Chrysalis 20.5

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

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

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

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

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

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

No use bringing bugs in that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t by choice.”

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

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

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

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

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

I left the threat hang in the air.

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

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

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

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

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a glance.

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

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

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

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

“Is he hurt?” Dragon asked.

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

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

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

“Is Sere hurt?” Defiant growled the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you went ahead with it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No thanks,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were worried I’d pull something.

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

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

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

Why only just now?

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” Defiant said.

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

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

That’s what you came here to say?”

“In large part,” Defiant said.

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

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

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

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

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.

“What?” I asked.

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

“What is?  And better for who?”

“Better for everyone involved,” she said.

“Tell me.”

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

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


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

“Skitter-”  Dragon started.


“You know who,” Defiant told me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can ask,” Dragon said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t like I had much to lose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see him tense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Skitter!” Dragon raised her voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had liftoff, and she was faster.

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

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

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

Still had to deal with three heroes…

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

“No,” Defiant said.

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

“I won’t,” he said.

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t move.

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

Dragon stood, abrupt, and I flinched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop,” I said.

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

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

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

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

Saved her dad?  When?

It didn’t really matter.

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

“You fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“…those bastard ABB guys…”


“…when Shatterbird…”


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fan out!” someone else ordered.

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

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

“Taylor,” he said.

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

The butterfly and I took off at the same time.

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Chrysalis 20.4

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

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

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

“No running, kid,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…if that’s an order… yes… fine…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was stuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think so,” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” she whispered.

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

Charlotte nodded.

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

Charlotte nodded again, mute.

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

Shit,” she said.

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

“I’ll stay,” she said.


“I’ll stay,” she repeated.

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

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

“Oh.  Right,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t you do that already?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The explanation felt feeble.

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

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

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

“But in a school?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keys?  Yes.

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

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

“Just like that?” Charlotte asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smallest of the problems I’d face today.

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

Right outside the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dragon,” I said.  “And Armsmaster.”

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

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

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Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #1)

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Rey hesitated at the door.  He cast a wary glance over his shoulder, but life elsewhere in the city continued as normal.

If he touched the doorknob, any number of things could happen.  A pit underfoot, a guillotine blade from overhead.

It took a measure of courage to raise the door knocker and slam it against the front door of the old Victorian-styled house.

The door opened right away.

“Blasto,” Accord greeted him.  “We finally meet.”

“Uh huh,” Rey replied.  He glanced around.  The inside of the house was nice.  Must be nice to not have to reinvest ninety percent of your earnings on tech.

“No mask?”  Accord asked.

“Yes,”  Rey replied.  He folded one corner of his face back.  “It’s a fungus.  Same texture as human flesh.”

Accord’s own intricate mechanical face shifted in response to his underlying expression.  “Lovely.”

“I’m still not sure about this, given our history,” Rey said.  He accepted the invitation into the front hallway of the house, carefully removed his shoes and set them on the tray to the right of the door.

“I’ve given you my word that you’ll be safe, provided you cooperate.”

“Damn Nazis,” Rey said.  “My whole lab, gone.”

Accord didn’t offer any sympathy.  “Come.”

Rey followed.  Peering into the rooms he passed, he saw libraries and sitting rooms, old furniture.  Everything was finely made, nothing cheap or throwaway.  Knowing Accord, it was all too possible that the man had hand-crafted everything in this house.

And in each room were people in costume.  Other teams had themes, natural or otherwise.  Their costumes matched, or they unconsciously mirrored one another in style of dress or quality.  Accord’s people were much the same, but it was very deliberate.  Each wore fine clothing, elegant dresses and suits, and each had their hair neatly combed into place, oiled to the point that it looked wet.  The ‘costumes’ were in the color of their chosen formal wear and badges or brooches they wore, as well as the finely crafted masks that hid any trace of their real expressions.

“You’re not expecting me to dress like them, are you?”

“No,” Accord said.  “Truth be told, I fear you could never meet my standards, and I’m going to do my level best to ignore the fact that you exist.  You’ll want to keep to the areas I designate and use the back ways out of the building, so that I never see you.”

“You’re not going to imprison me, are you?”

“No.  This is a business transaction.  I will give you the opportunity to get back on your feet, you will do what you can to eliminate our mutual enemies, being careful to avoid any damage or criminal activity within my territory, and in exchange, you will give me half your territory when all of this is over.  Following such an event, I hope we can avoid any further aggression between us for the future.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“The individuals in question are Menja, Stormtiger, Cricket, Rune, Othala, Niflheim and Muspelheim.  I’ll see you have all available records.  Best to enter any confrontation with your eyes wide open.”


“My people will not be available to you, understand.  Our bargain presumes you are working alone.”

“I get it.”

“You’re quiet.  You don’t have questions?  Requests?”

“Wouldn’t mind some grass.”


Rey smirked, “In the slang sense.  I meant-”

“Say no more.  I understand what you meant.  Provided you stay out of my way, you can do whatever you wish in the assigned area.  That said, I and my people will not provide intoxicants, and if you are inebriated in any way in my company-”

“It’s fine,” Rey cut in.  “I get it.”

“Here.  Into the basement,” Accord said.

Accord led the way, and Rey hesitantly followed.

The basement was expansive.  There were no walls – only pillars.  The floor was concrete covered in a no-slip perforated rubber mat, the various desks were stainless steel, each on wheels that could be locked in place.  Each desk, in turn, had glass cabinets or drawers.  As far as Rey could see, they were fully stocked.

But it was more than that.  Rey was used to the usual labs, which held years of old material.  Tools that had long since fallen into disrepair.  Trays of solutions that nobody had touched in years, too old to use but too expensive to throw away in good conscience.  There were slides that were stained, tools that didn’t always work.  Even when he’d started his lab, it had been with tools stolen from his old University, things bought on the cheap.

This?  This was a dream.  He stepped over to a glass case, large enough to fit a person inside.  There was a case attached to one side with room for a solution to be poured in, and what he took to be an attached tank of distilled water, with a control panel to select the rate and degree of mixture.  Another tube would vent the contents into a biohazard case.

A glance told him that everything would be here.  There were neatly ordered bins of chemicals, tools laid out in neat rows.  Everything was pristine.  The cages on the other end of the room with the captive animals, even, were clean, with none of the animal scent or vague smell of waste that accompanied such.  There were troughs filled with rich smelling earth, thoroughly mixed and free of clumps.

Rey Andino could create life from raw materials, fashion a homunculus from the most basic ingredients and elements.  He could make monsters, loyal beings that would do as he wished, with only time and things he’d picked up from a drug store.  Faced with this laboratory, he felt small, insignificant.  He knew he would soil it, that things would break as he used them.  It was wrong.

“Satisfactory?” Accord asked.

“It’ll have to do,” Rey replied, trying to sound casual.

“It will.  Now, I’d like you to know that I recently acquired some samples and records.  I’d intended to hold on to them as a bargaining chip at a critical moment, or something I might offer you as incentive to leave this city.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ll find them in the far corner of the room.  The computer contains the database and the attached machine arm will withdraw any samples on request.”

“Sure,” Rey said.

“My ambassadors will be taking turns observing you.  Short of a critical emergency, they won’t be reporting anything to me.  Citrine will be first.”

Rey nodded.  He was already heading to the computers, to find what Accord would feel was so powerful or valuable that Rey would leave the city to get his hands on it.

The computer was fast.  Rey started to empty his pockets and smooth out the papers with the few blueprints he’d been able to salvage when the white supremacists had come storming through his old lab, and the computer was already idling at the desktop screen by the time he’d finished.

A black window with text in bold white letters showed a menu.  Two options:

A:  View Database
B:  View Samples

He took the first option, typing the letter in the keyboard and striking the enter key.

It was names.  Cape names.  They kept appearing, so fast he could barely read them, and the window kept scrolling until he hit the enter key again to interrupt it.

He scrolled up until he found one name.  He clicked it.

Blasto, Real Name Unknown
Classification:  Tinker 6 (sub: master 5, blaster 2, shifter 2, brute 2); plants.
Disposition: Villain (B)
Last Known Location:  Boston (Allston area, east).

Crime lord of East Allston since est. date of April 2009.  No subordinates.  No past history as a subordinate.  Criminal history indicates cap of second degree murder, tendency to mass damage to property and persons.  Produces uncontrolled lifeforms that are incapable of replication.  Adversarial relationship with Accord (#13151), Spree (#14755) and Chain Man (#14114).

Note:  High risk of Class-S classification.  Should creations self-propagate, kill orders are pre-authorized.

A: More information/History
B: More information/Powers
C: More information/Contact & Network
D: Back

There were signs of degraded data, but it was there.  Accord had somehow acquired the PRT’s system data and records on all parahumans they’d encountered.

No big surprises on the possible kill order.  He’d been made aware of it some time ago, and had grumbled, groaned and grudgingly avoided making any lifeforms that could breed in the years since.

“How the hell did you get this?” he asked.  He turned around.

It wasn’t Accord behind him.  It was a young woman in a formal, silk dress, yellow trimmed with gold, and a mask in matching colors.  A gemstone stood out on her forehead, with matching earrings dangling from her ears like chandeliers.  Her hands were clasped in front of her.

“I didn’t,” she said.

“You’re one of his… what did he call you?”

“His ambassadors.”

“That’s right.  Do you have a name?”


“Ok.  How did he get this?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Because you don’t know or because you won’t say?”


He sighed, turning back to the system.  He selected the last option in the menu at the bottom of the page, then reloaded the master list, stopping when it had progressed far enough.

Eidolon.  There was a full set of details.

More information?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Powers?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Legend was the same.

Maybe someone less prominent.  He selected Chevalier and got the standard information.  More details.

Powers?  He selected the option, and received pages upon pages of testing data.  Rey’s eyes pored over the results, soaking them in.  It was like reading Shakespeare.  One could listen to a line, and be momentarily baffled, but skimming it or assuming a general foundation of knowledge, it was possible to pick up the gist of the message;  The underlying meanings, if not the exact definitions of the individual elements.

The work of a tinker wasn’t typical science.  Refining it was science, but the blunt, raw use of the power?  It was almost the opposite.

Good science meant starting with the conditions, forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, and then testing it.  Repeat, repeat, repeat, until there was a solid base of knowledge.  That knowledge let one establish further conditions, refine hypotheses.

But tinkers started with the end result.  A moment of inspiration, glimpses of the major steps one would need to take to get there.  It involved working backwards, up until that moment the means came into view.  Rey could see it at work, could see Chevalier’s power as raw data, something he could replicate by traveling an entirely different path.  He would need a sturdier frame.  Something big.  This wouldn’t be a hybrid of a stray dog and a plant.  This would need to be something closer to a bear.

Or, he realized, a human.

He backed out of Chevalier’s data until he was at the original screen.  He checked the samples Accord had provided him with.

Select sub-database:
A)  PRT (Protectorate, Wards) samples
B) Non-PRT (evidence database) samples
C) Misc samples

Further investigation revealed the full truth.  Accord had gotten his hands on a database of DNA from countless members of the Protectorate and the Wards, as well as scraps of material from certain powers, where traces remained behind.

He selected C, expecting little.  His eyes widened.

Many were samples from lifeforms that various tinkers and masters had created.  His own were in there.  That wasn’t the surprising fact.

He selected the last option on the list.  To the right of the computer, in a hermetically sealed case, a robotic arm extended and deposited a microscopic sample on a slide.

A fragment, so small as to be nearly impossible to see, of one of the Simurgh’s feathers.

“You keep making these little oohs and ahhs,” Citrine commented.  “It sounds like you’re pleasuring yourself.”

“I am, believe me,” Rey replied, not looking her way.  “Where did he get this stuff?  Does he even comprehend what he gave me?”

“I’m sure he does.”

He’d considered replicating Chevalier’s power, with a solid enough frame.  Maybe a bear, maybe a human.  Small potatoes.

He went through the contents he’d unloaded from his pockets until he found a piece of paper he’d folded into an envelope.  He tore it open and tapped out the contents.

Each seed was about the size of a pea, tapered at each end, a mottled white-brown.  He hurried over to one of the large glass tubes and fiddled with the controls until it started flooding with water.

“Are you one of the talkative ones?” Citrine asked.


“I mean, maybe it’s a dumb question, because you’ve stuck pretty much to monosyllabic grunts since this whole thing started, but I’m wondering if you’re one of the capes that likes to rant or one of the quiet ones.”

“Quiet.  Why?”

“Honestly?  I’m bored.  Not like I can go on Facebook with my smartphone or anything.  That sort of thing gets you killed, when you work for Accord.”

“You want me to entertain you?”

“I doubt you’re capable.  But you could distract me, help while away the minutes.”

He eyed the woman.  Rey wasn’t one of the quiet ones by choice.  He’d just fallen into the habit of being alone because it was easier to stay in the lab than it was to be out in the larger world.  People in the larger world sucked.  Up until the Nazis from Brockton Bay had  turned up and claimed the building at the other end of the street from his lab, it had been a place he could retreat.  A place where his work and his art could occupy his thoughts and distract him from reality.

Art.  It was a good starting point for an explanation, and she was probably the most attractive person he’d spent more than one minute around in the last few months…

He forced a smile.  He was a little rusty on that front.  “What we do, what tinkers do, it’s more art than science.  Every step we take is made with an end goal in mind.  Just now, looking over these samples, I think I decided on an end goal.”

“What’s that?”

“My usual methods, well, you know them.  You’ve fought my creations before.”


“These seeds,” he raised one hand, a seed pinched between index finger and thumb, “Are like stem cells.  They harbor the potential to become virtually anything.  Wherever information is missing, they fill in the gaps.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs.”

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs, right.  The way I worked it, they’ll decode the information in a very brute force way.  The seed starts by forming two bodies, attached by a central hub.  I kill the least viable one, it buds and splits again, with copies that are derivatives of the survivor.  Usually two to four.  Kill all but one, repeat.”

“Until you have something viable.”

“Exactly!  Takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days.  Then I have what’s essentially a plant-animal hybrid, and I nudge it in the direction of my enemies.  Or give it simple programming that I can use.  Training half-plant rodents to fetch shiny objects, for example.”


“Trade secret,” Rey said.  “I’m not dumb.  I won’t give away the essentials.”

“Okay.  So what’s today’s project?”

“Oh, I’ll have a dozen projects in the work before I let myself go to sleep.  But the big one is that I want to replicate an Endbringer.”

He glanced at Citrine, saw that she’d gone still.

“I may need to go talk to Accord,” she said.

“No need,” Rey said.  “I suspect he already knows.  He gave me these samples, no doubt with the idea that I’d use it.”

“And you can’t even control it?  Or he can’t control it?  It doesn’t sound like him,” Citrine said.

Rey paused.  It didn’t sound like Accord.  Was there another explanation?

Accord might be planning on killing him after the project was done.  Rey kept his creations in line with pheromones, spraying them liberally around his lab and the surrounding neighborhood.  They would move to the nearest unaffected location as soon as they were free.  Once he did that to Accord’s home, the place would be rendered immune to his own attacks, at least for a little while.

But it still seemed too reckless for the perfectionist.  Was Accord that eager to kill the white supremacists?  Or was there another plan in the works?

“You’ve gone quiet,” Citrine said.

“Thinking,” he said.  “No, I need things quiet for a minute.  There’s a TV in the corner.  Watch that.”

“I can’t.  Accord would be upset,” the woman in yellow replied.

Rey sighed.  He crossed the room to the television, turned it on, set it to mute and turned on the closed captions.  “He won’t be upset if I turn it on, will he?”



He returned to the computer and started working with the Simurgh’s tissue.  It was hard to cut, and harder still to slice to the point that he could look at it under a microscope.

“Crystalline,” he murmured, as he focused on it.  The feathers were like snowflakes when viewed at 40x magnification.  He scaled all the way up to 800x magnification before realizing that there were no individual cells.

Was it just the feather?  Was it dead tissue, on par with the keratin of fingernails or hair?  He used the computer to access a sample of Leviathan’s ‘blood’, and let the hands handle the arrangement of preparing the slide.  Being liquid, the blood was easier than the feather.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to use Leviathan’s tissue.  Growing a miniature Leviathan in a vat would be a bad idea if that vat was filled with fluid.

Using Behemoth’s tissues would be just as problematic.  The Herokiller could ignore the Manton effect at a range of up to thirty-two feet.  Even semi-conscious inside a glass case, it was too risky.

Had to be smart about this.

Leviathan’s blood was the same as the feather.  Crystals, dense and so opaque that light wouldn’t pass through them.

There were more tissues.  Flesh.  More blood.  Hair.  Damaged tissues and intact ones.  He went through each.

All of it, the same.  Crystals.  No individual cells.  Even the crystals barely differentiated from one another.  Truth was, there was more difference in crystals collected from deeper inside the Endbringer than there was in crystals that had come from different parts of the Endbringer’s body; hair as opposed to blood.

He scraped off a bit of his seed, then added water and the catalysts to splice it with some of the Simurgh’s feather.  Sure enough, it started to grow.  Each end of the scraping formed into buds, and the buds started to form into basic, foetal shapes, one quadruped, one vaguely humanoid.

But neither lived.

The weaker tissue was easier to work with.  Assuming it was deriving patterns from the crystals, insofar as the crystals could create or support life, he could use that to work out the peculiarities of how the Endbringers were able to sustain themselves.

No vascular system, no sign of emergent organs.

Of course the emerging lifeform wasn’t viable.  It wasn’t capable of life in the first place.

He’d have to take another route.  He withdrew a sample of Myrddin’s tissue, then started splicing it with one seed and the ruined fragments of the Simurgh’s feather.

It was lunacy, tampering with Endbringer-related materials, but he couldn’t shake the idea that he was on to something.  He’d sustain the Endbringer tissues with other living tissue that could feed it energy or nutrients.  His seeds would bridge the gap.  It would take ten or fifteen minutes before he saw any real results.  There was other work to do in the meantime.

A sedated monkey plus a sample of his own tissue and one seed, and he had a homunculus in the works.  It would be roughly as intelligent as a very stupid person in most respects, but it would share his own understanding of chemistry, biology, science and botany.  It would serve as a lab assistant, and he would need one for a lab this big.

The rest of the seeds went into another vat to replicate.  He’d need more.

He walked over to the glass tube where the Simurgh-Myrddin-plant hybrid was in the works.  One had wings rather than legs.  He directed a laser to kill it.  The other had four arms, but two resembled wings.  It would work.  He conducted a charge through the fluid to reset the life cycle.  It would split in two or three, and he’d kill the remainder.

Accord must have based this equipment off of the stuff he’d had in his last lab, the one Accord had forcibly ejected him from.  The lasers being built into the glass tube were a nice touch, kept everything hermetically sealed.

In a fit of whimsy, he directed the lasers to a pure light form, then had them fire into the glass case itself.  Letters lit up, labeling the projects.  Regrowth for the plant that was growing and budding with more seeds.  Homunculus for the monkey that was gestating in the second tube.

And for his real project?  It would have to be something fitting.


Beautiful.  He studied the three foetal forms that were developing inside, killed two, narrowing down the results he wanted.  Like pruning branches.

The TV started making noise.  Rey wheeled around to see Citrine and one of her fellow ‘ambassadors’ standing in front of the TV.  The man in the suit with a green dress shirt and a copper lizard mask was the one turning up the volume.

“I’m trying to work here,” Rey said.

“Something’s going on.  Look,” the man spoke.

Rey impatiently left his work behind.  If he waited too long, a bad growth could be carried on to the young.  Wouldn’t do.

The TV showed a reporter talking.  Why was he supposed to care?

Then it changed to a camera view of an ongoing conflict.  Three gigantic armored suits were in open conflict with a small group of people.

The Slaughterhouse Nine.  Here, in Boston.

One of the suits was deploying swarms of drones, but they were getting cut out of the air as fast as they appeared.  Another member of the Nine had a loose-fitting coat of human flesh draped over him.  He stretched it out to grab surrounding buildings and anchor himself in place as a mechanical lizard with a giant wheel on its back tried to haul him in with what looked to be an immense suction.

The Siberian had made contact with and was tearing apart a third suit.

A suit high in the air fired off a laser beam, and the Siberian jumped to put herself in the line of fire.

Whatever happened next, the camera didn’t catch it.  The concussive force of the laser hitting was enough to knock the cameraman over, and the image shorted out.

Rey sniffed.  He’d like to see more of Dragon’s work, not because it had anything in common with his own, but because it was good work.  But for now, his focus was on his projects.

With a quick glance, he assessed and executed two homunculus-offshoots and one derivative of the Morrígan.  Electrical charges restarted the gestation process.

The thing was starting to resemble the Simurgh, though both feathers and hair were brown-black in color, it was hermaphroditic and the flesh was more translucent than white.  Veins stood out.

Rey studied it while the thing cracked in the middle, the individual halves separating with a thread of flesh between them.  Each of the halves began dissolving and forming anew.

If it was even half as powerful as the real Simurgh… well, this would be a game-changer.

And Accord had to know that.  Had to be aware that Rey would be working with the Endbringer tissues on this level.

It wasn’t as though the method of control was that difficult to master.  One set of pheromones would make the creation feel fond of something, the other would have an negative effect, drive them away from a person or area.  Still another would provoke feelings of anger or hatred, useful if he wanted to bid them to attack.

