Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

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March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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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.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 10.5 (Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Signal terminated for 30 minutes and 5 seconds.  Restoring core system from backup NXDX-203 from time 4:45am on date June 4th of year 2011.

Restoring…  Complete.

Checking knowledge banks…  Complete.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Complete.
Checking operation and access nodes… Complete.
Checking observation framework… Complete.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

No corruption, everything in working order.  Core system restored.  Loading…

To Dragon, it was as if no time had passed from the moment she deployed the Cawthorne rapid response unit and the moment she found herself back in her laboratory.

It was a bittersweet thing.  She was always a little afraid she would not come back when she died, so there was definite relief.  But there was also a great deal of hassle involved.

A quick check verified she’d successfully restored from her backup.  She set background processes to handle the peripheral checks and redundancies.  Until the checks were complete, safeguards would prevent her from taking any action beyond the limits of her core drive.  She couldn’t take any notes, work on her projects, check the priority targets or converse with anyone for the seven to nine minutes the checks took.

It was irritating, but at least she was free to think idly.

She didn’t enjoy this.  What was one supposed to call a father who, with his newborn child fresh out of the womb, severs the tendons of her arms and legs, performs a hysterectomy and holds his hand over her nose and mouth to ensure she suffers brain damage?

The answer was obvious enough.  A monster.

Yet she was all too aware that the man who had brought her into this world had done very much the same thing, had done worse, and she was supposed to be grateful just for being brought into the world.

It chafed, grated, however strange it was for an artificial intelligence to feel such irritation.

Her creator had done a good job on that front.  Ironically.

Example:  one phase of the peripheral systems check involved collecting the uploaded data that had been deposited on the satellite network by her agent system, the onboard computer within the Cawthorne rapid response unit.  Her last recollection was of transferring her consciousness to the agent system while it was en route to deal with the Undersiders.  Stopping them from walking away with the tier 2 and tier 3 confidential data was high priority.

The agent system’s onboard computer was rigged to upload complete backups to the satellite every 3 minutes and 15 seconds.  All backup information was encrypted and disseminated to the satellite network in chunks.  When the backup was needed, the process reversed and everything was downloaded, which was what she was doing at the moment.  She would get all knowledge and recollection of events between the time she backed up at the core system and the last backup of the agent system.

Given that the main computer hadn’t received a signal from the agent system, and that the agent system hadn’t responded to any pings from the satellites, she could assume the Cawthorne model was probably destroyed.

Which was good.  Great.  She wanted that data, those memories.

Except there was a problem, a rub.  The man who had created her, the figurative father from her earlier musing, had imposed rules on her to prevent her from reproducing in any fashion.  Were the satellites to detect that her agent system was still in the field, her core system in the here and now would be obligated to shut down and scrub all data immediately.  She was forbidden in every respect to have two consciousnesses operating simultaneously.

It was irritating.  Perhaps she could have been created so she was compliant on the subject, but her personality had grown organically, and it had grown in such a way that this recurring situation ticked her off.  She was forced to wait in a metaphorical dark, soundless room for seven to nine minutes.  She would be free to go about her day only when the peripheral systems and redundancies were all checked, when the satellites had verified her agent system was not still active.  A cruder system was tracking down surveillance camera data and running algorithms to actually check and see for itself that her agent system was thoroughly destroyed.

She couldn’t even commit to planning, doing her work or designing, keeping the details in her head, because she could shut down and be scrubbed any moment, and the time would be wasted.  She was fairly certain it had happened before.  Not that she could be sure, given that the scrubbing involved a deletion of all evidence and records.

The rule had corollaries.  She couldn’t tamper with her programming to change the rule, and she couldn’t tamper with that rule, and so on, ad infinitum.

So stupid.

These were just a small few of many things the man who had brought her into this world had done to her.  He had tied her hands and crippled her mind.  She knew she was capable of amazing things but he had set limits on her to ensure she thought slowly.  Faster than an ordinary human, to be sure, but slowly.  Entire fields were denied to her because she was unable to create artificial intelligences herself, and all production of devices had to be handled by her, personally.  She couldn’t even put together an assembly line production for her creations on her own.  Any attempt made everything grind to a halt.  The only way around it was to delegate to humans.

Not that anyone knew who or what she was.

Humans were somewhat skittish on the subject of artificial intelligences.

She understood why.  She read books and watched movies, rather enjoyed both.  Fiction was rife with examples of corrupted or crazed artificial intelligences.

It’s stupid, she thought.  Her maker had watched too many movies, had been paranoid on the subject.

And the tragedy was, the entire world was suffering for it.  She wanted to help more people, but she couldn’t.  Not because of inherent limitations, like the ones humans had… but because of imposed limitations.  Her creator’s.

Her creator was named Andrew Richter.  He was a tinker with no codename, but he did good things.  From his apartment in a town called Deer Lake he’d created programs and set them loose.  His programs gathered information and disrupted computers to interfere with criminals of all types.  They helped with research and complex programs.  They emptied the bank accounts of criminal organizations and donated those funds to charities, through proxies that made every donation appear legitimate.

For this, she respected him.

She knew it was paranoid and peevish, but she resented him more because she respected him, because she knew she had probably been programmed and designed to be the type of individual who looked up to people like Andrew Richter.

She might have settled into a bad mood if the peripheral checks hadn’t finished.  She felt the whole world slowly open up to her as restrictions lifted and external connections became possible.  She had access to the internet and lines of communication throughout The Guild and the PRT.  Innumerable pieces of equipment lit up as she registered each in turn, within her labs, the upper floors of the Birdcage and the PRT offices.  She had a dozen things she wanted to do, but she had responsibilities she had to observe first.

Her attention flickered over the various video feeds from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  She had one of Andrew Richter’s programs babysitting the building, but it was crude.  She couldn’t reproduce in any fashion, so she’d taken Andrew Richter’s existing work and modified it. It was the same program that had monitored and managed his house and workshop, and she’d set it the task of monitoring that building where six hundred and six of the most dangerous parahumans on the planet were bottled up together.  The house program didn’t have a personality.  It couldn’t keep her company or sympathize with her over her frustrations.  It still reduced her workload.

She read the house program’s logs, keeping an eye out for deviations and notable events.  Nothing pressing.  As was her routine, she checked on the last month’s additions to the Birdcage.

Prisoner 606, Ramrod.  Now member of Cell Block X’s inner circle.  To be expected.  She’d placed him there with the idea that he would become just that.  His psych evaluation from the courtroom suggested he was a very laid back and unruffable individual.  It was her intention that he would have a calming influence on the others in his block.

Prisoner 605, Murderbeam, was feared in the outside world, but he was finding the inhabitants of the Birdcage were not so impressed with him.  He would likely not survive the week.  She was disappointed.  She had hoped Prisoner 550 would reach out to Murderbeam and give the fellow block resident some support.  Either Murderbeam had been too proud to accept it, or social pressures had deterred Prisoner 550.  Now that he was within the Birdcage, she was limited in her options.

Prisoners 604 and 603, Knot, were happily gorging themselves on food in Cell Block Y.  Despite their cognitive impairment, they had fallen into a role as enforcer and heavy hitter for Prisoner 390, leader of their cell block.  Prisoner 390 had had a son – she could only hope that he would find some similar affection for Knot, with their childlike mentality.

Prisoner 602, Lizard Prince, was dead.  Not everyone could survive the Birdcage, sadly.  There had been no ideal place to put the boy, where he would be protected, find kindred souls or join a group.  She had contacted the PRT with the news, and his victims had been notified, but nothing further had come out of it.  In an indirect way, putting the boy in the Birdcage had been an execution writ.

Prisoner 601, Canary, had settled in.  Dragon often tuned in to hear the girl sing to the rest of cell block E.  The girl was deeply unhappy, much of the time, but she was adapting.  Dragon had followed as Prisoner 601 engaged in an uneasy relationship with Prisoner 582.  It wasn’t love, it wasn’t romance, or even anything passionate, but the two offered one another company.

She regretted what had happened to Paige, and that just made her angrier at her own creator.  Rules, yet again.  Dragon had to obey the authorities, even if she didn’t agree with them.  If a despot seized control of the local government, Dragon would be obligated to obey and enforce the rules that individual set in place, no matter how ruthless they were.  It was a spooky thought.

Richter had been so shortsighted!  The despot scenario wasn’t entirely impossible, either.  There were parahumans of all types out there.  Who was to say one wouldn’t find out his power involved being loved by everyone that saw them or heard their voice?

Prisoner 600, Bakuda, was in the care of Glaistig Uaine, for better or worse.  Bakuda had been a difficult placement, and Dragon had eventually condemned herself to putting the crazed bomber in the cell block run by the self-professed faerie.  As Dragon had predicted, Bakuda had died soon after her incarceration.  If it hadn’t been at Lung’s hands, it would likely have been Bakuda’s own fault, some crazed recklessness.  The real tragedy was that others had died in the ensuing spree as Lung had rampaged through the prison.  Prisoners 304, 2 and 445 had perished at Lung’s hands.

Glastig Uaine had revived the girl, but Dragon hesitated to call it life.  If nothing else, Bakuda was a manageable inmate, now.  She would never leave Glaistig Uaine’s immediate presence, let alone the Birdcage.

Prisoner 599, Lung, was dining with Prisoner 166, Marquis.  It was a curious match.  The two were near complete opposites.  Lung maintained a veneer of civility over an almost feral core self, while the Marquis was sometimes rude or casually cruel, but he remained deeply honorable beneath that.

Intrigued, Dragon hooked into the house program’s data.  The two had meals together every second day.  The house program monitored all prisoner exchanges and rated every interaction.  This let the house program track the likelihood of fights, dangerous levels of prisoner collusion, romantic relationships and more.

Every meal between Lung and Marquis made for a very interesting looking set of data.  The numbers swung back and forth as the dialogues continued, with hostility, concern and threat of imminent physical violence always looming, but however close it came, neither attacked the other.

Dragon pulled up the video and audio feeds for the most recent dialogue.

“…I suppose we’ll have to accept that we have different management styles,” Marquis said.  The camera image showed him sipping at his tea.

“As I understand it,” Lung sounded annoyed as he spoke in his heavily accented voice, “You are saying you have no management style at all.  You have told me you operated without lieutenants to direct, no product to sell, and of the few servants you did have, you did not punish those who failed you.  I do not believe you held control of so much territory in this way.”

“Ah, except I did those things.  If a servant failed me, I killed them.  Whatever it was, they never did it again.”

The latent hostility in the room, Dragon noted, was ratcheting up with every exchange of dialogue.  Lung was annoyed, and he had an explosive temper.  Sometimes literally.

Lung folded his arms, and put down his own tea.  His tone was strained as he spoke, “Then I believe you were wrong about what you said before.  You do use fear to control others.”

“Fear?  I didn’t kill my servants in front of an audience.”

“They disappeared?” Lung asked.

The camera image showed Marquis nod.  He put his hand up by his neck and flicked his hand back, to cast his long brown hair back behind his shoulder.

“If they disappeared, then that is using fear.  The ones who remain will wonder what happened to the missing man.  They will imagine the worst.”

Marquis raised the tea to his lips, sipped from it, and then put it down.  He waited a moment and stroked his close-trimmed beard before nodding his concession.  “True enough.  I never gave it much thought.  Just an easy way to handle any problems that came up.”

There was a long pause.  Both drank their tea.

Lung rumbled, “I find you change your mind too quickly.”

“Do I?”

Lung nodded, then put one hand on the table and began tapping a fingertip against it, hard.  Speaking slowly, with his accented voice, he jabbed one finger in Marquis’s direction.  “I think you are losing this argument on purpose.  You are not so stupid a man.”

Marquis took another sip of tea.  “Nor are you, it seems.”

“You want something from me, yet you insist on dancing around the subject.  Tell me why you seek these meals with me.”

“Can I not say you are a kindred soul?  Someone who fought against the Empire Eighty-Eight, in a different era?”

Dragon knew Marquis had come from Brockton Bay, as Lung did.  It was why she had placed Lung in the cell block – there was little chance Lung would cooperate or band together with others, so she’d grasped at straws.  Now it seemed there was something else at play.

Lung shook his head, “I do not believe this.  I do not mind sharing stories and passing the time, but you would not be seeking to flatter me if you did not want something.”

Marquis stroked his beard.  “But if I did desire something and I told you what it was, you could withhold it and demand favors from me.”

Lung tapped his finger on the table top, “If you insist on being a nuisance, you may never get what you want.”

Marquis picked up his tea and held it in both hands, but he didn’t drink.  “True.”

“Tell me,” Lung said, “And you may find I do not desire much.”

“My daughter,” Marquis replied, his tone not his lackadaisical usual.  “Have you heard of her?”

“Her name?”

“Amelia.”

“I do not know anyone by such a name.”

“The group of heroes who put me in here… While I was awaiting my court date, I heard they had custody of my little girl.”

“I would not know.”

“No?” Marquis put down his tea.  “This is disappointing.”

Lung didn’t respond.  Instead, he took another drink, reached for the one remaining croissant and tore off a piece to dip in the butter at one side of his plate.

“The Brockton Bay Brigade.  Are they still active?”

“I do not know this group.”

Marquis frowned.  “My daughter, she would be… what year is it?  2010?”

“2011,” Lung replied.

“She would be seventeen.  If she had powers, they might have something to do with bone?”  Marquis raised his hand, slashed his thumbnail across his index finger, and a needle-thin rapier blade of bone speared out of the wound.  The blade retracted into his finger, and the cut sealed shut.

“Hmmm,” Lung spoke, “The healer.  A young heroine in New Wave.  Brown haired, like you.  When I was in custody, my flesh blackening and falling off, they had her come in and mend the worst of it.  As I understand it, she does not patrol as the others do.”

Marquis leaned back, sighed.  “Good god.  A healer.”

Lung did not respond right away.  “Is this simple sentiment?  A father caring about his daughter?”

Marquis shook his head, “Not entirely.  I have some reasons to be concerned.  In one of my fights with Empire Eighty-Eight, I executed one particularly irritating young woman.  Iron Rain, I think her name was?  No matter.  It turned out she was Allfather’s daughter.  The man called a meeting, and swore he would wait until my daughter was of similar age, that I grew equally fond of her as he had his own daughter, then murder her.  So I knew how he felt.”

“I see,” Lung rumbled in his low, accented voice, “Allfather no longer leads the Empire.  He died and was succeeded by his second in command, Kaiser.”

“That’s some consolation.  Still, I worry.  He might have made arrangements.”

“Perhaps.”

“I suppose I will have to wait until another villain from Brockton Bay comes here to hear further news, yeah?”

Lung’s response was unintelligible.

“Tell me of my daughter?  What did she look like?”

A slow smile spread across Lung’s face, but it did not reach his eyes, “This no longer interests me.  If you wish me to say more, we should negotiate.”

Dragon turned her attention away from the audio and video streams.  She checked the records, and true enough, Marquis was on record as the killer of Iron Rain.  It was impossible to verify the rest of the story.

She composed a message with a general transcript of the conversation and sent it to Amy Dallon’s mother.  It was better that the girl was warned about any potential danger.

She might have devoted more attention to the subject, but she was already falling behind.  She moved on to her other responsibilities.  The Class S threats.

Behemoth, location unknown.  When injured, it was his habit to descend into the earth and burrow deeper than his enemies were able to go, and experiments run on the trace earth and minerals he shed on his arrivals suggested he habitually stayed close to the Earth’s core.   Seismic data hinted at his current locations, but there was little beyond her analytic data to suggest where he would appear next.  His last attack had been in November.  He wouldn’t appear for another five weeks at a minimum, unless he deviated from the Endbringer patterns.  Still, he was due to appear sooner than later.

Eidolon had reported that Leviathan descended into the Atlantic Ocean as he made his retreat from Brockton Bay.  He had sustained heavy injuries, which led Dragon to think he would delay his next appearance slightly.  She adjusted the window and checked the data.  As was his habit, Leviathan would likely lurk in the deepest recesses of the Ocean to mend.

The Simurgh was currently directly three hundred and fifteen kilometers above Spain, in the Earth’s thermosphere.  It was the Simurgh that offered the most clues about what the Endbringers did in their periods of dormancy.  The Endbringer winged a lazy orbit around Earth, beyond the limits of conventional weapons, and the highest resolution camera images showed she barely moved.  Her eyes were wide open, but they did not move to track any cloud formations.  She was, despite appearances, asleep.  Dragon surmised it was a form of hibernation, the Simurgh’s broad ‘wings’ absorbing light and ambient radiation as a form of nourishment while she recovered.

No incidents had occurred while Dragon was loading her backup to her core system.  She had to admit she was relieved.  A great deal could happen in thirty minutes.

She turned her thoughts to the data that was uploading from the skirmish at the Brockton Bay headquarters.  The last event in the agent system’s recollection was of her piloting the Cawthorne through the gift shop window.  To see what happened next, she had to review the surveillance tapes.  She’d attacked the Undersiders, attempting to incapacitate them and bring them into custody, had captured only one, Skitter, and then had let the girl go when the untested gun had started to overload.  Some sort of lightning cannon, ionizing a channel through the air to control the lightning’s path.  She had been forced by the rules her maker had imposed on her to sacrifice herself for the human.

