Extermination 8.5

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Lady Photon and the eighteen year old Laserdream landed beside Armsmaster, making a small splash as they touched down.

You could see the family resemblance.  They weren’t supermodel good looking, but they were attractive people, even with their hair wet and plastered to their heads and shoulders by the rain.  Both wore costumes with a white base color, had heart shaped faces, full lips and blonde hair.  Lady Photon’s costume sported a starburst on her chest, with several of the lines extending around her body, or down her legs, going from indigo to purple as it got further from the center.  Her hair was straight, shoulder length, held away from her face by a tiara shaped much like the same starburst image on her chest.

Her daughter had a stylized arrow pointing down and to her right, on her chest, with a half dozen lines  trailing behind it, over her left shoulder, one line zig-zagging across the others.  The entire design gradually faded from a ruby red to a magenta color in much the same way her mom’s did.  Similar rows of lines with the zig-zag overlapping them ran down her legs and arms.  She didn’t dye her hair in her ‘color’ like her younger brother did -had, past tense-, or wear the tinted sunglasses, but she did wear a ruby red hairband over her wavy hair, to ensure she always had a coquettish sweep of hair in place over one eye, and to pull the magenta, red and white color scheme together.

More than anything else, though, the two of them had the look of people who had seen half their immediate family brutally and senselessly torn apart over the course of one terrible hour.  As though they’d had their hearts torn out of their chests and were somehow still standing.  It wasn’t that I had seen anyone in those circumstances before, but that look existed, and they had it.

It was painful to look at.  It reminded me of when my mom had died.  I’d been in a similar state.

Lady Photon – Photon Mom to Brockton Bay residents and the local news media – bent down by Armsmaster.  She created a shaped forcefield tight against his shoulder, lifted him with a grunt.

“Take him,” Lady Photon’s voice was strangely hollow, though firm.

“No.  I’m a better flier, and more likely to hurt that thing in a fight.  I’ll take the girl and help against Leviathan.”  Laserdream had a little more life in her voice than her mother did.

The girl.  Like I didn’t warrant a name, or it wasn’t worth the effort to remember.  A part of me wanted to stand up for myself, a larger part of me knew this wasn’t the time or place.

After a long few seconds of deliberation, Lady Photon nodded.  She looked like making that decision aged her years.

Laserdream and her mom looked at me.  I felt like I should say something.  Give condolences?  Tell them that their family had died well?  I couldn’t think of a way to put it that didn’t tell them something they already knew, or anything that wouldn’t sound horribly offensive or insincere coming from a villain.

“Let’s go get that-” I stopped, both because I suddenly felt that something like motherfucker was too crass, and because I wanted to bend down to pick up Armsmaster’s Halberd, the one with the disintegration blade, grabbing the pole of it with my good hand. “Let’s go get him,” I stated, lamely.

It took some doing for Laserdream to lift me without pressing against my broken arm or touching the blade. She wound up holding me with an arm under my knees and the crook of her elbow at my neck.  She held the Halberd for me.  I resigned myself to being cradled – there was no dignified way to be carried.  She had morning breath, a strangely mundane thing – she’d likely been woken up at half past six in the morning by the sirens, hadn’t had time to brush her teeth or eat before coming here.

She took off, smooth.  It felt like an elevator kicking into motion, except we kept going faster, had the wind in our faces.

My first time flying, if you discounted the experience of riding a mutant dog as it leapt from a building, which was sort of half-flying.  It wasn’t half as exhilirating as I’d thought the experience would be.  Tainted by the sombre, tense mood, the sting of the rain and the bitter chill that went straight through my damp costume and mask.  Each time she adjusted her hold on me, I had to fight that deep primal instinct that told me I was going to fall to my death.  She was adjusting her grip a lot, too – she didn’t have superstrength, and I couldn’t have been easy to carry, especially soaking wet.

My power’s range was almost double the usual, and I had zero clue as to why.  I wasn’t about to complain.  Using Laserdream’s armband and my right hand, I passed on details.

“He’s at CA-4, heading Northwest!”

The roads beneath us were damaged, shattered.  When Leviathan had shifted the position of the storm sewers, he’d gone all out, and he’d gone a step further than just the storm sewer – he’d also torn up the water supply network for the city.  The occasional pipe speared up between the slats in the sidewalk, fire hydrants were dislodged, and the water that poured from these was barely a trickle now.  That might have meant too much was leaking from the damaged pipes to give the water any pressure.

As he’d beaten a path deeper into the city, he had found opportunities to do damage on the way.  A police car had been thrown through the second story of a building.  A half block later, as he’d rounded a corner, he had elected to go through the corner of a building, tearing out the supporting architecture.  The structure had partially collapsed into the street.

We passed over a gas station he’d stampeded through, and Laserdream erected a crimson forcefield bubble around us to protect us from the smoke and heat of the ongoing blaze.

“BZ-4,” I reported.  Then I saw movement from the coast, called out through the armband’s channels, “Wave!”

I was glad to be in the air as the tidal wave struck.  The barrier of ice and the wreckage at the beaches did a lot to dampen the wave’s effect, but I watched as the water streamed a good half-mile into the city.  Buildings collapsed, cars were pushed, and even trees came free of the earth.

No cape casualties announced from Laserdream’s armband, at least.

We passed over the Weymouth shopping center.  It had been devastated by Leviathan’s passage, then had largely folded in on itself in the wake of the most recent wave.  From the way the debris seemed to have exploded out the far wall, it didn’t look like Leviathan had even slowed down as he tore through the building.  That wasn’t what spooked me.

What spooked me was that I’d been through the Weymouth shopping center more than a hundred times.  It was the closest mall to my house.

When I sensed Leviathan turning south, towards downtown, I didn’t feel particularly relieved.  There were enough shelters and enough space in the shelters to handle virtually every Brockton Bay resident in the city proper.  From what I remembered, not everyone had participated in the drills that happened every five years or so, choosing to stay home.  It was very possible that some shelters near the residential areas might prove to be over capacity, that my dad, if he arrived late, might have been redirected to another shelter.  One closer to downtown, where Leviathan was going.  I couldn’t trust that he was out of harm’s way.

“He’s at or near BZ-6, heading south.”

The area we were entering had been further from the heroes with the forcefields, where waves hadn’t had their impact softened or diverted by the the PHQ’s forcefield or the larger, heavier, blockier structures of the Docks.  Entire neighborhoods had been flattened, reduced to detritus that floated in muddy, murky waters.  Larger buildings, what I suspected might have been part of the local college, were standing but badly damaged. Countless cars sat in the roads and parking lots with water pouring in through shattered windows.

Laserdream changed course, to follow Lord street, the main road that ran through the city and downtown, tracing the line of the bay.

“What are you doing?” I asked her.

“The wreckage goes this way,” she responded.

I looked down.  It was hard to tell, with the damage already done, the water flooding the streets, but I suspected she was right.  One building that looked like it should have stood against the waves thus far was wrecked, and mangled bodies floated around it.  It could have been the tidal wave, but it was just as likely that Leviathan had seen a target and torn through it.

“Maybe, but he might have been faking us out, or he detoured further ahead,” I said.  I pointed southwest.  “That way.”

She gave me a look, I turned my attention to her armband, tried to discern where Leviathan fell on the grid.  Around the same moment I figured it out, I felt him halt.  “BX-8 or very close to it!  He’s downtown, and he just stopped moving.”

“You sure?” came Chevalier’s voice from the armband.

“Ninety-nine percent.”

“Noted.  We’re teleporting forces in.”

Laserdream didn’t argue with me.  We arrived at the scene of the battle a matter of seconds later.  Familiar territory.

I had been near here a little less than two hours ago.  The skeleton of a building in construction was in view, a matter of blocks away, an unlit black against a dark gray sky.  Beneath that, I knew, was Coil’s subterranean base of operations.

Parian had given life to three stuffed animals that lumbered around Leviathan.  A stuffed goat stepped forward, and sidewalk cracked under a hoof of patchwork leather and corduroy.  A bipedal tiger grabbed at an unlit streetlight, unrooted it, and charged Leviathan like a knight with a lance couched in one armpit.  The third, an octopus, ran interference, disrupting Leviathan’s afterimages before they could strike capes and wrapping tentacles around Leviathan’s limbs if he tried to break away.  Parian was gathering more cloth from the other side of a smashed display window, drawing it together into a crude quadruped shape, moving a series of needles and threads through the air in an uncanny unison that reminded me of my control over my spiders.

Leviathan caught the streetlight ‘lance’ and clawed through the tiger’s chest, doing surprisingly little damage considering that it was just fabric.  After three good hits, the tiger deflated explosively.

The octopus and goat grappled Leviathan while Purity blasted him with a crushing beam of light.  By the time he recovered, Parian was inflating the half-created shape in front of her, so it could stumble into the fray.  She turned her attention to repairing the ‘tiger’.

I was curious about her power.  Some sort of telekinesis, with a gimmick?  She had a crapton of fine manipulation with the needles and threads, that much was obvious, but the larger creations she was putting together – whatever she was doing to animate them with telekinesis or whatever, it left them fairly clumsy.  Did her control get worse as she turned her attention to larger things?  Why manipulate cloth and not something stronger, sturdier?

I wondered if she was one of the capes that thought of what she did as being ‘magic’.  Her power was esoteric enough.

A slash of Leviathan’s tail brought down two of the stuffed entities, and Hookwolf tackled him to ensure the Endbringer didn’t get a moment’s respite.  Leviathan caught Hookwolf around the middle with his tail, flecks of blood and flesh spraying from the tail as it circled Hookwolf’s body of skirring, whisking blades.  Leviathan hurled Hookwolf away.

Browbeat saw an opening, stepped in to pound Leviathan in the stomach, strike him in the knee Armsmaster had injured.  Leviathan, arms caught by Parian’s octopus and goat, raised one foot, caught Browbeat around the throat with his clawed toes, and then stomped down sharply.

Browbeat deceased, BW-8.

Leviathan leaned back hard, making Parian’s creations stumble as they maintained their grip, then heaved them forward.  The ‘octopus’ remanied latched on, but the ‘goat’ was sent through the air, a projectile that flew straight for Parian.

Her creation deflated in mid air, but the piles of cloth that it was made of were heavy, and she was swamped by the mass of fabric.  Leviathan darted forward, held only by her octopus, and the afterimage rushed forward to slam into that pile of cloth.

Parian down, BW-8.

All of the ‘stuffed animals’ deflated.

The girl with the crossbow and Shadow Stalker opened fire, joined by Purity from above.   Laserdream dropped me at the fringe of the battlefield with the Halberd before joining them, flying above at an angle opposite Purity’s, firing crimson laser blasts at Leviathan’s head and face.  Leviathan readied to lunge, stopped as a curtain of darkness swept over him, the majority dissipating a second later, leaving only what was necessary to obscure his head.  It took Leviathan a second to realize he could move out of that spot to see again, a delay that earned him another on-target series of shots from our ranged combatants.  Grue was here, somewhere.

It wasn’t much, I didn’t have many bugs gathered here yet, but I was able to pull some together into humanoid forms.  I sent them moving across the battlefield towards Leviathan.  If one of them delayed him a second, drew an attack that would otherwise be meant for someone else, it would be worth the trouble.

I looked around, trying to find Brandish, Chevalier, Assault or Battery, or even someone tough.  Someone that could take the Halberd and make optimal use of it.

One of crossbow-girl’s shots, like a needle several feet in length, speared under the side of Leviathan’s neck, out the top.  Shadow Stalker’s shots, at the same time, failed to penetrate Leviathan’s hard exterior.

“Flechette!  I’m getting closer!” Shadow Stalker called out, looking back at her new partner.

“Careful!” the crossbow-girl – Flechette, I took it – replied, loading another shot.

