Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

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Queen 18.5

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The television screen went dark.

Transmission over.  Damage done.

“Well,” Tattletale said, “Funny thing is, that was only the second worst thing she could have done to screw us over.”

“That so?” asked one male cape I couldn’t identify.

“Oh yeah.  I was worried she’d disappear for a few days or weeks, leave us to go looking for help.  Then we’d look crazy when she didn’t show, and whatever concessions we’d made to get you on board would cost us… like how you have us in custody right now.  Either she’s not as smart as Ballistic implied, or she’s feeling some kind of pressure.  I’d lay odds she’s losing the inner struggle for self-control.”

Someone slammed his hands down on the end of the table, interrupting her.  I sent bugs in that direction to identify the speaker.  “Does it fucking matter?”

My bugs traced his armor.  Assault.

“It matters,” Miss Militia said.

“This monster killed one of the good guys.  One of our best.  We let it slide when the Undersiders took Shadow Stalker.  We accepted it when the Nine got to Glory Girl and Panacea.  When they killed Battery.  We let the Undersiders take the Director, and they may have taken the man who’s replacing her.  Are we really going to ignore the most obvious option here?”

“You’re saying you want to turn the Undersiders in.”

“They broke the code.  They’ll break it again.”

“And now we’re effectively on trial,” Tattletale said, “When we should be hunting her down.”

“Which may be exactly what she wanted,” Grue added.

“You may be giving her too much credit,” someone said.  I was having trouble keeping track of who was talking.  There were too many people in the room, and gathering more bugs would potentially give someone cause to think I was massing a swarm in anticipation of a fight.

Not to say I wasn’t.  I’d been collecting a swarm, hiding them in shadows and beneath cars.  I drew them closer to the building, as surreptitiously as possible.

It was strange, to have more awareness of the world beyond the local PRT headquarters than I had of the room I was currently in.

“Did you miss the part where there were six Vistas?”  Tattletale asked.  “She’s a pain to deal with, trust me.  If anything, you’re underestimating Noelle.”

“I’m forced to agree.  Let’s not underestimate any opponent,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m going to put in my recommendation right here, with full knowledge that there are several people present who outrank me, and I will extend my full cooperation if they should decide on a different route.  I think we should put old issues aside and accept any assistance the Undersiders are willing to offer.  With what happened with Vista, it’s all too apparent how this situation could get out of control, with each of us fighting friends.”

She paused, and nobody cut in.

Miss Militia continued, “We treat this situation as we would an Endbringer attack.  Our side is smaller than we might hope for, but our enemy is more vulnerable.”

She looked to one man, and I realized she was checking with the Deputy Director.  Her superior, so to speak.

He offered a single nod.

“I agree,” Triumph said.  My bugs were still on him, from earlier.  “But we’d need you on board, Assault.”

Assault was standing, hands still on the table.  He didn’t respond.

“We can’t get the Undersiders on board if they’re wondering if we’ll backstab them,” Triumph said, calm.  He wasn’t someone I’d anticipated as an ally, here.

“You mean like they backstabbed us during the Leviathan attack?” Assault asked, his voice a growl.  “Broke the truce?”

“What?” I couldn’t stop myself.  My voice sounded so small and feeble, between the recent spell of coughing and the lack of bugs to augment it.  I wished I could have conveyed more of a presence.  How to word it so it didn’t sound like feeble protests?  “I think you’ve been grossly misinformed.”

Fuck me, I sounded like Coil.

“Would Battery want you to put your feelings and prejudices before duty and the safety of this city?”

Assault slowly turned to Miss Militia.  “You want to play that card?”

“I’ll play it.  And if the Undersiders decide to play it fast and loose with the rules again, I’ll be right there beside you, ready to see them answer for it.”

“We’ve talked about that before.  Nothing came of it,” Assault said.

“This time,” Miss Militia said, “Given precedent, the stakes and the dangers posed by villains unwilling to follow the written and unwritten rules of the cape community, I’d be willing to argue and testify for a kill order.”

I felt a chill.

A kill order.  It was what they had in place for the Slaughterhouse Nine.  No holds barred, official heroes would be allowed to shoot us on sight.  Any villain or vigilante that came after us would be allowed to go free with only a brief questioning for the paperwork after killing one of us.  To top it off, anyone would be able to donate or post amounts for our heads; amounts would be added to running totals.  We’d be waiting jackpots for any bounty hunter or assassin looking for a big score.

I wondered if any of Coil’s wealthier investors or contacts would hold a grudge.

There were any number of arguments against her statement.  We’d done good.  Even Clockblocker had been willing to argue that the calls I’d made weren’t entirely without merit.  I could have pointed out that any number of people in my territory would argue I was a force for good, and that it was ludicrous that we were the ones being held to this standard when they’d been at fault for Armsmaster’s breaking of the truce.  Armsmaster, who had gone free because of hero’s prerogative.  But that same bias meant things had been twisted around, and apparently popular sentiment held us at fault for the breaking of the truce.  It was an unpleasant surprise.

Hell, to give us the ‘one last chance’ line with a situation where there was every possibility of friendly fire?  It was tying our hands, putting us at mortal risk one way or another.

“I’m… willing to accept that,” I said, suppressing every argument and every bit of indignation I was feeling.  I looked in the general direction of my teammates.  “If my team is.”

“You’re the boss,” Tattletale said.  She was quick enough on the draw that I suspected there was a reason she’d said it.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  My bugs caught Imp and Regent nodding.

Rachel’s response was last.  “Whatever.”

“Well then,” Tattletale said.  “Now that that’s settled, in the spirit of being allies, I have some news.”

“News?”  One of the unfamiliar capes asked.  A woman with a deeper voice.  “Good news?”

“Oh, it’s terrible news,” Tattletale said.  “Noelle’s lying.”

“About what?” Miss Militia asked.

“About Vista being dead.”

“That’s terrible news?  Is she in danger?”  Triumph asked.  I sensed him leaning forward to get a better view of Tattletale, past the crush of bodies at the end of the room.

“No.  I can’t say how Vista’s doing, because I don’t know the specifics on Noelle’s power, but she was trying to mislead us, talking about how she’d use us up.  Too much stress on it.  If she’d only said it the first time, I’d be more inclined to think it was part of her stream of consciousness, but then she hammered it in, used it to threaten us.  It felt forced.  Didn’t ring true.”

“Can we believe her?”  This from another unfamiliar cape, a man.  It was apparently directed at Miss Militia.

“She’s… frequently correct,” Miss Militia said.

“Vista’s alive and Noelle’s trying to keep that secret?  What’s so terrible about it?”  Triumph asked.

“Because it means she’s capable of producing more clones.  She’s capable of keeping Vista captive somewhere, continually producing agents to sow destruction and apply the kind of pressure she was talking about, and she’s lucid enough to recognize that fact.”

“How the hell do you keep Vista captive?”

“People,” Tattletale said.

“Then let’s wrap this up fast.  Essential details only,” Miss Militia said.  “Any objection to me taking point?  Eidolon’s not usually comfortable with it, and I’m the ranking parahuman in Brockton Bay.”

There was no dissent.

“Then we’re splitting up into teams.  Stick with the teams you arrived with.  Best to fight alongside people you know.  Standard stranger countermeasures are in effect with the clones.  I’ll assume they retain the memories of the original, based on what she said about the clone going after Vista’s family?”

“They do,” Tattletale said.

“Then we’re restricted to visual ID checks only.  No passwords.  I already got in contact with Dragon.  She’s on a mission and will only deploy here if it’s absolutely essential-”

I caught a sigh from Tattletale.

“-But she’s set the armbands up for the coming conflict.  They’ll display a green screen up until you remove them, and the screens will flash and identify other armband wearers at a range of fifty meters.  Be vigilant.  Keep track of every one of your teammates, maintain a visual, no splitting up.

“Chevalier, take your team, follow after my Wards.  If she can detect capes, we’ll need to assign her a thinker classification, and we’ll need to assume that any isolated groups are at risk.  Undersiders?  Take Myrddin’s Wards and pursue Flechette and Parian.  Ensure they aren’t intercepted.  The rest of us will track down Noelle.  Any indications about her location from the video?”

“Yes, but there’s no point,” Tattletale said.

“You know her location?”

“I know her location as of the time of the call, but she’ll be moving already.”

“Where?”

“The west end.  By the mountains.”

“She went from just east of Downtown to the west end?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’d stake money on it.  But again, it’s no use.”

“It doesn’t make sense in terms of timeline,” someone said.  He sounded slightly nasal.  “The distance covered-”

“Think about it,” Tattletale said.

“Vista,” Miss Militia supplied.  “She had Vista’s power.  And she will have that power at her disposal for the duration of this conflict.”

“And Noelle’s fast,” Tattletale said.  “Put those points together and she’s highly mobile.  Ergo, she isn’t going to be anywhere near where she was.”

“Good intel.  In the interest of finding her, I’d like you to accompany my group, Tattletale.”

“No can do.”

No?”

“I was just about to say I was wanting to stop by my headquarters.  I have a few theories on how we could handle this situation, and one off-the-wall idea that needs some verification before I do anything about it.”

“Nothing that puts any of us at risk?”

“No.  It mostly involves the other Travelers.  But I think it’s worth pursuing.”

“If she comes after you-”

Tattletale cut her off.  “She will.  I’ll join the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards as far as going to Ballistic’s territory to fill him in, ensure he knows that she may come after him.  I’ll see if I can’t bribe him into coming with me.  It’ll be a narrow window of time where it’s just me, him and hopefully his flunkies.”

“You make a high value target,” I said, “Especially with Ballistic in tow.  She wants you dead, and she wants his power.”

“I have ideas.  Don’t worry about me.” Tattletale turned.  “Miss Militia, I’ll be in touch by phone, so you know where you’re going.”

“Fine.  I’m ordering more capes to patrol the area around you, then, if you’re sure you’ll be a target.  Are there any other isolated parahumans in the city that we aren’t aware of?”

“Scrub,” I said.

“He’s working under Ballistic,” Tattletale said.  “I’ll get him on board by any means.  He’s one of the few people, short of Flechette, who can deal guaranteed damage to an Endbringer or Endbringer-Lite, and I have ideas about him and how I could use him.”

“Scrub?” one of the visiting capes asked.  The deeper-voiced woman.

“Uncontrolled matter-annihilation bursts in his immediate vicinity,” I said.  “Ex-member of the Merchants, a local gang of dealers and users.”

“Blaster-eight, easy, if not a straight ten, despite his relatively short range,” Tattletale supplied, “But I’m not sure he does what Skitter thinks he does, and that’s why I want to talk to him.”

“See to it,” Miss Militia said.  “Anyone else?”

“Circus, Leet, Uber,” Grue said.  “They were leaving, but-”

“They’re dead,” Assault said.

“They’re very much alive,” Tattletale retorted.  “And they would have gone west to leave the city.  The same direction Noelle went after targeting Vista.  I think that speaks for itself.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “It does.  If anyone has any questions, communicate them while on the move.  Go!”

The capes began flowing out of the room.  We had seated ourselves at the furthest point from the door, so we were stuck inside until the way was clear.

A small group of younger capes hung back.  Miss Militia had left us a contingent of out-of-town Wards.  I couldn’t get much of a sense of them just with what my bugs could give me on their costumes.  They probably weren’t a full team from a city as big as Chicago; they’d be limited to the ones who’d agreed to fight an unknown, A-class threat.  Three boys and a girl.  They were watching us, and I couldn’t even guess at their expressions without the ability to see or feel things out with my bugs.

I was getting tired of this, and my fatigue was wearing on my already thin patience.

“Bitch,” I said.  “Do me a favor and clear that window?”

She didn’t respond, but she didn’t hesitate either.  She was on her feet as soon as she’d lifted Bastard off of her lap, and kicked the plywood free of the frame before anyone could protest.

I brought every bug I’d had outside the building into the room.  They swirled around me, the Undersiders, and the handful of capes on the far end of the room.  I could sense three of the four Wards getting into fighting stances, noted how two of the boys and the girl shielded the one other boy, forming a loose triangle formation between him and us.

The movements of the bugs gave me the ability to feel them out, drawing a complete map of what they were wearing and carrying.

The boy in the very front, the tallest and largest of them, would be a tinker.  The rods that supported his heavy gauntlets were oiled, suggesting they were pistons, and I noted the presence of blunt-tipped spikes inside his gauntlets.  The setup wasn’t unlike the blades in Mannequin’s arms, but these weren’t extending into his body, and I somehow got the impression they were intended for something very different.  His armor was heavy, supported more by engineering than by his own strength, and his helmet covered his face, but not the back of his head, with a single lens on a telescoping nozzle, dead center.

The other boy in front was narrower, with flowing clothes.  He sported a surprising lack of equipment and weaponry.  It gave me the sense of someone who thought of their body as a weapon.

The girl was similar, but I did note that her gloves were reinforced for striking, a framework of some sort of metal, with rivet-like bumps over each knuckle, each etched with a fine design I couldn’t make out and metal filigree feathers at the edges.  She had padding with a similar design and near-identical feathers.

The one in the back wasn’t in a fighting stance.  He stood with his legs together, heels touching, back straight, one palm extended toward us.  He wore a mask that covered one eye and put an oversized lens in front of the other, with spikes radiating from it like the rays of a sun.  His costume was a very lightweight covering of layered and interlocking metal plates, more stylized than functional, but there was a coat-tail length of cloth extending behind the back, hanging to his knees.

I was careful in how I condensed the bugs around me.  I kept my team obscured as I pulled the bugs away from the four wards, leaving enough bugs on them that I could covertly follow their movements.  They hadn’t been stung or bitten, and they didn’t have a clear shot as the bugs moved away from them.  It meant, at least, that they’d get a chance to realize they weren’t under attack.

The bugs filled the necessary pockets of my costume, then carpeted the exterior, including my mask.  They connected to the ends of my hair, and moved beneath it, giving it more volume and helping it come little alive, the ‘ends’ moving in the absence of wind.  Where I had excess, they trailed several feet behind me like the hem of a royal gown.

“That’s better,” I said, augmenting my voice a touch.  It was.  I felt more centered, more secure and confident with the bugs close.  I’d just alarmed the people we’d be working with, but a small show of power would help ensure we got respect and cooperation.

“Your names and powers?” Tattletale asked the Chicago Wards.  She gestured toward the door and we started walking briskly toward the exit.

“Tecton,” said the power-armor wearer.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over his heavy footfalls and the rattle of furniture around him.  He indicated the boy to his right, then the girl, “This is Wanton and Grace.  Our ranged attacker here is Raymancer.”

“Isn’t Wonton a kind of noodle?” Regent asked.

“And Raymancer?” Imp asked.  “They’re really running out of stuff to call superheroes.”

“Play nice,” Grue warned.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said, “A wonton is a kind of dumpling, not a noodle.  Get it right.”

Wanton,” Tecton said, stressing the pronounciation, “Is a breaker-stranger class cape.  He can turn into a localized telekinetic storm.  Raymancer is our long-range fighter.  The three of us are more close-combat types, but Raymancer manages to make it work.

“Grace is a martial artist.  She’s got a power spread.  Faster perception of time, enhanced agility, and a striker-class enhancement for select body parts at a time; invulnerability to both powers and general harm, as well as increased effect on contact.

“And you?  Tinker?” Grue asked.

