Speck 30.2

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We were broken, routed.

When had it happened?  When had we reached that critical juncture?  Had one specific act or moment marked the point where the rank and file capes had stopped fighting and started merely trying to survive?

Morale was failing, and had failed long ago.  A good fifth of our fighting force here was made up of Nilbog’s creatures and Dragon’s suits, which self-repaired and kludged together with the remains of other damaged suits to return to the field again and again.  That was with the reinforcements that were coming through Doormaker’s portals.

Chevalier and Ingenue, the other Birdcage leaders and other teams were trying to gather into a defending force.  Issue was, there wasn’t really a way to defend.  Scion held the keys to all things power related, and any attack that didn’t penetrate a particular defense needed only to be tweaked, adjusted with a moment’s thought.  Following that, it passed through forcefields, armor and time distortions like they weren’t even there.

The same was true in terms of our ability to attack.  I had a sense of Scion’s scale, because I’d seen his partner, and I’d gotten a glimpse of the sheer mass of the partner from how much had flowed through into our world as Scion had moved it.  I could assume they were roughly equivalent in size, and that meant we were trying to tear through landmass of raw matter, and we were doing it a few handfuls at a time.

I could look at how durable the partner entity’s flesh had been when Rachel and Lung had been tearing through it, extrapolate to the attacks we’d seen here.  We weren’t doing nearly enough, especially if he was compartmentalizing the damage and keeping himself from losing more than a certain amount at a time.

To top it all off, anything we found that worked only worked for a short time.  Either the user died, or Scion adapted his defenses to become immune to it.

I knew this.  A good number of us knew some of it, especially the ones who’d attended the meetings with the major players.

But for a large number of people on the battlefield, this wasn’t all common knowledge.

For the others on the ground, this was a man with golden skin who didn’t seem to be bothered in the slightest by the vast majority of what we were throwing at him.  At best, he seemed annoyed, by effects as massive as the ones String Theory and Gavel had dished out.  At best, we gave him pause for a moment.  He was toying with us in a way that made it clear he was holding back, yet it didn’t take away from the horror of his actions.

It was impacting morale, instilling a kind of hopelessness, and that hopelessness was a big part of why things were falling apart before my eyes.

I saw him generate a beam so thin I couldn’t make out anything but the glow around it, tracing it through a group.  It cut into throats, arms, legs and chests.  The wounded capes fell, all together.

Blood welled out from the cuts the beam had made in their flesh.  The damage wasn’t lethal, not yet, but it was bad enough that death was likely.  Even inevitable.  I saw a trace of golden light on the skin around the wound.  The damage was spreading.  It wasn’t the sort of injury a medic would be able to handle.

Sixteen capes in all, left to feel their hot blood flow free, their lives seeping away.  Not everyone Scion had targeted was in such bad shape.  One had dodged, pulling a teammate out of the way.  Another three or four had survived the attack by toughness alone, with armor and powers protecting them.

Scion moved, advancing on them.  One sphere of golden light, turning one of these hyper-tough capes into ash.  And then he was in their midst, hitting them with physical blows, tearing them to pieces, each hit harder, faster and more gruesome than the last.  A sweep of his arm and a cape with stone armor was torn in two.

Two or three seconds and he’d taken nineteen capes out of action, wounding several more.  But the real effect was on others, on capes who were now giving up, trying to get away from this slaughter.

He advanced on the two who remained, and it was Chevalier who got in the way, slamming his cannonblade down, twenty feet long and eight feet high, a physical barrier in Scion’s way.

Scion raised one glowing hand, not even slowing as he advanced towards his intended targets.  The sword, to Scion, was little more than tissue paper.

Which made it all the more surprising, to him and to me both, when he stopped, his hand touching the barrier and failing to tear through it.

Chevalier drew the sword back, then cleaved Scion.  The sword passed through the golden man’s shoulder, ribcage, and out his waist, cutting into the earth.

Bisected.

Chevalier remained where he was, hands on the handle of the weapon, making eye contact with Scion.  Ingenue was only a short distance behind him, looking more like she was dressed up to go to a club than to be on a battlefield, with a little leather jacket and a dress with the slit up one side,  her hair draped over half of her face.

Just the same as we’d seen with the Siberian.  The damage was there, but Scion was holding himself together.

Scion withdrew himself from the sword.  Chevalier slashed again, slamming Scion into the earth, then used a sweep of the sword to vault himself back.

Scion’s a ghost, it’s a mask.

And whatever Tattletale says about him being human at his core, human on the surface or whatever else, he’s a natural disaster, not an individual.

A force of nature.  Impossible to control or prevent.  The words crossed my mind, and they were my words, but they weren’t my thoughts.

Reminding me of the bad old days, Passenger?  I thought to myself.  My bugs continued to gather around me.  A familiar and comfortable presence, considering everything that was happening.

I’m not giving up!  My voice, sounding so far away, even in my own head, so young.

Damn straight.

Chevalier blocked Scion’s beam with his sword, then moved the blade, pulling the trigger.  The cannonball hit Scion, and knocked the golden man back.

Capes were taking the opportunity to flee.

I knew what I had to do, here.  Even with a myopic, skewed perspective.  I could guess what the ultimate price was going to be.

Maybe a good part of myself was a monster.  Maybe a part of me was still that girl who had very nearly gone on a rampage in her school, still that girl who would have been an angry, frustrated, aimless c-list villain, a footnote in a footnote in the grand scheme of things, forgotten by nearly everyone once the media frenzy had died down.

The hell am I supposed to do!?  The memory was so clear I could almost hear my own voice.  Had that anger ever really gone away?

The world didn’t fucking make sense.  People didn’t make sense.  I’d been railing against it from the beginning.

I dropped to the ground, cutting one of the boosters to the flight pack.  I didn’t position my legs right, and I folded, landing on my knees and hands instead of on both feet.

I felt a spark of fear, then another.  Capes stopped in their tracks, and the ones behind them crashed into them, driving them forward, some toppling onto a disc a tinker was riding.  Seven people, now inside my range.

I could get a sense of their powers.

The disc the cape was riding was a tinker device, hovering over the ground with a constant stream of air that sent dust billowing in low rolling clouds around the edges.  A woman rode the platform, garbed in a green, flowing kimono-style dress, surrounded by some sort of tinker-derived cyborg bonsai trees on raised sections of varying height.

I began to find my feet, using both my hands and the flight pack to get myself upright.

I could feel the tree-girl’s fear, the fact that she was cornered.  It was echoed across each of the seven who’d stumbled into my power’s radius, and it invoked memories.  Different memories for each of them.  For her, it called Leviathan to mind.  Me running, being struck from behind.  There was one case that reminded me of being with my dad in the room, wracked with shame and helplessness, a complete and total lack of direction.  Another that, inexplicably, brought up the scene with Dragon and Defiant in the Arcadia High cafeteria.  A sense of injustice, mingled with surrender.

For another, for two others, it brought up Mannequin, but they were different scenes.  Being in the empty factory with the innocents at the edges, a building rage, and being there when he’d attacked my territory the second time, after we’d saved Amy.

In both of those cases, it was the same kind of rage I’d just been thinking about.  To these two, I was the freak of nature standing in their way.

I was broken, and I’d bitten off more input than I could chew.  The passenger was tapping into the experiences it had shared with me, because that was the only way it could convey the signals I was getting from them.

Which wasn’t what I needed.  It was the wrong inputs.  What I needed was to decipher their powers.  The tinker with the trees… I could sense things about her that weren’t tapping into memories I understood.  Something mental that I couldn’t relate to, out of my reach.

I ordered them to turn.  When they moved, they lurched.  Unfamiliar proportions, different degrees of athleticism.  Like my adjustment to my new arm and legs.

Could I get used to moving them like I’d gotten used to the new limbs?

Laughter disturbed me from my thoughts.

“Human shields?”  A man asked, almost unintelligible with his coarse accent.  “I love it!  I was ganna shoot the bloody idjits in the backs, you’re ‘lowed to do that, ‘miright?  But some cunt might get the wrong idea.”

When I turned my head, all but one my minions turned their heads as well.  My fault.  I’d wanted the extra sensory input, and I’d instinctually tried to take it in with a share of my ‘swarm’.

It was Acidbath.  One of the Birdcage’s cell block leaders.  He had the stylings of a rock musician or punk rocker who’d spent a little too much time doing drugs and not enough time playing his instrument.  Worn around the edges, a little too full of himself.  He’d been a bit player in the real world, caught up in his vices, yet had managed to take over and rule a cell block for three years after being sent to the Birdcage.

He was still smirking, laughing a little, as he looked between me and Scion’s ongoing fight with Chevalier.  He danced a little from foot to foot, tensing just a bit every time Scion moved.  Not out of fear.

“This is better,” he said.  “They wanna run and leave us assholes to do the fighting, you can say otherwise.  Pin ’em up and let Scion knock ’em down.”

No.  They aren’t meat shields.

But I couldn’t tell Acidbath that.  I couldn’t answer him because I couldn’t communicate.

It galled me that he thought I’d use them as cannon fodder.  Not least because he was right.  Partially right, but that didn’t make it much better.

I’d compared myself to some pretty horrible individuals in the past, but Acidbath was something else.  He was low, barely above dirt.  He’d scalded his own brother with acid, and had gone after girlfriends and girls who had rejected him.  The attacks hadn’t been lethal, but had melted flesh and the fat or muscular tissues beneath.  I’d seen the pictures of the aftermath when I’d browsed his files, after the scar tissue had formed.

I couldn’t think of worse ways to hurt someone, and he’d done it in impulsive acts of retaliation.

If I was going to be a monster, I’d at least try to be smart about it, constructive.  To have a plan.

I set my new minions into action.  I couldn’t get too caught up in the details.  Their powers were a part of them like the venom was a part of a spider or centipede, or web a part of the spiders I controlled.  I had to take it in without getting caught up in analyzing it, trusting the passenger to handle the essential details on autopilot.

As my new minions rejoined the battle, I felt the tinker tap into that power that had previously been out of reach.  I got a glimpse of how she operated, the world she saw; a distorted world much like I’d seen when I tried to look through my bug’s eyes.  The trees were primed and loaded like guns.  Tinker-herbalism, only it wasn’t very medicinal at all.

I set her aside.  The others… my passenger was better at controlling most of them.

A cape in a black flowing costume who had powers I couldn’t decipher.  I set him aside as well.

The others were easier to use, and I wasn’t sure how much of it was because of their powers’ similarities to my own.  Focusing on them resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, memories of me using my power in different ways.

Two shaker-classification capes provided the majority of the offensive power.  If I let them be, if I let things move on autopilot in their own way, then they used their power well enough.  A telekinetic with an emphasis on small objects, with a storm of ball bearings and small stones from the road, and a cape that could create superheated shafts of energy, anchoring them between two objects.  The memories were of my bugs attacking as a coordinated whole, of the threads I’d extended as tripwires and my attack on Echidna.

Not that I was so graceful or effective in using their abilities.

There was a woman, and focusing on her resulted in a deluge of fragmented memories, but these were memories of using my bugs to observe.  A secondary power?  Trying to tap into her other power resulted in thoughts of Atlas, the void in his midsection, of my relay bugs.  Something incomplete?  A kind of frustration.  With my eyes, I could see her fingertips glowing blue.

I moved her hand, and I saw a line drawn in the air.

Something incomplete.  I moved her hand in a circle, and I closed the line.

There was a small pop as the space we’d enclosed disappeared.  My bugs could feel the air moving at the destination point.

A teleporter with a somewhat irritating limitation.

The other two looked like members of the Birdcage.  Very possibly Acidbath’s underlings, though he hadn’t identified with them.  Brutish, mean looking.  One was armored in what looked to be fragmented pieces of pottery and glass, with flesh webbing between fragments, while the other was covered head to toe in biker tattoos, oddly doughy looking, with a power that was being channeled just under his skin.  Focused air.

Alexandria joined the fight, relieving Chevalier, who was on his heels, his blade in rough shape.  A third cape I didn’t know joined the fight.

Scion shook off the pair, and then struck Chevalier hard enough to send him crashing into the crowd opposite us.

Then he wheeled around.  His eyes passed over Acidbath.

Acidbath, still dancing from foot to foot, leaped, and he changed into a living tidal wave of clear liquid, isolated, with roughly five times his mass.  He materialized into regular human form when he was a little behind and to one side of Scion, and then lashed out, slinging punches that ended with his hands becoming liquid projectiles.  They splashed against Scion, and I could see smoke rise, even though there wasn’t any visible damage.

If Scion had been planning to attack us, the cape with Alexandria managed to get his attention.  Another flying bruiser type.  An ‘Alexandria package’ cape fighting alongside Alexandria herself.

Or Pretender, whoever.

The fear that was emanating from my minions was paralyzing me, I realized.  I shook it off and stepped up the attack.  The one with the shards and the one with the soft looking body charged to either side, and moved right out of my power’s range.

I hoped they would take this as a nudge, a push to get back into the thick of things.  Both these capes and the ones around us.  We weren’t many, but we were a little closer to Scion than most, and we were steadfast.  Capes who were backing away on either side of us were keeping their eyes on Scion, where they might otherwise have routed completely.

The guy that was made up of fragments took the nudge from me for what it was, giving me a hard look over one shoulder before he joined Alexandria and the other cape in attacking Scion.  He was a shapeshifter, maybe one like Mush, from the Brockton Bay Merchants.  My assessment of his power suggested he was tougher than he looked.

The other one, with the air swirling beneath his skin, simply left my range and ran.  He found a spot with more capes and slowed down, dropping into a crouch, like he might run at the first opportunity.

Scion threw the Alexandria-package cape I couldn’t name into the ceramic shard guy, and he managed to break the cape’s fall, falling to pieces in the process.  He began picking himself up, gathering more pieces of glass from nearby rubble to make himself bigger than before.

Acidbath stepped up the attack, slinging acid every time the path was clear,

I didn’t want to lose my stride, getting caught up in observation.  I focused on my minions.  The tinker with the disc had her plants loaded down with drugs.  I focused our attention on different things, and I got more fragmented memories in response.  A glimpse of me, paralyzed, with Bonesaw about to operate on me.

Poison?  Paralytic?

Being inside the building Coil had set on fire.

Incendiary?  Blinding?

The hospital bed-

I was acting even as the knowledge came to me.  I pushed her to use that one, and the passenger took over.  It was better at understanding the abstracts.  I could follow what it was doing, grasp the basics of it.  Her body and the seat beneath her was another plant, focused on producing, concentrating and storing gases in a combination that served as breathable air, the same gas that was keeping her disc aloft.

Her hand moved, the raised platforms shifted, and one tree was lowered to a point just in front of her.

The gas blew what looked like a vast cloud of purple pollen out onto the battlefield.  It settled on the wounded capes, and only the wounded capes.

Coagulants, I thought.  Painkillers.

I watched the others carefully, making sure that my minions weren’t inadvertently putting others in the line of fire.  I started circling our group with our teleporter, drawing out a line as she jogged in a tight loop.  The two shakers, the telekinetic and the guy who made lasers, they had matching costumes.  Had they combined their techniques?  I formed lasers between the airborne ball bearings.  Needle thin, they still cut into Scion.

The damage of one with the flexibility of the other.  No doubt a technique they’d used on their own.

Scion turned his head, looking at us.  His hands glowed.

The teleporter lunged forward, completing the loop, leaving out only the brute with the weird skin, the fragment-shapeshifter and the girl with the disc.  I gave one last command to make the disc-botanist tinker start running.

Our group was collectively teleported away.  I could feel the strength drain out of the teleporter to the point that she fell to the ground.  Scion’s attention was elsewhere.  He hadn’t gone after any of the ones we’d left behind.  We’d managed to avoid his attentions.

I turned my attention to the one cape I hadn’t yet figured out.

A voice interrupted me.  “Queen Administrator.  I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Glaistig Uaine.  I didn’t respond.  My focus was on the young man.  Some kind of trump power, responding to a few glimmers here and there.

I turned her way.  She was dressed in a complicated dress of green-black ribbons, complete with a hood.  She looks so young.

I pointed at the cape I was trying to figure out and raised my stump-arm in a shrug.

“If you want to get a full understanding of your new capabilities, you must figure that out on your own,” she said.  “Practice, and it will soon be second nature.”

I turned my attention to the cape.  My focus, again, was interrupted by her voice.

“I will warn you, do not attempt to usurp me.  If I catch you trying, I will fight you.  I am careful to tend to my flock, and would not have anyone but me handle them.”

I nodded.

“Good.  Peace is preferable,” she said.  We watched Scion unload on another group.

They can’t stop him with brute strength.  They know it.  Yet they keep coming.  Is it just for the sake of going out with a fight?  The hope of finding some trump card?

I’d stopped capes from running, but the idea wasn’t to stop retreat.  Retreat was sensible.  I didn’t want things to devolve into a panicked stampede to get away.

“It seems we’re losing, Administrator,” Glaistig Uaine said, as if echoing my thoughts.

I shook my head a little.

“I would offer him solace, if I knew how.  He is in a dangerous state, and I find myself worried for the first time.”

I glanced at her.

“Yes, very worried.  Had things gone like they were before, I would be bothered, but not overly upset.  We would die, the faerie would slumber and they would wait.  With luck, with a great deal of luck, he would find another partner, or another partner would find him, and things would be set for the great play to start anew, on a fresh stage.”

Scion had stopped with the beams and the blasts.  He was throwing punches again, hurling himself into the thickest parts of the crowd.  Nilbog’s creations were taking the brunt of the attack.

“But the faerie are creatures of whimsy, aren’t they?  Easily influenced by the masks they wear.  It’s the whole point of them, isn’t it, Administrator?  It’s why they are, yes?”

I nodded a little.  I could almost see it.

She nodded a little herself, as if satisfied by my response.  “He’s fallen prey to the worst kind of whimsy, a destructive wroth.  He is heartbroken and hopeless, he has lost more than you or I could ever imagine, and he may well leave this stage so ruined that things cannot be salvaged, unless we’re fortunate enough to get a…”

She trailed off, grasping for a word.

Understudy?

“Fortuitous arrival,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “Not very likely.  They litter breadcrumbs in their wake, not to be followed, but so their kin don’t waste time and effort traveling the same paths.  For another to arrive here, they would need to avoid touching a single crumb, like you or me swimming the length of a river without touching a wave.”

Black Kaze had entered the battlefield, backed up by Dragon’s Teeth.  She disappeared, and then reappeared behind Scion, katana drawn.  A moment passed, and Scion reacted as though he’d been punched dead center in the chest.

Not a big reaction, but it was a reaction.

Black Kaze alternated attacks with Acidbath, very proper, measured in her movements, compared to Acidbath’s flailing, reckless, hurried scramble to keep out of Scion’s line of sight.  Acidbath moved with surprising quickness, faster than a typical car might.  A peculiarity of his breaker power.

Glaistig Uaine offered a small laugh.  “I cling to a sliver of hope, and I know I’m fooling myself.  There really isn’t much of a time window.  A few thousand years is such a short time, you know.”

I continued to pay attention while I focused on the more mysterious cape in my range, the one who I hadn’t deciphered.

The connections of his powers to something that was there but not quite there… his power hinged on some outside qualifier or factor that wasn’t being met on this battlefield.  It was concentrated most on the wounded…

It snapped into place.  His power worked with people who were sleeping.  The people his power sort of worked on were unconscious.

I used the teleporter to draw a circle around him.  A moment later, he was gone, set in the midst of the biggest cluster of wounded.

“Ah, you understood.  Good.”

Only a moment later, Scion attacked, striking the ground.  We were distant enough that I could see the circle of golden light expanding around them, a ring that ripped through the ground, demolishing it.

Nilbog’s creations, the defending forces and Dragon’s suits were all toppled as the ground settled.  Buildings collapsed.

A wounded Leviathan emerged from the water, approaching Scion with an almost lazy slowness.  Capes practically fought one another to get their footing and get out of the way.  Some were too rough in their hurry to get by Nilbog’s creations, only to get attacked by the things in retaliation.

I clenched my one fist.

“Would you accompany me?  We would be the queen of the living and queen of the fallen.  No swords in our hands, but warlords nonetheless.  Yes?  I will give you hints, if you desire them, and help you manage your soldiers.  One last hurrah, a great war to end it all, like the best myths have.”

I shook my head slowly.

“No?  A shame.  Fear?  A lack of soldiers?”

I shook my head, still.

“No, you are not afraid, queen, or you are afraid, but this is a fear that drives you forward.  You have something you intend to do.”

I nodded.

“Then I will be here when you return, and we can have that great battle, fighting to drive him back into slumber.”

I gathered my swarm around me and the teleporter, and I had her draw another circle.

Glaistig Uaine reached out, seizing the woman’s wrist.  The teleporter’s alarm mingled with my own.

But she wasn’t attacking, and she wasn’t taking the teleporter’s powers, extinguishing her life in the process.

“A warning,” Glaistig Uaine said.

I gave her my full attention.

“You sought power, and you lost a portion of yourself in the doing.  Always the case, but it’s… pronounced, in a case like yours.  Yes?”

“Hng,” I mumbled.

“You will need a tether, an anchor.  It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal.  Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will.  When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left.  Decide what you will hold on to.”

I’ve already decided what that is, I thought.  Since a long time ago.

“Choose very carefully,” she said.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Then she moved the teleporter’s hand, closing the circuit.

The teleporter and I arrived at our destination at the same moment Leviathan crashed into Scion.  Water mingled with the ruined landscape, seeping into cracks, making life just a bit harder for the capes in the center of the disaster area.

I felt memories stir.  The moment I’d announced myself as Weaver and heard the howling.

You really have to make this unnecessarily hard, don’t you?  I thought.  Reminding me that I’m abandoning them.

Yes, Rachel and Imp were probably there.  So were the capes I’d controlled and urged back into the fray.  Maybe they had turned to run at the first opportunity.  Maybe they had been given a chance to reconsider, and were still fighting.

Maybe I’d killed them, by denying them the chance to run.

But I told myself I wasn’t abandoning them.

I had a mission, and this was a mission that would take me back to them, after a fashion.  I might never rejoin the group, I was fully aware of what I was getting myself into, but this was for their sake, not despite them.

That detour was a part of the mission, killing multiple birds with one stone.  Helping to stop the rout, trying to do a little something to keep the fight going, so the capes on the ground could buy time.  Learning about my new ability, testing my ability to accommodate unfamiliar abilities.

It hadn’t been planned, so much, but I’d also had a reminder of something that had slipped my mind.

Glaistig Uaine was one of my most dangerous enemies at this point.

Now I was in dire need of information.  Getting that information was a surprising obstacle, considering my inability to communicate.  I couldn’t ask, couldn’t whip out my phone and type something into the search bar and wait for it to dig records out of the archives.

To these ends, I’d moved us to the edge of the settlement, where six armored suits were deployed and waiting to be sent into the fray.  The Pendragon was one.  Dragon’s Teeth were scattered throughout the area, many holding what looked like rocket launchers with glass bulbs at the front.

The teleporter was exhausted from using her ability, and leaned on me as we made our way forwards.

D.T. officers stepped forward to bar my way.

Alarm, surprise.  I was momentarily dazed by images of a number of surprise attacks and explosions.  My power had reached them, and they stepped aside at my command.

I moved as confidently and as quickly towards the Pendragon as I could manage, trying not to show fear or uncertainty.  Harder than it sounded, given my limping, uneven gait, and the way my head slumped forwards.  D.T. officers beyond my range took notice and moved to flank me.

I reached the back of the Pendragon and I slammed my hand on the metal door.  I did it again.  My best attempt at a knock.  I tried my best to stand straight, folding my hand behind me.

Not quite loud enough.  The armor was too thick.  Still, the fact that I’d knocked was a point in my book, as far as the officers were concerned.  They were hanging back.

“Defiant isn’t replying,” one of the officers said.

“Try Dragon,” another spoke.  “She always answers calls.”

“Ladies!”  One called out.  “State your identities for the record!”

You know who I am, I thought.

“We know your face, we’ve met, but we can’t take anything for granted here!  Stranger and Master protocols are in effect!”

Oh.

Were the protocols in effect because of me?

Or was it a problem that stemmed from the half-dozen incidents in the last two years, where people had tried to capitalize on Endbringer attacks and other crises, attempting assassinations on key figures?

I couldn’t argue it, in any event.  I couldn’t defend myself, either.

“Both of you!  We’ll need your names, and we need at least one good password!”

Right.  Lovely.

Couldn’t use the teleporter without getting shot.  They’d see the line…

Unless they couldn’t.  Seeing myself through the teleporter’s eyes, I was a little surprised at the sheer number of bugs I’d accumulated.

She moved her hands to me, and she drew the line through the middle of the swarm.

Could she teleport where she couldn’t see?

I focused our attention on the interior of the Pendragon.

She closed the circuit, and we were inside.

My bugs could sense the soldiers reacting.

“Weaver?”  Dragon asked.  “I was just about to step outside.”

I stepped away from the teleporter.  My eyes roved over the ship’s interior.  Less elbow room than in the Dragonfly.

“Tattletale filled me in, asked me to pass on the details,” Dragon said.  “A lot of people are worried, here, on quite a few different levels.”

I couldn’t respond, and I knew how tight time was, so I met her eyes, nodded a little, and then gestured towards the nearest laptop.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “Of course.”

I gave her a little salute.  I didn’t know a better way of expressing thanks.  If I’d known sign language, would I have lost it with my ability to speak and write?

“Tattletale was saying you were unfocused.  I’m not getting that sense.  You’re up to something.”

The laptop booted.  I froze.

Oh.  Damn.

I realized what I was looking at, and I felt my heart plummet.

When my mom had died, I’d sort of turned to books as a way of remembering her, a way of being with her in the present day, reminding myself of the nights she would read aloud to me, then the nights we’d read together, and beyond that, times when we’d all be in the living room, my dad with his computer half the time, a book the other half.  My mom and I always had our novels.  Sometimes we had shared, sometimes not.

When the bullying had started, books had been an escape.  I’d be exhausted at the end of the day, feeling a low that counterbalanced the higher adrenaline and stress of the time spent in school.  Curling up with something to read had been a refuge.

Maybe that had lapsed when I’d become a cape.  The costumed stuff had become an escape of sorts.  But I’d gotten back into it in prison, and on some of the stakeouts.  I’d taught myself braille, so I could read with my bugs, and take in more.

I would have settled for being a little crazy.  I would have settled for some physical impairment, for a power that was so out of control that I couldn’t have real human contact again.

The words were gibberish.  I couldn’t read.  It had been something I’d turned to in my lowest moments, a little crutch, a coping mechanism, and it had been denied to me.

It hit me harder than the loss of my voice, stupid as it was.  My hand shook, hovering over the display.

I watched as the words disappeared, replaced by images.  A composite picture of locations, a composite picture of faces, a composite picture of icons that no doubt included details on powers.  There were others I could scroll down to see.

My eyes watered a little.  I couldn’t look at Dragon, but I raised my hand in another salute.  Not nearly as good a thank-you as I wanted to be able to give.

My fingers touched the display.  Faces.

There were sub-menus.  All visual.  I clicked the frowny-face with the black background, then the little map for a world map… America.  I clicked the map icon again for a national map… Washington.

I found Teacher’s portrait near the top of the results list.  One of Washington’s most notorious capes.  Right.  I clicked it.

Dragon’s hand settled on the top of my head.  She ran it over my hair, using one finger to hook a strand and move it out of my face.  She did the same for another strand.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I opened his file, and I clicked through the tabs until I saw a map.

I tapped my phone against the screen.

There was a rumble outside, followed by a thrum, and movement beyond this craft.  Dragon had deployed at least two of the other suits.

“I need some communication here, Weaver,” Dragon said.

Dumbly, I tapped the phone against the screen once again, not making eye contact.

“Please,” she said, but she made it sound like an order.

What do you want?  I thought.  Pantomime?  Do you want me to draw Teacher and the rest with my bugs and enact a play?

I didn’t do either.  I reached up and pulled off my mask.  I met Dragon’s eyes.

I could see myself through the teleporter’s vision.  Strands of my hair had fallen across my face as I’d removed the mask.  My lips were pressed together – I forced myself to relax them, only to find them resuming the position when I turned my attention elsewhere.  My body was all odd angles, my expression… I didn’t even know how to judge my own expression.  I didn’t know my own face that well, all things considered.  It was only something I saw from time to time in the mirror, getting ready for the day.

Intense?  Focused?  Determined?

Fatalistic?  More crazy than less?

I held her gaze.

Again, I tapped the phone against the computer screen.

It chirped.  The data had been loaded onto it.

“If it was Skitter that asked me, I would have said no,” Dragon said.

I nodded.

“If I was convinced it was Weaver in there more than anything else, I’d feel a lot better about this.  Tell me, am I going to regret giving you this?” she asked.

I couldn’t answer.  Not even with a nod or a shake of the head.  I touched the screen again, going back a bit.  Region… Chinese Union-Imperial.

C.U.I.

She knew what I was looking at.  “I’m thinking of how we brought the Endbringers in, bullying people into helping, or at least getting them to stop hurting.  Is this going to be a repeat?  Strongarming them?  Using your power?”

I shook my head.

My phone chirped again.

Others.  More targets.  The Birdcage.

Another chirp.

The rest I’d find on my own, provided all went according to plan.

I turned to the teleporter, then bowed low.  It wasn’t because of her culture – she looked European – it was because a bow would have to serve as an apology, as much as a salute would have to serve as acknowledgement and thanks.

I met Dragon’s eyes.

“I wish you could explain,” she said.

I’m glad I can’t, I thought.  I turned to leave.

Glaistig Uaine was one hurdle I’d have to cross.  Dragon was another.

If everything went to plan, they were the biggest threats to me.  Scion excepted, of course.

I left the teleporter behind, making my way outside.  I turned on the flight pack.

My bugs sensed the teleporter making her exit, drawing a circle around herself and then promptly disappearing.  The Pendragon took off a moment later.

I approached my target.  The Simurgh was flying over a set of hills that would have been the Towers district of Brockton Bay, had we been on Earth Bet.  She was building something.

The fighting was ongoing, with Leviathan more hurt than alive.  Capes were fighting to get to safety rather than trying to hurt Scion.

Scion hit Leviathan, and the last buildings in the settlement toppled.

I turned away.  I wasn’t one for prayer, but I wasn’t really one for hope, either.

At the same time, though, everything hinged on their ability to hold out.  Scion might leave soon, moving on to another target, but I wasn’t so sure these guys would be able to hold out against one more attack.

I passed beside the Simurgh as I flew.  Checking.

No control.

I plummeted.

The Simurgh, for the time being, came part and parcel with Tattletale.  When she wasn’t fighting, she was a distance away from my teammate and friend.

I touched ground, then flew through the doorway at an upward angle, moving over the defensive line Marquis had set at the doorway.

I found myself back in Tattletale’s company.  Marquis and Lung were close, but not so close they were in my range.  Panacea and Bonesaw, for their parts, were tending to the wounded.  The two girls froze as they fell inside my range.

Too many patients, on top of Panacea and Bonesaw.

Marquis and Tattletale froze as well, but it wasn’t the same kind of freezing.  It was tension.

“No,” Marquis said.

I ignored him.

“My daughter-”

Panacea stood up.  Bonesaw followed soon after.  They marched in Marquis’ direction.

They passed out of my range.  Marquis draped an arm around his daughter’s shoulders, hugging her closer.  Bonesaw wheeled on me, and there was a fury in her eyes.

It left only the wounded in my vicinity, along with a handful of others.  Members of the backline, the infrastructure elements in Gimel.

“Taylor-” Tattletale said.

I ignored her too.

“I’m sort of getting what you’re doing.  I don’t get why, but I think I get what you’re about to do.  Don’t.”

I closed my eyes, concentrating.  I needed to figure this out before I made any moves, or I’d be putting myself in danger.  Problem was… there was so much.

“Taylor, if you go ahead with this, and people start to catch on, you become public enemy number two.”

“Catch on?” Marquis asked.

Tattletale didn’t answer him.

I was pretty sure I had it.

With my power, I seized control of Doormaker and the Clairvoyant.  The pair stood, holding hands.

A heartbeat later, a cage of bone erupted from the ground.  Bindings wound around my legs.

He laid a trap under the surface of the ground, I thought.

Some of the more mobile injured were backing away from me and my two hostages.  The remainder were still in my range.

Bone coffins encased each of them, sealing them to the ground, out of sight.

I paused, doing my best to get a sense of them.  I could get the gist of their abilities, focus to try and piece together the details.  There were a few capes who could have broken free, a few who were probably capable of slipping out one way or another.

But I didn’t need to go that far.

I exerted Doormaker’s power, and he opened a portal behind Marquis.  The other side of that portal was just behind me.

Memories hit me.  Being chained to the interrogation chamber, opposite Director Tagg.

Tempered confidence, even now?

The memories were distorted, moving just a little too quickly towards the end of that particular scenario.  Except I was looking an awful lot like the person on the receiving end of the abrupt, painful and unexpected murdering.

Marquis’ lieutenants approached.  Cinderhands, Spruce, one other I couldn’t name, in dark clothes and chains.  Lung was circling around, getting ready to fling a fireball.