Shadow Stalker timed her advance with a pounce on Hookwolf’s part.  Empire Eighty-Eight’s most notorious killer latched onto Leviathan’s face and neck, blood spitting around where the storm of shifting metal hooks and blades made contact with flesh.  Shadow Stalker ran within twenty feet of the Endbringer, firing her twin crossbows.  The shots penetrated this time, disappearing into Leviathan’s chest, presumably fading back in while inside him.

Flechette fired a needle through Leviathan’s knee, and the Endbringer’s leg buckled.  He collapsed into a kneeling position, the knee striking the ground.

Leviathan used his claws to heave Hookwolf off his face, tore the metal beast in half, and then threw the pieces down to the ground, hard.  One landed straight on top of Shadow Stalker, the other almost seemed to bounce, rapidly condensing into a roughly humanoid form before it touched the ground again, landing in a crouch.  Hookwolf backed away, the blades drawing together into a human shape, skin appearing as they withdrew.  He brought his hand over his head and pointed forward at Leviathan.  A signal for the next front-liner.

Shadow Stalker down, BW-8.

I didn’t recognize the next cape to charge in to attack.  A heroine in a brown and bronze bodysuit.  She flew in low to the ground, gathered fragments of rock and debris around her body like it was metal and she was the magnet, then went in, pummeling with fists gloved in pavement and concrete.

You could tell, almost right away, the woman didn’t have much training or experience.  She was used to enemies that were too slow to move out of her way, who focused their attention wholly on her.  Leviathan ducked low to the ground, letting the heroine pass over him, then leapt for Flechette.  In the very last fraction of a second, the girl flickered, and was replaced by the brown-suited cape, who took the hit and stumbled back, fragments of rock breaking away.  Flechette dropped out of the sky where the cape had been, landed hard.  It took her a few seconds to recover enough to fire another bolt at Leviathan, strike him in the shoulder.  Trickster had just spared brown-suit from making a fuck-up that got someone killed.

The boy with the metal skin formed one hand into an oversized blade, as long as he was tall, managed a solid hit at Leviathan’s injured knee as the Endbringer whirled around to face Flechette.

Leviathan slapped the teenage hero down, swiped at one of my swarm-people, then was forced down onto all fours as Purity struck him square between the shoulderblades with a column of light.  A metal shelving unit shot from the interior of a store, Ballistic’s power, I was almost positive, and made Leviathan stumble back.

We had the upper hand, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  More than once, in the past hour alone, the Endbringer had demonstrated that any time the fight was going against him, he’d pull out all the stops and do something large scale.  A tidal wave or tearing up the streets.

We did not have what it took to withstand another wave.  No forcefields, no barriers.

I had one of my gathered swarms explode into a mass of flying insects as they got close enough to Leviathan, make their way against the drenching rain to rise up to Leviathan’s face.  Many clustered in the recessed eye sockets that looked like tears or cracks in his hard scaled exterior.  Others crawled into the wounds other capes had made.

Briefly blinded, he shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision.  He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.

He lunged forward, stumbling into and out the other side of the cloud of darkness.  A swipe of his tail batted the metal-skinned boy away.  Another strike dispatched Brandish, who was moving in to attack with a pair of axes that looked as though they were made from lightning.

Brandish down, BW-8

Flechette fired one needle into the center of Leviathan’s face, between each of his four eyes.  It buried itself three quarters deep, speared out the back of his head.

He reared back, as if in slow motion, stumbled a little.  His face pointed to the sky.  He teetered.

Yeah, no.  Much as I’d like to to be, there was no fucking way it was going to be that easy.

That top-heavy body of his toppled forward, and it was only his right claw, slamming down to the pavement, that stopped his face from being driven into the ground.  The impact of his claw striking the ground rumbled past us.

The rumble didn’t stop.

“Run!” I shouted, my cry joining the shouts of others.  I turned, sloshed through the water to get away, not sure where to get away from, or to.

Leviathan and the ground beneath him sank a good ten feet, and water swirled and frothed as it began pouring to fill the depression.  He used his arm to shield himself as Purity fired another blast from above.  As the ground beneath him continued to sink, the water lapped higher and higher around him.

The Endbringer descended, and the area around him quickly became a massive indent, ten, fifteen, thirty, then sixty feet across, ever growing.  The force of the water pouring into the crater began to increase, and the ground underfoot grew increasingly unsteady as cracks spread across it.

I realized with a sudden panic, that I wasn’t making headway against the waves and the ground that was giving way underfoot.  The growing crater was continuing to spread well past me, rising above me as the ground I stood on descended.

“Need help!” I screamed, as water began falling atop me from a higher point, spraying into me with enough force that I began to stumble back, fall.

The ground in front of and above me folded into a massive fissure.  The movement of the cracked sections of road created a torrent of water that washed over me, engulfed me and forced me under.  The impact and pain from the force of the water on my broken arm was enervating, drew most of the fight out of me when I very much needed to be able to struggle, get myself  back above the surface.  I tried to touch bottom, to maybe kick myself back up, but the ground wasn’t there.  Feeling out with the pole of the Halberd, I touched ground, pushed, failed to get anywhere.

A hand seized the pole of the Halberd, heaved me up, changed its grip to my right wrist and pulled me up and free of the waves.

When I blinked my eyes clear of water, Laserdream was above me.  She faced the epicenter of the growing depression in the ground, flying backwards.  Her other hand clung to an unconscious Parian.  It seemed like the two of us were too much for her to carry alone, because she hurried straight for a nearby rooftop, carefully lay Parian down.

We hadn’t set down for more than ten seconds before the building shuddered and began to collapse.  The ground beneath the building cracked and tilted, no doubt because the underlying soil and rock was being drawn away by churning water.  The flooding in the streets was diverted into the deepening bowl-shaped cavity Leviathan was creating, filling it.  It was almost a lake, now, three city blocks across and growing rapidly. Only fragments of the taller buildings in the area stayed above the waves; some buildings were already toppled onto their sides, others half-collapsed and still breaking apart as I watched.  Some capes were climbing out of the water and onto the ruined buildings, with the help of the more mobile capes.  Velocity and Trickster were working in tandem, Velocity running atop the water’s surface to safe ground, trickster swapping him for someone who was floundering, rinse, repeat.

As our footing dropped beneath us, Laserdream reluctantly grabbed at my hand and Parian’s belt, hauled us back up into the air.

Above me, her armband flashed yellow.

“Armband!” I called up to her. “Tidal wave?”

“Can’t see unless I drop you,” she responded, over the dull roar of the waves beneath us.  With a bit of sarcasm and harshness to her tone, she asked me, “Do you want me to drop you?”

Right, I’d kind of messed with her cousins at the bank robbery.  She counted me as an ally, here and now, but she wouldn’t be friendly.

Myrddin and Eidolon moved from the coast to the ‘lake’ in the upper end of Downtown.  I saw and sensed Leviathan leap from the water like a dolphin cresting the waves, moving no less than two hundred feet in the air, toward the pair, lashing out with his afterimage in every direction.

I didn’t see how it turned out, because Laserdream carried Parian and me away.  I could sense the Endbringer through the bugs that had made their way deepest into his wounds, the ones that had found spots where his afterimage couldn’t flush them out each time it manifested.  With my power, I could track him beneath the water.  He was moving so fast that it was almost as though he were teleporting, finding the drowning and executing them.

Scalder deceased, BW-8.  Cloister deceased, BW-8.  The Erudite deceased, BW-8.  Frenetic deceased, BW-8.  Penitent deceased, BW-9.  Smackdown deceased, BX-8.  Strider deceased, BW-8

“Setting down again,” Laserdream said.

“But if there’s a tidal wave-”

“I don’t see one.”

I joined her in looking toward the coast.  The water was as stable as it had been since the fight started.

“If it’s a trick-”

With a little anger in her voice, a hard tone, she spoke, “Either we set down or I drop you.  I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Right.”

She carried me two blocks away from the crater.  The ground was wet, but no longer submerged, the road was torn up, shattered, covered with debris.

Laserdream checked her armband, “It’s one of the shelters.  They sprung a leak, need help evacuating.  I’m going.”

Dad.  It could be my dad.

“Bring me,” I said.

She frowned.

“I know your arms are tired.  Mine is too, and I was just hanging there.  I can’t tell you how thankful I am that you’ve done this much to help me, but we have to stick together, and you can fly low enough to the ground that you can drop me if you have to.”

“Fine, but we’re leaving the doll kid here.”

She laid Parian down in a recessed doorway, then pressed the ‘ping’ button on the girl’s armband.

I held the Halberd out while Laserdream walked around behind me.  She wrapped her arms around my chest and lifted us off.  Uncomfortable, and she was jarring my broken arm, which hurt like a motherfucker, but I couldn’t complain after just having asked to come.

Myrddin down, BX-9.

Laserdream carried us around the edge of the ‘lake’ that was still growing, if not quite so fast as it had been.  I saw others gathered at the edge of the water, forming battle lines where Leviathan might have a clear path to make a run for it. If he wanted to make a run for it.  As it stood, he was entirely in his environment, in the heart of the city, where he could continue to work whatever mojo he needed to bring more tidal waves down on our heads.  To my bug senses, Leviathan was deep beneath the waves, moving rapidly, acting like he was engaged in a fight.  Against Eidolon?  I couldn’t tell.  Every darting, hyperfast movement dislodged a few bugs, made him harder to detect.

The shelter was set beneath a smallish library.  A concrete stairwell beside the building led belowground to the twenty-foot wide vault door.  Fragments of the building and the ledge overhanging the stairwell had fallen, blocked the door from opening fully.  Making matters worse, the door was stuck in a partially ajar position, and the stairwell was flooded with water, which ran steadily into the shelter.  Two capes were already present, shoulder deep in the water, ducking below to grab stones and rising again to heave them out.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, as Laserdream set us down, I immediatelly sent out a call to summon bugs to my location, just to be safe.  “Do we want to shut the door or open it?”

“Open it,” one of the capes in the water said.  He ducked down, grabbed a rock, hauled it out with a grunt.  “We don’t know what condition they’re in, inside.”

Laserdream stepped forward and began blasting with her laser, penetrating the water and breaking up the larger rocks at the base of the door.

I was very nearly useless here.  With one hand, I couldn’t clear the rubble, and my power wasn’t any use.  There weren’t even many crabs or other crustaceans I could employ in the water around us, and the ones that did exist were small.

Then I remembered the Halberd.

“Hey,” I stopped one of the capes that was heaving rocks out of the stairwell, “Use this.”

“As a shovel?” he looked skeptical.

“Just try it, only… don’t touch the blade.”

He nodded, took the Halberd, and ducked beneath the water.  Ten seconds later, he raised his head, “Holy shit.  This works.”

“Use it on the door?” I suggested.  He gave me a curt nod.

Enemy location unknown, I could hear the cape’s armband announce.  Defensive perimeter, report.

There was a pause.

No reports.  Location unknown.  Exert caution.

“I’m going to try cutting the door off,” the cape spoke.  He descended beneath the water.  I could barely make out his silhouette.  Laserdream ceased firing as he made his way to where the heavy metal door was, stepped around and set to burning long channels in the side of the stairwell.  I realized it was intended to give the water in the stairwell somewhere to flow that wasn’t towards the people inside.

The door tipped into the stairwell and came to rest against the opposite wall, resting at a forty-five degree angle, sloping up toward the railing.  The water in the stairwell flowed inside, an unfortunate consequence.  The cape with the Halberd set to using the blur of the Halberd to to cut lines into the back of the door and to remove the railing, so there was sufficient traction for people walking up and out of the door.

I stepped down to investigate, sent a few bugs in to get the lay of the land.  The interior of the shelter was surprisingly like what Coil’s headquarters had been like, concrete walls with metal walkways and multiple levels.  There were water coolers and a set of freezers, bathrooms and a sectioned off first aid area.

It was clear that one of the waves or Leviathan’s creation of that massive sinkhole in downtown had done some damage to the shelter.  Water was pouring in from a far wall and from the front door, and twenty or so people were in the first aid bay on cots, injured and bloody.  A team of about fifty or sixty people were moving sandbags to reduce the flow of water into the chamber from the cracked back wall.  A second, smaller team was blocking off the room with the cots, piling sandbags in the doorway.  In the main area, people stood nearly waist deep in water.