“Tinker and thinker both.  Architecture and geology sense.  Armor lets me ‘ground’ kinetic energy like you might do with electricity.  These are piledriver gauntlets,” he patted one gauntlet, “For creating fissures, generating localized earthquakes and other controlled demolition.”

“Having tinkers against Noelle is probably our safest bet,” Tattletale said.

“Because she won’t copy their gear,” I said.

Tattletale nodded.

“Good.  Thank you, by the way, for sharing,” Grue spoke to the Wards.  Tecton nodded. Our groups had reached the door that led into the stairwell.  There were officers handing out armbands, and the elevator was in use, forcing us to wait as people got their armbands and hurried downstairs.

“You need our info?”

“No,” Grace said.  Her voice was hard.  “We know who you are.”

Imp cackled, “We’re famous!”

I hung back a second as one officer held an armband and my armor compartment out to me.  I gripped it, but he didn’t let go.

He wanted to play it that way?

I let my bugs drift away from my armor to surround it.  He acted as if I’d set it on fire, letting go and backing away.  I handed it to Tattletale as we passed through the door to the stairs, then strapped on my armband.  I spoke into it, “Skitter.”

How had things gone with Leviathan?  My username would appear.  I held my armband to Tattletale, and she pressed a button.

“No trackers hidden in your stuff,” she said.  “Want help putting this on?”

“Please.  When we’re at the bottom.”

We were at the tail end of the group, and consequently we were the last ones out the door.  The dogs were already mostly grown, and we paused as Bitch increased Bentley’s size to the point that we could ride him.

“We have too many people and not enough dogs,” Grue commented.

“We’ll drive,” Tecton said.  “Just need to requisition a van.”

“I’ll ride,” I said.  “Rachel?”

She nodded.  She was up first, and she gave me a hand in getting up.  I had to fight coughing for a minute.

“Assault’s going to try to screw us over, if we cross paths,” Tattletale said.

“I suspected,” I answered.

“And if this goes south, they will come after us.  The bit Miss Militia said about Battery?  That loses its cachet when people start to feel like the people of this city would be better protected if they turned us in than if we were helping.  We’re going to have to stay on top of this.  Turn around, I’ll help strap on your armor.”

I nodded and turned around.  I moved my bugs out of the way as she fiddled with the straps, threading them through the appropriate areas.  I blinked a few times, looking towards the nearest light source to try to gauge if my vision was any better.  No improvement.  Short of a thorough check by an ophthalmologist, I wouldn’t find out if I’d regain my sight, or how much I’d recover if I did.

Everything I’d been through, and I got the long-term injury as a civilian.

Within two minutes, the Wards had pulled a containment van up beside us, with Tecton behind the wheel and Raymancer sitting in the passenger-side window, holding the headrest of the chair inside to help maintain his position.  The back popped open, and Imp, Regent, Tattletale and Grue climbed in.

Ballistic as our first stop.  Then Parian.

I winced at the pain in my side as Bentley started running.  And maybe collect Atlas while we’re in this area of town.

Tattletale was right.  This situation being classified as a level-A situation instead of a class-S situation wasn’t doing us any favors.  I just had to note how things were different from Leviathan’s attack.  There were no air raid sirens.  People weren’t being evacuated.

Helicopters flew overhead.  I could hear them, even if my bugs didn’t reach that high.  I knew Miss Militia had assigned us capes, for the inevitable event of Noelle sniffing us out and coming after us.  I didn’t sense them on the ground, so I could only assume they were in the air.

Was it better that people weren’t being evacuated?  They weren’t on the streets, in the line of fire if the psycho-Vistas or Noelle came after them.  It meant we didn’t need to deal with unpowered clones.

But it also meant that there were that many more people here if things went south.

There was a potential kill order on our heads, and there were innumerable heroes in the city who had reason to throw us to the wolves, or to Noelle if they thought the situation called for it.  The stakes were higher, and there was a lot more room to fail.  Noelle just needed one lucky maneuver to go from class-A to class-S threat in moments, and we weren’t getting half the backup this situation deserved.

Not to mention that I was worn out.  Physically, emotionally, I felt like I’d been pushed to the limit, wrung out and then pushed to the limit all over again, and that was just dealing with Coil and rescuing Dinah in the past twenty-four hours.  If I got into the past few months, or how the very way I thought had changed-

I felt a touch dizzy just thinking about it.

No.  It wasn’t dizziness.  My surroundings really were off kilter.  The buildings around us and ahead of us were stretching and shifting en-masse.

“Trouble!” I informed Bitch.  I used my bugs to notify the others in the containment van: Vistas.

I had to sweep my bugs over the area before I could find any of them.  One was perched on a rooftop, one block ahead.  She wasn’t in costume.

It had been dumb of me to expect them to be in costume.  I hadn’t even considered it, but Noelle wouldn’t spit out anything but the people themselves.  The bugs noted the hardness of her face, more like a mask than flesh, her angular, almost artificial chin, and the thin hair on top of her head.

The others… too many places to check… I found another, three blocks over, making a beeline towards us.  Noelle had ordered them to space out, to catch us if we crossed her perimeter.

Bastard yelped to my left, skidded to a stop.  Rachel seemed to read something in his response, because she pulled Bentley to a hard left, veering straight into the van’s path.

She was going to hit it?  I had to adjust my grip, lifting my leg out of the way before she could follow through and have Bentley bodycheck the vehicle.  I sensed Raymancer dropping from the window to his seat as the dog hit, only an inch away from serious injury.  The van turned and skidded to a stop, and I fell, rolling.

A block ahead of us, a building toppled.  I ducked my head low and covered it as dust and debris rolled past us as a thick cloud.  The building wouldn’t have hit us, but the debris and dust might have left us incapacitated long enough for the Vistas to act.

We’d ground to a halt, and sure enough, the pseudo-Vista on the rooftop was slowly starting to work on the buildings around us, thinning walls and twisting supports.  She was spreading out the work and laying the groundwork for future collapses, I realized.  The second psycho-Vista, busy trying to close the distance by folding the space between us and her and stepping across the shortened distances, was raising the street between two buildings, creating a steep incline that even Bitch’s dogs would struggle to climb, cutting off one avenue of retreat.

And I was aware of a third one.  The tall Vista Grue had described.  She’d stretched like taffy, her bones curving to the point that each was more a crescent than straight.  Narrow, so thin it felt like she’d break, with a face twisted into a perpetual, distorted scream, she was picking her way through the rubble of the fallen building.  Her power was twisting the largest pieces of rubble around her until they were wisps, chunks of concrete slowly corkscrewing in space until they were nothing more than dust.

Three of them.

And Noelle nowhere to be seen.  Not in my power’s range of four-ish city blocks.  She’d be going for the others.  For Ballistic, or Parian.  These troops were only to slow us down, buy her time to make another move, find another set of powers.

Fuck me.  Noelle was employing the same basic tactics I did: sensing the opposition, strategically deploying the offensive troops, acting as the heavy hitter and problem solver in the center of the chaos her minions generated, working towards complementary or wholly different goals than the ‘swarm’.

Worse, she was better at it than I was.  She was faster, her senses reached further, and the individual at the center of her army was a nightmarish force unto herself.

We couldn’t afford to get caught fighting.  Not while Noelle hit our other allies.

Still flat on the ground, I choked back the next spell of coughs and touched the button on my armband, “We need reinforcements, fast.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.4

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We had to take the elevator in two trips, due to the size of our group, and that meant splitting us up.  The heroes were too wary to leave any number of us unsupervised, whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs.

I entered the elevator in the company of Parian, Regent, Bitch, Bastard and Bentley, Miss Militia, Weld, Clockblocker, and Triumph.  It seemed to be an advanced design, the elevator offering so smooth a ride that I might not have been able to tell it was in motion if it weren’t for the bugs elsewhere in the building.

We exited at the third floor.  I could use the bugs that had gathered near the waste bins or in the walls to try to get a sense of who and what was around me.  I recognized the area as the site where I’d entered via Trickster’s teleportation: desks, cubicles, computers and paperwork.  I could sense some people heading into back rooms to rouse people who were sleeping in the office, on benches and in chairs.  All of the officers and out-of-uniform PRT operatives were gathering to look.

One of them stepped forward from the rest of the crowd.

“Deputy director,” Miss Militia said, standing straighter.

“I’m too cynical to think this is an arrest, or to hope that it’s anything more than another ruse,” the Deputy Director said.  “And I can’t help but note these villains aren’t in restraints.”

“It’s not an arrest, and I hope it’s a trick,” Miss Militia replied.

“You hope it’s a trick?” the Deputy Director asked.

“Because I like the truth even less.  A new class S-threat.”

Every officer in the room reacted, a general murmur punctuated with swearing and exclamations.

“Who?”

“An unknown.  Possibly a fourth Endbringer, not yet fully grown.  I’d like to get in contact with PRT thinkers to verify.”

“Waites,” the Deputy Director called out, over the noise from the gathered police,  “Doyon.  Get on the phone.  Patch them through to me as soon as you get hold of someone.”

“We should wake people up,” Miss Militia said.  She glanced at the nearest clock, “It’s four twenty-four in the morning.  If this is real, we’ll want the heaviest hitters ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.  There’s a chance this may be our one chance to kill her.”

“You’re killing her?” I asked, quiet.

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “Nothing’s set in stone.  But there’s a chance it may be our only opportunity and our only option.  If we’re going to do it, I want to do it successfully.”

“No word from Director Calvert?” the Deputy Director asked.

One of the guys in plainclothes spoke up, “He’s gone silent, sir.”

I didn’t miss the fact that nearly a third of the local officers glanced my way.  We were apparently the prime suspects.  Which wasn’t wrong, per se.

The Deputy Director ordered, “Militia, join me in the Director’s office.  Triumph, see to it that the villains are detained and separated.  Interview rooms one and two for Regent and Skitter.  Conference room for Hellhound.”

I could sense Rachel shifting position.

“If I may make a suggestion, sir,” Miss Militia cut in, “I think we should put Skitter in the conference room?  She and Tattletale are our main sources of information.”

“Not complaining,” I said, “But Bitch, or Hellhound if you want to call her that, may be more comfortable in my company.  Her dogs are their normal size.  If she uses her power, you’ll be able to see.  Miss Militia already saw to it I was disarmed.”

“This sounds like you’re positioning people for a maneuver,” the Deputy Director said.

“No.  Just trying to keep things as copacetic as possible,” I said.

“I’d okay it,” Miss Militia said.

“Fine.  Hellhound and Skitter in the conference room-” the Deputy Director paused as the elevator opened with nearly all of Brockton Bay’s remaining parahumans.  “Tattletale to the conference room.  Parian in the legal room.  Grue and Imp in interview room two.  Put police tape and a sign on the door with a notice of Imp’s stranger classification to remind people why it’s shut and staying shut.”

“Hey!”

“Relax, Imp,” Grue said.  “You want to confirm this is alright, Skitter?”

“So long as my teammates go free when trouble starts,” I said.  “But yeah.  I understand the paranoia.”

And I think we could break out if we had to, I thought.  I didn’t say that part.

“This sucks,” Imp commented.

“Suck it up,” Grue responded.  “Come on.”

We split up, with Rachel, Tattletale and I settling in the conference room, at the end furthest from the door.  Triumph stood watch, and the blinds were left open, leaving us visible to the countless officers who were now on their computers and phones.  There wasn’t one of them who wasn’t casting us suspicious glances every minute or so, or peering through the windows of the interview rooms at Regent, Grue and Imp.

I also noted the fact that there were nearly a dozen PRT officers fully suited up in their combat gear, complete with the full-face helmets, the chainmail-mesh covered body armor and containment foam sprayers.  They kept out of the way.  If I was using my eyes and I didn’t have my swarm sense, I wouldn’t have known they were there.

“Sorry, by the way,” I told Triumph.

“The fuck you apologizing for?” Rachel grumbled.  She’d settled into a chair, feet on the table, Bastard curled up in her lap.  One hand dangled, resting on Bentley’s head.

“I attacked his home, remember?  Didn’t know it was him, but Trickster threatened his family.  A fight broke out and I nearly killed Triumph.”

“They know?”  Triumph asked.  “You shared the details already?”

“More or less,” I said.  “Bitch doesn’t care and isn’t the type to use it against you, and Tattletale would have figured it out anyways.”

Tattletale nodded.

“Fuck,” Triumph swore.  “Weld was right.”

“Anyways,” I said, “It… there were better ways to do it.  So I am sorry.”

“Didn’t need doing in the first place,” Triumph said, sighing.  “I was prepared to risk my life the day I graduated from the Wards.  Knew what I’d be getting into.  Week I had clearance, I watched all the video we have of the class S threats.  Leviathan, Simurgh, Behemoth, Slaughterhouse Nine, Nilbog, Sleeper.  I knew what I was getting into.  So I’m not shocked or horrified at the attempt on my life.  What gets me is what you did to my dad.  Set his career back years, if it’s even recoverable, by forcing him to take that stance.  The whole thing, start to finish, was unnecessary.”

“He’ll recover,” Tattletale said, “I’d argue his career was already pretty fucked after the way things went down, here.  Not saying he was to blame, or that he wasn’t, but it’s hard to graduate from mayor to governor when your legacy is a flooded ruin of a city.”

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged, “Not if you’re here, but the photographers and reporters who are getting pictures and video footage of Brockton Bay aren’t going to take pictures of the barely affected areas.  They’re going to get the beaches, the south end and the crater.  Because that’s what sells.  The people outside the city only see the worst bits.  When we’re talking public perception, it’s not what is, it’s the picture that’s painted.”

“And the picture is of a handful of scary and powerful supervillains running a fucked up city,” Triumph said.  “Which is about to get more fucked up if you aren’t pulling our legs.  So yeah, not a good legacy for my dad.”

“We have no reason to pull your leg,” I said.

“Getting access to something else that’s confidential?  Covering your kidnapping of Vista so you’re clear to use Regent’s power on her later?”

“Why would we want her?”  Rachel asked.

“She’s strong.”

“Bitch’s question is a good one,” Tattletale said.  “Yes, Vista’s strong, but why would we want her?  It’d be putting ourselves at risk, for no particular gain.  If we wanted raw power, we’d have kept your cousin.  There’s nothing left in the city that we want or need, so it’s not like we really need her assistance to get a job done.  We have money, we have resources, and anything that’s worth anything is destroyed or taken by now.”

“Then what do you want?” Triumph asked.

“Security.  We have all of the basics.  Shelter, food, warmth, companionship, money.  Anything we do from here on out’s going to involve better securing ourselves where we’re at.  We want to stop visiting villains from getting a footing anywhere in the city unless they’re joining us.  Keep the peace so we keep you guys off our backs.  I wouldn’t mind a system like the Yakuza of Japan’s yesteryear, where we support and involve ourselves in local business, legally, to the point that nobody will be able to shake us.”

“That’s terrifying,” Triumph said.

“Why?  Because we’re bad?  Ooh, spooky,” Tattletale waggled her fingers at him.  “If we do it right, we won’t have to extort anything from the locals.  We can do more to stop the drug trade than any of your guys.  Then we disappear into the background, make enough money off the side benefits of our powers and investments to live a life of comfort.  Mobilize only if and when there’s a new threat.  Build trust with you guys, ensure that any new parahumans go to either your group, go to ours, or they get dealt with some other way.  Ensure that anyone like Hellhound who needs more elbow room or freedom is somewhere they’re comfortable, where they won’t do any real harm.”

