Hive 5.7

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“Lung’s there,” I echoed, as much to let Sundancer and Labyrinth know as to help myself process the idea.

“He’s with Kaiser.  I can’t get to them.  Kaiser blocked the door with giant knives.”

“Ignore Lung!” I stressed.  If Kaiser wanted to go it alone, he could reap the consequences.  “Priorities are Newter and Oni Lee!  Can you get upstairs to rescue Newter?”

“I can’t ride Brutus in there, I’d have to dismount.”

“Then draw him outside!  Watch your back!”

I hung up, shoved the phone into the compartment behind my back, and drew my baton and knife.

“What are you doing?” Sundancer asked.

“Oni Lee’s a freaking assassin.  I can’t leave Bitch on her own.”

I didn’t wait another second.  I bolted for the warehouse, drawing more bugs from the surroundings to help back me up.

Bitch, still riding Brutus, came rushing out the loading bay door, Judas only a step behind.  They skidded to a stop, facing the building.  Through the hole the explosion had made in the wall, I saw Angelica climbing up the stairs.

As Angelica reached the top of the stairs, Judas lunged up and through the windows at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, trapping Oni Lee in between them.

Oni Lee barely seemed to care.  I could see him in his black bodysuit with belts and bandoleers of knives on it, his mask with the demonic face and leering, fanged, ear-to-ear grin.  He glanced at one dog, then the other, then looked out the window.

I knew his power was a hybrid between duplicating himself and teleportation.  He could teleport, but when he did, he left a body behind that could act autonomously for a few seconds.  So when I saw him glance out the window, I followed his line of sight, and saw he had already appeared just behind Bitch, half-crouching on Brutus’ back, one hand on a hook of bone to help him balance.  There was a flash of steel in his other hand as he reached around her throat with a blade.

“Bitch!” I screamed.  It didn’t matter.  At the same time as I opened my mouth, a red dot and a mist of red appeared out of the back of his head.  A split second later, another dot and spray of red appeared on his back, around his heart was.  He fell on top of Bitch’s shoulder, limp, then collapsed to the ground.

A second later, he exploded into an opaque cloud of white ash, ten feet across.

I glanced over my shoulder, saw the dark silhouettes of Coil’s men lying down on the edge of the rooftop.  One had a pair of binoculars, the other was set up behind a long rifle with a prominent scope.  A sniper team.

Anyone else would be dead by now, but the fact that the body had exploded into dust meant it was just a clone, a leftover remaining behind after Oni Lee had teleported away.  He probably wasn’t remaining in one place for more than a second.  My bet was that he was appearing, immediately looking for a new target or vantage point, then making a quick exit, leaving the clone to do the deed.

I reached Bitch and cast a nervous glance over my shoulder for Oni Lee. “You okay?”

“Felt the fucking steel on my throat,” she rubbed her throat as if she was checking it was okay.  “Where’d he go?”

I saw Oni Lee for only a fraction of a second, as he fell from the roof of the warehouse, before he exploded into another cloud of white dust.  Another point for the sniper team.  Why had he been up there?  Who or what had he been trying to see?

“The snipers,” I breathed, whirling around.

Where the sniper team had been, there were four figures now.  I saw the rifle fall from the edge of the roof as the two soldiers struggled with a pair of Oni Lees.  Then, puff, the clones were gone, and there was enough white dust around them that they wouldn’t be drawing a bead on him again, even if they hadn’t lost the rifle.

But where had he gone from there?  I looked around, feeling the panic begin to set in.

Brutus made a roaring sound somewhere between a howl and a growl, not quite recognizable as either.  He reared like a panicked horse, and I saw Oni Lee drop from the side of his head, land in a crouch, and lunge for me, a knife in each hand.

I swatted at his hands with my baton, sending one knife flying through the air and breaking his stride.  It didn’t matter.  Less than a second later, he was dust.  He’d teleported.

Hands seized me from behind, in a rough nelson hold, pulling my arms out of the way as another Oni Lee materialized out of the dust in front of me, ready to capitalize on my inability to defend myself.

Knowing he wasn’t about to let go of me, I brought both my legs up in a kick at Oni Lee’s stomach.  They connected and he doubled over.

Brutus lunged forward, biting at him before he could recover.  Both the Oni Lee that was holding me and the one clasped in Brutus’ jaws turned to carbon ash, adding to the volume of the opaque, gritty white cloud that surrounded us.  As Bitch managed to get Brutus under control I saw his face.  One of his eyes was in ruins, and volumes of blood and other liquids were flowing from it.

“Fuck this,” I growled, drawing the bugs out from my costume, and retrieving the ones I’d had in the building.  I spread them around, reaching for him, hoping for some sort of early warning.

No sooner the thought crossed my mind than the silhouette of a figure appeared twenty feet to my right.  He whipped his arm in my direction, and I didn’t have any time to do much more than turn in his direction before something collided with my head.  I stumbled and fell over backwards.

In the instant I toppled over, I had the presence of mind to tuck my chin against my chest so I wouldn’t add to my concussion.  The armor covering my shoulders took the worst of the impact.

As I lay there, trying to parse what had just happened, I realized that a small knife was embedded in the armored section of my mask, cracking the lens.  A throwing knife?  I pulled it free and pulled myself to my feet.  I had enough bugs around me now that I could be sure he wasn’t attacking us.  That just raised the question of where he was.

“Bitch, you okay?” I asked.

“Fucker stabbed me in the arm!”

If that’s the worst injury we get away with today, we can count ourselves lucky.  I headed out of the cloud that surrounded us, hoping to get a better sense of the battlefield.

I got out just in time to see Oni Lee tackling one of Coil’s snipers off the edge of the roof.  Oni Lee disappeared in a cloud of white before he hit the ground.  I was pretty sure the sniper hadn’t.

Sundancer was crumpled over, Labyrinth holding her shoulders.

This was not going well.

Oni Lee appeared thirty feet away from me, standing just to my left and behind me.  My bugs gave me a sense of his position before anything else, and I threw myself to one side.  I thought maybe I saw the shape of one of his throwing knives pass through the air where I’d been standing, but I wasn’t seeing very well with a cracked lens on my mask.

At my command, The bugs that had alerted me to his position gathered on him and began biting and stinging.

Then I noticed something weird.  More bugs popped into existence in the midst of the cloud, near Sundancer and Labyrinth.  I felt the original bugs perish as they exploded into ash.

He was taking them with him.  I don’t think he could help it.

I could track his movements.

“Bitch!  Here!” I shouted.

She lunged out of the cloud, still astride Brutus, pulling up short to avoid trampling me.

“I can see where he’s teleporting,” I told her, “Get Judas and Angelica.”

She whistled, long and piercing.  As if in response, Oni Lee appeared just a few feet away.

“Behind you!” I pointed.

Brutus whipped around, snapping and snarling, and Oni Lee had to backpedal to escape being caught in the mutant’s jaws.  He disappeared just a second later.

“Get one dog near those guys,” I pointed to Sundancer and Labyrinth, “We should join them asap.”

She nodded, whistled, and pointed.  No sooner did Judas and Angelica arrive at our sides than Judas headed off to his next destination.  Bitch offered me a hand.

I gratefully took it, letting her help me up onto Brutus’ back.

As we approached Sundancer and Labyrinth, the sidewalks on either side of us dropped out of existence, leaving only a bottomless pit where they had been.

“The fuck?” I murmured.

Then the buildings began to rise in height, some leaning over the street and joining with the others in grotesque arches and bridges.  Brickwork stretched and extended into the alleyways, closing them off.

Then windows began to shrink and warp, leaving only flat expanses of brick, concrete and stucco for the building faces.  Under our feet, the road began to shift in color, with some patches becoming paler, and others darkening.  They sharpened in definition as they settled into an alabaster white and jet back.  A checkerboard?

Brutus had to leap out of the way as one of the squares of the checkerboard suddenly rose to a height of ten feet.  As if in response, other squares began to rise and fall, each to varying, almost random heights.

I was almost dismounted as another square appeared in a wall and slid out of the side of the building in a thirty foot long horizontal pillar.

We reached safe haven, an expanse of unaffected ground, thirty feet across, with two figures in the center.  Sundancer and… Labyrinth.

“This is you?” I asked Labyrinth, awed, as I climbed down off Brutus.

She didn’t reply.  Instead, she reached out and touched the side of my chin.

The images of arches, pillars and checkerboard patterns fell away like a house of cards.

“Hallucinations,” I spoke, as Labyrinth made a waving gesture towards Bitch’s head.  She looked at me and shook her head slowly.

“They’re not hallucinations?” I asked.

She didn’t reply.

“You can’t explain because you can’t or don’t talk,” I realized, speaking my thoughts aloud.

Oni Lee appeared a few feet away.  I whirled and pointed, “There!”

He was stumbling, moving to avoid something that wasn’t there.  He was still there, trying to get his balance, as I felt more bugs appear at another point on the opposite side of us.  Only he appeared fifteen feet in the air, fell, and landed in an awkward position, falling over.

“Bitch!” I pointed.

She whistled and pointed to send Angelica.  Oni Lee’s response was delayed, as if he couldn’t even see her approaching, at first.  I felt more bugs pop into existence a second before she set her jaws on him.

“There!”

Bitch sent Judas next.  Oni Lee’s reaction was even slower, but he had time to throw himself onto his back, flinging two throwing knives into Judas’ face and shoulder before he disappeared.

“Over there!” I pointed as he reappeared.

Bitch didn’t even have time to give a command before there was a sound like a champagne cork being popped.  Oni Lee screamed as one of his shins exploded in a spray of blood.

I felt him reappear somewhere else, collapsing to the ground, while his predecessor endured having the kneecap on its good leg shot out.

I followed the sound of a chamber being reloaded to spot Coil’s sniper.  He was lying on his side at the foot of the building, one arm outstretched to hold his rifle steady.  His right leg was bent the wrong way.

He’d been knocked off a three story building, had a broken leg at the very least, and had still managed to retrieve, load and fire his rifle?

If he was willing to be that professional, I could damn well play spotter for him.

“There!” I pointed in Oni Lee’s direction.  On the warehouse again.

There were two more muted popping sounds, and I could see Oni Lee spin in a pirouette of sorts as a shot clipped him, before he collapsed to the rooftop.

He exploded in a cloud of ash once again.  Except I hadn’t felt him appear anywhere.

“He’s gone,” I said, “Out of my range.”

Sundancer looked up at me, one gloved hand on her shoulder.  “Good,” she managed to answer.

“You okay?”

“He gouged my shoulder.  I’ll need stitches, but it’s not the worst injury I’ve had.”

“Okay.  Uh, man, Coil’s guy,” I spoke, trying hard to organize my thoughts and priorities with the adrenaline that was pumping through me, “You going to be alright?”

“Yeah,” he rasped, then he coughed.

I’d have to take him at his word.

“Labyrinth, watch him.  Make sure he keeps breathing and that his buddy knows where he is,” I said, “Sundancer, Bitch, we’ve gotta go help Newter.”

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Hive 5.6

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However effective Bitch’s power play might have been, it didn’t do much to help the tension between the factions making up our group.  It hadn’t been just Kaiser that got spooked and sprayed with blood.  Worst case scenario, if a fight broke out in the group, I was worried that hard feelings from that one thing could set others against us.

I decided to try to remedy that.  The Travelers seemed to be the only group present where there wasn’t some drama already mucking the waters.

“Hey,” I slowed my pace so I could talk to the girl from the Travelers, “What’s your name?”

“My codename?”

“Yeah.”

“Sundancer.”

“I’m going by Skitter.  Couldn’t decide on a name so the media sort of picked one for me.”

“You’re one of the Outsiders, right?”

“Undersiders.  I’m new to the team, honestly, but they’re alright.”

“Uh huh.”  She looked in Bitch’s direction.

“Not as bad as you’d think,” I said, smiling.  She couldn’t see me smile, with my mask covering my mouth, but I did hope she could hear the humor in my tone.  “How’s life among the Travelers?”

She seemed caught off guard at the question.  It took her a few seconds to decide how to respond.  “Intense.  Violent.  Lonely.”

The answer surprised me.  She chose the word intense rather than exciting, but that wasn’t the strangest part of her answer.  “Lonely?  I wouldn’t think that was the case, spending time with teammates.”

She shrugged, “There’s stuff going on that makes hanging out less fun than it should be.  I’m not going to explain it, so don’t ask.”

I raised my hands, palms up, stopping her, “Wasn’t going to.  I was just curious what it’s like for other teams, since I’m fairly new to this.”

She relaxed a bit at that.  “It’s not just the… I can’t think of a word better than drama… but drama sounds like such an understatement.  Whatever.  It’s not the other stuff that’s going on, it’s that we’re constantly moving, rarely spending more than a week in one place, you know?”

“I don’t,” I admitted.  I fudged the truth a little, just to be safe, “I moved twice as a kid, but I was too young to remember it.  For the most part, I grew up here.”

“It gets old, having to-” she stopped talking as I was suddenly pushed to one side.  The tip of Newter’s tail pressed against the center of my chest and moved me back, pushed me against the hood of a dilapidated old car.

“Hey,” I grunted, but he shook his head, pressed a finger to his lip.  His blue eyes bored into mine.  They were weird eyes.  No whites, just azure blue irises that extended from corner to corner, with rectangular, horizontal pupils.

I looked at the others, and they were all moving into cover.  Kaiser, Fenja and Menja had all ducked into an alleyway.  Bitch and her dogs were disappearing around the far corner of the same building, making only the scratching noise of claws against concrete.

Ahead of us, a trio of people in ABB colors crossed the street.  A guy and a girl who looked like they might have been gang members before Bakuda’s hardcore recruitment drive were talking.  A teen who was about my age trailed behind them, looking too scared and worn out to be anything but one of the new recruits.  They were all armed.  A machete dangled from the male thug’s hand, while the girl was toying with a handgun.  The scared looking kid had a baseball bat with nails hammered into it.  People really did that?  The nail-studded baseball bat?

Just behind them was the building that had to be our target.  It was a warehouse, dirty gray, with the letters ‘ABB’ spray painted on and around the loading bay door in red and green in an elaborate style.

When the patrol was gone, Newter spoke, “They’ve got patrols, and they’ve tagged the building.  That’ll be our target, today.”  He checked his watch, “Two minutes until it’s time to move.”

“My girls and I will circle around,” Kaiser stated from the cover of the alleyway, “Attack from another direction.”

“Hey, no,” I replied, “That’s not the deal.  We’re in groups like this for a reason, and that reason flies out the window if we split up like that.”

“I didn’t ask your permission,” Kaiser replied, his voice cool.  Without waiting for a response, he turned to leave, Fenja and Menja following him.

“Are we going to stop them?” I asked.

“I could catch up to them,” Bitch told us, as she rode Brutus back towards our group.

Newter shook his head, thin lips pressed into a line that only accented his strange appearance, “Not worth it, and dangerous to fight amongst ourselves in enemy territory.  We don’t have time, anyways.”

“Bitch, can you call Grue and Tattletale, let them know?” I asked.  “They can take measures if they need to.”

She nodded and got her cell phone out.

While Bitch made the call, Newter beckoned the others to gather in a huddle.  “Let’s talk plan of attack.  Skitter, Bitch, you two have the most experience dealing with these guys, so start us off.”

I glanced at Bitch.  She was busy with the call, and she had been out of action during our last encounter with the ABB, which left her kind of in the dark as far as Bakuda went.  It was up to me.

I silently cleared my throat, then I spoke up, “Bakuda likes to set traps, and if this place is important enough to patrol, it’s important enough to have some traps.  Let me send my bugs in first.  I can get the lay of the land, and the bugs will also confuse and distract anyone inside, which should make things easier on you guys.”

Newter nodded once, “Okay.  That’s step one.  Bitch, can you and your dogs hit the ground floor?  I’ll go in the second floor window.”

Bitch gave him a curt nod in response.

