Monarch 16.13

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With Grue’s help, I seated myself on the intact edge of the destroyed swarmbox, scattering my insects to the walls and ceiling of the room.  Grue paced a little, while I eyed Imp and Bitch.  My female teammates didn’t look entirely convinced, and I couldn’t blame them.  They’d just seen someone who matched my description attacking them.  The nighttime darkness and the lack of city lights hadn’t helped, and the obscuring swarm of bugs had helped hide the details from the moment the impostor gave them reason to suspect her.

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

“We arrived at the place he was keeping Dinah, she grabbed my hand, we turned around, and the headlights flashed.  Then I was somewhere else.”

“He switched to his highbeams, momentarily.  Don’t know about the others, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark.  I couldn’t see anything, used my darkness to try to cover us in case he was pulling something, but nothing happened.  Turned around and you were fine.”

“Except it wasn’t me.”

Grue nodded slowly.  “Looked like you, sounded like you.”

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

“Didn’t strike me as much of an actor.”

“Then I don’t know,” I said, feeling lame.  I knew I didn’t sound convincing.

“What happened?  Was he only trying to separate you from us?”

“I’m ninety-five percent sure he tried to kill me.”

“What’s the other five percent?”  Grue asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure of anything.  But he didn’t have a bomb waiting to go off when I arrived, so that leaves me with some doubt.  He did shoot me, and set the building on fire around me.  And he had soldiers waiting to gun me down if I stepped outside.”

“Did he want you to come here, to frame you?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Doesn’t make sense.  Just as easy for ‘Skitter’ to disappear with Dinah, leaving you guys angry but still loyal.  I think the way he wanted it, I’d die of the gunshot or burn up in a housefire, and he could use the lack of living reporters in Brockton Bay alongside some bribe money for the Travelers to ensure you guys didn’t know what he’d pulled.  Maybe something comes out later about me betraying you, to put it in perspective and put any lingering doubts to rest.”

“He teleported you into a burning house, shot you, surrounded you with soldiers.  And you escaped,” Imp said.

“Barely.”  I touched the knot of metal where the bullet had settled in my armor.  “I guess it’s bulletproof after all.  I got away because of stuff he wasn’t aware of, mainly.  My costume, tactics I’ve been using in the field, the fact I had a gun.  Don’t know if Calvert knew about that.  Are you okay, Rachel?”

Rachel didn’t respond.  Her head was turned my way, and I could imagine her staring, trying to read me.  Her hand gripped the chain at Bastard’s neck.

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

“It wasn’t her,” Grue confirmed.  “I saw with her power.  That box was controlling the bugs.”

Bitch nodded slowly.  I couldn’t see her expression to know whether she was glaring at me or narrowing her eyes behind her mask.

“If you have any doubts,” I said, “You can stay in a position to attack me if something happens.  One whistle or one hand signal away from commanding Bastard or Bentley to tear me apart.  I hope you won’t leap to any conclusions, but-”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?  Because I don’t want there to be any hard feelings or… I don’t want there to be hard feelings.”  I’d almost said retaliation, but I’d decided I didn’t want to bring that up.

“It’s fine,” she said, and there was a touch of anger to the words.  “This shadow and dagger shit pisses me off.”

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

Bitch made a low, grunting noise in her throat that fell somewhere between a huff of anger, a belch and a grunt.  “The way you acted before, the way that person acted when she shot me and the way you’re acting now, none of it makes sense, and maybe that’s ’cause I’m stupid.  But I’m going to handle this my way.  Next time someone shoots at me, I kill them.  Or I have Bastard eat their hands and feet.”

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

“Says the person who just emptied a gun clip at us,” Imp said.  When Grue and I turned her way, she raised her hands, “Kidding.  I’m just kidding.”

“…Want me to kill them instead?”  Bitch asked.

“No!  No.  Just… nevermind.  But hold back a bit for now.  And don’t call yourself stupid.  You think in a different way, that’s all.”

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“We should talk rescue plans,” I said.  “Calvert invited Tattletale to join him, probably so she wouldn’t tip us off about the body double.  That means she’s probably caught.  Regent too, since we sent him to look after her.  This is the kind of situation we were hoping to avoid by playing along with his grand plan.”

“Having to tackle his full forces to save Tattletale, Regent and Dinah.”

“Right.  If we go charging into this, we or one of his hostages will get killed.”

“I could go in,” Imp said.  “Get them, walk them out.”

“No.  He knows us.  He’s anticipated something like this.  Probably has for the Travelers, too.  He’ll have planned around our powers, with counters in mind for each of us.  That means video cameras to keep an eye out for you.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

“It won’t work if he’s holed up somewhere safe.  Not with the countermeasures he’ll have put in place.  If he’s in his underground base until this all blows over, then he’ll be impossible to access,” I said.  I had to stop to cough.

Nobody chimed in with an answer or idea while I recovered.

I went on.  “If he’s in the PRT offices, then we’ll probably have to get past the Travelers, his soldiers, his PRT officers, any countermeasures he’s put in place and any countermeasures the PRT put in place.  It’d be a question of staggering out his various lines of defense so the more questionable ones are out of sight of the good guys.”

“And he still has his hostages,” Grue said.

Fuck it,” I groaned, then I coughed more.

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

I shook my head, then regretted it.  I felt dizzy.  Vaguely nauseous.  It was as though simply stopping and letting the adrenaline kick down a notch was letting symptoms emerge.  “Can’t.  Not now.”

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

“I’ll manage,” I said.  I turned my eyes to the place I’d been lying while Imp stood over me.  “What if I was dead?”

“Hm?”

“Calvert doesn’t have a way to know how this turned out.  Do you have phone service?”

Grue reached for his phone, but Imp had hers out first.  “Sure.”

“He cut my phone off.  I threw it away in case it could be used to track me, or in case it was how he was getting a hold on me with that teleportation device.  If he suspected you, wouldn’t he do the same, limit your options?”

“So you think he thinks maybe something happened.  Or he’s waiting to see if we bought his ruse.”

“He knows I was in the area.  I attacked his men trying to save you guys.  He had gunmen and explosives teams ready to wipe you off the map if you caught on to what that impostor was doing.  So what happens if you call him and tell him you killed me?”

“He asks us to meet him at one of those secure locations you mentioned, and we can’t refuse without revealing that we know what he tried to pull.  And destroying that box might have clued him in anyways.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“When the other Skitter disappeared with the girl, how did she do it?  Exactly.”

“Teleporting,” I said.  “Threw the first flashbang, teleported out, leaving rubble and another flashbang behind.”

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

“Just thinking something through.  Give me a second to think.”  He pointed at me, “Make sure you’re taking deep breaths in the meantime.  Even if it hurts.”

I nodded and did as he asked.  For a little while, I ignored my bugs and focused on tallying the damage I’d sustained.  My breath wheezed and rattled, my chest hurt every time it or something attached to it moved, and my eyes stung when I opened them.  Not that there was any point.

Grue was pacing, breathing hard, while Imp and Bitch stood by.  It was a bit of a reversal of the norm.  I could sense Bitch scratching around Bastard’s ears, her fingernails digging in deep to get past the areas with armor and bony spikes.  Imp was on the other side of the room, leaning against one of the wooden pillars and watching her brother.

“I’m calling him,” Grue announced, still panting a bit.  Before any of us could protest, he said, “Quiet.”

I closed my mouth.

He put the phone on speaker.  I could hear it ring.

Funny how something so mundane as the ring of a phone could sound so ominous and eerie, given the context of a situation.

“Grue,” It was Calvert’s voice.  “What-”

When Grue spoke, his words were growls, barks.  “You better not have had anything to do with this, or I swear, this is over.  We’re done, gone.”

I could virtually hear Calvert switching mental gears to try to adapt to this.  “Slow down and then explain.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Skitter attacked us and then she used your technology to leave the scene.  I know you wanted to keep that girl, but going so far as to fucking turn on us-”

“Grue,” Calvert’s voice was hard, firm, “Slow down.  It doesn’t make sense that I’d arrange things that way.  Why go through the motions of giving my pet to Skitter, only to… you haven’t fully explained what happened.  You said she attacked you?  Are you sure?”

“Pretty fucking sure, Coil.  She shot Rachel and then turned on me.  Imp disarmed her.  Then she teleported away using the same device you described to us an hour ago.”

“I… I see.  Is Rachel all right?  And who else was with you, my driver?  You’re all unharmed?”

“Your driver went ahead.  No, we’re all fine, except for Skitter.”

“You said she teleported away.”

“She didn’t get more than two blocks away.  We chased her down and stopped her.”

My eyes widened a bit.  I could imagine Calvert’s next words before he spoke them, was already moving.

“Show me.  Send a picture through the phone.”

I shifted position so I lay in the depression that Bastard’s front paws had made in the swarm box.  It was a scene I had to stage in seconds, using dragonflies and wasps to carry hairs across my mask, moving my hand so my wrist bent at an awkward angle where the metal folded.  The final touch was bringing all the bugs from around the swarm box to carpet me and the floor.

Not a half second after I finished, I heard the digitized camera sound.

“I see.  That’s quite unfortunate.  Where’s Dinah?”

You know where Dinah is.

“I don’t know,” Grue said.  “I’m far more interested in hearing how Skitter managed to use your technology to do this.”

“You’re sure?”

“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Grue said.  “She threw a flashbang, but light and darkness don’t affect me the way they do others.  You know that much.”

Grue was lying, adding an element Calvert wasn’t aware of, to throw him off track.  Good.

“I didn’t, believe it or not,” Calvert said.  “And I don’t know how she would have gotten access to the controls.  One moment.  I’ll have to call you right back.”

My swarm felt Grue stiffen.  He raised his voice, “Don’t hang up on me!”

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

We stared at each other.  Or the others stared and I used my swarm sense to observe.  As a group, we were still and quiet for long seconds, the dial tone still blaring.

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Being aggressive, keeping him on his heels.  If he’s constantly defending himself, he won’t be able to turn things back on us.”

“Except he hung up.  He’s going to think through his options and give you an excuse when he’s ready.”

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

I frowned.  I was thinking back to the meeting I’d had with the school, when my dad had been with me and we’d accused the trio of bullying.  Both Emma’s dad and the school had played their little power games.

“It’s a tactic,” I said.  “He regains control of the situation by being the one who can call back, and it helps establish the idea of him being an authority figure.”

“Damn,” he said.  “Sorry.  It made sense in my head, but I didn’t think it through, I’m tired.  Didn’t sleep last night.  I figured it was better to call sooner than later.”

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

He didn’t get a chance.  The phone rang.

“This wasn’t the kind of response I wanted, Coil,” Grue growled into the phone, the second he’d answered.

I heard the beep as he switched it to speaker phone.  Calvert was already talking.  “- have sequestered Regent in my custody, out of concern that he controlled Victor to have the young man hack into my systems.”

“You and I both know that Victor didn’t have that kind of access, and we didn’t know about your teleportation technology until an hour ago.”

“I fear Skitter may have known, and I’m simply covering my bases.  Once we’ve verified what happened and that Regent wasn’t complicit, I’ll release him.  You can understand where I’m wanting to be careful, given this turn of events.”

“I don’t understand anything, Coil,” I heard a tremor of emotion in Grue’s voice.  “I liked Skitter, and she’s dead.  The use of the teleporter says you’re complicit.  I want to look you in the eye and believe you weren’t a part of this.”

“We’ll sort this matter out.  If you’ll come to my headquarters, we can discuss this.”

“No.  Not your headquarters.  Not with the possibility you pulled this shit on us.  We’ll meet somewhere else.  Somewhere open.”

There was a pause.  “As you wish.  Name a location.”

Grue, this time, was the one caught off guard.  Calvert’s response was fast, and Grue clearly didn’t have an area in mind.

A place where we’d be able to set up faster than Calvert, ideally open, not riddled with attack routes and vantage points for his soldiers

I thought of a spot, and the air caught in my throat as I suppressed a small noise.  I almost coughed.  I drew the word in the air with my bugs.

“The market, north end,” Grue said, reading it.  “You know it?”

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

“Right.  You come with only one small squad of soldiers, bring Tattletale and Regent.”

“If-”  Calvert started.

Grue hung up on him.  He looked at me, “Authority, right?”

“Right,” I said.  But all I could hear was the emotion in his voice when he’d been talking about the idea that I’d been dead.  Pretending.  Grue wasn’t a guy who showed his emotions, he didn’t strike me as an actor.  Hearing that had affected me more than I thought it would.  I didn’t want to ask if it was because he really cared or if it was because he’d tapped into something else, some vulnerability that his recent trauma had left open to him.

I coughed lightly.  “The market’s a good spot.  His people were at the south end of town.  It’ll take him a bit to get there, so he won’t be able to stage any kind of ambush.”

“It works.  But if we’re meeting him, what are you doing?”

“Staying nearby,” I said.  “I’ll wait in the wings.  In the meantime, we should see if we can get our hands on something that we could have Bastard maul to the point that it looks like my mutilated remains.”

“There a butcher still in service anywhere?” Grue asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I replied.

The market was almost empty, an expanse of asphalt devoid of cars, surrounded by tall grass.  There were still faint marks where the treads and scoops of bulldozers had pushed the dirt and debris to the far side of the lot.  Only a few stalls were standing, but the displays were empty.

I felt exposed, naked.  I was wearing only my old costume and the built-in makeshift skirt to cover me where the fire had eaten away at the leggings.  My utility compartment was the one that had been damaged during our altercation with the Nine, holding the bare essentials, while my new mask and the upper half of my remade costume were presently being worn by the fake we’d made.  The sacrifice of the costume hurt, and the process of putting the fake together hadn’t been pretty.

The head, upper body and arms were simply taken from a child’s mannequin we’d salvaged from the inside of a store display and stuffed into the top of my costume.  To get the meat for the torn midsection, I’d had to use my bugs to root out and kill a raccoon from the bins of a dumpster.  I’d cut it open and tied the entrails to the base of the mannequin’s torso with my spiders.  A wig that vaguely matched my own hair was simply bound to the head.  We soaked the body, the wig in particular, with the blood of the dead raccoon.

Bentley’s tail wagged as he carried the thing delicately in his heavy jaws, one arm and a bloody mess of hair dangling from the left side of his mouth, raccoon intestines hanging out the other.

I headed into the tall grass and hunkered down.  Volumes of insects and arachnids that I’d picked up during our trek to the market settled around me, hidden at the base of the grass.

Adrenaline kept me awake, despite the fatigue that I was experiencing.  It had been an intense few days, an intense few weeks, with minimal chance to rest.  My body was probably struggling to heal, and draining what little reserves I had remaining.  Still, I wasn’t about to doze off.

Calvert arrived after ten or fifteen minutes, pulling up with one armored van.  All in all, he had only four soldiers with him.  He walked within twenty feet of me as he crossed the tall grass.  I was aware of his footsteps crushing my bugs as he passed over the swarm.

Oblivious, he approached Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs.

“Ah.  You brought Skitter.  It seems there’s little doubt she’s dead.  A terrible shame.”

“No kidding,” Imp said.

“I’d suggest my man look over the body, verify that it was her, but I suppose there’s no point trying.”

“Bentley wouldn’t let you get that close to his treat,” Bitch said.

Bentley growled, as if he understood the words and wanted to make it absolutely clear.

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Grue said.  “Calling her a treat?”

“She betrayed us,” Imp said.  “Why do you care?”

“Enough,” Calvert said, his voice hard.  “Enough bickering.  My time is valuable, and I’m not willing to waste it on entertaining this ruse.”

I didn’t have many bugs deployed on my allies or on Calvert, but I could still feel the others tense in surprise.

“Yes, I know.  I commend you for trying, I might have believed you, but I do have other resources on hand.”

“Then-” Grue started.

“Ah, bup bup,” Calvert raised a hand, “I was talking.  As I was saying, I have other resources available.  I have a small cadre of supervillains, a small group of heroes, all the resources of the PRT and PRT computer systems, and all of their tools.”

He snapped his fingers, and soldiers began to teleport down to the edges of the market.  Most were positioned so that the Undersiders would have to run off the edge of the pavement, over the grass and into the water if they wanted to get away.  Surrounding a target while holding guns only promised to get people shot.  The effect, as it was, was good enough.

The Travelers teleported in behind Calvert, followed by Chariot, Circus, Über and Leet, and a few of his lieutenants.  People in suits.  One held a laptop while the other typed on it.

Every gun, tinker made or otherwise, was pointed at my teammates.

Another gun pressed against the back of my head.  Soldiers had teleported in behind me.

I felt despair sweep through me.  No.  Too many.  Didn’t think he could teleport this many in.

The gun barrel prodded me, and I stood.  I walked with the gun pressed between my shoulderblades, just above the spot where my utility compartment hung.

“Skitter.  How nice of you to join us.”

“Cut the fake civility,” I said.  “Where are our teammates?”

“Regent and Tattletale are safe and locked up, rest assured.  I must say, I’m quite disappointed.  I really had hoped this would work out, and the loss of the Undersiders sets me back by weeks or months in the grand scheme of my plan.  Imp, you can cease trying to run.  My men have cameras on you,” Calvert gestured toward the laptop.

Imp moved her mask to spit on the ground, just to my right.  It was a bit of a shock to find her standing there.

“Farewell, Under-“

“Wait.” I said.  Raising my voice made me cough.

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

I hurried to recover and speak before he could give the order.  “Dead man’s switch.”

Calvert sighed.  “Ah.  You are irritating, you know?  On more than one occasion, I know, you’ve argued for the sake of the greater good.  I’ve viewed the recordings the PRT has of your appearances at major events and I’ve come to know you fairly well.  It’s rather hypocritical that you’re now working so hard to fight against the greater good.”

“Against your rule.”

“Essentially so.  If you simply would have died quietly, the Undersiders wouldn’t have been stirred to rebellion, I could have established a peace we haven’t seen since the day Scion arrived and everyone involved here could have walked away happier and healthier.  Your friends included.”

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

“Tattletale excepted, I admit.  Too dangerous to be left unchecked.  A shame.  Now, you were saying?”

“I arranged a dead man’s switch.  Kind of.  Unless one of my subordinates receives a message from me every twenty minutes, she’ll mass-send emails to everyone important and even a few unimportant people.”

“Detailing the true nature of Thomas Calvert, I suspect?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate to break it to you, dear Skitter, but this isn’t enough leverage for me to let you walk away.”

I turned my head in the direction of my teammates.  With my power, I noted their presence.  Grue, Imp, Bitch, her dog.

“None of us?” I asked.

“No.  I’m more confident in my ability to handle the chaos that any email creates than I am in my ability to get you and your teammates under my thumb again.”

“Okay,” I said.  I could feel sweat running cold down the back of my neck.  “Then I have a few questions, and a couple of requests.  Satisfy that, and I can disable the dead man’s switch.”

“The requests first, if you please.”

“Dinah goes free when you’re done.  You don’t keep her forever.”

“Agreed.”

“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

“I haven’t and I won’t have reason to.”

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

Calvert nodded, but I could sense his patience was running out.

“You do what you can to stop Jack from doing what he can to end the world.  If you have capes at your disposal, you give them some job related to that.  To stopping it.”

“Fine.  Is that it?”

“If none of us here get to live, at least promise Tattletale gets to.”

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

“I’ll need to see her, to verify she’s okay.  I get that you can’t prove you haven’t gone after my dad in retaliation for earlier, but you can bring her here.”

Calvert nodded at Chariot, who pressed a button on his wrist.

Tattletale appeared in a flash of light, arms bound behind her, legs shackled.  She wore headgear that had her blindfolded and gagged.  I couldn’t quite tell, but it looked like the ears were plugged too.

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

“No.  It could be a body double, like you arranged for me.  I’d like to confirm with her.”

“No.  The restraints are in place for a reason.”

“Then it’s a body double,” I said.  “And I’ll let the timer run down on this damaging piece of email.”

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

“Use your power,” I told him.  “I’m going to say the words rose-L.  She’ll reply with something green, followed by the letter A.”

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

“Great.  And if she doesn’t, shoot us.  If there’s a problem, go with your other world.”

“You know how my power works?” Calvert sighed.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised in the end, with the name she chose.  No.”

“It’s all I’m asking for.  You can send your computer experts to the destination I name, they’ll check the computer memory to verify no messages were sent, check the phones of everyone on my call history that you don’t already know, and then you’ll know you’re in the clear.  That’s what I’m offering you in exchange for the assurance that at least Tattletale will get to live.  Peace of mind.”

“I could kill your liaison, you realize.  She’s a loose end.”

I thought of Charlotte, hoped I wouldn’t regret getting her involved.  “I hope you won’t.  All I’ve told her is that she should await my message and send the file I composed if she doesn’t hear from me regularly.  I hope you’ll let Tattletale and my civilian live, but if you won’t, if you break your word, I guess I’ll have to live with you looking a little worse in the eyes of the people who work for you.  Like the Travelers.”

“Don’t bring us into this, Skitter,” Trickster said.  “This is your mess.  Your consequences.”

“I didn’t do anything.  He was the one who turned on us first,” I protested.

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

Calvert sighed audibly.  “As Skitter knows about my power and ever so kindly revealed the broad strokes of it to everyone in earshot, I suppose there’s no loss in explaining.  I tortured one member of the Undersiders for information, in another world, days ago.  They revealed that you were plotting to turn on me if I refused to release Dinah.  I cannot afford to release her, so my hand was forced.”

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

“How did you make those body doubles?  Genesis?”

“The old-fashioned way.  The one that replaced you was a Sudanese child soldier.  I was preparing for the eventuality of your betrayal since the day after Leviathan attacked and your… wobbly allegiances became perfectly clear.  It’s amusing, but the files you stole from the PRT offices after rejoining the Undersiders supplied much of the video footage my hired experts used to coach her in the particulars of how you move and speak.  When you went to convince the Mayor of our way of thinking, Trickster carried the devices Leet designed to record the particular signals you use to command your bugs.”

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.

“Whatever.”

“Any further questions?”

“Why didn’t you drop me on top of a bomb?”

“An unfortunate side effect of Leet’s power.  Leet believes it was the proximity to the bomb or the particular signature of the vat of acid that made it so likely to occur, but with my power I observed that it wasn’t merely a chance that the teleportation would fail and your well-trained body double would be caught instead, but a surety.  No less than twelve tries with the variables changed slightly.  Leet’s power sabotages him, it seems.”

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

“Passenger?  Ah, that’s what Bonesaw calls the agents.  Yes, I suppose that might be the case.  In any event, we nearly ran out of time before verifying that guns, fire and alcohol wouldn’t skew his power.  Whatever the cause of the errors was.”

“Okay.  So I don’t suppose you want to let me confirm it’s Tattletale and tell you who to contact to cancel the dead man’s switch?”

“No.”

“You’ve been careful every step of the way.  Thinking five steps ahead, amassing resources, amassing top-notch underlings, getting us working for you, getting the Travelers.  I’m surprised you’re willing to let things go ass-backwards when you’re so close to tying up the last loose end.”

“It’s precisely because I’m careful that I’m not willing to let Tattletale open her mouth and speak.”

“You’re still pretending it’s Tattletale,” I said.

“It is.  I had no reason to arrange a body double for her as I did for you.”

“You had every reason.  Like you said, you didn’t trust her, you couldn’t let her work unchecked, and it would have been too unusual if the two members of the Undersiders that posed the biggest threat to your goals happened to disappear at once.”

Calvert shook his head and touched fingers to his forehead, as if exasperated.  “Your underling and Tattletale can live.  That’s all I’m willing to offer.  You’ll have to take my word on both points”

“Your word is worth nothing,” Bitch spat the words.

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

“You promised me safety, security, so long as I joined this team.  I’ve never been less safe, less secure.  Everybody lies through their teeth.  Maybe there’s a couple of them I can stand anyways, but they’re still liars, they’ve made me a liar, and you’re the worst liar of them all.  It’s fitting you wear a snake on your costume.”

Enough,” Calvert said, “Anything more and I’ll order my men to shoot you.”

“Shoot her and you’ll never get the info you need from me,” I said.

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

“I’ll have your dogs shot if you say another word,” Calvert said.

Bitch fell silent.

Silence reigned for long seconds.  I was aware of my bugs, knew that I couldn’t have them attack without us getting shot.  I knew my armor was bulletproof, Bitch’s armored jacket was the same way, but the thinner fabric, or a bullet through the lens or eyehole of a mask?  There were a lot of soldiers here.  Even if the suits could stop the bullets from penetrating, we could be pulverized anyways.

I heard a wave crash against the shore, not far away.  Long seconds passed.

“If it settles the matter, then fine,” Calvert said.  He signaled Chariot.

Another Tattletale appeared.  She dropped to her knees the second she materialized.  She wore a similar headset and bindings.

“Free her mouth and one ear.  Be ready to gag her again the second she speaks.”

One of his soldiers approached the kneeling Tattletale.  He undid the gag and freed her ear of the plug that was held in place with wire.

“Rose-L,” I called out.

“Stringbean-A,” she replied.  She grunted as the soldier forced the gag back into her mouth.

“She gets to live,” I told Calvert.  “If nothing else, you guys are going to need her help to figure out how Jack Slash ends the world in twenty-three months.”

“It’s amusing,” Calvert said, “That you keep asking me for things I was already prepared to do.  You wanted me to improve the city, to restore it to a working state.  Already planned.  And this?  Killing Tattletale was never in the cards.  I intend to keep her like I do my pet.  Her power will be invaluable.  Rest assured, I will offer every bit of assistance I can when the end of the world approaches.”

“I suppose it was too much to expect that you’d let her go,” I said.  My heart pounded in my chest.  I wasn’t exactly feeling top-notch, so simply standing was feeling like a bit of a challenge.  Fighting back, acting?  No.  No use.  “Her name is Charlotte.  She’s staying in the red brick house a block to the east of my dad’s place.  She has a laptop, but she doesn’t know what I put on it.”

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”

“Aim…”

“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”

“Fire.”

The sound of the gunshots was deafening, debilitating when I was already missing my sense of sight, my bugs not present enough to give me a sense of the surroundings.  I sensed Grue get hit, then Bentley… I took one in the stomach and folded over.

When the smoke cleared, for lack of a better term, we were still standing.  There was the sound of a few isolated scuffles in the ranks of the soldiers.  My bugs moved to the ends of gun barrels and to the soldiers themselves, noting their postures and positions.

