”

“No.  I mean, it’s like, mentally, I couldn’t do it.  I get sick at the sight of blood.  Besides, my power wouldn’t affect Scion.”

“Probably not,” I agreed, pulling on the strapless top with the string going around the throat.  I turned around.  I thought about what Doctor Mother had said at the last big meeting.  “But the real question is, do you want to be there when the world ends, struck by the sudden realization that maybe, possibly, you could have done something to help?”

She stared down at her legs.

“Baby steps,” I said.  “I’m not asking you to fight.  Just… come.  Listen to what Tattletale has to say.  Guilt free, just to go that far.”

“And then it’s harder to refuse the next part,” she said.

“I promise I won’t ask you to do anything,” I said.  “Strictly volunteer stuff.  If nothing else, think of it as a morale thing.  I’m using my bugs to feel out the surroundings, and the building is damn empty.  I’d feel a hell of a lot better about this if we had just one more body in the room.”

“A morale thing.”

I nodded.


I grabbed the heavy jacket Tattletale had included and pulled it on.  If we were going anywhere Scion had been, odds were good it’d be cold, much like Earth Bet had been on our last visit.

We made our way out of the little room with the beds.

Tattletale had set up a command center.  The bulletin boards, the notes, the files, books and more had all multiplied tenfold.  She must have moved me closer to home, so I could be watched.

Aisha was with her, sitting on the edge of the desk.

“Bitch,” Tattletale said.  “Can-”

“I’ll go patrol,” Rachel said.

Tattletale nodded.

She turned one of her computer monitors our way as we approached, so we had a clear view.  When she started the clip, the same video showed on each of the monitors on the desk.

“Video feed from a cape called Greenhorn.”

“I know him,” I said.  A new member of the Wards, having joined just before the Slaughterhouse Nine reappeared.  Untrained, he’d deigned to wear Defiant’s combat calculation suit.

The image played out.  It took me a while to realize what I was looking at.  A crowd of refugees, fleeing into a portal.

The camera panned as Greenhorn turned his head.

Faultline was there, along with Dinah, Gregor, Labyrinth and Scrub.

Tattletale waited, then paused the image.  She tapped the screen.

I glanced at the image, but I didn’t see anything out of place.  People in the crowd, tired, worn out.  A middle-aged man with a group of male teenagers and other men aged twenty to thirty.

“I don’t see it,” I said.

“You will,” she said.  She resumed the video.

I watched the man she’d pointed out.  Familiar, but not overwhelmingly so.  Nobody I knew.

The crowd flowed through the portal as a mass.  Up until the man I was watching stopped, turning around.  The men and boys from the group around him did too.  They became obstacles, standing against the stream of bodies.

“Far left,” Tattletale said.  “Recognize him?”

I looked.  A tan young man with dark hair cut close to his head.  He was perched on top of a thick wooden sign, his hand on a taller man’s shoulder for balance.

“No, I said.

“You only saw him without his mask a few times,” Tattletale said.

He was a cape?  I thought about it.  How many capes had I seen without a mask on?  Someone I’d seen while in Tattletale’s company, or who Tattletale would know I’d only seen a few times?

It clicked, but something was already happening on the image.  Greenhorn was standing on the same side of the portal as the group.  Then he wasn’t.  The image had shifted, and he was standing by other Wards and Protectorate members.

The image whirled as Greenhorn spun around.  He had been moved outside of the portal.

The man Tattletale had pointed out raised a device over his head, then hit a button.

The portal disappeared.

I watched as Labyrinth and Scrub stepped forward to try to knock open another portal.  They succeeded, but their efforts apparently didn’t allow access back into the same world.

It was Teacher.  One of the cell block leaders of the Birdcage.  He had the ability to make others into thinkers and tinkers, but it left them extremely suggestible.  He’d surrounded himself with these mooks, then, what, he’d shut himself into another world and barricaded the door?

The cape Tattletale had pointed out would be Trickster, ex-leader of the Travelers, apparently one of Teacher’s brainwashed minions.