“The bugs won’t bite her?” Newter asked.

“No,” I answered, “Won’t bite you either.”

“They couldn’t if they tried,” Newter answered me, smiling.  Funny, if you looked past the odd appearance – the blue hair, the weird eyes, the orange skin and the tail, he was actually a pretty good looking guy.

“Sundancer, what can you do?” Newter asked.

“I guess you could say I’m artillery,” Sundancer replied, “But I’ve got the same problem Ballistic does – er, my other teammate.  I’m not sure I can use my power without hurting a lot of people really badly.”

“Then stay back with Labyrinth.  You two be ready to cover our retreat or move in if we run into trouble,” Newter replied.

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing,” I commented.

“Maybe some of Faultline has rubbed off on me.”  He smiled.  Then he glanced at his watch, “Twenty seconds.”

Newter glanced at the two soldiers Coil had sent, “You two, can you-”

“We’re taking a position on this rooftop, here,” the shorter of the two men replied, pointing up to the two story duplex next to us.  “We’ll support you with cover fire.”

“Uh, good.  Try not to kill anyone,” Newter said, checking his watch again, “Five seconds.  Skitter?  Start us off?”

I reached out to all the bugs I’d gathered, minus the ones I was keeping beneath my costume.  I directed them towards the side of the building we were facing.

The swarm swept in through windows that were open or broken and the one open door on the side of the building, flowing into the hallways.  I made sure to spread them out to cover every surface, feeling for anything that was out-of-place or unusual.  There were a fair number of people inside, which wasn’t a huge surprise, but my bugs were making a lot of contact with bare skin.  I realized the people gathered in the open area of the warehouse’s ground floor were nearly naked.  Stripped down to their underwear.  It was so unexpected that it threw me off my stride.

I shook my head.  I couldn’t afford to get distracted.  Bakuda probably used metals and plastics, and to the superfine senses of the bugs, that was an entirely different texture from the walls.  I tried to filter out the usual stuff and get a feel for just the plastic or metal things.  Just a few feet in from the entrance, I found two dome-shaped bulges on either side of the stairwell that led to the second floor, metal and plastic.

“There’s something there,” I said.  “Give me a second.”

I took a page out of Grue’s playbook and gathered a group of bugs together into a densely packed, vaguely humanoid shape.  I moved that collection of bugs through the doors and to the place where the little domes sat.

The explosion blew a fair sized chunk out of the exterior wall of the building closest to us.  The people inside, already nervous at the influx of bugs, started scattering, screaming, running for the exits.

“Holy shit!” Newter’s eyes went wide.

“Motion detectors, I think,” I said, “Or proximity activated.  My bugs wouldn’t normally set them off, had to fool them.”

The ground was too hard for landmines, so I focused on having the remainder of the bugs sweep through the rest of the building, skimming the surfaces and looking for more trouble.  I found two more, checked nobody was near, and used the same method to detonate them.  The plumes of flame, smoke and debris were visible from where we crouched.

“Twenty or thirty people on the ground floor, unarmed and half naked, ten in upstairs office, armed,” I said, “Route is as clear of traps as I can get it.  Go!”

Bitch lunged into action, Newter only a few steps behind.  He half-ran, half-crawled, his tail whipping around behind him, presumably to help keep his balance.

As Bitch had her dogs crash into and through the closed metal loading bay door, Newter intercepted the first few people to leave through the fire exit door on the side of the building.  He leaped to close fifteen foot gaps as fast as I could have thrown a punch, moving from one person to the next, dropping each of them in an instant.  Lots of women in that group, and I could confirm with my eyes what my bugs had told me – nine out of ten of the people in that group, a mix of Asian men and women, were only wearing their underwear.  Slave trafficking?  Prostitution?  Something darker?  I felt my skin crawl.

As he darted up the side of the building and slipped into an open window like a bolt of greased lightning, I felt Newter brush past several with my bugs.  Each bug that came into contact with him dropped off the wall or out of the sky, falling to the ground, alive but stunned.

I remembered reading about him on the web.  Information had been scarce, since Faultline’s crew weren’t the types of villain to appear in the papers or on TV, and the concrete details that were out there had been hard to pick apart from the speculation.  What I did know was that his bodily fluids were potent hallucinogens.  Even the sweat that accumulated on his skin was apparently enough to send someone off to la-la land, taking only a few seconds for it to be absorbed through the skin.

I focused my attention on tracking what was happening inside the building.  Newter was on the second floor, probably dodging gunfire as he moved closer to the group of people who had been in the upstairs office.  I had my bugs cluster around them, biting their hands and faces.  I sent them crawling into noses, ears and mouths to disrupt the aim of the people who might shoot Newter.

Kaiser, Fenja and Menja were attacking from the side of the building opposite us.  They had drawn the attention of most of the armed agents and patrols, leaving Bitch and her dogs stranded in the midst of one or two dozen unarmed, unclothed, panicked people.  From what my bugs were sensing, she was giving lots of commands to her dogs.

I realized, belatedly, that someone had blocked off the route Bitch might have taken to reach the fighting.  The edges of the offending barrier were thin, sharp.  Blades?  That meant Kaiser would be the one who had blocked her.  Was it intentional, or had he been cutting off the ABB’s escape routes?

I couldn’t sense what Newter was doing since my bugs couldn’t touch him, but I could feel the movement of the air that followed in his wake, I could track the locations of the bugs he came into contact with before they were brought down by the drugs, and I knew the men were collapsing as Newter moved into their midst and knocked each of them out with a touch.  One or two even collapsed without him touching them.  Something else?  Blood?  Spit?

Only one remained standing.  He and Newter circled one another.  My bugs weren’t having much effect on him, since he was wearing a bandanna or something over his face.

No, wait, there was a second person, just behind Newter.  How had I not noticed him?

Then the first disappeared, and I knew.

I grabbed my phone, accessed the contacts, and auto-dialed Bitch.

“Come on, answer, answer,” I whispered at the phone.

Then a handful of my bugs were stunned and a few more squashed as Newter collapsed on top of them.  I directed most of the bugs in the building to distract the attacker, hoping to buy Newter enough time to get away.  It wasn’t working – he wasn’t moving.

“Fuck! Answer, Bitch!”

“What’s wrong?” Sundancer asked.

“Newter’s hurt.”

Labyrinth put her hand on my shoulder, half-spun me to face her.  She didn’t say a word, her expression barely changed behind the cloth of her mask, but it was still the closest I’d seen to an emotional response from her.

I would have said something, but Bitch chose that same second to pick up.

“Bitch!  Second floor, Newter’s wounded, Oni Lee is in the building.”

There was a long pause before she replied, “Lung’s here too.”

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Hive 5.5

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Time was short, so Tattletale was in my room of the loft while I changed.

“The idea Coil proposed was that we would mix and match the members of the groups, so nobody can pull anything without their teammates being hostage to the other groups.”

“Gotcha,” I replied.  I busied myself double checking the items from the utility compartment.  Tattletale reached in and snatched the cell phone.  “Hey?”

“One sec.  I’m programming the alarm on your phone.  When it goes off, an hour from now, you call Grue.  Then again an hour later, if we’re out that long.  We’ll all be checking in with each other every fifteen minutes or so.  If someone doesn’t pick up, assume they’re in trouble.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“If you can’t pick up the phone for whatever reason, be sure to call back at the first opportunity.  Let us know you’re fine.”

“Got it.”  I hiked the cloth portion of my armor up around my waist, then began sliding my arms through the sleeves.  The cloth part was form-fitting, and all in all, putting it on was like putting on a pair of full-body pantyhose.  Not prone to tear, of course, but like the pantyhose, it always took longer than I expected.

“We’ll be using a password system every time we check in, in case you’re taken hostage and forced to answer a call.  Two parts to it.  The first part is simple, you give the other person the first letter of one of our names, the other person replies with the last.  If it winds up being a longer night, move on to other people we know.”

“So if I said L?”

“A.  How would you respond to B?”

“N.”

“Exactly.  The second part is color based.  When you’re replying to a call, name an object that’s a certain color.  Think traffic lights.  Green for go, everything is okay.  Yellow for warning, if you aren’t sure about things.  Red for stop, need help.  It lets you keep us informed without tipping off the capes that are with you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going with the group that has Faultline, Trickster, and the Traveller’s shapeshifter.  I’m betting there will be a few from Empire Eighty-Eight and some of Coil’s soldiers, too.”

“Shapeshifter?”

“That gorilla with four arms, from the other night.  Only I don’t know exactly what she is, yet, but she’s not quite a shapeshifter.  I’m hoping to get a better sense of her abilities by spending some time around her.  Ditto for Trickster.  Regent’s coming with so we’re contributing some firepower.  Kind of.”

“Don’t you and Faultline have issues with each other?”

Lisa grinned, “Yup.  It’s going to be fun, pushing her buttons, knowing she can’t touch me.”

I winced.  “Just be careful.  What’s Grue doing?”

“Another group.  All in all, we’ll be coordinating to strike three locations simultaneously with three different teams, overwhelming force.  Hit hard, hit fast, get out of there.  If you aren’t making much of a dent, don’t sweat it.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, we’ll repeat this process a few more times over the next couple of days.”

There was a knock on the door.  Brian called from the other side, “Just about ready?”

I zipped up the back of my costume and strapped my armor in place over it, then opened the door, mask in one hand, “Ready.”

Brian, like me, was costumed but didn’t have any headgear on.  “You sure you’re up to this?  You’re recovered from the knock you took to the head?”

“No,” I admitted, “Not entirely.  But I’m pissed, and I think I’ll be less okay in the long run if I don’t go out and vent somehow.”

He paused, as if he were thinking things over, “Okay.  You going to be alright dealing with Bitch on your own?”

I frowned, “I’ll manage somehow.”

“Don’t show her any weakness, or she won’t let up on you.”

“I figured as much,” I agreed.  As we headed for the stairs, I mused that maybe Bitch and I were more on the same page today.  I was pissed at life in general, feeling just a bit off kilter in a way that wasn’t one-hundred-percent the concussion.

I pulled on my mask as we headed outside.  There was a nondescript van pulled over in front of the door, blocking line of sight to the rest of the street.  Bitch and Regent were already inside, waiting.

“Hey dork,” Regent greeted me.  He was in costume, typical except for the shirt he was wearing – other nights it had been white, but it was a dark gray today.  It was still the same slightly elaborate, puffy renaissance fair style of clothing, though.

“You can call me Skitter.  I won’t mind.”

“That’s alright,” he answered.  There was a note of humor in his voice, which I took to mean he was just having fun at my expense.  I resolved to ignore him.

Bitch just stared angrily at me.  It was so intense I had to look away.  So much for being on the same page.

The interior of the van had benches on either side.  Since we were in a rush, I had only a second to decide whether I wanted to sit next to Regent – and be facing Bitch for the duration of the trip – or plop myself down next to her and the dogs.  I opted for the former, hoping I wouldn’t manage to do or say anything that would get us off on a bad start for the evening.

Tattletale sat in the passenger seat, with Grue driving.  As the van pulled onto the road, she called back to us, “Hey, Bitch, Skitter.  We’re dropping you off first, but you’re going to have to walk to the meeting place.  You might be short on time, so walk fast.  Cool?”

Bitch shrugged, “Works.”

“No complaints,” I added my own two cents.  I could see where it would be advantageous – Bitch would have time to get her dogs beefed up, and I could gather some bugs.  Besides, it gave us something to do – if we had to stand idle for a few minutes, I was pretty sure it would only increase the chances of Bitch finding a reason to pick a fight with me or one of the other villains.

Remembering my bugs, I took a few seconds to extend my powers outward and begin gathering them.  I was surprised at how far my reach was extending.  I generally measured things in city blocks – I’ve never been good at eyeballing distance – and I would say my range usually sat at around two blocks.  Today I was reaching just shy of three and a half.

“Hey Tattletale?” I asked.

“‘Sup?”

“Two questions.”

“Go for it.”

“What general direction is the spot you’re dropping me off?  Need to know where to send the bugs.”

“Northwest.”

I glanced out the tinted windows of the van to judge which direction we were going, then began giving commands to the bugs that fell within my reach.

“Second question.  Um.  My power’s a fair bit stronger today.  Not sure about technique, but I’m extending a lot further.  Any idea why?”

“Can’t say.  Sorry, I could usually try to figure it out, but I’m focusing on other things right now.  If you think it’s really crucial-”

“No,” I stopped her, “It’s not.  I’ll bug you about it later, when your attention isn’t divided.”

“Pun intended?” Regent mused.

“What?”

“Guess not.  Nevermind,” he chuckled a little.

Bitch was using her power on her dogs.  It was really my first opportunity seeing it happen from the beginning.  It was like seeing a sausage split its casing, only the casing was fur and skin.  Where the rifts appeared, it wasn’t just muscle spilling out, but spears and ridges of bone.  Some of the exposed muscle shriveled into scaly growths.  Yet they kept growing to the point the back of the van was feeling crowded.  Where did that mass come from?  Was it pulled out of thin air, or was she drawing in some kind of energy and converting it into matter?

For that matter, if my brain was a radio tower of sorts, pinging every bug for their locations on a near-constant basis and sending them instructions to override their own brains… where was the energy to keep that up coming from?

It was a little disconcerting to think about.

When Grue stopped the van to let us out, I realized why we were walking.  Our stop was a bridge with bus stations on either side.  Problem was, it seemed the ABB had decided to cut off this route – the bridge had been reduced to rubble.  Large orange and black detour signs with blinking lights barred entry to the shattered bridge, and similar measures had been used to cordon off the piles of rubble below.

Tattletale leaned out the open window and pointed, “See that tower, there?  Looks like a lighthouse?  It’s an old tourist shop that closed down a decade ago.  It’s where the Merchants – Skidmark and his crew of dealers – hung out, before the ABB expanded and forced them out.  You’re supposed to meet the others there.”

I looked and saw the building she was pointing at.  It didn’t look much like a lighthouse, but whatever.  “Gotcha.”

“Go,” Brian said, “Good luck.”

Bitch whistled for her dogs, and we headed for the stairs.  We’d have to head down, across the street and back up to get where we needed to be.

It was weird, picking our way through the rubble of the destroyed bridge to cross the street.  You didn’t usually cross the road like this, and the streets were deserted here.   The dogs seemed to like the experience though.  I saw Judas’ tail wagging as he hopped from one slab of road to another.

I pulled open the door with shattered glass panes that led to the other set of stairs, letting Bitch and the dogs through.  As she passed me, Bitch murmured, “You’re angry.”

“Yeah,” I admitted, “Bunch of stuff earlier this afternoon.  Didn’t go the way I wanted.  Assholes.”

“Should hit ’em.  Teach them to fuck with you.”

“I did,” I answered, “Knocked one of them on her ass last night.  Part of the reason things didn’t go so hot, today.”

“Mmm.  Story of my life.”

We headed up the stairs and towards the lighthouse.  My bugs were starting to accumulate.  Our detour had given the flying bugs time to catch up to me.  Wasps, moths, houseflies, no-see-ums, a few bees and a fair few cockroaches.

I’d learned my lesson on our last outing.  I wasn’t going in unprepared and unarmed.  As they arrived, I drew the bugs close.  Selecting the best of them, I directed them under my armor – in the hollow space beneath my shoulderpads, under my belt, my elbows and wristguards, in my hair and the concave panel of armor that covered my spine.  They were there if I needed them.  I doubted anyone would notice unless I let them.

“How’d you know I was angry?” I asked.

“Dunno.  Looked that way.”

“Yeah, but you can’t see my face.”

“Way you’re standing, I guess.  You going to get on my case about this?”

“No.  Sorry,” I answered.

I decided to keep quiet for the rest of our trip to the ‘lighthouse’.  Interestingly, she almost seemed to relax as the silence lingered.  Her face lost that slightly angry expression and she reached over to scratch Brutus on the side of his neck in what seemed a very normal, casual gesture, for someone I viewed as anything but.  Or at least, it would have been normal and casual if the dogs weren’t currently the size of small ponies.