Roughly half of the soldiers that surrounded us were holding the other half hostage.  A few had managed to get shots off, but a quick feel-around with my bugs verified that nobody had been hurt enough to be knocked to the ground.  Most of the bullets had gone over our heads.

“What is this?” Calvert asked.  “Travelers-“

“Don’t do a thing, Travelers,” Grue boomed out, in his eerie, hollow voice.  “Someone remove Tattletale’s bindings.”

One of the soldiers approached Tattletale and began undoing the restrictive binding.  She wobbled slightly as she stood, working her jaw in the absence of the gag.

“Glad to see the stringbean plan worked out in the end,” she said.  “Those of you I haven’t been in contact with, please hear me out.  I’m paying twice what Calvert is for a year’s salary, and I’m paying it all upfront.  Look to the other team captains if you don’t believe me.  Fish, Minor, Richards, Meck, I’ve talked to them, and they’ve agreed.”

There was a slight shift in the tension among the soldiers.  The ones at gunpoint began slowly lowering their weapons, and the ones holding them there similarly let it calm a notch.

“Lies,” Calvert said.  There was an uncharacteristic degree of emotion in his voice.  “I’ve tracked your funding.  I know exactly how much money you have.”

“Not exactly.  See, I revealed this to my team, just a little while ago, but I’ve sort of been skimming.”

“From me?”

“A bit.  Not as much as you’d think.  You keep good accounts.  But our targets?  For sure.  Like, we go rob the Brockton Bay central bank, and maybe I skip off for five minutes to go visit the CEO’s room, use his computer to get access to more funds, and shift them into a personal account.  Or I keep a few of the more valuable pieces of paperwork, or I pocket something expensive during a job.  Funny thing about a power like mine, it helps me figure out what I can get away with.”

“You haven’t taken enough to pay twice what I can.”

“You’d be surprised.  And some of your assets are in a position to be picked up by yours truly.  Safe deposit boxes and safes don’t mean much against me.  So that’s a bit more funding of yours that I can borrow to pay these guys.  A year up front, and I’m not asking them to do a single thing.  Most of them, anyways.  I’m just asking that they ship out of Brockton Bay or they stay on the down-low.”
“I’ll pay triple,” Calvert said.

“You can’t pay triple,” Tattletale said, stretching as the chains around her wrists and ankles were undone.  “You’ve dented your coffers too much with the city revitalization.  Didn’t help that you paid such an exorbitant sum to the Dragonslayers for the information they were offering.”

“That was your idea.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “You were desperate enough to deal with the Dragon threat before your big show at the debate that you didn’t make too big an issue of it.  Either way, you forgot the cardinal rule of employing mercenaries.  They follow the person with the money.”

“I didn’t forget,” Calvert said, “I had that in mind every step of the way.  I was exceedingly careful of how much funding I provided.”

“Okay,” Tattletale sounded almost chirpy.  “But you didn’t account for the possibility that I was picking up as much on my own as I was.”

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

“Undersiders,” Trickster said.  “This goes no further.  Call it a stalemate, but we need his assistance.”

“Calvert’s lying, you know,” Tattletale said.  “He can maybe help you, but he can’t help Noelle.  None of the plans he’s been talking about will work, and he knows they won’t work.  He wants Noelle for entirely different reasons.  He thinks he can get her on a leash, so he’s got firepower even if he gets rid of the supervillains working under him.  A threat that only the great PRT leader Thomas Calvert can address.”

“I’d rather see the truth of that for myself.  You touch him and we kill you.”

“You guys aren’t wearing the same kind of durable costume we are,” Tattletale said.  “If you want to make a point of it, my soldiers can gun you down.”

“I can swap your group with mine the second the gunshots happen,” Trickster replied, unfazed.  “You don’t want to do that.”

I tried to speak, coughed once instead.  When I finally had my voice, I said, “Ballistic.  Sundancer.  Any other Traveler with doubts, I know you guys aren’t happy with the status quo.  If you want to stop running, stop moving constantly and move to Brockton Bay permanently, we’ll have you.  We need you, even.”

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

“I’m done.  This was a doomed quest from the start,” Ballistic said.  He stopped at Grue’s side, turned around to face his teammates.

“Sundancer?” I asked.  “You said before that you were lonely, that all of this was too intense for you.  Even the stuff I’ve done, it didn’t sit right with you.  I get that.  Don’t you want to stop?  To say goodbye to this life?”

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

She shook her head.  “No.  No, Skitter.  I’m staying.  Don’t have another choice.”

“Genesis?”

She was in the form of a girl, but wore a simple mask.  “Someone’s got to stay and be a real leader to this team.  No.  I’m standing by Trickster.”

“Teleport me to safety,” Calvert said.  “Escort me away, and everything I have is yours.”

“Everything you have is mine already,” Tattletale cut in.  “You’ve been dethroned, C-man.  I’m going to rule as the mastermind behind the scene in Brockton Bay, organize the territories, pay the bills.  My partners will see to the territories themselves.  I suppose I won’t be head of the PRT, but I’m suspicious we’ll be able to work out a truce of sorts with the good guys.  Hopefully we’ll get someone more sensible than Piggot and less shady than you.”

“Trickster,” Calvert said.  “I can put you in touch with the woman who can cure her.  Someone who knows as much or more about Parahumans than anyone on the planet.  It won’t be free, but I can subsidize the costs.  But I have to be alive to-“

Trickster collapsed to the ground.  Sundancer and Genesis turned, confused, and Ballistic caught Genesis with a spray of pellets.  She dissipated into gory wisps of whatever substance formed her body.

Sundancer was only just creating her sun when she collapsed as well.  I could see Imp bending over, prodding the bodies.  Über, Leet and Chariot backed away as guns turned to point at them.

“Anyone who shoots one of the Undersiders will receive one million dollars!”  Calvert shouted.

I waited for the inevitable bullet.  It didn’t come.

“Skitter and I had a little talk,” Tattletale said.  “Way back when the city had been freshly sieged by the Endbringer and rejoining the team wasn’t even a consideration.  I raised the idea of going after you, of taking you down.  We knew that if you were going to let down your guard, if you were going to slip up at all, it would be when you were closest to achieving your goals.”

Calvert only glared.

“If you made any one mistake, it was keeping me at your base towards the end of the fiasco with the Nine.  The problem with keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?  It puts your enemies in the midst of your friends, so they can discuss better means of payment with the right team captains.  Or they can maybe arrange to put something in Noelle’s vault during one of the feeding times, a few fire alarms with a low battery, tucked in where the door meets the wall.  Irritate her, so she’s awake that much more, and she then costs you sleep.”

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Not so much a metaphor, but I got off track.”

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

“Strategic.  Lots of little things add up.  Seeding doubts.  Making you second guess plans.  Keep you up at night wondering, planning just a bit more, in both your realities.  You were too focused on the big picture, on the thing I could find out, keeping me off-balance, that you missed out on my ability to see the little things, to exploit them.  And it wore on you.  You didn’t realize how much, but it did, and maybe that’s why you were that much more susceptible to making the critical mistake here.”

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

“But you made the mistake we needed you to make, using your power here, while you were talking to us.  There’s no escape routes, now.  The only loyalty you have is bought with coin, and I have more cash than you do.”

“Then send me to the Birdcage and be done with it,” Calvert said.

“To jail?” Tattletale asked.  “No, no no no.  I know you have contingency plans.  Arrangements.  We send you to prison and someone breaks you out before you get there.”

I took a step forward, then made myself take another.

“It doesn’t have to be you,” Tattletale told me.

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

Calvert turned my way, let his head sink back so it rested against the ground.  “So it comes down to this.”

I thought of the countless lives I’d put at risk, if not directly, then indirectly: the ABB blowing up parts of the city, the ensuing gang war, Purity leveling buildings because she blamed us for the loss of her daughter.

There was the fat superhero I’d left to die when the tidal wave was incoming.  I recalled leaving the dying Merchant to bleed out when I’d rescued Bryce from the merchant’s festival of blood.  There were the people in my territory, the old doctor who’d had her throat cut because I hadn’t realized Mannequin was close until it was too late.  The gas attack that killed nearly twenty people and the fires Burnscar had set in my territory, both because I’d provoked them and failed to consider how readily they’d go after the vulnerable point that was all the people I’d been trying to protect.

I remembered trying to kill Mannequin with grenades, going all-out in attempting to end a man’s life.  A madman, a monster, but it was what it was.

And, much more recently, there was the case of me bringing Triumph so close to death that he’d needed life support.

I’d come to terms with so much of that by telling myself it was leading to this.  I’d known deep down it would happen.  That my fight against Calvert would have to end here.

I walked forward until Calvert was beneath me.  I drew my gun, checked there was ammo in the clip.

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

“No…” I replied.  I couldn’t see, so I screwed my eyes closed, felt the moisture of tears threatening to spill forth.  I took in a deep breath.

“…But I suppose, in a roundabout way, you made me into one,” I finished.  I aimed the gun and fired.

The gun dropped from my hand as the recoil jarred it.  It clattered to the pavement.  It was quiet enough that I could only hear the ocean water crashing against the shore, just off the beach.

As an afterthought, I kicked the gun a distance away from where Calvert lay.  Not that there was much point.  I tried to learn from my mistakes.

I felt Tattletale’s arm settle around my shoulders.  “We’re done.  This is over.”

“The Travelers will be pissed.  I can’t- we can’t kill them,” I said.

“We won’t.  They’ll move on.  They have no more reason to stay.”

Grue stepped around my left side, bent down, took Calvert’s cell phone from the man’s belt and then tossed it to Tattletale.  As Tattletale withdrew her arm from my shoulders, he stepped forward to give me a hug.  “Let’s go.”

I nodded into his shoulder.

We turned away.  With my swarm sense I was able to recognize Minor, Tattletale’s man, helmetless, opening the doors of one van for us.  I took a seat.

It wasn’t Tattletale or Grue that sat down beside me, but Rachel.  She took my hand in hers, held it fiercely.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I simply accepted it.

We stopped at Coil’s underground base.  Tattletale’s underground base.  It was a relief to escape the silence of the van, surreal to be in the dim noise of downtown again.  Much of the area still lacked power, but there were the noises of the occasional car, of people clamoring on the bottom floor of an apartment building.  City noises.

“You okay?” Grue asked.

“More bothered by the fact that I’m not bothered,” I said.  I knew how little sense I was making, but I didn’t feel like elaborating.

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

As it had been at sunset, the base was empty.  The metal walkway sang with my footsteps as I walked to the far end of the complex.  I stopped at a door without a handle.

“Here,” Tattletale said.  She held Calvert’s cell phone.  Held it up and pressed a sequence of buttons.

The door clicked open.  I forced my fingers into the gap and hauled it open.  Heavy and metal.

There was one more door, one with a key lock.  Tattletale stepped over to the desk and got the key, opened it.

Dinah was inside with an unassuming man in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants.

“Go,” Tattletale told the man.  “Your boss is dead.  Just go.”

He fled.

“I’m going to get Regent,” she said.  “Think we’ll leave Shatterbird in her soundproof cage for now, just to be safe.”

I nodded absently.  I was holding on to Grue for support, watched as Dinah stood from the bed and slowly approached.

Her voice was barely above a whisper as she stared down at the ground between us, “I’ve been waiting for this for so very long.”

It didn’t sound like an accusation.  More the words of someone who had been forced to watch the clock for days, weeks, months.  Anticipating a possible moment that might never come.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m sorry it took so long.”

She shook her head, “I’m the one who’s sorry, you were trying hard and I set you up, so you’d go the way where your friends tried to kill you.  I shouldn’t have-“

“Hey, it’s okay.  It offered us the best chances in the end, right?”

She bobbed her head in a nod.

A second later, she was running to me, wrapping her arms around my midsection.  I winced in pain as her forehead banged against my chest.

“Medical care,” Grue said.

“For both of us,” I replied.  “Dinah and me.”

“Yeah.”

As a trio, we stepped out onto the walkway, where Tattletale and Regent should have been waiting.

But I could see Regent at the end of the walkway, and Tattletale wasn’t with him.  She was hurrying down the spiral stairs just to Regent’s left.

I leaned over the walkway, as much as I was able with the pain in my chest and Dinah clinging to my midsection.  My eyes went wide.  A moment later, I was hurrying after Tattletale, holding Dinah’s hand in one of my own and Grue’s elbow in the other.

We stopped when we reached Tattletale.  She stood facing the vault door.  The one that was used to seal Noelle within.

There were two vault doors, one set behind the other, and both were ruined, the one closest to us nearly folded in half, hanging by one hinge.

“A final act of spite,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the phone in her hand.  “He made sure she heard our conversation.”

“You didn’t notice?”

“He was using his ability to create alternate worlds to throw my power for a bit of a loop.  I was more focused on the possibility that he had a loyal soldier in the ranks or a sniper waiting in the distance, ready to take a shot at one of us.”

The odor that wafted from the open vault was like sweat and rotten meat.  It was dark.  Nothing about it gave the sense of a teenage girl’s living space.

“On a scale of one to ten,” I asked, “Just how bad is this?”

“Let me answer your question with another question,” Tattletale said.  “You think we could convince the PRT to turn on the air raid sirens?”

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“Share?”

I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”

“Okay.”

“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Colony 15.6

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Not my brightest move, I had to admit.  The problem with acting like I was tough enough to shrug off an attack from a knife wielder was that the illusion failed pretty damn hard when I actually got stabbed.

I’d been relying too much on my costume.

“If I see a single bug, I’ll be forced to use this,” Flechette said, angling the spike of metal in her hand so I could see it better.

“Isn’t that going too far?” Parian asked, her voice small.

“No,” Flechette said.  Her hand was still poised to strike the second I moved.

“She was just talking.”

“She just talked to Panacea, if you remember.  And I told you before, the last time Glory Girl was seen was in her company.  I’ve explained what happened after that.”

“You think she did it?”

Did what?

“I think the thinker-seven on her team might have.  Running theory is that Tattletale has a clairvoyance that lets her see weak points.  Finds the points to attack in people, security systems, patrol routes, reverse-engineers the results to get general information.”

Okay, she’d hit the key points, but sort of got it backwards.

“That was Jack,” I said.  “Jack was the one who got to Amy.”

“Occam’s razor.  Most likely answer is often the correct one.  Or something like that,” Flechette said,  “Is it going to be Jack, who has powers we already know?  Or is it going to be Tattletale, who has set down more than enough precedent for that kind of behavior and a still-unknown power?  It fits what your group’s trying to do, taking over the city for yourselves.  And I should point out that records do seem to point to people being left devastated or ruined wherever you go.  Panacea, Armsmaster, the Slaughterhouse Nine-”

“You’re complaining about us taking out the Nine?  And that wasn’t all us.  It wasn’t even mostly us.  That was everything going to hell and people with issues getting pushed past their limits.  We were only involved because we’ve tried to help every step of the way.”

“You think she was going to do to me what she did to Glory Girl and Panacea?” Parian asked.

“I’d say the possibility exists,” Flechette said. “And that’s reason enough to be very careful.”

Damn this.  “I’m not trying to fucking corrupt or psychologically traumatize Parian.  Or anyone else!  Yes, we’re trying to take over the city.  Yes, we’re currently working on eliminating the competition-”

“Mm,” Flechette murmured, her expression hard.

“But that’s not why I’m here, not exactly.  It serves our goals just as well if I recruit Parian.  It’s one person out of the way, and it gives us a way to help people who need it.”

“So you say.”

Fuck, I hate it when people do that.  ‘Everything you say is a lie, including any protests or arguments over the fact that you’re a liar.'”

There was a crash, further away than the last.  Ballistic had headed in a different direction.  For the moment, at least, we were out of harm’s way.

“You’re sort of well-known in the community for being deceptive and underhanded.”

“Because of what Armsmaster said at the hospital?”

“In part.”

“Is nobody paying attention to the fact that he was seriously bent in the head?  To the point that the Slaughterhouse Nine thought he was a good candidate for their group?”

“Mannequin targeted Armsmaster to mess with him.  It’s his M.O..  He goes out of his way to attack and ruin tinkers and other individuals who could do something for society.”

“I love how the so-called ‘good’ guys get to revise events to make stuff more convenient for them.”

“It’s a perk.  People tend to trust your version of events when you’re doing what’s right,” Flechette said.  The spike she gripped between two fingers tapped against my throat, but didn’t pierce the fabric.  She wasn’t using her power or she could have killed me.

“You’re implying that you guys are doing what’s ‘right’ that much more often than we are.”

“That should be obvious.”

“And you really believe that?”

“Have to.”

“Do you know why Armsmaster was arrested?”

“He wasn’t.”

“Unofficially arrested, then.  Do you know why he was cooped up in the local PRT headquarters, with no official title or role?”

“He was in therapy for his injury.  He lost an arm.”

“I know.  I was there when Leviathan tore it out of the socket.  I applied pressure to the wound to try to stop the blood loss.  But that’s not why they locked him up.  They could have given him an administrative position if it was just an injury, and they didn’t.”

“Maybe they did.  It’s not like either of us were there when the decisions were made.”

“With no job title?  They didn’t list one for him, and with the state of the city, they could have leveraged his reputation alone to boost morale, just by saying Armsmaster was in charge of the local task-forces.”

“There’s emotional stress with permanent injuries, too.”

“Plenty of people under just as much stress, if not more, after the Endbringer hit.  But I’ll admit your perspective’s better than mine,” I said, looking up at her.  “You joined the Wards just in time to see the aftermath of Gallant and Aegis dying.  How did they handle that?  If the PRT was that accommodating with Armsmaster, I’m sure they arranged for therapy and time off for all the Wards.”

“Yes to therapy,” she said.  “No to the time off.  Too much to take care of.”

“Oh?” I asked.  I hadn’t honestly expected them to enforce and allow for therapy.  It threw me off my stride.

“Why are you so surprised?  And where is this coming from?  Tattletale feed you this information?”

“Only some of the general details, like what Armsmaster was up to.  The bit about the PRT dropping the ball in taking care of you guys was mainly drawn from past experience.”

“But they didn’t.”

“Flechette,” Parian spoke up, “Weren’t you saying it was Weld who pushed for the therapy?”

Flechette shot her a look, as if she were thinking, Whose side are you on?

“Wards taking care of Wards,” I said.  “Okay, I think my argument stands.  No reason to suggest that Armsmaster was being coddled to that degree for any emotional or mental distress he went through.”

“What are you getting at?”

“I’m saying he was arrested.  Off the books.  And there aren’t really any reasonable explanations to the contrary.  People are still taking his word on events, taking his word on me, but he was as fucked up as any of us.”

“Given the choice, I’m going to take his word over yours, sorry.”

“That’s what I’m saying is screwed up!”  I hissed the last two words.  “Why?  Because of the label he chose to identify by?  He calls himself a hero and he gets more credit?”

“Because he put in a good fifteen years of hard work to improve this city, and because I think your perspective’s warped.”

Everyone has a screwed up perspective!  Especially here, especially now, with the way this city is.  My perspective’s fucked up because everyone I was supposed to rely on dropped the ball, and the only people I could count on were crooks!  Panacea got warped because her parents let her down, because nobody ever sat down and talked to her about who her dad was.  So she convinced herself that she was doomed to follow in his footsteps.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was there!  I, we, tried to help.  But she’s never had someone talk to her, so she didn’t know how to listen to us.  Which is probably a blessing in disguise, because she didn’t listen to Jack or Bonesaw either.”

Flechette gave me a funny look.  Her eyes were vague shadows behind her visor, but I could see one distort in size as she raised an eyebrow.

“What?”  I asked.  Something about Panacea and Glory Girl?  She’d said something earlier too.

She spoke, interrupting my thoughts before I could frame them into a question.  “Nothing.  I guess you’re going to tell me you tried to help Armsmaster too?”

“No.  I turned to him for help, and he tried to screw me over.  I joined the Undersiders to give him the details he wanted on their powers and methods and he not only hung me out to dry, but he tried to kill me.  He did kill Kaiser and Fenja, nearly killed Kid Win by accident, and there were others there too.  All for his own personal glory.  Because he had some kind of crazy tunnel-vision when it came to his personal ambition and successes.”

Flechette frowned.

I took the chance to hammer my point home.  “He knew I was just an undercover agent, but he thought my death and the casual sacrifices of the others who had chosen to risk their lives to stop Leviathan were worth getting a personal shot at killing Leviathan one on one.”

“What?” Parian asked.  “Seriously?  Doesn’t that violate the deal with-”

“Yes,” Flechette cut her off.  “Yes it would.”

I shrugged, looking at Flechette, Parian and the Dolltown residents.  “Probably going to get in trouble for revealing that, but I’ll leave it to you to decide what to do with that information.  I’m already a priority target anyways, pretty much, what with our intended takeover of the city.”

“You seem to be missing the point that you’re under arrest right now,” Flechette spoke.

I sighed.  “And nothing I say is getting through.”

“It’s exactly what I was talking about before, you’re just using information Tattletale fed you to try to screw with my head, fill me with doubts and paranoia.”

“And how would I know you’d be here?  I’d have to get the information from her in advance, remember?”

“Tattletale told you I’d be here.”

Okay, that’s admittedly possible.

“So your interpretation of events is that I knew you were here, I came prepared with all this made up information on Armsmaster to mess with you, and I just let you stab me?”

As if mentioning it reminded my brain, I could feel the pain radiating from my shoulder.  At least she’d left the spike in there.  It seemed even better at preventing the bleeding than I’d guessed it would be.  A snug fit?  I wouldn’t bleed to death in the next ten minutes.

She didn’t venture a response.

“Flechette, if you don’t believe me, you can look at the armband Dragon gave us for the fight against Leviathan.  Armsmaster fried it with an EMP to keep me from broadcasting Leviathan’s location to anyone, and then he moved in only after he’d thought Leviathan had killed me.  It’s on top of a ceiling panel in the shelter on Slater street.  Women’s bathroom, above the middle toilet.  I couldn’t keep it in case Dragon used it to track me down, but you can go grab it if she hasn’t sent someone already.  Get a tinker you trust to look at it.”

“The results could be fabricated.”

“Tell your tinker that.  He’ll keep it in mind, and he can tell you the likelihood of it being something I’m doing to frame Armsmaster versus it being Armsmaster’s work.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I’m trying to convince you that ‘right’ isn’t the exclusive property of the good guys, just like ‘wrong’ isn’t wholly on our side of the fence.  Armsmaster’s sense of ‘good’ was purely what was good for his own interests.  I’m trying to do the right thing more often than not, believe it or not, or I’m doing the wrong things for the right reasons.”

“And which were you doing here, trying to recruit Parian?”

I glanced at Parian, “I don’t know yet.  Thinking it’s more the latter.”

There was a rumble as Ballistic knocked over a building somewhere a distance away.

“We don’t need your help,” Flechette said.

“Don’t you?  I don’t know why you’re wearing that getup, but I’m assuming those other people are because of what Bonesaw did.”

I could see the people in the concealing costumes shifting uncomfortably.

“Why I’m in this costume isn’t any of your business.  I’m here to help.”

“I can help more.  I can get them medical attention, start reversing what the Slaughterhouse Nine did to them.”

Parian spoke, her voice quiet, “So you’re asking me to choose between being loyal to a friend who’s helped me, comforted me and kept me sane these past few weeks, or selling my soul for the… supposed greater good.”

“Saying you’d be selling your soul is a bit overdramatic,” I said.

“I’m an artist, I’m dramatic by nature.”

“Then let me make an emotional appeal.  Come to my territory.  Let me show you what I’m doing there, and what I want to help you do for your people.”

“You’ll just take the advantage of the situation to escape,” Flechette said.

“I don’t really think you can keep me,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.

“We’ll see,” she responded.

I sent a command to Atlas.

“Easiest option is that I send a message to Ballistic.  I really don’t want to do that, because it’s going to get people hurt or killed.”

“His files say he doesn’t kill,” she responded.

“With his power?  It’s easy to accidentally go too far.  Combine that with the sheer danger your own power presents?  It’s like playing tag with guns.  Not saying I don’t respect your power, with the damage you did to Leviathan, but he can escalate harder and faster than you.  If you two get in a shootout, someone’s going to get hurt.”

As if to punctuate my statement, there was a sound of a building collapsing nearby.

“Well then,” Flechette said.  She adjusted her grip on the spike of metal that she held between her fingers.  A dart.  She poked it through the armor of my wrist.  When I tried to move my arm, it was fixed to the ground.  “I guess I’ll come back for you later, after Ballistic’s left.”

“Undo it, release me,” I said, pulling harder.

“No.  And stop struggling.  Unless you can tear that costume, you’re not going to pull free.  It’s bonded.”

“You’re making a mistake,” I growled.  “I’m only trying to help.”

“And I’m doing my job.  I get that maybe your intentions are good, but I’m obligated to take you in, especially now that I’ve heard your confession of intent to seize the city.”

“How many wrongs have been done by people who were ‘just following orders’?” I asked.

I directed Atlas in through an open window.  Every set of eyes was on Flechette and I, which made it easy for him to slip into the room.  My bugs had identified tripwires Parian had set, and navigating Atlas around them wasn’t too hard.

“Stop it!”  Parian cried.  For a second, I thought it had to do with Atlas, but her shout followed within a second of my question to Flechette.

Flechette looked like she’d been slapped.  I stopped Atlas where he was, poised a few feet behind Parian.  I folded his scythe-like claws down and out of the way.

“Skitter… if we let you go, do you promise not to attack or interfere under any circumstance?”

“Parian?”  Flechette asked.  She sounded almost hurt.

“It depends, are you going to go confront Ballistic?”

“Honestly?  Yes.  You said he’d keep coming until he took us out.”

I frowned, but they couldn’t see that behind my mask.  Ballistic was angry, he was dangerous, and there was little to nothing tying him to Coil’s service, outside of some vague sense of duty.

“Are you going to arrest him?” I asked.

“No,” Parian responded, at the same time Flechette said, “Yes.”

“We could scare him off,” Parian said.  “Beat him up a little.”

“And he’d bring in the other Travelers and Undersiders to wipe us out,” Flechette said.

Parian looked at me, “He wouldn’t, would he?”

I nodded, “He would.”

Parian sagged, dropping into a sitting position.  Flechette turned to look at her and froze.  “What the hell is that?”

She’d seen Atlas.