“And she’s okay with that?” Triumph asked,  “Being benched?”

“Give me my dogs, don’t bother me, don’t get in my face, I’m okay with whatever,” Rachel said.  Her arm was moving.  It took me a second to realize she was scratching Bastard.

“Calmer than you were a week and a half ago, if that’s the case,” Triumph said.

“Dunno,” Rachel replied.  “That was then.  This is now.”

Triumph sighed.

Weld and Clockblocker joined us.  Clockblocker handed Triumph a can of coke or something like it.

“They behaving?” Clockblocker asked.

“Pretty much.  Tattletale mentioned Dinah, but it wasn’t to fuck with me.  We were talking about their master plan, if you can call it that.  Not much else.”

Clockblocker looked at me.  “Skitter and I had a discussion on the way over.”

“And you won’t have another,” Miss Militia cut in.  She’d stepped out of the Director’s office next door and into the doorway.  “We’re not here to socialize.  We got in touch with some thinkers.  Eleventh Hour says he gets an ‘eight’.  Appraiser’s read says we’re ‘purple’.  Rule for any pre-situ call is we get three points of reference,  going by thinkers alone, that means a third thinker.  The first they were able to get in touch with was Hunch.  Your old teammate, Weld.”

“Didn’t think he rated, yet,” Weld said.

“Chief Director Costa-Brown gave the a-ok, and Hunch says it’s bad.  All together, we’re calling this a threat level A.”

“No shit.  The Undersiders are for real?”  Triumph asked.

Tattletale didn’t wait for him to get an answer, “That’s threat level S.  S-class.”

“The Chief Director of the PRT determined it was an A-class threat.”

“Bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “S-class.  I know Appraiser offered a purple-velvet diagnosis for his previous ratings on Endbringer attacks, so that’s not the reason it’s so low.  Eleven’s score of eight has to be above the seventy-five percent mark, and an answer as vague as Hunch’s is going to be a seventy-five percent exact, as per section nine-seven-six, article seventy-one.  That’s three values that have to be above the threshold for declaring a threat level S situation.”

“How the hell do you know all that?” Weld asked.

Tattletale waved him off.

“The Chief Director made the call.  We’re standing by it,” Miss Militia said.

“We’re talking class-S, even if you ignore pre-situation verification.  Section nine-seven-five, article fifty-seven.  Classifying high level duplicators and villains who operate to any exponential degree.  Nilbog and Simurgh both count, and Noelle does too.  If the powers generate more instances of power generation or recurring effect in an epidemic pattern…”

“She’s not a self duplicator,” Miss Militia said, “And yes, she’s creating powers, but they’re copies of other people’s powers.  They’re not exponential or self-recursive in effect.”

“You’re splitting hairs.”

“And,” Miss Militia said, “She doesn’t create more powers on her own.  She has an intrinsic requirement of needing contact and time to absorb.  She doesn’t meet the criteria as they stand.”

“Still splitting those hairs,” Tattletale said.  “Her threat level zooms up to S as soon as she gets her hands on anyone who can enable something like that.  Like, say, any tinker.”

“I don’t know why we’re even discussing this, when you seem to have our operations manual memorized and you’re capable of realizing it for yourself,” Miss Militia said, “but it doesn’t bear dwelling on.  The difference in our response to a class A crisis and a class S one is minor at best.  Some tertiary protocols change, we won’t necessarily have Alexandria, Legend or Eidolon assisting, and there’s no penalties for anyone who subscribed to the critical situation roster if they sit this one out.”

“Which they will,” Tattletale said.  “You’re ignoring the fact that people are inherently selfish.  It takes something to shake them from that reality, and that’s not common.”

“I think you’re underestimating the inherent goodness of people who dedicate their lives to heroism.  I know for a fact we have ample volunteers already informed on the situation.  They’re en route.”

“If the heroes aren’t showing in full force, others won’t either.” Tattletale said, “And there’s no epidemic protocols with a class-A.”

“We have one tinker,” Miss Militia said.  “Kid Win.  Armsmaster is no longer on the premises.  We have no duplicators.  The risk is one we can control, either through the organization of our forces or turning any combatants with problematic interactions away.  Epidemic protocols are unnecessary.”

“Armsmaster escaped, you mean,” Tattletale said.  “And it won’t be that easy.”

“Maybe not, but that’s the word from above.  I’m not interested in debating this further, Tattletale.” Miss Militia said.  She turned her head slightly toward me, clearly expecting me to comment along the lines of what I’d said in the containment van, about authority tying one’s hands.  When I didn’t rise to the challenge, she said, “We’re having a strategy meeting in a matter of minutes.  The first phase of the response will be teleporting in momentarily, but our best mass-teleporter died in the Leviathan attack, and the process is slow.  I’ll be releasing the rest of the Undersiders to join you soon.”

“As soon as you have enough extra bodies to watch us,” Tattletale commented.

“Yes,” Miss Militia said, terse.  She looked at the three young heroes who had gathered at the wall by the door.  “Be good.  Excuses or no excuses, it looked bad when we had the last incident with a break in the truce.  Don’t let Tattletale provoke you, don’t provoke them.”

“You can’t blame them if they get emotional,” Tattletale sighed.  “It’s only natural, three young men, three young women, a possibility of Capulet-Montague forbidden love between hero and villain…”

“My warning goes for you too, Tattletale.  I already instructed Triumph to shout at the first sign of trouble.”

“I’ll be angelic,” Tattletale said.

“Good.  You should also know that Parian is leaving.  She asked me to tell you, and to let you know she’ll be at her territory.”

Parian was gone?  Shit.

“I wouldn’t have let her go,” I said.  “For a lot of reasons.”

“It’s unfortunate, I agree,” Miss Militia said, “But we’re not in a position to stop her, short of fighting her.  She was adamant about not wanting to participate in this fight.  Flechette is escorting her back.”

“And however Noelle found Vista, she might find Parian and Flechette and target them the same way,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe.  They both have devices to alert us.  In the worst-case scenario, they can inform us if something’s happened.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare.”

Miss Militia didn’t wait for a response.  She was already striding down the hall, gesturing to get someone’s attention.  Someone too small and too young to be a cop.

The three boys at the other end of the long table started talking among themselves.

“This is falling apart before it begins,” Tattletale commented.

“I get the impression Miss Militia’s spooked,” I said.  “She’s tense.”

“Anyone would be,” Tattletale replied.  “Doesn’t help that the last Endbringer fight ended her predecessor’s career.”

I nodded.

“Our muscle’s going to suffer in this fight,” Tattletale said.  “Your bugs, Bitch’s dogs, they can’t hurt her, if she absorbs things on contact.  Not unless we want clones of Bitch’s dogs running rampant.”

“The heroes have long ranged fire,” I replied.  “Kid Win, Miss Militia, Triumph.  So Bitch and I adopt a support role.  The dogs get our key players around the battlefield, if Bitch is willing.”

Rachel grunted something that could have been agreement.

“And I might be able to tie Noelle up without the bugs touching her.  Grue can slow her down, Regent could do the same.” I finished.

“Regent couldn’t use his power against Leviathan.  Can you imagine him getting Leviathan under control?”

“I’d rather not,” I admitted.  “There’s a sweet spot as far as rep goes.  Having a pet Endbringer puts us in the ‘too scary to be allowed to live’ category.”

“We’d have to do what the Slaughterhouse Nine do, win frequently enough against high odds that people can’t afford the losses.”

“Would mean we have to go mobile,” I said.  “So we have time to recuperate while the enemy tries to track us down.  Anyways, enough ‘what if’.  Let’s get back on topic.”

Tattletale nodded.  “Imp?”

“For this coming fight?  Rescue,” I said.  “The enemy won’t target her, they might not target anyone she can get in contact with.  Fallen allies, captives, Imp gets them to safety.”

Tattletale nodded.  The tone of her voice shifted fractionally as she said, “You guys can chime in at any point here.”

The young heroes had stopped talking and were listening in.

“I don’t know what you want us to add,” Clockblocker said.

“Interactions,” I said.  “Maybe we put you on Bentley’s back.  We won’t have to kill Noelle if you can tag her.  We’ll be able to keep her frozen long enough for us to erect some form of containment.”

“Me?  On the dog?”

“You scared?” Rachel asked.

“I think anyone would be a little scared.  You can’t tell me they aren’t a little intimidating.”

“Your power nullifies any threat they could pose,” I said.

“If it closes its teeth around my arm, the fraction of a second it takes my power to kick in is going to buy it time to dig in just a little.  Jaws clamped on my arm, I freeze it, sure, but then every time it unfreezes, it closes a little more before I can freeze it again.  No thank you.”

“He’s scared,” Rachel said.  She scratched the top of Bastard’s head, and I realized she was talking to the wolf cub that was sleeping in her lap.  “You’re the stuff of nightmares.”

Clockblocker snorted, then got caught up in a murmured conversation with Weld and Triumph.  They were facing our way as they talked.

I tried to ignore them, focused on taking deep breaths, controlling the intake so I wouldn’t start coughing and humiliate myself in front of the local heroes.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Coughing less.  I feel like I’ve maybe got the worst of it out of my lungs and throat.”

“I meant you.  You’ve been quiet.  You weren’t saying as much as you normally might when I was talking to Miss Militia.”

“Thinking.”

“Important you keep doing that,” she said.  “But not if it’s getting you like this.  Unless you’re putting together a master plan.”

I shook my head.  “No plan.  Just fatigue and-”

I stopped.  Each and every officer in the next room was turning their heads.  I used my bugs to feel out the subject.  A hood, with the warmth of a faint natural glow from beneath, with the same effect around his hands, with his loose sleeves.  I noted that a glass helm like the one Clockblocker wore fit over his face beneath the hood.  People went out of their way to clear out of his path, to such an extent that I might have thought they were in front of an elephant and not a man.

Eidolon entered the conference room and grabbed the seat just to the right of the one at the far end of the table.  He swept his cape to one side before he sat down.

“Didn’t think you were coming,” Tattletale said.  “With it being just a Class-A threat.”

“The infamous Undersiders,” Eidolon spoke.  His voice reverberated slightly, an effect similar to Grue’s.

“And the famous Eidolon,” Tattletale retorted, “while we’re doing the reverse-introductions.      I thought I told Miss Militia that we shouldn’t bring in anyone we can’t beat in a fight.”

“Don’t concern yourself over it,” Eidolon said.  “I can render myself immune.”

“We won’t know until it happens,” she replied.

There was a pause.

“Tattletale.  Are you looking for a chink in the armor?”

“You can’t blame me, can you?  If we wind up having to fight you, then it might be all over.  So I’m gathering intel.”

Eidolon didn’t reply.

“Okay, sure.  Fine,” Tattletale raised her hands in surrender.  “It’s cool.”

Eidolon turned away to follow the murmured conversation between Weld, Triumph and Clockblocker.  Tattletale rested her elbows on the table, rubbed at her eyes.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Exhausted.  Been using my power all night, my head’s throbbing, and this whole business with Noelle hasn’t even started.”

“Take a nap,” I suggested.

“No time.  And I do want to make sure I have some ideas in advance, for anyone we might have to face.  Noelle is going to target Eidolon.  If we fight him, we’ll have to use his weaknesses against him.”

“Tattletale,” Eidolon cut Clockblocker off mid-sentence, his voice carrying across the room.  “Could you elaborate?”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “No weaknesses you don’t already know about.”

“Is that so?”

“You’re losing your powers,” she said.  “Not fast enough that it matters today, but enough that the difference is appreciable.”

It was hard to read Eidolon’s body language with the few bugs I’d permitted myself.  He was leaning forward slightly, and his upper arms pressed against the fabric of his costume as he flexed or clenched a fist.

“And how would you know this, if it were true?”

“Because any other day, with you heroes being as short on teleporters as you are, you’d be helping bring people in.  You’re conserving your strength.  It might even be a long term fear, like you’ve only got so much power to use over your lifetime before it’s all spent.  Candle that burns twice as hot, or something.”

“Simple deduction?  Did you consider that I am not teleporting people because there’s a shortage of volunteers?”

“That would contradict what Miss Militia said, and she wasn’t lying.  And it doesn’t fit the overall picture.  Alexandria-”

Eidolon slapped his hand down against the table.  A forcefield expanded from the impact site, forcing Rachel and I out of our chairs and against the wall.  I slumped down to the ground, grabbing my rib, and coughed painfully.

The forcefield had kept Rachel and I out, but Tattletale was inside with Eidolon.  The sounds from within were muffled.

But I had bugs on both Eidolon and Tattletale, and I could almost make out their words.

Tattletale was speaking.  “…reason you … this situation a class-A threat isn’t because it doesn’t fit.  …did it is because Alexandria wanted an excuse not… …  You came because you needed to prove something to yourself.  Test … measure of your power in a …nse situation… work best when… danger.  This is best challenge you’ll have…”

“…treading dangerous waters,” Eidolon spoke.  There was no growl in his voice, no anger, irritation or emotion at all.  Only calm.  It made him easier to understand.

“…can live with danger, … it’s interesting.  Awfully interesting… why Alexandria’s not coming… … me?  …secret.”

Eidolon said something, but his tone had changed and I wasn’t able to switch mental gears fast enough.

“…you?”  Tattletale asked. “Years…-”

“The fuck!?” Rachel snarled.  Bentley growled as if to accompany her words.  He was already growing.

“Relax,” I said, before I started coughing again.  “They aren’t fighting.”

“He knocked me over!”

I could see Miss Militia and Assault at the other end of the room, but the forcefield bubble was blocking us.

“What happened!?” Miss Militia shouted.

I tried to respond, coughed instead.  My voice was weak with the fresh rawness of my throat as I did manage to utter a reply, “Eidolon flipped…”

“Eidolon attacked!” Rachel yelled.

“Did she provoke him?”  Miss Militia asked.  Her gun was raised.

“No,” I managed only a whisper.

The forcefield winked out.  Eidolon was still sitting, he hadn’t moved except to slap the table with his hand, but Tattletale was standing.

“Just wanted to have a private conversation,” Eidolon said.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be getting some fresh air.”

With that, he stood and strode out of the room.  He made his way to the stairwell and I could track him moving to the roof.

I picked up my chair and sat, still coughing intermittently.  Rachel was still standing, and her dogs were still growing.  I gestured for her to sit.

She just glared across the room.

I gestured again, but the force of the motion made my chest hurt and I started coughing.  Before I recovered, Rachel sat with an audible thud.  She kicked her boot against the edge of the table, hard, and left it there.

“What did you do?” Miss Militia asked.  She was facing Tattletale.  I could see the other Undersiders behind her.

“Was just commenting that it seemed odd he wasn’t helping you guys out with teleporting people in,” Tattletale said.

“You said more than that,” Weld noted.

“I’m tired, he’s tired, we talked it out.  All copacetic,” Tattletale said.  She leaned back and stretched.

“I’m not so sure,” Miss Militia said.  “Skitter, are you alright?”

“Recent injury,” I managed.  “Will be fine in a minute.”

Miss Militia nodded.  Not much sympathy, but I couldn’t blame her.  “Then let’s get things underway.  Everyone, please get seated, or find space to stand.”