We reached the lighthouse, and sure enough, there was a group of villains waiting.

Kaiser was first and foremost among them.  He was decked out head to toe in elaborate, ornate armor with a crown of blades, but the configuration, I noticed with interest, was totally different than it had been just two days ago.  Fenja and Menja stood at either side of him.

Only one of the Travelers was accompanying our group: The girl with the sun design on her costume, red suns on black form-fitting armor.  Just behind her were two members of Faultline’s crew. Newter was hanging off the wall by his fingertips and toes, and Labyrinth was leaning against the same wall, just below him, her arms folded.  Newter was wearing tattered jeans and had dyed his hair a cobalt blue, setting off the orange of his skin.  He had cloth wrap, like you’d see a kickboxer use, wrapped around his hands and feet.

Rounding out our group were two men in matching kevlar armor, with balaclavas, visors, and tricked out assault rifles.  Each of the men had a second gun slung over their back – I thought one was another rifle, but I didn’t have a good view of the other.  I might have pegged it a grenade launcher.  Coil’s men, probably.

Fenja or Menja – I wasn’t sure which – leaned over and whispered in Kaiser’s ear.

“Arrived with less than a minute to spare, Undersiders,” he purred.  “Watches out, everyone.”

I paused – I hadn’t brought one.  Then I remembered the cell phone.  I retrieved it from the compartment, the cluster of bugs I had in there moving automatically out of the way of my hands.  If anything, they made it easier to know where my fingers should reach to grab it.

“Set time to four-forty in three, two, one… set.  The attack is scheduled to start in five minutes.  We’ll use the time to get there, get in position and decide our method of attack.”

Nobody argued.

“Move out,” he directed us.

Bitch turned her attention to Brutus, who made a groaning noise as he suddenly swelled.  Splits appeared in his skin as he grew another two or three feet taller at the shoulder, and spikes of bone erupted from his exterior.  He stretched, then shook abruptly, spraying all of us with the bloody aftermath of his sudden growth.  There were reactions of alarm and startled shouts from everyone present, with the exception of myself, Bitch and Labyrinth.  Kaiser, surprisingly, was among them, backing away several steps before he realized Brutus wasn’t attacking.

There was a bit of swagger in her posture as Bitch walked the two steps to where Brutus stood, grabbed a spike of bone and hauled herself onto his back.

It was intentional, maybe a bit immature, but she’d made Kaiser flinch.  Taking him down a notch like that, so soon after he’d assumed control of this impromptu team, it was probably more of a statement than anyone present could have accomplished with words.

As if to drive the point home, she gave Brutus a light kick in the ribs, prompting him to walk in the direction Kaiser had indicated.  Judas, Angelica and I were right behind her.  I didn’t turn to see how long it took the others to pull themselves together and follow.

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Interlude 4

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A whistle.  Brutus’ ears perk up.   Already jumping off the bed as second whistle comes, just after the first.  Two whistles like that means come.  Master only asks for dogs to come to the front stairs if it is time for walkies!

Walkies are Brutus’ favorite thing!

Other dogs are bumping shoulders with Brutus in hurry to get to Master.  Turn corner too fast, claws scratch at floor to get grip.  Fall a little.  Judas hesitates, sniffs, but Angelica is ahead of Brutus now.  Bad girl.  Brutus snarls a little at Angelica, she backs away, drops behind.  Brutus is top dog.  Angelica should know that.  Brutus arrives at Master first, the way it should be.

Brutus is top dog, but Master is alpha.  Leader of this pack.  Not leader of her people-pack but that is okay.  She bends down and scratches all over Brutus’ neck and shoulders, deep, rough.  Perfect scratches because they dig through Brutus’ thick fur.  Tail is wagging so hard that back paws are slipping on floor.  Fall over and turn belly up so Master can scratch it.  She does and it is ecstasy.

Master is hurt and hurting.  Brutus knows this.  When she bends down, she is moving more slowly, she is making little sounds as she makes bigger movements like bending down and standing up.  She smells like dried blood and stress and sweat in ways she usually doesn’t.

“Angelica, Judas, stay,” Master says, “Not taking you two.” Brutus doesn’t understand but Master sounds apologetic.  Like when she was walking up stairs and accidentally kicked Brutus in chin because he was following too close behind her.  She scratches each of them in turn.  Not enthusiastic scratches.  They are happy to be scratched but they aren’t coming for walkies.  Brutus’ tail stops wagging.  Is Brutus not coming for walkies?

Master picks up leash.  “Brutus, good boy.  Walkies?”  Tail is wagging crazy hard again.  Master tells Brutus to sit, Brutus sits.  Is good boy.  Master puts plastic bags in back pocket, puts on backpack.  Backpack unusual.  Master doesn’t usually bring backpack for walkies.  Errand?

“We’re going on an errand, okay boy?” Master speaks.  Brutus’ tail wags.  Brutus was right!  Errands always interesting.  Brutus eagerly takes a few steps forward before remembering to be a good boy.  Master doesn’t like it when Brutus pulls on leash.  She puts on shoes, gets the keys that jangle, gets crinkly wrapper things she sometimes eats that Brutus can’t because Brutus is a dog.  Crinkly wrapper things go in left pocket.  She gets treats for dogs to put in right pocket, stops.  Gives treats to Judas and Angelica.  Treat for Brutus?

“Treats later,” Master says.  ‘Later’ is familiar word but meaning unclear.  Brutus feels crushing disappointment as treats go in Master’s right pocket.  Jumps up a little to remind Master she forgot to give a treat.  Master makes angry clucking noise and Brutus is sorry now.  Tail down, ears down.

“Bitch, hold up,” speaks the scentless man.  Scentless man makes Brutus nervous because he is big but he has no smell.  But he is Master’s alpha so Master stops and listens.

“You’re going out?” the scentless man asks.

“Work,” Master says.

The scentless man waits for something, then speaks again, “Are you okay?”

“Fuckin’ peachy.”  Brutus knows Master only says fuck word like that when she’s mad.

“I have a hard time believing that, to be honest.  You were in pretty rough shape when I found you with Über and Leet’s henchmen, and those guys from the ABB.”

“I’m fine now,” Master tells him.  She sounds angry.  Brutus steps forward, ready to growl to add own voice to hers, but Master tugs on leash just a little and Brutus stays quiet.

“When I found you, one of them had you tied to the ceiling by your wrists and was using you as a punching bag.”

Master breaks eye contact.  Brutus knows this is a sign that Master sees the scentless man as her alpha.  When she speaks, she still sounds angry, “I fucked up.  I was bored, restless, figured I’d walk Angelica and see if I could meet you guys where the money was.  Someone recognized me and tailed me.  I was stupid, I took my licks for it.  I’m fine now, we have the money, all is well.”

The scentless man sighs.  Sounds a little angry as he says, “It’s not… no, nevermind.  No use getting into it.  But what if someone recognizes you while you’re walking him?”

“I’ll fight back sooner, harder.  Or are you going to tell me I can’t walk my dogs anymore?”  All of a sudden, Master is tense.  Brutus can see it in her legs, hear it in her voice, feel it in her grip on the leash.

“I wouldn’t do that,” the scentless man replies, his voice quiet, slightly strained “And you wouldn’t listen even if I did.  Just… be careful.”

“I can go?”

“Go.  Enjoy your walk, both of you.”

And the tension leaves Master.  One small whistle and Brutus knows to follow.  Down the stairs and out the door into the outside world.  So many smells!  So many sounds!  So exciting!

But can’t get too excited.  Brutus is good boy.  Doesn’t pull on leash like Angelica still does.  Master always makes angry clucking noise at Angelica on walkies.

Master is walking slower.  Favoring one leg.  Brutus is eager for walkies but doesn’t pull on leash even if Master is walking slower.

So many smells!  Being in own territory is good but being on walkies is smelling whole world.  Always new things, always new things to smell about old things.  Smell this pee and know almost everything about the dog who peed.  Bitch.  Maybe in heat soon.  Lives with kids.  Pee smells like stress and eating too much grass and sleeping too much and being a fat dog.

Smell that poo to know about dog who pooed.  Hungry dog.  Hungry dog’s master probably hungry too.  Many like that here.  Not like that in Brutus’ old home.  No people or dogs there were hungry.  But Brutus remembers being unhappy.  Master was always ignoring Brutus.  Leave Brutus in basement alone all day until Brutus stop bad man who came in basement window.  Is okay now.  Brutus is happy now with new master.

Smell that pee.  Human pee.  Not as interesting.  Master whistles to remind Brutus to keep up.  No more sniffing for now.

“Brutus, sit, stay,” Master orders.  Brutus sits and stays while Master stands beside him.  Is good boy.  Gets scratched by Master.  Little female human is walking up to Brutus. Smaller than Brutus.  Pats at Brutus, pokes.  One poke in eye.  Brutus’ ears down, head down, tail between legs.  Not good scratches.  Little human laughs.  Poke again in Brutus’ side.

Brutus looks up at Master.  Pleading.  Master not saying anything so Brutus stays while being poked.  Little human grabbing Brutus’ fur on side and pulling too hard.  Like Angelica when Angelica was new to Master’s pack, biting and pulling and making Brutus bleed.  Bad memory.  Growl starts in Brutus’ throat.

“No, Brutus, off,” Master orders.  Brutus lowers head.  No more growling.  Still being poked.  Still being pulled at.

Big female human that smells like the little human arrives.  Is walking fast.  Big female stops and laughs at Brutus and little human.

“Aren’t they cute?”  Another laugh.

Master doesn’t laugh.

“Well, kids will be kids.”

Master speaks, her voice even but her body language is angry, “Watch your fucking child.”  Brutus knows watch is order for Brutus to sit and stay and bark if anyone comes… but Master is talking to big female and not giving order to Brutus.  Other word Brutus knows is fucking which means Master is mad but Brutus isn’t the one she’s saying fucking to so it is okay.

Brutus thinks maybe it’s okay to growl now because Master said fucking so he growls.  Smells fear from little human and big female.  Master doesn’t say no so it was okay for Brutus to growl.

Big female laughs but laugh sounds different than before, shrill.  Waves her hand.  Bends down to pick up little human.

“Brutus, guard,” Master orders.  Brutus quickly looks at Master and Master is pointing at little human so Brutus moves between little human and big female and growls at big female.  Big female backs away.  Brutus smells lots of fear now.  Smells sweat and stress and hears little noises of worry and fear from both the big female and little human.

Big female steps to one side and Brutus moves to stay between her and little human.  She bends down again and Brutus growls, snaps at her fingers.  Is good boy.

Big female talks to Master, “Please.  She was just doing what kids do.  She thinks all dogs are cuddly.”  Her voice is submissive, sounding like more worry and fear.

“Brutus, mouth.”  Brutus looks where Master is pointing and Master is pointing at little human.  Brutus obeys by grabbing little human’s arm and holding it in his mouth.  Is good boy.  Little human howls and tries to pull away but Brutus closes mouth a little each time and little human soon understands that arm is staying in Brutus’ mouth.

Then Master tells big female, “He’s an abused dog, you know.  Before I owned him, he was mistreated.  Until he hurt someone so badly they needed amputation.  I rescued him before he was put down.  And you just let your kid walk up to him and start clawing at him.  Do you understand what could have happened?  That he could have killed or maimed your fucking mouthbreather of a child?”

Brutus only knows his own name and word kill.  Other words don’t mean anything to Brutus.  Kill is order to attack and not stop until that thing isn’t moving anymore.  Master only gives Brutus and Judas and Angelica order to kill with squirrels and racoons and once a horse.  Big female is on knees now and fear smell is all Brutus can smell right now.  Is good to be lower than Master and showing submission.  Big woman is saying things but Brutus can’t understand because she is talking and not stopping.

“Brutus, off.  Come,” Master says and Brutus lets go of arm and walks to Master’s side.  Little human still howling.

Then Master tells big female same thing as before: “Watch your fucking child.”  Walkies begin again.  Get scratched.  Master says Brutus is good boy and Brutus is happy.  Tail wagging.

Is long walkies before Brutus and Master stop at a place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage and pee and poop.  Master knocks on door.  Man who opens door smells like blood.

Master and man talk for a while, and Brutus waits because Brutus is good boy.  Not paying attention to what they’re saying because of smells.  Bad smells.  Sounds of dogs yelping and barking from inside the door.  Then Master says “Stay” and man starts touching Brutus.  Touches like vet touches, not like Master scratching.  Feeling each part of Brutus, fingers deep in fur to massage, check.  Hands on Brutus’ private parts.  Says things that sound negative, shakes head.  Master talks some more.  Man stands and shakes her hand.

Master takes Brutus into the place that smells like blood and dog fear and dog rage.  Noisy.  Lots of people sitting in dark.  Smell like excitement and sweat.  Most lights are in middle of room where blood smell is strongest.

Man from door tells master, “Put him right in the gate.”  Master puts Brutus in something like kennel that smells like rage and fear.

Man talks in loud voice and all the people in room howl and make more noise.  Man says Brutus’ name.  He says kill which is a word Brutus knows.  But blood smell is so strong here Brutus can’t pay attention to much else.  So much blood from so many dogs.  So many smells.

Then the kennel is open and Brutus has nowhere to go but center of room.  Can’t go to Master because boxes are in way and there’s another dog here bigger than Brutus that smells like rage and his own blood and other dog blood and death.

Then Brutus feels it.  Master is making Brutus stronger and it hurts but it’s a good hurt.  Good hurt like when Brutus is stiff and stretches and joints snap and pop and Brutus feels better because of it.  Only this stretch doesn’t stop and Brutus keeps popping and cracking and Brutus keeps feeling better and Brutus gets bigger.  Master usually takes longer to make Brutus this strong but Brutus is in room alone with the dog that smells like blood and death and Master must know Brutus needs to be stronger.

Soon Brutus is bigger than Master and as big as car and Brutus is strong.  Bad dog that smells like blood and death is cowering.

Then Master whistles twice which is order to come and Brutus is confused because there is no way to come.  Master whistles again and calls Brutus’ name and Brutus lunges for boxes that are in the way.  Boxes break and Brutus can come to Master like a good boy.

“Brutus, guard!” Master says and Brutus goes where Master is pointing, and that is door where all the people who smell like fear are going.  To get to door and guard it Brutus uses paws to push people out of the way and grabs one person’s arm and flings her to one side like Brutus likes to fling favorite toys and person makes shrill howl.

Then Brutus is guarding door and people are running other way.  Reminds Brutus of squirrels and how squirrels run.  But people are not as fast or clever as squirrels and they don’t play unfair by running up trees.

“Brutus!  Attack!” Master shouts and Brutus obeys like a good boy.  Brutus uses paws and teeth and size to jump into the crowd of people who are running like squirrels and make them stop running.  Brutus knows it’s bad to shake people like Brutus shakes toys or shakes squirrels.  No shaking.  No chewing.  Bite arm and leg only.  No biting heads.  Using paws is okay but claws aren’t which is hard so Brutus mostly bites and slams into people with head and body to knock them over and make them stop.  Sometimes uses tail which is new and fun.  Brutus doesn’t have tail when small.

Lots of people.  Every time Brutus thinks all people have stopped moving someone runs again.  Takes a long time.  Brutus’ tongue lolls out, panting.  Tail wags and boxes break and Master makes clucking noise like Brutus did something bad.  No more wagging tail.

People lying on floor whimpering.  Smell like blood and fear.  Nobody running like squirrel anymore.

Master shouts, “No more!”  and it is word for the people and not for Brutus.  Both are words Brutus knows.  No means bad and is for things Brutus shouldn’t do.  More is what Master says when giving treats or throwing balls or filling bowls with food.  Brutus doesn’t understand because one word is bad and the other is good.  But Master is alpha and Master knows so it is okay.