“Everyone out!” Laserdream called out.

Relief was clear on people’s faces as they began wading en masse toward the front doors.

My dad was taller than average, and I hoped to be able to make him out, see if he was in the crowd.  As the group gravitated toward the doorway, however, I lost the ability to peer over the mass of people.  I didn’t see him.

I hung back as people filed out in twos and threes.  Mothers and fathers holding their kids, who otherwise wouldn’t be tall enough to stay above water, people still in pajamas or bathrobes, people holding their dogs above water or with cats on their shoulders.  They marched against the flow of water from the stairwell, up the back of the vault door and onto the street.

Mr. Gladly was near the back of the crowd, with a blond woman that was taller than him, holding his hand.  It bugged me, in a way I couldn’t explain.  It was like I felt he didn’t deserve a girlfriend or wife.  But that wasn’t exactly it.  It was like this woman was somone who maybe liked him, heard his side of things, validated his self-perception of being this excellent, ‘cool’ teacher.  A part of me wanted to explain to that woman that he wasn’t, that he was the worst sort of teacher, who helped the kids who already had it easy, and dropped the fucking ball when it came to those of us who needed it.

It was surprising how much that chance meeting bugged me.

A shriek startled me out of my contemplations.  It was quickly followed by a dozen other screams of mortal terror.

Impel deceased, CB-10Apotheosis deceased, CB-10.

I felt him arrive, a small few bugs still inside him, though most of the rest had been washed away in his swim.  There were so few I’d missed his approach.

Leviathan.

People ran back inside the shelter, screamed and pushed, trampled one another.  I was forced into the corner by the door as they ran into the shelter, tried to make some distance between themselves and the Endbringer.

Laserdream down, CB-10.

And he was there, climbing through the vaultlike door, so large he barely fit.  One claw on either side, he pushed his way through.  Stood as tall as he could inside the front door, looking over the crowd.  Hundreds of people were within, captive, helpless.

A lash of his tail struck down a dozen people in front of him.  The afterimage struck down a dozen more.

No death notice from the armband for civilians.

Leviathan took a step forward, putting me behind him and just to his right.  He lashed his tail again.  Another dozen or two dozen civilians slain.

Mr. Gladly’s girlfriend was screaming, burying her face in his shoulder.  Mr. Gladly stared up at Leviathan, wide eyed, his lips pressed together in a line, oddly red faced.

I didn’t care.  I should feel bad my teacher was about to die, but all I could think about was how he’d ignored me when Emma and the others had had me cornered.

One hand on my shoulder to steady my throbbing broken arm, I slipped behind Leviathan, hugging the wall, slipping around the corner and moving up the vault door with padded feet.

It was a dark mirror to what Mr. Gladly had done to me.  What Emma and her friends had done, I couldn’t say for sure that I would have had the mental fortitude to put up with it if I hadn’t gotten my powers – and for all he knew, I hadn’t.  I couldn’t know whether I could have dealt with everything that had followed the incident in January, if I could have made it this far if I hadn’t had my powers, these distractions.  In every way that mattered, Mr. Gladly turning his back on me, back there in the school hallway, a time that felt so long ago, could have killed me.

A fitting justice, maybe, leaving him in that shelter with Leviathan.

I saw Laserdream lying face down in the water, bent down and turned her over with my good hand and one foot, checked she was breathing.

The two capes, who I took to be Impel and Apotheosis, were torn into pieces.  I ran past them.  Ran past the civilians who Leviathan had struck down, ripped apart.

I stopped, when I found the Halberd, picked it up.  Found Impel’s armband, bent down and pressed the buttons to open communications, “Leviathan’s at the shelter in CB-10.  Need reinforcements fast.”

Chevalier replied, “Shit.  He must have gone through some storm drain or sewer.  Our best teleporter’s dead, but we’ll do what we can.”

Which left me only one thing to do.  I had to be better than Mr. Gladly.

I ran past Impel and Apotheosis, passed Laserdream, and reached the shelter’s entrance once more.

Leviathan was further inside, crouched, his back to me.  His tail lashed in front of him.  Terrified screams echoed from within.

It was agonizing to do it, but I moved slowly, to minimize the noise I made, even as every second allowed Leviathan more time to tear into the crowd.  To move too fast would alert him, waste any opportunity I had here.  A backwards movement of Leviathan’s tail arced through the air, fell atop me, forcing me down into the water.  Gallons of cold water dropping down from ten feet above me.

I swallowed the scream, the grunting of pain that threatened to escape my throat, stood again, slowly.

With only one hand, I didn’t have the leverage to really swing the Halberd.  I had to hold it towards the top, near the blade, which meant having less reach, having to get closer.

When I was close enough, I drew the blade back and raked it just below the base of his tail.  Where his asshole would be if he had human anatomy.  Easiest place for me to reach, with him crouched down like he was.

Dust billowed and Leviathan reacted instantly, swiped with one claw, fell onto his side when the damage to his buttocks and the hampered mobility of his tail screwed with his ability to control the movement of his lower body.  His claw swipe went high.  His afterimage was broken up by the the wall above the door, but enough crashed down in front of and on top of me to throw me back out of the shelter, into the toppled shelter door.  I was pushed under the water, the Halberd slipping from my grip.

I climbed to my feet at the same time he did, but I had a clear route up the back of the shelter door while he had to squeeze through the opening.  I was on the street and running well before he was up out of the stairwell.

I gathered my bugs to me, sent some to him, to better track his movements.  As he climbed up, I gathered the swarms into decoys that looked human-ish, sent them all moving in different directions, gathered more around myself to match them in appearance.

With the effects of my slash of the Halberd combined with the damage Armsmaster had already done, Leviathan didn’t have the mobility with his tail he otherwise would.  When he attacked my decoys, he did it with slashes of his claw and pouncing leaps that sent out afterimages to crash into them.  A swipe of the claw’s echo to disperse one swarm to his left, a lunge to destroy one in front of him.  Another afterimage of a claw swipe sent out to strike at me.

Water crashed into me, hard as concrete, fast as a speeding car.  I felt more pain than I’d ever experienced, more than when Bakuda had used that grenade on me, the one that set my nerve endings on fire with raw pain.  It was brief, somehow more real than what Bakuda had inflicted on me.  Struck me like a lightning flash.

I plunged face first into the water.  My good arm on its own wasn’t enough to turn me over – the road just a little too far below me.  I tried to use my legs to help turn myself over.  Zero response.

I’d either been torn in two and couldn’t feel the pain yet or, more likely, I’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

Oh.

Not like I really should’ve expected any different.  Neither case was much better than the other, as far as I was concerned.

My breath had been knocked out of me at the impact, but some primal, instinctual part of me had let me hold my breath.  I lay there, face down in two or three feet of water, counting the seconds until I couldn’t hold my breath any more, until my body opened my mouth and I heaved in a breath with that same instinctual need for preservation, filled my lungs with water instead.

The lenses of my mask were actually swim goggles, it was a strange recollection to cross my mind.  I’d bought them from a sports supply store, buying the useless chalk dust at the same time.  Durable, high end, meant for underwater cave spelunkers, if I remembered the picture on the packaging right.  Tinted to help filter out bright lights, to avoid being blinded by any fellow swimmer’s headlamps.  I’d fitted the lenses from an old pair of glasses inside, sealed them in place with silicon at the edges, so I had 20/20 vision while I had my mask on without having to wear glasses beneath or over it, or contact lenses, which irritated my eyes.  I’d built the armor of my mask around the edges of the goggles so the actual nature of the lenses wasn’t immediately apparent, and to hold them firmly in place.

Even so, when I opened my eyes, looked through those lenses for their original purpose, all I could see was mud, grit, silt.  Black and dark brown, with only the faintest traces of light.  It disappointed me on a profound level, knowing that this might be the last thing I ever saw.  Disappointed me more than the idea of dying here, odd as that was.

Through my power, I sensed Leviathan turn, take a step back toward the shelter, stop.  His entire upper body turned so he could peer to his left with his head, turned the opposite way to peer right.  Like a dog sniffing.

He dropped to all fours, ran away, a loping gait, not the lightning fast movement he’d sported when he first attacked.  Still fast enough.

My chest lurched in a sob for air, like a dry heave.  I managed to keep from opening my mouth but the action, the clenching of every muscle above my shoulders, left my throat aching.

Two seconds later, it hit me again harder.

Two blocks away, Leviathan crashed down into the water.

Another lurch of my throat and chest, painful.  My mouth opened, water filled my mouth, and my throat locked up to prevent the inhalation of water.  I spat the water out, forced it out of my mouth, for all the good it would do.

I’d left the fat cape to die like this when the wave was coming.  Was this karma?

Something splashed near me.  A footstep.

I was hauled out of the water.  I felt a lancing pain through my midsection, like a hot iron, gasped, sputtered.  Through the beads of water on my lenses, I couldn’t make out much.

Bitch, I realized.  She wasn’t looking at me.  Her face was etched deep with pain, fury, fear, sheer viciousness, or some combination of the four.

I followed her gaze, blinked twice.

Her dogs were attacking Leviathan, and Leviathan was attacking back.  He hurled two away, three more leapt in.

How many dogs?

Leviathan pulled away, only for a dog to snag his arm, drag him off balance.  Another latched on to his elbow, while a third and fourth pounced onto his back, tearing into his spine.  More crouched and circled around him, looking for opportunities and places to bite.

He clubbed one away with a crude movement of his tail, used his free claw to grab it by the throat, tear a chunk of flesh away.  The dog perished in a matter of seconds.

Bitch howled, a primal, raw sound that must have hurt her throat as much as it hurt to listen to.  She moved forward, pulling me with her, lifting me up.  When I sagged, she gave me a startled look.

I looked down.  My legs were there, but there was no sensation.  Numb wasn’t a complete enough term to explain it.

“Back’s broken, I think,” the words were weak.  The calm tone of the words was eerie, even coming from my own mouth to my own ears.  Disconcertingly out of place with the frenzied, savage tableau.

Leviathan wheeled around, grabbed another dog by one shoulder, dug a claw into the dog’s ribcage and cracked  it open, the ribs splaying apart like the wings of some macabre bird, heart and lungs exposed.  The animal dropped dead to the water’s surface at Leviathan’s feet.

Bitch looked from me to the dog, as if momentarily lost.  In an instant, that look disappeared, replaced by that etching of rage and fury.  She screeched the words, “Kill him!  Kill!”

It wasn’t enough.  The dogs were strong, there were six of them left, even, but Leviathan was more of a monster than all of them put together.

He heaved one dog off the ground, slammed it into another like a club, then hurled it against a wall, where it dropped, limp and broken.

With that same claw, he slashed, tore the upper half of a dog’s head off.

“Kill!” Bitch shrieked.

No use.  One by one, the dogs fell.  Four left, then three.  Two dogs left.  They backed away, wary, each in a different direction.

Bitch clutched me, her arms so tight around my shoulders it hurt.  When I looked up at her, I saw tears in the corners of her eyes as she stared unblinking at the scene.

Scion dropped from the sky.  Golden skinned, golden beard trimmed close, or perhaps it never grew beyond that length.  His hair was longer than mine.  His bodysuit and cape were a plain white, stained with faded marks of old, dirt and blood, a strange juxtaposition to how perfect and unblemished he looked, otherwise.  There was no impact as he landed, no great splash or rumble of the earth.  Leviathan didn’t even seem to notice the hero’s arrival.

Leviathan struck at one of the remaining dogs with a broad swing of his tail, caught it across the snout.  It dropped, neck snapped.  A short leap and a slash of the claw dispatched the last.

Scion raised one hand, and a ball of yellow-gold light slammed into Leviathan from behind, sent the Endbringer skidding across the length of the street, past Bitch and I.