I used Marquis’ power to block their paths with spiked barriers of bone.  When Lung, Spruce and Cinderhands all tore through the barriers, with claw, some sort of disintegration power and flame, respectively, I used Doormaker’s power again.  This time, the portals I opened were only about a foot by a foot across.  Four at once.

“Taylor,” Tattletale said.  “You’re putting me in a pretty shitty spot, here.”

I checked my phone, tabbing through the pages that had been loaded onto it.  There was a blip marking Teacher’s location.

More were gathering around me.  I made more doors.  One or two dodged out of the way.  I managed to catch them, anyways.

“I’m not getting enough details here to paint a picture.  I trust the hell out of you, but I’m not sure this is you, Taylor.”

I pocketed my phone, then reached into my belt.  I hesitated for an instant, then pressed my hand to my chest for long seconds.  I knew I didn’t have time to spare, but…  no.  I didn’t have time to spare.

I opened a portal twenty feet above Tattletale, then opened my hand.  The little tube of pepper spray dropped through the portal.  Tattletale caught it.

“You couldn’t have made it easy?”  Tattletale asked, looking down at it.  “Because standing by while you do this… that’s fucking hard.  It’s honestly easier if I’m on their side and I’m helping them stop you.  If I can blame the fuck-up job Panacea did to your head.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I used Marquis’ power to withdraw the bone cage and free my own legs.

I opened a doorway and passed through.

Dragon might be my enemy the moment she got filled in on what I was doing, but she was someone I cared about.  Teacher had fucked with her.

This next bit was going to be easier.

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Speck 30.1

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I didn’t trigger.

Kind of silly, really, that I’d expected to see something.  But this was the opposite.  A trigger event worked on the power end of things.  This was altering me.

I felt the range of my power halve, as though a guillotine blade had dropped down, cutting it off.

My control began to slip.  It wasn’t so severe as the effect on my range, but I could feel it degrading.  I was aware of my bugs in a general sense, and they were moving in reaction to my subconscious thoughts, but the end result wasn’t precise.  I moved them, but getting them to stop had a fraction of a second’s delay.

Slipping out of my control.  Slipping…

Tattletale was nearby, but I was trying not to focus on her.  I had to focus on the swarm, I needed to be perfectly aware of what was going on.

An echo of an event from years ago, only this time, Tattletale was one of the ones in the dark.  I felt a pang of guilt,and I was surprised at how intense it was.  Guilt, shame, a kind of intense loneliness…

This way lies madness, I thought.  But the thought itself had an oddly disconnected quality to it.  The emotions persisted, and I was aware of the memories.  Walking away from the people I cared about, feeling horrible about it, knowing it was the best thing in the end.

Too many would be calling it an error in judgement, stupidity.  Why go to such an extreme, especially when there was no guarantee it was the right path in the end?

But it had allowed me to reunite with my father, in a fashion.

I could remember jail too, the way the guilt and shame had manifested as a maddening restlessness, worse than the confinement.  The fears that had haunted me, dealing with the other prisoners, the kind of peace that had come with surrendering to my then-current circumstances…

Would this decision lead to something in the same vein?  Would I be confined, following a monumental decision that was so selfish and selfless at the same time?

I was altering something biological and mental.  I felt my heart skip a beat as my mind momentarily touched on what that kind of confinement might entail.

I was hyperaware of my own body, every movement, the flow of blood in my veins.  I was focused on the beating of my heart and my breathing, both picking up speed with every moment.

The sky behind me was bright blue, almost taunting me.  Blue was the color I wore when I became a hero.  A failure.  It made for long shadows, extending down the length of the cave in the direction of the others, in the direction of Doormaker’s portal to Earth Gimel.

No, focus on the swarm.

My range was dwindling with every passing second, and so was my control.

That trace of fear I’d experienced swelled as I realized just how much I wanted that control.  I needed to be able to use my mind, to put things into motion when I had an idea.

I need control, I thought.

I tried to open my mouth to tell Panacea, and I couldn’t.  I’d pushed my focus out towards my swarm, and I couldn’t reel it back in to my body.

I was still aware of my body, but it felt piecemeal, now.  My fist was shaking, I had my head bowed, my teeth clenched so hard against one another it hurt.  My heart was pounding, my breath coming out in inconsistent huffs through my nose, pushing just a bit of mucus free.  My eyes were wet with tears, but I hadn’t blinked, causing them to build up on the surface of my eyeballs.

All of these things were normal, but I didn’t feel like they were all intuitive parts of a whole.  My concept of my body as a connected thing had shattered, the ties broken.

If this continued, I’d be on autopilot from here on out, if I could even put the individual components together to walk.

I need control, I thought.

A moment passed, and I could feel Panacea working to give me that control, changing what she was focusing on.  I felt the swarm moving more in sync with what I was thinking and wanting.  But this… I could sense what was happening, feel my range plummeting yet again, the guillotine coming down.  My range had been cut down further.

Take an inch in one department, lose several inches in another.  Lose a whole foot.

Everything was piecemeal now, slipping away.

If this continued, I’d have nothing left.  A net loss operation.

Stop, Panacea, I thought.  Stop, stop, stop, stop…

My swarm attacked her, and it wasn’t because of any conscious command on my part.  The attack was crude, more the swarming behavior of wasps drunk on attack pheromones than the calculated attack I was used to employing.

She stopped, pulling back and falling backwards in a clumsy way.

“Shit, shit, shit, fuck,” a young woman’s voice, from a distance away.  Not Panacea.

Tattletale.

I raised my head, and Tattletale startled a little.  Why had she startled?  The way I’d moved?

“What did you do, Taylor?”  Tattletale asked.

What did I do?  I wanted the answer to that question, myself.

I looked at Amy, realizing the bugs were still approaching her.  I pulled the swarm away, and I felt how hard it was to move them.

I was left with the ruins of my power.  My range was maybe a third of what it might otherwise be, the control rough-edged at best.  There were bugs in my swarm that I couldn’t control, too small.

There were too many things to concentrate on.  The swarm, the nuances of my power, my state of near-panic, and the fact that I no longer felt like a complete, connected human being.  The other stuff, it wasn’t that it wasn’t important, but it was so secondary.

Someone large, with flames swirling around his hands, stalking towards me… didn’t matter.  My power – was my inability to get a complete picture due to a loss of my multitasking ability?

It was Lung who was approaching, Lung who stopped a short distance away, his breathing hot, muscles tensed, flames rolling over his clawed hands and forearms.

He stared at me, his eyes a molten orange-red behind his mask, his breath hot enough it shimmered in the air.  Waiting to see if I was a danger?

“Taylor…” Tattletale said, as if from very far away.

But she didn’t say anything else.  She stared for long seconds, and then she paced, walking the perimeter, as if she could get different perspectives on me from the edges of the room.  Bonesaw, a little distance away, was half-crouched, tensed, between me, Doormaker and the clairvoyant.  She looked less like a child and more like a wild animal.  Reverting to habit, maybe, only without the veneer of the innocent, cutesy, perky child this time.

The stillness of it all was eerie, not helping the growing sense of panic I was experiencing.  Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I felt like I might be having a panic attack.  I couldn’t regulate my breathing because focusing on that meant my body was getting tenser, my one fist clenched so hard it hurt.  Paying attention to my hand meant my breathing started to spiral out of control again.  All the while, my heart was pounding.  Nothing I could do to fix that.

I closed my eyes, in an effort to shut out the external stimuli, and I felt the moisture running down to the point where my lenses met my cheekbones, settling there.  I raised my head to look at the cave roof.

As if that was some kind of cue, Bonesaw dashed through the doorway.

Why was I crying?  It didn’t fit.  I was scared, my hand was shaking and I couldn’t be sure how much was fear and how much was because of what Panacea had done.  I was angry, inexplicably, frustrated, and I couldn’t shake the phantom memories of being in jail.

Trapped in an uncooperative body?  No.  The emotions and the thoughts didn’t match with that.  Why was I thinking about it, all of a sudden?

I felt almost nauseous, now, on top of the sense of panic and the conflicting, nonsensical emotions I was experiencing.  Or because of them, maybe.  I felt myself tip over as if I were physically reeling from it all.  When my leg moved to catch me, it wasn’t because I gave it the order.  It wasn’t a reflexive response either.  A third party.

Passenger, I thought.  I guess we’re going to have to learn to work together here.

My breathing eased a notch.  I had no way of telling if it was the passenger reacting or if it was my own reaction to the realization that the passenger was there.

“Weaver?”  A girl’s voice.

I wasn’t sure I trusted my control over my bugs to get a good sense of where she was or what she was doing.  I turned my head to see Canary standing by the portal.

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t bother her.  Leave her alone for long enough that she can get her bearings.  Wait.”

“What happened, Weaver?”  Canary asked, ignoring Tattletale.

Someone answer that question for me, I thought.

Tattletale?  No, she was silent.

Bonesaw was gone.

Canary wouldn’t know.

Passenger?  I thought.  Any clues?

It was easier to talk to my passenger than it was to speak up and answer the question.  Speaking up meant voicing everything that was wrong, my confusion, the fears, the worries, the fact that my body, my mind and my emotions all felt entirely unhinged.  Speaking meant trying to talk around the growing lump in my throat.

“You never learned to ask for help when you needed it,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was almost accusatory.  “I mean, you ask when you approach other groups, and it’s like you’re holding a gun to their heads as you ask, or you ask at a time when it’s hard for them to say no, because all hell’s about to break loose.”

I glanced down at Panacea.  She wasn’t moving, aside from rocking a bit back and forth as she breathed, her head slumped, eyes on the ground.

Was it me?  Something grotesque?  Horrible?  Had I changed?

No.  I had taken stock of myself, I’d seen myself, and I was still the same, as far as I could tell.  Two arms, two legs, two eyes, a working nose, ears and mouth.  One missing hand, but that was to be expected.

“Yeah, you asked Panacea.  You asked me to play along and arrange stuff, when you went to go turn yourself in.  Your handling of the school thing… well, I don’t want to get into a pattern and start cutting too deep.  Let’s just say you make a decision by yourself, and then you use others to get help carrying it out.  That’s not really you asking for help, is it?”

I didn’t need this, not now.  But I looked up, meeting Tattletale’s eyes.  She was standing behind Lung, now.  He was changing.  Was he biding his time?

“While I’m saying all this, kiddo, you gotta know I love you.  I adore you, warts and all.  You saved me, as much as I like to think I saved you.  All this stuff I’m bitching about, it’s the same stuff that got us through some pretty hairy shit, and I love you for it as much as I groan about it.  You’re brilliant and you’re reckless and you care too much about people in general when I really wish you’d leave things well enough alone and be selfish.  But this?”

This?

“Shit,” Tattletale said.  “You gotta forgive me, just this once.  Because seeing this and knowing what you pulled hurts enough that I gotta say this.  This makes me feel really sorry for your dad, because I’m starting to get a sense of what you put him through.”

She might as well have slapped me full-force.  Worse, I deserved it.

So this is what it’s like to be on the opposite end of a Tattletale attack.

“There,” she said.  She smiled a little, but it wasn’t a grin, exactly.  If it was an attempt at being reassuring, it wasn’t something she had a lot of practice in.  “I’ve said what I needed to say.  I do have your back, here.  Now we need to figure out how we’re going to fix this.”

Which I was okay with, except I wasn’t sure what this was.

This isn’t easily reversed,” Bonesaw said.

She had returned, and she’d brought others.

Marquis, and two of Marquis’ lieutenants.  They’d been delivering wounded up until a bit ago, but their hands were empty now.  Marquis was a little dusty, but still elegant and elaborately dressed without being feminine, his hair tied back into a ponytail.  He was accompanied by the hyper-neat guy and the guy with arms black from fingertip to elbow.  All three looked like they were in full on business mode.

“I’m open to trying,” Tattletale said.

Marquis surveyed the situation with a cool gaze.

“I’m not hearing a resounding yes here,” Tattletale said.

Marquis strode forwards.

“Careful!” Tattletale called out.

I might have dodged if I’d had full control over my own body.  I might have dodged if I’d been a little more focused.  Hell, I probably would’ve dodged if it wasn’t for the realization that Tattletale was warning Marquis instead of warning me.

I thought she had my back, I thought, as Marquis’ shaft of bone caught me dead center in the chest.  I couldn’t have dodged if I’d had full control over my body and my flight suit.  It hit me in the sternum, broad and flat, and shoved me back and away.

The bone changed as it pushed me, splaying out in two branches.  The backwards momentum made it impossible to get my feet under me, which meant I hit the ground, rump first, then a heavy hit with the hard shell of the flight pack, and finally a crack of my skull against the hard stone floor of the cave.

I came to a stop, and was just beginning to get my bearings when Marquis continued extending the pole.  I was shoved further back until my back was against a stone, five feet from the cave mouth, five and a half feet away from the sheer rock ledge above a sheer drop I couldn’t measure with my bugs.  The two branches of bone sat on either side of my neck, like the arms of a dowsing rod, pinning me in place.

The skin of his other hand had ripped and torn as the bones of a massive skeletal hand had erupted from his wrist.  Judging by its position around Lung and Panacea, he’d apparently used the hand to push or slide them back away from me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, “Oh shit, oh god.”

A sudden display of emotion, as confusing to me as everything else here.

And here they were, Marquis, his men, Lung, Panacea, Canary, Tattletale and the portal duo from Cauldron, staring me down.

“Sixteen feet,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “Fifteen point nine-eight feet, to be exact, but we can ballpark it.”

Marquis nodded.  “Parahuman abilities wax and wane depending on one’s mental state.  Given how volatile she may be…”

“It’s not going to change,” Panacea said, not making eye contact with anyone.  She was staring at the backs of her hands, which were flat against the cave floor, or staring at the tattoos that covered them.  “I felt how it changed…  Not connected to her emotions or those parts of her brain.  Not anymore.”

“I see.  Good to know, thank you,” Marquis said.  He approached three paces, and the bone shaft that extended between his arm and the branches that pinned my neck shrunk a corresponding amount.

He was keeping a distance, a good twenty or twenty five feet away from me.

Why did Tattletale say sixteen feet?

“What are you guys talking about?” Canary asked.

“I would have burned her,” Lung growled the words, ignoring her.  “But I thought you would be upset if I burned Amelia in the process.”

“Quite right,” Marquis said.  He didn’t take his eyes off me.

“Oh god,” Panacea was saying, her hands moving to her head, her fingers in her hair, inadvertently pulling it from the ponytail.  “Oh fuck me, oh god.”

“Hush,” Marquis said.  He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Well, this is a step forward for you, Ames,” Tattletale commented.

Don’t,” Panacea hissed the word.  “Don’t you fucking dare.”

“…This time you got consent before you screwed someone up beyond your ability to fix it.”

“I’ll fucking kill you,” Panacea snarled.

There was a distant rumble, intense enough it could be both heard and felt through the doorway that Doormaker had open between us and Earth Gimel.  The fight was ongoing, and it sounded like maybe they were leading Scion away from the settlement.

My friends were out there.  Rachel, Aisha.  Here I was, doing nothing.

My hand slid on the stone beneath me as my body tried to push itself to a standing position, only to meet the ‘v’ of bone at my neck.  Why had I done that?  I hadn’t actually made the decision.

Passenger?  I thought.

Was it making decisions with my body, too?

Not a question I could answer definitively.  I turned my mind to a question I could focus on.

Sixteen feet. 

I saw how the others were spreading out, forming a line behind Marquis, their attention on me.  I saw the length of the column of bone.

It belatedly clicked.  Sixteen feet was the distance they needed to keep from me.

“I’d like to say I’m sorry for being a little rough,” Marquis said.  “I was in a hurry, trying to get my daughter to safety.”

Aahheuuhhhmmm.

It took me long seconds to wrap my head around the fact that the sound had come out of my mouth.  Not the right syllables, not even something that sounded like words.  My hand flew to my mouth.  My fingertips dug through the thick spidersilk fabric for some purchase on my lips, as if I could somehow manually get them to start working again.  Even the movement of my hand was clumsy.

I was a puppeteer trying to make the puppet move by tugging the strings from some remote place.  Something as complex as speech was beyond me.

I tried to form words with the swarm, to speak or to spell.  I failed.

Far, far beyond me.

I could see Tattletale reacting too, her entire body going rigid.  She took a half-step back.

I lowered my eyes to the cave floor.  My fingers were moving, grasping, and it wasn’t me doing it.

“Ah,” Marquis said.  “Shame.  A communication problem makes it harder to gauge how much we can trust her.”

Trust her, he’d said, instead of trust you.  Like there was no point to saying it to me directly.  Marquis was talking to Tattletale to refer to me in the same way someone might talk to the family member or companion of a mentally disabled individual or small child, instead of the diminutive individual themselves.

As though I was so fucked up I apparently needed a guardian to act as a translator or advocate.

“I can tell you how she is,” Tattletale said.

“You’re biased, to be frank,” Marquis said.  “I’m not willing to put myself, my family, or my underlings in a dangerous position because you have a sentimental spot for Weaver.  And before you launch into a spiel, I should warn you that Amelia here has filled me in on you.  I’m aware of how convincing you can be.  Spruce, Cinderhands, Lung?  You have my permission to mutiny if you think she’s gaming me.  I even recommend it.”

“Hardly fair,” Tattletale said.

“It’s rather fair, all things considered,” Marquis said.  “If you can convince all of us, then it must be a legitimate and sound argument.”

“I think you’re underestimating how eager Lung is for an excuse to hurt something,” Tattletale said.

“Maybe so,” Marquis said.  He glanced at Lung.

“You are too soft with women and children,” Lung said.  “If she starts something, I will break your rule for you and immolate her.”

“I suppose that’ll do,” Marquis said, sighing a little, he gave Tattletale a look, and she nodded a little.

There was another distant rumble.  A sound like a thousand men screaming in unison.  I felt a chill.

“Let’s put this issue to rest,” Marquis said.  “A compromise.”

“Sure.  I’m open to compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Beats being immolated.”

Marquis turned.  “Doormaker?  Another portal, please.  We’ll change locations and set up a triage unit somewhere else.  We link it to Gimel, and we close all doors leading to and from this cave.”

“I’m not sure I like this compromise,” Tattletale said.

“Weaver is an unknown quantity.  We’ll leave her here, as safe as anyone on any Earth is, and we conclude this fight against Scion, win or lose.  When all’s said and done, we come back and we see what we can do for her.”

There was a long pause.

Stay here?  Not participating?

I tensed.  My bugs stirred.

Right.  I still had my bugs.  My control was down, but only just.  Anything I touched or manipulated would be like I was using my left hand instead of my right.

Problem was, I didn’t exactly have a wealth of bugs to work with.

“It’s… sorta hard to argue with,” Tattletale said.  “But I don’t like it.”

“Nature of a compromise is that it leaves everyone more or less equally unhappy,” Marquis said.  “I’d feel happier if she was under secure restraints, but I’m content to break this rod and leave her free to forage and look after herself while we’re gone.”

No thread left.  I’d used too much of it when we’d made the platform back at the Cauldron base.

There was a new dimension to my power, at a cost to everything else.  Sixteen feet of range.

I just needed to figure out how to use it.

Tattletale shook her head.  “If Doormaker dies, she’s stranded here, all alone, more than a little borked in the head and in the heart.  Possibly for the rest of her life.”

“If Doormaker dies, I think we’re all in dire straits,” Marquis said.  “This is the fairest solution.  I think you realize that.”

I raised my hand, fingertips going vertical, moving my stump in that general direction, knowing she could draw the conclusion.  Best I could do in terms of a pleading gesture, with only one hand to work with.

Tattletale stared.  “…Yeah.  Except for one thing.”

“There’s a snag,” Marquis concluded, sounding a little defeated.

“Sure.  Life isn’t fair, and I’ve got a hell of a lot of faith in that girl.  Besides, we agreed not so long ago that we wouldn’t leave each other behind.”

“Unfortunate.  Lung, Cinderhands?  Make Tattletale leave.  Drag her if you have to, but don’t hurt her.”

“You test my patience with this gentleness of yours,” Lung growled, but he took hold of Tattletale’s arm with one claw.  Cinderhands took her other arm.

“Watch for her gun.  If she gets a hand free, she’ll use it on one of us,” Panacea said.  She followed the trio.

I struggled to reach my feet, but the ‘v’ of bone at my throat held me.  I slumped back down to the ground, staring at the ones who remained.

“Stop struggling, Weaver,” Marquis said.  “Please relax.  You took a gamble and you lost.  You sit this one out.”

I narrowed my eyes behind the lenses of my mask.

“Spruce?  Can you use your power?  Not too much.  Enough she can break free before too long?”

The tidy man shook his head.  He turned his hand over, and a little sphere swirled in it, looking like a cabbage made of stone.  He closed his hand, and it winked out of existence.  “Ten years ago?  Sure.  Right now?  I don’t trust my accuracy.  I’d be worried about the structure of the cave if my power touched anything to either side or behind her.”

Marquis nodded.  “Go look after the others, then.  Be ready to shut the door the moment I’m through.”

Spruce turned to leave, ushering Doormaker and the clairvoyant out.

“I know you have tricks up your sleeve.  You have bugs, you have the pepper spray.  You have other tools I probably don’t know about.  I’m going to assume you’re in a state of mind to use those tricks.  I’m going to hope you’re in a state of mind to listen when I ask you not to use them.  Stay here, pull yourself together, and we’ll come for you when we can.  If we can.  I give you my oath that I’ll do my utmost to keep Tattletale safe in the meantime.”

My hands were clenching and unclenching.  Not by my own volition.

Eeeeuunnh,” I growled.

“I’m very optimistically going to take that as a reluctant yes,” he said.

It took me a moment to get the motions in order, but I managed to shake my head very slowly from side to side.

“Alright,” he said.  He put an arm on Canary’s armored shoulder.  “Canary?  Please step through.  I’ll be right behind you.”

She started to obey, then stopped.  “I… I really know how you feel, Weaver.  Sort of.  I took Cauldron’s stuff, it messed me up, physically.  I felt horrible, I went a little crazy.  And maybe three years after I picked myself up and pulled it all together, everything went to shit.  Like life was reminding me of the mistake I made.  So I- I know what you’re feeling.  But you can make peace with it.  So… don’t beat yourself up too hard?  Take it from someone that’s done that too much.”

“It was kind of you to say that,” Marquis said.  “Please step through?”

Canary nodded.

He was watching her go.

I heaved myself sideways, freeing my left arm to reach to my right hip.  In the process, I managed to move the branch of bone a little to one side.  Not enough to get my head free of it, but enough to get some elbow room.

“Heads up!” Marquis called out.

My hand fumbled for my gun, and I pulled it free.  I raised it to the point where the branch split in two and fired.  The thickest point.

Perhaps a little insane, to fire upwards, at something as hard as bone, inches from my face and throat.

But the bone shattered and splintered.

I was free, and Marquis was already taking action.  Armor of bone surrounded him, ornate, decorative, but with enough coverage that the bugs near him were either crushed against his skin or they failed to find a way through.  I didn’t have any bugs small enough to fit through the vertical slits around the eyes and mouth.

The spear of bone began branching out, becoming a veritable tree, filling the cave between myself and Marquis with forking and dividing limbs.  He was backing away, creating more bone to stay connected to the base of the tree.  He knew what I’d try to do next.

I didn’t stand.  I couldn’t afford to take the time.  I used the flight pack, extending the wings with the thrusters, and launched myself at the wall of the cave.  I hit it a little harder than I might have liked, one wing bending, and then scraped against it, flying in Marquis’ general direction, moving along the cave ceiling where there were less branches.

The amount of space I had to maneuver in was rapidly closing. My dangling leg caught a branch, and I nearly lost all of my momentum.  I was forced to put the thrusters away, but one didn’t fold away properly where it had bent in the collision.

Tree branches of bone closed around me.  I activated the thruster on the remaining wing, and I opened fire, blind, in the hopes of clearing a route.

Marquis moved to the side, creating a shield of bone in front of himself and Canary.  The bullets weren’t really on course for them, but it worked out in my favor.  He’d broken the shaft of bone to free himself to move, and the ‘tree’ was no longer growing.  I flew through the biggest available gaps, snapping the thinner spears and spines of bone on my way through.

Twenty feet away from Marquis.  He moved back, and then grabbed the ‘tree’.

A disc of bone unfolded in front of me, as though the tree were a parasol.  A wall, a barrier.

I shot at the edge, and a chunk broke off.

But more flowed free before I could wedge myself into the resulting gap.  It sealed the cave off.  I shot again, but it was too thick.  The trigger clicked as I pulled it again and again, fruitlessly.  The movement was so frantic and jerky that the gun fell from my clumsy grip.

“Terribly sorry,” Marquis murmured.

Panic and fear welled up inside me.

I don’t want to stay behind.  I can’t.  You don’t understand.  I’ll lose my mind, more than it already feels a little lost.

Gorrugh,” I hissed.  The armor of my mask clicked against the bone as I rested my head against it.

The fear, the panic, no…

I felt it, but it wasn’t mine.  Neither was the fear and paralysis I’d felt before, or the anger.

I was so used to my power being automatic, I wasn’t used to having to exert any kind of will.

I tapped into the feeling, I focused all of my attention on my ability.

Sixteen feet.  Marquis was out of my range, but Canary had been slower to move, her reflexes not as good.  She’d been caught up in watching, maybe not wanting to turn her back on a fight in progress, and she hadn’t moved as quickly.

I was touching the wall of bone, and Canary was fifteen or so feet away, on the other side.

Now that I was taking the time to look, to sense, I was aware of Canary’s body in the same way I’d been aware of Lung’s.  As Panacea’s, to a lesser degree.  Her steady, measured breathing, the complete lack of movement.

Just like Lung and Panacea had been frozen.

Waiting for instructions.

I couldn’t move her closer to Marquis without putting her outside of my range.  Instead, I turned her around.

“Ah… damnation,” Marquis said.

Her movements weren’t much more fluid than my own ones here.  A drawback, among many.  She marched towards me and the wall Marquis had created.

He snared her, throwing out shafts of bone and surrounding her upper body with a cage of the stuff, interlocking the two pieces.

But she wore the Dragonslayer’s armored suit.  She bent her legs at my order, and then lunged forward.  She broke the bone that surrounded her, and with her fist free she struck the wall of bone.

Two, three, four times.

Marquis stepped forward, very carefully, and planted a foot on the base of the shaft of bone.  The wall began to thicken, faster than Canary could smash it.

Her power…

I looked, and I had enough of a sense of her inner workings to get a sense of her general state of well being, where she was sore, her fitness, and her power.

She began to sing.

Bring him closer.  Bring him in.

The song changed.  The relentless, almost machinelike drum against the wall of bone continued, cracking it with the power of the suit, and I could sense Marquis wavering.  He lowered his foot from the shaft of bone and began to approach Canary.

I was so used to a buzzing, to a dull roar of power in my ears.  This was so much more complex.  Complex and seductive, the emotions I was tapping into.  Linking myself to Canary on some level.

I could remember being in Dragon and Defiant’s grip, being hauled along on the way to the roof, so soon after killing Alexandria and Director Tagg.  Struggling, futile, hopeless.

I could look beyond that surface memory, and I could see what was beneath it, a general sensation, a recollection of a feeling.  Canary, struggling, helpless and bound, terrified and panicking, with a dull sense of guilt over what she’d done, a reality that she hadn’t quite processed and might not fully process for weeks or months.

She was me and I was her.  Shared experience.  She was an extension of myself.

There was no way to know if that was a good thing.  I was starting to feel a little unhinged again.  A little disconnected from me.

The only thing scarier than that fact was the knowledge that it was only going to get worse.  This was my tool.  This was what I’d sacrificed my mind, body, range, and control to obtain.  Sixteen paltry feet of range.  Sixteen feet of range that, according to Panacea, I wouldn’t be able to increase through my emotions.

I made myself climb to my feet, pushing my way through the smaller branches of bone, reaching up with my hand to grab a larger branch for balance.  My legs were shaky beneath me, my head a little lopsided, and if I hadn’t been holding on to something, I suspected my arm would have hung utterly limp at my side.  I couldn’t… I couldn’t dig for that knowledge of how my body was supposed to be in a resting state.

I saw the first crack spread on my side of the wall.

Better yet, Marquis was getting closer.  One or two more reluctant steps our way, and-

-And I never got to find out if I’d be able to leverage his power.  Lung stepped into the hallway, and he filled it with fire.

Canary was armored, though her hair was set on fire where it flowed beneath the helmet.  Marquis, too, was armored.  Neither was positioned to be turned into a crisp.

But the fire drowned out the singing.  The fire stopped, and Canary could hear Marquis’ footsteps as he ran, hands pressed to where his ears were covered by his helmet.

I had Canary punch through the wall.  She reached through the wall and grabbed me by the straps of my flight pack, hauling me through.

The doorway was closing.  Canary, it seemed, was being left behind.

I had her throw me, and I used my flight pack to get extra speed.

I slid through the doorway two seconds before it was too narrow to pass through.  I lay there, the group staring down at me.

Coohugggah,” I mumbled, with more than a little anger in my voice, as I slowly made my way to my feet.  Nobody offered me a hand, but that was my choice, not theirs.

My stump of an arm was throbbing, and the rest of me felt alien.  My movements weren’t all my own choice, with the passenger apparently doing something to help me manage.

I looked through the other portal, beside us.  Gimel.

I left the others alone, not controlling them.  When Spruce was in my way, I pushed him aside with physical strength.

I’m fighting, I thought.  I’m fighting Scion.  Somehow.

I could see myself through their eyes.  Each image was slightly distorted, just different enough to be uncanny and out of sync.  I had more awareness of myself through them than I had with my own eyes.

I stepped into the damaged fast food restaurant, and over the rubble at the front where one attack or another had clipped the building.  As I made my way to the front, the others behind me found themselves out of my reach, free to move of their own volition again.

Free to attack me if they wanted.

Marquis, Panacea, Bonesaw… not so dangerous.

Lung?  No.  If he was going to kill me, he’d let me know just before he did it.

Spruce?  Cinderhands?  They were maybe the type to attack me, because of pride and the fact that I’d momentarily seized control of them.

Tattletale was freed.  She dashed forward, hopping over rubble and debris to get closer to me.  She stopped three or four paces from me.

A fraction more than sixteen feet away.

But she didn’t say a word.

Scion was there.  Tearing through people with a ferocity, this time.  People were scrambling for cover that did so very little against Scion, trying to erect defenses, hiding and fleeing.

Had we already lost?

A collection of capes, many carrying wounded, headed our way.  Rachel, Imp and Bastard were among them.

I moved to the side, but I failed to anticipate their path.  I’d expected them to head into the sandwich-place-turned-hospital, but they moved straight towards me.

I backed away, taking flight, while Tattletale rushed forward, her footfalls tracing a curved path around a bubble that only she seemed to be conscious of.  She stopped in their way, arms outstretched, shouting, “Go around!  Dangerous power!”

Most of them listened.  Only one, looking over his shoulder at Scion, stumbled past Tattletale, into my range.  I was looking for it this time, and I could feel his being snap into my mind’s eye.  He froze in place.

No sooner did I have control than Tattletale grabbed the guy by the back of the collar and hauled him out.

“The fuck?” Imp asked.

Tattletale let the guy go, and he fled.

I couldn’t reply, so I focused on gathering my bugs.  No use dismissing a resource that had once been vital.

Someone volunteered herself for noninvasive brain surgery from the lunatic with a sister complex.  Or, just as likely, she asked the lunatic psychopath for invasive brain surgery and the other lunatic stepped in.  Now Skitter’s broken.”

“That didn’t look broken,” Imp said.  “That guy…”

“Hrrrrrn,” I said.

“Hrrrrn,” Imp replied, nodding sagely.  “Now I understand.”

“She can’t talk,” Rachel said, more a statement than a question.

I shook my head.  Can’t move as fast or as well as before…

I belatedly realized that Rachel had hopped off of Bastard.  She reached her hand forward, as if feeling her way.

I backed away, but she stepped forward faster.

A conception of Rachel’s entire being bloomed in my consciousness.

I made her step back away.

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

“Why the fuck would you do that?” Tattletale asked.

Because she trusts me far too much, I thought.

“She’s smarter than I am,” Rachel said.  “Let her do what she needs to.”

I shook my head, backing away with my flight pack.

Controlling Rachel wouldn’t achieve anything.  I wouldn’t get any special knowledge of her whistles or commands, or her instinctive understanding of the dogs.

But I needed to do something.

Marquis and the others were approaching, on guard, looking tense.

I was a wild card, now, something they couldn’t wholly trust.  A little unhinged, a little unpredictable, and my power would be more dangerous and debilitating in their minds than it was useful.

“You’re going?”  Tattletale asked, almost realizing it before I had.

I nodded.

“Good luck,” she said.  “You know where to find us.”

I nodded again, taking to the air with my damaged flight pack, but it was with a heavy heart.

I’d told myself, not so long ago, that I’d know the route to victory when I saw it.  I had an idea of what I needed to do now.

Maybe it was good I couldn’t speak, because I would’ve said the words if I’d had the ability, and we’d sworn not to.  I had to think it instead, and this way, they didn’t need to hear it.

Goodbye, Undersiders.

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Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Cockroaches 28.3

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“You have something in mind?” Defiant asked.

“No,” I said.  “But we’re dealing with problems on a massive scale.  We need to look for solutions on that same scale.”