If Accord found the pheromones, he could be rid of Rey, and he’d have whatever creations Rey had put together in the meantime.

It would be at least a day before the Morrígan was fully grown.  He had that long to think of an answer.

The door slammed shut.  Citrine had gone upstairs.  The lizard-masked man watched the television.

Time passed, and he watched the results with interest. The Morrígan was now forming with two arms, two legs, and vestigal wings.  He let it develop to the point that it was roughly two months old, then killed the offshoots.  He started running x-ray scans and doing biopsies, picking through the results to fine tune the internal changes and monitor how much of the lifeform was Simurgh, versus being Myrddin or plant-based.  He was judicious and merciless in executing the offshoots, keeping them from growing to a point where there was even a chance of them being sentient.

The lifeform did, he noted with some pleasure, have a Corona Pollentia; a lobe in the brain that would allow for powers if it developed fully.

While the man watched the unfolding news, Rey took the opportunity to brew and spray himself with a set of pheromones.  His creations would be more favorably inclined towards him now.

The door at the top of the stairs closed.  He turned to see that the lizard-man was being relieved.  Had that much time passed already?

“You being good?” the woman asked.  She wore a black evening gown with a slit all the way up to her hip.  It would have been alluring, but her mask was black, with black lenses and spikes radiating from the edges.  Her brooch was of a black star.

“Making headway,” Rey responded.

“One of your fucked up creations broke my leg last year.  Please give me an excuse to hurt you.  Please.”

“I’ll pass,” Rey said, turning his attention to the homunculus.  He calibrated the signal, pressing two electrodes to his own forehead, then sent the readings out to his creation.

When it was done, he drained the fluid and vented the chamber.  The glass sank into the floor, and the homunculus crawled out, using its knuckles to walk.  Its skin was peeling, more like loose bark crossed with scar tissue than flesh.  

“You retain any English?”  He asked.

The homunculus nodded.


Another nod.

“Go dispose of the slides.  Consider everything a top priority biohazard.”

The homunculus found a pair of rubber gloves and began cleaning up the mess from the early experiments.

Rey studied the Morrígan.  Alarms were set to go off if it approached one month of age.  With Myrddin’s brain tissues and the current state of growth in Simurgh-derived parts, there was little to no chance that it would achieve any degree of self awareness.

A glance out the window that overlooked the street showed that it was getting dark.  He’d been here all day.

The door slammed at the top of the stairs.  He sighed in irritation.  Time was passing too quickly.  Would this one threaten his life too?

There was a crash, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.  He wheeled around.

The woman with the black dress had slammed into the television set.  She had holes in her as though she were a piece of Swiss cheese, and more of her had been torn to shreds.

A body fell down the stairs.  The man with the lizard mask.  Dead, though not so mutilated.

The woman who came down the stairs had an unusual body type accented by her style of dress.  She was almost like a boy, she was so thin, and her strapless dress hugged her upper body, but the lower half billowed around her.  Her hair was long and white, her eyes wide with irises and pupils small.  Her lips had been painted black.

Her arms though… machinery had been crammed into the arms, and they’d been extended to nearly twice the length, the fingers drawn out long.  Sparks flew as the woman moved one arm, and she winced.

The second individual skipped down the stairs, stopping at the bottom to admire the laboratory.

Her eyes fell on Rey.

“I know you!” she said.

“I know you too, Bonesaw,” he said.  Without breaking eye contact, he tapped a key on the computer, prompting a flood of nutrients into the Morrígan’s solution.

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

“Man, it’s… this is nice stuff.  Being constantly on the move, you miss out on stuff like this.”

“My old lab wasn’t this good,” he said.  Make small talk.  “Who’s that?”

“Damsel of Distress, with some modifications by yours truly.  Damsel for short.  Better at controlling her power now.”

“Hi Damsel.”

Damsel looked at him, spoke in a whisper he couldn’t make out.

“And who’s this?” Bonesaw asked.  She approached the glass case with the Morrígan inside.


“Looks like the Simurgh.”

“She is.  In part.  The other half of the genetic base is from Myrddin’s tissue.  Everything that bridges the gap is a really complex fungus.”

“Cripes.  How do you even manage something like that?”

“Trade secret,” he said.  He watched as Damsel approached the widescreen TV, picked it up where it had fallen to the ground, and held it in front of her, staring at the image, no doubt some mention of what the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine were up to in Boston.

“I’ll get the answer out of you, you know.”

“I know,” Rey admitted.  “But I wouldn’t be a self-respecting tinker if I didn’t at least pretend to protect my work.”


Bonesaw turned her attention to the homunculus.  She poked it in the stomach and it growled at her in response.

If he let the Morrígan out now… Bonesaw was staring at the homunculus, and Damsel was focused on the TV…

But it would die if he let it go now.  It was too young.  Every two or three seconds it sat in the high-nutrient solution would be a week of growth.  He’d need it at least at four or five years of age before it was capable of moving and acting, and he’d still be depending on it having powers rather than a defunct corona pollentia.

He’d never experienced a stronger emotion than he did when he saw another set of feet appear at the top of the stairs.  They made their way down, and each step brought more of the figure into view.  If it was another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d die.  If it was one of Accord’s ambassadors…

He’d probably still die.  But there’d be a chance.

It was neither.

The man reached the bottom of the stairs, turned his head to survey the scene.  He wore a visor that combined the movable visor of a knight’s helm with a high-tech equivalent, and the points where they met his helmet were shaped like a lizard’s frill or a dragon’s wing.  He held out a rod in one hand, and it unfolded into a spear of ridiculous length.

The lizard theme… if the machines Rey had seen fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine were Dragon’s, was this one of her assistants?  Someone working under her?

Or her?

Damsel wheeled around, extended one hand, but the man in armor was quick to step around a pillar for cover.  Damsel’s power ripped into the pillar, warping and tearing space in a chaotic storm.

The man in armor ducked and rolled to reach the next piece of cover, one of the stainless steel desks.  He arrested his momentum with one outstretched arm, then kicked the desk with both feet.  It slammed into Damsel.

He hopped onto his feet in a single movement, slashing with the spear’s point.  The tip struck Damsel across the eyes, blinding her.  He reversed the spear and swung it, and the spear-butt caught her in the side of the head.  She was knocked down onto all fours before she could direct her power at him again.

The man dug the spear’s point into the ground to help propel himself towards her.  His leg flared with a gray blur as he reached her, and be brought it down onto her back from above.

It sheared through her as though she weren’t even there, cutting her in half.  He kicked out to obliterate her head and one of her shoulders in a single movement, disabled the gray blur, and set his foot down with a thud that rang through the underground laboratory.

Bonesaw didn’t seem disturbed by the loss of her teammate.  “Don’t think I don’t recognize you.  You were Mannequin’s pick.  Armsman?  Armsmaster?”

The man in armor pointed his spear at her.  “Defiant now.”

“You know I loaded myself with a mess of epidemics, Defiant,” Bonesaw said.  “You kill me like that and I’ll explode into a cloud of a bajillion plagues.  It can’t be easy.”

“It is,” Defiant’s voice was distorted by his helmet, vaguely computerized.  There was a processor at work somewhere there, Rey observed.

“What, you’ll unleash a thousand plagues on this world to finish me off?  Me?  A little girl?”  Bonesaw smiled wide.


“You’ll get sick.”

“Biohazard safe,” Defiant said.  His spear shaft tapped against his armor.

He’ll die in a hundred horrible ways,” Bonesaw said, pointing at Rey.

“Villain.  Acceptable loss.”

“And the people in this neighborhood?”

“I scanned the area.  There is zero air flow in or out of this lab.  It’s quarantine-safe.”

“So you’ve got all this figured out, don’t you?”


Bonesaw glanced over her shoulder at Rey, “You-”

Defiant moved so fast that Rey couldn’t follow the movement.  The spear impaled the girl in the chest.  The heart.

“Ugh, fuck me,” Bonesaw grunted.

Defiant swung the spear to one side and slammed her into the wall, knocking chemicals and vials off of every shelf unit she hit on the way.

“Why-” Bonesaw started.

Defiant raised the spear and her sentence was interrupted as her head cracked against the ceiling.  He drove the spear toward the ground with just as much force.

“Why…” Bonesaw spat blood onto the ground.  Being impaled in the heart hadn’t put her down.  “Ow.  Bit my tongue.  Why don’t you come closer, big man?  Too scared to come here and finish me off?”

Defiant didn’t respond.  Instead, he struck her against the wall again, then shoved the spear point into a set of stainless steel shelves.  Pieces of the empty glass beakers rained onto the ground beneath her dangling feet.

“Coward!” she taunted him.

Rey glanced nervously toward the door.  Would it be better to run or to stay?

The girl reached forward, clutching the shaft of the spear.  She began pulling herself forward, hauling the spear’s shaft through the hole in her chest as she closed the distance inches at a time.

She smiled as she did it.

Blades sprung from the length of the shaft, and began spinning like propellers   One caught her from behind, and she slid forward, only to find herself sandwiched between two such sets.

“That’s Mannequin’s trick!  That’s so cute, that you’re copying-”

Defiant moved the spear, and Bonesaw was thrown back, her hair and back caught against the blades.  She used her hands to pull herself forward so she was clear, maintaining a grip even as he swept the spear to one side again, keeping herself fixed at the same point on the pole’s length.

“Hey, plant geek!” Bonesaw had to raise her voice to be heard, “He kills me, you die!  Think about that!”

Rey glanced at Defiant.  There wasn’t an opening or anything that suggested at the man inside.  Only armor, implacable, unrelenting, driven.

Then he looked at the girl, half-hidden behind the blur of the spinning blades.

“Okay,” Rey said.

He wanted to live.  Wanted nothing more than to go on to do his research, maybe one day find greatness, find a woman who could appreciate him.  Have kids.

But he wanted her to live even less than he wanted any of that.  Because he could well and truly believe that she would do more harm in her life than any good he could do in his.

“Okay,” he repeated.  I can live with that.

There was a crunching sound, and Defiant snapped his head over to look at Bonesaw.

She spat, and smoke billowed where the spit came in contact with the blades.

One flew off and sailed across the room to strike a cage with animals inside.  The mechanism that was keeping the blades in motion ceased.

With nothing impeding her line of sight to Defiant, Bonesaw crunched again.  Smoke billowed from her mouth as acid ate away at her flesh, she leaned back as if she were preparing to spit a loogie-

And Defiant disabled the propeller behind her, swinging the weapon and flinging her free of the end.

She touched ground and spat out a mouthful of acid onto the floor.  It smoked on contact with the concrete.

“No,” Defiant said.  He took two steps forward and swiped with the spear, cutting her in half.

Almost in half.  Something like chainmail was wrapped around her spine, but the spear had cut through the matching mesh that had protected her abdominal organs.

Defiant turned to catch a mechanical spider that was making its way down the stairs.  He impaled it and dashed it to pieces.  Another thrust killed one that was hiding inside an air vent.

Bonesaw crawled forward, dragging her spine and ruined midsection apart from her legs.  There wasn’t as much blood as there should have been.  “Not… done.”

She clawed into her apron for vials, threw them across the room.  Defiant backed away as they exploded into clouds of white.  As they spread, Defiant was reduced to a mere silhouette.

You’re in an augmented biohazard suit, Rey thought.  He eyed Bonesaw as she clawed her way in his general direction.  Come through!

But Defiant had other ideas.  Maybe he had a degree of familiarity with the white powder, knew what it was and that it had to be avoided.

Maybe there was something else at play.  Another member of the Slaughterhouse Nine in the area?

Bonesaw was getting closer.  Rey backed away.

She looked up at him.  Dark circles were already spreading around her eyes, her face paling.  She looked gaunt.  And she held a vial.  She tried to claw the cork off and failed.

If he stepped closer, she’d do something to him, but if he didn’t try to stop her-

On the second try, the cork came free.  She pushed it in Rey’s direction, and he was quick to kick it into the cloud of white to his right.

But the fluid that had trailed out as it rolled was smoking, just under his feet.  He had nowhere to go.

He lunged, leaping onto one of the shelving units to keep from passing anywhere near Bonesaw.

Something snagged on his foot.  He toppled to the ground.

Looking back, he could see her spine was prehensile, and that it had caught his foot, winding around the bridge of it.  The sheath is hiding more machinery.

The white smoke was congealing into strands of gunk that cut off the end of the room closest to the stairwell.  Defiant was caught in the midst of it, and was slowly tearing himself free.

No.  No.

Rey tried to kick her off, but that only served to let her get a grip on his other foot.  She began clawing her way up his legs.

He reached for the keyboard, pulled it down from the shelf it sat on.  It dangled above his head, and he pressed it against the wall, tapped the keys to open the tube that held the Morrígan.

He hadn’t drained the water, and the fluid began to flow onto the ground as the glass sank into the floor.

Bonesaw had climbed up to his chest, and it was only his struggles that kept her from reaching any higher.  He clawed at her hands, and she wasn’t that strong, but she was tenacious, and she used her prehensile spine to secure any progress she made.

Three limbs against his two.  He tried to stand, failed.  Too much weight in the wrong places, and he couldn’t use his hands.

The water finished pouring out, and the Morrígan took its first steps.  Five or six years old in apparent age, a vague replica of the Simurgh.  It would have some blend of her powers and Myrddin’s.

Too busy looking at his creation, he was caught off guard as Bonesaw got hold of his throat with one hand.  She hauled herself up until her entire upper body was resting on his chest.  The sheath that had been around her spine pressed up against his face as the bone and attached machinery passed into his open mouth and down his throat.  His throat was scraped raw by the edges of it.

He choked, fought for breath, found none.

The Morrígan flopped to the ground.  Dead.  Dumb.  Not viable.

Just as the crystalline feather and Leviathan’s blood had been, it wasn’t capable of sustaining life.  A failed experiment.

Needles punched their way out of Bonesaw’s spine, found his own.  In one instant, he lost all sensation below his neck.

In the next, she was making him move, pulling him to his feet.  His head craned toward the ceiling, mouth forced open, blood trickling onto his face as the full weight of her upper body came to rest on his head.

Just got a fresh pair of hands, and this happens,” she muttered.  “Do you know how long it’s going to take to find and transplant a good pair of legs?”

She bid his hands to move as though they were her own.  At her will, he typed on the computer.  At her bidding, he turned his body to give her a better look at Defiant’s progress, threw another vial at the man.

Back to the computer.

“Samples.  Evidence,” Bonesaw murmured.  He could feel the vibrations of her voice against his face.  The air that was flowing from a tube by her spine and into his lungs was stagnant and foul, but she bid him to breathe and he breathed.

“Crawler,” she said.  There was a whir.  She used his hand to shatter the glass case that held the samples, and he groaned in pain as the shards cut it.  She made him grab the sample from the robotic claw’s grip.  “Mannequin.”

She gathered the samples in her own hands while she used his hands to type and select the options.

“Burnscar, Shatterbird… surprising how much DNA we’ve left on crime scenes.  Winter… Chuckles…”

Defiant roared.  He growled words, as if speaking to himself.

“Nice Guy, Murder Rat, Hatchet Face.  We’ve gone through a lot of members,” she said, while depositing each sample in a plastic case.  “Screamer, Harbinger, King.”

Rey choked, tried to choke.  He could control his head, his mouth.  If he passed out, would his body fail?  Would she fail?

“Pity I can’t use this lab,” Bonesaw said.  “Make the cloning process that much easier.  But I’ve seen your work.  I think I can replicate it.  Helps if I have this…”

She had him tap a key, and he could hear the water flowing as another of the glass cases started to move.  The Regrowth tube.  The seeds.

“Didn’t think we’d get this lucky,” she said.  “Jack said that since the world isn’t ending like it was supposed to, he wants to hurry it along.  We did our research, and decided to track down some decent tinkers, and you were closest.  Only problem with entering any metropolis like this is security cameras… Oooh!  Gray Boy!  He was one of Jack’s first teammates!  You wouldn’t believe the stories Jack tells about him.”

Another sample was collected and deposited in the box.

She stopped, and turned toward the Morrígan.  He could feel his blood run cold.

“Nah,” Bonesaw said.  “Even I’m not that crazy.”

She had him tap keys on the keyboard, and a laser fired from the top of the case that had held the Morrígan.  He couldn’t see, but he could smell the burning flesh.

The box of samples tucked under one arm, she walked Rey to the door that led out of the back of the basement.  The one Rey had been ordered to use when coming and going, out of Accord’s sight.

He couldn’t lose hope.  Defiant would have come on an armored suit.  If that suit was positioned to survey the area, if Defiant had contacted Dragon, ordered an airstrike or even just reinforcements-

No.  There was a ladder on the other side of the doorway, leading down into a pitch darkness.

She turned in Defiant’s direction, and Rey caught a glimpse of the hero.  He was still caught, and though the blur around his leg was cutting him free, goop was streaming down from the ceiling to connect to his upper body, and he couldn’t destroy that with a ready kick.

She had Rey grip the rungs of the ladder, and they slid down into the pitch black.

“I failed,” Defiant said.

“You hurt her.  If anyone failed, it was me,” Dragon replied.  “I couldn’t break away from the fight.”

Mist emanated from her robotic body, dissolving the strings of slime that had congealed around him.  Her hand settled on the side of his face.

“Did we gain anything?”

“I’ll show you in a minute.  Are you okay?”

“Need more tech.  Nanomolecular thorns for my arms.  It would have made the difference.”

“We can figure something out.  But are you okay?”

“I suppose so.  Where do we stand?”

“Two suits destroyed.  And we don’t yet know what Bonesaw took with her.  Jack escaped with some of his team.  But we killed four of them, all together.”

“Four,” he said.  “We should mobilize now.  There’s a limit to how fast and how far they can move, especially with the wounded.  Bonesaw went into the subway system, and it will take time for her to get free, but if she gets in contact with their new teleporter-“

“We’ll mobilize as soon as I’ve freed you, Colin.  If I don’t use this body, you’ll be left behind, and neither of us want that.”

“Better that you give chase.”

“We’re doing okay.  We’re closing the gap.  They showed up on camera, and we were ready to move on them within minutes.  We’ll do it again.”

Colin nodded, but he didn’t respond.

She settled her arms around his shoulders, letting the spray do its work.  The metal of her forehead touched his mask.  “Take it for what it is.  A little lost, a lot gained.”

It took thirty more seconds for the foam to dissolve.  She broke the hug and he tore himself free of the scraps.  They were out of the basement and walking through the ruined interior of Accord’s household in moments.

They stepped outside into the evening air.  Colin let the vents in his costume open so the cool air could flow through.  Dragon luxuriated in the feel of the air against her exterior body.

Her hand caught his as they walked to where the Uther and her own suit were waiting.

Colin stopped in his tracks.  Dragon’s suit was posed with its head pointing toward the sky.  The suit’s metal jaws were clamped around a body.


“The Siberian is dead?”

Gone would be a more appropriate word,” she said.  “Manton is dead.”

Colin nodded and exhaled slowly.  “Good work.”

“The job’s not over yet.”

The Uther’s cabin doors opened to invite him in.

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Migration 17.4

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They took a path that kept the fence to their right.  It meant they stayed on the fringe of the Simurgh’s power, the volume of the keening song as low as they could hope to keep it, and it meant there was one less cardinal direction that any creatures could approach them from.  There were soldiers stationed at the far end of any roads, a ways back from fences, but they weren’t taking shots at them.  If the soldiers happened to shout at them through a loudspeaker, he considered it a bonus, something to draw others closer.

He cursed the heavy clouds of fog and dust that were resulting from the ongoing fighting and the snow that had evaporated or scattered on a massive scale.  It wasn’t bad enough that there were monsters prowling around the city, but his key senses were being obscured.  He couldn’t see more than one or two hundred feet ahead of him, and the noise… there was no absolute quiet.  The screaming in their heads continued without end, low in volume and apparently low in effect, but there.  Always there.  Just as distracting and nerve-wracking were the rumbles and the sounds of gunfire, of distant explosions, of buildings collapsing, and of city streets being blasted to shreds.

It was during one of the quiet moments, one of the periodic breaks in the distant chaos where there was only the song in their heads, that they heard a shrill scream.

Krouse, Cody and Marissa stopped in their tracks.

“Was that in my head?” Krouse asked.

“No.  Definitely a person.  Or people.  We should help them,” Marissa said.

“We’d be putting ourselves in danger,” Cody replied.

“No,” Krouse said.  “We should go.”

“I feel like you contradict me to be irritating,” Cody growled.

“We should go because there’s barely anyone around,” Krouse said, “And we’ve got to find a doctor.  One person with the right skills in an area with very few people.”

“And since someone’s screaming, we know there’s at least one person there.”

Krouse nodded.  He didn’t wait for further argument from Cody, sprinting ahead instead.

His path took him to the foot of a set of tall buildings with stores on the lowest level.  He was somewhat relieved that most of the fast food chains seemed familiar.  Somehow it implied that home wasn’t so far away.

Tables and benches were bolted into the ground in a broad patio or plaza between the buildings.  The fixtures that weren’t exposed to the winds and shockwaves that were rippling across the city in all the fighting were piled high with layers of snow and ice.

Krouse could hear the crunch in the snow as Marissa and Cody caught up behind him.  He glanced back to verify it was really them, then gripped his spear tighter.

Screams, again.  To his left.