Leviathan leaped to his feet, reared around, swung his claws at the air ferociously.  Water around him rose, rushed towards Scion, a wave three times as high as Bitch was tall.  Three times as tall as I might be if I could stand.

Scion didn’t move or speak.  He walked forward, and ripples extended from his footsteps, soared past us with some strange motive force.  The ripple touched the wave, and the tower of water collapsed before it got halfway to us, dropping straight down.  Liquid as far as the eye could see was being flattened out into a disquieting stillness by the ripples of Scion’s footsteps, like a great pane of glass.

Leviathan lunged up to the side of a half-ruined building, leaped down to a point three-quarters of the way between himself and Scion.  His afterimage slammed into the hero.

Scion turned his head, shut his eyes, let the water wash over and past him.  When the attack was over, he squared his head and shoulders, facing Leviathan head on, raised a hand.

Another blast of yellow-gold light, and Leviathan was sent sprawling.

I saw the ripples and waves of Leviathan striking the ground wash past us.  Saw, again, how the ripple of Scion’s footstep seemed to wipe out and override that disturbance, returning the water to a perfect flatness.

Leviathan grabbed a car, twisted his entire upper body to toss it in the style of an olympic hammer-throw.  The car hurtled through the air, and Scion batted it aside with the back of one hand.  The vehicle virtually detonated with the impact, falling into a thousand pieces, each piece glowing with golden-yellow light, disintegrating as they splashed into the water.

Scion raised one hand, and there was a brilliant flash, too bright to look through.

When the spots faded from my vision, I saw that one of the damaged buildings was emanating that same light the pieces of the car had, was toppling, tipping towards Leviathan.  Scion, fingertips glowing, started his slow advance as the structure was pulled atop the Endbringer.  The ripples of his footsteps erased any disturbance in the water from the building’s collapse

Leviathan heaved himself out of the rubble, turned to run, only for water to rise and freeze solid in one smooth movement, forming a wall as tall as Leviathan was, a hundred feet long.  He paused for a fraction of a second, to gauge which way he might go, poise himself to leap over.  Scion caught him with another golden-yellow blast before he could follow through.

The movement of the water and the creation of the ice hadn’t been Scion.  Eidolon approached, flying close, raising one hand to create a ragged mess of icicles where Leviathan was to land.  Some impaled the Endbringer, but by and large, they shattered beneath him, left him scrabbling for traction and footing for long enough that Scion could shoot him again, send him through the barrier of ice as though it were barely there, tumbling.

Scion paused, turning to look at Eidolon, his eyes moving past Bitch and me like we weren’t even there.  His eyes settled on the hero, the most powerful individual in the world staring at the man who was arguably the fifth.

His expression was so hard to read.  I knew, now, what people had meant, when they said they thought his face was a mask, a facade.  Though it was expressionless, though there was nothing I could point to to explain why I felt the way I did, somehow I sensed disgust from him.  Like nobility looking at dog shit.

Scion turned away from Eidolon to focus on the enemy once more.  He blasted the Endbringer again.  Floated up and moved past Bitch and me faster than I could see, to strike the Endbringer a fraction of a second after the blast of light struck, stopping there in midair to blast Leviathan a second time as the Endbringer was still flying through the air at the punch’s impact.  Everything about Scion and his actions was utterly silent. His movements or attacks didn’t even stir the air.  Only the effects, Leviathan striking the water, the breaking of ice, generated any movement, shudders or sounds.

Eidolon froze the water around Leviathan’s four claws, giving Scion the opportunity to land another blast.  Leviathan turned, raised a spraying wall of water to cover his retreat.  Scion sent out one blast of his golden light to strike the wave, following up with a second blast before the first even made contact with the water.

Seeing the second blast coming, Leviathan leaped to one side.  No use – the blast of light curved in the air to head unerringly for him, struck him down.  Edges of the Endbringer’s wounds glowed golden yellow, drifted away into the air like flecks of burning paper caught in the updraft of hot air.  A fist imprint near the base of Leviathan’s throat glowed with edges of the same light, the wound continuing to spread and burn as I watched.

A tidal wave appeared in the distance, at the furthest end of the street, near the horizon.

Scion sent out a blast of golden light the size of a small van, darting to the center of the wave, disappearing into a speck of light before it made contact with the distant target.  The middle third of the wave buckled, fell harmlessly into a splash of water, all momentum ceased.  The other two sides of the wave curved inward, bent, to bear unerringly towards us.

Another blast of golden light, and one side was stopped, stalled.  A third blast was spared for Leviathan, who was getting his hands and feet firmly on the ground, crouching in preparation to run.  The Endbringer was knocked squarely to the ground.

Scion stopped the third wave in its tracks with a fourth blast, but the water was still there, and it still bowed to gravity.  The water level around us rose by a dozen feet, momentarily, slopping as gently over us as physically possible, like a lap of water on the beach.

When the flow of water was past us, I could see a fifth blast of light following Leviathan, who had used the cresting water to swim away.  He was making his way to the coast.  Scion rose, flew after his target with a streak of golden light tracing his movement.  Eidolon followed soon after.

Ten, fifteen seconds passed, Bitch holding me, averting her eyes from the corpses of her dogs, jaw set, not speaking or moving.

A teleporter appeared beside Laserdream, a distance away.  He looked at us, startled, glanced at his armband.

“You okay?” he called out.

“No,” I tried to shout back, but my voice was weak.  Bitch spoke for me, “She needs help.”

“Bring her here, I’ll take her back.”

Bitch carried me, dragging me by my collar to where Laserdream lay.  I grunted and groaned in pain, felt those hot pokers through my upper back and middle, but she wasn’t the type for sympathy or gentleness.

The teleporter touched one hand to my chest, another to Laserdream, who turned her head to look at me.

There was a rush of cool air, and we were in the midst of chaos.  Nurses, doctors, moving all around us.  I was lifted and placed on a stretcher, hauled up by four people in white.  There were shouts, countless electronic beeps, screams of pain.

I was placed on a bed.  I would have writhed with the pain of being shifted if it weren’t for my general inability to move.  There was a heart monitor on one side, a metal rack with an IV bag of clear fluid on the other, thick metal poles beside each, stretching from floor to ceiling.  Curtains loomed on either side of me, making for a small room, ten feet by ten feet across. The emergency room, triage or whatever was in front of me, past the foot of the bed, a dozen more cots, doctors doing what they could for the massed injured, civilian and cape alike.

All around me, nurses moved with a rote efficiency, to put a clip on my finger, and the heart monitor started beeping in time with my own heartbeat.  One put some sticky glue on my collarbone, pressing an electrode down there.

“My back, I think it’s broken,” I said, to no one in particular.  Nobody in particular replied.  All of them too busy with set tasks.  People seemed to approach my bedside and leave to go attend to another patient elsewhere.

“Your name?” someone asked.

I looked to the other side of me.  It was an older woman in a nurse’s uniform, pear shaped, gray haired.  A man in a PRT uniform stood behind her, holding a gun on me.

“Skitter,” I replied, confused, feeling more scared by the second.  “Please.  I think my back’s broken.”

“Villain?”

I shook my head.  “What?”

“Are you a villain?”

“It’s complicated. My back-”

“Yes or no?” the Nurse asked me, stern.

“Listen, my friend, Tattletale, do you know-”

“She’s a villain,” the PRT uniform cut me off, touching his way through some blackberry device with his free hand.  “Designation Master-5, specifically arthropodovoyance, arthropodokinesis.  No super strength.”

The nurse nodded, “Thank you.  Handle it?”

The man in a PRT uniform holstered his gun and stepped up to the bed.  He grabbed my right wrist, clasped a heavy manacle around it, fixed it to a vertical metal pole by the head of the bed.

“My other arm’s broken, please don’t move it,” I pleaded.

He gripped it anyways, and I couldn’t help but scream, strangled, as he pulled it to one side, clasped a manacle down on my wrist, hooked the other side of the manacle to the second pole.

“What-” I started to ask a nurse, as I forced myself to catch my breath, stopped as she turned her back to me and pulled the curtain closed at the foot of the bed, walked past it.

“Please-” I tried again, looking to the PRT uniform, but he was pushing his way past the curtain, leaving my company.

Leaving me chained up.  Alone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Extermination 8.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I got my orders and left behind a bizarre scene where Armsmaster was working hand in hand with Kaiser, of all people.  Kaiser worked to build the same sort of trap that he’d imprisoned Lung in, some time ago, creating bars of metal between and around each of Leviathan’s limbs, a cage tight to the body.  Rune and another telekinetic were working to bend the metal from Kaiser’s shaken barrier around Leviathan’s limbs and face.

It wouldn’t last.  Leviathan was too big, his tail extended a long distance behind him, and it was thin and supple enough to slip through almost any barrier Kaiser could erect, strong enough that it could bend metal.  Leviathan would get free, there could be no illusions on that front.

While Kaiser worked, Armsmaster was simultaneously ensuring that he could maximize the damage delivered the second Leviathan moved again.  Gingerly, he worked with the grenades the Protectorate had liberated from Bakuda, the same explosives Miss Militia had been firing at Leviathan, and hooked them up as motion activated or proximity mines.  A complicated affair, I imagined, when your target could start moving any second, and when you couldn’t fully know or understand what the individual bombs did.

In the end, though, it was still our best bet to do one final measure of damage against Leviathan before he was free to wreak havoc once more.

There were a little more than fifty of us left.  Hookwolf, Fenja, Menja, Genesis, Aegis and Manpower were among the fifteen or so standing combatants that remained and were able to go toe to toe with Leviathan.  Parian, the girl in the doll costume, had formed some massive stuffed animals – a lion and a pig that stood as tall as Leviathan’s shoulder.  Tougher than they looked, according to her.  I had my doubts.  I mean, it wasn’t just that they were stuffed animals, but according to Parian, this was her first fight.

Too many others were capable of delivering the hurt, but were too fragile: Browbeat, Shadow Stalker, Lady Photon, Purity, Laserdream, Brandish and others I didn’t know.  The Ward with the crossbow, some guy with crimson skin.  There was a light show in the sky above as Kid Win teleported in pieces of the cannon he’d had at the bank robbery, manifesting them onto a hovering platform set directly in front of Leviathan.  He’d get anywhere from a few seconds to a minute’s worth of concentrated fire with the gun firing on the highest settings, directing a beam through a gap in the bars to where Narwhal’s razor sharp forcefield had opened a gap in Leviathan’s neck.

Beyond those first few moments after Leviathan woke up, it woul be anyone’s guess.

I hurried away from the site Armsmaster had indicated to me, my right hand on my left elbow, keeping my arm from moving too much.  Sector CC-7, a block and a half South, a block West.  So strange, to think that this was an area I’d walked through a dozen times, on my way to or from the Loft.  Now I was looking at it as a battlefield, trying to figure out what routes Leviathan would take.  What things I had to watch out for – the grates leading down to the storm sewers, the rain barrel on top of one of the buildings that might or might not be intact enough to retain any water in it.  Puddles.

Stuff I could use…  hardly.

It wasn’t like there was any weapon I could deploy, no feature of the terrain I could use to deliver the critical blow.  This was Leviathan.  A creature that had killed more people in the last 12 years than I had even seen in my entire life.  Seen in person, anyways.

I was scared.  A huge part of me wanted to just close my eyes and hope Leviathan didn’t come, that I wouldn’t have to deal with him.  It would be nice to join the three hundred and fifty thousand other Brockton Bay residents that were trusting the heroes to handle things, find a peace of sorts in surrender and helplessness.  Except I couldn’t.  I’d seen firsthand how Leviathan had taken down some of the strongest capes.  I couldn’t find refuge in that kind of trust anymore.  My mental and emotional resources were better spent on figuring out how to help than they were on hope.

I was hurting, too.  The only thing keeping the throb of my arm from consuming my attention was the fear.  It was a kind of grim cycle:  the pain reminded me of why I should be scared, but the emotion and the adrenaline kept the pain as this intensely unpleasant background chatter in my brain, where it might have crippled me otherwise.  It was a teetering balance that had me on edge in a way I’d never experienced to this degree.  There were probably people who lived for that hypervigilant, heart-racing, brain-going-in-overtime experience.  I wasn’t one of them.