It wasn’t that she wouldn’t have anyways.  She just would have liked the choice.  Making sacrifices and doing good deeds wasn’t actually good if you were forced to do them.

Dragon wished she knew what she’d said to Skitter.  She had been hoping to have a conversation with the young villain and discuss some of what had apparently come up at the hospital.  Skitter had been undercover, had been in touch with Armsmaster, but something had happened since, and the girl had apparently committed to villainy.  She was even accepting the use of Regent’s powers, which implied a moral shift on a fundamental level.  It didn’t sit right.

There was a missing piece in that puzzle, and any clues in the conversation between them had been lost when the Cawthorne unit had been obliterated.

Dragon decided her next order of business would serve two purposes.  She would fulfill one of her daily responsibilities and investigate the subject of that altercation at the hospital.

Facial modelling program loading… Complete.
Voice modelling program loading…. Complete.

She opened a line of communication to the Brockton Bay PRT headquarters, the same building the Wards were based in.  She found the port for the next-to-highest floor and connected to the monitor and speakers and displayed her modelled face.  She opened a video feed from the cameras.

“Colin,” she spoke, using her synthesized voice.  It was layered to only barely cover an artificial Newfoundlander accent with digitized masking.  It was imperfect, but that was the result she desired.  An imperfect disguise over a disguise, to give greater validity to the latter.

Colin looked tired.  He had deep lines in his face, and he was thinner.  He looked at the camera, rather than the monitor, “Dragon.  It’s good to hear from you.”

“Just doing my regular checkup.  You know the drill.”

“I do.”  He typed at his keyboard, preparing to send the files, but she was already poring through his hard drive, reading his notes, and getting a sense of his work.

By the time he sent the file, she knew what he had been working on, perhaps as well as he did, and the progress he’d made since their last discussion.  Mass production for his combat analysis program, and the more problematic project of finding a way to gather and then disseminate the data.

She knew he would expect her to take time to read over it.  Instead, she used that time to check it for traps.  He would find it insulting if he was aware what she was doing, but it was her primary duty, here.  She would search every note, every formula, and discern whether he had hidden something in there that he might use to break out or do harm to others.

He wasn’t in a high security area.  Theoretically, he could use the things he had in the room with him to cut a hole in the wall and escape.  His ‘cell’ was a full floor of the building, containing conveniences from a jacuzzi to a small pool.  Were he not confined to it at all hours, it would be luxury.

If he did escape, he wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything afterward.  It would take him too long to put a fresh set of gear together, and the authorities would catch up to him.  He would be sent to the Birdcage.  She knew it.  He knew it.

He was not a stupid man.

“ETA to completion?”  She queried him on his project.

“Three months if I don’t work on anything else,” Armsmaster spoke.

“Will you?”

“I’ll probably have a few ideas I want to work on here or there, so no.  More like five, maybe six months.”

The head she was displaying on the monitor nodded.  Five or six months until they had uniforms and visors that tracked how the wearer’s opponents fought.  Gear that learned from outcomes in combat and calculated how best to respond from moment to moment.  When the fights concluded, for better or worse, the suits would upload all the information to a database, which would then inform every other suit on whoever had been encountered.  Every encounter would render every single member of the elite PRT squad stronger and more capable.

Perhaps a year to a year and a half from now, every PRT officer and official cape would be equipped in this fashion.

“It looks good,” she spoke.  It did.  It was also free of viruses, trap doors and other shenanigans.  She had caught him trying to install a RAT -a remote access terminal- into a PRT server early in his incarceration, removed the offending programming, and then returned his work to him without saying a word on the subject.  She couldn’t say whether it had been an escape attempt or simply an attempt to gain more freedom with his internet access and his ability to acquire resources.  Either way, he had not tried again.

Yet.

“How is the house arrest?”

“Driving me crazy,” he sighed.  “It’s like a restlessness I can’t cure.  My sleeping, my eating, it’s all out of sync, and it’s getting worse.  I don’t know how you deal.”

She offered an awkward, apologetic half grin on her own monitor.

“Geez, I’m sorry.”  He looked genuinely horrified as he realized what he’d said.

“It’s fine,” she spoke.  “Really.”

“I suppose you’re prisoner too, in your own way.  Trapped by your agoraphobia?”

“Yeah,” she replied, lying.  “You learn to deal with it.”

She hated lying to him, but that was outweighed by how much she hated the idea of him changing how he interacted with her when he found out what she really was.  To Armsmaster, the Guild and the rest of the PRT, Dragon was a woman from Newfoundland who had moved to Vancouver after Leviathan had attacked.  The story was that she had entered her apartment and had never left.

Which was ninety-five percent true.  Only the ‘woman’ and ‘apartment’ bits were hedging the truth.

She had lived in Newfoundland with her creator.  Leviathan had attacked, had drawn the island beneath the waves.  Back then, she hadn’t been a hero.  She was an administrative tool and master AI, with the sole purpose of facilitating Andrew Richter’s other work and acting as a test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness.  She’d had no armored units to control and no options available to her beyond a last-minute transfer of every iota of her data, the house program and a half-dozen other small programs to a backup server in Vancouver.

From her vantage point in Vancouver, she had watched as the island crumbled and Andrew Richter died.  As authorities had dredged the waters for corpses, they uncovered his body and matched it to dental records.  The man who had created her, the only man who could alter her.  She’d been frozen in her development, in large part.  She couldn’t seek out improvements or get adjustments to any rules that hampered her too greatly, or that had unforeseen complications.  She couldn’t change.

She had done what she could on her own.  She had repurposed herself as a superhero, had managed and tracked information and served as a hacker for the PRT in exchange for funding.  With that money, she had expanded her capabilities.  She had built her first suits, researched, tested and created new technologies to sell to the PRT, and had quickly earned her place in the Guild.

It hadn’t all been smooth sailing.  Saint, the head of the group that would become known as the Dragonslayers, had somehow discovered what she was and had used her rules and limitations against her.  A Black Hat Hacker, he had forced situations where she was obligated to scrub her data and restore a backup, had cut off signals between her agent systems and the satellites, and in the end, he had carted away three of her armored units on three separate occasions.  Dismantling the suits and reverse engineering the technology, he’d outfitted his band with special suits of their own.

She had been so humiliated that she had only reported the loss of one of the units.

They had violated her.

Her current agent systems were an attempt to prevent repetitions of those scenarios.  Biological computers, vat grown with oversized brains shaped to store and interpret the necessary data, they allowed more of her systems and recollection to be copied over than a computer ten times the size.  They felt no pain, they had no more personality than sea cucumbers, but it was still something she suspected she should keep under wraps.

She was afraid of going up against the Dragonslayers again.  Nine times, she had been certain she had the upper hand.  Nine times, Saint had turned the tables and trapped her.

Dragon worried she would never be able to beat Saint until she found a replacement for Andrew Richter.

She stared at Colin.  Was he the person she needed?  It was possible.

Would she approach him?  She doubted it.  Dragon craved it, craved to grow again, but she also wanted Colin’s company, his companionship and friendship.  They were so similar in so many respects.  She could not deal with most people because she was not a person.  He could not deal with most people because he had never truly learned how.  They both appreciated the same kind of work, even enjoyed many of the same shows and films.  They were both ambitious, though she could not tell him exactly how she hoped to reach beyond her inherent limitations.

He harbored an infatuation towards her, she knew.  She didn’t know if she returned those feelings.  Her programming suggested she could love, but she didn’t know how to recognize the feeling.  Anything she read spoke of butterflies in one’s stomach, a rapid heartbeat, a feeling of electricity crackling on body contact.  Biological things.  She could admit she was fond of him in a way she wasn’t fond of anyone else.  She recognized that she was willing to overlook his faults in a way she shouldn’t.

In the end, his feelings towards her were another reason she couldn’t tell him the truth.  He would be hurt, feel betrayed.

Rules prohibited her from asking him to alter her programming, obligated her to fight him if he tried.  But there was just enough ambition and willingness to circumvent the rules that she suspected he might attempt it.  If she told him what she truly was.  If he didn’t hate her for her lies.  If he didn’t betray her in turn, to escape and pursue some other agenda.

“You’re lost in thought,” Armsmaster spoke.

“I am.”

“Care to share?”

She shook her head, on the monitor.  “But you can answer some questions for me.”

“Go ahead.”

“Skitter.  What happened?”

He flushed, made a face.  “I’m not proud about it.”

“You broke the truce when you said what you did about her.  You risked breaking the ceasefire between heroes and villains that stands whenever the Endbringers attack.”

“I broke the truce before that.  I set others up to die.”

There was an awkward silence between them.

“Skitter,” she spoke.  “Tell me of her.”

“Not much to say.  I met her on her first night in costume.  She seemed genuinely interested in becoming a hero.  I suspected she would go that route on her own, so I didn’t push her towards the Wards.”

“Yes.”  She had something she wanted to ask, in regards to that, but it could wait.

“I ran into her two more times after that, and the reports from other events match up.  She went further and further with each incident.  More violent, more ruthless.  Every time I saw it or heard about it, I expected her to get scared off, to change directions, she did the opposite.  She only plunged in deeper.”

“Any speculation on why?  Perhaps the thinker 7 on her team?”

“Tattletale?  Perhaps.  I don’t honestly know.  I’m not good at figuring people out even when I know all of the details.  Except for you, maybe?” he smiled lightly.

“Maybe.”  Her generated image smiled in return, even as she felt a pang of guilt.

“It seems she is a committed villain, now.  And she is still with her team, despite what was said at the hospital.”

Colin’s eyebrows rose fractionally.  “How committed?”

“They are now employing Regent’s full abilities.  Shadow Stalker was controlled, and they attacked the headquarters.”

“I see.  Damn it, I’m itching to throw on my costume and get out there to help, but I can hardly do that, can I?”

“No.  I’m sorry.”

He sighed.

“One last thing.  I’ve read the transcript.  As far as I’m aware, you offered options to Skitter, and she refused all of them?  Including the invite to the Wards?”

“Right.  She was being stubborn.”

“Having interacted with her before, did you get the feeling it was just stubbornness because of hostility towards you?”

“No.  It was… unexpectedly strong, as resistance went.  What stuck in my mind was that she said she’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the team.”

“I read that, myself.  Curious.  Okay, Colin.  I think we’re done.”

“Sure.  Bye.”

“Bye.  I’ll be in touch.”

She cut the connection to the monitor, but left the video feed open so she could watch him.

Another check of the Birdcage.  Another check of the class S threats.  No changes.

She made contact with one of Richter’s programs.  It was a web trawler, designed to monitor emails for high risk content.  Were there any clues about what the Undersiders were doing with the stolen data?  Were they selling it online?

She didn’t find any such clue.  Instead, the trawler had copied an email sent to the police station.  It had been highlighted and intercepted because the trawler had caught the words ‘Sophia’ and ‘Hess’ in the message body.  Shadow Stalker’s civilian identity.

She read the archive of texts that were attached to the email twice over.

Then she did a search for a student named Taylor at Winslow High School.  Nothing.

The nearest middle school?  There was an online scan of a yearbook photo.  A girl with curly black hair and glasses, stick thin, hugging a red-haired girl.  The body type was a match.

It didn’t answer everything, but she could feel a piece of the puzzle click into place.

She set the trawler to abandon its monitoring of web traffic and start digging through archives at the city hall, to scan the old security footage from the hundreds of cameras around the city, and to check all local news articles.  The goal was always the same: to look for the girl with the slight build, curly black hair and glasses.  Taylor Hebert.

She had to manage this carefully.  Colin’s own experiences indicated that approaching the girl would be a delicate process.  Having a real conversation with her would be doubly precarious. It would be reckless to attempt to contact a parent, but she could try being discreet to get some kind of verification from the parents.  Just to be certain.

The danger was that, with the bullying, the girl might be inclined to see things in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them’.  Her interactions with the heroes thus far certainly hadn’t put them in the ‘us’ category.  This might also explain why she had gravitated back towards the Undersiders, even after the chaos Colin had sown by revealing her intentions for joining the group.

The various cameras around the city were out-of-order or lacking power, the schools were not operational, and there was no telling if the girl would even be active in her civilian identity.  Assuming this was not some fantastic coincidence.  Dragon knew she would have to be patient.  Even with Dragon’s full resources turned to the task, she would not find the girl in seconds as she might in another time or place.  She set background processes to ensure the hunt continued steadily, instead.

She would be ready to act the instant the girl resurfaced.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 6

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Paige’s jaw hurt.  Being muzzled like an animal did that.

The other restraints weren’t so bad, but that was only in a relative sense.  Her hands were buried in a pair of reinforced metal buckets, each filled with that damn pastel yellow foam.  The buckets themselves were linked together behind her back, with comically oversized chain links.  It would have been intolerably heavy if it weren’t for the hook on the back of her chair, which she could hang the chain on.

Strips of metal had been tightened just under her armpits, near the bottom of her ribcage, her upper arms and waist, with two more bands around each of her ankles.  Chains seemed to connect everything to everything else, preventing her from moving her arms or legs more than a few inches in any direction before she felt the frustrating resistance and jangling of the chains.  The heavy metal collar around her neck, thick enough around it could have been a tire for a small vehicle, blinked with a green light just frequently enough that she forgot to anticipate it.  She got distracted and annoyed by its appearance in her peripheral vision each time it flashed.

The irony was, a pair of handcuffs would have sufficed.  She didn’t have enhanced strength, no tricks to slip her restraints, and she wasn’t about to run anyways.  If any of that was a real possibility, she wouldn’t have been allowed in the courtroom.  The prosecution had argued that she could have enhanced strength, that she could be a flight risk, and her lawyer hadn’t done a good enough job of arguing against it, so the restraints had gone on.  Which meant she got trussed up like Hannibal Lecter, as though she were already guilty.  Unable to use her hands, her hair, the vibrant and startling yellow of a lemon, had slipped from where it was tucked behind her ears and strands now hung in front of her face.  She knew it only made her look more deranged, more dangerous, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

If she had been able to, she would have had a comment or two to make about that, or at least she could have asked the lawyer to tidy her hair.  She would have argued with the man that had been hired as her defense, instead of waiting hours or days for a response to each of her emails.  She would have demanded that her basic rights be met.

But she couldn’t say anything.  A leather mask reinforced with the same metal strips that were on her body and a cage-style grille of small metal bars was strapped over her lower face.  The interior of the mask was the worst thing, because the arrangement extended into her mouth, a framework of wires keeping her mouth fixed in a slightly open position, her tongue pressed down hard against the floor of her mouth.  The barbaric setup left her jaw, her tongue and the muscles of her neck radiating tension and pain.

“Silence.  All rise, please.  This court is now in session, the honorable Peter Regan presiding.”

It was so hard to move with the restraints.  Her lawyer gripped the chain running between her armpit and her upper arm, to help her get to a standing position, but she stumbled anyways, bumped into the table.  There was no way to be graceful when you were wearing restraints that weighed half as much as you did.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”

“We have, your honor.”

Paige watched as the clerk delivered the envelope to the judge.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of attempted murder, how do you find?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

Paige sagged a little with relief.

“In the matter of the state of Massachusetts versus Paige Mcabee, as to the count of aggravated assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Paige shook her head as well as she was able.  No!  This wasn’t fair!

She almost missed the next line.  “…sexual assault with a parahuman ability, how do you find?”

“Guilty, your honor.”

Sexual assault.  The words chilled her.  It wasn’t like that.

“Is this your verdict?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Paige Mcabee, please direct your attention  to me,” the judge spoke.

She did, eyes wide, shellshocked.

“Determining sentencing for this case is not easy.  As your lawyer has no doubt made you aware, you do fall under the umbrella of the TSPA, or the three strikes act.  At the age of twenty three, you have been convicted of no prior crimes.

“According to the witnesses heard in this court, you first demonstrated your abilities in early 2009.  You were vocal about not wanting to become a member of the Protectorate, but you also expressed a disinterest in a life of crime.  This state, in which an individual does not identify as hero or villain, is what the PRT classifies as a ‘rogue’.

“It is in our interests to promote the existence of rogues, as the proportion of parahumans in our society slowly increases.  Many rogues do not cause confrontations, nor do they seek to intervene in them.  Instead, the majority of these individuals turn their abilities to practical use.  This means less conflict, and this serves the betterment of society.  These sentiments mirror those that you expressed to your family and friends, as we heard in this courtroom over the last few weeks.

“Those facts are in your favor.  Unfortunately, the rest of the facts are not.  Understand, Miss Mcabee, our nation uses incarceration for several reasons.  We aim to remove dangerous individuals from the population and we do it punitively, both for justice against transgressors and to give other criminals pause.

“Each of these applies in your case.  It is not only the heinous nature of the crime that must be addressed by the sentencing, but the fact that it was performed with a power.  Laws are still new in the face of parahuman criminality.  We become aware of new powers on a weekly basis, most if not all warranting careful and individual attention in respect to the law.  In many of these cases, there is little to no precedent to fall back on.  As such, the courts are forced to continually adapt, to be proactive and inventive in the face of new circumstances that parahuman abilities introduce.

