Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

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“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Your powers are working alright?” Tattletale asked.

I nodded.

“Bug powers, was it?  Don’t want to get it wrong.  Control them, see through their eyes-”

“No.  I can’t see through their eyes or hear what they do.  It’s mainly touch.”

“Just wanted to check.”  She paused.  “If I asked you what my power was?”

I shook my head.

“Okay.  And if I said I was born in Mexico, could you tell me where I was born?”

“Didn’t you just say?”

“Yeah.  Repeat it back to me?”

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Your short-term recollection is still good, at least.  That would be why you can retain the information Grue and I have shared over the past few minutes.  That big beetle of yours, you named it?”

I glanced at Atlas, who was crawling a short distance away.  “Atlas.”

Tattletale nodded.  “That would be the short-term memory, again. Your power probably gives you enough contact with it that you don’t lose track of who and what it is.”

“Right.”

“So long as that keeps working, we don’t need to worry about you and Grue forgetting who we are in the middle of a conversation.  But for us, we might lose track of each other if we split up, so let’s stay close, okay?”

“Okay.”

She reached out and took my hand.

“Can you use the bugs to scout our surroundings?  This will go more smoothly if we don’t need to worry about running into people.”

It made sense.  I sent my bugs out to cover the surrounding area.

The red mist was everywhere.  Color was strained out, leaving everything a monochrome red.  I could still make out the surroundings, but just enough light was filtered out that the area had settled into an oppressive gloom, with many existing shadows made nearly opaque as a result.  The drifting movements of the mist and the subtle shifts in color and shadow made me feel like things were prowling in every corner and in the edges of my field of vision.

That deep, primal prey-animal part of my psyche kept telling me something was wrong, that I was in danger.  I tried to tell myself that it was just my fear working itself up, my brain playing tricks on me.  There was nothing out there.

The weight of the gun in my hand was both a reassurance and a burden.  It would be so easy to do something I would regret for the rest of my life.

“Hate this,” I muttered.

“Me too,” Grue answered.  He put his hand on my shoulder to offer some reassurance.  “But we manage, we cope because we’re a team.  We belong together.”

My awareness snagged on someone who was walking a distance behind us, measuring their pace with ours.

“We may need to stand together as a team sooner than later,” I said. “We’re being followed.”

“By who?” Tattletale asked.  She paused, then laughed.  “Silly question, I guess.”

“Tie them up?”  she suggested.

“Right.”

My bugs gathered in out of the way spots, and the spiders began drawing out lines of silk in preparation.  I didn’t want to inform this person that I was on to their tail.

Then, just in case they decided to drop the tail and attack us, I began to gather bugs together into decoys.  Human-shaped lumps and clusters of bugs gathered in alleys and at the edges of rooftops.  Still more gathered in the street, standing in alcoves and in other hiding spots.  I invested less bugs in the ones that were further away from our pursuer, trusting that the shadows the miasma cast would help round them out.  There were no decoys our pursuer would see from where they stood, but there were now enough to give them pause.

Grue drifted away from our group to approach one of the decoys.  He extended one hand and traced his fingers through the massed bugs.  “You’re versatile.”

I felt a little uncomfortable at the compliment.  “We should keep moving.”

“You’re not tying them up?”

I shook my head.  A miscommunication on that front.  Hadn’t I recently been thinking about chemistry and intuitively understanding how your teammates operated?  The miasma might be throwing us off in that department.  “Sorry.  Need to prep for it first, I’ll make my move in a minute.  For now, we should act normal.”

“Fine.”  He dropped his hand to his side and rejoined us.  We kept walking.  I had to admire them, the way they were confident enough to avoid looking over their shoulders.  I had my bugs to track our pursuer with, and I was still feeling nervous having them behind me.

“Is paranoia a side effect of this mist?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Could be.  As the symptoms progress, you could have fits of anger, paranoia, hallucinations…”

I swallowed.

“Or it could progress in another direction.  A broader agnosia, with the inability to recognize anything, not just people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She nodded.

“I’m going to bind her now.  If it doesn’t work, or if she has a way of breaking free, we should run, with the decoys for cover.”

Tattletale just smiled.

The bugs swarmed our pursuer.  I’d minimized the number of bugs on them, just to be safe, with the drawback that I wasn’t getting a full picture of who they were.  The bugs couldn’t get to her flesh to sting or bite her, but they were telling me she was female in general shape.

I had them deploy the silk they had prepared.  I focused my efforts on her arms and legs.  It took only a couple of seconds to get the threads in place.

She tripped as the silk went taut mid-stride.  Raising one hand to try to catch herself, she found silk threads hampering those movements as well.  To avoid landing face first, she twisted herself in mid-air so she hit the ground with her shoulder instead.

“Got her,” I said.  “Let’s keep going.  We can lose her.”

“We should investigate,” Grue said.  “Make sure she isn’t a threat, and deal with her if she is.”

“With this miasma affecting us, there’s no way to be sure of exactly of just who we’re dealing with,” I pointed out.

“We have Tattletale.  She can tell us if this person’s a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Tattletale’s not-”

I stopped.  Where had that come from?

“What?”  Grue tilted his head as he looked over his shoulder at me.

“I was going to say she’s not always right, but I’ve still got that black hole in my memory of her, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”

Grue rubbed his chin.  “Something to keep in mind, but I still think we should check this person out.”

“I agree,” Tattletale said, a slight smile on her face.  She tugged on my hand.  “Come on!”

We had to stick together.  I reluctantly followed, knowing that separating from the group could mean losing them altogether.

We stopped a few hundred feet away from the woman.  The silk strands had formed a cord around her arms and legs, and the work of the spiders had tightened the binding as she allowed it to slack.  She hadn’t made it back to her feet after falling to the ground.

Grue drew a knife.

“Hey,” I said.  I grabbed his arm.  “What are you doing?”

“She’s obviously a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Tattletale said.

“Fill me in?  Because I must have missed something.  Doesn’t seem that clear to me.”

“Think about it.  Why is she wearing a mask like that, if not to filter out the miasma?  She knew about it in advance.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I could make out something like a gas mask or filter, now that Tattletale had pointed it out.  “Maybe there’s another explanation.  It could have something to do with her power?”

“It doesn’t,” Tattletale said.

Thinking about killing someone was one thing.  I’d always assumed I might have to do it out of necessity to save a teammate… I’d even come close to doing it when attacking the Nine, not long ago.  Couldn’t recall who it had been, but I’d gone all out, used potentially lethal stings and bites.

That had been at a distance.  Now we were looking at killing someone face to face.

The mask, there was another reason for it.  The-

Tattletale interrupted my thoughts.  “If you guys aren’t going to do it, I can.  She was following us, she was prepared for the miasma, and I’m positive she’s a bad guy.  My power, you know.”

“We can’t be certain,” I said.

“With my power, I’m five hundred percent sure.  Trust me,” she said, grinning.  She started toward the heroine.

“No,” I said.

“Skitter’s right,” Grue said.  “She could be playing possum.  Best to avoid being reckless.  Keep our distance and finish her.”

“That’s not what I meant.  Let’s just leave,” I said.  “I’ll make that phone call to, um-”

“Coil,” Tattletale supplied.

I nodded.  “We’ll get the information we need, get ourselves cured, or track down the Nine.”

“Cherish could lie,” Grue said.

It took me a second to place Cherish’s name.  Names were slipping from my mind too easily.  “Maybe.  We’ll use our own judgement to corroborate her facts.”

Tattletale scowled, “Have you forgotten how aggressively we’ve been going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?  The attacks, the harassment, capturing Cherish and Shatterbird.  And now you want to leave one of them there?  We don’t have to get close to her to take her out.  You have the gun.”

I stared down at the weapon in my hand.

“Trust me,” she said.

“No.”

Both Tattletale and Grue turned to look at me.

“No?”  Grue asked.  “We’re a team, Skitter.  We’re supposed to trust one another when the chips are down, have each other’s backs.”

I didn’t like the implications of that.  Like I was failing them.

But I shook my head.  “No.”

“Explain?” he asked.  He looked calm, but I could see the irritation in his posture.  Was the mist getting to him?

“The miasma… if it makes us paranoid, it could be coloring our perceptions here.  Even Tattletale’s.”

“I would know if it was,” she said.  She seemed impatient.

“Maybe.  But I’m not certain enough about that to take another life.”

“You nearly took Siberian’s,” she retorted.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But that was different.”

“I don’t see how.”

I stared at the bound woman who was prone on the ground, half-covered in my bugs.  She was looking in my direction.

“It bugs me.  This is too easy.  If the Nine were this easy to take out, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Sounds like a pretty thin justification for backing out,” Grue said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale added.

This kind of social pressure wasn’t the sort of thing I was good at coping with.  Just going by my recollection of how we’d planned many of our capers, I could usually trust some of the others to have my back when I was arguing a point.  Or I’d had some other motive or reason to go along with them.

“Why are you pushing so hard for this?”  I asked.

“Did you forget what they did to me?”  Grue asked, his voice cold.

Him specifically?  I had forgotten, yes.  But I could remember that scene, the emotions then, every feeling that I’d experienced afterward.  Frustration, hate, pain, sympathy for the pain he must have experienced himself.  I could remember the feeling of heartbreak, because someone I cared about was gone, in a sense.

“No,” I replied.

“Where’s your anger, your outrage?  Or don’t you care?”

“I care!  It’s-”

“Then end this.”

I shook my head, as if I could clear it.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly, necessarily.  It was that my thoughts kept hitting that dead-end where I couldn’t reach back for context about people, about Tattletale and Grue and the Nine.  I was in the dark.

What I did know was that I’d done too many things I regretted.  I wasn’t about to add something as serious as murder to the list.

Grue must have seen something in my posture, because he shook his head and turned away.  “Give me the gun, then.”

“Just use your power,” Tattletale told him.

“I want Skitter to acknowledge that she doesn’t care enough about this team or about me to do what’s necessary.  She can do that by admitting she doesn’t have the courage to shoot and allow me to do it.”

“That’s not what this is about,” I said.  “Murder is serious.  You don’t kill without being absolutely certain it’s right.  And nothing’s certain for as long as we’re under the influence of this miasma.”

He scoffed.  “And you call yourself a supervillain?”

“I call myself Skitter.  If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

“You’re not giving me the gun?”

“No.”

He shrugged, “So you don’t care at all, about what happened to me.  You don’t care about this team.  And you’ll even look down on us while you do it.  Your contemptible friends.”

“I care.  More than you know.  But you told me, not long ago, that I should follow my heart, trust my gut.  Fine.  That’s what I’m doing.  You attack her, I’ll fight to save her.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’ll fight me?  You’re a traitor now?”

The word hit home.  I must have flinched.

“A traitor again,” he added.

I snapped my head up to look at him in surprise.

“I wonder what it says that the notion of you being a traitor is so ingrained in my impression of you that it jumps to mind, even with the mist affecting me?”

“That’s enough,” I said.

“I know you like me.  I can read it on your face, I could see the way your eyes widened when you heard my name.  You’re an open book in some ways.  And I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

I felt a nervous feeling deep in my gut.  It wasn’t pleasant, at stark odds to what he was saying.

Grue’s words spoke to that feeling of trepidation.  “But this?  It’s telling me I could never have a relationship with you, never be close to you, because I’ll always wonder if you’ll stab me in the back or fuck me over, fail to do what’s necessary in a situation like this.  I’ll never be able to shake that image of you as a traitor.”

He kept saying that word, traitor, hammering it in.

“Unless I take this gun and shoot that woman, who you’re convinced is a member of the Nine,” I guessed what he was getting at.

“Guess I had the wrong impression of you,” he said.  The emotion in his tone was so different that it caught me off guard.  Almost contemplative.  If I thought of it as him emotionally closing down, it almost fit with the impression I associated with Grue.  At the same time, it didn’t quite jibe with what I was seeing.  Again, I felt that distinct discomfort.

Is this how I lose my mind?

I shrugged.  “I guess you did.”

I carefully holstered the gun, as if hiding it could keep it from coming up again in conversation.

A long pause reigned.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.  Then he smiled.  He turned and began walking away.  “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“We’re leaving her?”  Tattletale asked.

“Seems we have to.  Tattletale, can you use your power to make sure the lady from the Nine doesn’t pose a danger?”

Tattletale nodded, smiling.

“Then let’s hurry.  We wasted too much time here.”

“Let me know when she’s not in your range anymore,” Tattletale said to me.  “I’ll try to use my power to make sure she isn’t following us.”

I nodded.

She hugged my arm, “You’re stubborn, but we’re still friends, right?”

I nodded again.  I felt like I was back in school, in a situation where I couldn’t say anything without saying the wrong thing.  Strange, to recall being around the bullies rather than in the company of my team.

The argument weighed on me, as did the things Grue had said, the judgements.  Had I been wrong?  Were we risking letting one of the Nine get away, to murder others?  Was I arguing because I was still clinging to old ideals, or because the miasma was making me divisive?

Even if the miasma was to blame, I hated the idea of failing the others yet again.

This situation was fucking with my head.  I still felt like I was in the middle of a fight, that heart pounding mode where I was ready for bullets or laser blasts to start flying, for me or a friend to be in mortal danger, where a split second response meant the difference between life or death.

Except there was no danger here.  The only people nearby were the woman we were leaving behind, Grue and Tattletale.

I glanced at Tattletale as we ran.  Could I trust them?  They had been in the miasma for a little longer than I had, and I was already experiencing what I could only label as paranoia.  With only a difference of minutes, Legend had been thrust into a paranoid state where he was taking a reckless, offensive course of action, eliminating everyone from the battlefield, regardless of whether they might be friend or enemy.  How much was it affecting these two?  How would it influence their actions?

More to the point, what was my best course of action here?  If I worked on the assumption that I could trust them, would they drag me into a situation that was just as bad as what we’d gone through with the bound woman?  Or if I didn’t trust them, if I allowed myself to become suspicious and take countermeasures, would that be a slippery slope that led to me trying to kill them, in fear for my own life?

We’d come close to fighting just now.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Tattletale said.

“Leave her be,” Grue told her, his voice low.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t trust myself to handle this alone, not with the speed at which this general unease was building up.  But I wasn’t sure I trusted them either.  Something about the argument, it felt off.  Wrong.

“She’s out of my range,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“I’ll keep an eye out!”  She grinned.

Traitor.  I could almost hear the accusation.

I’d lied.  The woman was still in my range.

“Is there service?”  Grue asked.  I must have looked confused, because he clarified by saying, “The phone.”

I pulled my phone out of the space between my breasts and the armor at my front and checked the display.

“Yeah,” I said.  Why does that bug me?

“Call Coil,” Tattletale reminded me.  “We need to know where Cherish is.”

I found him in the contact list and made the call.

“Speaker phone?” Grue suggested.

I nodded, selected the option and hit the button.

As the first ring sounded out, my swarm sense alerted me to the bound woman breaking free of the silk strands, as if it was effortless.  Had she been playing possum after all, hoping we would get close?

I looked at Tattletale, trying to see if had any inkling that this supposed member of the Nine was free.

Nothing.  Tattletale turned to me and grinned.

“No trouble incoming?”  I asked, as the phone rang again.

She shook her head.  “All good.”

Was her power not working as well as she’d thought?  I couldn’t even recollect what it was, but she’d said she would keep an eye out… and there was something alarming occurring this very moment.

“Skitter,” Coil answered the phone.  “I’ve been made aware that Bonesaw has deployed the ace she had up her sleeve.”

“Yeah.  Agnostia… Agnosia-inducing mist.  Permanent, according to Tattletale.”

“I see.”  I could hear the sounds of typing on a keyboard.  “Agnosia… Panacea can’t reverse the effects?”

“She’s not here.  We’re trying to find her.”

“And you need Cherish for that, I suppose.”

I was grateful that he was supplying the names, because it meant I didn’t have to bog down the conversation by remembering or asking.  Grue, Tattletale and I had brought them up recently enough that it wasn’t a huge leap to remember their names.

The woman who I’d tied up with the spider silk was walking towards us.  Her progress was hampered by the decoys.  I kept my mouth shut.  It wasn’t an imminent problem, and I was more interested in gauging just how far gone Tattletale’s power was.

“Except that with the agnosia, we can’t remember where she is and go meet her.”

“Meeting Cherish would be a grave error,” Coil spoke.

“Just put us in contact with her, then?”

“Tattletale informed me of your code.  You remember how it’s put together?”

“Yeah.  My memory’s fine, it’s just my ability to identify people and remember stuff about them that’s fucked up.”

Tattletale glared at me.  Right.  She didn’t like swearing.

“Then, using a name we’re both familiar with, D-gangrene.”

“I can’t remember names.  I don’t think I can use the code.”

“Troubling.  You must understand my predicament.  For all I know, you’re a third party using Skitter’s voice to make the request.  With shapeshifters, empaths and other methods of coercion, I have to be very careful about the dissemination of information.”

“I know.”

The woman was still approaching.  Tattletale and Grue weren’t talking.

Something was wrong.

“What if we kept you on the line?”  I suggested.

“That will suffice.”

There was a pause, then the sound of background noise.  A ring sounded, different from the one before.  It was interrupted as Cherish picked up.

“I have never been so sorry to miss out,” Cherish said.  She sounded a bit hoarse.

“We’re requesting your help,” Coil spoke.

“Oh, you need my help in more ways than you’re aware of.  Not that I’m going to provide it.  Skitter’s on the line, I believe?”

“She is.”

“I’m here,” I confirmed.

“And Tattletale and Grue, of course.”  She chuckled.  “How amusing.  Seems like I’m in high demand.”

“They’re looking for Panacea,” Coil said.  “Identifying her for us would be one way to achieve revenge on the Slaughterhouse Nine for turning on you.”

“Revenge?  Not my interest in the slightest.  I’ve learned my lesson and I’ve become the poster child for team loyalty.”

Coil paused, then said, “I’m prepared to offer you some enticements.  I imagine your current quarters can’t be too comfortable.”

“Don’t suppose these enticements will be hand delivered?”

“They will be provided by remote control, as your food has been.”

“Some headphones and music would be nice,” she said.  “The sound of the waves banging on the hull is driving me crazy.”

