Monarch 16.13

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

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

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

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

“Except it wasn’t me.”

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

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

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

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

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

“It’s fine.”

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

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

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

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

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

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

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

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

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

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

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

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

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

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

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

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

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” I muttered.

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

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

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

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

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

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

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

I closed my mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said she teleported away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know where Dinah is.

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

“You’re sure?”

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

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

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

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

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

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

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

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

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

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

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

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

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

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

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

“If-”  Calvert started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding,” Imp said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then-” Grue started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Farewell, Under-“

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

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

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

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

“Against your rule.”

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

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“None of us?” I asked.

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

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

“The requests first, if you please.”

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

“Agreed.”

“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

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

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

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

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

“Fine.  Is that it?”

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

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

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

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

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

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

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

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

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

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

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

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

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

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

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

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

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.

“Whatever.”

“Any further questions?”

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

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

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

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

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

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

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

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

Bitch fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rose-L,” I called out.

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

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

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

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

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”

“Aim…”

“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”

“Fire.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From me?”

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

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

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

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

“That was your idea.”

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

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

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

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

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

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

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

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

“Genesis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvert only glared.

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

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

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

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

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

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded into his shoulder.

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

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

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

“You okay?” Grue asked.

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

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She bobbed her head in a nod.

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

“Medical care,” Grue said.

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t notice?”

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

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

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

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

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Monarch 16.8

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There was a tap on the microphone.  “If we could have silence from the audience, please?”

The low murmur of conversation throughout the auditorium gradually died down.  The place wasn’t full, but four out of every five seats were filled, and there were more people at the back, primarily reporters, many from out of town.

My eye darted across the room, trying to assess the situation.  The heavy woman in the front row, was that Piggot?  It made sense that every person worth talking about would be present.  The disasters and Tattletale’s attack on the cell towers meant that there wasn’t TV, there weren’t phones, and the only way for interested parties to find out what the candidates had to say was actually attending.

Outside of the auditorium, Coil’s men gathering in the lobby and at the sides of the building.  Some were taking point on the roof, gathering in pairs, working together to assemble sniper rifles.  Preparing for a fight.  For a war.

Coil was in the lobby, now, and he was joined by others.  I could recognize Circus by the sledgehammer she was carrying, the metal head dragging on the floor.  Coil said something and she lifted it up.  Was he talking about the noise?  It shouldn’t matter.  He was accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize.  A teenage guy and a larger, more athletic man in a heavy metal frame.

“Thank you to everyone for coming.  Tonight is a three-way debate.  Let me introduce your candidates, starting with Mr. Roy Christner, our mayor incumbent.  We also have Mrs. Carlene Padillo, city councilor of communications; and Mr. Keith Grove, C.E.O. of Eaststar Financial.  Tonight’s subjects are crime, public safety and the state of the city.  Would you start us off, Mayor Christner?  What sets you apart from the other candidates in your views?”

I glanced over my shoulder to verify what I was seeing with my bugs.  A young man was making his way up the aisle with a toddler, straight for Coil.

“I won’t lie,” Christner said.  I glanced his way, saw how haggard he looked.  In a way it worked for him, made him look determined.  “Things are bad.  The situation’s improved from where it was weeks ago, but we’re still in an ugly situation.  No less than forty percent of the city has evacuated, hospitals are overflowing, and villains claim to own the streets…”

I looked back to the dad and his kid.  They opened the door, stepping through, and two of Coil’s soldiers were on them before they could open their mouths and shout a warning.  Putting hands over mouths, the soldiers retreated from the door, separating dad from child.  Within seconds, both were being gagged and restrained.

The door closed on its own, leaving nobody any wiser to what was going on.

“…involved with the defense every step along the way.  I’ve discussed the subject with Legend, with Dragon and with Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.  Daily, I’ve been talking with and working with Director Piggot to see what actions need to be taken to see this city restored to what it once was.”

“That’s setting the bar pretty damn low,” Grove said, gripping the sides of his podium.

“No interruptions, please,” the moderator spoke.  Christner waved her off.  “You concede the remainder of your turn, Mayor?”

“Let’s hear what Grove has to say.”

“Very well.  Mr. Grove.  Two minutes to speak.”

“He wants to restore the city to what it was?  I think he’s wanting us to forget that half of our city was a cesspool before the Endbringer came.  Many of you in the audience live in the north end.  You know how bad it was.  Or maybe the Mayor is referring to the city’s heyday, when the docks were bustling with activity and the entire city could hear the ships coming in and out of the ports.  If he’s trying to convince you we’ll return to that time, he’s telling you an outright falsehood.  The Lord’s Port, known to many as the ship graveyard, would cost the city twenty-three million dollars just to clear away the damaged ships and dispose of them.    That’s not getting into the cost of actually refurbishing the area and updating it to modern standards.  Or the fact that anyone approaching within a mile and a half of the area is subjected to uncontrollable, suicidal despair.  I visited.  I know.”

I sent a message to Coil, drawing words with my bugs.

‘I’m here.  Stop.’

He broke up the words with a casual wave of his hands, scattering the bugs.  Almost dismissive.  Of course he wouldn’t stop now.  He’d made little secret about how important his plans were to him, and to stop now, at a moment this important?

“The mayor wants to take us back to where we were?  That’s not good enough.  I’m proposing that we make this an opportunity.  The slate, in many ways, has been wiped clean.  Let’s start over again.  There’s national and international funding that’s been put in place to help recover from Endbringer attacks and events of gross parahuman involvement.  My budget, which is detailed in handouts that will be provided in the lobby, details how we’ll use our tax dollars and that recovery funding to rejuvenate the city.  The ferry, which has become a local in-joke, will be started up once more.  Low-cost, high-yield housing plans for the north end, demolition and reconstruction on a large scale for Downtown and other damaged areas, and marketing to the rest of the United States to promote and sell Brockton Bay as a symbol of perseverance and human spirit, drawing in new residents and tourism.”

“Councillor Padillo,” the moderator spoke.  “Any response?”

“Keith Grove is not addressing the question.  He paints a pretty picture, but he doesn’t mention the presence of the local supervillains or the pressures they put on us…”

I fidgeted.  Could I attack?  Should I attack?  If I left now, maybe stepped into the side hallway, I could maybe avoid the soldiers, get to a vantage point where I could mount a counterattack against Coil.

Except I didn’t know what he was planning, and my dad was here.  I could take my dad, but then I risked having to explain what was happening, and it would mean leaving Kurt, Alexander and Lacey behind.  It meant leaving all these other civilians behind.

It wasn’t practical to bring anyone else along, but I couldn’t bring myself to run from my dad, here.  I couldn’t say why, how or any of that, but I felt as though leaving my dad behind here would mean I could never come back.  That it would break our relationship, whether it was me getting outed as a supervillain, a break in whatever tenuous bond of trust we had or because one of us would die.

I tended to be more rational than emotional.  If I was being totally honest with myself, though, my rationalizations were pretty heavily influenced by my feelings.  I could come up with a rational justification for pretty much any course of action.  It had led me this far.  Which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Councilor Padillo was still talking, even as my mind raced.  “…Points to a mismanagement of resources.  The Mayor would like us to believe that he was involved in genuine efforts to save this city.  I can’t believe he would want to be associated with the PRT’s operations as of late.  Loss after loss on the part of our heroes.  The losses aren’t the fault of the heroes, it’s even understandable, given the sheer power wielded by the likes of the Endbringer, of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the various other threats within the city…”

Coil was moving, now, his people getting in rank and file around him, his pet parahumans standing by.

I had to make my call.  Stand up to him and jeopardize everything I’d been working towards?  Here, now, with Coil drawing on his power, with three parahumans and no less than twenty elite soldiers who I knew were entirely capable of hitting what they were aiming at, backing him up?  Even if I stayed hidden in the crowd, I couldn’t say for sure that he wouldn’t spot me or my dad and order one of his people to move.

The alternative was that I could do as I’d been ordered, avoiding any costumed activity; trust Coil and his power to handle the situation.  I hated him, on a level, but I knew he was smart.  And I knew he knew I was here; I’d asked Lisa and she’d asked him if it was okay.  He had to have a plan for dealing with me if I took any action.

“…Open fighting in the streets.  No, the blame lies with the PRT and the mayor’s administration, which he admits was heavily involved in the decisions made.  Highly questionable decisions:  Holding back when they could have intervened.  Forcing confrontations when our heroes were gravely outmatched.”

I saw Piggot shifting uncomfortably in her seat at that.  Had this been arranged?  A staged scene?

Coil started striding for the closed double doors that led to the back of the auditorium, flanked by Circus and the other parahuman, rank after rank of his soldiers following.

I gripped my dad’s hand, held it tight, and stayed where I was.

The doors banged open.  Coil, Circus and… Über was with him, in a heavy metal suit, Leet stood off to one side, holding what looked like a ray gun.  People screamed, and it set off a chain reaction of responses throughout the auditorium.  People started running for the other exits, only to have their paths barred as more soldiers emerged.

My dad and I stayed in our seats, and I crouched low in front of my seat, pulling my dad down so he would be under cover.

“What the hell?” the Mayor growled into his microphone.  “Coil?”

“Mister Mayor,” Coil spoke.

“This is insanity,” Grove spoke.

“Genius sometimes looks that way to those who don’t see the whole picture.”  Coil had advanced far enough down the aisle that I could see him clearly.  He turned to take in the crowd, and for one heart-stopping moment I thought he’d stop when his eyes fell on me.  His head kept moving, and he walked further down the aisle, closer to the stage.

Grove said, “The local heroes-”

“Are occupied.  Fires started at select locations, areas where the damage won’t be immediate, but where they cannot be allowed to spread.  One such fire is at your headquarters.  My apologies.  I wanted to target high-priority areas.  The other fires will occupy the members of the Undersiders and Travelers and slow them down as they recover from the loss of their individual headquarters.”

I tensed at that.  How much of it was a bluff?

“You bastard,” the Mayor growled.  “First my niece, now this?”

Niece?

Of course.  I’d heard Dinah was niece to one of the mayoral candidates.  I hadn’t realized she was the niece to the mayor.

“She’s safe and sound,” Coil said.  “As are any people here without a title.  If you’re the mayor, or a candidate for mayor, if you call yourself chief of police, lieutenant, director or major, I’m afraid I can’t promise your safety.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Let me demonstrate.  Circus?”

Circus was walking through the assembled crowd as though she were on solid ground, but each footstep was onto the back of one of the auditorium seats.  She extended her arms out to either side, fingers splayed, then closed her hands into fists.  Knives stuck out from the spaces between each finger.

Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo ran first, and Mayor Christner was only steps behind.  It didn’t matter.  Circus flung her arms forward and each of the eight knives hit the mark.

People stood from their seats and for long moments I couldn’t see what happened on the stage after that.  I only felt the bodies hit the floor with the bugs.  I didn’t dare move the bugs to try to see exactly where the knives had landed.

Coil’s soldiers were holding the reporters and cameramen at gunpoint.  I raised myself up high enough to see him turning around to face the largest group of cameras.  “The other villains want to seize the city from below.  To start at the streets, out of sight, to remove any who would threaten their rule, and claim the various districts one by one.  They ignore the fact that there are others in power who aren’t superhuman.  Ordinary mortals with the power to make decisions that affect its citizens.

“I would take the more direct route.  Brockton Bay is mine.  I will make the decisions, claim and distribute the taxes and decide who sits in seats of power.  Anyone who would disagree will face the same fate as the mayor, Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo.”

I rose up enough to get a glimpse of the stage.  The mayor was lying on his back, chest rising and falling with too much force, as if he was sucking in lungfuls of air and then forcing them out with just as much strength.  He had a knife sticking out of the middle of his torso, another in his shoulder, and yet another in his leg.  My father pulled me down before I could see the others.

The mayor wasn’t dead, but he looked like the man might be dying.  Was I condoning this by staying silent?  I’d told myself I would let Coil’s plan play out until he did something unconscionable and this threatened to cross the line.  It was only the fact that the mayor was still alive and the fact that I couldn’t think of what I might do to intervene that kept me on the sidelines, hiding from the soldiers and the assault rifles they were wielding.

“You cannot expect this to succeed,” the voice blared over the speakers.

“Director Piggot,” Coil spoke.  “I must admire your courage, putting yourself in the line of fire so soon after your last escapade.  Kidnapped by the Undersiders, weren’t you?”

Through my bugs, I could sense how Piggot was leaning heavily on a desk just in front of the stage, using the debate moderator’s microphone.  “This plan of yours was doomed from the outset.  Just for what you’ve done, threatening these people and ordering the execution of those three on the stage, they’ll send the entire Protectorate after you.  America will demand it.  Or are you so mad you think we’ll let you crown yourself king?”

“Mad?  No.  A monster?  Maybe.  Better to say I’m a freak of nature.  My power is to control my own destiny, to reshape and cultivate it.  What you see here is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“There’s a greater plan, then.”

“Quite.  A shame you won’t discover it.  Circus?”

Piggot backed away from the table and ducked low.  It didn’t help.  Circus lobbed a throwing knife into the air, so that it arced.  She didn’t have eyes on the director, but the knife nonetheless went high, catching the light as it reached the peak of its flight near the high ceiling of the auditorium.   It plunged down to strike its target and screams sounded from the front of the auditorium.

“Someone contacted the heroes,” Leet spoke.  “My U.I. says they’re on the way.”

“Good,” Coil responded.  “Circus, come.  Squad captains, maintain order here.  We’ll be back the moment this is done.”

“The bitch is too fat.  Thinking I didn’t hit anything vital,” Circus said.

“See it through,” Coil ordered, turning to leave with Über and Leet accompanying him.  Circus turned to follow, flicking her wrist hard over her shoulder.  Three knives traveled through the air, their paths eerily in sync as they nearly touched the ceiling, converging together as they dropped towards Piggot.

I barely had time to think about it, rising to my feet and calling on my bugs.  I knew it was too few, too late, but standing by while someone got murdered?  Four or five cockroaches, some houseflies, it wasn’t enough.  I’d held the bugs back, keeping them in out of the way areas, and now I didn’t have enough to block the knives or divert them from their path.

There was a flash of light around Piggot, and for just an instant, I thought maybe she had powers.  Maybe she’d had a trigger event, or she always had them but kept them in reserve?

But it wasn’t her.  Weld caught the knives, letting them sink into his palm, down to the hilts.

It was the Wards.  Weld and Vista were at the foot of the room.  Vista was raising her hands, folding the walls into barriers to block those of Coil’s soldiers who weren’t holding the reporters hostage.  Kid Win was at one corner of the room, firing what looked like concussion blasts into soldier and civilian alike, a gun in each hand, and the hovering turrets at his shoulder adding still more firepower to the fray.  He’d taken the fight out of them with the first barrage, and the follow-up fire was apparently to take down the soldiers who managed to climb to their feet or raise a weapon.  The concussion-cannons were obvious nonlethal weapons from the casual way he was firing into the massed people, intended to stun and disable rather than harm.

Chariot had a gun that was firing off charges of electricity, similar to the one I’d borrowed from Kid Win, and was flying over the assembled soldiers, unloading shots on them.  His costume was different from the last time I’d seen him, with single-wheeled roller blades at his toes and a flight system that didn’t seem to be attached to him.  A disc the size of a car tire floated behind his head and shoulders, almost luminescent with energy, and the wings of his flight suit, tipped with jets of gold light, floated out to either side of it.

Clockblocker formed the final part of the strike party.  He wasn’t fighting- not directly.  He stood by a white cloth that had been frozen in time, covering the soldiers.

They were turning the situation around.  The suddenness with which they’d appeared, their positioning, they had planned this, assessing the situation, deciding where they needed to be to make a decisive strike and protect the crowd, and they must have teleported in.  I knew they had the technology to teleport objects.  I hadn’t guessed they had it for people, too.

“This way!”  Weld bellowed.  “Evacuate through the area at the back of the stage!  Stick to the sides!  And I need medical help for the wounded!”

Their group was a little battered, beaten and bruised, and they wore replacement costume parts.  Where I could see skin, I noted the welts of bug bites and stings that hadn’t yet faded.  Vista had covered hers with makeup, but they were there.

I was frozen by indecision.  I felt almost hopeful, strange as that sounded.  If the good guys got the upper hand, if they actually beat Coil, then I could rescue Dinah by simply visiting Coil’s base and opening the door to her room.  Coil was being ruthless here.  At his orders, four people had been wounded to the point that they might die.  If I stepped in to help…

No, my help wouldn’t be welcome.  It could even be dangerous, a distraction at a crucial time.  I would also have to escape.  A resounding victory might see them locking down the area to take down witness statements or make sure no soldiers removed their uniform and slipped out with the crowd.  Nobody had seen me gathering the bugs in my futile attempt to try to help Piggot.  But if they found out Skitter was in the building and won, then it would be a question of narrowing down which teenage girl in the building fit the profile.