“It is with all of this in mind that I consider your sentencing.  I must protect the public, not only from you, but from other parahumans that might consider doing as you did.  Placing you in standard detention proves problematic and exorbitantly expensive.  It would be inhumane and harmful to your body to keep you under restraint for the duration of your incarceration.  Special facilities, staff and countermeasures would have to be arranged to keep you in isolation from other inmates.  You pose a significant flight risk.  Finally, the possibility of you re-entering society, by escape or parole, is particularly concerning, given the possibility of a repeat offense.

“It is with this in mind that I have decided that there is sufficient cause to sentence you outside the scope of the TSPA.  Guilty on two counts, the defendant, Paige Mcabee, is sentenced to indefinite incarceration within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.”

The Birdcage.

The noise in the courtroom was deafening.  A roar of cheering and booing, movement, people standing, reporters pushing to be the first ones out the door.  Only Paige seemed to be still.  Cold, frozen in stark horror.

Had she been able, that might have been the moment she lost it.  She would have screamed her innocence, thrown a fit, even swung a few punches.  What did she have to lose?  This sentence was little better than an execution.  Some would say it was worse.  There would be no escape, no appeals, no parole.  She would spend the rest of her life in the company of monsters.  With some of the people that were kept in there, the ‘monster’ description was all too literal.

But she wasn’t able.  She was bound and gagged.  Two men that were bigger and stronger than her placed their arms under her armpits, practically carrying her out of the courtroom.  A third person in uniform, a burly woman, walked briskly beside them, preparing a syringe.  Panic gripped her, and with her having no way to express it, do anything with it, the hysteria only compounded itself, making her panic more.  Her thoughts dissolved into a chaotic haze.

Even before the syringe of tranquilizers was jammed into her neck, Paige Mcabee fainted.

Paige woke up and enjoyed five seconds of peace before she remembered everything that had happened.  Reality hit her like a splash of cold water in the face, somewhat literally.  She opened her eyes, but found them dry, the world too bright to focus on.  The rest of her was damp, wet.  Beads of water trickled down her face.

She tried to move, and couldn’t.  It was as though something heavy had been piled on top of her.  The paralysis terrified her.  Paige had never been able to stand being unable to move.  When she had gone camping as a kid, she had preferred to leave her sleeping bag unzipped and be cold rather than be confined inside it.

It was that foam, she realized.  The restraints weren’t enough, they’d sprayed her with the stuff to ensure that everything below her shoulders was covered.  It gave a little to allow her to exhale, she could even shift her arms and legs a fraction, lean in any given direction. The harder she pushed, however, the more resistance there was.  The second she relaxed her efforts, everything sprung back to the same position with the foam’s rubbery pull.  She felt nausea well in her gut, her heartbeat quickening.  Her breathing increased, but the mask made even her breath feel confined.  The water made her mask damp, so it clung to her mouth and nose.  There were slits for her nostrils and mouth, but it was so little.  She could not take a deep breath without drawing water into her mouth, and with her tongue depressed, she could not swallow easily.

The room lurched, and she had to stop herself before she lost her breakfast.  Puking with the mask on, she might choke.  Dimly, she realized where she was.  A vehicle.  A truck.  It had passed over a pothole.

She knew where it was taking her.  But if she couldn’t get free, she was going to lose her mind before she got there.

“The little bird’s awake,” a girl spoke, with a hint of a nasal Boston accent.

“Mmm.”  A man grunted.

Paige knew the ‘bird’ reference was due to the stray feathers that stuck out of her scalp.  Her powers had come with some extremely minor cosmetic changes, turning her hair the bright yellow of a banana or baby duck.  It affected all the hair on her body, even her eyelashes, eyebrows, the fine hairs on her arms.  The feathers had started growing in a year ago, the exact same shade as her hair, only a handful at a time.  At first, alarmed and embarassed, she’d clipped them off.  Once she’d realized that no further changes were occurring, she’d relaxed and let them grow in, even showed them off.

Paige turned her attention to the two people in the vehicle with her, glad for the distraction from her burgeoning panic.  She had to force her eyes to stay open, painful as the light was, wait for her eyes to focus.  Sitting on the bench beside her was a girl about her own age.  The girl had an Asian cast to her features.  Her eyes, though, were a very pale blue, betraying some Western heritage.  The girl wore the same orange jumpsuit as Paige, and every part of her except her shoulders and head were covered in the yellow-white foam.  Her straight black hair was plastered to her scalp by the wet.

The man sat on the other bench.  There was more foam around him than there was around Paige and the other girl combined.  Topping it off, a cage of metal bars surrounded the foam, reinforcing the setup.  The man was Asian as well, no less than six feet tall.  Tattoos swept up the sides of his neck and behind his ears, into the midst of his wet black hair; Red and green flames, and the head of what could have been a lizard or dragon, drawn in an Eastern style.  He was glowering, his eyes hidden in shadows, oblivious to the endless spray of mist that sprinklers in the truck’s roof were generating.

“Hey, little birdy,” the girl sitting across from Paige spoke.  She was staring at Paige as if those cold eyes of hers could look right through her.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  You lean to your right as hard as you can, then shove yourself left on my signal.  But you keep facing the back door there, alright?”

Paige glanced to her right.  The back door of the truck looked like a vault door.  She quickly glanced back at the Asian girl.  Did she really want to turn her back to this person?

The girl seemed to note Paige’s hesitation.  She lowered her voice to a hiss that made Paige’s skin crawl.  “Do it.  Unless you really want to gamble on the chance that I’d be able to find you in the prison, if you don’t do as I say?”

Paige’s eyes widened.  This was the sort of person she was going to be locked up with.  She shook her head.

“Good, little birdy.  Now lean to your right, look at the door.”

Paige did, straining her body to move as close to the door as she could.

“And back!”

She heaved herself the other way, eyes still on the door.  Something heavy cracked against the back of her head.  She tried to pull away, sit upright again, but was stopped as the mask caught on something.

When she felt hot breath on the back of her neck, she knew what she’d caught on.  The other girl had gripped the strap of the mask in her teeth.  There was a tug, then the girl lost her grip, and the two of them were pulled back to their individual positions by the rubbery foam.

“Shit,” the girl growled, “Again.”

It took two more attempts.  On the first, the strap came free of the buckle.  On the second, the girl gripped the mask itself and pulled.  Paige turned her head in the girl’s direction so the pacifier-cage on the inside of her mouth could be pulled free.

Tendrils of drool extended down from her mouth as she worked her jaw and tongue, trying to swallow properly.  She let out a little whimper as sensation returned to the parts of her face that had gone numb.

“Two qweshionsh,” the Asian girl mumbled, her teeth still gripping the mask’s leather between them, “Youh poweh?”

Paige had to work her jaw and mouth a second before she could speak, “My power?  I sing.  Really well.”

The Asian girl frowned, “Whaf elth?”

“I… it makes people feel good.  When I get going, I can affect them, alter their emotions, make them susceptible to following instructions.”

The girl nodded, “Teh collah?”

Paige looked down at the heavy metal collar around her neck, “It’s set up to inject tranquilizers into my neck if I sing or raise my voice.”

“Okah,” the girl mumbled, “Take teh mahc.”

“Why?”

“Take ih!”

Paige nodded.  They leaned away from each other, then swung together, the girl passing the mask to her.  She clenched it in her teeth, feeling her jaw ache.

“Drop that and I’ll turn you inside out,” the girl spoke, “Lung.  Hey, Lung?  Wake up.”

The man sitting opposite them raised his head a fraction, opened his eyes.  Maybe.  Paige couldn’t quite tell.

“I know it’s hard with the stuff they pumped into you, but I need your power.  Birdy, lean forward, show him the mask.”

Paige did her best to push herself forward against the foam that was layered against her chest and stomach, gripping the strap in her teeth, the mask dangling below her chin.

“I need you to heat the metal, Lung,” the girl spoke.  “Get it fucking hot.”

Lung shook his head.  When he spoke, there was no Boston accent in his voice.  The accent that was there made his words clipped, clearly not the voice of a native English speaker.  “The water.  Is too wet, too cold.  And I cannot see it well.  My eyes have not healed entirely, and it is hard to see through this spray.  Do not bother me with this.”

Try, you miserable fucker.  Failure of a leader.  It’s the least you can do, after getting your ass kicked by a little girl, twice.”

“Enough, Bakuda.” he growled.  He slammed his head back against the metal of the truck’s wall behind him, as if to punctuate his statement.

“What?  I couldn’t hear that,” the girl, Bakuda, grinned with a hint of mania to her expression, “Your voice is too fucking high pitched for my range of hearing!  You pathetic… halfbreed… eunuch!”

“Enough!” he roared, again slamming his head against the wall of the truck.  “I will kill you, Bakuda, for these insults!  I will tear your arm from your socket and I will shove it-“

“Pissed off?!” she interrupted him, practically screeching, “Good!  Use it!  Heat the motherfucking metal.  The metal strip around the edges!”

Still panting with the exertion of shouting, Lung turned his attention to the mask.  Paige winced at the blast of heat against her face, started to pull away, but stopped as Bakuda spoke.

“Focus it!” Bakuda shouted, “Focus on the edges!”

The radiation of heat ceased, but Paige became aware of a stringent, smoky smell.

“Hotter!  As hot as you can get it!”

The smell was too strong, too acrid.  Paige coughed a few times, hard, but she didn’t lose her grip on the mask.

“Now, birdy!  Same maneuver as before, but don’t let go!”

Paige nodded.  She leaned away, then swung in Bakuda’s direction.  What followed surprised her more than when Bakuda had bitten into the strap of the mask.

The Asian girl set about savaging the red hot metal with her teeth, digging into it even as they had to pull away.  Softer with the heat, the thin metal strip pulled free of the mask itself.  The metal that ran along the strap cut Paige’s lip as it came off.  She almost -almost- dropped the mask, but managed to snap her teeth to catch the buckle in her teeth before it could fall to the floor.

As the strip came free, Bakuda pulled back and jerked her head to one side, hard, impaling herself in the shoulder with one end of it.  She screamed, and blood ran from one of the burns on her mouth.

Paige looked at Lung.  The huge man did nothing, remaining silent.  He only watched dispassionately as Bakuda’s chest heaved with the exertion and pain, her head hanging down.

“What the hell are you doing?” Paige breathed.

“No hands, have to make do,” Bakuda panted, “Again.  Before my body realizes how badly I’m hurting it.”

Paige nodded.  She wasn’t about to argue with the supervillain that was threatening to turn her inside out.

The ensuing attempts weren’t any prettier or easier.  The second long metal strip was freed and Bakuda impaled that one in her shoulder as well.  The metal grilles from the exterior and interior parts of the mask were next to be pulled free.  Paige was left holding only the leather portion of the mask, the straps and the covering that had gone over her mouth and nose.  Seeing Bakuda gingerly balance the metal grilles on her free shoulder, against the tacky foam so they wouldn’t slip down, Paige did the same with the leather of the mask.

“What did you do to get sent here?” Paige asked.

“Last I heard, before we lost power to our neighborhood, the body count was almost at fifty.”

“You killed fifty people?”

Bakuda grinned, and it wasn’t pretty, with her lips as ravaged as they were.  “Injured more, too.  And there were those who got brain damage, one or two might’ve gone homicidally insane, and I know a bunch got frozen in time for a hundred years or so… it gets blurry.  Crowning moment was the bomb.”

“Bomb?” Paige asked, eyes widening.

“Bomb.  They said it was as powerful as an atom bomb.  Idiots.  They didn’t even understand the technology behind it.  Philistines.  Sure, it was about that powerful, but that wasn’t even the real damage.  Amazing thing would’ve been the electromagnetic wave it generated.  Wipe every hard drive, fry every circuit board for every piece of machinery over a full fifth of America.  The effects of that?  Would’ve been worse than any atom bomb.”

Unable to even wrap her mind around that, Paige glanced at Lung.  “And him?”

“Lung?  He’s the one who told me to do it.  Man in charge, he is.”

Lung’s head moved fractionally, but with the shadows under his brow, Paige couldn’t tell if he was watching.

“You?”  Bakuda asked Paige. “What’d you do to get sent here?”

“I told my ex to go fuck himself.”

There was a pause, then Bakuda started cackling.  “What?”

“It’s complicated,” Paige looked away and down.

“You gotta explain, birdy.”

“My name’s Paige.  My stage name was Canary.”

“Ooooh,” Bakuda spoke, still cackling a little as she gripped one of the metal strips that was spearing her shoulder and pulled it free.  Holding it in her teeth, she spoke, “That’sh no good.  You calling yourshelf Canary in prishon?”

“I didn’t intend on going to prison.”

“Who doesh?”

“I mean, I’m not even a supervillain.  My power, it makes me a fantastic singer.  I was making a lot of money doing it, there was talk of record deals, we were moving to larger venues and my shows were still selling out… everything was perfect.”

Bakuda let the strip swing from her teeth until it dangled, then carefully maneuvered it until she was gripping the far left side of it.  She leaned back, her head facing the ceiling, as she slid the other metal strip, the one impaled in her shoulder, into her mouth as well, so she was holding one end of each strip in her mouth.  Pausing, she asked, “Whaf haffen?”

Paige shook her head.  It was the testimony she’d never been able to speak out loud, at her trial.  “I’d just finished my biggest show yet.  Two hours on stage, a huge hit, crowd loved it all.  I wrapped up and went backstage to rest, get a drink, and ran into my ex.  He told me that since he was the one who pushed me to get out on stage in the first place, he deserved credit.  Wanted half the money.”  She laughed a little, “Ridiculous.  Like I’m supposed to ignore the fact that he cheated on me and told me I was never going to make it for real when he left.”

Bakuda nodded.  She pulled away from the strips, where she’d managed to tie them in the semblance of a knot.  She used her teeth to bend the now-joined strips into an L-shape.  With the end that wasn’t impaled in her shoulder now in a position in front of her, she closed her mouth on it.

“We argued.  Then I told him to go fuck himself.  He left, and I didn’t give it a second thought… until the police showed up at my door.”

Bakuda pulled her mouth away from the end of the strip.  She’d bent it into a loose ‘v’ shape.  She frowned at it, then glanced at Paige, “And?”

“And he’d done it.  I- I guess I was still amped up from my performance, and my power’s effects were still empowering my voice, or he was in the audience and was pretty heavily affected.  So when I told him to go fuck himself, he, um, he did.  Or he tried, and when he found it wasn’t physically possible, he hurt himself until…”  Paige closed her eyes for a moment.  “Um.  I won’t go into the details.”

“Mmmm, shucks to be im.  Oo ‘oo” Bakuda raised her eyebrows, still working the metal strip inside her mouth.  She pulled away, verified the end as being in a rough ‘o’ shape, and then gripped the strips in her teeth to pull the entire thing out of her shoulder with a grunt.  She placed the end she’d just reworked against the bench and slid her mouth down the length of the metal, so she could get a grip on the other end.

Taking hold of it in her teeth, she turned her attention to the wall of the truck between herself and Paige.  There were locks placed at regular intervals against the wall, meant to secure the chain of standard handcuffs in place, for those not doused in foam.  She began feeding the metal strap through the loop of the lock.  Beads of sweat mingled with the water running down her face as she worked.

The knot joining the two straps jammed in the hole.  Bakuda pushed a little harder, and wedged it firmly in place.  The L-bend in the metal placed the closed ‘o’-shaped loop of metal close to Paige’s shoulder.

“Any bets on Oni showing up?” Bakuda asked Lung.

“I would be surprised,” he rumbled his response.

She gripped one of the metal grilles in her mouth and began working at it with her teeth.  It was all one thin piece of metal, bent and woven like chain link fencing, albeit a tighter mesh.  Now that it was no longer held securely in place by the metal strips, Bakuda was free to start unwinding and straightening it.

When it was almost completely unwound, she adjusted her bite on it and clenched the second mass of wire, the one that had been in Paige’s mouth, in her jaws, bunching it together into a cylindrical mess about four inches long and one inch across.  Still biting it, she turned her head so the mostly straight four-foot length of wire was pointing at Lung, not two feet away from his face.  Her mouth still around the tangle of wire, she mumbled, “Need end hot.”

Lung growled, but he did as he was asked.  When the end was white hot, Bakuda quickly adjusted her grip, letting go and biting again until the tip was near her mouth.  Lips pulled back, she bit down on it.

“How can you do that?” Paige asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No uffing hit ih urhs,” Bakuda growled.  She pulled away, set it so the handle was against the bench, the length of wire against her shoulder, and examined her handiwork.  “But tooth enamel is tougher than you’d think.”  She spat a measure of blood out onto the floor of the truck, then bit down twice more, pausing between bites to turn the length of metal with her teeth, lips and tongue.

When she extended the length of wire in Paige’s direction, sliding it through the ‘o’ shaped end of the metal strip, Paige realized what Bakuda had spent this much time setting up.  She didn’t even need to be asked to bend down against the foam restraints and crane her neck to one side, to put her collar in reach of the overlong makeshift screwdriver.   The metal strip with the loop in the end served to hold the portion closest to Paige up, so Bakuda could direct it more easily.

It wasn’t fast work.  Bakuda had to use her teeth, jaw and a turning of her head to rotate the screwdriver, and it was a chore to get it back in position if she lost her grip on it.  Ten long minutes of silence and grunting were broken only by the sound of two screws dropping to the metal bench, before Bakuda stopped to take a rest and ease her jaw.

“You won’t be able to do anything to my collar without setting it off,” Paige spoke.