“Um,” Imp said.  “You just leaped from the subject of talking about the Endbringers to talking about solutions.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think we definitely need to think about solutions, Endbringer-wise.”

“Oh, well, of course,” Imp said.  “This is doable.  Something we’ve managed once in the last thirty years, taking down Endbringers.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She turned to me.  “There’s more to this.”

“Dinah told me the defending forces would be divided into five groups.  Armies, individuals, some of the biggest capes, and unknowns.”

“She said that to others.  It’s on record in the PRT,” Defiant told me.

“Five groups in different places, and Dinah couldn’t see why they were there, she couldn’t see the particulars.  She said there could be too many precogs there, but what if that’s not it?  What if she’s blind about the particulars because the Endbringers are there?”

“A coordinated attack?” Narwhal asked.

I nodded.  “It’s possible.  Either it’s Leviathan, Simurgh, Tohu, Bohu and Khonsu, or Scion’s there and Tohu and Bohu are together, as usual.”

“I can’t imagine the defending forces would hold the line for very long, if at all,” Defiant said.  “Not if we’re spread that thin.”

“A situation this dire brings out all of the people who might not otherwise fight,” I said.  “Parian wasn’t a fighter, but when Leviathan hit Brockton Bay, she stepped up to the plate.  As things get worse, we might see some people doing the same.”

“If it’s five Endbringers and Scion we’re up against, we might see people giving up altogether,” Narwhal pointed out.

I nodded.  “Tattletale already said something like that.  Yes.  A lot hinges on whatever comes next, whether we can get people on board.  Whether others are doing the same.”

“Alright,” Defiant said.  “You have something in mind for the Endbringers?”

“A pre-emptive attack,” Narwhal said, her voice quiet.  “If it provokes them to lash out, well, at least it’s not a coordinated attack, and at least it’s at a point in time when Scion’s busy elsewhere.  The Simurgh is standing still.  We could hit her with something like what we used in New Delhi or Los Angeles.”

“We could,” Defiant agreed.

“Let’s think on it?” I suggested.  “We can’t do this without laying out the groundwork, and that means convincing people this isn’t hopeless, it means gathering information, getting resources together.”

“Then do your thinking as you get ready,” Defiant said.  “Gear up.  Gather anyone you think you need.”

“I’m set,” Tattletale said.  Imp and Rachel nodded.

“I’ll need my spare costume pieces from the Dragonfly,” I said.  “I parked it in Gimel before I left for the rig.  Hoping my flight pack has enough of a charge.”

“Go,” Defiant said.  “I’ll see to Saint.”

“And me?” Canary asked.

“We can get you a standard Protectorate costume.  Spider silk,” Narwhal said.  “Durable, flexible.  No frills, nothing fancy, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

Canary frowned.

“What?” Narwhal asked.

“Just… skintight suits.”

“Got a bit of pudge there?” Imp asked.  “Fat thighs?  Cankles?”

“I don’t have cankles,” Canary said.  “Or fat thighs.  But it’s not…”

She trailed off.

Imp plucked the fabric of her own costume. “I’ve been there.  You think looking this good is easy?  Skintight is a bitch to pull off.  Diets, exercise, keeping up with the patrols and the life or death fights.  Surprised you didn’t get that while you were in the slammer.”

“Not a lot of choice in food, or freedom of movement when you can get cut in half for setting one toe in the wrong spot,” Canary said.  She was frowning, now.

“You can wear your clothes over it,” Narwhal suggested.  “We can get you some tools.  Nonlethal weapons.  So you’re able to defend yourself.”

They’d work it out.  I shook my head a little.  Had to focus on my own thing.

“Doorway, please,” I murmured.  “Gimel.  By the Dragonfly, New Brockton Bay.”

The portal began to slide open.

“I’ll do you one better, Canary,” Saint said.  “I’ll give you one of the spare Dragonslayer suits.”

“It’s… a good offer, but I think I’d feel like I was betraying Dragon if I took it.”

“You wouldn’t be able to pay her what you supposedly owe her if you died, either,” Saint said.  “This is freely offered.  No strings attached.  I’ll give you the ability to fly, Canary.  Better nonlethal weapons than the ones they have Masamune manufacturing.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

I hesitated in the doorway to listen.  Tattletale, Rachel and Imp walked past me on their way through.

“Do it,” Defiant said, not looking at Canary or Saint.  His eyes were on the laptop.  “Saint?  I’ll be looking over everything for tricks and backdoors.”

“Noted,” Saint said.

Defiant opened the door to Saint’s cell.

Saint stood, then rolled his head around, as if getting kinks out of his neck.  He looked so small next to Defiant, but he wasn’t a small guy.  His face was marked by lines of stress, but his gaze was hard.

“You don’t leave my sight,” Defiant said.  “Any access you have to a system is routed through me.  I double-check it.”

Saint nodded.

I passed through the portal, entering the field where I’d set down the Dragonfly. Some kids were climbing around the outside of the ship, but they ran the second they saw us, shouting.

The wind blew, making waves in the tall grass.  I turned to face it so my hair wouldn’t blow into my face.  I was left looking out over the water, while I moved bugs into the necessary channels and manipulated the switches, bidding the ramp to open.

“It doesn’t get said enough, but this is pretty damn cool,” Tattletale said.  “Outclassed convenience-wise by the portals we’ve got access to, but yeah, nice.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My mind was almost someplace else, considering everything that was in play, the threats, the necessities.

I paused, glancing out at New Brockton Bay.  Brockton Bay Gimel.  Tents and shelters were spread out everywhere, with ramshackle shelters dotting the landscape with little sense or organization.  Here and there, there were paths forming, where the passage of hundreds of people were tramping down grass and disturbing the earth.  Crews of people working in groups to erect basic shelters, bringing down trees and reducing them to basic components that they could form into shelters.

I felt a stirring, a mix of emotions, at seeing that.

Looking at them, I could almost sense that they were blissfully unaware.  They didn’t know how badly we’d lost in our initial foray, or their attitudes would be different.  There wasn’t anything like television or radio to spread the word.  There would only be word of mouth.

Had someone told them, only for the masses to dismiss it as hearsay?  Dismissing it because they didn’t want to believe we were well and truly fucked?  Or had the word simply failed to spread, with enough people keeping quiet, believing that it wouldn’t do any good for people to know?

They were lucky, to be able to face the end of the world without full knowledge of what we were up against.  Without the knowledge of what Scion was, or the looming, patient presence of the two Endbringers on Earth Bet.

It was arrogant, even condescending, but I felt a kind of warmth in the center of my chest when I looked at the people down there, like a parent might feel for a child, accompanying a sort of pity.

And somehow, when I pictured the people going to work, sweating, dirty, hungry and scared, getting eaten alive by flies, selflessly carrying out barn raisings to give shelter to the old, the infirm and the very young, I couldn’t help but picture my dad in their midst.  It was the sort of thing he’d do.

Nobody had explicitly said he’d died, and I’d gone out of my way not to ask.  Still, I felt how wet my eyes were when I blinked.  No tears, but my eyes were wet.

I could envision Charlotte down there.  Sierra.  Forrest.  The kids, Ephraim, Mason, Aiden, Kathy and Mai, I imagined, would be bringing water to the people hard at work.

Except Sierra had other duties, and the orphan children from my territory were older.  The kids would be doing basic jobs by now, overseeing new batches of kids with the errands, sweeping, and other stuff in that vein.  Still, it was a mental picture that defied logic, like seeing my dad down there.  I pictured them with the water bottles.

I shook my head a little to rid myself of the mental image, and in the doing, I stirred myself from the daydreaming entirely.  I was still standing at the foot of the ramp.

“Lost in thought?” Tattletale asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  I turned to make my way up the ramp, Tattletale keeping pace beside me.  Rachel had already settled in, lying on a bench, Bastard lying on the ground just below her.  Imp had settled outside in the grass, her head turned towards what would have been the south end of the city, if the city existed in this world.

“No need to apologize.  Constructive thought?  Strategy?”

“No.  Not constructive at all,” I said.  “Thinking about the people.”

“The people?” Tattletale asked.  “We keep telling them to split up, that we’ll give them portals to different spots around Gimel, or to other Earths.  The ones down there are the ones that refuse to go.  Sitting there, clustered into a massive target for Scion, the Endbringers, or the Yàngbǎn to take out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Everything I’ve said in the past stands.  Humans are idiots.  They’re selfish and injust and unfair, they’re violent and clumsy and petty and shortsighted.  Don’t get me wrong.  Every part of that applies to me, too.  I’m not setting myself above them on any level.”

“Mm,” Tattletale responded.

I began gathering the components for my suit.  I’d wear the same thing I did to the fight against Scion.  Just needed the individual parts.

“But at the end of the day, sometimes humanity isn’t so bad.”

“Sometimes,” she said.  “Took me a while to realize that.  The more you find out, the uglier things tend to look.  But you keep looking, and it’s not all bad at the end.”

I nodded, reaching into my pocket to get the little tube of pepper spray I’d claimed from my ruined costume.  I moved it into the belt of the new costume, then began stripping out of the casual clothes I wore.

I paused when I had my shirt off and my hair more or less in order, holding the bundle against my chest.

“I want to save them,” I said, surprising myself with the emotion in my voice.

“Scary thing is,” Tattletale said, “I know what you mean.  Most times, I’m just not that fond of people.  Seen enough ugliness in them that I don’t… care?  No.  That’s wrong.  I care, I cared, past tense.  But I didn’t… mind, if something happened to them.  That’s closer to the mark.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t surprised at that.

“But we’re getting to this point where I want to do something for them like I wanted to do something for you.  Probably a bad omen.”

“No,” I said, quiet, as I strapped on armor.  I looked at her.  “Do you regret reaching out to me?”

“No,” she said.  “But that doesn’t mean it was all right, know what I mean?”

I nodded.

Tattletale gave me a pat on the back before making her way to the bench opposite Rachel, grabbing a laptop and lying down with her head and shoulders resting against a bulkhead.

Belt on.  I hesitated before donning my mask, but I pulled it on anyways, then clasped it behind the neck, unrolling the bit from the body-portion to bury the clasp.

Then I pulled on the spare flight pack.

Depending on how things went, I might not get the chance to charge it again, to refuel the Dragonfly or anything in that vein.

If Scion or the Endbringers didn’t kill us in the coming handful of days, we’d eventually run out of fuel.  Communications would falter, and we’d run through stores of food, medicine and other amenities.  There was no way to establish new supplies as fast as we needed them.

We’d only been able to evacuate with limited supplies.  Then there were the supplies we’d brought over in advance.  Gimel was one of the more fortunate Earths for that.

I checked my armor, then tightened the straps.  Maybe a bit tighter than necessary, but I wasn’t going to stress over it.

I opened and closed my hand.  It felt weird, still, but not so much that it would be debilitating.

“Doorway,” I said.  “To Panacea.”

The doorway unfolded, and noise poured forth from the other side.  I got Imp’s attention with a swirl of butterflies, then drew the other bugs in the area to me.  Once Imp was inside the Dragonfly, I bid the ramp to close.

The rear door of the Dragonfly was still slowly shutting as we passed through the doorway and into the center of what looked like a makeshift hospital.

The walls seemed to be rough granite in varying colors, surprisingly thick and old.  Bricks and blocks three feet across, some with cracks here and there.  There were even tendrils of grass or occasional flowers growing in some of the deeper crevices.  The ‘windows’ were openings five feet by ten feet wide, with glass set into frames that had clearly been added as a late addition.

The area was flooded with people, talking, shouting, whimpering, crying.

Patients.

People had been burned, cut, bruised, their limbs crushed, faces shattered.  There were wounds I couldn’t imagine were anything but parahuman made.  They were laid out on beds and sat on stone chairs, crammed so close together they were practically shoulder to shoulder.

Panacea appeared.  She was rubbing wet hands as though she’d just washed them.  Long sleeves were rolled up, her hair tied back.  Unlike what Canary had suggested, she was leaner as a result of her stay in the Birdcage.  She was followed by a man with hair that had been combed into a sharp part, a needle-thin mustache and heavy bags under his eyes.  Something in his bearing… he was a cape.

She walked by a row of people, and they extended hands.  Her fingers touched each of theirs for only a moment, while she didn’t give them even a glance.

“Dad,” she said, stopping.

A man at the side of the room stood straighter.  Marquis.  His hair was long enough to drape over his shoulders, his face clean-shaven by contrast.  He had a fancy-looking jacket folded over one arm, and a white dress shirt that had fine lines of black lace at the collar and the sleeves he’d rolled up his arms.  Two ostentatious rings dangled from a fine chain around his neck; the chain had a locket on it, suggesting he’d added the rings as an afterthought.  To keep them out of the way while he worked, perhaps.

“What is it, Amelia?”

For another man, the combination of physical traits and the style of dress might have led to someone mistaking them for a woman.  They might have come across as effeminate.

Marquis didn’t.  Not really.  When he’d spoken, his voice had been masculine, deep, confident.  The cut of his shoulders and chin, his narrow hips, was enough that I couldn’t expect anyone to mistake him for a woman.  I wasn’t the type to go for older guys, I wasn’t even the type to go for effeminate guys.  But I could see where women would go for Marquis.

“Broken bones here.  Shattered femur.  Some bone is exposed.  Are you occupied?”

“Nothing critical,” Marquis said.  “It won’t be comfortable, fixing that.”

Panacea touched the patient’s hand again.  “He’ll be pain-free for twenty minutes.”

“That’s enough time.  Thank you, my dear.”

Marquis crossed paths with Panacea on his way to the patient.  He laid a hand on her shoulder in passing.

I watched her reach one hand up to her upper arm, touching a tattoo.  She took in a deep breath, exhaled, and then moved on.

She got two paces before she finally noticed us, stopping in her tracks.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.

“Is there a problem?” the tidy man beside Panacea asked.

“Old acquaintances,” Panacea said, her stare hard.

“Enemies?”

One enemy,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wasn’t exactly looking forward to seeing you again, Tattletale.”

“Sorry,” Tattletale said.

“I can deal with this, if it’s what you require,” the tidy man said.

“No, Spruce.  You probably couldn’t.  Don’t worry about it.  Think you could double-check on things in the back?  The equipment?”

“I will,” the tidy man said.  He turned and strode from the lobby of the makeshift hospital.

Panacea closed the distance.

You do the talking,” Tattletale whispered.  I nodded a fraction by way of response.

“So?” Panacea asked.  Her eyes roved over us, taking in details.

“I wanted to thank you for the fix,” I said.  I raised a hand.

“You tried to help me at a bad time.  It didn’t take, but you tried,” she said.

“Ah.”

“A lot of people invested in your survival.  Caught me off guard.  Used to be I was the golden child, but I wasn’t lucky enough to have anyone there to catch me when I fell.”

“Looks like Marquis caught you,” Tattletale said.

Panacea glanced at her dad, who was looking at us with one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Maybe,” she said.  “I thought you were a hero now.  You’re running with the old gang?”

Gang is such an outmoded word,” Imp said.  “So small.  There’s gotta be a better way to put it.  Ruling the roost with the old warlords again, back atop Mount Olympus once more.”

“Shh,” Tattletale hushed her.  Then, after a pause, she whispered “Olympus?  Where are you getting this?

“Not a hero, not a villain.  Just trying to get by,” I said.  “Sticking with the people I know best.  People I trust.”

“I see.  We’re trying to get by, too.  Twelve doctors, twenty nurses, me, my father and what remains of my father’s old gang.  They were sending the worst of the wounded our way while we tried to get set up to accommodate larger numbers.  Then the Yàngbǎn hit a settlement.  We’ve been flooded ever since.”

“I see,” I said.

She shifted her weight.  She had a different presence, now.  Something she’d no doubt picked up in prison.  Not posturing.  Simply more comfortable in her shoes.  She asked, “Did you need something?  There’s a reason you came.”

“I was going to say we’re mobilizing.  Dealing with some threats.  Trying to get as many big guns on board as we can, starting with the ones who weren’t on the platform.  I was thinking we could use you.”

“I see,” she said.  “I’m not particularly interested in being used.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, but it’s still meaningful that the word came up, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said.  “No it isn’t.”

She glanced back towards her dad.  Two more people who might have been capes had approached him, while he sat next to the man he was healing.

“I can’t stop Scion,” Panacea said.  “I probably couldn’t even touch him, if I wanted to get that close, and if I did, I don’t think I’d accomplish a thing.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Do you think you’re going to stop him with giant dogs?  With bugs?  People tried and they failed.  This is what’s left.  Finding places where humans used to live and moving in, if we’re lucky.  Starting over from scratch if we aren’t.  Ensuring that the population is spread out enough, but not so spread out they won’t be able to repopulate.  Dividing all of humanity into groups of six hundred to a thousand people, dropping them off in the middle of nowhere.”

“It won’t work,” Tattletale said.  “Scion moves too fast, and there’s not that many places to hide, in the grand scheme of things.”

“Every time you open your mouth,” Panacea said.  She sounded as if she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.

“You’re one of the strongest capes out there,” I said.  “We need you on our side.”

“You’ll have me,” Panacea said.  “But not on the front lines.”

I sighed.

A deep rumble sounded.  An animal noise, almost.

I turned to look, and I saw Spruce, the tidy man, standing beside Lung and Bonesaw.  The noise had been Lung, an odd sound to come from him when he was still, to all appearances, in his human state.  A tall Asian man, muscular, riddled with tattoos.  New ones had been added since the first day I’d seen him.  More eastern-style dragons.  His hair was longer, and there was scruff on his cheeks and chin.

Bonesaw wasn’t dressed up like a little girl.  Her hair wasn’t in ringlets.  She wore gray sweats.

Rachel growled a little, under her breath, an eerie parallel to Lung.

Lung stepped forward, and he pushed Bonesaw, who stumbled a little.

“It’s not nice to push,” she said.

“Don’t be cutesy,” he growled.  “We’ve warned you before.”

“Okay, fine then.  Stop fucking pushing me.  Tell me where you want me, and I’ll walk there.”

He pointed towards us.

They closed the distance until Bonesaw was next to Panacea.  Lung placed a hand on top of her head and gripped her, arresting her forward momentum.

She lashed out, twisting around and slapping at his wrist with one hand.

Don’t do that,” she said.

Someone’s short-tempered,” Imp observed.  She hadn’t yet donned her mask, though she had it with her.  Her eyes were narrowed.

“I’ve had no sleep,” Bonesaw said.  “Big sis here took out all the good bits I’d stored inside myself, and she didn’t turn off the pain.  I feel too light.  I feel weird.  Can’t sit still, not that they ever let me.”

“First tier parahuman problems,” Imp said.  Her tone wasn’t as humorous in nature as the words.

“And they keep getting on my case,” Bonesaw said, apparently oblivious.  She directed her attention to Panacea and Lung.  “Trust me, I haven’t butchered you all yet, I’m not going to in the future.  You can stop testing me.”

“I remember when you were cuddly,” Tattletale said.  “You were so happy and fluffy and you had a good attitude.  You were a complete and total monster, and nobody in their right mind would cuddle you, but you were adorable.  Now look at you.”

Bonesaw scowled, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.  Tattletale had used the past tense.  You were a complete monster.  Referring to the past, or an observation on a deeper level?

She is why I can’t leave,” Panacea said.  “I’m the only one that can double-check her work.  If we’re both here, you’ve got two stellar healers on the back lines.  If I leave, you’ve got a healer with minimal combat experience on the front line and a defused bomb with nobody that’s capable of knowing if it’s reactivated.”

I couldn’t really argue that.

Well, I could, but not very well.

“There’s another way to deal with that sort of situation,” Imp said.  “Get rid of the fucking bomb.”

“We will,” Panacea said.  “If she gives us an excuse.  Any excuse at all.  But she gets one chance.”

“When you’re talking about a bomb, that’s all it needs,” Imp said.  “Then you wind up carved up, your insides decorating the walls of a room.”

“Your metaphors…” Tattletale mumbled.  “Well, that almost worked.”

Bonesaw raised an eyebrow.  “You sound upset, but I don’t remember doing that to you.”

“My brother,” Imp growled the word.

“Oh,” Bonesaw said.  She glanced to her left, then down to the floor, a frown crossing her face.  “Right.  I’m remembering now.  Shit.  That was one of the bad ones.  Not one of the bad bad ones, but bad.”

Kind of, yeah,” Imp said, not easing up in the slightest.

“I’m sorry,” Bonesaw said, still looking at the floor.  “I won’t say I’ll make amends, because there’s no way I can even come close.  I don’t know what to say, except that I’m sorry.  No excuses.  But I’m going to do what I can to make things better, and maybe I get a hundredth of the way, in the end.”

“He had a second trigger event,” Tattletale said.  “And killed Burnscar.  In case that helps you place him.”

“I said I remember,” Bonesaw said, sounding irritated.  She glared at Tattletale.

Sure,” Tattletale replied, quiet enough she could barely be heard.

I stared at Bonesaw, watching her expression shift in fractions.  Her eyes moved, as if she were watching a scene, or recalling a memory in great detail.

“You’re fighting?” Lung asked, interrupting my thoughts.

“We’re fighting,” I said, shifting my attention to him.

“Who?”

“Everyone who gets in our way,” Rachel interjected.

“What she said,” I added.

Lung stared at me, and I held his gaze.  For someone as brutal and vicious as he was in the heat of battle, Lung had cold eyes.

He’d be thinking about his losses to me.  I’d used venomous bugs to rot away his junkular area, and I’d dosed him with hallucinogenic blood before gouging out his eyes.

It was odd, but those slights probably mattered less than the real offense I’d dealt him.

I’d taken over the city.  He’d tried and failed, I’d succeeded.

Given my understanding of Lung, I suspected that was something far more unforgivable.

“Fighting Scion, Endbringers, the Yàngbǎn…”  Tattletale said.  She placed an emphasis on the last.

Odd.  I would have reversed it.  Emphasized the biggest threats.

“Yes,” Lung said.  “No need to manipulate me, Tattletale.  If you want me to join the fight, you only have to ask.”

Tattletale had a funny look on her face, fleeting.  She turned my way, one eyebrow raised, questioning.

I nodded.

“Good,” Lung said.  “Let me collect my mask.  I will be back.”

He left.

“Doorway,” Tattletale said.  “Um…?”

“To Shadow Stalker,” I said.

The portal began to open.  It was nighttime on the other side.

Tattletale gave me a funny look.

“What?”

“I brought up the Yàngbǎn because I figured he’d be ticked they attacked this spot.  I’m getting credit for brilliant insights I didn’t have.  Not even in a fun way.  That’s going to bug me.”

I shrugged.  “Take what we can get?”

She nodded.

While we’d exchanged words, Panacea had sent Bonesaw off with Spruce.

“Thank you again, Panacea,” I said.  “For putting me back together.”

She opened her mouth to speak, then seemed to reconsider.  She pointed at the portal.  I nodded, and followed her as we strode through.  Tattletale and Imp remained in the hospital lobby, and the portal remained open.  Rachel followed us through, but seemed to sense that we wanted a private discussion and wandered off a short distance.

Panacea and I walked out onto a shelf of rubble that had once been the midpoint of a bridge.

“I’m not a fighter,” she said.  “I hope you understand.”

“I do,” I said.  “But I’m kind of hoping that, in the end, we aren’t left with only the people who ‘aren’t fighters’ on the battlefield, who’ve realized they have no choice but to change their minds.  It’d be pretty tragic if we got that far and someone like you clued into the fact that you could have helped.  It would be somehow fitting, too, if that’s how humanity went extinct.”

“It would be just as tragic if we rushed headlong into a fight, and threw away a life in the process, only to realize in retrospect it was someone vital,” she said.

I nodded.

“Good luck.  Don’t turn your back on Lung.”

“I won’t.  I’m pretty good when it comes to keeping an eye on people,” I said.  I called bugs to my hand, as if to illustrate.

“Then I really hope you succeed in the fights that come.  We’re kind of counting on you.”

“Likewise,” I said.  “I mean, I hope you achieve whatever you’re striving to do here.”

She glanced back towards the portal, which glowed from the ambient light of the room on the other side.  “Second chances.”

“Hm?”

“Together, we’re giving second chances to monsters who don’t deserve them.”

“Yourself included?” I asked.

She nodded.

“I’m not sure I get it,” I told her.  I could see Shadow Stalker land to perch on an outcropping of steel reinforcement, a distance away, watching us.  “I mean, I do get the second chances thing, not deserving it.  But…”

I trailed off.  I couldn’t articulate it well enough.

“When you’re in that position, sometimes the only people willing to extend those second chances to you are the people who need them.”

“I understand,” I said.  “You know, if you’d joined the Undersiders back then, we could have given you that.”

“You could have.  I’m not sure I could have taken it.”

“Right,” I answered.  “Yeah.”

“Not all of us are like that, though,” she said.  “Lung isn’t, as far as I can tell, but maybe you’ll see it if you look for it.  Or maybe you’ll get burned to a crisp by Lung the second an enemy distracts you and you forget to watch him.”

I nodded.

“He’s not someone who builds or rebuilds.  He’s someone who destroys.”

Something in that phrase struck a chord in me.  I knew the right answer, right away.

“We just need to point him in the right direction, then,” I said.

“Best of luck with that,” Panacea said.

She’d had her hands clasped, and as she extended a hand to shake, I could feel the bugs come to life, fluttering free of the space between her palms.

Relay bugs.  Twenty.

I checked, investigating their internal makeup.  They could breed.

Even with that gift, even with the fact that she’d never done anything to me, I couldn’t help but think of the incoherent mess of details I’d seen in the records.  The pictures that catalogued the event that had preceded her voluntary admission to the Birdcage.  I saw her outstretched hand and hesitated for a fraction of a second.  From the expression on her face, I knew she had noticed.

Second chances.

I shook her hand, drawing the relay bugs to me and stashing them in my belt.  “Thank you.”

She nodded, then exited the portal as the others made their way through to my side.  Lung and the Undersiders.  I had my back turned to them as I looked at Shadow Stalker.  She remained perched on that twist of bent girders and bars from the collapsed bridge, her cloak flapping around her.

“I remember this one,” Lung rumbled.  “She shot me with arrows.  It did not hurt that much.  She is a weakling.  Why are we wasting our time with her?”

And so the struggles for dominance in the group begin.

“I’ll take weak,” I said.  “I’m just… working with known quantities.”

The flapping of the cloak quieted as she shifted into a shadow state.  The wind was passing through it, instead of pushing against it.

Shadow Stalker leaped down, floated.

Soundlessly, she landed right in front of me, remaining in the shadow state.

“Hoping you’ve changed your mind,” I said.  Hoping you’ve seen the devastation, and that it’s reached some human part of you that cares.  “That you’re interested in fighting.”

She didn’t budge, didn’t respond.

“It also means bashing some skulls,” I said.  “She been behaving, Tattletale?”

“Mostly.”

“Then she’s probably itching for a good fight,” I said, not breaking eye contact with Shadow Stalker.  “What do you say?  You want to knock a few heads?  Break some jaws?”

She shifted to her physical state.  “I’m not that easy to bait.”

I shrugged, waiting.

“Search and rescue is garbage,” she said, sounding annoyed.  “Nobody left, but there’s no place to go if I don’t want to do it, either.”

“You could go home,” I said.  “Find your family, settle down, put the crossbow away for good.”

“Capes don’t retire,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Doesn’t work.  We die in battle or we lose our minds, one or the other.”

I thought of my passenger, how it had reflexively sought out violence in the past.  How others had done the same.  Die in battle.

Then I thought of Grue.  Was Shadow Stalker right?  Would the retirement just fail to take?

I sighed.  “So?  What’s your call?”

“I’ll come.  Sure.  I kind of want to see what you’ve made of yourself.”

She had wanted to claim the credit for my becoming what I’d become.  It grated, because it wasn’t entirely wrong.  It wasn’t true in the sense she believed it was true, but she had given me my powers.

“Fine,” I said.

She cracked her knuckles.  “So, who’s first?”

“Need to talk that over with Defiant,” I said.  “We can do it over the comms, for the sake of expediency.”

“Okay,” she said.  She sounded a little pleased with herself.  “Whatever.  I’m game.”

“Doorway, please,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “Dragonfly interior.”

The portal opened.

I extended a hand, inviting the group to enter.

Lung shouldered his way past Rachel to be the first one inside.  Bastard huffed out a half-bark, then growled.

Much like Panacea had said about Bonesaw, it wasn’t about having them as allies.  Having them be part of the group, it meant they weren’t on the opposing side.  They weren’t wreaking havoc as neutral parties.

That alone was good.

But if they turned out to be destructive forces we could control

The half-thought I’d had during my goodbye to Panacea fell into place.

A plan.

I stepped through the portal to board the Dragonfly.

“You lunatic!”  Shadow growled the word.

I was silent.  The clouds above and landscape below were a blur, the individual details impossible to make out with our speed.

“Doing this with me?  With Lung?  I could almost understand that,” Shadow Stalker growled.  “But your friends?”

“Don’t care,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve always been the sort to go for the long odds.  You have to do what your enemy won’t predict.”

“Damn straight,” Imp said.  “Credo I live by.”

“Mount Olympus, now credo?”  Tattletale asked.  “It’s the Heartbroken, isn’t it?  They’re warping you into… this.”

“Leave me alone, seriously.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t make sense!”  Shadow Stalker snarled.  “Not here, not like this!

“It actually makes the most sense,” Tattletale said.  “But that’s a different story altogether.  One that needs some explanation.”

“Ten minutes before we hit our target,” I said.  We’d taken the path through the Brockton Bay portal.  Cauldron’s doorways weren’t big enough for a vehicle like this.

“Ten minutes should be enough,” Tattletale said.  “Let me get this loaded on the laptop.  Easier to show than tell.”

“Right,” I said.  My eyes didn’t leave the navigation screens.

“I’ll kill you,” Shadow Stalker threatened.  “Turn this fucking ship around.”

She moved, reaching for a crossbow bolt.  I reacted, half-rising from my seat, drawing my swarm out-

But Lung moved faster, shoving Shadow Stalker against the side of the ship.

Shadow Stalker went ghostly, brandishing the bolt like a dagger as she passed through Lung.

Rachel gripped a length of wire that extended from the laptop, holding it out like a garrotte.  As Lung had done, she moved to pin Shadow Stalker against the wall of the Dragonfly.  Shadow Stalker returned to a normal state just in time to avoid being electrocuted.

Bastard growled, snapping at her hand, and the bolt clattered to the floor.

“You’re okay with this?”  she asked.

“Yes,” Lung rumbled, by way of response.  “This might be best.”

“Fuck you, Hebert!  Pulling this shit only after you got me on board?  You’re all lunatics!”

I sighed.

Tattletale sat down on the arm of my pilot’s seat, setting one foot down beside my thigh on the seat’s edge.  “There’s stuff you need to know.  I told you before, you said you wanted to be blissfully ignorant until the last minute.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yes.  Right.  I’m listening.”

“It’s video footage Glaistig Uaine left with me.  Last two minutes of Eidolon’s life.  Video cuts in and out, but there’s audio.  That leaves me maybe a minute or two to explain, then you can use the rest of the time to think it over.”

She had my attention, though I couldn’t take my eyes off the monitors at the front of the ship.  Shadow Stalker’s cries of anger were background noise.

The Pendragon was flying alongside us, just a little behind, carrying the capes Defiant had recruited.  Carrying Saint, Canary, and others.

Tattletale loaded up the video, filling the screen of the laptop.

I glanced once at the main monitor, then set the autopilot.

Faultline had talked about taking the simple route.  Talking to Scion.  In practice, harder than it seemed.

We were dealing with problems on a massive scale, we needed solutions on that same level.  There was no easy way to get to that level.  It meant taking risks.  Gambling.

We needed a destructive force we could direct.  Needed to turn third-party liabilities into assets.

With that in mind, I’d set course straight for the Simurgh.  We’d talk to her or we’d kill her.

Tattletale started the video, and I watched.

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Sting 26.6

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The large box sat in between the benches and seats at the back of the Pendragon, beside a heavy device with an ornate looking gyroscope on the top.  I could feel the bugs within.  I instinctively knew what they were, how they operated, and could even pinpoint exact bugs in the swarm, among dozens of their kind.

I focused on them.  It was almost meditative.  I’d taken to focusing more on the conscious uses of my power, so I’d be more aware when I was making unconscious use of it.  There was nothing I could do about the fact that my passenger apparently had a hand in how my bugs were controlled, but I was trying to train myself to recognize it when it happened.

Rachel was focusing on her dogs in much the same way I was focused on my bugs.  Her hands ran over their bodies, fingers combing through their fur, tracing the lines in their athletic little bodies.  Bastard submitted to the touching without complaint or reaction.

I could sympathize with Rachel some, now.  We’d gathered our strike force together from among the people who I was familiar with and the people who were intact enough to fight, but my relationship to each of these people was iffy at best.  Focusing on our minions was easier.

Chevalier sat in a seat that put his back to Defiant’s chair, so they faced in opposite directions.  He was talking in a low voice that didn’t cut through the drone of the Pendragon’s engine.  Defiant responded without taking his eyes off the controls.

Revel leaned back her head back and resting against the vibrating outer hull of the Pendragon, eyes closed, lantern in her lap.  She looked almost meditative, to the point that I didn’t want to disturb her.

