Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Interlude 26

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The entity swims through the void and it remembers.  Everything is stored, dating back to the very beginning.

In the beginning, a species chokes their gray planet.  Here and there, landmasses appear, created by inhabitants to trap or uncover the scarce food that exists, but the landscape is largely liquid, water thick with silt and other particles.  The creatures worm in and around one another, and the planet has as much space taken up by the creatures as there is space left for other things.

Each has evolved the same capacity to shift between layers, to explore the alternate versions of this same world, and each of these other worlds are choked by more of the same creatures.  Still, they continue to reproduce, and in their spread, they have eradicated virtually every source of food from every world they can access.  The species is so numerous that it is nearly impossible to find space to surface at the uppermost areas of the water, where they might absorb starlight and radiation.  What little energy they do manage to acquire in the process is lost in struggles to stay at the top and the continued efforts to avoid being pushed and pulled down by the coils of their neighbors.

Tangle.

The ancestor is aware of this, fully cognizant that the fight over resources will soon reach a climax, and there will be a war where every creature fights for itself.  These wars are not graceful or sensible.  The strongest can be torn apart as easily as the weakest.  Once it starts, it will only end when a meager few remain.

Then, as they retreat to individual worlds to mend and restore themselves, the prey will multiply, and there will be a span of feasting for those lucky enough to survive.

With that, the process will begin anew.  The same things will occur.  This has happened no less than one hundred and seventy times, with little variation.  Each time it occurs, realities are left dead, the grace period before resources run out once again is shorter.  That the number of worlds exceed the number of particles that might exist in one world’s universe is inconsequential; the creatures multiply exponentially.

They are running out of time.

The ancestor knows this, and it isn’t satisfied.  It knows its kin aren’t satisfied either.  They are quiet, because there is nothing to say.  They are trapped by their nature, by the need to subsist.  They are rendered feral, made to be sly and petty and cruel by circumstance.  They are made base, lowly.

With all of this in mind, the ancestor broadcasts a message.  Each member of the species is made up of cells, of shards, and a typical broadcast is a simple concept, a single message nuanced by a million individual influences brought to bear by the shards that made up the speaker.

Proposal.

The message is voiced with violence, across innumerable wavelengths and means, through heat and motion and electromagnetics and light.  Each shard cluster retains different abilities, minor tools for self-defense and offense, for finding prey and helping the ancestor make its way in the cold gray mud.  In communicating, it turns the vast majority of these resources outward, to transmit the signal, and each form of communication has different ideas, different subtleties.  In this, a greater, complex communication is achieved.

The act of speaking nearly kills it, it is so starved for energy.

It continues, and because this message is so different from the screams and cries over food and territory and everything else, the others listen.  They expend their own energy to transmit it further.  The idea spreads across every possible world like a ripple.

A species needs to continue evolving.  It needs conflict and variation.

Failure to meet these objectives leads to self-destruction.

By the time the ancestor is finished communicating, it is depleted, unable to even move as it is shoved by the bodies of others that swim past.

Then, in bits and pieces, it is devoured.

Devoured not for energy, but for material.

The shards are absorbed, made a part of the eater, and the ones who eat swell in size.  Unsustainable sizes, but they grow nevertheless.

All across the possible worlds, the creatures turn on one another.  It is a war, but it takes a different shape, a different form.  This time they are not eating for energy, but to stay afloat and stay large enough that they are not subsumed by a greater whole.

The gray planet makes several revolutions around its star before things reach a climax.  Many of the creatures are so large they cannot subsist in one world alone.  They weave into one world and worm out into another.  Every flank is vulnerable to another of its kind lunging out into a world and attacking, consuming whole chunks at a time.  Heat, cold, electricity and mental manipulations are leveraged in these struggles, slowing their targets down enough for them to wrap themselves around, shear off a section to take into themselves.

More revolutions, and only a handful remain.  Energy is scarce, even with the individual bodies taking up whole oceans of the thin gray mud, absorbing all of the light and radiation they can.  Countless worlds have grown dim, absorbed of all possible life and nutrients in the course of struggles and fighting.

The smallest ones recognize the fact that they don’t have energy, that it would cost them all too much if they continued fighting this uphill battle.  They submit, and are consumed.

Two remain.

They spend time reorganizing themselves, shifting the sheer masses of shards they have acquired into forms useful for another task.

Once they are reformed, they leech all of the heat and energy from countless worlds and concentrate it in a single reality.  The energy boils the oceans of silt-choked waters, disintegrates the landmasses.

Their bodies form into a large, complex shape, with only small fragments in this one world.  The extensions of those same fragments extend into other realms, in concentrated, specific shapes, made for a purpose: to survive the next step.

The energy is released, and the planet shatters.

The shattering is so extreme that it extends into other worlds, through the same channels that the fragments used to extend into other realities.  Every single one of the remaining habitable worlds is destroyed in the ensuing blast.

And the fragments radiate outwards, shedding and dropping their protective shells as they sail into the black, empty void.

Gestation.

Still flying through the void, the entity forms the word in the midst of its recollections.

They are children.  Offspring.  They travel the void, hoping to encounter another habitable world.

This is the beginning.

Countless perished, no doubt, in contact with lifeless moons, expending the last of their energy to search the possible iterations of that moon for life.  More die within moments of the detonation, their outer casing too damaged, vital processes separated from one another

But others made contact with other worlds.

A world with life rooted in landmasses, weathering brutal storms of caustic acid.  The one who arrives on that world struggles to find a means of survival.

It finds refuge in one of the dying plant structures, provides ambient heat to nourish it, so that the openings might close up and the shelter be made more secure.

The planet revolves around its star many times.

Many, many times.

The one that occupies the structure has bred, now, fragmented into clusters of shards that could occupy others.

Some shards have different focuses.  This is the experiment, the test.

Of these plants, some thrive.  Others die.

The creature tests different capacities, different clusters of shards.  It watches, observes and records events into memory.

It borrows of the conflict and stress of this new, alien species.  It borrows of the evolution, of the learning, of the crisis.  In some ways, it is a symbiote.  In others…

Parasite.

The fragments continue to divide, feasting on abundant resources, on light and radiation and the alien food sources it has started to learn how to consume.  It spreads quickly now, across every possible variation of this world that sustains life.

It encounters another.  A later arrival to the same planet, a member of its own species, another that is multiplying and consuming and growing.  This new arrival chose a different means of survival, but it too chose a kind of parasitism.

They exchange shards where they meet.  In these shards are codified memories, as well as the most effective techniques they have observed.

The planetoid is small, the range of options limited.  A message is broadcast.  Mutual agreement.  They will move on.

Migration.

The process is similar.  Drawing themselves together.  There is cooperation, this time, as each shard returns to the source.  The hosts die in droves, and are absorbed for energy.

They gather into the same vast forms that span multiple realities, and they leech energy from other worlds to fuel their exit from a single one.  It takes time.

But something else occurs.  A broadcast from the other, followed by an attack.

A carefully measured attack.  The two creatures ruin one another with friction and pressure, burning hot, and shards are destroyed.  Many are partially destroyed.

The other creature joins shards together into combinations, discards and destroys.  Repeats the process.

New shards are created.  Different functions.  Forced mutation.

The end results parallel the studies the creatures have made of the plant life on this planet with its acid rain.

More blatant than intended in the beginning, but nothing lost.  New strengths, regarding growth and durability.

They concentrate the energy as they form themselves into an encasement around the small planetoid.

Shell.

The detonation of the small planet scatters the individual clusters of shards, and this time, they are better inured to the harsher elements of space.

So the cycle continues.

The next world encountered has sentient life, civilization.  A complicated, rich world.

It is a symbiosis, this time, more than parasitism.  The two species learn from one another.  The shards code the ‘technology’ of this new species into their memories.  They learn of warping space and gravity.

Until the species turns against them.  Those lucky enough to bind with the entity’s offspring war against those who do not.  Some seek to rule.

Monarchs.  The entity forms the thought, defining the memory.

The cycle is cut short by a forced exit, as the shards are rooted out and destroyed by the natives of this civilized world.  They meet, they bind and again they share ideas.  Richer perceptions, complex technologies and more are fashioned in the unity of three larger creatures.  It is through differences in the greater entities that a richness is created, new derivations, new connections that none would be capable of on their own.

The planet is expended, the offspring are cast off in every direction once again.

This time, they are capable of moving, of controlling their course.  Gravity, warping space.

The entity recalls all of this as it swims through the void and makes its way to the next target.  It can reach back into the depths of its memory to recall all of what came before.

Each time the cycle started anew, lessons had been learned, methods refined.  Each time, the spawn that are spewed out from the destroyed planet are more robust, larger, hosting innumerable memories.  Where memories fall in parallel, they are shared out, offered to others.

After more than three thousand cycles, there are safeguards, there are protections.  The arsenal of abilities, powers and protections the creature possesses have been built up.  The entity remembers past failures and has adapted so they will not happen again.

The entities travel with partners now, moving in spirals while maintaining a measured distance from one another.  Each is slightly different from the other, taking on a different role.  Attacker and defender, warrior and thinker, builder and destroyer.

This divide is so they are able to take a different stance, shape their shards in subtle ways and clarify the results when their shards are compared and joined once again – some shall be kept, others discarded.  Some will turn up interesting possibilities that can be explored when new shards are invented at the cycle’s end.

These individual focuses drive the pair, shape their tasks as they approach their destination.

The entity reaches out with clairvoyance, with precognition, and it views its destination.  It communicates, covering vast expanses of space, transmitting signals across channels formed of the very foundation of this universe.  These signals are broadcast only across specific realities, so that no aftereffects or lingering transmissions will contact a version of that world that hosts no life at all.

Destination.

Agreement.

Trajectory.

Agreement.

Each signal is nuanced, shaped with subtle details and clues by the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of individual shards that make up the entity.  Through these nuances, it conveys more information than an entire planet of sentient beings might in a hundred revolutions.

They have settled on a target.  Old lessons are remembered.  It is a planet of sentient lifeforms, more primitive than some the entities have run into, more advanced than others.  Social creatures, forming communities.  These societies teeter on fine balances, but they persevere nonetheless.  A world rife with conflicts, big and small.

Agitation.

The new hosts are to be bipeds, with a binary reproduction.  Not uncommon, and rich with potential.  Such a division and natural competition for reproduction fosters a natural evolution and development.  The entities will focus on them over any of the sub-species.

These bipeds raise structures of hard earth or plant matter for shelter against the elements, draping themselves in softer materials for further protection.  They shape the world around them, but are more immutable, unchanging in form.  Different from the entity, in many ways.

This was the stage in the cycle when the entity is most aware, most focused.  It observes the possible worlds and judges which would be best.

Colony, the entity voices the idea.

With that same signal, the various nuances suggest countless worlds that are to be removed from consideration.  Worlds without enough population.

Agreement, the response comes.

The entity’s counterpart is taking a passive role, investigating only to confirm, to validate.  This is concerning.  Where is the counterpart’s focus, if not on this vital decision?

Study reveals worlds with dominant belief systems, peaceful worlds, worlds crowded with twelve billion individuals.  Worlds with almost none.

The entity pares through these, deciding.

It investigates, and in the doing, it prepares some shards for analysis and understanding of this particular society and culture.  Language, culture, patterns of behavior, patterns of society.  This is something the counterpart should be emphasizing.

The process is interrupted by an arrival.

A member of their own species, approaching.  It was smaller, took a different form.  It used different means to travel.

This was what had distracted the counterpart.

Its ancestors had traveled a different path, easily hundreds of cycles ago, before the entities had begun traveling in pairs.  This new arrival had encountered different worlds, less worlds, and it had developed differently.

The lesser one crossed paths with the entity’s counterpart.  For a duration, they intertwined, meeting through multiple realities, their bodies rubbing and crushing against one another.

A sharing of details, a wealth of knowledge, from hundreds of cycles.  A sacrifice of the same.

The lesser one moves on, bloated with new shards and knowledge, but the counterpart flounders.

It sacrificed too much.

Concern.

Confident.

The counterpart is not worried.  The signal carries notes of hope for the future.  The counterpart will replenish its shards, its stores of knowledge, memories and abilities at the conclusion of this cycle, reuniting with the entity.

The counterpart is supposed to be the passive figure, the thinker, the planner, while this entity is the warrior, the protector.  The entity is forced to make up for the counterpart’s disability, to slow its advance through the void as they approach their destination and devote resources to analyzing, something the other should be doing instead.

The focus is on one reality.  They will subsume it first, then expand to others.  The most efficient route, achieving maximum amounts of conflict.  By testing their own shards against one another, they gather information.  The entity’s shards will fight among each other, and they will fight the counterpart’s, and they will steadily learn.

With a species such as these social bipeds, the entities can draw new conclusions, come up with new uses for shards.  It tracks and records details that allow it to shape new shards at the cycle’s conclusion.

But their new hosts are a weak species, fragile.  The abilities must be limited in scope.  Worlds that are too advanced would be too fragile, as advanced weapons eliminate too many, cut the process short.

Destination.

Agreement, the response is not so complex, is expressed in a softer, quieter manner.

Still, the pair have settled on a set of realities.

The entity focuses on one.  Enough individuals, natural conflict and confrontation.  A balance of physical and emotional stressors.  The environment is damaged, but not so much it would inhibit growth.

Hive.  The entity communicates the decision.

Agreement.  The counterpart grasps it immediately, knows which reality he means.

The focus changes.  An interplay of communications, one bouncing off the other, as they designate realities.  Each shard needs one, some shards need to cluster and reside across multiple realities.  They draw on these worlds for power, for energy, and thus fuel the techniques they have been coded with.

Each shard, in turn, needs a target.  The entity’s focus expands, designating likely partners.  Past mistakes have been accounted for, and the shards will connect in a covert manner.  They will reside in other worlds, uninhabited worlds, and they will remain cloaked and concealed in areas this new host species is unlikely to explore.

It is a negotiation.

Ownership here.

Claim there.

Territory here.

With each statement, they each catalogue the realities.  Similar realities are included together, for both the entities and the shards.  Too many complications and confusions arise when interacting with worlds that are exceedingly similar.  Not an effective form of conflict, when it is the same lessons learned over and over again.  It is better to connect them into groupings, limit exposure to each set of worlds.  One shard is capable of settling in a grouping of near-identical worlds, drawing energy from all of those worlds at once.

The entity looks to the future to check for danger.

Plague.

All signs point to the shards murdering their hosts.

The hosts must be protected, or this will be disastrous, counter-intuitive.  The entity adjusts the innate safeguards, protections to reflect the host species and their tolerances.  The bonding process will protect the host, where the host needs protection.  Shards that are capable of providing flame at will cannot burn the hosts, now.  Shards are reorganized, combined and clustered where necessary, to grant sufficient protection.

Infestation.

Better, but not perfect.  The entity refines the process, limits certain abilities, so they will not eradicate too many at a time.

Soft.  The broadcast is sent out to the counterpart, along with suggestions and tips on how to refine the shards.

Agreement, the counterpart accepts.

But the entity can still see fallout effects.  There are parallels in memory storage.  Not many, but there may be glimmers where the subject is capable of perceiving the information stored in the shard as the connections are formed.

For good measure, the entity breaks up one shard cluster, tunes it, then codes the effect into each and every shard.  It studies the host species further, refines, attunes.

It takes time, but the entity forms a sufficient safeguard.  The host species will forget any significant details.

The broken shard is cast off, joining countless others.  It will bond to a host.  The entity looks forward, checking.

After the target planet has revolved thirty-three times around its star, this shard will connect to a host.

A male guards his offspring, a female, with his size and bulk.  A group of hostile bipeds cluster around them.  They call out, making unusual loud sounds, suggesting intoxication.  One of the hostile ones gestures, gripping its male parts, pulling them free of their coverings.  A sexual gesture follows, waving the organ left and right, thrusting it into the empty air.

Sounds of amusement, laced with hostility.

The male and his offspring retreat as far against the nearest construction as they are able.

The shard connects, attaching to the male.

No.  It is ineffective.  The female is clearly more distressed.

Prey.

There is a way to maximize exposure to conflict.

The entity taps into its understanding of the bipeds and how they operate, recognizes the signs of distress, the nuances such things can have.

It views the future again, with changes made in the code.

This time, the shard settles in the male, then immediately shifts to the more distressed female.

Insinuation.  The shard connects to the host’s neural network.

The bond is created.

The shard opens the connection as the stress peaks, and the host doubles over in pain, bewildered, stunned.  The shard then forms tendrils that contact each individual in the area.  It retains traces of the entity’s tampering, of the studies in psychology, awareness and memory, and is quick to adapt.  It finds a manner in which it can operate, then alters itself, solidifying into a particular state.  The remainder of the functions are discarded, the ones in the shard itself are rendered inert to conserve power, while the ones in the host fall away, are consumed by the shard.  The host’s neural network changes once more.

The female disappears from the awareness of the hostile ones that surround it.

The entity looks to the future, to see if this is sustainable, efficient.

All seems well.

A view of other bondings suggests this emphasizes younger targets, particularly those in a middle stage of development, between a lesser phase and an adult phase.  Emotions are higher at that juncture, and the possibility of conflict increases further.

The entity allows for deeper connections to foster more conflict.  The underlying instructions are already present from previous cycles, and can be left largely alone.  These bipeds war with each other enough.  It will only serve to assist the most extreme cases.