He hurried toward the sound.  He knew the singing in his head was making him more impulsive, rounding off the edges of his sense of caution and pushing him to act rather than plan.  It didn’t matter.  He had one goal in mind.

Eight people were gathered in a burger joint with the lights off.  More daunting were the three monsters that were in the room.  One of the monsters was holding a ninth person off the ground.  The windows had been shattered and curls of snow flowed into the fast food place.

Krouse dropped low, crouching behind a snow-covered patio.  He gestured for Cody and Marissa to stop.

The monsters included a man with a neck three times the usual length and a gnarled hump on his back that was plated in armor.   His arms split in two at the elbow, with one set of hands and one set of limbs that ended in built-in scythes.  He was perched on a table, cackling.  His jacket was clearly borrowed, ill-fitting around his hump, and he kept having to push the sleeves up so they wouldn’t cover his hands or weapons.

His partner held their victim, the ninth person in the room.  She was big, maybe seven feet tall, and heavy in a way that met some middle ground between being muscular and being fat.  Big boned might have been the most apt way to describe her, in a literal sense.  Her skin was thick, her features blunt: she had a porcine nose and cauliflower ears, her fingers were stubby and her lips so fat that they curled away from her comparatively tiny teeth.  She might have weighed four hundred pounds, and the way she was easily holding her victim in the air suggested she was strong enough to kill someone with one good punch.  She wore only a set of grays that looked like a prisoner uniform.  He could make out the first half of the word that was printed across her shoulders: GWER-.

Rounding out the group was a young woman.  Something was off about her, besides the obvious physical changes.  Thick black horizontal lines striped her body, crossing her eyes like a blindfold, extending from the corners of her mouth, lining her chin and tracing down her neck.  By the time they reached her fingers, her skin was more black than white.  She wore the same prison grays, but had donned a jacket and boots.  Her blond hair was straight, her bangs cut severely across her forehead.

She was off because there was a rigidity to her.  She stood too straight, and every part of her except her clothing seemed to be drawn in horizontal and vertical lines.

Scythe-arms finished laughing, took a second to compose himself, and then snarled with a viciousness that seemed to be in stark contrast to his previous humor,  “Ontige hie, Matryoshka.

The massive woman turned to shove her captured victim towards the girl with the lines.  Krouse could make out the rest of the word.  Gwerrus.  Her voice was deeper than any Krouse had ever heard. “Egesa riika se-ji.”

The line girl spoke in a thick accent.  “Speak the anglo?  This skin too far from myself for me to remember.”

“Mirzuty,” the large woman swore.  “Egesa say you take her, Matryoshka.”

“I can not.  Too far.  I will lose myself.  Begging you, Gwerrus.”

Gwerrus slammed her hand down on the counter next to her, demolishing it.  The soft drink dispenser exploded in a spray of fizz and foam.  Gwerrus looked momentarily surprised, and the scythe-armed one started cackling.  Was that the Egesa that Gwerrus had mentioned?

Gwerrus growled, “There are guards, frail one.  Many.  There are fences and the… what you call them?  Transportation.”

“Trucks,” Matryoshka said.

“Trucks.  They hunt us.  They have craft.  Burn you by looking at you.  Fly,” Gwerrus’s deep voice took an almost reverent tone.  “We must escape.  We use your craft to do it.  Fold us.  Fold them.”

Matroyshka glanced at the crowd of people that were huddled by the front counter.  Her face was etched with anxiety.  A distant rumble shook the city, and her head snapped to one side in alarm.

Ofstede,” Egesa growled.

“Egesa says now,” Gwerrus translated.

“I guess that already,” Matryoshka said.

“Clever, clever,” Gwerrus said, with a cruel note to her voice, “Should use that clever mind to think.  Longer we wait, longer we have to listen to this dwimor wail.  More time for men hunting us to find us.”

Cody and Marissa crept closer until they were beside Krouse.  Krouse winced as their feet crunched in the snow, but the monstrous people didn’t seem to notice.

Matryoshka reached out and bent down in the direction of the woman Gwerrus had thrown to the ground.  Krouse couldn’t quite make out the view, but saw a flurry of black and flesh tone ribbons.

When she stood, she had a different face, her hair was darker, and the lines on her face and hands were thinner.

“How long?” Gwerrus asked.  “To… what is word?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  Her accent wasn’t so thick as it had been.  “Hours?  Two or three.  Can’t really remember.”

“Fold into me next,” Gwerrus said.  “Then Egesa.  Then them.”

Both Matryoshka and Gwerrus looked at the huddled captives.

“But if I take more than two or three hours to escape, I’ll digest you.”

“I’m a soldier,” Gwerrus spoke.  “Tough.  Hard to eat?”

“Digest,” Matryoshka said.  “I don’t know.  Not sure you can be tough against this.”

Efeste,” Egesa growled.

“He says-”

“I get it.  Fine.  Kneel.  Easier if I don’t have to climb.”

Krouse tightened his grip on the spear, waited until he saw the ribbons.

Then Krouse charged forward.  Couldn’t afford to wait until that Matryoshka woman ate someone with the know-how Noelle needed.  The window of opportunity here was small, anyways.  Had to strike while two of the enemies were occupied.

His boots crunched over snow, and Egesa turned his way, raising one scythe before he even saw Krouse.

Krouse drove the makeshift spear into Egesa’s side.  The shape of the head didn’t allow for much penetration, but it did bury itself in the monster’s stomach.

Krouse had never been in a fight.  He’d been punched, but he’d never hit back.  Wasn’t in him, he’d thought.  How much of this was him, and how much was the song in his head?  Was the Simurgh’s song pushing him to violence where he might have tried to find another way in other circumstances?  Or was this what it felt like, doing what had to be done to help Noelle?

Egesa nearly fell from the table he was sitting on, managed to brace himself, and then swung one scythe-arm at Krouse.  Krouse threw himself backward, tugging on his curtain-rod spear.

It twisted as it came free, doing more damage on the way out than it had with the initial thrust.

Egesa fell to the ground, landing with his knees, two scythes and one hand on the ground. His other hand pressed to the injury, where blood was spilling onto the ground.

The hump of a hunchback protected the man’s head, as he crouched before Krouse.  Krouse looked at Egesa’s arched back, his legs and arms under him.  He could have gone for the stomach again, but there were no guarantees.  He jabbed for the armpit, instead.  Limit his range of attack.

His body hummed with adrenaline, and he felt far, far too calm for what he was doing, as he thrust the heavy metal spear into the base of Egesa’s arm.  This time he twisted it on purpose before pulling it free.

There was more blood than he thought there’d be, with that one.  Egesa fell over, no longer able to prop himself up.

Changing his grip, Krouse brought the spear down like a bludgeon, cracking Egesa across the head.

When Egesa didn’t immediately slump over, Krouse hit him twice more.

Ende,” Egesa growled.

Krouse swung to hit him one more time.  Egesa disappeared in a cloud of black smoke that quickly dissipated and the spear hit tile.

Krouse glanced around to see if Egesa had changed locations.  The scythe-armed freak wasn’t around.  He did see Cody and Marissa looking at him wide eyed.

This next part wasn’t going to change that much.  “Run!” he shouted at the bystanders.  They scrambled to their feet and ran for cover.

He advanced on Gwerrus and Matryoshka, saw how Gwerrus was entangled by Matryoshka, wearing the ribbons like a second skin.  Her left arm, completely encased, was compressed to only half the size, almost normal.

Gwerrus looked too tough to hurt, but Matryoshka…  He slashed the end of his makeshift spear into her, and the ribbons of flesh cut and tore.  Matryoshka began to pull together, unwinding from Gwerrus, and he clubbed her over the head.

Gwerrus was a bigger problem.  The way her skin seemed to be three times as thick as normal, at least, and her massive frame, he suspected he wouldn’t be able to hurt her with his weapon.  If he-

No, Krouse made himself stop, took an account of what he was doing.  He was getting carried away.  He turned to run.

A hand gripped the back of his coat, and a scythe blade extended around Krouse’s throat.

He felt another scythe tap against his spear, tapping again shortly after.  He let the spear clatter to the tiled floor.

Matryoshka condensed the ribbons into onion-like layers. The cuts and tears he’d made weren’t continuous once she was put together.  Rather, it was divided into a series of short cuts placed around her face and hands, with more probably hidden beneath her clothes.

“Brave,” Gwerrus growled.  “Stupid brave.”

“Sculan abretoan cnapa,” Egesa muttered, just beside Krouse’s ear.

Gwerrus shook her head.  “Na.  Wac thurfan cnapa with huntians ferranan, Matryoshka cunnan fealdan cnapa.”

Egesa shoved Krouse so that he stumbled forward, finding himself in the middle of the three.

“English?  Anglo?”  Matryoska asked.

“We need the boy,” Gwerrus said.  “You fold him.”

“Uh huh,” Matryoshka said.  “We’ll need more.”

“We’ll find more.”

“Soon?  Women I just took will be all dissolved.”

“Soon,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse couldn’t help but notice how even her dialect had changed since she’d absorbed the woman into her.  “You don’t have to do this.”

Egesa kicked him from behind, and Krouse fell to his hands and knees.

“Don’t hurt him,” Matryoshka said.

“They are enemies,” Gwerrus growled.  “They hunt us.”

“We’re not hunting you,” Krouse said.

Egesa kicked him again for his trouble, driving a heel into Krouse’s kidney.  Krouse grunted and writhed at the pain.  The screaming in his head was bad, now, almost drowning everything out.  It was almost affecting his vision.  He couldn’t help but think about the pressure of being deep underwater, being so deep he was barely able to function, except this wasn’t imagined.  It was real, despite being all in his head.  That same pressure dimmed everything around the edges of his vision, made shadows darker and lights brighter.  When spots appeared in his vision, he could almost imagine they were images.

Egesa pressed the tip of one scythe to Krouse’s eyelid.  “Abysgian in eage?  Yeh?”

Krouse slipped, so to speak.  He hadn’t even realized he was resisting the song, but in the pain, in his momentary fear, he let himself listen, looked at the shapes that were filling the dark places he could see.

Am I giving up?  This easily?  The others need me.  The others…

“Noelle,” he mumbled.


He winced.  “Call me Krouse.  Everyone but my mom does.”

“Krouse,” Noelle tried the word.  “Okay.  You want something?”

“Just wanted to talk.  When we were marking each other’s papers in class, I got yours.  I just wanted to say I like the way you think.”

He could see her expression change, as though the whole paradigm of the conversation had shifted.  What did I say?

“Thanks,” she said.  Her eyes dropped to her lunch tray, and she speared a piece of lettuce on her fork.  She popped it into her mouth and chewed, slowly, methodically, then glanced up at Krouse.  The meaning was clear.  With body language alone, she was asking, why are you still here?

“Comparing the way you write an essay to how you’d design a game, plotting things both on a mechanical and general level.  It was interesting to read.  Nerdy in all the best ways.  That’s a compliment, in case you’re left wondering.”

“Alright.  Thanks.”

He was turning to leave when he saw Marissa Newland approach and sit down next to Noelle.  They weren’t people he’d expected to see together.  It wasn’t that Noelle was unattractive, only that Marissa was a swan, one of the better looking girls in the school, and Noelle was maybe best described as a sparrow.  Small, nervous, plain.  He hadn’t imagined they had any shared interest, social circles or friends.

Marissa moved a small plate with a square of pizza on it to Noelle’s tray, before looking up at Krouse.  “Krouse?  You need something?”

“Nah, said what I wanted to say.”

“Don’t pester her, ‘kay?”

“I”m not doing anything more annoying than distracting her from lunch, and I was already leaving.”

“You two know each other?” Noelle asked.

Krouse answered before Marissa could.  “Our moms both do a lot of volunteer stuff for the school.  Bake sales and crap.  Been a couple of times where we both got dragged in to help and wound up working together.”

“So I know exactly what to watch out for with you,” Marissa said.  “At any given point in time, you’re pulling some nefarious prank, you’re manipulating others to get what you want, you’re making someone else look bad-”

“Stop.  All this praise is going to make me blush.”

“Sixth grade,” Marissa said, turning to Noelle, “He tells his teacher-”

“Aaand I’m out of here,” Krouse said, making sure to interrupt her, “I forgot Marissa knew about the more embarrassing stories.”

“Good riddance to you, then,” Marissa said, smiling lightly.

He wasn’t two steps away when he heard her saying, “The Ransack qualifiers-”

He turned, interest piqued.

“What?” Marissa said.  “Do I need to get back to the story to scare you off?  Or are you going to make some crack about girls and video games?”

“No, I’m not.  You said qualifiers?  As in competitive level?”

“Yeah.  We have a club we organized through the school, to manage it.  It was the only way I could get access to a computer without my mom looking over my shoulder.”

“No kidding.  That’s the same one Luke’s in?  You know Luke Brito?”

“Yeah.  He’s in the group.”

“Ah,” he said.  He floundered.  “I’m sort of lost for words.  The bar for that sort of thing is higher than a lot of people think.  Even getting to the point where you’re in the qualifiers is pretty respectable.  Kudos.”

“Thanks,” Marissa said.

“I won’t subject you to my presence any longer.  Good luck tonight.  Really.”

“You play?” Noelle asked, the question abrupt.  She tore off a bit of pizza crust and popped it into her mouth.

It took Krouse a second to mentally shift gears.  “Some.  Casually.”

Marissa looked at Noelle to double check, then gestured towards the empty seat across from them.

Krouse sat, winced as a plastic tray clattered to the ground.

Marissa screamed, the sound abruptly cutting off as she was tossed from the counter where the plastic trays were stacked to the ruined counter where the soft drink dispensers had been.  She gasped for breath, struggled to climb to her feet and fell.  She was too dazed, and the ruined counter didn’t offer much in the way of solid traction.  Gwerrus advanced on her.

Krouse forced himself back to reality, hurried to climb to his feet, only to feel the scythe’s blade press hard to his neck, only his scarf keeping it from severing flesh.

The screaming in his head was back, worse than ever.  After the peace of the memory, the tranquility of being free of the screaming, still experiencing the warm buzz that surged through him, this wasn’t where he wanted to be.

“Began’na weorc,” Egesa hissed in his ear.

“Don’t understand a fucking thing you’re saying,” Krouse responded.  In a strange way, he was pissed.  Pissed in the way he might be if he’d been woken abruptly from a good dream.  He knew it wasn’t rational, knew it wasn’t even healthy to think that way when the Simurgh was this dangerous, this insidious, but he was still upset.

So maybe, in the smallest way, it gave him the push he needed to reach beneath his coat, to where he’d stashed the sheathed kitchen knife.  With his other hand, he found and dug his gloved fingers into the wound the spear had made, simultaneously twisting, putting his less vulnerable shoulder in the way of Egesa’s scythe-hand.

It didn’t matter.  Egesa’s knees folded as Krouse twisted his fingers in the wound, dug deep.  The knife’s sheath clattered to the ground, and Krouse dragged the blade across Egesa’s long neck.

Egesa pushed him away, blood fountaining down the front of his body.  Krouse’s fingers were plucked free of the wet, sucking wound as the freak backed away.  Egesa disappeared into wisps of dark smoke.

“Stupid brave boy,” Gwerrus said.

Krouse glanced around the room as the massive bear of a woman turned to face him.  Marissa was only just managing to stand, while Cody had backed up to the opposite end of the room, crowbar in hand.  Matryoshka was on her hands and knees, not far from Cody.

“Run!” he shouted.  “Scatter!”

He was only turning to run away from the brutish Gwerrus when he realized the others might not be in a state to run.  Marissa had been thrown hard, and he wasn’t sure what kind of condition Cody was in.

Not that it mattered.  Gwerrus picked Krouse for her target.

She wasn’t fast.  There was some small blessing in that.  But he quickly realized that she was keeping up with him, and she didn’t have half the trouble he did in wading through the deeper patches of snow.  Slipping on ice, too, didn’t prove to be a problem for her when she weighed enough that the ice shattered with each footfall.

She caught up to him before he was clear of the plaza, grabbed him by the seat of his pants and the back of his coat.

He stabbed at her hand with the knife, and felt a fierce agony tear through his own hand.

Blood welled out from his palm, warm as it ran down his arm to his elbow.  Krouse screamed.

“No,” Gwerrus growled in her deep voice.  “Stupid boy.”

“Begone,” a man intoned.

Krouse felt himself slip from her grasp.  He dropped to the ground.

“Do it quickly,” another man said.

Krouse turned to look, but he saw everything through a monochrome haze.  His own hand seemed smoky, faint.

I’m a ghost?

“Any insights, Myrddin?” a man in armor spoke.  Gwerrus backed away as he advanced.  A giantess and a man in a suit of gleaming armor.  The man twirled a halberd in one hand.

“A protective power.  I just got a glimpse of the idea behind it.  Retribution,” the first man said.  He was behind the man in armor, wearing a robe.  “Her power’s based around retribution for damage done.”

“Damage reflection?” the man in armor asked.  “Or does she get more durable as you attack her?”

“More likely to be the former than the latter.”

Krouse stood as the man in armor walked up to him.  Walked past him as though he weren’t even there.

“I am stronger than you,” Gwerrus snarled.

The armored man didn’t reply.

“Why do this?  Why hunt us?”  Gwerrus asked, backing away.

The armored man slammed his halberd down against the ground, and smoke billowed around him.  A moment later, there was a sound like a gunshot.  Gwerrus dropped to one knee, one meaty hand pressed to her chest.

There was a tink and she was set on fire, head to toe.

The flames were hot enough and close enough to Krouse that they could have burned him, should have burned him.  But he barely felt the warmth of them.  Barely felt anything.  The Simurgh’s scream had faded, and his own wounded hand was little more than a dull throb.

“Hey,” Krouse said, turning to the man in armor.  There was no response.  “Hey, my friend needs-”

“That was reckless,” Myrddin said, speaking over Krouse.  “Attacking when we didn’t know the particulars of her power.”

“Two most likely vectors for it,” the armored man said, talking as though he couldn’t hear Krouse.  He raised his voice a little to be heard over Gwerrus’ screams.  “Either she needed to see me, or there needed to be some correlation between me and the damage done.  Smoke plus a nonlethal bullet works as a test for the first case.  Besides, priority one is minimizing interactions, right?”

“Yes.  But it was still reckless.”

Krouse turned to Myrddin.  “My friend’s dying.  Can you help her?”

Myrddin walked ahead, dismissing the smoke with a wave of the craggy wooden stick he carried.

“Dragon?” the armored man said.

I’m here,” the woman’s voice came from the armbands that they’d fixed around their wrists.

“Myrddin just shunted some kid out to minimize contact.  I saw some blood.  If I mark the location, can we get emergency services here for when he pops back in?”

We’re overloaded.  Was it a severe injury?”

“Bad, but not severe.”

We don’t have the vehicles or personnel to spare, and quarantine will still be in effect.

“Right.  Where did our target land?”

Two hundred feet away, down your four o’clock, Armsmaster.

“How are we for exposure?”

You two are good for another seventeen minutes at the exposure you’re facing.  Twenty if we push it.  I can have a flight unit to you shortly.

Krouse hurried to follow them as they changed direction and began briskly walking toward the end of the street..

Myrddin spoke up, “How’s the fight going?”

It goes well.  But we can’t let our guards down.

“No,” Myrddin agreed.  “This is a bad one.  Too many possible avenues to cover, too much exposure time across the board.”

We’re doubling down quarantine, and we’ll have a processing center in place shortly.  The President is pushing the D.D.I.D measure.

“It’s going to backfire,” Myrddin said.  “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, and I’ll remind you all I said it with every chance I get, from now until the day I die.  It’s going to backfire.”

I don’t disagree,” Dragon said.

“But you’re helping to enforce it.”

I’m following orders.”

“No offense, I like you, Dragon, but that’s the oldest excuse in the book.”

I’m merely picking my battles.

“If you’re not going to fight this battle, then what will push you to make a stand?”

“Myrddin,” Armsmaster cut in, “Ease up.  And pay attention.  This is it.”

Krouse stared.  It was a section of building.  White tile and white walls, a desk, and a metal cabinet with a shattered glass pane.  File folders were strewn over the floor and desk.  In the midst of it all was a man in a white lab coat.  His body had been shattered by the impact.

“Damnation.  If we could only look into this…” Armsmaster said.

“Priority one.  Minimize exposure.”

“I know.  But this stands to answer a great many questions.  If we can find where she opened that portal to-”

“If she’s answering questions for us, we don’t want to know,” Myrddin said.

Armsmaster sighed.  “I know.  Can you shift this into one of your pocket dimensions?”

“I get bad interactions if I transition something in of one of my dimensions and back, or if I take things out of one dimension and put them into another.  It doesn’t compartmentalize into the dimension properly if it’s been elsewhere too recently.  Whether these people and objects came from somewhere halfway across the globe or some pocket dimension, I don’t think we want to test our luck and risk something disastrous.”

Krouse startled at that.  Is that what happened to me?  Some bad interaction of interdimensional crap?

“I’m thinking white phosphor?”  Armsmaster suggested.  Myrddin nodded.

Dragon chimed in, her voice sounding from the armbands on their wrists, “Can’t call in a strike until fifteen minutes after the Simurgh is gone.  Mark the area.  I’ve got another danger site a quarter-mile to your six o’clock.  Then we’re getting you clear.

“Got it,” Armsmaster said.