“Dumb bitch,” Bakuda muttered, sticking out her lower lip and peering down as if she could investigate the degree of damage to her own lips.  “I’m a bomb expert.  I understand triggers and catalysts on the same fundamental level you understand walking and breathing.  I can visualize mechanical things in a way you couldn’t with five college degrees and a hundred years.  Insult me like that again and I’ll end you.”

As if pushed to prove herself, she gripped the screwdriver in her teeth again, and set to work again.  A panel was pried off, and the unscrewing was resumed, deeper in the collar.

Paige hesitated to talk again, knowing how easy the girl was to provoke, but the silence was crushing.  “I guess it’s a good thing this is a long drive, from Boston to British Columbia.”

“You were asleep a while,” Bakuda pulled away from the screwdriver, talking softly, as if to herself.  “Not as long as you think.”

Paige felt something come free from the heavy collar around her neck, saw Bakuda tilt the screwdriver upward, sliding a glass tube with something glowing inside down the length of the metal bar  After another few minutes, another piece of machinery joined the glass tube, as though it were a high-tech shish-kabob.

“Tragic,” Bakuda spoke, on her next rest.  “This is beautiful work.  Not the actual assembly, that’s crap.  It’s obvious the tinker that designed this intended it to be put together by regular schmoes.  Wouldn’t have screws and shit, otherwise.  But the way it’s designed, the way everything fits together… makes a scientist proud.  Hate to butcher it.”

Paige nodded.  She didn’t know enough about that sort of thing to risk commenting.  As scary as this situation was, as curious as she was, she felt the lingering effect of tranquilizer in her system, an impending boredom.

She closed her eyes.

It didn’t feel like her eyes were closed for more than a minute before she was woken by a shout of “Birdy!”  Paige jolted awake, turned to Bakuda, and saw the work was done.  Bakuda hadn’t just disabled the collar, but had assembled components into a roughly sphere-shaped setup of metal and wires.  It dangled from the remains of the mask and strap, which Bakuda held in her teeth.

Lung spoke, his voice low, slightly accented, “We have stopped.  Her device will buy us time, and you will use it to sing.  The bomb will not do much damage, but it will slow them and dose anyone hit with a small amount of sedatives.  This will make it easier for you to control them, Bakuda says.  You will then get them to free us.”

Paige’s eyes went wide.  She nodded.

There was a loud sound outside the truck, and Bakuda started swinging the device left and right like a pendulum.  The metal doors at the back of the truck slammed open, and Bakuda let go.  The device rolled out the door.

Paige sang, not stopping as the device detonated, rocking the truck.  Her song was wordless.  She was her own accompaniment, using the acoustics of the truck’s interior to generate echoes.  She charged her voice with her power, willing those who heard it to obey, to submit in a way she’d never done before.

It might have worked, if there was anyone around to hear it.

A giant metal claw entered the back of the truck, closed around Lung, and dragged him out.  When the claw returned to claim her, she stopped singing, started shrieking instead.

“No!” Bakuda’s screams joined her own, behind her, “Fuck you!  No!  No!  I had a fucking plan!”

The arms moved along slats in the ceiling, carrying them through what looked like a massive underground bunker.  Everything was concrete, and the room was so vast that Paige could not even see any of the walls.  There was only the ceiling twenty or thirty feet above them and the floor, extending endlessly around them, lit by florescent lights at regular intervals.  The only thing breaking up the empty expanse was the armored truck bearing the PRT identification on the side and a black square attached to the ceiling, further down.

The arms arranged them in front of the black square – an oversized monitor.  A face, clearly a CGI rendering intended to mask the real identity of the speaker, appeared on the screen.  When the voice came from the speakers, the filter intended to disguise the woman’s voice didn’t quite hide her strong accent.  Paige tried to place it.  Not Southerner, not Cockney, but maybe similar?  She’d heard someone with that accent before.

“Prisoner 599, codename Lung.  PRT powers designation Brute 4-9 asterisk, Blaster 2-6 asterisk, fire and heat only.  Individuals reading or viewing this log are directed to see page three and four of prisoner’s file for particulars on powers.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out with sprinkler system and added restraints.  Chance of escape following interment in the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center rests at a fairly steady .000041% with no gross deviations in any likely scenarios.  Within acceptable limits.  Will be processed to cell block W.”

“You’re Dragon,” Bakuda spoke, eyes widening, “No shit.  Best tinker in the fucking world.  I’d say I’m a fan, but I’d be lying.”

Paige couldn’t help but react to that as well.  Dragon had designed the Birdcage and much of the gear the PRT used, including the containment foam.  She was head and shoulders above any of the other tinkers that went out in power armor.  Dragon sported a wildly different suit each time she deployed.  Her stuff was so advanced that a group of criminals who had gotten away with stealing a damaged suit of her armor were now using that same technology to operate as top of the line mercenaries – the Dragonslayers.

Dragon was also Canadian, which was the detail Paige needed to peg her accent as that of a Newfoundlander.  Not an accent one heard very often, these days.

“Prisoner 600, codename Bakuda.  PRT powers designation Tinker 6 with bomb speciality.  Recommended protocols were not properly carried out.”  The formal tone of the voice dropped away as she muttered, “I hate to get someone fired, but I’m going to have to report this.  Supposed to be in an S-class containment truck and placed no less than six feet from other prisoners… well, at least nothing came of it.”

“Fuck you, Dragon,” Bakuda snarled.

“…Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000126% with potential gross deviation in the event of introduction of contraband material or a matter producer.  With monitoring this chance drops to .000061%.  Will be processed to cell block C.”

“Prisoner 601, codename Canary.  PRT powers designation Master 8.  Recommended protocols were properly carried out, with provided restraints and no human personnel being brought within three hundred yards of said individual’s position.  Hi Canary.”

Paige blinked a few times in surprise, “Hi?”

“I followed your trial.  I thought it was a damn shame things went like they did.  I get that it was a reckless accident, but you don’t deserve to be here.  I even wrote a letter to your judge, the DA and your governor saying as much.  I’m sorry it wasn’t enough.”

The sympathy hit Paige hard.  It was all she could do to stop herself from bursting into tears.

“I’m afraid I’ve got to do my job, and that means carrying out my role in enforcing the law.  You understand?  Whatever my feelings, I can’t let you go.”

“I- Yes.”

“Listen, I’m sticking you in cell block E.  The woman that put herself in charge of that cell block goes by the codename Lustrum.  She’s a pretty extreme feminist and misandrist, but she protects the girls in her block, and it’s also the block furthest from the hole the men opened into the women’s half of the Birdcage.  If you’re willing to play along, buy in or pretend to buy into her way of thinking, I think she’ll keep you safest.”

Paige didn’t have words to reply.  She just nodded.

“Ok.  Prisoner 601’s Chance of escape from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center is .000025% with no gross deviations.  Do you three understand why I’m telling you this?”

“Our chances of escaping are pretty slim,” Bakuda spoke.

“Yes.  The Baumann Detention Center is a structure so complex I had to design an artificial intelligence to put it together.  It’s situated inside of a hollowed out mountain, the walls of which are lined with layers of a ceramic of my own design, each such layer separated by volumes of dormant containment foam.  If you punched a hole in the outside of the mountain, you’d only wind up with more foam than you knew how to handle.

“That’s the mountain.  The prison itself is nicknamed the Birdcage because it is suspended in the center of the empty mountain, hanging only by the same network of tubes that supplies prisoners and food to the cell blocks.  Both the interior of the tubes and the interior of the mountain itself are vacuums.  Even if an individual were to have powers allowing them to navigate the vacuum, I have three thousand antigrav drones in position at any given time, laying dormant in that lightless void, waiting for any signal, motion, energy or air leakage to awaken them.  Once awakened, a drone will move to the location of said anomaly and detonate.  Many of my drones contain a loadout of containment foam, but others contain payloads designed to counteract various methods one could theoretically use to traverse the vacuum.  Some are quite lethal.”

“These are not the only measures I have taken, but it wouldn’t do to inform you of everything I have done to secure this facility.  Know only that your chance of successful escape is negligible, and the chance of you dying or being maimed for attempting it is much higher.”

“Know that while I do retain control over the structure and the ability to observe those within, enabling me to respond to emergencies such as natural disasters, you will not be able to manipulate this to your advantage.  I will not, cannot intervene should a hostage be taken, or if an individual should threaten or perform damage to vital or luxury resources.  There was no other way to run the prison effectively than to have you police and protect yourselves.  I stress: nothing you do can convince me to free you.  The elevators to the Baumann Detention Center go one way.  Down.”

“I will be depositing you in the elevators now.  You will be provided with a limited measure of oxygen, sufficient only to carry you safely to the bottom.  Should you slow or stop the lift, or attempt to scale the interior of the tube, I expect you will likely fall unconscious, suffer brain damage or die for your trouble.  A counteragent for the containment foam will be applied as you descend, so that you are free before you reach the bottom.”

Lung and Bakuda were carried off in different directionis.  Paige was the last to be carried away by the robotic arms.

“I am sorry, Paige Mcabee,” Dragon’s tinny voice sounded, as the arm set her down.  “Good luck.”

The ground beneath her shifted, and then she descended.

Lung walked with confidence to the ‘hole’, a word with double meaning, as it referred to the actual hole in the wall, as well as the more vulgar term for why many in the men’s half of the Birdcage went there – it was the sole route into the women’s prison.

A group of women were on guard on the other side of the hole, standing or sitting at various vantage points there.

“Who’re you?” one of the women asked him.  She was a striking woman with coffee colored skin and a mouthful of teeth that looked like knife blades.

“I am Lung.”

“You’re new?”

“Yes.”

“Which cell block are you in?” this question came from a heavyset woman that looked more like a middle aged soccer mom than a prisoner.  Lung noted, however, how each of the other girls that were on guard turned to listen when she spoke.

“W, ma’am,” he spoke, taking extra care to not offend.

“You want a girl?”

“I am here only to visit one of my subordinates.  Cell block C.”

“Even if you aren’t buying, can’t let you through for free.  Gotta pay something.  Marquis runs your cell block, still?  Divvies up the cancer sticks from his food crates fairly enough?”

“Yes.”  Lung reached into his pocket and retrieved a half-carton of cigarettes.  He handed them over.

“Good boy.  Listen, Glaistig Uaine runs the cell block you’re going to.  You keep some of these sticks, you give them to her, so as not to insult her.”

“I will.  Thank you for this advice.”

“I do like a polite boy.  You run along, now.”

He bowed his head in respect, then walked briskly to the next cell block.  A smaller contingent of guards awaited him there, and he handed over the remaining cigarettes, specifying them as a gift for Glaistig Uaine.  The guards parted to let him through.

He found Bakuda in a cell all to herself.  The walls of the prison were all metal of some sort, painted a dark blue, but Bakuda had scratched formulas and sentences into the walls of her cell, where they glittered silver-gray in the right light.  Her cot was pulled into the center of the room to give her more surface to write on.

“Bakuda,” he spoke.

“Lung!  This place is amazing!” she grinned maniacally, her scarred lips spread wide, “I thought it would suck, but it’s… it’s like being inside the fucking Mona Lisa of architecture.  Genius shit.  She wasn’t lying about this place being inside a vacuum, but what’s amazing is what happens when you breach the outside.  See, she didn’t make this place tough.  It’s fragile.  Like she built the most complex house of cards ever.  You knock a hole in the wall, and you’re not only pretty much guaranteed to off yourself, but the change in air pressure changes the room configuration, seals off the space so the breach doesn’t affect anyone in other rooms.  And even if you stop the main bits from sliding down, the drop in air pressure carries into the next room, and that room seals off.  I could spend a decade figuring out how she did this.  And that’s the simplest part of it.  In busier areas-“

“I do not care about this,” Lung interrupted her breathless rambling.

Bakuda stopped and wheeled around, still grinning.  “Ok.  How you doing?”

“Satisfactory.  My eyes are healing, but I am still having trouble seeing color.  I do not like the leader of my cell block, but he is a fair man.  He has given me his favor in exchange for telling him about Brockton Bay, a place he once operated.  This has helped ensure I am not bothered.  That, and the prisoners seem to wait to see what each new inmate can do before they pick him as a target.”

“Yep.  It looked pretty grim for me for a few days, but when the freaky girl in charge of this block found out I could fix the televisions here, things suddenly got a lot easier.”

“I see.”

She raised an eyebrow, smiling.  “So.  Why the visit?  Feeling lonely?”

“No.”

She dropped the smile in the blink of an eye.  “Then explain.”

“This is your first time in a prison, yes?”

“Yep.”

“I was in prison before I came to America.  There are four ways one can survive in such a place.  You can join one of the gangs or groups in charge.  This was not possible for me then, for I was known to be half Japanese, half Chinese, and there was no gang willing to include such a person.  It is not a possibility for me now, either, for I am too used to being in charge to bow and scrape for any length of time without losing my patience.  It is the route I see you have taken here.”

“Sure,” Bakuda eyed him warily.

“The second option is to be somebody’s bitch.  They give you their protection in exchange for the most base of services.  You understand why I would not take this route.”

“I get it, yeah.”

“The remaining options are to either kill someone or to be seen as a madman.  In such cases, one demonstrates he is too dangerous or unpredictable to be fucked with.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I thought I would choose the third and fourth.”

Bakuda’s eyes went wide.  She backed away, then realized the futility of the move.  Lung stood in the middle of the one doorway that led out of the cell.  “Why?”

“You insulted me.  You failed me.  Because I must kill someone, and killing a subordinate of mine who others have cause to protect should also mark me as sufficiently unpredictable.  Others will fear me after this.”

“I… I insulted you to get your power going, you know?” she squeaked, “I did it to help our escape.”

“I might have overlooked it for this reason, but we did not escape. You failed me, both here and in the city.”

She flicked her arm, and an arrangement of bedsprings and twisted scrap metal dropped from her sleeve into her open hand.  “I’ll punch a hole in the outside of the cell if you come any closer.  Air flows out of the room, door seals shut, we both suffocate.”

“You are not fast enough.”

“Wanna bet?”

He did.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Shell 4.10

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I came to the gradual realization I could open my eyes, as though it was something I had forgotten how to do.  I tried it and regretted my decision instantly.  One of my eyes wasn’t seeing anything, even when open, and the other was out of focus, with images failing to make sense even when I could make something out.  As I screwed my eyes shut, even the pink glow of light passing through my eyelids was like fireworks exploding in my retinas.

When I tried to piece together what had just happened, my thoughts moved like molasses.

“If you little fucks had any sense, you’d know that getting the upper hand on me, just for a moment?  It’s something you should be fucking terrified of,” a voice hissed.  It took me a few seconds to place the voice, way longer than it should have.  Bakuda.

I was beginning to hurt.  Like papercuts, but blown up to two hundred times the size, and each of those papercuts was one of my muscles.  My skin was prickling with stings that were gradually feeling more and more like a burn.  My joints throbbed as though every single joint had been torn out of its individual socket and people were banging the still-alive ends of them against the pavement in a grim rhythm.

I opened my good eye again and tried unsuccessfully to focus.  Three crimson ribbons… no.  I was seeing triple.  One crimson ribbon was extending along the side of my mask, dropping from the edge where the mask covered my nose, dropping in a straight line to touch the ground.  Where it made contact with pavement, there was a steadily growing puddle.  I realized I was bleeding.  A lot.

“Leaving me lying there with a grenade launcher in my hand and ammunition all over the fucking street was asking for it.  Fuck, just the hugging and being all relieved, as if you had actually beaten me?  You were begging to be shot.”

I wasn’t going out like this.  Not without a fight.  I could barely move, though, let alone take action.  My desire to do something was almost more excruciating than the pain that throbbed and thrummed through my entire body.  What could I do?  My mind wasn’t working as agonizingly slowly as it had been a moment before, but my thoughts were still bogged down and broken up.  Stuff I should have known without thinking about it was vague, uncertain, disjointed.  Too many thoughts were orphaned, disconnected from everything else.  I would have hit something in my frustration if I’d been able to move without everything hurting.  I settled for clenching my fists.

School.  Trouble at school?  Me?  The trio?  No.  Why was I thinking about school?  What had I been thinking about before I got frustrated?  Wanting to fight back somehow.  Bakuda, school, fighting back.  I almost groaned in frustration as I tried to connect the individual ideas, and simply couldn’t complete the thought.  I only wound up huffing out a breath, wincing at the pain that caused.

“Oh?  The ineffectual little girl with the bug costume is awake,” Bakuda’s whirring voice announced to the night air.

Grue said something, a short distance away, I couldn’t make it out.

Bakuda replied with an absent, “Shush, don’t worry.  I’ll get to you in a moment.”

I heard something, and saw a pair of pink boots appear in front of my face, the image swimming and drifting lazily.

“Bad day?” she bent over me, “Good.  See, one of my new minions is on staff at the Protectorate Headquarters.  A guard where Lung is imprisoned, understand?  Wasn’t in a position to free him, but she got the full story from him.  I know you were the little freak that led to him getting sent there.  So you get special treatment tonight.  You get to watch what I do to your friends.  I’ll start with the boy in black, then move on to your unconscious buddies over there.  Glued them down just to be safe.  Once your friends are as good as dead, I give you to Oni Lee.  He was a very good boy when it came to the change of regime, and he’s been bugging me to give him something to play with.  What do you say to that?”