Forget.  The entity informs its counterpart of the changes it made.

Agreement.  The counterpart acknowledges.

Emotion.  More changes.

Agreement.

Before the last response is received, the entity has already begun shedding shards that won’t prove useful or particularly problematic.  Shards for attack and defense, distributed over an even geography, an even timeline.

More complicated shards require more focus.  Ones that harbor stored memory of technology and development in past cycles are prepared so they might bond with a host and transmit that knowledge.

For others, there is no easy way to apply the contained knowledge, so they are coded to draw from the host’s recollection and awareness, or to search the entire planet for details and information on what it might be able to do.

Ones that alter the nature of the host in fundamental ways are planted throughout, so as to add more variables in how the others must adapt to them.  A host that chooses how gravity applies to it.  A host that can become a storm of friction, intensifying all friction in an area around it.  One that becomes immaterial.  Another that can make paths between realities, with safeguards to keep it away from ones the shards are rooted within.

The entity is approaching the galaxy cluster in question now, and it sees its counterpart doing the same, if at a slightly slower pace.  Both are trailed by a cloud of shards now, each cast off in such a way that it won’t reach its target location until a set time and date.

The entities begin to close their spiral dance, drawing together as much as they can with the counterpart struggling.

They approach their destination, and begin to disintegrate in great quantities, until thirty percent remains, twenty, ten, two…

It will take one hundred and sixty revolutions before their destination reality hits critical mass.

Three hundred and thirty-one revolutions before the shards reach a critical mass and enough information is gathered.  To look to the future and seek that information in advance would take too much energy.  To do this and fail would be a catastrophic setback in the cycles.

This suffices.  It spends the least energy for the maximum result.

The counterpart is descending, having selected a destination world.  It is hemorrhaging shards in clusters, due to the excessive exchange of shards with the lesser one, too soon before their arrival at their destination.  These shards are breaking off in huge volumes.

A check confirms these shards are coded, that everything is technically well.

Danger, the entity broadcasts.

Confident, the counterpart replies.

The counterpart remains secure.  Nothing to be done.

There is no more time to devote to the crisis.  The entity focuses on its destination, on the next part of the cycle.

The shards have largely been assigned to hosts.  They will remain latent, they will wait for the first crucial moment of crisis and use that to shape their function, to better assist their host.

It is impossible to check the exact circumstances for each event.  Some shards harbor particular concepts, and will shape their application to the host’s needs.  Others are coded with particular applications, and will either scan viable realities or the host’s frame of reference for how that application will come to pass.

Physical harm will grant physical assets, be it direct or abstract.  Immediate danger will nudge the shard towards defensive abilities.  Ranged attacks against living threats, an ability to shape or affect the environment against environmental dangers.

Successes will help refine the abilities, provide inspiration for the development of new shards.  Failures will help all the same.

In hosts, too, there will be variations.  The shards might seek out different hosts, if others are in range, as the perception-altering one did.  They will fragment and transmit to other hosts, as they grow and develop.

The entity is satisfied.  In terms of raw size, it is but a small fragment of what it once was, barely a cluster of shards now.  Its part in this phase of things is nearly done.

The next part of the cycle begins.

It chooses an unoccupied reality.  A barren planet.  Its perceptions focus on the landmasses in idle curiosity.  Different from the focus reality, but similar.

They have reached the solar system in question now.  They brush up against one another, and the entity shores up its counterpart where it can, sacrificing its own shards in the process.

Acceptance.  Gratitude.

The counterpart’s message is thin, but the entities are but a ten-thousandth of a percent of their original size.

It turns its attention to adapting.

In the course of thousands of cycles, the entities have refined their methodology.  There are no true points where they are vulnerable.

As the whole, as the entity, it is safeguarded by countless abilities, defenses, perceptions and options.  It is fat with the knowledge of every generation that came before, the mistakes, the problems, and the solutions.  While it travels the void, it is virtually untouchable.

But there have been times where the shards were vulnerable, after bonding with hosts.  Even now, there are dim possibilities that they might be rooted out.  There are issues where shards that have been coded to generate conflict could do too much damage, disrupting the cycle.

This is something that must be tended to.

The entity turns its attention briefly to their target reality, observes the various life forms.

Always, in the course of its examination of the possible futures, it was evaluating, checking to see what was necessary.

A quick glance into the future, not so deep a look as to expend too much of its remaining energy.  Conservation is key at this juncture, and from here on out.

The entity’s present configuration is satisfactory.  The chance the cycle can be interfered with has become infinitesimally small.

The shard that allows the entity to see the future is broken up, then recoded with strict limitations.  It wouldn’t do to have the capabilities turned against the entity or the shards.

The fragment it just used is sent off, directed to a small female.

The other fragments in that same cluster are retained.  To see the future is resource intensive, but the entity will harbor it as a safeguard.

More abilities are used to check, investigate, and then cast off.   The ability to communicate and receive signals is unnecessary now.  To transmit signals across wavelengths.  It, too, is intentionally crippled as an ability.  It would not do to have that one being used with regularity.  Such would be distracting for the entity and its counterpart.

When it knows the configuration is absolutely decided, it reaches for the last fragment it will cast off.  This one, too, it cripples, even largely destroys, so as to limit the host from using it in the same fashion.

In a haste to decide matters before it enters the stratosphere of that barren planet, the entity casts it off to a similar location as the future-sight ability.  A similar time, thirty-one revolutions from now.  The destination is a male, thin, in the company of strong males and females, drinking.

And with that, the entity lands on the barren planet.

The planet revolves around its star once before the entity even moves.

The entity rises and extends its perceptions across multiple realities.

It’s time.

Chrysalis.

The entity changes.

A star that burns twice as hot burns for half as long.

Not truly, but the entity is aware of the idioms and patterns of this world, is already thinking periodically in terms of the words and ideas of their languages, to frame thoughts for itself in this pivotal moment.  It serves to help codify the messages and intent.

The entities burn as hot as any star, with their sheer mass, their scale, the power they wield.  This is acceptable while traveling the void, when much of the body remains in a hibernation state.  Stored energy is expended as a resource, to view the future, to perceive and communicate.

But this is not sustainable here, in this phase of the cycle, when the entity is so much smaller.

The entity has cast off all but the most essential parts of itself, distributing the shards throughout this reality.  More shards will shower on other realities in time, likely around the point the first have started fragmenting in greater numbers

Cycle to cycle, the role changes.  Direct involvement, watching from afar, being visible or staying out of sight.  Different roles to shepherd the shards through different worlds.

The entity takes shape.  It retains the capabilities it had when it first arrived.

Imago.  Adult state.

Much of it is still too large for the target reality.  It leaves that portion of itself behind, maintains a connection.  A safeguard.  The body it uses is but an extension, a tendril.

It codifies the thoughts and memories of the society it investigated into a usable fashion.

Then it waits.

Sentinel.

Time passes.  A revolution of the planet around its star.

Something has gone wrong.  It is time, but it has not received a broadcast from the counterpart.

The entity emerges, stepping into the target reality.

It can see its shards showering down from above like meteors traveling the void.   The first to arrive.

It can see the shards of the counterpart.

Not all are intact.

Dead shards.  Damaged ones.  Vital shards, even, going to hosts.

The entity destroys these on sight.  They are corrupt, ruined.  They will fail to provide usable results.

Extending its perception over the world and other realities, the entity can sense everything at once.  It can sense conflict.  Wars.

It remains aware of its limited lifespan.  Three thousand and six hundred revolutions.  To search like this costs a tenth of one revolution’s time.  There is more than enough remaining before the cycle concludes.

Or there should be.

The entity abandons the search.  Enough information has been obtained for it to know.

The counterpart is dead.

For a very long time, the entity is still.  It does not move, and instinctively holds back every ability, as if conserving energy in the face of a vast threat.

But this is not a threat that it can weather, like a storm of acid rain: The cycle has been disrupted.

Worse, it is terminated.  The entities have altered themselves so that each half of a pairing serves part of a role.  It is only with the counterpart that it can gestate, that it can modify the individual shards, cast the next generation out and start the cycle anew.

In seeking to understand the host creatures, the entity had coded shards to emulate them.  It is those same shards that experience the entity’s first ever emotion.

Crushed.

The entity comes to experience a deep, profound sadness, for the very first time.

Time passes, as the entity considers the ramifications.  The sky grows dark, then light again.  Dark, then light.

A structure, a vehicle approaches.  A hull pierces the water as it draws nearer.  A crowd stands on the uppermost surface, gathering.  They stare, even babble among themselves, their voices jumbling together, a hum, a blur.  He can see into the other realities that lie adjacent to this one, similar people, similar crowds.

Drone.

Buzz.

They are communicating, and the entity is unconcerned.  It watches as they draw close to the edge of the vehicle, pressing themselves against the barrier that was erected at the edge.  They reach out.

They worship him.  Of course they do.  His form was crafted to fit the values of this reality.  They hold faith, and the entity chose a shape that fit the most celebrated figures of the most popular faiths.  Race divides this species, so the entity deliberately chose a form that didn’t fit any one race, with skin and hair given the color and texture of another thing they celebrated and worshipped – a mineral.

This is intentional.

The entity sees a shard already taking root in one of the vehicle’s passengers.  One of the dead shards, damaged.  The entity’s vision allows it to see the man’s inside, the damage.  He is dying of a systemic issue in his body, producing the wrong type of cells in the wrong places.

The entity reaches out, feels others touch his hand before the male finally makes contact.  A simple wavelength serves to kill specific cells.

The shard will grow now, damaged as it is.

With that, the golden man turns from the crowd and flies away.

The Entity slowed as a figure barred its path.  A female, with her arms outstretched.  Smaller life forms were arranged around and behind it.

Vaguely familiar.

“Stop, Scion,” the female said.

The entity came to a complete stop.  It could see the connection to the female’s shard, the activity as it broadcast signals, reaching out to contact lifeforms throughout the area, coordinating them.

All around the entity, there were shards in varying states of maturation.  The female’s was among the most mature.  Seasoned by conflict, heavy with information, lessons learned, tactics, applications, organization.  It had already fragmented once, heavy enough with information that it could afford to handle other roles.  The fragment would have a derivative ability, and given proximity, it would hopefully remain close enough to exchange information with the shard that it had split off from.  There were no signs of that exchange.  The female had separated ways from the fragment.

The entity recognized her shard.  The last one that had split off before the entity took on this form.

Queen.

The entity’s despair deepened for a moment.  It was a good thing that the shards were harvesting such good information, but nothing would come of it.  The cycle had been disrupted.

“I know you want to help, but it’s too dangerous.  You’re too strong, and this situation is fragile.  It’ll do more harm than good.”

More harm than good.  Scion accepted that as a given and decided to stay where he was.

The female kept on talking as memories stirred.

A male approached.  No shard, no powers.  The area was dark, the planet turned away from its star.  The entity was hovering over the highest point of a short bridge that spanned a river.

Lost.  It had created itself for a purpose it could no longer fulfill.

The male pulled off one foot-covering, hefted it, then threw it.  It bounced off the entity’s face, not even eliciting a blink.

The male hauled on the other foot-covering, but it was too tightly bound.

He gave up, half-hopping, half running up the length of the bridge, pounded his fists on the entity’s chest, scratched, clawed.  Aggressive actions, but it didn’t matter.  The entity was invulnerable.  It could glance into the immediate future and know there was no potential reality where this male would be able to harm it.

Not that it mattered.

“Damn you!” the male cried out.  “Fucking perfect golden man!  Fuck you!  Just… just bleed!  Fucking feel this!”

A strike to the entity’s face.  The male nearly fell from the bridge.  The entity would have let him.

“You don’t- you don’t deserve this!  This power!”  The male sniveled, mucus running from his nose.  Flecks of spit dotted his lips from the sheer force of his words.

“They keep saying you’re fucking sad!?  What do you have to be sad about?  You weren’t beaten black and blue by a fucking girl you were too chickenshit to hit back!  You haven’t been kicked around by motherfucking teenagers who thought it’d be good for a lark!  Buggered against your will… no!  You get to be untouchable!”

The male clawed and scratched, long dirty fingernails scraping at the entity’s body, clawing at a nipple, at the part the entity had crafted to look like genitalia.  Nothing did any harm.  Even the dirt skidded off, failing to find any traction in the entity’s skin.

The male collapsed, his face pressed up against the entity’s chest.  His mucus and saliva slid off with the same ease the dirt had.

“Fuck you.  Fuck you, golden man.  You don’t… you don’t deserve to be miserable.  Or you don’t deserve to be miserable and useless.  Fucking burden on society, distracting people from shit that needs doing.  Fuck you, you ponce.  You… Fuck you!  Go do something.  Never got that.  All these sad fucks that kill themselves or hide away… if you’re going to be miserable without a damn excuse, go to Africa and help those damn kids who were orphaned in wars.  Go… save people from burning buildings.  Help clean up after disasters.  Work in a fucking soup kitchen or something.  I don’t care.”

The man’s voice had gone quiet, barely more than a whisper.

Another pound of fist against the entity’s flesh.

“I don’t care if it’s penance or if it’s a fucking way to kill time.  Do some goddamn good, and maybe you’ll feel like you’re worth a damn.  Maybe you’ll stop being so fucking miserable.”

The entity continued to stare out over the city.  It absorbed the words, considered them.

It was a task.  A role it could play.

It was something.  What had this male said?  Which were ones the entity could achieve?

Save orphans in wars.  Rescue people from burning buildings.  Clean up after disasters.

The entity took flight once more.

The entity remained patient.  Patient then, patient now.

“…You could go to Houston or New York, even.  That’s far enough away from Jack,” the young female with the administration shard was still speaking, quiet, intense, urging without prodding.

The entity and the young female were still hovering over what was becoming a major site of conflict.  The entity extended its senses over the area.

At the center of it all was a man.  Not at the center, but everything tied to him.  Everything moved in relation to him, and he moved in relation to others.

The entity stared, intrigued.

“…We can’t stay here.  Come on.”  The female host was still talking.

The female paused, waiting.

“Orrrr you don’t understand what I’m saying.  Or you don’t care.  Fuck me.  Listen to me, Scion.  Pay attention.”

The entity turned its attention to the young female.  Its hands found the entity’s, pulled.

There was a meaning behind the gesture, but the entity was too lost in observing what was going on below to care.

A confrontation had started between a young male and an older one.  A fragment of a shard against a very mature shard.  The most mature shard in this area, at a glance.

The more mature power was unleashed.  A wavelength power, a kinetic transmission.

The entity watched, and it recognized the shard at work.

The broadcast shard.  One that had been crippled, just like the shard of the female that floated before the entity now.  The same shard that had managed communication between the entity and its counterpart.

The entity turned to observe another conflict.  One shard was connected to eight individuals.  A lesser shard, connected to eight unusual hosts.

The eight advanced in clusters, moving towards the various individuals that seemed to be hostile to them.  The shards connected to each individual provided more detail than anything else.

“You big golden idiot!  Come on.”

Her subjects formed a thick cloud, blocking the entity’s vision.  No matter.  It could still perceive the world.

“Come on!”

She pulled harder.

The entity turned to follow the confrontations.

The male with the broadcasting power was swinging his sword.  The younger one was erecting defenses, lashing out.

Their shards were reacting.  The entity could see how every aggressive shift in the younger one was met by an instinctual retreat in the older.  Cause and effect, invisible but there.  The nature of the shifts changed as they started speaking.

To strike the one with the mature passenger was akin to trying to catch a leaf in the wind.  The hand moved the air which moved the leaf, and it slid just out of reach, just beyond the hand’s grasp.

Ah.  There.  A narrow miss.  The male slid out of reach, and he prepared to go on the offensive.  His shard shifted, just as ready and able to capitalize on the weakness in offense as he was able to evade trouble in defense.

A shard flared to life, and the entity saw an effect take hold around it.  It reached out and found a barrier it could not penetrate.

Cell.

Its hand was moved back to the previous position.  It was caught in a sinkhole of distorted time.  Over and over again, it moved in a steady loop.

Snare.

A trap.

The city burned, and the entity wielded its power.  Controlled wavelengths disrupted the molecules, extinguished each source of heat, inside and out, rendering it a little cooler than the ambient temperature.

Countless individuals fled for safety, running in droves.  The entity watched, but it did not rest.

It hadn’t rested in years.  The longest it had stood still was in the company of Kevin Norton, where the man gave it a white covering that clung to its body.  As instructed, the entity kept the cloth clean, pushing out energy in patterns and yields that would drive out the soil and smoke while leaving the cloth intact.

It lowered itself to get a better angle on one blaze in the basement area of a library.  In the doing, purely by accident, it lowered itself to eye level with a female on a balcony.

The female was startled, afraid, unable to even breathe.  It could look inside the female and see the emotions as an increased heart rate, hormones and adrenaline churning through her system.

It almost blurted out the words.  “Kto vy?

The entity understood the Russian words as it understood all languages, through the knowledge it had scanned for and codified, prior to arriving.

It remembered the instructions Kevin Norton had provided.  To be polite, to be considerate.

Speaking, nonetheless, was an unfamiliar concept.

How to answer?  The entity did not know what it was.  It had no role but the one ascribed to it by Kevin Norton.

In thinking of the man, the entity thought of a thing the man had said.  A word in the midst of a story about ill-behaved spawn.