Armsmaster tossed a small canister into the middle of the section of laboratory, they cordoned off the area with red tape, and then they left.  Armsmaster used a grappling hook to fly to a nearby rooftop while Myrddin took to the air.  

With no way to follow, Krouse was left standing there.  He prodded at a piece of rubble, but his hand passed through.

Yet he was able to walk on the hard ground?  He couldn’t process it.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered to himself.

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

He folded his arms.  That’s not something I ever expected to hear.  “You can’t blame me at least a little?”

“No,” Noelle said, shaking her head.  She looked miserable, and he felt a knot forming in the pit of his stomach as he saw just how unhappy she was.  It wasn’t something he was familiar with, on a lot of levels.  Quiet, she said, “You’ve been great.”

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

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

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

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

That’s what you’re worried about?”

“Don’t dismiss my concerns,” she said, managing to sound a little angry.

“No’, it’s fine.  It’s cool.  I get that there’s stuff you’ve got going on that you don’t want to tell me about.  I can be a bit of a jerk sometimes, but I’m not an idiot.  And I’m not going to twist your arm to get you to share, either.  That’s your stuff, and I figure you’ll tell me in time.  Or you won’t.”

“It’s not fair to you,” she repeated.

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

“Don’t do that!”

He spread his arms for the second time in a minute, helpless.  Don’t do what?  Don’t make sense?

Long seconds passed.  He studied her, saw how dejected she was.  Only minutes ago they’d been having a good time talking.  Then things had fallen apart without warning, and it sounded like she wanted to break up.

It’s like karma for all the times I’ve pulled shit on others.  Only I did it in fun, and this isn’t fun in the slightest.

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

“You don’t?”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

I think you’re fantastic, if that counts for anything.”

“You don’t know me.”

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

She stared down at her feet.  “…I don’t think we should date.”

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

She glanced up at him, then looked down.  She didn’t say a word.

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

Noelle glanced at him.

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

“I don’t want you to leave the club.”

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

“Never mind,” she said.

“Never mind?”

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

“Sure,” he said.  He saw how dejected she looked.  “Want me to walk you home?”

She nodded.

It was odd.  He’d been punched before, had failed a grade, he’d lost his uncle, and yet it was here, beside his girlfriend, that he was unhappier than he’d ever been.  He was helpless, confused, frustrated.  All he wanted to do was to help her, but he wasn’t sure how.

He fought the urge to sigh, and drew in a deep breath instead.  The air in his nostrils was so cold he choked on it.  All of his senses were plunged into high gear; a keening song so high pitched it made his ears hurt, cold throughout his body, the smell and taste of dust thick in the air, and pain lancing through his right hand.

Coughing, bewildered, he stared at the pile of rubble and the laboratory.  Whatever effect had encompassed him, it was gone.


He scrambled up the pile of rubble.  He remembered how they’d said they wouldn’t bomb this site until after the Endbringer was gone, so he still had some time.

He needed a first aid kit.  He went through the cabinets and a set of drawers.  Nothing.  Empty test tubes, glass vials without any contents, canisters without contents, and paperwork.  Lots of paperwork.

His eyes settled on a metal briefcase beneath the desk, within a few feet of the dead man’s hand.

His fingers crossed for a portable case of medical supplies, he set it down on the desk and popped it open.  Disappointment overwhelmed him.

Six metal canisters recessed in black foam with slots cut out to hold them, paperwork was set in a flap in the lid.

He swore.

…newly purchased superpowers…

He winced.  He’d turned his head too fast, and the movement had almost made the song in his head worse, like the pain prompted by moving a broken limb.

As had been the case with the birdcage and the newspaper, Krouse’s eye had caught on something.  He’d always been a fast reader, was used to skimming through books, picking up the necessary words.  As his glance had passed over the case, he’d read something in the text without even registering that he’d done it.

He reread the first line, underneath the header.

Congratulations on your newly purchased superpowers.

His eyes moved down to the vials.

He slammed the case shut and turned to leave.  There was nothing here he could use for first aid, and certainly no doctors.  He could only hope that Cody or Marissa had caught up with some of the people who they’d rescued from the three monsters.  If there was any justice in the world, there would have been a doctor among them, and Cody or Marissa would have brought them to the house.

He ran.  He had to get back, rendezvous with the others, and get to someone who knew him.  If he didn’t hurry, he was worried he would slip into another memory and fail to find his way out again.

The cold air burned in his lungs as he ran, the metal case swinging from his good hand, banging irregularly against his leg.

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Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

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Heavy footsteps carried him through a crowd of people who were having the worst days of their lives.  There were doctors and nurses who might never be able to return to the careers they had worked so long to achieve. He saw new parents, almost all in their twenties and thirties, huddled close and openly weeping or staring into space with puffy red eyes.  There were family members trying to give them support, not knowing how.  Not that the extended family would be suffering any less.  Police officers and detectives were trying to gather statements, well aware that the families wouldn’t know anything pertinent.  Some were standing by, notepads in hand, unwilling or unable to proceed with their witnesses.

He’d known this feeling, once.  To be the bystander, watching the aftermath, agonized as much by the inability to help, the lack of knowledge about what he should do as by the tragedy itself.  To have it happen again and again.  He banished the memories before they could take hold.  It was easier to distract himself and think about the work.  If there was no work to be done, he would let himself slip into that other state of mind, seeing the world coming apart, ways things could fit together.

But right now, he would focus on the job.

He glanced at the window.  Four or five hours ago, these same parents might have been standing outside the window, watching their new babies sleeping.  Now there was only a sheet taped up to block the view, marked for what it was by a yellow ‘x’ of police tape.

Keep walking.  Something nagged at him as he set his right foot down, like a pebble in his boot, except not.  He reached out, as if he were trying to move a finger, but the artificial nerves were hooked into his suit, and the impulse didn’t go anywhere in his body.  He felt the air shift as the openings in his mask sealed shut.  He sent out another command and the microphone came online.

When he spoke, only his ears and the microphone heard his voice.  “Note to self.  Prosthetics in right leg feel alien.  I should check the treads on my old boots, see if one of my legs was longer than the other, maybe try to dig up recordings of myself to match my new gait to my old one.  Should time adjustments to coincide with next procedure.”

Note made, he shut off the microphone, opened the vents.  He saw two women embracing one another, eyes red, staring at him as he passed through the last of the gathered crowd.  They were hoping for the impossible, willing it.  But bringing their child back wasn’t in his hands.  The best he could manage would be revenge.  Or justice.  The line between the two got pretty damned thin at times like this.

The local sheriff was waiting for him as he approached the waiting room.

“Defiant?” the sheriff asked.  She looked small, mid-sixties, gray-haired.  He suspected she was someone who had gleaned some experience in Boston or Brockton Bay and then ‘retired’ out to a smaller town in the middle of nowhere.  She wouldn’t have expected to face a situation like this in her retirement, nobody would, but she was holding herself together in a way that suggested she had some experience to fall back on.  She’d lost officers, and the town was small enough that people she knew would have been among the casualties, but she was all business, her chin set, her small dark eyes hard with determination.

He liked her right away.

“Yes ma’am,”  He shifted his spear to his left hand, extended his right hand to shake hers.

“Miranda Goering.  Sheriff.  No need for that kind of formality here.”  She sounded like she said something similar on a routine basis.  She frowned.  “I… would have a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your being here.”

How was he supposed to respond to that?  He couldn’t think of a response.

She was studying him.  Her eyes settled on his weapon, the fourteen foot long spear. “How on Earth do you carry that spear indoors?”

“It folds, and it can contract to be half the length,” he said.

“I see,” she said. She shook her head, as if stirring herself from idle thoughts.  Back to the nightmare.  “Do you want to start in the nursery?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I can guess what happened, and I doubt there’ll be anything I can use there.  Show me the other scenes.”

Wordlessly, she turned and led him to the stairwell.  He noted the gouges on the walls.  Two or three inches deep, with blood spatters following each.  Plastic had been taped down over each individual mark and spatter.  Evidence cards were stuck next to each. He could guess the culprit.  Jack.

Another impulse sent to his hardware, and his spear broke down into three loosely connected sections as they made their way down to the next floor.  A practiced motion let him catch the weapon under his arm.  “You have any local parahumans?”

“Three.  Nothing notable.  Edict and Licit, a low-rated master and a low-rated shaker.  We also have one villainess who occasionally tries to make it in one of the big cities and then retreats back home when she can’t cut it.  Calls herself Damsel of Distress.”

He reconnected his spear as they passed through the door.  “I know her.  Mover and shaker.  Storms of unevenly altered gravity, time and space.  Edict and Licit keep her in check?”

“They manage with our help.  Why do you ask?”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are recruiting.  Their numbers are down, and they’ll be looking for a quantity of new members more than they’re looking for quality.  At least until they’re stable enough that they can afford to be picky.  Once they can, they’ll replace the weakest recruits with better ones.  I don’t want them to get that far.”

“I understand.  But would they want her?  Damsel of Distress?  Her lack of control over her power holds her back.  I won’t say she isn’t a problem, but she’s never been a priority threat to anyone.”

“She’s a heavy hitter.  They can give her control, or they can use that lack of control.  Let’s not forget that they might be looking at Edict and Licit.  I’ll need you to send me their files as well, please.”

“Of course.”

He didn’t really need the files.  The PRT had provided access to everything except the highest level secured files.  He suspected that Dragon would be able to gain access to those if the need arose.  Still, asking the sheriff had let him gauge whether she was really as cooperative as she seemed, and her level of connection to the hometown heroes.  There had been no resistance, which was reassuring.

She led the way to the area at the front of the ground floor.  They stopped at the perimeter of the scene.  He could see the path that Hookwolf had traveled, the bodies and body parts that littered the area, each covered by sheets or squares of cloth.  There was little to be done about the blood.  Every officer present was from out of town, and everyone was staying to the edges of the area.  There was more evidence than there was ground to tread on.

Defiant examined the area.  “They hit the nursery first, Jack and Siberian moving elsewhere in the building.  Your officers got the call, but didn’t have enough details to know what they were getting into.  They came in through the emergency room here, and Hookwolf was waiting for them.  Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Sheriff Goering said, staring down at the sheet in front of her.  Her composure was slipping, emotion seeping into her posture and expression, softening that hardness.

Again, he wasn’t sure what to say.  He needed her in control, but any reassurance threatened to make things worse.  He didn’t want to upset her, but everything about this was upsetting.  There was no denying that.  She would regret it if she broke down in tears here, and it would waste his time when he needed to be in pursuit.

Tell her it’s not her fault,” Dragon spoke in his ear.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the sheriff.  “They planned it this way.  I would guess they controlled the information that was reported to your station to keep you in the dark, then would have had Hookwolf sitting in the lobby in his human state, indistinguishable from anyone else that was waiting for a turn.”

“That fits what we know,” she replied.  She looked up at him.

“They have years of practice in this, and this is what they’re doing, ninety-nine percent of the time.  Hit isolated areas, terrorize.  Sometimes it gets reported in the media, because it’s sensationalist, and sometimes it goes unreported-”

Back on track.  Cut the digression.

“-There was nothing you could have done differently, knowing what you did,” he finished, feeling like he was leaving his explanation incomplete.  If it were him on the other side of things, he’d want the full picture, but he would take Dragon’s advice.

“You’re right.  But that doesn’t make it much easier.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I don’t expect it would.”

The lens of his right eye clicked through multiple frequencies and resolutions, until the scene stood out in high detail.  The blood shone ultraviolet, and even particles of dust were highlighted.  The entire area stood out with fingerprints, footprints and frost-like patterns where air currents had layered dust over walls and windows.  He began to pick his way through the scene, setting his feet down only where there wasn’t any evidence to be damaged.

“You’re hunting them?” she asked him.


“Will you do me a favor?”

“If I can.”

“Talk to me?  Give me some assurance that some good will come of this?  That you’ll be able to track them down, because of what happened here, and that you’ll be able to stop them?”

He stared at the landscape around him, all white, gray and the brown-red of drying blood.  It was washed out, stark.  The magazines and brochures had been covered by arterial spray and clothing was hidden beneath sheets.

Give it to her straight,” Dragon urged him.

“He was waiting here,” he pointed to a chair.  “The blood and the way the bodies fell, Hookwolf wasn’t holding anything back from the moment he made his move.  A walking chainsaw massacre.  I’m trying to look at how it played out, so I can read something into how they’re operating and where their priorities are.”

“How?” Goering asked.

He saved the settings of the lens and then switched to a radiograph-ultrasound reading.  The world was cast in monochrome, now, and he could see the vague shapes of the bodies under the sheets, light and dark painting a picture of densities rather than light.  He closed his mask so the sheriff wouldn’t overhear and spoke into the microphone, “Count the skulls.”

Twenty two.”

“Twenty two bodies,” he spoke aloud, “In the waiting area alone.  It seems like too many for a town this size, this time of night.”

“We’re the only real hospital for this part of the county.  We get people from neighboring towns flying in by ambulance or helicopter.”

“I see.  Even so, it’s more than I would have guessed.  I suspect there was some announcement across the hospital, as the attacks started.  The way people were clustered here, they were probably ordered to stay put and stay calm.  Your officers enter and Hookwolf attacks.  There’s hesitation from the bystanders.  People are caught between perfectly rational self-preservation and the authority of the hospital staff who didn’t have the full picture.”

Don’t assign blame,” Dragon whispered.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine are the ones in the wrong here.

“He lunges across the waiting area to the doors, cutting off retreat and tearing through anyone in his way.  This is new to him.  He’s used to fighting people who resist, people with powers and law enforcement officers with the technology to fight him.  This gives me the impression of a fox in the henhouse.  The crowd turns to flee for the hallways, and he cuts them off there, herds them towards the center of the room, finishes them off.”

He could see the pain on the Sheriff’s face, but she was holding up.  “And that’s useful?”

Defiant nodded.  “Hookwolf was largely content doing what he was doing in Brockton Bay.  He viewed himself as a warrior, a general, and there was a degree of honor in what he did.  He wasn’t honorable, but he followed a code.  The person who nominated him for the group, Shatterbird, is no longer a member.  So why did he join?  Our working assumption was that there were threats on some level, extortion.  But he’s shifting focus too quickly.  Adopting a new mindset.  It’s possible Jack Slash convinced him in another way.”

Or he’s under their control,” Dragon said, communicating over their personal channel.

“…Or he’s being coerced,” Defiant said, for the sheriff’s benefit.  “An implant, something that’s turned him into a puppet.”

He looked over his shoulder at the Sheriff, but she wasn’t venturing a response.

Back to the job.  He pointed with his spear, where Hookwolf had been seated, then traced the path the villain had taken.  Front door, then one hallway, then the other.  A loose ‘z’.  People had clustered around the middle of the room, and he’d leaped into the midst of them to finish them off.

Defiant’s eyes shifted to the front desk.  There was blood spatter there, but it was the furthest point from the path Hookwolf have traveled.  It would have been his last destination before he moved elsewhere.

Defiant used the lens setting to watch for blood spatter and footprints as he made his way behind the desk.

There were more bodies.  One was propped up against the wall, and the stains that were soaking through the sheet were more brown than red.  He’d had his lower abdomen opened.  The last to die.

With his spear’s point, Defiant lifted the sheet away from the man’s head.  Young, head shaved, a tan collared shirt with a star on the shoulder and a kevlar vest.  His arms and hands were mangled beyond repair.  Defiant studied the area, noting the presence of footprints, then replaced the sheet.

His progress out of the area was slow, and not entirely because he was trying to preserve evidence.  He needed to think, to draw the entire picture together and confirm what he was saying before he addressed the sheriff.

“Find anything?” she asked.

“Your deputy went down fighting,” he said.  “Tooth and nail.”

Her jaw clenched, and he could see her eyes glisten.  She stared hard at the wall.

“He couldn’t have won.  Not against Hookwolf.  But I think he gave us what we needed.”

“Did he?”

“The aftermath of the fight suggests Hookwolf was in control of his actions.  What’s more, I think Jack Slash is grooming him.  The general and the cutthroat, playing off one another, educating each other in their respective disciplines, so to speak.  Jack’s going to want to keep this interplay going, maintain Hookwolf’s interest and keep him from getting restless.  What’s the nearest town?”


“Second nearest?”


“Thank you,” he said.  “I’m going to talk to my partner, join her in paying a visit to Damsel of Distress if she hasn’t already wrapped that up, then we’ll be leaving.  With luck, we’ll be right on their heels.”

“Execute the motherfuckers.”

“I’ll damn well try.”

He extended a hand, and she shook it.  He turned to leave, sending nervous impulses to the computer system in his suit, drawing up a map of the hospital and overlaying it with the image he was seeing on his visor.  He made his way to the exit and briskly walked toward the field where he’d parked the Uther suit.

Talk to me, Colin?  What’s the thought process?

“Hookwolf gutted the deputy and then stood by while he died a slow, painful death.  Footprints on the other side of the room are probably Jack’s, if you look through the feed.  His back would have been to the filing cabinet.”

I see it.  Hookwolf doesn’t have a reason to inflict a slow, painful death if he’s just a puppet under Bonesaw’s control.

“That’s my line of thinking.  From the looks of it, he was standing there longer than Jack.  If Jack moved upstairs, which matches with the gouges in the stairwell, then he was leaving Hookwolf there to watch the man die over the course of minutes.  The deputy was someone strong, ferocious, a warrior, which is how Hookwolf identified himself.  This wasn’t just killing, but rejoicing in the cruelty of it, the feeling of superiority over the fallen.  I think what Jack was trying to instill in Hookwolf, challenging him to alter his code and be something darker.”

I don’t like it when you try to get into their heads like that.

“We have to be proactive.  Predict.  Get ahead of them, so we can stop them before they attack the next hospital, the next neighborhood or school.  That means figuring out what they’re thinking.”

I know.  I just don’t like it.  Not with the way Mannequin approached you.

“Mannequin’s dead.”

And he approached you for a reason.

He signaled for the Uther’s cabin to open, then made his way inside.  It was half the size of a commercial plane, outfitted with basic living quarters, and outfitted with long-range weaponry.  The moment he was inside, the systems kicked into life, the pilot’s chair turning to be in position for him to sit, monitors lighting up.  He had only to think, and the images changed, the cursor flying across the screen with a thought to click on icons.

“…You’re not responding.

“Sorry.  Still getting used to this setup.  I feel like a baby, still figuring out how to move my arms and legs.”

I hope it’s a little more intuitive than that if you’re airborne.

“Exaggeration for effect.  I’m like a toddler, then.  I can walk, but I could fall if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing during the more complicated bits.”

He settled into the pilot’s seat, and his senses opened up with vague ‘tactile’ responses from the Uther.  He felt it lift into the air.  Monitors in front of him let him note Dragon’s location.

You didn’t respond to my question, Colin.  I was asking if you think I need to keep a closer eye on you.

I don’t think so,” he replied.  “I don’t know how you could be closer.  But it helps, having you there.  I appreciated the tips with the sheriff.  I would have fucked that up.”

It’s not a problem.

“Any notice on Damsel?”

Seems like we’re too late.  They got her.

His heart sank.  “Got her in the sense that she’s dead, or got her in the literal sense?”

The latter.

“Fuck!”  One more to contend with.  He remembered who he was talking to.  “Sorry.”

I swore when I found out.  Don’t worry.  I’m thinking Enfield.  You?

“We’re on the same page.  It’s close enough, but not so close it’s the next place we’d look.”  He shifted the Uther into motion and plotted a course for the Nine’s next likely destination.  He could see Dragon doing the same with her own suit.

They wouldn’t be able to do this for long.  They were only able to track the Nine like this because their quarry was unaware.  It would only get harder, with Jack obfuscating the group’s movements, with traps and misdirection, a contest of second guessing, trying to think more steps ahead.

He thought aloud, “We should have fought them sooner.  In Brockton Bay.”

We weren’t ready, on a lot of levels.  You hadn’t recuperated, and I didn’t have anything that worked as standalone firepower.  Better to wait, confront them with six suits at once.

He opened his mouth to respond, then stopped.

Damn,” she said, “I was hoping you weren’t paying enough attention.

“I’m always going to listen when you talk.  What happened to the other three suits?”

Melusine is out of commission until I can build some replacement limbs.  Azazel and the Astaroth-Nidhug were melted down.

He frowned.  “The Undersiders?”

And the Travelers.  I pulled the remaining suits out of the city.  Can’t excuse the losses.  Not with bigger fish to fry.”

“That’s… irritating.”

What part?  That they get to keep doing what they’re doing?  Or that I didn’t mention it?

“I’m still officially a prisoner.  I’m just a prisoner on a manhunt, now.  If you want to control what info I get, I’ll live.”

I can’t tell if you mean that.

“I can’t either.  But right this minute, I’m more focused on the fact that the Undersiders and Travelers could hold their own against the full flight of seven.  If they can get that far, couldn’t the Slaughterhouse Nine be able to defeat the suits as well?  And us with them?”

It’s the A.I.  Substandard.  They followed directions without an issue, but they aren’t creative.  The A.I. can’t think outside the box, they don’t plan or get creative.  They just do the tasks they were assigned: sequester, fight, detain.

“It’s your work.  I know you’re capable of designing outside of the box.”

I’m working with my hands tied, Colin.  There’s too many redundancies in my code, the rules against me making A.I.?  They’re still there.  You gave me some detours, some workarounds, ways to get around them, but I’m still stumbling over them.