Master takes jangly keys from whimpering person and picks up cage with angry dog inside that smells like blood.  Master takes cage outside and puts it in car and tells Brutus to guard the cars.  Some people leave place but Brutus doesn’t let anyone near cars.  Is good boy.  Master goes inside and gets more cages with angry dogs and puts them all in the car.  Then Master does it again.  Master gets backpack and uses ropes from backpack to tie cages together and tie cages to car.

Then Master goes inside for long time and doesn’t come out.  People are gone so Brutus doesn’t need to guard anymore.  Brutus goes to Master inside.

Master is kneeling beside cages and dogs inside smell like blood and poo.  But dogs aren’t angry, aren’t moving.  Brutus nuzzles master with nose and lies down beside Master and Master wraps her arms around Brutus’ neck.  Master hugs Brutus tight for very long time.  Brutus knows it is a long time because Brutus stops being big and becomes smaller than Master.

Cars that make howling sounds start to come from far away and Brutus makes little barks like Master taught him.  Master gets up and takes Brutus into the car and gets in other door and the car starts moving.

Master opens and eats crinkly thing from pocket.  Master gives Brutus treat then rolls down window so Brutus can stick his head out in the wind and Brutus’ tail wags because Brutus knows he was a good boy.

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Agitation 3.12

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“Information,” Glory Girl repeated.

Tattletale twirled the keys around one of her fingers, “For instance, it’s not exactly public knowledge that Panacea was adopted.”

“It’s not a secret either.  It’s on official record.”

“Falsified records,” Tattletale grinned.

Glory Girl glanced at her sister.

“Let me tell you a little story.  Correct me if I’m wrong on any of the details.  Eleven years ago, just five years after capes really started showing up, there was a team operating hereabouts, calling themselves the Brockton Bay Brigade.  Lady Photon, Manpower, Brandish, Flashbang, Fleur and Lightstar.  They wind up taking on a villain in his own home and it’s a pretty decent fight.  They beat him, and because he was a real bastard, he got sent straight to the Birdcage.”

“You can stop now,” Glory Girl said, “Point made.”

“Oh, I haven’t even gotten to the good part.  See, they found a little girl hiding in the closet.  His little girl, a toddler,” Tattletale grinned at Panacea, “Given the odds that someone with powers would have a kid with powers, and knowing how the little girl would never be able to have a normal life with word inevitably getting out about her past, they wound up taking her in.”

“We know this story already,” Glory Girl replied, her tone just a touch testy.

Whatever Tattletale was doing, I sensed it was giving us more control over the situation.  I commented, “This is new to me.  I’m sort of intrigued.”

“The point I’m getting at, Glory Hole, is that I know that one detail you two don’t.  Or at least, I’m willing to look at all the little clues that you’ve got floating around your heads and figure out that one thing that you’ve gone out of your way to avoid knowing.  Glory Hole’s curious, but she avoids the subject because her sister desperately wants her to, and Panacea…  Well, if I told her, I suspect she’d do something very stupid.”

I could feel Panacea slump in my arms.  The fight had gone out of her.

“So, Amy, you want to know who your daddy is?”

For a few long moments, there was only the sound of rain pattering on the windowsill, and the buzzing of the insects still in the room.

“It’s that bad?” I asked in a half whisper, as much to Panacea as to Tattletale.

“It’s not the man that would bother her so much.  It’s the knowing.  Every hour of every day after hearing me say his name, she would wonder.  She’s terrified she’ll start second guessing every part of herself, wondering if she inherited it from him, or if she was that way out of an unconscious desire to not be him.  Knowing as much as she does already keeps her awake some nights, but knowing his name, knowing who he is and what he did?  For the rest of her life, she would compare herself to him.  Isn’t that right, Amy?”

“Shut up.  Just… shut up,” Panacea retorted, her voice thick with emotion.

“Why?  I’m on a roll.  That’s not even the most dangerous tidbit of info I’ve picked up, here.  I know stuff that’s just as bad.”

I saw a flicker of doubt cross Glory Girl’s face.

“I’ll make you a deal, Glory Hole.  You go in the vault, lock yourself in, and I don’t speak on the subject.  I won’t say the one sentence that tears your family apart.”

Glory Girl clenched her fists, “I can’t do that.  I’m calling your bluff, and if I’m wrong, I’ll face the consequences of whatever you say.”

“Very principled.  Very self-involved too, that you think the secret and the consequences have to do with you and your overzealous nature.  They don’t.  They have to do with her.”  Tattletale directed the laser pointer at Panacea’s forehead, “You won’t be tickled pink, either, but the aftermath would be hers to deal with.  Humiliation, shame, heartbreak.”

I could feel Panacea stiffen in my grip.

“Offer stands,” Tattletale grinned, “For the next twelve seconds.  Get in the vault.”

“You’re full of shit,” Panacea spat the words.

“Then why are you so tense?” I asked.

“Eight seconds.”

Panacea abruptly tore out of my grip, so violently I had to pull the knife away to keep her from cutting her own throat against it.

Tattletale scrambled to put a desk between herself and Panacea, but Glory Girl slammed into her, carrying her across the length of the room.  They stopped just short of a wall.  Not that Tattletale got away unscathed.  Glory Girl shoved Tattletale into the wall, one hand over her mouth, and held her there.

While Panacea was distracted, I passed my knife into my left hand and gripped my baton.  I pressed the trigger while swinging it, letting the momentum of the swing draw it out to its full length.  Panacea saw me coming, but I don’t know if she realized what I was holding.  The length of metal struck her across the side of the head.  She staggered a few feet, then went down hard.

Unfortunately for me, Glory Girl saw it all unfold.

“Nobody fucks with my family!” she shouted, and her power cranked out full-bore.  My knees turned to jelly and my brain just gave up on rational thought.  Glory Girl threw Tattletale at me like a very strong child might throw a rag doll, and I just stood there like a deer in the headlights.

Tattletale’s body collided with my midsection, knocking the wind out of me.  The two of us collided with a desk, sending a monitor and a plastic box of files to the floor.  Paper and fragments of monitor scattered over the ground.

We were still reeling when Glory Girl started floating towards us.  I was struggling, unsuccessfully, to heave wheezing gasps of air into my lungs, while Tattletale was gripping one of her arms tight against her body, making little whimpering noises.

“I’m going to pull in every favor I’m owed, and put myself in debt with the local D.A. and whoever else I have to, to get you both sent to the Birdcage,” Glory Girl promised, “You know what that place is like?  A prison without wardens.  No communication with the outside world.  No escapes yet, which is pretty amazing considering it houses all of the worst and most powerful villains we’ve been able to capture.  We don’t even know for sure if anyone’s alive inside there.  It’s just a bucket where we dump scum like you, so we never have to worry about you again.”

“Bugs,” Tattletale grunted at me, almost too quiet to hear.

I didn’t catch her meaning, but I was still struggling to catch my breath, so I just shook my head at her.

“And no contact with the outside world means you don’t go fucking talking about whatever Amy wants to keep private.  I trust my sister, I trust she has a reason for keeping it to herself.”

“Bugs.  Swarm her,” Tattletale said, taking lots of little breaths as she said it.

I caught her meaning.  I reached for my swarm, and was glad to find that my power was working perfectly.  Panacea’s sabotage job had been undone when I’d killed the last of the spiders.  I set every bug I could reach on Glory Girl.

Useless.  It felt like I’d set them on unnaturally strong, slick glass.

“Idiots,” Glory Girl’s muffled voice came from the midst of the cloud of insects, “I’m invincible.”

Tattletale used her good arm to prop herself up, groaning, “First of all, I warned you about calling me stupid.  Second, no, you’re not invincible.  Not exactly.”

Then she raised her good hand from her belt and trained a small handgun on Glory Girl.

The sound was deafening.  You don’t really get a sense for how intense gunfire is from TV and movies.  As is, it was enough that it took me a few seconds to get a grip.  Just a heartbeat later, I realized my bugs had broken through.  They found flesh to latch on to, flesh to bite, sting, claw and puncture.  Glory Girl dropped like a stone and started thrashing violently.

“Help me stand,” Tattletale’s voice was strained, “Using my power like that on them took a lot out of me.”

I grabbed her good hand and helped her up.  With one of her arms around my shoulders, we hurried out of the bank, together.  She shoved the gun into one of the largest pouches of her belt.

“What-” I tried, but talking just sent me into a spasm of painful coughs.  We were down the front steps of the bank before I felt like trying again, “What just happened?”

“She’s not really invincible.  That’s just an idea she likes to put in people’s heads.  She has a forcefield around her entire body, but it shorts out whenever she takes a good hit, comes back online a few seconds later.  I knew when I saw she had dust on her costume.  Dust that her forcefield would keep off her.  Fuck, this hurts.”

“What is it?”

“She pulled my arm out of the socket when she threw me.  Can you fix a dislocated shoulder?”

I shook my head.  I knew how, generally speaking, from the first aid classes I had taken, but I doubted I had the strength to manage it, and I didn’t want to waste time getting Tattletale in a good position to fix her arm when we needed to be gone.

The fight outside the bank was still going our way.  Only Aegis was still in action, and he was hemmed in by the three dogs and Regent’s borrowed laser cannon.

Grue stepped out of the darkness near me, holding onto Bitch much the same way I was holding Tattletale.

“Let’s scram,” I said.

“Let’s,” he agreed, in his haunting voice.

“Hey G-man,” Tattletale winced, “Pop my shoulder back in?”

Grue nodded.  I helped brace Tattletale as he shoved her arm back into place.  He asked, “What happened?”

“It was Glory Girl on the roof,” I explained, then I coughed painfully a few times before adding, “Can we please get the fuck out of here?”

“You guys took Glory Girl?” Grue asked, incredulous, while Bitch roused herself enough to whistle for her dogs.

“In a sense,” Tattletale replied, at the same time I nervously pointed out, “She could be coming after us any second.”

We got on the dogs, and Regent fired a salvo of shots from the laser cannon into Aegis, hammering him into the side of a building until the wall around him collapsed.  He then paused to jam his taser into the control panel.  When the gun started to smoke, Regent made his way down, jumping the last four or five feet to land on a dog’s back.  He tucked the skateboard under one arm.

“Leave it,” Grue said.

“But-”

“Tracking device.  Assume any tinker worth a damn is going to have tracking devices in their stuff.”

“It’s true,” Tattletale answered, as Regent turned towards her.  “Sorry.”

“Fuck!” Regent swore.  He jammed his tazer into the underside of the skateboard like he had with the control panel, then threw it across the street.

We were mounted with Bitch sitting in front of Grue, mainly so he could support her, and Tattletale behind me on Angelica, her uninjured arm wrapped around me.  Regent was alone.

Grue raised his arms, and filled the street with darkness.

Angelica bolted, nearly unseating me, as she made a headlong run into the absolute darkness.  I was on a creature more than twice the size of a horse, without a saddle, and she wasn’t suited for riding in the same way a horse was.  I had one foot resting on a horn of bone that jutted from her side, while the other dangled.  My hands were gripping the straps we’d fitted her with, the only thing from keeping me tumbling backwards, head over heels, as she lunged forward at run that would probably outpace any cars on the road.  Not that there would be any cars.  The police and parahuman response teams would have the area blocked off around any potential cape fights.  To make our escape all the more terrifying, I knew the dog couldn’t see.  She was following Brutus by scent, and Brutus was going by Grue’s directions.  The blind leading the blind.

I should have been terrified, my hands cramping, unable to see or hear, knowing I could tumble off at any second, but I was elated.  Even when Angelica crashed into something hard enough to nearly knock us off, it didn’t kill my enthusiasm.  I hooted, hollered and cheered our victory, barely hearing the noise myself as the darkness absorbed it.

We’d done it.  I’d done it.  We’d escaped without killing anyone.  The only ones who’d really been hurt at all had been the Wards, Glory Girl and Panacea, and that would be fixed when Panacea came to, for sure.  Any property damage had largely been the fault of the Wards and Glory Girl.  I’d maybe made some enemies, I’d scared some innocent people, but I’d be lying to myself if I said that could’ve been avoided.  In short, things couldn’t have gone better.

Okay, they could have gone a lot better, but the way they ended up?  Pretty damn good, all in all.

Aegis would have climbed out of the rubble by now, flown up for a bird’s eye view.  If Grue was doing what we’d planned, he was filling every street and side street we passed with darkness.  Aegis couldn’t see where or if we doubled back or what streets we took, so he could only identify our location by the places where fresh darkness appeared.  If he tried to close in to get us, though, we’d be gone by the time he reached us.  All he could do was follow our general location.

Just when I thought I might not be able to hold on any longer, we pulled to a stop.  Tattletale and I slipped off of Angelica.  Someone, probably Grue, pushed a backpack into my arms.  Even working in total darkness, I managed to change into the set of civilian clothes we’d hidden away before we headed to the bank.  I was handed an umbrella and gratefully unfolded it with my stiff hands.

It was tense, waiting in the darkness, with only the feeling of the rain on the umbrella to give me a sense of the world beyond myself and of time passing.

It was a long time before the world came into view again.  Grue said his darkness faded after twenty minutes or so, but it felt like far longer than that.  As the darkness cleared away, I saw Lisa sitting on the steps at the front of a shoe store, holding aleash in one hand and a paper shopping bag in the other.  Angelica, as normal as she ever was, was on the other end of the leash, sitting patiently.  All around us were shoppers and pedestrians, each with their umbrellas and raincoats, looking around with scared expressions and wide eyes.  The sounds were refreshing after the silence of the darkness – falling rain and the murmur of conversation.

Lisa stood, and winked at me as she tugged on the leash to get Angelica following at her side.  We joined the crowd of disoriented shoppers.

Assuming things went according to plan, Alec would be dropped off next, without a dog, and he’d change into civilian clothes the same way we had.  Bitch, Brian and the two dogs would make the final stop at a storage locker near the Docks.  Inside, they would change into their civies, relax for a few hours inside, and leave the money there for the boss to pick up.  After taking a long enough break that the heroes would have abandoned pursuit, they would make their way back much as we were.

“Everyone came out of this unscathed?” I asked Tattletale in a low voice.  I was sharing my umbrella with her, so speaking together in a kind of huddle wasn’t strange looking.

“No injuries or deaths for us, for the heroes or for the bystanders,” she confirmed.

“Then it’s a good day,” I said.

“A very good day,” she agreed.

Arm in arm, we walked leisurely through downtown.  Like everyone else, we craned our heads to follow the police cars and PRT vans that were rushing to the scene of the crime with sirens wailing.  Two girls who just finished their shopping, walking their dog.

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Agitation 3.10

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Six good guys were still in action, as far as I knew.  Clockblocker was down, and posed no threat unless someone walked into his reach where he was lying down, or unless we took longer than the ten or so minutes it would take his power to release him.  Angelica and Brutus were playing a macabre game of tug of war, using Aegis as the rope.

The rest of the battlefield was chaos.  Patches of darkness covered everything, and the landscape was distorted.  In some of the areas Vista had warped, the rain wasn’t falling in a straight line.  One spot in particular had the rain moving horizontally before it dropped to help fill a massive puddle thirty feet across, where her power had made an indent in the ground.

Aegis and Clockblocker were more or less dealt with.  As Vista was the last remaining priority target,  I directed my remaining swarm towards her.  They wouldn’t reach her quickly though, as the rain bogged them down, and both puddles and distorted space forced a more roundabout route for the bugs.

Bitch, still riding Judas, came rushing out of a cloud of darkness, splashing through the huge puddle.  Kid Win and Gallant opened fire on her with laser beams and painfully bright blasts of energy.  She was moving fast and unpredictably enough that Judas only took one or two glancing hits.  The distance between her and Vista rapidly closed.

Vista raised her hand, and the surface of the street bulged upward into a short wall.  As it grew, the wall caught one of Judas’ forepaws, tripping him.  He fell, and his rider was sent tumbling head over heels.