“I brought him in here as insurance,” I said.  “I was thinking about taking Parian hostage if you went ahead with my arrest, but she started being reasonable and I told him to back down.”

“What is he?”

“Panacea made him for me, for fighting the Nine.  Just a big beetle with sharp claws.”

That’s what you were using to fly around, when we were fighting the Nine?”

I nodded.

“Creepy.”

“Look,” I said, seeing a chance to regain control of the conversation.  “I’ll extend my offer a third time.  Join us, Parian.  We’re not as scary or as bad as we look at first glance.  You’ll see that if you check out my territory.  I’m not threatening you or extorting this out of you.  You can say no-”

“Because I have a weapon at your throat,” Flechette said.

“Because it’s her call,” I said, my voice firm.  “Because I really do think she’ll be safer overall.”

“From those people who ‘aren’t as scary or bad at first glance’,” Flechette said.

“From all the other capes and unpowered individuals who would prey on her and her people.”

“I can’t,” Parian said.  “No.  I have to turn down your offer.”

I sighed.  Damn.  Damn, damn, damn.  “Can I ask why?”

“Flechette’s done too much to help me, to help us, for me to turn around and become her enemy.  Even if it’s for the greater good.  And maybe they won’t forgive me for it, but I can’t agree to short-term gains, to giving them some medical care and reconstructive surgery now, in exchange for becoming a criminal for the rest of my life.”

“What if this was temporary?”  Can’t reveal too much.  Can’t let them know Coil’s reign ends soon, if everything goes according to plan.

“I’d still carry the label, wouldn’t I?  Maybe I don’t agree with everything Flechette said, but I do agree that just calling myself a villain, even for a short time, it wouldn’t be something I could shake so easily.  We’ll find another way.  I can use my power to make money, I’ll heal them.  I’ll make up for failing to protect them.”

A woman with a cloth hood covering everything but one eye reached out and put a hand on Parian’s shoulder, squeezed.

She felt the same kind of responsibility for her people that I did for mine.  The realization made me all the more disappointed that she’d said no.

“Okay,” I said.  “Flechette, I’m going to reach behind my back.  I’m not drawing a weapon.”

“No,” she said, “Whatever deals Parian is making, they don’t change the fact that you’re under arrest.  I have to do my job, and with the Nine gone, your faction is a priority.  Especially with your suspected involvement in the incident with Glory Girl and Panacea.”

I frowned.  I needed another option.  My armor was loaded down with bugs, and that included the compartment.  I could feel what I needed.  It was just a question of getting it free.

Spiders drew silk around the object in question, then made their way across my shoulder and up the back of my arm, braiding the threads together as they went and hooking them against the edges of my armor to get traction in the right areas.  They reached my hand and encircled one finger.

I twitched that finger and tugged the thread.  Another, harder pull, and it came free.   My bugs muffled the sound of the object hitting ground.

“What was that?” Flechette asked.

As a mass, they carried the object into plain view.  My cell phone.

“You make the call, so you know I’m not trying something,” I said.

Flechette frowned.  “There’s no reason.”

“There’s a great reason, but I don’t think you’ll believe me if we don’t do things my way.  Password to unlock the phone is seven-two-eight-one.”

She picked up the phone and threw it over her shoulder at Parian.  Parian caught it.

“Me?”

“I’m keeping my attention on Skitter.  Don’t forget to watch that beetle of hers while you’re making the call.”

Parian nodded, too quickly.  “What was that number?”

“Seven-two-eight-one.”

“Okay.”

“Go to the contact list.”

“It’s all gibberish.  Symbols and numbers and stuff.”

“It’s a code.  First number that starts with heart-star-colon.”

“Okay.  It’s ringing.  Should I put it on speaker phone?”

“No,” Flechette said.

“Tell her you’re speaking on behalf of Skitter,” I said.

Parian nodded.  “Um.  Hi?  I’m speaking for Skitter.”

“Tell her-”

“She just said, um, Emerald-S.”

“Tell her Celery-A.”

“Celery-A.  Okay.”

“Upstairs, beneath the workbench, to the bottom-left of the painting, there’s a panel.  Tell her to remove it.”

Parian relayed the instructions.  There was a pause of no less than two minutes before she said,  “The girl on the other end says there’s a safe.”

“Six-one-one,” I paused to let Parian relay the numbers, “Two-zero-three… one-zero-zero… six-six-three.”

“It’s open.  She says there’s stacks of money?”

“Tell her to gather two hundred thousand dollars from the safe, pick five people who need a break from work, C included.  Only C should know about it, I don’t want the others to get greedy.  They can pack it into a truck, head north and meet you just before the ramp where Lord Street turns on to the ninety-five.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Leave this city, Parian.  There’s nothing good left here anymore.  That money’s yours.  Use it to heal and help the friends and family you still have left.  Get out of here, use the money to get yourselves settled, get some therapy for everything you’ve been through, and go pursue that career in fashion you said you wanted.”

Why?”

“There’s been too much ugliness here.  There’s bound to be more.  I… I guess I have the money, and you need it.  And I guess I feel complicit in what happened.  The Nine did what they did to Dolltown because we’d forced them into a corner.  Maybe they would have attacked anyways, they were headed your way.  I don’t know, but let me do this.  Let me… I don’t know.  Saying ‘clear my conscience’ sounds naive.”

“And to get this money, I have to leave this city?” Parian asked.  She looked stunned.

“Consider it a strong encouragement.  In the end, it’s your choice.  I’d appreciate it if you kept quiet about my role in your leaving, and about me giving you the money.  I think the Undersiders would understand, for the most part, but the Travelers might take issue with my interference.”

She didn’t have a reply.  I glanced at Flechette but I didn’t see anything in her expression.

“My employee is still on the phone,” I reminded her.

“Oh.  Um.  What was I supposed to say, again?”

I repeated the message.

While Parian relayed it, Flechette commented, “That’s a lot of money to be giving away.”

“I have more.”  I did.  The amount I was giving Parian amounted to a little less than a third of my current holdings.  The bank account Coil had assigned to me seemed to be growing in alternating stutters and huge bounds.  The benefit of having a bank account that was managed by a guy who called himself ‘the Number Man’, I supposed.

“Lucrative job you have there.”

I didn’t reply.  It was just enough money that it’d be just a little tight to manage in the immediate future, but I felt like it wouldn’t be meaningful if it didn’t inconvenience me somehow.

“Okay,” Parian said.  “She said they’ll be waiting.”

“My territory is closer to the destination than you are.  You should leave sooner than later.”

She nodded.

“This isn’t some trick?” Flechette asked.  “Some trap you pre-arranged with those code words?”

“The code was just to inform her everything was fine.  No trap.  But I think you’ll want to accompany her and the others, just to make sure they arrive safely.  There’s still dangerous people on these streets.”

Would she tell me Parian could handle herself?

Flechette turned to look at Parian, apparently considering the same thing.  “You play dirty, Skitter.”

“All things considered, I think I’ve been exceedingly fair.”

“I can’t guard her and keep an eye on you at the same time.”

“That was the idea.”

“I could nail you down to the ground.  Wouldn’t even be hard.  You’d have to tear your costume to shreds and run back to your territory in whatever you’re wearing underneath that.”

“You could.”  I didn’t point out that if she did do that, I wouldn’t have a chance of tearing my costume.

“I still think you have a warped perspective on things.  I don’t think you’re right.”

“I told you where the armband is.  Slater street, women’s toilets, on top of the ceiling panel above the second of the three toilets.  If Dragon hasn’t tracked and removed it.”

“Right.”

“Good luck,” I told her.  “Whatever happens.”

“We’re on opposing sides, you know?  The next time we meet, we’ll be fighting.”

“Doesn’t mean I wish you badly.”

“Right.”

She didn’t free my armor from the floor, but she stood and joined Parian, who was already walking away.  I heard her murmuring, “…to New York City.  I’ll be finished here in two weeks…”

And then they were out of earshot.  There was the sound of Ballistic continuing his rampage, tearing Dolltown to the ground.

Maybe it was good if this place was leveled to the ground.  I wasn’t superstitious, I wasn’t religious, but with what the Nine had done here, even their relatively short visit to this area, it felt darker.  Wrong.  There was too much death and sadness that had occurred here.

Was that true of the city as well?  Was it better just to raze it to the ground and start anew?

I reached over slowly, wincing at the coarse sensation of metal dragging against bone and the red-hot pain of my own tearing flesh..  The movement in my shoulder had shifted the metal spike Flechette had embedded there, pulling sideways against the hole it had punched in my shoulder. I could see the blood welling out, running down into the fabric of my costume.  Once I had my hand in position, I began unstrapping the armor panel from my wrist.

Free to stand, I used my knife and some kicks to get the armor free of the floor.  Rather than pull the spike free of the flooring as I might have with a nail, I wound up pulling out a roughly cone-shaped chunk of wood, the spike and everything it had contacted seeming to have bonded together.  I picked up the armor and tucked it under one arm.

This could have gone worse.  I might have to face some ramifications if the PRT took offense to my bringing up what had happened with Armsmaster, but somehow I felt like I couldn’t have let Flechette stay in the dark.  I just wasn’t sure if that was for my sake or if it was for hers.  The money I’d handed away would hurt, too, but it felt necessary.

I needed medical attention, and I felt like I had to check on my territory after I’d seen Parian’s.  I climbed onto Atlas.  His flight would be smoother and less jarring than walking.

I heard another crash as Ballistic continued tearing through Dolltown.  I could have notified him that Parian was gone, but… no.

Maybe this wanton destruction would give him a chance to vent and find release over whatever it was that was haunting him.

I’d have to get in touch with Trickster and Genesis to arrange our visit with the Mayor for tonight.  I’d have to deal with the threat on my life, whatever form it took.

I didn’t feel afraid.  Anxious?  Yes.  But not terrified, not quivering or panicking.  I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad.  Grue had lamented my lack of survival instincts, not so long ago.  Had recent events worn them down even further?

I shook my head.  I’d have time for introspection later.  For now, I had to plan.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Colony 15.5

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We fell silent as Regent stepped out of the cell with Victor in tow.

“How’s he handle?” Tattletale asked.

“Like a Mercedes with an invisible, sticky gear shift,” Regent said.

“Care to explain?”

Victor stretched, and said, “Everything moves well, peak condition, but his power doesn’t work so hot with him as a puppet.  Can’t tell what I’m borrowing or who I’m stealing from.  I think I’d need his cooperation-”

Our captive sneered a little.

“-And I don’t think he’s willing to give it,” Regent said.

“So the question is whether we want to take the time to try to convince him or take an indirect route,” Grue said.

“Skitter’s going to have to go in a few minutes, so let’s see what you can do in the here and now?”

“Sure.”  Grue extended a hand and smothered Victor in darkness.  A second later, he said, “I’m getting something.  Anyone here speak another language? Sug puppene til horemammaen din?”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You’re getting that from Victor.”

“Can’t really use it.  Now how do I change what I’m stealing?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “It could be you’re only picking up the surface stuff.  Here, Regent, try some martial arts forms.”

“Like what?  I don’t know this stuff.”

“Victor does.  You fight using your puppets’ muscle memory, right?  Try moving around, see what clicks and Grue will let you know if we’re accomplishing anything.”

There was a pause.  Victor’s hand briefly flashed out of the cloud of darkness as he shifted positions.

Grue rolled his shoulders some.  “Yeah.  There’s a martial art in there somewhere.  I’m picking something up, but it’s slow.”

Tattletale smiled.  “Take everything you can.  We’ll see what sticks.”

“It’s kind of depressing,” Grue said, settling onto a stool, “I always took some pride in honing my body, training, all that.  This feels like cheating.  Skipping the hard work.”

“You said you never had the time or interest to dedicate yourself to investing in a martial art,” Tattletale pointed out.

“I didn’t.  But that’s not to say I wouldn’t eventually.  A few years down the line, when things are quieter, I can see myself doing that, earning belts and learning to fight.”

“If you don’t want to do this,” Regent said, “I could do something else with my day.”

Grue shook his head.  “No.  It’s fine.  Doesn’t feel quite right, but I’ll be able to do more to help you guys if I can fight better, if I’m more versatile.  And I’m getting another language, again.  Latin, I think.  Get him doing the forms again?”

Regent sighed.

Tattletale frowned, “He’s trying to drag you off course.  Using his brain to bring other stuff to the surface.  Listen, I’m going to see Skitter off, and then I’ll talk to Coil, see if he has anyone who could drug Victor and mess with his mental functions without incapacitating him.”

Drugs, like the ones Coil’s using on Dinah, I thought.  And this would give Tattletale and me a chance to have some words about the hit Coil had put on my head.

I had to wonder why?  I was arguably doing the best among his underlings.  Why was it so hard for him to simply let Dinah go, maybe take countermeasures to ensure she didn’t betray him, and leave things alone?

I wouldn’t be any threat to him if he wasn’t doing something morally reprehensible.

We left Regent and Grue to their task and stepped out of the wing with the cells, venturing onto the metal walkway that overlooked the lower level.  I could see the Travelers at the vault door that kept Noelle contained, as well as the soldiers going about their business.

Which struck me as odd, when I thought about it.

“What’s with the soldiers?” I asked.  “He’s got, what, fifty or sixty here?”

“A little under that, but some are elsewhere.”

“Why?  I get that he was using them before, fighting Empire Eighty-Eight, but what’s he using them for now?  He didn’t send them against the Endbringer, he didn’t use them against the Nine.  I get that he maybe fought off the Merchants and the Chosen when they were thriving, kept them from gaining too much steam, but it seems like a lot of money to spend on soldiers he doesn’t intend to use.”

“Well,” Tattletale said, leaning on the railing.  “One, keeping them employed here means they won’t be hired by someone else.”

“Right.”

“And I think they factor into his plan.  Either as a contingency or a greater aspect of it.”

I nodded.  I would have asked what that plan was, but I didn’t want to say anything that would be too suspicious if overheard.  Not while we were on Coil’s turf, especially.

Tattletale didn’t seem to have those same concerns.  She leaned closer and murmured, “You’ve got two jobs back to back.  That means you’ve got a few things to do.  Number one, if we’ve got a mole in our group and our communications are compromised, that means we need a mole in Coil’s group.  Someone that can inform us about any of Coil’s movements he’s wanting to keep concealed from us.”

“Ballistic?” I asked.

“Mm,” she murmured a response.  “Sound him out.  Be careful about it, but try to get a sense of how tight he is with the rest of the Travelers.  Like Cherish said, Trickster isn’t tight with his team.  See just how un-tight Ballistic is with his boss, and maybe we can make some inroads.”

“Okay.”

“That won’t be easy, because I get the sense he doesn’t like you, and he’s upset you’ve stepped on his toes here.”

I frowned.

“The second thing?  About the possible murder attempt?”  She asked.

“Just a little worried about that.”

“He only decided it as recently as this morning, so anything he’s set up is going to happen later.”

“And you don’t know how he’s going to approach this, or what he’ll do?”

She shook her head.  “All I know is that Coil’s intending for it to happen tonight, probably related to your job with the mayor.”

“And you’re positive on this?”

“It’s one of those things where everything clicks into place perfectly if we acknowledge this one fact: he wants to kill you.  For example, he has more reasons to send Imp than to send Trickster.”

“How’s that work?”

“I’ve already filled Imp in on this, but Coil’s concerned about Grue’s emotional state and what it means for our team as a whole.”

I nodded.  Which means he wants to remove Imp from the picture to see how Grue handles himself.

“So we’re keeping that on the down-low.  I’m not sure when we’ll be able to do it, but I’ve talked with Imp and Regent, and sort of hinted on the subject with Bitch, and we might be looking at making you our team leader.  At least for a little while.”

I snapped my head around to look at her.

“It makes the most sense.  You have the best grip on who’s in play and how to use our abilities.  You think tactically,” she murmured.

“Why not you?”  I asked.  “You have seniority, you have more experience, you can apparently keep track of Imp, and you can identify our enemy’s weaknesses.”

“I’m not sure I have more experience,” Tattletale admitted, “Or at least, my experience doesn’t count for much.  Robbing software companies and casinos doesn’t really compare to going toe to toe with Mannequin.”

“My other points stand.”

“Just because we’re putting you in charge doesn’t mean I can’t still handle that stuff.  If you want to delegate to me at any point, that’s fine.  It’s just a question of who we turn to when we need a spur of the moment decision.”

“I’m not good at those.  I’m only good when I can plan, consider everything that’s at play.”

“I don’t think you give yourself credit.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, you’re good at improvising.”

“With just me, maybe.  Just my own abilities.  I’m not sure I can do that if I’m also worrying about the four of you.”

“We’ll have to see in the field.  Unless you’re really going to argue Grue’s going to be able to hold his own in a high pressure situation?”

I frowned behind my mask and shook my head.

“Of course, discussing this means nothing if you get killed.  Don’t.”

“Easy as that?  Don’t get killed?”

“You’re going into a tricky situation with the most amoral member and the most versatile member of their group.  Keep an eye on everything and try to be unpredictable so they can’t get you in a trap.”

I just had to figure out how to do that with a job this cut and dry.

“Ballistic’s coming,” Tattletale said.  I looked and saw Ballistic ascending the staircase at the far end of the walkway.  It would take him a minute or three to join us.

“Any final tips before I’m left with him?”

“He’s angry.  Coil’s roped in the Travelers by promising to help them with Noelle, but there’s two snags in that which we may be able to use.  For one thing, I don’t know if Coil seriously intends to offer any fix he does find.  For another, Ballistic cares less about that than anyone else.  Or maybe it would be better to say he almost doesn’t want to help with that because Trickster wants it so badly.”

“That sounds like it’s less about team friction and more about sheer enmity.”

“I think they were really good friends once and now they’re distant.”

Well, it wasn’t like I wasn’t unfamiliar with that idea.

“And,” she said, her voice low, “I can tell you the Noelle thing isn’t the only crisis they’re working on handling.  The focus on Noelle is something of a sore point with Ballistic.”

“Vague.  And I can’t really say anything about that without admitting the info came from you.”

“Yeah,” she said.  Then she straightened, turning toward Ballistic.

“That huddle looked like a conspiracy at work,” he commented.  He looked like he’d based his costume off of the capes of a different era, with only some concessions made to fitting in with his team’s color scheme; a costume in black with red patterns on the fabric, heavy on the armor panels and padding, making a big guy look even bigger.  His mask was square, with holes only for the eyes.  Belts and pouches were strapped across his entire body.

“Conspiracy?  Us?”  Tattletale grinned.

“You were whispering about something.”

“Boys,” she said, winking.

“Hm,” he didn’t look impressed.

“No, we really were talking about boys.  About Grue, specifically, and maybe replacing him as leader.”

“Hey,” I said, before I’d processed why she was saying that.  She wanted to earn some measure of trust by volunteering a secret.

She shrugged.  “They’re going to find out eventually.  We’ll have to trust Ballistic to not go running to Coil to tell on us.”

He folded his arms.  “Putting me in a compromising spot?”

“Sure.  You can handle it,” she told him.  She gave me a pat on the shoulder, “I’m going to see about those drugs for Victor.  Good luck to you two.”

“Tell me,” Ballistic said, as Tattletale strolled off, “Do you ever get past that point where you feel painfully uncomfortable around her?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “You get over that with time.”

I didn’t add that the discomfort he was describing was largely linked to the number of secrets one was trying to keep from her.  It almost went without saying.

“You’re still insisting on coming along?” he asked.  “You know I can handle this on my own.”

“I don’t doubt that.  But I’m kind of wanting to see this place.”

Why?”

“I’m running my own territory.  Maybe there are ideas I can use.  And I want to see how people are coping in other districts.”

“I’d ask ‘why’ again, but I’m not sure I’d get it.”

“If this city doesn’t get condemned, you’re going to have people moving into your district.  Even after the city’s infrastructure is up and running again, those people are going to put pressure on you for certain things.”

“See, you’re approaching this like a medieval lord, managing her serfs and servants and I see this more as being a watchdog.”

I gestured toward the exit, and he sighed.  We began making our way out of the base.

“Do you really want to limit yourself to being a watchdog?”

“When I’m making this much cash?  When even the top guys in this town would run scared from me?  Sure.”  He held the door open for me.

“And that’s all it comes down to?  Cash and being feared?”

“I’m a living gun and my surroundings are nothing but piles of ammunition.  What do you expect?  You don’t think you’re scary?”

“I think you can have money and power, you can be fearsome where necessary, but you can still make a difference at the same time.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it, working your ass off to make some people a little happier and more comfortable before the world ends.”

“You’re one of the people that’s fixated on that, huh?”

“The world’s gonna end.  How can you shrug that off?”

“It might not.”

“Right,” he said, clearly humoring me.

This wasn’t working.  Tattletale had said Ballistic was angry, but I’d taken that to be the same sort of anger that Bitch harbored.  Whatever was going on with Noelle and the group dynamics that had Sundancer so unhappy, it had made Ballistic angry at the world, angry at circumstance.  A different sort of anger, really: he didn’t really care about anything or anyone.

How was I supposed to get through to him if that was the case?

I decided to call him on it.

“Okay, so your only priorities are money and power?  Then why are you so annoyed that I’m coming along?  What does it matter?”

“It’s my business, my territory, and I’m capable of handling her on my own.  It’s insulting that Coil thinks I’d need any help, and it’s rude that you’d volunteer yourself without checking with me first.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Hypothetically, just going by what you were saying earlier, why should I give a damn?  The world’s going to end in a few years anyways.  What does it matter if I get on your bad side?”

“That’s different,” he said, sounding annoyed.

“Why?  Because it’s you that’s getting shortchanged?”

“Because we’re basically coworkers.  If we’re going to have to fight alongside one another, we can’t be worried about this sort of thing.”

“Okay, first of all?  I have a closer working relationship with the people in my territory than I do with any of the Travelers.  If and when you get more people in your territory, you might find that’s the same with you, too.  So I’m not sure I buy that coworker thing.”

“You’re talking apples and oranges.  Capes and non-capes.”

“Fine.”  He’d left an opening for me to target.  “Then I’ll just point to your other ‘coworkers’.  The other Travelers.  There’s obvious friction.  There’s resentment.  Cherish said as much.  So I don’t think you buy the coworker thing either.”

“Again, that’s different.”

“You say that a lot.  Maybe this principle you’re living by isn’t that strong if it can’t hold up to the most basic arguments.  Unless you care to explain why that’s different?”

“You’re grilling me for info on my team.”

“I’m curious what’s going on there, yeah.  But I’m also trying to figure you out.  As you said, we’re coworkers.”

“Weren’t you just debating the coworker thing?”

“Decide if you really believe it, let me know, and I’ll change my argument accordingly,” I said.

He sighed.

“I’m not trying to get on your bad side,” I said.  “Really.  But I’ve dealt with some interesting personalities like Bitch, Regent and Imp for a little while now, and I know I won’t be able to communicate with you until I understand where you’re coming from.  So I’m willing to go the extra mile to figure you out now so I can understand you in the future…”

I trailed off, but I kept one eye on him to see if there was any hint that he knew about Coil’s plans to terminate my future.  There was nothing.  I couldn’t see his face, but nothing had changed in his posture, his stride or overall body language.

“You’re not going to stop digging and get off my case here, huh?”  He asked.

I was mentally categorizing him as very similar to Bitch in many respects.  He was smarter, though, and the weapons he wielded in a discussion were less about threatening imminent harm than, what?  Setting himself further apart from me?  Breaking ties, categorizing me as an enemy in his head and making dealing with him harder in the future?

It would explain why there was a schism between him and the other members of his group.

“If you ask me to?  I’ll back off.  But…” I made the call on the spur of the moment, as I might with Bitch if I were positive she wasn’t about to hit me.  “I think you and I would both agree that you’d be admitting I’m right if you did.”

“That’s dirty.”

“Sure.”

“So what do you want to know, then?  Shall I divulge my deepest, darkest secrets?”

“I’ll settle for knowing why you’re all so angry at Trickster, why you specifically are angry at him.”

“Nope.  Can’t say.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Won’t.  We made a deal, and that deal means we’ve kept some stuff from Coil, even.  I’m not about to tell you.”

“I don’t need to know specifics.”

“You don’t need to know the general details, either.”

“Not really.  But maybe you need to tell me?  One of your teammates said they were awfully lonely, and they’re closer with the rest of the team than you are.  Maybe you’re lonely too, nobody to vent to?”

“I’m a guy.  We don’t do the whole emotional sharing thing.  You trying to channel Tattletale here?  Why are you so intent on getting the details, here?  This isn’t just curiosity or wanting to know your coworkers.”

Because so much hinges on my ability to get you on board against Coil.

I didn’t have a good response, so I fell silent.  We continued walking down the streets towards the crater-lake, our footsteps sloshing in the shallow water.

“He took everything from us,” Ballistic said, breaking the silence.

“Trickster?”

“Trickster.  When everything started falling apart, he stepped up to make the calls.  Bad ones.  And now the group is all we have left.  No friends, no family, no home to go back to, no goals beyond fixing Trickster’s fuckups.”

I was thinking of how it had come out that Sundancer was reluctant to use her powers because of the damage she’d done in the past.  Civilian deaths?  Had they included their own families?  Had Noelle been included in that?

It might explain why they were so gun-shy about using their powers to their fullest potential and why they’d been so insistent on keeping Noelle locked up when we were up against the Nine.

He went on, “The others might hate Trickster but they still respect him.  Or they don’t respect him but they don’t hate him either.  Probably more the former than the latter.  But I don’t have any love for the guy, I don’t have any respect for him either, and I seem to be alone in that.”

“So where do you go from there?”

“Now we’re back to square one.  I already explained.  Money, being feared, respect and living in comfort as a badass watchdog.”

“All that stuff about hating him, blaming him for ruining your life, and you don’t want any revenge on him?” I asked, as casually as I could manage.

“No.  I’m with the group for one reason.  I stick with shit.  Not going to turn on the guy.  I agreed to this thing with Coil because I thought it’d be a way to get back some of what we’ve lost, maybe.  But all I see is my teammates getting all starry-eyed with hope while Coil feeds us empty promises.  Saying Tattletale will find an answer, or he’ll make a request to some major scientists in parahuman study.  And of course there’s no answers.”

“There could be.”