As it did most words, the entity had searched its memory for details on the concept.

Zion.

A promised land.

A utopia.  A harmonious kingdom.

The promised land could be this world at its climax, the shards at critical mass, the entity and its counterpart bringing about the end of the cycle.  It could be utopia, as the entity understood the term.

It could be the world at peace, people saved from hardship, as Kevin Norton had described it.

Whether the entity was somehow able to return to its original task or whether it continued carrying out Kevin Norton’s answers in an attempt to find itself, the term fit.

Zion,” it spoke.

Memories.  A refuge, a reminder of how things should be, if the cycle were intact.  There would be more shards, more conflict, but it would be more controlled.  The dead shards polluted the setting, almost too numerous.

The female with the administrator shard had long since fled, covering the retreat with her small army of lesser lifeforms, more traps snapping into place in her wake.

It thinks of Zion, and it thinks of other metaphors and ideas.  In the thirty-three revolutions since arriving on this planet, the entity has had time to think.  It has saved a lot of individuals from harm, heard many prayers.

It was aware of everything that occurred around it.  The planet’s star moved across the sky, above the dark, heavy clouds of moisture.  Small movements, but movements nonetheless.

It thought of the beetle in one mythology, rolling the orb across the sky.

It was an idea that persisted across mythologies.  ScarabChariotThe Brother.  The Sky Barge.

Abstract thought.  Was that the sort of pattern that led to a connection, an inspired idea in the development of new shards?  The entity wasn’t sure.  Its counterpart was supposed to handle such matters, retain that capacity for thought and analysis.

Its physical body continued to loop in time.  It didn’t matter.

The conflict continued.  The broadcaster was moving in and out of trouble, relying on a pronounced projection that was being emitted by a dead shard to provide further protection.  There was another entity nearby.  A boy with another dead shard.  Odd, that they had gravitated towards the broadcaster.

Mature shards, a situation ripe with conflict, so much to be gained, and nothing could be done with that.  The entity felt a hint of another emotion, dismissed it.  The simulation of the host-creature’s psychology was only that.  A simulation.

It would spend some time here.  Nothing would change in any event.  Kevin Norton had passed.

The entity observed the ongoing conflict.  No less than five seconds after it had been trapped, two figures had emerged from a doorway between worlds.  The entity could see the paths forming, trace them back to the source.  Another world, a living world without a shard occupying it.

They engaged the eight with their own perception abilities, intervening to assist a group of others.  As a pair, they opened fire with guns, then waded into hand to hand combat.

The entity looked at the male, and it saw the connection to the same shard as the eight.  His connection was stronger, more mature.

It looked at the female, and it saw a shard that wasn’t its own, but wasn’t dead.

Puzzling.

The fight progressed.  Strikes with weapons and with the creature’s limbs were evaded, a careful dance of attacks where each edge and bludgeon touched skin, many even shaving off the finer hairs from cheeks, noses and chins.

The male fought the eight in such a way that they couldn’t move without exposing themselves to attacks from the female.  Each movement placed the male in a path for obvious harm, a fatal blow, but the eight could not capitalize on that.  At the same time, he positioned himself in such a way that four or five at a time were unable to retreat.  Not just in reach of weapons, but in reach of arms, elbows, for being taken hostage.

The female felled three of the eight, and the situation was decided.  The remaining five dropped to a position where they sat on their knees.  She spoke, and an interdimensional portal appeared behind them.

They crawled through, heads down, and the portal closed.

The pair glanced up at the entity as another wormhole opened.  They stared.

The entity, in turn, faced a different direction, but it could perceive them nonetheless.

They disappeared back into the portal.

Puzzling.

The entity observed as the fight concluded elsewhere.

The broadcaster remained unaware as an individual without any attachment to shards at all entered the confined space, unloading a vaguely familiar substance over the group.  Something the entity might recollect if it had access to all of its memories.  A technology.

It didn’t matter.

The entity watched as the broadcaster was sealed in a time distortion.

A female, standing just outside another time distortion, walked around the effect, charging objects with energy.  The entity could see as the small pieces of alloyed metal unfolded, taking shape in not just this world, but all realities, at the same space and time, bristling with an effect that would sever their attachment to most physical laws.

They were thrown, and they disrupted connections to two shards at once.  The projection disappeared, only to reappear a distance away.  The boy who had created the time distortions fell as well.

Sting, the entity thought.  Once it had been a weapon for his kind, against his kind, back in the beginning, when they had dwelt in oceans of gray sludge.

The others hurried to confine the broadcaster.  They were apparently aware of what he could do.

Interesting.

“Just you and me,” Tecton said.  “That’s what he said.  Between gasps of pain, anyways.  ‘I wish I had better company, but I’ll take what I can get.  Ironic, that you’re so boring.”

Golem looked at his old leader.  “That’s it?”

Tecton shook his head.  “He said, ‘I bet you think you’re noble.  You’re not.  You’re uglier than any of us, sparky.”

“And?”

“And that’s it.  The D.T. guy foamed up the gap, I raised the shelf, you closed the hand, and he was completely sealed in.”

“You’re right.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“He hasn’t ever met me.”

Golem shook his head.  “Doesn’t seem world ending.”

I always hated the blank… slates,” Jack groaned the last word.  His utterances were finding an odd cadence or rhythm between the gasps of pain, the fresh wounds that were actively criss-crossing his body, opening his stomach, his intestine being gripped and pulled through the wound as if by an invisible force.

The foam weighed him down, and in the midst of the complete and total darkness, he stared skyward.

“…Never that interesting…”  He grunted.  “Never created art, never… created variation...  you’re worse than… most…”

High above, the entity listened.

Tattletale listened over the earbud microphones as Tecton finished relating Jack’s statements.

She raised her eyes from the computer.  Her underlings were arranged around the room, along with others.  Her soldiers were at the ready, alongside Imp’s Heartbroken,  the first and second in command of the Red Hands, Charlotte, Forrest and Sierra.

Sierra was bouncing her leg nervously.  She’d cut off her dreads, and her hair was short to the point of being in a buzz cut, with a fringe flopping over one side of her forehead.  But for the hair and two small hoop earrings in one ear, she was a businesswoman.  Had to be, when she was the ostensible owner of all of Brockton Bay’s prime real estate.

Charlotte was in the company of one of the children, holding him close.  Her fingers toyed with a paper origami cube, and she was doing her best not to look like she was poised on the edge of her seat for any news at all.

The second she gave the word, they’d be ready to evacuate the city, to get people onto the trains and moved through the portal.

But…

“Things have settled,” she said.  “Jack is contained.”

She could see them all relax as if strings that had held them rigid had just been cut.

“That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Tattletale said.  She grinned wide.  “But if the world is ending, then it’s an awfully quiet end.”

There were chuckles here and there, nervous relief.

“Go home, or go do whatever,” she said.  “I’ll be in touch with more news, let you know how your territory leaders, past or present, are coping.”

As a crowd, the others began filtering out.  Sierra stayed where she was, pensive, but the nervous bouncing of her leg had stopped.

Charlotte, too, remained.

“Sup?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s him,” Charlotte said.

“Aidan.  Hi Aidan.”

“He triggered yesterday.  It… didn’t take much.  Which is probably good.”

Aidan hung his head.

“That’s excellent,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the seven year old.  “How are you?”

“Okay.  Had a nightmare for the first time in a long, long time.  I woke up and I was sleepwalking, and I didn’t know where I was… I got scared, and then it happened.”

“What happened afterwards?” Tattletale asked.

“Birds.”

“Birds.  I see.  Interesting,” she said.  Her eye moved over to the boards that marked the perimeters of the room.  Each was packed with information in her small, tight, flowing handwriting.  Messy, but she’d gotten good at putting pen to paper these past few years

“I push and the birds go where I pushed.  Or I pull and they fly away from that spot.  It’s hard to do.  I can see what they see, but not while I’m controlling them.”

“Like Taylor, but birds, and not that flexible.  I see.”

“We suspected he would trigger,” Charlotte said.

Tattletale looked up, surprised.

“Aidan had a dream one night, back when the nightmares stopped.  He drew that picture.”

“Picture?”

“I gave it to you.  I kind of emphasized it might be important.”

“Pretty sure that didn’t happen,” Tattletale said.  She stood from her desk.  “Sorry, Aidan, to squabble in front of you, but Charlotte needs to remember I don’t tend to miss stuff like that.”

“All that money you’ve given me for helping to look after the territory?  The money for the kids?  I’d stake it all on what I’m saying now.  I promise, I swear I handed you that picture.”

Tattletale frowned.

“I swear,” Charlotte said, for emphasis.

“Then there’s a fucked up stranger power at work.  Don’t like that idea.  Let’s see.  Um.  I store everything in a rightful place.  If you handed me a picture… was it here?”

“Here.”

Tattletale crossed the room.  She pulled a bin off a shelf, then sorted through file folders.

Charlotte said, “There.”

Tattletale stopped, then went back a page.

“Huh.  I stand corrected.”

There was a beep on the computer.  Tattletale went back to the computer to investigate, shrugged, then sat down.

“Well?” Charlotte asked.

“Well what?”

“The picture.”

Tattletale frowned.  “What picture?”

“What’s going on?” Aidan asked.

Charlotte stalked over to the bin that was still out, grabbed the paper, then slammed it down on the desk.  “I don’t think a piece of paper can have superpowers.  Pay attention.  Focus  Memorize.”

Tattletale frowned.  She turned her attention to the paper.

There was a block there.  She felt it slide out of her mind’s eye, caught herself.

She turned her attention to the surroundings, the underlying ideas.

“Aidan?  Describe it to me.  I don’t know what you drew.”

“Those are kind of like fish, or worms, or whales, but they fold and unfold in ways that are hard to understand, and there’s stuff falling off them.  Those are stars, and-“

Tattletale felt something fall into place.

As though a floodgate had opened, the pieces started coming together.  She stood from the desk, striding across the room.

There were still gaps in her work on the boards, where she was outlining everything, trying to decipher the underlying questions.  Now, she began unpinning things from the board.

She was remembering, and she was putting it together, now.  There was a block, but she’d formed enough connections now that things were going around the block.

The whole.  The idea had stuck with her.

All powers fed back into a greater whole, each was a piece of a greater construct.

Of Aidan’s fish-whale-worm things.

But that wasn’t it.

No.  It didn’t fit in terms of timeline.

There was more.

“Like gods,” she said, recalling.

“Like viruses, like gods, like children,” Charlotte said.  “Back on the day I first met you, you said that.”

Like viruses, infecting a cell, converting it into more viruses, bursting forth to infect again.

Like gods.  So much power, all gathered together.  All powers stemmed from them.

Like children.  Innocents?

Blank slate.

“Oh,” Tattletale breathed out the word.

“Tattletale?” Sierra asked.

“Oh balls.”

“I’m notDarwinist,” Jack gasped.  “None of that… bullshit.  Augh!  I’m… I think it is simple-“

He continued grunting.  His switch to turn off the pain took a second to activate, took deliberate action, but getting in the rhythm meant he could buy himself one or two seconds of relief with each loop.  It was a question of concentration, and his concentration slipped.

“It’s simpler.  Us monsters and…  psychopathswe gravitate towards… predation, because we were originally… predators.  Originally had to hunt…  Had to be brutal, cruel…”

He paused, spending a few moments grunting in pain, letting the loops continue.

“Order to survive.  Violence was what made us… or broke us back… in the beginning.”

The entity was patient.  It had time to spare.

Saint swayed slightly in his seat.

The information continued to stream in along a dozen different channels.

Too much.  It was too much, but somehow, somewhere along the line, they’d succeeded.

Jack was contained.  Things were quiet.

Until he noted someone bludgeoning their way through Dragon’s password security.  A series of personal questions, ranging from a favorite texture to something about a pet name for Dragon to a question about the first results of the ten by ten game.

The first two were answered in order.

DefiantGetting access to the system?

No, too crude, too obvious.

The individual stalled on the last question.

He waited a few long moments, then saw the same individual making calls to Defiant.  Three communiques, initiated within one or two seconds of one another.  Then emails, to the PRT and Defiant both.

Saint intercepted it.

Fuck, finally!”

“What are you trying, Tat-“

Shut up and listen, douchestain.  It’s Scion.  He’s the point where it all catalyzes!  And I just clued into the fact that he can probably sense Jack!  Get Grue back to the area, blanket Jack in darkness, now!  Now, now, now!”

“Mags!” he shouted.  “Dobrynja!  Get Grue back to the scene now!  This is it!”

“On it!” the reply came back.  There was a pause.  “Grue is four miles away!”

“Teleporter,” he said.

“We don’t have any that survived the last few Endbringer fights!”

Saint hesitated.

Too far, it would be too late.

The woman who claimed she could control Scion.

His tired fingers flew over the keyboard.  He dug up the file.

It had been seen to.  They’d taken her name, but there’d been no proof.  Hearsay.

Hearsay was better than nothing.

The cyborg was piloting the closest Azazel.  Controlling it could be seen as an attack.  The cyborg would fight, wrestle him for control.

He opened up the window for a message, instead, even as he used the full access Dragon had for every camera, email and phone message to find this Lisette.

A Hail Mary, if there ever was one.

“Defiant,” he said, overriding everything in his way to open communications with the cyborg.  “Help me.”

The entity followed the movements of the various individuals around the battlefield.  More containment foam was being layered over the broadcaster, burying the area.

A noise, a blare that had people doubling over, covering their ears, started emanating from one of the craft.

The craft launched a second later, flying right for the time distortion.

It crashed into the area of warped time, wrapping forelimbs, tail and rear claw around the irregularly shaped feature.

The blaring noise stopped as a voice emanated from the speakers.

“Scion.  Zion.  Golden Man.  It’s Lisette.  Kevin Norton introduced us.  What the man down there is saying… whatever he’s saying, don’t listen.  Turn away.  Please.

Turn away.

The entity moved, and it broke through the time distortion effect with ease.  The craft fell head over heels before propulsion kicked in.  It had to fly in zig-zags to keep pace with the entity’s slow retreat from the scene.

I- uh.  You broke free.  Okay, good.  Leave.  Run!  Please go.  I’m- I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to talk to you before.  You never came back to that spot, and I could never reach you to talk to you.  There was help you needed and I couldn’t give it.  I went to authorities, and nobody believed me.  But now, now maybe I can give you advice.  We can work on this together?  As a pair?  Is that alright?

The entity didn’t respond.

I hope it’s alright,” she said.

The entity took flight, leaving it all behind.

Leave.  Run.

It didn’t return to the task of saving lives.  For a period, it only flew.

It stopped when it had circled the world twice, hovering over the ocean where it had first appeared.

The broadcaster had finished speaking just a moment before the craft had launched, oblivious to the blaring noise that had been intended to drown him out.  What I don’t understand, is why a blank slate like you would default to doing good deeds, rescuing cats from trees.  Why not turn to that violence, as our ancestors did?  It drove them, just like it drives the basest and most monstrous of our kind.

Had he known he had a listening ear?  Had it merely been a struggle to continue doing what he’d instinctively done for decades?

The shards retained memories, motivated, pushed.

The entity looked to the future, looked to possible worlds, and it saw the ways this could have unfolded.  It burned a year off of the entity’s life, but he had thousands to spare anyways.

There was a scene where the entity stood over the broadcaster’s corpse and ruminated on what had driven the male to such extremes.  The shard wasn’t a particularly aggressive one.

A scene where the man died, and years passed, the entity slowly coming to the same conclusions as it observed the rest of the species.

The entity had done good deeds for years, at Kevin Norton’s suggestion, waiting and hoping for the reward, the realization.  When none had occurred, it had simply kept doing what it had been doing.  Seeking out alternatives wasn’t even in the realm of imagination, because imagination was something it lacked.

It had power, though, and if either the counterpart or the cycle had been intact, they could have filled in for that imagination.

Still, it could experiment.

It gathered its power, then aimed at the nearest, largest population center.  Kevin Norton’s birthplace.

The golden light speared forth, and the island shattered, folding, parts of it rising from the ocean.  Crumpled like paper in a fist.

The entity did not eliminate the smoke or the waves that followed.  It simply let the aftermath occur.

The simulated human mind within the entity felt a glimmer of something at that.  Pleasure?  Relief?  Satisfaction?

Something deeper inside, something primal, tied to memories back in the beginning, before the beginning, responded in a very similar fashion.

The entity extended its perceptions outward, felt the reaction, the outcry.  It turned words around in its head, as if it were broadcasting to itself.

Scourge.

Extermination.

Extinction.

That last one was the one to fit.

An interesting experience.  After so much focus on the species as a whole, the evolution and development of the shards, on the cycle

In this, it almost felt like it was evolving as an individual, moment to moment.

The entity opened fire once again, and this time it struck out at the coastline on the opposite side of the ocean.

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Interlude 22

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“…you can call me Weaver.”

The broadcast ended.   A hush took hold of everyone present, a silence that deepened when someone muted the television.

The spell was broken by one of the kids.  Ephraim.  “She’s going to be a hero?”

“She’s going to try,” Forrest answered.

Charlotte looked around at the collected residents of the Boardwalk.  It was customary, now, to have a block party every third night of the week.  A mass-barbecue, a bonfire on the beach, or some other big meal that would bring everyone together.  Community.

Skitter’s community, though Skitter was gone, in more senses than one.