Bitch got to her feet before Judas did, but only managed to take a single step before one of Gallant’s blasts clipped her.  I winced.  His light blasts were charged with energy that made the people struck feel a particular emotion.  Gallant could blast you with one that made you hopeless, scared, sad, ashamed…

Bitch screamed, and it was a long and primal noise, filled with rage.  I was still inside the bank, watching things unfold through the window, barely able to hear it, and it still made my skin crawl.  So he’d shot the dangerous psychopath with a blast that made her angry.  Someone would have to explain that one to me at a later date.

Whirling, still screaming, she pointed at Gallant.  Apparently that was order enough, because Judas charged at the teenager that was dressed like a science fiction Lancelot.

Bitch didn’t attack him though.  Without her dogs at her back, essentially without powers, she went straight for Vista.  She was focused enough to stay on the priority target.

Vista was ready, though.  As Bitch tried to close the distance, the roadway between her and the young heroine stretched out, until the distance she had to cover was two, three, four, five times as far.  Vista then pinched the space behind her closer together, crossed a third of a block with a single skip, and then returned it to normal.  I swore under my breath, and not just because my bugs had a lot more distance to travel.  My head was pounding again, and it was getting steadily worse.

Was someone’s power at work, giving me a headache?  There wasn’t anyone in the Wards, I was pretty sure, who could mess with your head like that.  Gallant could mess with your emotions, but he had to hit you with a light blast to do it.  The person on the roof, then?  I was fairly confident there wasn’t anyone in the Protectorate or New Wave who could affect me like this.

Bitch gave up on Vista and whistled for Judas.  The dog responded immediately, abandoning his skirmish with Gallant, who was trying and failing to stand.  A wash of darkness consumed him before he managed to pick himself up.

Kid Win opened fire on Bitch as her dog returned to her.  Given the excessive distance between them – it would have been a hard shot to make before Vista stretched the area that Bitch was standing on – meaning his aim was wildly off target.  He stopped, changed a setting, and fired a fresh salvo.  This time, the lasers came out in more of a staccato spray, like you’d expect from a machine gun.  One of the lasers caught Bitch in the center of her stomach and laid her flat.  Judas guarded his owner by hunkering over her, blocking further shots and obscuring my view of her.

Near Vista, a large figure staggered out of the darkness, shadows still clinging to him, bellowing and screaming incoherently about bugs.  He thrashed for several moments, then collapsed into a heap a short distance from Vista.  Someone that large could only be Browbeat.  Vista apparently reached the same conclusion I did, because she took a few steps closer to him, looking around helplessly for a way to help him.

An instant after I realized that I didn’t actually have bugs on Browbeat, the figure struck Vista across the side of the head, laying her flat.  I saw the briefest glimpse of Grue’s skull mask before he and Vista were covered by a fresh tide of his darkness.

“Bitch, Vista, Clockblocker, Gallant are out of action, I think,” I called across the room to Tattletale, who was still hammering away at a keyboard.  “We’ve got Aegis handled for the time being.  Not sure what happened to Browbeat, but there’s only him, Kid Win and the person on the roof to deal with, now.  We can make a break for it soon.”

“One last thing to do,” Tattletale grinned to me, “I’ll be right back.  Keep an eye on things here.”

“What?  No – Tattletale!  Dammit!” I shouted, but she was already running, heading back into the offices that we’d been through on our way to the bank.

I didn’t have time to dwell on her leaving.  Flickers of light outside the bank caught my attention.  Kid Win was flying fifteen feet above the ground on his hoverboard.  In front of him, pieces of a massive device were materializing, shimmering into existence like you saw with the transporters on Star Trek.  It was only one or two steps away from being complete, but you could tell what it was.  A gun, no less than fifteen feet long, with a barrel three or four feet across, all turret mounted on a circular platform not unlike the board he was riding.

“Shit,” I whispered to myself.  I sent my bugs after him.

He swiveled the cannon to face Judas, who was still guarding the spot where Bitch had fallen.  A bolt of light erupted from the cannon and sent Judas flying beyond my field of vision.  He fired another shot, at a greater distance, presumably at the fallen dog.  Then he swiveled and fired off two more shots in quick succession, blasting Aegis and the two dogs that were gripping him.

The dogs and Aegis were all sent flying into the wall of the office building opposite the bank.  While the dogs didn’t get up immediately, a bloody and tattered Aegis was on his feet in an instant, and in the air a moment later.  He got to a good height – maybe two or three stories up, and stayed there, likely to get his bearings and survey the situation.

As my bugs approached the Kid, he took notice and maneuvered his cannon to decimate the swarm.  I spread them out, but he simply pulled a lever and released a flamethrower-like blast of lightning and sparks, eliminating virtually all of the bugs I’d sent out into the street.  The scant few that that remained, I sent towards his face, to crawl beneath his visor and into his nose and mouth.  It wasn’t enough.

Then Kid Win aimed the cannon straight at me.

I jumped for cover the moment I realized what he was doing.  There was a muffled sound, more a very large person someone hitting a punching bag than what I’d expect a laser cannon to sound like, and the window exploded.

What was he doing?  We had hostages inside.  I turned to check, and saw there weren’t any hostages near me.  Did he know that?  Heat sensors in his visor?  Was someone watching me through the cameras and passing him info?  Damn it!  There was too much I didn’t know, and Tattletale wasn’t around to fill me in.

Grue sprinted between two clouds of darkness, raising one hand to send a blast of his power towards Kid Win, obscuring the Kid’s line of sight.  Kid Win responded by ponderously maneuvering himself and the cannon out of the top of the cloud of darkness.

I swore under my breath and sent a command for more of the bugs I had inside to drop from the ceiling and go outside to attack.  There were a good few bugs near Clockblocker, who were getting free of the time stopping effect he’d laid on them.  I added those to the assault.

My legs buckled as my headache worsened tenfold.  Worse, the response from my bugs was sluggish, like I was ordering them to move through mud.  I felt a momentary panic, but there wasn’t really anything I could do.  I grit my teeth and ordered the attack anyways, then forced myself to run for the other side of the bank, in case he could somehow detect me and shoot through the walls to hit me.

I glanced through the windows for Aegis as I passed them.  Through the rain, and the darkness that lingered on the surface of the windows, I spotted him.  His white costume was wet with rain and ridiculous amounts of blood, and he was diving straight for the bank like a human missile.  Damn it.

Inexplicably, his descent wavered, then curved.  He flew straight into the ground, full force, hard enough to crack pavement.  One of the dogs, I couldn’t tell which, had managed to extricate itself from the rubble of the shattered wall and rushed at the fallen Aegis.

Kid Win was occupied trying to do three things at once – he was maneuvering out of the way of the clouds of darkness Grue was setting in his way, making return potshots at Grue as Grue zig zagged between spots of cover and with every free moment, he was blasting hundreds of my bugs out of the air.  If my power was at full strength, my bugs probably would have reached him already, but something was interfering.  That, or I’d overexerted myself.  The bugs were slow to react, slow to move and some were slipping from my grasp, returning to their instinctive behavior.  Making matters worse, I wasn’t blind to the fact that every time I gave a command, my headache got exponentially worse.

With Kid Win occupied as he was, the dog had a clear path to Aegis.  Aegis didn’t try to run this time.  He stood his ground and reached for his utility belt.  He retrieved something that looked like a miniature fire extinguisher.

Then he pulled the pin.

For the second time in a matter of minutes, I dove away from the window.  It wouldn’t be a grenade, but the option that made the most sense-  I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears just in time.  The explosion the flashbang grenade made was enough to leave me breathless, and there was a stone wall and some fifty or so feet between us.

I chanced a careful look through the window as soon as I’d recovered, hands still over my ears.  The dog was reeling, making pained sounds, and Aegis was pummeling it, using his flight to close the distance and add more momentum to his swings.  When the dog, Angelica, I saw, looked like it was starting to recover, he grabbed two more flashbang grenades from his belt with one hand and pulled the pins with the other, dropping them to the ground just below him.

I ducked behind cover again, but they didn’t go off.  When I chanced another look, I saw the tables had turned.  Where the flashbangs had been dropped, there was a smudge of Grue’s darkness covering the ground.  Angelica was having it out with Aegis, and Regent was striding out of the darkness, in Kid Win’s direction.

I’d forgotten about Regent.  It made sense that he was working from a discreet position like I was.  He probably would have been the one to alter Aegis’ flight path.

Seeing Regent approach, Kid Win turned his turret-mounted cannon in his direction.  Before he could fire, though, Regent raised two fingers, and Kid Win lost his footing on his flying skateboard.  The cannon shifted until it was pointing straight up, as the young hero dangled from the handles, his weight altering the trajectory of the cannon.  His board clattered to the ground a few feet away.

Regent made a dismissive wave, and Kid Win let go with one hand, his fingers and arm curling backwards in a palsied fit.  Regent repeated the gesture, and Kid Win lost his grip on the controls, dropping a good twenty feet to the asphalt.

As Regent approached to stand over him, Kid Win reached for his laser pistol.  He scowled in frustration as his fingers continued to twitch and curl involuntarily, instead of closing on the handle of the gun.

With an almost relaxed air, Regent shoved the end of his tazer into Kid Win’s side.

I don’t know if it was the sense of relief, but I couldn’t help but laugh as Regent collected the fallen skateboard and began a wobbly ascent to the floating cannon turret.  He aimed and began firing at Aegis, who was forced to scramble out of the way.

“What’s so funny, psycho?”

I whirled to face the voice, and saw the freckled, brown haired hostage that had been glaring at me when we’d first taken control of the bank lobby.  After that, I saw only stars as she slammed something large and blunt into the side of my head.

 

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Agitation 3.9

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I can imagine how it looked to the Wards.  One moment they were standing in the rain, waiting with a tense readiness.  The next, the front doors of the bank slammed open, revealing nothing but total darkness.  Just a moment later, eight hostages came stumbling through the darkness, out the doors and down the stairs.

Aegis’ eyes opened wide behind his mask.  He turned to look at Clockblocker, who gestured madly towards the ground.  Turning back to the scene, Aegis bellowed, “Everyone leaving the bank!  Get down on the ground now!”

He didn’t get a chance to see if they listened.  Darkness swelled at the bank’s entrance, then flooded into the street like water from a broken dam.  In seconds, the hostages were hidden from sight and the Wards were forced to retreat several paces to keep from being swallowed up.

Inside the bank, Grue mused, “That should give them a reason to think twice before blindly opening fire where they can’t see.  I’m liking this.  We ready for part two?”

“Just don’t hurt the hostages,” I said, glancing back at the thirty that were still inside.

“The ones we sent out are staying put?” Grue asked.

I felt out with my power.  The bugs I’d put on the hostages couldn’t see or hear anything, and I wasn’t sensing movement.  “They’re doing as we told them.  They ran as far as they could before your power hit them, and then they lay flat on the ground, hands on their heads.”

“Then I’m going,” Bitch announced.  She grabbed a bone spike that was jutting out of Judas’ shoulder and heaved herself up to a sitting position on his back.

“No,” Tattletale said, grabbing at Bitch’s boot, “Wait.”

Bitch glared down at her, clearly annoyed.

“That hesitation before Aegis gave the orders to the hostages… it didn’t fit.”

“If you’ve figured something out, spit it out,” Grue spoke in his echoing voice, “We need to move now, before they get reorganized!”

“Bitch, you’re going after Clockblocker.  Stay away from Aegis, got it?”

Bitch didn’t even respond, digging her heels into Judas’ sides and ducking her head to avoid hitting it on the top of the door as they raced out.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Grue growled, “She’s going-”

“They switched costumes.   Aegis is wearing Clockblocker’s costume and vice versa.”

I would have liked to see the expression on Brian’s face, but as Grue, his mask covered everything.  He just turned his skull-helmet back to the window, silent.

It dawned on me how badly that could have fucked us.  Bitch’s dogs would have attacked the person they thought was Aegis, and gotten tagged by Clockblocker instead.  In one fell swoop, we would have lost the majority of our offensive power.

“Good catch,” I told Tattletale, before raising my hands and directing a good portion of my bugs to drop from the ceiling and flow out the door.

Tattletale only grinned, before she made made her way back to the computer to continue her mad typing.  Grue and Regent headed out the doors, leaving Tattletale and I alone in the bank lobby.

For my part, I walked to the corner of the bank and peered out through one of the tall, narrow windows by the loan officer’s desk.  Tendrils of Grue’s darkness still clung to the window, but I had a pretty decent view of the battlefield.

As I watched, that view distorted, as if I was looking into a funhouse mirror, or through a drop of water.  The street, including the area with the darkness covering it, began swelling, broadening, and widening until the two sidewalks on either side of the street were more like semicircles than straight lines.  It hurt my head to think too much about how Vista’s powers worked.  Or maybe the headache I felt looming had something to do with the fact that I was sending my bugs into the area Vista had distorted.  It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that my brain was having trouble relaying my bug’s positions to me as well as it should, in that area where geometry wasn’t working quite as it should.

Either way, something was getting to me.  I raised my hands to rub my temples, remembered my mask, and sighed, folding my arms instead.

I sent my bugs through the darkness and the warped space of the street.  Each time they collided with someone inside the cloud of darkness, it took me a moment to figure out who the person was.  Grue was the first I ran into, and the easiest to identify.  Some of my bugs had tiny hairs on their bodies that could sense air currents, and the steady output of darkness around Grue generated something like a steady air current around him.  Regent was harder – I almost mistook him for a hostage – but he was wearing the hard mask over his face.  I left him alone.

I found the person I was looking for, Bitch, and tracked her movement through the darkness.  My bugs could feel the vibrations of the dogs’ footfalls on the street, the hot, moist huffs of air from Judas’ nostrils, and the smells of the dog.  His smell made a dozen instincts of mosquitoes and carrion flies kick into action, his scent was one of blood, meat and gristle, the vaguest hints of diseased flesh.  I shivered.  As Bitch and her dogs burst from the darkness, towards Aegis and Clockblocker, I had my bugs follow immediately after them.

She was going straight for Clockblocker, who was dressed as Aegis.

“No, no, no,” I muttered, “You idiot.”

At the last possible second, she changed course and went for the real Aegis.

Aegis bolted the second the dog changed course, but it was too late.  As he tried to fly out of reach, Judas leaped, nearly twice as far and high as I might have guessed something as big as he was could.  The dog’s prehensile tail wrapped around Aegis’ torso.  As they all fell, mount, rider and ensnared captive, Bitch shouted something I couldn’t hear, and Judas whipped Aegis straight down, adding the force of the throw to the momentum of the fall.

I thought I might have heard the impact from the interior of the bank.  Or maybe it was as auditory illusion and my bugs were the ones who heard it.  Either way, Aegis hit the ground hard enough to kill an ordinary person.

He wasn’t down for one second before he was on his feet again.  In the same motion he used to get to his feet, he lunged for the dog and swung a fist at Judas’ snout.  He might have connected, but Bitch was already steering her steed back into the cloud of darkness.  She flipped Aegis the middle finger before disappearing from view.

At the same time, Clockblocker was fighting off the bugs I’d sent out.    Within a fraction of a second of a bug making contact with Clockblocker or his costume, he froze it.  My power simply stopped telling me the bug was there, as if they had disappeared from the face of the planet.  In reality, they were just suspended in time.  Stuck in the air, immobile, untouchable.

But that same power could work against him, I was thinking.  I made my bugs surge forward, surround him, aiming to cover his entire body.  I was pretty sure he couldn’t disable the effects of his power, so if he wanted to freeze all of the bugs I had crawling on him, he’d trap himself in a prison of his own making.

He was good at thinking on his feet, though, or he’d faced similar tactics before, because he had an answer for that.  Clockblocker spun in a tight circle, freezing the bugs as his body rotated, so that they were only affected when the part of his body they were on was facing away from the bank.  The result was that a cluster of bugs was left frozen behind him, and he was free to dash straight towards Aegis.