“Nah.  Why would he give us what we want if it means losing our services?  But I don’t really care anymore.  I made a deal with Coil and I’ll stick that through until I have a good reason not to.  Way I figure it, fuck my team, fuck Coil, but it’s not worth confronting anyone over if it means I’m wasting the remaining two years of my life trying to get another gig this cushy.”

“That seems kind of claustrophobic, setting those restrictions on yourself, letting things with your team drop by the wayside.  Being all alone?”

“Won’t be alone.  Figure I’ve got enough cash and respect I can get groupies.  That’ll do for the next couple of years.  Unless you’re going to argue there’s some point to a committed, long term relationship when there’s no long term?”

I sighed.  There was no point in continuing this.  I could tell that Ballistic wasn’t going to budge, and I didn’t have a ‘good reason’ to convince him to join us.

We crossed several city blocks in silence.  When we’d reached the lake Leviathan had created downtown, we began to walk around to the north end to Dolltown.

“So how are we doing this?  Attack strategy?”  Ballistic asked.

“Any chance you’ll let me make the first move?”

“And take all the credit?”  His voice hardened.

“I’ll let you take half the credit if I’m successful.  You can take all the credit if I fail.”

“Nope.”

“What?”

“I get what you’re doing.  You want to make us Travelers look bad.  Get yourself a bigger slice of the pie somewhere down the road.  More respect, more power, and you’re doing that by wedging yourself into everything, getting hyperinvolved.  Gotta be in first place.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Right.  Then explain why you’re going overboard with your territory.”

“I’m getting the job done, taking care of my people.”

“Nah.  It’s more than that.  There’s something driving you to work that hard.  You’re looking to supplant us.”

He’d stopped walking.  I paused and turned to face him.

He chuckled lightly, “I don’t blame you for it.  I mean, it’s pretty scummy, when we’re supposed to be working together, but I get that you want to be on top.”

“We are working together.”

“I may be taller and in better shape than average, but I’m not dumb.  You think I didn’t catch the wedge you were trying to drive into our team?  Sounding me out for any hard feelings I might have for the others?”

Shit.  This sort of thing was Tattletale’s field, not mine.  Now it was going south fast, and I could imagine how this would explode in my face.

I cleared my throat a little and clarified, “I was sounding you out because it was clear you did have hard feelings for the other members of your team, and I wanted to give you a chance to talk about it.”

“Ah, so the creepy bug girl is really a softie in the end,” his voice was laced with sarcasm.  “No ulterior motives at all.”

“Whatever,” I said.  “Nevermind.”

“So fuck you,” he said.  “No, I’m not giving you first dibs on this doll woman.  Second I see her, I’m taking her out of action and making it a hundred percent clear it was all my doing.  You’ll get what you wanted, which you said was to see the territory, and I get what I want, which is to finish up my territory so I can kick back.”

This wasn’t how I wanted things to go on any level.  I could have groaned in frustration.  Instead, I sent out a command to my bugs and took a deep breath.

“Okay,” I told him.

“Yeah?”

“But I think I’ll stay out of the line of fire.  I get the impression I offended you, so maybe we give each other some breathing room?  Avoid getting shot?”

“I wouldn’t jeopardize the setup I’ve got with Coil for that.  But maybe it’s best you do stay out of the way.”

I nodded and turned to go.

Okay, so no mole inside the Travelers.

I could still hope to achieve something here.

Using my bugs, I tracked Parian’s movements within Dolltown.  She was moving quickly, joined by a small collection of people.  Many were shrouded in cloth, leaving me to guess if they were real people or something new she’d done with her creations.

I drew out directions with my bugs, guiding her away from Ballistic.  She didn’t listen at first, but that changed when Ballistic fired off his first attack, creating a deafening crash.  From the sound of it, he’d done something to send a car flying into a building.  A moment later, he did it again.  I walked faster.  I could call Atlas to me, but I didn’t want to get spotted in the air.

Dolltown was ugly.  It had been hit hard by the Nine and the fight between them and Hookwolf’s army.  There were scars on the buildings where Hookwolf had struck, holes and marks in the wall where Purity had fired her beams.  Menja had done some damage here and there, with some handprints marking various pieces of architecture where her gauntlets had bit into stone and metal.

I pushed open a doorway and stepped into a ruined building.  Parian faced me.  Her mask had a crack in it, and there was blood staining her worn frock.  She was surrounded by a half-dozen of her remaining people, each of whom wore masks and costumes.  A life-size doll, a man who was wrapped in fabric to the point that he looked something like a mummy, a little girl in a skintight suit of flannel with holes cut out for the eyes, one blue and one green.

Did Parian have capes working for her?  Or-

No.

They were the people Bonesaw had done surgery on.  The ones she’d altered to look like members of the Nine.  They were covering the faces and bodies Bonesaw had given them.

“What do you want?”  Parian asked.

“To negotiate,” I said.

“Your buddy isn’t too interested in negotiating, by the sounds of it,” she said.  She flinched as another crash sounded somewhere nearby.

“I took a gamble here, warning you about him.  He wanted to hurt you, make you into an example.  I don’t operate that way.”

“Don’t think I can trust you on that.”

“You’ll have to.  Because I’ve gone around Ballistic’s back, I’m kind of counting on you hearing me out, because if I fail here, it’s going to fuck up things with this alliance my team has with the Travelers.”  And with Coil.

She glanced around.  I could sense someone moving nearby.  One of her people, sneaking up behind me.  No gun, a light search with my bugs told me, and more of the same cloth costume the other Dolltown residents were wearing.  I ignored my potential assailant.  I could handle an attack from a knife.  I’d just need to be on guard in case they aimed to club me over the head.

“I know about the person that’s circling around to ambush me,” I said.  “Can we just talk, without someone trying to hurt me?”

“What are you wanting to talk about, then?”

“You got dealt a raw hand.  The Nine targeted you, like they targeted some people I care about.  People I love.  That’s not fair.  So I was thinking, I’ve got a lot of money.  I have access to resources.  I know it’s not much, it’s not really enough, but maybe we could get doctors for your friends and family.  Fix what’s been done to them.”

“And what would you want in exchange?”

“Join my team,” I said.  “I-”

“No.”

Listen,” I hissed the word, “It’s the best way to guarantee safety for everyone here.  It gets Ballistic off your back.  Even if you avoid him today, he’s going to level half of Dolltown, and he’ll come back tomorrow to level the other half.  Everything else would stay the same, you’d have the same freedoms, only we’d supply you with everything you need.  Not just rice and fresh water, but good food.  Medical care.  Proper shelter.  All you need to offer is lip service and we can fix so many of the things that have gone wrong here.”

The person behind me stepped closer.  I turned to keep an eye on her and she lunged in that same instant.

Three spikes of metal were sticking out from between her fingers, like improvised brass knuckles.  When she punched them into my shoulder, they went straight through my costume, piercing through the bone as though they were hot knives and I were nothing but soft butter.  She swept my feet from under me and pushed me to the ground.

“The lady said no,” Flechette told me, one hand holding me down, the other hand raised to strike me again.

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Colony 15.4

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Sundancer had once described her life in costume as intense, violent and lonely.  I’d had a hard time understanding the last point.  That had been about the same time that I had been riding the high of having friends for the first time, after a couple of years spent in almost total solitude.

Maybe, if the subject had come up again in recent weeks, I might have understood, nodding my head in sympathy.

Powers raised us above the common people.  It was maybe arrogant to think that way, to say I was better than the likes of Sierra, Charlotte or my father, but I sort of was.  I had all the potential they did and then more.

Even if I looked at how powers elevated us, though, I had to admit we weren’t raised to the same level.  We weren’t all raised up together.  If anything, the powers drove us apart: our trigger events, our reasons for wanting to use our powers, the agendas and missions we took upon ourselves, and even how those powers made us think and operate in different ways… they put barriers between ourselves and others.  I just had to think of Panacea or Bitch, and I had some damn good examples of that.

I couldn’t think of two capes who were in a committed relationship where there wasn’t some degree of fucked-up-ness.  Night and Fog were, if I’d understood Tattletale right, essentially functional sociopaths.  They’d acted out the role of a married couple with none of the affection or fondness.  Victor and Othala were screwed up in a different way, burdened by a shared event in their past.  Brandish and Flashbang?  If their kids were any indication… yeah.  Fucked up.

It was no small wonder we were all so fucked up.  It was the human condition, to need a supporting hand now and again, and yet we could barely help ourselves, let alone each other.

Worse, if by some small miracle two capes managed to find comfort and support in each other, there was no guarantee that those other two points that Sundancer had raised wouldn’t ruin things.  The intensity of our lifestyle and the sheer violence.  Lady Photon had lost her husband in the Leviathan fight.  Glory Girl had, if the magazines and papers were any indication, maintained an on-and-off relationship with Gallant.  He’d died too.

So this?  Lying here beside Brian?  It was sort of bittersweet, with maybe a 60-40 split on the sweet vs. the bitter.

I couldn’t see Brian’s face without raising my head, and I didn’t want to do that and risk waking him.  I’d left my glasses on the table with the knife and gun, so I couldn’t see that well anyways.  I settled for studying the fabric of his sleeveless shirt, the nubs of lint, the weave of the textile, and how it shifted with the slow, deep and rhythmic breaths he was taking.  I could smell his sweat, with the faint traces of his deodorant beneath.  It was funny, because when we’d settled in, I hadn’t been able to smell anything.

I felt warm in the core of my chest.  That wasn’t just the morning light streaming in through the windows.

Not happy, exactly.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, not with the responsibilities I wasn’t attending to right now, not with the mistakes I’d made and the people I’d failed.

But I could convince myself that this was something I should be doing.  It was one of the tasks that I had to tend to, no matter how the coming days and weeks unfolded, and we’d settled on making those tasks a priority.  We had to support Grue if we wanted him around to help us when everything started going down.

I wouldn’t rest any hopes on this, not with the way every other parahuman relationship seemed to go.  I’d take these individual moments for what they were.

All of which amounted to a pile of excuses and rationalizations I was layering on top of one another, trying to convince myself this wouldn’t end disastrously, that I wasn’t being irresponsible or that I wasn’t going to regret this on a hundred different levels.  It was enough that I could feel at peace, here.

Mostly at peace.  I had to pee, and yet I didn’t want to move and disturb him.

Nothing was easy, it seemed.

My body won out over my willpower, and I decided to extricate myself.  I didn’t even try to get to my feet, instead easing myself down to the ground as I unwrapped myself from Brian as slowly as I could.

Once I’d disentangled myself from Brian and the couch, I grabbed my glasses, knife, cellphone and gun and rushed to the washroom.

The cell phone rang while I was on the toilet.  Tattletale.  For Brian’s sake and my own sense of decency, I refused the call and texted her instead:

What’s up?

She replied soon after:

R is done.  Bird in the pen 4 now.  C wants a meeting neways.  Get G I and come 4 11am?

So it was time to see if Brian could glean anything from Victor’s power.  I responded:

G sleeping.  Don’t want to wake him.

I could guess her reply before it appeared:

hate to break u 2 lovebirds up but we r tight on time and C is impatient

I texted her an a-ok before hanging up and putting the phone away.

The kitchen had been cleaned up, but my bugs hadn’t alerted me to anyone coming in.  Had Aisha returned and used her power to stay quiet?

I decided to assume she had and began preparing breakfast for three people.

If I had to rouse Brian, I’d do it with the smells of bacon, coffee and toast.  It was as inoffensive a method as I could think of.

Aisha woke up before Brian did, venturing downstairs in a long t-shirt.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” I said, quiet.  I could remember her reaction the last time I’d been talking to Brian, and added, “And for not getting upset.”

“I can’t help him, don’t know how.  So I’m putting it in your hands.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me.  If you screw this up, I can and will make your life a living hell.”

I frowned.  “Honestly?  That’s not very fair.  I think I probably will screw up along the way.  This isn’t going to be smooth sailing, whatever happens.  So maybe it’d be better if you just trust that I’m going into this with the best intentions for him.”

She plucked a piece of bacon from a plate and popped it into her mouth.  “Maybe.  But no. Don’t fuck this up.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.  It’s the little things, convincing someone they’re going crazy, nothing they put down is where they left it.  Things go missing.  Furniture gets moved.  Then it gets more serious, they find the stash of drugs they were supposed to barter for stuff is missing-”

“I don’t have any drugs,” I told her.

“Talking hy-po-theticals.  I get them in trouble with people they know.  Then they have little injures they can’t remember getting.  Splinters under their fingernails, papercuts between their fingers or at the corners of their mouths, little cuts on the back of their hands.  That’s usually when they freak out.  They run, go somewhere else, and it stops, just a little while.  Until it comes again, twice as bad as before.  They snap.  Then I leave them a message telling them that it all stops when they leave the city.  Put it on their walls in blood or put it on their bathroom mirror in soap so it shows up when the room gets all steamy.  They’re glad.  They’re happy to have a way out.  Except I wouldn’t leave you that note.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brian asked, from behind her.  “And where are you getting that blood?”

Aisha wheeled around, not appearing even half as guilty as she should have.

“I asked Coil’s lieutenant for some.  He asked me how many gallons I wanted.  How weird is that?  I mean, seriously, who needs gallons of blood?  Or maybe I could use it.  Paint someone’s house, see if I can’t freak them out hardcore,” Aisha smiled wickedly.

“Ignore that question.  What were you saying to Taylor, about not giving her a note?”

“It’s fine,” I told him.  “She’s being protective of her big brother.”

Aisha plastered a fake smile on her face.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Brian told Aisha, with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’m dropping this only because Taylor’s sticking up for you.”

Aisha rolled her eyes and began serving herself.

It was nine-thirty.  Assuming it would take us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get to Coil’s place, that left us only about an hour to get ready.  We ate in awkward silence.  Aisha took the first turn in the shower, leaving Brian and me alone once again.

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  We had taken a step forward, but I didn’t exactly have any experience on this front.  What was I supposed to do?  What did I say?  I wanted to hug him, to hold his hand or raise the idea of spending time together later, but I didn’t know what was allowed, or what would be pushing boundaries or taking things too far.

He sat down on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table, and I grabbed a glass of orange juice before sitting down next to him.  Would he put his arm around me, or-

“This thing with Coil.  Do you have a plan?”

Opportunity missed.

I shook my head.  “More like I have a bunch of smaller plans.  Can’t commit to anything, in case things unfold in an unexpected way.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about them.  Plan A?”

“I whip my territory into shape, Coil decides that it’s more valuable to keep me in his service.  The idea is that he values my ability to keep an area stable more than he values having Dinah.  He lets her go.”

“Not likely.”

I frowned.  “I almost gave up on it after Burnscar torched everything.  It isn’t that impossible.”

“Think about what it would mean in terms of security leaks.  If he let Dinah go home to her family, she wouldn’t be able to return to her normal life.  If Coil was dumb enough to let her go with no safeguards and without people to watch her, then the heroes would swoop in on her and use her to get him.”

I nodded, glum.

“And really, can you honestly say that your services are worth the cost of everything you’re taking from Coil in the way of resources, plus the cost of the agents he’d need watching Dinah at all hours?”

“So you think he’ll say no.”

“Tattletale thinks that Coil may be considering dropping you from the team once he has what he needs.”

I turned to look at Brian.  His forehead was creased in a frown.

“You think I’m expendable.”

“To Coil?  Possibly.”

I nodded.

“It’s something to keep in mind,” he said.

“Thing is, I don’t know how that really changes anything.  Should I stop helping the people in my territory?  I’m not going to.  It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it would tip Coil off.”

“I think it was a bad idea to tip him off by making the deal in the first place.  Now he knows you’ve got pretty strong morals.  On a level, anyways.”

I nodded.  On a level.

He went on, “I imagine it’s troublesome to have someone with those sorts of moral concerns that could throw his long-term plan off course.  He might be looking to replace you.”

“And with his power, that might make for a bit of a pinch.”

“His power?”

I paused.  “Tattletale clued me in.  He creates parallel realities.  Makes two different decisions, and he gets to see the outcome of each as they unfold.  Decides which he wants in the end.”

Brian frowned.  “And he’s been doing that with us?”

“Since before I joined the team.  Send us on a job in one reality, keep us back in another.  If we succeed, great.  If we fail… well, nothing lost.  He deletes the reality where he sent us out.”

He rubbed his chin.  I noticed he had stubble.  “So he gets two tries at everything.  Including dealing with any of us who cause him any trouble.”

I nodded.  “Which is why we need to play along for as long as possible.”

“Fair.  What’s your plan B?”

“Plan B… well, it’s not so much a plan as a fallback.  If I get found out before we make any headway, it means fighting Coil and his underlings.”

“The Travelers and Circus included.”

“Tattletale and I have talked about how we might approach that.  The problem is that Coil would be backing them up.  Normally I’d suggest we go on the offensive, so they don’t have time to go after our weaknesses, but with Coil at work, we have to assume that it’s all the more likely that the Travelers would get that one lucky hit off, or that they’d pick the plan of attack that would work out for them.”

“And they’re powerful enough that they’d really only need to get lucky once,” Brian said.  I saw his expression darken.  He was staring off into space.

“Sorry,” I said.  Impulsively, I leaned closer, so my arm and shoulder pressed against his arm.

“Hm?”

“If you want to talk about something else-”

“I want to make sure we come out of this alive.”

“But it’s stressing you out.”

“I’ll manage,” he answered, putting one arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

But he didn’t raise the subject again.  Aisha got out of the shower, he took the next turn, ostensibly to clean up after her.  I took the brief period of quiet to get my stuff in order.  I’d worn my costume under my clothes, the top and dress portion  bound around my waist, beneath the sweatshirt.

Once I was free to use the shower, I pulled off the costume and hung it up.  The steam would help with any wrinkles for the parts that weren’t skintight.

I had to admit to being a little disappointed with the way the morning was unfolding.  Part of that was with myself, not knowing how to act, but part of it was with the lack of romance.  RationallyI knew that the movies, TV, books and all that, they didn’t paint a realistic picture.  I knew that we wouldn’t instantaneously click, that everything would be fixed.

But at the core of it all, I wasn’t a hundred percent rational.

Had to take what I could get.  Last night, cuddling?  It had been nice.  Really nice.

All in all, we were ready to move out well ahead of time.

I wracked my brain, trying to think of things to say.  Everything social or romantic seemed forced or awkward, especially with Imp there.  Everything related to our costumed selves seemed too delicate, fraught with reminders for Brian.

Each time I entered Coil’s headquarters, it seemed like it had transformed.  On our first visit it had been a bare bones setup with piles upon piles of crates, and soldiers congregating wherever there was room.  Our last visit had seen some organization.  Now it had finally taken form.

The interior was divided into two levels.  The lower level sported a cafeteria, a bar, a small computer lab and bunk beds for the soldiers on standby.  Doorways leading to what I suspected were washrooms.  I knew that Coil had squads positioned across the city by now, in quarters not unlike the lairs he had assigned us, if a little more austere.  Anyone who stayed here had the bare necessities.

There was an area with more of a focus on the actual ‘war’ part of soldiering, with men at the ready to hand out the guns and ammunition that were tidily arranged on racks and shelves, a massive laundry room that appeared to be devoted to washing and preparing the uniforms and two more stations for heavier gear and more esoteric stuff like walkie-talkies and explosives.

The upper level was pretty plain, with a metal walkway bridging the gaps to the doorways that were recessed in the concrete walls.  Still, things had been added, including whiteboards with shift schedules and maps very similar to the one I’d seen in Tattletale’s base of operations.

I glanced at one map; our territory had expanded somewhat.  Or maybe it was better to say that the pockets of enemy forces that had lurked at the edges of our territory were collapsing.

Cranston, the blond woman who served as one of Coil’s liasons to us, who was my contact when I needed something, was standing outside the door to the conference room.

“Skitter.  How are you?”

“I’m fine, Ms. Cranston.”

“You’re a bit early.  Can I offer you anything while you wait for Coil to arrive?”

I shook my head.

“Grue?  Imp?”

They refused as well.

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Grue and Imp stepped away to talk to the fat, short man who I took to be their liason.  I stepped over to the railing and watched the scene below.

A group far to my left caught my eye.  I ventured closer.

Trickster, Sundancer, Genesis and Ballistic were gathered around Tattletale, joined by Coil and a blond boy with striking good looks.  I couldn’t really get a good look at it from my vantage point, but the wall jutted out beneath the walkway, and there was a heavy vault door set into the concrete, similar to the ones I’d seen at the shelters.

Noelle.

Tattletale was shaking her head as she talked.  She gestured toward the door.

I could see the Travelers respond to that.  Trickster folding his arms, Sundancer turning away slightly.  Genesis, in her wheelchair, hung her head just a bit, her mop of hair blocking the view.

They weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear.

Tattletale touched the wall, some panel or button system, said something, and then turned away, walking towards the staircase.  The Travelers and Coil followed behind.

“Everything okay?” I asked Tattletale, as she joined me.

“Oh, not really,” she gave me a tight smile.

“Fill me in later?”

“Can’t.  Sworn to secrecy.”

“Uh huh.  You know, for someone who calls herself Tattletale, you’re way too fond of keeping secrets.”

“Believe me, some secrets aren’t so fun to keep.”

I frowned.  What was going on there?

I could only trust that she’d inform us when we weren’t in earshot of Coil and the Travelers.

Bitch and Regent were waiting outside the conference room as we approached.  I gave Bitch a small nod of acknowledgement, and she returned it.  All together, we got seated; Travelers on one side of the table, Undersiders on the other, Coil at the head.

“I understand that things have been hectic since the Nine departed the city.  Communications are difficult to establish, there’s still lasting damage from the Endbringer attack, and everyone has their individual concerns.  Before our focus fell on the Nine and eliminating Jack Slash, I told you to establish your territories and do what you could to effect some sort of control.  As Tattletale may not have all of the necessary information to draw the right conclusions, I’d like each of you to inform us on your progress.”

He gestured to Trickster.

“Putting me on the spot, huh?”  Trickster asked.  “Dunno.  Nobody’s doing business in my neighborhood, and there aren’t any crooks there that the public knows about, but Purity and her people are still hanging around, and I’m waiting on my teammates to wrap up their stuff so they can lend me a hand.”

“Infrastructure, recruitment?” Coil prompted.

“I’ve made a few small steps forward for each of those things.  I offered some of the low-level thugs the option of moving out of the city or serving under me.  Got a half-and-half split of each, more or less.  Enough people to deal product, if you want, or to scare some people.”

“Good.  Sundancer?”

Sundancer had the posture of someone who’d desperately hoped to avoid being called on in class.  “I don’t know.  I’ve been working with the maps Tattletale provided me, but I’m not good at this.  I burn them out of whatever place they’re holed up in, they run, then half the time it’s like they settle somewhere else that’s nearby.”

“You have to scare them more,” Trickster said.

“I burn their houses down.  I don’t know why that’s not scary enough.”

“You’re too soft about it, being too careful to let them know what you’re doing and when, because you don’t want to hurt them and they can tell.”

Coil cleared his throat.  “How far along?”

Sundancer didn’t look happy.  “I dunno.  I’ve maybe cleared out one in four of the local groups?”

“Genesis?” Coil asked.

“Mostly clear,” Genesis replied, leaning forward and putting her elbows on the table, “Not sure how to get anything going in the way of operations.  It’s not exactly heavily populated territory.”

“You’re keeping Noelle company tonight, yes?”

Genesis nodded.

“Then we’ll discuss it then.”

“Okay.”

“And Ballistic?”

“Further along than him,” Ballistic jerked a thumb toward Trickster.  “Nobody doing business in my area, only two capes hanging around.  Got that girl from Dolltown who’s pretty insistent on holding onto her neighborhood, even if pretty much everyone that lived there is dead, now.  It’s the only spot that I haven’t taken over.”

“I see.  And the second cape?”

“There’s a kid from the old Merchants group.  Has powers.  Going to try to scare off the Doll girl and recruit the Merchant kid.”

“You might start with remembering their names,” Genesis pointed out.

“I’m not a cape geek like you.”

“You’re a cape.”

“Parian and Scrub?” I spoke up, hoping to keep them from going off on a tangent.

“Sure.  Sounds right,” Ballistic conceded.

“If you’re dealing with Parian, can I come along?”

“Actually,” Coil said, “I had a request to make of you, Skitter.”

I turned my attention to him.

“After,” he told me.  “Let me get to the main topic of this meeting before I address it.  For now, I’d like to hear how the Undersiders are coming along.”

“Been busy helping everyone else out,” Tattletale admitted.  “Like Trickster, I guess, I’m waiting for others to finish what they’re doing.  I’m pretty solid for business, though.  Bringing in more cash than I’m spending.”

“What’s the business?”  Trickster asked.

“The big one is reclaiming items and homes.  I offer goodies to any people from the shelter willing to band together and scare them off, anything too difficult, I use the mercenaries you provided.  Coil’s hooked me up with some banking services so we can actually make the transactions.  People don’t have a lot of use for money with the way things are right now, and they do have stuff that they value.  Figure a few hundred to a thousand dollars per job, three or four jobs a day, and they’re sort of doing my work for us, dealing with the gang members.”

“With the idea that your teammates will claim the areas at a later date,” Coil said, his voice firm.

“Right.”

“Grue and Imp?”

I saw Grue hesitate.

“Seventy-five percent clear,” Imp said.  “The Chosen and leftover Merchants mainly moved into our territory and Regent’s.  Maybe we’re not a hundred percent done, but when we scare people off, they stay gone.”

“Good.  Can you drive out the remaining threats in the next two days?”

“Got this far in three, don’t see why not.”

“Excellent.  Regent?”

“About the same.  Nobody wants to cross Shatterbird, but lots of people keep popping up, moving in because they’re oblivious that she’s there.  With no radio or TV, they’re clueless.”

“Make it more obvious, then.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch?”

“Nobody left in my territory.”

“No threats?”

“Nobody.”

Coil sighed, “I did tell you that you could run your territory as you wished.  Still, that’s not ideal.  Would you object to a rearrangement of territory?  I would grant you more overall area to control, but it would be limited to the outskirts of the city.”

“So long as it’s mine.”

“Good.  And Skitter?”

I shrugged.  “No threats, nobody’s daring to pop their heads in.”

“Then consider working on rooting out the individuals too afraid to show themselves, before they cause a problem.”

“They’re dealt with,” I said.

“Explain?”

“I’m doing two sweeps through my territory every day.  Only one yesterday, but we were busy dealing with the Chosen.  I’m checking every building for trouble.  If I find contraband, drugs or weapons, I confront the individuals in question.  Past two days, I haven’t had to confront anyone.”