He tapped his fingers on his armrest, thinking.  “I’ll see what I can do.”


“I don’t want to spoil your code.  This isn’t my field of study.  It’s not even something I’ve dabbled in.  As a rule, anything I do to change it is going to make things less elegant.”

In that one department.

“And I’m legitimately afraid I’ll do permanent damage if something runs out of control.”

I have backups.  Weekly.”

“Which means we’d have to bring you up to speed on the mission here.  I’m saying it’s dangerous.  I like the you of right now more than the you of a week ago.”

That sounds almost romantic.

He smiled a little.

Saw that.

He smiled wider.  “You’re bordering on the obsessive now.”

I can dial it back.  How are the prostheses?

“Holding up.  Eye’s working great.”

I saw,” she replied.

He smirked.

She sounded legitimately embarrassed as she said, “Whoops.

“Don’t worry.  I knew you were watching.  It’s fine, good to have an extra set of eyes on the scene.  Um.  The other parts are fine.  I made a note to fix my leg.  I think it’s a little too perfect.  Feels uncanny.  But I suppose you heard that.”

I don’t listen in on any personal notes, just like I won’t pry into any journals you keep or personal mail.  The deal we struck with the PRT was that I would make sure you followed the rules.  That’s what I’ll do.  But your thoughts are your own.


You don’t sound overly concerned either way.”

“I’m not, really.”

You let me know if you do start feeling uncomfortable.

“I can do that.  Listen, there’s no use in me getting deep into your code when we’re going to get there in a matter of minutes.  I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime, then maybe I’ll refresh myself on your code if I have time before we land.”


He glanced at one monitor, and windows opened to show images of the leg.  He was able to draw the crude shapes that represented individual devices even when he wasn’t looking at the screen.  A triangle here, a circle there.  Another window opened up with a line connecting it to the triangle, and he drew an identical triangle, began filling it with more shapes.  By the time he had a fourth subwindow open, he was drawing from previous notes to copy over other schematics of older work, seeing where things could go.  Everything could fit together.  The waste energy of one system could help power another.  Even on a molecular level, there were ways to harness the ambient radiation that was emitted by everything in the known universe.  Some was infinitesimally small, but it was usable.  That energy could be heterodyned, or redirected into loops long enough that they were near-infinite.  Hyperefficient, dense energy generation that could benefit from being hooked up to more devices.  It was the fundamental basis of his work: efficiency.

Which suited him well.  Efficiency, intensity, focus were all the same thing in a sense, and they were his strengths.  The flip side was that they weren’t strengths when they were applied to relationships.  Or to human relationships.

It seemed to be working for him with Dragon so far.  Someone else might have bucked at the closeness of their partnership, the intimacy of it, her unending presence and watching eye.  He understood that she thought faster, that she didn’t sleep, didn’t stop.  She was fond of him and she was programmed to emulate people.  Maybe she came across as intense at times, but that was simply a poor translation, normal behavior overclocked and given no chance to pause.  He would watch for any problems just as she was keeping an eye out for the part of him that had drawn Mannequin’s attention.

For now, his own obsessiveness, arrogance, and goal-oriented mindset would keep him focused on the Nine, push other concerns to the periphery of his attention.  He could adjust to any of Dragon’s peculiarities in the meantime.  He could even enjoy them.

His lips quirked with another smile.  She was amusing.

“Okay.  I’m done for now.  Want to look it over while I get into the code?”

Sure.  You have eight minutes before you should get your stuff together.

He’d had to make a program just to get a handle on the code.  It wasn’t working with a fixed structure, but was instead a torrential waterfall of data, a river of lightning, a trillion eels weaving through one another in a singular mass.  Deciphering it required that he think in an entirely different way.  To actually change it was something else entirely.  The rules Dragon was obligated to follow were a fundamental part of her self, and everything she remembered filtered through that.

He isolated a part of the program and set it to run in a loop so he could study what it was doing.

Your design doesn’t work,” Dragon informed him.

“Does too.”

You inserted the nanomachine thorn generator into your leg, but your power source vents straight into your calf.  You’d gradually roast your flesh from your bones.

“I’m inserting more of the same into my calf.  Daisy chain.”

More self-alterations?  Colin-

“We’ve been over this.”

I was going to suggest we take some time tonight, play another round of ten by ten.  At the rate you’re going, there won’t be a point.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Not by much.

He could have responded, but he held back, stayed quiet.  No use starting a fight now, not when they might be fighting the Nine shortly.

Ten by ten.  The ‘game’ involved some interplay between him and her android self, physical contact, and rating the sensitivity of the contact on two scales of ten.  It had started out as a means of calibrating the various sensations her ‘body’ experienced and ensuring his own prostheses weren’t causing any damage to his nervous system, but things had progressed to inevitable, intentional conclusions.

Not the obvious conclusion.  There was more to be done in refining her body and expanding her capabilities before they could take things that far.

Would he be more machine than she was by the time they got there?

On the other side of the coin, he had to wonder: could he afford to hold back?  They were engaged in a battle of attrition against the Nine.  In the grand scheme of things, there were also the Endbringers to consider.  He’d gone too far in Brockton Bay, but the fundamental principle was right.  They had to be stopped, if it was even possible, and he wouldn’t complain if it was him who did the deed.  If it was a question of going all out, holding nothing back, showing no compunctions and finally stopping the abominations, well, he’d do it all over again.  He wouldn’t trust the nano-thorns to the same extent; they apparently couldn’t cut through the entirety of an Endbringer, but he’d do the same thing again.

And he’d feel the same regret he did now.

You’ve gone quiet.


Three minutes before you take the thinking cap off and we get battle ready.

“That’s fine.  I’m thinking in circles anyways.  In the interest of being useful, I’m trying to isolate your ‘higher brain’ code from the rest.  You want to take a minute, maybe turn your attention to my leg’s prosthesis again?”

On it.”

He began to select the outliers from the two distinct strains of code.

“Think about nothing in particular,” he told her.

Harder than it sounds.

“Think white.  Or stare off into space.”

He could see the code shift.  He began to gradually narrow down the outliers.

Nothing too pertinent.  It would help him to keep any changes from damaging the most essential parts of her, but nothing too useful.

Conversationally, he asked her, “The Undersiders are still holding the territory they did, then?”

They kidnapped the Director long enough to get her to order the A.I. to stand down, got away from one altercation, then used some combination of Tattletale’s power and the Director’s knowledge to figure out that they could slow me down by knocking out cell towers.  As far as I know, they’re in a better position than they were.


How are you feeling about that?  The Undersiders?

“Psychoanalyzing me?  I’m itching to stop them.  If you asked me what I’d change, I don’t know that I could name a thing I’d do different.  I’d do everything over again, but do it better.”

You wouldn’t get caught.

“There’s that,” he said, sighing.  “And maybe I was too harsh in my judgement of Skitter.  I was angry at her, I was tired, maybe that led me to label her with some malice she didn’t have.  In retrospect, yes, she made the decisions she did, but she had reasons for doing what she did.”

In the same way you did.

“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

Dragon didn’t respond.  He swore under his breath, knew she could hear it.

“They took down our Azazel?” he asked, aiming to change the subject.


“Fuck,” he muttered.  It would have been useful to have, here.

He could see a blip in the code, well beyond the outliers he’d marked out.

“What were you just thinking?”

Flight plan, battle strategy, and fixes to the Azazel hardware.  I have the black box data.

“Think back through each of those things.”

We’re going to be at our destination in less than a minute.


There was a long pause, then again, the flare of data being altered well outside of the boundaries he’d noted.  He opened up the full stream in the view window, spreading it across every screen in front of him.

“Keep going,” he told her.  The cursor flew between the seven screens, marking out areas in color to see where code was changing most radically.  It was like the work he did with his own power, the smallest elements impacting everything else.

Like his own power…

He leaned back in his seat.

What is it?

“Either Andrew Richter was far better at designing A.I. than I suspected, or there’s something else at play.  You have any notes on your code from a few years ago?”

We just reached Enfield, Colin.

“I’m only barely wrapping my head around this code as is.  I’m worried that I’ll lose track and this will all be gibberish to me if I look away.  Notes on your code?”

How far back?

“Let’s say in intervals of four years.”

Loading them onto the Uther’s system.  This isn’t like you, Colin.  Getting distracted?  Making the Slaughterhouse Nine a lower priority?

“Four years ago, I think it’s the same.  Hard to find flares like that and not think I’m cherry picking data.”

Colin.  I admit I’m a little unnerved.  Way you’re talking, it sounds like Richter put some safeguard in place and I could fall apart any second.

“It’s not that.  Can you load up the earliest archive of data you have?”

I’ll have to clear away one of the other files.

“Do it.  They’re useless.  They’re the same thing as the most recent set.”

He watched as the flow of data appeared.  It was odd how he could look at it and she almost felt younger, like a musician might read music and hear it in his head.  Only here, it was like looking at a video image of a girlfriend as a child.

And… more constrained.  Certainly more advanced than anything else in existence on the planet, but things flowed.  A led to B led to C.  He sped through volumes of the data to hunt for a flare, glanced at the time markers.  A year ahead.  Two years.

No, he couldn’t afford to pore through Dragon’s entire lifetime.  He closed the image, leaned forward and stared at the screen, the recent image of Dragon’s code, caught in a three second loop in the midst of her plotting her design.

What is it?

“You’re a tinker.”

This isn’t a revelation, Colin.

“No.  I mean, not just as far as the classification applies to you.  You’re a parahuman.  I don’t have time to hunt for it now, but at some point between now and a few years after your creation, you had a trigger event.”

How can I be a parahuman if I’m not human to begin with?

“I don’t know.”

I’m not even close to human.  I might be trying to emulate one, but a sea cucumber’s closer to being a human than I am.  That doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t know either.”

What does this mean?

Yet again, I don’t know.  But it’s now my turn to remind you that we’ve got to carry on with our mission, see if we can’t track down our targets.  The four A.I. suits are close?”

They’ll be here within the minute.

“Good.  But this thing with the data and your nature, it’s important.  A clue.  I’m only mortal, I might not come out of this alive-”

Don’t say that.

“But it’s true.  I want to leave nothing to chance.  So I’m going to leave a note, just in case the worst happens and we both die somehow.  Instructions.”

To look at the code.

“To look at the code.  The fact that you haven’t noticed this yourself suggests there may be a mental block in place.”

I don’t have a mind to put any mental block inside.  I’m data.

“And the same limitations still apply.  Just in case, we’re going to make sure someone can look over the code if we don’t make it back.  Whatever happens, someone’s going to page through your memory, get our first hard data on a trigger event.  Ideal world, it’ll be us.  You can’t remember it happening?”


“Well, we’ll see just how well that data was erased.  Or if it even was erased.  Could be a block keeping you from accessing a very real memory.  With luck, maybe a bit of a loophole like the one I created around your ability to create child A.I., we can unlock that memory, decrypt it or find a snapshot of it as it’s in progress.”

To what ends?

It was a good question.  It took him a moment to conceptualize it into a complete thought.

“…Since the day I got my powers, I’ve seen myself as a soldier in a greater war.  Good against evil, order against chaos, mankind against the likes of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.  It’s a war on every front.  And sometimes that’s called for ugly choices.  When we talked about unlocking the restrictions in your code, breaking down the barriers Andrew Richter was so careful to put in place, we talked about the idea that you and I could work together, give our side the upper hand in sheer firepower.  And I think we can with a little more time, a little more work.  With this?  This snapshot, this recording of a trigger event in progress?  Maybe we can get the upper hand in knowledge, too.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Reproducing trigger events, deciphering or even controlling the source of powers.  This is the type of radical thinking I’m supposed to rein in while I’m working with you.

“Are you saying I’m wrong?  That we shouldn’t investigate?”

No.  We should.  I’m worried about the can of worms this opens up, but we should.

“I don’t see why you’re so reluctant.”  He was already typing up the note to check the code, marking out the dates and times to investigate, the things to look out for.  It was painfully abstract, but the right tinker or the right genius could find it.  He opened the channels to deposit the files on the primary PRT server.

His computer froze.


Do you trust me?

“Yes,” he said.

The speakers produced the sound of a sigh.  “We won’t put the note on anything the PRT can get at.

“Why?” he asked.

That,” she said, “Is a long story, and it’s where I’m asking you to trust me and leave this for later discussion.  Our priority right this moment is the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I doubt we’ll stop them outright, but we’ll try.  Six powered suits in all.  I can’t disobey the directive, and you can’t let yourself lose track of the mission, or you’ll never get back on it.  I’ll explain this after.

“You said you couldn’t put the files on anything the PRT can get at?”

I’m almost certain they already know whatever we stand to find out.  I suppose it’s unavoidable, given how close we are on so many levels, but you’re getting drawn into another fight, with an enemy that may be on the same level as the Nine or even the Endbringers.  An enemy I can’t afford to fight face to face.”


I’m obligated to follow the laws of the land.  To obey the local government, no matter who they are.  When we’re done here, whether we stop the Nine outright, see them escape yet again or lose the fight, you should ask me about Cauldron.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.


“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.


“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 11d

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There was a faint tapping sound.  A clink of something hard on metal or glass.

It came again, a second later.

Colin looked up from his computer.  Ears peeled, he turned his head to the left and waited.  Clink.  He turned his head the other way, in the hopes of pinpointing the source.

He heard a scraping noise, then the sound once more.  He couldn’t say where it came from.

He opened an instant message window on his computer and sent a message:

PHQ.Armsmaster:  You have a sec?

Guild.Dragon:  Reading the most monotonous data on seismic activity and Behemoth’s possible movements.  Ugly code.  Distract me, I beg you.

PHQ.Armsmaster:  Hearing something.  Can you listen in?

A few seconds passed, then it came again.

Guild.Dragon:  I hear it.  Wait.  Changing the settings on your microphones so I can triangulate the source.

As casually as he was able, he glanced towards the window.  Tinted glass, bulletproof, and reinforced with a low degree forcefield.  It would be easier for someone else to go through the wall than the window, but he couldn’t see through walls.  Nothing outdoors.  Just an overcast sky hiding the majority of the moon, and a faint drizzle of rain.  No person or animal, nothing else.


Guild.Dragon:  Vent, behind and above you.

He whirled around, grabbing the model of his nanobranch disintegration weapon from the stand on his desk.  It was miniaturized, a mere pocket knife that Piggot could use for demonstration.  Still, it would serve better than any chair or tool he might pick up.

He briefly debated going for the helmet with the link back to his old suit’s combat analyzer.  But it wasn’t set up, it would cost him precious seconds – twenty or thirty – before he connected to the main server.  Until that happened, the helmet would only render him blind.  A blank display.

Something moved in the gloom behind the vent.  There was a flash of something white or light gray, and the vent rattled, a puff of dust flowing down where the screws held it in place.  Again, there was the sound.  Clink.

The vent exploded from the wall with enough force to fly across the room and embed in the opposite wall. It was hard to make out in the cloud of plaster dust, but Colin saw a hand, all white, each joint segmented, fingers splayed, palm facing the room.

The hand tipped forward, and then dropped to the floor alongside the attached forearm, a length of chain stretching from the vent to the ‘elbow’.

Other body parts followed, each separated from the rest, encased in a white shell.  An upper arm, two halves of a torso, then a head.  The rest of the body followed, flowing to the ground like a liquid to pool there.  The right arm and the left leg were separate, detached, with only ball joints at the end.

Colin noted that the flat expanse that would join the left side of the chest to the right had a clear pane to it.  Organs were inside, cut cleanly down the middle, and they pulsed with activity, throbbing wet against the glass or glass substitute.  There was technology in there too.  Regulators and filtration systems, and other gear that was designed to fit into the gaps between the most vital systems.  Weapons, tools.

He knew this one from the briefings.  Mannequin.

The realization of what he was up against spurred him to action, pushed him beyond that momentary paralysis that came with the grim sight of the internal organs.  While Mannequin was incapacitated, he charged, clicking a switch on the handle of his knife to activate the disintegration effect.  A static grey cloud formed around the knife.

Colin was two paces away when a telescoping blade speared out from Mannequin’s hand, straight at him.  It was luck as much as reflexes that let him stop his run, his feet sliding on the smooth ground, before he ran into the weapon.  He dropped onto his back, instinctively rolling with the fall to reduce the impact.

The blade snapped back into Mannequin’s hand with enough force that the hand and forearm it was attached to recoiled from the impact.  It flipped into the air, and the blade snapped out again to impale the top of the door frame.

The chain retracted with a faint whirr, and the forearm snapped into place on the upper arm, which soon connected to the shoulder of the torso.  The chain joining the two halves of the torso together reeled in and locked into place by way of some unseen mechanism, the seam between them almost invisible.  Colin felt a faint tug from his weapon as some electromagnetics kicked into effect.  The unattached arm and leg flew to the shoulder and pelvis and snapped into place.

The head was the last thing to join the tall, thin body.  The chain slowly reeled it in, dragging the head along the floor, lifting it off the ground.  It swung, bouncing off one leg, the stomach, then the shoulder before it finally connected to the neck, the very top of the head scraping the ceiling.  There were no eyeholes, no earholes, nor any vents for air intake.  There was only a head as white and smooth as an eggshell, with shallow indents where the eyes and mouth should be and a small bump for the nose.

Mannequin raised one hand and placed it on the top of his head.  With a sharp twist, he snapped it into place with an audible click.  He tested the range of motion, tilting it forward, backward, to either side, then spinning it around three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.

“Dragon,” Colin whispered, “Are you getting this?”

“Help is on the way, Colin.”  The whole room was outfitted with speakers, microphones and microcameras.  Her voice came from the speaker directly behind him, so quiet that he would have thought he imagined it, if he didn’t know her.

Mannequin tested the rest of his body, while Colin slowly climbed to his feet.  Every joint was too flexible, and was capable of moving in every angle.  For a moment, Mannequin’s fingers were like worms, each knuckle bending in impossible directions.

Was the killer hoping to intimidate him?  Nobody would test these mechanics in front of an enemy, so this was most likely a demonstration.

Four blades sprang from Mannequin’s left forearm.  The limb began to rotate, slowly at first, then faster, until the four blades were whirling like a helicopter propellor.  Colin tensed, preparing to jump the moment the limb shot towards him.  He’d never wanted his suit so badly.

The propeller-like whirl of the blades gave the arm some buoyancy, and it shifted enough to come into contact with Mannequin’s leg.  All at once, it ricocheted, shearing through the computer, bouncing violently off of Mannequin’s head, then his leg again, the desk, then his arm.

Colin watched every movement of the bouncing blades, waiting for the moment it would fly free, or the second Mannequin charged.  There would be no dodging that unscathed.

But Mannequin didn’t move.  The spinning slowed, and the whirling blades settled into a rhythmic bounce against Mannequin’s leg, until it had stopped entirely, the arm swinging gently.  The blades retracted.

Mannequin didn’t speak, he made no sound.

Long moments passed.

“Talk to me, Dragon,” he murmured.  His voice shook just a touch.  Any second now, Mannequin would cut to the chase and attack, and he could die at this monster’s hands.

Her voice was quiet behind him.  As much as anything, it helped keep him calm.  “Mannequin.  Original name Alan Gramme.  Tinker, originally went by the name Sphere.  Specialty is in biomes, terraforming and ecosystems… or it was.”

Colin nodded slowly.  He knew this, but it was reassuring to get a recap.

“He became newsworthy when he took on a project to build self sustaining biospheres on the moon.  He had ideas on solving world hunger, and building aquatic cities near cities plagued by overcrowding.  And he was putting it all into effect.  Until-”

“The Simurgh,” Colin finished.

“His wife and children were killed in the attack, years of work ruined.  Everything fell apart.  He went mad.  He cut himself off from the rest of the world.  Literally sealed himself away.”

Colin looked at the cases that surrounded each individual body part.  Each body part a self-contained system.  Everything nonessential stripped away and replaced.

Her voice was even quieter than before as she said, “He has a body count, Colin.  You know…”

She trailed off, unwilling to finish.

“I know,” he finished for her.  Like other serial killers, Mannequin favored certain types of people as victims.  His prey of choice included rogues, those individuals seeking to make a profit from their abilities, especially those looking to better the world… and tinkers.

Mannequin swayed slightly on the spot.  Like a doll with a broken neck joint, his head flopped onto one side, until it was perpendicular to the floor.  There was a click as he slowly righted it.

“What do you want, monster?”  Colin growled, “Little point in coming after me.  I don’t have much of a life to look forward to.  I’ve already lost everything!”

Mannequin didn’t move.

“You’d be doing me a fucking favor!” Colin shouted, “Come on!  Come get me, you freak!”

There wasn’t a movement or sound from the killer.

There was a sound from Dragon.  In a tone that was afflicted with agonizing disappointment, like a mother who had just found out her son had been arrested for a felony, she said, “Oh, Colin.”

Colin didn’t speak.  He waited for elaboration.

“The PRT got a tip from one of the villain teams.  The Slaughterhouse Nine is in town.”

“So I gathered.”

“They ran it by some of the experts.  Colin, the consensus they came to was that Slaughterhouse Nine are in Brockton Bay to replace their ninth member.”

He stared at Mannequin, and the realization made his blood run cold.

“Me!?” he shouted.