Priorities.  Back to what I was thinking about – there obviously wasn’t anything to be found here that would win me a fight against Leviathan or even hurt him.  Ridiculous to think that way.  Any advantages to be gained would be ones that kept me alive.

I wiped the beads of water from my lenses with my glove, which only seemed to divide each of them into a mess of smaller droplets.  Leviathan was bigger than me, stronger, faster, tougher.  I had to think like a mouse who might run into a murderous cat at any moment.  Like prey.  Use my small size.  Hide.  I needed a position that kept me out of sight, gave me a good vantage point, but left me free to make a run for it.  A spot where I had an escape route if things got bad.  To top it off, in the event Eidolon couldn’t stop the wave, I could also do with cover.

It was the sort of street you saw often enough in the Docks.  Large buildings lined either side, like giant boxes made of concrete or brick.  I could have maybe found a fire escape to climb up, in the hopes that I’d be out of reach of the wave, but my experience with Lung back on day one had taught me better.  The higher ground was an advantage, sure, but if your opponent could get up or down from that location faster and more easily than you could, that stopped being an asset really damn quickly.  If there was anything that was going to be useful, it would be on ground level.  I saw a rusted van that had sat in front of an old workshop since I’d first passed through this area, all tires flat, windows broken, interior gutted.  A chain link fence stretched between two buildings, but someone had cut the wires that connected the fence to the frame, so half of it was curled back and waving slightly in the wind and rain.

No, those things weren’t useful.  Larger scale?  There was an old roof supported by two pillars, attached on one side to a building, a carport, perhaps.  The roof was mostly intact, corrugated steel with a smallish hole in one lower corner, which meant the area beneath it was largely dry, but for a small puddle.  It was also exposed on three sides, which meant I couldn’t stay there.  My bugs could.  It was a place they could keep dry until I needed them.

I’d been acutely aware of my bugs since the battle started, and for the second time I could remember, I found my power was responding far more effectively as I called for them.  My reach extended further, my bugs were fractionally more responsive.  The last time this had been the case, it had been when I teamed up with Bitch, Sundancer and Newter and wound up fighting Oni Lee and Lung.  I couldn’t explain it, but I wasn’t going to complain.  I needed every small advantage I could get.

As they began gathering under the carport, my mind returned to that notion of being successful ‘prey’.

When I’d originally designed my costume, I’d picked the darker colors, made sure that the varieties of chitin I used to make the armor were spaced out so the individual shading would retain some ‘speckling’ after being painted, all for a reason.  Camouflage.  I’d known I’d have my bugs all around me.  I’d known I would be standing in the midst of them while they gathered into swarms, would have them crawling on me from time to time.  So I’d picked darker colors and made my armor mottled to blend in with the bugs that were, obviously, specks.

Just hiding inside my swarm wouldn’t be enough.  Too easy for him to attack just the one cluster, tear through me.

So I gathered more than one smaller swarm, clustering them in areas where it was dry.  The interior of the rusted van, under eaves, in doorframes and on a roof, under a large rain barrel.

Then, struck by a little inspiration, I condensed the nine swarms into human-ish shapes.  Black silhouettes crouched, stood tall with arms akimbo, leaned against walls, leaned partially outside the driver’s side window of the van.  In the gloom, through the rain, it was deceptive.  Deceptive enough?  I couldn’t be sure.

I felt the bite of cold air.  A chill breeze, going straight through the soaked fabric of my costume.  When I looked down to where the long road sloped to the edge of the water, I saw the reason for the chill.  Eidolon was flying at the coast, focusing blue rays on the water around the shattered boardwalk and debris at the water’s edge, hardening the waves into irregular sheets and glacier-like formations of ice.

Dangerous.  I could remember seeing on TV that they’d tried something like this a few years ago.  A Tinker using an ice engine, I think.  I didn’t know exactly how or why, but judging by the fact that they hadn’t used the tactic again, I got the impression It had turned out really badly.

My guess was based on the notion that hydrokinesis was the movement of water, and ice was just water in another form.  It wasn’t that Leviathan would levitate the chunks of ice.  Nothing so blatant.  Rather, when a tidal wave did break through the ice, rolled up onto the battlefield with frozen shards and chunks caught up in the current, Leviathan might move those chunks a little faster in the wave’s passage, make them hit a little harder, and give them a tendency to strike where they could do the most damage.

That was my suspicion, anyways.  The heroes didn’t exactly dish out the full details at press conferences, afterward, so I could only make an educated guess.

Either way, it was a delaying tactic.  Holding off the damage, in the hopes that we could end this or get reinforcements before Brockton Bay became another Newfoundland.

We were hoping for Scion.  The first cape, the golden skinned man.  The guy that could go toe to toe with an Endbringer and win, if things hadn’t already gone too far south.  If Behemoth hadn’t already turned the area into a radioactive, magma-ridden wasteland.  If Leviathan hadn’t built up enough momentum with his waves.  If the Simurgh… Ok, the Simurgh was different, I had to admit.  The issue with her wasn’t so much winning the battle.  It was what came after.  Win every battle against her, lose the war, more or less.

The problem with waiting on Scion was that the guy wasn’t exactly in touch with the rest of us.  There was speculation he had at least one human contact – someone that had given him clothing and a costume, at least – but he never bothered to stop long enough for anyone to pass on any requests, to tell him to go to X place when we gave him Y signal.  He rescued people twenty-four-seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year, handling crises only as they came to his attention, which meant that sometimes an Endbringer came and Scion was wholly occupied with saving sinking ships, stopping landslides and putting out housefires.  I wondered what he was doing now.

My swarms were in place, which left me having to decide where to hide.  The carport was too in the open, none of the eaves left me a good enough escape route, and as for the space under the rain barrel on the roof, well, I wasn’t that stupid, and I’d already dismissed the roof as an option anyways.

I started toward the rusted van.  I was halfway there when I reconsidered.  As comforting as it might be to have the safety of metal around me and to be more or less concealed, it posed some of the same problems as the rooftops.  If things turned sour or if an unexpected situation arose, I’d be trapped.

After a moment of tense consideration, I reluctantly decided on the carport, hunkering down in the gloom and hoping the shadows there would help conceal me.  It offered me an escape route – around the back of the building, or through the side door, it gave me cover from the rain and any debris, and it gave me concealment.  I’d have to cope with the lack of cover from any incoming waves or Leviathan himself.

Secure in the amount of bugs around me, I collected the ones that could go out in the rain and manage reasonably well.  Primarily roaches.  I sent them out in the general direction of where Leviathan and the others were.  The better a sense I had of any imminent encounters, the better I could react.

Manpower deceased, CD-6.  Aegis deceased, CD-6, my armband spoke, at the same moment my bugs reached the area around where Leviathan had been.

He was awake again.

Aegis would have been covering an aerial route, keeping Leviathan from heading to the rooftops, which meant Leviathan went up.  I had the mass of roaches ascend, trying to get a sense of his location.  I tried to use my armband to help gauge the direction he was traveling, but since I couldn’t move my arm, it was difficult at best.

Fenja down, CC-6.  My head snapped up.

I found them.  Fenja and Menja were duking it out with Leviathan.  Both were nearly as big as he was, which was saying a fair bit.  I knew their power warped geometry to make them bigger, simultaneously reduced the effective size of incoming attacks by an inversely proportionate amount.  Six times as tall and a sixth of the hurt, on top of the benefits of being bigger.

Fenja deceased, CC-6.

It wasn’t doing them a lot of good.  Not Fenja, anyways.

I saw a light as Kid Win rose above the level of the buildings, fired a painfully bright beam down at the EndbringerAfter the laser petered out, he rose up higher again, to keep out of reach.  He was in the middle of firing another beam when the laser flicked around nearly three hundred and sixty degrees, spun by a massive impact.

Kid win down, CC-6.

And then Leviathan was in view, entering the same street I was on.  As if to herald his coming, a massive wave crashed hard against the barrier of ice Eidolon had erected around the wrecked Boardwalk, the spray seemingly reaching nearly to the stormclouds above.

One shoulder was bloated, five times the normal size, twisted, like it was covered in elephantine tumors, bleeding openly.  He was injured in other places, had a hole through the side of his stomach, a larger blackened wound at the base of his neck, and a fifth of his face was missing, torn off below the cheekbone.  He didn’t seem to be suffering much.  He held Kaiser’s upper torso in the one claw, tossed it casually to one side.  The man’s legs were nowhere to be seen.

Wait, what?  I hadn’t heard the report on Kaiser’s death.  I checked my armband, where my arm hung immobile at my side.

It was dead, offline.  Black screen.

I didn’t have another second to worry – Leviathan was extending one claw in my general direction.

The water that had pooled shallowly beneath the carport trickled his way, as if it were moving downhill, gathered in a rising bulge of water on the street in front of the carport, swelling to five feet in height, fifteen feet across.

Unsure what to do, I remained absolutely still.

A movement of his claw, and the bulge broke, spilled to one side as an onrushing wave.  It swept beneath the rusted van, suddenly rose to heave the vehicle in Leviathan’s direction.  The van rolled once, skidding toward the Endbringer, threatening to strike one leg out from under him.  He stopped it by punching it through the roof, into the front end of the van.  He stabbed the other claw through at the same point, tore the van into two halves that he tossed to either side of him.

A flick of his tail, and he sent a blade of water slashing through the air at the rain barrel, slicing through the swarm and stilts.  The barrel crashed to the rooftop, and water cascaded out.  A twisting movement of his claw, and that cascade of water flowed off the roof in a small, controlled wave, moving like a speeding car, straight towards the carport on the other side of the street, toward me.

I caught a glimpse of Leviathan rearing back in reaction to something as I legged it, left my swarm behind as I ran perpendicular to the wave’s direction, away from Leviathan.  I leaped as I felt it make contact with the swarm, felt it slam into my legs a fraction of a second after.

I’d cleared enough ground that the angle of the hit didn’t throw me straight into the side of the building.  I was thrown a distance, rolled on my side, on top of and over my probably-broken arm.

Pain consumed me.  I writhed, my good hand pressing on my bad arm.  I gagged, pulled my mask up to throw up, as if my body was trying to find some way to rebel against the pain.  I tried to climb to my feet, but I was too weak, dizzy, and my good arm gave out.  I landed face first in dirty water.

I had no idea how long it took me to pull myself together.  It could have been two minutes, it could have been ten seconds.  I managed to climb to my feet.  Stumble back toward the carport, staying to the shadows.

As I approached the corner of the building, I saw Armsmaster fighting toe to toe with Leviathan, a Halberd in each hand.  One was similar to the one he’d used the night we attacked the fundraiser, capable of unfolding into a grappling hook, the other was simpler, a dull stainless steel from tip to butt end, with no decoration or style to it.  The head was surrounded by a strange blur that seemed static, unmoving around the blade and point.

Leviathan slapped his tail at Armsmaster’s legs, and Armsmaster leaped over it, swiped out with the blurry Halberd.  It carved a chunk out of Leviathan, left a cloud of dust that the rain quickly drove down into the expanse of water beneath them.  The Endbringer reared back in pain, and Armsmaster stepped forward, leaped up higher than any normal human could, and caught Leviathan just above the knee with the Halberd, driving the blade nearly a third of the way to the bone.

Leviathan retaliated, swiping at Armsmaster, but the hero planted a foot on the uninjured part of the knee, and kicked himself back and out of the way.  The afterimage followed him, and he swiped at it with the other Halberd.  The blade erupted with a flame like a giant purple blowtorch, turning the worst of the afterimage into steam before it could crush him.  He turned his back so the steam didn’t billow against the exposed flesh of his face.  Some remains of the afterimage struck his armor, but he slid back and rolled with the impact, keeping his feet on the ground the entire time, enabling him to leap and roll to one side as Leviathan’s tail came down from behind and directly above him.