“Such could be arranged.”

“Nah, I’m totally fucking with you.  Music, as if.”

There were too many things that seemed off.  Cherish’s tone among them.  I glanced around.  The woman was still following us, throwing herself after decoys, verifying they were false, then retracing her steps.  She was slowly closing in.  I positioned Atlas so he would be ready to distract her if it came down to it.

“You’re stalling?”  Coil asked.  “I don’t see the point.”

“Just trying to see if I can provoke a reaction from you.  There’s only so many times I can read the labels of the shipping containers before I lose my mind.  Have to amuse myself somehow.”

“What will it take for you to tell us where Panacea is?”  Coil asked.

“Oh, I’m feeling generous, and I want to see what happens.  I’ll tell you that as a freebie.  They’re at Arcadia.  Somewhere in the top floor.”

A freebie.  Something was going on, and I wasn’t aware what.  I had to piece it together, but I had so little information.

“And maybe I could offer you something, in exchange for some goodwill.  Maybe you’ll even want to let me go free, no obligations.”

The feeling of dread that had been following me wasn’t getting worse as the woman approached.  It was staying steady, like someone had a gun pointed at me, and they’d had it aimed my way for some time now.

“I’m listening,” Coil said, “But if this is frivolous or another waste of our time-”

“Nah.  Critically important.  I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s simple.  Going by what I’ve been able to observe around the city, there seems to be a major concern.  Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur.”

“I’m not versed in Latin,”  Coil spoke, sounding annoyed.

“For shame, Coil, for shame,” Cherish said.  Her voice was too cheerful. “You can’t sell the cultured supervillain image without the ability to make quips in an ancient language.  I had the benefit of my power, languages are easier to learn when you can get a sense of what the other person’s feeling.”

“That was something about Jack?”  I asked,  “Repeat that in English?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” she replied.  “The message was delivered.  I’ll leave you to think about it.”

If only I could have blamed the miasma for my idiocy.  Everything clicked into place.

I kept my voice level, “I don’t think you’ll get much goodwill if we don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.  Coil?  We’re moving out now.”

“Report back when you’ve found the healer,” Coil told me.

I hung up before Cherish could speak, then I glanced at the others.  “Let’s go?  Arcadia high?”

They nodded.

My heart pounded with such force that my vision wavered.  I turned to head toward Arcadia high, joined by the two members of the Nine.  Stay calm, don’t let on that you know.

If I could direct the woman to us…

The miasma’s effects had almost made me lose track of her.  She was fighting, grappling with mechanical spiders.  She went from fighting like an ordinary individual to moving at high speeds and throwing crushing punches, then back again.  I couldn’t think of how to help her, and she was obviously unable to help me.

Cherish had been engaging in double-speak, saying one thing to us, while addressing the two people with me the entire time.  She’d told them about where she was being held captive, and she’d offered the most valuable information she had to avoid getting tortured to death after they’d freed her.  From the way she’d talked about the message being received, one of the people with me had to be Jack.

Jack was slated to bring about the end of the world if he left Brockton Bay, and now he knew.

Couldn’t meet their eyes, didn’t want to speak, in case I let on that I knew.  I could barely breathe, I was so afraid of letting my emotions show.

My gun was in the compartment at my back.  I’d put it away at the conclusion of our argument, and with the compartment broken in my fall from Atlas’s back, I’d been forced to put it in a place where it wasn’t easy to draw.  I couldn’t be sure I would be able to draw it and fire.  I was still handicapped, unaware of their powers.  I was fighting blind.

If Jack or the girl killed Amy, just about everyone in the city would die violently from the miasma’s effects.  But I couldn’t stop them without letting on that I knew.  Fighting them put me at a clear disadvantage, and-

“Skitter,” Jack spoke.

I didn’t waste time turning to face him.  I gripped the hair of the blonde girl beside me and virtually hauled her off her feet as I dragged her around to a position between Jack and myself.  Jack was already swinging his knife.

The knife cut the girl more than it cut me.  I could feel it raking across the exterior of my costume, failing to penetrate, but he was swinging it underhand, and it caught me in the chin, slicing through the side of my cheek and up to my temple.

I tried to keep a hold on the girl for the sake of using her as a human shield, but I saw her reach into her dress and withdraw some vials.  I shoved her toward Jack, then stepped forward to kick her square between the shoulder blades.  She collided with him, interrupting his follow-up swing.  For good measure, I drew the bugs from beneath my costume and sent them chasing after her.  Some capsaicin-laced bugs, just the few I had remaining.

Jack caught her shoulders and spun her around so she faced me.  The vials were already billowing with a chemical reaction.  She threw them at me.

I backed away, and they hit the ground between our two groups, black smoke joining the crimson mist around us.

“You’ve outlived your usefulness, Skitter,” Jack spoke.

If I’d just had a minute or two more to decide on a course of action.

“It was fun.  I almost wish I’d nominated you for the Nine.  You’re versatile, and there’s so many weak points I could have exploited if I’d had more time.  If Cherish’s information on you wasn’t so misleading, I think I could have made you shoot the heroine.  To corrupt you like that, it would have been amusing.”

I fumbled for the gun, using my bugs to get a sense for where it was.  In the same motion that I pointed it, Jack slapped it out of my hand with two slashes of his knife.  He was a dozen feet away, but the knife nonetheless connected with my weapon.

My bugs began to gather like a dark cloud, their mass casting a shadow on the already gloomy surroundings.

“So I end the world?  Interesting.”

“The source is a little unreliable,” I lied.

“Still, I would love to see how that comes about.”

“You won’t live to,” I told him.

“I’ll make sure he does,” the girl informed me.

My swarm could feel others approach from the heroine’s direction.  They were the size of dogs, and they skipped forward on mechanical legs.  The mechanical spiders.  Dozens of them, coming straight for me.

If I was judging right, they were running faster than I could.

I sent the swarm after Jack and the girl, massed into thousands of bugs.  Some groups clustered so tight together that they looked like massive, amorphous black entities, amoebas floating through a cityscape painted in shades of red and black.  Atlas heard my call and headed my way from the place I’d positioned him, too far away to join the fight for a minute or two.

The girl was already mixing something else together.  Plumes of white smoke billowed around her, almost luminescent after so long spent in the crimson mist.  My bugs died on contact with the gas.

Everything I’d learned about my enemies had been blocked.  I had no information on them, no sense of what to expect.  They weren’t so handicapped.

She tipped half the vial’s contents into an empty container and handed it to Jack.  Both protected from my power, they started backing away.

I moved to edge around the cloud of black smoke, but Jack struck me with the knife.  I had to use my forearms to cover my unprotected face.  I just had my glasses, some bugs, and a layer of cloth protecting it.  Nothing that would guard against Jack’s cuts.

When I’d lowered my arms, they had already turned a corner, running in the general direction of Arcadia high.  Running around the cloud of black smoke cost me a precious minute.  I made my way around the same corner they’d rounded, and stopped short as I came face to face with another black cloud.

Couldn’t match their speed, not with these noxious clouds slowing me down.  With the heroine lying unconscious in the street, several blocks in the wrong direction, I had no allies to turn to.  Worse, anyone I came across was as likely as not to be a threat. It was down to Atlas and me, and Atlas was especially vulnerable to both of my opponents.  I couldn’t even fly after them without risking being cut down in midair.

I had minimal information on my opponents, while they knew enough about me to completely counter my powers.  Topping it all off, the mechanical spiders were steadily, inexorably closing in on me.  I’d lost my last fight with the things, and there were dozens more this time around.  Couldn’t fly without exposing myself to Jack’s power, couldn’t stay on the ground without getting swarmed.

I swallowed hard and held out one hand to grab Atlas’s horn as he landed.  In a moment, we were in the air, giving chase.

I wasn’t thinking about winning anymore.  I was thinking in terms of minimizing the damage when we lost.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

“Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“They’re not answering,” Tattletale reported, as she lowered the phone from her ear.  “They’re already engaged.”

“You fucking idiot.  I swear,” Trickster stabbed one finger in her direction, “If Ballistic dies because you fucking gave it away-”

I could see Tattletale’s eyes narrow, “My power told me there was a damn good chance she’d just run for it.  Eighty, ninety percent.”

“Well, your power was wrong, wasn’t it?” Trickster retorted.

Tattletale ignored him, looking at me, “Anything?  Can you find him?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I think he might be in a vehicle, so he can keep up with Siberian.  I realized it late, I haven’t been looking for one this whole time, but I’m sweeping the area now.”

“Shouldn’t we go?” Sundancer asked.  “We can go help Ballistic and your team.”

“Would love to,” Grue said, “But Bitch warned us about using her dogs past the fifteen minute mark.  It’s wearing off, they’re getting smaller and weaker, and if it gets to the point that they’re not comfortable carrying the load, they may lash out.”

“How many minutes has it been?”  Trickster asked, glancing at Bentley.

“Long enough I wouldn’t risk it,” Grue said.

I looked at Sirius.  I hadn’t noticed while we’d been riding him, but he was smaller.  His exterior tissues were fitting looser, in the same way skin tended to hang loose on someone who had been morbidly obese and recently lost weight.

And just to his left, I could see Amy backing away, holding her hand.

“Amy,” I spoke.

She startled as if I’d slapped her.  Everyone’s eyes turned to her.

“You okay?”  I asked.

“No, I’m not okay.”  Her head trembled a little as she turned to glance at the others.  She returned her attention to me.  “She bit off my fingers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I raised my hands to show her I wasn’t armed.  “We tried to get to you as fast as we could.”

“My fingers,” she moaned, as she looked at her hand.  “I ran as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.  She kept catching me.”

“I know.  There was nothing you could have done,” I said.

“It’s not right,” Amy shook her head.  She was still backing away. “This isn’t the way things should be.  Superpowers and Endbringers and things like Siberian… it’s so fucked up.  We- there should be a way to fight back, but there isn’t, so much of the time.”

“There is,” I said.  “It’s hard to find, but there’s always a way.”

Tattletale turned her head, “Hey, Amy, listen.  Can I ask you a quest-”

“Don’t,” Amy snapped, shifting gears from self-pity to fury in a heartbeat.  “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t even look at me, you bitch.”

“This is important.”

“What part of what I just said did you not understand!?”

“You’d think we didn’t just save your life,” Trickster said, folding his arms.

“You did it to delay Siberian.  Or so she said,” Amy replied, glancing at Tattletale.

“It was one of the reasons,” Tattletale started, “Skitter-”

“Shut up!”  The words were a screech as they came out of Amy’s mouth.

Tattletale turned a hundred and eighty degrees, so her back was to Amy, and looked in the direction of Grue and I.  “I’m done.  No point, fuck it.  I’m going to try calling the others again while you handle this.”

There were a few long seconds of tension as we all stood there, Tattletale a short distance away, phone to her ear.

I decided to break the silence.  “How are your fingers?  You’re using your power to keep the bleeding down?”

Amy glanced at her hand, and a dark look crossed her face.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve got bandages, if you want them.  Only the most basic first aid supplies, but maybe they’ll help?”

“Okay.”

I got the small kit from my utility compartment and approached her.  She kept still while I got out the disinfectant, bandages and tape and covered the fingers Siberian had shortened by one segment.

“How can you even be teammates with her?”  Amy asked me.  “Are you friends?”

“We are.”

“Everything that happened to me, it’s like it all snowballed out from the moment you assholes robbed the bank.”

Me too.  I’d met and ultimately joined the Undersiders because of Tattletale, and everything had followed from that.

“She didn’t plan that.  It might have started that way, but she wasn’t the cause of everything that followed,” I said.  I wondered if I was trying to convince myself.

Amy glared down at the ground.  A quick glance showed that Grue, Trickster and Sundancer were all trying to avoid engaging in this conversation.

She spoke at a low enough volume that I doubted the words were reaching the others.  “I’ve had nightmares about her.  Not saying I take back how I shouted at her, but she brought up shit, and the fact that Victoria heard it, I couldn’t shake it.  It affected the way I thought, the way I acted.  Victoria knew something was up, she respected my privacy, but she had suspicions.  If Tattletale hadn’t said anything, I could have dealt with Bonesaw coming to my house and fucking with me, getting me to break my code.  Or Bonesaw might not have come at all.  I don’t know.  Victoria would have listened to me, maybe.  Given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“We didn’t expect you to be at the bank.  We were cornered, Tattletale used the power she was given to get us out of that spot.  I’m sorry it happened.”

“She was the catalyst in my whole life falling apart.  Tattletale was.”

“Maybe.”

“And you can be friends with her, and you still think of yourself as a good person?”

“I… don’t know that I do think of myself that way.  I’ve probably done more damage than good, by trying to help others.”  Dinah, the people in my territory, now Brian.

“But your intentions were good, then?  You were trying to help?”

“Yeah.”

“Then tell me what to do.”  She didn’t meet my eyes.  “I don’t know anymore.  I’ve spent so long helping others, and I’m so scared, I feel numb.  My brain isn’t working.  Can’t think straight.  I-  I just don’t know anymore.  I’m not making any promises, I won’t fight, won’t face the Nine, don’t want to talk to Tattletale, but…” she trailed off, unable to finish her thought.

I swallowed.  I couldn’t even manage with myself, and now she wanted me to guide her?

“Okay,” I said.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  She was one of the most powerful parahumans native to Brockton Bay.  How was I supposed to use her?

One idea crossed my mind, and I hated myself for thinking it, for the stark fear I felt at the thought.  “Okay.  I won’t ask you to face the Nine.  But you can give us the ability to go after them, to fight them.  There’s this part of the brain that Bonesaw called the… Corona something.  Corona potential?  Can you access mine?  Tweak my power, give me more range?  As much as you can.”

The mental image of Bonesaw cutting through my skull with her saw was so real I could almost feel the sensation of it.

But we had to stop Siberian.

“I can’t affect brains.”

“You can’t-”  I sighed.  We all had our limitations and barriers.  I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.  I didn’t argue the point.  “Fuck.  Okay.  The dogs.  Can you charge them up?  Figure out how Bitch’s power is affecting them, and either make them big again or keep them from getting any smaller?”

She glanced at Sirius.  I’d gotten so used to them I’d nearly forgotten just how horrifying they were to look at.

“I’d have to touch them.”

“Yeah.  They’re not as bad as they look.  They’re regular dogs, it’s only appearances and size.”

“Regular dogs still bite people.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to lose more fingers.”

“I know.  You don’t have to.  Let me think.  We can come up with another way for you to contribute.”

“Can you grow us wings?” Trickster asked, in a wry tone.

“I can’t generate flesh from nothing, and it’s slow to convert something into a part your body won’t reject.”

“Of course,” Trickster said, with a note of sarcasm.

Not helping, I thought.  Amy was willing to do something.  It was useful.  We didn’t need to discourage that.

Before I could finish my thought, I saw Amy walk up to Sirius and offer him one hand to sniff.  She flinched as he moved his head, pulling her arm away.

I joined her side, and put one hand on the side of Sirius’ neck, digging my fingertips into a meaty cord of muscle.  I scratched with enough force that I might have left tracks in normal skin.  “Hey, boy.  You’re a good dog, aren’t you?  Yes you are.”

His bone-crusted tail lashed behind him in something approximating a wag.

Amy put out her hand again, and Sirius sniffed it.  Gingerly, she laid her hand on the length of his snout, running her fingers over calcified muscle, bone spurs and braided lengths of muscle and other tissue.

“The hell?” she muttered.  “Can’t wrap my head around this.”

“You can’t make him bigger?”

“No, I don’t think I can.  Can’t make something from nothing.  But I think I can stall the shrinking.  Whatever I do might get undone the second he’s back in range of Hell- of Bitch.  It’s hard to describe.  I can see the aftermath of what she does, but not the process.  It’s like the tissue grows, then it dies as it gets pushed out of the core, but some of it stays functional… there’s a normal dog inside there?  Intact?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Think I’ve got it.  He’s not going to shrink anytime soon.”

I signaled Tattletale to return.  “Thank you.”

She walked over to Bentley, giving Trickster a wary look as she walked by him.  I joined her, in part to give Bentley the reassurance that this angry stranger wasn’t so dangerous.

“There,” Amy said.  “You’re going to save your friends?”

“And if we can, we’re going to put down the Nine.  We figured out Siberian’s weakness.”

Her eyes widened slightly at that.  “What?”

“What did you think we meant when we were talking about her other self?”

“A secret identity?  I- I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Tattletale climbed up onto Bentley’s back, studiously ignoring Amy.

“Kind of a secret identity.  She’s a projection,” I said.  “Like Crusader has with his duplicates.  Best case scenario, we can find her real body and put her down.”

“Just like that?  You’ll kill her?”

“Ideal world,” I said.  Grue had climbed up onto Sirius’s back, and he offered me a hand up.  “Won’t know if we’re capable until it happens, but I’d like to think we have the courage.”

“But you’re risking your lives.”

“Yeah.”  I got settled and wrapped my arms around Grue’s body.  He didn’t react or protest.  My head just inches from his back, I turned to look down at Amy, “See, it helps that we’re pissed.”

“I’m pissed too,” Amy said.

I offered my hand to her, in case she wanted to climb up behind me and join us, but she stepped away.

“But you’re more scared than pissed,” I said.  She looked away.

“We should get going,” Trickster said, as Sundancer got in position behind him.  We were all seated and ready to head to the rescue.

“One second,” I told him.  “Amy.  Listen.  It’s okay.  I’ve thought of another way you can help, and it doesn’t put you in any danger.”

“What is it?”  She still didn’t meet my eyes.

“You’re going to cut loose with your power.  I can feed you the raw materials, you do what you can.  You know how my power works?”

“Pretty much.”

“Send the bugs my way when you’re done with them, then.”

“You’re a villain, you know.  You’re asking me to betray the family I grew up with if I’m helping you.”

I stared at her.  We were so similar in such different ways, but I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her train of thought.

Why were the people who clung so fiercely to the notions of right and wrong the very same individuals that had the worst grasp of what they meant?

Maybe I wasn’t one to talk.

“I don’t think you’re one to talk about betraying family,” Tattletale spoke.

I could see all the color drain out of Amy’s face.