“The only people with weapons are your people, then?”

I nodded.  “I’ve got sixty people working under me, and maybe a hundred more who are working for me in an indirect way, joining the community that’s started on the cleanup projects.  Filling, moving and placing sandbags to control and reroute the flooding, clearing the area Burnscar burned down, and setting up accommodations.”

“Impressive,” Coil said.

I nodded.  “I feel like I’m cheating, though.  My power’s suited to this.”

“It remains impressive.  Let me explain just why I find this of interest, Undersiders, Travelers.  The mayoral elections are in one week.  Before this occurs, I would like to have this city firmly in my control.  It will shift the tone and the aim of the election, which would be to my advantage.  Our advantage.”

“So you’re saying we have less than a week to wrap stuff up in our territory,” Trickster said.

“Yes.  I also have some other issues I would like you to address.  Skitter, Genesis, I trust you’re able to step away from your territories to give me a hand?”

Tattletale leaned forward over the table, looking at me.  I glanced at her, then turned to Coil, “Yes.”

“Sure,” Genesis said.

“And Trickster, if you’re idle while you wait for your teammates to come assist with Purity’s group, I’m sure you can lend your assistance for one night?”

Trickster nodded.

“The mayor and several members of the city council will be traveling to Washington to discuss the state of Brockton Bay and the possibility of condemning the city.  Skitter, Imp, Genesis, I would like you to visit him and ensure he argues towards our ends.  Brockton Bay will stand, and it will recover.”

I nodded slowly.  “Sure.  I think I can do that and still help Ballistic with Parian.”

“I haven’t asked for your help,” Ballistic said.

“Coil’s call,” I responded.

“If Skitter feels she can spare the time, I would be glad to have the extra assurance the job will get done.”

Ballistic folded his arms.  Didn’t look happy at that.

“That’s the last point of discussion.  I will provide anything you need to see your tasks to completion.  If there’s no questions, that will be all.”

After a brief pause to check that nobody wanted to speak, we all stood from our seats.  The Travelers headed out the door and turned a right to go back to where Noelle was sealed up.  Tattletale led our group to the cells where Shatterbird and Victor were.

While we waited for Regent to go and bring Victfor out of his cell, Tattletale stepped close, so she was right next to Grue and me.  She murmured,  “One piece of good news, two pieces of bad news and one spot of catastrophic news.  The good news is that Coil is impressed with you, Skitter.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s what we were hoping for, right?”

“But something tells me we’ve got a major snag.  I’d say odds are pretty fucking good that he’s on to us.”

I felt my heart drop.

“How sure are you?” I asked.

“Not positive, but pretty damn sure.  And I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance one of ours informed him of our aims.”

“A member of the Undersiders?” Grue asked.

“That, or he’s got our places bugged.  But I didn’t get the sense that anyone who built the place or brought our stuff in knew about any electronic bugging.  Like I said, fifty-fifty chance.”

I nodded.  I glanced around, looking at Bitch, Imp, and the door Regent had disappeared through.

“Fuck,” Tattletale swore under her breath.  “I was trying to signal you to say no to Coil’s request, but you weren’t looking at the right moments and I couldn’t exactly tip anyone off.  I’m positive he’s asking you to go on that errand with Genesis and Trickster because he’s planning on eliminating you.”

I felt Grue’s hand squeeze my shoulder.  He’d gone rigid, as if he was more spooked than I was.

“And of course, he knows I know.  So this is a loyalty test, I’m betting.  If you don’t go, I flunk.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“How did it go!?”  Tattletale called out to me before I’d even landed.

I set Atlas down on the ground and hopped off.  “Whatever the fuck they just dropped on the city, it apparently took out Crawler and Mannequin.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tattletale said.  “I think that was Bakuda’s stuff they just used.  What about the other members of the Nine?”

“They’re on the run.  Last I saw, Siberian’s creator looked pretty rough.  Not sure if the spider bites and stings will kill him or if Bonesaw will manage to counteract it.  Depends on whether Legend and the other heroes can keep up the assault long enough to keep Bonesaw from getting to work.”

I could see Bitch react to the mention of Siberian’s creator.  She looked startled, then scowled.

“You found them?”  Tattletale asked.  “Siberian and Legend?”

“Yeah.  Legend told me to scram, in case Bonesaw deploys the threat she’s been holding over our heads, and so I don’t get in the way.  I would have fought to stay, but he’s an intimidating guy to argue with.”

Grue nodded.  “I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  It means we can serve as backup if the heroes lose.”

“And this threat?  Do we know what it is?  Some zombie apocalypse?”  Regent asked.

“No.” Tattletale shook her head.  “She sees herself as an artist.  She’s going to want to do something that catches us off guard, something that scares us in a way that simple horror movie monsters don’t.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sundancer spoke up, “But monsters scare me enough.”

“Says the girl who can vaporize buildings and give Leviathan pause for thought,” Regent said, giving her a sidelong glance.

“Leviathan broke half the bones in my body.  The only reason I’m standing here is Panacea,” Sundancer said, a little defensively.

“You two do raise a point, though,” Tattletale cut in.  “Capes are powerful.  If she wanted to scare the locals, she’s done that.  I’d be willing to bet the ace she has up her sleeve is going to be more aimed at scaring people like us, like Legend.  She wants to terrorize the strongest, target people who everyone looks up to and fears.”

Just us?” I asked.

“She’s shown she knows how to disable powers,” Trickster said.  “If she did that on a larger scale, then-”

“No,” Tattletale shook her head.  “She wouldn’t have used the dust and the darts if that was the big reveal.  It doesn’t make sense tactically, because we could have come up with a way to deal, and Skitter’s partially immune anyways.  And it doesn’t make sense artistically, either.  You have to think of her as less of a scientist or doctor and more of a performer.”

A thirty story skyscraper tipped over and crashed to the ground in the distance.  The rumbling crash of the building’s collapse seemed delayed in getting to us.  I could see Legend, more through the flashes of his lasers than anything else, but everyone else was out of sight, specks I couldn’t have made out if they weren’t on the ground.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to worry about Bonesaw’s plot,” Trickster said.

“Plan for the worst,” Grue replied, staring into the distance, “If you’re right, you’re prepared.  If you’re wrong, you’re pleasantly surprised.”

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

“Can’t plan for this,” I said.  “I’m growing to hate tinkers.  People with enhanced senses and tinkers.  And fire manipulators.  Sorry, Sundancer.”

She shrugged.

I turned back to the subject at hand, “We can’t guess what she’s come up with because her tinker abilities make her so versatile, and that means we can’t preemptively set up any countermeasures.”

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear.  “Fits in a vial, assuming that vial she was showing off was the real weapon, something to do with water, she said… you guys haven’t been drinking anything except bottled water?”

There were head shakes and the occasional muttered “No” from the rest of the group.

“I’ve even been making my tea with it,” I said.

“And we know there’s going to be a strategic purpose behind it, beyond causing terror,” Tattletale went on.

“You’re getting into that headspace again, Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Tunnel vision.”

“Right.  I’m done now,” Tattletale replied.

“Is it such a problem?” Trickster leaned forward, “If you can give us answers about this thing, that’s good, right?”

Tattletale shook her head, “If I’m digging deep enough for answers that I’m losing sight of other things, it means I’m probably speculating, and that tends to mean I’m generating false positives, heading down the wrong path to the wrong conclusions.  I told Grue to stop me if I’m doing it, and Skitter’s right when she says we can’t anticipate what Bonesaw’s going to do, so it’s pointless anyways.”

“If we did want to take countermeasures,” I said, “We should maybe think about tracking down Amy.  Or figuring out where she is.”

“Panacea?”  Grue frowned.  “She didn’t exactly leave us on good terms.”

“I know.  But she can counteract whatever Bonesaw does.”

“Unless she falls victim to it,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “After two bad incidents downtown, I’d lay odds she’s heading up toward the docks.  It gives her the best odds of finding a place that’s empty, where she and Glory Girl can hide out for-”

“Heads up!”

I wasn’t sure who had shouted the warning, but I turned to look in the direction of the fighting, and I instantly knew it was Bonesaw’s work.

The water was turning crimson.  Where it was only one or two inches deep above the pavement, it turned a dark red that resembled blood.  That alone might have been spooky enough, but it was spreading over hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, and there was a thin red mist rising in its wake.

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

I was on top of Atlas in an instant, and in the air a second later.

“How is it spreading so fast!?”  I asked, while the others seated themselves on the two dogs.

“She must have set it up beforehand!”  Tattletale called out.  “Just needed the catalyst!”

She checked to make sure Trickster and Sundancer were seated and had Bentley at an all out run a heartbeat later.  Sirius followed just two steps behind, carrying Grue, Imp, Bitch and Ballistic.  Regent joined me in the air, hanging in a less than dignified way from Shatterbird’s embrace.

I needed only one glance to know they weren’t running fast enough.

“Sundancer!”  I shouted.  “Cut it off!”

It took her three or four seconds to pull an orb together, no larger than a basketball.  It grew to twice the size as it flew, raking across the street to turn the pooled water into clouds of steam.  I rose higher in the air to avoid being caught by the plumes of hot water.  The steam turned from a clean white to pink and eventually red as the effect reached it.

Sundancer’s miniature sun had slowed the progression down our flooded street, but it wasn’t enough.  From my perspective, I could see the water on adjacent streets undergoing the same transformation, moving forward until it was adjacent to the others, then extending forward.  It was a matter of time before it reached far enough forward that it passed through the side alleys and cut them off.

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

Bentley leaped for the side of a building in an alleyway, scrabbled for a hold, then leaped to the building face behind him, attempting the zig-zag movement that the dogs had done so many times before.

Except he wasn’t as agile as the other dogs, and I suspected he wasn’t as practiced at it as Brutus, Judas and Angelica had been.  Added to that, he was carrying a heavy burden.  One of his paws went through a window, he slipped, dug his claws into the wall and shifted to climbing the wall instead.

It was too slow.  The water turned crimson beneath him, and then the vapor began to rise, faster than Bentley was climbing.

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

I massed thick clusters of bugs between them and the vapor, while Regent and Shatterbird followed Sirius and the others.

It was enough to buy them time, but that meant precious little.  No matter how much I pressed the bugs together into an airborne barrier, the vapor made its way through.  Worse, the mist was rising to either side of them, approaching the top of the building.

They reached the rooftop and Bentley heaved himself over the edge.  They hopped off his back as they reached solid ground, and Tattletale stepped over to the corner of the roof to watch the rise of the red vapor.  It was only a floor beneath them.

Trickster pointed at the top of a building nearby, then looked up at me.

I gathered my bugs there, again, pressing them together.  Trickster looked increasingly impatient as the bugs massed, and the vapor reached the edges of the roof.

I hurried over to the building, instead, then hopped off, sending Atlas over to the other rooftop.  Trickster swapped me with Tattletale, and I hopped over to ferry myself to the roof again.

Didn’t trust my ability to use Atlas to carry someone else, when I had to struggle to process his sensory inputs.  Add someone else’s shifting weight and movements, and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t drop them.

I was on the building again when Trickster swapped me for Sundancer.  It left him, myself and Bentley standing on the rooftop.

I was on top of Atlas a second later, flying.  The red mist crept in from the outside edges of the rooftop.  He got on top of Bentley, looking less than comfortable holding the reins, and Tattletale whistled.  It wasn’t as good as Bitch’s whistles, but Bentley perked up and ran, leaping for the side of a nearby building.

He and Trickster reached the second rooftop quickly enough.  The mist was still rising, not just below us, but up around buildings nearly as far as the eye could see.

“Shit,”  Tattletale said.  “Not good.”

“There’s a taller building over there,” I pointed.  “We should head there before the mist gets up here.”

“I’d call it miasma,” Tattletale said.  “And is there really any point?”

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

“What does it do?”  I asked.  “Poison?  Something else?”

“Probably something else.  Or it’s poison, but it’s designed to do something besides kill us.  How are the others doing?”

I looked for Grue and Regent using my swarm sense.  Grue, Bitch, Ballistic and Sirius were on a rooftop lower than us, Regent directly above them.  Cursory exploration with my bugs revealed a glass dome extending around the rooftop.  My bugs could fit through gaps in the glass, which meant the miasma would as well.  I did what I could to block up the holes, and I knew it was useless.

Brian.  Rachel.

“I think they’re caught,” I said.  “I-I don’t know what to do.”

“You have a gun.  You have your bugs.  If the Nine are going to let their guards down, it’s going to be now.  All the ones who are still left are priority targets.  Finish off Siberian and taking Jack and Bonesaw out of action will be doable.”

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at the rising mist.

“No.  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s get you to higher ground.”

“It’s futile.  You’d be buying us a little time, but this is looking pretty inevitable.  Your time is better spent going after the Nine.  If you can’t find them, or if it’s too dangerous, find Panacea.”

“This isn’t negotiable.  I- I can’t do anything for Grue and Rachel and Ballistic, Regent tried and he failed.  Let me do this for you.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Fine.  But you’ll have to hurry.  That’s a lot of distance to cover, and the miasma’s nearly here.”

Trickster cut in, “Gather bugs together like you were doing, remember that they’re not as dense as our bodies are, so we need more than you’d think if I’m going to swap them for one of us.”

I nodded and flew for the tallest building in the area.  I turned around and waited for Trickster to swap me.

He didn’t.  They stood at the roof’s edge, looking my way, and the dark red miasma climbed up the sides of the building around them.

It felt like my heart dropped out of my chest.  Brian, Rachel, now Lisa?

I couldn’t afford to turn around and confront them -time was too short- so I focused on gathering my bugs.  I clustered them together, pressing them into a largish human shape.  How many was enough?

I felt a jarring sensation as Trickster swapped my bugs to his location.  Sundancer appeared beside me.

“Why?”  I asked.

She shook her head, “They didn’t say anything.  They were both really quiet while you flew off, and then Tattletale said ‘It doesn’t look like her plan will work out.  Tell her I’m sorry.’  Trickster teleported me here before I could say anything or ask what she meant.”

“Why isn’t he telporting Tattletale out?  Or himself?  There’s still time for…”  I looked at the cloud.  Not enough time to save both, now.  “He could save one of them, and I could probably get Atlas there and get out of harm’s way before the miasma reached me.”

“His power gets slower with distance and difference in mass,”  Sundancer hugged herself, “Maybe it’s too slow, and he doesn’t think you’d have time to run.  Or-”

“Or.”  I said.  The sentence didn’t deserve to be finished.  There was the other reason.  The notion that he was deliberately avoiding using his power, because he knew I didn’t have the time to get back to them before the miasma reached them.  “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.  When you’ve left, I’ll use my power, and I guess I’ll wait here until-”  she stopped.

Until when?  There was nothing saying this miasma of Bonesaw’s would disappear or settle anytime soon.

“I hate being alone,” Sundancer said.  She settled into a sitting position.  “It’s like, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been on my own.  When I was little, I was always with my mom, or always in school, always in afterschool activities.  Ballet, violin, lyrical dance, voice lessons, acting lessons… never a moment to think for myself.  Even after I stopped all that, I was with my friends.  Always in a group.”

I stared at Tattletale and Trickster.  I couldn’t make out their faces, but my bugs could make out the shapes of sounds that had to be words.  They were having a conversation, just like we were.

“I remember you said it was lonely, being in the Travelers.”

“It was.  It is.  But I was still with them.  Part of the group.  The time I’ve spent in my territory is the longest I’ve spent on my own.  Actually managing the territory, scaring off Hookwolf’s people, that was easy.  Being all on my own was unfamiliar ground.  Soul crushing.  I wound up going back to Coil’s base and spending time with Noelle and Oliver.  But being alone, agonizing over everything that’s been going on, no distractions…”

The miasma had reached the rooftop where Tattletale and Trickster stood.  Trickster was pacing, while Tattletale stood with her back to me, her hand rubbing Bentley’s blunted snout.

It took only a few seconds for the mist to close in around them.  There was no immediate reaction.  The two teenagers and the dog simply stood, silhouettes in a stirring cloud of vapor that ranged from ruby-red to crimson in shade.

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

“And now I’m alone,” Sundancer said.  “You’re going to go after the Nine, and I’ll wait here, all on my own, going crazy as I wait and watch and see just what happens to them.”

“If I’ve picked up on anything over the last few months of wearing a costume, it’s that humans are stronger than you’d expect,” I said.  It was as much to myself as to Sundancer.  “We can endure a hell of a lot of punishment before we break, and even after we’re broken, we tend to keep on going.  Could be physical punishment: getting stabbed, getting scarred, broken bones.  Could be mental: losing a loved one, being tortured, even the way I feel like breaking down and crying over the fact that just about every other member of my team is probably fucked, but I’m holding myself together?  Humans can put up with a hell of a lot.”

“I don’t think this is the right time for optimism,” Sundancer said, bitter.

“Optimism?”  I shook my head.  “No.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If we weren’t so resilient, so tenacious as a species, I don’t think we’d be having this much trouble with Jack.  I don’t think Mannequin or Siberian would even exist like they do now.  I’d almost call it pessimistic.  Almost.”

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

I left, taking off and heading for the spot I’d left Legend.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see Sundancer creating her orb and bringing it down on top of herself.  As it had done back during our fight with Lung, it didn’t burn the area directly around her.

And Tattletale and Trickster… were still standing in the midst of the miasma.  They weren’t reacting or doing anything, but they weren’t signalling for me to come back, either, and they weren’t hopping on top of Bentley to rejoin the action.

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

I consoled myself with the bittersweet idea that Bonesaw would want to draw this out.  It wouldn’t be as simple as murdering my teammates.  It wasn’t exactly reassuring, especially when I thought back to what had happened to Brian, but it gave me hope that this wasn’t the last time I’d see my teammates.  My friends.

I rose higher as I approached the epicenter of the miasma.  It had continued to rise, and the place she’d used the catalyst was the place where the vapor had spread the most.  I could see how it was threaded through the streets like veins, surrounding buildings in a crimson embrace, spilling out into the ocean.

The water of the bay, I noticed, hadn’t changed.  Was the salt killing whatever organisms she’d designed to spread this effect?

There were areas of high ground where the effect was diminished or gone.  There were hills here and there where the area hadn’t flooded and miasma wasn’t reaching so far into those spots.  Hopefully that meant the civilians wouldn’t be so affected; the high ground where flooding wasn’t an issue would also be the place where people congregated for shelter.

A series of bright flashes caught my attention.  Between the distance and the cloud of red vapor, I could only barely make him out, but the staccato lasers let me identify him as Legend.  He was fighting.

I sent my bugs down into the miasma, drawing them together into a swarm and placing them strategically, painting a mental picture of the area, the layout, and the positions of the combatants.

Just to be safe, I drew closer to a rooftop.  It wasn’t safe to land, but I had hopes the building would offer me some cover against Jack.  I held the bulk of my swarm at bay, waiting for the moment I could assist Legend in fighting the Nine.

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

Legend was shooting at teammates.  He shouted something, but neither my ears nor my bugs were able to pick out the words.

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

No.  I could sense others hiding.  In fact, it seemed to be the primary concern of the people in the miasma.  Hiding, staying out of trouble, putting distance between themselves and the others.  Even Legend was pulling his punches.  His lasers were nonlethal, as far as I could see.

Paranoia?

Weld, who I identified by his lack of a costume and the metal growths on his shoulders, was standing with his back to a wall.  His hands were blunt weapons, and he was swinging them through the air to threaten anyone who approached.  A small figure who could only be Vista was backing away from two adults.  She got too close to Legend, and he fired a spray of laser blasts at her.  None hurt her or penetrated her costume, but she staggered and fell.

I could sense the ground bulge, spearing up in a pillar.  As the ground beneath them stretched in the pillar’s vicinity, others staggered or got disoriented.  At the pillar’s top, a roughed-up Vista bent the growth she’d created to place herself close to the rooftop and hopped down onto solid ground.  She coughed.

Okay, at least she wasn’t someone who could kill me if this went the wrong way.  I called out, “Vista!”

She whirled on the spot to look at me, then swiftly began backing away.

I raised my hands to show her I meant no harm, “Hold on!  I’m safe!”

“That’s just what they would say!”  She retorted.

They?

“Who?  The Nine?  In what universe would I be a member of the Nine?”

“Shut up!  Don’t try to convince me!  Just… just back off!  Leave me alone until all this stops!”

She was breathing so hard I could see her shoulders rising and falling through the protective suit she wore.

A thought struck me.  It was working through the suit?  The mask had to have filters for smoke, why hadn’t it worked against this miasma?

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

She used her power, extending the pillar she had used to ascend to the rooftop.  It missed me by a wide margin, but the threat was clear enough.

I regretted it the instant I did it, but I moved forward to avoid any further movements from the shaft of asphalt.  If I was going to fall, I wanted to land on the roof, instead of the alleyway a dozen stories below.

“No!”  The word was as much a scream as anything else.  She extended the shaft well over my head and then pinched it off so the top part fell.

I’d seen her fight Leviathan, and she’d done the same thing then, if on a somewhat bigger scale.  I had Atlas carry me out of the way and watched the teardrop shaped piece of asphalt crash to the floor of the alley.

That, apparently, was enough to get Legend’s attention.  He rose from the street level and surveyed the scene.  He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn.  His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.

“Legend,” I started.  How was I supposed to address him when he was like this?  When I didn’t even know what was going on with them?

Not that it mattered.  He raised one hand in my direction, and I veered away, taking evasive maneuvers.  It missed me by a foot, circled around and struck me off of Atlas before I could cancel out his momentum and change direction.

Legend had clearly set his lasers to ‘stun’, but it still hurt.  Hitting the rooftop hurt more.  I could feel a piece of armor crack beneath my weight, hear my things spilling to the ground.

I coughed out half a lungful of air and involuntarily sucked in another breath to cough again.  It was humid, tasting slightly off, almost stagnant.

When I opened my eyes, I was seeing red, and not in the metaphorical sense.  I was in the midst of the miasma.

Still coughing, I struggled to my feet.  The back compartment of my armor had cracked as my weight had come down on the lip of the roof.  My weapons, the epipens, the cell phone and the changepurse lay on the ground.

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

If I hadn’t still been reeling from my fall, I might have been able to avoid it.  As it was, the section of rooftop behind me bulged up into a wall and then folded down over on top of me.  It bent to accommodate my shape rather than crush me, leaving only my head and shoulders sticking out.

“If you try that trick on me, little girl, I’ll shoot you,” I heard the threat from the air above us.

This was going south, fast.

“I’m going to turn my back and run,” she responded.  “If you try shooting me in the back, I’ll show you what I can really do.”

There was anger in the threat that caught me off guard.  Was it this miasma that had pushed her to that level of anger?  I wasn’t feeling anything like that.  Had something about the way he had talked provoked her?  Or was that the norm for her?

I tried to think back to my prior experiences with her and found nothing.

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

I did a series of multiplication, addition and subtraction in my head and found no problems on that front.  Not general brain damage, apparently.

Amnesia?

My name is Skitter, I thought, Taylor Anne Hebert.  Sixteen.  Born in Brockton Bay.  Student at Winslow High.  Ex-student.  Member of the Undersiders.

No problems on that front.

My line of thought continued absently, as if I wanted to reassure myself that I was mentally intact.  My parents are Dan Hebert and Annette Rose Hebert.

I struggled, wiggling to try and free myself from the hump of solid concrete.  I could inch myself out.

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

I could have been hit by five more of those laser blasts on ‘stun’ and it wouldn’t have hit me as hard as the realization that I couldn’t remember my mother.  Couldn’t remember her face, the details, her mannerisms.  Even the happy memories we’d shared, the little moments I’d clung to over the past two years, they were gone.  There was only an empty void where they should have been.

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

The other Undersiders, their faces, their costumes, their personalities and mannerisms, all gone.  I could remember what we’d done: the bank robbery, fighting Purity’s group, lazing around in the old loft, even the general progression of events from the moment I’d met them.  But the people were blanks waiting to be filled in, and I couldn’t go from thinking about one name to thinking about the events that were related to it.

I felt a rising panic as I struggled to work myself free.  I didn’t know the people who were on the rooftop with me: the man who floated in the air, wearing a sturdy hazmat-style firesuit and a blue and silver mask that left only his mouth, chin and wavy brown hair exposed.  I couldn’t recognize the girl he was shooting in the back.  I saw her fall face first and writhe with pain.  He shot her two more times, and she went limp.  Out cold.

I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.  If I didn’t have the benefit of being able to remember my actions over the past few minutes, it would have been impossible to say whether the two people here were allies or enemies.

Everything suddenly made sense.  The infighting, the tactics they were using, the mixture of hostility and paranoia.  Legend was attacking with nonlethal blasts because he couldn’t be sure if he was attacking a teammate or one of the Nine, so he was striving to take everyone out of action with as little permanent damage as possible.

Sundancer’s worries about being alone struck me.  We were all alone, now.  Every single one of us.  From teams to individuals, everyone was fending for themselves because they couldn’t afford to trust the others.

And it would ruin us.

It would be impossible to mount any kind of defense against the Nine if we were fighting them as individuals.

The man with the blue and silver mask floated over to where I was, ready to dispatch me, to knock me out, just in case I was a threat.

“Help?”  I called out.  It was a spur of the moment response.  My mind raced as I tried to form a plan.  Even a bad one would serve.  I lied, “I’m stuck.  Break me out?”

I stared up at him.  His face was riddled with conflicting emotions, his body language tense.  There was a nervousness there that belied simple amnesia.

We’d been warned about drinking the city’s water.  It might mean the effects were more pronounced for the people who hadn’t been informed.  Or there might be side effects.

“Stay,” he ordered.

He stayed at the level of the rooftop as he floated out above the street, aiming more blasts at the others.

This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him.  That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.

I waited for long minutes as he continued firing down on the others.  He cast me one sidelong glance, then flew off in pursuit of someone I couldn’t see.

Even after I was able to start wiggling myself free, it was slow.  I measured my progress in half-inches.  My chest, small as it was, proved an issue.  Coupled with the armor at my front and the remains of the armor at my back, it made getting free an issue.  Several times, I stopped breathing for a good minute before I forced myself back under the concrete sheet to be able to breathe again, then I did it again.  As much through the wear and tear on my armor as anything else, I managed to slide my upper body out on the fifth attempt.  I took a second to breathe and rest, and then began the slow process of getting my midsection and hips past the mouth of the concrete shelf.