Taylor had turned herself in, early in the day, and word had spread.  They’d hooked up a television, the biggest they could get their hands on, and set it up beneath a waterproof tent for good measure.

For the better part of the day, they’d watched.  People had stopped by, glancing at the latest news.  Any update, however large or small, was met by shouted alerts, by hollers and speculation.

Charlotte had taken the day off school, taking only the time necessary to see the little ones off and to bring them back.  She wouldn’t have been able to focus, anyways, and the schools were still being lenient.

And now, finally, this.

“It’s done,” Charlotte said.  “For better or worse.”

“For better,” Forrest said.

“I’m not so sure,” Charlotte said, lowering her voice so others wouldn’t hear.

“She’s a hero,” Forrest said.  “This is where she’s supposed to be.”

“Maybe,” Charlotte answered.  She couldn’t help but think of how scary Taylor had been when she’d dealt with the ABB thugs.  How easily the girl had slipped into her role as a leader of the territory.  “But even if it’s where she’s meant to go, they won’t necessarily accept her.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Forrest said.  “It’s out of our hands.  We’ll wish her the best, give her some moral support if they let her get fan letters, and handle our own business, so she doesn’t have to worry about us.  And speaking of handling our own business…”

Forrest directed a pointed look at the kids who were sitting around Charlotte.

“Right,” she said.

“I’ll be along to see to the lads,” Forrest said.  “Just have to clean up first.”

Charlotte nodded.  Bed time for the littlest ones.  She rose from the bench.  “Show’s over, come on, it’s time to go to bed.”

There were groans and grumbles here and there.  Charlotte knew who it was without looking.  She identified Mason, set a hand on top of his head, and pulled him closer to her as she walked back to their place.  “Be good.”

Mason mimicked the exact same groan he’d given a moment ago.

“So dumb,” Kathy was saying.  She was one of the older children, looking after Jessie and Aidan.  “I never had to go to bed this early before.”

“It’s easier,” Charlotte said.  “And we can all use an earlier bedtime.  It leaves us in better shape to face tomorrow, don’t you think?”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Kathy said.

Kathy and Mason were the most likely to fight, to challenge her.  When she was hurrying to get them out to the bus stop for school, it was Mason who would decide he’d suddenly forgotten how to tie his shoes, or who would drag his feet to force her to seize his hand and pull him along.  He needed that attention in moments of crisis, however small.  Kathy was the opposite.  Charlotte hadn’t uncovered the details, but the girl had been burned by someone in authority, and rebelled against it as a matter of habit.  Kathy wanted to be independent, but she was too young.

“You were complaining about something I said.”

Kathy glared at her.  “I could stay up, watch TV for another hour or two, and then go to bed.  I’d be quiet.”

“And what if you were too tired to look after Aidan and Jessie?”

Kathy scowled, but she didn’t reply.

Jessie wet the bed most nights.  She never came to Charlotte to let her know.  More than once, Charlotte had found the girl sleeping on the floor when morning came.  Aidan had nightmares that left him screaming and wailing well after he’d woken up, refusing to listen to her.  More than once, he’d actually had the nightmares while sleepwalking.

It was hard to deal with, frankly.  She’d taken to setting her alarm for one, three and five o’clock in the morning, rising from bed and checking in to make sure the kids were alright, that Jessie’s bed was dry.  It was embarrassing to admit, but there had been four occasions when she’d been terrified as she had run into Aidan, standing in the bathroom or sitting at the table in the kitchen.  Each time, he’d been gripped by whatever terrors it was that found him at nighttime.  Half the time he fought her, the other half the time he just screamed, bloodcurdling.

Kathy, a little more than half Charlotte’s age, took it in stride, almost thrived on looking after the younger ones.  She had endless patience with Jessie’s nighttime accidents, and virtually every time Aidan’s screams woke her, Kathy was already at his side, speaking calmly, waiting until he’d relaxed enough that she could hug and cuddle him.

They made their way inside, and Charlotte was sure to close the shutter just beyond the front door.  Aidan watched carefully as she fed the chain through the ring at the base of the door and the small gap in the floor.  She locked it, then tugged it for good measure, demonstrating how secure it was.

“Safe,” she said.

Wordless, his forehead creased with the sort of worry he shouldn’t have for another fifteen years, Aidan turned and walked away.

“Girls in the bath first, snacks after,” Charlotte said.  “Boys, cookies and milk before your bath.”

The O’Daly clan had collected their kids, most of their kids, finally.  It left the number more manageable.  Kathy, Mai and Jessie made their way to the bathroom.  Aidan, Ephraim, Ethan and Mason found stools at the kitchen counter while Ben, the oldest of the boys, got the cookies, glasses and milk out.

Charlotte checked on the girls to make sure that they were getting along okay, then shut the bathroom door and got her laptop out.

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♦  Stickied Topic: Alexandria Discussion (July 14th) Goes Here
♦  TopicAlexandria Dead
♦  Topicchevalier’s ‘new PRT’ vs. endbringer
♦  Topic:  What the fuck happened?
♦  Topic:  Skitter
♦  Topic:  The Endbringers, Thread XXXIV
♦  Topic:  Dragon Suits: Continued Escalation of Cape Militarization?
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♦  Topic:  Alexandria died
♦  Topic:  Issues with recruiting villains
♦  Topic:  Portal confirmed ok by Chev 2011-07-14

“She’s famous,” Charlotte said aloud.

“Because she was on TV?” this from Aidan.

“Because she was a bad guy, and she turned around and decided to be good,” Charlotte said.  “And because she helped beat Alexandria.  It’s controversial stuff, and I think people are going to be arguing about it for a long time.”

“She’s not a bad guy,” Ben said, taking a seat beside the other boys.

“Was too,” Ephraim said.

“She was scary and mean,” Ben said, “But she’s not bad.”

“They’re the same thing.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Charlotte says.

“She got us pizza,” Ben said.  “That’s all that matters to me.”

“That’s sound enough reasoning,” Charlotte said, smiling a little.

She left the laptop to visit the bathroom, calling through the door.  “Five minutes, then out!”

She could hear another grumble from Kathy.

They’d do better if left to their own devices.  Kathy would be happier with something to do, even if it was washing the hair of the younger girls and ensuring they brushed their teeth.

She returned to the kitchen, collecting the plates and glasses and putting them in the dishwasher.

A car horn outside caught her attention.  It wasn’t easy to get cars in and out of the area, with the streets still under repair, and the vehicles that were around were construction vehicles, which didn’t work this late at night.

The horn sounded again, and there were shouts in response.

She was still staring at the door, straining to make out something telling, when Ethan approached her.

“Do you need me to run an errand?”

“No, Ethan.  Now might not be a good time.”  There was more noise outside.  Voices.

“Okay,” he said.  He looked disappointed.

“If you want some fresh air, I can let you upstairs.  You can sit on the balcony.”

Ethan frowned.  “No.  No thanks.”

“Just give me five minutes,” she said.  “Ben?  Lock the shutter after me.  I’ll come through the door downstairs when I return.  Let Kathy and the girls know I’ll be back.”

Ben nodded.

She didn’t raise the shutter all the way, stooping beneath and holding it partially closed.  Ben wasn’t strong enough to lower it on his own, and the outside didn’t have any real handholds.

With Ben’s help, she still managed to press her hands against the broad strip of metal and push it to ground level.  There was a sound of the chain rattling through the gaps.

People were active, gathering in clusters and crowds.  The focus of attention?  A news van.

The news crew was surrounded.

“…word out,” the reporter was saying.  “People are going to make a lot of ugly assumptions.”

“Just go!” someone shouted.

“Turn the camera off and leave!”

The reporter, a tall, blond man with a broad jaw, only smiled.  “I’d almost think you guys had something to hide.”

“We want to be left alone,” Charlotte said.

“Not going to happen,” the reporter said.  “This is blowing up.  People are going to want to investigate every last scrap of dirt.  Even if I left, others would come.”

“We’ll tell them the same thing we told you,” she said.  She saw Forrest approaching, making his way through the crowd.  “That we had school and work all day, that everyone here is working on rebuilding, and we’re tired, we’re not interested in the scandal of the moment.”

“Working hard?” the reporter asked.  “What if I offered, say, two hundred bucks, to whoever gave me the most information?”

“We’d tell you to fuck off,” Forrest cut in, before anyone could take the deal.

“World wants to know.  What is she really like?”  The reporter asked.  “Two hundred dollars, your face on camera.  If you love her, don’t you want people across America to hear something good?  Best support you can give.  If you hated her, well, the opposite’s true, isn’t it?”

“You’d twist our words around,” Forrest said.  “Edit it to take the choicest bits.”

“That’d be dishonest.  It’s not the way we work at channel twelve.”

“No,” Forrest said.  “I think that you’re primarily interested in what gets viewers and ratings.  Maybe you’d stick around for two hours, interview everyone you could, and then take the most controversial and extreme statements.  Only way we don’t play into your hands is if nobody opens their mouth.”

He raised his voice a little at that final statement.

“That so?” the reporter asked.  “Three hundred dollars.  That’s, what, two or three days’ pay, with the kind of wage you earn here?”

Forrest didn’t respond.

“Okay,” the reporter said.  “Well, there’s nothing stopping us from sitting around, is there?  And if someone decides that they’d like to earn a little cash…”

“They’d have to be pretty stupid,” Forrest said.  “Property values are set to soar here, and the way things are organized, just about everyone here is slated to earn a property or a share of a property somewhere down the road.”

“And you’re saying that has nothing to do with the fact that you all worked for a supervillain.”

“I’m not saying anything one way or the other,” Forrest said.  “Except that the numbers don’t add up.  Three hundred dollars now, or get a share of a place that could be worth millions, a few years down the road?”

“People are enterprising,” the reporter said.  He smiled.  “And I can be discreet.  The public needs to know who’s protecting them.”

He turned, returning to the passenger side door of the van, then paused.  “We’ll be parked on the beach.  We can blur out your faces if we need to.”

It took them a minute to get their camera packed away and leave.  Sure enough, they made their way to the beach.  Charlotte could see the headlights illuminating the sand.  Then they went out, and the van was effectively invisible.

“Guards,” Forrest said.  “Take shifts.  We’re not giving them anything.”

“You’re wanting to protect Skitter?” someone asked, from the crowd.

“I worked for her,” Forrest said.  “Most of you know that.  In a way, I still think I work for her, even if she isn’t here anymore.  A lot of us owe her.”

“She brought us as much trouble as she stopped,” the person said.  Charlotte could see it was a tall man who’d hidden a receding hairline and bald spot by shaving his head.  There was only stubble, now.

“She made it possible to rebuild, Scott.”

Everyone’s rebuilding.  We got a head start, that’s all.  You’re saying that’s worth it?  Mannequin came here because of her.  Burnscar came here because of her.  Or didn’t you hear?”

Forrest folded his arms.

Scott said, “My sister-in-law works for the PRT.  Wears a uniform.  She said the Slaughterhouse Nine were here because they were recruiting.  They picked a bunch of people across the city, trying to recruit them, and Skitter was one.  Obviously.  So it’s her fault the people died here.  The help she gave?  She was probably guilty.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Forrest said.

“Bullshit.  You were there, that first time, when Mannequin was in the warehouse on Shell.  He was wagging his finger at her.  Why?  He was there for her.”

“I was there,” Forrest said.  “Remember?  I stepped up.  I dragged that bastard to where we could tie his head up.  I smashed his head with a concrete block.”

“And I won’t deny that,” Scott answered.  “I would’ve been right there with you if I didn’t have my wife and kid to protect.  We both saw how it played out.  Going by what my sister-in-law said, you wouldn’t have had to do that if Skitter had been somewhere else.”

“I would have,” Forrest said.  “I know Skitter.  Taylor.  Weaver.  Whatever you call her.  We’ve talked, talked a lot.  I’ve heard her side of things, and I know you’re off base.”

“You’re saying my family’s lying?”  Scott asked, raising his voice a touch.  “Or maybe you’re blind.  Can’t see what’s going on because of your own basic, underlying bias.”

Scott approached, moving through the crowd.  He was clearly irritated, a big guy, undoubtedly a dock worker, breathing just a little harder than normal.  Charlotte found herself biting her lip and backing away as he drew closer.  Her stomach twisted as he passed her, as though it were a towel someone was wringing out.  Not an unfamiliar sensation.

For a moment, she could imagine him in her face, hooting, hollering, a vein standing out on his bald head.

The wrenching got worse at the idea, until it felt like everything below her shoulders was being crushed.

The crowd around her was too much, now.  Too evocative.

She fled, pushing her way through the crowd.  For every part of her that wanted to follow the discussion, there was another part that could hear the discordant music blaring, could hear the yelling, smell the sweat, the smoke and incense.

She’d seen what people were like when everything else was stripped away.  Not everyone, not always, but often enough.  It was easy to descend to that level.  Taylor had offered security.  Strength, and the ruthlessness necessary to cut out the cancer.

It wasn’t rational to think this way.  Charlotte knew, generally speaking, that the people here were good.  The bad ones had been scared off, or cut out of the deals that kept everyone else loyal.

On a less rational level?  She hated the idea that this place could devolve into that.  Into what the Merchants had become.

She was upset, she wasn’t thinking straight, and she couldn’t afford to return to the kids like this.  Ben and Kathy would look after the littlest ones for five more minutes.  She could keep walking, burn off this nervous energy and get in a better headsp-

“Miss?”

She jumped, swiftly backing away.

It was a man.  Thin, with glasses, reaching out-

Groping, greedy for a handful of flesh.

No.  To get her attention.  Nothing more.  His hand dropped to his side.

“Are you a reporter?”

“I- do I look like a reporter?” he looked anxious, and the expression was unrelated to his question.

“No,” she said.

“I was asking around, for someone who knew Taylor.  Someone told me to look for a girl about your height, with long, dark hair, like yours, with kids around her.  I was going to ask some more, but then the crowd came, and I decided to hang back.”

So he is here to ask questionsBut he said Taylor instead of Skitter.  “You really aren’t a reporter?”

“If you know who they were talking about, maybe you could point me in the right direction?”

Charlotte frowned.  “They were talking about me.  What do you want?”

“I’m her father.  Danny.”

Oh.  She could see the resemblance, now that she knew to look for it.  Both he and Taylor were above average height, both were narrow.  She must have gotten her hair and mouth from her mom, though.

“Okay,” she said.  She forced herself to relax a touch.  He’s safe.  Mostly.  “O-”  She exhaled as she spoke, and her breath caught.  She was still a little out of sorts.

“Are you okay?”

She shook her head.  “Yes.”

“You’re sure.”

“A lot to deal with, all at once.”

“Yes.”

She glanced up at him, saw how troubled he looked.  “Do you drink tea?”

“Coffee.”

“We can do coffee,” she said.  She reached into her back pocket for her phone.  “Stand still.”

He looked confused as she turned the phone his way.  The flash went off.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Protocols,” she said.

“Protocols?”

She typed out a text and sent the text, picture included, to Tattletale.

“I worked for her.”

“Oh.  Oh.

“Come on.  We’ll, um, we’ll hear soon, if you’re okay to come inside.  But I have to head back that way anyways.”

He nodded.

“Why aren’t you with her?”  She asked, as they started walking.

“Things turned ugly.”

“Oh.  Alexandria?”

“I only just found out about Alexandria.  Maybe I shouldn’t say, but things don’t seem to add up.  What people were saying before, what happened, and what seems to have happened after.”

“Yeah,” she said, though she didn’t quite understand.

“All the way through this, I told myself I’d trust her.  That she was the same child my wife and I raised for the last sixteen years.  That things were muddled, but she was the same person deep down inside.”

“Isn’t she?”

“I’m not so sure anymore.”

The phone vibrated.  Charlotte checked.

Tt:
A-ok.  Treat him well.

“You’re clear to come inside,” Charlotte said.  She used her hand to indicate a change of direction, leading him towards the beach.

“All this secrecy?  It’s necessary?  I thought she left.”

“We still have enemies.  People who’d hurt her by hurting us.  We have to stay safe.”

He fell silent.

“What?”

“I haven’t really been thinking along those lines.  About the greater scale of things, my life being at risk because I’m connected to her.”

“You learn,” Charlotte said.  “You learn to think that way.”

“Why?  I mean.  I don’t have a choice, but you- you could walk away from this, and you haven’t.”

“I can’t walk away from this,” Charlotte said.  “I’m probably more tied up in this than you are.”

“How’s that?”

She glanced down the beach.  The people who were watching out for those who might talk to the reporter were far enough away.  Still, it would be a bad idea to use her flashlight.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out a glove, pulling it on.  “You’ll see in a minute.  Hold my hand and don’t let go.  Neither of us want you to get turned around in here.  Not much room to get lost, but yeah.”

She could barely see him in the gloom.  There were no lights on the beach.  Still, when she reached out for his hand, he took it, holding tight.

Carefully, Charlotte led Taylor’s father into the storm drain.  Her gloved hand traced the wall.  First right.  Skip the next right, with a few seconds of nerve-wracking isolation in the darkness, then follow the wall… one right, turn left at the t-junction.

They ascended to the cellar, first, and then up to the living room.

“It’s a house?” he asked.  He looked even more bewildered than before as he took in the particulars, the living room, with young girls clustered on one couch, boys on the other couch and the floor, the appliances, the stacks of boxed-up food that had yet to be unpacked.  “Children?”