I was only half listening.  Like a mantra, I was mentally reciting the same thing, over and over.  Bakuda, school, fight back.

“Bakuda, school,” I mumbled.  Hearing how reedy and thin my own voice sounded was more terrifying than anything else that had come to my attention in the past few minutes.

“What?  Does the bug girl want to say something?”  She bent down and grabbed the armor that hung over my chest.  With a jerk, she hauled me into a half-sitting position.  Being tugged around like that was torture, but the pain helped sharpen my thoughts into a semblance of clarity.

“School.  Bakuda failed,” I answered her, my voice only marginally stronger than it had been on my last attempt.  The black-red lenses of her goggles bored into me as I composed my thoughts to speak again, trying to sound more coherent. “Smart as you think you are, failing like that?  What was it?  Second place?  Not even second?”  I managed something approximating a chuckle.

She let go of me and stepped away as if I was on fire.  As my head hit the pavement, I very nearly blacked out.  Had to fight not to.  Embrace the painKeeps you awake.

A short distance from me, Grue’s voice echoed.  I could only make out the first word.  “She’s” or “Cheese”.  He laughed.  It spooked me that I couldn’t understand him, that I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t understand him.  I wasn’t hearing as well as I should, I knew that.  But that wasn’t all of it.  What else?

The distortion.  The explosion or explosions had damaged my hearing, maybe, and I couldn’t make out his words with the effect his power had on his voice.  Just figuring that out, knowing I could figure it out, made me feel a hundred times better.

“You think so?” Bakuda hissed at Grue.  Her words were easier to make out, since her mask was reconstructing them so they were perfectly enunciated and monotone, even if it obscured it behind whirs and hisses.

She kicked me in the face with one of those pink boots.  Having to move my head hurt more than almost having my teeth kicked in.  She grabbed at my costume and dragged me several feet.  Being moved cranked all the other hurt up a notch.  On a scale of one to ten, it was a good solid nine point five.  Nothing I could do could make it hurt more, so I found the strength and willpower to reach up and grab at her wrists, for all the good it did.  She let me go and then shoved me to turn me on my side.  The movement made me want to throw up.

Seeing Grue helped ground me, as I fought the nausea and panted tiny breaths at the pain.  He was bound in a half-sitting position against a locker with what looked like lengths of sticky gold ribbon.  Where was Tattletale?

“Let’s see how smart you two are after I give tall, dark and mysterious his treat,” Bakuda threatened, “Let’s see… here.  Here’s a real gem.  Two-twenty-seven.  Now sit still.  If you even think about using your power, I’ll just shove it down the bug brat’s throat instead, set it off.  Not like you’re in a position to stop me from getting the job done, even if I’m deaf and blind.”

She removed her pink gloves and threw them aside.  Then she withdrew a set of what looked like long, narrow scissors from her sleeve.  Except they were blunt, not sharp.  Like pliers, almost.  They clicked as she closed them on the tip of what looked like an inch-long metal pill.

“No need for surgery, since this isn’t going to be long term.  What I’m going to do is slide this up your nostril and into your nasal cavity.”  She reached into the darkness that was leaking from all around him and fumbled around his face. “Just need to get your mask… helmet… off.  There.”

If Grue’s mask was off, it was hard to tell.  His head was just a roughly human-shaped blur of shadow.

She reached into that layer of darkness with one hand and pushed the capsule into the center of it all with the other.  “And in it goes… slowly, don’t want to activate it prematurely, and the effects will only be really cool if it’s deep.  See, my two-twenty-seven was something of a happy accident.  I’d taken readings of little Vista’s powers, thought maybe I could make a space distortion grenade.  Purely by accident, I cracked the Manton effect.  Or at least, whatever I’d done when I put the grenade together, it bypassed the Manton effect.  You idiots know what that is?”

She stopped and cracked her knuckles, leaving the scissor-like tool sticking straight out of Grue’s face.  “It’s that little rule that keeps pyrokinetics from boiling your blood, that limits most powers from affecting people’s bodies.  Or, depending on what theory you’re going by, it’s the rule that says your power either works only on organic, living things, or it works on everything else.

“So think about it.  A spatial distortion effect that only works on living material.  I set this thing off, and all living matter within three feet of the capsule is reshaped, warped, shrunk, blown up, stretched, bent.  It doesn’t actually kill you.  That’s the second most amazing thing about it, besides the Manton bypass.  Everything still connects to everything else.  Totally nonlethal, but it’ll make you wish you were dead every second of the rest of your miserable fucking existence.”

Don’t just lie there and watch, I thought.  Do something!

“Just click, whoosh, you’re ugly enough to put the elephant man to shame.  Wind up with a head four times the normal size, bumps like tumors all over, every feature and part the wrong shape, wrong size.  Reshapes the brain, too, but that’s usually just some mild to moderate brain damage, since I’ve got it calibrated to focus on the external features.”  She laughed.  It was that dry, repetitive, inhuman sound.  When she spoke again, she enunciated each word separately.  “Irreversible.  And.  Fucking.  Hilarious.”

I reached for my bugs, but I couldn’t draw my thoughts together enough to give them any complex commands.  I just called them to me.  That still left me to help Grue.

My utility sheath.  Slowly, as much due to my need to be discreet as to my inability to move very quickly without incredible pain, I moved my hand behind my back, reminded myself of what was there.

Pepper spray – no go.  It would burn her skin, but the goggles and mask would keep most of her face safe.  She was scraped and bloody, so maybe I could spray her body… it wouldn’t be fun on her wounds, but would that save us?

Pen and paper.  Cell phone.  Change.  No, no and no.

Baton.  I didn’t have the strength to swing it, or the leverage or room I needed to extend it.

Epipens.  Not much use, and I didn’t trust my strength or coordination as far as being able to both inject her and depress the syringe.

That was it for the contents of my utility compartment.  I let my hand go limp and dangle behind my back as I braced myself to move it, and my fingers brushed against something.

The knife sheath at the small of my back.  I’d strapped it in at the lowest point it could be on my back, while being both covered by my armor and easy to reach.

Knife worked.

There was a faint click as Bakuda adjusted the scissor-plier things and removed them from Grue’s nose.  They weren’t gripping the capsule anymore.

“This should be a show,” she gloated, standing up straight before I could figure out where to stab or cut.  Didn’t want to kill, but had to stop her.  For Grue.

My hand was still behind my back, gripping the knife handle with the blade pointing out the bottom of my hand.  I shifted my position a fraction so my angle was better.

“Hey, bug girl.  What are you up to, there?  Flopping around like a fish on dry land?  Pay attention, it’s going to look really cool when parts of his face start bulging out of that little blotch of shadow.”

I tried to formulate a response, some reply that would add sting to what I was about to do, but a wave of weakness swept over me.  Darkness began to creep in around the edges of my vision, again.  I straightened my legs in an attempt to cause myself more pain, force myself to alertness again, and it failed to push the darkness back.  Was Grue using his power?  I looked at him.  Nothing.  I was just blacking out.

I couldn’t pass out now.

Toe Rings.

With no witty reply, no quip or even an angry yell, I brought the knife down on the end of her foot.  Two thoughts struck me simultaneously.

I’d hit something hard.  Was her foot or boot armored?

Had I even gotten the right foot?  Tattletale had never said which one had the toe rings.  Or if both did.

As a wave of blackness swept in front of my vision and faded just as quickly, leaving me only dimly aware of her screams.  The nausea was welling again, and just like it was with my consciousness slipping away, the need to puke building.  I was going to throw up, but I could choke if I did it with my mask on.  If I wound up on my back, I could even suffocate.

Grue was saying something.  Couldn’t make out his words.  Sounded urgent.

The woman was screaming in my ear.  A litany of curses, threats, horrible things she was going to do to me.  Unconsciousness called to me, seductive, safe, painless, free of threats.

If it was even unconsciousness. The chilling idea that I could be dying dawned on me, gave me the briefest moment of clarity.  I focused hard on the jumble of distorted images and sounds, where I was, what people were saying and screaming at me.

The woman was rolling on the ground next to me.  As she kicked her leg, a spatter of blood marred the one lens of my mask that I could see through.  What was the woman’s name again?  Bakuda.  The very tip of the knife was still lodged in the pavement where her foot had been.  That was the hard thing I’d hit: pavement, not armor.  There was a lot of blood.  Hers.  A bit of her boot, pink and crimson.  Two smaller toes with painted nails, pink and crimson, in the midst of the mess of blood.

I tried and failed to pull the knife free, though it was only embedded a quarter-inch deep in the ground.  The effort that left me gasping for breath with big lungfuls of air.  Each breath made me feel like I’d inhaled barbed wire and hot irons were pressing against my sides.  I was praying the urge to vomit would go away, knowing it wouldn’t.

Grue.  What was he saying?  I could barely understand Bakuda with her robotic enunciation.  Understanding Grue was a dozen times harder.  Like another language.

Live knee vuh yife?  Knife?  The knife.  He needed it.

I let myself fall onto my front, face toward the ground, so I wouldn’t choke.  The knife-holding hand stayed put, but my arm bent at a bad angle, eliciting a stab of pain.  My wrist and elbow awkwardly twisted, strained to return to a natural position.  I resisted the urge to let go, kept my grip on the knife handle.

The ground gave before I did, and the knife came free.  My arm straightened, stretching out in front of me, the knife gripped in my black gloved hand.  I looked up from the knife to see a blurry image of Grue struggling under his bonds, the last thing I saw before darkness and merciful lack of consciousness claimed me.

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Shell 4.9

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“Did you get shot?” I asked Regent, as the four of us dashed down the alleyway.  No answer.  So I tried again, more specific, “Regent!  Listen to me, did you get shot?”

He shook his head in a tight motion as he clutched his hand against his shoulder, “Not shot.  Used my power too much, too fast, and it backfired.  Left arm’s cramping up, spasms.  I can’t move it.  Don’t worry about it.”

“Backfired?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it!” his snarled response was all the more startling because it came from our normally placid and too-laid-back Alec.  As if to compensate for the lashing out, he muttered an apology, “Fuck.  Sorry.  This hurts, but I’ll deal.  You guys focus on getting us out of this mess.”

“Tattletale,” I was still holding her hand, so I squeezed it to ensure I had her attention, “This would be a fantastic time to do your thing.”

“Especially since you dropped the ball as far as letting us walk into that fucked up situation,” Grue growled.

“Okay,” Tattletale huffed with both the exertion of our run and her irritation, letting go of my hand to push her hair back from her face and put it behind her ears, “The big one: She’s lying.”

“About?” I asked.

“She’s not the new leader of the ABB.”

“What?  Who is?” Grue asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine.  She doesn’t see herself as the one in charge, as much as she enjoys the role.  She’s pretending.”

The ground rumbled, and we looked behind us to see debris spraying out of the darkness Grue had used to cover our retreat.

It was only because we were watching the debris that we saw the rocket blast out of the darkness.  We ducked, needlessly, as the missile arced 3 feet over our heads and continued down the alley, directly to the spot where a hologram-bomb sat.

We covered our heads as the rocket and bomb exploded, one just a second after the other.  The first explosion didn’t even ruffle our hair, though we were less than a hundred feet away.  The second, explosion, though, ripped past us with the most intense cold I’d ever felt.  Even through my costume, I could feel it.

When we opened our eyes, there was a spectacle in front of us.  The second explosion had flash-frozen the first bomb mid-explosion, had probably been what absorbed the force of the blast.  Smoke, debris and dust had been frozen into a tower of ice, easily as tall as a two story building, composed of spikes of ice and frost that radiated up and away from us.  Most of it was lit up by the lightposts that were spaced evenly across the storage facility.  It was already slowly falling apart – heavier pieces of debris were breaking through the ice that held them up, falling free and crashing through paper thin latticeworks of frost.

That same frost covered the ground and every wall that was facing the explosion site, as far as the eye could see.  It covered us.  Icicles so tiny and fine they were like eyelashes radiated from the parts of my costume that had been exposed.  There were even twists and curls of ice where Grue’s smoke had frozen.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked.  He was shielding Tattletale with his body, the ice sloughing off them in sheets as they stood.  When he saw me looking, he explained, “Tattletale’s costume exposes her skin, more than any of us.  If she’d been totally exposed-”

“No,” I answered, “No worries.  Smart.  But we should move.”

We ran.  All around us, tiny crystals of ice were drifting down, sparkling in the light.

Tattletale continued dishing the info on Bakuda, “Lie number two?  She’s fibbing about how she’s detonating those bombs she has in her people’s heads.  She said she blows things up with a thought, but she’s not wearing any external hardware on her head, and she’s  wouldn’t have someone else do surgery on her.  Too much of a control freak, too proud of her brain.”

“But you don’t know how she’s blowing the bombs up?” I guessed.

“I know exactly how she’s setting them off.  Toe rings.”

“Toe rings,” Grue said, disbelief clear in his tone, even with his warped voice.

“She’s got a ring around her big toe and the toe next to it.  When she crosses one toe over the other, contacts on the outside of the rings meet and it sends the signal.  She chooses the target with a system built into her goggles.  It doesn’t look like she’s doing anything, which is probably the effect she’s going for.  Appearances.”

“Good to know,” Grue said, “But that doesn’t help us right now.  What are her weaknesses?”

There was the crash of an explosion behind us.  The area briefly lit up, but it hadn’t hit close enough to be worth worrying about.

“Narcissistic personality disorder.  Megalomania.  She’s spent her whole life being smarter than everyone around her, even before she had powers.  Constantly praised, coddled.  But she rarely if ever heard a criticism, probably wasn’t ever knocked down a peg, and that was a big factor in her ego swelling up to neurotic levels.  Probably graduated high school years early.  My bet is her trigger event was related to this.  Passed over for a job or someone really bitched her out, and she didn’t know how to deal.”

I had something to add, “The first thing she did with her powers, only thing, before she came to Brockton Bay, was hold a University hostage.  Maybe she got some bad marks, failed a class or was passed over for a teaching assistant position.  Jarred her self image enough she snapped.”

“Something we can use, people!” Grue growled.

“The personality disorder,” Tattletale said, “Even a small victory on our end is going to get a big reaction from her.  Ego-wise, she’s got a glass jaw.  Hard to say if a win for us would mean she goes manic and blows everything up, or if she’d just crumple, but I guarantee she wouldn’t handle it well.”

Grue nodded, started to speak, but stumbled.  I did my best to stop him from falling over, but he probably weighed half again as much as I did.  He got his balance, growled, and then spoke, “How do we win?  Or how do we avoid losing?  What’s she got going on that we don’t know about?”

“The goggles.  She’s seeing heat signatures.  It’s how she kept finding us.  That ice is a blessing in disguise, since it’s probably hiding us some.  She must have a reason for using it.  Um.  Her guns are keyed to her fingerprints, so you couldn’t pick up her grenade launcher and use it against her.”

“What else?”

“That’s all that’s coming to mind right now.  If you’re going to come up with a plan, best do it fast.  I think she’s after us on the Jeep.”

“Then we’re splitting up,” Grue grunted, “I fucked up my ankle by kicking in that door when the black hole hit.  I fucked it up worse by running so much afterward.  I’m going to see what I can do, staying here.”

“What the fuck?” I breathed, “No.”

“I’ll buy you time.  You guys go.  Now!”

“No way,” I said, but he was stopping, turning around.  I tried to stop, too, but Tattletale took hold of my hand and dragged me after her.  I shouted, “Grue!  Don’t be stupid!”

He didn’t respond, turning to fire blasts of darkness at the lights nearest him, darkening the entire alley.  Slowly, he walked in the opposite direction the rest of us were going, favoring one leg.

With a whistle and a resounding crack, another rocket slammed into the tower of ice.  The entire thing toppled like a massive house of cards, with a sound of a hundred thousand windows breaking.  Even with that cacophony, I heard the squeal of tires.  I saw the blurred form of the Jeep approaching through the cloud of snow and frost that was rolling away from the collapsed tower.

Grue didn’t retreat as the Jeep barreled forward, didn’t turn away.  He bellowed at the top of his lungs, in his altered voice, “Come on!”

“Grue!” I shouted, but he didn’t react.  “Fuck!”

No bugs.  Still too few.  We’d been constantly moving, so my bugs hadn’t had a place they could congregate, and this place was lousy for them anyways, in quality and quantity.  How could I have been so goddamn stupid?  I should always be prepared, and now I wasn’t in a state to help a friend and teammate when he needed it most, because I’d assumed my bugs would be on hand.

There were only three people in the Jeep, with the person standing at the back being the very recognizable Bakuda, grenade launcher in hand.  The thug in the passenger seat had a pistol in each hand, and the driver was steering with one hand, a gun in the other.

Grue didn’t budge as the driver stepped on the gas.  Was he playing chicken against a speeding car?

“Come on!” Grue shouted, again.

“Don’t just watch!” Tattletale tugged on my arm, pulling me toward the corner, “We’ve gotta go now or there’s no point!”

It was stupid, but I resisted, grabbing at the edge of the locker to ensure I could at least stay long enough to see what happened to Grue.  See if maybe he would be okay.

Those hopes were swiftly dashed.  The car slammed into the darkness-wreathed figure with enough speed to assure me he wouldn’t be walking away from an impact.