Leviathan was badly injured.  Ichor poured from six large wounds that hadn’t been there when he’d arrived on the street.

“You dumb brute,” Armsmaster growled.  He was panting for breath.  “Every fight you’ve done so far, that we’ve got on camera?  I’ve watched it, put it through programs.  I’ve got a computer on my back that’s relaying to a supernetwork, noting your every move, using subsonic pulses to read every aspect of the street, the surrounding buildings, every feature of the terrain.  I know exactly what you’re going to do next – you’re going to try to catch me from behind with a wave.”

Leviathan lunged, swiped with the oversized claw.  Armsmaster rolled to one side, then swung both Halberds behind him to intercept the wave that was coming from behind, vaporize it.

“You don’t even speak English, do you?  Or you’d know what I was saying, you’d know I already won.  The others helped, slowing you down, stopping the waves.  But this victory, this killing blow?  It’s going to be mine.”

Leviathan lunged, stopped, letting his water echo get ahead of him, then lunged again, a half second later.  Armsmaster leaped out of the way of the echo, drew his knees to his chest to avoid a claw swipe while he was still airborne, and sent his grappling hook between Leviathan’s feet to pull himself to the ground in a flash.  He skidded with the momentum, right between Leviathan’s legs, and raised the blurry Halberd to strike Leviathan between the legs, against the first ten feet of Leviathan’s tail.  The tail was turned to dust where the blade made contact, the plumes of it briefly obscuring Armsmaster.

“This cloud around my blade?  Nanotechnology.  Nano-structures engineered to slide between atoms, sever molecular bonds.  Cuts through anything.  Everything.  Like a sharp knife through air.”

Leviathan whipped his tail at Armsmaster.  Armsmaster stepped out of the way, slapped at the tail with the broad side of the blade.  More dust, another chunk of flesh gone, ichor pouring from the injury.  He ducked the echo as though it were an idle afterthought.

Leviathan turned to run.  Armsmaster sent out one blade like a grappling hook, circled the smaller of the Endbringer’s claws with the chain.  Leviathan moved, oblivious or uncaring, and Armsmaster waited until the slack was out of the chain, pressed a button.

The chain and Halberd ceased moving, and even Leviathan’s strength ceased to move it.  Rather than pull away, the Endbringer skidded, fell on his back, wrist still held by the chain.

A half second later, the chain went briefly slack, then rigid again as Armsmaster reeled himself in. He drove the blurry blade straight into Leviathan’s face with all the force of his forward momentum.  He pulled it free, slashed again, then freed the chain and used it to pull himself across the street, out of reach of Leviathan’s violent response.

Armsmaster called out, “Let’s see how quickly you respond to classical conditioning.  Every time you try to run, I’ll do something like that.”

Leviathan had no reply.  He simply climbed to his feet, swiped a claw through the air.  Armsmaster parried the afterimage that sailed through the air toward him, using the purple flame.

“For the record, that last trick was a temporal stasis trigger, with thanks owed to the cooperation of a subordinate of mine.  Drains my battery reserves, but you don’t understand that, do you?”

Leviathan lunged, and Armsmaster fired out the grappling hook, stopped it in mid air by freezing it in time.  Leviathan ran himself through on the chain, the thing spearing deep into his neck and out the back of his torso.  Uncaring, the Endbringer continued to charge at Armsmaster.

Armsmaster let the chain go slack, ducked a swipe of the tail, leaped forward and to one side to avoid the claw that followed.  Another small hop and roll ensured he moved right beneath the afterimage, and he made two swipes with the blurry Halberd at the back of Leviathan’s thighs as he passed behind the Endbringer.  His chain reeled in, pulled free of Leviathan’s neck wth a spray of blood, came down and across Leviathan’s hip to snap back to the top of the Halberd.  He fired it off again to get himself more distance, pulling himself across the street, spinning to face Leviathan once more as he stopped.

He passed one Halberd to the other hand, so he held two, wiped some frothing spittle from his mouth with his gauntlet.  “I am going to be the one to take your head, abomination.  I can only hope you know mortal terror in your last moments, know what you’ve inflicted on so many others.”

Leviathan stood, straighted itself, touched its claw to its ruined face, then its neck.  The amount of blood it was losing – it seemed somehow more than Leviathan should have been able to contain within himself.  I mean, he was big, but this was a lot of blood.

For several long seconds, Leviathan didn’t move.

“Delaying, buying time for a tsunami?” Armsmaster laughed, and Leviathan cocked his head at the display of emotion.  “No.  Three point four minutes before the next big wave breaks through the ice.  Dragon’s probes are giving me the data on that.  This will be over before then.”

He stepped forward, then stepped again, waiting for some cue from Leviathan.  On Armsmaster’s third step, Leviathan took a small step back, lashed his tail behind him.

“Finally scared?” Armsmaster taunted.  “Good.”

Nausea and pain was welling up in me again as I watched from the corner of the building, under the carport, threatening to override my sense of awe.  It was all I could do to keep quiet, keep from distracting Armsmaster, or distracting Leviathan and throwing some wrench in Armsmaster’s data.  The last thing I wanted was to become the hostage that made Armsmaster hesitate for the fraction of a second that cost him -cost us all-  the fight.

Armsmaster went on an all-out offensive, slashing as fast as his arm could move, cutting leg, knee, tail, leg again, moving out of the way of Leviathan’s attacks as though it were easy.  For ten seconds he continued, relentless.

“I should thank you, monster,” Armsmaster spoke, after he’d just finished a backflip that had carried him near enough to Leviathan’s torso to strike the creature across the lower belly.

Leviathan lunged, dropping to all fours, as if trying to swamp Armsmaster with a huge volume of water by way of his afterimage.  Armsmaster was already casting his grappling hook out, pulling himself out of the way.  In the final moment before he pulled away, his other Halberd swung up and into Leviathan’s neck, making a wound mirroring the spot where Narwhal’s forcefield had cleaved deep, the one Kid Win had undoubtedly opened wider with his laser turret.  Armsmaster reeled the hook back in.

The Endbringer turned, as if to run, only for the loop of the grappling hook’s chain to pass under his ‘chin’.  Armsmaster heaved himself up and onto the Endbringer’s back, drove the Halberd into one side of the neck, lengthening the cut he’d just made.  He stepped on the top of the Endbringer’s head, leaped down, catching the Endbringer across the face with the Halberd as he descended.  Leviathan collapsed, going spread-eagle.

Armsmaster slashed at Leviathan’s forearms as the Endbringer started to clmb to his feet.  More damage done, though it didn’t stop Leviathan from rising.  While Armsmaster pressed the attack, his armband hissed with a message I couldn’t make out.  I glanced at mine – still broken.

“This will be over before then,” Armsmaster echoed an eariler statement, speaking more to himself than to the armband or Leviathan.

Leviathan hopped backwards to create some distance, staggered a little as the more injured of his two legs failed to take his weight, used his smaller hand to stop from falling a second time, poising himself on three limbs.

Armsmaster used his grappling hook to haul himself close, readying to make another slash for the neck.  He changed his mind as the ground rumbled, pulled the hook free to latch it on a garage door.  Countering his forward momentum, he swung himself to one side of the road, staying out of Leviathan’s reach.

The ground rumbled again, brief, intense, stopped.

Armsmaster touched a hand to the side of his visor, and I thought I saw his lips crease in a frown before he turned his head away from me.

Another fierce rumble, and a crack appeared like a seam down the center of the street, a straight line as far as I could see in either direction.

Leviathan raised his claw, and the road suddenly split, heaving upward as a concrete pipe wide enough to fit a man crested from the pavement like a whale rising from the waves.  A second later, water gushed forth, veering toward Armsmaster.

The storm sewers.

Armsmaster hesitated, then threw his grappling-hook-Halberd forward into the onrushing waves like a javelin.  The gush of water froze in time, and he leapt forward, stepping on the furthermost extensions of the immobile spray in a parkour-style ascent over the water and the pipe.  The water resumed its regular motion as Armsmaster took his final leaping step off the top, heading straight for Leviathan.

Leviathan moved faster than he had in the last minute, caught the blade in his claw.

Dust rose from the claw as the blade sank deep, blood poured out, but the blade remained fixed in place.  Armsmaster tugged, failed to dislodge it.  He tried to pull away, but I could see Leviathan had caught onto his hand and wrist with his clawtips, while the Halberd sat embedded in his ‘palm’.

“How!?” Armsmaster roared.

I didn’t hesitate a moment in sending out my bugs.  Three swarms, shaped like people, more as a general cloud.  The bugs all sagged beneath the drenching rain, the ones on top taking the brunt of the downpour.

Leviathan planted one foot beside Armsmaster for balance, reached out with his free claw, and pressed the tips against the side of Armsmaster’s throat and torso.  Still holding on to Armsmaster’s hand and wrist, he pushed against the side of the man’s body.  Armsmaster screamed, a frantic noise that seemed to redouble in urgency with every breath.  He tipped over and fell with a splash.

The Endbringer stood, showing none of the frailty or pain it had been displaying seconds ago.  The injuries were there, to be sure, his head hung at an angle because of the way the weight of his head hung on the intact portions of his neck, but he wasn’t suffering, had no trouble putting his full weight on his more injured leg.  Had it been an act?

The Endbringer dropped Armsmaster’s arm and Halberd, where the weight of the metal armor and device pulled them beneath the water.  A lash of his tail dispatched two of my three swarms.  He watched, seeming not to care, as the third ran up to him, smashed against his leg.  The bugs spreading out, burying themselves deep into his injuries. I was hoping to find some weakness, devour him from the inside out, but the bugs might as well have been biting on steel.  Nothing budged beneath their jaws, their stings couldn’t penetrate.

He turned, crouched, bolted West, away from the coast, full speed.

I hurried to Armsmaster’s side.

“You,” he groaned.  His left arm was gone at the shoulder, torn out of the socket.  Blood poured from the wound.  “You’re dead.”

“Hey, you’re not making any sense.”

“He killed you.”

Had my armband announced my death when it glitched out and died?  Assumed total destruction of my unit, and me with it?

“I’m alive.  Listen, I’m going to try and find your arm, my armband got broken, maybe something got dislodged when Leviathan broke my arm.”

He only groaned unintelligbly in response.

I ran over to the general area where Leviathan had dropped Armsmaster’s arm.   I tripped over the crack that ran down the middle of the street, got my feet under me to keep running, and began feeling through the water.

I came within inches of touching the submerged blade, turning my hand to molecular dust.

Finding the arm, I picked it up.  Heavy, almost too much to hold in one hand.  It wasn’t just the weight of the armor or the fact that it was a muscular, full-grown-man’s limb – the gauntlet had been crushed around the pole of the Halberd, crumpled like tinfoil.  With the arm and weapon in a bricklayer’s grip that was painful to maintain, I hurried back to Armsmaster’s side, dropped them near him.  I shook him, hoping to get him alert, to no avail.

With my only working hand, I pried the Halberd free of his glove, rested his arm across his chest, and pressed the button.

“Armsmaster down!  CC-7!  Leviathan is heading West…”

I felt the bugs I’d clustered in Leviathan’s wounds change direction.  The compass point between West and Northwest was what?  More Wests than North.

“Cancel that!  He’s going West-North-West from my location!”

My voice echoed back to me in the Armband’s tinny voice a half-second after I’d finished.  Armsmaster’s armband changed to display a red dot, tracking Leviathan’s movements, or the closest approximation the system could guess.

“Roger, sounds like he might be heading for one of the shelters, lots of people packed into a space where they can’t run, vulnerable,” someone replied, “Medical help incoming.  Whoever this is, you can track Leviathan?”

“Yes, as long as I’m within a few blocks of him.”  Again, the system relayed my message. Affirmative.  Range restriction of ‘a few blocks’.

Did it really need to reword what I said?

“Can you fly?  Chase him?”

“No.”  Negative.