I directed every curse word I knew at the belt and armor panels I’d placed around my hips as I tried to work myself free.  My hips and rear end were proving as difficult as my chest had been, and with my upper body being further away, I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.  Minutes passed as I grunted and struggled.  I could hear inarticulate screams, shouted threats, screamed warnings and the noise of destruction on the street below as paranoia gave way to violence.  I brought Atlas to my side, but even with his strength and his horn, he wasn’t strong enough to affect the concrete.  I used his help to squeeze myself out, bracing his horn against the lip of the concrete sheet and pulling.

When I was free, I gathered my knife, baton and gun from where they had fallen and fit them into the few remaining elastic loops in my ruined utility compartment.  Cell phone was a yes, but I didn’t have a spot for it, so I tucked it in the chest compartment of my armor.  Similarly, I stuck the epipens and changepurse through the space between my hip and the belt, wedging them in next to the straps.

I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.

There was destruction below, and signs of the mad fighting between capes.  Sheets of paper frozen in time, a mailbox destroyed, a light-post toppled, all still in the midst of the red water.  Everyone had fled or been knocked out of commission.  The fighting had migrated to several scattered spots nearby.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I focused on helping the wounded, making sure they were okay.  I turned an unconscious girl over into the recovery position, and started to drag a wounded man out of the middle of the road.  I stopped when he started struggling and fighting with me and just left him there.

I felt lost.  Was I helping the enemy when I was propping someone up to make sure they didn’t choke on their own vomit or drown in a puddle?  If I used the plastic cuffs I had in the changepurse, would I be tying someone up, leaving them helpless against one of the Nine?

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

I was alone here.  Everyone in the world was a stranger.

Vibrations rocked the street.  I saw the wounded man stir in response.

A monster.  Bigger than a car, fangs, teeth, claws, and a thorny exterior.  It didn’t act like it had seen me.

One of Bitch’s dogs?  Or is it Crawler?

If it was Crawler, and I acted like he was friendly, he’d tear me to shreds.  I could draw my gun to threaten him, defend myself… except that wouldn’t do a thing to slow Crawler down.

If it was one of Bitch’s dogs sans rider, then there was little point in staying.  I didn’t even know if it was suffering from the miasma’s effect.  If it was Crawler…

I drew my bugs around me as a shroud, simultaneously forming decoy swarms.  I ran, my footsteps splashing, and called Atlas to me.  The second I was out of sight, I climbed on top of him and took to the air once again.

Couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stop.  I had to treat everyone I met as an enemy.

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

The smile dropped from her face.  She brought both hands to her mouth as she shouted, “It’s me!  Tattletale!”

I hesitated.

How tragic would it be if I shot my friend, so soon after I’d wanted to scream at the heroes for fighting among one another?

“How did you get here?”

“On the dog.  I don’t remember its name, but it wasn’t as affected as we were.  This effect is tailored for people.”

I looked in the direction of the creature I’d seen.  Had that been the dog they’d come on?

I drew closer, but I kept the gun aimed at her.  I glanced around.  “Where are the others?”

“Most are hiding,” she said.  “My powers kind of let me work around this gas, I think.  I brought Grue, too.”

I looked around.  What she was saying felt right, even if I couldn’t remember her powers, specifically.  “What is this?  Amnesia?”

Agnosia.  We haven’t forgotten.  Just… can’t use the knowledge we have.  Looking at the others, I think they’re hallucinating.  If it’s prions, like Bonesaw used with the power nullification darts, it fits.  Hallucinations would match with heavy prion exposure.”

“Prions?”

“They’re small enough to pass through water filtration and gas masks.  Badly folded proteins that force other proteins into identical shapes, perpetuating the problem.  If she found a way to guide them, or specifically target the parts of the brain she wanted, she might get results like we’re experiencing.  In a really bad case, it’d cause lesions in the brain and give you hallucinations.”

I looked around.  “How long does it last?”

“Forever.  It’s incurable and it’s terminal.”

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

She nodded, then smiled wide.  “There’s hope, right?”

“Right.”

She jerked her head to one side, then used one hand to brush the hair back out of her face.  “Let’s grab Grue and formulate a plan.”

She turned to leave, but I stayed where I was.  After three steps, she turned around.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t lower the gun.  “Sorry, a little paranoid.”

She frowned.  “That’s fair, but we’re short on time.  If others are getting lesions on their brain, then that means they could die soon.  Seizures, violent mood swings, loss of motor control…  Creutzfeldt-Jakob was a prion disease, but the progression here’s faster.”

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

“Neurological disorder caused by eating the meat of a cow infected with mad cow disease.  You get the prions in your head, and you slowly die while suffering personality changes, memory loss and vivid hallucinations.”

“And it’s faster here.”

She nodded.  Her expression was solemn.  “Hours instead of weeks.  And as people experience mood shifts with anger and fear, or if the hallucinations get worse-”

“The fighting among teammates will, too,” I finished.  “It could get ugly.”

“If we’re going to save everyone, we need Amy.  For that, we need to ask Cherish.”

I shook my head.  “Who?”

“Um.  You remember capturing a member of the Nine?”

Did I?  We’d ambushed them, walked away with captives, yes.  But we’d lost someone too.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

I nodded.  This was working.  I could piece together the information.  We’d called that person on a phone, hadn’t we?  “Cell phones aren’t working consistently.”

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

He stepped out from around the corner to stand by the blond girl.  “This is Skitter?”

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

I didn’t recognize him any more than he recognized me.  I kept the gun trained on them.

“This is slowing us down.  What’s it going to take to get you to trust me?” she asked.

What would it take?

“The fight with Empire Eighty-Eight’s mooks.  When I made the human-shaped tower of bugs for the first time, and they shot into it while I crouched inside…”

She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

How many people had I been with, then?  I would have said one, but I felt like someone else was involved.  Had they arrived late?  I could remember hurrying off.

She spread her arms wide.  “I’m sorry.  I might not look like it, but it’s affecting me too.  I’m just using my power to uncover the answers we need.”

I nodded.  That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.  It was like two blind people playing hide and seek.

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

“You can keep the gun.  I’ll keep my hands above my head.  Grue, stand back.”

He stepped away and leaned against a wall, his arms folded.

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

She got on her knees, and with her hands above her head, she walked through the flooded street on her knees until her forehead was pressed against the barrel of the gun.

“I trust you.  I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know we’ve had our ups and downs.  I know I’ve kept way too many secrets for someone who calls herself Tattletale…” She smiled. “But I trust you.  Now, even if you don’t recognize me consciously, what’s your heart telling you?”

In truth?  It wasn’t telling me much.  If I didn’t think on it, if I just went with the vague impression I associated with the name Tattletale, the smile, the fountain of information…

I backed away a step.  “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to trust you.”

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

“Do you want to go ahead without her?” the guy asked.

I turned to look at him.  The idea of being left alone here-

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

“If the Slaughterhouse Nine find Panacea first, or if things get much worse-”

“I want to help, really,” I said.  “But it’s just that…”

I trailed off.

“You want to help, but you’re suspicious.  And you feel bad for being suspicious, because of everything we’ve been through, our close calls?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was double checking everything he said against my own awareness.  Was he saying anything that indicated he knew something I couldn’t?

“I know how scared and suspicious you feel because I feel the same way.  Except I trust Tattletale.”

“I do too,” I said, “And I’d trust her if I could be sure she was Tattletale.”

“Trust your heart.”

I wanted so desperately for it to be like in the movies, where people could trust your heart.  Where you were holding the gun and you had to choose between shooting the evil clone and shooting your friend, and you just knew.

He gestured around us with one hand. “This doesn’t work.  This is going to lose us the fight, and all the danger we’ve been through in our fight against the Nine will be for nothing if they win here.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t disagree, but that line of thinking isn’t going to make me drop the gun.”

“Then can I try acting from my heart?”  he asked.

Before I could respond, he started approaching me.  I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me.  My forehead pressed against his shoulder.  It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many.  It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy.  But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

He was warm.

Grue?

Then, without waiting for me to give an answer, Grue stepped back, taking hold of my left hand and pulling.  I followed without complaint.  I couldn’t complain.  If I doubted him now, after this-  I’d be ten times as angry at myself as he was with me.

“Priority number one, we get in contact with Cherish,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “From there, we can decide whether we want to track down Panacea or go after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Right,” I said.

“Keep checking your cell phone.  The second we have service, call Coil.”

“Coil is?”

“Our boss, and since he’s hidden away, he won’t be affected, so he’ll be able to place the name and fill us in on the details the agnosia has blocked from us.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the end of the world after all,” Tattletale smiled.

I nodded.  I was acutely aware of the gun in my right hand.  I felt like I should put it away, but with the way we were moving and my general sense of unease, I couldn’t stop and do it.  Hated this.  It reminded me of school.

The reminder made me angry, and it somehow made all of this seem worse.  I muttered, “Sooner we’re fucking cured of this miasma, the better.”

“Hey!”  Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face.  “Don’t swear!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Three places nearby they could have gone,” Tattletale said.  “Two that fit with the direction they were running.  The shelter underneath the central library, and the one near where Scion confronted Leviathan.”

“I remember that one,” I replied.  We were walking at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the bomb site.  The area to our left still burned, and Sundancer was in the lead, clearing away the worst of the fires ahead of us.  I was walking with Tattletale and Grue, Atlas following behind us.  The others rode the dogs behind me.

“If we’re going to check those locations, then…” Tattletale trailed off.

“If I had a preference, I’d rather we check the library first.  Bad associations with the other spot.”

Tattletale turned her head at that.  “I thought you’d be proud.”

I shook my head.

“I only heard secondhand, so I didn’t get the full story, but you stabbed Leviathan with Armsmaster’s weapon and distracted him from going after the civilians that were inside that shelter.”

“Don’t know how many I really saved.  He had a good thirty seconds to a minute to unload everything he had on the people in there, and we all saw how much damage he did to some of our toughest capes.”

Tattletale nodded.

“I dunno.  I think of what happened back then, and I get this ugly feeling in my gut, like I did something wrong, or I didn’t try as hard as I could have because there was someone in that shelter who I sort of hate.  Hated?  I’m not sure if I should use past tense.”

“One of your bullies?”  She asked.

“Teacher.  I think that when I left the Undersiders, I guess I was thinking of considering becoming a hero or something.  But with what happened at that shelter, I almost feel like it was the turning point.  It was the first time I did anything that someone else could point to and call it heroic, and somehow I can’t find it in myself to be proud about it.  And it’s like, that dream of being a hero that I always had just kind of faded away in the face of reality.”

“We’re glad to have you, whatever your reasons,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I told her.

I looked at Grue.  “You okay?”

“I’m getting annoyed that people keep asking that,” he spoke.

“Don’t be a dick,” Tattletale replied.  “She’s asking because she cares.  We’re asking because we care.  And you know that if it was one of us that went through what you did, you’d want to make sure we were in the right headspace to go up against the Nine.”

Grue sighed, but he didn’t respond.

“You’d tell us if you weren’t feeling right, yeah?”  Tattletale asked.

“If I had any idea what I felt, and it wasn’t good, yeah.”

“Good enough.”

We watched as Sundancer cleared away the flames with her flickering sun.  Flames bent toward it as if being influenced by a strong wind, thinned out and disappeared.

She cancelled out her power and turned back to us.  “One minute to cool off and we’re probably okay to go!”

“We should decide where we’re going and how we’re going to make our approach,” Grue spoke.

“If they’re waiting for their teammates, they’ll stay inside the shelter for the time being,” I said. “We’ll be in a better position if we don’t try anything overly complicated, like a pincer attack, if there’s more than one exit.  We can hit them hard enough with Sundancer, Ballistic and my bugs.”

Grue nodded.  “I don’t disagree.  You two will have an idea if they’re making their way out the other exit.”

“The two shelters are close to one another,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m still a little worried they’ll leave one location while we’re checking out the other.  I almost want to split up.”

“Is that worth the risk of having half our group caught off guard by the Nine before the other half can arrive?”  I asked.

“A better question,” Tattletale said, “Is whether we can afford to let them get away.  If we miss this chance to go on the offensive and let them escape, they go into hiding and work out a strategy.”

“And we’re not exactly in their good books,” I said.  “So we’d be a primary target.”

Was I imagining it, or did Grue’s darkness expand around him by a fraction?

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Hm?”  He turned towards me.

No use making it worse, if I was prodding a sensitive area by raising the threat the Nine posed.  “Nevermind.”

“Saddle up!”  Tattletale called out.

Sundancer turned and sprinted back to the dogs.  Regent hopped down from his seat and grabbed Shatterbird’s wrists so she could lift him into the air.  I climbed on top of Atlas.

“What if-” I started.  “No.”

“Keep talking,” Tattletale prodded me.

“What if I scouted the library, while you guys checked out the other site?  I can fly, it’s faster for me to get there.”

“And we’d be one mistake away from you being killed,” Grue said.  “If not worse.”

“Hear me out.  Their only real long-range attacker is Jack, right?  If I’m flying, the others won’t be able to touch me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  But if Jack’s at the location, I’d be able to sense him before he got a bead on me.  If that’s the case… I can just attack without exposing myself, and I can alert you guys.”

“Assuming he’s not two steps ahead of us and waiting at some vantage point somewhere nearby,” Grue said.

“He functions like a sniper,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore the fact that he slashes and stabs, he’s a long-range combatant with a good sense of what the enemy is doing and how his teammates move on the battlefield.  He stays out of the way and makes surgical strikes, then relocates to another vantage point.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that all the time is how he has to stay involved with his team and keep them under control.  Can’t make it look like you’re in charge if you’re not there.  With less teammates to manage, he’s liable to go on the offensive.”

“But I have the ability to find him,” I pointed out.  “Before he finds me.  Amy gave me bugs that increase my range.  I’ll be taking on some risk, but it means we’re able to check both locations at the same time and keep an eye out for the Nine.  It’s the best way to strike the balance we need.”

“The balance,” Grue said.  He was clearly unimpressed.

“Minimal risk to maximum effect.  Your group will be safe because you’re all together and you’ll vastly outnumber them.  I’ll be safe because I’m airborne, and I’ll have the advantage of an early warning.  Offensively, you guys will have the Travelers and Bitch.  I’ll have my bugs.”

“Bonesaw countered your bugs last time around,” Tattletale pointed out.

I nodded.  “I have a few things in mind.”

“If you’re sure.”

“She’s not the only person who gets a say,” Grue said.

“Name a better option, then?” I said.

“We all go to the library’s shelter, then we all go to the shelter Leviathan attacked,” he said.  “Safer, smarter.”

“If you’re worried about me being defenseless,” I suggested, “Regent could come with me.”

“There’s a reason we’re keeping that pair close to us,” Grue said.  “If he gets taken down, you’ll have to deal with Shatterbird on top of everything else.  We’re capable of handling her, I think.  I don’t know if you are.”

I frowned.

Tattletale looked back at the others, then back at me.  “Go.”

I looked at Grue.

Tattletale pointed.  “Go!  Stay in contact!”

I turned and lifted off.

I kept to the cover of nearby buildings, and I flew erratically, so Jack wouldn’t be able to hit me if he saw me coming.  I was getting more used to flying Atlas.  I wouldn’t have said he felt like an extension of my own body in the same manner as my swarm.  He felt more like a prosthetic limb, or how I imagined a prosthetic limb might feel like.  At first, it would be clumsy, every action requiring some level of careful thought and attention.  Over time, it would become more second nature, a learned skill on my end.  It would never match up to the real thing, but I could deal.

Already, I was getting more used to correcting orientation and keeping him level in the air.

We set down on a rooftop a distance away.  There was a shed with a doorway that led into the building’s interior, and we headed there to take cover.

I chained relay bugs together so one connected to the next, then extended them well beyond the range of my power.  Their progress was relatively slow, but it did allow me to sweep over an entire region around the library.  Bugs stirred into action at my order, and they crawled or flew within a few feet of every horizontal surface that Jack or Bonesaw could be standing on.

No sign of them.  The vault door beneath the library was closed and sealed.

I was about to return to the others when an explosion of dust and rock fragments ripped through a group of bugs a few blocks away from me.

A woman, no clothes.  My bugs slid off her skin.  Even the slightest abrasion on the surface of the skin served to tear through the legs and bodies of the bugs.  Had to be Siberian.  If the general shape of the large object she was holding was any indication, she still held the truck.

A handful of my bugs were wiped from existence a fraction of a second before more explosions of varying size ripped through the area around her.  Legend was somewhere up in the air.

I drew my bugs together around Siberian’s head, in the hopes that I could distract her.  It was pretty thin, but there wasn’t much I could do.  Even a direct hit with Legend’s lasers wouldn’t affect her.

I shifted locations, flying half a block before landing again.  I could just barely make out the pair of combatants with my swarm sense.

Something about what Legend was doing seemed odd.  He wasn’t firing constantly.  Rather, his shots seemed to be strategically placed.  He ripped apart the side of a building a moment before Siberian landed there, then tore through the five or six floors beneath her so she had nowhere to go except straight down.  The instant she stepped free of the building’s ground floor, he tore into the ground with a series of laser blasts that expanded outward, thinning as they went.  It created a bowl-shaped indent, with rubble covering the storm drains that had been exposed by the lasers.

Carrying the truck, Siberian headed for the storm drains anyways, tearing through the piles of debris.  Legend unloaded on the entire street, collapsing them around her.  Some of my bugs descended with the pieces of the shattered street, and they could feel the warmth of the outside air mingling with the cold, stagnant air of the storm drains.  He’d exposed her.

I’d seen Legend go all out, and this wasn’t it.  Why was he holding back?  Granted, there was little point in hitting Siberian with everything he had, and it was easily possible that trying to drill a hole in the ground around her could theoretically give her the chance to escape, if she found some underground cavern or tunnel, but it could just as easily drown her.  So long as she had the truck, Siberian had to stay places where there was oxygen.  She couldn’t, I was assuming, dive beneath the water and make her escape from there.  Legend seemed to be going out of his way to keep her aboveground and exposed, attacking only when he had to.

He was conserving his strength.  As much as both he and Siberian were powerhouses with more offensive capability than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet, this was a strategic battle.  It was easily possible he was planning to keep this up for hours, harrying her, keeping her from getting her feet under her.

And with Siberian’s master or controller in that truck, she was forced to move more carefully.  If Siberian’s creator didn’t have food and water, this could turn into a battle of attrition.  One Legend might even win.  He was fit, healthy, athletic.  Siberian’s master, according to Cherish, wasn’t.  Added to that, being in that truck as Siberian leaped around couldn’t be fun.

I felt like I was still missing something.  Why was Legend fighting here, of all places?  Whatever else was going on, they were causing pretty horrific property damage, and it had to be hard to fight Siberian in a place with this many high-rises.  She could disappear into building interiors, and even if he lowered the height he was flying at, Legend was probably having to penetrate three or four stories of building to get to her.

I kept my distance from the fight as I directed Atlas toward the library.  With my bugs, I was able to more or less follow the fight.  I couldn’t touch Siberian directly, but I could sense where Legend was directing his attacks, and how he was positioning himself.

I continued to do what I could to help Legend, sending bugs at Siberian in the hopes of distracting her or finding some way into that truck.  They searched the windows but failed to find a gap.  Some crawled into the exhaust, others into the undercarriage-

She fell into a trench as Legend leveled another series of blasts at her, and the movement of the truck coupled with Siberian’s power and its rough texture murdered a solid ninety-percent of the bugs I’d used.  The remainder made their way deeper inside.

The bugs could scent something they registered as food.  A heavy smell, fetid, like garbage.  It was rank in there.  They crawled through the air conditioning vents and into the truck’s interior.

The driver’s seat was empty.  I sent the bugs into the back.  Nothing.

The truck was empty?

With my bugs, I drew out words in mid-air high above me, informing Legend: ‘TRUCK EMPTY – SIBERIAN BLUFF.’

Had she assessed what Legend was doing, turned it around on him?  If her real self was somewhere safe, somewhere with food and water, that meant Legend would lose any battle of attrition, if that’s what he was aiming for.

I couldn’t think of another reason her creator would leave the safety of the truck.

Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

“Tattletale?”

“Sup?”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck.  I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

“Someone’s sealed over this door with a heavy pad of metal, because Leviathan or someone tore it down.  My gut’s telling me the Nine didn’t gather inside and weld it shut behind them, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Bonesaw’s spiders did it.  One in twenty chance, I’d guess?  We’ll know in about thirty seconds, after Sundancer burns through.”

“Right.  A few more things that are bugging me.  Can I use your brain?”

“Go ahead.”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here.  It feels wrong.  He’s working to pin her down, slow her movements as much as he can.  I know he’s probably buying time, trying to wear her other self out, but why not a place with flatter terrain?  Why not a place where there’ll be less cover for her and less collateral damage?  I know Siberian goes where she wants, and if her other self is in the shelter, that’s probably a big reason she came, but-”

“Your gut is saying something’s off.”

“My gut is saying something’s off.”

“Okay.  I’d guess the Protectorate have more of a plan than the one firebombing.”

“They’re going to do it again?”

“No.  The first one, going by what you’ve said and what I’ve picked up, hasn’t done much for our side.  It’s going to be something else.”

“And we don’t know what?”

“No clue.  What else?”

“Minor, but if her other self is in the shelter, where are Jack and Bonesaw?  And if they’re in the shelter, where’s Siberian’s real body?”

“She’s spent years with them, they have a rapport, and they’re dependent on one another. Maybe he felt it was safe to approach them.”

“Maybe.  Nothing more specific?”

“Don’t have much to work with.  What else is going on?”

“Legend’s holding back.  Conserving his strength.  I get that he’s trying to win a fight of attrition, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed his tactics or the pacing of his attacks much since I informed him that the creator isn’t in the truck.”

“He’s buying time for something?  Someone?  Maybe Scion is headed this way?  No.  Don’t get that vibe.  Hmm,” Tattletale mused.  “We just got inside.  They aren’t here.”

I looked down at the library.  “Vault door, how do I open it?”

“Can’t say until I see the control panel myself.  The shelters are supposed to open with a command from the PHQ-”

“Which was annihilated,” I said.

“Right.  Or the PRT headquarters, on the Director’s order.  There’s bound to be another code that can be used in case those places get knocked out of commission.”

“How did they get in?”

“They have a tinker,” Tattletale said.  “She may work primarily with biology, but that’s not going to be the full extent of Bonesaw’s knowledge.  Look at those spiders.  Some basic hacking isn’t out of the question.  Anyways, I can figure it out when I get there.  Unless you want to take the brute force route.”

I looked down at Atlas.  “I don’t have enough brute force, and neither does Atlas.”

Legend does.  We’re on our way.  See you in a few.”

“Right.”

I hung up.

I drew more words in the air with my bugs, near Legend.

‘FOUND THE 9.  UNDERGROUND SHELTER.’

As an afterthought, I added:

‘MAYBE CIVILIANS INSIDE.’

I drew an arrow by the words.  Then, to make it as clear as possible, I drew a giant arrow in the sky, pointing down at the shelter door.

I was going to look foolish if they weren’t inside, and maybe cost Legend in whatever plan he was operating under.

I could feel him changing directions.  He kept facing Siberian, unloading laser blasts, but he was flying my way.

Siberian dashed forward.  I could feel her cutting a swath through the swarm as she ran, the truck in one hand, one corner of it dragging on the ground, cutting a line into the pavement.  She leaped into the air, out of the reach of my swarm-sense.  I felt something massive collide with the bugs that were in the air around Legend, felt more die as he shot a laser and caught them in the area.

She’d thrown the truck, and he’d obliterated it.

Legend shifted into high gear, flying out of reach of Siberian as she lunged for him.  He dove, hard, and I could imagine her leaping off the side of a second building, trying to get her hands on him.

Legend turned my way and flew towards the library.  I hurried out of the way, directing Atlas to higher altitude, just in case Legend decided to level the place.

The leader of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene, and I could sense Siberian on the ground, hot on his heels.  He raised one hand, and a laser beam shot forth, splitting into eight smaller beams that bent in the air.  They hit the outside edge of the vault door with precision, evenly spaced out, then drifted in a clockwise direction.  The door toppled free.

Legend spread his arms, and hundreds of individual beams radiated out from his body.  Three quarters of them turned in sync to spear towards the library, stabbing through the architecture.  Other beams split off to strike through doorways and windows and across rooftops.  No less than three struck me.

I flinched and nearly lost my seat on Atlas, but found it wasn’t much hotter than steaming tap water, and it only lasted two or three seconds before cutting out.  Siberian had approached close enough to demand Legend’s attention, and he’d terminated whatever it was he’d been doing.

I turned my mind away from whatever the beams had been intended to do and toward my own contributions to this fight.   Had to strike before they got their bearings.  I took advantage of the pause to send bugs flowing into the shelter.

I could count a number of people, young and old.  The mosquitoes in my swarm could scent blood.  Twenty or so people were inside the shelter, standing there.  There was metal on their bodies, like backpacks or prosthetic body parts, but they didn’t seem to be hurt.

There were three more inside, but I wasn’t feeling so generous as to call them ‘people’.  They stood apart: two men and a preadolescent girl.

It was them.  The Nine.

I couldn’t trust my ability to get to Legend and communicate the necessary details in time, and I might even be endangering him by getting too close to Siberian.  I couldn’t say for sure how he would really act in the field, but his PR sold the idea of a legitimate good guy who would balk at attacking an enemy with a hostage.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.  It could even be a mercy, sparing someone from one of the Nine’s clutches.  Siberian devoured people alive.

Either way, it was better to try to catch his attention with a written message: ’20 CIVILIAN, JS, BS, SIB’.

He was too distracted by Siberian to see it.  She wasn’t as fast as Battery or Velocity, but she had the physical power to move quickly, and she was leaping between buildings to throw herself at him with the speed and aim of an arrow shot from a bow.

I tried leaving another message for Legend, stating the same thing.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him looking at me.  Our eyes met.  He nodded, and I turned my attention to the shelter.

I didn’t want to do this half-assed.  No mistakes this time around.  I gathered a swarm of generous size, but I held it at bay.  There were more preparations to carry out.  I drew the capsaicin bugs from beneath my armor and added them to the swarm.  I drew out silk threads and held them suspended in the air, ready for use.  For a final measure, I withdrew a lighter and the changepurse from the utility compartment at my back.