Tecton and Hoyden were talking in low voices.  Both were Protectorate members, now.  Tecton had passed the reins to Grace, and Hoyden was now the little fish in the big pond.  I didn’t want to interject.

Parian and Foil were holding hands, sitting with their arms pressed together, heads leaning to either side so that Foil’s temple sat against the top of Parian’s head.  Even now, it was hard to think of them as Undersiders.  Lots of mixed feelings in the background there.  I’d turned Parian onto this path, and in the doing, I’d done the same for Foil.  For Flechette.

There was a crash, and the Pendragon shifted, almost veering into a dive.  Defiant corrected the course.  “Passing over the wall!  One clinging to the top of the ship!”

Revel stirred.  “Do you want me to fly out?  I can escort us in.”

“No.  The Pendragon is built to take a beating.  We’re more secure with the ramp closed and everything sealed off.  Hold tight.  This is going to get worse before it gets better.”

There was another crash.  I debated sending my bugs outside, then rethought it.  No use, for much the same reason sending Revel out wasn’t going to change things.

Rachel looked exceedingly uncomfortable, and the dogs were reading her body language and getting anxious as a consequence.

I winced at the sound of tearing metal, followed by a sudden shift in the ship’s direction.  Something had been torn free.  Defiant corrected course again, compensating.

I wanted to say something to Rachel, to calm her or the dogs down, or simply to reach out and connect in the same way that the others in the craft were finding solidarity.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure what to say.  We’d separated, had walked different paths, and I’d betrayed her on a level.  I’d led her to believe she had a friend in me, and then I’d walked away.

She met my eyes, scratched Bastard at the top of his head, then asked, “What?”

“You’re okay?”

“Yup,” she said.  She didn’t look okay.  She stroked two different dogs, but I almost felt like the gesture was more for her sake than for the dogs.

“Not right now.  Just… in general?  Are you okay in general?  Living on the other world?”

“Yup,” she said.

I sighed, turning my attention back to the box.

“I’m hoping my dogs are okay,” she said, staring down at the metal floor.  “Been a while since I’ve been away from them like this.”

“You have people, right?  People you…” I let the sentence hang as I tried to recall whether trained was something appropriate for people and not dogs.  “People you trained, to look after your dogs.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

“Setting down!” Defiant called out.

There was another tearing sound, like nails on a blackboard scaled up to a volume that made it resonate in my bones.  Maybe the worst sound I’d ever heard.

Just that thought brought back recollections.  The dull, faint sound of an old doctor’s body hitting the ground, after Mannequin cut her throat.  My dad’s voice, crying my name, sounding very distant despite the fact that he was right next to me, in the moments before I killed Alexandria and Director Tagg.  The non-sounds Brian had made as he’d opened his mouth, noises so quiet they weren’t even whispers, as he hung in the refrigerator, post-Bonesaw, pre-second trigger event.

No, there were worse sounds than the screech of metal tearing.  Sounds I’d barely registered at the time, but nonetheless sounds that haunted me.

“Tattletale sent us some old guy to teach us how to butcher the bison,” Rachel said.  “None of the others are any good at it, and it’s harder without the dogs there to help haul it off the ground by its back legs.”

The Pendragon set down.

“Taking off will be harder than landing was,” Defiant said.  He didn’t flinch as a creature pounced on the glass of the ship’s windshield.

A heartbeat later, something hit the outside of the craft.  Something big.  The thing on top that was tearing at the metal struck again, no doubt peeling away at an armor panel.

“-And I’m thinking they’re probably getting hungry.  Fucking up good meat, not carving out the fatty bits.  Or they aren’t getting all the blood out.  You have to cut deep to bleed the motherfuckers.”

Distracted by the landing, some of the junior heroes were paying attention to Rachel now.

“What the hell is she talking about?” Hoyden asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  Then I glanced at Rachel.  “Either of you.  Rachel, they’re going to manage fine.”

“They’re going to manage,” she said.

Defiant was already out of his seat.  He had approached the device he’d placed next to my box and managed to get it going just as Rachel finished speaking.

Every monitor in the Pendragon’s cabin flared to life.  Countdown timers appeared, white numbers on a black background, with fainter, smaller timers above and below.  I knew they would be the minimum and maximum times.  The one in the middle was only an estimate.

The craft was struck again, and a dent in the outer walls nearly knocked Tecton from his seat.  Everyone reached for something to hold on to, as the Pendragon nearly tipped over onto its side.  The dogs barked at the disturbance.

“There are forcefield generators,” Defiant said.  “But they take time to recharge.  We’ll hold out for as long as we can before using it, waiting until they are more numerous, and our options are limited.”

“Four minutes,” Tecton observed, looking at the monitors.

“We- I think so,” Defiant said.  “Plus or minus one minute and thirty seconds.  The forcefield generator is housed in the underside of the craft, to provide stronger defense from below.  It’ll last after the walls come down.”

“Defensive positions,” Chevalier said.

“Protecting the decoder is a priority,” Defiant said.

We stood from our seats, backing towards the center of the craft, the decoder and my box of bugs at our center.  I reached back and opened the box, letting the bugs flow out.

Without my even asking, Defiant opened the ramp at the back a fraction.  Like a flower blossoming, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I could feel my awareness expanding.  I could feel the outside of the ship, the creatures that were gathering in ever-increasing numbers.  Every shape and size imaginable.

Three were making good headway against us.  I could identify the same creature, I was pretty sure, that had been pummeling the wall at the outer perimeter of Ellisburg.  It was a quadruped, and it moved with a surprising slowness as it paced away from us.  Strands of fur longer than I was tall hung off it, and its head was one armored plate with eyeholes, the edges flaring out and away from its head at the sides and back, allowing its long, pointed ears to freely move behind the plate.  It lowered its head in the direction of the craft and tested the ground with one scuff of a spike-studded hoof against the pavement.

I set bugs to attacking its eyes, driving them into ear canals in hopes of distorting its sense of direction.  It aborted the charge to shake its head violently.

“Possible incoming right in front of you, Tecton.  Any second now.”

“Right,” he said.  He held his ground.

“Might be worth moving,” I said.

He looked back at me.  “Aren’t we supposed to defend the decoder?”

“Switch,” Chevalier said, with no elaboration.  Tecton hurried to take up Chevalier’s position towards the nose of the craft, while Chevalier lowered his cannonblade in the direction of the bulge on the wall.

There were two more creatures that were gouging the hull.  One used oversized claws to pry at metal plates.  Another was drooling acid onto the roof.

I could sense the round-headed bald girl from earlier as well, one creature that moved with a startling speed as it scratched at the outer edges of the craft, one way, then the other, so the gouges in the metal formed hatch marks.  Burrowing, almost.  Burrowing very slowly.

Something howled, and it was loud.

The creations were piling around the craft, with a number gathering on the window over the cockpit.  Tecton tensed.

“The window is stronger than the metal,” Defiant said.  “Don’t panic.”

“It isn’t as flexible,” Tecton said.  “One good hit like the one that dented the wall there and it won’t hold up.”

“It’s designed to take rocket launcher hits head on,” Defiant said.

“That doesn’t mean it’s designed to take them from an angle,” Tecton retorted.  “My power gives me a sense of structural integrity.  I’m saying I’m worried.”

“Fine,” Defiant said.  He watched the ramp, not moving an inch.  “Be worried.”

The charger was incapacitated, its eyes devoured, eardrums perforated, with bugs crawling through the middle ear fluids that were pouring down its ear canals..  I diverted bugs to the thing that was clawing the armor plates off of the outer edges.

An instant later, the charger lunged forward.

No sense of direction, no ability to see, not even any balance, beyond what its four legs offered.

But it was big, and its target was big as well.

“Heads up!” I shouted.

It slammed into the side of the Pendragon, closer to the back than the location of the first hit.  The metal tore where two sections joined together, and a monitor fell to the floor, shattering.

Creatures began crawling through the gap.  Defiant moved his spear to the opening, then activated the gray blur.  He held it there, allowing them to die and be wounded on contact.

Golem used his power, raising a hand of metal to cover the opening.

Defiant lowered his spear and canceled out the blur.

The disintegration effect might have been worth keeping on hand, but I could understand if he was concerned about another impact knocking someone into the spearhead.

Creatures had hopped onto the charger’s back, and were helping guide it, babbling and screeching, tugging on its fur.  It followed their directions, retreating.

I directed my bugs to attack, stinging and biting each of them on the same general side.  They reacted, tugging and pulling away, and the charger changed direction.  Only his flank glanced the back of the craft, and he trampled through a crowd of the little bastards who’d congregated on and around the ramp.

The round-headed girl sat there, half-crushed, and then began to swell.

“Heads up!  Your left, Defiant!” I shouted.

She detonated, and gunk spattered the ramp.  I felt bugs die on contact.

The ramp began to melt like candle wax.

I moved bugs to the fray while Hoyden and Defiant advanced on the ramp.

The creatures came in as a singular mass.  Dozens at once, practically crawling over one another.  A spine glanced off of Defiant’s armor and came within inches of striking the decoder.  Foil swatted it out of the air.

Parian’s first doll joined Rachel’s dogs in reinforcing the space behind Hoyden and Defiant.  Hoyden kicked and punched at the creatures, and small explosions tore through their ranks.  One punch, two or three creatures dead.  One landed on her, claws extended, and then promptly flew away as another detonation of flame and smoke flared from the point of contact.  She was barely scratched.

If those claws were poisonous, though…

Still, she made for a competent front line, beside Defiant with his disintegrating spear.  Every movement of the spear was as precise as Hoyden’s explosions were erratic.  The blur effect cut through the enemy like butter, and in the rare occasions where the target did slip away or dodge the attack, Defiant followed up with jolts of electricity and darts.

The charger steered around and began to pick up speed.

“Chev, incoming!”

I tried to distract the charger again, targeting the riders, but it didn’t work.  This time, they pulled in different directions, or simply dropped off.  It continued on course.

It struck only two or three feet to the left of the first point of damage, and opened up the side.  The thing with claws on the roof, squinting against the steady damage my bugs were doing, hopped over and began to pry the gap open wider.

I moved a swarm over the gap, trying to hide the entryway, but it did little good.  Both Parian and Rachel shifted position to defend the opening.  Golem began trying to patch it up.

“Careful!” Defiant warned, glancing over one shoulder.  “Too much extra weight and we won’t be able to take off!  Containment foam instead!”

The perils of physics-defying powers.  Golem and Rachel both broke the laws of conservation of mass, and now we risked paying for that.  The Dragon’s Teeth stepped forward to take over.

I could see the charger turning around.  One creature was on its back, a heavily armored thing that had hard, multifaceted eyes like an insect.  My own bugs couldn’t damage the orbs.  It cheered in a high voice, urging the charger on, with some English words peppered in the midst of its gibbering.

One more minute to go.  If we were lucky, it could open any second.  If we were unlucky, it would take two and a half minutes.

Two crawled in through the crack in the side, clinging to the ceiling as they made their way in through the cloud of bugs.  I pointed, and Foil slashed at them with her rapier.  Tecton squashed another with his piledriver.

Over where another of the creatures had been trying to burrow into the side, a creature pushed it aside and spat.  The effect was the same as the exploding bubble-head girl from earlier, if less dramatic.  Looking at the exterior wall, I could see the hatch-marks appearing in the side as though they’d been drawn in marker, pale against the dark metal.  They spread, the effect broadening, until the hatch marks were drawn out in white and the surrounding area was paler.

Something punched through, then reached in blindly to scratch and claw.  Golem’s reaching hand broke the claw.

More spots were appearing, though.  Dents, gouges, acid…  I attacked the creatures that were doing the most damage, as far as I could identify them, but there were more waiting to take their places.

“Nilbog’s creatures!”  I spoke, raising my voice.  I spoke through my bugs outside.  “We mean no harm!  We will bring you back your king!”

Nothing but cries of rage and hate in response.  No use.

Thirty seconds, now.

The holes in the exterior opened enough for the creatures to start pushing through.  The acid burned them where they made contact, but that same contact opened the holes wide enough for others to follow.

The charger lunged, charging again.  There was really only one rider it was listening to, but that pilot was a tough one to hurt.

The thing screamed one word in English, twice in quick succession, its voice high,

“Jump!  Jump!”

The charger leaped.  The result wasn’t graceful, nor was it particularly on target.  What it did do was allow the charger to get one foot up on the side of the Pendragon, its upper body partially on the roof.  It kicked and struggled in its attempts to move forward, and found one leg caught in the tear it had made on its last charge.

It placed the foot on top of the hands Golem had raised to block the gap, and sheer weight tore them down.  It slumped, falling, and then brought the end of its nose inside the ship, dragging it against the tear in fits of thrusting, struggling to free both it and its leg, succeeding only in doing more damage.  Reinforced shafts and beams held against the damage, but could see how each wiggle was bending the thick bars.

“I thought you said this thing was tough!”  Foil shouted.

“It is,” Defiant said.

“Forcefield might be a good idea!”  I called out.

Defiant didn’t respond.  Hoyden had made her way down the ramp and was dishing out the hurt close-range.  She was keeping the melee threats on their heels with a constant, aggressive offense, while her secondary powers rendered her resistant to the damage that came from a distance.  Defiant was left to defend the opening himself.

I drew my knife and my handgun and advanced until I was just behind and to the left of DefiantHe shifted position a fraction, allowing for the extra assistance.

Who knew we’d get to this point, Armsmaster?  I thought.

Fighting side by side.  I used my knife to impale one creature in the neck, then kicked it back down the half-ruined ramp.

Two of the countdown clocks had hit zero.  The one clock remained.  The high end of Defiant’s estimation on the decoder’s progress.

“One minute,” I said.

“Maybe,” Defiant said.

Maybe?”

“We took the time this past year to find Dodge’s old exit points, talking to ex-customers of the-” he stopped, grunting as he swept the spear at one persistent spine-spitter, “-Toybox group.  Used it to get readings, test the decoder.  But this portal has different metrics, updated technology.  More recent tech.”

“It’s not a guarantee?”  Hoyden shouted the words, as explosions continued to rip out around her, tearing through the assembled creatures.  They were keeping a healthy distance, now, which meant her very presence was keeping a whole area clear of the blighters.

Nothing’s a guarantee, I thought.

“I never guarantee anything,” Defiant grunted, echoing my thoughts.  “Except for a select few promises I make to people I love and people I hate.”

Rachel’s dogs were tearing into the goblins as they made their way through the gap beneath the charger that had wedged into the gap, each dog biting their mouths down once or twice in quick succession before flinging the things away just so they could have their mouths free to bite others.  Their paws swept out to club and claw at the creatures.  Tecton and Foil guarded the space between dogs, striking out to catch the ones which slipped between the dog’s legs.

I plunged my knife down to stab one of the softer looking targets, then danced back to avoid the spatter of acid that flowed from the wound.

“I’m getting buried!” Hoyden shrieked.  She’d been targeted by some critters that were dissolving into a slurry as they burned, with tendrils extending out to draw in the wounded and dead.

They’re reincarnating, feeding on themselves to make more.

“Stop using your power!” Defiant ordered.

“I can’t!  They’ll kill me!”

I glanced over my shoulder at the clock, then whipped my head back around as a creature pounced, trying to wrap itself around my head.  I shot it, feeling a flare of relief that I hadn’t just been killed, mingled with a regret over the loss of the bullet.

“How is it not done yet!?” I shouted.  “Zero on the clock!”

Defiant didn’t respond.

“Defiant!  Do we take off!?”

The charger, still caught in the gap, found the leverage to strain against one of the reinforcing girders that maintained the craft’s structure.  It began to slide down, and Golem raised a stainless steel hand to keep it from stomping on the decoder.

The hand wouldn’t be strong enough.  If that thing shifted its weight any more-

“Defiant!” Tecton shouted.  “What are our priorities!?  Can we take off?”

“No,” Defiant responded.  “We stay.  Wait, cross our fingers.”

I glanced back to see Golem and Tecton exchanging a glance.  The creature struggled again, sudden, and the beams shifted further.  One more struggle like that, and the little hand wouldn’t hold it up.

A big hand, though, might cement our fate, take away our maneuverability.

“Saint,” Defiant said.

I glanced back at him.

“Don’t fuck us on this.  We need those Azazels.  We need an escape route.”

Saint?

The fact that Dragon was debilitated was another trick, an extremely ill-advised play against the heroes, capitalizing on our distraction with something greater.

“I’m going to fucking kill Saint,” I said.

“If we survive this fucking-,” Tecton said.  He grunted and fell on his armored rear end as a dog jerked to one side, accidentally body-checking him.

“Not a suicide mission,” Defiant said, carrying out only one half of a conversation we weren’t entirely privy to.  “Back us up, now.”

A pause.

Defiant spoke, and his tone of voice had changed.  He wasn’t talking to Saint.

“Toronto, Ontario.  Canada.  Yonge Street.  Just behind a place called Greenway.  I’ve commissioned a thinker-investigator calling himself Gleer to track them down.  If only some of us make it, do me a favor, and remember that Saint is the one who fucked with one of our biggest truces yet.  Saint took down Dragon, and he just left us to die.  The Azazels are apparently better deployed elsewhere.”

The charger bucked, and Golem created a large hand, not to catch the descending foot, but to divert its direction.  It crushed my empty bug box.

This much weight on the craft, the loss of so many external components… we wouldn’t be able to fly.

The roof came partially off.  More streamed in through the resulting gap, dropping down into the middle of the cabin.

Revel unleashed her lantern.  Spheres of light and flame flew out in every direction, burning through the ranks of the smaller creatures, zig-zagging to maximize contact between them.  The charger died, going limp.

A moment’s reprieve.

Defiant used a grappling hook from his glove to try to catch Hoyden, only for it to fly off in another blast of flame.

He tried again, but this time, he whipped the chain, so the length of it wound around her, then yanked her inside.  He signaled, and the forcefield went on.  In seconds, we cleared the few that had survived from the Pendragon’s cabin.

Creatures died as they made contact with the field.

Defiant dropped his spear, turning to the device that Dodge had set up.  Data appeared on the monitor.

“Give me a connect to Alcott,” he said.

Tattletale’s voice sounded through my earbud.  “You sure?  You know-”

“Time is of the essence.  Now.”

Righty-o.”

The rest of us exchanged glances.  Rachel was tending to her dogs, Parian was binding wounds with spare cloth and creating more constructs, and Golem was patching up the damage.  Not fixing anything, but barricading.

She’s on the line.

“Top half of the list, success?”

Zero,” Tattletale said.

“Last quarter?”

Yes.”

Defiant typed on the keyboard.  “That’s it.  Narrowing down possibilities.  Thank you.”

We waited, looking through the spaces where the barricades hadn’t yet gone up, at the creatures that waited.  Hoyden submitted to some bandaging on Parian’s part.

I watched the forcefield flicker.  It seemed to coincide with what Defiant was typing on the keyboard.  A strike of the enter key, and it flickered and went out.

“I’m taking it down early,” Defiant said.  “We need the power.”

Barely a minute.

The creatures approached hesitantly, then broke into a run.  I could see the dogs tense.

“Back up,” Defiant said.  “Now.  Huddle!”

We did, swiftly retreating until we were clustered around the center of the cabin, shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the device. My bugs filled the gaps.  The creatures, in turn, gibbered, squealed, screeched and roared.  They howled and stomped and drummed fists on chests.

Impacts made Golem’s hands bend, and I could hear a dozen points where they were grabbing at the plates of metal and straining to bend and peel them.  That horrible sound, in innumerable places around the craft.

And then silence.  Darkness.  Air rushed around us, equalizing throughout a vast, empty space.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, I thought.

We broke the huddle, our headlights and flashlights going on.  Rachel’s dogs could be seen in the darkness, their eyes glowing red and orange in the reflected light.

“It seems we have company,” Jack said.

I could see the others startle.

“No, I’m not standing next to you.  Borrowing Screamer’s power to broadcast, to have a little chat.”

No.  Couldn’t afford to listen to him.  If any of us were problematic, or if it was someone listening in, anything he said could be the catalyst for the end of the world.

Problem was, Screamer was a bitch to shut down.  Ear plugs wouldn’t be any guarantee.  If she was forced to, she would use the vibrations of people’s bones to transmit words.

Jack continued, “I confess, I do like this part.  The chatting.  It’s safe to keep my distance, but it’s boring, really.  You challenge somebody, pit mind against mind, but how much do you truly get to know them?”

“Move,” I said.  “Fan out, find Screamer as soon as possible.”

My bugs flowed out in advance of the group.

“This, the conversation, it’s what turns a mindless killing spree into something more, an art.  Bonesaw is fond of telling me that true art speaks for itself, but really, there needs to be a relationship between the artist and audience, if only because there’s a lot of idiots out there.  Some people need it spelled out for them.  Hi Theodore.”

Golem clenched his fists.

The area was vast and empty.  Every surface was granite, rough but not so much so that it would be painful to walk on with bare feet.  The wiring was crude, small floodlamps strung out in strings, like oversized, colorless, exceptionally boring Christmas lights.  Wires had been stapled against the walls, fixing them in straight lines, but the excess draped loose at the bases of those same walls.

The lights were bright, but they only covered two-thirds of the area.  The spaces between those same lights were dark to the point of being almost pitch black, the afterimages in my vision making it look like things were moving in the shadow.

“Gray Boy is retrieving your sister this very moment, Theodore.”

Golem stopped in his tracks.

“Yes,” Jack said.  No elaboration.  Answering a question that hadn’t been asked.

“Can’t communicate with our people while we’re here,” Defiant said.

“Keep moving,” Chevalier gave the order.

Jack spoke, his voice smooth.  Or Screamer spoke, mimicking what he was saying, quite possibly in the exact tone and cadence.  “We got video.  I thought about having it be silent, in black and white, but Gray Boy wanted color.”

My scout-bugs found no signs of life.  Only bizarre constructions.  Crystal pillars with more wires stringing to them?  Where was Jack?  We passed through a room with what looked like a dentist’s chair.  Tools and pieces of the mechanical scalpel-spiders littered the room.

Bonesaw’s operating room.

“I like to think this is a win-win situation for me,” Jack said.  “Wait until you hear.  We’ll get the video up in a moment.  Play it on the speakers, maybe, or show it on the computers, if you can find one soon.  Does this break you, or does it give you that burning fury that drives you to go the extra mile and try to kill me?”

We entered the main area, and I stared.

“Oh god,” Foil said.

There was a crunching sound as Chevalier let his sword drop, the metal biting into the floor.

The crystalline pillars were vats.  Cloning vats.  Each marked with a name of one of the Nine.

They were full.  Babies floated within each.

“Cherish says you found the clones.  Yes.  We’re doing another batch.  Didn’t take much time to prepare, and it was bound to be either a nice follow-up or a good surprise for you if you happened to catch up to us here.  You know I’m close.  Do you take the time to eliminate each of these things, or do you come after me and leave them behind?”

“We can have someone stay behind, clean up,” Chevalier said.

“I wouldn’t say that, Chevalier,” Jack responded, his voice carrying through the vast chamber with two or three hundred vats spaced evenly throughout.  “See, we mixed things up a little.  There’s a specialized cleanup area that can kill the Crawler clones.  We gave them their powers right off the bat.  Mixed them in with the others.  You’ll have to be fairly discerning, and devote manpower to the task.”

I thought about using my power, but there weren’t any bugs native to this area.  I was limited to the ones that I’d brought with me.  Not enough to cart two or three hundred children off to some special device.

“A distraction,” Defiant said.  “There’s another option.  A bomb.  If we track down the device Dodge used to create and maintain this dimension, we can collapse it.”

“How fast?” Chevalier asked.

“Fast,” Defiant answered.

“Poor sportsmanship,”  Jack rebuked them.  “Let’s try a different distraction then.”

A computer monitor on the desk flickered to life.

“I’m excited,” Jack said.  “Gray Boy is working on getting the video up.  Funny thing.  The real Gray Boy wouldn’t be able to do this, but we gave this one the memories of a real child.  Came with the necessary skills.  I’m almost disappointed.  People are so much more interesting when they’re flawed, aren’t they?  Oh, here we go.  I haven’t even seen this.  Let’s see…”

The video started playing.  The camera wiggled and wobbled as Gray Boy ascended a staircase.

He came face to face with PRT officers.

“Best not to watch,” Revel said, her voice gentle.  “It’s not worth it.”

Golem didn’t take his eyes off the screen.  Revel approached him, putting one hand on his shoulder.

Others turned to keep scouting the area.

I joined them.  This place was massive, but my power had range.  I needed to find Jack, and that was a bigger priority than seeing the scene as it played out.  Rachel walked between the rows and columns of glass vats with me.  Her dogs trailed behind, their spikes and spurs occasionally tapping or dragging against the glass of the vats.

There we go,” Gray Boy said, his voice high, as he spoke in the video.  I could barely make it out with my own ears, but I had my bugs to help.  It didn’t hurt that the ones who’d remained behind were utterly silent as they watched.

I’d already seen, in a sense.  I’d figured out what was behind the tarp back in Killington.  Gray Boy’s victim.  The only one, as far as I was aware, who was still alive.

But Gray Boy didn’t kill.

Let’s adjust… there,” Gray Boy said.

Please… don’t… please… let…

The voice was halting, cut short at steady, regular intervals.

Me… go… please… oh… god…

Shhhh,” Gray Boy’s voice was a hush, but it carried through the speakers that were planted throughout the area.

I… don’t…

I said be quiet,” Gray Boy said.  “I’ll do you a favor, even.  I can make this painless.  I just need you to talk to me.  Tell me a story.

A… story…?

I’m sure you can come up with something good.  Let’s start with your partner.

There was a scream.  I tensed.

The scream didn’t stop.  It continued, a steady, constant loop, the beginning the same, the ending varying.

What… story?”

The scream changed, intensifying.  It continued looping, just a little louder, a little less usual.

Don’t be a baby,” Gray Boy said.  “That’s only a pocket knife I cut you with.

Trucks… vampir… dragons… what… do… you… want…

Think about it,” Gray Boy said.  “When I come back, I want to hear it.  If it isn’t a good one, I’m going to light a match.  They say a burn hurts more than any other kind of pain, inch for inch.  Look, see!  I’ve got a whole matchbox here.  A whole matchbox just for you two, and all the time in the world.

The man’s oddly rhythmic screaming continued, dropping in volume.  It was barely audible as a door shut.

I forced myself to keep walking, exploring with my bugs.  Tunnels, side-rooms, many occupied with old devices, things belonging to the Toybox residents that had apparently claimed spaces in here for themselves.

“Can your dogs pick up a scent?” I asked.

Rachel shook her head.  “Wrong breeds.  They’re not trained in tracking people.”

I swore under my breath.

“Kayden.”

Golem’s voice, from far away.

Gray Boy had found Theo’s family.

Move your hand,” Gray Boy said.  “You know it won’t work.  I’m too hard to kill.

A pause.

I’m going to give you a choice.  You can put the little girl down and let me have her, and then I’ll use my power on you only, or I can use my power on you both.”

There was no reply.

Don’t be silly,” Gray Boy warned.  His tone was flat, almost without affect.  “Give me the girl.  I promise I won’t do anything to her.  Can’t say the same for any of the others, but you and I both know that nothing they can do even compares to what happens when I use my power.

A sound.  A whimper.

I’ll even let you choose.  What kind of hell do you want to go to?  I can use fire, or knives, or I can hit you with something heavy.  I like that little statue over there.  There’s cold, probably.

A sound, a bang, a crash, echoed over the speakers.

I continued pacing down the row of vats.  I reached the end, then traversed an open, empty space before reaching the start of a complicated, almost labyrinthine tunnel network.  My bugs struggled to trace the contours of the space and find their way to the next area.

When they did, they found it was an even bigger space than the one Rachel and I were in.  A giant robot stood in the center, half-complete.

A toddler started shrieking, her wail audible over a hundred speakers throughout the complex, each just a fraction out of sync with the others, given the speed of the signal traveling as compared to the speed of the ensuing sounds.

Not bright,” Gray Boy said.  “And the baby’s crying.  No wonder, with you trying to throw her out the window.

There was only silence in response.

I thought you’d use your laser instead.  Do you think your baby can fly?  Here.  I’ll make the loop longer so you can talk.

I… had… to… try…

Maybe.  But now I have to punish you.  I could hurt you, like I do with most people.  Hurt you while you’re looping through the same action, so you feel that pain over and over and over and over again.  The only thing that doesn’t change is your brain.  That keeps going.  The pain is always fresh, it never gets easier to deal with, but I’m told there’s a certain point where you crack, and you go around the bend.  Takes a few days for most.  Then you get to a point where you work through your issues.  You don’t want to, but you do, because the only thing you have to occupy yourself with is the pain and your own thoughts… so you get mostly better, and then you crack up again, and you get better, and that becomes a loop of its own…

Fuck… you…

Until well after the sun goes out, they think,” Gray Boy said.  “Speed of thought, can’t turn it off unless I’m using it on myself, and I don’t think anyone’s immune.

Bastar… d…

But I do that to everyone I use my power on.  Like a snap of my fingers, just like that, anyone around me is caught in a loop.  What kind of special punishment could I give you, murdermommy?

There was no reply.  The child continued to cry.

Who’s this one?  The woman?” Gray Boy asked.  “No answer?  How about… now.”

There was a pause.

Most scream when you stab them.  Oh well.  Maybe this one?

I changed direction, walking along the wall to get a sense of the greater complex.  There was no way to check the area at the foot of the giant robot without navigating the labyrinth.  My range wasn’t that long.

Nope.  And… this one!”

A scream.

There we go.

Crusader…

I’ve decided, murdermommy.  I won’t do anything to you for now.  I’ll let you wonder what the others did to your little girl.  Then, maybe, if she’s still alive, I’ll bring her back to you and I’ll use my power on her while you watch.  Maybe a week from now, maybe a month, maybe years.  Decades, even.  A hundred years?  They have cryogenics and brain scans and cloning vats and more!  We could show up a thousand years from now, just to say hi to you.

No…

You lose track of time, like that.  Standing there.  But maybe if you keep yourself sane, you’ll be able to offer advice so it won’t be so unbearable, so you can converse and tell stories and keep each other happy.  Maybe, if you keep it together enough, you can convince me to let her go.  I’ll give you a… one in twenty chance.

No…

Tell her to listen to me.  To obey me.  You know what happens if she doesn’t.  Convince her.

Aster… do… what… he… says…

Good.  You hear that, Aster?  Good.

Come… back…

Her voice was quieter, almost drowned out by Aster’s wailing.

A door shut, the speakers echoing the sound all throughout the complex.

The rhythmic screaming of the PRT officer grew louder.

Sit,” Gray Boy’s high voice sounded.  “Don’t run, little girl.  Listen to me like mommy said.

The man’s screaming grew louder still.

So whiny.  I just cut up his face.  So?  Tell me a story?

Silence.

Okay.

A sound of a match being struck.

We… were… briefed… on… Jack…  we… don’t… know… how… he… ends… the… world… we’re… suppose… to… implemen… quarant… ine…”

I stopped in my tracks.

He… talks… to… someone… and… catalyz… es… someth… ing…

The PRT officer had been asked to weigh an eternity of torment against the lives of billions, and she’d chosen the selfish option.

Every… major… group… helping… teams… defeat… Jack…  Cauldron… Thanda… PRT… Protector… ate… Wards… Brockton B… ay villains… Moord Nag… Irregulars… Faultline… Triumvirate…”

We’d just lost our last major advantage in determining how this could play out.  Jack was getting everything.  He was a wiki-walk away from getting details on everyone who was arrayed against his new Slaughterhouse Nine.

I could sense the others as they moved through the complex.  I beckoned Rachel and her dogs, then mounted up.

I kicked the dog into motion.

Others… I… can’t… recall…  they… are… keeping… powerful… people… away… from… Jack… to… avoid… catalyz… ing… they… are… employing… strike… teams… to… take… down… smaller… groups…”

And you’re here because?

Because… Aster… supposed… trigger… young… usually… one… child… in… family… know… Jack… coming… probably… in… person… chance… she… is… catalyst…

There’s a lot of people who could be the catalyst,” Gray Boy said.  “You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to cover all of the bases.”

Low… chance… but… still… chance… thought… we… could… protect… with… Night… Fog… Purity… Crusader…”

Well,” Gray Boy said.  “That was boring.  I wanted a story with neat monsters.”

I gave serious consideration to switching the earbuds to a setting that would make them serve as earplugs.  I made myself keep listening as the screaming started, keeping my ears peeled for clues.

My swarm-sense, at the same time, was searching more of the area.  I brought bugs to me, then sent them off into new corridors as I reached them.

Too few bugs in this entire place.  No moisture to feed them, no food sources.  Only a scant few that had no doubt been brought in accidentally.

I thought the story was interesting,” Jack said, his voice sounding as though he were speaking in my ear.  “See, I had a plan in mind, but now I’m rethinking it.  If I’m supposed to be a catalyst, then it can’t be any of the others.  Bonesaw would get the credit for any plagues or clone armies we deployed, even if I gave the order.”

I grit my teeth.

“But if the effect is broad, well, giving the order could be a part of it.  Our Harbinger has been giving us some very good advice.  Talking about the critical places to strike.  What happens if we attack certain targets?  The world teeters on the brink of falling to the Endbringers.  Divide my remaining soldiers and attack key points in the infrastructure, and maybe that’s game over for humanity.”