“Hey, Tattle,” I started.

“No.  Sorry, Skitter, but it’s my turn to talk now.  We’re short on time, and we really should leave now, but if we leave it like this, you’re going to be distracted.”

I shut my mouth.

“Amy?  I know what you did.”

“Don’t you dare-” Amy started.

“You fucked up.  You crossed one of the lines that’s reserved for the real monsters.  You know it, I know it.”

Amy’s face crumpled.  I didn’t have a better way of describing it, the way her expression twisted, going from plain to almost inhuman from emotion alone.

I almost spoke up.  I wasn’t sure why I didn’t.

“You think you’re the lowest of the low, that you’re scum.  You despise yourself.”

Amy couldn’t even mount a response.

“You’re wrong.  You’re not there.  Not yet.”

Amy looked up at Tattletale, wide-eyed.  The look was utterly defenseless.  I was put in mind, for just an instant, of just who Tattletale could have been.  I had a mental image of her as a cult leader, tearing people down with an almost surgical precision, then molding them into who she wanted them to be when they were emotionally and mentally unable to mount a defense.

“Not yet?” Amy asked.

“Not yet.  You shouldn’t hate yourself for what you did in a moment of desperation.  Hate yourself for what you do after.  Hate yourself for your cowardice, your refusal to step up and help at this moment, right now, your refusal to participate in this world that you never even tried to understand.  That’s a conscious call you’re making, and you know it’s the wrong one.”

Amy hugged her arms to her chest.  She shook her head a little, as if she was denying what Tattletale was saying.

Tattletale went on.  “You need to make the right calls, and you need to start now, because you’re approaching the point of no return.  You start making amends, you start doing your part, and you undo what you did, and you do it ASAP, because if you don’t, you’re going to hit the hard ground at the bottom of that slippery slope.”

“But-”

Tattletale didn’t give Amy a chance to finish.  She kicked her heels and Bentley charged off.

Grue moved to follow, and I turned to Amy, “If I send my bugs to you, will you-”

“I’ll-  I’ll come.”

I blinked.

She stuck her hand in my direction, and I caught it, helping her up to a seat behind me.  Sirius shook slightly, as if he could shake us off.  Were we too heavy?

Apparently not.  He bolted after Bentley, and we were off, Amy clinging to me like her life depended on it.  I suspected that had little to do with the fact that we were riding on one of Bitch’s dogs.

The clawed feet of the dogs pounded pavement as we made our way towards central downtown.

I could feel the sensation of Amy doing something to interfere with my powers.  It began to get worse, reaching a peak, and then getting worse.  Just when it had reached the point where I was going to tear her hands from around me and let her fall off Sirius’s back, it began to clear up.

I could feel the bugs, but they weren’t anything like what I’d seen in Brockton Bay.  Superficially like dragonflies, with fatter bodies.  I couldn’t grasp every process in their body, making them feel strangely hollow and artificial.  What I could feel was a kind of echo in my power.  It made control harder.

She had to have a reason for doing what she was doing.  I tried directing them to move, and they took off.  No problem on that front.

I couldn’t ask what she’d done, because we were moving fast enough that the wind in our ears would drown out my voice, and the run was jarring enough that I worried I would bite my tongue if I tried talking.

Instead, I experimented.  I tried operating their bodies, engaged in the usual practices for injecting venom, nothing.  They weren’t weaponized, I was almost sure.  I even placed some aphids on them to get a feel for their exteriors.

It was only when I moved them out to either side of me that it dawned on me what the echo was.  Experimenting, I sent them to the limits of my range to confirm my suspicions.

Whatever signal my power sent to my bugs, these bugs were there to intercept it and transmit it to their immediate area.  Each extended my range by three hundred or so feet around them.

Letting go of Grue with one hand, I patted Amy’s hand and then reached back to give her a thumbs up.  I set more dragonflies and other various bugs down on the backs of her hand.

In another minute, I had four more relay bugs.  I paired them up and sent them forward, so one relay could transmit to the next.  Two extra city blocks of range.  I started gathering a swarm with the bugs in question.

Amy had balked at the idea of outfitting me with altered bugs.  Had she maybe settled on these, because she thought they wouldn’t give me as much offensive potential?

I had them in place for less than ten seconds before I found a moving vehicle.  It was a truck with plastic sheeting over the windows, four-wheeled, with a compact rear.  A small moving truck?  It was moving faster than was safe, veering wildly as it to get through the water and over the damaged streets, and it was heading straight for central downtown.  Straight for the others.

“Found him!”  I hollered, at the top of my lungs.  Tattletale looked over at me, and I signaled, extending my arm to the ten o’clock position.

I felt strangely calm as I shifted my focus to the attack.

If it came down to it, I’d have to kill the man.

My bugs clustered on the ‘windshield’ of flapping plastic, gathering in heavy numbers.  The faster moving dragonflies and hornets began to pelt the plastic, attempting to drive themselves through it.  Most died in the process.

He swerved sharply to try to throw the bugs off, but there wasn’t enough in the way of momentum or wind.  My other flying insects began to ferry larger black carpenter ants onto the windscreen, to use their sharp bites to penetrate the plastic sheeting.  We were making holes, but the attempts of my swarm to worm their way through the holes and open them enough for the more dangerous bugs to get inside were stymied by the wind and the flapping of the plastic.  Every movement, however small, threw off my ability to track where the existing holes were.

We had a bead on him, and the dogs were better suited for rough terrain than the moving vehicle.  It was only a minute before we caught up.  As I’d guessed, a white moving van with a giant icon of a hand on the back with the words ‘Haul It!’

I might have found it amusing if the circumstances were slightly different.

He noticed us shortly after we noticed him.  Siberian flickered into existence on top of the vehicle, standing, her legs shifting to adjust her balance as it hit a crack in the pavement and rocked slightly to one side.  I heard Amy shriek as she saw Siberian.

Tattletale veered left, hard, and Grue turned us right.  We each cut into side streets, running parallel with the truck.  Bentley was lagging slightly behind, but I caught a glimpse of the other group as we made our way past a major intersection.  Two blocks away, slightly behind us.

I heard an explosion, and Amy clutched me tighter in reaction.  Glancing down, I could see her arms around my ribcage, the hand with the maimed fingers held slightly off and away so it wouldn’t get bumped or jostled.

Trickster was handling the opening salvo.  The objects he was swapping for grenades weren’t even close in size -signs and traffic cones- so the timing was horribly off.  Siberian didn’t move from her perch.

Grue steered Sirius into a sharp left, and the dog’s claws skidded for a grip on the flooded street before we turned.  We got one block and then turned right, putting us directly behind them.

I could see Siberian tense, as if intending to jump, but another explosion from Trickster kept her in place.  She was protecting the truck, surrounding it with her forcefield.  I wasn’t sure how it was able to interact with the road, but a grenade going off under the front of the truck failed to achieve anything.

There would be nothing to stop her from staying there until the truck reached
the other Nine.  It would out Siberian’s real nature to any of the Nine who didn’t know, and that wasn’t a total loss, but it also meant our teammates would be blindsided by her arrival.

I felt something bump my hands.  Grue was holding the chains that led to Sirius’s muzzle.  He bumped my hands agan, and I took hold of them.

With his own hands free, leaning hard against me for support, he reached out and buried Siberian and the truck in a carpet of darkness.  Following, we soon plunged into the wake.

The second we were out of sight, I shifted our position so we were running in the left hand lane, rather than the center of the road.  Didn’t want Siberian guessing our position and pouncing on us.

I could sense the surroundings with my bugs, but my power was diminished.  I was aware of Grue, Amy and Bentley, of Tattletale, Trickster and Sundancer a short distance away, keeping pace.  I could see Siberian and the truck.

I couldn’t detect any sign that Grue was projecting anything with Siberian’s power.  Whatever she was doing to the truck, it was protecting her from him.

The upside was that the driver was blind.

I could tell because he drifted.  It was gradual at best, but he veered slightly to the left.  With no point of reference, he didn’t know he needed to correct.  A moment later, he smashed into the face of a tall building.  Siberian’s power meant the truck took no damage, and the driver corrected course, but soon enough, he began to veer again.

This wasn’t getting us anywhere, and we were running the risk that he’d hit someone, crash into or through an inhabited area.

Through my swarm, I could feel Tattletale waving.  Grue hadn’t swamped her in darkness, so there was nothing hampering her progress.  What did she want?

More to the point, how the hell were we supposed to communicate?  I reached a block ahead of her and formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her hand to her eye, then to the top of her head.

Again, I formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her head a few more times.

I was disappointed that a girl with superpowered intuition couldn’t come up with a better signal.  What did she want?  Eyes could mean see, head could be about thinking?  Her power?

She reached back over Trickster’s shoulder with one hand while holding the reins with the other.  My bugs had to settle on her finger to follow her gesture.  Pointing?  She was pointing behind him.  At Sundancer.

Eyes, brain, Sundancer.

She wanted to see, to use her power, to use Sundancer?

Tattletale was waving now.  The opposite of a beckoning gesture.  A scooping motion, as if to push us away.

She wanted us to go away?  To get back?  She wanted to deploy Sundancer’s power.  That made sense.  And she wanted to be sure we were out of the line of fire?  She could only do that if she saw us, and she could only use her power if she could follow what was going on.

From my seat behind Grue, I steered Sirius around another corner, then brought us up behind Tattletale’s group.  We gradually caught up.

“Do it!”  I shouted as we began to pull alongside them.  Siberian would be out of range of Grue’s darkness in moments if Grue wasn’t behind her, replenishing and extending his power.

“Where is she!?”  Tattletale shouted.  Sundancer was leaning back, her hand out to one side.  The orb she was creating was small.

I pointed.

The orb was getting larger.  The size of a baseball, a beachball, an armchair.  As it grew, it drifted farther away, higher.

By the time it was directly overhead, it was large enough to swallow up my bedroom whole.

“Gotta stop them!”  Tattletale called out, “We blindside them!”

“Civilians!?”  Sundancer cried out.

“Some!”

“Let me know-”  She grunted as Bentley stumbled over a pothole.  “Let-”

“Got it!”  I replied.

I tracked the people in nearby buildings, and kept my arm extended to point at Siberian.

“Got to use my power again!”  Grue shouted.

“Signal us!”  Tattletale called out.

We pulled right, plunging into the darkness.  It was thinning out, and faint shafts of light were piercing through.We crossed the road behind Siberian, and Grue blasted them with darkness, replenishing the effect.  We continued across the street, moving behind cover.

Only a few people in the upcoming area.  We had to be close to Regent’s group.  Time was short.

I drew images with my bugs to point her in the right direction, and then formed the word with my bugs as the other group continued forward.  ‘NOW’.

We passed out of the darkness just in time for me to catch sight of the orb.  It was larger now.  Large enough that when it fell, it had to be touching both of the sidewalks on the four lane road.  Even with a building between us and the impact zone, I could feel the wave of heated air, and I saw the billowing steam.  Grue took the reins and guided Sirius away before it could reach us.

Sundancer hadn’t hit Siberian.  She’d dropped the orb straight into the road a hundred feet ahead of them, and she’d plunged it down, hard.

My bugs died as Siberian approached the impact site, burned up by the heated air.  I could imagine what had happened.  The miniature sun would have burned a hole into the ground, melted or even vaporized pavement.

Affected by Siberian’s power or not, they were still affected by gravity.

I couldn’t say what would have happened in the long run.  Had they hit the wall or floor of the pit and used Siberian’s power to make it as invulnerable as they were?  Or had they plunged through it, burying themselves some distance underground.

A nearby building was burning.  I saw Sundancer forming another orb near the site, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but the flames on the building were shrinking and dying out.

This wasn’t a victory.  It was a stall.  We couldn’t stop Siberian so long as she was able to grant invulnerability to her other self, but we could keep her from reaching her teammates in any meaningful amount of time.

It was interesting, I had to note, that she was affecting the truck and not her maker.

A limitation?  A drawback?  Could she not use her power on her real body?

Clouds of white steam intermingled with the black tendrils of Grue’s darkness.  We stopped running, but we didn’t approach.  I focused my power on the bugs in the ground.  Ants, earthworms.  Was she tunneling?  No.  As far as I could tell, the ground was intact.  She wasn’t moving.

“What did you do?”  Amy whispered from behind me.

I didn’t have the breath to explain.

“Drop the darkness?”  I asked.

Grue nodded.  The darkness cleared, but the steam didn’t make it any easier to see.  I saw the shadowy silhouette of Tattletale, a distance away.  I practically had to peel Amy off of me to get to my cell phone.

“Tattletale?” I asked, the second she picked up.

“She’s still down there.”  Tattletale replied.

“Why?  Hurt?”

“Don’t know.  Planning her next move?  Don’t get the impression she’s tunneling.”

“My bugs don’t either.  Hey, I’m wondering if Siberian can affect her real self?  Why doesn’t she just grab him and run?”

“Good question.  But that’s not our real concern.”

“What is?”

“Them.”

It took three or four seconds before I saw them arrive, stepping through the mist to stop a distance from the hole.  Identical costumes, all-concealing, with gas mask filters on the front and tinted panes for the upper faces.  Each was color coded.  Four flew, one using a jetpack.  One was on the ground, a style of super-speed I recognized as Battery’s.  Rounding out their group was the ghostly image of a bear.  Ursa something, from Legend’s squad.  She had three forms, or she duplicated herself into three states, or something.  I wasn’t sure about the naming convention.  One for the big bear, one for the small, and one for the woman.

“Legend, Battery, Cache,” Tattletale rattled off names through the phone, “Chariot, Glory Girl.”

Amy squeaked, barely audible, a failed attempt to speak.

The flying man in the lead pointed his hand towards Tattletale.  If that was Legend, one laser blast could take all of them out.  I wasn’t sure if he’d spotted us through the mist and smoke.

“Want me to use my power?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale’s voice came from my phone.  “Skitter?  Inform them.”

I drew words out with the flying insects, big and bold, with an arrow pointing down at the crater.  ‘SIBERIAN + HER CREATOR’

Legend snapped his head from the words to us.

Shit,” Tattletale said.  No sooner was the word out of her mouth than Siberian came tearing out of the hole, truck held over her head.  A section of the street was torn free and flipped through the air.  Legend blasted it out of existence with an indigo flash of light.

“Cash!”  Legend bellowed the word.  He began pelting Siberian with lasers.  Beams capable of leveling buildings, and she ignored them.

Cash?  I saw the man in the black costume raising his hands.  Dark lines began to surround Siberian and the truck, forming complex geometric angles.

In the blink of an eye, as Siberian reached the peak of her leap, panes of glossy black material snapped into place between the dark lines.  The resulting geometry contracted as if he meant to squish Siberian.  It shattered instead.

She hit the ground in a crouch, holding the truck in one hand, and the man in the black robe staggered, blood gushing from his nose.  Legend caught him before he could collapse.

Cache.  Right.  I was dimly aware of him, though I’d never seen his picture.

Siberian charged the heroes, and they cleared out of the way in an instant.  The one in power armor -Chariot- slid across the ground with the aid of his jetpack and built-in roller skates. Legend and the one in red, Glory Girl by process of elimination, took flight.  Ursa whatever leaped to one side.  They were the mobile group, the group that was able to get here fastest.  They’d seen the sun appear, they’d seen it hit, and they’d come to step in.

Siberian didn’t stop to engage the enemy.  She continued on her course, charging through the ground floor of a building as she swung the truck in a lazy back and forth arc.  I could see the roof buckling as vital supports disappeared.

Legend handed Cache to Ursa and gave chase.  I could see Chariot raising his hand to his right ear, pausing.

He, Battery and Glory Girl turned and advanced towards Tattletale’s group.

“Can we go?”  Amy asked, from behind me.  “I didn’t- I didn’t think-”

There was a pause.  We could fight.  My power would be largely foiled by those suits, but Grue had his power.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Come here, and bring Amy.  They want to talk.”

Amy pulled back, and I grabbed her wrist.  Before she could hop off Sirius, Grue was directing the dog across the road.

Chariot and Glory Girl pulled off their helmets as we arrived.  Chariot was black, his narrow, triangular face largely covered in power armor.  He had the scruff of a weak teenage beard on his chin.

Glory Girl bore little resemblance to any of the last times I’d seen her.  There were dark circles under her eyes.  She stared at me.  No- at Amy.  The glare seethed with raw, seething hatred.  It made every line of her face hard.

“You’ve joined them, now?”  She spoke, breaking the brief silence.

“I just wanted to help against the Nine,” Amy said.  Her voice was small, defeated.  “Can I-”

“If you open your mouth and ask if you can use your power on me, I won’t be held responsible for what I do,” Glory Girl growled.

“Don’t hate me, please.  I don’t care what you think of me, but hate is too close to…”  Amy trailed off.

“Too close to what?” Glory Girl asked.  She shrugged.  Anger gave an edge to her words.  “Aren’t you going to say it?  Can’t you admit what you did?”

Amy hung her head, and her forehead rested between my shoulders, hair hanging down.  She shook her head, but I doubted Glory Girl could see it.

“Let’s put vendettas aside,” Chariot spoke.  He smirked.  “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“The Nine,” Trickster spoke.

“The Nine,” Chariot said.  “But it’s not my place to talk tactics.  I’m just the rookie.  The messenger.”

He extended one hand toward Tattletale.  There was an earbud in his palm.

“The Director of the PRT would like to have a word with you.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Director Emily Piggot finished the last of her coffee and paused to survey the enormity of the task that lay ahead of her.  The scale of it could be measured in paperwork.  Piles of it.  Sometimes two feet high, the stacks of paper were arranged in rows and columns on every available surface, including the top of her coffee maker and the floor around her desk.  There were stacks of stapled pages, each topped with a weight to protect it from the gusts and breezes that flowed through the open window frames.

She couldn’t help but notice the way that the pages at the bottom of the pile were neatly organized, tidy, everything in line.  The newer pages, the ones at the top, were the sloppy ones.  Pages were slightly out of alignment, some dog-eared or stained.