“Then I’m sending a flier your way, to ensure you stay close enough.  We need eyes on this bastard, and you’re them.”

“Got it!”

There was only silence after that.  Teeth clenched, shivering, I pressed my good hand as hard as I could manage against the ragged mess of Armsmaster’s shoulder, trying to slow the blood loss.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The building housing the local Parahuman Response Team division didn’t really stand out. The exterior was all windows, reflective enough to mirror the mottled dark gray of the sky overhead.  Only a shield logo bearing the letters ‘P.R.T.’ marked it apart from the other buildings of downtown Brockton Bay.

Those entering the lobby would find a strange juxtaposition at work.  On the one hand, you could see the various employees in suits, hurrying in and out of the building, talking in groups.  A team of four PRT officers was on standby, each stationed at a different area of the lobby, outfitted in the best equipment money could buy.  All had chain mesh and kevlar vests, helmets that covered their faces, and firearms.  The equipment differed, however, as two of them had grenade launchers hanging from straps on their shoulders with bandoliers of various specialty ammunition across their chests, including a fire extinguishing grenade, an EMP round and various stun grenades.  The other two had what appeared at first glance to be flame throwers; were they to pull the triggers, they would eject a thick, frothing spray of foam, enough to contain all but the strongest and fastest villains.

In stark contrast to this, there was the gift shop that would be thick with youths when school ended, sporting a selection of action figures, posters, video games and clothing.  Four-foot tall pictures of the various Protectorate and Wards team members were placed at regular intervals around the lobby, each backed by bright colors.

There was a cheery tour guide waiting patiently by the front desk, smiling handsomely at anybody who happened to glance his way.  On schedule, he would introduce tourists and children to the PRT offices, the armory, the training area and the parking lot with the parahuman containment vans, showing them what it took to manage the local heroes.  For those willing to pay for the premium tour, wait up to two hours and suffer a PRT squad escort, there would be an additional stop on the tour – a glimpse of the Wards’ Headquarters.

As a beleaguered team of young heroes staggered into the lobby, however, there was no tour, only a heavyset woman with a bob.  She wore a navy blue suit jacket and skirt, and waited with a pair of stern looking men in suits just behind her.  Wordlessly, she led them through a door behind the front desk and into a meeting room.

“Director Piggot.  Ma’am,” Aegis greeted her, his voice strained.  His costume was in shreds, and was more crimson with his own blood than it was its original white.  It was bad enough his civilian identity might have been revealed, if it weren’t for the matted blood and the chunks of meat that had been taken out of him, some of the wounds nearly a foot across.

“Good god, Aegis,” her eyebrows raised a fraction, “You look like hell.  What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Punctured lung, ma’am,” Aegis rasped, “I think there’s a hole in my front and back.”  As if to demonstrate, he stuck his fingers into his chest cavity.

Director Piggot didn’t look away, but one of the men standing behind her looked a touch green around the gills, “I can take you at your word.  You don’t need to stick your arm all the way through your chest to demonstrate.”

Aegis grinned and removed his hand from his chest.

Her expression hardened, “I wouldn’t be smiling right now.”

Aegis’ grin fell.  He glanced over his shoulder at his teammates.  Gallant, Kid Win, Vista, Browbeat and Clockblocker were all wearing suitably somber expressions.

“This was a fiasco,” she told them.

“Yes ma’am.  We lost,” Gallant admitted.

“You lost, yes.  That’s the least of it.  You also caused horrific amounts of property damage.  I’m afraid any and all destruction caused by New Wave’s golden child is also your responsibility, since you invited her along.  Without my say-so.

“I invited her,” Gallant spoke up, “I’ll take the blame, and you can take the costs for the property damage out of my trust.”

Director Piggot offered him a thin and utterly humorless smile, “Living up to your name, I see?  Yes, I’m sure that’s the best way to get the message across.  Your teammates and I know who you are under the mask.  Of everyone here, myself included, you’re the one most able to handle a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.”

“I won’t deny it, ma’am,” Gallant choked out the words.

“I’m afraid I’m a believer in punishment, when punishment is due.  Taking money from someone with money to spare is not going to mean anything.  All of you will share the fees between you.  Since I can’t touch the trust funds the PRT established for you, I’ll have to settle for docking your pay.  Maybe next time, the rest of you can talk Gallant out of inviting his girlfriend along.”

The protests overlapped. “It was her sister in the bank!  She would have gone in anyways!”  “I start college next fall!”

Director Piggot simply weathered the arguments and complaints.  A more cynical person might even suggest she enjoyed hearing them.  When a minute or two passed and it was clear she wasn’t going to reply or get dragged into the arguments, the young heroes fell into a sullen silence.  She cleared her throat and spoke again.

“Kid Win.  I’m very interested to hear about this weapon you deployed on the battlefield.”

“My Alternator Cannon?”  Kid Win asked, cringing just a bit.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Piggot smiled, “The paperwork gets to be a bit much sometimes.  Maybe you know where to find the documentation from our military and science teams, for this Alternator Cannon?”

“Christ, Kid,” Aegis groaned under his breath, with his ruined voice.

Kid Win looked more upset about Aegis’ reaction than anything else, “I, uh.  I didn’t get it officially cleared, yet.  I just thought it would be better to use the cannon and do what I could to stop the robbery.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong,” Piggot told him, “Fact of the matter is, the money that was taken from the bank falls very low on my priority list.  You might even go so far as to suggest I don’t care about it.”

“Director-” Aegis started.  He didn’t get to finish.

“What I care about is the public perception of capes.  I care about ensuring that we get enough funding to keep you Wards, the Protectorate and the PRT squads paid and equipped.  Without that, everything I’ve worked to build falls apart.”

“What are you going to do?” Kid Win asked her.

“The cannon gets dismantled, first off.”

“No!” Aegis and Kid Win spoke at the same time.  Director Piggot looked briefly surprised at the defiance.

“I started on the Alternator Cannon so I’d have something to bring out in case of a Class A threat,” Kid Win said, “Getting rid of it would be such a waste.  I don’t care if I never get to use it again.  Give it to your PRT squad.  I’ll teach someone how it works.  You can mount it on one of your trucks or something.”

Director Piggot frowned, “The amount of time and money that would require, for an event that might never occur… no.  I suppose you can keep the cannon.”

Kid Win practically sagged with relief.

“But whatever the power source is, you’re removing it, and I’m keeping it under lock and key.  If a Class A threat does come into play, I’ll hand it over to you.  And the cannon still goes through the standard review process for all Tinker created material.  If it doesn’t pass the review, if you were putting people and property at undue risk with what you pulled today, I’m afraid you could face a substantial fine or jail time.”

Kid Win paled.

“Director!” Aegis grunted out the word, taking a step forward.

“Be quiet, Aegis,” Piggot snapped, “Your trying to speak with a punctured lung physically pains me, and as much as I admire standing up for your team, your one lungful of breath is wasted here.”

Kid Win turned to Aegis and offered a small apologetic smile.

“Kid Win, you’re coming with us for a disciplinary review.  Everyone else is dismissed.  The tour group is going to be coming by your quarters in an hour, and there’s likely to be more than a few reporters peering in the window.  Try to clean yourselves up for the pictures that are undoubtedly going to appear in tomorrow’s papers.  Please.”

The two men in suits marched a miserable Kid Win out the door after Director Piggot.  Kid Win shot a worried look at his team before he was taken out of sight.

“We debrief,” Aegis grunted, “Gallant or Clockblocker handles it.  You two decide.”

The team trudged out of the meeting room and made their way to their reserved elevator.  It was Tinker-designed to impress the tourists as well as be far more secure.  Interlocking sections of metal unfolded and slid apart as they approached, then closed behind them.  The ride down was so smooth that it was nearly impossible to tell the elevator was moving.

They exited into a long corridor of chrome steel.

“I’m going to have nightmares,” Clockblocker groaned, as he tenderly touched the welts around his nose and mouth, “Nightmares with lots and lots of spiders.”

At the far end of the corridor, they came to a security terminal.  Aegis pointed at Clockblocker.

“Don’t you usually do it?”

“Retina maybe detached,” Aegis admitted in his halting voice, “Don’t want to fail scan.”

Clockblocker nodded hesitantly, then leaned forward to let the terminal scan his eyes.  Steel doors clicked, then whisked open with a barely audible whirr, letting the young heroes and heroine make their way into the main area of their headquarters.

The room was roughly dome-shaped, but there were sections of wall that were able to be dismantled and rearranged on the fly.  Some had been set up to give the various team members their individual quarters, while others framed the doorways that led into the showers, the filing room and their press/meeting room.  A series of computers and large monitors were networked at one side of the room, surrounded by a half-dozen chairs.  One of the monitors was displaying a countdown to the next tourist group, while others were showing camera images of key locations in the city.  The Central Bank was one of them, a dark image punctuated by the red and blue of police sirens.

“Shadow Stalker is AWOL?” Gallant asked.

“Couldn’t make it in time,” Aegis grunted, “Told her to stay put.”

“She’s going to hate that.  Doesn’t she have this huge hate-on for Grue?” Clockblocker asked.

“Part of the reason,” Aegis grunted out the words, “I told her to stay.  Don’t need that.  I’m going to shower.  Patch myself up.  You guys debrief.”

“Sure thing, Chief,” Clockblocker saluted.  “Take care of yourself.”

“Fucking mutant dogs,” Aegis muttered, as he made his way to the bathroom.  He was stripped out of the top half of his tattered costume before he was through the door.

“Vista?  Can you go grab the whiteboard?  Grab two?” Gallant turned to their junior member.  Vista almost skipped in her rush to follow the order.

“What’s going to happen to Kid?” Browbeat spoke up for the first time, “I don’t know how all this goes.  Is it serious?”

Gallant considered for a moment, “Could be, but my gut tells me Piggy just wants to scare him.  He needs to stop testing the limits with the people in charge, or he’s going to get in real trouble at some point.”

“So, not exactly the best start to your new career, huh?” Clockblocker turned to Browbeat.

“Fuck, I wouldn’t mind so much if I knew what happened,” Browbeat stretched, and his muscles began to dwindle in size, “At least then I could figure out what to do better next time.  All I know is that I was suddenly blind and deaf, and when I tried to move, everything bent the wrong way.  Then I think I got tasered.”

Vista returned, dragging a pair of whiteboards on wheeled frames behind her.

“Hold that thought,” Gallant told their newest member, “Hey Clock, you don’t mind if I take point?”

Clockblocker was still using his fingertips to explore the raised bumps on his face, “Go for it.  I’m going to procrastinate as long as I can on the leadership thing.”

“You’re next oldest, after Carlos.  It’s only going to be what, three or four months, before you’re the senior member?”

“And I’ll hold that position for not even the rest of the summer before I graduate and pass the mantle to you,” Clockblocker smiled self deprecatingly, “No worries.  Take charge.”

Gallant took off his helmet and held it in one hand, running his fingers through his sweat-damp blond hair.  He smiled winningly at Vista as she positioned the whiteboards so everyone could see them, “Thank you.”

Gallant didn’t need to use his power to get an emotional response from the thirteen year old heroine.  She turned a bright pink.  There could be no doubt for anyone present that she had a major crush on her senior teammate.

“Okay guys,” Gallant said, “Before we get started, I think it’s important to make some things clear.  First off, most importantly, today was not a failure.  I’d even say that today was a win for the good guys, and we start establishing that here and now.”

He took a second to gauge his audience’s disbelieving reactions, then smiled.

“The Undersiders.  They’ve flown under the radar so far, but more recently, they’ve started pulling higher profile jobs.  They hit the Ruby Dreams casino five weeks ago, and now they just robbed the biggest bank in Brockton Bay.  This time we were lucky enough to get in their way.  That means we finally have intel on their group.”

He turned to the whiteboard and wrote the names of their opponents.  Grue, Tattletale and Hellhound went on the first board, with lines separating the board into three columns.  He wrote Regent on the second board, drew a line and then hesitated at the fifth and last column.  “Did he name himself?  The guy with the bugs?”