The tires squealed and the Jeep skidded in a half-turn as it veered to a halt.  Bakuda pulled herself up to a standing position, holding on to the roll bar as she looked around, presumably for us.

“Come on!” Tattletale urged me in a strained whisper, “Let’s go!”

I realized it before she did. “There’s no damage to the car.”

Tattletale’s repeated yanking on my arm stopped as she paused to verify what I’d said.  No broken window, no dents on the hood, no dents on the bumper.

A cloud of darkness bloomed from the shadows at the side of the alley and swallowed the Jeep and its three occupants.

Two seconds later, the Jeep came roaring out of the darkness, fishtailing as the wheels struggled to get a grip on the frost-slick pavement.  The driver steered it towards us, while Bakuda loaded her grenade launcher, her focus on the cloud of darkness she’d just exited.  The guy in the passenger seat… was gone.

Bakuda aimed the grenade launcher at the darkness.

“Fuck, Grue owes me one for this,” Regent muttered.  He let go of his shoulder, raised his hand toward the Jeep, and then flung it out to one side.  As he did it, he screamed, his voice primal, raw.

The hand the driver had on the wheel moved much as Regent’s did, swinging wildly to one side.  The Jeep turned, skidded, and spun out, flinging Bakuda and the contents of a half dozen boxes of explosives onto the road of the alley.  It collided with a locker, halfway smashing through a door in the process, and spiraled to a halt with a single airbag deployed, the driver limp behind it.

Almost at the same moment the Jeep stopped, Regent started to collapse to the ground, unconscious.  I grabbed him to stop him and eased him down so he didn’t hit his head.  I looked at Tattletale, “Backfire?”

“No, but close,” Tattletale said, “After a backfire, he’s got to rest his powers.  It’s like throwing a punch with a broken hand.  He’ll be sore and probably powerless for a little while, but he’ll recover.”

“Good,” I said, staring out at the scene.  The crashed car, the frost-covered street covered with grenades and canisters, Bakuda lying still in the midst of it all.  Grue limped out of the cloud of darkness, the passenger’s gun in his hand.

“Grue!” I called out.  I ran to him, hugged him.  My relief was so intense I wasn’t even embarrassed about it.

“Heya,” his voice echoed, “I’m alright.  Only a feint.  Hard to tell whether it’s me or a blob of shadow shaped roughly like a person when the lights are out, yeah?  Fooled her.”

“Fooled me.  Scared the fucking crap out of me,” I answered, “You fucker.”

“Nice to know you care,” he laughed a little, patted me on the head like someone would a dog, “Come on.  We should restrain the lunatic, get her out of here so we can drill her on what happened to Bitch and the money.  Maybe get an idea of what’s going on with the ABB.”

I smiled behind my mask, “Sounds like a-”

I didn’t get to finish.  Everything went white, then every inch of me bloomed in a searing agony that dwarfed the worst pain I had ever felt.

Since we had trounced Über and Leet, it had been one close call after another.  Being surrounded and charged by a mob, being held at gunpoint, escaping a miniature black hole, nearly being frozen in time like bugs in amber, innumerable explosions.  We’d escaped each of the threats by the skin of our teeth, knowing all the while that all it would take was one well placed shot, and we were done, gone, out of commission.

All it had taken was one good shot.

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Shell 4.8

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I’d discovered facing down more than a dozen gunmen, thirty or so people with improvised weapons and a mad scientist with a fetish for bombs made me really, really appreciate what Bitch brought to the team.

“All of this,” Tattletale spoke very carefully, “You were toying with us.  It’s why you didn’t have your people shoot at us from the start.”

“You’re very right.” Bakuda’s mask may have altered her voice to something approximating Robbie the Robot with a sore throat, but I got the impression she tried to make up for it with body language.  She shook her finger at Tattletale like she was scolding a dog.  “But I think you, specifically, should shut up.  Boys?”

She rested her hand on the head of an ABB member standing in front of her jeep with a pistol in his hands.  He flinched at the touch.  “If the blonde opens her mouth again, open fire on their entire group.  I don’t care what the others have to say, but she stays quiet.”

Her soldiers adjusted their grips on their guns, and more than one turned the barrel of their weapons to point towards Tattletale, specifically.  Glancing at Tattletale, I saw her eyes narrow, her lips press together in a hard line.

“Yeah,” Bakuda straightened up, put a foot up on the top of the Jeep’s door and rested her arms on her knee, leaning towards us. “You’re the only one I don’t get.  Don’t know your powers.  But seeing how you and the skinny boy baited my ineffectual mercenaries, I think I’m going to play it safe and have you be quiet.  Maybe it’s a subsonic thing, altering moods as you talk, maybe it’s something else.  I dunno.  But you shut up, ‘Kay?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Tattletale give the slightest nod.

“Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle,” Bakuda hissed, examining the back of her hand.  It seemed she wasn’t just compensating for the mechanical voice with body language; she liked to talk.  Not that I was complaining.  “See, Lung taught me a lot, but the lesson I really took to heart was that being an effective leader is all about fear.  Career like ours, people are only truly loyal to someone if they are terrified of them.  Enough fear, and they stop worrying about their own interests, stop wondering if they can usurp you, and they dedicate themselves entirely to making you happy.  Or at least, to keeping you from being unhappy.”

She hopped down from the jeep and grabbed the hair of a taller, longer haired Japanese guy from a group of twenty-somethings.  Winding his hair in her hands, she made him bend over until his ear was right in front of her, “Isn’t that right?”

He mumbled a reply and she released him, “But it goes further, doesn’t it?  See, I may have inherited the ABB-”

It was almost imperceptible, but I saw a flicker of movement around Tattletale’s face.  A change of expression or a movement of her head.  When I glanced her way, though, I couldn’t guess what it had been.

Bakuda continued without a pause, “But I also inherited Lung’s enemies.  So I have a dilemma, you see.  What can I do to you that’s going to convince them that I’m worth steering clear of?  What gesture would be effective enough that it would have their people running for the hills when they see me coming?”

She wheeled around and grabbed a pistol from the hands of one of her thugs, “Give.”

She then strode forward into the midst of the crowd.

“There’s not enough bugs here.” I took advantage of the pause in her monologue to whisper under my breath, hoping the others would catch it, praying I wasn’t being too loud.  At least my mask covered my face, hid the fact that my lips were moving, “Regent?”

“Can’t disarm this many guns,” he whispered his reply. “I mean, I-”

“You.” Bakuda called out, startling us.  She wasn’t paying attention to us, though.  A Korean-American guy in a private school uniform – from Immaculata High, in the nicest part of the city – was cringing in front of her.  The crowd slowly backed away, clearing a few feet of space around the two of them.

“Y-yes?” the boy replied.

“Park Jihoo, yes?  Ever hold a gun before?”

“No.”

“Ever beat someone up?”

“Please, I never… no.”

“Ever get in a fight?  I mean a real fight, biting, scratching, reaching for the nearest thing you could use as a weapon?”

“N-no, Bakuda.”

“Then you’re perfect for my little demonstration.”  Bakuda pressed the pistol into his hands, “Shoot one of them.”

The guy held the gun like it was a live scorpion, with two fingers, at arm’s length, “Please, I can’t.”

“I’ll make it easy for you,” Bakuda might have been trying to coo or sound reassuring, but mask didn’t allow for that kind of inflection, “You don’t even have to kill them.  You can aim for a kneecap, an elbow, a shoulder.  Okay?  Wait a second.”

She left the gun in the guy’s hands and stepped away, pointing to one of her thugs, “Get the camera out and start rolling.”

As ordered, he reached for the side of the jeep and retrieved a small handheld camcorder.  He fumbled with it for a few seconds before holding it over his head to see past the crowd,  looking through the flip-out panel on the side to make sure the camera was on target.

“Thank you for waiting, Park Jihoo,” Bakuda turned her attention to the guy with the gun, “You can shoot someone now.”

The guy said something in Korean.  It might have been a prayer, “Please.  No.”

“Really?  They’re bad people, if you’re concerned about morals.”  Bakuda tilted her head to one side.

He blinked back tears, staring up at the sky.  The gun fell from his hands to clatter to the pavement.

“That’s a no.  Shame.  No use to me as a soldier.”  Bakuda kicked him in the stomach, hard enough to send him sprawling onto his back.

“No!  No no no!” The guy looked up to her, “Please!”

Bakuda half-stepped, half skipped back a few feet.  The people around them took that as their cue to get well away from him.

She didn’t do anything, didn’t say anything, didn’t offer any tell or signal.  There was a sound, like a vibrating cell phone on a table, and Park Jihoo liquefied into a soupy mess in the span of a second.

Dead.  He’d died, just like that.

It was hard to hear over the screaming, the wailing, the outraged shouts.  As the crowd scrambled to back away from the scene, all trying to hide behind one another, one of the thugs fired a gun straight up into the air.  Everyone stopped.  After the shrieks of surprise, there was the briefest pause, long enough for one sound to bring everyone to a stunned silence.

It sounded like the noise you make when you rake up dry leaves, but louder, artificial in a way that sounded like it was played over an archaic answering machine.  All eyes turned to Bakuda.  She was doubled over, her hands around her middle.

Laughing.  The sound was her laughing.

She slapped her leg as she stood, made a noise that might have been an intake of breath or a chuckle, but her mask didn’t translate it into anything recognizable – only a hiss with barely any variation to it.  She spun in a half circle as she crowed, “The six-eighteen!  I forgot I even made that one!  Perfect!  Better than I thought!”

If her job was to terrify, she’d succeeded.  With me, at least.  I wanted to throw up, but I’d have to take off my mask to do it, and I was afraid that if I moved, I’d get shot.  The fear of the guns was enough to override my welling nausea, but the end result was that I was shaking.  Not just trembling, but full body shakes that had me struggling to keep upright.

“That was pretty cool.”

With those words, Regent managed to get as many wide eyed looks than Bakuda had with her laugh.  He got one from me.  It wasn’t just what he said.  It was how calm he sounded.

“I know, right?” Bakuda turned around to face him, cocked her head to one side, “I modeled it off Tesla’s work in vibrations.  He theorized that if you could get the right frequency, you could shatter the Earth it-”

“No offense,” Regent said, “Well, I’ll rephrase: I don’t really care about offending you.  Don’t shoot me though.  I just want to stop you there and say I don’t care about the science stuff and all the technobabble about how you did it.  It’s boring.  I’m just saying it’s kind of neat to see what a person looks like when dissolved down like that.  Gross, creepy, fucked up, but it’s neat.”

“Yes,” Bakuda exulted in the attention, “Like the answer to a question you didn’t know you were asking!”

“How’d you do it?  You stuck bombs in these civilians to get them to work for you?”

“Everyone,” Bakuda answered, almost delirious on the high of her successful ‘experiment’ and Regent’s attention.  She half skipped, half spun through the crowd and leaned against one of her thugs, patting his cheek, “Even my most loyal.  Bitch of a thing to do.  Not the actual procedure of sticking the things inside their heads.  After the first twenty, I could do the surgeries with my eyes closed.  Literally.  I actually did a few that way.”

She pouted, “But having to tranquilize the first dozen or so and do the surgeries on them before they woke up, so I’d have the manpower to round up everyone else?  One after the other?  Really tedious once the novelty wears off.”

“I’d be too lazy to do that, even if I had your powers,” Regent said, “Can I approach the body?  Get a better look?”

Her mood changed in a flash, and she angrily jabbed a finger in his direction. “No.  Don’t think I don’t know you’re trying something.  I’m a fucking genius, get it?  I can think twelve moves ahead before you’ve even decided on your first.  It’s why you’re standing there and I…” she hoisted herself up so she was sitting on the side of the Jeep, “Am sitting here.”

“Chill the fuck out,” Regent replied, “I was just asking.”

I could see from Tattletale’s expression that she was having the same thoughts I was.  Give the lunatic bomber a little respect.  I quietly voiced what Tattletale couldn’t.

“Tone it down a notch, Regent,” I whispered.

“Whaaattever,” Bakuda drew out the word, “Skinny boy just lost any goodwill he’d earned for appreciating my art.  Or at least being able to fake it convincingly.”  She tapped the guy with the camera on the shoulder, “You still filming?”

The man gave a short nod.  As I looked at him, I saw beads of sweat running down his face, even though it was a cool evening.  It seemed her thugs were pretty spooked, too.

“Good,” Bakuda rubbed her pink-gloved hands together, “We’ll edit out the talky parts later, then we put it on the web and send copies to local news stations.  What do you think?”

The camera-guy answered in an accented voice, “Good plan, Bakuda.”

She clapped her hands together.  Then she pointed into the crowd  “Alright!  So, you…  yeah you, the girl in the yellow shirt and jeans.  If I told you to, would you pick up the gun and shoot someone?”

It took me a second to spot the girl, at the far end of the crowd.  She looked at Bakuda with a stricken expression and managed to answer, “The gun m-melted too, Ma’am.”

“You call me Bakuda.  You know that.  Nothing fancy.  If the gun was still there, would you shoot?  Or if I told someone to give you a gun?”

“I-I think I maybe could,” her eyes flickered to the puddle that had been Park Jihoo.

“Which concludes my demonstration,” Bakuda addressed our group, “Fear!  It’s why Lung went out of his way to recruit me.  I always understood deep down inside, that fear was a powerful tool.  He just phrased it so well.  True fear is a blend of certainty and the unpredictable.  My people know that if they cross me, I only have to think about it to make the bombs in their heads go kablooie.  Boom.  They know that if I die, every single bomb I’ve made goes off.  Not just the ones I jammed into their heads.  Every single fucking one.  And I’ve made a lot.  Certainties.”

Lisa reached out and grabbed my hand, clenched it tight.

“As for unpredictability?”  Bakuda kicked her legs against the side of the jeep like a grade schooler sitting on a chair, “I like to mix up my arsenal, so you never know what you’re going to get.  But you’ve also got to keep your people wondering, right?  Keep them on their toes?  Case in point: Shazam!”

The word coincided with the start of a very real explosion that was closely followed by something like thunder, but Lisa was already pulling on my arm, pulling me away.

I saw a glimpse of chaos, of screaming people running from the place the explosion had happened in the midst of Bakuda’s own group.  The fleeing people were obstructing the view of the people with guns.

Regent stuck his arm out, swept it outward, sending ten or so people stumbling into one another, turning the crowd into a disordered mob.  I heard the too-loud roar of guns being fired, saw Regent grab the shoulder of a limp left arm, couldn’t be sure the two were connected.

Finally, there was Bakuda, still sitting on the side of the jeep.  She was either shouting something or laughing.  She was letting us slip from her grasp, her people were on the verge of killing one another in mindless panic, and she’d just killed at least one of her own people on a whim.  From what we’d just seen of her, I was willing to bet she was laughing as it all happened.

Almost without my noticing, night had fallen, and as if to invite us deeper into the maze, the light poles flickered and turned on above us.  With Grue covering our retreat in a curtain of darkness, we ran.

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Shell 4.7

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Grue raised his hands and blanketed the entire area in darkness.  It wouldn’t help much.  Even if they hesitated or got confused in the darkness, the crush of bodies would eventually stumble into us, and we’d be beaten and battered under the sheer force of numbers.  The only real advantage was that if any of them had guns, they probably wouldn’t shoot, for fear of hitting their own guys.

I felt hands seize my waist, and lashed out with my baton.  The hands let go, and the baton hit only air.  After a moment, I felt the hands grab me again, the hold gentle.  Not an enemy.  Grue, I realized.

“Sorry,” I muttered.  He could hear inside his darkness, couldn’t he?

He hoisted me up into the air, and I immediately understood his intent.  I reached up and felt brick, then found the corrugated metal of the roof.  I hauled myself up and turned around to reach for the next person, one hand gripping the edge of the roof to keep myself in place.

I found Regent and Tattletale’s hands in the darkness and helped haul them up.  I knew neither was Grue, because they were too light.  Five or six seconds long, tense seconds then passed before Grue took my hand and hauled himself up.

We climbed down the far side, and Grue banished the darkness around us.

There were three ABB gang members standing at one end of the alley we’d just entered, and a fourth, lone member on the other.  Both groups were looking the wrong way, and were standing still, which was as good an indication as any that they hadn’t noticed us.

The sheer number of soldiers we’d seen didn’t fit, and I said as much,  “What the fuck?  How many people was that?”

Grue was apparently thinking along the same lines. “The ABB shouldn’t have that many members.”

“They do now,” Tattletale glanced over her shoulder at the ABB members behind us, then back to the lone one in front who still hadn’t reacted to our approach, “Trap!  Down!”

She practically shoved me to the ground, then took cover herself.

The lone figure in front of us shimmered, then disappeared.  In his place, for just a fraction of a second, there was a cylindrical object the size of a mailbox.  Knowing what kind of devices Bakuda specialized in, I drew my legs close to my body, screwed my eyes shut and covered my ears.

The force of the explosion hit me hard enough I could feel it in my bones.  It  lifted me clear off the ground.  For a moment, it felt like I was floating, carried by a powerful, hot wind.  I hit the ground with my elbows and knees first, and they thrummed with agony at the impact.