The volume had been turned almost all the way down, but it hadn’t been muted.  I could hear the faint cries of the crowd, see Greenhorn moving to stop them from rioting.  The looks of desperation, the fear, the panic, at realizing their way out had just been denied them.

The camera moved to Faultline.  She was talking, giving orders.

Labyrinth changed the ‘channel’ on the portal, setting it to a different world.  The people began moving through again, a little faster, more forcefully.

“He betrayed us?” I asked.

“No idea.  Maybe he wanted a safe place to work on a trump card with zero distractions.  Going by his modus operandi, though, yeah, I think he betrayed us.  Not a big betrayal, but that’s one world where we moved a hell of a lot of supplies in”

I nodded, pursing my lips.

“Saint’s upset, to put it mildly.  We ran the data.  Apparently he crossed paths with Teacher at some point a few months before Teacher’s incarceration.  There have been almost no cases where Teacher’s power lasted more than a few days without a refresher, and the brainwashing wears off over a few weeks or months, so yeah.  It’s not that.”

“Saint wants something from Teacher?  A power?”

“Probably.  Anyways, Teacher had a few of those devices made.  Four portals in all that particular interest groups claimed and locked down, using these switches, wanting worlds all to themselves.  No major players in the bunch, no sign of any greater conspiracy.  Defiant was all too happy to bring Saint into custody, and we’re kind of hoping to get a response out of the man.  That’s problem number one.”

Number one, I thought.  I felt a sick feeling settling in my gut.

“Number two.”

The video played.  Not a camera anyone wore, but a steady image that panned left and then right.  A surveillance camera.  The scene was of a settled area.

Silent image, but the detonations were so vivid, so violent, I could imagine the noise of it, that crashing sound that would be followed with dead silence after the shockwave blew out eardrums.  Ten or twelve explosions at different points across the camera’s field of view.  Coordinated strikes.

“Yàngbǎn,” Tattletale said.  “Refused to let Faultline or Cauldron open up any portals in the C.U.I. territories, and then the moment things got ugly, they invaded the portals others made instead.  Striking American settlements.  Including ours, potentially.  Part of the reason for Bitch’s patrolling right now.  Wouldn’t mind you doing a double-check of the area with your bugs, when you’re up for it.”

I nodded slowly.

“Number three.  No video, so you’ll have to take my word for it.  Cauldron.”

“You said they tried something,” I said.

“You overheard.  Yes, but that’s not what this is about.  It’s the Irregulars.  They’re actively fighting Cauldron, despite Cauldron’s extensive resources, and they haven’t been wiped out or assassinated.  Arguably the strongest precog out there, arguably the strongest clairvoyant, countless other resources, and they’re actually stressing Doctor Mother out.”

“How?” I asked.

“Hard to say.  Could be that Cauldron made a mistake, let a case fifty-three with a powerful Stranger ability slip through the cracks, and Weld recruited him or her.  Could be a disgruntled customer.”

“Disgruntled?” Aisha asked.  “Fun word, makes me gruntled, but I don’t follow your meaning.  Superpowers for cash instead of powers for trauma… how is anyone not cool with that?”

“Maybe Canary could shed light on this?” Tattletale suggested.

Canary’s eyes opened wide.

“You bought Cauldron powers?” I asked.


“Pretty rare for a natural cape to get powers with physical changes,” Tattletale said.  “Cauldron capes?  Yeah.  You definitely see stuff like feathers.”

“I wasn’t disgruntled,” Canary said.  “I freaked, and I couldn’t exactly charge back on my credit card or sue them.  But I adjusted.  I got what I really wanted in the end.  By the time I realized I’d gotten too much of what I wanted, I was already in jail.”

“Shit sucks,” Aisha said.  “Scammed hard, grow yellow feathers on top of a shitty fashion sense, get what you want and then boom, it’s all over.  Off to jail.”

“I dress colorfully so people don’t connect me to the Simurgh so easily,” Canary said.  “Keeps me from getting cussed out or beaten by someone who lost a friend or family member.”