The same progression could be measured in the print.  The older pages were typed, printed as forms with everything in its place.  Abruptly, it all shifted to handwriting.  Shatterbird’s destruction of everything glass and everything with a silicon-based chip inside.  Computer screens and computers.  The handwriting, too, grew less tidy as the rise of the piles marked the passage of time.  On occasion, it would improve for a day or two, when her captains and sergeants complained about illegible handwriting, but it inevitably slipped back into disarray.

A strong metaphor, Emily Piggot thought.  Every part of it said something about the current circumstances.

The shift from uniform typed words to countless styles of handwriting, it said something about the innumerable voices, the break down of the cohesive, ordered whole.  What resulted were hundreds, thousands of self-interested voices.  One in five condemned her, two in five pleaded with her for assistance in some form, and the remainder simply expected her to perform her duties as a cog in the machine.

She looked over the sheer volumes of paper around her office.  The PRT handled cases where parahumans were involved, and these days, it seemed like everything and everyone was touched in some way by the heroes, villains and monsters of Brockton Bay.  Every time the other precincts had the slightest excuse, they would claim that it was the PRT’s responsibility.  If they had no excuse at all, they would claim it a joint responsibility.  Until she read over the cases in question and either signed off on them or refused them, the job was in her hands.  As far as the ones passing the buck were concerned, it was out of their hands.

The first real intrusion on the average citizen’s life had been the bombings instigated by the ABB.  Frightening, but it had been easy for the average person to believe they wouldn’t be one of the victims, to shrug it off as the same background noise of heroes and villains that they’d experienced for much of their lives.  Now, between Leviathan, Shatterbird, the fighting and the formation of territories, everyone had reason to worry and give serious thought to who they needed to support and how they were going to protect themselves.

Just as the parahumans had invaded the lives of those in the city, the paperwork seemed to dominate Emily’s life.  It crept onto the walls, onto bulletin boards and whiteboards.  Notes on the local players, timelines, messages and maps.

Insurmountable.  Too much work for one woman to handle.  She delegated where she could, but too much of the responsibility was hers and hers alone.  The humans outnumbered parahumans by eight-thousand to one, give or take, in urban areas.  Outside of the more densely populated areas, it dropped to a more manageable one to twenty-six-thousand ratio.  But here in Brockton Bay, many had evacuated.  Few places in the world, if any, sported the imbalanced proportion that Brockton Bay now featured.  What was it now?  One parahuman to every two thousand people?  One parahuman to every five hundred people?  Each parahuman represented their respective interests.  She represented everyone else’s.  The people without powers.

The whole nation was watching.  People across America ate their TV dinners while they watched the news, seeing footage of the slaughters in downtown Brockton Bay, white sheets draped over piles of bodies.  The before and after shots of areas devastated by Shatterbird.  Flooded streets.  Fundraising efforts were launched, many succeeding, while yet others leveraged the situation to cheat the sympathetic out of money.  The world waited to see if Brockton Bay would become another Switzerland, another Japan, another region that simply couldn’t recover.  Ground lost to the Endbringers in their relentless campaign of attrition against humanity.

So very few of them knew it, but they were counting on her.

She heaved herself out of her chair and made her way to the coffee machine to refill her mug.

“Director?”

She turned to see Kid Win standing in the doorway.  He looked intimidated.

“Yes?”

He raised the laptop he carried in his hands.  “The guys in CS asked me to bring this to you.”

She shook her head, refusing the offer, “For now, every computer that comes in is supposed to be used for setting up the consoles and communications.”

“They’re done.  Or almost done, for communications.  They expect to be up and running in two hours, but they have all the computers they need.”

“Good.  Access to the central database is up?”

“Everything except the highest security feeds.”

Disappointing.  “I’ll make do, I suppose.  Thank you.”

Kid Win seemed almost relieved to hand her the laptop.  It meant he could get out of her presence sooner.  He was turning to leave the instant the laptop was out of his hands.

“Wait.”

She could see his shoulders drop, slightly, in the same way a dog’s tail drooped when ashamed or expecting reprimand.  Emily Piggot wasn’t good with kids, or even young adults.  She knew it.  Outside of the time she had played with dolls as a small child, she’d never entertained the notion of being a mother.  She didn’t even like kids.  It was the rare youth that she actually respected, now, and those few tended to be the ones who saw her firm leadership and respected her, first.  Now she was in charge of some of the most powerful children in the city.

“The next patrol shift is in…”  She turned to find the clock, “Twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes, yeah.  Vista, with Clockblocker babysitting.  Weld and Flechette are out right now, patrolling separately.”

“Postpone the next patrol, and tell Weld and Flechette to take it easy, but to be ready to report at a moment’s notice.  With the consoles up, we’ll be ready to act.  Pass on word to Miss Militia as well.  I believe she’s taking the next patrol shift.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The laptop would do little to help in her war against the paperwork until she had access to a printer.  PRT divisions and precincts in neighboring cities were all too willing to send along staff and officers to assist, but her firm requests for the fundamentals -for computers, printers, satellite hookups, electricians and IT teams- were ignored all too often.

She cleared space on her desk and started up the laptop.  It would be good to have access to the files on the locals and ‘guests’ alike.  She would handle the paperwork better after a moment’s break, while she focused on other things that needed doing.  She was barely registering the words, at this point.

This would be a battle won with preparation, and for that, she needed information.

It took her a moment to adjust to the smaller keyboard.  She entered her passwords, and answered the personal questions that Dragon’s subsystem posed to her.  Why is your nephew named Gavin?  Your favorite color?  Irritating- she didn’t even know her favorite color, but the algorithms had figured it out before she did.  All information divined from the countless pieces of data about her that were in official emails, photographs and surveillance footage from the PRT buildings.  It was with a moment of trepidation that she typed in For Gawain, knight of the round table.  Silver.

The fact that Dragon’s system could divine these details, as always, unnerved her.  This time, in light of recent events, it unsettled her all the more.

She typed in the words ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ and watched as information began appearing in lists.  News items, sorted by relevance and date, profiles, records.  Lists of names.  Casualty reports.

Emily clicked through the records.  Sorting as a timeline, she found the entry muddled with Armsmaster’s simulation records on the fighting abilities of the Nine.  He’d been preparing to fight them.  A double-check of the modification dates showed he’d seen the entries recently.

So when he’d escaped, he’d done it with the intent of fighting the Nine.  She’d suspected as much.

She refined the search to remove the simulations from the results and found video footage.

A video of Winter, an ex-member of the Nine, engaging in a protracted siege against no less than twenty members of the Protectorate.  She’d been killed by one of her teammates.

A sighting of Crawler, shortly after he had joined the Nine.  He’d been more humanoid, then.  Still large.

Another member of the Nine from yesteryear, Chuckles, attacking a police station.  No use to her, beyond serving as a testament to what might happen if she consolidated too many forces in one place.

She found a file listed as ‘Case 01’.  She clicked it.

We’ve got her cornered?” the person in the video spoke.  Hearing the voice, noting the camera image of an apartment was mounted on a helmet, Emily Piggot knew who it was.  She knew the video well enough.

Think so,” a man replied.  The camera focused on Legend, then swung over to Alexandria, and finally Eidolon.  “We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.

She hasn’t tried to leave?” the face behind the camera asked.  “Why not?

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  “She has a victim.

Alexandria spoke up, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-

Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.

Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.

We’re trying an experimental measure.  It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.

Emily turned off the sound as the four charged into action.  She didn’t want to hear it, but she felt compelled to keep watching.  A matter of respect.

It was Siberian.  One of the first direct confrontations, more than a decade ago.  It hadn’t gone well.

The Protectorate had been smaller, then.  The lead group had consisted of four members.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Hero.  Hero had been the first tinker to take the spotlight, so early to the game that he could get away with taking a name that basic and iconic.  He’d sported golden armor, a jetpack, and a tool for every occasion.  His career had been cut short when Siberian tore him limb from limb in a sudden frenzy of blood and savagery.  He’d been scooped up by Eidolon, who tried to heal him, who continued to hold the man as he joined in the ensuing conflict.

Director Piggot had seen the film before.  Several times.  It was the screams that haunted her.  Even with the sound off, she could have put it all together from the sounds that were engraved in her memory, right down to the cadence, the pitch.  Seeing a teammate die so unexpectedly, so suddenly.  The noises of panic as some of the strongest capes in the United States realized there was nothing they could do, adjusting their tactics to try to save people, staying one step ahead of Siberian to minimize the damage she did as she waded through any defense they erected, tossing the PRT trucks -modified fire trucks, then- as though they were as light and aerodynamic as throwing knives.

Invincible Alexandria was struck a glancing blow and had one eye socket shattered, the eye coming free in the midst of that bloody ruin.  Eidolon had healed her, after, but the scar was still there.  Alexandria now wore a helmet whenever she was out in costume.

After that telling blow, Legend’s voice would be ordering the containment foam.  Not so much to bind Siberian as to hide the wounded Alexandria from the feral lunatic.

With the sound muted, Piggot would not have to hear Legend crying out over what he had believed was the death of two teammates.  It had always made her feel guilty to hear it, as if she were intruding, seeing someone mighty at a moment in their life when they were stripped emotionally bare.

And of course, Siberian had escaped.  Slipped past countless PRT officers and a dozen superheroes in the chaos.  Nothing in the footage gave a clue as to how.

A shadow passed over her desk.  Turning, she saw a silhouette of a flying man against the light of the sun.

Like so many parahumans, he lapsed into intrusiveness and a self-centered mindset.  Well, she wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in regards to this.

She composed herself and spoke, “If you’d like to enter my office through the front door, Legend, we can talk there.”

Silently, he disappeared around the side of the building.  She couldn’t see through the wall, but she heard the commotion as he flew in through the window.  He stepped into her office with the fluid grace one had when they could use their ability to fly to carry their weight.  Blue and white costume, boots and gloves.  Veteran member and leader of the Protectorate, his lasers carried as much firepower as a battalion of tanks.  She had to remind herself that she technically outranked him.

“Siberian?” he asked.

“I’m reading up on our opposition.”  She wouldn’t apologize, but she couldn’t keep the sympathy from her face.

“I flew up to check if you were in your office, and I saw the video.  My fault for seeing what I did.  It wasn’t a good day.”

She nodded curtly.  It hadn’t been.  One could even suggest it was when things started to go bad.  The loss of Hero, the first time a truly dangerous villain made an appearance.  “What did you want to see me for?”

“A note delivered for you at the front door.  We gave it a high priority.”

“You’re taking the standard precautions?”

He nodded.  “It’s already on its way to the lab.”

“Join me?”  She lifted herself out of the chair, keenly aware of the differences in her and Legend: parahuman and human, male and female, lean muscle and eighty pounds of extra weight, tall and average in height.

“Of course.”

They walked past the reams of public servants, government employees and Piggot’s own people.  Emily knew she was not the only one overburdened with work, not the only one sweating, trying and failing to keep cool.  The rest of her people were staying awake with the benefits of coffee more than anything else.

She couldn’t turn away everyone that volunteered or was sent to Brockton Bay to assist her PRT division, but there were too many.  Space was at a premium, and there were too few places where she could establish secure offices, where buildings didn’t threaten to fall down and where assistance was actively needed.  Still, she’d sent people away when she could.

“How’s the family?” She asked.  “You adopted, if I remember right?”

“We did.  Arthur was worried that a surrogate parent would give birth to a parahuman, and if that happened, he’d be out of the loop.”

“The odds are still high, even with an adopted child.  It’s likely more to do with exposure to parahumans at formative ages than genetics.”

“I know.  Arthur knows, but I don’t think he believes it.”

“Or he doesn’t want to believe,” Emily said.

Legend nodded.

“He knew the price of admission,” she said.

Legend smiled.  “You’re always straight to the point, Director.”

“But the child is good?  A boy or a girl?”

“A boy.  Keith.”

“You’ve heard there are some third generation parahumans on record?”

“For a while now.  We knew they were being born anyways, right?”

“We did.  But nothing’s official until it’s on record.  But the point I was getting at was that there was apparently an incident.”

“Oh?”

“In Toronto.  A five-year-old manifested powers.  A third generation parahuman.”

Legend nodded, but he didn’t respond right away.  He stepped forward to open a door for her.

“Everyone’s alright?” he asked, at last.

“No.  But no casualties.  The parents were outed in the chaos.”

“Sobering.”

She nodded.  “The perils of being a superhero parent.  Your child isn’t a third generation cape, I know, but there are always risks.  Still, I envy you.”

“How so?”

“Family.  I wonder if it is harder or easier to get through the day if you have people waiting for you at the end.”

“Yes.”

She smiled a little at that.

They entered the lab, and Emily Piggot very carefully measured the expressions of every person in the room when they noticed Legend.  Awe, surprise, amazement.  Sometimes ambivalence.

What could she take away from that?  If she were to promote one of them, should she promote one of the awestruck ones, or one of the taciturn?  The starry-eyed might be in the PRT for the wrong reasons, but the ones who were unfazed by the presence of one of the most notable heroes in the United States could easily be plants, hiding their emotion or simply too used to the presence of capes to care.

“The note?”

“No traces of toxins, radiation, powders or transfers.”

“Why the priority?  We get letters from cranks every day.”

“The man who delivered the message reported a fairly convoluted series of safeguards to protect the identity of the sender.  Apparently the man who gave him his instructions was given the note by a civilian, and ordered to find a random individual to deliver it to the PRT, all with compensation arranged.”

“You’ve tailed him?”

“Of course.  We doubt anything will come of it.”

“No.  It wouldn’t.  Can you make out the contents without touching the envelope?  Can’t be too careful.”

“We can and have.”  The technician handed Emily a paper.

She read it over twice.  “Burnscar is dead, it seems, and Bonesaw won’t be in the field for the interim.  God knows how quickly she’ll recover, but it’s something.”

“Good news,” Legend said.

Emily wasn’t so sure.  “It’s… a change.”

“Not a good one?”

“The closing line reads, ‘Thanks for the help.’  I can’t help but read it in a sarcastic tone.”

“The bug girl?  Skitter?”

Emily nodded.  “Exactly.  As good as it is to have one more member of the Nine dealt with, this shifts the balance of power towards another group of villains.  It also serves to move up our deadline.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Call a meeting.  Protectorate and Wards.”

“Alright.”

She looked at each of the capes in turn.  Legend, Prism, Ursa Aurora and Cache were the outsiders, heroes on loan.  Miss Militia’s group was more worn out.  Where their costumes had been damaged, stained or torn, pieces had been replaced from the generic costumes the PRT kept in stock.  Miss Militia had doffed the jacket but left the scarf with the flag motif in place.  She wore a black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of empty holsters and sheaths for her weapons.  Battery was wearing a plain black costume and goggles, while Assault had replaced the top half of his costume with similar odds and ends.  Triumph still wore his helmet and shoulder pads with the roaring lion style, but his gloves had been replaced with the same utilitarian, generic ones the PRT officers wore in the field.

The Wards, at least, were in better shape.  Tired, to be sure, but they hadn’t been directly in the fray.  The patrol shifts were unending and they always had something to do.  Weld, Flechette, Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Chariot.

She deliberately avoided looking at Chariot.  The mole in their midst.  Did Coil suspect she knew about the mole he’d planted?  Could she afford to assume he didn’t?

Still, it would all be for nothing if she gave the game away.  Back to the matter at hand.

“We have three priorities,” she began.  “We take down the Nine, we regain control of the city, and we don’t die.”

She stressed the final two words, waiting to see their reactions.  Were any of her people thinking of performing a heroic sacrifice?

“There’s no point in winning now if any of you die or get converted to the enemy side by Regent or Bonesaw.  Even if we were to defeat the Nine outright, through some stroke of fortune, I harbor concerns that we’d lose the city without the manpower to defend it.  It’s a dangerous situation.”

She picked up the remote that sat in front of her and clicked the button.  The screen showed a map of the city with the spread of territories.

“The Nine have the advantage of power.  Not necessarily in terms of the abilities at their disposal, but in terms of their ability to affect change and shape everything that occurs.  They are our number one priority, obviously.  With them gone, if nothing else, I can hope that more capes will be willing to venture into the city to help out.”

“But we’re operating with a deadline, and the Undersiders and Travelers have just moved it up dramatically.  The Nine posed their challenge, and they’re losing.  There’s now four ’rounds’ of Jack’s little game remaining.  Twelve days, depending on their successes and failures in the future.  I’ve talked it over with Legend, and we’re both working under the impression that the Nine will enact whatever ‘penalty’ they mentioned in the terms for their game.  Our working assumption is a biological weapon.”

There were nods around the table.

“In short, our worst case scenario is the Nine feeling spiteful or cornered, and deploying this weapon.  When we attack, we need to make it an absolute victory, without allowing them an opportunity.  Wards, I know you’re not obligated to help in this kind of high-risk situation.  This is strictly voluntary, and I’ve had to discuss the matter with your parents to get permission to even raise the subject, but I would value and appreciate your help on this front.”

The Wards exchanged glances.

“If you could raise your hand if you’re willing to participate?”  She ventured.

Every hand except two was raised.  Chariot and Kid Win.

It did mean she had Flechette, Clockblocker and Vista.  The ones she needed.

“Thank you.  Rest assured, Chariot, Kid Win, that I harbor no ill will.”

“My mom wouldn’t forgive me if I went,” Kid Win said.

“I understand.  Now, the Nine are only one threat.  Let’s talk about the others.”  She clicked the remote again.  “Tattletale’s Undersiders have the advantage of information.  We still don’t know her powers, but we can speculate that it’s a peculiar sort of clairvoyance.  She was able to provide us detailed, verifiable information on Leviathan after fighting him, even though she was only participating for several minutes before being knocked out.”

She paused. “I believe this is why, in a matter of twenty-four hours, they were able to fight the Nine twice and win both times.  On the first occasion, they captured Cherish and Shatterbird, presumably enslaving the pair.”

“So they have Shatterbird’s firepower and Cherish’s ability to track people, now,” Legend spoke.

Piggot nodded.  “Skitter contacted us for assistance, as some of you will remember, and when we refused, the Undersiders took the fight to the Nine a second time.  Burnscar is dead, Bonesaw injured.  She’s invited us to attack them in the meantime.”

“Why would we do that now when we turned down her offer to cooperate?”  Weld asked.  “What’s changed between now and then?”