And if I tried to help and Coil won, well, my dad and I would be fucked.  No sense in putting it politely.  He would be in a prime position to not only retaliate, but maybe even retaliate without losing the support of my teammates.

If anything anchored me in place, it was the way one of Dad’s hands clutched my own, the other hand holding my wrist, and the way he seemed to be trying to shield me with his body.  His face was taut with fear, his body rigid.

“Wards!”  Weld shouted.  “All clear!?”

“Clear!”  the cry came back three times, from Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot.  The soldiers had been taken down.

My dad tugged on my hand.  Enough people had made their way down the aisles that we had room to maneuver.  I followed his lead, letting him pull me towards the aisle.

“Regroup!  Optimal range, facing the doors!”  Weld ordered.  Vista, Clockblocker, Kid Win and Chariot hurried to the center of the room.  He stayed where he was, watching as civilians from the crowd tended to the wounded.  All but the mayor were apparently alive.  The only one I could wonder about was the mayor.  He was lying prone, receiving CPR at the hands of two people.

“Now!”  Weld shouted.

Clockblocker moved, lunging three feet to his left to tag Chariot.  Chariot froze in the air.

I stopped in my tracks, momentarily confused.  Had some of the Wards turned traitor?  No.  Kid Win and Vista seemed to be taking this in stride.  Both were working together to bind Chariot.

There were cries of protest from the crowd.  “What are you doing?”  “He didn’t do anything!”

“He’s a double agent,” Weld spoke, his voice carrying.  “Working for Coil.  Go.  Evacuate, get out of here.  We have this in hand.”

He radiated confidence.  Damn it, for all the times we’d fought the Wards, for every time I’d cursed the heroes for not doing what I needed them to do, I began to feel hopeful.

My dad and I were making our way down the aisle, past the soldiers that Chariot had laid low.  We were at the steps leading up to the stage when the doors slammed open.

Über led the way, followed by Coil, Leet, Circus and a squadron of soldiers.  His metal frame took the brunt of the incoming fire, and he used his arms to shield his exposed upper body from the blasts of electricity and the concussion shots from Kid Win’s guns and turrets.

Vista began shrinking the arms, but the progress seemed slower.  She had trouble using her power when there was living material in the way, but it was still working.

Being so close to the fighting, to the gunfire and flashes of electricity, people were reacting badly.  Screaming, shouting at others to move faster, pushing and shoving.  Worst of all, they were making so much noise I couldn’t follow everything that was going on.  Coil was saying something, his words carrying to the heroes, but I missed it in the chaos.

I didn’t want to out myself as being present, so I was limited in how many bugs I could deploy.  A small handful on Coil served to let me follow his movements.  He’d dropped to one knee behind Über, and Leet handed him a small remote control.  He wasted no time in pressing the button.

The noise of gunfire changed.  My head wasn’t the only one that turned to see what had happened.

Kid Win had stopped shooting, and a shrill whine was filling the air.  He turned to Weld, who began tearing at his armor.

Leet stepped out from behind Über and shot Vista.  She was thrown down the length of the aisle, slamming against the base of the stage.  He took another shot at Clockblocker, who froze himself.  Kid Win drew another gun from a side holster and shot Leet.

Weld had finished dismantling Kid Win’s armor, freeing what looked to be a power cell.

I could barely make out the words, but someone in the crowd did.  A woman screamed the words, “He said it’s a bomb!  Sabotage!  Run!”

In that instant, the crowd became a crush of bodies, each trying so hard to get up and through the stairwell that we barely made any progress.  Über, Leet, Circus and Coil began running towards the lobby, Über kicking down the door, leaving the heroes to deal with the bomb they were holding, which was squealing at a higher pitch and volume with every passing second.  It was glowing, brilliant in its golden radiance.

Kid Win pointed at Chariot.  The boy was frozen, still, but the wings and pack on his back were still active, not attached to Chariot’s suit and therefore unaffected by Clockblocker’s power.

Weld caught the setup out of the air, tearing away the outer casing the second it was in his hands.  Kid Win changed the wiring.  They were shouting something to one another, but I couldn’t make out the words.  Weld pointed up.

The bomb or sabotaged power supply disappeared, teleporting away in the same grid of lines that I’d seen Kid Win use to summon his massive cannon.  It dawned on me what they’d done.  Teleporting the bomb straight up into the sky, where there was nobody and nothing to be affected.

Or that had been their plan.  It didn’t work out that way.  I saw a flicker of light from the lobby, the glow of the device, and Coil wheeling around to face us, his screaming lost in the midst of the shrill whine and the shouts of the others.

My eye to brain response was too slow to process everything that happened next.  I saw it in snapshots: the swelling energy of the sabotaged power supply, Coil’s body coming apart in pieces, the chairs of the auditorium and fragments of floorboards being thrown into the air as the explosion seemed to move in slow motion.

Then it hit us, and I saw only white, felt only pain.

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Monarch 16.2

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“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 15

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“Knock, knock.”

Triumph turned around.  “Sam.”

She poked her head around the edge of the door, hand over her eyes.  Beautiful.  She was blonde and wearing her skintight costume.  She had the figure to pull it off where so few really did.  The kind of body someone worked for.  Her mask was off, tucked into her belt.

“You decent?”  Prism asked, not moving her hand.

“Yeah.”  He finished folding his hospital gown and draped it at the foot of the bed. Not perfect, but it was better than leaving a mess.

“You’re okay to be up and about?”

“Yeah,” he said.  He didn’t want to reply with a single syllable again, so he turned to face her.  He smiled a little.  “I’m tough.”

“Don’t boast.  I was with your family while we watched the paramedics cart you off.”

“I made it.  I don’t heal that much faster than normal, but I do heal faster, I don’t scar, and I don’t tend to suffer long-term injuries.”

“But you nearly died.  Don’t forget.”

“I definitely won’t forget, believe me,” he said.  He balled up his bathrobe and put it in the gym bag that already sat on the bed.  “I’m surprised you came.”

“We’re dating,” she said.

“Three dates, and we both agreed it wouldn’t be anything permanent.”

“You say that and then you invite me to meet your parents.”

“Because the food at home is better than the rations you’d get anywhere else in this city.”  He raised an eyebrow, “But you’re the one checking on me this morning.  Didn’t you have a flight?””

“A flight’s easy enough to postpone when the Protectorate’s arranging it.  I decided I needed to sleep in after being up all night getting x-rayed, Ursa said she was ok with it.”

“I’m just saying, you didn’t have to stop by.”

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I wanted to see how Cache was doing.  It’s a walk down the hall to see you.”

“Ouch.  Allies before guys?”

“There’s got to be a better way of saying that.”

“Probably.  How’s he?”

“Burned badly, but he’s healing.  We’ll see how bad the long-term damage is.”

“And how are you?”

“Bruised, bit of a limp.  Pretty okay overall.”

“Good,” he smiled.  “Want to go get some coffee?  I’ve been running on so much caffeine lately that I think I’ll pass out if I don’t get my morning dose.  I’ll lend you my shoulder so you don’t have to put too much weight on that leg.”

“Coffee’s good.  But are there any places that are open?”

“There’s a place in the building.”

Prism made a face.

“Not institution coffee.  An actual coffee bar as part of the cafeteria.”  He slung his bag over one shoulder and offered her an arm.

“Don’t you need a wheelchair?  I thought it was hospital policy to wheel you to the door.”

“It’s fine.  Benefit of having a small hospital as part of the PRT building.  Pretty common for us to go straight from here to our offices, and there were apparently issues with photographers taking pictures of heroes in wheelchairs as they left the hospital.  Director Piggot arranged things this way for exactly this reason.”

“Damn.  Need to push for something like that in NYC.  Our hospital’s off-site.”  She put a hand on his shoulder and they began making their way down the hall.

Ursa Aurora turned the corner and spotted them.  Triumph could see the frown lines above the glossy black bear mask she wore, her obvious relief and the quickening of her pace on spotting him.  His heart sank. Something’s happened.  Or it’s happening.

“Guys!”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“There’s an issue.  Division in the ranks.  Looking ugly.”

“The enemy?”

She shook her head.  “Our guys.  And it’s about you.”

That caught him off guard.  He shook his head a little; no time to get into the particulars.  He’d deal with the situation himself.  “Lead the way.”

Despite the apparent urgency of the situation, they couldn’t run.  Prism was hurt and the elevator was the fastest way to their destination.  Ursa went ahead to press the button while Triumph helped Prism limp her way there.

Gentler,” she hissed, after setting too much weight on her bad leg.

“Sorry.”

“I hate this, being injured,” Prism mumbled.

“It’s not too serious?”

“No.  Skitter tethered me to the roof so I dropped halfway, stopped, then cut the line so I’d drop the rest of the way.  Landed on my side.  But being hobbled like this, it brings back bad memories.”

He turned to Ursa as they approached the elevators.  “Press both buttons at the same time, three times in a row for the emergency use.”

Ursa did as he’d suggested, and the button began alternately flashing yellow and red.  The doors opened almost immediately afterward and they gathered inside.  Ursa hit the button for the basement floor: the Wards’ headquarters.

He glanced at her teammate.  It struck him that it was inappropriate to ask, but it also felt like Prism was inviting the question.  “Would it be bad form for me to ask?  About the bad memories?”

Prism shook her head.  “Ursa knows, and I’ve been working on getting over it.  I already mentioned my history in gymnastics.  My dad’s a coach, had spent his entire life pushing me and my siblings to be on the Olympic level.  I sometimes thought it was the only reason he had kids.  I was pretty close to qualifying when I tore my ACL.”

“Ouch.  You didn’t re-injure it last night?”

She shook her head, “Hip, not knee.  Looking back, I think I screwed up my knee back then because my dad had pushed me too hard and too fast.  But I blamed myself.  I got depressed, stayed home instead of going to the gym.  Once dad and the sibs realized I wasn’t going to come along anymore, I started to get left out of family events, left behind when they went out to eat after training.  It doesn’t sound like that huge a deal, but gymnastics had become a core part of my life, and it was gone.  Everything fell apart.”

“I’m sorry.  I know better than to say that’s not significant.  Believe me.  I’ve been there.”

She shrugged.  “I guess I became my own family.  Found another pillar to build my life around.  But even if I have a high pain tolerance, having an injury like this reminds me of those days.  Puts me in a bad mood for a while.  So I’m sorry if I’m irritable.”

“I can deal.”

They’d gone out as friends, first, because they both had similar backgrounds, and segued into a casual relationship.  They had both been athletes, once upon a time.  She was an ex-gymnast, he had been a baseball player.  She’d triggered because of the aftermath of a career-ending injury.  He’d acquired his powers because he’d been perpetually second place, doomed to miss his chance, a mere hair from a career in the major league.

He knew how devastating that stuff could be when you’d made the sacrifices, given up most of your adolescence to succeed at something, only to fall short.

He’d turned to his dad for help, and his dad had delivered a small vial that was supposedly designed to force a state equivalent to a trigger event, without the necessary trauma.  Irony had reared her ugly head when the major leagues had mandated MRI scans to check for powers and maintain the integrity of the game, mere months after he’d gained athletic ability that would let him compete.

In a way, he was glad.  Not that he had been back then.  He’d been spoiled, a brat, entitled.  He was relieved he hadn’t continued down that road, that he’d found a career where he was on something of an even playing field with his peers.

Not that things were perfect.

He could hear the arguing the second the elevator doors parted.

Miss Militia, Weld and Kid Win stood on one side of the room.  Assault was on the other side, perched on the edge of the terminal, with Clockblocker, Chariot and Vista at his side.

“-vigilantism!”  Miss Militia’s voice was tight with barely controlled anger.

“There has to be an authority for us to ignore for us be vigilantes,” Assault said.  His voice was calmer, but his body language wasn’t.  He was tense, the hand that wasn’t gripping the edge of the console was clenched into a fist.  “There isn’t.  Nobody’s stepping up to enforce anything.”

“The PRT stands.  All of the watchdogs are in place,” Miss Militia spoke.  “You go out and do something without an official a-ok and people are going to notice that we’re acting completely outside of the principles and rules the Protectorate stands for.”

“How?” Assault countered.  “Media?  In case you haven’t noticed, a full third of this city is still lacking power.  The reporters that have stuck around this long are too tired and too low on resources to follow along.”

“Cell cameras,”  Miss Militia said.  “People are watching and recording us every step of the way.”

“We’ll be covert.  I’m talking a fast, hard hitting strike.  Attack is always preferable over defense.

“You’re talking revenge,” Triumph spoke.  He let Ursa support Prism and stepped forward to join the ‘discussion’.

“Revenge, justice, it’s a pretty thin line.  But sure.  We can call it that,” Assault said, leaning back a little.  He smiled a little at Miss Militia; there was now one more person on his side of the argument.

Triumph glanced around the room.  Flechette, Ursa and Prism weren’t taking a side.  They weren’t local, and the politics here would be intimidating.

Still, Triumph glanced at Flechette.  She’s been around a few weeks.  She should feel confident about voicing an opinion.

Was she being neutral, or was she undecided?  Or was there another factor at play?

He felt so disconnected from the Wards, these days.  He barely recognized his old team.  Vista, Kid Win, Clockblocker… he’d been their captain, not so long ago.

Miss Militia and Assault were looking at him, waiting for him to speak.  From Assault’s confidence, there was no doubt he expected Triumph to take his side.

Instead, he commented, “Just going by what I’ve heard, Assault’s arguing we should take the fight to the enemy?  Without Piggot’s consent?”

“Piggot has told us to stand down,” Miss Militia spoke.  “So we’d be going against her directive.”

“They attacked one of our own.  Again,” Assault said.  “And they broke a cardinal rule.  They attacked family.  You don’t unmask a cape, and if you happen to discover their secret identity, you don’t go after their family.”

“The family’s testimony suggests that wasn’t deliberate.  Skitter informed Trickster partway through,” Weld said.

Clockblocker cut in, “But we can assume she found out beforehand.  Unless you’re going to suggest she figured it out on her own?”

“No,” Weld replied.  “It makes sense.  I suspect Tattletale could find out something like that.  I’d even believe she’s found out all of our identities by now.  But I’m saying Trickster wasn’t in the know, and he’s the person who made the conscious decision to attack Triumph’s sister.”

“They’ve broken other unspoken rules,” Assault said, looking at Triumph and Miss Militia rather than the junior members.  “Shatterbird?  Are we really going to let that one slide?”

“Anything goes when fighting the Nine,” Miss Militia said.

“The Nine are gone.  He’s still breaking the rules.  He kidnapped and took control of Shadow Stalker.  He’s affected civilians.  Criminals, admittedly, but still civilians.”

“And the people in charge know that,” Miss Militia said.  “If they decide that it’s crossing the line, we can act decisively.”

“People in suits,” Assault said.  “They sit in offices with padded chairs, viewing everything through the filter of clinical, tidy paperwork.  They don’t know what it is to be in the field, to face the risk of death or fates worse than death in the service of this city.”

If Miss Militia had been getting ready for a response, she hesitated when Assault said ‘fates worse than death’, his voice revealing a tremor of emotion.

Triumph could imagine the scene as he’d glimpsed it: Battery on her deathbed, wasting away from a poison designed to be cruel rather than efficient.  But as slow as it had worked, it had proved incurable.

Assault went on, and there was no hint of the earlier emotion in his voice.  Rather, he sounded dangerously like a leader.  “If we don’t act on this, if we don’t move on the Undersiders and the Travelers, then we’re saying that’s alright.  We’re saying it’s okay to do those same things to us.”

“You’d be violating your probationary status on the team,” Miss Militia said, quiet.  “Going against orders.”

“My joining the Protectorate was conditional on being on the same team as Battery,” Assault replied.  He met Miss Militia’s eyes with a level stare, as if challenging her to press the issue.

There was no doubt what was at the root of Assault’s anger.  Miss Militia, by contrast, was the leader of the Protectorate because of her unwavering loyalty and willingness to not only abide by the rules but to fight for them.  Triumph could understand why they’d taken the positions they had.

He glanced at the others.  Weld was a company man, so to speak, and the PRT was his family, after a fashion.  It made sense that he’d stand by the rules imposed by the PRT, the Protectorate and the Wards.  Clockblocker had always chafed under the yoke of the institution, and Chariot could easily be the same.  Most Wards went through a phase like that, feeling the pressures, the strict rules, realizing that the Wards existed in part to keep them out of the worst of things, while aching to go out and be a hero.  Clockblocker had never entirely grown out of it.

It could be that Chariot’s stance here was what Coil wanted.  Triumph couldn’t forget that Chariot was an undercover operative, planted by the supervillain to gather information.

No, none of those calls surprised him.  The outliers, the ones that caught him off guard…

“Vista, I didn’t think you’d be wanting to break the rules like this,” he commented.  Before she could reply, he said, “And Kid Win.  I took you for more of a rebel.”

“I’m tired of losing people,” Vista said.  “We lost Gallant.  Aegis too, and Velocity, Dauntless, Battery…”

“Yeah.  And Shadow Stalker,” Triumph offered.