Here.”  A voice over the comms.

Or Screamer fucking with our heads?

“Verify.” I spoke over the comms.

Nobody called back to verify.  A sign I was on the right track?  I kicked the dog to drive him to move faster.

“Or if Gray Boy uses his power on Scion, perhaps?  We could assassinate some key figures.  Win-win, because we either deliver a critical blow or we might run into the right person to bring about the end of the world.  So many possibilities, really.”

I could sense them.  Easily two hundred of the Nine, accompanied by a mess of Nilbog’s creations, hooked up to Bonesaw’s control frames.  Nilbog hung on the wall above the group, limbs splayed, tubes feeding into him as blobs dropped down and were captured by a small army of mechanical soldiers.

I closed my eyes for a moment.  A trick?

No.

Two years of emotions caught up with me in a single instant.  I felt fear grip me, anxiety seizing my entire body, adrenaline flooding through my body.

Yet, when I spoke, my voice was calm.  “Weaver here.  I’m using my first priority passphrase.  Danny and the Rose.  Look for the flare.”

Message received loud and clear, Weaver,” Tecton said.

I drew a flare from my belt and lit it, throwing it to the ground.

That done, I glanced over my shoulder at Rachel.  She nodded.

Jack’s voice echoed through the complex.  I could sense him with my bugs now.  He was pacing back and forth, while all of the other Nine were stock still.  “Attack the cities, target Scion, assassinate all of these powerful capes that are coming after me…”

Or I could do all of the above.”

I hopped off of the dog’s back to make it through the doorway, then ascended the spiral staircase.  The dogs struggled to follow, and I signaled for them to stop.

Couldn’t have them blocking my retreat.

I wasn’t sure what I could do, but there had to be something.

I reached the top of the stairs, then stopped, my back to the wall beside the doorway.  I held my gun.

The sole remaining Cherish said something, a murmur.

Weaver.” Jack said.  Screamer repeated the word after him, and it carried through the air, an echo.

“Hi Jack,” I said.  I hung my head, focusing on what my power was telling me.

The bugs I had in the room clung to particular members of the group.  They were eerily still.

“Gray Boy is standing right in front of me,” Jack said.

“I know.”

“Most are shut down.  Using a control to keep them still.  Too unmanageable in a group like this.  That doesn’t mean you have the slightest chance of accomplishing something.”

“I have to try,” I said, echoing Purity’s words from the video.

“Such sad, small words,” Jack commented.  “You don’t have to.”

I had tricks prepared, but none of them were remotely viable.  Not with Bonesaw so close.

I would die, and she would revive Jack.  At best, I’d slow them down.

“You’re too big for your boots, Weaver,” Jack said.  “You had a few critical successes and you’ve run with them.  Earned yourself a reputation.  But at the end of the day, you’re still the same pathetic bug controller who got her powers because her mommy died.”

He likes to talk.  Every second that passes is a second we’re catching up.

“People probably said the same thing about you in the beginning, Jack,” I said.  “Too big for your boots.”

“They did.  My trigger event was a little more dignified, though.  No matter.  I’ve been at this a long time.  You’re barely a concern.”

“Want to fight, Jack?” I asked.  My bugs moved through the crowd as I noted each of the threats that were present.

“Eh,” Jack said, shrugging,  “I can take you.  Step through that doorway, and I’ll give you a fair fight.  One on one.  Look.  I’ll even put my knife in my belt, hands on my head.”

I had an assessment of their group.  I couldn’t account for Nilbog’s creations, but I knew which members of the Nine were present and where they were situated.

“You said it yourself,” Jack said.  “You can’t afford not to.”

Too true.  The others weren’t close enough yet.

“Why this fixation on ending the world?” I asked.

“Nuh uh uh,” Jack answered me.  “Not going to get bogged down in a discussion.  We have a situation.  I’m going to walk away in about fifteen seconds, unless you want to have a duel.  Knife against knife, or gun against knife, if you prefer.  You win here, it’s a coup for the world.  What better option for the make-believe queen?”

The make-believe queen?

Maybe a name Cherish had given me.  I tightened my grip on the gun, but I kept my finger off the trigger.

Someone advanced.  I felt tripwires snap and break.

Letting a hostage go?

I turned and started to fire before the individual in question could step through the doorway.  By the time I made the conscious decision and started squeezing the trigger, the individual in question was emerging.  The bullet made contact, passing through their head.

A life taken.  A hostage killed.  But I couldn’t afford to take any chances.

No.

I shook my head a little.

A Nice Guy, not a hostage.

He needed to focus on people to use his power.  That focus was far weaker if he couldn’t see someone.  My voice would be another vector, as well as knowing my location.

“That was impolite,” Jack said.

“No tricks.”

“I could send Siberian after you,” he said.  “She wouldn’t even have to kill you.  Just hold you still.  Bonesaw and Gray Boy could have worlds of fun.  Remember what we did to your team leader?  Imagine the eternity of pain Gray Boy could deliver after our Bonesaw has given you more nerve endings to work with.”

“You could,” I said.

The others were getting closer, reaching the foot of the stairs.

Cherish spoke.  “The others are here, Jack.”

“Then your time is up, Weaver.  I hope you don’t regret your hesitation.”

I wouldn’t.

I drew in a deep breath, waiting for the second Jack turned, then stepped into the doorway.

Then I opened fire.

I’d first run into the scenario when I went up against Mannequin, before running up against Glory Girl.  The first time I shot a gun, I hit my target.

Now I had a better idea of why.

Having bugs over the entire area, I had a sense of the area, of the topography, of where everything was.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was an advantage.  Something to help aim the shot, to help give me a sense of the path the bullet would travel.  It was like being able to reach out with my arm in a perfectly straight line, touch my target, then aim along the line.  The same effect I’d granted Foil, so she could snipe Tyrant.

The sole remaining Siberian moved to Jack’s side before I could pull the trigger.

I wasn’t aiming for Jack.  It wasn’t even a consideration.  Like he said, he had Gray Boy with him.  The second I stepped into their sight, I was a goner.

My bullet took Cherish in the head.  Another bullet struck Screamer.

I hesitated.

Then I shot Aster, who was held in a Hatchet Face’s arms.

Manton-

No.  Too dangerous.  Gray Boy was moving, trying to get to a better vantage point.

I turned, activating my flight pack for a boost of speed.

The Siberian broke away from Jack, giving chase.  Crawlers advanced only a pace behind.

In that same moment, I drew out more lines, giving the signal.

Revel and Foil both opened fire, their energy-orbs and bolts tearing through the walls and into the rank and file of the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“No!”  Jack ordered.  “Siberian, with us.  The remotes are programmed?”

“Yeah,” Bonesaw reported.

“We go.  Divide into groups.  One major target each.”

Jack quickly sorted them out, his Siberian touching him, Manton and Bonesaw as the bolts and orbs continued to tear through his crowd.  One or two dead every second.

And then they separated into groups.  Bonesaw paused, then broke away, joining her crowd before hitting the remote.  They disappeared.

Another group gone.

Then the remaining three disappeared all at once.

I collapsed on my hands and knees as I reached the bottom of the staircase.  The others that had managed to reach our location stood over me.

“They’re gone,” I said, panting not from exertion, but the sheer panic of what I’d done.

“We give chase,” Chevalier said.  He looked to Defiant.  “Can we?”

“We can if there is a computer,” Defiant responded.

I only nodded.

“Good,” Defiant said.

I looked up as Golem approached, Revel beside him.

“Aster’s dead,” I said.

He went very still.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Did you-”  He started, then he stopped, staring down at me.

“Nevermind.  Sorry for asking,” he said.  “Whatever happened, it’s for the best.”

He didn’t sound like he believed it.  He didn’t sound confident in the least.

It’s for the best, I thought, as Golem joined Chevalier and Defiant in heading up the stairs.

“Can you tell me the order they went off?”  Defiant asked.

I nodded.

“Good.  Then I think we can figure out which went where.  We can eliminate this place as an escape route.”

Which meant we knew which way Jack had gone, and he couldn’t run anymore.

Final encounter.

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Sting 26.4

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Ellisburg loomed before me.  A small town, surrounded by a massive wall.  Ellisburg had been situated by a river, and the wall included a section of the waterway.  The building that managed the flow of water was bigger than any structure within the walls, a filtration and guard system that ensured that nothing was making its way up or downstream from the small town.

It was a risk to even have the measure, no doubt, and it would cost money to operate and maintain.  There had to be a reason they had included the river rather than section the river off altogether.  A compromise?  Something to keep the goblin king happy?

I’d only been a toddler when the walls had first gone up.  Outside of that bit of news, the Ellisburg situation wasn’t one that came up a lot, yet it had somehow found traction in the public consciousness.  It was something we all thought about from time to time, something that loomed as a possibility in everyone’s mind.

Would today be the day the wrong person got too much power?

Would today be the day our hometown was effectively removed from the map, surrounded by sixty-foot concrete walls?

The dashboard indicated the Dragonfly was now approaching the designated landing point.  The A.I. had suddenly decided to ground itself, landing in a nearby field, costing me precious minutes, while Dragon had been silent on the comms.  I’d left a message, trusting her A.I. to pass it on, and hadn’t received a response yet.

My attempts to patch into the feeds and get a view on what was going on with Jack hit a brick wall.  The corner of the monitor still showed the cube folding through itself in the corner, Dragon’s loading message, as if the process had hung.

I’d manually piloted the craft back out of the field, and the A.I. had kicked in to handle the flight codes and necessary messages to air traffic control and nearby aircraft.  When I’d input my destination for the second time, the craft mobilized.

But the silence, the strange blip in the A.I.’s direction, it left me uneasy.

Now, as we took a circuitous route around Ellisburg, to a field beside the large filtration and security building, I could see the Azazels, parked at the edges of the same location.

That was the point I felt alarmed.

I hit the button on the console/dashboard. “Dragon?  Requesting confirmation on the situation.  You intended to intercept Jack before I got here, but the Azazels are dormant.”

No response.

“Dragonfly,” I said.  “Display non-system processes and tasks last carried out.”

It displayed a list.  In a matter of seconds, the scroll bar was barely a line, with thousands of individual instructions noted in collapsed menus.  A prompt reminded me I could load more with a request.

“In the last minute.”

The list wasn’t much shorter.

“Communications-related.”

There.  Besides the orders I’d just given, I could see the message I’d sent to Dragon.

“Status of message?  Has she heard or read it?”

The loading symbol appeared in the corner.  It should have been nigh-instantaneous.

“Cancel that.  Give me manual access.”

A keyboard appeared on the dashboard.  I couldn’t use it right away, though.  I was forced to pay attention as the Dragonfly reached the field and hovered.  I lowered the ship down.  The small craft shuddered as it touched ground.

Using the keyboard and the manual access, I began digging through the data.  I navigated the menu the A.I. had provided, then opened the submenu to view the details on the message I’d left Dragon.

My message was in the priority queue, but it sat at the 89th position on the list of messages Dragon would be getting to.

I dug a little, and found the list was growing.  Ninety-four, ninety-five…

Where the hell was Jack?  I contacted Defiant.

Defiant here.”

“Weaver.  What happened?  Is the Slaughterhouse Nine situation resolved?”

“No.  He entered Ellisburg.”

I closed my eyes for a second.  It took a moment to compose myself and get my thoughts and priorities in order.  “And the suits?”

Ignore the Azazels.  Listen.  I’ve got a lot to handle and coordinate right now,” Defiant said.  Was there a tremor of emotion in his voice there?  “Golem’s on his way.  Wait for backup.  I’m sending Dragon’s Teeth your way.  Teams from across America are joining the fight now that the full situation is leaking. I’m putting some on containment and quarantine detail, make sure the Slaughterhouse Nine situation doesn’t get beyond the areas the attacks are directed at.  I’m going to send a few your way.  Ten minutes.

“Jack’s already in the city, and you want me to wait ten minutes?  That long, and Jack could get what he wants.  I’ve got the Azazels nearby if there’s trouble-”

The Azazels aren’t… reliable.  Consider them compromised, but a non-threat at the same time.  Listen, there are things I need to take-

This is the highest priority,” I said.  “Isn’t it?  Jack?  The end of the world?”

A pause.  “Yes.  Of course.  But I can’t help you while I’m on the phone.

A note of deceit in that.  He was covering for something.

Something happened.

I thought of what had happened at the school, the way Dragon had stopped abruptly.  I’d read the records, knew the gist of the story.  Dragon had been in Newfoundland when Leviathan sank it, had escaped, only to shut herself away from the world, never venturing outside the expansive building complex she’d had constructed in Vancouver.

She hadn’t left Newfoundland unscathed, I was almost certain.  Brain problems, body problems… I couldn’t be sure.  Probably both.  She had no doubt integrated herself with technology to cope, enhance and expand her capabilities.

Except that her technology was failing.  The way she’d collapsed at the school, the speech problems she’d suffered, the slow recovery, now this…  It was the only theory that made sense.

She’d pushed herself too far, something had gone wrong, and now Defiant faced losing the one person on this planet who could tolerate him for more than ten minutes at a time.  No small wonder he was out of sorts.

I considered how I’d feel if it was one of the Undersiders.

“Defiant,” I said.  “I’m going in alone.  Send Golem in after me if he wants to come, reinforcements can hang back or come with, depending on your judgement.  I’ll handle things on this end.  You focus on what you need to.  Focus on Dragon, focus on damage control.”

A pause.  “There’s nothing I can do for Dragon right this moment.  The best I can do is maintain the momentum and keep things coordinated, and hope that Dragon’s substitution can maintain the back-end.”

I didn’t respond to that.  I was already getting ready to go.

Thank you, Weaver.

It was uncharacteristic of him to thank me.  A pleasantry.  How upset was he?

I couldn’t spare another thought on the subject.  I was out of the Dragonfly at the first opportunity, making my way towards the quarantine control and filtration building.  It was squat, concrete, hardly pretty.  As I got closer, I could hear an alarm.

The front doors had been torn apart.  It might not have been so impressive, but these were the same vault doors we saw with the shelters that studded every likely target around the world.

The gouges were narrow, a finger’s width, as though someone had dragged their hands through the steel like I could drag my fingers through half-melted butter.  Siberian.

Jack had brought protection.

My bugs flooded into the facility, past the second dismantled vault door.  The alarm was louder as I ascended the concrete stairs and made my way into the building.

The emergency lighting was on, casting the area in a red glow.  My bugs searched and scanned the area, in case any members of the Nine were lurking in wait.  So many ugly ways this could go.  So many threats that Jack could have on hand.  Cherish?  Screamer?  Nyx?  Ways to fool my senses, ways to shut me down or defeat me.  My only recourse was to get them before they got me.

Hey, passenger, I thought.  Do me a favor.  If I get taken out of action and you step up to fight, work on taking out Jack, alright?

My bugs stirred, moving further down the hall.  It was so far from a conscious direction that I wondered for a second if the passenger had listened.

No.  I’d tried hypnosis, I’d tried other things.  Some in Mrs. Yamada’s office, other times in the PRT’s labs, after dark, off the record.  Nothing brought the monster to the fore.

Just my subconscious.

Just.  Like that wasn’t something I couldn’t help but wonder about.

But I’d made peace with it.  I couldn’t barter with something that wouldn’t talk back, but I could accept it, test and acknowledge my limits as far as they pertained to the entity that was apparently granting me my abilities.

I wouldn’t turn away from it, wouldn’t tell it to go away or hold back in my abilities.

My bugs marked the area, giving me the information I needed to navigate the facility.  It proved easier than I might have expected.  Rather than follow the winding corridors and make my way to the security checkpoints, I followed the path of casual destruction Siberian had left in her wake.  She’d knocked down walls to create the shortest possible route from the front doors to Ellisburg.

No casualties that I could detect.  No nonhuman life.

Had Dragon ordered this place evacuated before she was incapacitated, or had Nilbog gotten here first?

My bugs started to scan the area beyond the facility, inside Ellisburg.  They made it about ten feet before something like a frog’s tongue began snatching them out of the air.

I withdrew the swarm back to myself, hiding my bugs beneath my cape and skirt, and I made my way through the opening into Ellisburg.

A goblin wonderland.  It was clear he’d altered it from its original layout, likely over the course of years.  The remodel had been more aesthetic than functional.  Floorboards had clearly been dug up and moved to the exteriors of the buildings, creating roofs and building additions that spiraled or twisted, with more boards propped up flat against the building faces on one side, painted or modeled in the same way the towns had been put together in old western movies.

The walls that surrounded Ellisburg had been painted as well.  To look from a distance, Nilbog’s kingdom extended to every horizon, with crooked, impossible landscapes at the periphery of it, like an ocean frozen in time, grown over with grass and trees.  Oddly enough, they had painted the sky as an overcast one, where it was visible above the lush, unpredictable fields and forests.

Within the city, the trees had been immaculately cut and trimmed, and the shapes were just as strange; trees that were perfectly round, cubes, cones.  Where new trees were growing on lawns, as dense and close together as trees in an orchard might be, I could see heavy wires wound around them, guiding their growth into twists and curves.  The art of bonsai taken to a bigger scale, cultivating each tree in form.  Already, some of the largest ones were properly set up, meshing together with counterparts on the opposite sides of the street, forming lush, living wooden arches.

The grass had been cut, and I could see the attention to detail there, even.  There were innumerable flowers growing across lawns, but the grass was neatly cut beneath and around them, as if someone had taken shears or scissors to the blades that grew between the flowers.  I couldn’t make out any rhyme or rhythm in how the flowers or plants were laid out and how they grew.  It was an injection of color in the same way a random splash of paint from a palette might be applied to a canvas.

And then, as if to remind me that this wasn’t friendly territory, there was a scarecrow in one garden.  The clothes were brightly colored, the pose one of a dancing figure, but that wasn’t the eerie thing about it.  The head was a skeletal one, a dog’s head stripped of all flesh, turned skyward with its mouth opened in joy.  The hands that clutched the rake and watering can were held together by wire.  A very small human hand.

For all the signs of careful tending, the entire place was still.  A town that could have been taken from a storybook, desolate.  There wasn’t any sign of chaos, nor the destruction that would follow from an attack by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

But more than anything, what threw me was the absence of insect life.  No spiders spun webs.  Even the ground had little in the way of ants or earthworms.

A trap?  I looked behind me to see if they were planning on walling me in, and came face to face with one of Nilbog’s creations.

It hissed, its breath hot and reeking of bile.  Fangs like a viper’s parted, the distance between them great enough that it probably could have sunk some into the top of my head and the underside of my chin as it closed its mouth.  I stepped back out of reach, then forced myself to stay still and wait.

The mouth closed, and I could see how the creature’s head was smaller than mine.  It wasn’t more than four feet tall, covered in pale brown scales.  The reptilian face could have been in a children’s movie, if it wasn’t for the eyes.  They were dark, black, and cold.

It clung to the wall, its feet placed higher up than its hands, opposable toes gripping the frame that had been around the vault door.  I noticed it was wearing white shorts, with one suspender strap over a shoulder.  A taloned claw held a softball-sized chunk of the wall.

Was it fixing the wall?

“I’m not a threat,” I told the lizard-child.

I felt hands touch my belt and jumped, seizing the wrist of the offending hand in an instinctive motion before I’d even looked to see who it was.

A girl, five or so feet tall, her face mottled with purple veins that spiraled across her perfectly round, puffy, hairless head.  Her eyes were tiny and piggish, her fingers blunt, barely a half-inch long, her mouth too small for her face.  She wore a sack that looked like it had been sewn to work around her oversized head.  Her hand was on my knife.

The lizard boy had extended frills at his arms, neck, and the edges of his face, colorful, brilliant, and held out by a framework of needle-fine spines.  His mouth hung open, viper’s teeth revealed.

I looked beyond this pair, and I could see signs of others.  Eyes reflected light in the shadows beneath steps, from windows.  There were large, bulky silhouettes in the windows, some holding smaller figures on their heads and shoulders.  I couldn’t make out much, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

That was twice now that they’d snuck up on me.  Quiet motherfuckers.

“I’m sorry for grabbing you,” I said.  “You wanted my knife?”

She took it, her tiny black eyes glaring at me from the midst of her oversized head.  The lizard-boy eased his frills down somewhat, but his mouth remained open.

“I’d like to see Nilbog,” I said.

She ignored me, her pudgy, blunt-fingered hands fumbling through the pouches at my belt.  With painful, clumsy slowness, she divested me of my taser, the pepper spray, and the spools of silk, both conventional and Darwin’s spider silk.

I winced as one spool fell to the ground and unwound partially, dirt getting caught up between the strands.  That would be a pain to fix.

I could see more of the things making appearances now, getting close enough for me to see as they took interest in what was happening.  Eyes appeared in the windows, reflecting the light in curious ways.  Eyes from within the trees, between the slats of stairs… some faces.  They ranged from artistic and beautiful to horrific.

Every single one of them was a weapon.  Going into this situation was a repeat of the information gathering and problem solving issues one faced when going up against an unknown cape.  If it came down to a fight, I’d have to figure out how they operated, and the full extent of their capabilities.

Trouble being that there were a hell of a lot of these things.  Hundreds, even thousands.

I waited patiently.  No use complaining, even if every second counted, and Jack was no doubt having words with Nilbog.

“Nilbog is in danger,” I said, trying a different tack. “The man with him, he has dark hair, a beard?  He’s with a striped woman.  Bad people.  I think they’re going to try to hurt Nilbog, hurt the man who made you, so you get upset and leave this place.”

Her hands fumbled with my flight pack.  I felt her touch the arm at the side of the pack, with its narrow arm.  She took hold of it and pulled.

“I can take that off,” I said.

She grunted, and I started to move to oblige, only to get a protest.  The frills on the lizard boy extended, and her own head swelled, the skin getting thin enough in the process that I could see a fluid filling the lower half of her head.  I moved my arms away from the straps, and I watched them both relax over long seconds.

When she was sure I wasn’t trying something, she grunted again, louder, a frustrated, constipated sound.  A communication, but not one meant for me.

Her friend emerged from a garage, lifting the door to lumber forth.  He was big, fat, and moved on four limbs that each had opposable digits.  His massive belly swung right and left as he loped, so distended and so close to the ground as it swung that I worried it would hit something and split open. His genitals were almost bigger than I was, and they were, along with his sensory organs, the only way I could really tell his front from his back.

The sensory organs consisted of slits running top to bottom from a ridge at one end of his body.  There was no room for a brain, no eyes present.

This organ granted him enough awareness to approach, probably by way of scent, but it didn’t give him the fine tuning he needed to find us, specifically.  The round-headed creature approached him, took hold of a fistful of chest hair and led him my way.

I backed up a little as they approached, and received a hissed rebuke from lizard-boy.

I remained still.  The safest course.

The girl-thing moved the brute’s hand towards me, and I stayed still as she gripped the arm and placed it in the hand.

He closed his fist around it.

“Wait,” I said.

He hauled on it, clearly intent on tearing it free.  I was thrown, sent rolling until I landed in one patch of grass, dazed, startled, just a little hurt.

The brute approached, the round-headed girl hurrying after.

Before I could rise, he’d already fumbled for me, and seized hold of the mechanical arm.  This time, he managed to pull it free.  I used the antigravity panels to control my flight as I was thrown, controlled my landing, and hurried to get my hands to the straps.

There was a wail behind me, a warning sound.  I saw the others react, but kept working through the straps.  Two at the shoulders, one across the chest, beneath my armor-

The pack fell free.  I chanced a look over my shoulder, and I saw a number of Nilbog’s creations gathered, close enough that they could have lunged for me.  One was a very tall, long-limbed man with skin that looked like a Siamese cat’s, covered in a very fine fur.  His face was split by a wide, toothless mouth, his eye sockets little more than indents filled with fur.  He held a makeshift spear with a flag on the end, which had been painted brilliant colors, and wore a matching loin cloth.  Probably the most dangerous one in my immediate vicinity, just in terms of how fast he could probably close the gap and murder me.

“Safe,” I said.  “No danger.  I’m safe, the pack’s off.”

I waited, tensed, as they studied me.  Enemies on all sides.

Jack was invincible, I wasn’t.  But if I was going to achieve anything here, it couldn’t involve destruction.  I’d read the files on Nilbog, I had a sense of him, in the most general terms.  I was banking everything on his megalomania overriding his desire to collect just a little more in the way of resources.

I kept my voice level and calm, “I’d like to see Nilbog now.”

Were they hungry?  If this became a fight, I’d have to defend myself with the bugs in my costume and the bugs in the quarantine and filtration facility.  I could use the swarm to equip myself with the stuff that had been dumped on the ground, but that required that I survive long enough to do so.  Were there ranged attacks here?  Assassins?

Desperate situations called for risks.  This was my gamble.

“I have a gift for him,” I said.

Something seemed to ease in them.  I watched as some turned away, finding their way to resting spots.  The tall man with the loincloth worked his overlong body under a porch, where he could rest in the shade.

I didn’t receive an escort, but the ones along one road moved aside, sitting or standing on the sidewalks.

I walked with my head high, and sent a handful of bugs forward.  More than a few of Nilbog’s creatures took the opportunity to snap them up.

A soft rumble sounded above.  Lightning.  Rain began to patter down, light.

My surviving bugs gave me ears on the scene before I arrived.

“Lipsy?  Tell the cook to serve us something.  I fancy a salad, and something robust.  I think it should taste sweet.”

The alterations to the surroundings only grew more focused and extreme as I found my way to the center of Ellisburg.  Building faces were covered in wild plant growth, and there wasn’t a single building without more extreme modifications made to it.  Glances indoors showed little more than barren exteriors with the floorboards pried up, or clusters of Nilbog’s creatures lurking in the unlit gloom within.

“I’ll look forward to this, god-king.”

“You should, you should.”

“Your hospitality astounds me.  I’m unworthy.”

Hardly.”

So Jack was situating himself as someone subservient, even servile, so as not to challenge Nilbog’s alpha status.  He was playing nice, even.

If I tried the same, I’d only be working to catch up, to earn Nilbog’s trust.

I approached the town center, and found myself in the midst of a crowd of Nilbog’s creatures.  Goblins and ghouls, muppets and horned moppets.  Big, small, thin and fat.  Each was exaggerated, twisted, as if Nilbog had gone out of his way to insert traits and qualities that separated them from humanity.

The creatures stepped out of the way as I made my way closer.  Nilbog sat at the center of a long table, and two more tables extended from the ends to form a loose ‘c’ shape.  Checked tablecloths in eye-gouging color contrasts covered each table.  Jack sat at the end furthest me, and a man with white and black stripes sat beside him.

Bonesaw was only a short distance away, sitting on the shoulders of what looked like a flayed bear.  The thing had claws two or three times the usual size, it’s mouth yawning open like it had been broken.

Nilbog was immensely fat, easily four hundred pounds, and sat on a throne that had apparently been cobbled together from dismantled furniture.  His face was covered with a paper mask.  Other creatures sat on chairs to his left and right.

The arrangement of the tables created an open space that could host their entertainment.  I looked, then wished I hadn’t.  A bloated, coarse-looking creature lay on the ground, almost like a potato made of hair and flesh.  Smaller things were busy carving gouges and holes into it.

The resulting wounds regenerated, but not before the smaller creatures inserted body parts into the openings, allowing the regenerated flesh to close tight but not close completely.

I averted my eyes from the scene, content with not letting my brain register which parts were being inserted and what they were doing after the fact.

“Another guest!” Nilbog cried out.  He spoke like he had a bad accent, but it wasn’t.  He’d affected strange and overdramatic tones for so long that his voice had warped, and he’d had no ordinary people to hear or talk to and measure his voice against.  “A friend of yours, sir Jack?”

I could see Jack’s eyebrows raise in interest.  “Not at all.  Skitter, was it?  Except you’re going by another name, now.”

I ignored Jack.  “Nilbog.  It’s good to meet.”

Nilbog didn’t look impressed.  “Sir Jack was more obsequious when he introduced himself.”

“That’s because he’s a two-bit thug, Nilbog.”

Jack chuckled at that.

“A two-bit thug?  You’d insult my guests?”

“If those guests include Jack,” I said.

Nilbog narrowed his eyes.  “I will not have fighting in my glorious kingdom.  Jack has agreed to a ceasefire while we dine.  You will do the same.”

“I already gave my weapons to your underlings.  You should know that the black and white striped man is a living weapon, much like your creations.”

Nilbog glanced at the male Siberian.  “I’m not concerned.”

“I imagine you aren’t,” I said.  Where’s the real him?

I had to be careful in how I used my bugs.  Sending them into buildings would only reduce the size of my swarm, but there was relatively little chance that Manton would simply be hanging out in one of the hollowed-out buildings.

“So,” Jack said.  “Are you going to have a seat, or are you going to continue to be rude?”

“I’m waiting for our host to invite me to sit.  Forgive me, Nilbog,” I said.  I glanced at the fat man.  The grease on his skin made it look like he’d oiled himself.

“Sit.  But I’d like to hear who you think you are, whelp, if you won’t bow down to me.”

I approached the row of chairs opposite Jack and the Siberian, and one of the critters hopped down, scurrying under to join the festivities in the center of the tables.  I took the vacated chair and sat.  I might have removed my mask, but I was all too aware of the silverware in front of Jack.

“I’m your equal, Nilbog.”

Jack laughed again.  Nilbog seemed to react, almost looking flustered, before turning to me.  “You insult me.”

“Not at all.  Ignore the thug that’s sitting over there.  I’m a queen, a goddess of my own realm.  Or I was.”

Jack was smiling, clearly amused.  Then again, he was safe.  He was untouchable with Siberian beside him, and he was only feigning weakness to get past Nilbog’s defenses.

“A queen?”

“A queen.  With that in mind, provided you give your permission, I’d like to offer you a gift.  A… peace offering, to make up for the fact that I entered your territory uninvited.”

“Of course, of course!”  He was almost childlike, so easily moved by this promise of a gift, his mood changing so quickly.  Guileless.  He’d been surrounded by yes-men for more than a decade, with barely any human contact, his defenses were gone.  “I forgave Jack the lack of an invitation, I’ll extend you the same courtesy.  This gift?”

I called on the swarm I’d kept within the quarantine facility.  “Resources are slim.  An isolated kingdom like yours, providing for your subjects is hard.  You do an admirable job despite this.”

“Of course, of course.”

He was eager, impatient.

“I’d feed your subjects,” I said.  “Protein.  You need it to make more.  To keep the ones you currently have in good health.”

“Yes, yes” Nilbog said.  My bugs were just now arriving in the area.  “This will do.”

The full swarm arrived, the vast majority of the ones I’d kept in the Dragonfly, and the ones from the area beyond the Ellisburg walls.  I gathered them on plates in piles.  His minions devoured them, licking at the plates, picking with talons, or simply lifting the plates and tipping the insects into open mouths.

I wasn’t surprised when Nilbog turned his attention to his own plate.  My eyes fell on Jack.  He still had a slight smile on his face.

He held the cards up his sleeve.  I’d played mine for a minor advantage, but he had Bonesaw.  One virus or parasite in the midst of these creatures, and they could go berserk, roaming the countryside until they were put down.  He had Siberian, which meant he was safe, meant he could kill me or Nilbog whenever he wanted.

But he wasn’t going to.  This continued as long as the game was still on.  He thrived on this interplay.

As more bugs continued to arrive, I used them to search the area.  Nothing.

Below ground?

Earthworms, ants and pillbugs dug through the soil beneath the park, searching.  Some of Nilbog’s creatures were beneath the earth, ready to spring up and attack.  Others were beneath, eating whatever they could find.

In the midst of my search, I found something.  Not Siberian’s creator, but nearly as good.

Nilbog himself.

He sat directly beneath his ‘throne’, and was connected to the fat man by what seemed to be an umbilical cord.  This cord gave him control of the body, fed him sustenance, let him stay safe while the decoy sat up here.

One card for me to play.

“I think the bug queen here should explain how she came to nobility,” Jack said.

Setting me up to say something incriminating, I thought.  “As you did, Nilbog, I claimed a realm for myself.”

“And you left it, apparently.  If you’re truly a queen, you’re a foolish one.”

“I did leave it,” I said, “Because I had to, to save it.  I had to protect my subjects, to fight my people’s enemies.  I have not been as fortunate as you.”

“No,” he said, uncaring.  “Apparently not.”

“If it came down to it, would you step up to protect your creations?  To protect this town you made?”

“You’re sounding a great deal like sir Jack,” Nilbog commented.  He frowned.

“He’s trying to convince you to go to war,” I said.

“To take pre-emptive action,” Jack clarified.

“I’ll do neither.  Not war, not pre-emptive action.  I have what I need.  I’m a content god, a happy king.”

You’re starved for real human contact, I thought.  Or you wouldn’t have let us join you at the table.

My bugs continued to search, though the bastard creatures were coming out of the woodwork to catch and devour them.

Where in the hell was Manton?

Jack spoke, “It’s a question of whether you act now and preserve what you have for the future, or wait and let them come and kill you.  They’ve been systematically seeking people like you, eliminating them.  I could show you proof, given a chance.”

“I’ll make it simpler,” I said.  “You don’t need to leave your kingdom, your garden.  You don’t need to go to war with an outside party you don’t know or care about.  You want to know what happened to my kingdom?  That man, right over there, sir Jack, destroyed it.”