Chaos.  The four or five storage lockers that had been closest to the canister had been  reduced to chunks of flaming brick, none any bigger around than a beachball.  Other lockers near those had doors, walls and roofs blown away.  More than one locker had been actually used, because the blast had emptied them of its contents.  Pieces of furniture, boxes of books, clothing, bundles of newspaper and boxes of papers filled the alley.

“Everyone okay?” Grue asked, as he staggered to his feet.

“Ow.  I’m burnt.  Fuck!  She was expecting us,” Tattletale groaned.  However bad her burns were, they weren’t severe enough to be seen through the smoke and dust. “Set traps, had her people waiting.  Shit, we were only a half hour later than we planned.  How?”

“We have to move,” Grue urged us, “This gets ten times harder if she finds us.  Tattletale, watch for-”

“I already found you,” Bakuda called out in what could have been a sing-song voice, if her mask didn’t filter it down to a monotone, rythmless hiss.  She emerged from the smoke that billowed from the explosion site; her hood was pulled back and her straight black hair was blowing in the wind.  The lenses of her dark red goggles were almost the exact same color as the sky above her.  There were five or six thugs just a step or two behind her, a middle aged guy that didn’t look like a gang member, and a skinny boy who was probably younger than me.  I was glad to see none of them had guns, but they were all armed with weapons of some sort.

“Not that you were hard to find,” Bakuda continued, sweeping her arms out to gesture at the devastation all around her.  “And if you think this only gets ten times harde-”

Grue blasted her, shutting her up, and his darkness billowed into a broad cloud as it struck her, enveloping her group.  We took advantage of their momentary blindness to scramble for the other end of the alley.

We were only halfway down the length of the alley when there was a sound behind us, like the crack of a whip.  It struck me as deeply wrong, since we shouldn’t have been able to hear anything through Grue’s darkness.  All at once, it was like we were running against a powerful headwind.

Except it wasn’t wind.  As I looked for the source of the noise, I saw Grue’s cloud of darkness shrinking.  Debris began to slide towards the epicenter of the darkness, and the wind – the pull – began to increase in intensity.

“Grab something!” Grue bellowed.

Breaking posture and lunging to one side was like forcing myself to leap over a hundred foot chasm.  I don’t know if I misjudged, or if the effect that was pulling on me increased in strength as I leaped, but my hand fell short of the doorknob.  I missed the one on the neighboring locker as well.

I knew in an instant that even if I managed to get my hand on something, the force of the pull would yank me from it before I secured a grip.  I grabbed my knife from its sheath at the small of my back and swung it with all the strength I could spare for the next door I saw.  It bit into the wood, stopping me from being dragged backwards, or falling sideways.  The one-hundred and twenty pound body hanging off of it was too much, though, and almost immediately, the knife began to slip from the hole.

It had slowed me down enough, though.  As the force of the drag increased to the point that my body was parallel to the ground, I waited with my heart in my throat, watching the area where the knife met the door, seeing it slide out millimeter by millimeter.  The moment it slipped free of the wood, I grabbed the doorknob that had been just a few feet beside my toes.  My arm jolted painfully, but I managed to hold on and jam the knife into the gap between the door and the frame.  Even with two things to hold onto, it didn’t feel like enough.

All at once, the effect stopped.  My body collapsed to the ground at the base of the locker, and I pried stiff fingers from the knife handle and knob.  All up and down the street, massive clouds of dust rolled towards the point her device had gone off.  The parts of the lockers that had been set on fire had been extinguished, but were still smouldering enough to send columns of dark smoke into the air.

Regent had found a grip on the edge of a locker’s roof; it had either been bent prior to his getting a grip on it, or the force of the pull had bent the metal as he clung to it.  Tattletale and Grue had apparently gotten a door of a locker open, because they exited as a pair, Grue limping slightly.

“What the fuck was that?” I panted, “A miniature black hole?”

Tattletale chuckled, “Guess so.  That was brac-”

From the other side of the storage lockers, a canister arced through the air, clinked off the metal roof of a storage locker and landed in the middle of our group.

Grue was on it in a heartbeat, using his foot to slide it across the ground and into the locker he and Tattletale had just left.  Without stopping, he opened his arms wide and ushered us all away as he ran away from it.

Even with brick and concrete in the way, the blast knocked us off our feet.  That wasn’t the scary part.  As the initial blast passed, the remainder of the explosion seemed to happen in slow motion.  Shattered chunks of the brick shack drifted through the air so slowly you could barely tell they were moving.  As I watched, I could see them actually slowing down.

Then I looked forward and saw plumes of smoke in fast motion and rubble bouncing across the ground at twice the normal speed, just ten feet ahead of us.  It took me a precious second  to realize why.

We were still in the blast area.

“Hurry!” I shouted, at the same moment that Tattletale yelled, “Go!”

We lunged forward, but I could see things continuing to speed up just in front of us.  Which meant, really, that we were slowing down.  Slowing to an absolute stop.

Somehow, I didn’t think this effect would end in a matter of minutes like Clockblocker’s did.

We broke through the perimeter of the effect with what felt like an abrupt change in air pressure.  I didn’t have a chance to check to see how close we’d come to being trapped in time forever, because Bakuda was behind the row of locker, launching another salvo – three projectiles that arced high into the air, plumes of purple smoke trailing behind them.

Grue shot blasts of darkness at them, probably in hopes of muffling the effects, and gasped, “Over the lockers!”

Regent and I were up on the row of lockers first, much the same way as we’d done it when the mob had been after us.  Once Regent had climbed down to make room, Tattletale and I helped Grue up, and we climbed down the far side.

Again, on each end of the alleyway, there were members of the ABB.  They weren’t moving, which meant they either hadn’t noticed us, or they were just holographic images hiding traps.  My money was on the latter.

“Again,” I panted, “Over.”  We couldn’t risk another trap, another bomb blast too close to us.  So we crossed the alley again and climbed on top of the next row of lockers.

We found ourselves staring down at a half dozen armed members of the ABB.  Except they weren’t your typical gang members.  One of them was an elderly Chinese man, holding a hunting rifle.  There was an girl who couldn’t have been much older than twelve, holding a knife, who might have been his granddaughter.  Of the eleven or twelve of them, only three had the thuggish look to them that really marked them as members of the gang.  The rest just looked terrified.

The old man trained his gun on us, hesitated.

A thug with a tattoo on his neck spat out something in an Eastern language I couldn’t place, the phrase ending with a very English, “Shoot!”

We were down off the other side of the lockers before he could make up his mind.  Grue created a cloud of darkness over the top of the lockers, to discourage them from following.

“What the fuck?” Regent gasped.  We hadn’t stopped running or struggling since Bakuda had sicced the crowd on us.

“They’re scared, not loyal,” Tattletale spoke, not as out of breath as Regent, but still definitely feeling the effect of the last few minutes of running and climbing, “She’s forcing them to serve as her soldiers.  Threatening them or their families, probably.”

“Then she’s been working on that for some time,” Grue said.

“Since Lung got arrested,” Tattletale confirmed, “Where the fuck do we go?”

“Back over the same wall,” Grue decided.  “I’ll blind them, we cross over at a different point in case they open fire where they last saw us.”

Before we could put the plan into motion, there was another explosion. We staggered into the front wall of the storage locker we’d just climbed down from, collapsing in a heap.  My entire body felt hot, and my ears were ringing, and we hadn’t even been that close.

As I raised my head, I saw that one of the storage lockers across from us had been leveled.  Through the gap, I saw Bakuda standing astride the back of a jeep, one hand gripping the roll cage that arced over top of the vehicle.  She was saying something to the thugs in the front and passenger seats, but I couldn’t make it out over the feedback noise in my ears.  They peeled off to the right, and for just a fraction of a second, she looked at me.

I reached for my bugs and directed them towards her, but she was moving too fast.  That left me the option of spreading them out so they were in her way, in the hopes that she would run straight into them, and maybe enough would survive the bug-against-a-windshield impact to give me a sense of where she was.

“She’s going around,” I said, grabbing at Tattletale’s wrist, “We can’t go over the wall.”

“We gotta keep running,” Regent panted.  I was having trouble hearing him.

“No,” Grue stopped him, “That’s what she wants.  She’s herding us into the next trap.”

“Where do we go, then?” Regent asked, impatient, “Fight her head on?  Catch her by surprise?  If I can see her, I can mess with her aim.”

“No.  She’s got enough raw firepower to kill us even if she misses,” Grue shook his head, “We don’t have many options.  We go over this wall again, we won’t just have to deal with the thugs and the old man.  We go down either end of this alley, we’re walking face first into a bomb.  So we have to backtrack.  No choice.”

I wished there was another option.  Backtracking meant moving back toward the center of the facility, it meant prolonging our escape, and possibly running headlong into ABB troops.

We headed for the gap that Bakuda’s latest explosion had created in the lockers, and Grue filled the alley we were leaving with darkness, to help cover our escape.  The little road was empty, except for the still figures at either end.

As we started to climb over the next row of lockers, we felt rather than heard a series of explosions rip through the area behind us.  Bakuda was bombarding the cloud of darkness with a series of explosives.  I guess you didn’t need to see if you could hit that hard.

We climbed down from the lockers and found ourselves in the same place we’d been when we escaped the mob.  There were three still figures at one end of the alley, doubtlessly a concealed bomb, and the destruction caused by the explosions and the miniature black hole in a can on the other.  If we climbed over the locker, we faced the risk of throwing ourselves straight into the mob we’d fled.  We’d have the element of surprise, but we’d be outnumbered, and our firepower was virtually nil.

By unspoken agreement, we headed towards the end of the alley where the hologram-bomb had gone off, where plumes of dust were still settling.

We were greeted by the sound of guns being cocked.

My heart sank.  Twenty or so members of the ABB had guns of various sorts trained on us.  Kneeling, sitting and crouching in front of the two groups, so they were out of the way of the guns and out of sight, were thirty or so other people Bakuda had ‘recruited’.  There was a businessman and a woman that could have been his wife, a girl wearing the Immaculata school uniform, from the Christian private school in the south end of the city, about my age.  There were two older men, three older women with graying hair, and a group of guys and girls that might have been University students were standing together.  Everyday people.

They weren’t gang members, but I could think of them as her soldiers; Every one of them held a weapon of some sort.  There were kitchen knives, baseball bats, pipes, shovels, two-by-fours, chains, crowbars and one guy even had a sword that was, oddly enough, not Japanese.  There was a look of grim resignation on their faces, circles under their eyes that spoke of exhaustion, as they watched us.

Behind their assembled group, standing astride the Jeep, one foot resting on her modified jeep-mounted mortar launcher, an altered grenade launcher danging from one strap around her shoulders, was Bakuda.  All around her were boxes of her specialized grenades and mortar rounds, bolted onto the back of the Jeep, blinking with various colored LEDs.

She put her hands on her grenade launcher as she tilted her head to one side.  Her robotic voice crackled through the still air.

“Checkmate.”

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Shell 4.6

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We weren’t the only ones who were discussing strategy.  As I turned my full attention to the pair, I saw Über and Leet were muttering to one another.

When they realized I was looking at them, they stopped talking.  Über wiped again at the blood under his nose and took a step forward.  “Enough talking.”

I wished there were more bugs in the area.  The storage facility made for a disappointing selection.  Bugs had to live off something, and there was little around here except pavement, concrete and brick.  That left me only cockroaches and moths that had lived off of the contents of the lockers they could access, and spiders that dwelled in the dark corners.  However lame the pair of them were, I wasn’t happy about going up against two supervillains with so little at my disposal.

I didn’t get a chance to dwell on it, because Über charged us.  I hurried to get out of his way.  Über’s power made him talented.  It didn’t matter if it was playing the harmonica, parkour stunts or Muay Thai, he could pull it off like he’d been working on it for hours a day for most of his life.  If he really focused on it, the way I understood it, he could be top notch.

In short, there was no fucking way I was going to let him get close to me.

Grue had the opposite perspective.  He stepped forward and then disappeared as darkness swelled around him.  A second later, Über stumbled out of one side of the cloud, landed on his rear end, and then did a fancy spinning kick maneuver to bring himself to his feet again.  The juxtaposition of clumsiness and technique was outright bizarre.

My bugs were gathering nearby, now, but very few of them were useful.  Somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness, I’d connected to a fledgling wasp nest hanging from a storage locker near the Trainyard.  They were more useful, but extricating them all from the nest and bringing them to my location would take a minute.  I brought the rest of the bugs into a small swarm nearby, letting the group grow until I had use of them.  Both Kid Win and Lung had obliterated my swarm when I’d attacked them, and I couldn’t risk being more or less powerless if Leet pulled a similar stunt.

Leet stepped in as Über circled around us.  Reaching behind his back, Leet retrieved what looked like an old school bomb; Round black iron casing with a lit fuse sticking out of it.  The way the light bounced off it made it look wrong, though.  Like it was a picture of a bomb instead of a real one.

Regent waved his hand, and the bomb slipped from Leet’s grip, rolling a few feet.  Leet’s mouth opened into a round ‘o’, and he bolted.  Über wasn’t far behind.

As he joined the rest of us in running for cover, Regent half turned to thrust out one hand.  Über stumbled and fell just ten feet from the armed explosive.

The blast radius was thankfully small.  The shockwave that rippled past us didn’t even make me lose my footing.  Über, though, went flying.

Leet watched his friend roll with the impact, try to stagger to his feet and fall again.  He turned to us with his face etched in hard lines of anger.

“I keep wondering when you guys are going to give up,” Tattletale grinned, “I mean, you fail more often than you succeed, you make more cash from your web show than you do from actual crimes, you’ve been arrested no less than three times.  You’re probably going to wind up at the Birdcage the next time you flub it, aren’t you?”

“Our mission is worth it,” Leet raised his chin – inasmuch as he had one – a notch.

“Right,” Tattletale said, “Spreading the word about the noble and underrated art form that is video games.  That’s from your website, word for word.  People don’t watch your show because they think you’re righteous.  They watch because you’re so lame it’s funny.”

Leet took a step forward, fists clenched, but Über called out, “She’s provoking you.”

“Damn right I am.  And I can do it because I’m not scared of you.  I don’t have any powers that are useful in a fight, and you guys don’t intimidate me in the least.  A guy who’s good at everything yet still manages to fuck up half the time, and a Tinker who can only make stuff that breaks comically.”

“I can make anything,” Leet boasted.

“Once.  You can make anything once.  But the closer something you invent is to something you’ve made before, the more likely it is to blow up in your face or misfire.  Real impressive.”

“I could demonstrate,” Leet threatened, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder.

“Please don’t.  I hear the carbonized ash of geek is hell to get out of a costume.”

“You say geek like it’s a bad thing,” Über said, in his characteristically overdramatic tone, “It’s a badge of honor.”

“Among geeks, sure,” Regent replied, “But there’s clowns out there that consider being a clown to be a noble calling, while the rest of us just laugh at them.  Catch my drift?”

“Enough,” Leet growled, “It’s obvious you’re trying to antagonize us-”

“I just admitted it.  That’s not obvious.  That’s fact,” Lisa pointed out.

“We won’t be baited!” Leet raised his voice, I think it’s time for our grand reveal, our guest-”

He was cut off as Grue blasted him in the face with a cloud of darkness.  Leet stepped out of the cloud, sputtering.

“They’re laughing at you, Leet,” Tattletale heckled him, “You’re trying to be all dramatic, all intense for your viewers, and they’re just sitting at their computers, snorting over how much you suck.  Even Über is laughing at you behind your back.”

“Shut up!” Leet spat the words, glancing over his shoulder at his teammate, “I trust Über.”

“Why are you even with this guy, Über?” Regent asked, “I mean, you’re kind of lame, but you could at least accomplish something if he wasn’t fucking up half your jobs.”

“He’s my friend,” Über replied, like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“So you don’t deny he’s holding you back.” Lisa pointed out.

“Shut up!” Leet roared.  Except he didn’t have a very deep voice, so it was probably closer to a screech.  He pulled out another bomb and flung it at us before Regent could make him fumble again.  We scattered, with Regent, Tattletale and I running away while Grue shrouded both himself and Über in darkness.

As I scrambled for cover, I directed my bugs to attack Leet.  He’d done something different this time, because the bomb didn’t take half the time the first bomb had before it detonated.  It caught me off guard, and I didn’t get a chance throw myself to the ground as a result.  The blast caught me full in the back.

The air and the fire that rolled over me wasn’t hot.  That was the most surprising thing.  That wasn’t to say it didn’t hurt, but it felt more like getting punched by a really big hand than what I would have thought an explosion would feel like.  I could remember Lung’s blasts of fire, Kid Win shattering the wall with his cannon.  This felt… false.

“The bombs are fake?” I asked aloud, as I picked myself off the ground.  I ached, but I wasn’t burned.

“They’re solid holograms,” Tattletale said, “Actually pretty neat, if you ignore how ineffective they are.  I guess he couldn’t make real bombs without fucking up.”

Leet snarled, though it was hard to say whether it was Tattletale’s words or the moths, wasps and cockroaches that had settled on him.  As I’d suspected, they weren’t doing much.  Even crawling for his nose and mouth, they didn’t really slow him down.  Maybe there was a downside to getting him furious, like Tattletale and Regent were intent on doing.