“Orphans,” Charlotte said, keeping her voice low.  Both Mai and Ephraim could break down in tears at the slightest reminder of their departed parents.  “I’ve been looking after them.”

“You can’t do that.  Not like this, without certification, others checking in.”

“I know,” she said.  “It’s only for a little while longer.”

This is why you can’t leave?”

“Part of it.  There’s more.”

“This is what she was doing, all that time?  Taking care of these children?”

“That was only a small part of it.  She mostly paid me to look after them and make sure people got the food they needed.  She looked after everyone.  When they were all in the worst situations they’d ever faced, struggling for food, worrying every hour if they would be attacked or preyed on, she stepped up.”

“You’re trying to defend her.  To justify what she did.”

“Only a little.”

Ethan approached.  He gave Taylor’s dad a curious look.

“It’s Taylor’s daddy,” Charlotte explained.

“Danny,” Danny said.

“Oh,” Ethan said.  He looked down at the floor.

“Do you want to run an errand for me?”  Charlotte asked.

Ethan nodded, still not making eye contact.  Charlotte could see how he’d set his jaw, so stern for a little man.

“Go tell Forrest that Skitter’s daddy is here.  And if anyone approaches you to ask you questions, you don’t answer, okay?  No matter how nice they seem, don’t say a word, and blow your whistle.  There are reporters out there we don’t want to talk to.”

Ethan nodded.

“Don’t take too long,” she warned.

The little boy, no older than eight, ran off, opening the front door and unchaining the shutter.  A moment later, he was gone into the night.

“Is that okay?” Danny asked.  “A little boy going out alone after dark?”

“The area’s safe, the people know each other.  It’s a community, and the community will look after the kids.  Besides, he’s got a whistle in case he gets in trouble.”

“It almost looked like he was asking for an errand.”

“He was.”

Danny gave her a curious look.

Charlotte walked around the kitchen counter to get into the kitchen, starting the water boiling for the coffee.  She still had a habit of keeping the kettle full for Taylor.  “Ethan’s bottling up a lot of hurt, but he’s convinced himself that big boys shouldn’t cry, and nothing will convince him otherwise.  For now, I’ll let him take five to twenty minutes longer than he should when I tell him to go do something, and I won’t say a word if he comes back with red eyes and a runny nose.  If he needs to find a quiet place to cry on his own, that’s okay.”

“There has to be a better way to handle it,” Danny said.  His eyes were still roving, as if trying to find and identify Taylor’s signature touches on the surroundings.

“There probably is.  But for now, it works for him and it works for me.  The other kids-” she lowered her voice a fraction, “They all have their individual needs.  Some get aggressive.  Some internalize it, have nightmares or wet the bed.  Others withdraw.”

Danny sighed.  “Kids are hard, aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” Charlotte said.  Then she changed her mind.  “No.”

“No?”

People are hard to deal with.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said.

“You should really be with her.”

“I was there,” Danny said.  “I told myself I’d stand by her, and then… all at once, it wasn’t her.  I’ve seen her in a crisis, after her mom died.  She was one of the people who withdrew.  When she was bullied at school, she withdrew.  But there?  At the PRT headquarters?  That wasn’t her.”

“It was,” Charlotte said.  “Maybe you lost sight of who she was becoming, somewhere down the line.  I don’t think anyone would fault you, with the secrets she was keeping.”

“No,” Danny said.  “I don’t think it was her, not really.  For just a minute, she became a monster.”

“We all have a monster somewhere inside us,” Charlotte said.  “Like I was saying about the kids.  Sometimes it’s aggressive, sometimes it finds other forms of attack, and other times it’s a cowardly one.”

Like mine.

Danny sighed.

“You don’t agree?  I’m still off target?”

“I don’t know.  I think maybe you’re right.  I’ve got my own demons.  But… whatever monster that was, it was a big one.”

Charlotte didn’t have an answer to that.

There was a knock on the shutter.  Then it raised a fraction.  Forrest stepped inside, growled and made threatening gestures as the kids practically leaped off of the couches and swarmed him.

He gave Danny a funny look.

“Taylor’s dad,” Charlotte said.

“Nice to meet you,” Forrest said.  He waded through the cluster of kids and, straight-legged, he leaned over the kitchen counter to shake Danny’s hand.  “Right, rugrats!  If you stand up to pee, get yourselves into the bath, pronto!”

“I can pee standing up!” Mai said.  “A girl at school showed me how.”

“Then… if you think action figures are better than dolls!”

“I think army men are better than dolls!” Mai said.

“Then let’s go with those who’d rather be a baseball player than a princess!”

“I-”  Mai stopped short, shrieking as Forrest swept her up in his arms.

“I get the point,” he said.  “As penance, I’m letting you ride on my shoulders.”

Mai squealed in glee.

“With a blindfold, in case the menfolk are bashful.  Move along, tykes.”

Ben, Ephraim and Aidan made their way into the bathroom, followed by Forrest, with Mai sitting on his shoulders.  Forrest practically had to get on his knees to get through the doorway without hitting Mai’s head on the doorframe.  The door shut behind him.

“Coffee will be done in a few minutes,” Charlotte said, making sure things were set up.  She moved to the living room, and beckoned for Kathy to come closer.  Kathy scowled but obeyed, sitting beside Charlotte as Charlotte set to brushing out her hair.

“I couldn’t recognize my own daughter,” Danny said.  “Every step of the way, I’ve wanted to help her, but I didn’t know how.  Did she say anything?  About me?”

“No,” Charlotte said.  She could see Danny’s face fall.

“But,” she said.  “She acted on it.  When it came down to it, she wanted to spend time with you, even if it meant that all the rest of this was harder.”

“When it came down to it,” he said, “She chose her friends over me.  She chose to fight, to go all out, instead of making a concession and possibly coming home at some point.”

“Bigger things,” Charlotte said.  “I- the rest of us feel a little betrayed too, but we’re little more than specks, with the sheer scale of the stuff she’s focused on.”

Danny sighed.  “I came here to make a decision.  To work up some courage.  But I feel as conflicted as ever.  Worse, if anything.”

“A decision?”

“Taylor has to join the Wards, if she’s going to join an official team.  Her lawyer got in contact with me, to let me know that there’s certain procedures.  She needs a parent, guardian, notary, or a person in authority to vouch for her, and it has to be someone who’s otherwise free of connections to superheroes or supervillains, someone that knows her and can testify about her character.”

“Do it.”

“I’m wondering if I should.”

Charlotte gave him a hard look.  He took it without flinching.

“My number one instinct is to keep my daughter safe.  If she went to juvenile detention, it would… it wouldn’t be good, but it’d keep her out of the line of fire.  It’d stop her from going down this reckless path.”

“She’d hate you,” Charlotte said.  “She’d still love you, but she’d be angry.”

“She would be safe,” he said.

Charlotte didn’t have much to say in response to that.  She turned her attention to the girls, instead.  “Five more minutes of cartoons, then bed.  I’ll fix your hair in just a second, okay, Jessie?”

Jessie nodded.

“I could, if it would make it easier,” Danny offered.

Charlotte felt that twang of alarm at the notion of a relative stranger touching ‘her’ kids.  She could rationalize that this was Taylor’s dad, but…

Jessie made the decision for her.  Standing and approaching Danny, before sitting beside him.  Charlotte tossed the man a hairbrush.

For long minutes, they worked on combing through knots and tangles.  Kathy made sure to grunt with every one.

The boys exited the bathroom, each with a towel wrapped around them, while Forrest carried a squealing, giggling Mai under one arm, a sock tied over her eyes, her hair now dry and combed straight..

“You’re better than Char,” Jessie said, as Danny finished.  She hopped down from the armrest of the chair, before scampering off to the bedroom.

“Traitor,” Charlotte muttered, after Jessie was gone.  Kathy followed the girl, taking Jessie’s hand after catching up.

There was a pause.

“If she needs you, you should help her,” Charlotte said.

“I’m just not sure what helping her entails,” Danny replied.

Charlotte rose to pour the coffee.  Her phone glowed with a fresh text.  She stared down at it.

“Shit,” she said.

“What?” Danny asked.

“Company,” she answered.

“Enemies?  Danger?”

“Worse.  Allies,” Sierra said, from the doorway.

Charlotte turned to see her friend, Sierra.  The girl still had her red hair bound in dreads, but the rest of her was all professional attire.  Nice shoes, slacks, a blue dress shirt, and just a little makeup.

Sierra approached, arms reaching out to hug Charlotte.  Charlotte welcomed the hug, murmuring the words, “I missed you.”

But her eyes were still on the doorway.  Tattletale stepped into the front hallway, followed by Grue and the pairings of Imp and Regent, Parian and Flechette.

A superhero, here?

After a brief pause, Bitch entered as well, glowering, looking fit to murder something or someone.  Her appearance was at stark odds with the puppies that followed her, each at the end of a differently colored leash.

Danny stood, eyes widening as he recognized the people entering the room.

“Long time no see, Danny,” Tattletale said.

“Lisa,” he answered.  There was no warmth in his tone.

“Tattletale while I”m in costume, please,” she said.  She flashed a grin, and he didn’t return it.

Grue extended a hand to Danny.  It took the man a second to accept it.  He watched the group warily.

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked.

“Need to watch your phone,” Tattletale said.  “I sent you a string of texts.”

“I was busy.  Looking after the kids, and talking with Danny.”

“Right,” Tattletale said.  She made her way to one couch, then lay down.  “Damn.  Hell of a day.  Not enough sleep, already feeling like shit, and then this gets dropped on us.”

“What’s going on?” Charlotte asked, again.

“You mean what’s going on here or what’s going on in general?  Generallyour commander-in-chief just defected to the white hats.”

“Here,” Charlotte said.  “Why are you here?  We’re just getting the kids off to bed.”

“Loose ends,” Tattletale said.  “A few here, a few there.  Skitter’s gone, and she’s liable to spend time in prison before she joins the Wards, and she won’t be able to visit for a while, even after that.  I want to get this as done as we can, so I can sleep for a few days straight and wake up feeling better.”

Charlotte frowned.  Tattletale had taken up one couch, Grue was sitting in another, and she didn’t want to sit next to him.  She was forced to stand, but standing and being a part of the conversation meant standing in a place where her back was to Bitch, to Parian and Flechette, who were sitting on stools by the kitchen counter, and to Regent and Imp, who were rifling through cabinets and drawers, in search of snacks.

“I have to ask.  Why the puppies?” Charlotte asked, glancing at Bitch.

“Tattletale said to.”

“That’s not exactly right,” Tattletale said.

“It’s what you said,” Bitch responded, sounding irritated.

“I recommended puppy therapy,” Tattletale said.  “Everyone loves puppies, so maybe it’s a way to deal when we’re feeling a bit lonely?”

Bitch looked at Charlotte.  “You miss her?”

“Um.  Yes?”

Bitch bent down, grabbing a puppy with one hand, then thrust it into Charlotte’s arms.  She started to withdraw her hand, paused, then said, “It’s a loan.”

“Of course,” Charlotte said.  She held the puppy close, scratched it behind the ear.  She knew better than to argue the point.

“You?” Bitch asked Danny.

“No, thank you.”

“You don’t miss your daughter?” Bitch asked, narrowing her eyes a little.

“I do, I mean, I think I’ll see her soon, probably, but-”

“Then take it.  For now.”

He surrendered in the face of her blunt approach, accepting the puppy.

“The kids,” Charlotte said.  “They’ve already settled in bed, but I think they’d love to have a visit with the puppies.  Tell them it’s just for a little while, they can cuddle, but they have to stay in bed.  Oh, and they don’t know how to play with dogs, so be sure to teach them the ground rules, okay?”

Bitch nodded, then marched off with her new mission, the puppies leaping and falling over each other to keep up.

“Parian?” Tattletale asked.  “Supervise?”

Parian nodded.  She got down from the stool, and was joined by Flechette in heading to the back room.

“Well handled,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

She paused as the children in the other room started squealing and shouting.  Bitch’s barked orders could be heard over the racket.

“-doesn’t know how to handle this.  We’re sort of forging new ground, but I think time’s the only thing that’s going to mend this wound.  I think she’s hurting more than anyone, right now.”

Charlotte nodded.

Danny, though, said, “Isn’t that a little presumptuous?”

“I can do presumptuous,” Tattletale said.  “Just trust me on this count, okay?”

Regent and Imp approached from the kitchen, finding spots on the floor of the living room to sit, just to the left of the television.  They had arms full of snacks, including the little gummy candies Charlotte had been planning to give the kids in their school lunches.

She’d figure something else out.  Best not to get distracted.  The puppies would suffice as a treat for the kids right now.

Damn it, they’re going to ask to keep them, Charlotte thought.  She scratched the puppy that now slept in her arms.

Grue stretched a hand in the direction of the pair, an unspoken request for one bag of snacks.  Imp replied by hurling a small bag of chips at him, with the same sort of movement that might accompany throwing a baseball.  It banked off of his helmet and fell behind the couch.

Grue grumbled, but he turned around to grab it.

Forrest arrived from the bedroom, pausing a second to take in the crowd in the living room.

“Okay, let’s get down to business,” Tattletale said.  “Forrest, Charlotte, we’re backing you up, on Taylor’s behalf.  As of now, the Boardwalk doesn’t fall in just one person’s territory.  Parian, Grue and I will each have a hand in protecting it.  As of tonight, it should be the safest place in the city.  That’s all already handled.  You’ll have our numbers, in case of emergency, but you should only use it if there’s real trouble.  Supervillains attacking or something like that.  This all goes more smoothly if we don’t maintain any obvious connection between our groups that can be exploited.”

Charlotte nodded.

“Sierra is working under me.  She holds the property and presents our legitimate face to the public.”

Charlotte glanced at Sierra, who nodded.

“Property?” Charlotte asked.

“Everything we own in Brockton Bay, through a series of dummy corporations, is officially in her name.  That includes the areas in the Boardwalk that Coil once controlled.  From now on, you can contact us through her for all of the basics.  I know Skitter arranged a way for those who contribute to the restoration of the Boardwalk to earn shares of property.  Sierra will see to that.  In a pinch, you can also talk to her about funding, big projects, and the like.  But I don’t think it’ll come to that.”

Forrest frowned.  “Why not?”

“Skitter arranged for her territory to be taken care of,” Tattletale said.

“She left us some money.  For food, to pay people.  Not a lot, but things should be sustainable by the time we run out.”

“There’s more,” Tattletale said.  “She had a lot of money to spare.  Some from illicit activity, more from the properties we acquired and sold.  That’s going to you.”

“Wait, us?”

“To the Boardwalk.  She mentioned getting the ferry up and running again, a new set of storefronts, and pushing for more residential areas.  Duplexes, apartments, condos…”

“How much?”

“More than enough.  Part of the procedures for joining the Wards includes a full background check.  They’ll find out she had a lot of money, much of it illicit, and they’ll empty her accounts.  It might not be a problem, but I recently changed to a different bank, so to speak, and they’re liable to find Skitter’s end of the paper trail.” Tattletale said.

Charlotte nodded.

“Something to use to take care of yourselves.  And the kids,” Tattletale said.

Charlotte thought to what Scott had said.  Had Taylor blamed herself after all?  Was this a way of making amends?

“Part of the measures we’ll have for defending the Boardwalk will be the mercenaries I have on retainer,” Tattletale said.  “Non-powered individuals, though they have experience fighting capes.  They’re going to train your people.”

“Train?”

“In hand to hand, first aid, firearms and tactics for fighting bigger threats.”

Ethan reappeared in the front hall, hands jammed in his pockets.  His eyes went wide as he took in the supervillains sitting in the area where he’d been watching TV not twenty minutes ago.  Charlotte stood and ushered him towards the bedrooms.

Behind her, Forrest said, “That seems like it’ll cause more problems than it solves.  People are resentful.  There’s already cracks forming.”

“Discipline will help with that,” Grue said.  “Time will help with the rest.”

“It’s not perfect,” Tattletale said, “The rest, we can figure out.  What’s important is getting the foundation laid out, and being ready.  Shit’s going to go down when villains start making plays for the interdimensional door.”

Charlotte studied the people who were sitting around the room.  Concern, worry, anxiousness.  “Are we going to make it?”

“Have to,” Tattletale said.  She turned her head.  Bitch was returning from the back room.  She had only one puppy with her.  The wolf cub.  “Taylor won’t forgive us if we don’t.”

“You should know.  When I was there,” Danny spoke up.  “Alexandria offered her a hell of a deal.  Two years of juvenile detention, and leaving the rest of you alone.  It wasn’t everything she’d asked for.  She said no, said she trusted you to handle things on your end.  I don’t want to be offensive, but I couldn’t understand it.  Still can’t.  But I thought you should know.”

“She was prepared to leave us to our own devices when she surrendered,” Tattletale said.  “But if she believes in us to that degree, that’s another reason we can’t fail.”

There were nods all around.

The discussion continued, but fatigue caught up to Charlotte at the same time that the details seemed to grow even more trivial.  Bitch, for her part, was focused, listening intently, while Danny seemed reserved, not quite a part of this.

Was this influencing his decision?  Which way would it, if it did?

It was midnight by the time they finished.  Exhausted though they hadn’t fought anyone, weary Undersiders rose from their seats on the furniture and floors to make their way to the front door.