“Communications will be up shortly,” Piggot replied, “We now have the consoles and trained employees ready to man them, and so long as we’re going into this as a unit, we don’t need to worry about other groups stabbing us in the back at any point during the battle while we engage the Nine.”

“Would they?”  Legend asked.  “I have a hard time assessing their motives and morality.”

“I don’t know.  Could they?  Yes.  And that possibility is too dangerous, especially given what Regent can do.  The Undersiders do not pull their punches.  The Travelers, oddly enough, are more moderate, but they do have sixteen kills under their belt, due in large part to the sheer power at their disposal.”

“Let’s not forget the incident in New York,” Legend said.  “Forty individuals disappeared in one night.  Investigation confirmed the Travelers were occupying a nearby location.  Chances are good that they were involved.”

“They’re complicated, no doubt,” Emily confirmed.  “But for now, they’re one knot in a very  tangled weave.  The Nine have power, the Undersiders have information.  Coil has resources that may even exceed our own, including a precog of indeterminate power.  Last but certainly not least, Hookwolf’s contingent is one and a half times the size of our own, and he’s absorbing the whites from the Merchants to his own group.  He commands a small army.”

“It’s a considerable series of obstacles stacked against us,” Legend answered.

“And few capes are willing to step in to help defend the city.  Credit to Legend and his teammates for joining us.  Thank you.”

The group of guests nodded.

“There’s more.”  Time to see how much information filters through to Coil, and how he reactsWith luck, we might be able to pit one problem against another.  “Armsmaster’s confinement was technically off the record, to protect the PRT in this time of crisis.  He escaped, and thus far, Dragon has not been able to track him.  Without official record or reason to arrest him, our measures are limited.”

“It’s impressive that he got away from Dragon,” Kid Win said.

“It is.  Thus far, he has eluded every measure she had in place.  Either he is much more crafty than even Dragon anticipated, keeping in mind that she’s a very smart woman, or Dragon helped him.”

That gave the others pause.

“Dragon’s record of service has been exemplary,” Legend spoke.

“It has.  And we’ve put an inordinate amount of trust in her as a consequence.  How many of our resources are tied into her work?  If she had a mind to oppose us, would we be able to deal with her?”

“We have no reason to think she’s done anything.”

Emily waved him off.  “Regardless.  Very little of this situation remains in our control.  Armsmaster is gone, the other major players are members of the various factions, and we remain in the dark about who many of them are.”

There were nods all around.

She had them listening.  “I have a solution in mind.  The higher-ups have approved it.  Clockblocker, you’re going to be using your power defensively if things go south.  They aren’t patient enough to wait for it to wear off.  You can protect yourself by using your power on a costume you’re wearing, yes?”

Clockblocker nodded.

“Vista, I’m counting on you to help control the movements of the Nine.  Siberian is immune to powers, but not to external influences.  The timing will be sensitive.”

She clicked the remote, then turned her head to look at the result.  It was a warhead.

“On my command, a stealth bomber is prepared to drop payloads of incendiary explosives at a designated location.  We evacuate civilians from the area or lead the Nine to an area where evacuation is possible or unnecessary, then we drop a payload on site.  If they move, we drop another payload.  Clockblocker, you protect anyone that’s unable to clear out.  Legend will ferry you to where you need to be.  Cache can rescue people as the effects wear off.”

“That’s… still not reassuring,” Flechette spoke.

“You’ll be equipped with fire resistant suits.  I ordered them in anticipation over fighting Burnscar, but the plan has been adjusted.  You’ll all look identical, except for agreed upon icons, colors and initials on each costume.  Ones Jack and the other members of the Nine will not be able to identify, please.  There’s a team ready to prepare the costumes at a moment’s notice.  It will help mask the identities of those involved, and postpone any reaction from Jack over our having broken the terms of the deal.”

“But we are breaking the deal.  Even if Legend’s team doesn’t get involved-” Miss Militia started.

“The incendiary deployments will serve three purposes.  They’ll forestall any biological attacks Bonesaw attempts, they’ll force Siberian to stay put to protect her allies and they’ll kill Jack or Bonesaw if she isn’t able.  Humans aren’t biologically programmed to look up, and whatever else Siberian is, she’s still human at her core.”

“And if Siberian does protect her allies?” Weld asked.

“Flechette will see if her enhanced shots can beat Siberian’s invulnerability.  Failing that, Clockblocker contains the woman.  His power won’t work on her, but we can cage her in thread or chains that he can then freeze.  If we can do the same with Jack and Bonesaw, we can starve them out, or wait until they let go of Siberian.  If you’re prepared, Clockblocker?  We can support you with relief teams.”

“If it means stopping them, I’m down.”

“Unless she’s able to walk through that,” Weld spoke.

“It’s inviolable,” Clockblocker said, leaning back in his chair.  “I’d sooner expect her to fold the universe in half.”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s what the doctors say.”  Clockblocker said.

“And Crawler?” Legend asked.

Piggot spoke, “Legend, Ursa Aurora, Prism, Weld, Assault and Battery will occupy him until we can contain him.  He’s still vulnerable to physics.  I’m hoping the white phosphorous explosive will keep him in the area long enough for us to put measures in place.  As I said, we can’t afford to do this halfway.  If they get cornered, or if they think they’ll lose, we run the risk they’ll lash out.”

She glanced around the room at the fourteen parahumans present.

“We carry this out this evening, before any of our opponents catch on to our intentions and complicate matters with their own agendas.  That will be all.  Prepare.  See to your suits in the lab.”

She watched everyone file out.  Legend stayed behind.

“You’re not saying everything,” he murmured.

“No.”

“Fill me in?”

“Some of that is to mislead the spy in our midst.  We have a follow-up measure.”

“Does it pose a risk to this team?”

“It does.  Unavoidable.  I suspect Coil will inform Hookwolf and encourage the Chosen, the Pure and even Faultline’s group to act.  Tattletale, I suspect, will know something’s going on, and I intend to leak enough information to pique her curiosity.  It’s in the moment that the villains enter the situation that the risk to our capes occurs.”

“But?”

“But we have a store of equipment we confiscated from Bakuda when we raided her laboratory.  Miss Militia deployed a number against Leviathan, but we have more.  Once the other factions have engaged, we bombard the area with the remainder in a second strike.  Our research suggests that several of these explosives can bypass the Manton effect.”

“This breaks the unspoken rules between capes.  And the truce against the Nine.  I don’t like this.”

It’s a world gone mad.  Do I have to join the madmen to make a difference?

“Don’t worry.  I’m the one who’s going to push the button,” Piggot answered.  “And I’m not a cape.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Where is he?” I growled.

“As if I’m going to tell you.  To think Jack called you the clever worm.”

“Don’t call me that.”  I felt a flare of irritation that bordered on anger.  Was that me, or was it her power at work?

Tattletale put a hand on my shoulder.  I shut my mouth.  She asked Cherish, “What do you want in exchange for your help?  You want us to let you go?”

Cherish laughed a little, and it reminded me of Alec’s own dry chuckle.  “No.  Definitely not.  In exchange for the information about what the Imp is up to, you’re going to give me medical treatment, you’re going to keep me here, and you’re going to keep me safe.”

“And for the info on Grue?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m thinking a billion-”  Cherish winced as she moved mid-sentence and pulled at the wound.

“A billion dollars so you can scamper off to the other side of the world and live the good life while you hide from those bastards,” Tattletale finished.

“Right.  Or are you going to tell me that’s too much?  Is your teammate’s life worth a smaller amount?  Where do you draw the line, Ms. Frowny-face?”

Tattletale glanced at me.  I looked, in turn, to Coil.  He gave me a barely perceptible shake of his head.  He wouldn’t fork over the amount.

“You’re not really in a position to be making demands,” Trickster said.  “You’re bleeding to death, and we do have the ability to hurry the process along.”

Cherish shrugged.  “Bonesaw gave me the works.  Mesh sheaths for every major artery and organ, wire reinforcement for my skeleton.  It’s not going to kill me anytime soon.”

I made a mental note of that.  Chances were good that Jack, Bonesaw and the other more vulnerable members of the Nine had some similar protection.  How differently would things have played out if Ballistic had used his power and blown them up?

I could,” Trickster threatened.  “Or we could wait and see which happens first: Either you agree to share the information we want or you slowly bleed out.”

“A game of chicken?  I’m down.”  Cherish prodded her injury with a fingertip.  It was clear it hurt, but she still stuck a finger into the hole and investigated some.  “The auto-injection pump is dosing me with painkillers and antibiotics now.  First time feeling this stuff work.”

“Letting that… lunatic perform surgery like that?” Sundancer asked, shivering a little.  “How?  Why?”

“Not much choice in the matter, but I was awake for the entire thing, and I read her emotions as she did it.  No hint of any traps or dirty tricks.”

Tattletale glanced at the bullet hole in Cherish’s chest.  “I’m suspicious it’s so routine for her that there wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar if she did try something.”

Cherish leaned forward, “Are we going to do this?  Test your perceptive abilities against mine?  Some intellectual jousting?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “She’s stalling.  She knows time’s on her side, because we need to rescue Grue sooner than later.  Longer we wait, the worse our position.”

“I admit I’m at something of a loss.” Coil sounded pensive, as he looked at our captive.  “Where do we put her?”

“Jack did research on you assholes,” Cherish cut in, still trying to distract us, “I know your schtick, Tattletale.  Pick at people’s weaknesses, tell them stuff they don’t want to know.  I can do the same thing.  I’m better at it than you are.”

“It’s a bit of a crazy idea,” I said, ignoring her.  “But what if we didn’t stash her in this base?  Or any of the others?  We put her anywhere in the city, there’s the risk that some unwitting John, Dick or Harry will come by, and she’ll get them to help her somehow.  Can’t station guards on her, so… why not the water?”

“A boat?” Ballistic asked.

“I could tell you a story,” Cherish said, “Little girl grows up with money.  Daddy pulls in six figures, maybe seven.  Massive house, I expect.  Maybe horses, a mercedes, indoor and outdoor pools…”

“I was thinking about a buoy,” I replied, speaking over her.  “Could even rig things so she’s out of sight.  Cuff her to it, we can be pretty damn sure she won’t be getting free.”

“But what about boats coming by?” Sundancer asked.

“Almost no boats on the water,” I replied.  “Coastline is a mess, thanks to Leviathan.  Ships can’t dock here.”

“Good,” Coil said.  “Then as soon as she is given some basic medical care, I’ll have my men take her out there.  I’ll need to work out measures to ensure she doesn’t escape.”

“So the little girl who wanted for nothing still found a reason to run away from home.  Spent life homeless on the streets.  Stealing and dealing for petty cash so she could eat.  What would make someone leave home like that, Tattletale?”

Coil turned to the soldier next to him, “Can you go find Pitter and bring him here?  I want her sedated sooner than later.”

The soldier nodded and headed off to find the medic.  He winked at Tattletale as he jogged by.  I’d met him.  Not one of Tattletale’s soldiers, but I’d crossed paths with him.  Fish?  Seemed like he and Tattletale were getting along.

“That’s a mistake,” Cherish smiled.  “Without my cooperation, you won’t find them.  You won’t be able to contact Imp or know where to look for her brother.”

“Tattletale?” Coil spoke.

“You already informed us on most of that,” Tattletale told Cherish.  She leaned against the wall.  “Your method of communication with Imp.  You’re planning on meeting her.  Afternoon?  Evening?”

“As if I’m-”

“Late afternoon. Thanks.”

“What?”  Cherish frowned.

“What time in the afternoon?  Four… five… six.  Six o’clock.  There we go.  Where?  Upper end of town or downtown?”

“I’m not saying anything!”

“You’re telling me everything.”  Tattletale must be reading Cherish’s tells.  Her body language, eye movements, her tone and word choice.  “Let’s see, you’re meeting Imp downtown around six.  You would have made it a place where you could talk with her for a minute while you were out of sight of the others.  Bathroom?”

Cherish didn’t move a muscle.  Maybe she realized what Tattletale was doing.

“Bathroom, then.  Same building as the rest of the Nine?  Now we just need to dig up where they are, and you’ve got no cards left.  Unless you want to share that information in good faith.”

There was no response from our prisoner.

“Hmmm,” Tattletale said.  “She’s cornered, and she’s probably contemplating something like suicide by cop.  Or whatever the term is when the other group aren’t cops.  She’d rather die than have us turn her over to her teammates, so she’ll try a gambit like using her powers, knowing we’ll probably gun her down.”

“Got any ideas?” Trickster asked her.

“She liked the dead man’s switch for her suicide collar.  Why don’t we set up something similar?  Put a soldier on guard somewhere nearby.  We schedule it so he receives a note  from us every fifteen minutes.  If he doesn’t get it, he passes a message to the Nine telling them exactly where to find Cherish?”

I could see Cherish tense.

“How do we get a message to them without them killing the messenger?”

“We can work it out.”  Tattletale shrugged.  She looked at Trickster, “You think Oliver could handle it?”

Trickster nodded. “I’ll get him on thinking up some way to arrange this.”

“Tattletale.” Coil spoke, “Can you gather the rest of the details from her before we secure her offshore?”

“So long as she doesn’t get stupid and try to do something more than talk.”

Cherish decided to speak up.  “Who’s next?  Who should I dish the dirt on?  Feeling homesick, Trickster?  Scared little boy pretending to be a leader.  It’s your fault, you know.  She blames you.  Everyone does. They’re even starting to hate you.”

“Can we talk without her in earshot?” I asked.

Coil nodded and gestured for us to leave.  His soldiers moved to Cherish’s side and gripped her arms.

“No point!”  Cherish grinned, “I’ll know what you’re talking about.  Can’t keep secrets from me!”

“But you won’t be sidetracking us,” I replied.

“You failed, you know,” Cherish said, changing tacks.  “When someone has an obsession like you do, it’s like a giant neon sign to an empath like me.  All it takes is for me to peek into Coil’s head, peek into the hearts of everyone else in this base, and I know you’ll never get what you want.  You won’t save her.  You can’t.  Window of opportunity is long gone.”

I jabbed her where the bullet hole was.  The strength went out of her legs and she fell to her hands and knees.  I stepped back, drew in a slow breath and then kicked her in the face.  She fell to the ground.

“Skitter.” Coil’s word was without inflection.  There was no admonishment or warning to it.  I took it as a reminder of where I was, which might have been his intent.

“We can talk about that later,” I told him, “My priority right now is Grue.”

Coil nodded.

I glanced down at Cherish.  “Hope Bonesaw reinforced your teeth while she was fixing you up.”

“She did,” Cherish muttered, one hand to her mouth.

I kicked her in the head once more for good measure, and then turned away, my hands raised to assure the others I was done.

“That’s enough,” Coil said.  He signaled his men.  “Take the prisoner to the coastline and find a spot to depart.”

Cherish was dragged off to a point further down the catwalk.  Her shouts reached us well after she was out of sight, “Your boss is screwing you!  All of you!  You have no idea how badly!  You’re cogs in his machine, and he’s only steps away from pulling it all together.  Get rid of the Nine, stage the final play with everyone in their proper spots, but then he doesn’t need you anymore!”

“Sowing dissension in the ranks,” Coil said.  He sounded remarkably calm given what Cherish had been saying.  “Nothing more.”

“Right.  She could be lying,” Trickster ventured.

“She is.  Mostly,” Tattletale said.

I doubted anyone believed what the three were saying.  At the same time, nobody here was in a position to walk away in response to this unconfirmed information.

“Tattletale, see to the interrogation,”  Coil ordered.

“Okay.”

“That leaves the remainder of us to decide on a way of rescuing the others.”

I fidgeted.  The idea of Brian in the hands of the Nine was… daunting.  Was Siberian eating him alive, literally?  Was he at the mercies of Mannequin?  Jack could be torturing him for details on us.  Or he could be in Bonesaw’s clutches.

Chances were good that they were pissed.  Jack excepted, maybe.  He’d seemed to like our ambush.  In any event, any anger or sadistic tendencies were likely to be taken out on Brian.

Fuck.  I kept imagining uglier and uglier possibilities.

“They’re going to be waiting and ready.  We’ll need help, I think,” I said.

“Help?” Trickster turned my way.  “You’re forgetting that the rest of the factions in the city have made a pact against us.”

“Not everybody there agreed,” I said.  “There was one group at the meeting that didn’t agree to the pact.”

“Am I remembering wrong?”  Trickster asked.  “Coil, Merchants, Chosen, Faultline’s group…”

“That’s right,” I said.

“What are you thinking, then?”  Sundancer asked.

“Coil,” I said, “You got some surveillance gear for Tattletale, right?  Can I see it?”

Trickster accompanied me.  We didn’t get the benefit of Bitch’s dogs.  She’d wanted to check on her territory and take care of her dogs.  I’d grudgingly agreed that she should take care of that, and Trickster and I had set off alone.

I gave him a sidelong glance as we ascended the stairs of the empty apartment building.  What had Cherish said?  Scared little boy?  She blames you.  They all do.  I could remember Sundancer’s remarks on the drama in the group and how lonely it was to be around them.  I recalled Genesis seeming less than thrilled when her team arrived last night.  Was Trickster at the center of it?  He was more ruthless than his comrades, which was interesting because his power was the least lethal.  It might have been a point of contention.  But what would he have done that the others would blame him for?

Could I comment on that?  Should I?

I remained silent.  We exited the stairwell at the fifth floor and entered a dark hallway.  I clicked on a flashlight, and we made our way down the hall.  Trash was piled everywhere, and I was all too aware of the maggots that were crawling on the floor, barely visible in the dim light.

“Which way?” he asked.

I pointed.  A side benefit of my power was that it made it pretty damn easy to maintain my sense of direction.

We tried the doors for the two apartments that led in the right direction.  Both were locked.

Trickster touched the doorknob, then looked across the floor at the trash in the hallway.  The doorknob disappeared, and a chunk of wood fell to the ground.  He repeated the process with the internal mechanisms, and the lock was effectively transported away.  He opened the door and walked inside, going straight for the windows.

“Done this before?” he asked.