Grue, Regent and Imp joined us, and Grue set his hands on my shoulders as he stood behind me.  He rubbed my exposed back where the armor panel was missing as I coughed hoarsely once or twice.

I counted the people in costume with my swarm.  It wasn’t nearly as many reinforcements as we’d had against Leviathan.  I saw Chevalier and Myrddin, but didn’t recognize anyone else.  There were the Wards and Protectorate members from Brockton Bay, with perhaps twenty more.

“Tentative ratings, based on what we know, we have her down as a brute eight, a changer two and a combination of striker and master with a rating of ten.”

“Too low,” I heard Tattletale murmur.

I suppressed a cough, managed only a choke.  It drew more attention to me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone was already paying way too much attention.  I was wearing my older costume, and somehow felt more juvenile, more exposed.  I didn’t have the covering of bugs over the exterior of my costume like I was used to, either.

“Her ability allows her to create clones of anyone she touches.  The PRT office believes she’s a class-A threat, but Tattletale’s expectation is that this individual has the potential to become an Endbringer.  We’re moving forward with extreme caution.

“Our primary issue at the moment is that we can’t yet locate her.  She has one hostage, a young member of the Wards.  The girl was attacked en route to her home.  Locating our target quickly is paramount, but we should also be careful to avoid giving her a chance to use her power on us.  For the time being, we will be operating with the same protocols and plans that we employ against Hadhayosh.  Hit and run, maintain a safe distance as priority number one, and employ continuous attacks.  We’ll be dividing you into teams-”

Miss Militia stopped short as an officer pushed his way through the people near the door, Chevalier included.  He handed Miss Militia a phone.

She turned around and pressed a button on the wall.  The faux-wooden panels separated to reveal a widescreen television.

It flickered on.

Her?” Kid Win asked.  “That’s the class-S threat?”

“She’s bigger than she looks,” Tattletale commented.

I was disappointed I couldn’t see.  I tried looking at the screen with my bugs, but they saw only a rectangular glow.

“Quiet,” Miss Militia said, “It’s a webcam feed.  I’m setting it so we’ll be transmitting audio only… Hello, Noelle.”

“Who is this?”  Noelle asked.

“She talks,” I heard someone whisper.

“Miss Militia,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“The gun woman.  Who else is there?”

“Other local heroes,” Miss Militia replied.

“Oh.  There aren’t more?  The Undersiders didn’t get in touch with you?”  Noelle sounded funny.  Her voice was hollow, almost disappointed.

“It’s just us right now.”

“Because I smell more,” Noelle said.  “Which makes it hard to believe you.  But you can lie if you have to.”

“You can smell us.”

“Not you.  But it doesn’t matter,” Noelle’s voice broke.  She stopped.

“Are you there?” Miss Militia asked.

“I’m here.  I was telling you it doesn’t matter.  I only called because… I killed her.  The space-warper.  I’m so bad with the names.  So many names for you capes.  I only ever paid attention to the powers.”

“You killed Vista,” Miss Militia said.  “Why?”

“Because I could.  Because I was hungry, and I’d already used her up.  See?”

There was a brief pause, then a number of gasps and breathless words all at once.  One of my bugs caught a noise from Clockblocker, deep in his throat.

Grue leaned close, whispered in my ear, “Five Vistas.  All but one of them have faces more like masks than skin and muscle.  Hard, rigid.  Wearing borrowed clothes, not costumes.  The fifth one might be taller than I am, and her bones look curved.”

I nodded.

There was a thump from the microphone on Noelle’s end, presumably as she turned the camera back to herself.

“Just wanted to let you know that.  I’m sorry.  This isn’t like me.  It’s the stuff that’s growing on me.  I have my memories, and when I think, it’s always my thoughts, but it feels like it’s taking over my subconscious, and when it wants something the hormones and adrenaline flood into my body and my brain, so I feel what it feels.  Twists the way I think.”

“Why Vista?”

“She was alone.  And could smell how strong she was.  Read about her online, too.  Internet was all I had for a long time.  Now I’ve got them.  They’re pretty obedient, and it’s nice to have company.  I haven’t had any physical contact with anyone for a while, and they like giving me hugs.  Except the sixth.”

“Sixth,” Miss Militia said.

“Not as obedient.  She ran off.  Gibbering something about killing her family.”

Miss Militia thrust her index finger toward the door, and the Wards were gone in a flash, running for the stairwell.

“Can we negotiate?”  Miss Militia asked, her voice oddly calm given the ferocity of the gesture and the threat against one of her colleagues’ family.

“Not really a negotiation… but I can offer you a deal.”

“What’s the deal?”

“Kill the Undersiders.  Or hand them to me so I can torment them before I kill them.  You can do it any time you want to.  Just… knock them out, or hurt them, or find a way to tell me where they are.  If it’s a choice between hurting one of you or hurting one of them, I’ll hurt them.  I promise.  If I’ve taken someone hostage, you probably have a little while before the hostage is dead.  Just know that I’ll trade you any of my hostages for any Undersider, any time, any situation.  When the Undersiders are all dealt with, I’ll sniff out and kill all of the clones I’ve made, then I’ll let you try to kill me.  Or imprison me.  Do whatever.  I don’t care anymore, because I don’t think I’ll be me much longer.  I don’t think I’m even me right now.  Not the me I was… I’m rambling.

“They took away my only chance.  My only chance to get well.  Until they’ve paid for that, I’m going to make this hard on you, heroes.  I don’t think I can die, and I don’t think I’m that easy to stop in other ways.  I’ll hunt you down, I’ll copy you until you’re all used up, let your copies ruin your reputations and your lives, and then I’ll eat you.  I’ll do it to each of you, one by one, until you realize it’s easier to go after the Undersiders than to come after me.  Give me my revenge, and this ends.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Monarch 16.2

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

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Interlude 15

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“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.

“Guys!”

“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.

“Sorry.”

“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.

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Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

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Interlude 13

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It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Director Emily Piggot finished the last of her coffee and paused to survey the enormity of the task that lay ahead of her.  The scale of it could be measured in paperwork.  Piles of it.  Sometimes two feet high, the stacks of paper were arranged in rows and columns on every available surface, including the top of her coffee maker and the floor around her desk.  There were stacks of stapled pages, each topped with a weight to protect it from the gusts and breezes that flowed through the open window frames.

She couldn’t help but notice the way that the pages at the bottom of the pile were neatly organized, tidy, everything in line.  The newer pages, the ones at the top, were the sloppy ones.  Pages were slightly out of alignment, some dog-eared or stained.

The same progression could be measured in the print.  The older pages were typed, printed as forms with everything in its place.  Abruptly, it all shifted to handwriting.  Shatterbird’s destruction of everything glass and everything with a silicon-based chip inside.  Computer screens and computers.  The handwriting, too, grew less tidy as the rise of the piles marked the passage of time.  On occasion, it would improve for a day or two, when her captains and sergeants complained about illegible handwriting, but it inevitably slipped back into disarray.

A strong metaphor, Emily Piggot thought.  Every part of it said something about the current circumstances.

The shift from uniform typed words to countless styles of handwriting, it said something about the innumerable voices, the break down of the cohesive, ordered whole.  What resulted were hundreds, thousands of self-interested voices.  One in five condemned her, two in five pleaded with her for assistance in some form, and the remainder simply expected her to perform her duties as a cog in the machine.

She looked over the sheer volumes of paper around her office.  The PRT handled cases where parahumans were involved, and these days, it seemed like everything and everyone was touched in some way by the heroes, villains and monsters of Brockton Bay.  Every time the other precincts had the slightest excuse, they would claim that it was the PRT’s responsibility.  If they had no excuse at all, they would claim it a joint responsibility.  Until she read over the cases in question and either signed off on them or refused them, the job was in her hands.  As far as the ones passing the buck were concerned, it was out of their hands.

The first real intrusion on the average citizen’s life had been the bombings instigated by the ABB.  Frightening, but it had been easy for the average person to believe they wouldn’t be one of the victims, to shrug it off as the same background noise of heroes and villains that they’d experienced for much of their lives.  Now, between Leviathan, Shatterbird, the fighting and the formation of territories, everyone had reason to worry and give serious thought to who they needed to support and how they were going to protect themselves.

Just as the parahumans had invaded the lives of those in the city, the paperwork seemed to dominate Emily’s life.  It crept onto the walls, onto bulletin boards and whiteboards.  Notes on the local players, timelines, messages and maps.

Insurmountable.  Too much work for one woman to handle.  She delegated where she could, but too much of the responsibility was hers and hers alone.  The humans outnumbered parahumans by eight-thousand to one, give or take, in urban areas.  Outside of the more densely populated areas, it dropped to a more manageable one to twenty-six-thousand ratio.  But here in Brockton Bay, many had evacuated.  Few places in the world, if any, sported the imbalanced proportion that Brockton Bay now featured.  What was it now?  One parahuman to every two thousand people?  One parahuman to every five hundred people?  Each parahuman represented their respective interests.  She represented everyone else’s.  The people without powers.

The whole nation was watching.  People across America ate their TV dinners while they watched the news, seeing footage of the slaughters in downtown Brockton Bay, white sheets draped over piles of bodies.  The before and after shots of areas devastated by Shatterbird.  Flooded streets.  Fundraising efforts were launched, many succeeding, while yet others leveraged the situation to cheat the sympathetic out of money.  The world waited to see if Brockton Bay would become another Switzerland, another Japan, another region that simply couldn’t recover.  Ground lost to the Endbringers in their relentless campaign of attrition against humanity.

So very few of them knew it, but they were counting on her.

She heaved herself out of her chair and made her way to the coffee machine to refill her mug.

“Director?”

She turned to see Kid Win standing in the doorway.  He looked intimidated.

“Yes?”

He raised the laptop he carried in his hands.  “The guys in CS asked me to bring this to you.”

She shook her head, refusing the offer, “For now, every computer that comes in is supposed to be used for setting up the consoles and communications.”

“They’re done.  Or almost done, for communications.  They expect to be up and running in two hours, but they have all the computers they need.”

“Good.  Access to the central database is up?”

“Everything except the highest security feeds.”

Disappointing.  “I’ll make do, I suppose.  Thank you.”

Kid Win seemed almost relieved to hand her the laptop.  It meant he could get out of her presence sooner.  He was turning to leave the instant the laptop was out of his hands.

“Wait.”

She could see his shoulders drop, slightly, in the same way a dog’s tail drooped when ashamed or expecting reprimand.  Emily Piggot wasn’t good with kids, or even young adults.  She knew it.  Outside of the time she had played with dolls as a small child, she’d never entertained the notion of being a mother.  She didn’t even like kids.  It was the rare youth that she actually respected, now, and those few tended to be the ones who saw her firm leadership and respected her, first.  Now she was in charge of some of the most powerful children in the city.

“The next patrol shift is in…”  She turned to find the clock, “Twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes, yeah.  Vista, with Clockblocker babysitting.  Weld and Flechette are out right now, patrolling separately.”

“Postpone the next patrol, and tell Weld and Flechette to take it easy, but to be ready to report at a moment’s notice.  With the consoles up, we’ll be ready to act.  Pass on word to Miss Militia as well.  I believe she’s taking the next patrol shift.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The laptop would do little to help in her war against the paperwork until she had access to a printer.  PRT divisions and precincts in neighboring cities were all too willing to send along staff and officers to assist, but her firm requests for the fundamentals -for computers, printers, satellite hookups, electricians and IT teams- were ignored all too often.

She cleared space on her desk and started up the laptop.  It would be good to have access to the files on the locals and ‘guests’ alike.  She would handle the paperwork better after a moment’s break, while she focused on other things that needed doing.  She was barely registering the words, at this point.

This would be a battle won with preparation, and for that, she needed information.

It took her a moment to adjust to the smaller keyboard.  She entered her passwords, and answered the personal questions that Dragon’s subsystem posed to her.  Why is your nephew named Gavin?  Your favorite color?  Irritating- she didn’t even know her favorite color, but the algorithms had figured it out before she did.  All information divined from the countless pieces of data about her that were in official emails, photographs and surveillance footage from the PRT buildings.  It was with a moment of trepidation that she typed in For Gawain, knight of the round table.  Silver.

The fact that Dragon’s system could divine these details, as always, unnerved her.  This time, in light of recent events, it unsettled her all the more.

She typed in the words ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ and watched as information began appearing in lists.  News items, sorted by relevance and date, profiles, records.  Lists of names.  Casualty reports.

Emily clicked through the records.  Sorting as a timeline, she found the entry muddled with Armsmaster’s simulation records on the fighting abilities of the Nine.  He’d been preparing to fight them.  A double-check of the modification dates showed he’d seen the entries recently.

So when he’d escaped, he’d done it with the intent of fighting the Nine.  She’d suspected as much.

She refined the search to remove the simulations from the results and found video footage.

A video of Winter, an ex-member of the Nine, engaging in a protracted siege against no less than twenty members of the Protectorate.  She’d been killed by one of her teammates.

A sighting of Crawler, shortly after he had joined the Nine.  He’d been more humanoid, then.  Still large.

Another member of the Nine from yesteryear, Chuckles, attacking a police station.  No use to her, beyond serving as a testament to what might happen if she consolidated too many forces in one place.

She found a file listed as ‘Case 01’.  She clicked it.

We’ve got her cornered?” the person in the video spoke.  Hearing the voice, noting the camera image of an apartment was mounted on a helmet, Emily Piggot knew who it was.  She knew the video well enough.

Think so,” a man replied.  The camera focused on Legend, then swung over to Alexandria, and finally Eidolon.  “We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.

She hasn’t tried to leave?” the face behind the camera asked.  “Why not?

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  “She has a victim.

Alexandria spoke up, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-

Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.

Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.

We’re trying an experimental measure.  It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.

Emily turned off the sound as the four charged into action.  She didn’t want to hear it, but she felt compelled to keep watching.  A matter of respect.

It was Siberian.  One of the first direct confrontations, more than a decade ago.  It hadn’t gone well.

The Protectorate had been smaller, then.  The lead group had consisted of four members.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Hero.  Hero had been the first tinker to take the spotlight, so early to the game that he could get away with taking a name that basic and iconic.  He’d sported golden armor, a jetpack, and a tool for every occasion.  His career had been cut short when Siberian tore him limb from limb in a sudden frenzy of blood and savagery.  He’d been scooped up by Eidolon, who tried to heal him, who continued to hold the man as he joined in the ensuing conflict.

Director Piggot had seen the film before.  Several times.  It was the screams that haunted her.  Even with the sound off, she could have put it all together from the sounds that were engraved in her memory, right down to the cadence, the pitch.  Seeing a teammate die so unexpectedly, so suddenly.  The noises of panic as some of the strongest capes in the United States realized there was nothing they could do, adjusting their tactics to try to save people, staying one step ahead of Siberian to minimize the damage she did as she waded through any defense they erected, tossing the PRT trucks -modified fire trucks, then- as though they were as light and aerodynamic as throwing knives.

Invincible Alexandria was struck a glancing blow and had one eye socket shattered, the eye coming free in the midst of that bloody ruin.  Eidolon had healed her, after, but the scar was still there.  Alexandria now wore a helmet whenever she was out in costume.

After that telling blow, Legend’s voice would be ordering the containment foam.  Not so much to bind Siberian as to hide the wounded Alexandria from the feral lunatic.