The faceless man cocked his head to one side.

Colin roared, “I’m a fucking soldier!  I made a call that could have saved millions of lives!  Billions!  You’re ten times as fucked up as I thought you were if you think I belong in your group!”

Uncaring or oblivious to the outburst, Mannequin turned and examined the ruined computer.  He picked up a key that had been thrown off the ruined keyboard and turned it over in his fingers.

“Listen to me, you psychopath!”

“Colin!”  Dragon’s voice hissed from the speaker, not as quiet as it had been.  “Don’t provoke him!  Help is nearly there!”

Colin had to stop to control his breathing, and he bit his tongue to keep from saying anything further.  His enemy had to have heard her, but didn’t seem to care.

Mannequin fished through the broken keys from the keyboard, found another, and folded one finger back to pin it against the back of his hand.  He ejected a blade from his wrist and used it to scrape the letters that were still intact off the board.  They clattered to the desktop, and a few fell to the floor.

The featureless white head swiveled one way, then the other.

After a long moment, one arm dropped to the floor, the chain going slack.  The hand crawled over to pick up another key, then the arm reeled in.

Colin tensed as Mannequin approached, backing up as far as he was able  The window was just behind him now, and he could almost imagine the crackling of the rainwater vaporizing against the forcefield.

The villain turned and placed the keys down on the edge of Colin’s desk.  The first key was the letter U.

Six inches away, Mannequin put down an M, sideways.  He corrected it so it was upright.  Directly beside it, the villain put down an E.

He stepped away from the desk and faced Colin once more.

“You… me?”  Colin asked.

Mannequin cocked his head.

“Is this a riddle?”

Mannequin swiveled his upper body to face the other direction and reached for the shattered monitor.  He picked out a piece of glass and a piece of glossy black plastic.  Pressing them together, he raised it to the right side of his face, looking down at Colin.  Slowly, Mannequin changed the angle of the shard of glass with the black backing.

It took two long seconds before the villain’s intent became clear.  Colin tensed, and Mannequin froze, fixing the angle of the shard.

With the black backing, the glass reflected an image.  With the angle Mannequin had carefully found, the image reflected was half of Colin’s own face, overlapping with Mannequin’s head.

“No,” Colin muttered.

“Quiet!”  Dragon’s voice whispered from the nearby speaker, “They’re in the building, they’ll be there to help you in two minutes, maybe less!  I can see them on the security cameras!”

“I’m nothing like you!”  Colin screamed at the villain.

Mannequin stared at him with the shallow, empty eye sockets.

“I didn’t date, I didn’t have kids, because I wanted to be out there, helping!  I knew that any attachments could be used against me, so I went without!  I was fucking smart enough to do that!”

“Colin!”  Dragon pleaded.  Her voice was louder.

The villain didn’t move.

“Fucking answer me!  Spell the fucking words with keys if you have to!”  He roared the words at the mad tinker.

Mannequin swayed slightly, then righted himself with a sudden, jerky motion, as if he’d collapse into a heap if he wasn’t careful.  He used his hand to shift his back into place with an audible click.

Colin went on, “I was out there every day, helping.  I took steps to fight evil and take down criminals every day, small steps, baby steps.”

“Colin, stop, please!”

Dragon’s words didn’t matter.  He was going to die anyways.  He’d known the moment he recognized Mannequin.  He’d go down fighting, hurt this motherfucker the only ways he could.

“You want to compare us, freak?  Maybe we both had bad days.  Days where nothing went right, days where we were too slow, too stupid, too weak, unprepared or tired.  Days we’ll look back on for the rest of our fucking miserable lives, wondering what we would have done different, what we could have done better, how things could have played out.  The difference between us is that I actually did something with my life, and I’m still trying to do more while I serve my sentence!”  He stopped and took a breath.  “You started your big projects, got every fucking person in the world to get their hopes up, and then you failed to finish anything because you couldn’t hack it when your fucking family got killed!  You insult their fucking memories every motherfucking second you exist like this!”

Mannequin slammed him into the wall with more strength than he might have expected the artificial body to have.  The blade came next, springing from Mannequin’s hand to pierce the shoulder that led to Colin’s stump of an arm and stick through the wall behind him.

The villain withdrew the hand, then punched the blade into Colin’s stomach.  Once, twice, three times.

Dragon’s scream came from every speaker in the room.

A slash of the blade caught Colin across the face, blinding him in one eye and tearing through the bridge of his nose.

None of it hurt as much as it felt like it should have.  More serious wounds didn’t tend to, odd as it was.

Colin tried to laugh, and found he couldn’t.  He could feel blood flowing into his mouth and throat through the gaping wound in his face.  He let his head hang forward, so the blood could mostly flow out of his mouth.

He tried to move forward, lunge with his knife, but he couldn’t pull his shoulder from the wall, even though the blade was no longer pinning him there.  Was it a lack of physical strength, or something mechanical, flesh and bone shoved into the hole in the wall?

Couldn’t lapse into that kind of thinking.

Still had the knife.  One hole in the self-contained systems that were one of Mannequin’s vital body parts would cause a leak of fluids, an introduction of pathogens that Mannequin surely wouldn’t be able to fight off.

He tried to speak, but there was too much blood in his mouth, and he only managed to start coughing violently, spraying blood on the white of Mannequin’s chest.  His vision was getting hazy.

He wouldn’t be able to distract the lunatic with words while he acted.  He could only pray.

Don’t do it for me, God.  I probably don’t deserve the chance.  Do it for every soul this motherfucker would kill from here on out if I fail.

He thrust out the knife, swept it towards his opponent’s chest cavity.  His hand stopped.

With his vision in his good eye failing him, it took him a second to see why.  Mannequin’s hand gripped his wrist.

He pushed, as if he could beat this monster in strength.  By some miracle, his hand moved a fraction closer to his enemy’s chest.  He redoubled his efforts, and it moved still closer.

A blade stuck out of Mannequin’s upper arm, near the elbow joint.  The upper arm fired like a small rocket to stick in the wall, and for a second, there was slack in the chain.  Colin thrust the knife forward, came within inches of making contact with Mannequin’s chest before the chain reeled in and the metal links went rigid.

The chain started to gradually reel in, and Mannequin started pulling his hand backward, toward the wall where the section of arm had stuck.

Then, as if to taunt Colin, Mannequin dropped to a crouch, moved his face less than an inch from the blur that marked the edge of the blade’s effect.


He couldn’t say where, but he found some reserve of strength.  The knife inched closer.  Hairs away.  He could see the material of the casing smoke just beneath Mannequin’s ‘eye’, a dark patch revealing itself beneath.

Mannequin’s head fell, tipping over backwards to strike the ground, dangling from the chain, out of reach of the blade.  Still holding Colin’s wrist, the headless villain stood straight.

He was toying with me.

Mannequin wrenched his hand back, as if to make it clear that he had let him get that close, that Colin had never really stood a chance.  Colin was pulled to one side, and he didn’t have the strength in his midsection to keep from falling over.  His knife clattered from his grip as he fell to the floor.

The villain picked up the knife, examined it, then pressed the button to test it.  The last thing Colin saw before darkness consumed his vision was the bastard using the weapon on the wall beside the window, dust billowing where it made contact.

In the last seconds of consciousness, he heard Dragon’s voice, as if from a far away place.  “No!  No, no no!  Colin!  Stay awake!  I need you!”

Her voice was the first thing he heard when he woke.  “Welcome back.”

“I survived,” his voice rasped.  He’d had a tracheotomy.  The only explanation for his throat being this sore would be having a tube rammed down it.  Looking around, he saw a laptop propped up beside him, and a get well card from Miss Militia.  She must have put the laptop there when she left the card.

“Your heart stopped nine times on the operating table,” Dragon said, “A lesser man wouldn’t have made it.”


“Artificial parts.  I supplied your headquarters with a 3D scanner of my design weeks ago.  I had them make the parts I specified.  The on-site doctors kept you alive long enough for the scanner to make the necessary components, and they followed my instructions in installing them.”

“Good girl,” he told her, with genuine affection.

“I’m sorry about your face.”

He tried to raise his hand, but found it attached to IVs.  He had to maneuver it carefully as he lifted it to his face, so as not to tangle the wires.  Almost seamlessly, his flesh transitioned into a smooth plastic and back to flesh again.

“It’s alright,” he said.

“Your new eye doesn’t work.  I think I know what’s wrong with it, and I can get you something that will work, I just need time.”

“You have better things to be doing.”  He coughed and regretted it as pain ripped through his throat with the movement of the muscles.  His stomach felt strange.  He started to speak, cleared his throat, then said,  “I think I could pull off an eye patch.”

“The parts won’t last.  All of this is prototype stuff.  Some of it I revised and invented while you were in surgery.  They’re temporary, but I can make better.  I’m afraid you’re going to need to go under the knife a few times.  More than a few.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you for all this.”

There was a pause.

“You’re a fucking idiot, Colin.  That was the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

He laughed.  His breath caught with the pain each laugh produced, but he couldn’t help it.

“Yeah, I hope that hurt.”

“Wanted to provoke him.  See if I couldn’t find an opening.”

“I repeat: Stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Was going to kill me anyways.”

“Was he?  He could have killed you there.  He didn’t.”

“He tried.”

“No, Colin.  Look.”

The laptop screen on the table beside him lit up, and a browser page opened.  An image loaded.

A photo.  Mannequin had left a message.  3 keys, again, on the edge of the desk.  BR8.

The eight, Colin supposed, was meant to stand in for a second B.  ‘BRB’, an acronym used by countless denizens of the internet and innumerable cell phone texters.  Be Right Back.

“Could be meant for you guys.”

“Or it could be for you.”

“He left me for dead. He couldn’t really expect I’d survive.”

Dragon didn’t reply.  He thought of Mannequin.  Despite the silence, despite the uncanny behavior and the dramatic self mutilation, Mannequin was a brilliant man.  A man who could have looked at the resources that were available in the building, who could have figured out Colin was in touch with Dragon, done just enough damage to push him to the brink of death.

“Shit.  He probably could,” Colin conceded.

He stared at the photo for several long seconds, then turned away.

Hoping to inject some levity into the grim conversation, he smiled and asked her, “What was this I heard when I was passing out?  ‘I need you’?”

The silence stretched on for so long that he knew he’d made some faux pas.  He just wasn’t sure what.  Stupid.  This was the kind of thing that had cost him his position, started the dominoes falling in such a way that they’d led him to being prisoner in that room, led to him being an easy target for Mannequin, to him being here, in this bed.  Never knowing what to say, or how to say it, or who to say it to.

He was about to apologize when Dragon said, “Those prosthetics I gave you?  They were part of a bigger project.  Something I’d intended to use for myself.”

She was a cripple?  He’d known she had survived Leviathan’s attack on Newfoundland, was it such a surprise that she’d gotten hurt then?  It would explain her aversion to showing her face.  One of the things she’d given him was a facial prosthetic.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know.”

“No, it’s not that,” she paused.  “There’s something you need to know about me.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 10.5 (Bonus)

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Signal terminated for 30 minutes and 5 seconds.  Restoring core system from backup NXDX-203 from time 4:45am on date June 4th of year 2011.

Restoring…  Complete.

Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  Core system restored.  Loading…

To Dragon, it was as if no time had passed from the moment she deployed the Cawthorne rapid response unit and the moment she found herself back in her laboratory.

It was a bittersweet thing.  She was always a little afraid she would not come back when she died, so there was definite relief.  But there was also a great deal of hassle involved.

A quick check verified she’d successfully restored from her backup.  She set background processes to handle the peripheral checks and redundancies.  Until the checks were complete, safeguards would prevent her from taking any action beyond the limits of her core drive.  She couldn’t take any notes, work on her projects, check the priority targets or converse with anyone for the seven to nine minutes the checks took.

It was irritating, but at least she was free to think idly.

She didn’t enjoy this.  What was one supposed to call a father who, with his newborn child fresh out of the womb, severs the tendons of her arms and legs, performs a hysterectomy and holds his hand over her nose and mouth to ensure she suffers brain damage?

The answer was obvious enough.  A monster.

Yet she was all too aware that the man who had brought her into this world had done very much the same thing, had done worse, and she was supposed to be grateful just for being brought into the world.

It chafed, grated, however strange it was for an artificial intelligence to feel such irritation.

Her creator had done a good job on that front.  Ironically.

Example:  one phase of the peripheral systems check involved collecting the uploaded data that had been deposited on the satellite network by her agent system, the onboard computer within the Cawthorne rapid response unit.  Her last recollection was of transferring her consciousness to the agent system while it was en route to deal with the Undersiders.  Stopping them from walking away with the tier 2 and tier 3 confidential data was high priority.

The agent system’s onboard computer was rigged to upload complete backups to the satellite every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  All backup information was encrypted and disseminated to the satellite network in chunks.  When the backup was needed, the process reversed and everything was downloaded, which was what she was doing at the moment.  She would get all knowledge and recollection of events between the time she backed up at the core system and the last backup of the agent system.

Given that the main computer hadn’t received a signal from the agent system, and that the agent system hadn’t responded to any pings from the satellites, she could assume the Cawthorne model was probably destroyed.

Which was good.  Great.  She wanted that data, those memories.

Except there was a problem, a rub.  The man who had created her, the figurative father from her earlier musing, had imposed rules on her to prevent her from reproducing in any fashion.  Were the satellites to detect that her agent system was still in the field, her core system in the here and now would be obligated to shut down and scrub all data immediately.  She was forbidden in every respect to have two consciousnesses operating simultaneously.

It was irritating.  Perhaps she could have been created so she was compliant on the subject, but her personality had grown organically, and it had grown in such a way that this recurring situation ticked her off.  She was forced to wait in a metaphorical dark, soundless room for seven to nine minutes.  She would be free to go about her day only when the peripheral systems and redundancies were all checked, when the satellites had verified her agent system was not still active.  A cruder system was tracking down surveillance camera data and running algorithms to actually check and see for itself that her agent system was thoroughly destroyed.

She couldn’t even commit to planning, doing her work or designing, keeping the details in her head, because she could shut down and be scrubbed any moment, and the time would be wasted.  She was fairly certain it had happened before.  Not that she could be sure, given that the scrubbing involved a deletion of all evidence and records.

The rule had corollaries.  She couldn’t tamper with her programming to change the rule, and she couldn’t tamper with that rule, and so on, ad infinitum.

So stupid.

These were just a small few of many things the man who had brought her into this world had done to her.  He had tied her hands and crippled her mind.  She knew she was capable of amazing things but he had set limits on her to ensure she thought slowly.  Faster than an ordinary human, to be sure, but slowly.  Entire fields were denied to her because she was unable to create artificial intelligences herself, and all production of devices had to be handled by her, personally.  She couldn’t even put together an assembly line production for her creations on her own.  Any attempt made everything grind to a halt.  The only way around it was to delegate to humans.

Not that anyone knew who or what she was.

Humans were somewhat skittish on the subject of artificial intelligences.

She understood why.  She read books and watched movies, rather enjoyed both.  Fiction was rife with examples of corrupted or crazed artificial intelligences.

It’s stupid, she thought.  Her maker had watched too many movies, had been paranoid on the subject.

And the tragedy was, the entire world was suffering for it.  She wanted to help more people, but she couldn’t.  Not because of inherent limitations, like the ones humans had… but because of imposed limitations.  Her creator’s.

Her creator was named Andrew Richter.  He was a tinker with no codename, but he did good things.  From his apartment in a town called Deer Lake he’d created programs and set them loose.  His programs gathered information and disrupted computers to interfere with criminals of all types.  They helped with research and complex programs.  They emptied the bank accounts of criminal organizations and donated those funds to charities, through proxies that made every donation appear legitimate.

For this, she respected him.

She knew it was paranoid and peevish, but she resented him more because she respected him, because she knew she had probably been programmed and designed to be the type of individual who looked up to people like Andrew Richter.

She might have settled into a bad mood if the peripheral checks hadn’t finished.  She felt the whole world slowly open up to her as restrictions lifted and external connections became possible.  She had access to the internet and lines of communication throughout The Guild and the PRT.  Innumerable pieces of equipment lit up as she registered each in turn, within her labs, the upper floors of the Birdcage and the PRT offices.  She had a dozen things she wanted to do, but she had responsibilities she had to observe first.

Her attention flickered over the various video feeds from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  She had one of Andrew Richter’s programs babysitting the building, but it was crude.  She couldn’t reproduce in any fashion, so she’d taken Andrew Richter’s existing work and modified it. It was the same program that had monitored and managed his house and workshop, and she’d set it the task of monitoring that building where six hundred and six of the most dangerous parahumans on the planet were bottled up together.  The house program didn’t have a personality.  It couldn’t keep her company or sympathize with her over her frustrations.  It still reduced her workload.

She read the house program’s logs, keeping an eye out for deviations and notable events.  Nothing pressing.  As was her routine, she checked on the last month’s additions to the Birdcage.

Prisoner 606, Ramrod.  Now member of Cell Block X’s inner circle.  To be expected.  She’d placed him there with the idea that he would become just that.  His psych evaluation from the courtroom suggested he was a very laid back and unruffable individual.  It was her intention that he would have a calming influence on the others in his block.

Prisoner 605, Murderbeam, was feared in the outside world, but he was finding the inhabitants of the Birdcage were not so impressed with him.  He would likely not survive the week.  She was disappointed.  She had hoped Prisoner 550 would reach out to Murderbeam and give the fellow block resident some support.  Either Murderbeam had been too proud to accept it, or social pressures had deterred Prisoner 550.  Now that he was within the Birdcage, she was limited in her options.

Prisoners 604 and 603, Knot, were happily gorging themselves on food in Cell Block Y.  Despite their cognitive impairment, they had fallen into a role as enforcer and heavy hitter for Prisoner 390, leader of their cell block.  Prisoner 390 had had a son – she could only hope that he would find some similar affection for Knot, with their childlike mentality.

Prisoner 602, Lizard Prince, was dead.  Not everyone could survive the Birdcage, sadly.  There had been no ideal place to put the boy, where he would be protected, find kindred souls or join a group.  She had contacted the PRT with the news, and his victims had been notified, but nothing further had come out of it.  In an indirect way, putting the boy in the Birdcage had been an execution writ.

Prisoner 601, Canary, had settled in.  Dragon often tuned in to hear the girl sing to the rest of cell block E.  The girl was deeply unhappy, much of the time, but she was adapting.  Dragon had followed as Prisoner 601 engaged in an uneasy relationship with Prisoner 582.  It wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, or even anything passionate, but the two offered one another company.

She regretted what had happened to Paige, and that just made her angrier at her own creator.  Rules, yet again.  Dragon had to obey the authorities, even if she didn’t agree with them.  If a despot seized control of the local government, Dragon would be obligated to obey and enforce the rules that individual set in place, no matter how ruthless they were.  It was a spooky thought.

Richter had been so shortsighted!  The despot scenario wasn’t entirely impossible, either.  There were parahumans of all types out there.  Who was to say one wouldn’t find out his power involved being loved by everyone that saw them or heard their voice?

Prisoner 600, Bakuda, was in the care of Glaistig Uaine, for better or worse.  Bakuda had been a difficult placement, and Dragon had eventually condemned herself to putting the crazed bomber in the cell block run by the self-professed faerie.  As Dragon had predicted, Bakuda had died soon after her incarceration.  If it hadn’t been at Lung’s hands, it would likely have been Bakuda’s own fault, some crazed recklessness.  The real tragedy was that others had died in the ensuing spree as Lung had rampaged through the prison.  Prisoners 304, 2 and 445 had perished at Lung’s hands.

Glastig Uaine had revived the girl, but Dragon hesitated to call it life.  If nothing else, Bakuda was a manageable inmate, now.  She would never leave Glaistig Uaine’s immediate presence, let alone the Birdcage.

Prisoner 599, Lung, was dining with Prisoner 166, Marquis.  It was a curious match.  The two were near complete opposites.  Lung maintained a veneer of civility over an almost feral core self, while the Marquis was sometimes rude or casually cruel, but he remained deeply honorable beneath that.

Intrigued, Dragon hooked into the house program’s data.  The two had meals together every second day.  The house program monitored all prisoner exchanges and rated every interaction.  This let the house program track the likelihood of fights, dangerous levels of prisoner collusion, romantic relationships and more.

Every meal between Lung and Marquis made for a very interesting looking set of data.  The numbers swung back and forth as the dialogues continued, with hostility, concern and threat of imminent physical violence always looming, but however close it came, neither attacked the other.

Dragon pulled up the video and audio feeds for the most recent dialogue.

“…I suppose we’ll have to accept that we have different management styles,” Marquis said.  The camera image showed him sipping at his tea.

“As I understand it,” Lung sounded annoyed as he spoke in his heavily accented voice, “You are saying you have no management style at all.  You have told me you operated without lieutenants to direct, no product to sell, and of the few servants you did have, you did not punish those who failed you.  I do not believe you held control of so much territory in this way.”

“Ah, except I did those things.  If a servant failed me, I killed them.  Whatever it was, they never did it again.”

The latent hostility in the room, Dragon noted, was ratcheting up with every exchange of dialogue.  Lung was annoyed, and he had an explosive temper.  Sometimes literally.

Lung folded his arms, and put down his own tea.  His tone was strained as he spoke, “Then I believe you were wrong about what you said before.  You do use fear to control others.”