“She left,” Clockblocker said.

“I’d still consider her a casualty,” Triumph said.  “We might not have liked her, but she was one of us, and the enemy basically took her from us.”

“I don’t want to forget Glory Girl and Panacea,” Clockblocker said.  “She and her sister did me a life-changing favor.  We don’t know the whole story there, but the Undersiders or the Nine had to have played a part in how that unfolded.  But that’s one hell of a list of names.  There’s less of us than there are them, and we’re losing.  Not just fights, but we’re losing this war.  Don’t you see that?”

“I see it,” Miss Militia said, her voice particularly quiet compared to her raised volume earlier.  “But that’s exactly why I’m telling you not to do this.  The second we make this into an actual war, we change it from a losing fight to an outright defeat.  At best everyone involved would lose out, our enemies included.  I don’t want that.”

“You’re making it sound more complicated than it is,” Assault said.  “I’m talking a quick, hard hitting strike against one of their territories.  One of the master-classifications would be a good bet.  I’d suggest Regent, but Shatterbird is too big a complication.  Better to take out Hellhound or Skitter.  Doing either would cut their tactical options down by a third, and it could gain us a hostage to leverage against the others.”

“Not Tattletale?” Clockblocker asked.

Assault shook his head.  “She’d know we were coming.  It’s in Armsmaster’s notes from his first meeting with Skitter.  It’s why they’re so elusive as a group, and that’s why it’s so crucial we strike first, while they’re still split up in individual territories.  Grue, Trickster, Genesis or Imp would escape too readily, and confronting Ballistic or Sundancer would place our side at too much risk.”

“They’d retaliate,” Miss Militia said, “And we’d almost certainly lose.  We’re roughly matched in numbers, we’re outmatched in raw firepower and they have the edge on us in terms of tactical knowledge.”

“So we’re supposed to sit here and take it?” Clockblocker asked.  “If my family gets attacked next time, I don’t think my dad’s about to haul out a shotgun to defend himself.”

“That’s not exactly how it played out,” Triumph said.  “But no.  I don’t think we should take it, and I don’t think we should attack.  Miss Militia’s right.”

Assault’s eyebrows rose in surprise.

“Thank you,” Miss Militia said.  “I understand that some of you are upset.  We’re all upset.  We’re all concerned about our loved ones, about the current state of things in the city and about possibly being captured and controlled by Regent.  But we’re only going to succeed with the support of the Protectorate as a whole, and we’ll only have that if we stick to the rules.”

“Well said,” Director Piggot spoke.

All heads turned.  Director Piggot stood in the doorway that led to the stairwell.

“Director,” Assault said.  He didn’t look fazed by the woman’s appearance.

“I hope you’ll hear me out before committing to a plan of action?”

“Of course.”  Assault leaned back, folding his arms.

“Then let me introduce our visitors.”  Piggot stepped to one side, shifting her prodigious weight out of the way of the door.

There were two of them, each covered head to toe in power armor that was similar in theme, if not in design.  It was heavy duty stuff, and even without tinker abilities, Triumph could admire it as something exceptionally well made.

They were the same height, a man and a woman.  The man held a spear that was no less than fifteen feet long, with a two-pronged tip on the end.  The woman wore something that looked to be  a modified jetpack, divided into two pieces that each had to weigh as much as she did.  The exhaust jets fanned out to either side of her, like the feathers of a bird’s outstretched wings.

The woman removed her helmet, then shook her head so her dark hair could fall around the armor around her shoulders and neck.  She wasn’t beautiful, but she wasn’t ugly either.  Even ‘plain’ wasn’t the right label.  She was exceptionally average in appearance, to the point that it was borderline eerie.  He couldn’t pin down as belonging to any particular ethnicity, nor could he eliminate her from one.

Yet she’s strangely familiar, Triumph observed.

Triumph looked at the man, waiting for him to remove his helmet, but he didn’t.  The man folded his arms instead, still holding on to the spear with one hand.

That body language.  Triumph’s eyes widened behind his visor.  No.  No way.  No way he’d come back here.

But if he was here, then the woman would be-

“Dragon,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Dragon extended a hand, and Miss Militia shook it.  “Likewise.  Let me introduce Defiant.”

Triumph glanced around at the others.  Nobody here was so stupid as to miss what was going on.  Even the capes that weren’t native to Brockton Bay would figure this out in a heartbeat.

“Dragon and Defiant have stopped by to pick up resources and gather information before taking on a long-term mission,” the Director explained.  “Would you like to explain?”

“The Nine,” Dragon explained.  “We know their general behavior.  After a spree like the one they had here in Brockton Bay, they’re going to retreat.  They’ll stick to back roads and isolated small towns, use time and distance to let the heat dissipate.  Jack may keep his people engaged with games like what he tried to set up here.  Scaling up slowly in a remote area, seeing how badly they can terrify the local populace, ending with a grand climax before moving on.  They’ll also be looking to recruit and replace missing members, and I expect they’ll go easier on testing the recruits until they’ve replenished their numbers.”

“What are you doing, then?” Assault asked.

“We’re going after them,” Defiant spoke.  His voice was partially altered by his helmet, but it was still identifiable.

Why is everyone pretending they don’t know that’s Armsmaster?

Defiant continued, “And we’re not going to stop.  Pursuit will continue twenty-four seven, year-round.  We keep them running until they get tired and hungry enough that they make a mistake, and we capitalize on that.”

“We’ve tried this before,”  Miss Militia responded.  “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the idea, but Assault was just arguing that it’s easier to attack than to defend, and I agree.  You won’t be able to prevent every casualty.”

“The primary issue before,” Dragon replied, “Is that the previous efforts were squads, sleeping in shifts, always moving.  Invariably, the Nine would catch on to what was happening, they’d take out the squad on duty and then they would disappear before the others could mobilize to stop them.  Or the Nine would circle around and kill the off-duty squad members.  We don’t have that problem.”

“I don’t follow,” Assault said.

“Dragon mentioned to me once that she doesn’t need to sleep.  A side effect of her powers,” Miss Militia said.

Dragon dipped her head in a nod.  “I tried going after the Slaughterhouse Nine before, but Shatterbird’s powers proved too difficult to work around, and I was only one person.  Now I have a partner.”

“Defiant?”  Miss Militia asked.

Defiant tapped his chest.  “With Dragon’s help, I’ve replaced my internal organs and parts of my brain with artificial equivalents.  My current downtime is a rough fifteen minutes a day. That includes waste, sleep and eating.  In the next two weeks, I intend to reduce it to a mere twelve minutes.”

Vista’s hands went to her mouth in shock.

He’s made himself into a monster.  And Dragon doesn’t even flinch as he announces it. Triumph’s own eyes were wide.

Miss Militia seemed to recover faster than anyone else.  “That’s not the only issue the squads faced.  There’s the psychological strain.  Hunting a prey for days, weeks, months at a time?  Especially targets that will commit atrocities if you let your guard down for a second?  It gets to you.”

“I think,” Defiant paused, as if he had to pick the right words, “My single-mindedness will be an asset on that front.”

“It’s worth a try,” Dragon said.  “Between us, Defiant and I can customize our equipment and approach to effectively counter the Nine’s powers.  Once we have a lead, we’ll maintain constant pressure for as long as necessary.  Even if we can’t save everyone, even if we can’t stop them outright with Siberian rendering others invincible, I think we can keep them from setting up another major event like they tried here in Brockton Bay, and we can hopefully keep them from recruiting.”

“The PRT is hopeful,” the Director said, “They gave their consent.  But you’ll have to explain how this is relevant to the current situation.”

“Of course.  If everyone would turn their attention to the monitors?”

Assault had to hop down from where he was sitting on the edge of the long desk to see.  Everyone else turned as the images appeared across the screen.  One armored suit after another.

“The Cawthorne mark three.”

A sleek model resembling a cross between a dragon and a fighter jet, mounted with four engines around the ‘shoulders’.

“The Astaroth-Nidhug hybrid, making use of the Nidhug design that was partially damaged in prior confrontations.”

It didn’t look like a mesh.  It looked like a cohesive design, a massive gun barrel with teeth at the end, outfitted not with a handle, but three afterburners at the rear and three at the midsection.  The landing gear looked spindly.  It was also, Triumph realized, quite large.  No smaller than a commercial aircraft, if the machinery beneath it was supposed to be a forklift.

“The Ladon-Two.”

It didn’t look as sleek or combat-ready as the others, smaller, almost spherical in the body.

“That’s a utility design,” Chariot said.  “What’s the concept?”

“A forcefield generator,” Dragon replied.  “Dual offensive and defensive use.  I also have the Glaurung Zero-Model, the Pythios-Two, the Melusine-Six and the Azazel ready for field use.”

The camera panned out to show a sheared-off mountaintop with the seven armored suits and a hangar or factory.

“It is thanks to Defiant’s assistance that I can now do this.”

Simultaneously, each armored suit flared to life and took off, disappearing from the camera’s field of view.  The cloud of dust and snow that spread out from the takeoff point obscured the camera’s view.  The image went black.

“I have nine models in total that I can keep active simultaneously.  More are in development.  It’s inefficient and expensive to keep all of them active when we do not yet have a bead on the Slaughterhouse Nine.  With the Director’s consent, we’ll be stationing the seven suits we’re not personally using in Brockton Bay.  The PRT will remain in contact with me so I can remotely deploy them.  That is, those not already in use against the Slaughterhouse Nine or an Endbringer.”

Not just one, but seven suits crafted by the best tinker in the world.

Triumph glanced at Chariot.  The boy seemed pensive, but that could have been one tinker admiring the work of another.

“Hard to believe you need Defiant riding along when you have that kind of raw firepower,” Assault commented.

“Two sets of eyes are better than one, and we can keep each other sane.  Defiant will pilot the Uther when he isn’t on the ground.”

“Well, Defiant, your hard work is appreciated.  I wish you the best of luck.  You too, Dragon,” Miss Militia said.

They can’t possibly be buying this.

“Nobody’s going to say it?”  Triumph asked, before he could censor himself.

Every set of eyes turned to him.  He could only go forward.

“You… don’t really believe this?  This Defiant thing?  He’s not even trying to hide it.”

The tension in the room was so thick he could have choked on it.

“If you have a valid concern about Defiant,” Director Piggot spoke, “I think it would benefit us all to hear it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but she’d already raised her hand to stop him.  “Rest assured, Triumph, if you were to allege criminal activity, we would arrest and detain him until a case could be made.  We’d pull him off this wholly voluntary task and if your charges were serious enough, send him to the Birdcage.  I suppose we’d have to adjust Dragon’s battle plan against the Nine, she would likely be forced to rethink her idea of having the suits stationed in Brockton Bay, so she was better able to defend herself.”

“I get what you’re saying.”

“I’m not saying anything, Triumph, only that you’re entirely free to speak.”

He glanced around the room at the others.  Clockblocker looked at the monitors, Assault was adjusting his glove, Vista staring hard at the ground.  Nobody met his eyes.

Except Director Piggot.  It would have been easier to stare down a Bengal tiger than to meet her steel-gray eyes.

There’s a difference between serving the system and enabling it.

“Just wanted to say that the guy’s got cojones,” Triumph said, with no emotion or inflection.  “Taking on the Slaughterhouse Nine like that, being this new to the game.”

“Quite so,” the Director replied.  “You’ll be on double patrols until the elections are over, but you’ll have the suits arriving within a minute of any confrontations.  The schedule’s already in the system.  I and my direct subordinates will be available twenty-four-seven to those manning the console.  We’ll then be able to verbally sign-off on the deployment of any of the dragon models.”

He couldn’t bring himself to speak up and say it.  That Armsmaster was here, posing as a new hero.  Triumph knew he was enabling the system, he was allowing something wrong to happen here, but stopping the Nine was more important.  Having the suits to turn the table on the villains taking over the city?  Too much hung in the balance.

“Hey,” Prism murmured in his ear.  She’d created a duplicate rather than hobble over to him. “You okay?”

He shook his head.

“Still want to get that coffee?”

“No.  No thanks.”  He had trouble looking at her.  She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t tried to say anything.  Yes, it was the better choice in the long run, putting Armsmaster to work against the Nine.  That didn’t mean it wasn’t wrong.

He was still relatively new to this.  Three years of duty, most of which had been spent among the Wards.  Was he the only one who was just old enough to speak out, not yet so old and jaded that he acceded to authority over anything else?

Or was it the opposite?  Was he of the age where he had the ignorance of youth coupled with the arrogance of adulthood?

As much as he’d thought she was the ideal girl before, as much as he’d shared her background with a failed sports career of his own, he could barely recognize her.

“I gotta go.  Need to take a walk.”

“My flight is-”

“Right.  Of course.  Have a nice flight.  Maybe I’ll see you at a future date?”

Disappointment crossed her face.  “Maybe.”

He stepped into the elevator and pressed the button.  The doors whisked shut.

His mind was a dull buzz as he walked.  He’d looked up to Armsmaster, once.  He’d understood the man.  His own experiences of being second best in baseball ran parallel to the feelings Armsmaster had hinted at but never outright stated; the Protectorate captain had been resentful of Dauntless’ meteoric rise, the inevitable moment that Dauntless would effortlessly supplant him as leader of the team.

As much as he hated to admit it, Triumph could understand where Armsmaster was coming from.  He could imagine the selfish joy the man must have experienced when Dauntless fell.  It would have been horrifying, too, no doubt, but that horror would be tempered by pragmatism.  Death was a natural consequence of an Endbringer attack.  It was reality.  So maybe Armsmaster had told himself it was okay to feel relieved that a rival had fallen.

He could see why Armsmaster had taken the route he had in the actual battle.  Taking on Leviathan one-on-one had been the only way the combat prediction program would work, and he’d had an effective weapon.  If villains happened to die in the process, well, he only had to call on that pragmatism again.  Triumph didn’t agree with the line of thinking, but he could see how it had happened.

Armsmaster had been injured by Leviathan and Mannequin, and replaced parts of himself with mechanical equivalents.  He’d realized the benefits, worked with Dragon to step them up further.  He’d failed to defeat Leviathan, had been too hurt to fight the Nine directly.  So he augmented himself further, eradicated his need for sleep, for time spent eating and shitting.

Armsmaster, Defiant, would achieve that respect he hungered for by stopping the Nine.  Or he would join Dragon in stopping an Endbringer.

It spooked Triumph because he could imagine it all too easily, where his teammates seemed dumbfounded.  It all made sense, to the point that he could imagine himself doing something similar if he found himself in Armsmaster’s shoes.

He wouldn’t ever do something like that; that was how he’d reassured himself.  He was no longer that selfish teenager who’d received superpowers from his father like his peers got cars on their sixteenth birthday.  He’d hoped for an undetectable, undeniable advantage over his peers and been enraged when it had been denied him.  He’d changed, forced himself to change; he would be a good student, he’d help his fellow citizens, do the right thing.

Except he hadn’t.  He’d kept his mouth shut.  Armsmaster would get away scott free with what he had done.  He might even succeed in stopping the Nine, in seeing them killed or put in the Birdcage.  The world would be better for it, and a warped man who’d mechanized his humanity for one more edge would be regaled as a hero.  And he couldn’t help but feel that he’d taken one small step forward on the very same road that Armsmaster had traveled before him.

Triumph’s walk brought him to the scar.  Just as Leviathan had turned a section of Downtown into a sinkhole, the Director had dropped countless tinker-made bombs on central downtown.  There was radioactive fallout, but the reported levels weren’t dangerously high.  Fire still burned in one area days after the fact, and he had to skirt around a cloud of dangerous-looking white vapor to reach his destination.

Seating himself on a safe-looking piece of rubble, Triumph rested his elbows on his knee and stared at the figures.  Crawler and Mannequin, turned to silicon by the detonation of one of Bakuda’s bombs.  Crawler looked almost joyous, limbs spread and flexed, mouth open in a roar.  Mannequin was caught mid-dash, low to the ground.

He stared at them, as if he could burn them into his memory.  He couldn’t say why he was here, exactly, but he’d felt compelled to see the real monsters for himself, outside of the heat of battle and the frantic and desperate scramble for survival.

Maybe it was to find some clue, some sign he could watch out for, that would let him identify the monsters from the men.

He’d stay for five minutes at most, he told himself.  Whatever the records said, it was better to be safe than sorry when radiation was involved.  Five minutes, and if he couldn’t see anything by then, there wasn’t much use in staying longer.

He stayed for fifteen.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

“Do tell?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

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

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

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

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

“So?”

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

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

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

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

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

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

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

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

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

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

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

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

“And you’re telling us this because?”

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

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

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

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

“What am I supposed to make?”

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

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

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

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

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

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

“Bomb hits then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what should I do?”

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

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

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

She nodded.

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

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

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

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

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

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

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

“Until?”  Regent asked.

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

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

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

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

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

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

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

“Look out!”  I shouted.

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

“Genesis, can you run?”