With the sound muted, Piggot would not have to hear Legend crying out over what he had believed was the death of two teammates.  It had always made her feel guilty to hear it, as if she were intruding, seeing someone mighty at a moment in their life when they were stripped emotionally bare.

And of course, Siberian had escaped.  Slipped past countless PRT officers and a dozen superheroes in the chaos.  Nothing in the footage gave a clue as to how.

A shadow passed over her desk.  Turning, she saw a silhouette of a flying man against the light of the sun.

Like so many parahumans, he lapsed into intrusiveness and a self-centered mindset.  Well, she wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in regards to this.

She composed herself and spoke, “If you’d like to enter my office through the front door, Legend, we can talk there.”

Silently, he disappeared around the side of the building.  She couldn’t see through the wall, but she heard the commotion as he flew in through the window.  He stepped into her office with the fluid grace one had when they could use their ability to fly to carry their weight.  Blue and white costume, boots and gloves.  Veteran member and leader of the Protectorate, his lasers carried as much firepower as a battalion of tanks.  She had to remind herself that she technically outranked him.

“Siberian?” he asked.

“I’m reading up on our opposition.”  She wouldn’t apologize, but she couldn’t keep the sympathy from her face.

“I flew up to check if you were in your office, and I saw the video.  My fault for seeing what I did.  It wasn’t a good day.”

She nodded curtly.  It hadn’t been.  One could even suggest it was when things started to go bad.  The loss of Hero, the first time a truly dangerous villain made an appearance.  “What did you want to see me for?”

“A note delivered for you at the front door.  We gave it a high priority.”

“You’re taking the standard precautions?”

He nodded.  “It’s already on its way to the lab.”

“Join me?”  She lifted herself out of the chair, keenly aware of the differences in her and Legend: parahuman and human, male and female, lean muscle and eighty pounds of extra weight, tall and average in height.

“Of course.”

They walked past the reams of public servants, government employees and Piggot’s own people.  Emily knew she was not the only one overburdened with work, not the only one sweating, trying and failing to keep cool.  The rest of her people were staying awake with the benefits of coffee more than anything else.

She couldn’t turn away everyone that volunteered or was sent to Brockton Bay to assist her PRT division, but there were too many.  Space was at a premium, and there were too few places where she could establish secure offices, where buildings didn’t threaten to fall down and where assistance was actively needed.  Still, she’d sent people away when she could.

“How’s the family?” She asked.  “You adopted, if I remember right?”

“We did.  Arthur was worried that a surrogate parent would give birth to a parahuman, and if that happened, he’d be out of the loop.”

“The odds are still high, even with an adopted child.  It’s likely more to do with exposure to parahumans at formative ages than genetics.”

“I know.  Arthur knows, but I don’t think he believes it.”

“Or he doesn’t want to believe,” Emily said.

Legend nodded.

“He knew the price of admission,” she said.

Legend smiled.  “You’re always straight to the point, Director.”

“But the child is good?  A boy or a girl?”

“A boy.  Keith.”

“You’ve heard there are some third generation parahumans on record?”

“For a while now.  We knew they were being born anyways, right?”

“We did.  But nothing’s official until it’s on record.  But the point I was getting at was that there was apparently an incident.”

“Oh?”

“In Toronto.  A five-year-old manifested powers.  A third generation parahuman.”

Legend nodded, but he didn’t respond right away.  He stepped forward to open a door for her.

“Everyone’s alright?” he asked, at last.

“No.  But no casualties.  The parents were outed in the chaos.”

“Sobering.”

She nodded.  “The perils of being a superhero parent.  Your child isn’t a third generation cape, I know, but there are always risks.  Still, I envy you.”

“How so?”

“Family.  I wonder if it is harder or easier to get through the day if you have people waiting for you at the end.”

“Yes.”

She smiled a little at that.

They entered the lab, and Emily Piggot very carefully measured the expressions of every person in the room when they noticed Legend.  Awe, surprise, amazement.  Sometimes ambivalence.

What could she take away from that?  If she were to promote one of them, should she promote one of the awestruck ones, or one of the taciturn?  The starry-eyed might be in the PRT for the wrong reasons, but the ones who were unfazed by the presence of one of the most notable heroes in the United States could easily be plants, hiding their emotion or simply too used to the presence of capes to care.

“The note?”

“No traces of toxins, radiation, powders or transfers.”

“Why the priority?  We get letters from cranks every day.”

“The man who delivered the message reported a fairly convoluted series of safeguards to protect the identity of the sender.  Apparently the man who gave him his instructions was given the note by a civilian, and ordered to find a random individual to deliver it to the PRT, all with compensation arranged.”

“You’ve tailed him?”

“Of course.  We doubt anything will come of it.”

“No.  It wouldn’t.  Can you make out the contents without touching the envelope?  Can’t be too careful.”

“We can and have.”  The technician handed Emily a paper.

She read it over twice.  “Burnscar is dead, it seems, and Bonesaw won’t be in the field for the interim.  God knows how quickly she’ll recover, but it’s something.”

“Good news,” Legend said.

Emily wasn’t so sure.  “It’s… a change.”

“Not a good one?”

“The closing line reads, ‘Thanks for the help.’  I can’t help but read it in a sarcastic tone.”

“The bug girl?  Skitter?”

Emily nodded.  “Exactly.  As good as it is to have one more member of the Nine dealt with, this shifts the balance of power towards another group of villains.  It also serves to move up our deadline.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Call a meeting.  Protectorate and Wards.”

“Alright.”

She looked at each of the capes in turn.  Legend, Prism, Ursa Aurora and Cache were the outsiders, heroes on loan.  Miss Militia’s group was more worn out.  Where their costumes had been damaged, stained or torn, pieces had been replaced from the generic costumes the PRT kept in stock.  Miss Militia had doffed the jacket but left the scarf with the flag motif in place.  She wore a black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of empty holsters and sheaths for her weapons.  Battery was wearing a plain black costume and goggles, while Assault had replaced the top half of his costume with similar odds and ends.  Triumph still wore his helmet and shoulder pads with the roaring lion style, but his gloves had been replaced with the same utilitarian, generic ones the PRT officers wore in the field.

The Wards, at least, were in better shape.  Tired, to be sure, but they hadn’t been directly in the fray.  The patrol shifts were unending and they always had something to do.  Weld, Flechette, Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Chariot.

She deliberately avoided looking at Chariot.  The mole in their midst.  Did Coil suspect she knew about the mole he’d planted?  Could she afford to assume he didn’t?

Still, it would all be for nothing if she gave the game away.  Back to the matter at hand.

“We have three priorities,” she began.  “We take down the Nine, we regain control of the city, and we don’t die.”

She stressed the final two words, waiting to see their reactions.  Were any of her people thinking of performing a heroic sacrifice?

“There’s no point in winning now if any of you die or get converted to the enemy side by Regent or Bonesaw.  Even if we were to defeat the Nine outright, through some stroke of fortune, I harbor concerns that we’d lose the city without the manpower to defend it.  It’s a dangerous situation.”

She picked up the remote that sat in front of her and clicked the button.  The screen showed a map of the city with the spread of territories.

“The Nine have the advantage of power.  Not necessarily in terms of the abilities at their disposal, but in terms of their ability to affect change and shape everything that occurs.  They are our number one priority, obviously.  With them gone, if nothing else, I can hope that more capes will be willing to venture into the city to help out.”

“But we’re operating with a deadline, and the Undersiders and Travelers have just moved it up dramatically.  The Nine posed their challenge, and they’re losing.  There’s now four ’rounds’ of Jack’s little game remaining.  Twelve days, depending on their successes and failures in the future.  I’ve talked it over with Legend, and we’re both working under the impression that the Nine will enact whatever ‘penalty’ they mentioned in the terms for their game.  Our working assumption is a biological weapon.”

There were nods around the table.

“In short, our worst case scenario is the Nine feeling spiteful or cornered, and deploying this weapon.  When we attack, we need to make it an absolute victory, without allowing them an opportunity.  Wards, I know you’re not obligated to help in this kind of high-risk situation.  This is strictly voluntary, and I’ve had to discuss the matter with your parents to get permission to even raise the subject, but I would value and appreciate your help on this front.”

The Wards exchanged glances.

“If you could raise your hand if you’re willing to participate?”  She ventured.

Every hand except two was raised.  Chariot and Kid Win.

It did mean she had Flechette, Clockblocker and Vista.  The ones she needed.

“Thank you.  Rest assured, Chariot, Kid Win, that I harbor no ill will.”

“My mom wouldn’t forgive me if I went,” Kid Win said.

“I understand.  Now, the Nine are only one threat.  Let’s talk about the others.”  She clicked the remote again.  “Tattletale’s Undersiders have the advantage of information.  We still don’t know her powers, but we can speculate that it’s a peculiar sort of clairvoyance.  She was able to provide us detailed, verifiable information on Leviathan after fighting him, even though she was only participating for several minutes before being knocked out.”

She paused. “I believe this is why, in a matter of twenty-four hours, they were able to fight the Nine twice and win both times.  On the first occasion, they captured Cherish and Shatterbird, presumably enslaving the pair.”

“So they have Shatterbird’s firepower and Cherish’s ability to track people, now,” Legend spoke.

Piggot nodded.  “Skitter contacted us for assistance, as some of you will remember, and when we refused, the Undersiders took the fight to the Nine a second time.  Burnscar is dead, Bonesaw injured.  She’s invited us to attack them in the meantime.”

“Why would we do that now when we turned down her offer to cooperate?”  Weld asked.  “What’s changed between now and then?”

“Communications will be up shortly,” Piggot replied, “We now have the consoles and trained employees ready to man them, and so long as we’re going into this as a unit, we don’t need to worry about other groups stabbing us in the back at any point during the battle while we engage the Nine.”

“Would they?”  Legend asked.  “I have a hard time assessing their motives and morality.”

“I don’t know.  Could they?  Yes.  And that possibility is too dangerous, especially given what Regent can do.  The Undersiders do not pull their punches.  The Travelers, oddly enough, are more moderate, but they do have sixteen kills under their belt, due in large part to the sheer power at their disposal.”

“Let’s not forget the incident in New York,” Legend said.  “Forty individuals disappeared in one night.  Investigation confirmed the Travelers were occupying a nearby location.  Chances are good that they were involved.”

“They’re complicated, no doubt,” Emily confirmed.  “But for now, they’re one knot in a very  tangled weave.  The Nine have power, the Undersiders have information.  Coil has resources that may even exceed our own, including a precog of indeterminate power.  Last but certainly not least, Hookwolf’s contingent is one and a half times the size of our own, and he’s absorbing the whites from the Merchants to his own group.  He commands a small army.”

“It’s a considerable series of obstacles stacked against us,” Legend answered.

“And few capes are willing to step in to help defend the city.  Credit to Legend and his teammates for joining us.  Thank you.”

The group of guests nodded.

“There’s more.”  Time to see how much information filters through to Coil, and how he reactsWith luck, we might be able to pit one problem against another.  “Armsmaster’s confinement was technically off the record, to protect the PRT in this time of crisis.  He escaped, and thus far, Dragon has not been able to track him.  Without official record or reason to arrest him, our measures are limited.”

“It’s impressive that he got away from Dragon,” Kid Win said.

“It is.  Thus far, he has eluded every measure she had in place.  Either he is much more crafty than even Dragon anticipated, keeping in mind that she’s a very smart woman, or Dragon helped him.”

That gave the others pause.

“Dragon’s record of service has been exemplary,” Legend spoke.

“It has.  And we’ve put an inordinate amount of trust in her as a consequence.  How many of our resources are tied into her work?  If she had a mind to oppose us, would we be able to deal with her?”

“We have no reason to think she’s done anything.”

Emily waved him off.  “Regardless.  Very little of this situation remains in our control.  Armsmaster is gone, the other major players are members of the various factions, and we remain in the dark about who many of them are.”

There were nods all around.

She had them listening.  “I have a solution in mind.  The higher-ups have approved it.  Clockblocker, you’re going to be using your power defensively if things go south.  They aren’t patient enough to wait for it to wear off.  You can protect yourself by using your power on a costume you’re wearing, yes?”

Clockblocker nodded.

“Vista, I’m counting on you to help control the movements of the Nine.  Siberian is immune to powers, but not to external influences.  The timing will be sensitive.”

She clicked the remote, then turned her head to look at the result.  It was a warhead.

“On my command, a stealth bomber is prepared to drop payloads of incendiary explosives at a designated location.  We evacuate civilians from the area or lead the Nine to an area where evacuation is possible or unnecessary, then we drop a payload on site.  If they move, we drop another payload.  Clockblocker, you protect anyone that’s unable to clear out.  Legend will ferry you to where you need to be.  Cache can rescue people as the effects wear off.”

“That’s… still not reassuring,” Flechette spoke.

“You’ll be equipped with fire resistant suits.  I ordered them in anticipation over fighting Burnscar, but the plan has been adjusted.  You’ll all look identical, except for agreed upon icons, colors and initials on each costume.  Ones Jack and the other members of the Nine will not be able to identify, please.  There’s a team ready to prepare the costumes at a moment’s notice.  It will help mask the identities of those involved, and postpone any reaction from Jack over our having broken the terms of the deal.”

“But we are breaking the deal.  Even if Legend’s team doesn’t get involved-” Miss Militia started.

“The incendiary deployments will serve three purposes.  They’ll forestall any biological attacks Bonesaw attempts, they’ll force Siberian to stay put to protect her allies and they’ll kill Jack or Bonesaw if she isn’t able.  Humans aren’t biologically programmed to look up, and whatever else Siberian is, she’s still human at her core.”

“And if Siberian does protect her allies?” Weld asked.

“Flechette will see if her enhanced shots can beat Siberian’s invulnerability.  Failing that, Clockblocker contains the woman.  His power won’t work on her, but we can cage her in thread or chains that he can then freeze.  If we can do the same with Jack and Bonesaw, we can starve them out, or wait until they let go of Siberian.  If you’re prepared, Clockblocker?  We can support you with relief teams.”

“If it means stopping them, I’m down.”

“Unless she’s able to walk through that,” Weld spoke.

“It’s inviolable,” Clockblocker said, leaning back in his chair.  “I’d sooner expect her to fold the universe in half.”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s what the doctors say.”  Clockblocker said.

“And Crawler?” Legend asked.

Piggot spoke, “Legend, Ursa Aurora, Prism, Weld, Assault and Battery will occupy him until we can contain him.  He’s still vulnerable to physics.  I’m hoping the white phosphorous explosive will keep him in the area long enough for us to put measures in place.  As I said, we can’t afford to do this halfway.  If they get cornered, or if they think they’ll lose, we run the risk they’ll lash out.”

She glanced around the room at the fourteen parahumans present.

“We carry this out this evening, before any of our opponents catch on to our intentions and complicate matters with their own agendas.  That will be all.  Prepare.  See to your suits in the lab.”

She watched everyone file out.  Legend stayed behind.

“You’re not saying everything,” he murmured.

“No.”

“Fill me in?”

“Some of that is to mislead the spy in our midst.  We have a follow-up measure.”

“Does it pose a risk to this team?”