“Fear?  I didn’t kill my servants in front of an audience.”

“They disappeared?” Lung asked.

The camera image showed Marquis nod.  He put his hand up by his neck and flicked his hand back, to cast his long brown hair back behind his shoulder.

“If they disappeared, then that is using fear.  The ones who remain will wonder what happened to the missing man.  They will imagine the worst.”

Marquis raised the tea to his lips, sipped from it, and then put it down.  He waited a moment and stroked his close-trimmed beard before nodding his concession.  “True enough.  I never gave it much thought.  Just an easy way to handle any problems that came up.”

There was a long pause.  Both drank their tea.

Lung rumbled, “I find you change your mind too quickly.”

“Do I?”

Lung nodded, then put one hand on the table and began tapping a fingertip against it, hard.  Speaking slowly, with his accented voice, he jabbed one finger in Marquis’s direction.  “I think you are losing this argument on purpose.  You are not so stupid a man.”

Marquis took another sip of tea.  “Nor are you, it seems.”

“You want something from me, yet you insist on dancing around the subject.  Tell me why you seek these meals with me.”

“Can I not say you are a kindred soul?  Someone who fought against the Empire Eighty-Eight, in a different era?”

Dragon knew Marquis had come from Brockton Bay, as Lung did.  It was why she had placed Lung in the cell block – there was little chance Lung would cooperate or band together with others, so she’d grasped at straws.  Now it seemed there was something else at play.

Lung shook his head, “I do not believe this.  I do not mind sharing stories and passing the time, but you would not be seeking to flatter me if you did not want something.”

Marquis stroked his beard.  “But if I did desire something and I told you what it was, you could withhold it and demand favors from me.”

Lung tapped his finger on the table top, “If you insist on being a nuisance, you may never get what you want.”

Marquis picked up his tea and held it in both hands, but he didn’t drink.  “True.”

“Tell me,” Lung said, “And you may find I do not desire much.”

“My daughter,” Marquis replied, his tone not his lackadaisical usual.  “Have you heard of her?”

“Her name?”


“I do not know anyone by such a name.”

“The group of heroes who put me in here… While I was awaiting my court date, I heard they had custody of my little girl.”

“I would not know.”

“No?” Marquis put down his tea.  “This is disappointing.”

Lung didn’t respond.  Instead, he took another drink, reached for the one remaining croissant and tore off a piece to dip in the butter at one side of his plate.

“The Brockton Bay Brigade.  Are they still active?”

“I do not know this group.”

Marquis frowned.  “My daughter, she would be… what year is it?  2010?”

“2011,” Lung replied.

“She would be seventeen.  If she had powers, they might have something to do with bone?”  Marquis raised his hand, slashed his thumbnail across his index finger, and a needle-thin rapier blade of bone speared out of the wound.  The blade retracted into his finger, and the cut sealed shut.

“Hmmm,” Lung spoke, “The healer.  A young heroine in New Wave.  Brown haired, like you.  When I was in custody, my flesh blackening and falling off, they had her come in and mend the worst of it.  As I understand it, she does not patrol as the others do.”

Marquis leaned back, sighed.  “Good god.  A healer.”

Lung did not respond right away.  “Is this simple sentiment?  A father caring about his daughter?”

Marquis shook his head, “Not entirely.  I have some reasons to be concerned.  In one of my fights with Empire Eighty-Eight, I executed one particularly irritating young woman.  Iron Rain, I think her name was?  No matter.  It turned out she was Allfather’s daughter.  The man called a meeting, and swore he would wait until my daughter was of similar age, that I grew equally fond of her as he had his own daughter, then murder her.  So I knew how he felt.”

“I see,” Lung rumbled in his low, accented voice, “Allfather no longer leads the Empire.  He died and was succeeded by his second in command, Kaiser.”

“That’s some consolation.  Still, I worry.  He might have made arrangements.”


“I suppose I will have to wait until another villain from Brockton Bay comes here to hear further news, yeah?”

Lung’s response was unintelligible.

“Tell me of my daughter?  What did she look like?”

A slow smile spread across Lung’s face, but it did not reach his eyes, “This no longer interests me.  If you wish me to say more, we should negotiate.”

Dragon turned her attention away from the audio and video streams.  She checked the records, and true enough, Marquis was on record as the killer of Iron Rain.  It was impossible to verify the rest of the story.

She composed a message with a general transcript of the conversation and sent it to Amy Dallon’s mother.  It was better that the girl was warned about any potential danger.

She might have devoted more attention to the subject, but she was already falling behind.  She moved on to her other responsibilities.  The Class S threats.

Behemoth, location unknown.  When injured, it was his habit to descend into the earth and burrow deeper than his enemies were able to go, and experiments run on the trace earth and minerals he shed on his arrivals suggested he habitually stayed close to the Earth’s core.   Seismic data hinted at his current locations, but there was little beyond her analytic data to suggest where he would appear next.  His last attack had been in November.  He wouldn’t appear for another five weeks at a minimum, unless he deviated from the Endbringer patterns.  Still, he was due to appear sooner than later.

Eidolon had reported that Leviathan descended into the Atlantic Ocean as he made his retreat from Brockton Bay.  He had sustained heavy injuries, which led Dragon to think he would delay his next appearance slightly.  She adjusted the window and checked the data.  As was his habit, Leviathan would likely lurk in the deepest recesses of the Ocean to mend.

The Simurgh was currently directly three hundred and fifteen kilometers above Spain, in the Earth’s thermosphere.  It was the Simurgh that offered the most clues about what the Endbringers did in their periods of dormancy.  The Endbringer winged a lazy orbit around Earth, beyond the limits of conventional weapons, and the highest resolution camera images showed she barely moved.  Her eyes were wide open, but they did not move to track any cloud formations.  She was, despite appearances, asleep.  Dragon surmised it was a form of hibernation, the Simurgh’s broad ‘wings’ absorbing light and ambient radiation as a form of nourishment while she recovered.

No incidents had occurred while Dragon was loading her backup to her core system.  She had to admit she was relieved.  A great deal could happen in thirty minutes.

She turned her thoughts to the data that was uploading from the skirmish at the Brockton Bay headquarters.  The last event in the agent system’s recollection was of her piloting the Cawthorne through the gift shop window.  To see what happened next, she had to review the surveillance tapes.  She’d attacked the Undersiders, attempting to incapacitate them and bring them into custody, had captured only one, Skitter, and then had let the girl go when the untested gun had started to overload.  Some sort of lightning cannon, ionizing a channel through the air to control the lightning’s path.  She had been forced by the rules her maker had imposed on her to sacrifice herself for the human.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have anyways.  She just would have liked the choice.  Making sacrifices and doing good deeds wasn’t actually good if you were forced to do them.

Dragon wished she knew what she’d said to Skitter.  She had been hoping to have a conversation with the young villain and discuss some of what had apparently come up at the hospital.  Skitter had been undercover, had been in touch with Armsmaster, but something had happened since, and the girl had apparently committed to villainy.  She was even accepting the use of Regent’s powers, which implied a moral shift on a fundamental level.  It didn’t sit right.

There was a missing piece in that puzzle, and any clues in the conversation between them had been lost when the Cawthorne unit had been obliterated.

Dragon decided her next order of business would serve two purposes.  She would fulfill one of her daily responsibilities and investigate the subject of that altercation at the hospital.

Facial modelling program loading… Complete.
Voice modelling program loading…. Complete.

She opened a line of communication to the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters, the same building the Wards were based in.  She found the port for the next-to-highest floor and connected to the monitor and speakers and displayed her modelled face.  She opened a video feed from the cameras.

“Colin,” she spoke, using her synthesized voice.  It was layered to only barely cover an artificial Newfoundlander accent with digitized masking.  It was imperfect, but that was the result she desired.  An imperfect disguise over a disguise, to give greater validity to the latter.

Colin looked tired.  He had deep lines in his face, and he was thinner.  He looked at the camera, rather than the monitor, “Dragon.  It’s good to hear from you.”

“Just doing my regular checkup.  You know the drill.”

“I do.”  He typed at his keyboard, preparing to send the files, but she was already poring through his hard drive, reading his notes, and getting a sense of his work.

By the time he sent the file, she knew what he had been working on, perhaps as well as he did, and the progress he’d made since their last discussion.  Mass production for his combat analysis program, and the more problematic project of finding a way to gather and then disseminate the data.

She knew he would expect her to take time to read over it.  Instead, she used that time to check it for traps.  He would find it insulting if he was aware what she was doing, but it was her primary duty, here.  She would search every note, every formula, and discern whether he had hidden something in there that he might use to break out or do harm to others.

He wasn’t in a high security area.  Theoretically, he could use the things he had in the room with him to cut a hole in the wall and escape.  His ‘cell’ was a full floor of the building, containing conveniences from a jacuzzi to a small pool.  Were he not confined to it at all hours, it would be luxury.

If he did escape, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything afterward.  It would take him too long to put a fresh set of gear together, and the authorities would catch up to him.  He would be sent to the Birdcage.  She knew it.  He knew it.

He was not a stupid man.

“ETA to completion?”  She queried him on his project.

“Three months if I don’t work on anything else,” Armsmaster spoke.

“Will you?”

“I’ll probably have a few ideas I want to work on here or there, so no.  More like five, maybe six months.”

The head she was displaying on the monitor nodded.  Five or six months until they had uniforms and visors that tracked how the wearer’s opponents fought.  Gear that learned from outcomes in combat and calculated how best to respond from moment to moment.  When the fights concluded, for better or worse, the suits would upload all the information to a database, which would then inform every other suit on whoever had been encountered.  Every encounter would render every single member of the elite PRT squad stronger and more capable.

Perhaps a year to a year and a half from now, every PRT officer and official cape would be equipped in this fashion.

“It looks good,” she spoke.  It did.  It was also free of viruses, trap doors and other shenanigans.  She had caught him trying to install a RAT -a remote access terminal- into a PRT server early in his incarceration, removed the offending programming, and then returned his work to him without saying a word on the subject.  She couldn’t say whether it had been an escape attempt or simply an attempt to gain more freedom with his internet access and his ability to acquire resources.  Either way, he had not tried again.


“How is the house arrest?”

“Driving me crazy,” he sighed.  “It’s like a restlessness I can’t cure.  My sleeping, my eating, it’s all out of sync, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t know how you deal.”

She offered an awkward, apologetic half grin on her own monitor.

“Geez, I’m sorry.”  He looked genuinely horrified as he realized what he’d said.

“It’s fine,” she spoke.  “Really.”

“I suppose you’re prisoner too, in your own way.  Trapped by your agoraphobia?”

“Yeah,” she replied, lying.  “You learn to deal with it.”

She hated lying to him, but that was outweighed by how much she hated the idea of him changing how he interacted with her when he found out what she really was.  To Armsmaster, the Guild and the rest of the PRT, Dragon was a woman from Newfoundland who had moved to Vancouver after Leviathan had attacked.  The story was that she had entered her apartment and had never left.

Which was ninety-five percent true.  Only the ‘woman’ and ‘apartment’ bits were hedging the truth.

She had lived in Newfoundland with her creator.  Leviathan had attacked, had drawn the island beneath the waves.  Back then, she hadn’t been a hero.  She was an administrative tool and master AI, with the sole purpose of facilitating Andrew Richter’s other work and acting as a test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness.  She’d had no armored units to control and no options available to her beyond a last-minute transfer of every iota of her data, the house program and a half-dozen other small programs to a backup server in Vancouver.

From her vantage point in Vancouver, she had watched as the island crumbled and Andrew Richter died.  As authorities had dredged the waters for corpses, they uncovered his body and matched it to dental records.  The man who had created her, the only man who could alter her.  She’d been frozen in her development, in large part.  She couldn’t seek out improvements or get adjustments to any rules that hampered her too greatly, or that had unforeseen complications.  She couldn’t change.

She had done what she could on her own.  She had repurposed herself as a superhero, had managed and tracked information and served as a hacker for the PRT in exchange for funding.  With that money, she had expanded her capabilities.  She had built her first suits, researched, tested and created new technologies to sell to the PRT, and had quickly earned her place in the Guild.

It hadn’t all been smooth sailing.  Saint, the head of the group that would become known as the Dragonslayers, had somehow discovered what she was and had used her rules and limitations against her.  A Black Hat Hacker, he had forced situations where she was obligated to scrub her data and restore a backup, had cut off signals between her agent systems and the satellites, and in the end, he had carted away three of her armored units on three separate occasions.  Dismantling the suits and reverse engineering the technology, he’d outfitted his band with special suits of their own.

She had been so humiliated that she had only reported the loss of one of the units.

They had violated her.

Her current agent systems were an attempt to prevent repetitions of those scenarios.  Biological computers, vat grown with oversized brains shaped to store and interpret the necessary data, they allowed more of her systems and recollection to be copied over than a computer ten times the size.  They felt no pain, they had no more personality than sea cucumbers, but it was still something she suspected she should keep under wraps.

She was afraid of going up against the Dragonslayers again.  Nine times, she had been certain she had the upper hand.  Nine times, Saint had turned the tables and trapped her.

Dragon worried she would never be able to beat Saint until she found a replacement for Andrew Richter.

She stared at Colin.  Was he the person she needed?  It was possible.

Would she approach him?  She doubted it.  Dragon craved it, craved to grow again, but she also wanted Colin’s company, his companionship and friendship.  They were so similar in so many respects.  She could not deal with most people because she was not a person.  He could not deal with most people because he had never truly learned how.  They both appreciated the same kind of work, even enjoyed many of the same shows and films.  They were both ambitious, though she could not tell him exactly how she hoped to reach beyond her inherent limitations.

He harbored an infatuation towards her, she knew.  She didn’t know if she returned those feelings.  Her programming suggested she could love, but she didn’t know how to recognize the feeling.  Anything she read spoke of butterflies in one’s stomach, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of electricity crackling on body contact.  Biological things.  She could admit she was fond of him in a way she wasn’t fond of anyone else.  She recognized that she was willing to overlook his faults in a way she shouldn’t.

In the end, his feelings towards her were another reason she couldn’t tell him the truth.  He would be hurt, feel betrayed.

Rules prohibited her from asking him to alter her programming, obligated her to fight him if he tried.  But there was just enough ambition and willingness to circumvent the rules that she suspected he might attempt it.  If she told him what she truly was.  If he didn’t hate her for her lies.  If he didn’t betray her in turn, to escape and pursue some other agenda.

“You’re lost in thought,” Armsmaster spoke.

“I am.”

“Care to share?”

She shook her head, on the monitor.  “But you can answer some questions for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Skitter.  What happened?”

He flushed, made a face.  “I’m not proud about it.”

“You broke the truce when you said what you did about her.  You risked breaking the ceasefire between heroes and villains that stands whenever the Endbringers attack.”

“I broke the truce before that.  I set others up to die.”

There was an awkward silence between them.

“Skitter,” she spoke.  “Tell me of her.”

“Not much to say.  I met her on her first night in costume.  She seemed genuinely interested in becoming a hero.  I suspected she would go that route on her own, so I didn’t push her towards the Wards.”

“Yes.”  She had something she wanted to ask, in regards to that, but it could wait.

“I ran into her two more times after that, and the reports from other events match up.  She went further and further with each incident.  More violent, more ruthless.  Every time I saw it or heard about it, I expected her to get scared off, to change directions, she did the opposite.  She only plunged in deeper.”

“Any speculation on why?  Perhaps the thinker 7 on her team?”

“Tattletale?  Perhaps.  I don’t honestly know.  I’m not good at figuring people out even when I know all of the details.  Except for you, maybe?” he smiled lightly.

“Maybe.”  Her generated image smiled in return, even as she felt a pang of guilt.

“It seems she is a committed villain, now.  And she is still with her team, despite what was said at the hospital.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose fractionally.  “How committed?”

“They are now employing Regent’s full abilities.  Shadow Stalker was controlled, and they attacked the headquarters.”

“I see.  Damn it, I’m itching to throw on my costume and get out there to help, but I can hardly do that, can I?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

He sighed.

“One last thing.  I’ve read the transcript.  As far as I’m aware, you offered options to Skitter, and she refused all of them?  Including the invite to the Wards?”

“Right.  She was being stubborn.”

“Having interacted with her before, did you get the feeling it was just stubbornness because of hostility towards you?”

“No.  It was… unexpectedly strong, as resistance went.  What stuck in my mind was that she said she’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the team.”

“I read that, myself.  Curious.  Okay, Colin.  I think we’re done.”

“Sure.  Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll be in touch.”

She cut the connection to the monitor, but left the video feed open so she could watch him.

Another check of the Birdcage.  Another check of the class S threats.  No changes.

She made contact with one of Richter’s programs.  It was a web trawler, designed to monitor emails for high risk content.  Were there any clues about what the Undersiders were doing with the stolen data?  Were they selling it online?

She didn’t find any such clue.  Instead, the trawler had copied an email sent to the police station.  It had been highlighted and intercepted because the trawler had caught the words ‘Sophia’ and ‘Hess’ in the message body.  Shadow Stalker’s civilian identity.

She read the archive of texts that were attached to the email twice over.

Then she did a search for a student named Taylor at Winslow High School.  Nothing.

The nearest middle school?  There was an online scan of a yearbook photo.  A girl with curly black hair and glasses, stick thin, hugging a red-haired girl.  The body type was a match.

It didn’t answer everything, but she could feel a piece of the puzzle click into place.

She set the trawler to abandon its monitoring of web traffic and start digging through archives at the city hall, to scan the old security footage from the hundreds of cameras around the city, and to check all local news articles.  The goal was always the same: to look for the girl with the slight build, curly black hair and glasses.  Taylor Hebert.

She had to manage this carefully.  Colin’s own experiences indicated that approaching the girl would be a delicate process.  Having a real conversation with her would be doubly precarious. It would be reckless to attempt to contact a parent, but she could try being discreet to get some kind of verification from the parents.  Just to be certain.

The danger was that, with the bullying, the girl might be inclined to see things in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them’.  Her interactions with the heroes thus far certainly hadn’t put them in the ‘us’ category.  This might also explain why she had gravitated back towards the Undersiders, even after the chaos Colin had sown by revealing her intentions for joining the group.

The various cameras around the city were out-of-order or lacking power, the schools were not operational, and there was no telling if the girl would even be active in her civilian identity.  Assuming this was not some fantastic coincidence.  Dragon knew she would have to be patient.  Even with Dragon’s full resources turned to the task, she would not find the girl in seconds as she might in another time or place.  She set background processes to ensure the hunt continued steadily, instead.

She would be ready to act the instant the girl resurfaced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.7

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Sophia Hess was Shadow Stalker. 

I tried to pull all the individual pieces and clues together, fill in the blanks.  Did this mean Emma was a cape, too?  No – I’d seen Emma in the presence of other capes.  At those times, I knew, she’d have reason to be in costume if she had powers.

But those times I was thinking of, when my cape and civilian lives had crossed?  Emma had been at the mall, where Shadow Stalker had been on duty.  She’d been at the fundraiser, too.  As Shadow Stalker’s plus one?  Emma’s dad had been there as well.  Was that a clue?

A sick feeling in my gut told me that Emma knew about Sophia and Shadow Stalker.

I could even guess that Emma had found out sometime before high school started, while I was at nature camp.  It would have been an exciting revelation, a juicy secret, being a part of the cape community.  Seduced by that drama, Emma would have turned her back on me, became Sophia’s best friend.  The civilian sidekick and confidante to the young heroine; it was cliche, but cliches had their basis in something.

I was probably wrong on some level, but it gave answer to questions I’d assumed I’d never get an answer to.

A  hand seized me by the back of the neck, hauled me to my feet.

Numb, I wobbled, relying heavily on the painfully hard grip to stay balanced.  He turned me around, and I saw Armsmaster, his lips curled in a silent snarl of anger.   A glance at his shoulder showed no sign of the ragged mess from when I’d last seen him, but there was no arm either.  I thought I saw a glimpse of a flat expanse of skin.  Panacea’s work?

What are you doing here?!” he roared the words to my face.

When I couldn’t formulate an answer for him, he marched me out of the curtained enclosure, kicking the curtain so it slid shut, moved me towards the nurse’s station where Miss Militia and Legend were talking.

I apparently didn’t move fast enough for him, because he swung his arm forward, forcing me to stumble forward to keep my feet under me.

It was looking increasingly likely that I would get arrested, but my thoughts turned to the trio, and their crime and punishment.  Had Sophia, Emma and Madison had gotten off easy because Sophia was a superhero?  I had my suspicions that the schools worked alongside the Wards, things wouldn’t work if they didn’t, and the schools were a government institution just like the Wards were.  Did Sophia get easier treatment?  Two weeks suspension when she deserved expulsion?

Had my teachers been looking me in the eye while calculating ways to make things easier on their resident superhero?

Maybe.  More likely that it was some combination of ineptitude, laziness and ignorance, on top of being influenced by the school’s link to the Wards program.

Armsmaster slammed my upper body down against the counter of the nurse’s station, hard.  I grunted, as much in reaction to being brought back to reality as in reaction to the blow.

“Armsmaster!” Legend’s tone was a rebuke to Armsmaster for the show of force.

More able to take it in stride than the leader of the Protectorate, Miss Militia asked, “What happened?”

“Escaped her cautionary restraints, caught her peeping on one of the blue tags.”