Charlotte accompanied Bitch to the bedroom, making her way to each bunk bed to collect a puppy, despite whispered protests and whimpers.  A tiny heartbreak, each step of the way.

I’m going to have to get these kids dogs now, she thought, swearing to herself.

“Puppy therapy,” she murmured, on her way back to the front hall.  Bitch was clipping the leashes onto the puppies.

“Mm,” Bitch grunted.

“Does it work?”

“Yes,” Bitch said.  “But it’s not enough.  I haven’t felt like this since… Brutus and Judas.”

Brutus and Judas?  Charlotte didn’t recognize the names.  “That’s natural, isn’t it?  We’re people, we need other people close to us.  A dog is… fantastic, but it can’t fill that void.”

Charlotte could see a crease in between Bitch’s eyebrows, but the look didn’t reach her eyes or mouth.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Bitch shook her head, but she didn’t reply.

“If you wanted to bring the dogs back, the kids would love it,” Charlotte said.  “And… I’m thinking we’ll have to get at least one to keep.  I think it could do them a lot of good, and they’d give the puppies more than enough love and care.”

Bitch’s silence extended for long seconds.  She looked down at the puppies.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Bitch shrugged.  She glowered at the ground, “She wanted me to go to the other side.”

“First I’m hearing of this,” Grue said.

“Through the portal,” Bitch said. “Police it.  Keep that side safe.”

“There won’t be anything over there for at least a few weeks or months,” Tattletale said.

The glower deepened.  “That… sounds good.”

“All on your own?” Charlotte asked, “But-”

“Me and my dogs,” Bitch said.  Then she seemed to think of something.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Tattletale said.

With that done, the Undersiders departed.

Danny met Charlotte’s eyes.

“Decided?”

Danny shook his head.

“Could be that she did it for you,” she said.  “I think even Tattletale was surprised she went over to the other side.”

Danny didn’t reply.

“Good luck, either way.”

“You too,” he answered.

“We survived,” Forrest said.

“We survived,” Charlotte said.  “You’ll be by in the morning?”

Forrest nodded.

She waited until he was gone, then closed the shutter, being careful to lock it.

Then she ascended to the top floor, past Skitter’s room, with the now-empty terrariums and the armor stand with her old suit.  She reached the top floor, where Skitter’s belongings had been collected and boxed.

I’d meant to show this to Danny, to see if there was anything he wanted to keep or to send to her.

She lay in her bed, Skitter’s old room, but sleep didn’t find her.  She was still awake when her alarm buzzed.  She rose and made her way downstairs to the bedroom.  Checking on the kids.

Jessie’s bunk, dry.

No food under Mai’s pillow, or at the end of her bed.  The girl had taken to hoarding food.

Others were asleep, though Ethan’s eyes were open, staring.  She pulled his covers up a bit, and he smiled in the dark.

Aidan was awake too.

“I want a dog,” he whispered.

“I know,” she whispered back.  “No nightmares?”

“Not any really bad ones since… five nights ago.”

“Five nights ago?”

“Had a good dream.  A big dream.”

“About?”

He shook his head.  “Can’t really remember.”

“Okay,” she whispered back.  “Not a big deal.”

“But you told me to draw things or write them down after a bad dream,” he said.  He pulled a pad of paper from the gap between his bunk and the wall.

She looked at it.  It didn’t look like much of anything.  Two scribbles, circles and dots.

“These big things… Fish?”

“I don’t remember.  I think it started as a bad dream, and then became better.”

“And these dots or circles?”  They only covered part of the page.

“Planets and stars.  I only remember because that’s how I usually draw them.”

“What do you mean, you only remember?”

“Forgot.  Even faster than I usually forget the bad dreams.”

She frowned.  The way he described it, it put her in mind of something.  The day Skitter had rescued her.  Someone had had a trigger event, and both Skitter and Tattletale had reacted.

The way the two had forgotten, and the things Tattletale had mumbled about while she was recuperating…

“You don’t have superpowers, do you?” she whispered.

Aidan shook his head.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes,” he said, in a very solemn manner.

If it wasn’t a trigger event, then what?

“Five nights ago?”

“I know because it was the night Skitter stayed out all night.  I woke up a bit after she came in.  I was drawing while she made noise in the kitchen.”

The night Skitter had been outed.  Where had she been, and how did it connect?

If not a trigger event, the potential to trigger?

So many questions, and Skitter was no longer here to answer them.

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Chrysalis 20.5

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The appearance of the heroine in gleaming power armor had brought the room to a hush.  The silence only allowed Dragon’s words to carry, bouncing off the hard floor, reaching the assembled students and staff of Arcadia High.

A low murmur ran through the room like an almost imperceptible aftershock, informing anyone and everyone who hadn’t been in earshot.

I could see Emma too, or I could see glimpses of her, between the students that were backing away from the front of the room.  Already pale in complexion, she was white, now, staring.

I exhaled slowly, though my heart was pounding as if I’d just finished a hard run.

Defiant advanced a step, with the door to the kitchens behind him, while I took a few steps back toward the rest of the cafeteria, putting both Dragon and Defiant in front of me.  Some of my bugs flowed in through the gaps around the door he’d rammed through.  He’d slammed it shut behind him, but the metal had twisted around the lock, giving smaller bugs a path.

He slammed his spear against the ground.  The entire cafeteria flinched at the crackle of electricity that ripped through the air around him, flowing along exposed pipe and the heating ducts in a path to the door.  Every bug in the hallway died.

No use bringing bugs in that way.

I looked around me.  This wasn’t an optimal battlefield.  There were counters all around me, limiting my mobility, while barely impacting theirs.  Someone had signaled Kid Win, Clockblocker and Adamant.  The three heroes were heading our way.  Sere remained tied up outside.

Five capes against me.  With the bugs that had flowed into the building with Kid Win, I had maybe a thousand flying insects and some spiders.  Not nearly enough to mount an offensive.  I had neither a weapon nor swarm to give me an edge.  I didn’t have my costume, either, but that wasn’t liable to matter.

Once upon a time, I’d had trouble getting my head around what Grue had been saying about reputation, about image and conveying the right impressions.  Now it was all I had.

I let out another slow breath.  Calm down.  I rolled my shoulders, letting the kinks out.  There was something almost relieving about the idea that things couldn’t get much worse than they were right now.  Let the tension drain out.  If they decided to drag me off to jail or the Birdcage, there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

They weren’t attacking.  Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.  Were they not here to arrest me, or were they covering major routes my bugs might travel, to minimize my offensive strength?

Or did I have leverage I wasn’t accounting for?

I backed up until I’d reached a counter, then hopped up onto the edge, tucking one leg under me.  It was a vantage point that gave me the ability to look directly at Dragon, with Defiant at the far left of my field of vision and many of the students to my right, Emma included.

“Low blow, Dragon,” I said, finally.  “Outing me?  I thought you were better than that.”

Another murmur ran through the room, at what was essentially an admission.  Emma was frozen.  Her expression wasn’t changing; eyes wide, lips pressed together.

“I try to be,” Dragon replied.  “I’m only following instructions.”

“I guess your bosses are a little annoyed at the armored suits my team trashed?  Are they demanding that you make up for it by dragging me into custody?”

Dragon shook her head.  “Putting the armored suits up against you Undersiders was a beta test, and identifying major flaws is par for the course.  I do wish you hadn’t melted down the Azazel… It was expensive.  But that’s not why we’re here.”

“There are rules, Dragon,” I said.  “Expectations.  I fought Leviathan, I fought the Nine.  I was there for the fight against the Class-S threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

“It wasn’t by choice.”

“You choose to follow them.  It’s not like twenty or thirty heroes haven’t walked away from the Protectorate, recently.”

“It’s not that simple, Skitter,” Defiant said.

“It’s never simple.  But sometimes you have to take the hard road.  Sometimes you have to recognize that the people calling the shots don’t know what they’re doing.  Because this?  Picking a fight in a school?  There’s no way this makes sense.”

“The Protectorate is doing what they can to pick up the pieces,” Dragon said.  “Things are a little disorganized.  The best of us are working twice as hard, with half of the information, or incorrect information.  If there are any errors in judgement on that front, I’d hope they’re somewhat excusable, given circumstances.”

“Sure, but it’s the rest of us who pay the price.  The last time we really talked, you were lecturing me about priorities.  Do you really want to have this conversation?  Where I have words with you about your priorities, in light of everything that’s happening with the Protectorate?”

I left the threat hang in the air.

“You won’t,” Dragon said.  She stepped closer, and I raised a hand, gesturing for her to stop.  I didn’t really think about it.  She stopped where she was.

Why?  Why was she actually listening when I told her to stop?  If she’d advanced on me, grabbed me, there wasn’t much I could do besides kick and scream.

When I didn’t say anything, she added, “It’s not in you, Skitter.”

“You’d be surprised what I’m capable of,” I said.  “I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.  Even Sere, outside at this very moment.  He’s not very happy.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a glance.

“Your swarm shouldn’t be able to get near him,” Defiant said.

I shrugged.  Image, confidence, reputation.  I hated myself for doing it, but I was thinking of Jack Slash.  He didn’t wear a mask or a costume.  His power didn’t make people shit their pants.  What he had was his presence, an atmosphere of confidence.

Weeks or months ago, I might have had a hard time wearing that confidence the way Jack did.  The history, the long sequence of events and conflicts where we’d come out ahead in our respective teams, it could just as easily be a burden, the accumulated weight of the various precedents we’d set, but we’d made it into our armor, something to make our enemies hesitate at a critical juncture.

“I’m guessing you’re trying to contact Sere somehow,” I said.  “And it’s not working.”

“Is he hurt?” Dragon asked.

I didn’t have to give a response.  Fear was a tool I could use, here, and I could achieve that through uncertainty and the unknown.

I’d been thinking of Jack Slash before, but now I was thinking of Bakuda.  She’d been the first one to introduce me to that concept.

“You’ve got me thinking,” I said, ignoring the question, “Why set me up like this?  You two are too smart to put me in a desperate situation with this many hostages in arm’s reach.”

“Is Sere hurt?” Defiant growled the words.

“You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…”

Emma was sitting to my right.  She hadn’t budged from her position, safe in the midst of several of the school’s staff.  I directed a centipede to crawl across her hand, and she shrieked.  In her haste to get up from the bench, she fell.  She scrambled to put distance between us.  Both Dragon and Defiant tensed.

I raised my hands in a placating gesture, assuring the heroes I wasn’t taking it any further. “…or you wouldn’t be worrying about Sere right now.  You wouldn’t have reacted like you just did.  Sere’s fine, by the way, though I’m not saying he’ll stay that way.”

Defiant relaxed a fraction.  I could see Adamant, Kid Win and Clockblocker entering the room behind Dragon.  She turned to say something I didn’t catch, and both Adamant and Kid Win retreated.  They’d be going to find Sere, I could only assume.

I met Clockblocker’s eyes, then looked to Dragon.  “This is bait, isn’t it?  You or the people who are calling the shots want me to take hostages.  Because you have an answer handy, something that will stop me before they’re put in any serious danger.  I take hostages to try to secure my release.  You… I don’t even know.  You gas us, or use some kind of controlled charge, like Defiant’s bug zapper, and every bug in the room dies.  You get to be the heroes, I go into custody, and word gets around that the Undersiders aren’t so benevolent.  The villains who own the city lose both their leader and the trust of the public, all at once.”

“It wasn’t our plan,” Dragon said.  Her voice had a faint accent, just barely filtering through the sound filter of her mask.  “I’ve studied your record.  I suspected it wouldn’t work based on the decisions you’ve made to date.  Defiant agreed, though he based his judgement on your powers and versatility.”

“But you went ahead with it.”

“Orders,” Dragon said, again.  “And because we discussed the matter, and neither of us really believe you’ll do any serious harm to any hostages.”

“You seem to be giving me a lot of credit, assuming I’ll play nice.  And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months, after you’ve played your last card and revealed my identity?  An identity you found out because I helped?”

“That wasn’t how I discovered it,” Dragon said.  “And you will keep quiet, because you know how important it is.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “Maybe not.  If I’m going to die or going to jail anyways, why shouldn’t I scream what I know to our audience, here?”

“Because you won’t,” Dragon said, “And you can’t.”

“Why don’t we move this conversation somewhere else?” Defiant asked.  He shifted his hold on his spear to a two-handed grip, threatening without being threatening.

“Out of earshot of all of these people?” I asked, extending an arm in the direction of the gathered students.  “I don’t think so.  If nothing else, I’m entitled to a jury consisting of my peers.  I’ll settle for you two taking a hit to your reputation if and when you attack or kill me.”

Which was why I was sitting on the counter.  I was less mobile, less able to get out of the way if they attacked, and that was a good thing.  A detail that our audience wouldn’t consciously register, but they’d take something away from the fact that my opponents were being aggressive while I was so defenseless.

“We’re not going to kill you,” Dragon said.  “We’ve been instructed to take you into custody.  I’m sorry we have to do it this way.  I’d hoped… we’d hoped to simply talk to you.”

“The both of you?  I wouldn’t have thought Arm- Defiant had anything to say to me.”

“We entered Brockton Bay’s airspace, and I was informed that there’s a major quarantine in effect here, relating to the portal downtown, and that the airspace is being strictly controlled.  We were forced to announce our reason for coming to Brockton Bay, and PRT members with higher clearance co-opted our mission.  We were ordered to confront you directly, here, and to bring you into custody.”

“Why?” I asked.  “Those suits you deployed against my team were supposed to be used to hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them.”

“That is something we can discuss while we are in transit,” Defiant told me.

“Defiant-” Dragon said, her tone a warning.

“I could say more here,” he added, “But there are too many prying ears.  If you were willing to move to a room nearby, I could explain.”

“No thanks,” I said.

“You’d still have your power, and I know you can communicate with that power,” Defiant said.  “You’re just as capable of communicating any secrets to them from elsewhere in the school.”

“If I moved somewhere out of sight and out of earshot,” I said, “My words wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect.  Besides, I suspect our audience is the only thing that’s ensuring that you play fair.  They have cameras, and you have reputations to uphold.”

“My reputation isn’t a priority,” he said.  Dragon nodded, but I wasn’t sure if it was approval or agreement.

“You have your organization’s reputation to uphold.  For those of us who stuck around in Brockton Bay, we had reasons.  Something kept us here.  There was something to protect, or people to support.  Some were just scared, because actually leaving was scarier than staying.  Others didn’t have any place to go.  With the Protectorate slowly folding in on itself like a house of cards, I’m thinking you had a reason to stay, a reason you’re following orders you don’t want to.  You’re not about to rough up an unarmed, uncostumed girl and make them look bad on camera.  Not when you have that big a stake in things.”

Defiant glanced in the direction of the crowd.  A handful of students had cell phones out, watching the scene.

“Remind you of the hospital?” I asked.  “Similar scenario.”

“Yes,” he replied.  He didn’t elaborate.

“We could grab you,” Clockblocker chimed in.  “I can, or he can just walk up to you.  No violence necessary.”

“No,” Defiant said.  Again, there was no elaboration.

It dawned on me.  Defiant and Dragon were playing it safe because they thought I might have a trick up my sleeve, like I had at the fundraiser.  I’d disabled Sere, despite the fact that he was supposed to counter my power, and I hadn’t even made a big deal of it.  They knew what I’d done to Echidna, and several other events besides.

They were worried I’d pull something.

Defiant had a grasp on my powers, Dragon had a grasp on me as a person, and they’d gauged that I wasn’t a risk to the others in the room.  Which, if I was being honest with myself, I wasn’t.  They had the upper hand, they lost nothing by letting this play out, and so they weren’t making a move.  They’d talk me down, so to speak, and if I did something, they’d use one of their gadgets or tricks to counter my play.

One of the worst possible things had just happened to me, with my secret identity becoming public knowledge, and here I was, unarmed without a single idea on how to get out of this… and the good guys were playing it safe.  I smiled; I couldn’t help it.

“Fuck me,” Clockblocker muttered to Dragon.  I might not have made out his words if it weren’t for the bugs I’d planted on the heroine.  “It just sunk in.  It’s really her.”

Why only just now?

Adamant had distorted his metal armor to create a completely form-fitting metal suit, with only the thinnest possible slits for his eyes, before venturing outside.  He’d waded through my swarm, mostly blind, and he’d only just found Sere beyond the wall at the school’s perimeter.  He reshaped an armor panel into a weapon to start cutting Sere free.

Could I have caught Adamant  too?  Probably.  But it wasn’t worth the effort, not when he could reshape metal, with enhanced strength and durability on top of that.

Now that I understood what was going on, I felt like I had something of an edge.  Now, how could I leverage it?

“I’m sorry,” Defiant said.

That threw my thoughts off track.  I tensed, but he wasn’t apologizing for an imminent attack.  “What?”

“In the past, when we’ve crossed paths, I should have made efforts to meet you halfway.  I didn’t.  I’ve had time to reflect, I’ve had another person to talk to and give me some objectivity, and I’ve come to regret how things played out between us.  I could say more, but it would come out like excuses, and I doubt either of us want to hear those.”

That’s what you came here to say?”

“In large part,” Defiant said.

“We’d hoped to talk to you, one cape to another,” Dragon elaborated, “About the immediate future, with the Undersiders running this city, and your expectations in particular, Skitter.  But both Defiant and I thought he needed to say something to you along those lines, and perhaps you needed to hear it.  If anything pushed us to come here, it was that.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  It was easier when the opposition were assholes.  Expressing remorse?  How was I supposed to parse that?