While I’d been distracted by Clockblocker, Bitch had set Brutus and Angelica on Aegis.  He was fending the two dogs off, but the white pane of his helm – Clockblocker’s helm – was shattered, now, and his costume was torn with one piece of ruined armor dangling by a string of cloth at his armpit.

Brutus lunged for Aegis, but as he passed over the edge of the area Vista had distorted, he fell short.  The dog’s jaws clacked shut a foot away from Aegis’ face, spittle flying.

Aegis responded by slamming both fists, fingers interlaced, into Brutus’ snout.  The dog crashed onto its side, giving Aegis the time to take flight once more, heading straight for the sky.

Angelica followed, leaping through the air just like Judas had a minute earlier.  She missed, and hit the side of a building hard enough to make the windows around her explode in a spray of glass.  I waited for her to fall, but she apparently had no plans to do so.  She gripped the stone of the building and windowsills around her with her four claws, tensed, and leaped again from the side of the building.

If I was surprised to see that display of acrobatics from one of the dogs, I doubted there were words for what Aegis’ must have felt, just then.  Angelica seized the teen hero in her jaws and they plummeted together.

Angelica didn’t land with all four claws beneath her, and she sprawled as she hit the ground.  When she stopped, though, she still had Aegis, one of his arms and half his torso clasped between her teeth.  She whipped him around like a dog might shake a toy.  When she paused, he was still fighting her, slamming his free hand against the side of her head over and over.  Loops and strings of drool mixed with blood hung from her mouth.  At least, that’s what I thought it was, from my vantage point inside the bank, peering through gloom and pouring rain.

Clockblocker had slowed down as I started throwing more bugs in his way.  I kept them between him and Aegis, so he couldn’t close the distance and touch the dogs.  He’d responded by ducking, weaving, spinning and swatting or brushing them off with his hands, so he could freeze them without setting barriers in his own way.

Then he decided to try ignoring the swarm.  I seized the opportunity to bite and sting him twenty or so times.  The surprise and pain distracted him from his evasive maneuvers, and he wound up clotheslining himself as he froze the insects on his face while still running forward.  He went from a head on run to landing on his back with his feet still in the air.

I probably wouldn’t get a better chance.  I set the majority of the swarm on him while he was lying on the ground.

Keep them on the defensive, Brian had told me, while we sparred.  Keep them guessing, change the way you attack.

I directed the bugs to the areas where his skin was exposed, and piloted them into the gaps between his skin and his costume.

Even with innumerable insects biting and stinging him over and over, he managed to climb to his feet and return to his attempts to reach the dogs.  He knew as well as I did that he couldn’t freeze them now that the bugs had made their way inside his costume.  He’d have to rip his costume with his own strength if he did.  I doubted it was that easy to tear, either.

It was ironic.  I wouldn’t have been able to do this if he hadn’t switched costumes with his teammate.  Clockblocker’s usual costume covered every inch of his skin, like mine did.  Probably for much the same reason.

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, just loud enough that only I could hear it.  I gave the bugs a new order.

When the bugs started crawling up his nostrils with relentless intent, he managed to keep going, pulling himself to his feet and resuming his efforts to freeze the bugs while advancing towards the dogs.  He snorted to try and clear his nose so he could keep breathing, but then he was left with the problem of needing to inhale.  He couldn’t do that without bringing bugs further into his airway, so he made the mistake of opening his mouth to breathe.

When a mass of bugs forced themselves into his open mouth, he staggered and fell.  I think he was gagging, but couldn’t see or hear well enough from my vantage point to tell.

At my instruction, more bugs forced themselves under the gaps in his costume and into his ear canals.  Yet others, smaller ones, crawled in and around his eyes, using deceptive strength to try and force themselves in between and under his eyelids.  I couldn’t imagine what that felt like to him.  Everyone had probably experienced the sensation of having a lot of bugs crawling on them, but these bugs were operating with a human intelligence backing them, to penetrate his eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  They were working together, with a single minded purpose, instead of mindlessly crawling where their instincts directed them.

I don’t know if it was calculated or something he did in a moment’s panic, but he used his power.  Every bug that was touching him disappeared from my reach.

Once I’d realized what he’d done, I pulled away every bug that wasn’t affected.  I didn’t want to suffocate him, and he’d effectively pinned himself to the street with his power.  The worst thing that could happen now was that he’d panic and throw up, choking on his own puke.  I could do my part to avoid that.

I’d won.  I wasn’t sure what to feel.  I felt a kind of elation mixed with the quiet horror of what I’d just done to a superhero.

I could settle that inner turmoil later and decide on a way to make amends to Clockblocker at the same time.  There were still five Wards and a stranger on the rooftop to be taken out, if I wanted to stay out of jail.

 

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Agitation 3.8

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“Any trouble?” Grue asked Tattletale.

“We’re okay for now.”

We’d gone over the plan until I’d been worried I would start murmuring about it in my sleep. I joined Tattletale, Grue, Bitch and the largest of the three dogs as we headed to the sealed vault door.  Regent watched at the front doors with the two other dogs.  His power had a good enough range that he could delay any approaching opposition long enough for us to get into position.

Tattletale took hold of the stainless steel wheel that jutted out from the front of the vault and spun it, then stopped it. She repeated the process, going right, then left, then right again, for an indeterminably long time.  Just when I had the hopeful thought that maybe she wasn’t able to get in, there was a sound of something heavy shifting inside the door.

The four of us hauled the door open, and Tattletale sauntered off to where the bank manager worked. She sat herself down at the computer, putting her feet up on the corner of the desk, and began typing away.  From there, she could keep an eye on the media, watch the surveillance cameras and remotely control the door locks and alarm systems.  All with the right passwords, of course, but that wasn’t a problem for her.

Grue, Bitch and I started strapping a canvas harness onto the one dog that wasn’t standing at the front doors. I was gradually working out which was which.  I think Bitch called this one Brutus.  He was the biggest, with the meatiest body, and he had a shorter snout.  He’d been the Rottweiler, before.

He turned his massive head towards me, until the deep set eyeball was just to the left of my head.  The pupil narrowed into a dot.  There was just the bloodshot white of the eye and the yellow-gray of an iris as broad as my handspan.

I knew the worst thing to do would be to show fear or nervousness, so I was careful to breathe slowly and focus on buckling the straps and making triply sure they were fastened tight.  I was maybe being a little too firm, just to ensure the Brutus didn’t think I was weak or shy.  Not that it mattered.  I seriously doubted I could make him flinch, even with one of my weapons in hand.

With the harness securely fastened, we headed into the vault, Brutus standing at the door.  The vault was stainless steel from top to bottom with neatly banded bundles of bills organized into stacks.  The stacks, in turn, were organized by the size of the bill, all neatly set up against the wall. On the wall opposite the stacks were drawers like an elaborate filing cabinet.  They were pretty much just that.  The bank kept copies of all important documents for the local branches here, in a fireproof vault, in case of disaster.  The far end of the vault had another door, opening into an elevator that went down to the garage basement, where the armored trucks could be loaded.  It was a shame it wasn’t an option for an escape route. The door, the elevator and the garage itself were all firmly locked outside of specific times and days.

Bitch dumped an armload of bags onto the ground, and she and I got on our knees on either side of the pile and began stuffing one of the bags with cash.  She took off her mask to see what she was doing better.  Grue, for his part, withdrew a short crowbar from within the darkness that smoldered around his body.  He set to cracking open the filing drawers with the squealing noise of metal creaking and bending.

As Bitch and I filled the first bag, we buckled it closed, cinched the accompanying strap tight around it, and with mutual effort, slid it across the slick metal floor towards Brutus. Grue turned away from the drawers to grab the bag, haul it up and attach it to the dog’s harness.

It was a staggering amount of money. As Bitch and I worked, I started trying to count the money I was putting into the bag. Five hundred, one thousand, one thousand five hundred. Bitch was working just as fast as I was, so I could double that. Just taking a second to wrap my head around what the total amount would be per bag made me lose track.

We filled a second bag and slid it towards the door. Grue grunted as he heaved it up to the opposite side of the first bag and clipped it in place. While we filled the third bag, he clipped on one more – a bag filled with the contents of the first drawer he had opened.  According to Lisa’s briefing, the drawers would hold deeds, liens, insurance forms, mortgages and loan information.  Apparently our employer was willing to buy these from us.  I’d speculated about why – the most obvious possibility was that he could ransom them back to the bank.  More intriguing was the thought that he wanted the information itself for his own purposes.  Or, on a similar note, maybe there was something specific that would be found in the midst of the paperwork, and he was willing to buy it all if it meant keeping his true intentions unclear.

“I’m going to be sore tomorrow,” Grue groaned, as he recovered from strapping the bag of papers into place, “And we haven’t even been in a fight yet.”

“Sore and rich,” Bitch spoke.  I glanced at her and saw her grinning.  It was disquieting.  I’d only ever seen her sullen and hostile, so any smile would be kind of creepy.  It was worse than that.  Hers was the kind of smile you’d see from someone who had never seen one before and was trying to replicate one from what they’d read in books.  Too many teeth showing, I suppressed a shiver and focused on the work.

We slid the third bag across the floor.  Grue hooked it into the harness.

“We can’t put any more on here without it being a problem,” he decided.

“The weight is even?” Bitch asked.

“Close enough.”

Bitch stood and crossed the length of the vault to where her creature waited. She rubbed her hand on Brutus’ snout like you might see a horse owner do, except Brutus most definitely wasn’t a horse. She was rubbing her hand on exposed muscle, calcified tatters of flesh and bone hooks that jutted out of gaps and knots in the muscle. She managed to look almost affectionate as she did it.

“Go, baby. Go,” she commanded, pointing to the front door. Brutus obediently loped off to the front of the bank and sat, his prehensile tail absently coiling around the door handle.

“Hey!” Bitch called out, then whistled twice, alternating between short and long. The smallest of the dogs, who was only recognizable now by her missing eye, bounded towards us in her excitement. Some of the hostages screamed in alarm at the sudden movement.

I winced.  I didn’t want to think about the hostages. They were already heavy on my conscience, and they were constantly on the periphery of my attention, as long as I continued using the bugs I’d planted on them to keep alert for any movement or talking.

“That’s the one you call Angelica?” I asked, to distract myself. “The name doesn’t seem to fit with what you call the others.”

“I didn’t name her,” Bitch said. As the creature approached her, Bitch slapped her a few times on the shoulder, hard. It didn’t hurt the animal though – Angelica just lashed her tail in what I realized was a warped way of wagging her tail. Bitch snapped her fingers twice and pointed at the ground, and Angelica sat.

I had already partially filled a bag when Bitch rejoined me.

“She had previous owners then.”

“Fuckers,” Bitch swore.

“They were the ones who made her lose her ear and her eye?” I asked.

“What? You think I fucking did it?”  She dropped the money she had in her and and stood up, clenching her fists.

“Woah, no,” I protested, shifting my weight so I could move out of the way if she got aggressive, “Just trying to make small talk.”

She took a step toward me.  “Coward.  You know you can’t take me in a-”

“Enough!” Grue shouted.  Bitch turned on him, her eyes narrowing.

“If you can’t work over there, then take over here.”  His voice was steady, firm.  Bitch spat on the floor and did as he asked, taking the offered crowbar from his hand as they passed each other.  Grue took over the bag filling where Bitch had left off.  We quickly got a rhythm down, and four more bags were filled in a matter of minutes.

“We want to stay to load up the third dog or run for it?” I asked Grue, then added, “No use getting greedy.” I would be happy to leave as soon as possible. I wasn’t interested in the money, and I definitely wasn’t interested in going to jail for it.

“How much do we have?” he glanced over in Angelica’s direction

Tattletale answered for me, from where she stood at the door to the vault, “Forty one thousand, eight hundred. It looks like that’s as much as we’re going to get. The white hats are here, and it’s not looking good.”

We were out of the vault in a flash, and we joined Regent at the front doors, peering through the gaps in the wall of darkness.

Tattletale hadn’t exaggerated. Our opposition was lined up on the sidewalk across the street, the colors of their costumes bright in the midst of the gloom of the rain and the gray of the city.  Aegis, tan skinned, was wearing a rust red costume with a matching helmet, both with silver-white trim and a shield emblem. The cockroach, I’d come to think of him.  The boy with no weak points.

A dozen or so feet to his right was Vista, wearing a costume with a skirt, all covered in wavy, swooping lines that alternated between white and forest green. She had some body armor worked into her costume design.  Her breastplate was molded to give the illusion of a chest, but that didn’t do anything to conceal the fact that she was still young enough that I could have kicked her ass in a straight up fistfight.  If she was older than twelve, she was a late bloomer.

Clockblocker stood to Aegis’ left. He wore a white costume, skintight, with interlocking panels of glossy white body armor placed wherever they could give him protection without inhibiting his movements. I couldn’t see it through the rain, but I knew from TV that the armor had images of clocks on it in dark gray.  Some of the images on the armor were animated so they drifted across the surface, while others were fixed in place with hands ticking. His helmet was faceless, just a smooth expanse of white.

“Tattletale,” Grue growled in his echoing, reveberating voice, “You know how I say you’re a fucking dumbass sometimes?”

The three weren’t alone. Kid Win was floating in the air to one side of Clockblocker. His brown hair was damp in the rain, he had a red visor and body armor in red and gold. His feet were firmly planted on his flying skateboard, which had a ruby glow radiating from the bottom.  His hands were gripping matching guns.  Laser pistols, or something in that vein.  Kid Win was saying something to Gallant, who was standing a ways to his left.  Gallant was an older teenager in a gunmetal and silver costume that blended the appearance of a pulp science fiction hero with a medieval knight.

On the opposite end of the line was someone I didn’t know. He was big in a different way than Grue was big. The kind of bulk that made you think powers were at work. His muscle laden arms were bigger around than my thighs, and I thought he could probably crush cans between his pecs. His costume was little more than dark blue or black spandex with a diamond print. His mask was full-face, except for the eyes, and had a crystal attached to the forehead.  He was the only person standing there who didn’t have body armor.  He didn’t look like he really needed it.

“Who is he?” I asked, pointing.

“Browbeat,” Tattletale sighed, “He’s a point blank telekinetic, which means that he can move things with his mind, but only if they’re within an inch or so of his skin. He can use it to throw punches that hit like freight trains, or shield himself from incoming attacks. He’s also packing personal biokinesis, which means he’s got a kind of ability to manipulate his own body. He can heal just by concentrating on an injury, and he’s used it to bulk up. He might be capable of doing more on the fly, depending on how much he’s trained since we saw him last. He’s been a solo hero in Brockton Bay for a little while.”

“What the fuck is he doing here?” I asked.

“We crossed paths with him once, Regent and Bitch beat him. Either he’s here for revenge or he’s joined the Wards very, very recently. My power’s suggesting it’s the latter.”

“That’s is the kind of thing you’re supposed to inform us on well in advance,” Grue hissed at her, “And there’s not supposed to be six of them.”

“There’s seven,” Tattletale said, wincing as Grue slammed his fist against the wood of the door. “There’s someone on the roof.  I’m not sure who, but I don’t think it’s Shadow Stalker. Might be a member of the Protectorate.”

“There’s not supposed to be six or seven!” Grue roared in his unearthly voice “There’s supposed to be three, four at most!”

“I made an educated guess,” Tattletale spoke in a low voice, “I was wrong.  Sue me.”

“If we get out of this in one piece,” Grue spoke, his tone low and menacing, “We’re going to have a long conversation.”

I rested my forehead against the window.  An armored section of my mask clinked against the glass, “Educated guess.  It would have been nice if you had said it was an educated guess, way back when we were planning this.”

Of our group, Bitch seemed the least daunted.  “I can take them.  Just let me go all out.”

“We’re not going to fucking risk killing anyone,” Grue told her. “We’re not maiming anyone, either. The plan stands.  We have the money, we run for it.”