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

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

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

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

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

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

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

“Grue!”  I called out.

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

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

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

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

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

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

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

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

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

Their chances were about as good as mine.

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

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

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

It would have to do.

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

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

Come on, come on.

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

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

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

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

“Come on,” I begged it.

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

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

It dawned on me why.

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

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“They’re not answering,” Tattletale reported, as she lowered the phone from her ear.  “They’re already engaged.”

“You fucking idiot.  I swear,” Trickster stabbed one finger in her direction, “If Ballistic dies because you fucking gave it away-”

I could see Tattletale’s eyes narrow, “My power told me there was a damn good chance she’d just run for it.  Eighty, ninety percent.”

“Well, your power was wrong, wasn’t it?” Trickster retorted.

Tattletale ignored him, looking at me, “Anything?  Can you find him?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I think he might be in a vehicle, so he can keep up with Siberian.  I realized it late, I haven’t been looking for one this whole time, but I’m sweeping the area now.”

“Shouldn’t we go?” Sundancer asked.  “We can go help Ballistic and your team.”

“Would love to,” Grue said, “But Bitch warned us about using her dogs past the fifteen minute mark.  It’s wearing off, they’re getting smaller and weaker, and if it gets to the point that they’re not comfortable carrying the load, they may lash out.”

“How many minutes has it been?”  Trickster asked, glancing at Bentley.

“Long enough I wouldn’t risk it,” Grue said.

I looked at Sirius.  I hadn’t noticed while we’d been riding him, but he was smaller.  His exterior tissues were fitting looser, in the same way skin tended to hang loose on someone who had been morbidly obese and recently lost weight.

And just to his left, I could see Amy backing away, holding her hand.

“Amy,” I spoke.

She startled as if I’d slapped her.  Everyone’s eyes turned to her.

“You okay?”  I asked.

“No, I’m not okay.”  Her head trembled a little as she turned to glance at the others.  She returned her attention to me.  “She bit off my fingers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I raised my hands to show her I wasn’t armed.  “We tried to get to you as fast as we could.”

“My fingers,” she moaned, as she looked at her hand.  “I ran as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.  She kept catching me.”

“I know.  There was nothing you could have done,” I said.

“It’s not right,” Amy shook her head.  She was still backing away. “This isn’t the way things should be.  Superpowers and Endbringers and things like Siberian… it’s so fucked up.  We- there should be a way to fight back, but there isn’t, so much of the time.”

“There is,” I said.  “It’s hard to find, but there’s always a way.”

Tattletale turned her head, “Hey, Amy, listen.  Can I ask you a quest-”

“Don’t,” Amy snapped, shifting gears from self-pity to fury in a heartbeat.  “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t even look at me, you bitch.”

“This is important.”

“What part of what I just said did you not understand!?”

“You’d think we didn’t just save your life,” Trickster said, folding his arms.

“You did it to delay Siberian.  Or so she said,” Amy replied, glancing at Tattletale.

“It was one of the reasons,” Tattletale started, “Skitter-”

“Shut up!”  The words were a screech as they came out of Amy’s mouth.

Tattletale turned a hundred and eighty degrees, so her back was to Amy, and looked in the direction of Grue and I.  “I’m done.  No point, fuck it.  I’m going to try calling the others again while you handle this.”

There were a few long seconds of tension as we all stood there, Tattletale a short distance away, phone to her ear.

I decided to break the silence.  “How are your fingers?  You’re using your power to keep the bleeding down?”

Amy glanced at her hand, and a dark look crossed her face.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve got bandages, if you want them.  Only the most basic first aid supplies, but maybe they’ll help?”

“Okay.”

I got the small kit from my utility compartment and approached her.  She kept still while I got out the disinfectant, bandages and tape and covered the fingers Siberian had shortened by one segment.

“How can you even be teammates with her?”  Amy asked me.  “Are you friends?”

“We are.”

“Everything that happened to me, it’s like it all snowballed out from the moment you assholes robbed the bank.”

Me too.  I’d met and ultimately joined the Undersiders because of Tattletale, and everything had followed from that.

“She didn’t plan that.  It might have started that way, but she wasn’t the cause of everything that followed,” I said.  I wondered if I was trying to convince myself.

Amy glared down at the ground.  A quick glance showed that Grue, Trickster and Sundancer were all trying to avoid engaging in this conversation.

She spoke at a low enough volume that I doubted the words were reaching the others.  “I’ve had nightmares about her.  Not saying I take back how I shouted at her, but she brought up shit, and the fact that Victoria heard it, I couldn’t shake it.  It affected the way I thought, the way I acted.  Victoria knew something was up, she respected my privacy, but she had suspicions.  If Tattletale hadn’t said anything, I could have dealt with Bonesaw coming to my house and fucking with me, getting me to break my code.  Or Bonesaw might not have come at all.  I don’t know.  Victoria would have listened to me, maybe.  Given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“We didn’t expect you to be at the bank.  We were cornered, Tattletale used the power she was given to get us out of that spot.  I’m sorry it happened.”

“She was the catalyst in my whole life falling apart.  Tattletale was.”

“Maybe.”

“And you can be friends with her, and you still think of yourself as a good person?”

“I… don’t know that I do think of myself that way.  I’ve probably done more damage than good, by trying to help others.”  Dinah, the people in my territory, now Brian.

“But your intentions were good, then?  You were trying to help?”

“Yeah.”

“Then tell me what to do.”  She didn’t meet my eyes.  “I don’t know anymore.  I’ve spent so long helping others, and I’m so scared, I feel numb.  My brain isn’t working.  Can’t think straight.  I-  I just don’t know anymore.  I’m not making any promises, I won’t fight, won’t face the Nine, don’t want to talk to Tattletale, but…” she trailed off, unable to finish her thought.

I swallowed.  I couldn’t even manage with myself, and now she wanted me to guide her?

“Okay,” I said.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  She was one of the most powerful parahumans native to Brockton Bay.  How was I supposed to use her?

One idea crossed my mind, and I hated myself for thinking it, for the stark fear I felt at the thought.  “Okay.  I won’t ask you to face the Nine.  But you can give us the ability to go after them, to fight them.  There’s this part of the brain that Bonesaw called the… Corona something.  Corona potential?  Can you access mine?  Tweak my power, give me more range?  As much as you can.”

The mental image of Bonesaw cutting through my skull with her saw was so real I could almost feel the sensation of it.

But we had to stop Siberian.

“I can’t affect brains.”

“You can’t-”  I sighed.  We all had our limitations and barriers.  I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.  I didn’t argue the point.  “Fuck.  Okay.  The dogs.  Can you charge them up?  Figure out how Bitch’s power is affecting them, and either make them big again or keep them from getting any smaller?”

She glanced at Sirius.  I’d gotten so used to them I’d nearly forgotten just how horrifying they were to look at.

“I’d have to touch them.”

“Yeah.  They’re not as bad as they look.  They’re regular dogs, it’s only appearances and size.”

“Regular dogs still bite people.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to lose more fingers.”

“I know.  You don’t have to.  Let me think.  We can come up with another way for you to contribute.”

“Can you grow us wings?” Trickster asked, in a wry tone.

“I can’t generate flesh from nothing, and it’s slow to convert something into a part your body won’t reject.”

“Of course,” Trickster said, with a note of sarcasm.

Not helping, I thought.  Amy was willing to do something.  It was useful.  We didn’t need to discourage that.

Before I could finish my thought, I saw Amy walk up to Sirius and offer him one hand to sniff.  She flinched as he moved his head, pulling her arm away.

I joined her side, and put one hand on the side of Sirius’ neck, digging my fingertips into a meaty cord of muscle.  I scratched with enough force that I might have left tracks in normal skin.  “Hey, boy.  You’re a good dog, aren’t you?  Yes you are.”

His bone-crusted tail lashed behind him in something approximating a wag.

Amy put out her hand again, and Sirius sniffed it.  Gingerly, she laid her hand on the length of his snout, running her fingers over calcified muscle, bone spurs and braided lengths of muscle and other tissue.

“The hell?” she muttered.  “Can’t wrap my head around this.”

“You can’t make him bigger?”

“No, I don’t think I can.  Can’t make something from nothing.  But I think I can stall the shrinking.  Whatever I do might get undone the second he’s back in range of Hell- of Bitch.  It’s hard to describe.  I can see the aftermath of what she does, but not the process.  It’s like the tissue grows, then it dies as it gets pushed out of the core, but some of it stays functional… there’s a normal dog inside there?  Intact?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Think I’ve got it.  He’s not going to shrink anytime soon.”

I signaled Tattletale to return.  “Thank you.”

She walked over to Bentley, giving Trickster a wary look as she walked by him.  I joined her, in part to give Bentley the reassurance that this angry stranger wasn’t so dangerous.

“There,” Amy said.  “You’re going to save your friends?”

“And if we can, we’re going to put down the Nine.  We figured out Siberian’s weakness.”

Her eyes widened slightly at that.  “What?”

“What did you think we meant when we were talking about her other self?”

“A secret identity?  I- I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Tattletale climbed up onto Bentley’s back, studiously ignoring Amy.

“Kind of a secret identity.  She’s a projection,” I said.  “Like Crusader has with his duplicates.  Best case scenario, we can find her real body and put her down.”

“Just like that?  You’ll kill her?”

“Ideal world,” I said.  Grue had climbed up onto Sirius’s back, and he offered me a hand up.  “Won’t know if we’re capable until it happens, but I’d like to think we have the courage.”

“But you’re risking your lives.”

“Yeah.”  I got settled and wrapped my arms around Grue’s body.  He didn’t react or protest.  My head just inches from his back, I turned to look down at Amy, “See, it helps that we’re pissed.”

“I’m pissed too,” Amy said.

I offered my hand to her, in case she wanted to climb up behind me and join us, but she stepped away.

“But you’re more scared than pissed,” I said.  She looked away.

“We should get going,” Trickster said, as Sundancer got in position behind him.  We were all seated and ready to head to the rescue.

“One second,” I told him.  “Amy.  Listen.  It’s okay.  I’ve thought of another way you can help, and it doesn’t put you in any danger.”

“What is it?”  She still didn’t meet my eyes.

“You’re going to cut loose with your power.  I can feed you the raw materials, you do what you can.  You know how my power works?”

“Pretty much.”

“Send the bugs my way when you’re done with them, then.”

“You’re a villain, you know.  You’re asking me to betray the family I grew up with if I’m helping you.”

I stared at her.  We were so similar in such different ways, but I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her train of thought.

Why were the people who clung so fiercely to the notions of right and wrong the very same individuals that had the worst grasp of what they meant?

Maybe I wasn’t one to talk.

“I don’t think you’re one to talk about betraying family,” Tattletale spoke.

I could see all the color drain out of Amy’s face.

“Hey, Tattle,” I started.

“No.  Sorry, Skitter, but it’s my turn to talk now.  We’re short on time, and we really should leave now, but if we leave it like this, you’re going to be distracted.”

I shut my mouth.

“Amy?  I know what you did.”

“Don’t you dare-” Amy started.

“You fucked up.  You crossed one of the lines that’s reserved for the real monsters.  You know it, I know it.”

Amy’s face crumpled.  I didn’t have a better way of describing it, the way her expression twisted, going from plain to almost inhuman from emotion alone.

I almost spoke up.  I wasn’t sure why I didn’t.

“You think you’re the lowest of the low, that you’re scum.  You despise yourself.”

Amy couldn’t even mount a response.

“You’re wrong.  You’re not there.  Not yet.”

Amy looked up at Tattletale, wide-eyed.  The look was utterly defenseless.  I was put in mind, for just an instant, of just who Tattletale could have been.  I had a mental image of her as a cult leader, tearing people down with an almost surgical precision, then molding them into who she wanted them to be when they were emotionally and mentally unable to mount a defense.

“Not yet?” Amy asked.

“Not yet.  You shouldn’t hate yourself for what you did in a moment of desperation.  Hate yourself for what you do after.  Hate yourself for your cowardice, your refusal to step up and help at this moment, right now, your refusal to participate in this world that you never even tried to understand.  That’s a conscious call you’re making, and you know it’s the wrong one.”

Amy hugged her arms to her chest.  She shook her head a little, as if she was denying what Tattletale was saying.

Tattletale went on.  “You need to make the right calls, and you need to start now, because you’re approaching the point of no return.  You start making amends, you start doing your part, and you undo what you did, and you do it ASAP, because if you don’t, you’re going to hit the hard ground at the bottom of that slippery slope.”

“But-”

Tattletale didn’t give Amy a chance to finish.  She kicked her heels and Bentley charged off.

Grue moved to follow, and I turned to Amy, “If I send my bugs to you, will you-”

“I’ll-  I’ll come.”

I blinked.

She stuck her hand in my direction, and I caught it, helping her up to a seat behind me.  Sirius shook slightly, as if he could shake us off.  Were we too heavy?

Apparently not.  He bolted after Bentley, and we were off, Amy clinging to me like her life depended on it.  I suspected that had little to do with the fact that we were riding on one of Bitch’s dogs.

The clawed feet of the dogs pounded pavement as we made our way towards central downtown.

I could feel the sensation of Amy doing something to interfere with my powers.  It began to get worse, reaching a peak, and then getting worse.  Just when it had reached the point where I was going to tear her hands from around me and let her fall off Sirius’s back, it began to clear up.

I could feel the bugs, but they weren’t anything like what I’d seen in Brockton Bay.  Superficially like dragonflies, with fatter bodies.  I couldn’t grasp every process in their body, making them feel strangely hollow and artificial.  What I could feel was a kind of echo in my power.  It made control harder.

She had to have a reason for doing what she was doing.  I tried directing them to move, and they took off.  No problem on that front.

I couldn’t ask what she’d done, because we were moving fast enough that the wind in our ears would drown out my voice, and the run was jarring enough that I worried I would bite my tongue if I tried talking.

Instead, I experimented.  I tried operating their bodies, engaged in the usual practices for injecting venom, nothing.  They weren’t weaponized, I was almost sure.  I even placed some aphids on them to get a feel for their exteriors.

It was only when I moved them out to either side of me that it dawned on me what the echo was.  Experimenting, I sent them to the limits of my range to confirm my suspicions.

Whatever signal my power sent to my bugs, these bugs were there to intercept it and transmit it to their immediate area.  Each extended my range by three hundred or so feet around them.

Letting go of Grue with one hand, I patted Amy’s hand and then reached back to give her a thumbs up.  I set more dragonflies and other various bugs down on the backs of her hand.

In another minute, I had four more relay bugs.  I paired them up and sent them forward, so one relay could transmit to the next.  Two extra city blocks of range.  I started gathering a swarm with the bugs in question.

Amy had balked at the idea of outfitting me with altered bugs.  Had she maybe settled on these, because she thought they wouldn’t give me as much offensive potential?

I had them in place for less than ten seconds before I found a moving vehicle.  It was a truck with plastic sheeting over the windows, four-wheeled, with a compact rear.  A small moving truck?  It was moving faster than was safe, veering wildly as it to get through the water and over the damaged streets, and it was heading straight for central downtown.  Straight for the others.

“Found him!”  I hollered, at the top of my lungs.  Tattletale looked over at me, and I signaled, extending my arm to the ten o’clock position.

I felt strangely calm as I shifted my focus to the attack.

If it came down to it, I’d have to kill the man.

My bugs clustered on the ‘windshield’ of flapping plastic, gathering in heavy numbers.  The faster moving dragonflies and hornets began to pelt the plastic, attempting to drive themselves through it.  Most died in the process.

He swerved sharply to try to throw the bugs off, but there wasn’t enough in the way of momentum or wind.  My other flying insects began to ferry larger black carpenter ants onto the windscreen, to use their sharp bites to penetrate the plastic sheeting.  We were making holes, but the attempts of my swarm to worm their way through the holes and open them enough for the more dangerous bugs to get inside were stymied by the wind and the flapping of the plastic.  Every movement, however small, threw off my ability to track where the existing holes were.

We had a bead on him, and the dogs were better suited for rough terrain than the moving vehicle.  It was only a minute before we caught up.  As I’d guessed, a white moving van with a giant icon of a hand on the back with the words ‘Haul It!’

I might have found it amusing if the circumstances were slightly different.

He noticed us shortly after we noticed him.  Siberian flickered into existence on top of the vehicle, standing, her legs shifting to adjust her balance as it hit a crack in the pavement and rocked slightly to one side.  I heard Amy shriek as she saw Siberian.

Tattletale veered left, hard, and Grue turned us right.  We each cut into side streets, running parallel with the truck.  Bentley was lagging slightly behind, but I caught a glimpse of the other group as we made our way past a major intersection.  Two blocks away, slightly behind us.

I heard an explosion, and Amy clutched me tighter in reaction.  Glancing down, I could see her arms around my ribcage, the hand with the maimed fingers held slightly off and away so it wouldn’t get bumped or jostled.

Trickster was handling the opening salvo.  The objects he was swapping for grenades weren’t even close in size -signs and traffic cones- so the timing was horribly off.  Siberian didn’t move from her perch.