Except, they’d done one thing that was assholish.  One incongruent element in all of this.

“One last question, then,” I said.  “Why?  Why out me in front of everyone?  It doesn’t fit with the idea of Defiant being remorseful, it flies in the face of the unwritten rules, and I know my team has played fast and loose with those rules, but I wouldn’t expect you to break them like this, Dragon.  Not Defiant, either, if he’s reinventing himself.”

Defiant and Dragon exchanged a look.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s better you don’t know,” Dragon said.

“What is?  And better for who?”

“Better for everyone involved,” she said.

“Tell me.”

She glanced at Defiant, but he didn’t turn her way.  “A precog told us it was our best option for bringing you into custody.”

A precog?  The incongruous elements fit together.  A plan of action that was riddled with little flaws and contradictions when seen from an outside perspective, that made sense when seen through the lens of someone who’d seen the future and worked out what criteria needed to be met to get the desired end result.  This, mobilizing on the school, it was the same kind of setup I might expect from a plan that Coil would have hashed together after a long question and answer session with Dinah, his ‘pet’ precog.

Dinah.

“Who was this precog?” I asked, the question abrupt.

“Skitter-”  Dragon started.

Who?”

“You know who,” Defiant told me.

It knocked the wind out of me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with the revealing of my secret identity.  My blood ran cold, and all of my confidence just plummeted, as though it had fallen into a pit so deep I couldn’t even see the bottom.

It was.  All of the lengths I’d gone to, the lines I’d crossed, to get Dinah away from Coil, to get her home to her family, and… this?

I was acutely aware of the crowd to my right.  They’d backed away from the front tables, and were clustered at the far end of the cafeteria.  Still, they’d be hanging on every word they could make out.  They were watching my every movement, every facet of this conversation.  There were cell phone cameras turned my way, and every second of footage would no doubt wind up on Parahumans Online or some video site.

I barely cared.  I felt a little numb as I swung my legs around to the far side of the counter and hopped down.  I wasn’t standing as straight, and some of my hair had fallen down around my face, obscuring it.

“Did they force her to give up the information?” I asked.  My voice sounded funny.  I couldn’t pin down whether I felt angry, sad or any of that.  I had only the external clues, the way my voice had the faintest of tremors, and a strange hollow feeling inside.

I stepped away from the counter, away from Dragon and Defiant.  My foot had started to fall asleep where I’d been sitting on it, and I felt a touch unsteady anyways.

“You don’t want to hear the answer to that question, either,” Defiant spoke, behind me.

Dragon and Defiant had flown in, apparently to say hi, and so that Defiant could make something resembling an apology as part of his twelve step assholes anonymous process.  With the chaos the PRT had been facing as of late, and their own preoccupation with their mission, they hadn’t been notified of the quarantine procedures.  They’d been questioned, they’d divulged that I was here, and the bigwigs giving the orders used Dinah to plot out a means of attack that would be likely to get me into custody.

Each idea seemed so much worse than the other, if I considered it for even a moment: either the PRT was using Dinah just like Coil had, or that Dinah had volunteered the information of her own free will.

I was willing to take Defiant at his word.  I didn’t want to hear the answer.

“What are the odds?” I asked.  “Do you know?”

“I can ask,” Dragon said.

“Please.”

She paused.  “Ninety-six point eight percent chance we bring you into custody,” Dragon said.  “We have the numbers on general paths you might take to escape.  You understand if I don’t give you the chance of success on those numbers, but you should know that violence won’t work.  Less than one percent chance of success.”

“Ah.”  It was all I could bring myself to say.

It explains why they’re playing it safe.  It’s not just that I have a penchant for problem solving.  Dinah told them to watch out for it.

I glanced at the crowd.  They were still listening.  Emma was there, hugging her arms to her body, eyes wide and uncomprehending.

Not even a factor.  On the list of things I had to deal with, she wasn’t even in the top ten, not even in the top one-hundred.  I felt irrationally offended that she was here, as if she was only doing it out of some kind of self-importance.  As if she’d had a choice.

A part of me, bigger than I’d expected it to be, wanted to lash out.  To hurt her just because I could, to answer that outrage I was experiencing, in regards to something she had no control over.

It wasn’t like I had much to lose.

“Skitter,” Dragon said.  She made it a warning, almost like she had with Defiant.  I couldn’t be sure what she was warning me about.  Was my line of thinking that obvious?

“I never liked that name,” I said.  “Skitter.  Never quite fit.”

“If there’s something else you’d like us to call you…” she trailed off, inviting an answer.  Her voice was gentle, as if she were talking to someone on a ledge.  I noticed Clockblocker was standing beside her, his glove pointed at me, fingers outstretched.

Was I on a ledge, in a matter of speaking?  I could hardly tell.

“No idea,” I said, as I walked around a table to put students between myself and Clockblocker. “Felt like commenting on the subject.”

“You know how capable the precog is,” Defiant said.  “Come quietly, and we can all talk to the authorities together.  If it would help, I can admit some culpability in your current circumstance.  All of us together might be able to get you a more lenient sentence.”

I was aware of the eyes of the other students.  There was the cluster at the back of the room, the ones who were backing away from me, cringing, cowering.  Others hadn’t left their seats, and were arrayed around me, their heads turning to watch me as I walked down the aisle.  The ones who’d stayed, less afraid, or more willing to face their fear.

He was admitting it, loud enough for everyone to hear.  He was partially to blame for me being… this.  A crime lord.  A villain.  Partially.  Much of the fault was mine.

Strange, to be confronted with the realization here, at school.  Not the place where it all started, but close enough.

“Okay,” I said, more to myself than anyone else.

“Yes?” he asked, taking a step forward.

“No,” I told him.  He stopped in his tracks.  “That was more of an okay, I’ve decided what I’m doing.”

I could see him tense.

“Students!” I called out, raising my voice.

“She’s taking hostages,” Dragon said, her jetpack kicking to life.

“…a clear shot,” Clockblocker said.  He was walking briskly to his left, his glove still trained on me.

“I’m not taking you hostage,” I said.  “It’s really your choice how this plays out.  I’m not sure if you heard me say it before, but I described you as a jury.  Now it’s time for you to vote.”

“That’s not how it works, Skitter!” Defiant shouted.  He stepped forward, then whipped around to kill the swarm that was flowing in through the doorway behind him.  I could divert some to the air ducts, but it didn’t amount to much.  He was stuck near the door, unless he wanted to let the bugs stream in.

“Stand if you side with me,” I called out.  “I won’t make any big speeches here.  That’s not who I am.  I won’t feed you lies or guilt you into this.  It’s your call.”

What had I expected?  A handful of people, Charlotte included?  A slow, gathering buildup?

Of the three hundred or so students in the auditorium, nearly a third stood from the benches where they’d sat.  As a mass, they migrated my way, gathering behind me.  Charlotte stood just to my left, staring forward without making eye contact with me.

Since I’d entered the school, I’d been acutely aware of the distinctions, the difference between then and now.  The sense of the Undersider’s presence in the school had followed me, nagging at me.

What use were followers if we couldn’t use them?

I heard movement, and glanced over my shoulder to see Charlotte’s friend, Fern, breaking away from the mass of students at the very back of the room.  Nineteen out of twenty of them were the clean, pristine, bright-eyed kids who’d left the city when the trouble started.  As Fern advanced, eyes to the ground, others broke away from the crowd to join my group.  Not many.  Ten or twelve.  It was still something.

A hundred students and change, a small handful of bugs.  I could see Emma, standing on the sidelines, her fists clenched.  She was saying something, repeating it over and over, under her breath.  I couldn’t spare the bugs to listen in.  I wasn’t sure I cared.

“This is reckless,” Defiant said.  His voice had a strange tone to it, and it wasn’t just the digital twang that I was hearing at the edges of the words.

“Probably,” I replied, raising my voice enough that it could carry across the room.  “But not as much as you’d think.  We’re not fighting.  I stress, we’re not engaging you.”

“What are you doing, if you’re not fighting us?” Clockblocker asked.

“Defiant and Dragon wanted to use the hostages against me, putting me in a lose-lose situation where I was caught between them and having to hurt people to try to escape.  I think I’m turning the tables, now.  We’re going to walk out of this school as a group.  If you want to stop us, you’re going to have to hurt us, and you aren’t capable of doing that to people any more than I am.”

“Skitter!” Dragon raised her voice.

“Taylor,” I answered her.  “I’m just Taylor, for just a little while longer.  I suppose I’ll be retiring my civilian name, one way or another, by the end of the night.  Fuck you for that, by the way.  I won’t forget it.”

“… wasn’t me,” she said, and I doubted even Clockblocker heard her, from where he stood beside her.

“It wasn’t your choice,” I said, “But as long as you choose to follow them, you’re as culpable as they are.”

I hadn’t even finished my sentence when I raised a hand and pointed.  There was a moment’s hesitation, and then the group advanced.  I waited a few seconds, and then joined them, falling in step.

Clockblocker used his glove, and the fingertips shot out with explosive force, with what looked like gleaming white fishing line stretching between the digits and the glove.  The tips punched into a wall.  A fence of thin lines, not much different from my spider silk.

Dragon put her hand on the glove, and the tips retracted just as fast.  My bugs could hear her speaking.  “…’ll hurt … civilians.”

A few members of the group broke away before getting too close to the capes.  Others joined in.  The group marched forward, reaching the front of the room.

Someone pushed a piece of clothing into my hands.  A sweatshirt.  I pulled it on and flipped the hood up.  I took my glasses off, sliding them into a pocket.

Clockblocker was pressing through the group.  He’d used his power, but the press of bodies was actually causing some damage, as people unwittingly pushed others into the frozen individuals.  He was fighting to reach me.

“Link elbows,” I said, my voice low, “Surround him.  He’s only about as strong as you are.”

It took a second for people to get organized.  He passed perilously close to me, but his eyes moved straight past me.  A few heartbeats later, the members of the group who had managed to get themselves linked together had him surrounded.

“Everyone to my right, head for the front door.  Everyone to my left, to the kitchen.  Straight past Defiant.”

The man barred the door.  We were only a dozen feet away when he slammed the butt of his spear into the ground.  Electricity and hot air ripped through the serving area of the cafeteria, with visible arcs dancing along the edges of sinks and the metal rails meant for the trays at the front.

“Steady forward,” I said.  “First ones to reach him, grab him.  You don’t need to do anything except hold on.  Dogpile him, and he won’t be able to move for fear of hurting you.”

I saw some people hesitating.  The group almost lost its forward momentum.

“He might not be a good guy,” I murmured.  “But he’s a hero.  Trust in that.”

Or is it the other way around?  That apology sat oddly with me.

He held his spear out horizontally, barring our path.  It was Charlotte that quickened her step, reaching out to fold her arms around the spear and his left hand.

Others soon did the same.  He stood tall in his armor, nearly seven feet, and people almost had to climb on top of him to find a place to hold on.

I almost wondered if I’d had a second trigger event, if I was controlling them, the image was so bizarre.

Then I took a better look at them, at how some weren’t listening to me at all, retreating.  Others were being far less consistent, showing a wide variety of emotions.  Sheila, the girl with the side of her head shaved, was among them.  Her face was etched in anger, of all things, as she clung to Defiant.

A hundred students had joined me, and a hundred students had their individual stories.  Their sleepless nights, their individual tragedies and moments of terror.  That was all this was.

I wasn’t sure if that was a relief or if it was scarier.

Dragon flew over us, her jetpack carrying her into the air, over the crowd.  Students were following beneath her, running.  One or two leaped onto tables and jumped to try to catch ahold of Dragon’s foot, but she veered easily to one side.

With Defiant occupied, I was free to bring bugs in through the back door, not having to worry about them being bug-zapped to oblivion.  I directed them straight into the vents on the jetpack that were sucking in huge quantities of air.  One second it was like a vacuum, drawing in air, the next it was clogged.  She lost lift, floating to the ground, and deftly batted aside the reaching hands of the students who were getting in her way.

Her jetpack expanded with an almost explosive motion, fanning out to have four times the number of intake vents, four times the number of output charges, and two laser turrets that curved over her shoulders.

There was no way she could pack that much machinery in that much space.  Either it was all crammed into her torso, which was impossible, or Armsmaster-Defiant had tweaked it.

She had liftoff, and she was faster.

And I’d already slipped past Defiant, stepping into the kitchen, and into the narrow hallway.  She didn’t have room to navigate, with the other students who were crammed into the entryway.

She turned herself around a hundred-and-eighty degrees and flew out the entrance of the cafeteria, heading outside.

Only twenty or so students were with me, now.  Dragon was stopping beside Adamant and Sere.  Adamant took her hand, and she lifted off, carrying the pair of them.

Still had to deal with three heroes…

And the massive armored suits that the two had ridden in to arrive.  Two.

“No,” Defiant said.

“You were supposed to protect us!” a girl shouted.  Sheila, the one who’d been angry, who’d brought a weapon to school and had left the school rather than relinquish it.

“I won’t,” he said.

He was talking to someone else.  The vents on his mask were open, hot air flowing out.  Was he trying to disperse heat so he wouldn’t burn any students?

“It’s still crude,” he said, “… do more harm than good.”

There was a pause.

“…r freedom isn’t worth possibly losing you.”

Defiant, still at the serving area of the cafeteria, moved.  With nine students clinging to him, he was glacially slow, careful to a degree that I might have called agonizing, if it weren’t so much to my benefit.

He needed two hands on his spear to remove the panel in the middle of the shaft.  I filled it with my bugs, and he shook it, to try to get them loose.  When that failed, he disconnected his glove, letting it strike a student that clung to his leg, before falling to the floor.

I tried to use my bugs to bite his hand, but I found it was a smooth texture, not flesh.  Metal or plastic, or something combining the two.  He found three buttons in the mechanisms inside the spear and typed in a sequence.

Dragon veered toward the ground, depositing the two capes there before staggering forward in four or five rapid footsteps, dispersing the rest of her forward momentum.  She fell into a crouching position.

We made our way outside.  The armored suit that Defiant had piloted to the school loomed before us, a four legged mechanical dragon perched on the athletics field, replete with panels of knightly armor.  This thing… this wasn’t a fight I could win.  Simple A.I. or no, Dragon would have shored up any weakness in logic.

It didn’t move.

We walked between its legs on our way to the parking lot.  There wasn’t really another route.

Dragon stood, abrupt, and I flinched.

She turned her head our way, but she didn’t pursue, as we walked through the parking lot to the main road.  Adamant and Sere were too far away, Kid Win hadn’t been willing to venture outside a second time, after the faceful of bugs I’d given him before.

Stray bugs drew out an arrow, pointing him to his things.  No use letting some stupid kid get their hands on it and blow their faces off or something.

I watched Dragon with my swarm, for as long as she was in my range.  I was well out of sight by the time she finally moved.  The students had released Defiant, and he approached her side.

She extended a hand, and it tremored, the movement stuttering, palsied.

Defiant seized it in his right hand and pulled her close, wrapping his gloveless arm around her shoulders.  He set his chin on top of her head.

My escort and I walked as a group until we were three blocks away from the school.

“Stop,” I said.

They did.  The remaining members of the group backed away, turning towards me.

What was I even supposed to say?  ‘Thank you’ seemed so trite.  They were all so different.  There was Fern, and a boy who didn’t look like one of the ones who’d stayed in the city.  Some looked nervous, others showed no expression at all.  There was no response that encapsulated all of them.

I tried to think of something to say, but the harder I tried, the less anything seemed to fit.

“You saved my dad,” Fern said, as if answering a question I hadn’t asked.

Saved her dad?  When?

It didn’t really matter.

“Imp found the bastard who was threatening to do shit to my little sisters,” one guy said. “Tied him to a traffic post.  And you work with her, right?”

“You fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“…those bastard ABB guys…”

“Fed…”

“…when Shatterbird…”

“…Mannequin…”

“…Leviathan showed up at the shelter, I heard you were…”

“…Empire…”

A collection of voices, a jumble, to the point that I couldn’t take it all in.

I didn’t have a group with me as I walked down Lord street.  I turned right, onto familiar territory, my heart heavy.

It wasn’t long before I was close enough.  My range was longer, now.  Odd.  It was supposed to get longer when I felt more trapped, but ‘trapped’ wasn’t the word I would have chosen.

My bugs rose at my command, tracing over the area.  It wasn’t so unusual, that there were flies, bumblebees and ants about: the heat of summer, the humidity, the imbalanced ecosystem…  Nobody paid them any heed.

A small butterfly found its way into the house.  It traced over the glossy smooth armor and helmets of PRT officers, touched the badge on the chest of a police officer.

It touched my dad’s shoulder, moved down his bare arm to his hand.  He was sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands.

An officer swatted at the bug, missing.  The action drew someone else’s attention.

“It could be her,” the woman in the PRT uniform said.

“Fan out!” someone else ordered.

They spilled out of the house.  Orders were shouted, and people climbed into cars, peeling out.

Still at the kitchen table, my dad reached out for the butterfly.  I had it settle on his finger.  Cliche?  Overdramatic?  Probably.  But I couldn’t bear for my possible last contact with my dad to be through anything ugly.

“Taylor,” he said.