Primary swarm in first.  As one singular mass, they flowed inside.  The capsaicin-laced bugs joined them, going straight for the eyes.

Jack reacted, as did the man, but Bonesaw was unfazed.  I saw Siberian flicker.  Legend noticed as well.  He snapped his eyes to me, and then the shelter.

The creator needs to concentrate?

My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it would dislodge me from Altas.  Bugs settled on the three members of the Nine and then they attacked.  It wasn’t the sort of attack I’d ever done before.  I’d had bugs bite, I’d had them sting, I’d even used them to deliver payloads of their various venoms.

I’d always held back to some degree.  The only ones I hadn’t held back against had been untouchable.  These three weren’t so lucky.

Mandibles bit into flesh, seeking not to pinch and inflict pain.  Ants scissored flesh away, beetles tore and rent into the flesh, flies spat their digestive enzymes onto the exposed flesh.

I buried them in every kind of insect I had that could eat, cut or pierce meat.  The bugs didn’t eat their fill: they simply bit, chewed, let the food fall from their mouths, then bit again.

Bonesaw’s hands were smooth as glass as she reached for her belt.  She was cool and collected, even as the bugs slowly flayed her.

She was stopped short as the silk strands tangled her ceramic fingers.

My bugs could hear her speak.  Though I could barely make out the words, I thought maybe the first one was ‘Jack’.  She held out her hands.

I tried to bind him, but tying his arm to his side was harder than using silk cords to lash fingers together.  At least partially blinded by the capsaicin, he swiped his knife a few times in Bonesaw’s direction.  He cut her several times, and my bugs could feel her flesh part around her collarbone and face.  Some of the cuts were on target, however, and the threads around her fingers were severed.  An instant later, she was free to put together her anti-bug smoke, working her hands to break the threads as I tried to tangle her fingers again.

Okay.  Not the end of the world.  The bugs were still devouring the three, and I still had a plan in mind.  An idle hope.

I withdrew the tissues I’d wadded in the changepurse to keep the contents from jingling or rattling around.  My bugs took hold of them and carried them into the air, two or three dozen in all.

I tested the lighter, then held it out to ignite the first tissue.

It was a slow burn, taking fifteen or twenty seconds to consume the paper.  The flies that carried it died as the flame reached them, consuming them.

By the time the first was burned, my bugs were positioning the second, allowing it to ignite.  In this manner, I chained them one after the other.  A slow-moving relay of flame.

Bonesaw had her smoke going, despite my efforts to rebind her fingers, and I could feel it murdering my bugs en-masse.  I pulled them away and out of the shelter, leaving only a few to track the movements of the Nine.

The trail of burning tissues made their way inside the shelter.  I ignited the last few tissues and sent them to Bonesaw.  I could feel the bugs die as they hit the smoke.

Nothing.  I swore.

It had been too much to hope for, that the smoke was flammable.  Even if the smoke had exploded in the mildest possible way, it would have at least given me a countermeasure.

I turned away from the area.  I’d told the others I would play safe.  I’d tried what I could, I’d maybe even done a little damage to them, now I’d back off.  I’d earned Siberian’s attention by attacking her creator, but she was preoccupied with Legend, so that was one threat I didn’t have to worry about.  The rest of the Nine were still inside.

Legend, for his part, was keeping up the measured, carefully paced assault.  I saw him raise one hand to his ear.

A communication from his team?  Had something happened with the rest of the Protectorate?  Or the other members of the Nine?

He dove straight for the shelter.  Siberian gave chase, and without slowing in the slightest, he raked a laser across the street to render her footing less stable.  It couldn’t have bought him more than a fraction of a second, if it even made a difference at all;  I could see her placing one foot on a shattered piece of road that wouldn’t have held a squirrel without collapsing.  She used it to kick herself forward, soaring after Legend, hands curled into claws.  He was ahead of her by only ten or fifteen feet.

The scattered bugs I had at the fringes of the extermination smoke gave me only a half-completed picture.  Legend inside, blasting a laser in the direction of the cloud where Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian’s creator were.  He grabbed one of the civilians that were standing dumbly in the shelter, only to get mobbed.  She latched onto him, and the others did the same, trying to drag him down.  My bugs felt a flash of heat as he used his laser to blast at them and free himself.  Another laser speared out of the top of the Library, followed soon after by Legend, spearing up toward the sky.  He directed another laser straight down at the library, continuing to fly straight up.

That was reason for me to do the same.  I rose with one hand on Atlas’ horn, and I drew my phone with the other.  I speed dialed Tattletale.  Trusting to her penchant for picking up the phone on the first ring, I started shouting before I heard any response, “Something’s up!  Take cover and get back!”

The stealth bomber streaked across the sky, just as it had before.  Its payload this time was smaller, barely visible.

The devastation wasn’t so easy to miss.

The only word for it was chaos.  I could hardly pick out the individual effects as they mingled.  A cloud of yellow-green smoke being pulled into a spiral around a vortex, which was causing the section of the library that had turned to glass to shatter and implode.  There was a flare of brilliant mixed colors I could barely look at, frying a scattered assortment of boneless, faceless, fleshy monsters.  One monster made it four steps before being turned to dust.  Where the dust touched, more dust was created, until the vortex expanded enough to start pulling it all in, stopping what might have been an endless chain reaction.

I could see time slowing in one spot, I could see pavement heating into a liquid in another.  I could see one area that was serene, untouched, a bubble where a newspaper that had been scattered on the ground was flapping violently with the movement of air.  Half a building was annihilated by the flash of an explosion, and it toppled into the midst of the bomb site.  In seconds, it was obliterated and chewed up.

The effects spread and expanded all down the street, a stripe of this madness three blocks wide, extending into the midst of the blaze from the previous bombing run.

I drifted toward Legend, raising my hands over my head to show I meant no harm.

“Thank you for the assistance,” he spoke, when I was in earshot.  “Some was misguided or off target, but it did make a difference.”

I could only nod.

He put one hand to his ear, then paused for several long seconds.  When he spoke, it was vague.  “Acknowledged.”

I waited, staring down at the disaster area below.

“Crawler and Mannequin observed to be in the blast site.”

“How did they disengage while keeping them there?  They- they did disengage?”

“Clockblocker managed to tether Mannequin in place.  Crawler freed himself from the same trap by tearing himself in two against the immovable object.  It was Piggot who managed to keep Crawler in the blast area.”

“How?”

“She had Weld pass on a message, telling Crawler what we had planned.  He was so tickled at the idea that we would be able to hurt him that he stayed where he was while the teams made their retreat.”

“Just like that?”

“Apparently so.”

“If he survives-”

“He didn’t.”

There was a series of smaller explosions below.  I could see a section of ruined building glowing red, then detonating in a blast of light that sent a nearby glacier spinning into a patch of burning ground.

“And the other three?”

“Remains to be seen.  The civilians are dead, but it’s something of a mercy.  Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders were welded to their skeletons, allowing her to remotely control them.  Like zombies, only they were aware and in incredible pain.  I expect she had measures to inflict agonizing deaths on them if we attempted to disconnect them from her spider-frames.  Maybe I could have saved them, can’t say.  From the glimpses I saw of them, I don’t know if they would have thanked me.”

We spent a minute staring down at the devastation.

I ventured to ask him a question, “Can Brockton Bay take this?  It feels like it was on the verge of collapse already.  Add this mess, the firebombing… can we really come back from it?”

“You know this city better than I do, I’m sure.  I like to think people are stronger than they appear at first glance.  Perhaps the same goes for cities as well?”

“I’d like to think so.  But if I’m being realistic-”

I stopped mid-sentence.

My bugs had found a group of individuals on the edge of the blast radius.

“No fucking way.”  I pointed.

Siberian flickered violently as she crouched beside Jack and Bonesaw, one hand on each.  In between the three of them was a man, hunched over.

Legend raised one hand, but he didn’t shoot.

“Legend?”

“They haven’t seen us.  I would like to take out Jack or Bonesaw while they’re distracted and unguarded, I just need Siberian to step away or let go of them.”

The group shifted positions, so the man had an arm around Jack’s chest and an arm around Bonesaw’s shoulders, Siberian behind him.

“See that?” Legend asked.

“What?”  I could barely make them out from our vantage point.  “I can’t.”

“My eyes are better than most.  A minor benefit of my powers.  The backs of his hands, perhaps you can make out the tattoos?  A cauldron on the left hand, a swan on the right.”

“I- I don’t follow.”

“No,” he sighed a little.  “I suppose you wouldn’t.  It does mean we know who he is.”

“Someone I’d know?  An old costume?”

He shook his head.  “A scholar.”

Jack glanced up, and Legend fired in the same instant.  With Siberian’s strength, the group  of the Nine lunged to one side, disappearing behind cover.  I sent bugs after them.

My swarm sensed other arrivals.  The Undersiders and Travelers came from the west, taking a circuitous route around the top end of the bomb site.  Legend fired a series of blasts after Siberian and gave chase, but she was keeping a building between her group and Legend.   He stopped where he was, one hand outstretched, and touched his ear.

“My teams are on their way,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “The Undersiders and Travelers are too.  I’m going to go fill them-”

“We need them to back off,” he interrupted.

“Another bombing?”  I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  It seems we’re facing the worst case scenario.”

“We’re winning,” I said, incredulous.  “You guys took out two of them, we’ve got them on the defensive-”

“Exactly,” he interrupted me.  “We’re winning.  And we’ve broken enough of Jack’s rules for his ‘game’.  Now I fear we’re about to see whatever ‘punishment’ it was that Bonesaw prepared for us.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

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Prey 14.1

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The noise of the microwave beeping jarred me from the first restful sleep I’d had in some time.  I moved my head, and my pillow moved in response.

“Tried to tell them to stay quiet,” Brian said, his voice low, “They’re not the most considerate pair in the world.”

“Muh?” I mumbled something, and even I wasn’t sure what I’d intended to say.  I’d been deep in the throes of some dream that felt strangely familiar, and I’d been pulled out of it quickly enough that I felt momentarily disoriented.  I wiped at my mouth where I’d drooled a little, and was suddenly aware that Brian was there.  I felt my face heat up as I realized I’d been leaning -and drooling- on his arm.  Alec and Aisha were unmasked and rifling through the ‘kitchen’ to find something to eat.

Brian and I both spoke at the same time, with me mumbling something to the effect of, “Sorry, I must have fallen-” before shutting my mouth.

He waited, giving me a chance to talk as he wiped at the damp spot on his arm, then finally broke the awkward silence with,  “I’m glad one of us slept.”

“You didn’t?”

“Not a wink.”

He did look tired.  Not just like someone who had spent the night sitting upright, but like someone who had just finished a swim from one edge of the bay to the other.

“I hope I didn’t keep you awake by leaning on you.  Don’t even know when I nodded off.”

“It wasn’t you, and I didn’t mind.  It was…” he searched for the word.  “Okay.”

‘Okay’.  How was I supposed to interpret that?  Or did he intend for it to be vague and noncommittal?

I shouldn’t even have been worrying about that.  I blamed the fact that I was just waking up.  Brian was in a bad state.  Was there something I was supposed to say?  Something I should do?  Every gesture that normally demonstrated caring or sympathy or whatever else was a tender point for him.  A touch on the arm was an invasion of his personal space, which he was keenly aware of at this point.  Asking how he was doing was a reminder that he wasn’t ok.  Would offering to help him out or giving him support make him feel more powerless, like he’d felt when Bonesaw had gone to work on him?

No.  That last one was probably okay.  “You want anything?  Breakfast?  Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.”

I nodded, stood and rolled my shoulders.  Outside of the fact that none of the sleep I’d picked up over the previous night had been in a bed, I felt recharged.  Scrapes and bruises I’d only been dimly aware of were gone, as were the more obvious, attention-grabbing injuries.  That, in turn, made me think of the circumstances that had led to my good night’s sleep and healing job.  It was bittersweet.  Like a young child that was being forced to stand in a corner, feeling as low as she ever had, her stomach full with the entire birthday cake she’d just devoured.

Okay.  Still a little out of it.

I joined Aisha and Alec in the kitchen.  “Morning.”

“Sup,” Aisha said, curt.  She’d found some frosted cereal and was pouring herself a bowl.  She gave me a sidelong glance that wasn’t so flattering.

“How is the man?”  Alec asked.

“Stressed, anxious, not sleeping.  Can’t blame him.”

“And you’re using all that to get closer to him?”  Aisha asked.

I blinked.  “No.”

“Looked awfully cozy,” she replied.

I glanced back in Brian’s direction.  He was standing at the window at the other side of the building, peering outside, his back to us.

“I drifted off.  An accident.  Trust me when I say I feel bad enough about doing anything to make him feel less than a hundred percent comfortable when he needed rest.”

“Bet you a thousand bucks he didn’t mind,” Alec said.  Aisha gave him a dirty look.

“He’s nice enough that he wouldn’t want to disturb me, even feeling like he does right now.  He must have gone out of his way to stay still.”  I didn’t look at either of them as I filled the kettle the rest of the way and put it on the stove.

“Sure,” Alec drawled.  In a more normal voice, he said, “But what I’m saying is he wouldn’t mind.  Now, it’s been a little while, but there was a time when I had someone in my bed every night.”

“When you were with Heartbreaker,” I said.  From the look of disgust on Aisha’s face, and what I imagined was a similar expression on my own, I suspected we were on the same page.  At least on this one thing.

“Sure.  Cape groupies, my dad’s girls, people I used my powers on toward the end.”

There wasn’t even a trace of guilt or shame on his expression, no regret in his tone.  He just looked bored.

He went on, “What I’m saying is that I’m speaking from experience.  Having someone cuddled up beside you, even if it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass, having that body contact isn’t so bad.  Especially when you’ve had a bad day.”

Was that Alec trying to be supportive?  I glanced at Aisha, and she gave me something of a dirty look.

I was awkward, screwed up and feeling guilty on a lot of levels, from Brian to Dinah to the people in my territory that I hadn’t seen to.  Brian was traumatized, and that was layered on what he’d described to me as an unfamiliarity with social situations and emotions.  Alec was fucked up in a way I couldn’t even label.  Aisha wanted to protect her brother but didn’t know how, lashing out at me instead.  Damaged people.

Much of the water in the kettle had been heated, already, and it didn’t take long to boil as we got our individual breakfasts together.  I took it off the stove and began preparing Brian’s coffee and my tea.  After a moment’s consideration, I began preparing bacon and eggs, and rummaging around for toast, bagels or english muffins.  I’d use whatever I found first.

Tattletale, Bitch and three of the dogs came in through the front door.  I didn’t miss how Brian turned to face the door, tendrils of darkness creeping through the gaps between his fingers and crawling up his arm.  It took him a second to relax.  Tattletale threw me a package.  I opened it and found a pair of glasses.  I slid them on.

Leaving the food cooking on the stove, I brought Brian his coffee.  Maybe some normalcy would help.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morn,” Lisa replied.  “We were out making sure there wasn’t trouble.  Very, very quiet, after the last couple of days.”

Rachel glanced at me but didn’t say a word.

“Want food?”  I offered.  “I’ve got some stuff on the stove.  There’s some bacon if you want to give some to the dogs, Rachel.”

“It’s bad for them.  And I don’t give my dogs human food.”

“Right.  Thought they might want a treat, sorry.”

“But I’ll have some,” she said.

“Cool.”

I returned to the stove and started preparing breakfasts.  I served Brian first, then prepared some toast and bacon for Bitch and some scrambled egg for Lisa.  It was almost a relief, having something concrete to do, a way to help, when I didn’t know how to act around Brian.

By the time I had Bitch and Lisa served, the Travelers had been roused by the smell of breakfast.  I offered them some breakfast, and Ballistic took over at the stove to cook for his team.

We arranged ourselves on the ground floor, Alec and Aisha sitting on the stairs, Lisa and I sitting on the couch, and Brian in the corner by the window, looking distracted.  Bitch seated herself on the floor, her back to the wall, her dogs at her side.

While we waited for the Travelers to get settled, I asked, “I’ve been meaning to ask.  What is Bastard?”

“You mean what breed is he?” Aisha asked.

“No,” I said.  I left it at that.

“He’s a wolf.”  Bitch scratched the skin at his shoulders, digging deep.

“No shit?” Alec said.

“Where do you even find a wolf?” I asked.

Bitch didn’t venture an answer, so Lisa spoke, “She didn’t find him.  He was a gift.  And since it didn’t come from Coil, that means-”

“Siberian,” Bitch finished.

“That’s crazy,” I said.  How long has it been since we had a chance to talk and touch base like this?  “She’s crazy powerful.  Majorly scary.  And she just, what?  Handed you the wolf cub and told you that she’s picking you to be a member of her team… how?”

“She told me with words.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Brian spoke up.

“She told me,” Bitch repeated.  “She showed up, I tried to fight her, didn’t work.  She explained, she left.  Left the cub at my place.”

I saw Lisa glancing between Bitch and me with a curious look on her face.  When I raised an eyebrow at her, she shook her head a little and then turned to Bitch, “That’s potentially a problem.  What’s to say Bonesaw or Mannequin didn’t put some sort of tracking device in him?”

“They didn’t,” Bitch said.

“How can you be sure?”

“He smelled like the forest when I got him.”

“It would have taken them seconds to stick it in him.  It would mean there was a way to find you.  Find us.”

“No.  Doesn’t make sense, what she was talking about.  Being free.  Accepting that we’re animals.”

“I wonder about that,” Lisa said, pulling her feet up so she was sitting cross-legged on the sofa.  “Maybe she was playing you?”

“Is she really that smart?” Alec asked.  “Jack is smart.  Bonesaw, Mannequin, sure, to varying degrees.  But Siberian?”

“My instinct?” Lisa shrugged.  “She’s an actor.  Playing up the feral angle, hiding a deeper strategy.  She might even be playing a long con on her team.  Or maybe her intentions are pure but she’s keeping them in the dark about the key stuff.”

“Like?” Trickster asked, as he found a seat on the arm of the chair Sundancer was sitting in.

Lisa said, “Brian’s new powers.  He was copying powers from the people who were in the darkness, yeah?”

Brian nodded.

“He got the ability to grant healing from Othala.  Regeneration from Crawler.  But who was the shadowy figure he used to pulverize Burnscar?”

“You’re thinking Siberian,” I said.

Lisa nodded.  “Sure.  What if she’s like Genesis?  Or Crusader?  What if Siberian has a very real, vulnerable human body somewhere nearby, always has, and the body she’s using is a projection?  Maybe it’s something even Jack doesn’t know.”

That gave us pause.  An in.  A way to stop the unstoppable beast-woman.

“No,” Bitch clenched her fist, and I could see her dogs responding to her body language, tensing.  “Don’t buy it.”

“Why not?”  Lisa asked, her voice gentle.

“What she said made too much sense.  She said things and she understood.  I’m fucked up.  I know I’m fucked up.  Not good at dealing with people.  But I could deal with her.  I understood her.”

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t lie, Rachel,” Lisa said.  “It only means she understood you well enough to know how to deceive you.”

“No.  It’s not-”  Bitch stood abruptly, and Bastard yipped.

“Rachel,” Lisa tried, but Bitch turned away.

“There’s one way we could try to find out,” I said.

Bitch turned at me and glared.  There was a viciousness in the look that I couldn’t blame entirely on her grudge against me or the current conversation.  Just like Brian, there was a minefield there.  I couldn’t hope to guess at what would press her buttons.

“You’d want to know, right?” I asked.  “You wouldn’t want to give her the benefit of a doubt if she was playing you.”

“You assholes are saying I’m gullible.”  If Bitch had hackles, they’d be standing on end.  Her fists were clenched at her side, her feet planted apart, as if she’d be ready to start swinging, whistling for her dogs to attack, at any moment.

“Hey,” I raised my voice.  “Answer the question!  Would you want to know?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Then we get in touch with Cherish.  We get an answer from her.  She’d know.”

“I’ll get in touch with Coil, then,” Lisa said.  She got up and headed into the room where she and Aisha had been sleeping.

I focused on my breakfast, hurrying to finish it before it got cold.  I’d been distracted by the conversation, and cold toast was depressing.

When I looked up from my plate, glancing at the others to double-check that they were okay, that I wasn’t missing anything, I saw Bitch staring at me.

“You want more food?”  I offered.

“You mean what you said?”

About the food?  “I don’t follow.”

“Last night.  You mean what you said?”

“You’ll have to remind me.”

“You said something about doing the same thing for the rest of us for what you did for Brian.”  She broke eye contact, looking down at Bastard.

My fight with Brian.  “You heard that.”

“Mm,” she grunted.

I glanced at the others.  Trickster was talking with his two teammates, Genesis still elsewhere, and Alec and Aisha were talking.  Alec was apparently demonstrating his power, making Aisha’s fingers twitch.  Brian looked on with a glower on his face, but I got the impression his attention was divided between that dialogue and my own discussion with Bitch.

“Yeah,” I told Bitch.  “We’ve been over this.  I really don’t know how to make it clearer.  If it came down to it, I’d risk my life to save yours.”

Why?”

“I- I don’t know if I can really say.  You’re my friend.  We’ve been through a hell of a lot of crap together.  We back each other up because we have to.”

“You think I’d back you up?”  The question was a challenge, brusque, barely-but-not-quite-anger.

“Don’t know.  Does it matter?”  I glanced at Brian.  He was paying attention to what I was saying.  I felt momentarily self-conscious, struggled to find words that wouldn’t provoke a negative response from one of them.  I settled for a middle ground as I thought aloud.  “Life’s not fair.  It’s not even, not balanced, not right.  Why should relationships between people be any different?  There’s always going to be an imbalance in power.  The other person might have a higher social standing, they might have money, or more social graces.  Isn’t it better to stop stressing about quid pro quo and just do what you want or what you can?”

“Words,” Bitch dismissed me.

“Words, sure.  I’ll make it simple, then.  I consider you a friend, I’ll help you when stuff goes down.  And you… do whatever you think is right.  Do what you want to do.  I won’t stress about it, and unless you fuck with me like you did when we fought Dragon, I’m not going to hold it against you.”

She set her jaw, clearly irritated at the reminder.  Whatever.  I’d needed to make my point.

If she had been intending to give me a response, I didn’t hear it.  Lisa ventured back into the room, and all eyes turned to her.  She held her hand over the lower half of the phone.

“For those of you who haven’t been in contact with Coil, we ended up locking Cherish in an overturned boat’s hold in the Boat Graveyard.  She’s there now, with food and water, totally isolated, several layers of confinement, including but not limited to chains.  She wants to strike a deal, in exchange for details on Siberian and the Nine.”

“Letting her go?  No,” Brian said.

“Not what she wants.  She just wants a chance to talk to us,” Lisa looked at each of us in turn.  “Two minutes to address us, and then she dishes out the dirt, gives us the location on the Nine, the details on Siberian and answers any other questions.”

“Nothing saying she’ll tell the truth,” Alec said.

“And she’s in a position to say stuff that could create doubt or tension in our ranks,” Trickster pointed out.

“True,” Lisa conceded.  “But here’s the thing.  I’m getting the vibe she wants us to turn her down, so we’ll figure out the real scoop later and regret it.”

“What, you mean something like Siberian being here?  ‘Don’t you wish you’d asked me to tell you where she was, because she’s standing fifteen feet away from you’?” Alec asked.  “Yeah, that sounds like my sister.”

“How sure are you?” Brian asked Lisa.

“That there’s more to it?  Seventy five percent, to ballpark it.”

“Bad idea,” Brian said.  I found myself nodding in agreement.

Lisa raised the phone to her ear.  “Nope.  Don’t suppose we can change your mind?”

There was a pause before Lisa hung up.  “Eighty-five percent sure there’s more to this story than she’s letting on.  She was all too okay with saying goodbye for someone chained up in a hot metal prison cell.  That, or she thinks we’re going to call back.”

Sundancer spoke up, “Can’t we?  What are we really risking, here?  I mean, what’s at stake?  The worst case scenario, if we let her talk?”

“Can’t say, can we?” Lisa said.  She tossed the phone in the air and then caught it.  “Say one of us has something to hide that Cherish could reveal to the others.  Nobody’s about to admit it.”

There were glances all around.

“But I think I have an idea.”  Lisa smiled.  It was her old smile.  The scar was there, but it no longer pulled her mouth into a perpetual half-frown.  “Brian, got any books here?  Or magazines?”

“Upstairs.  Aisha, go grab something.  Any book on the floor of my room.”

“Why-”  She hesitated when she met his eyes.  “Whatever.”

It was a minute before Aisha ventured back downstairs with a novel.  It looked like a suspense thriller.

“Here’s the deal.  Everyone closes their eyes.  We close our eyes while the others take their turns tearing a page out of the book.  The higher the page number, the worse our inner thoughts and secrets.  The last page, Uh, three hundred and fifty-five, we’ll say, is the worst of the worst.  Unforgiveable to the point that someone here would kill you and the rest would be okay with it.”

She rifled through the pages of the book, “Anything below one hundred and fifty, it’s tolerable.  Stuff we’d be ashamed for others to know, but we’d be okay with them knowing for the greater good.  We each stuff it in between the couch cushions, until we’ve got a crumpled mess and none of us know who tore out which page.  If we’re more or less safe, if the numbers aren’t too high and we think we can stand to have Cherish dish out the dirt on the others, we’ll take her up on the deal.”

Nobody disagreed with the plan, but I supposed that doing so would look bad.  I closed my eyes as we went around the room, until Lisa tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the book.

Where did I stand?  What secrets was I keeping, and how highly did I value them?

I had my deal with Coil, with the real possibility that I might wind up his adversary.  Lisa knew that, as did Brian, but the others didn’t.  I suspected that Aisha could be convinced to roll with it when Brian did, so long as we didn’t push too hard.  Alec and Bitch would go with the majority.  The Travelers?  They had other stakes in this.  That was more dangerous.

One-sixty.  I tore it out and stuck it in the couch, sat down and handed the book to Lisa.

It took another minute for the rest to decide.

“So, in order… twenty-six, one-twenty-two, one-forty, one-forty-one, one-fifty-five, one-sixty, one-seventy-five, two hundred twenty-two, and three-twenty-five.”

Three-twenty-five?

“That’s a no, then?” Brian asked.