“Nonsense,” Jack said.  “I’ve been sleeping these past few years.  Naps are such an underrated pleasure.”

“They are,” Nilbog said.  “All of my subjects nap every day.”

“Let me explain,” I said.  “I had a kingdom that I ruled.  I had a king that ruled with me, who kept me company.  I had wealth, people I cared about, people who cared about me.  Power.  I was a god in my domain, and those who stood against me were driven off.”

Nilbog shook his head.  “You need a heavier hand to rule.  More loyal subjects, so you don’t have to bother with those who would stand in your way.”

“I was more powerful than you,” I told him.

He snapped his head around to stare at me.  To glare at me.

I’d pricked his pride, apparently.

“I was more powerful than you, but Jack over there made a promise to people.  He didn’t say it aloud, but it was still a big promise.”

“Now you’re making stuff up,” Bonesaw commented.  She slid down off the flayed bear’s back and joined a group of creatures her size.  She hugged one, abruptly.

But Nilbog wasn’t telling me to fuck off.  His attention was on me.

He’d built a storybook kingdom, an impossible place, and populated it with monsters, both beautiful and ugly.  He’d had some fixation on this stuff, some Freudian obsession.  Not sexual, but still rooted in some primal part of his childhood that had been taken from him.

I’d play this by telling him a fairy tale.

“No,” I said.  “And I think Nilbog is clever enough to understand what I mean.  Jack promised that he’d come back when his nap was done, and he’d destroy my kingdom.  He said he’d destroy your kingdom, Nilbog, and every other kingdom.  He said he’d kill all of my people, and he’d kill all of your creations.”

“All of this, from the man you describe as a mere thug?”

“Yes,” I said.  “A woman with great powers told him he could do it, and now he’s going to try.  It’s why he’s here.”

“To destroy my kingdom?”

“No.  He wants you to go to war against your neighbors.  To break down the walls that keep you safe and fight people who are leaving you alone.  He’ll use you as a distraction, and then when everything is done, he’ll come back and destroy your kingdom.  And he’ll do it in the cruelest, saddest ways you can imagine.”

Nilbog nodded slowly.

Jack was still waiting patiently.  Too quiet.  I felt a moment’s trepidation.  I hadn’t found Siberian’s controller.  I needed to defeat him before Jack was cornered.  The second he decided he couldn’t salvage this situation, he’d order the attack.

Nilbog raised his hands.  “Angel on one shoulder that tells me one story…”

A placenta-like blob swelled in his hand.

“A devil on the other, telling me another.”

Another blob appeared in the other hand.

Both burst, showering Nilbog in greasy slime.  Two creatures gripped his forearms, looking more like flying monkeys than an angel and devil.  They were roughly the size of babies, their faces feral, mouths filled with pirahna-like teeth.  One had red hair, a red beard and gazelle-like horns, and the other had white hair and beard and a strange horn that formed an off-white halo above its head.

“I’ll take the angel, if you please,” Jack said.

Nilbog shrugged.  Were the creatures more a demonstration than anything else?  He lowered his hands, and nudged the white-haired thing in Jack’s direction.  The other thing made its way to me.  I reached out and took it into my hands, holding it close.

“Do you have a response to the Queen’s allegations, Jack?”  Nilbog asked.  He reached up to adjust his floppy cloth crown.  Creatures were arriving to deposit the meal on the plates.  It looked like purple vomit.

“I do,” Jack said, smiling.  “But can we eat first?  It’s rude to argue over a meal.”

Nilbog nodded, as if Jack had said something very sage.  “I agree.  We’ll eat.”

Bonesaw made her way to the table.  “How did you make this?”

“The chef stores every ingredient we can find inside her, then regurgitates it in the form required.  I asked for it to be hearty, and here we have it, chunky.”

I looked down at the plate.  Droplets of rain made nearly-clear spots appear in the midst of the purple slop.

So it is vomit.

“It tastes like cupcakes,” Bonesaw said, around a mouthful.

I started to move my mask to eat and be polite, then noted how Jack was holding his knife.  The blade swayed back and forth in the air, as he chewed, his eyes rolled back and looking up at the overcast sky above.

The blade was making criss-crosses in the direction of my throat.

He glanced down, meeting my eyes, and smiled.

“Our apparent rivalry aside, have you been well, bug queen?”

“Well enough.”

“Then you should be hungry.  It’s been a busy few days, and it’ll only get more interesting.  I notice your friends are sitting this one out.  Did you break it off completely, or are you still in touch?”

“Still in touch,” I responded.  I glanced at Siberian.  The knife is a purely psychological thing.  If he wanted to kill me, he could use Siberian to do it.

Besides, it was a butter knife.

I moved my mask, without breaking eye contact with Jack, and helped myself to a bite.

It did taste like cupcakes.  I suspected it would have been less nauseating if it tasted like real vomit.

It was a tense few minutes of silence as we ate.  I found out the devil-thing in my arms wanted to eat, so I let him help himself.  An excuse not to eat, anyways.

The creatures in the center of the area finished their ‘show’, and Nilbog clapped enthusiastically.   I joined him and the five or six creatures around the table who really had hands to clap with.

The second show began.  A gladiatorial fight, apparently.  One of the creatures had wings instead of arms, while the other had wicked barbs extending out from the elbows and knees.  When even the tips made contact, they ripped out grapefruit-sized chunks of flesh.

I braced against the table to keep it from flipping as the pair crashed into it.  Nilbog laughed, and the sound was more than a little unhinged.

“Is everyone done?” Jack asked.

“Yes,” Nilbog decided.

“Then let me explain.  Weaver’s entirely right.  Except for the part where you die at the end of it all.”

“Oh?” Nilbog asked.  He leaned forward, placing fat elbows on the table’s surface.  It dipped as his upper body weight rested on the wood.

“Living like this, you obviously dislike the system.  You know how screwed up things are out there.  People are vile, self-centered, and so caught up in their own routines and expectations that they’re barely people anymore.  Your creations have more personality.”

Nilbog nodded, taking it all in.  “They do.  They’re wonderful, aren’t they?”

Wonderful,” Bonesaw agreed, with the utmost enthusiasm.

He just believes whatever we tell him.  He’s a sponge.  How do you convince someone who’s so incapable of critical thought?

Worse, Jack was touching on all of Nilbog’s pet issues.  The man had been a loner before, a loser.  He’d rejected the trappings of society long before he’d become this monster.  He’d spent years simply going through the motions until the last parts of the system he’d clung to fell apart.

“I want to wipe the slate clean.  Things have been going through the same motions for so long that there’s a rut in the ground.  You erased everything that wasn’t worth keeping here, and replaced it with something better.  With your garden.”

“Yes.”

“With that in mind, I’m reaching out to a like-minded soul.  Someone who rejects the malignant, stagnant society and wants to grow something else in its place.”

“Jack has no interest in growth,” I said.  “Only destruction.”

“Did I interrupt you when you were speaking?” Jack asked.

“Do it again and I’ll order your execution,” Nilbog said.

I pursed my lips behind my mask.

Where the fuck was Siberian’s creator?  I’d scanned every area where he could be lurking.  There were only monsters.  I was nearly out of bugs.  I had only a select few secreted away in my armor, and they weren’t ones I was willing to sacrifice.

I didn’t have much in the way of cards up my sleeve, but these bugs would have to serve in that department.  Problem was, they wouldn’t fix anything now.  Bonesaw could counter them too readily.

Where could Manton be hiding?  My eyes passed over the crowd of creatures that had gathered around the edges of the area, enjoying their master’s presence.

Hiding in plain sight.

Plastic surgery, or even an outer suit, like the one Nilbog wore.  He had to be dressed up in the skin of one of the monsters.

Shit.  How was I even supposed to assassinate him if he was going that route?  I touched him with a bug, only to find his flesh harder than steel.  Unmovable, just from the way his foot touched the Siberian’s.

Jack licked his plate, then set it down on the table.  “Where was I?”

“Replacing society,” Bonesaw volunteered.

Replacing society,” Jack affirmed.  “Imagine if your garden really did extend as far as the eye could reach.  If you could walk in the direction of the sunset, only to find that your creations have already settled in each new place you travel to, decorated it, transformed it.”

“A romantic goal, one I might pursue if I were a younger man,” Nilbog said.  “But even gods get older.”

“They do,” Jack agreed.  “Well, we could give you that youth.  Bonesaw could grant you immortality.”

“She could also enslave you to her will,” I commented.

“I’d never,” Bonesaw said.  She shook her head, her curls flying, “No, I couldn’t!  I love these beautiful things he makes!  To control him would mean I’d take that creativity away.”

Nilbog nodded at that.  “That’s a good argument.  Besides, to enslave a god?  Madness.”

Except they’re mad, I thought.  All of you are lunatics, and I made the mistake of trying to talk sense.

“It’s a good argument,” Jack said.  “Because we’re right.  Would you like to live forever, as a god should?  Would you like to see your garden grow to what it should be?  What it deserves to be?  Something fitting of a god?”

“It’s a tempting thought,” Nilbog said.

I reached for a rebuttal, telling myself I had to be just as grandiose, just as mad, but I couldn’t do that at the same time I was trying to convince him to go dormant again.

“If I may?”

It was another human voice, but it didn’t belong to any of us.

Golem.

He approached, taking off his helmet.  He offered Nilbog a slight bow.

“One of yours, Jack?” Nilbog asked.

“No.  Not in the sense you mean.”

“Yours, then?” Nilbog asked me.

Yes, I thought.

“No,” I said.

I saw Jack raise his eyebrows at that.

“Shenanigans!” Bonesaw cried out.  “I call shenanigans!”

But Golem took my cue.  “I’m a third party.  I stand for myself.”

“Hardly worth a place at the table,” Jack commented.

“Then let me stand for the others.  The innocents.”

“Innocents?” Jack asked.  He snorted.  “No such thing.”

“There’s always innocents.”

Jack smirked.

“I’ll allow it,” Nilbog said.  “Excellent!  Sit!  We were just having a discussion.”

Golem approached and sat at the same table I was at, but he took the far end.  “I’ve overheard some, so we can cut straight to the chase.”

“The dilemma,” Nilbog said.  “The devil on one shoulder, the angel on the other.”

“The sin of sloth versus the realm of possibility,” Jack added, gesturing to my demon as he said sloth, then to his own angel.

“Well said, well said!” Nilbog said.  He nodded so hard his double and triple chins wobbled.

“Or is the angel making false promises?” I asked.  “There’s no security.  No comfort.  You claim to care about your creations, but you’d go to war?”

“Many have gone to war and made sacrifices in the present, for the sake of a brighter future,” Jack commented.

“I thought you were trying to break out of the rut?” I asked.

Jack laughed at that.

He’s enjoying this.

I felt almost dirty, knowing I was only helping Jack in his self-indulgence, helping him revel in conflict.

“Well, stranger?” Nilbog asked.

“Golem,” Golem said.

Jack snorted at that.  He’d caught the meaning behind the name right off, the white supremacist’s son naming himself after a creature from a Jewish parable.

“Golem, then.”

“I’m not an eloquent speaker.”

“That’s a good thing,” I said.  “Too many and it just becomes people talking circles around one another.”

“Then I guess I have to get to the heart of it all.  Direct.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.  He leaned forward, and I feared the table would break.

“Were you happy, before any of us came here?”

“Yes.  I can eat the most delicious foods, yet get every nutrient I need.  I can fuck the most beautiful and exotic women you’d ever imagine, whenever I wish.  Every need is provided for a hundred times over, and I’m surrounded by those who love me.”

“Then why change?  Why do anything?  Let us leave, then return to your utopia.”

Nilbog nodded.  He rubbed at his chin, but the act was like pushing one’s hand into jello.  It shifted the mass more than it rubbed.

“You wanted a tie breaker?” Golem asked.  “This is it.  Do what Weaver is saying.  Do what the Queen is suggesting.  Stay quiet, enjoy what you’ve built here.  Attack, and the entire world will take it away.  Then, even if you’re strong enough to survive that, which you may be, then Jack will still betray you.”

“Or,” Jack said, “You can stop lying to yourself.”

Nilbog snapped his head around.  He growled, “Impertinent.”

“Your people are slowly starving.  You make them eat each other to live, and desperately attempt to shoot any birds out of the sky so you can try to recoup what you lose.  Bonesaw said they don’t live long.  How long?”

“Four years.  Sometimes five.”  All at once, the light was gone from Nilbog’s face, the sudden fury quenched.

“Who’s your favorite?” Jack asked.

“Polka,” Nilbog said.  He reached out, and a female creature, no taller than three feet, hopped up onto the lap of the creature beside her king.  She had a narrow face with a reptilian structure, with only four fangs at the very front, but smooth, humanlike skin.  Her hair was white, her skin blue.  She wore a toddler’s clothes, a long, narrow tail lashing behind her.  Nilbog stroked her hair.

“Not the first Polka,” Jack said.

“No.  The third.”

“She was your first, and you love her for that, because she drew you from the hell that was your life before godhood, gave you this.”

I can’t interrupt this.  Not with the subject being something so close to Nilbog’s heart.  I might win the argument, but I’d lose Nilbog’s ear.

But I knew I was losing anyways.  Jack had found Nilbog’s weak point.

“My first friend,” Nilbog said.

“And she dies.  Because your creations don’t last.  You make another, and slowly fall in love with her all over again, and yet you know she’ll die in turn.”

“Yes,” Nilbog said.

“Bonesaw can fix that.  I can grant you immortality.  I can grant your creation that same gift,” Jack said.

“A hard offer to refuse.”

“It would be wise to refuse,” Golem said.

“A king can’t be selfish,” I said.  “A god definitely can’t be selfish.  Your responsibility is to your creations.”

“Exactly what I’m saying,” Jack said.  “Step out of your comfort zone, to better your people.”

“Enough!”  Nilbog screamed the word.  As if responding to his anger, every single creature in the area responded.  Weapons raised, spines extended.

And Jack was still invincible.

“Nilbog,” I said.

“Speak again, and I’ll end you, queen or no.”

His eyes were angry, hard.

He’d lived for so long in his comfort zone, and now he was being called on to make a hard choice.

“Then please listen carefully,” I said.  “Because I suppose I’m paying for this with my life.”

“So be it,” he said.

“If you want proof that Jack intends to betray you, look no farther than your own creations.”

“What?”

“He’s secreted an assassin into your midst.  A killer who pretends to be one of your creations.”

A gamble, a last ditch effort.  Was my gut right?  Had Jack instructed Bonesaw to create a costume or a creature to hide the Siberian’s creator?

I called my flight pack to me, parked it on a rooftop nearby.  If it came down to it, I’d have to run.  I could see Golem tensing.  He’d read the situation right.

“Just look,” I told Nilbog.  “Because somewhere nearby, there’s a creature you didn’t create.”

His eyes roved over the crowd.

“Might not be in this crowd, but it’ll be close.”

“I see it,” Nilbog said.  “I see it.  Bossy, Patch, hold him!”

The crowd of creatures parted as two creatures took another in their hands.

“Not an assassin,” Jack said.  “Merely one of Bonesaw’s… I suppose you can call it a homage.”

“It is,” Bonesaw said.

The Siberian was moving.  Readying to pounce?

I couldn’t move fast enough if he did.

“Wait,” Jack said.  He stood from his chair.

No, I thought.  “Don’t listen.”

“I’ll do as I please,” Nilbog said.  “Last words, sir Jack?”

“Last words, yes.”  Jack approached the captive.  The Siberian followed.

“You let him do this, and he kills you,” I said.  “Your creations will go mad with grief, and they’ll die in a war for vengeance, just like Jack wants.”

“Not at all,” Jack said.  “Because…”

An instant before the Siberian made contact with the monster, Golem jammed his hand into his side, using his power, throwing the creator into the air with one thrusting hand.  Siberian lunged, punching through the hand of soil to grab the creator’s foot.

Nilbog half-rose from his seat, though he was massive enough that standing was hardly possible.  His eyes moved from Golem to the hand, anger etching his expression, if one could etch into a face as soft as his.

“You dare disturb the peace!?” Nilbog screamed the question. “Kill the queen!  Kill the Golem-man!”

In that instant, Golem created two hands, throwing us back.

I caught the flight pack in the air, hugging it.  It provided lift.  Not enough to stop my momentum as I headed back towards the ground, but enough that I could shift my direction to land on a rooftop.  Golem wasn’t so lucky, as he fell into the midst of a sea of the creatures.

“Azazels, now!” I screamed, one finger pressed to my earbud.  I pulled on the flight pack and then took off again.

Golem used his power to create a platform, slowly raising himself above the street.  Creatures tumbled off of the surface of it.  Some flew at him, and he struck at them.  Not enemies he was capable against.  I sent my bugs to them, the reserve I still had on hand, commanding the bugs to bite and sting.

Others leaped onto rooftops, then onto the rising platform.  Golem grabbed one claw as it slashed for his face.  He couldn’t do anything about the other, as it gouged his armor, scoring it.  He created a fist that jutted out of his chestplate, striking the creature off of the rising hand-platform.

Spines rained down on him.  One caught him in the shoulder, and he collapsed.

Where are the Azazels!” I shouted.  The flying creatures were turning my way.

But Defiant had said they were unreliable.  Dragon was out of commission.

My bugs burrowed towards the buried Nilbog.  Jack had orchestrated a war.  Killing the creature’s creator wouldn’t stop that, wouldn’t keep them from rampaging and seeking out revenge beyond the walls.

But it would slow things down.

They inched ever closer.  Jack was untouchable, but…

Yes.  Worms, centipedes and other subterranean bugs made their way to the buried goblin king, and forced their way into the sac that enveloped him, past the threads of material that wound down his throat and nostrils, and into his airways.

“Creatures of Ellisburg!” I screamed.

Heads turned.

“You’ve been betray-”

And before I could say more, Jack’s knife slash caught me across the chest, the cut severing the straps of my flight pack.  I dropped from the sky, landing on one of those ramshackle, spiraling rooftops.  Planks that had been poorly nailed in collapsed around me as I hit solid ground.

My hope of turning the monsters against the Nine had been foiled.  The fall had knocked the wind out of me.  I couldn’t get my footing, and the creatures were advancing.  Every possible combination of features, it seemed like, an infinite army, unpredictable.

Your king is dying, I thought, my mouth moving and failing to form the sounds.  There was only the barest whisper.  I killed him, but if you could believe that Jack did it

I would have used my bugs instead, but I had so few, here.

I sent those few to Golem, removing them from the flying creatures.

Nilbog dies,” I spoke through the bugs, but the range of sounds was too limited, and with scarcely thirty bugs in total, they were quiet.

Nilbog’s dying,” Golem said, his voice coming through the comm system.

One creature, eyeless, like a crocodile with a serpentine body, advanced on me, looming over me.  Its jaws opened.

The lizard boy was here too.  A drop of venom appeared on one distended fang.  I was surprised by the fury on his expression.

Blame Jack,” I said, through the swarm.

“Jack Slash has used us as a distraction to kill your king!”

Golem hollered the words at the top of his lungs.  I felt a tension leave me.  I might be fucked, but we’d limited the damage.  They’d turn it inward.

The attack stopped.  The creature looming over me turned and slid away in a flash.  The lizard-boy remained.  Still recovering from the fall, I couldn’t muster enough strength to fight back if he bit.

I commanded the flight pack instead, flying it into him with both wings extended.  He was brained, and the pack ricocheted off his skull, one wing shattering.

Golem had risen almost to safety, though he was still too far from the wall that had been erected around the city.

I looked at the wall.

Looked past it, at the capes who were swiftly approaching.

Rescue.

I brought the flight pack to me, the broken wing partially retracted, the other still extended, and pulled it on with slow, agonized movements.

Lost without their master, half of the creatures seemed to turn on the Nine, the other half seemed to remain intent on Golem and me.

Capes settled around me, forming a defensive line against the ones who approached.  Revel was among them, using her energy blasts to pick off the largest ones.

Someone picked me up, then took flight.

Jack,” I wheezed out the word.

The Siberian took hold of the umbilical cord and heaved, Jack maintaining contact with a hand on the Siberian’s shoulder.  Nilbog, still slowly dying of oxygen loss, was brought to the surface with a surprising ease.  Bonesaw wrapped her arms around the man.  Frailer than his self on the surface, smaller.

I felt a moment’s despair.

Foil?  Someone who could stop Siberian?

Somebody?

The heroes advanced, but the Nine created a portal, and were gone in a flash, Nilbog carried between them.

Leaving the monsters of Ellisburg to riot.

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Interlude 25

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

July 8th, 2011

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.  He was naked, covering himself with both hands, sitting on a metal bench with more brushed stainless steel behind him.  With the angle of the device, he faced the ceiling.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied, agreeing.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack only smiled, his eyes crinkling a bit at the edges.  He was getting older.  It was reassuring and spooky at the same time.  He’s the daddy of the group and I’m the kid and he’s getting older which makes him more daddylike.

But it meant he moved slower and got tired more easily.  It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, lost a fight.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The flickering steadily increased.  The progression had to be slow, or they could set off a cascade cycle and overwhelm the power cell they had liberated from Toybox.  If that happened, then the shell that was keeping this reality together would break, the holding grid for the pocket dimension’s substrata would become fluid and leak out into other hardened realities.  They would likely be crushed by the air, pulped as gravity twisted into eddies and condensed points of hyperconcentration.

Which would be funny, really.  A reckless, violent, unpredictable death would be awfully ironic, really.  An artful death, almost, in an anticlimactic way.  It would be better if there was an audience, if anyone could even know and tell the story.  But art wasn’t art without an audience.

“Makes for a greater fall?” she asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the whine of the generator.  “I guess we find out soon!”

She laughed in response, giddy with the idea, with possibilities, ideas.

Then she pulled the switch.  In a heartbeat, Jack was frozen in stasis, contained.

She walked over to the computer.  Flowers, rainbows and gray-green smiley faces with the eyes crossed out in death bounced around the screen.  She moved the mouse to end the screensaver, giggles still periodically finding their way out of her mouth.

She set the timer, the alarm clock for the stasis to end.

The giggles trailed off.

Silence.

The lights slowly flickered back to life, and Bonesaw found herself standing in front of the keyboard.  The smile fell from her face.

Jack had assumed she would freeze herself.  The empty pod reinforced the idea.

Except… she was telling herself she had to be there to wake them up, and that wasn’t wholly true.  It was smart, but it wasn’t true.  She wasn’t one to be afraid of something, but she felt a touch of trepidation at the idea of entering stasis without someone to handle the exit process, without assurance she would wake up.  That was without touching on the issue of the power cell, watching that things didn’t go tilt with the pocket dimension.

No, that wasn’t wholly true either.  It was a one percent chance.  Five percent, if she counted her lack of knowledge about other tinker’s stuff.  But she hadn’t touched it, even to move it.  It should be safe.

Her eyes tracked the rows and columns of incubation chambers.  They weren’t her field either.  A different row for each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, past or present.

King
Screamer
Harbinger
Breed
Crimson
Gray Boy
Nyx
Psychosoma

There were ten of each in various glass chambers. The original members.

With many, many more besides.  She looked down the length of the room.  Most members of the Nine had lasted only weeks or months.  She could count the ones who’d lasted longer than that on the one hand.  A shame she didn’t have samples for all of the past members, but she had most of the good ones.

Her, Jack, Mannequin, Siberian, Shatterbird.

Crawler had managed pretty well, too.

He’d been a doofus in the end, though.

She smiled.  It would be a family reunion, really.  But there was work to be done.

They’d come out blank.  Wouldn’t do.  She had access to some of the toys they’d liberated from the Toybox.  She’d have to put the new Slaughterhouse’s memories together herself.  Brains.  Memories, or things close enough to memories.  She had notes and records, all of the bedtime stories Jack had told her as she drifted off to sleep these past few years.  There was information saved on the computer.  She could hodgepodge it together.

This would be real art.  How well could she rebuild them?

Cranial had been selling memories on the black market, selling skills.  She’d kept bad memories too, took them from people, even gave them to some people.  Silly, really.  A lot of them had wanted trigger events, except the trigger events didn’t work like that.

This computer was only an access point.  The other computers took up vast amounts of space, out of sight, out of mind.  If something failed, she’d have to go fix it, but she would spend most of her time here, surrounded by her family, some she’d never met.

Mannequin had lost his wife and children in a Simurgh attack.  How to approach it?  A file here, with a woman who had lost her spouse and children in a car accident she’d driven.  Close enough.  She could leave gaps and it would fill in all on its own.  Build it all on a foundation of an academic background, a doctor with confidence to spare, an architect in the same vein, a celebrity singer who’d come in wanting inspiration at the press of a button… run everything in parallel, with the ideas of the former two and the experience of the other…

But that wasn’t enough.  He’d been driven, haunted.  How was she supposed to put it all together?  Could she make it a recurring idea, so this Mannequin-clone would see the events flashing before his eyes with every waking moment?  Something he could only quench with a quiet, cold rage?  Or was it something he’d put behind him?

Winter had been an arms dealer, sadistic, ruthless, cold.

Bonesaw giggled at the private joke.  The noise echoed in the utter silence.  It was quiet enough that she could hear her own heartbeat and the blood rushing in her ears, the creak of her muscles shifting, even.  That wasn’t anything she had enhanced.  Humans simply never experienced true quiet.  Those that had come close tended to go insane.

Another giggle, smaller.  No worry on that score.

How to model Winter?  She wasn’t truly a person who created or manipulated cold.  It was a different power.  A dampening power, causing objects and people both to lose inertia.  The ambient effect was one of altered physics, the effect on people was one of will.  The woman had gained power, money and more, and she’d found she liked tormenting people as much as anything else.  She’d turned to the slave trade, then crossed paths with the Nine.

How to make the Winters with the materials she had?  A child that had a gun in her hand before she could read, someone who had found the drive necessary to rise above her roots, meeting all expectations.  She’d taught herself numbers and business, she’d ruthlessly eliminated competition, and then when she had everything she’d wanted, she had stagnated, rotted like an overripe fruit.

Searches for keywords in Cranial’s notes failed to turn up any of the necessary elements.

“Hey, Blasto, buddy,” she said, and her voice sounded artificially chirpy, even to her.  She looked at her minion, who stood at the other end of the desk, staring off into space, his entire body rigid.  A tear was running down his cheek.

Would have to cauterize his tear ducts, maybe.

“Speak,” she ordered.  She tapped a key to open a menu, then released the lock on his lung control and breathing.  “Try now.”

“Ungh,” he rasped.  “Ugh.”

Would have to exercise his vocal cords, or he might lose the ability to speak.

“It’s too quiet.  Let’s see… do you know the theme song to Love Bug?”

“Ugh.  Guh.  Fuh- fuck-”

She hit the key to lock him down, feeling irritated.

“Swearing is so crass!  Okay.  Guess you don’t know them.  Let’s see.  I’ve got something in my backpack…”

It took only moments to rig.  Her spider boxes ran on interconnected lumps of gray matter, basic impulses, motor control and storage, with some computer chips to handle functions that were more trouble than they were worth to implement.  One of those chips managed rote movements.  She removed a defunct spider box from the backpack she was keeping beneath her desk and attached it to Blasto’s spine, between his shoulder blades.

Overriding motor control, rote movement operation, hook it to the lungs and mouth, tongue, jaw…

Her hands were crimson halfway up to the elbow by the time she was done setting it all up.  She handed the task over to a spider box to handle stitches and cauterizing the bleeds.  A quickie job.

Would be better with a real eyeball, but she’d settle for a camera.

She set a video to play.  Furry cartoon bugs with hearts, peace symbols and other icons on their backs began to dance with cartoon children.

Love bug love hug!  A, B, C, D!
There they are, coming to say hi!
Love bugs are here, no need to cry!
When you’re feeling lonely, when you’re alone,
Who can you count on, to be in the zone?”

“Get a love bug love hug!” Bonesaw sang along, pulling up a chair.  She used a pencil to press the buttons on the keyboard so she didn’t get it mucky.  Few things were quite as fun as letting the blood dry and then peeling it all off in one congealed strip.

Behind her, Blasto watched the video.  She set it to repeat, and the bug box kicked in the second time around.  Blasto’s reedy voice sang along.  It was so pathetic and mournful that she laughed aloud.

Better give him some exercise too.

By the time the fourth repeat had finished, he was all set up.  He started dancing along with the fifth, mimicking characters on the screen.  Each repeat would be a little more precise, as the camera captured the necessary elements.

There.

Something to occupy herself with, for the next year and a half.

September 28th, 2011

“I’m going to take over the world!”

“Wonderful,” Bonesaw commented, feigning a cultured voice.  “More tea?”

“Tea, yes!  Obey, serve me.  Give me tea.”

Bonesaw dutifully poured a beakerful of hot water into the cup, then set a spoon by the saucer.  “No milk?  You’re sure?”

“Milk is for weaklings and children.  I’ll drink it black,” Damsel said.

“We are children, Damsel.”

A biologically seven year old Damsel of Distress glared across the table at Bonesaw as she took a sip, then had to momentarily steel herself to keep from making a face.  Her face was gaunt, but that was her natural appearance.  Her pale blue eyes deep set, platinum blond hair simultaneously fine and thick, matted together.  The chemical stew the clones were growing in didn’t make for typical looking hair growth.

“I could end you, for that insult.”

“Yes,” Bonesaw said.  “But then you wouldn’t have anybody to pour you tea.”

“This tea is too hot anyways.”

“I’ll strive to do better,” Bonesaw said.  “World domination, hm?  Sounds like a bother.”

“It’s my natural place.”

“Maybe,” Bonesaw said.  “Well, I don’t envy you.  You’ll need to hurry, too.  World’s going to end soon, I think.”

“I’ll rule the ashes.”

“I see.  That’s even harder, isn’t it?  If there’s no way to communicate, then how do you manage it all?  There won’t be phones or internet after everything else is gone.”

Damsel’s forehead furrowed in concern.  “I’ll delegate.”

“Can you trust the people you delegate to?”

“No.  I trust nobody.”

“Well,” Bonesaw said, pausing as she took a sip of tea.  “That’s a problem.”

“Yes,” Damsel agreed.  She swayed in her seat for a moment, then gripped the table with foot-long, clawed fingers to steady herself.  Bonesaw’s design, replacing the skeletal structure.  A way to channel Damsel’s power and -if needed- briefly shut it off.

“I put a little something in your tea to help you sleep,” Bonesaw commented.  “Best to see you off to bed.”

“I’m not…”

“Not sleepy?  You’re going to faceplant in your tea.”

Damsel’s confusion became a swift, violent anger.  “You poisoned me, wretch!”

“Yes.  I thought you didn’t trust anyone.  What a shame that you couldn’t be constructive in that distrust,” Bonesaw said.  She stood and walked around the table, then took the little girl’s hand, leading her back to the incubation chamber.  The girl obeyed, though she spat epithets.

“I’ll flay your skin from your bones, irrevocably destroy everything you cherish,” Damsel said, her voice fainter.  “You’ll cry your rage to the heavens until your torment subsumes everything.  Madness will be a refuge.”

She was virtually whispering by the time she was done.

“Yes, sweetie,” Bonesaw answered, dropping the fake accent.  She leaned forward and gave Damsel a kiss on the cheek.  Damsel blinked, as if in slow motion, opened her eyes briefly, then shut them.

A press of a button and a flick of a switch bid the glass case to rise and surround Damsel before she could tip over.  The tube rapidly filled with a soupy liquid, rich in nutrients.  Damsel was fully asleep before the fluid raised her from the ground to float buoyantly in the middle of the tube.  Her tea party outfit billowed out around her, making her look like a jellyfish in the pale lighting.  Her hat, a wide-brimmed, shallow-topped hat with a false flower on the ribbon, drifted off her head and gradually sank to the base of the tube.

She sought out the other clone, finding him at the far end of her lab.  He was a boy, narrow, with long blond hair and a very worried expression.  A complex pyramid of beakers and glass measuring cups was arranged around him.

He was muttering to himself, “Wall them in.  Wall myself in.  Wall them in.  Wall myself in.”

“Come on, A.G.,” Bonesaw said.  She reached through the structure and took his hand.  “Out through the door.”

“Not a door.  Trap.  Safest way to ward off attackers.  Used my hair, made a tripwire, tying ends together.  Maximum devastation if intruder breaks perimeter.”

“Through the window, then.  I’ll wall you in.  Promise.”

He nodded.  With excessive care, he climbed on top of the jars that were precariously balanced on one another and slipped out through another aperture in the arrangement, higher up.  He stumbled as he landed.

“This way.  We’ll wall you in.”

He followed obediently.  “Where’s my Catherine?  She’s my…”

“Your mom, silly billy.”  Cognitive dissonance would be bad.  He could lash out.  Not that he was that dangerous, like this.

“I was going to say wife.  And I have two children.  They’re seven and five.  Except I’m…”

“You’re seven.  You’re thinking of your sisters.”

“I’m confused,” he almost mewled the words.  “It hurts, so much of it hurts to think about.  I- I let a lot of people down.  I can feel their disappointment like… like it’s pressing in on me from all sides.  I can’t hide from it and I can’t stop myself from caring.  I-“

“Hush,” she said.  “It all gets better when you wall yourself in, doesn’t it?”

He nodded mutely.

“Walling you in,” she said, as she put him on top of the stand.  A press of the button raised the glass enclosure.  She could see him relax a fraction at that.