“Getting back to the question, with all of the issues you’ve faced, you could see where someone else would be less cool about it, yeah?” Tattletale asked.

Canary nodded.  “Um, definitely.  The stuff they give you isn’t always reliable.  You’re always gambling, whether it’s on the amount of raw power, the nature of the power, all of that crap.

“And if someone like Weld showed up, saying he has contacts in the Protectorate and the Wards, good friends, who told him they’ve got a way to break into another universe if they can find a spot where a portal was opened, and they just need you to tell them where Cauldron opened one?”

“They stepped through into my dad’s house once, so I could talk to a therapist before I took anything.  Yeah.  If things had gone differently, I could have pointed them to the right place.”

“Another possibility for how the Irregulars are managing,” Tattletale said, sounding satisfied.  “With Contessa and Cauldron’s other hit squads being too busy with more important matters to retaliate.”

I nodded.  It wasn’t sound, but there was enough there for me to acknowledge it was very possible.

“Issue number four.”

“Wait,” I said.

Tattletale paused.

“This is a thing?  There’s a pattern here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?  I mean, you can connect the dots.”

I could.

“You said it before,” Canary told me.  “Remember?  There are reasons for people to fight, reasons to keep going when all is lost.  Pride, revenge, stubbornness.”

“Fuck me,” I said.  I stepped back, leaning against the wall.  The blunt ends of tacks poked me in the back and shoulders where I leaned against a bulletin board.  “Fuck!  They’re all fighting, and they’re not fucking capable of turning this aggression towards Scion?  What the fuck?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Scion trounced some of our strongest capes and as far as we can tell, we didn’t even slow him down.  We only gave him the bright idea of attacking other Earths, buying our world a few days at most, but we screw over a trillion other people in the process.  Might be they want to do something that isn’t futile, before humanity gets wiped out.”

I hung my head, and my hair fell forward.  I clenched my fists, and I could still feel the alien sensation in my hand.  I rubbed my fingers against the palm.

“I’m going to keep going, just so you know what’s up,” Tattletale said.  “Issue four.  Elites, Vegas Dark, less pleasant members of the Thanda.  We’ve got the businessmen and bastards of Vegas’s underworld, guys who were already gaming the system, only now they’re moving into refugee locations on the far sides of the portals and trying to elbow their way in while things are just starting up.  Hoping to make themselves a fixture like we made ourselves fixtures, so everything grows up around them, dependent on them.”

I nodded, feeling just a touch numb.  “I don’t need in depth explanations.”

“Fine.  Five?  Sleeper on Zayin.  Six?  Warlords on Bet, preying on those who decided not to leave.  There’s shit sprouting up all over, so maybe I could save issue seven is everything else put together.  We could get wiped out under the combined weight of a thousand lesser issues.”

“Not a problem,” Aisha commented, her tone ironic.  “Easy peasy.”

I stared at the screens.

Tattletale studied me, then added, “The Simurgh showed up on Bet, but there’s nothing really left for her to destroy,” Tattletale said.  “There’s refugees, people who didn’t leave, holed up here and there, but she doesn’t seem to care enough to go after them.  She’s… still.  A non-threat, at least for now.”

“It’s too early for her to show up,” I said.

“They’re attracted to conflict,” Tattletale replied.  Answer enough.

“It’s funny,” Aisha observed, “In this really sad, demented, ‘everything sucks’ way.  ‘Oh hey, here to destroy everything… oh, is everything already destroyed?  Shit, fuck.  Guess I’ll hang out, dick around over here while humanity winds down like an unwound clock that some golden asshole is stomping into little pieces’.”

“Your metaphors tend to fall apart,” Tattletale observed.

Aisha shrugged.

“People have given up, then,” I said.  “We mustered our strength, gathered some of our best, and he took us down.  He killed one of our strongest.  So now they’re focused on petty things.  Even if we could fix it all, we’ve still got the Endbringers and Scion waiting to systematically murder us all.”