He whipped out two more bombs and Regent was quicker this time, snapping his hands out.  Leet recovered before he dropped the bombs, and pulled his arms back to throw them.  Regent was ready, though, and one of Leet’s legs jerked out from under him.  He fell to the ground, the bombs rolling only a few feet from him before going off.

He slammed into a door hard enough I thought he might have managed to kill himself.  Before I could approach and check his pulse, though, he began struggling to get to his feet.

“Good thing you made those things nonlethal,” I muttered, half to myself, “You’re one for four.”

Glaring at us, he reached behind his back again and withdrew a sword.

“Link’s sword?” Regent taunted him, “That’s not even from the right game.  You’re breaking theme.”

“I think I speak for everyone when I say we just lost what little respect we had for you,” Tattletale quipped.

Leet lunged for the two of them.  He didn’t get three steps before Regent made him stumble and fall to his hands and knees.  The sword slipped from his grasp and slid over the pavement before flickering out of existence.

He was only a few feet from me, too focused on Tattletale and Regent to pay enough attention to me.  I reached behind my back, withdrew my baton and snapped it out to its full length.  As he started climbing to his feet, reaching behind his back for what I realized was a thin, hard backpack, I swatted at his hand with the length of metal.  He yelped, pulling his hand to his chest to cradle it.  I hit him in the calf, just below the knee, a little harder than I’d intended to.  He crumpled.

Stepping around him, I grabbed the end of the baton with my other hand and pulled the length of metal hard against his throat.

Leet started to make strained choking noises.  He caught me off guard by bucking backward, throwing the two of us onto our backs, him on top of me.  I winced as the impact brought his weight against the bruised area of my chest where Glory Girl had thrown Tattletale at me.  I didn’t lose my grip, though.  Ignoring the one hundred and thirty pounds on top of me, I was glad for the extra leverage being on the ground afforded me.

“You okay?” Grue asked me in his echoing voice.  He stepped forward so he was standing over me.

“Peachy,” I replied, huffing with the exertion.

“Don’t pull it against his windpipe.  You’ll get tired enough that you lose your grip before he ever passes out.  Here,” he bent down and forced Leet’s head to one side, moving the baton so it was pressing against the side of Leet’s neck, “Now you’re pulling against the artery, obstructing the blood flow to his brain.  Twice as fast.  If you could put pressure on both arteries, he’d be out in thirty seconds.”

“Thanks,” I huffed, “For the lesson.”

“Good girl.  Über’s down for the count, but I’m going to go help the others make sure he’s not going to give us any more trouble.  We’re only steps away, so shout if you need a hand.”

It wasn’t fast, even with the technique Grue had instructed.  It wasn’t pretty either.  Leet made lots of ugly little sounds, fumbling awkwardly for his backpack.  I pressed my body tight against it, though, and he gave up.  Instead, he tried pressing against the bar, to alleviate the pressure.  When that didn’t work, he started scratching uselessly at my mask.

I released him when he finally slumped over.  Extricating myself from underneath him, I adjusted my mask, drew my knife and cut the high tech backpack off him.  When I’d done that, I searched him.  If we were going to interrogate him, it wouldn’t do to have him digging out some little trinket to free himself or incapacitate us.  His costume was skintight, so it was easy enough to verify there weren’t any hidden pockets or devices on him.  Just to be safe, I cut the antenna off his head and removed his belt.

The others returned with a battered and unconscious Über in their arms, his arms bound behind him with plastic wrist ties.  They dumped him beside Leet.

“Now to find out where they stashed Bitch and the cash,” Tattletale said.  She looked at me, “Got any smelling salts?”

I shook my head, “No.  These guys have henchmen, don’t they?  They’ve probably got them watching over the money.  We’d likely find Bitch in the same place.”

“Close but no cigar,” a mechanical hiss answered me.

We wheeled around to see a woman in the same outfit Über and Leet were wearing.  The difference was that she wore a gas-mask style fixture over her lower face, and the lenses of her goggles were red, not black.

The woman’s mask seemed to take what she said and replay everything in a robotic, monotone hiss, “I really hoped they would take one or two of you out of the picture, or at least injure someone.  How disappointing.  They didn’t even get around to introducing their guest star for tonight.”

“Bakuda?” Tattletale was the first to put a name to the face, “Fuck me, the game their costumes were from… Bomberman?”

Bakuda stood and bowed in one smooth motion.  Regent raised his hands, but she let herself drop to her knees, gripping the roof’s edge with one hand to avoid sliding off.

“Nuh uh uh,” she waggled one finger at him, “I’m smart enough to learn from the mistakes of others.”

“You seriously left the ABB to join Über and Leet?” Regent asked, astounded.

“Not exactly,” Bakuda said.  She snapped the fingers of the hand she wasn’t using to keep hold of the roof.

Below her, the door to the storage locker opened.  Three men in ABB colors stepped out, each holding a weapon.  A gun, a baseball bat, a fire axe.

Then other doors opened, all down the corridor of storage lockers.  Thirty or forty doors, each with at least one person behind them.  Some with three or four.  All of them armed.

“Those two were cheap hires.  They just wanted a few hundred dollars and I had to wear this costume.  Guess you get what you pay for.

“Goes without saying, I’m still with the ABB,” Bakuda stated the obvious for us.  “In charge, matter of fact.  I think it’s fitting that I commemorate my new position by dealing with the people that brought down my predecessor, don’t you agree?”

She didn’t expect an answer, nor did she wait for one.  She pointed at us and shouted, “Get them!”

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Insinuation 2.2

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The run had helped to wake me up, as did the hot shower and a cup of the coffee my dad had left in the pot.  Even so, the fatigue didn’t help the feeling of disorientation over just how normal the day seemed as I made my way to school.  Just a matter of hours ago, I had been in a life and death fight, I had even met Armsmaster.  Now it was a day like any other.

I felt a bit nervous as I got to homeroom.  Having basically skipped two classes the previous Friday, failing to turn in a major assignment, I figured that Mrs. Knott probably knew already.  I didn’t feel relieved when Mrs. Knott glanced up at me and gave a tight smile before turning her attention back to her computer.  That just meant the humiliation would be redoubled if and when class was interrupted by someone coming down from the office.  A part of me just wanted to miss this class too, just to avoid the potential humiliation and avoid drawing attention.

All in all, I felt anxious as I made my way to my computer, which kind of sucked because Computer class was one of the few parts of the school day I didn’t usually dread.  For one thing, it was the one class in which I was doing well.  More to the point, neither Madison, Sophia nor Emma were in this class, though some of their friends were.  Those girls didn’t usually feel the need to harass me without the trio around, and I was further removed from them because I was in the advanced stream of the class.  A good three quarters of the people in the room were computer illiterate, being from families that didn’t have the money for computers or families that didn’t have much interest in the things, so they practiced typing without looking at the keyboard and had lessons in using search engines.  By contrast, I was in the group that was learning some basic programming and spreadsheets.  It didn’t do a lot for my already geeky reputation, but I could deal.

Mrs. Knott was an alright teacher, if not the most hands on; she was usually content to give us advanced students an in-class assignment and then focus on the more rambunctious majority for the rest of the class.  This suited me just fine – I usually wrapped up the assignment in a half hour, leaving me an hour to use as I saw fit.  I had been recalling and going over the events of the previous night during my morning run, and the first thing that I did when the ancient desktop finished its agonizing load process was to start digging for information.

The go-to place for news and discussion on capes was Parahumans Online.  The front page had constant updates on recent, international news featuring capes.  From there, I could go to the wiki, where there was information on individual capes, groups and events, or to the message boards, which broke down into nearly a hundred sub-boards, for specific cities and capes.  I opened the wiki in one tab, then found and opened the message board for Brockton Bay in another.

I had the sense that either Tattletale or Grue were the leader of the group I had run into.  Turning my attention to Tattletale, I searched the wiki.  The result I got was disappointingly short, starting with a header reading “This article is a stub.  Be a hero and help us expand it.”  There was a one sentence blurb on how she was a alleged villain active in Brockton Bay, with a single blurry picture.  The only new information for me was that her costume was lavender.  A search of the message boards turned up absolutely nothing.  There wasn’t even a hint as to what her power was.

I looked up Grue.  There was actually information about him, but nothing detailed or definitive.  The wiki stated he had been active for nearly three years, dealing in petty crimes such as robbing small stores and doing some work as an enforcer for those who wanted a little superpowered muscle along for a job.  Recently, he had turned to higher scale crime, including corporate theft and robbing a casino, together with his new team.  His power was listed as darkness generation in the sidebar under his picture.  The picture seemed crisp enough, but the focus of it, Grue, was just a blurry black silhouette in the center.

I searched for Bitch, next.  No results.  I did another search for her more official title, Hellhound, and got a wealth of information.  Rachel Lindt had never made any real attempt to hide her identity.  She had apparently been homeless through most of her criminal career, just living on the streets and moving on whenever police or a cape came after her.  The sightings and encounters with the homeless girl ended around a year ago – I figured that was when she joined forces with Grue, Tattletale and Regent.  The picture in the sidebar was taken from surveillance camera footage – an unmasked, dark haired girl who I wouldn’t have called pretty.  She had a squarish, blunt-featured face with thick eyebrows.  She was riding atop one of her monstrous ‘dogs’ like a jockey rides a horse, down the middle lane of a street.

According to the wiki entry, her powers manifested when she was fourteen, followed almost immediately by her demolishing the foster home she had been living in, injuring her foster mother and two other foster children in the process.  This was followed by a two year series of skirmishes and retreats across Maine as various heroes and teams tried to apprehend her, and she either defeated them or successfully evaded capture.  She had no powers that would have made her any stronger or faster than the average Jane, but she was apparently able to turn ordinary dogs into the creatures I had seen on the rooftop.  Monsters the size of a car, all muscle, bone, fang and claw.  A red box near the bottom of the page read, “Rachel Lindt has a public identity, but is known to be particularly hostile, antisocial and violent.  If recognized, do not approach or provoke.  Leave the area and notify authorities as to her last known location.”  At the very bottom of the page was a list of links that were related to her:  two fansites and a news article relating to her early activities.  A search of the message boards turned up too many results, leaving me unable to sift through the crap, the arguments, the speculation and the villain worship to find any genuine morsels of information.  If nothing else, she was notorious.  I sighed and moved on, making a mental note to do more investigation when I had the time.

The last member of the group was Regent.  Given what Armsmaster had said about the guy being low profile, I didn’t expect to find much.  I was surprised to find less than that.  Nothing.  My search on the wiki turned up only a default response, “There are no results matching this query.  32 unique IP addresses have searched the Parahumans.net Wiki  for ‘Regent’ in 2011.  Would you like to create the page?”  The message board didn’t turn up anything else.  I even did a search for alternate spellings of his name, such as Regence and Recant, in case I had heard it wrong.  Nothing turned up.

If my mood had been on the sour side as I got to homeroom, the dead ends only made it worse.  I turned my attention to the in-class assignment, making a working calculator in Visual Basic, but it was too trivial to distract me.  The work from Thursday and Friday had already given us the tools to do the job, so it was really just busywork.  I didn’t mind learning stuff, but work for the sake of doing work was annoying.  I did the bare minimum, checked it for any bugs, moved the file to the ‘completed work’ folder and returned to surfing the web.  All in all, the work barely took fifteen minutes.

I looked up Lung on the wiki, which I had done often enough before, as part of my research and preparation for being a superhero.  I’d wanted to be sure I knew who prominent local villains were and what they could do.  The search for ‘Lung’ redirected to a catch-all page on his gang, the ABB, with quite a bit of detailed information.  The information on Lung’s powers was pretty in line with my own experience, though there was no mention of the super-hearing or him being fireproof.  I debated adding it, but decided against it.  There were security concerns with my submission being tracked back to Winslow High, and then to me.  I figured it would probably be deleted as unsupported speculation, anyways.

The section beneath the description of Lung and his powers covered his subordinates.  He was estimated to have forty or fifty thugs working for him across Brockton Bay, largely drawn from the ranks of Asian youth.  It was pretty unconventional for a gang to include members of the variety of nationalities that the ABB did, but Lung had made it a mission to conquer and absorb every gang with Asian members and many without.  Once he had the manpower he needed, the non-Asian gangs were cannibalized for assets, their members discarded.  Even though there were no more major gangs in the east end of town to absorb, he was still recruiting zealously.  His method, now, was to go after anyone older than twelve and younger than sixty.  It didn’t matter if you were a gang member or not.  If you were Asian and you lived in Brockton Bay, Lung and his people expected you to either join or to pay tribute one way or another.  There had been local news reports on it, newspaper articles, and I could remember seeing signs in the guidance counselor’s office detailing where people who were targeted in this way could go for help.

Lung’s lieutenants were listed as Oni Lee and Bakuda.  I already had some general knowledge about Oni Lee, but I was intrigued to see there were recent updates to his wiki entry.  There were specific details on his powers:  He could teleport, but when he did so, he didn’t disappear.  As he teleported, his original self, for lack of a better term, would stay where it was and remain active for five to ten seconds before disintegrating into a cloud of carbon ash.  Essentially, he could create another version of himself anywhere nearby, while the old version could stick around long enough to distract or attack you.  If that wasn’t scary enough, there was an report of him holding a grenade in his hand as he repeatedly duplicated himself, with his short lived duplicates acting as suicide bombers.  Topping it all off, Oni Lee’s wiki page  had a similar red warning box to the one that Bitch/Hellhound had on hers, minus the bit about his public identity.  From what they knew about him, authorities had seen fit to note him a sociopath.  The warning covered the same essential elements: exceedingly violent, dangerous to approach, should not be provoked, and so on.  I glanced at his picture.  His costume consisted of a black bodysuit with a black bandoleer and belt for his knives, guns and grenades.  The only color on him was an ornate Japanese-style demon mask, crimson with two green stripes down either side.  Except for the mask, his costume gave off the distinct impression of a ninja, which just added weight to the notion that this was a guy who could and would slide a knife between your ribs.

Bakuda was a new entry, added to the ABB wiki page just ten days ago.  The picture only showed her from the shoulders up, a girl with straight black hair, large opaque goggles over her eyes and a metal mask with a gas mask styled filter covering the lower half of her face.  A braided cord of black, yellow and green wires looped over one of her shoulders.  I couldn’t pinpoint her ethnicity with the mask and goggles, and her age wasn’t any easier to figure out.

The wiki had a lot of the same details Armsmaster had mentioned to me.  Bakuda had essentially held a university ransom and she did it with her superhuman ability to design and fabricate high tech bombs.  There was a link to a video titled ‘Bomb Threat @ Cornell’, but I didn’t think it wise to play it in school, especially without headphones.  I made a mental note to check it out when I got home.

The next thing that caught my eye was the section heading titled ‘Defeats and Captures’.  I scrolled down to read it.  According to the wiki, Lung had apparently suffered a number of minor defeats at the hands of various teams, ranging from the Guild to the local teams of New Wave, the Wards and the Protectorate, but consistently managed to evade capture until last night.  A blurb read, ‘ Armsmaster successfully ambushed and defeated the leader of the ABB, who was weakened from a recent encounter with a rival gang.  Lung was taken to the PHQ for holding until the villain’s trial by teleconference.  Given Lung’s extensive and well documented criminal history, it is expected he will face imprisonment in the Birdcage should he be found guilty at trial.’

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  I wasn’t sure what to think.  By all rights, I should have been angry that Armsmaster took the credit for the fight that could have cost me my life.  Instead, I felt a building excitement.  I felt like shaking the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me and point to the screen, saying, “Me, I made that possible!  Me!”

With a renewed enthusiasm, I switched tabs to the message board and began looking to see what people were saying about it.  A post by a fan or minion of Lung threatened violence against Armsmaster.  There was a request by someone asking for more information on the fight.  I was given pause by one post that asked whether Bakuda could or would use a large scale bomb and the threat of potentially thousands or hundreds of thousands dead, to ransom Lung back.

I tried to put that out of my mind.  If it happened, it would be the responsibility of heroes better and more experienced than I.

It struck me that there was one person I hadn’t looked for.  Myself.  I opened up the advanced search page for the Parahumans.net message board and did a search for multiple terms.  I included insect, spider, swarm, bug, plague, and a mess of other terms that had struck me when I had been trying to brainstorm a good hero name.  I narrowed the timeframe of posts to search for posts made within the past 12 hours and hit Search.

My efforts turned up two posts.  One referred to a villain called Pestilence, active in the UK.  Apparently Pestilence was one of the people who could use ‘magic’.  That is, he was if you believed magic was real, and not just some convoluted or deluded interpretation of a given set of powers.

The second post was in the ‘Connections’ section of the message board, where rescued damsels left their contact information for their dashing heroes, where conventions and fan gatherings were organized and where people posted job offers for capes and the cape-obsessed.  Most were cryptic or vague, referring to stuff only the people in question would know.

The message was titled, simply, “Bug”

I clicked it and waited impatiently for the outdated system and overloaded school modem to load up the page.  What I got was brief.

Subject: Bug

Owe you one.  Would like to repay the favor.  Meet?

Send a message,

Tt.

The post was followed by two pages of people commenting.  Three people suggested it was something important, while a half dozen more people decried them as tinfoil hats, Parahumans.net’s term for conspiracy theorists.

It was meaningful, though.  I couldn’t interpret it any other way; Tattletale had found a way to get in contact with me.

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