Grue steered Sirius into a sharp left, and the dog’s claws skidded for a grip on the flooded street before we turned.  We got one block and then turned right, putting us directly behind them.

I could see Siberian tense, as if intending to jump, but another explosion from Trickster kept her in place.  She was protecting the truck, surrounding it with her forcefield.  I wasn’t sure how it was able to interact with the road, but a grenade going off under the front of the truck failed to achieve anything.

There would be nothing to stop her from staying there until the truck reached
the other Nine.  It would out Siberian’s real nature to any of the Nine who didn’t know, and that wasn’t a total loss, but it also meant our teammates would be blindsided by her arrival.

I felt something bump my hands.  Grue was holding the chains that led to Sirius’s muzzle.  He bumped my hands agan, and I took hold of them.

With his own hands free, leaning hard against me for support, he reached out and buried Siberian and the truck in a carpet of darkness.  Following, we soon plunged into the wake.

The second we were out of sight, I shifted our position so we were running in the left hand lane, rather than the center of the road.  Didn’t want Siberian guessing our position and pouncing on us.

I could sense the surroundings with my bugs, but my power was diminished.  I was aware of Grue, Amy and Bentley, of Tattletale, Trickster and Sundancer a short distance away, keeping pace.  I could see Siberian and the truck.

I couldn’t detect any sign that Grue was projecting anything with Siberian’s power.  Whatever she was doing to the truck, it was protecting her from him.

The upside was that the driver was blind.

I could tell because he drifted.  It was gradual at best, but he veered slightly to the left.  With no point of reference, he didn’t know he needed to correct.  A moment later, he smashed into the face of a tall building.  Siberian’s power meant the truck took no damage, and the driver corrected course, but soon enough, he began to veer again.

This wasn’t getting us anywhere, and we were running the risk that he’d hit someone, crash into or through an inhabited area.

Through my swarm, I could feel Tattletale waving.  Grue hadn’t swamped her in darkness, so there was nothing hampering her progress.  What did she want?

More to the point, how the hell were we supposed to communicate?  I reached a block ahead of her and formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her hand to her eye, then to the top of her head.

Again, I formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her head a few more times.

I was disappointed that a girl with superpowered intuition couldn’t come up with a better signal.  What did she want?  Eyes could mean see, head could be about thinking?  Her power?

She reached back over Trickster’s shoulder with one hand while holding the reins with the other.  My bugs had to settle on her finger to follow her gesture.  Pointing?  She was pointing behind him.  At Sundancer.

Eyes, brain, Sundancer.

She wanted to see, to use her power, to use Sundancer?

Tattletale was waving now.  The opposite of a beckoning gesture.  A scooping motion, as if to push us away.

She wanted us to go away?  To get back?  She wanted to deploy Sundancer’s power.  That made sense.  And she wanted to be sure we were out of the line of fire?  She could only do that if she saw us, and she could only use her power if she could follow what was going on.

From my seat behind Grue, I steered Sirius around another corner, then brought us up behind Tattletale’s group.  We gradually caught up.

“Do it!”  I shouted as we began to pull alongside them.  Siberian would be out of range of Grue’s darkness in moments if Grue wasn’t behind her, replenishing and extending his power.

“Where is she!?”  Tattletale shouted.  Sundancer was leaning back, her hand out to one side.  The orb she was creating was small.

I pointed.

The orb was getting larger.  The size of a baseball, a beachball, an armchair.  As it grew, it drifted farther away, higher.

By the time it was directly overhead, it was large enough to swallow up my bedroom whole.

“Gotta stop them!”  Tattletale called out, “We blindside them!”

“Civilians!?”  Sundancer cried out.

“Some!”

“Let me know-”  She grunted as Bentley stumbled over a pothole.  “Let-”

“Got it!”  I replied.

I tracked the people in nearby buildings, and kept my arm extended to point at Siberian.

“Got to use my power again!”  Grue shouted.

“Signal us!”  Tattletale called out.

We pulled right, plunging into the darkness.  It was thinning out, and faint shafts of light were piercing through.We crossed the road behind Siberian, and Grue blasted them with darkness, replenishing the effect.  We continued across the street, moving behind cover.

Only a few people in the upcoming area.  We had to be close to Regent’s group.  Time was short.

I drew images with my bugs to point her in the right direction, and then formed the word with my bugs as the other group continued forward.  ‘NOW’.

We passed out of the darkness just in time for me to catch sight of the orb.  It was larger now.  Large enough that when it fell, it had to be touching both of the sidewalks on the four lane road.  Even with a building between us and the impact zone, I could feel the wave of heated air, and I saw the billowing steam.  Grue took the reins and guided Sirius away before it could reach us.

Sundancer hadn’t hit Siberian.  She’d dropped the orb straight into the road a hundred feet ahead of them, and she’d plunged it down, hard.

My bugs died as Siberian approached the impact site, burned up by the heated air.  I could imagine what had happened.  The miniature sun would have burned a hole into the ground, melted or even vaporized pavement.

Affected by Siberian’s power or not, they were still affected by gravity.

I couldn’t say what would have happened in the long run.  Had they hit the wall or floor of the pit and used Siberian’s power to make it as invulnerable as they were?  Or had they plunged through it, burying themselves some distance underground.

A nearby building was burning.  I saw Sundancer forming another orb near the site, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but the flames on the building were shrinking and dying out.

This wasn’t a victory.  It was a stall.  We couldn’t stop Siberian so long as she was able to grant invulnerability to her other self, but we could keep her from reaching her teammates in any meaningful amount of time.

It was interesting, I had to note, that she was affecting the truck and not her maker.

A limitation?  A drawback?  Could she not use her power on her real body?

Clouds of white steam intermingled with the black tendrils of Grue’s darkness.  We stopped running, but we didn’t approach.  I focused my power on the bugs in the ground.  Ants, earthworms.  Was she tunneling?  No.  As far as I could tell, the ground was intact.  She wasn’t moving.

“What did you do?”  Amy whispered from behind me.

I didn’t have the breath to explain.

“Drop the darkness?”  I asked.

Grue nodded.  The darkness cleared, but the steam didn’t make it any easier to see.  I saw the shadowy silhouette of Tattletale, a distance away.  I practically had to peel Amy off of me to get to my cell phone.

“Tattletale?” I asked, the second she picked up.

“She’s still down there.”  Tattletale replied.

“Why?  Hurt?”

“Don’t know.  Planning her next move?  Don’t get the impression she’s tunneling.”

“My bugs don’t either.  Hey, I’m wondering if Siberian can affect her real self?  Why doesn’t she just grab him and run?”

“Good question.  But that’s not our real concern.”

“What is?”

“Them.”

It took three or four seconds before I saw them arrive, stepping through the mist to stop a distance from the hole.  Identical costumes, all-concealing, with gas mask filters on the front and tinted panes for the upper faces.  Each was color coded.  Four flew, one using a jetpack.  One was on the ground, a style of super-speed I recognized as Battery’s.  Rounding out their group was the ghostly image of a bear.  Ursa something, from Legend’s squad.  She had three forms, or she duplicated herself into three states, or something.  I wasn’t sure about the naming convention.  One for the big bear, one for the small, and one for the woman.

“Legend, Battery, Cache,” Tattletale rattled off names through the phone, “Chariot, Glory Girl.”

Amy squeaked, barely audible, a failed attempt to speak.

The flying man in the lead pointed his hand towards Tattletale.  If that was Legend, one laser blast could take all of them out.  I wasn’t sure if he’d spotted us through the mist and smoke.

“Want me to use my power?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale’s voice came from my phone.  “Skitter?  Inform them.”

I drew words out with the flying insects, big and bold, with an arrow pointing down at the crater.  ‘SIBERIAN + HER CREATOR’

Legend snapped his head from the words to us.

Shit,” Tattletale said.  No sooner was the word out of her mouth than Siberian came tearing out of the hole, truck held over her head.  A section of the street was torn free and flipped through the air.  Legend blasted it out of existence with an indigo flash of light.

“Cash!”  Legend bellowed the word.  He began pelting Siberian with lasers.  Beams capable of leveling buildings, and she ignored them.

Cash?  I saw the man in the black costume raising his hands.  Dark lines began to surround Siberian and the truck, forming complex geometric angles.

In the blink of an eye, as Siberian reached the peak of her leap, panes of glossy black material snapped into place between the dark lines.  The resulting geometry contracted as if he meant to squish Siberian.  It shattered instead.

She hit the ground in a crouch, holding the truck in one hand, and the man in the black robe staggered, blood gushing from his nose.  Legend caught him before he could collapse.

Cache.  Right.  I was dimly aware of him, though I’d never seen his picture.

Siberian charged the heroes, and they cleared out of the way in an instant.  The one in power armor -Chariot- slid across the ground with the aid of his jetpack and built-in roller skates. Legend and the one in red, Glory Girl by process of elimination, took flight.  Ursa whatever leaped to one side.  They were the mobile group, the group that was able to get here fastest.  They’d seen the sun appear, they’d seen it hit, and they’d come to step in.

Siberian didn’t stop to engage the enemy.  She continued on her course, charging through the ground floor of a building as she swung the truck in a lazy back and forth arc.  I could see the roof buckling as vital supports disappeared.

Legend handed Cache to Ursa and gave chase.  I could see Chariot raising his hand to his right ear, pausing.

He, Battery and Glory Girl turned and advanced towards Tattletale’s group.

“Can we go?”  Amy asked, from behind me.  “I didn’t- I didn’t think-”

There was a pause.  We could fight.  My power would be largely foiled by those suits, but Grue had his power.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Come here, and bring Amy.  They want to talk.”

Amy pulled back, and I grabbed her wrist.  Before she could hop off Sirius, Grue was directing the dog across the road.

Chariot and Glory Girl pulled off their helmets as we arrived.  Chariot was black, his narrow, triangular face largely covered in power armor.  He had the scruff of a weak teenage beard on his chin.

Glory Girl bore little resemblance to any of the last times I’d seen her.  There were dark circles under her eyes.  She stared at me.  No- at Amy.  The glare seethed with raw, seething hatred.  It made every line of her face hard.

“You’ve joined them, now?”  She spoke, breaking the brief silence.

“I just wanted to help against the Nine,” Amy said.  Her voice was small, defeated.  “Can I-”

“If you open your mouth and ask if you can use your power on me, I won’t be held responsible for what I do,” Glory Girl growled.

“Don’t hate me, please.  I don’t care what you think of me, but hate is too close to…”  Amy trailed off.

“Too close to what?” Glory Girl asked.  She shrugged.  Anger gave an edge to her words.  “Aren’t you going to say it?  Can’t you admit what you did?”

Amy hung her head, and her forehead rested between my shoulders, hair hanging down.  She shook her head, but I doubted Glory Girl could see it.

“Let’s put vendettas aside,” Chariot spoke.  He smirked.  “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“The Nine,” Trickster spoke.

“The Nine,” Chariot said.  “But it’s not my place to talk tactics.  I’m just the rookie.  The messenger.”

He extended one hand toward Tattletale.  There was an earbud in his palm.

“The Director of the PRT would like to have a word with you.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

It’s like the world’s gone mad, and I’m the only sane person left.

Director Emily Piggot finished the last of her coffee and paused to survey the enormity of the task that lay ahead of her.  The scale of it could be measured in paperwork.  Piles of it.  Sometimes two feet high, the stacks of paper were arranged in rows and columns on every available surface, including the top of her coffee maker and the floor around her desk.  There were stacks of stapled pages, each topped with a weight to protect it from the gusts and breezes that flowed through the open window frames.

She couldn’t help but notice the way that the pages at the bottom of the pile were neatly organized, tidy, everything in line.  The newer pages, the ones at the top, were the sloppy ones.  Pages were slightly out of alignment, some dog-eared or stained.

The same progression could be measured in the print.  The older pages were typed, printed as forms with everything in its place.  Abruptly, it all shifted to handwriting.  Shatterbird’s destruction of everything glass and everything with a silicon-based chip inside.  Computer screens and computers.  The handwriting, too, grew less tidy as the rise of the piles marked the passage of time.  On occasion, it would improve for a day or two, when her captains and sergeants complained about illegible handwriting, but it inevitably slipped back into disarray.

A strong metaphor, Emily Piggot thought.  Every part of it said something about the current circumstances.

The shift from uniform typed words to countless styles of handwriting, it said something about the innumerable voices, the break down of the cohesive, ordered whole.  What resulted were hundreds, thousands of self-interested voices.  One in five condemned her, two in five pleaded with her for assistance in some form, and the remainder simply expected her to perform her duties as a cog in the machine.

She looked over the sheer volumes of paper around her office.  The PRT handled cases where parahumans were involved, and these days, it seemed like everything and everyone was touched in some way by the heroes, villains and monsters of Brockton Bay.  Every time the other precincts had the slightest excuse, they would claim that it was the PRT’s responsibility.  If they had no excuse at all, they would claim it a joint responsibility.  Until she read over the cases in question and either signed off on them or refused them, the job was in her hands.  As far as the ones passing the buck were concerned, it was out of their hands.

The first real intrusion on the average citizen’s life had been the bombings instigated by the ABB.  Frightening, but it had been easy for the average person to believe they wouldn’t be one of the victims, to shrug it off as the same background noise of heroes and villains that they’d experienced for much of their lives.  Now, between Leviathan, Shatterbird, the fighting and the formation of territories, everyone had reason to worry and give serious thought to who they needed to support and how they were going to protect themselves.

Just as the parahumans had invaded the lives of those in the city, the paperwork seemed to dominate Emily’s life.  It crept onto the walls, onto bulletin boards and whiteboards.  Notes on the local players, timelines, messages and maps.

Insurmountable.  Too much work for one woman to handle.  She delegated where she could, but too much of the responsibility was hers and hers alone.  The humans outnumbered parahumans by eight-thousand to one, give or take, in urban areas.  Outside of the more densely populated areas, it dropped to a more manageable one to twenty-six-thousand ratio.  But here in Brockton Bay, many had evacuated.  Few places in the world, if any, sported the imbalanced proportion that Brockton Bay now featured.  What was it now?  One parahuman to every two thousand people?  One parahuman to every five hundred people?  Each parahuman represented their respective interests.  She represented everyone else’s.  The people without powers.

The whole nation was watching.  People across America ate their TV dinners while they watched the news, seeing footage of the slaughters in downtown Brockton Bay, white sheets draped over piles of bodies.  The before and after shots of areas devastated by Shatterbird.  Flooded streets.  Fundraising efforts were launched, many succeeding, while yet others leveraged the situation to cheat the sympathetic out of money.  The world waited to see if Brockton Bay would become another Switzerland, another Japan, another region that simply couldn’t recover.  Ground lost to the Endbringers in their relentless campaign of attrition against humanity.

So very few of them knew it, but they were counting on her.

She heaved herself out of her chair and made her way to the coffee machine to refill her mug.

“Director?”

She turned to see Kid Win standing in the doorway.  He looked intimidated.

“Yes?”

He raised the laptop he carried in his hands.  “The guys in CS asked me to bring this to you.”

She shook her head, refusing the offer, “For now, every computer that comes in is supposed to be used for setting up the consoles and communications.”

“They’re done.  Or almost done, for communications.  They expect to be up and running in two hours, but they have all the computers they need.”

“Good.  Access to the central database is up?”

“Everything except the highest security feeds.”

Disappointing.  “I’ll make do, I suppose.  Thank you.”

Kid Win seemed almost relieved to hand her the laptop.  It meant he could get out of her presence sooner.  He was turning to leave the instant the laptop was out of his hands.

“Wait.”

She could see his shoulders drop, slightly, in the same way a dog’s tail drooped when ashamed or expecting reprimand.  Emily Piggot wasn’t good with kids, or even young adults.  She knew it.  Outside of the time she had played with dolls as a small child, she’d never entertained the notion of being a mother.  She didn’t even like kids.  It was the rare youth that she actually respected, now, and those few tended to be the ones who saw her firm leadership and respected her, first.  Now she was in charge of some of the most powerful children in the city.

“The next patrol shift is in…”  She turned to find the clock, “Twenty minutes?”

“Twenty minutes, yeah.  Vista, with Clockblocker babysitting.  Weld and Flechette are out right now, patrolling separately.”

“Postpone the next patrol, and tell Weld and Flechette to take it easy, but to be ready to report at a moment’s notice.  With the consoles up, we’ll be ready to act.  Pass on word to Miss Militia as well.  I believe she’s taking the next patrol shift.”

“Yes ma’am.”

The laptop would do little to help in her war against the paperwork until she had access to a printer.  PRT divisions and precincts in neighboring cities were all too willing to send along staff and officers to assist, but her firm requests for the fundamentals -for computers, printers, satellite hookups, electricians and IT teams- were ignored all too often.

She cleared space on her desk and started up the laptop.  It would be good to have access to the files on the locals and ‘guests’ alike.  She would handle the paperwork better after a moment’s break, while she focused on other things that needed doing.  She was barely registering the words, at this point.