“All of the great things humanity’s done,” Canary said, “Innovation, society, great works of art, the music…  I kind of hoped we go out in some noble way.”

“I don’t think humanity is noble,” I said.  “Not in the least.  It’s not just or fair on an intrinsic level.  It’s not even good.  But I kind of hoped we’d go out fighting the other guy.  Dinah said Scion would take out just about everyone, leaving anywhere from a few billion to a few hundred still alive.  Probably the people who’ve scattered far enough apart it’s not worth hunting them down.”

“Probably,” Tattletale said.

“Looking at this stuff, hearing you describe it all, I’m starting to think that maybe we’ll destroy ourselves in the end.  Infighting, stupidity, revenge, all of that.  Humanity will clean up whatever members of humanity Scion leaves alive, or leave us too screwed up to bounce back.”

“Ergo, the dog is fucked,” Aisha murmured, barely audible.

Tattletale snorted a half-laugh, despite herself.  That, in turn, made me smirk stupidly.

Tattletale saw that, and she laughed a little, which started me going.

Aisha joined in.  Not a full belly laugh, but a giggle fit, all the more infectious because of how out of place it was.

I glanced at Canary, who was looking at us like we were batshit insane, and that only started me going again.

It took us a minute or two to stop altogether.

“Where the hell did you learn a word like ergo?”  Tattletale asked.  I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing any more.

Aisha shrugged, smiling a little.

“So.  Want to join in on the petty shit?  Anyone in particular you want revenge on?”  Tattletale asked.  “Aisha?  Taylor?  Canary?  Feel free to speak up.  No judgement here.”

“I’ll judge you a teeny bit,” Aisha said.

“No,” Canary said.  “Don’t want any revenge.  Like I said, I’m not big on violence or any of that.”

“I’m not one to put off revenge,” Aisha said.

“What about the bullies?”  Tattletale asked me.

“I made peace with that some time ago.  No petty shit I’m that invested in.”

Rachel had returned, tying her dogs up outside.  I followed her with the bugs that clung to her as she made her way inside and upstairs.

“Want to go get laid?”  Tattletale asked.  “Seems like something people tend to do in the movies, when the end is nigh.”

“Were you just inviting Taylor or-”

Tattletale swiveled in her chair and kicked Aisha in the shin.  “No.  I’m not interested in that kind of thing.  My power makes it way less fun than it ought to be.  Information overload during sex is squick.”

“Sure,” Aisha said.  “Sure.”

Tattletale kicked at her again.  Aisha only cackled.

“No,” I said.  “I’ve enjoyed that sort of thing, but that was more to do with who I was with than anything else.”

“Ew, ew, ew.  TMI.  Unless you’re talking about someone else.  Tell me you’re talking about someone else.”


“Ew, ew, ew.”

Rachel entered the room.  Bastard was bigger than an ordinary dog, smaller than a pony.  He followed her, the collapsed on a pile of sheets in one corner of the room.  He heaved out a sigh.

“Welcome back,” I said.

Rachel nodded.  She surveyed the room, taking us all in.  “You’re all in a good mood.”

“Just having fun,” Tattletale said.  “End of the fucking world, people are stupid beyond belief.  It’s at the point where you can either laugh or cry, and I promised myself I wouldn’t cry a long, long time ago.”

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.  “Right.”

Never been one to keep a conversation going, I thought.  Rachel stopped at the end of the desk opposite Aisha.

I took a step to my left, and I sort of bumped my arm against her arm, smiling a little.  She bumped me back.  She didn’t smile, but she put an arm up around my shoulders and set her hand on my head, mussing with my hair, like she had earlier.

“We were talking about what we’d do,” Tattletale said.  “You got any boy toys, Bitch?  Any way to scratch that particular itch?”

Rachel shook her head.

“Where’s Grue?”  I asked, all of a sudden.

“Ew, gross.  Can you not make those obvious leaps in logic?”