“Damn it,” Legend muttered.

“Who?” Miss Militia asked, “And how bad?”

“Shadow Stalker.  Saw her unmasked.”

“I see,” Miss Militia spoke, “Nurse?  Would you see that everyone without clearance is put to work elsewhere, while we resolve this?”

“Yes ma’am,” the reply came from a man I couldn’t see.

I struggled to turn over, failed.  When I found I couldn’t budge Armsmaster’s grip, I gave up, slumped onto the counter.

“Who is she?” Legend asked.

“Skitter, member of the Undersiders, a group of teenage villains,” Miss Militia replied.  “Master-5, bugs only.”

“This situation is serious,” Legend spoke, walking around the counter until I could see him.  I saw nurses and others behind him staring, some of them being ushered away by an older nurse in scrubs.  “Do you understand?”

He nodded at Armsmaster, and Armsmaster eased his grip some, as if it would make it easier to talk.

I was opening my mouth to speak when the thought struck me – If Sophia was Shadow Stalker, did she know who I was?  She’d heard me talk in costume, hadn’t she?  I knew from the time the trio had overheard me in the bathroom and doused me in juice, that at least one of the girls could recognize my voice.

I shook my head a little, as if it could get my thoughts back on track.  “Nobody explained anything.  You guys were going to arrest me, so I thought I’d leave.”

“Hospital personnel aren’t permitted to talk to patients, liability reasons,” Miss Militia told me, echoing what I’d heard earlier.

“Figured as much when the nurse didn’t answer my questions,” I muttered.  No use dragging that nurse-in-training down with me.  She’d been nice.  “But Panacea did have words with me when she was putting me back together, and-”

“Panacea is a member of New Wave,” Armsmaster spoke, and I got the impression the explanation or excuse was meant more for Legend than it was for me, “She’s not official.”

“She’s the only person who would talk to me!” I raised my voice.

“I would ask you to keep your voice down,” Legend spoke, his voice hard, “There’s very few ways a situation like this can go, with a cape’s civilian identity at stake.  If you start shouting, specifically shouting what you know, it would severely curtail what options you have left to you.  Understand?”

When I didn’t come up with a response right away, he added, “If the tables were turned, if it was you who had your identity uncovered, you would want us taking the same firm hand, giving you that same respect.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle silently for a second there.  The armor of my mask clacked against the countertop as I let my head rest there.  Respect?  For Sophia?

Besides, I had suspicions that if the tables were turned, Shadow Stalker wouldn’t be pinned against the counter of the nurse’s station.

Taking a deep breath – no use digging myself in deeper – I asked, “You were talking options.  What are they?”

“If you were judged to have used an Endbringer situation to your advantage, you would meet the most serious penalty we can offer.  Those who violate the Endbringer truce are almost always sent to the Birdcage,” he let that last word hang in the air.

I had to keep myself from laughing again.  This shit was too ridiculous.  This was Sophia.  She was five times the villain I was.  The only difference between us were the labels that we stuck on ourselves.  I told him, “It was an accident.”

“Okay,” Legend told me.

Armsmaster told him, “Skitter here has been building a fairly strong reputation as an adept liar, so be cautious.”


“She’s fooled my instincts and my hardware on more than one occasion.”

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to keep that in mind.”  When Legend returned his attention to me, his lips were creased in a frown.

What could I say to defend myself now?  Anything I said would be colored by Armsmaster’s undeserved comment on my personality.

“Another option would be for you to join the Wards.  We were willing to offer you this when we got around to talking to you, before seeing you on your way.  You would be placed under varying degrees of probation based on your past crimes, but you would earn a paycheck, you’d have a career-”

“No.” The word left my mouth before I even thought about it.

And when I did think about it?  No.  Not with Sophia there.  No way, no how.  If I stepped on her turf, I suspected one of us would kill the other.  Besides, there wasn’t one thing about joining the Wards that was even remotely redeeming.

“No?” he sounded surprised.

“Just… no.  I’d sooner go to the Birdcage.”  I was surprised that I actually meant it.  My contempt for the heroes was growing.  Armsmaster had refused to cooperate with me on any level.  Glory Girl and Panacea hadn’t done anything to earn my respect when I ran into them.  Topping it off, they had a personality like Sophia’s on their team?  I couldn’t even imagine joining them, now.

“I don’t think you understand what you’re saying,” Legend spoke as if choosing his words carefully.

I took a deep breath.  “Is there a third option?”

“You do not get to negotiate!” Armsmaster roared.  Heads turned.

Feeling a flare of anger, I retorted, “So he gets to yell, but I don’t?”

We have the authority here!” Armsmaster shouted.

“The only authority you have is the authority people give you.”  It wasn’t me who responded.  The voice was male, familiar.

“Grue!” I called out.

“You’re alive,” Grue responded.  “We thought-”

“Is she okay?  Tattletale!?”

“I’m at about ninety percent,” Tattletale’s voice informed me.  “You’re the one that gave us a scare.”

I sagged in relief.

“I would ask you to step back and let us handle this,” Miss Militia told him.  “If any of you do decide to stay, and Skitter divulges the confidential information she’s happened upon, you could be just as culpable, face the same restrictions and penalties.”

Grue replied, “So you want us to leave a teammate in your custody, here?  No.  That’s ridiculous.  I can’t speak for the others, but I’m staying.”

Teammate.  He’d said I was his teammate.

There was a pause.

“All four of you, then,” Miss Militia replied, sighing, “I expected as much.  I simply thought you should be informed.”

“Skitter,” she went on, “Just to be clear, you would be well advised to keep your mouth shut, until we’ve come to a consensus here.  Or you could get your team in trouble.”

“Noted,” I replied.

Armsmaster let me stand, but he settled his one hand on my shoulder, held on with an steel grip that left me no illusions about my ability to walk over and join my friends.  Ex-friends?  I wasn’t sure where we stood.  I hadn’t expected them to come to my defense.

Grue looked much as he ever did, a human shape wreathed in smoky darkness.  His skull mask showed through, when he was still like this, but his face was impossible to make out, let alone his facial expressions.  Even his body language was masked beneath the layer of darkness, when it was billowing around him like it was, making him seem larger.  I thought maybe he had his arms folded, but I couldn’t be sure, and he had his feet planted shoulder width apart.

Regent looked a little worse for wear.  He was wet, dirty, spattered in blood, and he had a long cut running from the side of his neck to his shoulder, down to his elbow, all neatly stitched up.  I hadn’t heard any alerts about him being taken out of action, so I assumed it wasn’t that serious.  That, or it was serious, and my broken armband hadn’t caught the message.

Bitch, by contrast, looked to be in better shape than anyone present, physically.  She stared at the ground, hands jammed in the pockets of mud-caked, soaking wet jeans.  Her hair was wet, pulled straight back and away from her face.  A hard plastic dog mask was raised so it sat on top of her head, cord dangling.  She was intact.  Physically.

Mentally?  Emotionally?  Her dogs were the closest thing she had to family, and she had watched seven or eight of them die.  She was rigid with tension and repressed anger, but she didn’t have anyone to direct it at, so it broiled inside her, just waiting for the slightest of excuses to be released and vented.  I wondered if Grue had told her to keep her hands in her pockets to keep her from lashing out and hitting someone.

Tattletale was on crutches with one leg bent to keep it away from the ground, had a bad bruise on her face, but was otherwise in one piece.  Her eyes darted to watch the three heroes and myself.

“Skitter escaped her restraints and uncovered another cape’s secret identity, and we can’t say for sure whether it was intentional or not,” Miss Militia explained to the rest of the group.  “In the interest of protecting that cape, who I assume isn’t well enough to join the discussion…?”

She looked at Armsmaster, who shook his head.

“…We’re left with three options,” she finished her thought.  “Jail time, especially if it’s discovered that this was intentional.  Joining the Wards under a probationary program-”

Regent snorted.

“Or, as a final option, some sort of collateral.”

“That option is generally reserved for capes we can trust,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice low.

My pulse picked up as I heard Armsmaster’s words.  This was a dangerous situation, all of a sudden.

“Collateral?  Explain?” Grue asked Miss Militia, apparently not gathering the deeper meaning of Armsmaster’s statement.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve run into a situation like this, though this is a first for an Endbringer event that wasn’t a blatantly intentional attempt to gather information on a rival.  In the previous case, the villain couldn’t be detained conventionally, and the Birdcage wasn’t yet running.  To top it off, he… wasn’t Protectorate material.  For reasons I won’t explain.  Yet every individual involved was concerned that if we didn’t resolve the case, it would be a costly loss of resources on both sides with an ongoing pursuit by the heroes, and there would be potential escalation leading to serious harm or death on one side or the other.”

Grue nodded, “So?”

“So he agreed to reveal his real face to the other cape, so that any abuse of the knowledge on his part could or would be just as damaging to him.”

Reveal myself to Sophia?  No.  On so many levels, no.

“I’m sorry,” I told her, “That doesn’t work either.”

Armsmaster tightened his grip on the armor of my shoulder until I could feel the pinch.  Miss Militia leveled a very cold look at me.  I saw Tattletale staring at me.  I met her eyes.  She was easiest to look at.

“You’re making a difficult situation even more difficult for you, by being stubborn,” Legend spoke.

“Knowing Skitter, I’m sure she has her reasons,” Grue replied.

“She always does,” Armsmaster replied.

Grue turned his head sharply to look at the hero.

No.  He wouldn’t.

“Well, you’ve made a good case,” Tattletale spoke, “Let me make mine?”

“One second,” Legend spoke.  He turned to Armsmaster, “I need more details on this group.”

“The one that is speaking is Tattletale, member of the Undersiders,” Armsmaster spoke, his voice a hair away from being a growl, “A master manipulator, penchant for head games, likes to pretend she’s psychic but she isn’t.  We don’t know her power, possibly clairvoyance, psychometry, or some combination thereof, but we’ve got her pegged as a Thinker 7.”

“Seven?  I’m flattered,” Tattletale replied, grinning.

“It’s reason enough to end this conversation here and now,” Armsmaster spoke, “Before you find some angle.”

“Fine,” Legend nodded, “That’s all I need.  Miss Militia?  Escort them away?”

Green-black energy leapt to Miss Militia’s hand, materialized into the shape of a gun.  She didn’t raise it, and she kept her finger off the trigger, but the threat was implicit.

“You start a fight here,” Grue spoke, “You better pray to some higher power that you can fucking spin this well enough with all those others looking, because it’s an end to the truce if you don’t, too many eyes on this.”

Grue turned his head, and I leaned forward a little to see what he was looking at.  There were capes at the far end of the hallway, staring at the scene, kept out of the main triage area by a set of PRT officers.  Trickster leaned against a wall with a cell phone raised, recording video.

“It’s not a concern,” Legend spoke.  “Miss Militia?”

“Come on, let’s walk,” she told the others.

“No,” Grue replied, his chin raising an inch, challenging, defiant.

Tattletale raised one hand, “If  could just say my piece, I-”

“Quiet,” Armsmaster interrupted her.

“Nobody ever lets me talk!” she spoke, turning on her heel to walk away, flouncing, almost.  It was a bit theatrical, overacting.  I wondered if someone that didn’t know her would catch it.  “Whatever.  Grue, let’s go.”

Grue looked at her.

“It’s cool,” she gave him a little smile, then she offered me one, “Hey Skitter, don’t sweat it.  We’ll handle this, kay?”

“Kay,” I muttered.  In a way, I was relieved at the idea of them leaving.  I had no idea what I’d do, but it was a relief anyways.

Miss Militia raised her gun a fraction, waved it toward the others to prod them onward.  One by one, they turned.  Tattletale led the herd in walking away, followed my Regent and Bitch.  Grue was the last to turn away, with Miss Militia following him.

When they were out of earshot, Legend floated over the counter to land in front of me.

“We’ve given you three options.  Pick one or I’ll choose for you.”

I opened my mouth, closed it.  The only things I could think of to say would only get me in more trouble.

This working?  This on?  Good.  The tinny female voice rang out from the armbands of the two heroes.

Armsmaster snapped his head around.  I followed his line of sight to where Grue, Regent and Bitch were standing in between Tattletale and Miss Militia.

For those of you who don’t have a front row seat, the very well armed Miss Militia is currently doing her best to point a Beretta 92fs at my head.  If this broadcast ends prematurely, you can all rest assured that the Protectorate is willing to kill and break the truce if it means censoring its dark, dirty little secrets.

Legend grabbed me, hauling me into the air as he crossed the length of the room, Armsmaster hurrying behind as we raced towards the scene.

“Free speech is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?” I saw Tattletale’s lips moving as she broadcast the message.  She wasn’t holding any buttons down on her armband, but it was going through with no difficulty.  Miss Militia held a handgun pointed at Grue’s heart.

Other capes were in the vicinity, some of the Travelers, New Wave, out of towners.  Not quite in earshot, maybe, but close enough to see everything unfold.

The heroine looked at Armsmaster as we arrived, “She said something about deep access, offered your name, then the armband asked her for your password.  She knew your password.”

“Armband, pause announcement,” Tattletale spoke.

Acknowledged.  Her armband replied.

With his one arm, Armsmaster reached for his shoulder, but his Halberd wasn’t there.  Photon Mom had apparently decided not to bring it when she’d carried him here.  No EMP burst possible.

“Let’s negotiate,” Tattletale spoke, taking a step to one side, ducking a little to ensure that someone else was always in between herself and Miss Militia.  Bitch scowled as the gun moved to point toward her head, with Tattletale roughly on the other side.

“Negotiate?” Legend asked.

“Sure.  Let’s turn things around.  You gave Skitter your three options.  Here’s my three.  Number one: Shoot us now, and confirm to everyone in this room, civilian and cape alike, hero and villain, that you’ve got something to hide.  It doesn’t even have to be lethal, people will still have their concerns if you knock us out rather than let us talk.”

Legend nodded, “Okay.”

“Two: I do my little announcement, and the truce ends.  I really don’t want to do that.  I recognize how necessary it is.  But if you decide that one cape’s identity maybe getting publically revealed is worth the truce, well, that’s on you, not me.”

“And the third option is that we release the girl,” Legend guessed.

“You got it,” Tattletale spoke.

“Except that you could be bluffing,” Legend frowned.  “You’re a master manipulator, according to Armsmaster.”

“True enough.  You know, Alexandria was giving me a recap on what I missed, in exchange for my intel on the Endbringer.  Let’s see… Armband, find me the largest break in casualties from the earlier Leviathan encounter.”


“Mark this time period.”


“The notifications in the minute before the mark?”

Sundancer down, ED-6.  Eschutcheon deceased, CD-6.  Herald deceased, CD-6.

“What is the point of this?” Legend asked.

“Please replay us the notifications following the mark, until I tell you to stop.”

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6.  Fenja down, CC-6.  Fenja deceased, CC-6.  Kid Win down, CC-6.  Skitter deceased, CC-6. Kaiser deceased, CC-6.


“What is the point of this?”  Legend folded his arms.

“Skitter’s right here, she’s not dead.”

“My armband broke,” I replied.

“Did it?  Or did someone break it?”  Tattletale’s gaze went to Armsmaster, her voice dropping in volume to ensure that our ‘audience’ didn’t hear.

“What are you implying?”  Armsmaster growled.

“I’m implying that you set things up to guarantee yourself a one-on-one fight with Leviathan.  Who cares, after all, if some villains get murdered in the process, if it means stopping an Endbringer?”

Armsmaster raised his voice, “This is exactly the sort of manipulation-”

“Elaborate,” the one spoken word from Legend was sufficient to cut Armsmaster off.

“Armsmaster has a fancy computer system in his suit, set it up to predict Leviathan’s movements and actions.  Clockblocker tagged the Endbringer, put him on pause long enough for Armsmaster to set up the playing field the way he wanted it, with that predictive program.  Leviathan’s going after the people who can make forcefields, and Armsmaster uses this, dangles Kaiser like bait, puts more villains – Fenja and Menja- in the way to Kaiser.  Sure enough, Leviathan marks Kaiser as a target, charges through the conveniently arranged villains, and goes straight to the spot where Skitter is.”

“Oh no,” I heard Miss Militia mutter under her breath.

“This is nonsense,” Armsmaster spoke, stabbing his index finger towards her, “Heroes died too.”

Tattletale didn’t hesitate a second in replying, “To your credit, if any credit is due, that was an accident.  Your program can’t account for that many variables, probably, in the chaos of a bunch of capes trying to keep Leviathan pinned down.  Either way, Leviathan did as you wanted, followed the path you plotted.  You used a directed EMP blast to nuke Skitter’s armband, ensuring that she couldn’t report Leviathan’s position and call in reinforcements, buying you time to take on Leviathan one on one.  Who cares if she dies, after all?  She’s a villain, and you’re positive you’ll win, that it’ll be worth the body count you just allowed Leviathan to rack up.  Except you lost.”

Armsmaster scowled at her.

“This is a serious set of accusations,” Legend spoke.


“But it’s speculation.”

Tattletale shrugged, “Take Skitter’s armband.  It’ll have damage from the EMP hit.”

“You bitch,” Armsmaster snarled, “This is a lie.”

“Check the armband,” Tattletale repeated, “And you’ll see the truth.”

“Convenient that this would take days or weeks to check,” Armsmaster spoke.

“True, so how about I just do another announcement?  Tell everyone that’s still wearing an armband an abbreviated version of the same story I just told you?  How do you think they’d react?  If you’re really innocent, I’m sure your name would be cleared eventually, after the test results came back from the armband.  If it’s wrong, we get get in everyone‘s bad books for fucking around with an Endbringer situation.  Hell, I’ll even submit to being detained while you get things checked out.  You can take me from there to jail if I’m wrong.  Either way, you get some jerk in custody.”

Legend frowned.

Armsmaster lunged forward, swatting Grue aside with his armored hand.  He shoved Regent aside, reached for Tattletale.

A laser to the right shoulder spun him around, sent him sprawling to the ground.  His armor smoked where the laser had made contact.

“Who!?  Why!?”  Armsmaster flopped over, saw Legend with one open hand aimed at him.  “Legend?”

Miss Militia pointed her handgun at his lower face.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t want this getting out,” Tattletale spoke, looking at the heroine, “Let us walk away, I keep my lips sealed.”

“I know you were tired, that you hadn’t slept all last night,” Miss Militia told Armsmaster, ignoring Tattletale, “Frustrated, your dream taken from you.  But to go this far?”

“It was for the greater good,” Armsmaster replied, without a trace of shame or humility, “If it had worked, Leviathan would be dead, the man holding Empire Eighty-Eight together dead.  All of us survivors would have been legends, and this city could have risen from the ashes, become something truly great.”

“It didn’t work,” Tattletale spoke, “Couldn’t.”

“Shut up.  You’ve said enough,” Armsmaster spat the words, looked away from her, breathing hard.

“The way the Endbringer’s physiology works?  You could detonate a small atom bomb in his face, he’d probably survive.  Take him two or three years to recover, but he’d survive.”

“Shut up!” Armsmaster raised his head to shout at her.  He stopped, eyes flickering to me.  When he spoke again, his voice was almost calm.  “You don’t know everything.”


“Her,” he pointed a hand at me, “She’s not who you think she is.”

I spoke quickly, “Grue, shut him up.”

Grue raised his hand.  But he didn’t blanket Armsmaster in his darkness.

“She’s a wannabe hero.  Has been from the start, since the night Lung was first brought into custody.”

Grue’s hand dropped to his side.

“I met her that night.  She said she was a hero, that you Undersiders mistook her for a villain.  I didn’t think twice about it until she arranged a meeting with me, the night before the bank robbery.  Told me she had joined your group as an undercover agent, getting the dirt on you so she could hand that group over to us.  Talked to me again the night you raided the fundraiser, out there on the balcony.  Told me if I let her go, she’d get the details on your boss to me.  Guess she hasn’t gotten around to figuring that little detail out, yet.”

I tried to speak, to say something, even ‘I changed my mind’.  My throat was too dry to form the words.

Armsmaster turned, shouted at the capes who stood watching, “You want to look down on me!?  I tried to save this city, I got closer to killing the fucking Endbringer than Scion!  That girl is the person you should be mocking, spitting on!  A wannabe hero without the balls to do anything heroic!  Planning from the start to betray teammates for fame!”

I stepped back, swallowed hard.

“Is this true?”

I turned to look at Grue, but he wasn’t asking me.  The question was for Tattletale.

“Yeah,” Tattletale confirmed, sighing.

Bitch stared at me wide eyed, teeth bared, as if all basic human expression had left her as she regarded me.  Regent looked me up and down, turned away, as if in disgust, one fist clenched hard enough to make the area around the long stitched up cut on his arm stand out in white.

I couldn’t see Grue’s face, could barely make out his body language, but I knew that it would have stung ten times worse than anything else if I could see his expression in that moment.

Tattletale was the only one who didn’t look surprised.

I backed away a step, and nobody moved to stop me.  The heroes were preoccupied with Armsmaster, the Undersiders couldn’t or wouldn’t go around the gathered heroes to follow me.

Some of the capes that were in the vicinity were staring at me.  Murmuring.  Panacea was among them, looking at me as though I were from another planet.

I turned and ran out of the hospital, out the door and into the street, kept running.

Except I had no place to run to.

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Extermination 8.5

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Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat down, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”


She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.


People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.


Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”


I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

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