A bit of a problem, Bonesaw mused, as the container filled with the nutrient fluid.

Various elements that were unique to every individual served as a signal that the passenger could reach out to in an attempt at reconnecting with a host.  DNA, electromagnetic patterns, patterns she could barely measure with instruments, all contributed, none was absolute.  Once the connection was established, powers were possible as well.  A moment of trauma sped the process along considerably.  Her initial assumption had been that coming to life would be enough for the clones.

But the clones were dreaming, and those dreams were founded in the fabricated memories she was providing.  It was something of an art, an interesting experiment, to strike all the right notes, to get geography and birthplace right, culture, custom, habit and every other detail, along with the major, defining moments of their lives.

The Corona Pollentia was developing as the originals did, drawing from DNA to form as a lobe in the brain, right from the outset.  The dreams formed the connections between the corona and the clone.  The bonds were forming too quickly and easily.

It was interfering with the cloning process, as the passenger’s typically indistinct and subtle influence on the subject was becoming rather dramatic.  The brain was too pliable while the clones were in their formative ages, the passenger too insistent.

She’d have to scrap everything.  Wipe them clean, grow a new batch of clones.  Nearly three weeks of work down the drain.

Already, she was figuring out how to solve the problem.  She’d have to stagger it, introduce memories in phases, starting with earliest and working her way forward.  Maybe it would be easier, organized.  She could consider each member of the Nine in turn and decide if they had been treated well as babies, if their home and school lives were comfortable… that would be a yes for someone like Mannequin, less so for Ned, for Crawler.

She typed on the computer for a minute.  Special disposal procedures for Crawler.  The rest could be boiled to death.

She watched until the bubbles started to rise.  One or two woke.  It didn’t matter.

She returned to her makeshift bedroom.  There hadn’t been a mattress, so she’d made a hammock instead.

Blasto lay on the floor.  His voice was barely audible.  He couldn’t stand, and his attempts at trying to dance were scraping his arms against the floor.

Bug… hug.  I, J, K, L.”

“Forgot to turn the music off,” she said.  She found the smartphone and switched off the music.  “Have a bit of an errand.  Sleep for now, I’ll patch you up when I get back.”

Her hair dyed black, a bit of makeup and clothes made the same way she’d made her mattress, creating a lifeform that could spin and ink fabric.

A touch roughspun, but it would do.

She found the remote and hit the button.  There was a quiet whoosh, and she was on the other side.

Back in Earth Bet.

Her heart was pounding.  If Jack found out about this, he’d be furious.  The risk, the idea that someone would be checking this one spot for a signal, or using a parahuman ability to search for her here

But, she thought, she needed supplies she couldn’t make on her own.  Resources, information, materials.

She entered a small grocery store.

“Good morning,” the man at the counter said.  Thirty-two or thirty-three, to judge by his appearance.  His hair was too long in the back, just starting to recede in the front, his stare intense, but he wasn’t unattractive otherwise.

“Good morning,” she responded, upbeat.  Don’t talk to me.  It would be messy if I had to kill you.  She corrected herself.  I’ll fix your hair and then I’d kill you.

“We don’t get many new people here.  Kind of out of the way.”  He smiled.

“Driving through,” she said.  “My mom is shopping down the street.”

“Dollar store or the boutique?”

“Boutique.”

“Don’t blame you for not wanting to go,” he said.  “Let me know if you need help finding something.”

She made her way through the store.  Lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt, a box of Frooty Toots, some milk, pancake mix.  Nutrient slop was great when she needed to work without cooking, but it was still slop.

Glancing up, she could see the man at the counter looking at her in the mirror that had been positioned to give him a view of the aisle.

She wondered momentarily if he’d recognized her.  No, the reaction would be different.

A distrust of outsiders?  No, he seemed too at ease for that.

Something else, then.

She felt more at ease, realizing what it had to be.

She deposited the things on the counter, then paid.  He bagged it and she waved goodbye as she left, offering him a winning smile.

She’d need to stop by a library, there were a few things she needed to look up.  There wasn’t enough information on Harbinger, for one thing.  King’s background was another blank.  People Jack didn’t talk about much, even if he talked about them fondly.

He’d be so pleased, she could imagine, if she hit the right notes with them and got their basic personalities right.

Then she could buy clothes and sheets. If there was a good hardware store, she could imagine some tools that would serve.  Her scalpels were getting dull.

This little bumhole of a town didn’t have much, and she’d seen maybe one car on the road since she had arrived, but still, she looked both ways before crossing the street.

A pale, dark-haired woman stepped out of the bank, wearing a black suit.

Her attitude, her demeanor, casual.  Nothing combative in the slightest.

Bonesaw still felt a twang of alarm.  The timing with which she’d appeared, the way the clothes didn’t fit the area…

Better to guess and be wrong.  “Are you picking a fight with me?”

“No,” the woman replied.  “No I’m not, Bonesaw.”

Gosh darn ding darn… golly.  Jack was going to be maaaaad if he found out about this.

“Because if you kill me, it doesn’t change anything.”

“You worked a biological key into the transporter device.  Unless you are alive, calm and holding the device, it won’t work.  It will only transport you.  We can’t use it to get inside, and killing you wouldn’t stop the stasis period from ending.”

“Yeah.  That’s why.”

“I understand.  But I wasn’t sent here to assassinate you.  We could.  We could even reach Jack, I think, now that we know where to make an entrance.  Still, that’s a dangerous prospect, putting powerful parahumans in the same space as a man who’s been prophesied to end the world.”

“I’m not a pushover, you know,” Bonesaw said.  She stabbed a finger in the woman’s direction.

It would be so easy to fire a poison needle into her throat.

“I only want to talk.  I’ll ask a favor, then leave you alone,” the woman said.

“You don’t know how the Slaughterhouse Nine work, do you?  We don’t do favors.”

“You’ll do this one.  The Slaughterhouse Nine you’re mass producing, you’re going to install a control switch.  You’ll give that switch to me.  Not soon, but later.  Later than you think.”

Bonesaw laughed, high and shrill.  Then she laughed some more.

The woman only waited patiently.

“Silly!  You couldn’t be more wrong,” Bonesaw said.  “Betray Jack?  Betray the others?”

“You will.”

Bonesaw laughed again, not for quite so long.  Through the giggles, she said, “If you’re going to try to mind control me, I can tell you you’ve got another thing coming.  I’ve got safeguards.  You’ll only activate my berserker mode.”

“No mind control.  There’s a great deal at work here, and this is the best way to go about it, even with the blind spot looming.”

“That’s the best argument you can give me?”

“No.  I can tell you two things.”

Bonesaw raised her eyebrows, smiling.  “Two things?”

“Breadth and Depth.”

“I don’t get it.  Those are the things?”

“No.  There’s another.  Each of these things is a sentence, an idea.  The second sentence is simple.  Say goodbye.”

Bonesaw bristled.  Mechanical traps, spring-loaded needles and venom venting systems readied throughout her body.  She let the bags drop to the ground.

The woman didn’t attack.  Instead, she turned to leave.

An empty threat?

She debated firing her hollow needles at the woman’s back.  But if she missed, she’d be largely unarmed.  She’d have to get even closer to use a venom spray, or poison spit, or her telescoping humerus with flesh dissolving acid capsules beneath her fingernails.

The woman entered the bank, and Bonesaw hurried across the street to follow.

But her quarry was gone.

January 20th, 2005

Riley panted for breath.  Her body wasn’t listening, now.

She reached her mommy’s room, then collapsed on the floor, head turned towards the foot of the bed.

The carpet was stained with blood.  On it, just beside the bed, her mother lay face down, head turned to one side just like Riley’s was.  She was covered in stitches.  There wasn’t a place where Riley could have reached out and placed a hand down flat without touching one of the marks.

An entire row had been cut open, the stitches severed, from temple, down the side of her throat, along the side of her body to her pelvis.

Too much blood loss.  Her mind leaped into action, reaching for knowledge she hadn’t had earlier in the night, knowledge of how to fix people.  She took in details, grasped everything from the amount of blood her mommy had to heart rate and the amount of air she was breathing, just from the clues in how fast the blood flowed and the color of the skin.  She knew the order she’d have to fix things.  Ideas fired through her mind, telling her how to close the wounds, to draw the blood out of the carpet and clean it, or even making something that would do the same thing blood did, out of water and some junk from the kitchen, all with the exact right amount of electricity, to fill the veins and carry a low amount of air throughout the body, staving off the shut down of her brain long enough for Riley to figure out something else.

But she was too tired.

“Hurry,” Mister Jack’s voice was almost gentle.  “You have time.  You can fix her, can’t you?”

She could.  Maybe she even had the strength to do it, to get downstairs and climb up onto the kitchen counter to get the things she needed out of the cabinets, and get back up here.  She could cut the lamp cord and use the frayed end with… with a lot of salt, to get the right frequency.

But she was too tired.  The moment she was done saving her mommy, she’d have to run to the bathroom and save daddy.  Then she’d have to run downstairs and save Drew.  After that she’d save Muffles, and hurry back to mommy.  In each room, one or two scary people waited for her.  Waited and watched while she worked, then undid her work or came up with worse things to do.

She knew because she’d been doing this for hours.

“Come on,” Mister Jack whispered.  “You can do it.  Don’t you love your mommy?”

She stared across the room at her mommy.  They were lying with their heads pointed in different direction, so her mommy’s face was upside down, almost covered with as many stitches as skin.

She’d done a bad job, she knew.  She couldn’t even cut a straight line with the scissors in school, how was she supposed to do this?

Mommy mouthed some words, but the stitches pulled her lips in funny directions.

She thought maybe she knew what mommy was saying.

“No,” she told Mister Jack.

“No?”

“I don’t love her,” she answered.  She blinked, slow, so she wouldn’t have to look her mommy in the eyes, and tears were squeezed out.

“Alrighty,” Mister Jack said.  “Say goodbye, then.”

Say goodbye.

“Goodbye, mommy,” Riley said, obediently.

Silent, her mom mouthed a reply.

It took a long time.

A long, long time, watching the blood volume tick down, seeing how the breathing rate changed, and the heartbeat slowed.  Knowing how the brain would be affected, knowing what the organs were doing, and the order they were shutting down.

At some point, it ceased to be mommy, became something else.  A moment when her mommy became only a dying thing, a machine of flesh and blood that was winding down.

It was easier.

Didn’t make her chest hurt as much.

Lips that had been fixed up with imperfect stitches mouthed one final sentence.

“There we go,” Mister Jack whispered.  “…There.  That’s it.”

For a little while longer, the three of them rested on the floor of the room.  Mister Jack, Riley, and her mommy.

Others appeared in the doorway, casting the room in shadow.

“She done?”

“She’s done,” Mister Jack said, standing.  He stretched.  “As for what we do with her, we-”

He broke off as the clown in the hallway laughed, an eerie, offbeat sound that seemed to be missing something most laughs had.  It seemed to take Jack a moment to gather why the clown had laughed.

When he looked down, Riley was looking up at him, smiling.  It was a forced expression.

“What’s this?” Jack asked.  He smiled back.  “Something funny?”

“No.  I just… I wanted to smile.”

“Well,” he said.  “Me too.  Let’s smile together.”

She looked momentarily uncertain, but kept the strained smile in place.

“Yes.  Come with us.  We’ll keep you safe.”

She didn’t want to.  She wanted nothing less.

But she had nowhere else to go.

“Yes please,” she said.  “That… that sounds nice.”

Her mother’s final words rang through Riley’s head, the last words she’d before she had become a machine that had stopped working.

Be a good girl.

She’d be good.  She’d be polite and cheerful and she’d do her chores and she would mind her manners and she’d eat all of her dinner and she’d keep her hair nice and she wouldn’t swear and…

November 15th, 2011

She woke from a nightmare that was becoming all too familiar.  Usually it was only a few times a week, fragments.  Now it was more distinct, more cohesive.

She didn’t like it.

As was her habit, she reached across the bed, holding her companion close.

Not enough.  Not warm enough, not responsive, not caring.

He wasn’t family.

She pushed her covers away, annoyed.

Blasto lay there, unmoving.

“Up,” she said.

The hardware worked throughout his body bid him to move.

She stared at him, unfamiliar feelings warring inside her.  The dream was fresh in her mind and she couldn’t banish it, just like she hadn’t been able to banish it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.

It was just a little harder every day.

She felt a flare of anger, but pasted a smile on her face instead.  Think happy.

Be good, she thought, and the thought was too close to an idea in her dream.  It had the opposite effect, dashed her resolve to the wind.

She was left only with a mingled sense of unease and frustration.

No mind control?  My fanny!  The darn woman in the suit had put a mind-whammy on her!

It made her upset, which was a terrible way to start the day.  Most days, she could cuddle with whoever was sleeping beside her.  Blasto wasn’t so good at that.

It didn’t help that Blasto had died a week ago.  A stroke, no doubt from stress, in the midst of a refrain of the Love Bugs theme song.  The only thing that let him move now were the control mechanisms she’d set up.

Not so good for snuggling.

Most days, if snuggling didn’t quite cut it, Jack would keep her busy, give her something to do, and entertain her.  Always, his voice in her ear, always ushering her forwards, praising her for being a good girl, for her art, for her talent.  Others were interested.  Her family.

Now she was alone.

She left the closet that was her bedroom, with Blasto standing beside the fleshy mattress, and she approached the cases.

The third draft, still in a foetal state, nine of each.  She had a good feeling about it.  There were a few more brains to create, more personalities to research and draw up, but she felt fairly confident about her ability to piece it all together.

The only rub was the Bonesaws.  A whole row, empty.

They didn’t need as long to gestate, but she had yet to begin figuring out how to create them.

She could have scanned her own brain and copied over the results, but the setup was awkward to manage, best done with a sleeping subject.  She could have set Blasto up to manage it, but… that was tricky in its own way.

She wasn’t used to feeling a lack of confidence.  The thing about art was that one could create anything, could incorporate mistakes.  But art needed an audience and she had none here.

She’d set herself the task of having everything ready for when Jack and the others woke up, and now she felt she was unraveling, coming apart in the quiet and the solitude.

She stared at the seeds of the Bonesaws that hadn’t grown and wondered if she really could look long enough to see the real her, to fabricate anything like herself.  Her test runs with the others had all worked.  They were close enough to feel familiar, even if little details were off.  Their personalities, their approaches, all would be close enough.  Here and there, she’d fixed things, corrected the most detrimental personality traits that had been turned against them and allowed them to be captured or killed.

Sighing, she turned away.  She took the time to dress in the clothes she’d bought, and then used the remote to teleport to Earth Bet.

“Our regular is back,” the man at the counter said.  “You get out a lot, with that home schooling.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She folded her hands on the edge of the counter and rested her chin on them.  “Your haircut looks good, Eli.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He looked genuinely embarrassed.  She smiled a little at that.

“See any good movies lately?” she asked.

“You like horror movies right?”

“Mm hmm.”

“The Darkness.  You’d like it, it comes from a good pedigree.  It’s about a mafia-“

A woman entered the store, and Eli jumped as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I- can I put up a sign in the window?” the woman asked.

“I’d have to see it first,” Eli responded.  “Might have to ask my dad.  He owns the store, even if I run it.  If there’s any question, it’d be his call.  He gets back this Monday.”

The woman’s face was grave as she handed over the paper.

Eli took the time to read it.  “I think everyone in town knows about this, Mrs. Hemston.”

“Can I put it up anyways?  If someone passes through and sees it-“

Eli shifted, uncomfortable.  “I don’t see any reason you couldn’t.  My dad wouldn’t say no.”

Without responding, Mrs. Hemston set about taping it to a spot at eye level on the back of the glass door.

She glanced at Bonesaw.  “You shouldn’t be out without a guardian.  Go home.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bonesaw replied, smiling.

And then the woman was gone.

Bonesaw opened the door and held it open so she could see the sign.  A missing person sign, with a picture of a girl.  She let the door swing closed.

Eli hesitated.  “Riley, I was thinking, if you wanted to come over and watch that movie…”

“No.”

“No?  Why?”

“You know why,” she said.  She walked down the aisle to grab some snacks.  Gummy candies, more Frooty Toots, some more milk.

“I wouldn’t, you know I-“

“You’d be a gentleman, I’m sure,” she replied.  The funny thing was, she was sure.  She knew her monsters.

He struggled to recover.  “I… you’re talking about the home schooling.  Strict parents?”

It was feeble.  She knew it was feeble.

“Exactly,” she responded, setting the stuff on the counter.  “Sorry.”

“Eight ninety-five,” was all he said.

He was hurt.  He’d recover.  She collected her things, gave him a small wave, and then made her way back.  She glanced at the woman who was making her way into the next store.

She stepped out of sight, then used the remote to exit back to the pocket realm.

She felt a growing sense of unease as she set the milk in the fridge and put the Frooty Toots on the counter with the candy.  Not an unease with what had happened with Eli.  That would resolve itself.  She’d see him in two or three days, and it would be awkward.  Then she’d see him after that, and things would be okay again.

No.  That wasn’t what was resting heavily on her heart.

She called for Blasto and then entered one of the other closets.

Melanie, the girl’s name was.

A week and a half ago, it had been so commonsense.  A solution to her problems.  The girl had been right there.  So easy to approach.  A tranquilizer shot to the neck, calculated on the fly to fit with body weight and overall health.  Recalibrating the teleporting remote with the unconscious girl in the back lot had been a little riskier, but it was a quiet town.

Bonesaw had found herself busy enough that the girl could be left here, an IV in her neck, catheter and poop tube inserted.  Now that she had free time, she could handle the Winter issue.

She needed a child soldier.  This was a way to make one.  To insert the wartime memories from Cranial’s database into the girl, let it steep, then harvest the results.  The rest could be tweaked, rebalanced, fixed.

And there, again, that unease.

She couldn’t think of her mother’s face, only stitches.  Her father she hadn’t even seen.  His face was a vague idea in her head, a few isolated features with nothing to bind them together.

Yet when she tried to visualize herself going ahead with it, it was Eli’s face that intruded.  Disappointed, confused.

Eli and Mrs. Hemston both, now.

The girl was meat.  A tool, a collection of resources to be taken apart and put together in a different configuration, a machine.  Any number of things, but not a person.

But the people from the periphery of the girl’s life… they were harder to compartmentalize.  Distant.  They weren’t at arm’s reach to use as resources.

An emotional factor.

Darn it, she thought.  She’d stopped talking to herself, after she’d gotten in the habit and weirded Eli out.

She turned her attention to the computer, crossing the room.  Need a distraction.

Except it backfired.  She thought of the woman in the suit, and the statement.  Breadth and depth.

As things tended to do, a connection drew across her mind’s eye.  All of the problems at hand, the challenges, dealing with the clones, figuring out how to program them.

The first batch had failed because they were too young, and the connection with the passenger had become too broad, consuming too much of their personality, leaving room for little growth as a human being.  Things were missing, other things bloated or exaggerated as the passenger needed.

Jack had a different kind of connection.  A deep connection.  He was in alignment with the particular nature of his passenger.  The passengers naturally sought conflict, and Jack had fed that need from very early on, and he had sustained it for years.  The line between the two was so thin as to be impossible to mark, but Jack’s personality remained his own.  Altered, but not subsumed.

And Bonesaw… well, she was talented.  There was little doubt her passenger fed her a great amount of detail.

But what kind of connection was it?

Darn mind whammies!  Darn it, drat, gosh, golly fuck!

She stared down at her hands, splayed and resting on either side of the keyboard.

What kind of connection was it?

Young age?  Check.  That had meant breadth for the others.

Fed by conflict?  Check.  Depth, if the single data point that was Jack was any indication.

How much of me is me?

She stared at the backs of her hands.

What difference does it make?  It wasn’t a rhetorical question.  There was a difference, it did matter in the grand scheme of things.  She just wasn’t sure what that difference was, how it mattered.

She hadn’t had to make many of her own decisions before.  Or, it was better to say, she hadn’t had to make important ones.  There was a security in being with Jack, because it meant she didn’t have to face this sort of thing.  One comment, and the question was decided.

She turned to look at Melanie.  The girl was her age.

Odd to think about.

The girl had seen her face.  She couldn’t trust her ability to erase memories, not without test subjects, which was a new set of risks, a new set of problems.  It would only compound the problem she was trying to solve.

She wasn’t used to thinking like this, considering ways to minimize chaos.

Couldn’t trust that she’d scrub the right memory.  It wasn’t her tinker tech.

Couldn’t trust that she could overwrite the memories either.  Inserting memories, yes, but the brain was a funny thing.  Again, it wasn’t her tinker tech.

Going ahead would be safest.

She thought of Eli.  A friend.  Not family, like the Nine had become, but a friend.

She thought of the effect of the passenger on her personality.  Was the art hers or did it belong to it?  Her sense of family among the other Nine, again, who did it belong to?

She bit a thumbnail, cut deep into the material with the special cutting materials she’d laced her incisors with, and then tore the end off in one swift motion.  The quick of her nail started bleeding.

The pain gave her clarity.

Maybe the family thing was the passenger’s.  Maybe the art was too.

But Eli?  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t normal.  But if the passenger had never made contact, and she’d still lived a life a little like the one she lived now, she could see herself being Eli’s friend.

That in mind, she made her decision.

November 12th, 2012

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

A lot of time alone.  A lot of time to think.

Every decision now was made on a fulcrum.  Was she acting as Riley or as Bonesaw?

This… it wasn’t a hard decision.  In a way, she’d imagined she’d always make it.  But it, like every other call, had to be carefully measured.

First menstruation, check.

Might as well get it over with.  She made notes on the computer.

Auto-hysterectomy.

Auto-masectomy.

Limb shortening.

Bone shaving.

Plastic surgery.

Bonesaw would approve.  Maybe it would be better to be taller, to have more room for equipment.  Still, she could reverse the procedure.  It wouldn’t be her parts, but that wasn’t such a problem.

But for Riley, this was essential.  It was a matter of months before Jack woke.  She needed time to recover.  The clones were in a good state.  Only the Bonesaw vats were empty.  Each of the others had an adolescent or nearly-adult clone inside.  A month or two before the others woke from cryo-stasis, she’d start doing the surgeries, adding the augments, combining a handful of them together.

She laid out everything on the table next to her.  Scalpels, blood bags, IV drips, screwdrivers, wire, staple, cauterizing gun, hammer, stapler… a mix and match.

She hefted the bonesaw and frowned a little.  The word had taken on a different meaning for her, in recent months.  It had stopped being her name somewhere along the line, had become her passenger’s.

Anesthetic?  No.  She needed optimal awareness of her own body.  Anything that dulled her senses would spoil that.

She had the ability to switch off pain at will.  She wouldn’t use it.

No.  She wouldn’t say she felt guilty about the things she’d done, but she recognized that she was broken, now.  She recognized that maybe she should.

A part of her wished she could reach inside and find that carefree perspective, the innocence she’d enjoyed.  Another part of her was glad.  Everything about herself was modifiable, reversible, pliable.  Pieces in the machine.  But this?  She wasn’t sure she could alter it, nor that she wanted to.

This wouldn’t be a penance.  That would suggest penitence.  But it’d be just, as best as she could figure.

She started cutting.

January 24th, 2013

“The sign’s down,” she commented.

“Riley!”  Eli looked startled.  He glanced back at his dad, who was stocking shelves.  “It’s been… a really long time.  I was worried I said something.”

“No.  Went to live with my dad,” she said.  The lie was smooth, effortless.  She didn’t even feel bad.

“You’re back?”

“Stopping by, like the first time you saw me.”

He nodded, still a little stunned.  “Uh… they found the girl dead in the woods.  Some dogs had chewed her up pretty badly.”

“Oh,” she responded.  She’d practiced the look of concern in the mirror.  Even now, she didn’t really feel guilt, but nothing was reliable, like it once had been.  “I stopped in to say goodbye, Eli.”

“Goodbye?”  He seemed more surprised than disappointed.

Maybe he already said goodbye to me, she thought.  She didn’t feel hurt.  Growing up with the Slaughterhouse Nine had numbed her in many respects.  It made sense, little more.

“I wanted to give you a gift,” she said.  “As thanks for the movie advice, and the conversation over the past while.  You helped me, gave me a friend when I needed one.”

He frowned.  “After your parent’s divorce, you mean.”

“Yes.”  Another easy lie.

“I get that,” he said.  He looked at the card.  “Can I open it?”

“No.  There’s a date on it.  Wait, then read it on the date in question.  Break that rule and I’ll be mad, understand?”

“I understand,” he responded.  He looked down at the envelope.  “My birthday.”

“Yeah.  And I don’t think you do understand,” she said, “But that’s okay.  Just don’t break the rule, and don’t lose the letter.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Um.  I would’ve gotten you something, but… oh.”

He rummaged in his bag, then handed her a video tape.

“I… I rented it, but I’ll pay the fee to replace it.  One of my favorites from the last year.”

A horror movie.  A child werewolf?

A child monster.

She glanced at him, but there was nothing in his expression.  She’d become exceptionally good at reading people, and… no.  He had no idea how ironic the gift was.

“Thank you,” she said, holding it to her stomach.  “It’s probably okay if we just say hi and bye like usual, isn’t it?  Fits?”

“You look different,” he blurted out the words, a non-sequitur.

She’d hoped the winter clothes would hide any of the reversions she’d made.

“You look good,” he added.

“Be fucking good, Eli,” she retorted, staring at him.

Before, he might have protested, feigned confusion.  He’d changed, much as she had.

Now, he only nodded a little.  “I will.”

May 25th, 2013

She sat with her feet propped up on the table, a bowl of Frooty Toots on her stomach, as the alarm went off.

She felt a momentary sadness.  She tapped her pinky with her thumb twice, and the embedded magnets noted the signal.  She’d recorded her own brain activity and movements when contemplating the Bonesaw clones, and it was this that she drew on, manipulating her own body much as she had manipulated Blasto’s.

Her body language wasn’t her own.  Her smile, the way she walked, the gestures, all were fine tuned to match the Bonesaw of before.

Her height, too, had changed.  She’d cut her hair to match, had downgraded her body so the last year and a half of development had never happened.

It was the burning of a bridge, in a way.  It would retard her growth in the future, and that would arouse suspicion.

In a way, she couldn’t carry on her relationship with the Nine.  There would be too many tells, no time to herself to make changes in secret.

The individual cases opened, and slowly but surely, the members of the current Slaughterhouse Nine stepped out.  Jack, Hookwolf, Skinslip, Night Hag.

She could see the conscious effort on Jack’s part to maintain his composure.  He was barely able to stand.

His eyes fixed on her.

Somehow, she knew.  She knew he knew.  But that was no surprise.

All she really needed was reasonable doubt.  He would harbor suspicions, and he would pull something on her.  Later.

In the meantime, she’d have options.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

“And you’re nude,” she said, covering her eyes.  “Where are your manners?”

Like riding a bike.  Back to her old self.  Playing the role.

“I’ll remedy that in an instant.  Cereal?”

“Made it myself.  Took me a whole three hours to get it right.  Felt like keeping busy.”

“And the milk?”

“Made it myself,” she responded.  She grinned, and the device took over, gave it that width, that guilelessness she couldn’t manage on her own.

“I won’t ask.  My clothes?”

She pointed him in the direction of the closet where she’d placed all of the roughspun uniforms, alongside the clothes Jack and the others had removed before stepping into the cryostasis chambers.

He took a step, then stumbled.

“I’m… not as coordinated as I should be,” he said.

“Seems there’s trouble with the recovery phase,” Riley said.  “Be a month or two before you’re on your feet.”

“We have a schedule.”

“I know.  But I can’t fix this.  Not my stuff.”

He stared at her, brushed ice-crusted hair away from his face.

But she wasn’t lying.  There was no falsehood to pick out.

“You could have woken us sooner.”

“Nope, nope,” she said.  “Would’ve mucked up the scheduling.”

Still, that penetrating stare.  This was the make or break moment.

“Well,” Jack said, smiling, “Unavoidable.  We’ll have to make it extra special.”

“Triple special,” she answered.  “Things have been interesting while we’ve been gone.”

“Interesting?”

“I’ll show you later.”

“And the clones?”

“I was waiting for you to wake up before we greeted them.”

“Good,” Jack said.  “Excellent.”

She smiled wide as he turned, covering his bare rear end on his way to the closet, even as she felt coldness in her heart.

Hookwolf, for his part, only drew blades around his body, forming into a giant metal form.  She wondered if he looked a little introspective, before his head was covered in the mass of shifting, skirring hooks and needles.

She chewed on her cereal, and watched more of her movie.

She did like it, after all.  Eli had been right.

She smiled, hiding the sense of loss as she deleted it from the system and cleaned up the evidence.

One by one, the recently unfrozen members of the Nine rejoined them, dressed in their outfits and costumes.

Jack gestured, and she hit the key on the keyboard.  Lights.

Spotlights went on beneath each of the glass chambers.

Drain.

The fluids poured out, draining into the openings in the floor.  Blurry figures became more distinct, marred only by the residual droplets clinging to the interior of each chamber.

“You didn’t do yours,” Jack commented.

“Didn’t work out.”

“I see,” he said.

Every line of dialogue felt like a nail in the coffin.

But that coffin wasn’t a concern today, or even tomorrow.

For now, Jack needed her.  For now, she had options.

She smiled, wide, with a glee she didn’t feel.

The woman in the suit had options.  She would come to Riley and claim the remote.

Countless enemies would be mustering their forces, ready to deal with this.

Eli had the letter.  He’d find a plane ticket inside, along with an urging to leave and stay gone.  To drive the point home, she’d revealed her identity.

Yet Riley still felt a moment’s doubt.

Some rose from their knees.  Others had managed to remain standing from the moments the fluid left the chambers.  As they roused, powers flickered into action.

Siberians flickered into being near the Mantons.  Six like the daughter, three more like Manton himself, all in black and white.

Chuckles, tall, fat, with arms that zig-zagged, her own addition.  Thirty-one elbows, and arms that dragged behind them as they moved.  Here and there, one of them would twitch, a tic.  The clown makeup was a series of scars, tattooed on.  One activated his speedster abilities experimentally, crossing the room in a flash.

Nostalgic, in a way.  Chuckles had been around when she’d joined.

Murder Rat.  Not stapled together as the original had been.  She’d taken the time to do it well.  When membership had been down, Bonesaw had made Murder Rat as a created addition to the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She’d passed the tests, but degradation in mental and physical faculties over time had seen to her demotion.

Winter, white-haired, with white irises edged in black, nude, her eyes peering.  Madeline’s eyes, Riley thought.  Winter would need guns, of course.

Crimson, Winter’s brief-lived lover.  Riley had taken the time to program their relationship into them.  Crimson had been one of the first members in the group, Winter one of the more recent ones to die.  Winter had been followed by Hatchet Face -there he was, over there, nine of them- and Hatchet Face had been followed by Cherish.

Nine Cherishes, gathering in a huddle.  She’d forgotten to give them the tattoos.  It didn’t matter.  A glance suggested they were discussing different ways to do their hair.

The smile on her own face was so wide it hurt, but it wasn’t her smile.

King, tall and blond, unabashed in his nudity.  All nine Kings were broad-shouldered, each half a foot taller than Jack.

Their interaction would be an interesting one.  She’d wondered if she should program King with the knowledge that Jack had been the one to kill him, reconsidered.

Oh, and there were others.  Some were harder to recognize.  Nine Alan Grammes, who lacked his armor.  Nine Neds, narrow shouldered and only five and a half feet tall.  When the others had done some damage and given him a chance to regenerate, he’d resemble his true self a little better.  He’d be Crawler.

“And the last one?”  Jack pointed at the remaining chamber.

She hit a button, and for a moment, her expression slipped.  She closed her eyes, a brief moment too long, as nutrient soup drained out of the chamber and the glass lowered.

But nobody was looking at her.

The boy stepped out, and there was no sign of any difficulty.  He didn’t struggle as others had, nor have trouble finding his feet.  He was prepubescent, to look at him, older than ten but younger than fourteen.  His hair was neatly parted, and he wore a private school uniform, complete with glossy black shoes.  Dry.

Even though he was naked in the tube.

Then again, that was sort of his thing.  One of them, anyways.

Visually, the most notable part of him was the effect that surrounded him.  He was monochrome, all grays and whites and blacks, with spots of light and shadow flickering around him.  Here and there, he flickered, a double image momentarily overlapping him, ghostly, looking in a different direction.

As far as parahuman powers went, his was as unfair as they got.

“Jack,” Gray Boy said.  His voice was high, clear as a bell.

“Nicholas.”

Jack extended a hand and Nicholas shook it.

Riley felt her stomach sink.

It would be like Gray Boy to use his power and take out someone in the room, just because he could.  Jack had only wanted one, and the unspoken reality was that he only wanted one because he could only control one.

If he wasn’t going after Jack, then… she was the only other person in the room without clones surrounding her.

He approached her, his expression placid.

For a brief moment, she felt stark fear.

It was perhaps her salvation that the fear was buried under the expressions that her system pasted on her face.  The false smile that spread across her face was the push she needed to hop down from her seat, approaching him.  She leaned in close to kiss him on the cheeks, her hands on his shoulders, one leg cocking upward like she’d seen women in older films doing.

“Little brother,” she murmured.