I shook my head.  I was gathering my bugs, the stronger fliers, and drawing out lines of silk.  Trickster handed me the individual components.  A small spy camera, no larger than a tube of lipstick, and a similar microphone.  My bugs bound them together with silk and then stretched out more to distribute the lifting among the dragonflies, bumblebees and wasps.

“Okay, let’s see,” I muttered.

Testing, testing, one, two, three…  My swarm managed some semblance of the words I wanted, a mix of buzzing, chirps and clicks to form the right pitch.  Some sounds were hard or impossible to make.  The ‘puh’, ‘buh’ and ‘muh’ sounds didn’t form, and I struggled to form something that sounded like a ‘t’ in the middle of a word.  It was intelligible, but only barely.

It would have to do.

I ensured the rigging around the camera was more or less steady and then sent the swarm out the window.  I relied on my power to keep track of it while I opened the laptop Coil had provided and turned on the video feed.  When it had arrived outside the PHQ headquarters, I drew it together into a densely packed human form.

It took six and a half minutes for the Protectorate to react to the figure.  That bothered me, on a level.  Were they disorganized?  Or was it difficulty in communicating and marshaling their forces when they didn’t have phones or other means of passing on alerts?  They gathered in the lobby.  I adjusted the camera the insects were carrying and made out Weld, Kid Win, Clockblocker, Miss Militia, Battery and Legend.  There were three more capes I didn’t recognize.  Members of Legend’s team?

Seeing them gave me pause.

As Miss Militia stepped outside, I pulled on the headphones, and Trickster did the same.

“Skitter?” Miss Militia asked.

Something like that,” I replied using my swarm.  “I wanted to talk.

“Given what happened the last time you were here, I’m not sure we’re on speaking terms.”

We have two of the Slaughterhouse Nine in custody.  We are prepared to turn one over into your custody.”

“What?  I didn’t hear that.”

Damn.  It sounded natural in my head, as I got them to make the noise, but I wasn’t quite there yet.  Maybe it would have been better to just pass a phone to her.  I’d gone this route for the dramatic touch, and because I hadn’t wanted them to trace us.

I rephrased, “Shatterbird and Cherish have been captured.  We will deliver Cherish to you if you wish.  We are done interrogating her.”

“Interrogation.  You mean torture, don’t you?” Legend asked from where he stood in the doorway.

No.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Why the offer?”

You can put her in secure custody, and we need your help.

“For?”

The Nine have captured Grue.  We mounted one successful attack this morning, we got two of theirs for one of ours.  They will be ready for a rescue attempt.  They know our powers.  Help us attack.  Help us catch them off guard a second time and stop them for good.

“You’re not only asking us to fight the Nine, but you want us to fight alongside notorious villains.”

So I was notorious now?  Huh.  Couldn’t let that distract me.  “I’m offering you Cherish.

I could make out Miss Militia shaking her head.  “I’ll be blunt, Skitter.  I’m not Armsmaster.  I don’t have a stake in personal glory or renown.  I’m not going to pussyfoot around, either.  Put a bullet in her skull and be done with it.  There’s a kill order on them, nobody’s going to charge you for murder.”

Then work with us because it’s the best way to stop the Nine.”

“I refused Hookwolf when he made the same offer, and I’m going to refuse you.  The capes on my teams are good people.  I won’t throw away their lives with a reckless attack.  We’re going to develop our own strategies, plan, and find a safe way to target them.”

And civilians die in the meantime.”  I retorted.  Grue dies in the meantime, if he wasn’t dead already.

“We’ve tried the same strategies we use against Endbringers.  Multiple teams, allying with locals.  Sometimes we get one of them.  Sometimes we get three or four.  But we lose people, lots of people, in the process.  The remaining members of their group always find some way of escaping. The fact that we tried and failed in going all-out gives them notoriety.  They bounce back after an attack like that, and they bounce back hard, with creeps, lunatics and killers flocking to them for the chance at that same sort of glory.”

The difference between us and Hookwolf is that we’ve succeeded.  We have two of them in our custody.  You can’t bide your time, organize, and wait for an opportune moment.  They have years of experience fighting people who do that.  Anything you try, they’ve probably dealt with.  We win by catching them off guard with powers they don’t know about, powers they can’t expect and interactions between powers.  Calculated recklessness.

“We can handle that on our own, with more calculation and less recklessness.”

He’s studied you.  For any member of your team with more than three months of experience, he already knows everything they can do, their tricks and individual talents.  You have powers we need.  We have knowledge on their location, firepower of our own and two captives.  We’ll only pull this off if we work together.”

“Putting our lives in your hands,” Miss Militia replied.

Only as far as we’d be relying on you,” I answered her.

“Who are you, Skitter?”  Legend asked.  He floated closer to my swarm-decoy.  “I can’t get a read on your personality or motivations, and that’s without touching on what came up at the close of the Endbringer event.”

My teammate is in the hands of the Nine, they could be murdering more people right this second, and you’re talking about me, of all people?”

“If we’re going to offer you help, we should know who we’re interacting with,” he said.

I glanced at Trickster, then back at the image on the screen.  “What do you want to know?

“We’ve talked with the people in your territory.  Between what they say and what came out at the hospital, I can’t help but wonder at your motives.”

There’s someone specific I want to help.  If I can improve the lives of others at the same time, then all the better.

“So where do you stand, then?  Where do you see yourself in terms of the sliding scale of good and evil, heroes and villains?”

I almost laughed, and some of my humor must have translated in a mental direction to my bugs, because they started making a noise that wasn’t speech.  I stopped them.  It wouldn’t have sounded much like laughter anyways.  “All of the above?  None of the above?  Does it matter?  Some of us wear the villain label with pride, because they want to rebel against the norms, because it’s a harder, more rewarding road to travel, or because being a ‘hero’ often means so very little.  But few people really want to see themselves as being bad or evil, whatever label they wear.  I’ve done things I regret, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve walked the roads in between.  The sliding scale is a fantasy.  There’s no simple answers.

“There can be.  You could do what’s right.”

I was getting an inkling of what Bitch referred to as ‘words’.  Prattle that meant so very little in the face of what was happening in the present.  Was this the kind of irritation, impatience and anger she felt with so many social interactions?  I clenched my fist.  “Speak for yourself.  You want to hide here while my group and Hookwolf deal with the brunt of the Nine’s attention.  Just like you did with the ABB.

“That happened under Armsmaster’s leadership.  You can’t blame us for being intelligent about how we go about this.”

I was disappointed my swarm couldn’t convey my anger.  “I can blame you for being cowards.  I’m going.  If you want to talk about morality, start by talking to Armsmaster.”

“Can’t.  He’s gone.”

I paused.  Did the Nine get him?  “Dead?

“Escaped from his hospital room.  With our attention on the Nine, we don’t have the resources to track him down.”

Does he know about the Nine’s threat to hit the city with a plague if he leaves?

“I hope so.”

Fuck.  Not only was that one more uncertainty stacked onto everything, but Armsmaster was the closest thing I had to a nemesis.  Having him running around the city was not a good thing.

For a brief moment, I contemplated having Trickster teleport me to ground level, so it was me talking to the local heroes, and not just my swarm.  I could tell them that I was putting my well-being in their hands, risking them arresting me, as a gesture of good faith.

Except I couldn’t help but see myself from their perspective.  Warlord of the Boardwalk.  I’d rotted off Lung’s manhood and carved out his eyes.  I’d played an undefined role in Armsmaster’s downward slide.  I’d robbed a bank, terrorized hostages with poisonous spiders, attacked their headquarters and used insects dipped in capsaicin to cripple their junior heroes with incapacitating pain.  All the while, I’d acted with a seemingly ambiguous morality.  Was I a good guy doing all the wrong things?  Or did they see me as dangerous and unhinged?

There was no way I could put myself in their hands without knowing what they thought about me, and frankly, I wasn’t sure how to think about myself.  How the hell were they supposed to make a call?

So.  You in?”  I tried, instead.

I could see him look back at Miss Militia, who shook her head.  “Miss Militia runs the local team, so it’s ultimately her call, but… we’ve talked about it, and I agree with her.  No.  The risks outweigh the potential benefits.”

My heart sank.  “Then one final tip.  You should know that Bonesaw’s done some surgery on all of her people.  Implanted protection for the more vulnerable parts of their bodies.  They’re tougher than they look.

“Thank you,” Legend said.  “You might not believe me, but I wish you the best of luck.”

I snarled as I shut the laptop and turned away from the scene, calling my swarm back to me.

“That didn’t work,” Trickster said.

“No.  And we just wasted a lot of time.”

“We’ll have Shatterbird working with us, thanks to Regent, and we’ve got Imp as our man on the inside, maybe.  We’re going to outnumber the remaining five or six of them, right?  It’s not hopeless.”

“They’ll be ready for us.  They’re entrenched, they have a hostage, and we’re totally unable to fight two of them.  How long is it going to take to extricate Grue from whatever cage they have him in?”

“It’s not hopeless,” he repeated.  “Whatever they’re doing to keep Grue prisoner, if I can see him, I can free him.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Would it reassure you to know that your conversation with the local heroes gave me an idea of my own?”

My head snapped in Trickster’s direction.

“Come on.  We should hurry,” he said.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

She couldn’t shake the idea that it was a hoax.  Three times, she almost turned around and headed back home.

Twenty eight miles west from New York City, down the 202, to where there were more trees than houses and the roads hadn’t been maintained for too many years.  It hadn’t rained recently, but there were murky puddles in the road where the water had settled into broad depressions.

Water sprayed as she deliberately aimed for one puddle.  Forty five minutes of driving, trying to convince herself this was real, not seeing anyone on the road for the last ten minutes, she’d started to feel lost.  The concrete action of steering into the puddle and getting the expected result seemed to ground her.

Every action had an equal and opposite reaction.  It was the way things were supposed to work.  Action and consequence.

Driving to the middle of nowhere was the action.  But what was the consequence?  Wasting two hours of her time on one of the last weekends of freedom she had before she was due to start school?  For a mere chance she might get what she needed?

She had to stop and reverse to reread a number on a mailbox.  2062.  She steered into the long dirt driveway.  A farm sat in the distance, with a rotted-out grain silo and a barn nearby.

What if this wasn’t just meant to waste her time?  What if it was more sinister?  If there was a gang of men waiting for her, ready to drag her off somewhere…

She shook her head.  She knew how to defend herself.  Her father had taught her, and she’d taken classes.  They didn’t necessarily know she was a woman from her email address. She’d left a note with her roommate, sealed with instructions not to open it or read the details unless she failed to return home.  Topping it off, the necklace she wore had a built-in GPS.  A gift from her sixteenth birthday from her dad.  If there was trouble, the note she’d left with her roommate had instructions to contact her dad and track her down using the necklace.

She stopped by the barn and sat in the car for a minute, peering around to try to see if anyone was near, the engine idling.  A minute passed before she felt secure enough that she wouldn’t be ambushed and shifted the car into park.  She held the key like a weapon as she stepped out of the car.  She didn’t hold the individual keys between her fingers, like an amateur would be inclined to do, but held it like a knife instead.

The barn was the final destination of the route the email had outlined for her.  Empty.  It smelled of stale manure, rotting hay and mold.  The exterior was covered in peeling red paint.

She checked her watch.  She was eight minutes early.

There were no other cars on the property.  That meant there were eight minutes for someone to come down that road with the cracks, potholes and puddles, pull down the long driveway and come meet her at the barn.

Her weight shifted from foot to foot, as her impatience manifested in restlessness.  Eight minutes before she found out if she’d been played for a fool.

She used her shoes to kick a few loose stones from the dirt driveway, smoothed it out, and then kicked them off.  Barefoot, she planted her feet a shoulder width apart, then bent her knees as though she were sitting down in a chair, her arms outstretched in front of her for balance.  She bent low, straightened, then repeated the process several more times.

Deep breaths.

Centering herself, she began on the next form, placing her feet perpendicular to one another, and transferring her weight from one foot to the other, from toe to heel to the heel of the other foot.

Her digital watch interrupted her exercises with a steady beeping.  She’d set an alarm for the meeting deadline.  Right this minute, she was supposed to be meeting someone.

And there was no car in sight.

Sighing, humiliated, she donned her shoes, opened her car door and prepared to leave.  She wouldn’t speak of this to anyone.

“Leaving?  After coming all this way?”  The voice was female, rich with hints of a French accent, but the English was probably better than her own.

She turned, then stepped a few feet in front of her car to look inside the barn.

A woman stood there, dark-skinned, with her hair cut into a short style that was more utilitarian than stylish.  She wore a doctor’s lab coat and held a white plastic clipboard with both hands.

That wasn’t the startling thing.

At a point halfway inside the barn, there ceased to be any barn at all.  White tiled floor and white-painted walls stretched a distance behind the woman, and the ceiling was all glass, hiding a smooth distribution of flourescent lights that made it all glow evenly.

“Who are you?”

“Some call me Mother, but that is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Those with a more professional attitude know me as Doctor.”

“I’m-”

“No names.  We’ve already investigated you, we know much of what we need to know, but I think there is a great deal of symbolic value in having you maintain some anonymity.  Pick a name, and I will use it for the duration of this meeting.  It doesn’t need to be permanent or long-term.”

“Okay.  Is it supposed to be a fake regular name or a codename or…?”

“Anything.”

“Jamie.”  It was the name her parents had been planning to give her baby sister.  They’d broken up before that happened.

“Jamie it is.  Come.  I have an employee that is relocating this section of my offices to this spot, but it taxes him, and there’ll be less wait for the return trip if we don’t strain him.”

Jamie looked over her shoulder at her car.  The GPS wouldn’t do her much good here, she suspected.  It would take a leap of faith.

She hurried over and stepped close to the Doctor, crossing that border from packed dirt and moldy hay to clean tiled floor.

There was a rush of wind, and the surroundings swam violently for two or three seconds.  When the image had resolved again, they stood in the middle section of a long hallway.  It looked like a hospital, sterile, white, clean, but it was empty.  There were no people, and there was no equipment.

“Welcome to Cauldron,” the Doctor said.

“How did you find me?  I just got an email.”

“I’d have to check my notes.  We have ways of finding interested parties.  If I remember right, you were browsing websites, researching ways to acquire tinker-made armor and weapons?”

Jamie nodded.  “I was.  So many were fakes or scams that I wasn’t willing to trust the ones that did look legit.”

“We own several of those sites.  All are fakes.  That might have been where we first noticed your activity.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“Creepiness is an unfortunate reality when you’re forced to operate covertly, without a steady customer base.”

“Why?  Why not go public?”

“Countries would go to war over what we have at our disposal.  A way to grant powers to anyone who wants them.  They would want armies of parahuman soldiers.  Even if we did manage to establish ourselves as a neutral party without government interference, Cauldron would be infiltrated by those looking to steal our secrets.  Spies, thieves.”

“And people who wanted to establish a rival business?”

They were reaching the end of the hallway.  The Doctor smiled lightly.  “And that.  Please, through this door.”

Jamie prided herself on her ability to identify evasions and untruths.  The Doctor was humoring her when she replied to the question about rival businesses.  The idea didn’t seem to worry her.  Why?

Jamie stepped through the open door and entered a large room.  As with the hallway, the decor was predominantly white.  There was a desk of white marble with a white leather chair, and two plastic chairs facing the desk.  A modestly sized monitor sat at one corner of the desk, with a compact keyboard placed in front of it, and no mouse.  The space was spartan.

I’d go crazy in here.  There’s no personality to this place.

Stranger still was the lack of dust.  Since her arrival, Jamie hadn’t seen anyone but the Doctor.  How did the Doctor keep everything so clean?

“Have a seat.”

Jamie sat in one of the plastic chairs.

“I like to talk and establish expectations before we begin.  You should know that almost every aspect of this experience can be tailored to your tastes.  Cauldron’s usual routine, however, is to arrange one face to face meeting.  We’ll discuss your budget, your situation and goals, and then we’ll peruse a catalog to find something that fits your budget and will hopefully give you the results you desire.  There is a two month waiting period, during which time I will assign you some testing, some regarding your physical condition, other tests for psychological reasons.”

“Psychological?  Is that to make sure I won’t flip out and go villain when I get powers?”

“That is not a concern.  Though your question seems to indicate that you hope to be a hero?”  The Doctor made it a half-question, half-statement.

Jamie’s brow furrowed.  “Wait, so you give powers to people who want to be villains?”

“We give powers to anyone who pays.  Rest assured, if you wish to end this meeting now because of a pang of conscience, we can see you returned to the barn shortly.”

Jamie hesitated, then shook her head.  “It’s fine.”

“The testing will include blood tests, stress tests, MRI, CAT scan, radiographic scans and a Torsten DNA sequencing.  These scans are primarily for our purposes, and if you’d prefer, you can have your family doctor arrange or conduct these tests instead for a small fee.  A larger fee will allow you to skip the tests entirely.”

Fees and additional expenses.  No.  The testing wasn’t so important that she’d spend her money on it.

“You can conduct the tests however you want,” Jamie said.

“Good.  You’ll need to forgive me, but I must be blunt.  Cauldron operates on a strict policy of secrecy.  It is crass of me to do this, but know that if you pass on any knowledge of what transpired here, we have ways to find out, and we’ll be forced to employ countermeasures.  This is in effect even if you decide you do not wish to sign anything.”

“Countermeasures?”

“Our response will reflect the gravity of the offense.  We have clients who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the products and services we offer.  It is our obligation to protect them.”

“What kind of countermeasures?  Would you kill me?”

“We try to avoid murder in the course of doing business, not just because of the moral issues, but because it draws attention.  For leaks, our usual procedure is to discredit the individual in question and deploy our in-house division of parahumans to drive them into hiding, remove their powers or both.”

Try to avoid murder.  The phrasing implied the Doctor or Cauldron had gone that far before. She didn’t like that, and she especially didn’t like the fact that the Doctor was phrasing things so she’d miss that detail if she wasn’t listening carefully.

“It’s fine.  I don’t intend to break the rules.”

“Few do.  Still, I’ve done my duty and informed you.  Tell me about yourself, Jamie.  I know your father is in law enforcement.”

“He’s a detective, yeah.”

“Does that have anything to do with why you’re here?”

Jamie frowned and looked away.  “Yeah.”