“It does.  Unavoidable.  I suspect Coil will inform Hookwolf and encourage the Chosen, the Pure and even Faultline’s group to act.  Tattletale, I suspect, will know something’s going on, and I intend to leak enough information to pique her curiosity.  It’s in the moment that the villains enter the situation that the risk to our capes occurs.”

“But?”

“But we have a store of equipment we confiscated from Bakuda when we raided her laboratory.  Miss Militia deployed a number against Leviathan, but we have more.  Once the other factions have engaged, we bombard the area with the remainder in a second strike.  Our research suggests that several of these explosives can bypass the Manton effect.”

“This breaks the unspoken rules between capes.  And the truce against the Nine.  I don’t like this.”

It’s a world gone mad.  Do I have to join the madmen to make a difference?

“Don’t worry.  I’m the one who’s going to push the button,” Piggot answered.  “And I’m not a cape.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

She couldn’t shake the idea that it was a hoax.  Three times, she almost turned around and headed back home.

Twenty eight miles west from New York City, down the 202, to where there were more trees than houses and the roads hadn’t been maintained for too many years.  It hadn’t rained recently, but there were murky puddles in the road where the water had settled into broad depressions.

Water sprayed as she deliberately aimed for one puddle.  Forty five minutes of driving, trying to convince herself this was real, not seeing anyone on the road for the last ten minutes, she’d started to feel lost.  The concrete action of steering into the puddle and getting the expected result seemed to ground her.

Every action had an equal and opposite reaction.  It was the way things were supposed to work.  Action and consequence.

Driving to the middle of nowhere was the action.  But what was the consequence?  Wasting two hours of her time on one of the last weekends of freedom she had before she was due to start school?  For a mere chance she might get what she needed?

She had to stop and reverse to reread a number on a mailbox.  2062.  She steered into the long dirt driveway.  A farm sat in the distance, with a rotted-out grain silo and a barn nearby.

What if this wasn’t just meant to waste her time?  What if it was more sinister?  If there was a gang of men waiting for her, ready to drag her off somewhere…

She shook her head.  She knew how to defend herself.  Her father had taught her, and she’d taken classes.  They didn’t necessarily know she was a woman from her email address. She’d left a note with her roommate, sealed with instructions not to open it or read the details unless she failed to return home.  Topping it off, the necklace she wore had a built-in GPS.  A gift from her sixteenth birthday from her dad.  If there was trouble, the note she’d left with her roommate had instructions to contact her dad and track her down using the necklace.

She stopped by the barn and sat in the car for a minute, peering around to try to see if anyone was near, the engine idling.  A minute passed before she felt secure enough that she wouldn’t be ambushed and shifted the car into park.  She held the key like a weapon as she stepped out of the car.  She didn’t hold the individual keys between her fingers, like an amateur would be inclined to do, but held it like a knife instead.

The barn was the final destination of the route the email had outlined for her.  Empty.  It smelled of stale manure, rotting hay and mold.  The exterior was covered in peeling red paint.

She checked her watch.  She was eight minutes early.

There were no other cars on the property.  That meant there were eight minutes for someone to come down that road with the cracks, potholes and puddles, pull down the long driveway and come meet her at the barn.

Her weight shifted from foot to foot, as her impatience manifested in restlessness.  Eight minutes before she found out if she’d been played for a fool.

She used her shoes to kick a few loose stones from the dirt driveway, smoothed it out, and then kicked them off.  Barefoot, she planted her feet a shoulder width apart, then bent her knees as though she were sitting down in a chair, her arms outstretched in front of her for balance.  She bent low, straightened, then repeated the process several more times.

Deep breaths.

Centering herself, she began on the next form, placing her feet perpendicular to one another, and transferring her weight from one foot to the other, from toe to heel to the heel of the other foot.

Her digital watch interrupted her exercises with a steady beeping.  She’d set an alarm for the meeting deadline.  Right this minute, she was supposed to be meeting someone.

And there was no car in sight.

Sighing, humiliated, she donned her shoes, opened her car door and prepared to leave.  She wouldn’t speak of this to anyone.

“Leaving?  After coming all this way?”  The voice was female, rich with hints of a French accent, but the English was probably better than her own.

She turned, then stepped a few feet in front of her car to look inside the barn.

A woman stood there, dark-skinned, with her hair cut into a short style that was more utilitarian than stylish.  She wore a doctor’s lab coat and held a white plastic clipboard with both hands.

That wasn’t the startling thing.

At a point halfway inside the barn, there ceased to be any barn at all.  White tiled floor and white-painted walls stretched a distance behind the woman, and the ceiling was all glass, hiding a smooth distribution of flourescent lights that made it all glow evenly.

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Mother, but that is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Those with a more professional attitude know me as Doctor.”

“I’m-”

“No names.  We’ve already investigated you, we know much of what we need to know, but I think there is a great deal of symbolic value in having you maintain some anonymity.  Pick a name, and I will use it for the duration of this meeting.  It doesn’t need to be permanent or long-term.”

“Okay.  Is it supposed to be a fake regular name or a codename or…?”

“Anything.”

“Jamie.”  It was the name her parents had been planning to give her baby sister.  They’d broken up before that happened.

“Jamie it is.  Come.  I have an employee that is relocating this section of my offices to this spot, but it taxes him, and there’ll be less wait for the return trip if we don’t strain him.”

Jamie looked over her shoulder at her car.  The GPS wouldn’t do her much good here, she suspected.  It would take a leap of faith.

She hurried over and stepped close to the Doctor, crossing that border from packed dirt and moldy hay to clean tiled floor.

There was a rush of wind, and the surroundings swam violently for two or three seconds.  When the image had resolved again, they stood in the middle section of a long hallway.  It looked like a hospital, sterile, white, clean, but it was empty.  There were no people, and there was no equipment.

“Welcome to Cauldron,” the Doctor said.

“How did you find me?  I just got an email.”

“I’d have to check my notes.  We have ways of finding interested parties.  If I remember right, you were browsing websites, researching ways to acquire tinker-made armor and weapons?”

Jamie nodded.  “I was.  So many were fakes or scams that I wasn’t willing to trust the ones that did look legit.”

“We own several of those sites.  All are fakes.  That might have been where we first noticed your activity.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“Creepiness is an unfortunate reality when you’re forced to operate covertly, without a steady customer base.”

“Why?  Why not go public?”

“Countries would go to war over what we have at our disposal.  A way to grant powers to anyone who wants them.  They would want armies of parahuman soldiers.  Even if we did manage to establish ourselves as a neutral party without government interference, Cauldron would be infiltrated by those looking to steal our secrets.  Spies, thieves.”

“And people who wanted to establish a rival business?”

They were reaching the end of the hallway.  The Doctor smiled lightly.  “And that.  Please, through this door.”

Jamie prided herself on her ability to identify evasions and untruths.  The Doctor was humoring her when she replied to the question about rival businesses.  The idea didn’t seem to worry her.  Why?

Jamie stepped through the open door and entered a large room.  As with the hallway, the decor was predominantly white.  There was a desk of white marble with a white leather chair, and two plastic chairs facing the desk.  A modestly sized monitor sat at one corner of the desk, with a compact keyboard placed in front of it, and no mouse.  The space was spartan.

I’d go crazy in here.  There’s no personality to this place.

Stranger still was the lack of dust.  Since her arrival, Jamie hadn’t seen anyone but the Doctor.  How did the Doctor keep everything so clean?

“Have a seat.”

Jamie sat in one of the plastic chairs.

“I like to talk and establish expectations before we begin.  You should know that almost every aspect of this experience can be tailored to your tastes.  Cauldron’s usual routine, however, is to arrange one face to face meeting.  We’ll discuss your budget, your situation and goals, and then we’ll peruse a catalog to find something that fits your budget and will hopefully give you the results you desire.  There is a two month waiting period, during which time I will assign you some testing, some regarding your physical condition, other tests for psychological reasons.”

“Psychological?  Is that to make sure I won’t flip out and go villain when I get powers?”

“That is not a concern.  Though your question seems to indicate that you hope to be a hero?”  The Doctor made it a half-question, half-statement.

Jamie’s brow furrowed.  “Wait, so you give powers to people who want to be villains?”

“We give powers to anyone who pays.  Rest assured, if you wish to end this meeting now because of a pang of conscience, we can see you returned to the barn shortly.”

Jamie hesitated, then shook her head.  “It’s fine.”

“The testing will include blood tests, stress tests, MRI, CAT scan, radiographic scans and a Torsten DNA sequencing.  These scans are primarily for our purposes, and if you’d prefer, you can have your family doctor arrange or conduct these tests instead for a small fee.  A larger fee will allow you to skip the tests entirely.”

Fees and additional expenses.  No.  The testing wasn’t so important that she’d spend her money on it.

“You can conduct the tests however you want,” Jamie said.

“Good.  You’ll need to forgive me, but I must be blunt.  Cauldron operates on a strict policy of secrecy.  It is crass of me to do this, but know that if you pass on any knowledge of what transpired here, we have ways to find out, and we’ll be forced to employ countermeasures.  This is in effect even if you decide you do not wish to sign anything.”

“Countermeasures?”

“Our response will reflect the gravity of the offense.  We have clients who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the products and services we offer.  It is our obligation to protect them.”

“What kind of countermeasures?  Would you kill me?”

“We try to avoid murder in the course of doing business, not just because of the moral issues, but because it draws attention.  For leaks, our usual procedure is to discredit the individual in question and deploy our in-house division of parahumans to drive them into hiding, remove their powers or both.”

Try to avoid murder.  The phrasing implied the Doctor or Cauldron had gone that far before. She didn’t like that, and she especially didn’t like the fact that the Doctor was phrasing things so she’d miss that detail if she wasn’t listening carefully.

“It’s fine.  I don’t intend to break the rules.”

“Few do.  Still, I’ve done my duty and informed you.  Tell me about yourself, Jamie.  I know your father is in law enforcement.”

“He’s a detective, yeah.”

“Does that have anything to do with why you’re here?”

Jamie frowned and looked away.  “Yeah.”

“Tell me.”

“A year ago… well, it all started two years ago.  There were two criminals called Ramrod and Fleece.  The local heroes brought them into custody, partially because of my dad’s work in tracking the pair down.  Three strikes act applied to Fleece, and Ramrod was in for murder with intent.  They put them in special cells, got them a court date, and everything was normal.  My dad worked to gather the evidence, made some deals with informants to testify anonymously, and everything.  The court process takes a lot longer than it does on TV.”

“Too true.”

“Finally, after about a year of court appearances and one minor appeal they managed to squeeze in there, it was decided.  The pair was supposed to go to the Birdcage.  Except someone broke them out.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Jamie gnawed on her lip for a second.  Just thinking about it pissed her off.  “His name is Madcap, and he’s a mercenary that specializes in breaking people out of jail.  Sometimes even when they’re in the convoy on the way to the Birdcage.  And it’s just… wrong.  It’s not the way things should work.  Months or years of investigation, good police and good heroes risking their lives to finally catch someone and arrest them, a year of trial, and all it takes is one fucking asshole with powers to free them?”

“And so you’ve spent the last year trying to find a way to purchase powers, with the intent of righting that wrong?”

“I want to stop him.  And not just him.  I want to help things make sense again, even if it means playing unfair because they’re playing unfair.  Crime should have consequences.”

The Doctor typed something onto the keyboard, paused, and then typed something else. “Madcap.  Well, the good news is that he isn’t one of ours, so there’s no conflict of interest. The bad news is that the PRT rated him as a striker seven.”

Jamie’s face settled into a grim expression.  “I know.  My dad has resources.  I took the time to look up Madcap’s records.”

“Having looked into your finances-”

“I’ve got a place in the city that was left to me.  My dad doesn’t know about it, so it’d be easy to sell it and not have anyone close to me get curious where they money went.  Current housing market says I could sell it for three-quarters of a million dollars.  I just have to sell it.”

“We can expedite this.  Cauldron is prepared to buy the property from you for seven hundred and thirty thousand dollars, renting it out to you in the meantime if you require it.  We will sell it at our leisure rather than wait for you to find a buyer.”

“I don’t need you to rent it to me.  No, that works,” Jamie said.  She was secretly relieved to have one of the biggest hurdles handled so easily.

“Good.”

“And I have another five thousand that my relatives set aside for my school.  It’d be harder to use that without people getting curious, but it’s there.”

“We’ll see.  In terms of cost, Cauldron requires that the client pay two-thirds of the total amount in advance, and pay the rest over a six year period or default.”

“Meaning you employ those countermeasures you talked about.”

“Revoking your powers in the worst case scenario, yes.”

“Is that revoking of powers a part of the process of however you give people the powers, or is it something that one of your in-house capes does?”

The Doctor was typing on the computer.  Without taking her eyes from the screen, she said, “The latter.  You don’t need to worry about someone using a loophole or flaw in the process to take away your abilities.”

The Doctor frowned at the image on the computer screen.

“What?”

The Doctor turned the monitor around.  It showed graphs and charts that made little sense to Jamie.  Clearing her throat, the Doctor leaned forward over the desk and extended one manicured nail to point at a series of labels on a three-dimensional graph.  “This is the ‘P’ value as related to the cost of the power, with the expected range of powers.  The amount of money you have, even assuming an additional thirty-three percent in payment made at a future date, is probably not going to provide you with the power you’d need to take on a striker-seven.”

Jamie’s face fell.  Shaking her head in confusion, she asked, “‘P’?  And what do you mean by probably?”

The Doctor opened a drawer and retrieved a binder.  She slid it across the desk.

Every page was laminated, labeled with a serial number.  Each page had a picture of a vial with a different colored metallic liquid inside, sitting beside a list of powers.  The bottom half of the page or a second page, depending on the number of powers listed, had a grid with a number assigned to an arrangement of letters.

“No sample provides the exact same powers every time.  The bullet points note examples of the powers gained when the sample was tried on a human subject or a client.  There’s typically a common thread or theme connecting powers from a given sample.  One sample might have a tendency to work with the production of acids and a tendency for physical manifestation.  This might allow an individual to turn into a living pool of acid, to secrete acid from his pores or to spit streams of corrosive venom.”

“I don’t want a power like that.”

“No.  For one thing, the ‘R’ value of sample J-zero-zero-ninety is very low.  Note the letters on the grid.  The most important ones are the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’.  These, on their own, determine roughly ninety-percent of a sample’s cost.  O refers to a power’s uniqueness.  It’s largely subjective, and liable to change through factors entirely out of Cauldron’s control, but it is easier to stand out as a hero or villain if nobody else can do what you do.”

“You’ve already mentioned the other two letters in passing.”

“The ‘P’ value is the raw effect of the granted abilities.  An estimation of the rating the PRT would assign to the powers.  Higher ‘P’, more effective and versatile abilities.”

Jamie nodded.  “And ‘R’?”

“Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there are no guarantees.  A given sample does not provide the same effects every time it is tested.  There are admittedly some dangers involved in the use of our product.  Sometimes there are physical changes that cannot be masked.  You have seen the heroes or villains with glowing eyes or less human features.”

That was sobering.

“The ‘R’ value refers to how predictable a given sample is.  There are some that produce very simple, reliable results.  In sixty-three tests of sample T-six-zero-zero-one, it has only failed to grant a form of flight on two occasions.  Contrast that with sample B-zero-zero-thirty.  It has, in four tests, granted an individual the ability to make things implode, it has created a powerful vacuum in someone’s mouth, that draws everything into a portal where it is promptly annihilated.  Sample B-zero-zero-thirty killed the other two test subjects.”