“Girl,” Clockblocker corrected him, “I was talking to the hostages after the Undersiders made their getaway.  He said he was afraid to move because she was going to make it bite him.  It took me a bit to realize exactly what he meant.  Poor fella was in shock.”

“But we don’t know what she called herself?”

Nobody had any answer to that.

“Then we need to agree on a name for her, or the paperwork’s going to be inconsistent.  Suggestions for a name for the bug girl?”

“Maggot?  Worm?” Browbeat offered, “Stick her with a crappy name?”

“We don’t want to do that,” Clockblocker sighed, “Maybe if we’d won, we could get away with it, but it doesn’t look so good if the press reports that we got our asses kicked by someone called maggot.”

“Stinger, Pestilence?” Vista suggested.

Clockblocker spun himself around in the chair and punched the names into the computer, “Taken.  Stinger is some villain in California with power armor, a jetpack and homing missiles, and Pestilence is a creepy psycho in London.”

“Skitter?” Gallant put the name out there.

There was a clatter of keys as Clockblocker checked, “It’s not taken.”

“Then it’s good enough,” Gallant wrote the name up on the whiteboard, “Now we brainstorm.  This is where we recoup our losses from the day, figure out an angle so we can win next time.  So don’t hold back.  Share any detail, no matter how insignificant.”

“Grue’s power isn’t just darkness.  You can’t hear in there either.  And it feels strange too,” Browbeat spoke, “There’s resistance, like you’re underwater, but not floating.”

“Good,” Gallant wrote that in Grue’s column, “Next?”

“The mutants that Hellhound makes.  The dogs?  She doesn’t control them with her mind.  They’re trained,” Vista offered, “She tells them what to do with whistles, gestures.”

“Yes, good, I noticed that,” Gallant replied, excitedly adding another note to the whiteboard.

“The girl with the bugs… Skitter.  It’s just the opposite.  She has a lot of fine control over them,” Clockblocker added.

“Yes!”

“Also, according to the hostage I talked to, she said she can sense things through her bugs, which is how she kept an eye on the hostages.”

It wasn’t long before most columns were full enough that Gallant had to turn the whiteboards around to use the backs.

Carlos returned from the shower, wearing sweatpants and a towel around his shoulders.  He was Puerto Rican, his hair long.  His body was clean of blood, barring a few residual trickles from the mess of ragged wounds on his arms, stomach and chest.  He had clumsily stitched the cuts and gouges together, which did surprisingly little to make them easier to look at.  He sat down on a chair and added his input for the lists, which didn’t amount to too much.  He had been incapacitated for too much of the fight to have much to say.

There was an abrasive noise from the computer as every monitor suddenly flashed yellow.  The Wards hurried to pull on their masks.  Aegis grabbed a spare from a drawer by the computers.

The entrance whirred open, and Armsmaster strode in, accompanied by the winsome Miss Militia.  She wore a modified military uniform, tight enough in the essential areas to accentuate her curves, sporting a scarf around her lower face with an American  flag embroidered on it, and a similar sash around her waist.  Most arresting, however, was the large rocket launcher she held across her shoulders in the same way a weightlifter might hold a barbell.

“Armsmaster,” Gallant stood up, “Good to see you, Sir.  Miss Militia, always a pleasure.”

“Ever the gentleman,” Miss Militia’s eyes hinted at the smile behind her scarf, “We brought a guest.”

Following behind Armsmaster and Miss Militia was a teenage girl in an enveloping white robe.  Panacea.  She had an ID card on a cord around her neck, featuring her photo and the word ‘GUEST’ in bright blue letters.

“She was kind enough to volunteer to come here and patch you guys up,” Miss Militia told the young heroes, “Can’t send you home with horrible injuries and hundreds of bug bites, can we?  That would give away the show.”

She shifted the position of the rocket launcher on her shoulders, and it dissolved into a blur of green-black energy.  The energy lunged and arced around her for a few brief moments, then materialized into a machine gun.  It only held that form for a few seconds before it flickered and solidified into a sniper rifle, then a harpoon gun, and  finally settled in the form of a pair of uzis, one in each of her hands.  She barely seemed to notice, beyond the automatic action of holstering the guns.

“I wanted to thank you guys for coming to my rescue,” Panacea spoke, shyly, “And for letting Glory Girl come with you.”

Gallant smiled, then in a more concerned tone, he asked, “You two are okay?”

Panacea shook her head, “Tattletale found a way around my sister’s invincibility.  Glory Girl was bitten pretty badly, which is why I didn’t come sooner.  I think it hits you harder, psychologically, when you’re pretty much invincible but you get hurt anyways.  But we’re okay now.  She’s healed but sulking.  I- I’m alright.  Bump on my head, but I’m okay.”

“Good.”

Armsmaster was at the whiteboard, going over the points.  “I like this.  But this one…”  He tapped the column titled Tattletale, “Nearly empty.”

“None of us ran into her, and the hostages didn’t have anything to say about her,” Gallant replied.

“Panacea may be able to help there,” Miss Militia offered.

All eyes turned to the girl.

“I- A lot happened,” Panacea hedged.

“Any detail helps.”

“Um.  I’m sorry,” she said, looking down at the ground, “I got smacked across the head, but my power doesn’t work on myself, and I’m not really the type to go out in costume and get into fights, so having my life threatened, I dunno.  All that… I can’t put my thoughts in order just yet.”

“The sooner-” Armsmaster started.

“It’s fine,” Miss Militia interrupted him, “Amy, why don’t you start taking care of the Wards?  If something comes to mind, anything the Undersiders said or did, or any clues you think might help, share it afterwards, alright?”

Panacea smiled gratefully at the heroine, then turned to the group, “Who needs the most help?  Aegis?”

“I’ll live,” Aegis said, “I can be last.”

Gallant hesitantly raised his hand, “One of Hellhound’s dogs slammed into me.  I think I might have a broken rib.  Paramedics cleared me, but I want to be extra sure I’m not risking a punctured lung or something.”

Panacea frowned, then gestured to the far end of the room, “I’ll take a look at you over there?”

“Go figure, Glory Girl’s boyfriend gets special treatment,” Clockblocker grinned to make it clear he was just poking fun.  Gallant just smirked in response.

The pair went to Gallant’s alcove, and she sat him down on the bed before laying a hand on his shoulder.  She pulled her hood back and furrowed her brow.

“You don’t have a punctured lung.  You’ve got one fractured rib, but you’re not even in that much pain.  Why-”

“I lied.  I wanted to talk to you, alone,” he took her hand.

She scowled and pulled her hand back like he’d bitten her.  As if to make doubly sure he wouldn’t grab her hand again, she folded her arms.

“You know I can sense emotions,” he said, “Everyone’s emotions, like a cloud of colors around them.  Can’t turn it off.  It’s just how I see the world.”

“Victoria mentioned that.”

“So you’re an open book to me.  I know you’re scared.  No… you’re terrified, and that’s why you’re not talking.”

She sighed and sat on the bed, as far from Gallant as she could.

“I never wanted these powers.  I never wanted powers, period.”

He nodded.

“But I got them anyways, and I got international attention over it.  The healer.  The girl who could cure cancer with a touch, make someone ten years younger, regrow lost limbs.  I’m forced to be a hero.  Burdened with this obligation.  I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use this power.  It’s such an opportunity, to save lives.”

“But?”

“But at the same time… I can’t cure everyone.  Even if I go to the hospital every night for two or three hours at a time, there are thousands of other hospitals I can’t visit, tens of millions of people who are terminally ill or living in a personal hell where they’re paralyzed or in constant pain.  These people don’t deserve to face that, but I can’t help them all.  I can’t help one percent of them if I put in twenty hours a day.”

“You have to focus on what you can do,” Gallant told her.

“Sounds easier than it is,” Panacea answered, with a touch of bitterness, “Do you understand what it means, to cure some of these people?  I feel like every second I take to myself is a second I’ve failed somehow.  For two years, it’s been this… pressure.  I lie in bed, awake at night, and I can’t sleep.  So I get up and I go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  Go to pediatrics, cure some kids.  Go to the ICU, spare some lives… and it’s all just blending together.  I can’t even remember the last few people I saved.”

She sighed again, “The last person I really remember?  It was maybe a week ago, I was working on a kid.  He was just a toddler, an immigrant from Cairo, I think.  Ectopia Cordis.  That’s where you’re born with your heart outside your body.  I was putting everything in the right place, giving him a chance at a normal life.”

“What made him so memorable?”

“I resented him.  He was lying there, fast asleep, like an angel, and for just a second, I considered just leaving him.  The doctors could have finished the job, but it would have been dangerous.  He might have died if I’d left him on the table, the job half done.  I hated him.”

Gallant didn’t say anything.  Scowling, Panacea stared down at the ground.

“No, I hated that he would have a normal life, because I’d given up mine.  I was scared that I might intentionally make a mistake.  That I might let myself fuck up the procedure with this kid.  I could have killed him or ruined his life, but it would have eased the pressure.  Lowered expectations, you know?  Maybe it would have even lowered my own expectations for myself.  I… I was just so tired.  So exhausted.  I actually considered, for the briefest moment, abandoning a child to suffer or die.”

“That sounds like more than just exhaustion,” Gallant replied, quietly.

“Is this how it starts?  Is this the point I start becoming like my father, whoever he was?”

Gallant let out a slow breath, “I could say no, that you’re never going to be like your father.  But I’d be lying.  Any of us, all of us, we run the risk of finding our own way down that path.  I can see the strain you’re experiencing, the stress.  I’ve seen people snap because of less.  So yeah.  It’s possible.”

“Okay,” she said, just under her breath.  He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t.

“Take a break.  Tell yourself it’s something you have to do, to recharge your batteries and help more people in the long run.”

“I don’t think I can.”

They sat in silence for a few moments.

He turned towards her, “So what does this have to do with what happened at the bank?”

“She knew everything.  That Tattletale girl.  She said she’s psychic, and from what she said, what she knew, I believe it.”

Gallant nodded.

“You know what it’s like, to talk to people like her?  Like you, no offense?  You build up this mask, you delude yourself into thinking everything is normal, and you force yourself to look past the worst aspects of yourself… and then these Gallants and Tattletales just strip you naked.  Force you to confront it all.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You said yourself, you can’t turn it off, right?  Can’t really blame you.  It’s just… it’s hard to be around.  Especially after dealing with Tattletale.”

“What did she say?”

“She threatened to talk about stuff.  Stuff worse than what I just told you, I guess.  Threatened to tell me things I just don’t want to know.  Said she’d use what she knew to ruin my relationship with Victoria and the rest of my family,” Amy hugged herself.

“My sister’s all I’ve got.  The only person with no expectations, who knows me as a person.  Carol never really wanted me.  Mark is clinically depressed, so as nice as he is, he’s too focused on himself to really be a dad.  My aunt and uncle are sweet, but they’ve got their own problems.  So it’s just me and Victoria.  Has been almost from the beginning.  That smug little monster threatened to tear my sister and I apart using yet another thing I didn’t want, another thing I had no control over.”

Gallant started to speak, then stopped.

“What?”

“Does… does this have anything to do with the, erm, rather strong feelings you have towards me?”

Panacea went still.

“I’m sorry,” he hurried to say, “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“You shouldn’t have,” she stood up and started towards the door.

“Look, if you ever need to talk…” he offered.

“I-”

“You probably won’t want it to be me, okay.  But my door’s always open, and you can call me at any hour.  Just letting you know.”

“Okay,” she replied.  Then she reached over to him and touched his shoulder, “There.  Bruises gone, ribs touched up.”

“Thank you,” he replied, opening the door for her.

“Take care of my sister, okay?  Make her happy?” she murmured, as she hesitated in the doorway.

“Goes without saying.” They rejoined the main group.

Every head in the room turned as Panacea picked up the marker by the computers.  With a grim expression on her face, she began filling in Tattletale’s section of the whiteboard.

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