“Tell me.”

“A year ago… well, it all started two years ago.  There were two criminals called Ramrod and Fleece.  The local heroes brought them into custody, partially because of my dad’s work in tracking the pair down.  Three strikes act applied to Fleece, and Ramrod was in for murder with intent.  They put them in special cells, got them a court date, and everything was normal.  My dad worked to gather the evidence, made some deals with informants to testify anonymously, and everything.  The court process takes a lot longer than it does on TV.”

“Too true.”

“Finally, after about a year of court appearances and one minor appeal they managed to squeeze in there, it was decided.  The pair was supposed to go to the Birdcage.  Except someone broke them out.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand.”

Jamie gnawed on her lip for a second.  Just thinking about it pissed her off.  “His name is Madcap, and he’s a mercenary that specializes in breaking people out of jail.  Sometimes even when they’re in the convoy on the way to the Birdcage.  And it’s just… wrong.  It’s not the way things should work.  Months or years of investigation, good police and good heroes risking their lives to finally catch someone and arrest them, a year of trial, and all it takes is one fucking asshole with powers to free them?”

“And so you’ve spent the last year trying to find a way to purchase powers, with the intent of righting that wrong?”

“I want to stop him.  And not just him.  I want to help things make sense again, even if it means playing unfair because they’re playing unfair.  Crime should have consequences.”

The Doctor typed something onto the keyboard, paused, and then typed something else. “Madcap.  Well, the good news is that he isn’t one of ours, so there’s no conflict of interest. The bad news is that the PRT rated him as a striker seven.”

Jamie’s face settled into a grim expression.  “I know.  My dad has resources.  I took the time to look up Madcap’s records.”

“Having looked into your finances-”

“I’ve got a place in the city that was left to me.  My dad doesn’t know about it, so it’d be easy to sell it and not have anyone close to me get curious where they money went.  Current housing market says I could sell it for three-quarters of a million dollars.  I just have to sell it.”

“We can expedite this.  Cauldron is prepared to buy the property from you for seven hundred and thirty thousand dollars, renting it out to you in the meantime if you require it.  We will sell it at our leisure rather than wait for you to find a buyer.”

“I don’t need you to rent it to me.  No, that works,” Jamie said.  She was secretly relieved to have one of the biggest hurdles handled so easily.

“Good.”

“And I have another five thousand that my relatives set aside for my school.  It’d be harder to use that without people getting curious, but it’s there.”

“We’ll see.  In terms of cost, Cauldron requires that the client pay two-thirds of the total amount in advance, and pay the rest over a six year period or default.”

“Meaning you employ those countermeasures you talked about.”

“Revoking your powers in the worst case scenario, yes.”

“Is that revoking of powers a part of the process of however you give people the powers, or is it something that one of your in-house capes does?”

The Doctor was typing on the computer.  Without taking her eyes from the screen, she said, “The latter.  You don’t need to worry about someone using a loophole or flaw in the process to take away your abilities.”

The Doctor frowned at the image on the computer screen.

“What?”

The Doctor turned the monitor around.  It showed graphs and charts that made little sense to Jamie.  Clearing her throat, the Doctor leaned forward over the desk and extended one manicured nail to point at a series of labels on a three-dimensional graph.  “This is the ‘P’ value as related to the cost of the power, with the expected range of powers.  The amount of money you have, even assuming an additional thirty-three percent in payment made at a future date, is probably not going to provide you with the power you’d need to take on a striker-seven.”

Jamie’s face fell.  Shaking her head in confusion, she asked, “‘P’?  And what do you mean by probably?”

The Doctor opened a drawer and retrieved a binder.  She slid it across the desk.

Every page was laminated, labeled with a serial number.  Each page had a picture of a vial with a different colored metallic liquid inside, sitting beside a list of powers.  The bottom half of the page or a second page, depending on the number of powers listed, had a grid with a number assigned to an arrangement of letters.

“No sample provides the exact same powers every time.  The bullet points note examples of the powers gained when the sample was tried on a human subject or a client.  There’s typically a common thread or theme connecting powers from a given sample.  One sample might have a tendency to work with the production of acids and a tendency for physical manifestation.  This might allow an individual to turn into a living pool of acid, to secrete acid from his pores or to spit streams of corrosive venom.”

“I don’t want a power like that.”

“No.  For one thing, the ‘R’ value of sample J-zero-zero-ninety is very low.  Note the letters on the grid.  The most important ones are the ‘O’, ‘P’ and ‘R’.  These, on their own, determine roughly ninety-percent of a sample’s cost.  O refers to a power’s uniqueness.  It’s largely subjective, and liable to change through factors entirely out of Cauldron’s control, but it is easier to stand out as a hero or villain if nobody else can do what you do.”

“You’ve already mentioned the other two letters in passing.”

“The ‘P’ value is the raw effect of the granted abilities.  An estimation of the rating the PRT would assign to the powers.  Higher ‘P’, more effective and versatile abilities.”

Jamie nodded.  “And ‘R’?”

“Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, there are no guarantees.  A given sample does not provide the same effects every time it is tested.  There are admittedly some dangers involved in the use of our product.  Sometimes there are physical changes that cannot be masked.  You have seen the heroes or villains with glowing eyes or less human features.”

That was sobering.

“The ‘R’ value refers to how predictable a given sample is.  There are some that produce very simple, reliable results.  In sixty-three tests of sample T-six-zero-zero-one, it has only failed to grant a form of flight on two occasions.  Contrast that with sample B-zero-zero-thirty.  It has, in four tests, granted an individual the ability to make things implode, it has created a powerful vacuum in someone’s mouth, that draws everything into a portal where it is promptly annihilated.  Sample B-zero-zero-thirty killed the other two test subjects.”

Killed.  There was an outside possibility she could die, if she took the wrong one, or if she got especially unlucky.

“How do you test this?  You’re talking about a lot of tests, sixty for just one sample, but there’s no way people wouldn’t notice or that word wouldn’t get out if you were doing something like that.”

“As you’ve seen, Cauldron has resources.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question.”

“It does.  Just not as clearly as you want it to.”

Something in the Doctor’s tone suggested the woman wasn’t going to elaborate further.  Jamie shut her mouth, frowning slightly.

“As you can see here, this graph shows the relationship between cost and the rising ‘P’, ‘O’ and ‘R’ values.”

It was a cube broken into a multitude of smaller cubes, with P as the X axis, O as the Y and R as the Z.  They ranged from white to sky blue to darker blue, purple, red, and finally crimson.  The key at the bottom of the graph suggested that anything beyond dark blue would cost several million dollars.  By the time it hit crimson, it was ranging into the hundreds of millions.

“This… is what you can afford.”  The Doctor hit a key and the graph was reduced to the white and light blue cubes.  “You could theoretically push into the seven range of ‘P’ values, to put yourself at this Madcap’s level in terms of raw power, but you would be forfeiting a great deal in the other two departments.  Your powers would be relatively simple, defaulting to the sort of abilities that countless other heroes already have… and with the low ‘R’ score, you would be risking getting something you do not want.  Physical changes, perhaps, or powers outside of the area you wanted.  Super strength when you desired telekinesis, for a crude example.”

“I… I’m not fixated on anything particular, powerwise.  Flying would be cool, but I’ll take anything that works.”

The Doctor tapped a key, and the graph shifted so there were only three rows.  She’d removed the samples with higher uniqueness values.

“Then the question is…” the Doctor said, “How much are you willing to gamble?  A hero can beat a superior foe with strategy, tactics and forethought, and I get the impression you’re focused enough to put your mind to the task.  Perhaps you’d want to emphasize reliability in a sample over the power it could offer you?”

“Can you zoom in?”

The Doctor did.

“So… how unreliable is a five, if we’re talking about ‘R’?”

“If you decided on a sample with an ‘R’ score of five, I would tell you I could make no promises.  There would be perhaps a three or four percent chance you would experience some unwanted physical changes.  Zero-point-five percent chance that you’d experience changes of a degree that you wouldn’t be able to go out in public without drawing notice, even with heavy clothing.  You would, I’d venture, not be buying a particular power, but the broader category of that power.  To use our earlier example, you would not be buying acid spit, specifically, but an acid power.

Jamie looked at the other lines on the graph, “And I’d be getting something like an ‘O’ of three and a ‘P’ of five.”

“Something in that neighborhood, yes.”

“A power rating of five to Madcap’s seven,”  Jamie put her elbows on the edge of the desk and her head in her hands.

“There’s a chance you could get lucky and achieve a power with a greater ‘P’ value than expected.”

Again, that misdirection.  Jamie shook her head.  “And a roughly equal chance that I could get unlucky, since it’s an average.”

“Admittedly true.”

“Is there anything else I could do?  A way to get better results?”

“We have options, but I don’t know that they apply to your case.  I mentioned the psychological testing earlier.  You should know that an individual’s personality, mental state and background do seem to have a great deal of effect on the resulting power. I would even say it’s one of the primary factors, outside of the sample itself.”

Jamie wondered momentarily how her own mental state would influence her powers.

The Doctor went on, “We have a package we call ‘Shaping’, and another we call ‘Morpheus’.  Both are intended to make the most of the two month waiting period and help a client reach an ideal mental and emotional state.  It’s often purchased by our high-end customers, to refine the powers they want and help ensure there are no untoward effects. For a low-end customer such as yourself, I don’t know that it would suit your needs.  You would be buying a lower quality sample to pay for the package… perhaps if you were someone who wanted powers for recreational purposes.  If you wanted to help guarantee that you got the ability to fly, for example.”

Jamie nodded.

“There’s the Nemesis program, but you already have an opponent in mind, and I expect you’re more interested in a fair fight than having an opponent you’re guaranteed to succeed against when it counts.”

“Yeah.”  This Nemesis program… how many prominent heroes or villains were out there that had faked or staged confrontations like that?

“Hmm.  Nothing else springs to mind as our packages go.  When we design an additional feature or program, we tend to aim it at our more wealthy customers.”

“You guys are doing lots of testing.  Could I do something like help with that?  Or something outside of these packages and programs?”

“Perhaps.”

“I’m serious, I’m hard-working, and I stick to my guns.”

“It’s our tendency to require that any client be prepared to perform one unspecified favor for us at a later date.  Usually a simple task or a week of service.  It serves as a way to cover our bases without revealing too much in respect to our operations.”

“Very Godfather.  Do these favors mean doing anything illegal?”

“Sometimes.  But no, often it is a request to meet someone, to pass on a message, or help manage an information leak, a show of force to scare someone who is poking too deep.”

Jamie’s leg bounced nervously as she looked at the screen.  “And?”

“If you agree to perform three favors at a future date, and I suspect we could extend something of a discount.”

The Doctor hit several keys, and the graph extended a little in every direction.  Where it had been white and light blue, it now showed cubes of dark blue.

“What would you ask me to do?”

“I don’t know yet.  I prefer to leave that option open.”

Everything in Jamie’s gut told her there was some small lie or misdirection in there.  Either the Doctor did know what she wanted to ask for, or she knew her customer wouldn’t like what she heard.

Whatever these favors were, all she could do was hope she could do enough good to counterbalance any wrongs she’d have to commit.

“Alright,” Jamie said.  “Sounds like a deal.”

Jamie’s fourth visit to Cauldron was less out of her way than her first.  She entered the same way as before, but this time the hallway from Cauldron’s location was transplanted into the middle of her apartment.  She wasted no time in stepping through.

The Doctor was not waiting for her, but she knew where she was going.  She strode down the empty, spotless hallways, past innumerable matching doors.  There were no windows in this place.  Nothing peeking into the outside.

Still, she knew where she was.  She’d checked the GPS data on her necklace.  The Ivory Coast.  The west coast of Africa.  It was dangerous information to have.

If I tried to open one of those doors, would it be locked?  What would be inside?  Or would alarms go off, my chance here spoiled?

She’d been here twice since her first meeting.  Both times, she’d had her psychological testing.  She’d also had a full workup done.  The psychiatrist had been a young-looking white man, the doctor a heavyset Greek.  They’d said little beyond what they needed to for the testing, and had volunteered nothing about Cauldron.

She made her way to the room where she’d done her stress test.  Here, she’d run back and forth with steadily increasing speeds until she couldn’t run anymore.  She’d rested, then run again, then again, until she couldn’t even stand.

The Doctor was waiting for her.  A metal canister sat on a table, and there was a sturdily built, cushioned chair sitting close by.

“You’re ready?” the Doctor asked.

Jamie nodded.

“If you’ll change into this, we can preserve your clothes for the return trip home.”

Jamie took the offered clothing, a plain gray bodysuit that would cover everything from the neck down.  A word in blocky black letters on the front read ‘Jamie’ while one on the back read ‘Client’.

There was no indicated change room, and the Doctor was focused on the canister and the stack of papers she was setting down on the table.  Jamie changed where she stood, folding her clothes and setting them on the edge of the table.

“Sit.”

Jamie sat in the chair.  Comfortable.

“Sample T-one-one-seven-seven, with the agreed upon addition of Sample C-zero-zero-seventy-two.  This is correct?”

“Yes.  It’s what I paid for.”

“Read and sign here.  And there are stipulations on, let me see… pages twenty-six and twenty-nine that you need to sign as well.”

Jamie leaned forward and read through the contract.  It was every term they’d agreed upon, legalese and politely worded warnings about the hell Cauldron would try to bring down on her head if she broke the terms of the contract.  There were pages of receipts covering the financial transactions, and pages more of details about her own medical and psychological evaluations.

There were two stipulations to agree to.  One for the three favors she’d agreed to perform.  Another on the psychological testing.

Nine years ago, she had been kidnapped for use as leverage against her father.  She had been held in their custody for three days.  No food, six water bottles to drink and no bathroom.  She’d gone to the washroom in the corner, had removed one sock to keep the pee from making its way across the sloped hardwood floor.

She’d assured the psychiatrist that she had gotten over any of the trauma and any fear of the dark that had stemmed from that incident.  It was her father that’d had a hard time dealing with the event.

She’d been young then, and the event hadn’t really stuck in her memory.  But she couldn’t shake the idea that the kidnapping might have left some lingering effect on her that would taint the process.

“You haven’t eaten?”

“Nothing since this time yesterday.”

“You don’t have any colds, no aches and pains?”

“No.”

“That’s too bad.  The sample we use to moderate and control the effects of the finished products has a short-lived regenerative effect.  This is one of the selling points we offer to the clients we find in hospitals and the like.  Some have even recovered or partially recovered from life-long disabilities.  We’ve had reports from people who were mildly ill when they gained their powers, who found they never got sick again.  It would be nice to verify this.”

“You couldn’t have told me that before?”

“It could easily be a placebo effect.  Not worth a rescheduling.  You’re comfortable?”

“Sure.”

The Doctor unscrewed the canister and withdrew a vial.  It was no longer than a pen and no thicker than one of the Doctor’s fingers.  “The faster you drink it all, the quicker and cleaner the transition is.”

“You said something about a dream quest?”

“Some experience it.  Some don’t.  Don’t be concerned if you don’t.  Simply relax to the best of your ability and stay focused.  The higher and more pronounced the physical reactions like your heart rate, sweating, adrenals, and emotional response, the greater the chance of a physiological change.  I recommend that you keep from dwelling on any stressful thoughts or memories.  Just stay calm and try to relax as much as you’re able.”

“Isn’t that like asking someone to not think of a blue elephant?  They’re going to think about a blue elephant.”

“I stress, only a small percentage of people experience enough stress that they undergo any physical change.”  The Doctor removed the stopper from the top of the vial and carefully handed it over, not letting go until she was sure Jamie had a firm grip.

Jamie held the vial for several long moments.  “Now?”

“When you’re ready.”

Jamie tossed it back like she’d seen people throw back shots of hard liquor.  She coughed as it coated the inside of her throat, her saliva doing little to nothing to help it down.  The Doctor reached out, and Jamie handed her the vial.

It began to burn, the intensity increasing second by second, until she was convinced it couldn’t get any worse.  It did.

“Hurts,” she groaned, trying to push herself to a standing position.

“It’ll get more severe before it gets better.  Stay in the chair.”

“Didn’t tell me,” she could barely speak with the way her chest felt like it was caving in on itself.

“I didn’t want to alarm you before we began.  It’s normal, and it does get better.  A minute, maybe two, and you’ll be surprised at how fast the pain goes away.”

She clutched the arms of the chair.  As unfathomably bad as it had been just moments ago, it kept getting worse.  She had to endure another two minutes of this?  It felt like the burning inside of her was melting through the walls of her throat and stomach.  She could imagine the tissue blistering and dissolving, expanding outward until it touched on her lungs and her heart.

As it seemed to consume her lungs, her breathing began to dissolve into breaths too quick and small to bring enough oxygen into her lungs.  Darkness began to creep in at the edges of her vision.

“Relax.”  The Doctor’s voice sounded far away.

She was panicking, and the idea that she was panicking made it worse, because it could mean she’d change.  She might look different.  Scales, spines, metallic skin or something else.

The darkness swallowed her field of vision and she felt as though it were creeping over her skin.

What had she been thinking, doing this?

Have to calm down.

She’d taken up Tai Chi when she was thirteen, something one of her therapists had encouraged to deal with stress.  She couldn’t move here, and it was impossible to stand, let alone do her exercises, but she could try to reach that mental state.  She attempted to take deep breaths, but she couldn’t even tell if she had air in her lungs or if she was breathing in or out.  She tensed the muscles in her fingers and toes, then forced herself to relax them.  She did the same with the muscles of her hands and feet.  She worked her way up through the entirety of her body, focusing on that simple action of tension, relaxation.

The pain didn’t stop, but she felt disconnected from it, now.  She was calmer, focused.  She felt as though she were adrift in a vast, empty space, aware of every part of her body, the wholeness of it, and nothing else.

An incoherent image flickered across her mind.  A landscape of twisted biological shapes that seemed to alter with every passing second, changing into something completely different.  An archway of bony growths disconnected and became a bridge over a crevasse.  Then a hill.  Yet it all seemed to change with logic.  It was just a logic she couldn’t comprehend.