Killed.  There was an outside possibility she could die, if she took the wrong one, or if she got especially unlucky.

“How do you test this?  You’re talking about a lot of tests, sixty for just one sample, but there’s no way people wouldn’t notice or that word wouldn’t get out if you were doing something like that.”

“As you’ve seen, Cauldron has resources.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“It does.  Just not as clearly as you want it to.”

Something in the Doctor’s tone suggested the woman wasn’t going to elaborate further.  Jamie shut her mouth, frowning slightly.

“As you can see here, this graph shows the relationship between cost and the rising ‘P’, ‘O’ and ‘R’ values.”

It was a cube broken into a multitude of smaller cubes, with P as the X axis, O as the Y and R as the Z.  They ranged from white to sky blue to darker blue, purple, red, and finally crimson.  The key at the bottom of the graph suggested that anything beyond dark blue would cost several million dollars.  By the time it hit crimson, it was ranging into the hundreds of millions.

“This… is what you can afford.”  The Doctor hit a key and the graph was reduced to the white and light blue cubes.  “You could theoretically push into the seven range of ‘P’ values, to put yourself at this Madcap’s level in terms of raw power, but you would be forfeiting a great deal in the other two departments.  Your powers would be relatively simple, defaulting to the sort of abilities that countless other heroes already have… and with the low ‘R’ score, you would be risking getting something you do not want.  Physical changes, perhaps, or powers outside of the area you wanted.  Super strength when you desired telekinesis, for a crude example.”

“I… I’m not fixated on anything particular, powerwise.  Flying would be cool, but I’ll take anything that works.”

The Doctor tapped a key, and the graph shifted so there were only three rows.  She’d removed the samples with higher uniqueness values.

“Then the question is…” the Doctor said, “How much are you willing to gamble?  A hero can beat a superior foe with strategy, tactics and forethought, and I get the impression you’re focused enough to put your mind to the task.  Perhaps you’d want to emphasize reliability in a sample over the power it could offer you?”

“Can you zoom in?”

The Doctor did.

“So… how unreliable is a five, if we’re talking about ‘R’?”

“If you decided on a sample with an ‘R’ score of five, I would tell you I could make no promises.  There would be perhaps a three or four percent chance you would experience some unwanted physical changes.  Zero-point-five percent chance that you’d experience changes of a degree that you wouldn’t be able to go out in public without drawing notice, even with heavy clothing.  You would, I’d venture, not be buying a particular power, but the broader category of that power.  To use our earlier example, you would not be buying acid spit, specifically, but an acid power.

Jamie looked at the other lines on the graph, “And I’d be getting something like an ‘O’ of three and a ‘P’ of five.”

“Something in that neighborhood, yes.”

“A power rating of five to Madcap’s seven,”  Jamie put her elbows on the edge of the desk and her head in her hands.

“There’s a chance you could get lucky and achieve a power with a greater ‘P’ value than expected.”

Again, that misdirection.  Jamie shook her head.  “And a roughly equal chance that I could get unlucky, since it’s an average.”

“Admittedly true.”

“Is there anything else I could do?  A way to get better results?”

“We have options, but I don’t know that they apply to your case.  I mentioned the psychological testing earlier.  You should know that an individual’s personality, mental state and background do seem to have a great deal of effect on the resulting power. I would even say it’s one of the primary factors, outside of the sample itself.”

Jamie wondered momentarily how her own mental state would influence her powers.

The Doctor went on, “We have a package we call ‘Shaping’, and another we call ‘Morpheus’.  Both are intended to make the most of the two month waiting period and help a client reach an ideal mental and emotional state.  It’s often purchased by our high-end customers, to refine the powers they want and help ensure there are no untoward effects. For a low-end customer such as yourself, I don’t know that it would suit your needs.  You would be buying a lower quality sample to pay for the package… perhaps if you were someone who wanted powers for recreational purposes.  If you wanted to help guarantee that you got the ability to fly, for example.”

Jamie nodded.

“There’s the Nemesis program, but you already have an opponent in mind, and I expect you’re more interested in a fair fight than having an opponent you’re guaranteed to succeed against when it counts.”

“Yeah.”  This Nemesis program… how many prominent heroes or villains were out there that had faked or staged confrontations like that?

“Hmm.  Nothing else springs to mind as our packages go.  When we design an additional feature or program, we tend to aim it at our more wealthy customers.”

“You guys are doing lots of testing.  Could I do something like help with that?  Or something outside of these packages and programs?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m serious, I’m hard-working, and I stick to my guns.”

“It’s our tendency to require that any client be prepared to perform one unspecified favor for us at a later date.  Usually a simple task or a week of service.  It serves as a way to cover our bases without revealing too much in respect to our operations.”

“Very Godfather.  Do these favors mean doing anything illegal?”

“Sometimes.  But no, often it is a request to meet someone, to pass on a message, or help manage an information leak, a show of force to scare someone who is poking too deep.”

Jamie’s leg bounced nervously as she looked at the screen.  “And?”

“If you agree to perform three favors at a future date, and I suspect we could extend something of a discount.”

The Doctor hit several keys, and the graph extended a little in every direction.  Where it had been white and light blue, it now showed cubes of dark blue.

“What would you ask me to do?”

“I don’t know yet.  I prefer to leave that option open.”

Everything in Jamie’s gut told her there was some small lie or misdirection in there.  Either the Doctor did know what she wanted to ask for, or she knew her customer wouldn’t like what she heard.

Whatever these favors were, all she could do was hope she could do enough good to counterbalance any wrongs she’d have to commit.

“Alright,” Jamie said.  “Sounds like a deal.”

Jamie’s fourth visit to Cauldron was less out of her way than her first.  She entered the same way as before, but this time the hallway from Cauldron’s location was transplanted into the middle of her apartment.  She wasted no time in stepping through.

The Doctor was not waiting for her, but she knew where she was going.  She strode down the empty, spotless hallways, past innumerable matching doors.  There were no windows in this place.  Nothing peeking into the outside.

Still, she knew where she was.  She’d checked the GPS data on her necklace.  The Ivory Coast.  The west coast of Africa.  It was dangerous information to have.

If I tried to open one of those doors, would it be locked?  What would be inside?  Or would alarms go off, my chance here spoiled?

She’d been here twice since her first meeting.  Both times, she’d had her psychological testing.  She’d also had a full workup done.  The psychiatrist had been a young-looking white man, the doctor a heavyset Greek.  They’d said little beyond what they needed to for the testing, and had volunteered nothing about Cauldron.

She made her way to the room where she’d done her stress test.  Here, she’d run back and forth with steadily increasing speeds until she couldn’t run anymore.  She’d rested, then run again, then again, until she couldn’t even stand.

The Doctor was waiting for her.  A metal canister sat on a table, and there was a sturdily built, cushioned chair sitting close by.

“You’re ready?” the Doctor asked.

Jamie nodded.

“If you’ll change into this, we can preserve your clothes for the return trip home.”

Jamie took the offered clothing, a plain gray bodysuit that would cover everything from the neck down.  A word in blocky black letters on the front read ‘Jamie’ while one on the back read ‘Client’.

There was no indicated change room, and the Doctor was focused on the canister and the stack of papers she was setting down on the table.  Jamie changed where she stood, folding her clothes and setting them on the edge of the table.

“Sit.”

Jamie sat in the chair.  Comfortable.

“Sample T-one-one-seven-seven, with the agreed upon addition of Sample C-zero-zero-seventy-two.  This is correct?”

“Yes.  It’s what I paid for.”

“Read and sign here.  And there are stipulations on, let me see… pages twenty-six and twenty-nine that you need to sign as well.”

Jamie leaned forward and read through the contract.  It was every term they’d agreed upon, legalese and politely worded warnings about the hell Cauldron would try to bring down on her head if she broke the terms of the contract.  There were pages of receipts covering the financial transactions, and pages more of details about her own medical and psychological evaluations.

There were two stipulations to agree to.  One for the three favors she’d agreed to perform.  Another on the psychological testing.

Nine years ago, she had been kidnapped for use as leverage against her father.  She had been held in their custody for three days.  No food, six water bottles to drink and no bathroom.  She’d gone to the washroom in the corner, had removed one sock to keep the pee from making its way across the sloped hardwood floor.

She’d assured the psychiatrist that she had gotten over any of the trauma and any fear of the dark that had stemmed from that incident.  It was her father that’d had a hard time dealing with the event.

She’d been young then, and the event hadn’t really stuck in her memory.  But she couldn’t shake the idea that the kidnapping might have left some lingering effect on her that would taint the process.

“You haven’t eaten?”

“Nothing since this time yesterday.”

“You don’t have any colds, no aches and pains?”

“No.”

“That’s too bad.  The sample we use to moderate and control the effects of the finished products has a short-lived regenerative effect.  This is one of the selling points we offer to the clients we find in hospitals and the like.  Some have even recovered or partially recovered from life-long disabilities.  We’ve had reports from people who were mildly ill when they gained their powers, who found they never got sick again.  It would be nice to verify this.”

“You couldn’t have told me that before?”

“It could easily be a placebo effect.  Not worth a rescheduling.  You’re comfortable?”

“Sure.”

The Doctor unscrewed the canister and withdrew a vial.  It was no longer than a pen and no thicker than one of the Doctor’s fingers.  “The faster you drink it all, the quicker and cleaner the transition is.”

“You said something about a dream quest?”

“Some experience it.  Some don’t.  Don’t be concerned if you don’t.  Simply relax to the best of your ability and stay focused.  The higher and more pronounced the physical reactions like your heart rate, sweating, adrenals, and emotional response, the greater the chance of a physiological change.  I recommend that you keep from dwelling on any stressful thoughts or memories.  Just stay calm and try to relax as much as you’re able.”

“Isn’t that like asking someone to not think of a blue elephant?  They’re going to think about a blue elephant.”

“I stress, only a small percentage of people experience enough stress that they undergo any physical change.”  The Doctor removed the stopper from the top of the vial and carefully handed it over, not letting go until she was sure Jamie had a firm grip.

Jamie held the vial for several long moments.  “Now?”

“When you’re ready.”

Jamie tossed it back like she’d seen people throw back shots of hard liquor.  She coughed as it coated the inside of her throat, her saliva doing little to nothing to help it down.  The Doctor reached out, and Jamie handed her the vial.

It began to burn, the intensity increasing second by second, until she was convinced it couldn’t get any worse.  It did.

“Hurts,” she groaned, trying to push herself to a standing position.

“It’ll get more severe before it gets better.  Stay in the chair.”

“Didn’t tell me,” she could barely speak with the way her chest felt like it was caving in on itself.

“I didn’t want to alarm you before we began.  It’s normal, and it does get better.  A minute, maybe two, and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pain goes away.”

She clutched the arms of the chair.  As unfathomably bad as it had been just moments ago, it kept getting worse.  She had to endure another two minutes of this?  It felt like the burning inside of her was melting through the walls of her throat and stomach.  She could imagine the tissue blistering and dissolving, expanding outward until it touched on her lungs and her heart.

As it seemed to consume her lungs, her breathing began to dissolve into breaths too quick and small to bring enough oxygen into her lungs.  Darkness began to creep in at the edges of her vision.

“Relax.”  The Doctor’s voice sounded far away.

She was panicking, and the idea that she was panicking made it worse, because it could mean she’d change.  She might look different.  Scales, spines, metallic skin or something else.

The darkness swallowed her field of vision and she felt as though it were creeping over her skin.

What had she been thinking, doing this?

Have to calm down.

She’d taken up Tai Chi when she was thirteen, something one of her therapists had encouraged to deal with stress.  She couldn’t move here, and it was impossible to stand, let alone do her exercises, but she could try to reach that mental state.  She attempted to take deep breaths, but she couldn’t even tell if she had air in her lungs or if she was breathing in or out.  She tensed the muscles in her fingers and toes, then forced herself to relax them.  She did the same with the muscles of her hands and feet.  She worked her way up through the entirety of her body, focusing on that simple action of tension, relaxation.

The pain didn’t stop, but she felt disconnected from it, now.  She was calmer, focused.  She felt as though she were adrift in a vast, empty space, aware of every part of her body, the wholeness of it, and nothing else.

An incoherent image flickered across her mind.  A landscape of twisted biological shapes that seemed to alter with every passing second, changing into something completely different.  An archway of bony growths disconnected and became a bridge over a crevasse.  Then a hill.  Yet it all seemed to change with logic.  It was just a logic she couldn’t comprehend.

The ground split.  Chasms tore into the surface, dividing it, and-

Another image.  Earth.  It was as though she was looking at everyone’s face and every object and every living thing on the planet at once, from every angle, but then she was looking at a different everyone and everything, then another.  It dawned on her that it wasn’t her doing the looking.  She was a bystander.  Before she could realize what this other was looking for, the scene changed again.

Utter blackness and silence.  It was only in this stillness and quiet that Jamie realized there was an undercurrent.  An impression.  She hesitated to call it an emotion.

Reaching.  It was the only word she could use to place it, and it didn’t quite fit.  It was an action that was simultaneously frustrated and frustrating.

The pain cleared away so quickly she thought she might have imagined it.

She was on the ground, she realized.  On her hands and knees.  Tears ran down her cheeks.  Not all were from the pain.  Some were sympathetic.

“What was that?  What did I just see?  It wasn’t a dream.  It wasn’t what you described.”

“Roughly half of my customers ask questions similar to yours after they’ve transitioned.  I always say the same thing.  I don’t know.”

Even in the daze she was in, Jamie’s instincts told her the Doctor was lying.

“I expect you’ll retain the memory better if you don’t try too hard to hold onto it.”

The strange things she had seen didn’t seem to matter anymore.  “Did I… change?  Is my body different?”

“You glowed briefly, but that passed.  You look the same as you did.”

Jamie nodded, too worn out to feel relieved.

“I’m going to leave, now, for my own safety.  I recommend sitting and resting before anything else.  When you’re prepared, stand and see what you can do to exercise your new abilities.”

The doctor was halfway to the door when Jamie shifted her position and prepared to climb into the chair.  Relief was surging through her.  She hadn’t become a monster.  She hadn’t lost her mind.  This was for real.  What she had seen, it was too profound to mean anything else.  Even a hit of LSD wouldn’t have given her visions as clear as that.  Not that she’d done LSD.

Though she didn’t feel dizzy, she found she lacked the sense of balance to stand, and tipped forward.  Between one heartbeat and the next, everything seemed to click.  She felt as though she were floating in slow motion rather than falling, her body thrumming.  She extended one arm toward the arm of the chair to catch herself, but she underestimated the speed and strength of the movement in the midst of this slow motion world.  The chair was sent flying, skidding across the floor.  She fell hard, the moment over, her fall no longer slow motion.

On the other side of the room, the chair hit the wall and shattered.

“Seems you have something.  Congratulations,” the Doctor said.

Madcap hit one of the armored PRT vans hard enough to make it roll.  The driver of the second tried to steer clear, but Madcap stepped into the path of the incoming vehicle.  It struck him and the vehicle virtually bounced off of him, the hood crumpling as though it had hit a telephone pole.

He rolled his shoulders, and then kicked the vehicle.  It skidded along the road and collided with the third truck, which had already pulled to a stop.