Tattletale shook her head, “That’s what they want. Why do you think they’re lined up like that? We bolt with the money from any of the exits, the person on the roof tackles us, incapacitates us or keeps us busy while the rest close in.  Look at how they’re sort of spaced out.  Just far enough apart that if we try to go between them, one of them can probably close in fast enough to nab us before we get away.”

“With my power-” Grue started.

“They still outnumber us. There’s at least five ways they could take one of us down while we’re running, even if they were going in blind… and Vista’s in the equation. Figure any distance we need to cover is going to be much farther than it looks, and things get ugly. It wouldn’t be a problem if there weren’t so many of them.”

“Fuck,” Regent groaned.

“We can’t just stay here,” Grue said, “Sure, they’re getting cold and wet, but our odds aren’t much better if we force them to come in here after us, and if we wait too long, the Protectorate might show, too.”

“We have hostages,” Bitch said, “If they come in here, we take out one of the hostages.”  Somewhere behind us, someone moaned, long and loud. I think they’d heard her.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was a bad situation, and worse, I was afraid it was my fault. I’d warned Armsmaster something was going to happen. I could believe that he’d told the teams to be ready to go out in force. Even worse, he could be the unknown person on the roof. If that was the case, and Tattletale caught on, I was supremely fucked.

Fuck.

“We need to catch them off guard,” I didn’t realize I was speaking aloud until the words left my mouth.

“Sure, but how are we going to do that?” Grue replied.

“You guys are masters at the getaway, right?  So we change gears.  We fight them face to face.”

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Agitation 3.7

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Grue was already out of his vehicle and halfway to us by the time Tattletale and I had shut the doors of the van.  He was using his power at a low degree over the entirety of his body.  The darkness soaked into and through the porous leather of his costume, making him look like a living shadow.  Brian had showed me how the visor had vents at the edges, to direct the effect of his power around the sides and top of his head, so it wouldn’t obscure the face.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t see through the effects of his own power – he could.  He’d explained that the vents were there to create an effect where you could see glimpses of a black-painted skull floating in the vaguely human shaped form of even darker black.  When he had the money to spend, he had told me, he was going to get a more complete costume custom made for him in the same way, to expand on the effect.

“Let’s move fast.”  His voice echoed, reverberated, with a hollowness to the sound, like something alien and far away.  He was using his power to play with the sound, “Tattletale, see to the door.  Bug, with me.”

Together with Grue, I returned to the van Lisa had been driving.  Grue grabbed the handle of the sliding door and hauled it open, then scrambled out of the way as the contents came pouring out.

I chuckled at the image of this spooky supervillain being caught off guard.  I’d packed the entirety of the van, minus the driver and passenger seats, with bugs.  As the door opened, they spilled out to pool on the wet pavement beneath the door.

“Got enough?” his voice echoed.  I thought maybe I caught a touch of humor in his tone, behind the influence of his power.

I smiled behind my mask, “Let’s hope.”

A drive earlier in the morning had given me the opportunity to gather this swarm.   It was surprising how many bugs there were in the city, hidden from sight.  At any given point in the city, I could generally draw out tens of thousands of bugs from inside walls, sewers, attics, lawns, trees and even places you would think were too clean or occupied to have any creepy crawlies lurking about, and I could do it over a matter of minutes.

These weren’t just the bugs I could draw in at a moment’s notice, though.  Traveling the city had given me the chance to be picky.  These were the good ones, each of them fast enough to keep up with me, or capable of being carried by those that were.  More than that, though, the majority of them were either durable sorts like the larger centipedes, cockroaches and beetles, or capable of stinging and biting, with bees, wasps, ants and blackflies making up their bulk.  To round out their number, I’d gathered moths, houseflies, and mosquitoes, who weren’t the best attack bugs out there, but were easy enough to get, and served to distract the enemy or bulk out the swarm.

There were three hundred and fifty cubic feet inside the rear of the van. Tattletale had told me that.  When they were packed in just tight enough that they wouldn’t damage each other or spill past the barrier and into the front seats, it added up to a pretty amazing amount of insects.  I called them out of the van and watched as their mass seemed to expand as they spread out.

We joined Tattletale at the side door of the bank. I had to admit, I admired the sheer change she was capable of pulling off when donning her costume.  Rather, I should say, I admired the effort she’d gone into as Lisa, that made her so different from her Tattletale persona.  Her mask was narrow, only really surrounding her eye sockets, covering her eyebrows, some of her nose and some of her cheekbones, but it hid the freckles on the bridge of her nose and changed the apparent lines of her face.  Her hair was down and loose, damp from the rain, in contrast to how it was always in a ponytail or braided when she was ‘Lisa’.  Her costume was skintight, beaded with droplets of water, lavender with bands of black across the chest and down the sides of her arms, legs and body.  An image of a stylized eye, only visible in the right light, given it was dark gray on black, was worked into the costume’s design.  A compact ‘utility belt’ sat diagonally across her hips, sporting a variety of compact pockets and pouches.

Regent was keeping watch, a few feet away.  From what I’d seen while we prepared, I now knew his costume was deceptive.  He still wore the hard white mask with the silver coronet, but he had shown me how the interior of the mask had foam shaped to the contours of his face, with only his mouth left free, so he could talk without being muffled.  In a similar vein, the loose white shirt he wore covered up a mesh vest that was molded to the shape of his body.  He was idly twirling a scepter in his fingers.  The scepter wasn’t purely thematic – apparently the crowned orb that topped the scepter had two electrodes built into the tines, for the taser that was built into it.  It was all about misdirection, misleading and giving the impression of vulnerability.

“The fire exit at the back is protected by a digital passkey,” Tattletale explained while she crouched at the keypad, staring at it, “Every employee has the number to get in if they need to, but that rarely happens because opening the door sets off a bunch of alarms.  That password is easy.  The interesting thing that the employees don’t even know is that the capes and SWAT teams have a special code they can put in if they need to make a quiet entrance with no alarms going off.  To do that, you punch in the regular code, 3-7-1, but you hold the one down, then press the number sign and the asterisk keys down at the same time… Voila.  Try it.”

Grue pulled on the door.  We waited in tense silence for a moment for the angry blare of the alarm, but none came.  Tattletale grinned at us. “What’d I tell you?”

Grue signaled, and we were joined by Regent and Bitch with her three dogs.  The animals were the size of small ponies, their flesh having swelled and expanded enough that their fur had split at the seams.  Muscle and bone showed beneath, and the arrangement of said anatomy wasn’t exactly typical.  The change was slow enough that you couldn’t see it if you were looking for it, but if you looked away and looked back a moment later, you could tell they were bigger, that bone at the shoulder was longer, the eyes were deeper set, and so on.  Spikes, spurs and an exoskeleton of bone growths had appeared to fill or cover gaps and grow in at places where the bone was already close to the skin.  The tail of the smallest dog – Angelica, I think Rachel called it – was twice as long as normal and prehensile, now, and the other two were well on their way.  It looked like someone had torn out a pair of human spines, the meat still hanging off them, and attached them one to the other before tacking the end to the dog’s hindquarters.

Bitch, for her part, was just wearing a jacket with a fur ruff collar and a cheap, hard plastic mask of a bulldog.  The dogs had been given the rear of the second van, allowing Bitch to work her power on them as Brian drove.  Being able to do the change more slowly meant she wouldn’t prematurely exhaust herself or the animals by rushing the job on site.

We made our way into the back hallways of the bank’s ground floor, Bitch’s dogs leading the way, my swarm pulling up the rear.  The clock had started running down from the moment we’d parked in the alleyway; that was the point where people might have thought something was up.  Now that we were inside, though, someone knew, or would know any second.

At this very moment, chances were, some guard in the room with the security cameras would be making a call to 911 and reporting a crime in progress by costumed criminals.  If Tattletale was right, the Protectorate was too far away to be called in, so they would contact the Wards.  We had five or ten minutes before trouble showed.

Each time we passed a room, Grue, Regent and I would double check it.  The first few were empty, but as we reached one room, a dog took notice, and Grue raised a hand to plunge the room into darkness.  A second later, he stepped back into the hallway, twisting the arm of a cringing thirty-something man in a gray suit behind his back.  I hadn’t even realized Grue had entered the room in the first place.

In the next room, Regent grabbed another hostage.  I caught a glance of the man, graying hair and thick around the middle with a pink dress shirt and no jacket, staring at us with eyes wide.  He opened his mouth, I think his intent was to cry for help, but broke down into coughs and sputters instead.  A second later, he keeled over and collapsed onto the floor.  He tried to climb to his feet, but his elbow buckled and he hit the ground a second time.  While he continued to struggle, Regent strode into the room with an almost lazy air, grabbed him by the collar and shoved him towards the hallway where we stood.  Defeated, Pink-shirt didn’t resist, half-walking, half-crawling forward as he joined us.  He met eyes with the other employee, but didn’t say anything.

We only passed a dozen offices, but it felt like three times that number.  Grue was on point, glancing into each room and watching for danger from up ahead, with Regent keeping an eye on rooms to our right.  That meant I was paying attention to the rooms on the left, as well as keeping an eye out by way of the swarm to our rear.  Each time I looked into an office, lunchroom or conference room, I prayed it would be empty.  I didn’t want to be any more responsible for all this than I had to.

When I saw the last office on the left was vacant, I was relieved enough that I nearly forgot my role in the next stage of the plan.

We reached the front lobby of the bank, and Bitch’s dogs charged into the room.  They were nightmarish, barking, growling and shaking themselves in a spray of bits of fur and blood as they abruptly grew another foot taller at the shoulder.  I had a moment’s glimpse of twenty or thirty bystanders and another six or so employees of the bank before the lights went out.  Grue used his power, and the room was plunged into darkness, the volume of the screams and wails dropping to utter silence in a matter of seconds.  We stood in the entryway to the lobby, and there was only nothingness where the bank lobby had been.

“Your move, Bug girl,” Tattletale said, reaching forward to put a hand on my shoulder.

I closed my eyes.  With a mental command, my bugs flooded into the room from the hallway behind us, flying and crawling over, under and around us to spread through the room.  I noted each person in the lobby as my bugs made contact with them, and left several bugs crawling on each individual.  I took five seconds to double check I’d gotten everyone, and belatedly remembered the two employees we had brought forward from the back offices.  A group of bugs returned from the darkness, brushing my skin on their way to make contact with the pair.

“Done,” I said.

Grue swept his arms forward, and the darkness parted.  We moved into the room as a group.  Pink-shirt and the younger guy collapsed to the ground as we walked.  I supposed it was Regent’s work there.  Some of Grue’s darkness clung to the surfaces of the doors and the windows, but the room was otherwise clear in a matter of moments, lit only by the florescent lights.  Everyone except for us was lying on the floor, crouched behind a desk, or huddled in the corners.  Two of Bitch’s dogs were standing in front of the main entrance, while the smallest was standing near the vault.  All three of the monsters were the size of cars, now.

“Fifteen minutes,” I called out to the room, my heart in my throat, “We won’t be here any longer than that.  Stay put, stay quiet, we’ll be gone before fifteen minutes are up.  You’ll be free to give your statement to the police and then go about your day as usual.  This isn’t a TV show, this isn’t a movie.  If you’re thinking about being a hero, don’t.  You’ll only get yourself or someone else hurt.”

I held up my hand, finger outstretched, a familiar spider perched on the tip, “If you are thinking about running, making a phone call or getting in our way, this is a good reason to reconsider.  This little creature and her one hundred sisters that I just brought into this room are under my complete control.”  I had the spider drop from my fingertip, dangling by a thread, by way of demonstration.

“She’s a black widow spider.  A single bite has been known to kill a full grown human, or put them into a coma.  You move, talk, try to find or kill the spiders I just put on your bodies, in your clothes, in your hair?  I’ll know in split second, and I’ll tell them to bite you several times.”

I stopped to let that sink in.  I looked over the room.  Forty or so people.  I saw a full grown man with a tear rolling down his cheek.  A teenager with freckles and brown curls was glaring at me with raw loathing in her eyes.  At one of the counters, a matronly bank employee was shaking like a leaf.

My taking hostages like this?  It had been my idea, so help me.  As horrible as it was, it had been necessary.  The worst case scenario was some regular schmuck in the bank pulling some stunt and getting themselves or others hurt or killed.  I couldn’t let that happen, if I was in a position to help it.  If it meant keeping them quiet and out of the way, I was willing to terrorize them.

As I saw the effect I’d had on these people, that justification felt really thin.

I was going to hell for this.

 

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Agitation 3.3

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“No,” Brian intoned, “Such a bad idea.”

Lisa still had the phone in her hand.  Bitch had arrived just behind her, and stood in stark contrast to Lisa’s jeans, sweater and tight ponytail, with an army jacket, and virtually no attention paid to her hair.  The littlest of the dogs, the one-eyed, one eared terrier, trailed after her.

“Come on,” Lisa wheedled, “It’s a rite of passage for dastardly criminals like us.”

“Robbing a bank is moronic.  We’ve been over this,”  Brian closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, “You know what the average haul is for hitting a bank?”

Lisa paused, “Twenty thou?”

“Exactly.  It’s not millions like you see people getting away with in the movies.  Banks don’t keep a lot of loose cash on hand, so we’d be pulling in less than we would for most other jobs.  Account for cost and the fact that this is Brockton fucking Bay, where banks have a little more reason to keep the amount of cash in their vaults to a minimum, and we’d be bringing in twelve to sixteen thou.  Divide five ways and it’s what, two or three thousand bucks each?”

“I could do with an extra three thousand dollars to spend,” Alec said, putting down his game controller and shifting his position on the couch to follow the conversation better.

“On what?” Brian asked.  When Alec shrugged, Brian sighed and explained, “It’s a horrible payoff for the amount of risk involved.  There’s three big superhero teams in this city.  Figure there’s another dozen heroes that fly solo, and we’re almost guaranteed to get into a fight.”

“So?” Bitch spoke for the first time, “We win fights.  We won before we had her.”  She raised her chin in my direction as she said that last word.

“We won because we picked our battles.  We wouldn’t have that option if we were cooped up in the bank and waiting for them to come to us, letting them decide how and where the fight happened.”

Lisa nodded and smiled as he spoke.  I thought for a second that she was going to say something, but she didn’t.

Brian continued, getting pretty passionate as he ranted, “We won’t be able to slip away like we have when things got a little out of control in the past.  Can’t avoid the fight if we want to get away with anything worth taking.  The bank is going to have layers of protection.  Iron bars, vault doors, whatever.  Even with your power, Lise, there’s a limit to how fast we can get through those.  Add the time we have to spend managing hostages and making a safe exit, and I pretty much guarantee that there will be time for a cape to get wind of the robbery and slow us down even more.”

Alec said, “I kind of want to do it anyways.  Hitting a bank gets you on the front page.  It’s huge for our rep.”

“The runt is right,” Bitch said.

Brian grumbled, “Not fucking up is better for our reputation in the long run.”  His deeper voice was really good for grumbling.

Alec looked at me, “What do you think?”

I’d almost forgotten I was a part of the discussion.  The last thing I wanted was to rob a bank.  Hostages could get hurt.  The fact that it would potentially put me on the front page of the paper wasn’t a high point, either, if I ever wanted to drop the supervillain ruse and become a hero in good standing.  I ventured, “I think Brian makes a good case.  It seems reckless.”

Bitch snorted.  I think I saw Alec roll his eyes.

Lisa leaned forward, “He does make good points, but I have better ones.  Hear me out?”  The rest of us turned our attention to her, though Brian had a frown that made it seem like it would take a lot to convince him.

“Ok, so Brian said similar stuff before, before we hit that casino a few weeks ago.  So I was kind of expecting this.  But it’s not as bad as it sounds.  The boss wants us to do a job at a very specific time.  I got the sense he was willing to offer a fair bit if we went the extra mile, and I negotiated a pretty good deal.

“The bank robbery was my idea, and he liked it.  According to him, the Protectorate is busy with an event on Thursday, just outside of town.  That’s part of the reason the timing is so important.  If we act then, there’s almost no chance we’ll have to deal with them.  If we hit the Bay Central, downtown-”

“That’s the biggest bank in Brockton Bay,” I interrupted her, half-disbelieving.