This would be a battle won with preparation, and for that, she needed information.

It took her a moment to adjust to the smaller keyboard.  She entered her passwords, and answered the personal questions that Dragon’s subsystem posed to her.  Why is your nephew named Gavin?  Your favorite color?  Irritating- she didn’t even know her favorite color, but the algorithms had figured it out before she did.  All information divined from the countless pieces of data about her that were in official emails, photographs and surveillance footage from the PRT buildings.  It was with a moment of trepidation that she typed in For Gawain, knight of the round table.  Silver.

The fact that Dragon’s system could divine these details, as always, unnerved her.  This time, in light of recent events, it unsettled her all the more.

She typed in the words ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ and watched as information began appearing in lists.  News items, sorted by relevance and date, profiles, records.  Lists of names.  Casualty reports.

Emily clicked through the records.  Sorting as a timeline, she found the entry muddled with Armsmaster’s simulation records on the fighting abilities of the Nine.  He’d been preparing to fight them.  A double-check of the modification dates showed he’d seen the entries recently.

So when he’d escaped, he’d done it with the intent of fighting the Nine.  She’d suspected as much.

She refined the search to remove the simulations from the results and found video footage.

A video of Winter, an ex-member of the Nine, engaging in a protracted siege against no less than twenty members of the Protectorate.  She’d been killed by one of her teammates.

A sighting of Crawler, shortly after he had joined the Nine.  He’d been more humanoid, then.  Still large.

Another member of the Nine from yesteryear, Chuckles, attacking a police station.  No use to her, beyond serving as a testament to what might happen if she consolidated too many forces in one place.

She found a file listed as ‘Case 01’.  She clicked it.

We’ve got her cornered?” the person in the video spoke.  Hearing the voice, noting the camera image of an apartment was mounted on a helmet, Emily Piggot knew who it was.  She knew the video well enough.

Think so,” a man replied.  The camera focused on Legend, then swung over to Alexandria, and finally Eidolon.  “We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.

She hasn’t tried to leave?” the face behind the camera asked.  “Why not?

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  “She has a victim.

Alexandria spoke up, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-

Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.

Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.

We’re trying an experimental measure.  It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.

Emily turned off the sound as the four charged into action.  She didn’t want to hear it, but she felt compelled to keep watching.  A matter of respect.

It was Siberian.  One of the first direct confrontations, more than a decade ago.  It hadn’t gone well.

The Protectorate had been smaller, then.  The lead group had consisted of four members.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon and Hero.  Hero had been the first tinker to take the spotlight, so early to the game that he could get away with taking a name that basic and iconic.  He’d sported golden armor, a jetpack, and a tool for every occasion.  His career had been cut short when Siberian tore him limb from limb in a sudden frenzy of blood and savagery.  He’d been scooped up by Eidolon, who tried to heal him, who continued to hold the man as he joined in the ensuing conflict.

Director Piggot had seen the film before.  Several times.  It was the screams that haunted her.  Even with the sound off, she could have put it all together from the sounds that were engraved in her memory, right down to the cadence, the pitch.  Seeing a teammate die so unexpectedly, so suddenly.  The noises of panic as some of the strongest capes in the United States realized there was nothing they could do, adjusting their tactics to try to save people, staying one step ahead of Siberian to minimize the damage she did as she waded through any defense they erected, tossing the PRT trucks -modified fire trucks, then- as though they were as light and aerodynamic as throwing knives.

Invincible Alexandria was struck a glancing blow and had one eye socket shattered, the eye coming free in the midst of that bloody ruin.  Eidolon had healed her, after, but the scar was still there.  Alexandria now wore a helmet whenever she was out in costume.

After that telling blow, Legend’s voice would be ordering the containment foam.  Not so much to bind Siberian as to hide the wounded Alexandria from the feral lunatic.

With the sound muted, Piggot would not have to hear Legend crying out over what he had believed was the death of two teammates.  It had always made her feel guilty to hear it, as if she were intruding, seeing someone mighty at a moment in their life when they were stripped emotionally bare.

And of course, Siberian had escaped.  Slipped past countless PRT officers and a dozen superheroes in the chaos.  Nothing in the footage gave a clue as to how.

A shadow passed over her desk.  Turning, she saw a silhouette of a flying man against the light of the sun.

Like so many parahumans, he lapsed into intrusiveness and a self-centered mindset.  Well, she wouldn’t blame him for being emotional in regards to this.

She composed herself and spoke, “If you’d like to enter my office through the front door, Legend, we can talk there.”

Silently, he disappeared around the side of the building.  She couldn’t see through the wall, but she heard the commotion as he flew in through the window.  He stepped into her office with the fluid grace one had when they could use their ability to fly to carry their weight.  Blue and white costume, boots and gloves.  Veteran member and leader of the Protectorate, his lasers carried as much firepower as a battalion of tanks.  She had to remind herself that she technically outranked him.

“Siberian?” he asked.

“I’m reading up on our opposition.”  She wouldn’t apologize, but she couldn’t keep the sympathy from her face.

“I flew up to check if you were in your office, and I saw the video.  My fault for seeing what I did.  It wasn’t a good day.”

She nodded curtly.  It hadn’t been.  One could even suggest it was when things started to go bad.  The loss of Hero, the first time a truly dangerous villain made an appearance.  “What did you want to see me for?”

“A note delivered for you at the front door.  We gave it a high priority.”

“You’re taking the standard precautions?”

He nodded.  “It’s already on its way to the lab.”

“Join me?”  She lifted herself out of the chair, keenly aware of the differences in her and Legend: parahuman and human, male and female, lean muscle and eighty pounds of extra weight, tall and average in height.

“Of course.”

They walked past the reams of public servants, government employees and Piggot’s own people.  Emily knew she was not the only one overburdened with work, not the only one sweating, trying and failing to keep cool.  The rest of her people were staying awake with the benefits of coffee more than anything else.

She couldn’t turn away everyone that volunteered or was sent to Brockton Bay to assist her PRT division, but there were too many.  Space was at a premium, and there were too few places where she could establish secure offices, where buildings didn’t threaten to fall down and where assistance was actively needed.  Still, she’d sent people away when she could.

“How’s the family?” She asked.  “You adopted, if I remember right?”

“We did.  Arthur was worried that a surrogate parent would give birth to a parahuman, and if that happened, he’d be out of the loop.”

“The odds are still high, even with an adopted child.  It’s likely more to do with exposure to parahumans at formative ages than genetics.”

“I know.  Arthur knows, but I don’t think he believes it.”

“Or he doesn’t want to believe,” Emily said.

Legend nodded.

“He knew the price of admission,” she said.

Legend smiled.  “You’re always straight to the point, Director.”

“But the child is good?  A boy or a girl?”

“A boy.  Keith.”

“You’ve heard there are some third generation parahumans on record?”

“For a while now.  We knew they were being born anyways, right?”

“We did.  But nothing’s official until it’s on record.  But the point I was getting at was that there was apparently an incident.”

“Oh?”

“In Toronto.  A five-year-old manifested powers.  A third generation parahuman.”

Legend nodded, but he didn’t respond right away.  He stepped forward to open a door for her.

“Everyone’s alright?” he asked, at last.

“No.  But no casualties.  The parents were outed in the chaos.”

“Sobering.”

She nodded.  “The perils of being a superhero parent.  Your child isn’t a third generation cape, I know, but there are always risks.  Still, I envy you.”

“How so?”

“Family.  I wonder if it is harder or easier to get through the day if you have people waiting for you at the end.”

“Yes.”

She smiled a little at that.

They entered the lab, and Emily Piggot very carefully measured the expressions of every person in the room when they noticed Legend.  Awe, surprise, amazement.  Sometimes ambivalence.

What could she take away from that?  If she were to promote one of them, should she promote one of the awestruck ones, or one of the taciturn?  The starry-eyed might be in the PRT for the wrong reasons, but the ones who were unfazed by the presence of one of the most notable heroes in the United States could easily be plants, hiding their emotion or simply too used to the presence of capes to care.

“The note?”

“No traces of toxins, radiation, powders or transfers.”

“Why the priority?  We get letters from cranks every day.”

“The man who delivered the message reported a fairly convoluted series of safeguards to protect the identity of the sender.  Apparently the man who gave him his instructions was given the note by a civilian, and ordered to find a random individual to deliver it to the PRT, all with compensation arranged.”

“You’ve tailed him?”

“Of course.  We doubt anything will come of it.”

“No.  It wouldn’t.  Can you make out the contents without touching the envelope?  Can’t be too careful.”

“We can and have.”  The technician handed Emily a paper.

She read it over twice.  “Burnscar is dead, it seems, and Bonesaw won’t be in the field for the interim.  God knows how quickly she’ll recover, but it’s something.”

“Good news,” Legend said.

Emily wasn’t so sure.  “It’s… a change.”

“Not a good one?”

“The closing line reads, ‘Thanks for the help.’  I can’t help but read it in a sarcastic tone.”

“The bug girl?  Skitter?”

Emily nodded.  “Exactly.  As good as it is to have one more member of the Nine dealt with, this shifts the balance of power towards another group of villains.  It also serves to move up our deadline.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Call a meeting.  Protectorate and Wards.”

“Alright.”

She looked at each of the capes in turn.  Legend, Prism, Ursa Aurora and Cache were the outsiders, heroes on loan.  Miss Militia’s group was more worn out.  Where their costumes had been damaged, stained or torn, pieces had been replaced from the generic costumes the PRT kept in stock.  Miss Militia had doffed the jacket but left the scarf with the flag motif in place.  She wore a black tank top and camouflage pants with a number of empty holsters and sheaths for her weapons.  Battery was wearing a plain black costume and goggles, while Assault had replaced the top half of his costume with similar odds and ends.  Triumph still wore his helmet and shoulder pads with the roaring lion style, but his gloves had been replaced with the same utilitarian, generic ones the PRT officers wore in the field.

The Wards, at least, were in better shape.  Tired, to be sure, but they hadn’t been directly in the fray.  The patrol shifts were unending and they always had something to do.  Weld, Flechette, Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Chariot.

She deliberately avoided looking at Chariot.  The mole in their midst.  Did Coil suspect she knew about the mole he’d planted?  Could she afford to assume he didn’t?

Still, it would all be for nothing if she gave the game away.  Back to the matter at hand.

“We have three priorities,” she began.  “We take down the Nine, we regain control of the city, and we don’t die.”

She stressed the final two words, waiting to see their reactions.  Were any of her people thinking of performing a heroic sacrifice?

“There’s no point in winning now if any of you die or get converted to the enemy side by Regent or Bonesaw.  Even if we were to defeat the Nine outright, through some stroke of fortune, I harbor concerns that we’d lose the city without the manpower to defend it.  It’s a dangerous situation.”

She picked up the remote that sat in front of her and clicked the button.  The screen showed a map of the city with the spread of territories.

“The Nine have the advantage of power.  Not necessarily in terms of the abilities at their disposal, but in terms of their ability to affect change and shape everything that occurs.  They are our number one priority, obviously.  With them gone, if nothing else, I can hope that more capes will be willing to venture into the city to help out.”

“But we’re operating with a deadline, and the Undersiders and Travelers have just moved it up dramatically.  The Nine posed their challenge, and they’re losing.  There’s now four ’rounds’ of Jack’s little game remaining.  Twelve days, depending on their successes and failures in the future.  I’ve talked it over with Legend, and we’re both working under the impression that the Nine will enact whatever ‘penalty’ they mentioned in the terms for their game.  Our working assumption is a biological weapon.”

There were nods around the table.

“In short, our worst case scenario is the Nine feeling spiteful or cornered, and deploying this weapon.  When we attack, we need to make it an absolute victory, without allowing them an opportunity.  Wards, I know you’re not obligated to help in this kind of high-risk situation.  This is strictly voluntary, and I’ve had to discuss the matter with your parents to get permission to even raise the subject, but I would value and appreciate your help on this front.”

The Wards exchanged glances.

“If you could raise your hand if you’re willing to participate?”  She ventured.

Every hand except two was raised.  Chariot and Kid Win.

It did mean she had Flechette, Clockblocker and Vista.  The ones she needed.

“Thank you.  Rest assured, Chariot, Kid Win, that I harbor no ill will.”

“My mom wouldn’t forgive me if I went,” Kid Win said.

“I understand.  Now, the Nine are only one threat.  Let’s talk about the others.”  She clicked the remote again.  “Tattletale’s Undersiders have the advantage of information.  We still don’t know her powers, but we can speculate that it’s a peculiar sort of clairvoyance.  She was able to provide us detailed, verifiable information on Leviathan after fighting him, even though she was only participating for several minutes before being knocked out.”

She paused. “I believe this is why, in a matter of twenty-four hours, they were able to fight the Nine twice and win both times.  On the first occasion, they captured Cherish and Shatterbird, presumably enslaving the pair.”

“So they have Shatterbird’s firepower and Cherish’s ability to track people, now,” Legend spoke.

Piggot nodded.  “Skitter contacted us for assistance, as some of you will remember, and when we refused, the Undersiders took the fight to the Nine a second time.  Burnscar is dead, Bonesaw injured.  She’s invited us to attack them in the meantime.”

“Why would we do that now when we turned down her offer to cooperate?”  Weld asked.  “What’s changed between now and then?”

“Communications will be up shortly,” Piggot replied, “We now have the consoles and trained employees ready to man them, and so long as we’re going into this as a unit, we don’t need to worry about other groups stabbing us in the back at any point during the battle while we engage the Nine.”

“Would they?”  Legend asked.  “I have a hard time assessing their motives and morality.”

“I don’t know.  Could they?  Yes.  And that possibility is too dangerous, especially given what Regent can do.  The Undersiders do not pull their punches.  The Travelers, oddly enough, are more moderate, but they do have sixteen kills under their belt, due in large part to the sheer power at their disposal.”

“Let’s not forget the incident in New York,” Legend said.  “Forty individuals disappeared in one night.  Investigation confirmed the Travelers were occupying a nearby location.  Chances are good that they were involved.”

“They’re complicated, no doubt,” Emily confirmed.  “But for now, they’re one knot in a very  tangled weave.  The Nine have power, the Undersiders have information.  Coil has resources that may even exceed our own, including a precog of indeterminate power.  Last but certainly not least, Hookwolf’s contingent is one and a half times the size of our own, and he’s absorbing the whites from the Merchants to his own group.  He commands a small army.”

“It’s a considerable series of obstacles stacked against us,” Legend answered.

“And few capes are willing to step in to help defend the city.  Credit to Legend and his teammates for joining us.  Thank you.”

The group of guests nodded.

“There’s more.”  Time to see how much information filters through to Coil, and how he reactsWith luck, we might be able to pit one problem against another.  “Armsmaster’s confinement was technically off the record, to protect the PRT in this time of crisis.  He escaped, and thus far, Dragon has not been able to track him.  Without official record or reason to arrest him, our measures are limited.”

“It’s impressive that he got away from Dragon,” Kid Win said.

“It is.  Thus far, he has eluded every measure she had in place.  Either he is much more crafty than even Dragon anticipated, keeping in mind that she’s a very smart woman, or Dragon helped him.”

That gave the others pause.

“Dragon’s record of service has been exemplary,” Legend spoke.

“It has.  And we’ve put an inordinate amount of trust in her as a consequence.  How many of our resources are tied into her work?  If she had a mind to oppose us, would we be able to deal with her?”

“We have no reason to think she’s done anything.”

Emily waved him off.  “Regardless.  Very little of this situation remains in our control.  Armsmaster is gone, the other major players are members of the various factions, and we remain in the dark about who many of them are.”

There were nods all around.

She had them listening.  “I have a solution in mind.  The higher-ups have approved it.  Clockblocker, you’re going to be using your power defensively if things go south.  They aren’t patient enough to wait for it to wear off.  You can protect yourself by using your power on a costume you’re wearing, yes?”

Clockblocker nodded.

“Vista, I’m counting on you to help control the movements of the Nine.  Siberian is immune to powers, but not to external influences.  The timing will be sensitive.”

She clicked the remote, then turned her head to look at the result.  It was a warhead.

“On my command, a stealth bomber is prepared to drop payloads of incendiary explosives at a designated location.  We evacuate civilians from the area or lead the Nine to an area where evacuation is possible or unnecessary, then we drop a payload on site.  If they move, we drop another payload.  Clockblocker, you protect anyone that’s unable to clear out.  Legend will ferry you to where you need to be.  Cache can rescue people as the effects wear off.”

“That’s… still not reassuring,” Flechette spoke.

“You’ll be equipped with fire resistant suits.  I ordered them in anticipation over fighting Burnscar, but the plan has been adjusted.  You’ll all look identical, except for agreed upon icons, colors and initials on each costume.  Ones Jack and the other members of the Nine will not be able to identify, please.  There’s a team ready to prepare the costumes at a moment’s notice.  It will help mask the identities of those involved, and postpone any reaction from Jack over our having broken the terms of the deal.”