“He’s gone,” Tattletale said.  “He was here while Panacea put you back together.  When, um, she was working on you, he borrowed her power and took over for a bit.  I don’t know if you’re going to see that as weird or gross or a weirdly sweet goodbye gift or deeply invasive or whatever, but yeah.  Maybe he just needed to help.  Needed to know that he could save you or help you or fix you after you’d fulfilled one of his old fears and gone and got yourself murdered in a fit of recklessness.”

“And then he left?”

“Retired, quit.  Maybe losing the fight, verifying he couldn’t do anything constructive, it took something out of him.  Seeing you like that, it took something else.  And then he ran into Bonesaw.”

“She didn’t work on me?”

“No.  We didn’t let her.  She’s paired up with Panacea for now, because Panacea is really the only way we can double check her work.  Anyways, yeah.  Grue confirmed you were on your way, he was leaving, she was walking in.  They crossed paths.  I think it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  He left without a word.  Cozen came by, asking if we had a spot they could head off to.  I sent them to a cabin we put a bit out of the way.  Generator, toilets, books, movies, insulation.  Pretty sure it’s just the two of them, taking care of each other until the world ends.”

I drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.

I couldn’t bring myself to feel envious, jealous or upset.

“Okay,” I said.  “Good.”

Tattletale nodded.

I thought about the others.  “Parian, Foil?  Are they keeping each other company too?”

“Of course,” Aisha said.

“Says our resident voyeur, a touch too knowingly,” Tattletale said.

“That was the one time!  Which wasn’t even fun voyeurism, because it was my brother.  And I didn’t say it knowingly at all.”

“The lady doth protests too much,” Tattletale said.

“I’m protesting exactly enough and fuck you!  Like you’re not privy to the sordid details of other people’s lives.”

“Privy?  Sordid?  So soon after ergo?  Have you been reading, Aisha Laborn?”

Rachel nudged me.  “They were helping with the patrols, watching for the gem-faced motherfuckers who’re probably going to cause trouble.”

Oh, she was answering my question about Parian and Foil.

“Gem-faced motherfuckers?  The Yàngbǎn?”

“Them.  So the other two are around.  They’re here for work but they don’t really hang out.  They’re better at dealing with people than I am, so they do that.  Investigate shit.  I’m the one that drags the assholes back here.”

“Sheriff of New Brockton Bay,” I said, speaking just a little louder to be heard over the others.

“…fucking words because of you.  Talking funny, trying to sound smart…”

“You said something like that,” Rachel told me.  “Before you left.”

I nodded.

“Sorry about that,” I said.  “Leaving.”


No forgiveness, but then again, I probably didn’t deserve it so easily.

“I’ll be back,” I said.  “Have to go.”

Rachel nodded.

I made my way to the bathroom to relieve myself, then took a minute to wash my hair and try to comb my hair into a semblance of order.  Try being the operative word.

Two days, at least, I’d been out, probably three, if I judged by the state of my hair.  Rachel rubbing my head hadn’t helped.

I took a deep breath, then exhaled.

I made my way back to the others.  Tattletale and Imp had stopped bickering.

We settled into an easy silence.  It was a sort of quiet state I’d found with Rachel, but it was rare to have with any of the others.  Rarer still with Imp.

As memories went, for bringing everything to a close, it was alright.

It was the outsider who broke the silence.

“This is us?”  Canary asked.  “We’re whiling away the time until the world ends?  Giving up like everyone else?”

“What?”  Tattletale asked.  She gave Canary a funny look.  “No.  Fuck no.”

“No,” Aisha said.  “Wait, did anyone think that?  Because I was thinking this was more us trying to decide what the hell we need to do before we throw ourselves into one final, suicidally reckless attack.”

“Basically,” I said.  “Minus the suicidally reckless part.  There’s other stuff we can try first.  But yeah.  I think we’re mostly on the same page here.”

“Go out fighting,” Rachel said.

“Go out fighting, ” Tattletale confirmed.

“Nothing held back,” I added.  “Right.  I’ll need my stuff.”