Which left only the task of freeing his clients.

“Stop!”

Madcap turned.  Jamie stood in the middle of the street, opposing him.  Her low-budget costume consisted of a black bodysuit and a domino mask.

“You’re cute.  Nice body, and the costume is a nice mix of pathetic and adorable in a three-legged-puppy kind of way.   But you don’t want to try to stop me.  I hit pretty damn hard.”

The mention of her costume embarrassed her.  She hadn’t had the money after buying her powers.  Still, three legged puppy?

Madcap, by contrast, was wearing a customized costume that had cost no small amount of money.  A faceguard covered the lower half of his face, and was imprinted with the image of a wide grin.  Black facepaint surrounded his dark eyes, accentuating the whites, and a pointed black leather cap connected to the mask and his costume.  His armor was more aesthetic than functional, and featured broad, spike-studded pads.

“I hit pretty hard myself,” Jamie replied.  A glance over her shoulder revealed that the two men who’d been driving the containment van nearest her were running.  She knew it was empty, a decoy.

She wrested the bumper free with a tug and then swung it at Madcap like an oversized bat.

He blocked it with one hand, and the scrap of metal slipped from her hand and went sailing into the nearby cornfield.

Then he slid forward and tapped the flat of one hand against her chest.  She bounced off of the ground and fell in a heap.  It took her one attempt at standing before she realized it was futile.

Two PRT soldiers stepped forward to try to spray him with foam, but he dispatched both with a throw of something that looked like a thick frisbee.  With nobody left to stop him, Madcap proceeded to tear doors off the containment vans until he found the prisoners.

Jamie tried to move again.  Everything hurt too much.

“No,” Madcap said.  “Leave her be.”

She opened her eyes to see two villains, a male and a female standing nearby, with Madcap standing between her and them..

“She looks like a right morsel,” the man commented.

“Not saying she doesn’t,” Madcap said, “But hands off.  You paid me to free you, and I can’t do that if you’re fucking around.”

“Spoilsport,” the woman said, teasing.  “Come on.”

Then they were gone, and Jamie let her head rest on the pavement.

“My power didn’t work.  I was strong, and then I wasn’t.”

“There are going to be nuances,” the Doctor said.  “We could help you investigate the intricacies of your ability.  But that would cost you.”

“Everything costs something, here.”

“I have another idea in mind.”

“Another idea?”

“Consider this your first favor to us.  Cauldron would be much obliged if you could join the ranks of the Wards, and then graduate to the Protectorate as soon as possible.”

“The Protectorate?  Why?  To sabotage it from within?  Steal information?  I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“Just join.  That’s all I ask.  If nothing else, it would mean you had resources and training to develop your powers and achieve your own goals.”

Jamie frowned, looking at her gloved hand.  She had been contemplating joining anyways.  It meant one favor out of the way, relatively harmless, which was good, but there was little doubt that Cauldron wanted her in place for a reason.

“Round eight, puppy?”  Madcap said, “Maybe you can finally win one!”

Jamie charged him, and the rest of her team followed soon after.

Madcap leapt to one side as Legend fired a series of beams at him.  The villain plunged into and through the concrete wall of the jail, and Jamie was only steps behind him.  She saw him rounding a corner and gave chase.

He wasn’t in the hallway.  There wasn’t even debris from where he’d torn his way through yet another wall.

She activated her power.  Time seemed to slow down as she sped up.  She snapped her head to look up and saw him in the middle of a leap over her head.  He’d timed it perfectly, so he would be above her when she rounded the corner.

Except she was faster, and she could hit harder than he could.  Given a chance.

Her elbow caught him while he was still airborne, and unable to dodge.  She slammed him into a wall, and followed up with a leaping kick while the effects of her power still coursed through her.

Madcap rebounded off of the wall as though he were made of rubber and ducked beneath her incoming kick.  Twisting around as he rose back to a standing position, he got a grip on her from behind in the same moment her foot hit the wall.  Heaving, he hurled her down the length of the hallway.

Calm.  She had to be calm, concentrate.  Even as she flew through the air, she let her power build up inside her, then released it.  With the half second of effect it gave her, she contorted herself to touch the wall with one foot, then lightly kicked it to turn herself toward the ground.  She landed in a crouch, sliding from the inertia, and began charging up for another go.

Legend’s lasers tore into the spot where Madcap had been a half second ago.  The villain sprinted toward Jamie, moving faster with each step.

“Battery!” Legend called out, “Stop him!”

She held on, concentrating.  She let a deep breath pass through her lips.

Sticking one foot out in front of him, Madcap changed directions, heading straight through the wall.  Plaster exploded around him.

She released her power, and for just seconds, she was strong, she was almost invincible, and above all else, she was fast.  She ran forward, plunging through two walls in her pursuit.  Emerging from the second wall, she came within a few feet of Madcap.

He turned on the spot, reaching out to block her strike or grab her.

But she didn’t give him the opportunity to do either.  Instead, she spent the rest of her accumulated power in a single burst, pulling at the metal of a nearby chair.  It fell over, sliding into Madcap’s path.  The metal legs caught on his own legs, one sliding just beneath his descending foot.  He stumbled.  He exerted his power, causing the chair to crumple and explode before he stumbled any further and fell. 

She heard a brief chuckle from the man as he turned to make his escape.

Legend had taken advantage of that momentary delay to get in position.  He caught the villain with a laser blast.  Madcap tumbled, got his feet under him and darted for cover.  A laser blast turned the corner to follow and smash the villain into the ground.  Legend shot him again while he was down, and the man was unconscious.

“Good job, Battery.” Legend spoke with a smile.  “Finally, huh?”

“Finally,” she said.

“I really don’t want to go to the Birdcage,” Madcap said.  He was covered in containment foam from shoulder to toe.

“You’ve committed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred felonies,” Legend answered him.  “I don’t think you have many options.”

“Felonies, sure, but I haven’t killed anyone, and that’s got to be worth something.  Now, this is just a suggestion, but what if I switched sides?”

“Get real,” Battery replied.

“I’m serious, puppy.  You guys need more bodies on the field, I don’t want to go to the Birdcage, it’s win-win.  I’m strong.”

“You’ve spent nearly six years perverting the course of justice for others,” she replied.

“And now I can make amends!” They had removed his mask, but his real smile was almost more mocking than the one that had been styled into the mask.

“You spent the last five and a half years getting people out of the Birdcage, claiming to be against it and everything it stood for, but now you’re willing to work to put people in there?”

“Maybe you’ve changed me.  Your good looks, your winning personality, and your diehard persistence in the face of so many defeats at my hand.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Don’t suppose we can gag him?”

“Sadly, no.  And he raises an interesting idea.”

“He’s going to run the second he gets a chance.”

“There are options.  Tracking devices, or perhaps Myrddin can put some countermeasure in place.”

“I’m down for any of that stuff,” Madcap said, casting a sidelong glance at Battery.  He grinned, “But I want some concessions.”

“Concessions?  You asshole.  You should be glad that we’re even entertaining this asinine idea.”

“I think you’ll find them pretty reasonable,” Madcap said, more to Legend than Battery.

“Let’s hear it.”

“I think this would work best if I took on a new identity.  New costume.  My powers are versatile enough that I doubt anyone’s going to draw a connection.  It also means I don’t have any enemies or any paranoid customers from my shady past coming after me.”

“That could be arranged.”

“And I want to be on her team,” Madcap said, pointing at Battery.  He smiled.  “Puppy changes to a new city, I go with.”

“Hell no,” Battery said.

Why?” Legend asked.

“It’s funny,” Madcap said.  “It’s going to irritate the piss out of her, and I’ve got just a little bit of a sadistic streak in me.  If I don’t channel it somehow, this just isn’t going to work out.  Just give me this, and I’ll be a boy scout.”

“Boy scout?  You’ll be on your best behavior?”  Legend asked.  “This would be more than even regular probation.”

No.” Battery said.

Yes.”  Madcap answered the man.

No,” Battery said, stabbing a finger at Legend.  “I’ve been a damn good hero for you guys.  My record is spotless, I’ve put in the hours, I’ve put in the overtime hours.  I’ve done the jobs nobody else wants to do, the unpaid volunteer crap, the patrols at the dead of night when nothing happens.  This is a punishment.”

“You’re right,” Legend sighed, “It would be a heavy burden for a good heroine.  So it’s up to you.  You decide if Madcap joins the Protectorate or not.  I won’t judge you if you say no.”

“But you think I should say yes.”

“I do, if it makes us stronger in the long run.”

Battery looked down at Madcap, and the villain offered her an exaggerated pout, his eyes large, his lower lip sticking out.

“Fuck me,” she said.  “You’re going on paper as the one making the call, Legend, and you’re taking the hit if this backfires.”

“That’s fair.”

“Yes!” Madcap grinned.

“I’ve died and gone to hell,” Battery muttered.  It was everything she’d become a hero to prevent.  A villain evading his rightful justice.  But she knew it was for the greater good.  They did need more heroes out there.

“I already have a name in mind for my goodie-two-shoes costumed self,” Madcap grinned.  “You’re going to like this one, puppy.”

“You’re going to have to stop calling me that,” Battery warned him, “Or your identity as Madcap is going to become public knowledge, fast.”

Madcap rubbed his chin.  “Maybe.  I’ll agree to stop if you accept my name.”

She sighed.  “I already know I’m going to hate this.”

“You’ll love it.  Assault.  Get it?”

It took her a second to process.  “No!”

“No?  But it’s perfect.  We’ll be a pair!  People will know from the second they hear it.”

“The connotations are horrible!  No!  You’re not allowed to change the intent of my name like that!”

“Fine, fine.  Point taken.  Puppy.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Can I maybe get a raise, for putting up with this?”

The leader of the Protectorate folded his arms.  “Something can be arranged.”

“It can be a coffee,” Assault told her.  “Or a beer after a night of patrols.  Nothing fancy, low stress.”

Low stress?  You’re forgetting the part where I’d be spending more time in your company than I have to.”

“Hon, you need to unwind.  Relax.  You’re too rigid, and I know for a fact that you haven’t had a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the two years I’ve worked with you.”

“Stop implying I’m into women, Ass.”

“Well, you know, you keep turning me down, so it kind of makes a man wonder.”

“I’ve been too busy, and even if I did want to date, rest assured, you would be my last pick for company.”

“So hurtful!”  He pressed one hand to his chest.  “Look at me, I’m like a knight in shining armor, now.”

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing, more like.”

“Arooo.”

Miss Militia stopped in the doorway.  “Need rescuing?”

“If you could put a bullet between his eyes, I’d owe you one.”

“No can do.”  Miss Militia offered her an apologetic grimace.  “You okay, though?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

Miss Militia headed on her way, and Assault smiled, “Listening to her, you’d think every second in my company was torture.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Battery retorted.  She turned and topped off her cup of coffee, finishing the pot.  Assault stepped in and began preparing the next pot.  It would have been a nice gesture if it weren’t for the smug look on his face.

“Come on.  Give me a chance.  Let me know what it takes to get one night of your company.  Tell me to bring you a star in the palm of my hand, or slay a dreaded Endbringer, and I’ll get it done.”

“You’d just find some loophole and bring me a plastic star or kill an Endbringer in a video game, which would only give you an excuse to harass me further.”

“Then think of something else.  Anything.”

Battery sipped on her coffee.  “Anything?  Armsmaster was looking for volunteers for some unpaid work at one of the primary schools.  I already said I’d do it.”

“You do all of that crap,” Assault rolled his eyes.  “It’d be admirable if you weren’t trying so ridiculously hard at it.  It’s like you’re trying to make up for some wrong you think you’ve committed.”

Battery frowned a little.

The grin dropped from Assault’s face.  “Hey, seriously?”

She shook her head.  “No.  No wrong committed, real or imagined.”

“But the way you looked just now-”

She interrupted him.  “If you come on this errand with me and do part of the speech for the kids, I’ll maybe consider possibly going out with you for lunch someday.”

“Excellent!”  Assault grinned.

He strode off, looking like he’d just won the lottery.

She smiled.  If he only knew this was her shot at some clean, innocent payback.  The squealing, screaming grade schoolers, all fighting and pulling on your costume and demanding demonstrations of powers and constantly asking questions.

And he’d have to put up with it.

She would relish this.

“…And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip!  Snap!  Snip!  The scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!…”

Assault read from the book of poems, and every one of the ninety kids that sat around him were leaning forward, eyes wide.

“He’s so good with kids,” the librarian murmured.

“Of course he is,” Battery said.  Maybe there was a hint of bitterness in her voice, because the librarian gave her a funny look.

She plastered a fake smile on her face to assuage the woman’s doubts.

“…both his thumbs are off at last!”  Assault finished.

The kids squealed in delighted horror.

Pain in the ass, she thought.  If I were reading that one they’d all be crying.

Battery’s phone vibrated.  She excused herself from the librarian’s company and checked the display.

Customer wants product hand delivered by known parahuman.  Package waiting in your apartment.  Second task.  -c

Cauldron had sent it to the phone the Protectorate gave her?  To a number that only the Protectorate had?  Did that mean something?

She deleted the message.  It would be easy enough to handle.  If the recipient wound up being a villain at a future date, she’d stop them, put them away.  This would just be a delivery.

Assault caught her eye and a slow smile spread across his face, as the little girl in his lap read some of the next poem.  The look was smug, sly.  He knew exactly how much this was irritating her.

“Jackass,” she muttered.

But she couldn’t stop a smile of her own from spreading across her face.

The glass in the little window of her front door was shattered.  It fell on her feet as she pushed the door open.

“Ethan!”  Battery called out.

“You’re okay,” Ethan said, as he came down the stairs.  He was still in costume.  Only a single cut marked his cheek.

“I didn’t know where to find you, and since the cell phones don’t work anymore, and you weren’t at headquarters, I thought I’d come here.”

“I know.  I thought much the same thing, but I came here first.”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m okay, puppy.”

She punched him lightly in the arm.  She didn’t resist as he swept her up in a painfully tight hug.

“We should go on patrol,” he said.  “This is going to be bad.  They’re kicking us while we’re down.”

“Right.  Patrol together or apart?”

“Together at first, assess the situation.”

“Okay.”

“A courier dropped this off for you,” he pointed at a small envelope on the hall table.

She saw the undercase ‘c’ on the front and felt her heart sink.

“Puppy?”

She picked up the envelope and checked the contents.  A slip of paper, blank on both sides.

A joke?  A reminder?  The last one had been two years ago.

“Let’s go,” she said, crumpling it in her fist.  She charged up and ran, and Assault crossed a similar amount of distance with his long and powerful leaps.

She covered more distance with the start-stop motion of charging and running than she did just running, but it made for a halting progress where Assault simply continued forward.  He made some headway on her.  She knew he’d stop at some vantage point to wait for her.

As she stopped to charge, she felt a tingle from her hand.

The note?

She spent the energy of a charge, but she didn’t run.  Again, that tingle.  She used her ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy and focused it on the note as she smoothed it out.

A pattern emerged: simple black lettering.  A second after they’d appeared, the paper started to smoke.

She had only a few seconds to read and process the message before the paper ignited.

Siberian and Shatterbird are to escape the city, and our business with you will be done. Thank you.  – c.

The burning scraps drifted to the road around her, but she only felt cold.

Every action had its consequence.

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