“But we are breaking the deal.  Even if Legend’s team doesn’t get involved-” Miss Militia started.

“The incendiary deployments will serve three purposes.  They’ll forestall any biological attacks Bonesaw attempts, they’ll force Siberian to stay put to protect her allies and they’ll kill Jack or Bonesaw if she isn’t able.  Humans aren’t biologically programmed to look up, and whatever else Siberian is, she’s still human at her core.”

“And if Siberian does protect her allies?” Weld asked.

“Flechette will see if her enhanced shots can beat Siberian’s invulnerability.  Failing that, Clockblocker contains the woman.  His power won’t work on her, but we can cage her in thread or chains that he can then freeze.  If we can do the same with Jack and Bonesaw, we can starve them out, or wait until they let go of Siberian.  If you’re prepared, Clockblocker?  We can support you with relief teams.”

“If it means stopping them, I’m down.”

“Unless she’s able to walk through that,” Weld spoke.

“It’s inviolable,” Clockblocker said, leaning back in his chair.  “I’d sooner expect her to fold the universe in half.”

“You’re sure?”

“It’s what the doctors say.”  Clockblocker said.

“And Crawler?” Legend asked.

Piggot spoke, “Legend, Ursa Aurora, Prism, Weld, Assault and Battery will occupy him until we can contain him.  He’s still vulnerable to physics.  I’m hoping the white phosphorous explosive will keep him in the area long enough for us to put measures in place.  As I said, we can’t afford to do this halfway.  If they get cornered, or if they think they’ll lose, we run the risk they’ll lash out.”

She glanced around the room at the fourteen parahumans present.

“We carry this out this evening, before any of our opponents catch on to our intentions and complicate matters with their own agendas.  That will be all.  Prepare.  See to your suits in the lab.”

She watched everyone file out.  Legend stayed behind.

“You’re not saying everything,” he murmured.

“No.”

“Fill me in?”

“Some of that is to mislead the spy in our midst.  We have a follow-up measure.”

“Does it pose a risk to this team?”

“It does.  Unavoidable.  I suspect Coil will inform Hookwolf and encourage the Chosen, the Pure and even Faultline’s group to act.  Tattletale, I suspect, will know something’s going on, and I intend to leak enough information to pique her curiosity.  It’s in the moment that the villains enter the situation that the risk to our capes occurs.”

“But?”

“But we have a store of equipment we confiscated from Bakuda when we raided her laboratory.  Miss Militia deployed a number against Leviathan, but we have more.  Once the other factions have engaged, we bombard the area with the remainder in a second strike.  Our research suggests that several of these explosives can bypass the Manton effect.”

“This breaks the unspoken rules between capes.  And the truce against the Nine.  I don’t like this.”

It’s a world gone mad.  Do I have to join the madmen to make a difference?

“Don’t worry.  I’m the one who’s going to push the button,” Piggot answered.  “And I’m not a cape.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Sentinel 9.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I’m a tinker.  I’m supposed to be smart.

So how can I have been so stupid?

Ballistic raised one hand and pointed at Kid Win.  He waited until Kid Win moved before kicking at the uneven, rubble-strewn ground, sending a spray of concrete and wood fragments flying like a hail of bullets.  It only grazed the teenage hero mid-leap, lacerating the side of his stomach, hip and thigh, chipping his armor.  It still hit hard enough that it twisted him in midair.  He landed on his back atop the rubble that covered the ground, grunted.

“Hey!” Ballistic bellowed, “Little girl!”

Kid Win saw Ballistic pointing at Vista.  The villain, between his build and armor, had the frame of a football player, a dramatic contrast to the young heroine.  He pointed at her, paused long enough for her to bend the ground into a semblance of cover, then launched a chunk of concrete at her.

The concrete flew at an angle that wouldn’t have hit the girl anyways, struck the barrier and shattered, sending debris careening onto and into the girl.  Vista screamed and fell backwards, part of her barrier crumbling to land on top of her.

He’s telling us exactly where he’s going to attack next.

Kid Win looked up, saw Sundancer with her orb hovering a good fifteen feet off the ground, keeping it away from the walls of the building and the corpses that were hung above them.  Even though it was fifteen feet up and thirty feet away, he could feel the heat of it prickle his exposed skin.  He knew from the Endbringer fight that she could make it bigger, move it faster.

As the burning sphere drifted forward, staying at roughly the same height, Flechette and Glory Girl were forced to scramble away.  Shadow Stalker leaped off of the top of the wall and into the alleyway next to the building to get away from the heat.  Only Vista remained where she was, caught under debris that she was striving to shrink down and push away.

It dawned on Kid Win.  Sundancer and Ballistic, at the very least, were holding back.  Because they were strong enough that going all out would leave corpses.

The revelation didn’t make him feel any better.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  If these guys got desperate or panicked, they might stop being so polite about it.

Trickster and Genesis were tangling with Weld and Clockblocker – Clockblocker was putting paper in the air, freezing it to give himself footholds to go after his flying opponent.  Any time Genesis moved to attack, Clockblocker set paper in her way, edge towards her, or he tried to duck in close enough to touch her.  Giving up on more physical means, she exhaled a cloud of the choking smoke.  Clockblocker and Weld both worked together to minimize the spread of the cloud, using paper and plywood, freezing it in place with Clockblocker’s power.

Kid Win decided they had a handle on that.  It was up to him to help against Ballistic and Sundancer.

As he climbed to his feet, breaking into a run before he was even standing straight, he raised his spark pistol and fired off a series of oversized blue sparks at Ballistic.

Trickster managed to teleport him again, swapping his position with Ballistic’s.  The forward momentum of his sprint was enough to get him out of the way of his own gunfire.

His spark pistol sported a small power core that used spatial warping technology to magnify and then reabsorb a steady electrical current.  The barrel was wired with a helix-shaped electromagnetic rail, based on some of Armsmaster’s old data on the ‘hard’ light Purity and Dauntless created.  Nanomolecular, ionically charged rifling on the barrel’s interior was arranged to guide the fired charges into a rough elliptical shape, which sustained their shape and consistency the longest.

In laymen’s terminology, it was not unlike a power bar that was plugged into itself, with a small addition that made each revolution of the current larger than the one before.  An attached battery kept the current going.  The shots themselves were ‘hard’ electricity condensed into balls, which meant they had a physical impact to them, due to how they carried and transferred kinetic energy.   Given how the weapon charged, waiting a few seconds between shots meant the next shot hit harder, up to a limit.

I can make something like this, which is brilliant, then I go and dismantle my fricking hoverboard to get parts for a project I never even finish.  Idiot.

Ballistic marched towards Vista, who was trying to climb to her feet.  He was intercepted by Glory Girl, who slammed him into a wall.  She punched him, drove her knee into his gut, then slammed him against the wall again, to keep him off-balance and hurting.

Ballistic slumped against her and grabbed at the collar of her costume for support.  A second later, Glory Girl was a blur, disappearing into the skyline.  His attacker gone, Ballistic fell onto his hands and knees with a grunt.

Flechette threw a handful of darts at Sundancer, pinning the girl against the wall.  Somehow Flechette had avoided Trickster’s attention.  How?  Kid Win turned to look, saw that she was standing so her body blocked Trickster’s line of sight to both the darts and his teammate.

So he can only teleport what he sees?

Kid Win moved to mimic Flechette’s technique, running to a position where he would be between the injured Ballistic and Trickster.  He cocked his spark pistol.

He was nearly lined up for his shot when his gun disappeared from his hand, an awkwardly sized piece of wood taking its place.  A second later, his mask and visor cracked against a hard surface.  He had to grip the wall to steady himself and keep from falling.  He’d been teleported.

Then the wall moved beneath his hand, and he heard Clockblocker shout, “Get down, Kid!”

He let himself fall, simultaneously realizing he had been leaning against Genesis, in her gargoyle-like form.  Weld slammed into the villainess, his left hand in the form of a heavy miner’s pick.  It did a surprising amount of damage, but she didn’t seem to care.  She gripped Weld around the face with a claw, raked his chest twice with criss-crossing slashes of her other hand, leaving deep gouges in the metal.  The same noxious black smoke that she had been breathing began to billow out of the hole the pick had made in her chest.

Clockblocker charged, but Genesis shoved Weld so the two heroes stumbled into one another, delaying them long enough for her to leap into the air.  She beat her wings to keep herself aloft and out of reach.

Kid Win unslung his laser rifle and fired at the villainess.  His first shot grazed her, as one flap of her wings carried her higher into the air, but the next two hit the mark.  One struck her in the shoulder, leaving a hole large enough to fit his hand through, the other struck her in the side of the head, doing a similar amount of damage.

Genesis dropped from the sky, exploded into a mess of dark smoke and pebbles as she struck the ground.

Feeling a moment’s panic, he checked the settings on his gun.  Normal levels, no anomalies.  It could heat metal and other inorganic materials, cut through more fragile materials, but against a person, it wouldn’t do more than hurt and maybe leave the mildest kind of burn.

That’s her power, he reminded himself, you didn’t kill her.

But his gun had done a surprising amount of damage.  Was it some interaction with how she pulled her new shapes together?  A specific wavelength, a weakness to lasers?

He wasn’t about to complain.  He wheeled around, fired on the other villains.

An injured Ballistic opened fire on Vista, discharging a series of pieces of rubble at an angle.  It struck the ground just in front of the girl and fallout from the impacts showered her.  Each shot drove her back further, buying him a chance to limp to Sundancer’s side.  He touched the darts that were fixing her to the wall, sending them flying into Weld’s face.

“Fuck!” Weld cursed, the metal spikes of the darts jutting out of his jaw, cheekbone, eyebrow and forehead, “Takes forever to get my face right after something like this!”

Trickster’s teleportations had placed the enemy’s group in the interior of the building, with the Wards surrounding them.

Surrounding one’s enemy wasn’t quite an advantage when the enemy could teleport, but for a moment, they all paused where they were, various weapons at the ready.  It was the kind of momentary peace that fell when everyone was waiting to react to what the others were doing.

A wind blew past them, and Kid Win blinked as a fat droplet of water spattered against his visor.  It was starting to drizzle.  He glanced up at the corpses where they hung on the walls of the building.

“The water’s going to wash away the evidence if you don’t let us go and hurry to check on the bodies,” Trickster spoke.

“Crime scene techs can’t get here in time with the roads like they are,” Weld spoke.  “And we’re not allowed to touch the evidence anyways.  Rules.”

“Rules?  You shouldn’t sweat those things so much,” Trickster chuckled, “Here, I’ll help you out.”

Weld disappeared, and the burned corpse flopped to the ground.

“Shit!” Clockblocker shouted, running forward.

Weld dropped from the wall for the second time in a matter of minutes as the restraints intended for the woman’s corpse tore free of the concrete.  Vista reshaped the wall to ease his descent.  Kid Win raised his laser rifle to fire at Trickster.

Dumb.  He regretted it the second his finger left the trigger.

As he predicted, he found himself somewhere else in the blink of an eye, and the impact of his own gunfire slammed into his back, intensely hot.  He threw himself to the ground at the base of the building, where water pooled, rolling so his back was submerged.

It’s not lethal, can’t do any permanent harm, you had it vetted, tested on pig meat.

The balance of the fight had abruptly shifted.  Clockblocker, Flechette and Vista were where the three Travelers had been, and vice versa.

“Nuh uh uh, kiddo,” Trickster spoke, as the gap in the wall began closing behind his group, “Up you go.”

The flayed corpse appeared in Vista’s position.

No!  Kid Win turned, saw Vista on the wall.  She’d gotten tangled in the loops of wire that had been holding the corpse up.  The metal wire was coiled around a shattered part of the wall, and more than one wire had caught around her neck.  Another looping of wire bound her body, one of her arms caught against her side.  She struggled to pull at the wire on her neck with her free hand, but it was little help.  The wire pulled so tightly against her throat that Kid Win feared it would cut her skin.

“Trickster!” Sundancer cried out, horrified.

“Just run!” was the villain’s only reply.  The three villains started running, leaving the building behind, their footsteps sloshing and splashing.

Kid Win raised his laser pistol, aimed carefully, then fired, landing the shot a half-foot to the right of Vista’s throat.  The wires heated and split, freeing her, and she dropped a foot before catching on more wires.  Nothing dangerous, this time, but it was a fair distance to fall and one slip could see her getting cut on the wire, strangled or cracking her head open as she fell.

Shadow Stalker materialized behind Trickster, catching him around the throat in a headlock.  She used one foot to kick his feet out from under him, and then forced him face first into the water.

Kid Win hesitated.  Help her or help Vista?

Vista.  Shadow Stalker would say she could handle herself.  Made a point of trying to.

He fired more shots to free Vista, missing the wires one or two times.  The heroine, for her part, focused on angling the wall beneath her to allow herself to slide down instead of falling the full distance.

Ballistic shot Shadow Stalker, driving her back.  The attack had left a gaping hole just below her heart, the edges wispy.  The gap closed, but the attack had separated her from Trickster, and hurt her badly enough that she crumpled to the ground, a hand to her chest.

Kid Win fired a salvo at the retreating villains, grazed Ballistic.  Sundancer turned, directing her orb between their groups.  She dropped it into the water.  Massive clouds of heated steam rose where the orb met water, obscuring the battlefield.

By the time it cleared, the villains were gone.

It took a minute to check that none of them had suffered any permanent damage.  After some debate, they moved the bodies to a more secure, dry spot, inside the building. Glory Girl managed to make her way back two minutes after the Travelers were gone, helped with the last body that still hung on the wall.  By the time they were done, the rain was pouring down.

Kid Win stared down at the corpses, an ugly feeling in his gut.

He was dumb, easily distracted, prone to leaving his projects unfinished, and it was moments like this that this knowledge hit him particularly hard.  His dad had made him get tested, and the doctors had labeled him with ADD and dyscalculia.  He held to the opinion that the ADD diagnosis was way overused – he liked to think that he was just a daydreamer, prone to getting lost in his thoughts.

The dyscalculia was something concrete that he couldn’t deny or explain away.  He couldn’t keep numbers in his head, couldn’t make the most basic intuitive leaps or connections with them.

All of that had been before he got his powers.  Nothing had changed, except that now he could visualize something, instinctively know how he could put it together.  His disability or disabilities put him a step behind the rest.  His daydreaming was worse, because his thoughts were so damn interesting, now.  He couldn’t take reliable measurements without using computers to do it.  Couldn’t finish half his projects without feeling compelled to move on to something else.

The PRT staff insisted he was exceptional with antigrav and guns, had it even marked in his file, but he knew it wasn’t so true.  He finished his guns because they were simple, in their own way.  It was easy enough to take three half-finished gun projects and mash them together.  Create something with multiple settings, even.  As far as he was aware, he was the only Tinker in the PRT’s records that didn’t have a defined specialty, gimmick or trick.  He was increasingly worried that his special talent as a tinker was being able to occasionally make something despite his learning disability.  Which would suck, if it were true.

There were exceptions.  He’d finished bigger projects.  His hoverboard, driven by the idea of how awesome it would be to fly.  Even then, it had been a chore.  Monumentally stupid of him to dismantle it.  The idea and motivation driving the action had been good: he was graduating the Wards in a little while, he’d be expected to change his name and adjust his methods, because an adult calling himself Kid Win was lame.  He’d had an idea about a harness with a floating array of turrets that could fire different munitions depending on what gun he holstered in the main slot.  Self adjusting and adaptive the way his Alternator Cannon was.  Except he’d gotten frustrated at a snag in the testing, put it down to take a break and hadn’t picked it up again in six days.  His hoverboard had effectively been destroyed for no reason, when it might have made the difference in getting the Travelers into custody.

His Alternator Cannon was the real gem.  It had been the result of a medication the PRT’s doctor had prescribed, which he’d been forced to stop after two weeks when he began to get increasingly dizzy, anxious and nauseous.  While he’d been taking the pills, he’d been focused, had a glimpse, maybe, of what he could do if it weren’t for his distractibility and daydreaming.  When Piggy had spoken of destroying the thing, the mere thought had been crushing.  Then Leviathan had destroyed it for real, maybe the only truly brilliant thing he’d be able to make.  He harbored fears it might even the only brilliant thing he’d ever be able to make.

He wasn’t the worst hero ever, he knew that.  He had things he could do.  He could let the worries and the dozens of unfinished projects alone, most days.  That changed when his team got thrashed.  Thoughts like that had been plaguing him since the Endbringer event a week ago.  He couldn’t shake the notion that he was in the running for the weakest member of the team.  The notion that he was dumb, second-rate.  That this loss, here, was his fault, because he had dropped the ball.  The people of this city deserve a better hero, a more focused one.

Weld spoke, disturbing him from his thoughts, “I just got a message.  PRT is on their way.  We head back now.”

Hearing the unenthusiastic replies of his teammates, Kid Win realized that the rest of the team wasn’t in any better of a mood than he was.  Losing had a way of doing that.