“So everything I said about them having security and being careful is doubly true,” Brian added.

If we hit the Bay Central, downtown,” Lisa repeated herself, ignoring us, “Then we’re hitting a location just a mile away from Arcadia High, where most of the Wards go to school.  Given jurisdictions, New Wave won’t be able to jump on us without stepping on the Wards’ toes, which pretty much guarantees we go up against the team of junior superheroes.  With me so far?”

We all nodded or murmured agreement.

“Figure that’s happening in the middle of the school day, and they won’t all be able to slip away to stop a robbery without drawing attention.  People know the Wards are attending Arcadia, they just don’t know who they are.  So everyone’s constantly watching for that.  Since they can’t have all six or seven of the same kids disappear from class every time the Wards go off to foil a crime without giving away the show, chances are good that we’d go up against a couple of their strongest members, or one of the strongest with a group of the ones with less amazing powers.  We can beat them.”

“Okay,” Brian begrudged, “I’ll accept that we’d probably do alright in those circumstances, but-”

Lisa interrupted him, “I also got the boss to agree to match us two for one on the haul.  We bring in fifteen grand, he pays us thirty.  Or he gives us enough money to bring our total up to twenty five, whichever is more in the end.  So we could walk away with two thousand dollars and he’d pay us twenty three thou.  So as long as we don’t wind up in jail, we’re guaranteed five thousand dollars apiece, bare minimum.”

Brian’s eyes widened, “That’s insane.  Why would he do that?”

And,” Lisa grinned, “He’ll cover all our costs, just this once.  Equipment, information, bribes if we want ’em.”

“Why?” I echoed Brian’s earlier question, disbelieving.  Lisa was throwing around sums of money that I couldn’t even wrap my head around.  I had never even had more than five hundred dollars in my bank account.

“Because he’s sponsoring us and it stands to reason he doesn’t want to fund a team of nobodies.  We manage this, we won’t be nobodies.  That, and he really wants us to do a job at that particular time.”

There was a few moments of silence as everyone considered the deal.  I was frantically trying to think of a way to try to convince these guys it was a bad idea.  A bank robbery could get me arrested.  Worse, it could lead to me or a bystander getting hurt or killed.

Brian beat me to it, “The risk to reward still isn’t great.  Five grand each for hitting what may well be the most fortified location in Brockton Bay and an almost guaranteed confrontation with the Wards?”

“Second most fortified location,” Lisa countered, “The Protectorate Headquarters is the first.”

“Fair point,” Brian said, “But my argument stands.”

“It’ll be more than five grand for each of us, I guarantee you,” Lisa told him, “It’s the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  It’s also the hub of cash distribution for the entire county.  Said cash gets transferred in and out by armored cars on a regular schedule-”

“So why don’t we hit one of the cars?” Alec asked.

“They have ride-alongs or aerial cover from various members of the Wards and the Protectorate, so we’d be caught in a fight with another cape from minute one.  Same problems that Brian’s talking about, as far as getting caught up in a fight, difficulty accessing the money before shit goes down, yadda yadda.  Anyways, the Brockton Bay Central has cars coming in twice a week, and leaving four times a week.  We hit on a Thursday just after noon, and it should be the best day and time for the sheer size of the take.  Only way we’re getting away with less than thirty thousand is if we fuck up.  With what the boss is offering, that’s ninety thou.”

She folded her arms.

Brian sighed, long and loud, “Well, you got me, I guess.  It sounds good.”

Lisa turned to Alec.  There wasn’t any resistance to be found there.  He just said, “Fuck yeah, I’m in.”

Bitch didn’t need convincing any more than Alec had. She nodded once and then turned her attention to the scarred little dog.

Then everyone looked at me.

“What would I be doing?” I asked, nervously, hoping to stall or find holes in the plan that I could use to argue against it.

So Lisa outlined a general plan.  Brian made suggestions, good ones, and the plan was adjusted accordingly.  I realized with a growing disappointment and a knot of anxiety in my gut that it was almost inevitably going to happen.

Arguing against the bank robbery at this point would hurt my undercover operation more than it helped anyone.  With that in mind, I began offering suggestions that – I hoped – would minimize the possibility of disaster.  The way I saw it, if I helped things go smoothly, it would help my scheme to get info on the Undersiders and their boss.  It would minimize the chance that someone would panic or be reckless and get a civilian hurt.  I think I would feel worse if that happened than I would about going to jail.

The discussion went on for a while.  At one point, Lisa got her laptop, and we debated entrance and exit strategies while she sketched out a map of the bank layout.  It was uncanny, seeing her power at work.  She copied a satellite image of the bank from a web search into a paint program, then drew over it with thick bold lines to show how the rooms were laid out.  With another search and a single picture of the bank manager standing in front of his desk, she was able to mark out where the manager’s desk was.  That wouldn’t have been too amazing, but without pausing, she then went on to mark where the tellers were, as well as the vaults, the vault doors and the enclosed room that held the safe deposit boxes.  She noted where the fuse box and air conditioning vents were, but we decided we wouldn’t mess with either of those.  That stuff was cool in the movies, but it didn’t do much good in real life.  Besides, this was a robbery, not a heist.

While we worked, Alec got restless and went to make an early lunch. Of the four of us, I got the impression he had the least to contribute, at least strategically, and that he knew it.  I wasn’t sure if he just didn’t have a very tactical mindset or if he just didn’t care that much about the planning stage of things.  My assumptions led to the latter, as he seemed more willing to go with the flow than Brian or Lisa.

He brought us a plate of pizza pockets along with assorted sodas, and we ate as we wrapped up the plan.

“Alright,” Brian said, as Lisa shut her laptop, “I think we have a general idea of what we’re doing.  We know how we get in, we know who does what when we’re inside, and we know how we want to get out.  Keeping in mind that no plan survives contact with the enemy, I think the odds are still pretty good.”

“So, the enemy,” I said, resisting the urge to wince at the realization that I would be up against good guys, “My only experience fighting in costume… or even just fighting, is against Lung, and that didn’t go well.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Brian said, “You did better than most.”

“I’ll rephrase,” I said, “It could have gone better.  We’re going up against the Wards and they aren’t pushovers.”

Brian nodded, “True.  Let’s talk strategy and weaknesses.  You know who the Wards are?”

I shrugged, “I’ve researched them.  I’ve seen them on TV.  That doesn’t mean I know the important stuff.”

“Sure,” he said, “So let’s go down the list.  Team leader: Aegis.  You’d think he has the standard Alexandria package, flight, super strength, invincibility, but that isn’t exactly right.  He does fly, but the other two powers work differently than you’d expect.  See, he isn’t invincible… he just doesn’t have any weak points.  His entire biology is filled with so many redundancies and reinforcements that you just can’t put him down.  Throw sand in his eyes and he can still see by sensing the light on his skin.  Cut his throat and it doesn’t bleed any more than the back of his hand would.  The guy’s had an arm cut off and it was attached and working fine the next day.  Stab him through the heart and another organ takes over the necessary functions.”

“Not that we’re stabbing anyone through the heart?” I made it a hopeful half-question, half-statement.

“No.  Well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stab Aegis through the heart just to slow him down.  If you did it with something big enough.  The guy’s like a zombie, he gets back up within seconds of you beating him down, keeps coming at you until you’re too tired to fight back or you make a mistake.”

“And he’s super strong?” I asked.

Brian shook his head, “Lisa, want to field this one?”

She did.  “Aegis isn’t strong, but he can abuse his body in ways that makes it seem like he is.  He can throw punches hard enough that they’d break his hand, mangle his joints and tear his muscles, and his body just takes it.  He has no reason to hold back, and he doesn’t need to waste any time protecting himself from you. He can also draw on adrenaline… you’ve heard stories like how little old grandmothers lifted cars off the ground to save their grandkids?”

I nodded.

“That’s adrenaline at work, and Aegis can do that for hours at a stretch.  His body doesn’t run out of steam, he doesn’t get tired, he doesn’t exhaust his reserves of adrenaline.  He just keeps going.”

“So how do you stop him?” I asked.

“You don’t, really,” Brian said, “Best bet is to keep him occupied, keep him sufficiently distracted or stick him somewhere he can’t escape.  Trap him in a dumpster and throw it in the river, you can get a few minutes of relief. Which is all harder than it sounds.  He’s the team captain, and he isn’t stupid.  Rachel?  Sic your dogs on him.  A two ton canine or two should keep him out of our hair until we’re ready to run.”

“I don’t need to hold back?” Bitch asked, her eyebrow quirked.

“For once, no.  Go nuts.  Just, you know, don’t kill him.  Alec?  You’re the backup there.  Keep an eye on Aegis, see if you can’t use your power to throw him off.  Buy enough time for a dog to get its jaws on him and he’s probably out of action.”

“Sure,” Alec said.

Brian extended two fingers and tapped the second, “Number two.  Clockblocker.  Let it be known, I fucking hate people who mess with time.”

“He stops time, if I remember right?” I inquired, as much to stay in the conversation as to get the clarification.

“More specific than that,” Brian said, “He can stop time for whatever he touches.  The person or object he touches is basically put on ‘pause’ for anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Only good thing is that he doesn’t control or know how long it’s going to last.  But if he gets his hands on you, you’re out of action.  He’ll either stand next to you and wait until you start moving, then touch you again, or he’ll just tie you up in chains and handcuffs so that when his power wears off, you’re already in custody.”

“Long story short, he touches you, you’re boned,” Alec said.

“The upside is that whoever he touches is also untouchable.  Can’t be hurt, can’t be moved.  Period.  He uses that defensively, and he can do stuff like throw paper or cloth in the air and freeze it in time, making an unbreakable shield.  You don’t want to run into something that’s frozen.  A car that drove into the side of a piece of paper that Clockblocker had touched would be cut in two before it budged the paper.”

“Noted,” I said.

Brian continued, “The third heavy hitter on the Wards is Vista.  You know that myth about how the capes that get their powers young are exponentially more powerful?  Vista’s one of the kids who keeps the myth alive.  Clockblocker is sort of a one trick pony, his trick involves screwing with one of the key forces of our universe, but it’s just one thing.  Vista also messes with physics on a fundamental level, but she’s versatile.

“Twelve years old, and she has the power to reshape space.  She can stretch a building like taffy, so it’s twice as tall, or squeeze two sidewalks closer together so she can cross the street with a single step.”

“Her weakness,” Lisa added, “Is the Manton effect.”  She turned her full attention to me, “You know what that is?”

“I’ve heard it mentioned, but I don’t know the details.”

“Wherever our powers come from, they also came with some limitations.  For most of us, there’s a restriction about using our powers on living things.  The reach of powers generally stops at the outside of a person or animal’s body.  There’s exceptions for the people with powers that only work on living things, like you, Alec and Rachel.  But the long and short of it is that the Manton effect is why most telekinetics can’t just reach into your chest and crush your heart.  Most people who can create forcefields can’t create one through the middle of your body and cut you in two.”

“Narwhal can,” Alec cut in.

“I said most,” Lisa said, “Why these restrictions exist is a question nearly as big as where we got our powers in the first place.  The capes that can get around the Manton effect are among the strongest of us.”

I nodded, slowly.  I wondered if that had something to do with why Lung didn’t burn himself, but I didn’t want to get further off topic, “And Vista?”

“Vista can stretch and compress space.  She can also do funny things with gravity.  Thing is, the Manton effect keeps her from stretching or compressing you.  It also makes altering an area a lot harder for her if there’s more people in that space.  So if all of us are in one room, chances are she won’t be able to affect the whole room.”

But,” Brian added, wiping a string of cheese from the corner of his lip, “Every time we’ve run into her, she’s been faster and overall more powerful with her power, and she’s had new tricks.  Every second she’s on the battlefield is a second things become harder for us.  We take her down sooner than later.  Aegis, Clockblocker, Vista.  Those are the ones we’re most likely to run into, and whoever else winds up coming, they’re the ones we have to deal with, or we’re fucked.

“Let’s quickly go through the rest.  Kid Win.”

“Tinker,” Lisa said, “Flying skateboard, laser pistols, high tech visor are staples for him.  Expect something new, depending on what he’s come up in his workshop.  He’s mobile but not that threatening.”

“Triumph?” Brian said.

“He turned eighteen and graduated to the Protectorate.  Don’t have to worry about him,” Lisa said.

“Gallant.”

“Glory Girl’s on and off boyfriend, he pretends to be a Tinker in the same vein as Kid Win, but I think he just runs around in secondhand armor with a fresh paint job.  His thing is these blasts of light.  Getting hit by one feels like a punch in the gut, but the blasts also mess with your feelings.  Make you sad, make you scared, ashamed, giddy, whatever.  Not that bad unless you get hit by a bunch in a row.  Don’t.”

“That just leaves Shadow Stalker.  Bloodthirsty bitch,” Brian scowled.

Alec explained to me, “She’s got it in her head that Brian is her nemesis.  You know, her number one enemy, her dark opposite.  She’s been going after him every chance she gets.”

“She was a solo hero,” Tattletale said, “Vigilante of the night, until she went too far and nearly killed someone, nailing him to a wall with one of her crossbows.  The local heroes were called in, she got arrested, and made some sort of deal.  Now she’s a probationary member of the Wards, with the condition that she uses tranquilizer bolts and nonlethal ammo for her crossbow.”

“Which she isn’t,” Brian growled, “At least, not when she comes after me.  That arrow she shot through my side had a fucking arrowhead on it.”

Tattletale shook her head, “Her powers and Brian’s sort of have a weird interaction with one another.  Shadow Stalker can sort of transform.  She becomes extremely lightweight, can pass through glass and thin walls and she’s nearly invisible.  Only thing is, while she and the stuff she carries are all wispy in her transformed state, the stuff she shoots with her crossbow only stays that way for a half second.  Then the effect wears off and it’s a regular arrow flying towards you. So she can leap between rooftops, almost impossible to see, hard to even touch, and all the while she’s shooting very real arrows at you.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Her power doesn’t work well while she’s inside Brian’s darkness, for whatever reason.  She isn’t as fast or agile, he can see her better, and she can’t see him in the darkness,” Tattletale told me, “So it becomes something of a very intense game of tag, with one very fast person that’s essentially blind and deaf but carrying lethal weapons, while Brian, the other, is trying to take her out without getting shot.”

“Let’s avoid that,” Brian said, “It’s too time consuming and she may want to use that kind of scenario to delay us.  Just don’t get shot, and if you see her or see the opportunity, inform the team and do your best to take her down without losing sight of a priority target.

“So that’s the plan, then?” I said, “So many maybes.”

“That’s the way these things go, Taylor,” Brian said, his tone a bit terse, “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of covering all the bases.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to sound like I was criticizing your plan-” I said.

“Our plan,” Brian interrupted.

I didn’t want to think of it that way.  Instead, I said, “I’m a touch nervous, is all.”

“You don’t have to come,” Bitch said, her tone a touch too casual.

“In all seriousness,” Brian told me, “If you’re having second thoughts…”

“I am,” I admitted, “as well as third thoughts, fourth thoughts, and so on.  But I’m not going to let that stop me.  I’m coming with.”

“Good,” Brian replied, “Then we’ve got the rest of today and tomorrow to prepare.  Taylor?  You can meet me on your run first thing.  I’ll have a cell phone for you.  You can text Lisa with anything you think you’ll need, like those weapons you were talking about.  Look up models and brands ahead of time if you want something specific.”

“What’s her number?” I asked.

“I’ll put it in the phone before I give it to you.  Lisa?  You confirm the job with the boss, talk to him about the other stuff.”

“Got it.”

“So unless there’s anything else, I think we just planned a bank robbery before noon,” Lisa said with a grin.  I looked at the digital clock displayed under the TV.  Sure enough, it was half past eleven.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a good thing.

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