The ground split.  Chasms tore into the surface, dividing it, and-

Another image.  Earth.  It was as though she was looking at everyone’s face and every object and every living thing on the planet at once, from every angle, but then she was looking at a different everyone and everything, then another.  It dawned on her that it wasn’t her doing the looking.  She was a bystander.  Before she could realize what this other was looking for, the scene changed again.

Utter blackness and silence.  It was only in this stillness and quiet that Jamie realized there was an undercurrent.  An impression.  She hesitated to call it an emotion.

Reaching.  It was the only word she could use to place it, and it didn’t quite fit.  It was an action that was simultaneously frustrated and frustrating.

The pain cleared away so quickly she thought she might have imagined it.

She was on the ground, she realized.  On her hands and knees.  Tears ran down her cheeks.  Not all were from the pain.  Some were sympathetic.

“What was that?  What did I just see?  It wasn’t a dream.  It wasn’t what you described.”

“Roughly half of my customers ask questions similar to yours after they’ve transitioned.  I always say the same thing.  I don’t know.”

Even in the daze she was in, Jamie’s instincts told her the Doctor was lying.

“I expect you’ll retain the memory better if you don’t try too hard to hold onto it.”

The strange things she had seen didn’t seem to matter anymore.  “Did I… change?  Is my body different?”

“You glowed briefly, but that passed.  You look the same as you did.”

Jamie nodded, too worn out to feel relieved.

“I’m going to leave, now, for my own safety.  I recommend sitting and resting before anything else.  When you’re prepared, stand and see what you can do to exercise your new abilities.”

The doctor was halfway to the door when Jamie shifted her position and prepared to climb into the chair.  Relief was surging through her.  She hadn’t become a monster.  She hadn’t lost her mind.  This was for real.  What she had seen, it was too profound to mean anything else.  Even a hit of LSD wouldn’t have given her visions as clear as that.  Not that she’d done LSD.

Though she didn’t feel dizzy, she found she lacked the sense of balance to stand, and tipped forward.  Between one heartbeat and the next, everything seemed to click.  She felt as though she were floating in slow motion rather than falling, her body thrumming.  She extended one arm toward the arm of the chair to catch herself, but she underestimated the speed and strength of the movement in the midst of this slow motion world.  The chair was sent flying, skidding across the floor.  She fell hard, the moment over, her fall no longer slow motion.

On the other side of the room, the chair hit the wall and shattered.

“Seems you have something.  Congratulations,” the Doctor said.

Madcap hit one of the armored PRT vans hard enough to make it roll.  The driver of the second tried to steer clear, but Madcap stepped into the path of the incoming vehicle.  It struck him and the vehicle virtually bounced off of him, the hood crumpling as though it had hit a telephone pole.

He rolled his shoulders, and then kicked the vehicle.  It skidded along the road and collided with the third truck, which had already pulled to a stop.

Which left only the task of freeing his clients.

“Stop!”

Madcap turned.  Jamie stood in the middle of the street, opposing him.  Her low-budget costume consisted of a black bodysuit and a domino mask.

“You’re cute.  Nice body, and the costume is a nice mix of pathetic and adorable in a three-legged-puppy kind of way.   But you don’t want to try to stop me.  I hit pretty damn hard.”

The mention of her costume embarrassed her.  She hadn’t had the money after buying her powers.  Still, three legged puppy?

Madcap, by contrast, was wearing a customized costume that had cost no small amount of money.  A faceguard covered the lower half of his face, and was imprinted with the image of a wide grin.  Black facepaint surrounded his dark eyes, accentuating the whites, and a pointed black leather cap connected to the mask and his costume.  His armor was more aesthetic than functional, and featured broad, spike-studded pads.

“I hit pretty hard myself,” Jamie replied.  A glance over her shoulder revealed that the two men who’d been driving the containment van nearest her were running.  She knew it was empty, a decoy.

She wrested the bumper free with a tug and then swung it at Madcap like an oversized bat.

He blocked it with one hand, and the scrap of metal slipped from her hand and went sailing into the nearby cornfield.

Then he slid forward and tapped the flat of one hand against her chest.  She bounced off of the ground and fell in a heap.  It took her one attempt at standing before she realized it was futile.

Two PRT soldiers stepped forward to try to spray him with foam, but he dispatched both with a throw of something that looked like a thick frisbee.  With nobody left to stop him, Madcap proceeded to tear doors off the containment vans until he found the prisoners.

Jamie tried to move again.  Everything hurt too much.

“No,” Madcap said.  “Leave her be.”

She opened her eyes to see two villains, a male and a female standing nearby, with Madcap standing between her and them..

“She looks like a right morsel,” the man commented.

“Not saying she doesn’t,” Madcap said, “But hands off.  You paid me to free you, and I can’t do that if you’re fucking around.”

“Spoilsport,” the woman said, teasing.  “Come on.”

Then they were gone, and Jamie let her head rest on the pavement.

“My power didn’t work.  I was strong, and then I wasn’t.”

“There are going to be nuances,” the Doctor said.  “We could help you investigate the intricacies of your ability.  But that would cost you.”

“Everything costs something, here.”

“I have another idea in mind.”

“Another idea?”

“Consider this your first favor to us.  Cauldron would be much obliged if you could join the ranks of the Wards, and then graduate to the Protectorate as soon as possible.”

“The Protectorate?  Why?  To sabotage it from within?  Steal information?  I don’t want to do anything like that.”

“Just join.  That’s all I ask.  If nothing else, it would mean you had resources and training to develop your powers and achieve your own goals.”

Jamie frowned, looking at her gloved hand.  She had been contemplating joining anyways.  It meant one favor out of the way, relatively harmless, which was good, but there was little doubt that Cauldron wanted her in place for a reason.

“Round eight, puppy?”  Madcap said, “Maybe you can finally win one!”

Jamie charged him, and the rest of her team followed soon after.

Madcap leapt to one side as Legend fired a series of beams at him.  The villain plunged into and through the concrete wall of the jail, and Jamie was only steps behind him.  She saw him rounding a corner and gave chase.

He wasn’t in the hallway.  There wasn’t even debris from where he’d torn his way through yet another wall.

She activated her power.  Time seemed to slow down as she sped up.  She snapped her head to look up and saw him in the middle of a leap over her head.  He’d timed it perfectly, so he would be above her when she rounded the corner.

Except she was faster, and she could hit harder than he could.  Given a chance.

Her elbow caught him while he was still airborne, and unable to dodge.  She slammed him into a wall, and followed up with a leaping kick while the effects of her power still coursed through her.

Madcap rebounded off of the wall as though he were made of rubber and ducked beneath her incoming kick.  Twisting around as he rose back to a standing position, he got a grip on her from behind in the same moment her foot hit the wall.  Heaving, he hurled her down the length of the hallway.

Calm.  She had to be calm, concentrate.  Even as she flew through the air, she let her power build up inside her, then released it.  With the half second of effect it gave her, she contorted herself to touch the wall with one foot, then lightly kicked it to turn herself toward the ground.  She landed in a crouch, sliding from the inertia, and began charging up for another go.

Legend’s lasers tore into the spot where Madcap had been a half second ago.  The villain sprinted toward Jamie, moving faster with each step.

“Battery!” Legend called out, “Stop him!”

She held on, concentrating.  She let a deep breath pass through her lips.

Sticking one foot out in front of him, Madcap changed directions, heading straight through the wall.  Plaster exploded around him.

She released her power, and for just seconds, she was strong, she was almost invincible, and above all else, she was fast.  She ran forward, plunging through two walls in her pursuit.  Emerging from the second wall, she came within a few feet of Madcap.

He turned on the spot, reaching out to block her strike or grab her.

But she didn’t give him the opportunity to do either.  Instead, she spent the rest of her accumulated power in a single burst, pulling at the metal of a nearby chair.  It fell over, sliding into Madcap’s path.  The metal legs caught on his own legs, one sliding just beneath his descending foot.  He stumbled.  He exerted his power, causing the chair to crumple and explode before he stumbled any further and fell. 

She heard a brief chuckle from the man as he turned to make his escape.

Legend had taken advantage of that momentary delay to get in position.  He caught the villain with a laser blast.  Madcap tumbled, got his feet under him and darted for cover.  A laser blast turned the corner to follow and smash the villain into the ground.  Legend shot him again while he was down, and the man was unconscious.

“Good job, Battery.” Legend spoke with a smile.  “Finally, huh?”

“Finally,” she said.

“I really don’t want to go to the Birdcage,” Madcap said.  He was covered in containment foam from shoulder to toe.

“You’ve committed somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred felonies,” Legend answered him.  “I don’t think you have many options.”

“Felonies, sure, but I haven’t killed anyone, and that’s got to be worth something.  Now, this is just a suggestion, but what if I switched sides?”

“Get real,” Battery replied.

“I’m serious, puppy.  You guys need more bodies on the field, I don’t want to go to the Birdcage, it’s win-win.  I’m strong.”

“You’ve spent nearly six years perverting the course of justice for others,” she replied.

“And now I can make amends!” They had removed his mask, but his real smile was almost more mocking than the one that had been styled into the mask.

“You spent the last five and a half years getting people out of the Birdcage, claiming to be against it and everything it stood for, but now you’re willing to work to put people in there?”

“Maybe you’ve changed me.  Your good looks, your winning personality, and your diehard persistence in the face of so many defeats at my hand.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Don’t suppose we can gag him?”

“Sadly, no.  And he raises an interesting idea.”

“He’s going to run the second he gets a chance.”

“There are options.  Tracking devices, or perhaps Myrddin can put some countermeasure in place.”

“I’m down for any of that stuff,” Madcap said, casting a sidelong glance at Battery.  He grinned, “But I want some concessions.”

“Concessions?  You asshole.  You should be glad that we’re even entertaining this asinine idea.”

“I think you’ll find them pretty reasonable,” Madcap said, more to Legend than Battery.

“Let’s hear it.”

“I think this would work best if I took on a new identity.  New costume.  My powers are versatile enough that I doubt anyone’s going to draw a connection.  It also means I don’t have any enemies or any paranoid customers from my shady past coming after me.”

“That could be arranged.”

“And I want to be on her team,” Madcap said, pointing at Battery.  He smiled.  “Puppy changes to a new city, I go with.”

“Hell no,” Battery said.

Why?” Legend asked.

“It’s funny,” Madcap said.  “It’s going to irritate the piss out of her, and I’ve got just a little bit of a sadistic streak in me.  If I don’t channel it somehow, this just isn’t going to work out.  Just give me this, and I’ll be a boy scout.”

“Boy scout?  You’ll be on your best behavior?”  Legend asked.  “This would be more than even regular probation.”

No.” Battery said.

Yes.”  Madcap answered the man.

No,” Battery said, stabbing a finger at Legend.  “I’ve been a damn good hero for you guys.  My record is spotless, I’ve put in the hours, I’ve put in the overtime hours.  I’ve done the jobs nobody else wants to do, the unpaid volunteer crap, the patrols at the dead of night when nothing happens.  This is a punishment.”

“You’re right,” Legend sighed, “It would be a heavy burden for a good heroine.  So it’s up to you.  You decide if Madcap joins the Protectorate or not.  I won’t judge you if you say no.”

“But you think I should say yes.”

“I do, if it makes us stronger in the long run.”

Battery looked down at Madcap, and the villain offered her an exaggerated pout, his eyes large, his lower lip sticking out.

“Fuck me,” she said.  “You’re going on paper as the one making the call, Legend, and you’re taking the hit if this backfires.”

“That’s fair.”

“Yes!” Madcap grinned.

“I’ve died and gone to hell,” Battery muttered.  It was everything she’d become a hero to prevent.  A villain evading his rightful justice.  But she knew it was for the greater good.  They did need more heroes out there.

“I already have a name in mind for my goodie-two-shoes costumed self,” Madcap grinned.  “You’re going to like this one, puppy.”

“You’re going to have to stop calling me that,” Battery warned him, “Or your identity as Madcap is going to become public knowledge, fast.”

Madcap rubbed his chin.  “Maybe.  I’ll agree to stop if you accept my name.”

She sighed.  “I already know I’m going to hate this.”

“You’ll love it.  Assault.  Get it?”

It took her a second to process.  “No!”

“No?  But it’s perfect.  We’ll be a pair!  People will know from the second they hear it.”

“The connotations are horrible!  No!  You’re not allowed to change the intent of my name like that!”

“Fine, fine.  Point taken.  Puppy.”

Battery looked at Legend, “Can I maybe get a raise, for putting up with this?”

The leader of the Protectorate folded his arms.  “Something can be arranged.”

“It can be a coffee,” Assault told her.  “Or a beer after a night of patrols.  Nothing fancy, low stress.”

Low stress?  You’re forgetting the part where I’d be spending more time in your company than I have to.”

“Hon, you need to unwind.  Relax.  You’re too rigid, and I know for a fact that you haven’t had a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the two years I’ve worked with you.”

“Stop implying I’m into women, Ass.”

“Well, you know, you keep turning me down, so it kind of makes a man wonder.”

“I’ve been too busy, and even if I did want to date, rest assured, you would be my last pick for company.”

“So hurtful!”  He pressed one hand to his chest.  “Look at me, I’m like a knight in shining armor, now.”

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing, more like.”

“Arooo.”

Miss Militia stopped in the doorway.  “Need rescuing?”

“If you could put a bullet between his eyes, I’d owe you one.”

“No can do.”  Miss Militia offered her an apologetic grimace.  “You okay, though?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

Miss Militia headed on her way, and Assault smiled, “Listening to her, you’d think every second in my company was torture.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Battery retorted.  She turned and topped off her cup of coffee, finishing the pot.  Assault stepped in and began preparing the next pot.  It would have been a nice gesture if it weren’t for the smug look on his face.

“Come on.  Give me a chance.  Let me know what it takes to get one night of your company.  Tell me to bring you a star in the palm of my hand, or slay a dreaded Endbringer, and I’ll get it done.”

“You’d just find some loophole and bring me a plastic star or kill an Endbringer in a video game, which would only give you an excuse to harass me further.”

“Then think of something else.  Anything.”

Battery sipped on her coffee.  “Anything?  Armsmaster was looking for volunteers for some unpaid work at one of the primary schools.  I already said I’d do it.”

“You do all of that crap,” Assault rolled his eyes.  “It’d be admirable if you weren’t trying so ridiculously hard at it.  It’s like you’re trying to make up for some wrong you think you’ve committed.”

Battery frowned a little.

The grin dropped from Assault’s face.  “Hey, seriously?”

She shook her head.  “No.  No wrong committed, real or imagined.”

“But the way you looked just now-”

She interrupted him.  “If you come on this errand with me and do part of the speech for the kids, I’ll maybe consider possibly going out with you for lunch someday.”

“Excellent!”  Assault grinned.

He strode off, looking like he’d just won the lottery.

She smiled.  If he only knew this was her shot at some clean, innocent payback.  The squealing, screaming grade schoolers, all fighting and pulling on your costume and demanding demonstrations of powers and constantly asking questions.

And he’d have to put up with it.

She would relish this.

“…And caught out little suck-a-thumb.
Snip!  Snap!  Snip!  The scissors go;
And Conrad cries out – Oh! Oh! Oh!…”

Assault read from the book of poems, and every one of the ninety kids that sat around him were leaning forward, eyes wide.

“He’s so good with kids,” the librarian murmured.

“Of course he is,” Battery said.  Maybe there was a hint of bitterness in her voice, because the librarian gave her a funny look.

She plastered a fake smile on her face to assuage the woman’s doubts.

“…both his thumbs are off at last!”  Assault finished.

The kids squealed in delighted horror.

Pain in the ass, she thought.  If I were reading that one they’d all be crying.

Battery’s phone vibrated.  She excused herself from the librarian’s company and checked the display.

Customer wants product hand delivered by known parahuman.  Package waiting in your apartment.  Second task.  -c

Cauldron had sent it to the phone the Protectorate gave her?  To a number that only the Protectorate had?  Did that mean something?

She deleted the message.  It would be easy enough to handle.  If the recipient wound up being a villain at a future date, she’d stop them, put them away.  This would just be a delivery.

Assault caught her eye and a slow smile spread across his face, as the little girl in his lap read some of the next poem.  The look was smug, sly.  He knew exactly how much this was irritating her.

“Jackass,” she muttered.

But she couldn’t stop a smile of her own from spreading across her face.

The glass in the little window of her front door was shattered.  It fell on her feet as she pushed the door open.

“Ethan!”  Battery called out.

“You’re okay,” Ethan said, as he came down the stairs.  He was still in costume.  Only a single cut marked his cheek.

“I didn’t know where to find you, and since the cell phones don’t work anymore, and you weren’t at headquarters, I thought I’d come here.”

“I know.  I thought much the same thing, but I came here first.”

“You’re okay?”

“I’m okay, puppy.”

She punched him lightly in the arm.  She didn’t resist as he swept her up in a painfully tight hug.

“We should go on patrol,” he said.  “This is going to be bad.  They’re kicking us while we’re down.”

“Right.  Patrol together or apart?”

“Together at first, assess the situation.”

“Okay.”

“A courier dropped this off for you,” he pointed at a small envelope on the hall table.

She saw the undercase ‘c’ on the front and felt her heart sink.

“Puppy?”

She picked up the envelope and checked the contents.  A slip of paper, blank on both sides.

A joke?  A reminder?  The last one had been two years ago.

“Let’s go,” she said, crumpling it in her fist.  She charged up and ran, and Assault crossed a similar amount of distance with his long and powerful leaps.

She covered more distance with the start-stop motion of charging and running than she did just running, but it made for a halting progress where Assault simply continued forward.  He made some headway on her.  She knew he’d stop at some vantage point to wait for her.

As she stopped to charge, she felt a tingle from her hand.

The note?

She spent the energy of a charge, but she didn’t run.  Again, that tingle.  She used her ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy and focused it on the note as she smoothed it out.

A pattern emerged: simple black lettering.  A second after they’d appeared, the paper started to smoke.

She had only a few seconds to read and process the message before the paper ignited.

Siberian and Shatterbird are to escape the city, and our business with you will be done. Thank you.  – c.

The burning scraps drifted to the road around her, but she only felt cold.

Every action had its consequence.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

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