Strangely comforting.

“Got word from the Protectorate.  They’re handling the case with the bodies, we’re not to touch it or get involved in any way,” Weld spoke, folding his arms.  He had what looked like acne – blisters of extra-shiny metal on his face where the remainder of the darts hadn’t yet been fully integrated into his ‘skin’.  He reclined in an expensive, custom-made office chair, capable of supporting his dense, heavy body.  Everyone else had found seats in the central room of their headquarters.  Everyone, that was, except for Glory Girl, who had gone home.  She wasn’t yet an official member of the team.

“No word on what’s going on?” Clockblocker asked.

“They’re staying quiet on the subject,” Weld spoke.

Vista leaned forward, “Maybe a serial killer?”

“We should focus on what we do know,” Weld shook his head. “As far as tonight’s patrols-“

“Actually,” Kid Win cut in, “Sorry.  But I have one theory.”

“What?” Clockblocker asked.

Kid Win glanced at Weld, checking to see if their leader was ok with it.  Weld didn’t say anything, which he took as assent to continue.

“There were two other crime scenes, right?  Any idea if there were the same number of bodies at each crime scene?”

“Same number-” Weld raised an eyebrow, “Why… Oh.  Shit.  I think I follow.”

Smarter than you’d think, given his brute-force power and his appearance, Kid Win realized.  Or I’m just that bad with numbers.  The connection took me twenty minutes to make.

“Three crime scenes with three bodies each.  So it’d be nine bodies?” Clockblocker asked, “Each killed in some different way?  I don’t see what killer that would fit with.”

“Not one killer,” Kid Win answered, “Nine bodies, each for different killers.”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine,” Clockblocker leaned back in his seat, groaning, “Fuck, that’d be all we needed.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve arrived at a location in the wake of an Endbringer event,” Flechette pointed out.

“Maybe it’s them,” Weld conceded, “And maybe the Protectorate figured that much out, with the clues they have from the other two scenes.  It could be someone or something else.  Either way, it’s not our case, not even in our league, and we should stay as hands off as we can manage.  We need to talk about patrols and tonight’s duties.”

“The grunt work,” Flechette offered a literal grunt to punctuate the statement.  Kid Win and Clockblocker chuckled.

“Vista’s due for a patrol, and as a young member, she has to go with someone.  Lily?”

Flechette smiled a little, “Quick to make me pay for the snark, huh?  No, it’s cool, I’ve been wanting a chance to shoot the shit with Vista.”  She extended her fist, with index finger and thumb extended to form a gun, mock fired it at her junior teammate.  Vista rolled her eyes.

“Clockblocker, you and I will handle the night’s shifts after that.  Your call if you want to patrol with me or not, we can cover different routes and go for a wider area if you’d rather.”

“Alright.  We’ll figure it out.”

“Leaving Shadow Stalker.  You okay with the late-night, Sophia?”

“Yeah, fine,” Sophia didn’t look up from her laptop.

“And me?” Kid Win asked.

“Special duty, tonight,” Weld smiled, “You’re recruiting.”

“Recruiting?”

“There’s a kid calling himself Chariot.  Been racing around the city with a powered suit that lets him move a hundred miles an hour.  Assault finally caught up with him last night, brought him into custody.  Wound up calling the kid’s mom, got him to agree to talk to our recruiter.  You.  You’ll be meeting the kid in his home.”

“Why me?”

“Shared interests.  You’re both tinkers.  You have the best idea of how he thinks.”

Kid Win nodded.  He couldn’t quite put his finger on what he was feeling.  A measure of excitement at the idea of getting to talk to another tinker that wasn’t Armsmaster?  Sure.  Fear?  Would he be replaced by a new tinker?  It was an immature thing to be spooked about, he knew that, but that didn’t make it any less real.

“Cool,” he spoke, by way of agreement.

“You convince him, it’ll look good to the guys upstairs,” Weld informed him.

Right.  Great.  Pressure.

“Now, onto a more serious topic.  I’m seeing that this team is really disorganized, these days.  I have no problem handling the brunt of the paperwork, it gives me a degree of insight into what’s going on that the files don’t.  I don’t even mind cleaning up the kitchen and showers here when the janitors are off duty.  But we really need to communicate.  Last night Flechette went on patrol and ran into a situation with Parian she should have been briefed on.  It could have turned hostile.”

“Sorry,” Vista muttered.

“It turned out okay,” Flechette smiled a little.

“Right.  It’s okay, it’s understandable, given all we’re trying to handle,” Weld reassured her, “But we can’t miss out on details and updates on the overall situation.  The Protectorate have their hands full with the gang wars between Fenrir’s Chosen, Purity’s group and Coil,  they’re now dealing with this serial killer or serial killers, and they’re still updating the records.  So here’s what we’re going to do, I’ve checked it with Piggot, she agrees.  I’m picking up an extra patrol shift, and I’ll be adjusting your patrol shifts down by twenty minutes each, moving them around slightly.  With the downtime that creates, we’re going to have meetings like this, every day.”

Pausing, Weld glanced at Clockblocker, as if expecting a response.  When Clockblocker only nodded assent, Weld’s eyebrows rose a fraction in surprise.  He continued, “Gives us a chance to talk about our recent patrols, fears, concerns, ideas.  Or hell, just talk, because I’m seeing this trend where we only see each other in passing, while patrolling or in class, and some of you are going out of your way to spend time together and hash stuff out, even at the detriment of stuff like school.”

“You’re talking about class, earlier,” Clockblocker said.

“More or less.  Not saying it’s a bad thing, but we can restructure our schedules, make time for it, instead of detracting from an area we need to pay attention to.”

“Sure,” Clockblocker agreed.  Was there a note of irritation in his voice?  Kid Win couldn’t tell.  Dennis was playing along, at least.

“Now, about the paperwork you guys have been submitting, there’s been a few recurring problems…”

Kid Win sighed and settled into his seat.  This was going to be a little while.

The building was ugly, had trash piled up on either side of the front door, a sour smell wafting out from it.  The water level wasn’t so bad here, and the building was almost entirely intact.  The only sign of damage was the boarded up windows on the first and second floors where the glass had been knocked out of the window frames.  Red brick, it seemed like the usual sort of tenement building one would find in the Docks.

He stepped inside.  A Hispanic boy in the front hall whistled sharply as Kid Win stepped inside, while a group of Asian-American boys and girls in dirty clothing ran around him, screaming at a ear-piercing volume as they continued a game, some pointing and hooting at the superhero.  Occupants aside, it was dark, with only two dingy lightbulbs and no open windows.

It’s nine o’clock at night.  Don’t these kids have a bedtime?

He checked the folded paper he had in his hand, found the room number, and headed up the stairs.  A morbidly obese, older man sat halfway up the stairs, maybe a babysitter for the kids.  Kid Win hoped the man was a babysitter, because the man was white and the kids weren’t, meaning he probably wasn’t family.  If he wasn’t getting paid, there was only one uncomfortable explanation for why the man would be willing to tolerate that yelling and squealing.

Or maybe he’s deafLet’s go with that.

The fat old man didn’t budge an inch as Kid Win approached, forcing the boy to squeeze by.  He made his way up, ignored a gang of fit twenty-something Asian guys who were standing guard in the hallway on the second floor.  On the third floor, he headed past people who were sleeping on blankets in the hallway, found apartment 306.

The door opened a second after he knocked.  A tired looking Hispanic woman greeted him, “You’re the superhero, I take it?”

“Yes.  Kid Win,” he extended his hand.  She shook it firmly.

“Ashley Medina.  My son’s back through here.”

There was a sense of pride in the narrow apartment, Kid Win saw.  An undercurrent of aesthetic taste, matching knick-knacks and furniture.   There were marks of a vacuum cleaner’s recent run over the carpet and both kitchen counters and dining room table were immaculately clean in a way that suggested she’d gone to some effort to clean up.  In a building like this, though, there was only so much you could do.  There was a water stain on the ceiling, dark brown marks on the carpet under a small rug, maybe from a previous occupant.

“If you’ll wait here, I’ll get him.”

Kid Win sat on the sofa.  He noticed the cathode ray tube television was missing its screen, had been gutted.  Quite likely for parts.  The toaster was a goner, too.  Only the wireless modem in the corner of the kitchen had survived, green lights blinking.

He has priorities, at least, Kid Win thought, with mild amusement.  Gotta have an internet connection.

When Chariot arrived, Kid Win stood, offered a hand.  There was a delay before the kid shook it.  He was lanky, with big ears and close shorn hair that made him look slightly goofy, but he had a wary look in his eye.  He wore a t-shirt and jeans that were stained with grease, had lots of little cuts and stains on his fingers, hands and forearms.

Been thereSubstandard tools, not enough parts.  I can use that.

“Please sit,” Chariot’s mother said.

Kid Win obliged.  Chariot was the last to take a seat.  Was he reluctant, something else?

“Chariot, is it?”  Kid Win ventured.  God, hope I don’t fuck this up.

“Mm,” was the noncommital reply.

“Just to give me an idea, on a scale of one to ten, how interested are you, in maybe joining the Wards?”

“Ten’s high?”

“Ten’s a lot of interest.”

“Four.”

“Trevor!” Chariot’s mom admonished, “They offer funding, education-“

“We do,” Kid Win interrupted.  If mom pushes, this guy’s only going to get less interested.  Shit, a four is low.  Maybe if I do the talking… “It’s good money, with room for better money.  Especially for a tinker like you or me.”

“How’s that?”

“The guys in charge want tinkers.  They really want tinkers, both because they want us in a position where we won’t be making trouble for them, and because and they want the kind of stuff we can create.”

“I’m not giving up my stuff.”

Kid Win paused.  This is like looking into a mirror to a year and a half ago.  “Look, I can see your TV, your toaster.  Chances are you’ve gone to the Trainyard or a scrapyard to find some stuff.  Old batteries, car parts, chains, good metal, whatever.”

“He wanted to go to the Trainyard,” Chariot’s mother cut in, “I told him no, caught him trying to sneak out.”

Chariot scowled a little, looked away.

This would be easier without her here.  “I get it.  Been there.  You’re hungry to use your power, but more than any other kind of cape, you’re facing a hurdle in terms of the entry-level resources you need.  This is where the team would support you.  You get funding, a lot of funding, to put your stuff together.”

Kid Win reached into his belt, retrieved a compact disc.  He placed it on the glass coffee table, then withdrew a set of small tools from the other side of his belt.  He dismantled the object and began laying out the components one by one.

Chariot reached for the nearest component, and Kid Win moved to block the boy’s hand.  “Don’t touch, please.  Look only.  Trace oils and static charge could damage something.”

The boy gave him an annoyed glance, bent over the table to look closer at the chips.

“What’s this crystal?”  Chariot asked.

“3D computer chip.  Uses light instead of electrical current.  They’re made by this Protectorate tinker down in Texas.  She gets funding to produce a set number every month, in addition to her regular pay.  So long as you’re in the program, you can put in an order for her stuff, with the specs you want.”

“And this metal threading, gold?”

“Gold, for maximum conductibility.”

“That’s a camera, this would be the power source, that part does something with wavelengths, and this reads energy… but I’m not getting it.  What does this do?”

Kid Win quickly slipped the pieces back together, turned the compact device over, then pulled out his smartphone.  Touching the screen, he activated the compact device.  It floated above the coffee table.  He turned his smartphone around to show them the image it was streaming from the device’s camera.

“So much effort, for a video camera?” Chariot’s mother commented, “My tax dollars are going towards this?”

The dumbfounded look Chariot gave his mother put Kid Win in the awkward spot of having to suppress a smile.  This is a point for me.  If I asked him again, what would he say?  Five, six?

“You join the Wards, you get exactly what you need to reach your full potential as a Tinker.”  A small lie there.  Not like I’ve reached my full potential.  “And anything you make, the PRT buys the rights from you.  If you’re willing to give up that much, you can do well for yourself.”

“You’re talking money?” That had piqued Chariot’s interest.  He leaned forward, elbows on his knees.

“I maybe shouldn’t, but I’m going to tell you what I’m getting out of it, because it’s almost definitely going to be the exact same for you.  I get paid, but the money goes straight into a trust.  I’ve made enough to pay for my college education, and every dollar I earn beyond that is going to be waiting for me as a cash award, if and when I graduate from a four-year postsecondary program.  I’m getting four hundred dollars in allowance each month, just to mess around in my workshop, all my materials are paid for, and I currently have about two thousand dollars sitting in the bank, right now, from that.  Once I turn eighteen?  I make more.  It automatically transitions to a job with good pay, working with the Protectorate, and the hours will be totally flexible around any classes I take.”

“But he’s risking his life,” Chariot’s mother spoke.  Chariot frowned.

“He is.  There are responsibilities.  But honestly?  There’s zero way he’s going to be able to go out and try out any of the stuff he’s made without running into trouble.  People are going to pick fights, just because he has powers.  If he tries to hang out in a workshop he establishes on his own, they’re going to find him, strong-arm him into putting something together for them.  Not just villains, either.  Heroes too.  Being a tinker doesn’t just make you a target.  It makes you a resource.  It’s why pretty much every tinker out there is a member of a larger, more powerful team.”

“Then Trevor could just not use his powers?” she spoke.

“Sure,” Kid Win folded his arms, leaning back against the back of the couch.  “What do you think, Chariot?  You think you could keep from using that power of yours?  Be normal?”

Chariot frowned, looked down at his scratched-up hands, “No.”

Kid Win nodded in agreement, “It’s a part of you, Chariot, a part of how you think, now.  I’m telling you this is the best option.  The safest.  Having a team means you’re protected, free to do what you need to do.”

Chariot’s expression indicated clear interest.  Then he frowned, “I don’t want to give up my stuff to others.  It’s mine.”

Something struck Kid Win as off about the reply.  What was it?   It was out of tune with the flow of the conversation, didn’t quite match up with Kid Win’s own experiences being recruited.  Maybe it sounded forced?  But why would Chariot fake reluctance?

He pushed forward, anyways, “I get that, really.  But it’s only given away in name.  You still get to use it, you just can’t give it away or sell it to others.  The benefit is that you gain access to all the stuff and plans other PRT tinkers have made.  I can’t show you any more of that than I have, but the fact is, you’d be able to look at my blueprints as easily as I could look up yours, get inspiration…

“…Or you could look at the sort of stuff Dragon makes.”

Chariot’s eyes lit up.

“Tell me you’re not interested, now.”

“I’m… kind of interested.”

Again, that vibe.  Pretending he’s not as interested as he is.

“They can’t force you to join, but they do want you on the team.  There’s no negotiating.  You’d get the same I get, pretty much, so if you’re holding back or trying to fake like you don’t want to join when you do, you’re just wasting your time and mine.”

“I’m not,” Chariot replied, defensive.  “It’s only… this is a big deal.”

“It is.  So take my card.  Call me if you have any questions, or if you want me to pass on word that you’re joining the team.”

Kid Win fished in his belt and then handed his card to the boy.  Black with white lettering and his starburst-gun emblem on the back.

“Okay,” Chariot replied.

“Talk it over with your mom.  Get back to us.”

“Thank you,” Chariot’s mother spoke, standing.  Kid Win stood as well.  He shook her hand again.

“Not a problem,” Kid Win replied.  He punched the boy lightly on the shoulder as he stood, “Join.  It’d be good to talk shop with someone else that gets this stuff.”

Chariot nodded.

The mother led Kid Win to the door, and he headed out the building – the fat man from the stairwell was gone, and only the Hispanic boy by the front door was still in the hallway.  Kid Win stepped outside.

Something’s off with this scenario.

He tapped his foot a second, then stepped around the building and into the alleyway.  He retrieved his smartphone, and used it to send the hovering camera up to the third floor, checked in the windows where the apartment would be.  The boy was leaving the bathroom, going into his room.  Kid Win moved the camera to the next window over, the boy was sitting down at his computer, turning it on.

Straight to the computer.  Hm.  Kid Win pocketed the hovering camera, then turned his attention to the smartphone.  According to the phone, there were three wireless modems in the building.  One was named with a string of violent swear words, the other was on its default settings.  Both were unlocked.  He chose the third, locked connection, clicked a button on the screen to have his phone decrypt the password.

Fifteen seconds later, he could see someone online.  Kid Win watched the white text scroll by with details on the connection’s activity.

Google docs – pages of technical stuff, the boy was adding notes on gold wiring, shortform notes on antigravity, 3D crystals.  The next page the boy visited, five minutes later, was an email account.

Twenty seconds later, an email was sent.

To: C1298475739@cryptmail.com

Guy from wards came.  I’m in.

Kid Win stared at the screen for a long while.  Cryptmail.  That wouldn’t be an agreement with the PRT.

“So someone got to you before we did,” he muttered to himself.  He tapped the armor over his ear twice to open a communications channel, “Console?”

“Weld here, manning the console.”

“Do me a favor, call everyone back to the base for a quick meeting?  And maybe call Piggot?”

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