“Something like that,” Lisa replied.  She picked up the phone and dialed.

“What are you doing?”  Trickster asked.  “You said we wouldn’t go ahead if we didn’t all agree.”

“You’re right.  But I’m going to try to haggle with her,” Lisa replied.  “Hello?  Yeah, you already know the answer.  No-go.  Uh-huh.  Sure.  What if I asked for the Travelers to leave?  You could address the rest of us.  You and I both know you’re doing this to sate your boredom than for any grander purpose.”

There was a pause.

“Good.”  Lisa put her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Does that really work?”  Trickster asked.  “What if we wanted to keep stuff from you?  She could tell you while we’re out of the room.”

Do you want to keep anything particular from us?”

He shook his head.  “But how do you know your teammates didn’t pick the high numbers?”

“I don’t,” Lisa flipped through the pages.  “But just going by what I know about our groups, I think our team is going to be more concerned about what outsiders think.  You guys are going to be more concerned about what your teammates think.  Am I wrong?”

Nobody spoke.

“We could do another blind vote,” she suggested, “In case anyone wants to say they’re not cool with these new terms.”

“Speaking as the person who took two-twenty-two, I really don’t care all that much,” Alec said.  “I picked a higher number because I thought it would bother those guys.  I figure my team knows enough.”

“Exactly as I said before,” Lisa said.  “Anyone else have any major objections?”

I shook my head.  I could deal with the team knowing about my plan.  If things went south, they’d find out anyways.

The Travelers made their exit, Shatterbird came inside to stand guard by the door, and the rest of us settled down.  Lisa dialed and put her cell on speaker phone.  It rang twice before Cherish answered.

“Finally,” her voice came through the line.

“Your two minutes start now,” Lisa spoke.

“I should get four, since I’m dealing with only one group.”

“One minute, fifty-five seconds,” Lisa replied.

“Where should I start?  Hey, little brother.  Want me to tell them the sort of things you really did when you were back home?”

“It’s sort of tedious,” Alec replied.

“I wonder.  Rape culture is a funny thing.  People gloss over some pretty shitty, creepy, wrong behavior, little brother, when they know the person in question.  But you raise the reality of what they’re doing, and it’s a whole lot harder to shrug it off.”

Rape.  It was a loaded word, but Cherish was right.  She was a horrible person, to be sure, but she was right.  Did I really want to face what Regent had done, before we knew him?  Rape.  Murder.  He’d said, this very morning, that he’d done what he did because he’d been young, but that was just an excuse.  The deeds were still done, the consequences very real.

“You’re really one to talk, Cherie.  You’ve done what I’ve done, many times over.”

“I’m not pretending anything.  I am what I am, I don’t put on a facade,” Cherish retorted.

“That’s a blatant lie.  If you showed your true nature to the world at large, your face would be too ugly to look at.”

Ouch,” Cherish layered on the sarcasm.  “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do.  You’re delaying me, so I have less time to work with.  Why don’t I get started?  Let’s talk about your first kill?  Gang member, a kid.  You used him to kill his boss.  His older brother, in fact.  Because daddy wanted you to.  Then dad ordered you to kill him.  But you didn’t make it fast, did you?  You made him stab himself with a fork, over and over, and over…”

“Keeping in mind that I was hanging out with you and the dirty old man and our brothers and sisters.  Nature and nurture, I was kind of fucked on both fronts.  It was a matter of self-preservation to keep you guys entertained, and that was the sort of thing you liked.  Sorrylike, present tense.”

“Maybe, maybe.  And the drugs?  When daddy had you practicing your powers, you ‘hijacked’ a few people at a time, used their bodies to get high with no consequences for you, you threw orgies for yourself…”

“Again.  I was a kid.”

“How much does that excuse?”

There was a pause.  I looked at Alec, and he rolled his eyes at me.  Was he like Brian?  His emotions buried deep inside?  Or were they simply not there?

“What about darkness-boy?  Want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

I clenched my fists.  Lisa raised a hand, telling me to stop.

“You’re running low on time, Cherie,” Alec said.

“I’m happy for the chance to talk.  Bonesaw’s alive, you know.  She has hands, borrowed from Mannequin.  She’s plotting what she’s going to do to Grue.  Think about that.  She’s going to take him apart, and it’ll hurt worse the second time around, because she makes that sort of thing a matter of personal pride.  She’s thinking about it, daydreaming on the subject, and she’s a smart enough cookie that she’ll figure it out.”

Brian turned his back on the phone, staring out the window.  I wanted to reach out to him, to help ease the weight that idea must have set on his shoulders, somehow.

“Bitch, you know that Skitter’s going to betray you again.  Look at her.  She prides herself on being smart, and you know the best way for someone to make themselves feel smart? They make others look stupid, and you’re the stupidest person she has access to.”

I tensed.  I would have been lying if I hadn’t said I hadn’t seen something along these lines coming, but it ultimately depended on Bitch’s reaction.

“I fucking hate people who try to manipulate me,” Bitch growled.  “Next time I see you, I’m knocking your teeth in.”

There was a pause.

“Ah well,” Cherish said.

“And your time is up,” Alec said.  “So, now’s the point where you fuck us over and don’t say a thing.”

“Why would I do that?  I want you to deal with the Nine.  You killed Burnscar, didn’t you?  If you dealt with Siberian, life would be a lot easier for me.”

“So we’re right?”  Lisa leaned forward.  “There’s a weakness.  She has a real body somewhere?”

“She does.  Right now it’s actually not too far from you.”

Fifteen feet away.  I remembered Alec’s joke.

“Near that hole the Endbringer made,” Cherish said.  “Both of them, the real Siberian and the body.”

“You know what she looks like?”

“He.  A man.  Middle aged or older.  Unkempt.  Doesn’t eat much, probably thin.”

That wasn’t what I would have expected.

“Right now?  Siberian’s chasing down one of the candidates.  She’s taken on the next round of testing.  Simple test.  Hunt them down and if she catches you, you fail.  She eats you alive as punishment.  Wonder how many she can knock off before you take him down.  If you take him down.”

“Who’s she after?  We gotta know.”

“No you don’t.  Way I figure it, you go into the fight blind, you still stand a pretty good chance of offing her.  No skin off my back if a few of you die in the process.”

“You need enough of us alive to deal with the rest of the Nine.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Cherish taunted us with her tone.  “But shouldn’t you hurry?  The hero is going to die.”

It was Panacea or Armsmaster.  Both were complicated.  Panacea wouldn’t be able to defend herself, but Armsmaster was a whole mess of complications.

We hurried to get suited up.  My mask in ruins, I wrapped a scarf around my lower face and covered it with bugs.  I drew them around my eyes to hide the frames of my glasses.

As I finished up, I glanced at Bitch.  Her knuckles were white, her posture rigid.

She was pissed.

I made sure I had all my gear, then joined the rest in filing out.  Grue and Tattletale were the last out the door.

Glancing back to check on Grue, finding his posture and expressions unreadable beneath his darkness and costumes, I caught a glimpse of Tattletale messing with one of the pouches on her belt.  The pages we’d torn from the book were folded into a tight square, and she was pocketing them for later study.  She saw me looking.

“You going to be okay with this?”  She asked me.  “You’re the best equipped to find Siberian’s real body and stop her.  Him.  Them.”

“I’ll deal somehow.”

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Snare 13.10

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I slept, but it was less like parking a car and more like running one into a ditch.  I’d fallen asleep not by any choice on my part, but because I’d ceased to function.  Over the past few days, I’d hit my limits of endurance, only to push past them over and over.

We’d made our escape without incident.  When we’d gotten Brian settled, I’d planned on staying awake and keeping an eye on him, only to drop off to sleep within a minute of sitting down.  I’d tried to push my limits once more and I’d discovered them.

When I woke up again, it was dusk.  I was curled up in a chair with my head on the armrest.  My eyes were sore and itchy, and I wasn’t sure why.

We’d settled at Brian’s headquarters, because it was close, and there had been the unspoken agreement that it would be better for him to be somewhere he’d be comfortable.

I was still tired, and I kept my head on the chair’s arm, clutching the blanket that someone- I suspected Tattletale- had draped over me.  I could see her in the bed in the other corner of the room, lying beside Aisha.  When I’d dozed off, it had been Brian and his sister sitting on the bed.

The blanket’s presence unsettled me, and I couldn’t put my finger on why.  It was thoughtful, nice, and the fact that I didn’t know who’d done it or that I’d been unconscious and helpless when they’d done it, it shook me from the twilight of near-sleep.

Which meant I was now wide awake when I desperately wanted to get back to sleep, to stop thinking for just a few minutes.  The second I started worrying about things, my shot at a good rest would be gone.  Worrying about things like Dinah, and Cherish’s hints that Coil wasn’t on the up and up about our deal.  Worries about what that could mean in the long run.  The newest were my anxieties over Grue.

No, I wouldn’t be getting to sleep any time soon.  I turned my attention to checking my surroundings, rousing my swarm to check the surrounding streets and rooftops, count the nearby civilians, and get a sense of who was around.

Sundancer was out cold in the bunk beds in another room, and Bitch was sleeping in another bunk, in a heap with Sirius, Bastard and Bentley occupying the open spaces.  Trickster and Ballistic were walking outside, maybe keeping an eye out for trouble.  Genesis was off-site.  She had to be awake for a while to recharge her power, so she’d told us she was going to report to Coil and check on Noelle.  If my bugs were any indication, she wasn’t back yet.

Parian had gone her separate way.  She’d had stuff to deal with; her family was dead or surgically altered, their faces changed to make them near identical to some of the most hated individuals in the western hemisphere.  I felt bad about leaving her with the aftermath of that scene, but we’d been prioritizing Brian.

Seems Brian’s commentary to me on the morning we’d found out about Dinah, the morning Leviathan came, was ultimately on target.  When the cards were down, we protected and helped the people we care about, and we ignored the greater suffering of the world beyond that.

I shifted restlessly.

My bugs ran into a wall of Brian’s darkness in the living room, on the couch.  I could feel it seep through them, tracing their internal organs.  I didn’t move them further.  I didn’t want to wake him if he was sleeping.

He wasn’t.  A hand settled over my bug and covered it.  I felt him scoop up the cockroach and lift it into the air, holding it on the flat of his palm.  The darkness dissipated, and the cockroach heard the bass rumble of his voice.

I made myself rise from the bed.  My ribs didn’t hurt anymore, and my burns were gone, but my muscles had kinked up from my sleeping in the fetal position on a piece of furniture meant for sitting.  I stretched as I made my way to the living room.  He was sitting on the couch with his feet firmly on the ground.

“You say something?”  I asked.

“I said you can check on me in person, if you want.”  The words were kind, but the look in his eyes wasn’t.

His stare reminded me of Bitch.

“Okay,” I replied, feeling dumb. I’d come to do that anyways, hadn’t I?

And now I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I hadn’t mentally prepared or planned for this conversation.  I stood there, feeling an impending panic as I tried to think of what to say.

I couldn’t ask if he was alright.  That might be the last reminder he wanted, in much the same way that I’d been trying to avoid dwelling on my own anxieties and worries.  Could I approach closer, or would that bother him?  If I left, would I be abandoning him?

“Keep me company?” he asked.

Gratefully, I approached the couch and sat.  I could see him tense as I jostled the couch.

“Are you hurt?”  I asked, stupidly.

He shook his head, but he didn’t offer another explanation.

“Can I ask about the new power, or-”

“Yeah,” he interrupted.

There was a pause.  I saw him raise his hand and create a slithering mass of darkness around it.

“Feels different,” he said, “And I can tell where it is, more.  Slower to create, spreads faster.”

“But the other powers?  I counted at least four.”

“One new ability.”

I nodded.  Didn’t want to argue, so I waited.

From the other end of the couch, he raised one hand and pointed it towards my head.  I stayed utterly still as a tendril of darkness snaked through the air, taking its time as it approached.

I stood up, abruptly, and he jumped to his feet in alarm.  I could see his hands clenched, lines standing out in his neck.

An awkward, tense silence reigned, as we stood facing each other.

I waited until he’d relaxed before I spoke.  “Had a bad time with someone else trying to get into my head, not so long ago.  Um.  Can we- can we just skip the demonstration?  Or make it more blunt?”

“Right.”  It was like a shadow had passed over his face.  He stared hard at the shuttered window at the end of the room.

I sat down,  pulling my knees up in front of me so I could wrap my arms around my legs, and I waited for him to rejoin me.  He’d healed himself, but he hadn’t exactly bounced back.  It wouldn’t be right to expect him to.  Was this the kind of interaction Tattletale had wanted to avoid, when she’d urged Aisha to go to Brian, instead of me?

“I’ve talked to Tattletale about this.  My power’s always had some effect on capes like Shadow Stalker.  Her powers didn’t work as effectively in my darkness.”

“Velocity struggled, too.  He was slower, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the increased air resistance or something else.”

“Yeah.  So we think I always had some effect in that department.  That’s stronger now.  Affects more powers, according to Tattletale.  She’s making an educated guess that this aspect of my power is going to be more effective on capes with a physical power.”

“Right.”

“And when it works, I feel… a circuit?  It’s like the darkness comes alive, a cord or wire between me and the people in my darkness, and I can actually see it.  If I focus on it, it gets bright and hot, and I have access to whatever my power’s sapping from them.  A fraction of a power, one power at a time.”

“So the healing?”

“Othala.  I was so worried she’d escape my darkness before I finished giving you guys regeneration.  I couldn’t just use her power on each of you, because it was only lasting a few seconds after I touched you.”

“And the regeneration was… Crawler?”

He nodded.  I could see that dark look pass over his face.

“And then the duplicate you created would have been Genesis.”

He shook his head.  “No.”

“No?”

“She wasn’t in my darkness, I’m almost positive.  And my power’s weaker than whatever I’m stealing.  It doesn’t make sense that I was able to form myself as fast as I did.  It wasn’t like she’s described it, either.  Remember, I worked with her when we were dismantling the ABB.”

I nodded.

“It was more like… a forcefield.  Except not.  A hole in reality, and it took something out of me to feed and shape itself.”

I blinked a little in surprise.  If Brian was stealing a share of other people’s powers, then-

I blinked again.  My eyes were itchy.

“Damn it,” I groaned.

He gave me a curious look.  Or at least, that’s what I took it for; I was having a hard time reading his expressions.

“Forgot to take my contacts out.  My eyes are going to be sore for a while, and I don’t have a spare pair of glasses to wear.”

He nodded.

“Sorry.  So small a problem in the grand scheme of things.”

“You need to be able to see.”

I reached into my utility compartment and got a small case with the spaces for the individual contacts and contact lens solution, then pried my right eye open to pinch the thing out.

A few seconds later, my other contact was out, and I was half blind.  The way the shadows fell over Brian’s face, the shadows of his eye sockets made him look like he was wearing sunglasses.  I couldn’t see the lines of tension, anger or anxiety.  Whatever it was that’d had him awake, sitting up and staring into space at ten or eleven in the evening.

Maybe I should have left them in.  Risking an eye infection was small potatoes compared to fucking up this interaction.  Except I couldn’t put them back in without having to explain why.

Why was this so hard?

“You get any sleep?”

He shook his head.

“None at all?”

“Didn’t need to.  Didn’t want to.  Felt better about keeping an eye out for trouble than about sleeping.”

“Trickster and Ballistic are out there.”

“I know.  I saw them step outside after Rachel came back.”

I smiled a little.  “Wasn’t so long ago that you were getting on my case for not sleeping enough, mandating that I get a certain number of hours before we moved on the Nine.”

He didn’t respond, and he didn’t move.  I couldn’t read his expression.  Had I said the wrong thing?  Should I not have mentioned the Nine?

“Yeah.”  His reply was delayed, almost begrudging.  It didn’t sound gentle, or kind, or anything like that.  It was more like I’d expect someone to sound if they were giving up the password to a safe at gunpoint.

“Sorry,” I said.  I wasn’t sure exactly what for, but the apology was genuine.  The smile on my face was gone.

For a minute or two, neither of us said anything.

What had we ever talked about that wasn’t about our costumed life?  At first, it had seemed like common sense.  I was new to the cape scene, it was exciting, he was experienced, and he’d wanted to share his knowledge.  We’d talked about our recent jobs, the implications, even jobs we were considering.  I could count on one hand, maybe two, the times we’d done stuff that hadn’t been centered around powers and fighting and violence.

Now that I couldn’t raise those subjects without reminding him of what had happened earlier, I was lost.

“You shouldn’t have come for me.”

“What?”

“Should have left me there.  I was as good as dead.  Throwing away your life and the rest of the team, to try to rescue me?”

“You’re not thinking straight.  There’s no way I’d leave you behind.”

“Right.  Because you’re supposedly in love with me, so you go rushing off to rescue me.”

That stung, more than it should have, and it would’ve hit me hard anyways.  I couldn’t read his expression, so I went by his tone of voice, by the anger, the bite in his tone.  The fact that he’d brought it up so casually.

Emma jumped to mind.  She’d been my best friend once, as I was friends with Grue. She’d also flipped on me, turned hostile, and used private thoughts and feelings I’d shared with her to attack me.

I took a deep breath.  “That wasn’t why we came to help you.  And it wasn’t just me making the call.”

“Really?  Because I remember you were the one who stopped Ballistic from putting me out of my misery.”

I clenched my fists.  Any resolve I’d had to remain calm was gone.  “I would have done the same thing for Bitch!  Or Lisa, or Alec, even!  Are you seriously telling me you wish I’d let you die?  You’re alive now!  It worked out!”

“Because we got lucky!  Christ, you always do this!”

Using my power, I checked on the others.  One of the dogs had perked its head up at the shouting, but nobody else had roused.  I didn’t take my eyes off Brian, though.  The look in his eyes was scary.  Angrier than I’d seen him.  I’d unconsciously defaulted to the same defenses I’d used against Bitch: Eye contact, pushing back when pushed.

I deliberately lowered my voice.  “Always do what?”

“You’re smarter than average, so you count on your ability to think up solutions on the fly, you throw yourself into these reckless situations, push and vote for the risky plans because you know that’s a situation where you thrive, where you offer the most to the group.  Every step of the way, you do it.  Pushing the all-out assault on the Wards at the bank, charging in to fight Lung after taking on Oni Lee, the fundraiser, confronting Purity, attacking Leviathan with zero backup, the attack on the Wards’ HQ-”

“Stop,” I said.  I was getting flashbacks to my conversations with Armsmaster, now.

“You say you’re not manipulative, that your undercover operation was pure in motive, but you are.  You throw yourself into those situations solo, or you join in on whatever fucked up plan the others come up with, and you do it because it makes you useful, because you know we’d struggle without you, you’re making us dependent on you.”

I swallowed past the lump in my throat.  “That’s not- not what I’m doing.  Every step of the way, I had other reasons.  Strategies, or there were people I needed to help-”

“Maybe Bitch was right about you all along.”

“That’s not fair.”  This isn’t him.  He’s still reeling from what Bonesaw did to him.

That excuse did little to shake my worries that this was what he really thought.  Was this the stuff he was holding back, every day he was with me.

“What’s not fair is that I’m the one who’s tried to keep things sensible, to keep this group sane, and when push comes to shove, when I go with the majority because things won’t go smoothly if I don’t, I’m the one who gets captured and tortured.  Your plan!”

“Don’t.”

“Are you going to tell me I’m wrong?”

“It- it wasn’t fair.  You’re right.  But I don’t deserve all of the blame here.  I volunteered to be the person Trickster swapped out.”

“Knowing there was no way you could, with your injury.  So you let me.”  He stared at me with an intensity that I couldn’t meet.  I broke eye contact, looking down at my gloved hands, which were clutched together in my lap, fingers tangled.  “Tell me, Taylor.  If you don’t deserve blame, who does?”

The Nine.  Bonesaw.  But I could hardly say that.  Not after seeing his reaction when I’d casually brought up the Nine before.  However intent he seemed to be on hurting me, I wasn’t going to retaliate in kind.

“That’s what I thought,” he said, to my silence.

I looked up at the ceiling, blinking to get the tears out of my eyes.  “Okay.”

“What?”

“I’ll own up to it.  My fault.  The blame is at least partially mine.  Maybe mostly mine.  I’ve been reckless, and others have suffered for it.  Dinah, my dad, Bitch, the people in my territory.  You.  Maybe I am toxic.  Maybe me and my motivations, my issues, are causing everyone misery.  I can leave the team if you want.  Give me the word, and I’ll leave.”

There was a long pause.

“Christ,” he said.  “I’m not telling you to leave.  I’m just-”

“You’re making it clear I should.  And you’re probably right.

“I’m frustrated, and I went too far.  That’s not what I’m trying to say.”

“Sure sounds like it.”

I stood up and turned away.  I didn’t want to see that look in his eyes.

I tugged my armor into position and made sure I had everything I needed.  It wouldn’t do to get ambushed and killed as I left.  My modified costume was heavier than my old one had been, and between that and the blanket, and this place’s lack of air conditioning, I was sweating.  My hair was stuck to the back of my neck.

He wasn’t saying anything.

“I’m going to go.  Half my territory burned to the ground, my people need some attention.  If you decide everyone’s better off with me gone, just pass on the word.  I won’t make a fuss, I won’t say you wanted me gone.  I’ll just make an excuse and leave.”

I drew some bugs around my lower face and eyes as a makeshift mask.  My real mask was still in tatters.  I noted that the modifications I’d made were no longer necessary.  I wondered if I would go back to skintight leggings.

It’d be good to get back to my people.  To check on them, and ensure they were okay.  Maybe they’d be better off without me.  If Tattletale or Regent took over the-

“Stop,” he said, cutting off my train of thought.

Didn’t need to hear more of his accusations, his condemnations.  I ignored him and headed for the front door.

“Please.”

His tone had changed.  I stopped walking.

“I’ve never really said anything like this to anyone,” he said.  “But I’m scared.  I’m more powerful now, but I feel more insecure than ever.”

How was I supposed to respond to that?  A part of me wanted to sympathize, to hug him and tell him it was okay.  Another part of me was angry, wanted to slap him, scream at him, because he was still focused on himself, himself, himself, after he’d just attacked me.  I understood why he’d done it, but that didn’t make his barbs hurt any less.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’m on edge.  I’m spooked.  I can’t calm down.  I shouldn’t have said what I did.”

“And you can’t stop thinking?  I feel like that, all the time, and I have for a while.”

“They had Aisha.  So much of what I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to support her.  Make up for the fact that I wasn’t there when she needed it, before.  Only we’re putting her in more danger, and she doesn’t respect me enough to let me keep her out of danger.”

I turned around.

“And as long as I’m being honest and upfront,” he said, “I was thinking about you when I had my trigger event.”

I swallowed.

“I won’t lie and say I’ve suddenly realized I’m in love with you.  I don’t really know what I feel, so I can only comment on what I think.  I can say I respect you on a lot of levels, even if I can’t figure you out.”

“Sure as hell didn’t sound like you respected me thirty seconds ago.”

“I worry about you.  You throw yourself into these situations like you don’t care if you die, like you’ve got nothing to stick around for except for those people you insist on protecting.  Dinah, the people from your territory.  People you barely know, if at all.  And then you actually make it out okay, so you do it again, only more so.  Riskier stuff.”

I folded my arms.  This was uncomfortably close to what he’d been saying before.

“I start thinking about how I’m supposed to protect you, get you to stop, get you to focus on a goal that’s actually attainable, because you’re so capable that you could be amazing if you stopped acting suicidal.  Then I get pissed at myself and I get pissed at you, because I can’t figure you out, and you move forward so fast that I can’t keep up.  I let my guard drop for one evening to focus on other things, and then I find out you’d gotten in a fight with Mannequin.”

“It’s not your job to look after me.  If you want to get on my case because I’m putting you and the others at risk, that’s fine.  It’s your right to yell at me for that.  But don’t make me feel bad because you can’t be the macho guy, protecting me.”

“That’s not-” he stopped.  “No.  I’m trying to say I think about you more than I should.”

I looked away.  I might have asked whether he thought about me more than he should because he cared, or because I was a fuck up.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer, either way.

“Stay?  When I asked you to keep me company, I was being genuine.  Rather not be alone with my thoughts.”

I sighed.  “I could do with some tea.  I could make you some coffee if you wanted.”

He shook his head.  “Jumpy enough already.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I headed into the kitchen, put a kettle on and began digging around for teabags.  It wasn’t easy, when I was half-blind.

Once I had the teabags and a mug set, I got my cell phone out.

“Cranston here,” the woman on the end of the line replied.  “What can I do for you, Skitter?”

Cranston was the woman Coil had assigned to me, as he’d assigned employees to the others, so he wasn’t personally dealing with each of us when he had other things to focus on.

“Need glasses.  Coil has the prescription on file from when he got me my contacts.”

“I’ll have them for you by morning.  Anything else?”

“No- wait.  Yeah.  Can you pass on a message to the PHQ?”

“Coil has contact information.  Hookwolf’s contingent exchanged contact details with the other teams, including the PHQ.”

“No.  I mean, without going through Coil’s channels.  I need to give them a message from me.”

“That can be arranged.  I have a pen and paper, if you’d like me to take dictation.”

“Tell them Burnscar’s dead and Bonesaw’s missing a pair of hands for at least a little while.  Four and a half members left.  If they were being honest about waiting for the right moment to strike, this is probably a good one.”

“Mm hmm.”

“We can give them the location of the Nine if they’re interested.”

“Should I give them your contact information?”

“They have enough tinkers that I’d be worried about them tracking me down.  No.  If they want to get in touch, I’ll leave it to them to figure it out.  Not going out of my way.”

“Alright.”

“And one last thing.  Tell them ‘thanks for the help’.”

“I’ll get the message to them promptly.”

I hung up.

I returned to Brian with a mug of tea for myself and a glass of water for him.  The television was on, and he sat in the middle of the couch.  He patted at one cushion.  With the way he was positioned, there was no way for me to sit a distance from him.

At the same time, when I did sit, he didn’t reach out to touch me, to put a hand on my shoulder, or any of that.  We watched terrible late night TV with the volume so low we could barely hear it, not talking, not making body contact, barely even looking at each other.

He’d confessed feelings for me, after a fashion; I had a special place in his thoughts, even if he didn’t know what that meant, exactly.  We were sharing personal parts of ourselves we’d never let others see.  We even cared about each other.

I just hadn’t wanted it like this.

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