“Put the pack and what’s left of your costume aside.  I can go get it anytime.”

I nodded.

“We’ll need help,” Tattletale said.

“Parian and Foil?  Can we get them onboard?”

“Probably, if we can come up with a convincing argument.”

I nodded, thinking.  “What about Shadow Stalker?  Any idea where she is?”

“She’s around.  You think you can convince her?”

“We’ll see,” I said.

“We need a plan, first and foremost,” Tattletale said, “If we’ve got one, we’ll be able to get others on board.”

“There are possibilities,” I said.  “Need to knock some heads, get people on board, get morale up.  Fix some of the crises that’ve come up, deal with the people who are fucking the system and making everyone else think there’s no hope.”

Tattletale glanced at me as if I’d said something that provoked a thought, and then she smiled.

I couldn’t help but feel it wasn’t a real smile.  Her poker face.

“You coming, Despairy Canary?”  Tattletale asked.

I could see the hesitation cross Canary’s face.

“Yeah.  I’ll come.  Might not be, uh, knocking heads, but maybe there’s something we can resolve with my power.  Nonviolent resolution.”

“With a song and dance number,” Aisha said.  She leaned forward and took hold of Canary’s hands.  “Like a kid’s movie!  Sing a song and fix problems!”

“Um,” Canary said.  She looked between Tattletale and me.  “How am I supposed to respond to that?”

“Just ignore me,” Aisha advised, adopting the demeanor of the veteran bestowing wisdom onto the novice.  “Everyone else does.”

“I guess I’ll try.”

We gathered ourselves together, and we began making our way downstairs in two groups, with Aisha still holding Canary’s hand, leading the way.  Tattletale, Rachel and I followed.

My body still felt weird, but the alien sensations weren’t as pronounced.  I was getting used to it.

“Thanks for looking after me,” I commented.

“Not a problem,” Tattletale said.

“Before, you were bluffing.  Can I ask?  It changes how I deal with this.  How much I give it, the risks I take.  Can you tell me honestly that this isn’t hopeless?”

“Honestly?”  Tattletale asked.  She trailed off.

Answer enough.

I glanced at Rachel.

Tattletale practically seemed to read my mind.  “She doesn’t give a damn.”

“I don’t give a damn,” Rachel echoed.

I nodded.  “You’ve been wrong before, Tattletale.  About important stuff.”

“I have.  See, this is the part where I can either lie to you or tell you the truth.”

“Truth.  If it doesn’t spoil the mood too much.  I don’t want to hear, like, Dinah said a hundred percent chance we’re wiped out.”

“Nothing like that.  But there’s evidence.  Enough for me to connect dots.”

“You’re talking about the kid that speaks funny,” Rachel said.  “The fairy whatsit.  You were watching her video.”

Tattletale sighed.


“There’s moments I adore you, my adorable canine crusader, and there’s moments I hate you.  All too often, they’re the same moments.”


“And that there is another case in point,” Tattletale said.  She smiled, looking at me.  “So yeah.”

Weaver or Skitter would have pressed for the truth.  During the Echidna incident, I’d gone to great lengths to strive for honesty and full disclosure.  Had it worked out?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It had meant a lot right then, but it had sort of screwed me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.

But TaylorTaylor had lived a lie, had spent some time wallowing in ignorance.  Ignorance of what Tattletale really knew, ignorance of what Coil was doing.  Ignorance of what real monsters were capable of.

And then I’d donned the mantle of Skitter, I’d become the warlord.  Later, I’d gone on to become Weaver, where I felt less like myself than ever.

The Taylor days had been some of the best days, in a way.  Not my greatest moments, but some of my most cherished ones, yes.

“Do I need to know, Tattletale?”  I asked.  “For this?  Does it provide any crucial information, for dealing with any of the stuff we’ve got to deal with?”

“Yes,” she said.  “But probably not right away.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then I can wait.  Let me enjoy some blissful ignorance for just a little while longer, while we make our way out there, try to save the world from itself, if not from Scion.”

“Deal,” she answered.

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