“Bonesaw,” he said, voicing a name she hadn’t programmed into him.  His hand found hers, and he held it.  She felt a chill.  “We’ll be inseparable, I think.”

“Inseparable,” she answered, smiling falsely.

The others from rows further down in the chamber slowly approached.  She watched Jack taking it all in.  Two hundred and seventy-five in all.  Two hundred and seventy regulars, five special makes.  Snowmann, Nighty Night, Laughjob, Tyrant, Spawner.

The names had never been a strength of hers.

I’ve given you everything you want, she thought.  Now we see who comes out ahead.  Succeed, and Bonesaw comes to the fore.  Fail, and Riley wins.

She wanted Riley to win, but that wasn’t as simple as making a decision.  She had to bury her life with the Nine.  Bury Jack, and see him defeated.

Gray Boy squeezed her hand.  She would have jumped, if her body language wasn’t in the system’s control.  She looked at him, and he winked.

Her expression hadn’t wavered, she hadn’t allowed herself the slightest tell, but somehow he fell in the same category as Jack.

He knew.

Staring out at the gathered crowd, Jack seemed to reach a conclusion.  He glanced at her, as Gray Boy was doing.

“Good,” he said.

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Interlude 20 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Park there,” Stan said, pointing to a space off the side of the road.

“We’ll be facing uphill, and we still have to unload the equipment,” Nipper piped up, from the back seat.

“There’s a method to my madness.  Park, Marshall.  I’ll even deign to help unload and carry this time.”

He got a glimpse of Marshall rolling his eyes, but the boy steered the van to a parking spot.

True to his word, Stan was out the door, rolling up his sleeves.  Didn’t hurt: the humidity was brutal outside the air-conditioned van.  His dress shirt was already sticking to his back.

They were on a hill, and the vantage point afforded them a view of the city.  Cranes dotted the skyline, and the buildings themselves were gleaming, the whites and colors brightened by the ambient moisture in the air.  It might have looked attractive, but there were spots where buildings were missing, whole areas where the construction was only just beginning.

He could see the white building, not too far away, which was taller than even the skyscrapers immediately around it.  He’d investigated it just a few days ago.  They’d erected a tall white tent, holding it up with a crane, they’d reinforced it with plexiglass panels and iron reinforcement, and now a more solid construction was going up around it.  Slow, painstaking, careful work, filled with redundancies.  The workers would be glad to be free of the hazmat suits in this heat.

Brockton Bay wasn’t lacking in stories to tell.  The quarantine building alone was one.

“Need a hand,” Nipper said.

He hurried around to the back of the truck.  The van had been parked at the side of the road, emergency brake cranked, wheels turned so it would ride up onto the sidewalk if the brake failed, but the steep incline was making it hard to unload the equipment.  Much of it was set up to be slid out of the back of the van at a moment’s notice, but that same convenience was an obstacle, here.  The stuff was expensive, and if it slid to the road…

He found a space beside her and reached to get a grip on the far end of the camera.  It might not have been a problem, but Nipper was short, petite, built more like a thirteen year old than a twenty-three year old college graduate.

She wasn’t suited for the job.  She knew the equipment, she was capable with a computer, she had good eyesight, and the tattoos and array of piercings on her right ear were as good an indicator of her creative edge as anything else.

But this wasn’t the job she’d been working towards.  She wasn’t one to complain, but she didn’t have stamina, she didn’t have strength, and this, all of this, it was too fast paced for her.  She’d have been better, maybe even happier in the newsroom, managing the feeds, maintaining the systems and working on post production.

Marshall hefted the bag out of the back of the van.  All the wires, the tripod, the lighting, packed into a dense case.  The boy didn’t look like a professional, hadn’t quite adapted to the job he’d been pulled into: from intern to a jack of all trades, filling in the gaps in Stan’s team.  Set up, interviewing, driving, gopher… anything and everything.  He was drawing in a paycheck, but he was definitely working for it, facing all of the hassles, the intense stresses and dangers of the job, for eleven dollars an hour.

Dangers, Stan thought.  Images flickered through his mind.  Everyone at the station had seen the feeds, had watched them several times over.  Purity taking the camera from Manzaneres, a guy from channel four, then setting her monsters on the man.  A man with a wife and a newborn had been murdered, just to make a point.

There was a reason for the shortage of field reporters.  It wasn’t limited to Manzaneres, either.  The problem was a chronic one.  This was a job that put ordinary people on the fringes of events that were dangerous for capes.

“Set?”

Marshall closed the back of the van and locked it.  “Set.”

Stan set off, with Nipper and Marshall following, Nipper almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.  “Reason we’re parked here is that the school’s on top of the hill.  We don’t know how much parking there’ll be, with students possibly taking up spaces, and if we have to drive by, searching for a spot, then someone’s liable to spot us and take measures.”

“Measures?” Nipper asked, a touch breathlessly.

Right.  She didn’t have the experience to know.  “You’ll see what I mean.”

There were students gathered outside the walls that bordered the school.  Police cars were parked at the front, along with PRT vans, but it was the uniformed guards with ‘Arcadia High School’ stenciled on their sleeves that caught his attention.

Guards?  It conjured up an image of a prison, rather than a school.

“Nip, get some footage of the uniforms,” Stan said.

She hefted the camera and trained it on the nearest of the uniformed guards.  She had to slow her pace to keep the shot steady, but she kept following him.  When a group of students obstructed her vision, she shut off the feed and hurried to catch up.

They reached the gate, where a woman with a colorful scarf was talking to a PRT uniform.  He signaled Nipper, and the young woman raised the camera.

“Damn it,” the woman with the scarf groaned, as she saw them.  The police officer took the opportunity to step away.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Stan said, “We’re not the enemy.”

“You’re here to bog down an overcomplicated situation,” she said.  “I have enough problems without vultures descending.”

“We’re here for the story, that’s all.  You’re in charge here?”

“I’m in charge of the school.  Principal Howell.”

He made a mental note.  Howell, Howell, Howell.  She wasn’t the prettiest woman, with old acne scars riddled across her cheeks, a short stature and a nose that didn’t quite fit her face.

“Stan Vickery, channel twelve news,” he flashed her his best smile and extended a hand.  She didn’t take it.

“You’re not allowed on school property.”

“I would be if you gave me permission,” he said, dropping his hand.  The job was politics as much as it was investigation, creativity and presentation.  What did she want?  Peace and quiet.  “Give us fifteen minutes to talk to your students and shoot a few takes in front of the doors, and I’ll get the word out that we got the story first.  Other stations are playing it safer, these days, less crew, less willing to act on sloppy seconds.”

The principal made a face.

Stan smiled, “Sorry.  You get what I mean.  Give us fifteen minutes, and we’re one less thing you have to worry about today.  With luck, I’ll be the only local reporter you see today.”

“With all due respect, Mr…”

“Vickery,” he said, already told you my name.  “But you can call me Stan, Mrs. Howell.  Fact of the matter is, you let me in the school, and I owe you one.  I pull strings or emphasize certain aspects of a story.  Not just this one either.  Who knows?  The next incident could be worse, or more sensitive.”

“Mr. Vickers,” she said.  “I’m fully aware that you’re trying to bait me into giving you a sound bite.  I won’t comment on this situation, and I won’t be letting you onto school grounds.  I don’t want you talking to any of my students.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go talk to the cops.”

“Seriously?  We’re giving up?” Nipper asked.

“Yes,” he said, he took long strides away from the front gate of the school, until he was sure the principal wasn’t in immediate earshot.  “No.  She’s liable to get on our case if we don’t pretend to play along.  Howell has no authority outside of the school walls, so we interview students there.  Marshall, head back in the direction of the van.  Talk to students, see if they want to be on TV.  Look for the talkative ones and the emotional ones, and point them my way.”

“What about the cops?” Marshall asked.

“They’ll be around later, and cops have better memories than civilians.  It’s the students who were at the scene.  Go.  We don’t know how long we have before other crews show.”

It was a shame the principal hadn’t let him into the school, Stan mused.  Silly of her, too.  That favor he’d offered her was gold, all things considered.  Something she could use to bail a superior out of an awkward position and advance her own.

Your guanxi could be better, Mrs. Howell, he thought.  He loved the idea behind the Chinese concept of guanxi.  It fit in the same general category as the concepts of friends, family, acquaintances, but it was more based in business and politics.  Guanxi was about being able to call up a person one hadn’t seen in years and ask for a favor.  To have enough people in one’s debt that there was more implied leverage to use when seeking favors from others.

He’d been introduced to the idea a few years ago, and he attributed much of his recent career advancement to it.  It was something to be aware of at all times, and it changed his perspective on things.

He approached a group of teenage girls who were gathered in a group, observing the police and PRT officers.  He flashed one of his best smiles at them.  He could see one of them glance him over, her body language changing subtly.  He directed the smile at her, “I bet you’re dying to talk about what happened here.  Exciting stuff.”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  “Supervillain doesn’t attack the school every day.”

“Wasn’t an attack.  She showed up, and they came after her in her civilian ID.”

“I know it wasn’t an attack,” the first girl replied.  “I was just… It’s what others have been saying.”

“Skitter, wasn’t it?”  Stan chimed in.  He snapped his fingers, and Nipper pointed the camera at the girls.

“Yeah.  The bug girl,” another girl spoke up.  “I guess she goes to Arcadia.”

“No way.  I heard she was a student at Winslow, before Leviathan came.  Geeky kid, was having a hard time with some jerks, apparently.  I think her name was Taylor, but you’d have to ask someone from Winslow.”

He prodded, “What happened?  Was there a fight?”

“Dragon and this new guy Defiant showed up, along with the two new heroes.  Don’t know their names.”

He’d memorized the names.  “Adamant?  Clasp?  Dovetail?  Halo?  Crucible? Rosary? Sere?”

“Sere and Adamant,” one girl replied.

“Sere and Adamant,” he said, making a mental note.

“And two of the Wards.  Clockblocker was one of them.  Anyways, she got away.”

“She didn’t do anything to provoke them?”

“Didn’t hear about anything.”

“And they mobilized on the school?”

“Sure.”

He started to ask for more details, then stopped.  Marshall was approaching, with a kid in tow.

“Cell phone video,” Marshall said.  “Long conversation between Defiant, Dragon and Skitter in the cafeteria.

Stan raised his eyebrows, looking at the girl with the phone, “Pay you twenty bucks to let us copy it.”

“A hundred,” she said.

“Twenty.  If you got it on camera, others did too, and someone‘s going to take the twenty.”

She glanced at Marshall, then back to Stan.  “Fine.”

“You have the equipment?” Stan asked Marshall.

“Laptop and a cord.  Give me a minute.”

“We’ll watch it later,” Stan said, absently.  He turned his attention back to the girls.

This wasn’t the first time he’d walked into a situation almost blind.  The job was a stressful one, but he thrived on stress.  Racing against the clock, to be the first to the scene, the first to report on the situation.  But even reporting was a kind of challenge unto itself.  The scene had to be investigated, the story teased out, details verified.  To top it off, it had to be presentable.

He’d been the producer, before Coil had blown up the camera crew and reporter that had been covering the mayoral debate.  He had an eye for this.  Had to, because there was nobody back at the studio that would be able to cover this base for him.  Sad and ironic, really.  There weren’t enough people in the bay, resources weren’t consistent.  So they’d reduced the size of the staff, cut back on hours.  Then six people had died, including their lead reporter.

Nevermind the rumors that the PRT was, on Miss Militia’s behalf, investigating ties between Coil and the killed reporters and camera crews.  He’d itched to look into that more, but it didn’t fit with his philosophy.

“Were you there, in the cafeteria?” he asked the girls.

“No.”

“Right.  Alright.  Any thoughts?  Were you scared, knowing there were so many capes in the school?”

Twenty more seconds, to grab more details and reaction clips, and then he was moving, searching for others to talk to.

Two more groups questioned, and he didn’t have much else.  He knew Skitter’s name, and Channel four had arrived, and the race was on.

“Got the video!” Marshall called out.

Stan took the offered laptop.  To watch now, it would mean delaying interviews.  Memories would fade.

But he needed the narrative.  How had things unfolded?  What were the key, crucial points at the heart of this?  That the school was unsafe?  It would work, grab attention and viewers, but it felt cheap.  No, the public knew that the Protectorate was imploding.  There had to be a connection, tying this to something greater.

“Thank you,” he said.  He’d decided.  “Now, I need you to find me someone who knew Skitter in her civilian guise.”

Marshall nodded.

“He or she will be one of the students who attended Winslow.”

“On it.”

Stan retreated to the van with the laptop.  He took the extra time to open the video in an editing suite before playing it.

Without being asked, Nipper hooked it into the van’s computers.  A little icon notified him that he was connected to the studio.

…There for the S-class threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

On a notepad of lined paper, he penned down ’20th’ followed by a question mark.  The video continued playing, and he noted down times and key phrases, along with questions.  When a critical comment was shown, he was sure to copy the clip.  There were a few times where the volume was too quiet, the voices too low or things were drowned out by background noise.  Nipper worked to tune the sound so they could make it out, raising the volume or filtering out the noise.

D&D picked fight?  Pushed by authorities?Drag past convo with Skitter.  When?
Putting children at risk
Violation of truce

“…And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months…”

What does Skitter know?  App’tly important.

“…the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them…”

S9?  D-check events post-Boston.

Hospital?  Skitter & Defiant?

D&D negotiating with villains?  Possible cooperation?  Corruption?

“…Stand if you side with me!

Both video and audio were distorted by the movements of students, rising from tables, pushing away from the jumble of bodies.

Stan smiled.  There.

He cut out the scene in question, the students siding with Skitter over the heroes, and gave the clip a title.  ‘The heart of this story?’

A second later, a note appeared on the side of the window.  The crew at the studio had a R.A.T. connecting them to the laptop, and freedom to make changes or add their own details.

Yes – Ed

He had it.  The editors at the station were on board.

Now to cobble it together into a story.

He opened a file and began sketching out the script.  At the very top, he put up notes, clips he’d need from the station.

There was a knock on the door of the van.  Stan opened it to see Marshall with an awkward looking young man.  Fifteen or sixteen.  He looked despondent.  Hangdog.

“He says he was her friend, once.”

“No,” the boy said.  “Not exactly.  But we sort of knew each other.  Had classes together, did group work.  And I owe her.”

Stan smiled.

…take you now to reporter Stan Vickery.”

Thank you, Nick.  One thousand and two hundred students made their way to Arcadia High for their first day back at school, earlier on this sunny day.  They hoped to readjust and get a taste of normal life after weeks spent away from home, or enduring the long series of incidents to afflict Brockton Bay.  Less than halfway through their day, those hopes were dashed.

A video clip replaced the blond man with the mustache and a face lined by years of stress.  A massive metal suit, looming at the far end of the school’s parking lot, a mechanized dragon.

The school became the site of a confrontation between Dragon, a heroine known across the world, and local warlord and leader of the Undersiders, Skitter.  Within moments of their meeting on school grounds, Dragon revealed Skitter’s identity as Taylor Hebert, a sixteen year old student.  With this revelation came a dozen more questions…

“Change the channel,” a boy in prison sweats said.  “News is boring shit.”

“No,” Sophia said.

Skitter was Taylor.  A dozen things fell into place.

Anger boiled within her.  Outrage.  That cringing, whiny, pathetic little scarecrow was the ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld?  It didn’t fit.  It demanded an answer of some sort.

But she couldn’t.  As the voice droned on, Sophia turned her attention to the bracelets she wore.  There was a live current running through them, and they could be joined together to fashion handcuffs, but even like this, they were bondage.  She couldn’t enter her shadow state without passing through the insulated sheath that protected her.

She couldn’t leave, as much as she wanted to, right this moment.

Glowering, a confused, impotent frustration building within her, she fixed her eyes on the television.  It swelled within her until she could barely think.  She clenched her hands, but she couldn’t squeeze hard enough to release any of the building emotion.  She unclenched her fists, extended her fingers, as if reaching for something, but there was nothing she could grab.

There was no release valve for this, no way to vent.

Taylor’s face appeared on the screen in the same moment she hit her limit.  She rose from her seat, aware of the guards advancing on her, and kicked the television screen, shattering it, amid the protests and swearing of her fellow inmates.

A second later, they were tackling her.  Two guards at once, forcing her to the ground.

She screamed something so incoherent that even she would have been hard pressed to interpret it.

Who was she?  And what motivated these professed heroes to mobilize on a school, risking the lives of students and staff?  Skitter herself wondered aloud about their willingness to put hostages within her reach…

A clip appeared on the screen.  Taylor, sitting on the edge of a counter.  She spoke, filled with confidence, almost nonchalant.  “You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…

A student abruptly shrieked, thrashing and falling to the ground in her haste to get away.

“Danny,” Kurt said, settling a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You don’t need to watch this.”

Danny shook his head.  Kurt looked down the man.  He hadn’t even spoken, from the moment he’d opened the door and Lacey had wrapped her arms around him.

This is bait, isn’t it?” Taylor’s voice, oddly out of place coming from the television.

The tone of the conversation even implied there were unspoken secrets that Skitter was aware of, that the Protectorate sought to silence,” Stan Vickery spoke, reappearing, with Arcadia High behind him as a backdrop.  “Raising questions about what those secrets might be.

…You seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months?”  Taylor’s voice, again.

Danny put his face into his hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead in the process.  Kurt rubbed his back, while Lacey looked on, sympathetic.

What did Skitter know, and does it relate to the event  on the twentieth of June?  Why were Defiant and Dragon willing to abandon their pursuit of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

“Is…” Danny started to speak, but his voice cracked.  He paused, then spoke again.  “Is this on me?”

“No!” Lacey said.  “No, honey.”

“Those aren’t questions I’d hope to pose any answers to today,” the news reporter said.  “The real question is bigger than that, and smaller at the same time.  What forces drive a child from this…

A teenage boy, his eyes downcast.  “She was nice, quiet.  I know people won’t believe me when I say it, but she was a genuinely good person.  Is.  Is a good person.  At heart.  I’m sorry, Taylor.

To this?

It switched to Taylor’s voice, calm, unruffled, accompanied by the same long-distance, low resolution footage of her sitting on the counter in the school cafeteria.  “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of-

Kurt turned off the television.  Danny was frozen, unmoving, staring down at his hands.

“It was context,” Lacey said, quiet.  “She was acting.  I’m sure-“

She broke off as Kurt shook his head.  Doing more damage than good.

“We’re going to stick by you, okay, Dan?” Kurt spoke.  “Let’s have you come by our place.  Better you aren’t alone right now, yeah?  And it’ll get you away from those reporters.”

Danny didn’t respond.  He stayed hunched over the kitchen table.

“Unless you want to wait here for her, in case?” Lacey asked.

“She already said goodbye,” Danny replied, pushing against the table to help himself rise to a standing position.  “I think that’s it.”

You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.

And what drives dozens of students to reject the heroes of this city in favor of the villain in charge?”  Stan asked.

The widescreen television showed the students rising from the tables, joining Skitter.  Another clip followed, showing students actively wrestling with the heroes.

“Christ,” the Director spoke.

Beside her successor, Piggot was watching in silence, elbows on the table, hands folded in front of her mouth.

“This could have been avoided,” the Director said.  “On multiple levels.”

“Most likely,” Defiant replied.  He stood at one end of the long table, Dragon beside him.

“If you would have cut off the feed, deleted the footage from phones, we would have had time to do damage control.”

“We won’t ignore people’s first amendment rights,” Defiant said.

…The PRT and the Protectorate have refused to comment, and the silence is damning, in light of what occurred today,” the reporting continued in the background.  “Brockton Bay has become the latest, greatest representation of the troubles the world faces in this new age, and perhaps a representation of the world’s hopes…

“You’re better than this, Dragon,” Piggot spoke.  “To the point that I’m left wondering… did you steer all of this in this direction?”

“If you try to place the blame on us,” Defiant replied, “I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

Director Tagg, Piggot’s latest successor, picked up the remote and muted the television.

Defiant shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back.  The body language was smug, somehow.

Piggot glanced at each of the people who were seated at the table.  Mr. Tagg, the Director of Brockton Bay’s PRT, Director Armstrong from Boston, and Director Wilkins from New York were all present.  Mr. Keene sat opposite her.  A camera mounted on the table gave the Chief Director of the PRT eyes on the meeting, where she watched from Washington.

Nobody else seemed willing to answer Defiant, some simply staring at him, others watching the segment on the wall-mounted television.  She spoke, “I would remind you that you are on a strict probation, with terms you agreed to.”

“I am,” Defiant said.  “Would you arrest me for being insubordinate?  Or would it take something more substantial?”

“Test us and you’ll find out,” Director Tagg responded.

“And what would happen then?  Would you send me to the Birdcage?” Defiant asked.

The question was heavy with the reminder that it was Dragon who maintained and managed the Birdcage.

Emily Piggot was caught between a desire to feel smug and quiet fear.  She’d warned them.  She’d communicated her concerns at every opportunity, through channels that Dragon wouldn’t be able to track.  She’d been dismissed, shrugged off, when she raised the question of what might happen if Dragon was killed in battle, or if Dragon turned against them.

“I’d like to hear a response from Dragon,” Piggot said.

Dragon turned her head to look at her, face hidden behind an expressionless mask and unblinking, opaque lenses.  There was something about the movement that seemed off.  Both the movement and the silence that followed was oddly disturbing.

“No?  No response?”

“A consequence of our recent visit to Brockton Bay,” Defiant said.  “I’m hoping she’ll be better in a few days.”

Curious, Piggot observed, the note of emotion in his voice, at that simple statement.

As if eager to change the subject, Director Armstrong said, “Mr. Keene.  Thoughts?  How does this affect your department?”

Piggot turned her attention to the man.  She’d only had limited interactions with him, but the man had earned her respect quickly enough.  He wasn’t a Director, but rather the liaison between the Protectorate and various other superhero teams worldwide, organizing deals, ensuring that everyone held to the same code of conduct, and ensuring that the groups could all coordinate in times of emergency.

“It’s catastrophic,” Keene said.  “I can manage some damage control, offer further aid, manipulate the grants available, but I can’t build on a foundation that isn’t there.”

“Where do our biggest problems lie?”

“The C.U.I. is first to mind.  The Suits and the King’s Men will cooperate, because they have to.  For the American teams, it varies from case to case.  But we’re in the middle of negotiations with the C.U.I., and this won’t reflect well on us.  That is, it won’t if we can’t get our footing here and make a strong showing at the next major event.”

The next major event.  The idea seemed to give everyone pause.

“Something needs to change,” Defiant said.

“Somehow, Colin,” Piggot replied, “I think our ideas on what needs to change are very different.”

“Very likely,” he said, his voice hard.  “But this was a last straw for us, in many ways.  We have a few stipulations for our continued assistance.”

“Defiant,” Tagg interrupted him.  “You’re not in a position to make demands.”

He’s a hard man, Piggot thought.  Army, PRT squad leader, a general, not a politician.  Ironic, that they’d butt heads.  “Director Tagg, you asked me here as a consultant, so allow me to consult.”

Tagg turned his attention to her.

She continued, “I don’t like this scenario any more than you do.  But let’s hear Defiant’s demands before you reject him out of hand.”

Director Tagg didn’t reply, but he turned his attention back to Defiant and he didn’t speak.

“Dragon and I have discussed this in-depth.  We need the present Directors to admit culpability for the incident, and we need to clean house, with in-depth background checks and investigations into any prominent member of the PRT.  We can’t maintain things as they are with the spectre of Cauldron looming over us.”

“You’d have us fire any number of PRT employees at a time when we’re struggling to retain members?”  Tagg asked, almost aghast.

“And relieving capes from duty at the same time,” Defiant said.  “With so few employees, it’s ridiculous to continue working to shut down leaks and control the flow of information.  Dragon has expressed concerns over having to do this in the past, and between the two of us, we’ve agreed that the censorship stops tonight, at midnight.”

Tagg rose from his seat, opening his mouth to speak-

“I agree,” Piggot spoke before her successor could.

Heads turned.

“It’s a misuse of resources,” she said, “And we do need to clean house.”

“You don’t have a position to lose,” Tagg replied.

“I wouldn’t lose it anyways,” she retorted, “I’ve had no contact with Cauldron.”

Keene clapped his hands together once, then smiled, “Well said.  We have nothing to fear if we aren’t connected to them.”

“You realize what they’re doing, don’t you?” Tagg asked.  “How does this investigation happen?  Dragon has her A.I. rifle through all known records and databases.  We defeat the sole purpose of the PRT, by putting the parahumans themselves in a position of power!”

“That ship has long sailed,” Keene commented, “With the revelations about Chief Director Costa-Brown, if you’ll pardon my saying.”

“You’re pardoned,” the Chief Director’s voice sounded over the speaker, crystal clear.  “I think this would pose more problems than it solves.  We’ll have to turn you down, Defiant.”

“Then I don’t see much of a reason for us to stay,” Defiant replied.

“And if you leave, the assumption is that we’ll be left without Dragon’s ability to maintain every system and device she’s created for us.  The PRT without a Birdcage, without our computer systems or database, without the specialized grenade loadouts or the containment foam dispensers.”

“An unfortunate consequence,” Defiant said.

“Not a concern at all,” the Chief Director replied.

There was a pause.  Dragon glanced at Defiant.

“No?” Defiant asked.

“No.  We’ve been in contact with an individual who has a proven track record with Dragon’s technology.  He feels equipped, eager, almost, to step into Dragon’s shoes should she take a leave of absence.”

“Saint,” Defiant said.  “You’re talking about the leader of the Dragonslayers.  Criminal mercenaries.”

“My first priority is and always has been protecting people.  If it’s a question between abandoning the security the Birdcage offers the world at large or requesting the assistance of a scoundrel-”

“A known murderer,” Defiant said.

“I wouldn’t throw stones,” Tagg replied, his voice a growl.

“-A known murderer, even,” the Chief Director continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I will take security without question.”

Defiant looked at Dragon.

“The second dilemma I have to pose to you two,” the Chief Director continued, “Is simple.  What do you expect will happen when the next Endbringer arrives?  Between Dragon’s brilliant mind and Defiant’s analysis technologies, I’m sure you’ve given the matter some consideration.  Without the Protectorate, how does the event tend to unfold?”

Piggot studied the pair, trying to read their reactions.  They were so hard to gauge, even if she ignored the armor.

“It doesn’t go well,” Defiant said.  “It doesn’t go well even if we assume the present Protectorate is coordinated and in peak fighting condition.”

“We can’t afford a loss,” the Chief Director said.  “You know it as well as I do.  Now, tell me there isn’t room for a middle ground.”

Dragon turned to Defiant, and moved with a careful slowness as she set one hand on his arm.

“We get through the next fight,” Defiant said.  “Then we clean house.”

“I think that’s an acceptable compromise.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

“Too rich,” Jack commented, smirking.  “Across the board, I love it.  Fantastic.”

Hookwolf, pacing on the opposite side of the television, grunted a response.

Bonesaw was crouched by the side of a machine.  She watched with hands on hips as Blasto ratcheted in a bolt at the base of a tall, black-handled lever, his movements jerky with the internal and external mechanisms that forced them.

The Protectorate declined to comment, and in light of recent events and allegations of deep-seated secrets, their silence is damning.

“Almost ready,” Bonesaw said, her voice sing-song.  “You’re next, Hooksie.”

Hookwolf glanced at her, and then at the contraption.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she said, her tone a taunt.

“Not of… this.  I’m questioning if this is the path we should take.”

“I’m expected to bring about the end of the world,” Jack said, still watching the television.  “But this is rather tepid for my tastes.  I’d like to hurry it along, inject some more drama into the affair.”

“…event at Arcadia High School is sure to draw attention from aross America.  We, the public, want answers.  The death of Vikare marked the end of the golden age, the end of an era where becoming a superhero was the expectation for anyone and everyone with powers, and even those who decided to work in business or public affairs with their abilities were termed ‘rogues’…

Bonesaw took ahold of Hookwolf’s hand and led him to his seat.  She stepped back, glancing over the contraption.  The only light was cast by a small desk lamp and the glow of a computer monitor, an island of light in the middle of an expansive, wide-reaching darkness.  Desk, engine, and tinker-designed seats, surrounded by an absolute, oppressive darkness.

“It doesn’t sit well,” Hookwolf said.  “I can’t articulate why.  My thoughts are still cloudy.”

Bonesaw hit a button, and the lights began to flicker, the engine beside her starting to hum with a progressively higher pitch.  With the flickering of the lights came glimpses of the things beyond.  Light on glass and wires.

“I’d rather a Ragnarök than-“

Bonesaw hauled on a white-handled lever, and Hookwolf’s voice cut off.  The flickering of the lights ceased, and the room returned to darkness.

Jack sighed.

…threatens to mark a similar occasion…

Bonesaw stepped over the body of a dead tinker in a lab coat, stopping in front of Jack.  “Strip.”

Jack shucked off his shirt, and then pulled off his pants and boxer briefs.  The blades that hung heavy on his belt made an ugly metal sound as they dropped to the tiled floor.

“…and cover yourself up,” Bonesaw said, averting her eyes.  “Shameful!  You’re in the company of a child, and a girl, no less.”

“Terribly sorry,” Jack said, his voice thick with irony, as he cupped his nether regions in both hands.  He stepped back and took a seat, leaning back against the diagonal surface behind the short bench.  Cold.

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

The segment ended, and the television turned back to the news anchors at their desks.

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack smiled.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The lights were flickering more violently now, to the point that periods of light matched the periods of darkness.  Between the spots in his vision, Jack could see more and more of their surroundings.

Row upon row of glass case lined the underground chamber, each large enough to house a full-grown man, though there were only fetal shapes within at present.  Each was labeled.  One row had cases marked ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’… ten iterations in total.  The next row had ten cases labeled with the word ‘Siberian’.  The one after with ten repetitions of ‘Chuckles’.

One column of cases dedicated to each member of the Nine, past and present, with the exception of Jack and one other.

“Makes for a greater fall?” Bonesaw asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He glanced at the one isolated case, felt his pulse quicken a notch.  It was the only one that was standalone.  ‘Gray Boy.’

“I guess we find out soon!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the whine of the engine.

Bonesaw only laughed.  She hauled on the switch with both hands, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #1)

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

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

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

The door opened right away.

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

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

“No mask?”  Accord asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Rey said.

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

“Okay.”

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

“I get it.”

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

“Wouldn’t mind some grass.”

“Turf?”

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

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

“It’s fine,” Rey cut in.  “I get it.”

“Here.  Into the basement,” Accord said.

Accord led the way, and Rey hesitantly followed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Satisfactory?” Accord asked.

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

“Sure,” Rey said.

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

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

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

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

A:  View Database
B:  View Samples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t,” she said.

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

“His ambassadors.”

“That’s right.  Do you have a name?”

“Citrine.”

“Ok.  How did he get this?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

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

“Yes.”

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

Eidolon.  There was a full set of details.

More information?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Powers?  Nothing.  Data not found.

Legend was the same.

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

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

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

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

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

Or, he realized, a human.

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

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

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

He selected C, expecting little.  His eyes widened.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure he does.”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Quiet.  Why?”

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

“You want me to entertain you?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Like using frog DNA for dinosaurs.”

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

“Until you have something viable.”

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

“How?”

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

“Okay.  So what’s today’s project?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve gone quiet,” Citrine said.

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

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

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

“No.”

“There.”

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

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

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

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

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

Had to be smart about this.

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

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

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

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

But neither lived.

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

No vascular system, no sign of emergent organs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morrígan.

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

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

“I’m trying to work here,” Rey said.

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

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

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

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

The Slaughterhouse Nine.  Here, in Boston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Making headway,” Rey responded.

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

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

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

“You retain any English?”  He asked.

The homunculus nodded.

“Spanish?”

Another nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes fell on Rey.

“I know you!” she said.

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

“Nice lab.”

“It’s not mine.”

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

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

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

“Hi Damsel.”

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

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

“Morrígan.”

“Looks like the Simurgh.”

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

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

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

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

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

“True.”

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

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

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

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

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

It was neither.

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

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

Or her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“You’ll get sick.”

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

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

“Villain.  Acceptable loss.”

“And the people in this neighborhood?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Ugh, fuck me,” Bonesaw grunted.

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

“Why-” Bonesaw started.

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

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

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

“Coward!” she taunted him.

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

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

She smiled as she did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Rey said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonesaw was getting closer.  Rey backed away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He choked, fought for breath, found none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the computer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another sample was collected and deposited in the box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I failed,” Defiant said.

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

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

“Did we gain anything?”

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

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

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

“I suppose so.  Where do we stand?”

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

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

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

“Better that you give chase.”

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

Colin nodded, but he didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

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

Manton.

“The Siberian is dead?”

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

Colin nodded and exhaled slowly.  “Good work.”

“The job’s not over yet.”

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

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Scourge 19.1

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

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

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

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

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

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel clenched her fists.

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

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

Pointing at my dad.

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

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

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

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

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

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

Radiation?  Plague?

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

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

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

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

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

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

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

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

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

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

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

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

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

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

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

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

Then he pulled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

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

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

Weld wasn’t replying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

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

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

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

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

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

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

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

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

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

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

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

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

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

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

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

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

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

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What-” Assault started.

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

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

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

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

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

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

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

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

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

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

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

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

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

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

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

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

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

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

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

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