Six and a half city blocks away, I replied, “I’m sorry.”

The butterfly and I took off at the same time.

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Chrysalis 20.4

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From the moment Charlotte had sent her text, I’d been bracing myself for the worst case scenario.  I’d resolved the situation with Greg, and I’d had just enough time to let my guard down before things started falling apart for real.

A guard stopped me in my tracks before I was three steps out of the office, arresting me mid-stride by setting his hands on my shoulders.

I resisted the urge to fight him.  I wasn’t sure I could, without a weapon, my armor or powers, and it threatened to make the situation worse.  He peered down at me, but I averted my eyes, staring down at the ground so he couldn’t get a straight look at my face.

“No running, kid,” he said.

He let me go, and I resisted the urge to breathe a sigh of relief.

My thoughts were a mess, a jumble of half-finished thoughts, ten times worse than it had been earlier in the day.  Somehow, in the midst of it, I managed to establish a few priorities.  Slip out, get rid of evidence, assess the threat, and then address it.

I walked slower.  I had the papers I’d removed from the clipboard, and I started tearing them up as soon as the guard had disappeared through the doors of the office.

On a more strategic level, I drew on a share of the handful of bugs in the school to get a sense of my surroundings.  I’d be letting people know Skitter was present, if they noticed the odd movements of the flies and ants, but I had good reason to believe someone already knew.

Either the people after me were the good guys, and it didn’t matter if I clued them in, or it was one of my other enemies, and the heroes showing up could be a good thing.

Arcadia High consisted of two longer buildings joined by a third, joining them to form something like a capital ‘H’.  The main office, where I was, and all the other administrative and staff-related facilities seemed to be located around the center.  The only exits from this immediate area would open into an open space where I would be surrounded by walls lined with windows, all looking down at me.  Worse, the doors all had the heavy horizontal bars that suggested they were emergency exits, and an alarm would sound if I used them.

Assuming I had someone after me, I couldn’t afford to put myself in that position.

That left me two options.  I could head into the building to my left, which featured four stories of classrooms, the cafeteria and a gymnasium, with a door that led to the student parking lot at the front of the school, or I could head right, into a building that was much the same, though longer, with an auditorium and the front doors of the school in close proximity to one another, and quite a few more classrooms.

I headed for the front door, to my right, depositing the scraps of paper in a trashcan on my way.  I moved as fast as I could without drawing undue attention, discreetly placing bugs on all of the guards I could find.

I stopped in my tracks as my bugs made contact with two other individuals.  Adamant and Sere were in the company of two guards, moving from the front door to the intersection immediately in front of me.

Making a sharp right, I headed for the stairwell, ducking away before they could advance far enough ahead to get a glimpse of me.  I’d worried they were making a beeline straight for me, but they stopped at the junction where the two hallways met.  I was already reaching the hallway below.  The guidance counselor’s office and staff meeting rooms sat behind floor-to-ceiling windows with the same glass that the exterior windows had: hexagon-shaped cells blending near-seamlessly into one another.  Looking straight at it, I couldn’t tell the difference, but the light caught each cell differently if I viewed it at certain angles, making them stand out.  Measures against Shatterbird?

Behind one of the windows, I could see two guidance counsellors sitting in a circle with a dozen students.  Nobody, not even the guard who was standing on the other side of the glass door, gave me more than a glance.

The exterior windows of the building were all securely closed.  The building was cool despite being a greenhouse of sorts, but it made getting my bugs into the building a difficult matter, and that left me with a relatively small swarm.  I gauged the number of bugs I could spare, and situated the less mobile bugs on doors and at the points where the walls met the floor or ceiling.  I might have preferred a denser collection, to map out my surroundings, but it gave me a sketchy mental picture of how the hallways were laid out.

A small cloud of flies was only now reaching the front office, slipping inside as a student opened the door, navigating between legs and feet to make their way to the principal’s office.

Listening in required conscious thought, but I’d been working on training my brain to follow human speech with the insects’ alien hearing.  It was easier, the more I had nearby, but I’d have to make do.

“…fight on my campus…” she spoke into the phone.

I had some information now, for as long as she was on the phone.  Not much, and it required me to divert some focus to translating, but it was something.

“…of my students are …ly sensitive … to … them feel unsafe…”

It was an unfamiliar school, and while I had a basic sense of the layout, particularly on the exterior, the interior was something of a hurdle.  The hallway I was on ended in short staircases at either end, each of which led up to the main hallways of the larger buildings.  I made my way towards the one furthest from Sere and Adamant.

“…if that’s an order… yes… fine…”

The principal hung up the phone, placing it on her desk.  She didn’t act right away.  I quickened my pace.

The bugs I had on her pant legs informed me that she was swiveling around.  I had to think about the layout of her office before it clicked.  The computer.

I was at the top of the stairs, the door that led to the parking lot at my left, when the signal went through.  Every single guard in the building reacted in the same moment, as did Adamant and Sere.  Some withdrew things from their pockets -phones, I could guess-, while others were already kicking into action.

It wasn’t just the guards.  The bugs I had on classroom doors informed me of some students slipping out of class.  Two students, both boys.

My enemy was the Protectorate, or someone with strong connections in the Protectorate.  Nobody else would be able to pull this.

Guards stepped into the building and shut the doors behind them.  The heavy, mechanical sound of the doors locking echoed down the hall around me; the doors leading outside were all being sealed shut.

The gate at the front of the school was closed, and a guard was heading for the chain-link barrier at the edge of the parking lot as well.

Could I run?  Maybe.  Fight my way past the guards?  It was possible.  I could cloak myself in bugs, use my limited repertoire to disguise myself, to disable and/or distract them while fighting my way outside.  Could I get to the end of the parking lot in time?  That, too, wasn’t impossible.

All together?  With barely a hundred bugs available?  I wasn’t so sure.  Any fight took time, it involved a risk to myself, and I wasn’t wearing my costume.  If any of the guards had a weapon they’d confiscated or if one of the capes in the area caught up with me, I’d be more than screwed.

I didn’t have any bugs on my person.  I’d been concerned about a pat-down at the gate, and I didn’t want to have bugs crawling throughout the inside of my pant leg or in my pockets when a guard searched me for weapons.  I wasn’t wearing my costume for much the same reason.  Stupid of me.

I was stuck.

May I have your attention please?”  Principal Howell’s voice sounded from speakers throughout the school.  “The school is now being locked down.  For your own safety, please remain in your classrooms.  Students not in an assigned classroom should proceed in a calm and orderly fashion to the nearest seating area.  Students in the north wing of the school will need to make their way to the auditorium.  Students in the south wing should gather in the cafeteria.  Remain calm and rest assured: there is no immediate danger.

The noose was constricting around me.  The students would be contained in select areas, and classrooms would be cleared one by one.  If the Protectorate was involved, I wasn’t even sure I could find a proper hiding spot.  Didn’t Kid Win have some ability to see through walls or detect heat signatures with his goggles?

The two boys had reached a room on the bottom floor, near the gymnasium, and were quickly changing into their costumes.  Clockblocker and Kid Win.

What did the good guys know?  They’d been alerted that I was in the school.  I’d been in the office only minutes ago, and the principal had put my name into the computer.  That was probably the catalyst, given how fast things had proceeded in the minutes since.  The principal got the phone call, and had ordered the lockdown as a consequence.  The fact that she’d warned me, it didn’t jibe with the lockdown: she probably hadn’t wanted to do it.

It struck me that they didn’t know that I was in the school now.

Inside of the building, I was largely defenseless.  Outside, I did have my bugs.  I doubted I could get out without drawing attention, but I could theoretically get them to call off the lockdown.

My bugs moved from the surrounding blocks and collected near one of the fire doors I’d noted earlier.  They formed into a decoy, a rough copy of my general silhouette, covered in bugs, and then began moving toward the school gates.

One of the guards standing by the auditorium saw and shouted for Sere.  The white-shrouded hero hurried for the door.

Sere was a long ranged cape, probably capable of killing my swarm with little difficulty.  I split my swarm off into further copies, maintaining their movement towards the gate and the walls.

Another announcement was broadcast throughout the school.  “A supervillain is currently near the school entrance.  Students in the central areas of the school should relocate to the cafeteria.  Anyone already in a secure place should please remain where they are.

The office was emptying, now, and guards were breaking away from their groups to ensure that every student that had been sitting around in the hallways was moving to the appropriate areas.  Emma was among the forty or fifty students heading toward the cafeteria, nestled in the midst of the group, while the principal followed at the rear with two guards in her company.

Behind me, the guidance office was evacuating as well.  The glass door opened, and the soundproof seal broke.  I could hear one of the counselors speaking to the twelve or so teenagers around him.  “Let’s go to the cafeteria.  If this takes a while, we’ll at least be able to eat.”

He spotted me and gestured for me to join the group.

I could have argued and asked to go to the auditorium instead.  There were any number of excuses that could have worked, including ‘I have an issue with one of the students who’s in the cafeteria’.

But I was more interested in being invisible.  Better to play along, to think of a plan and execute it, while doing as little as possible to draw attention to myself.  Here, at least, I’d be hidden among others.  I joined the crowd moving in the direction of the cafeteria.

More guards were directing other students to the cafeteria, the groups merging into a single mass, with the cafeteria doors as the bottleneck.  Inside, everyone was spreading out to find tables.  Again, I noted the distinction between the two varieties of student.  The bright and cheerful ones were collecting together, filling up every space at the tables closest to the door and to the front of the cafeteria, where all of the food was available.  Others were spreading out, alone or in groups of two to five.

The principal and other staff members were standing by the door, seeing that everyone filed peacefully into the room.  Emma was sitting at one table with all of the secretaries and a few of the teachers who I supposed hadn’t had a class to teach.  She glared at me as I walked into the room.

I found Charlotte, too, identifying her by the cube of paper with the ladybug inside that I had my more prominent minions carrying these days.

“Taylor!” she hissed, as I made my way towards a table at the back of the room.

I was dimly aware of Sere striking down one of the decoys.  The moisture in the air zipped to his hand, and nearly half of the decoy was ruined, the bugs dazed or unable to move.

The spiders, I noted, suffered worse than most.  They used a kind of biological hydraulic system to move.  Shit.  I liked my spiders.  They were particularly useful.

I reached Charlotte and murmured, “Best if you don’t know me.”

“Hey, Taylor,” she hissed the words, twisting around in her seat.  When I didn’t reply, she repeated herself, “Hey.  Is this about you?”

“I think so,” I muttered.

I took a seat at a table near the back, folding my arms in front of me and resting my chin on the back of my hands.  Staying out of sight, while keeping an eye on everything.  It also allowed me to focus on my swarm.

My bugs were discreetly tracing back routes and other options.  Was there a place where the cafeteria staff unloaded the day’s food?  Some back way leading from, say, a gym or custodial entrance?  A way onto the roof, even?  I didn’t have enough bugs to spare that I could leave them on walls.  I was forced to personally memorize every corridor and feature of the building that might be important.

Outside, Sere was working at destroying my decoys.  I split off more copies, and then moved one group to him to see if I could blind him.

The bugs were being sucked dry of moisture as they got too close to Sere; I wouldn’t be able to disable him with just my swarm.  He drew more water from a cloud of bugs, desiccating and killing hundreds.

The number that died was indicative of something, though.  As devastating as the attack was, the effect didn’t cover a massive area.  It was a roughly cone-shaped area, with a long reach, but narrow breadth.

If he was surrounded by moisture, maybe I could use that against him?  My flying bugs started doing bombing runs.  They picked up small stones and dirt, using the fine tarsals that helped them cling to walls.  There wasn’t the suction, but it served to allow them to pick up specks at a time.  They flew in tight loops, staying high over Sere as they dropped the fragments, touched ground to collect more dirt, and repeated the process.  I was careful to spread them out and collect the fragments from multiple places so he couldn’t kill too many at a time.

Dense moisture and dirt could become a thin mud, and it might serve to blind him or distract him where my bugs couldn’t.

In the cafeteria, another group of students was filing inside.  Fifty or sixty in all, they each bore telltale signs of the kids who’d stayed.  Many were drenched in sweat, and the teacher with them held a basketball.  Had they been in the gym, burning off nervous energy, working on building social bonds and all that?

There were maybe three or four hundred people in the cafeteria, now, as students from all over the school streamed in, including most of the ones from the auditorium.  With the increasing number of students, it was impossible for anyone to have a table to themselves.  A group of three boys claimed the far end of Charlotte’s table, and she stood up.

She had issues around unfamiliar men.  It might have served as a push for her to do what she’d been debating doing anyways.  She joined me at my table, sitting close enough that our shoulders touched.

“What’s going on?” she whispered.

“You know when Tattletale vetted everybody?”  I whispered back.

Charlotte nodded.

“She made a list of names, some vetted people along with some others who were safe.  Mixing it up.  She gave the list to the principal, with the idea that maybe she could cut us some slack and we’d help keep the peace in the school in exchange.  So she had an idea that I was related to the Undersiders, she told me to run and hinted someone might be after me,” I said.

Charlotte nodded again, mute.

“I tried,” I whispered, “but I couldn’t cover enough ground in time.  Someone forced her hand and ordered her to put the school on lockdown.  I can’t slip out without drawing attention to myself, I’m not in a position to fight, and it’s only a matter of time before they find me.”

Shit,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.  “I won’t blame you if you want to move somewhere else.”

“I’ll stay,” she said.

“Char-”

“I’ll stay,” she repeated.

I relented.  I couldn’t afford to focus on this, when I needed to control my bugs and memorize any possible escape routes or hiding places.  “If anything happens, get clear.  You don’t know me.  Your ‘little brother’ is counting on you, and he should be your priority.”

“Little brother?” she asked.  I saw the realization as she remembered our code word.  ‘Little brother’ referred to all the kids in her charge.

“Oh.  Right,” she said.

Kid Win was making a beeline for the front door.  I clustered bugs on the surface of the door, blocking his line of sight as much as I was able.

It didn’t work.  The thermal gogglesWhich means he can tell there’s no body inside any of the decoys.  He pushed the door open and shouted, “Sere!”

That was about as far as he got before my bugs descended on him, filling his open mouth.

“What are you going to do?” Charlotte asked.  With the degree of attention that I was devoting to what was going on, she sounded almost distant.

Even with the murmuring of hundreds or so students conversing, the cafeteria was eerily still and quiet compared to what was going on outside.  Adamant was standing at the doorway to the auditorium, simultaneously trying to keep an eye on the stray students from the north building and the fighting outside.  Clockblocker was making his way to the front.  He was slightly different; he wore what seemed to be a gauntlet, out of proportion with the rest of his body.

“I have a few options,” I whispered my response.  “I could be aggressive, take on the people at the door.  I think I could slip away.”

“Why didn’t you do that already?”

“They were too guarded, and they were anticipating trouble from within the building.  My bugs are causing some chaos outside, now, and they’ll have their backs turned.  I’ll have time to improvise a mask, which I didn’t, before.”

“You have to get out of the cafeteria first.”

“I’m not too worried about that,” I said.  “There’s two or three possible escape routes I’ve been able to find, if I can get my hands on a set of keys or create a big enough distraction to get away with making some noise.  The principal has my back, and she might make it easier.  I’d ask her for a key, but I’m not sure she would be willing to risk it, and there’s too many people around her.”

Including Emma, I noted.  One person I could count on to pay attention to me.

“What if she’s the one who made the call to these people who are after you?”

The principal?  I shook my head.  “Her priority is keeping this school and its students safe.  Besides, I overheard her communicating with someone on the phone.  If she was playing both sides, there’d be no reason for her to maintain the ruse when I wasn’t anywhere nearby.”

“Unless she knew you could hear through your bugs,” Charlotte added.

“Unless she knows,” I echoed her.  “I don’t think she does.”

Kid Win was suffering at the hands of my swarm.  He drew a weapon, but my swarm was already prepared with lengths of silk.  They constricted the weapon and prevented it from unfolding.  Sere, for his part, had his hands full trying to take down the decoys.  A large part of what I was concentrating on was the decoys, getting enough details right, and splitting them off in a way that suggested I could be any of them, while simultaneously keeping them far enough apart that he couldn’t attack more than one at once.

“Taylor,” Charlotte whispered.  “If they know who you are, they know.  They could find you again, or put your face on the news.”

“If they did, it would be breaking a good few unwritten rules.  Especially if they only knew who I was because I helped with the Echidna situation.  They can’t afford to punish villains for helping against the big threats.  It would mean fewer people showed, and they need all the help they can get.  Here, at least, they could say I was intruding on neutral ground.”

The explanation felt feeble.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Charlotte whispered, echoing my line of thinking.  “Doing it here, at a school, with so many potential hostages around.  Breaking the code?”

“I’m thinking…” I replied, “I’m thinking everyone knows the Protectorate is falling apart.  Legend’s gone, Eidolon’s announced he’s leaving as soon as things get quieter, the head of the PRT stepped down, a whole bunch of rank and file members left, and so did Weld and a lot of the more monstrous capes.  Maybe there’s pressure from the top to put one in the win column, remind people why the Protectorate exists.”

And who better to take down than the creepy teenage supervillain who’s leading the team that took over a city?

“But in a school?”

I didn’t have any guesses to offer on that count.  I focused on the fighting outside instead of responding.

Getting too close to Sere was killing my bugs just as easily as his long ranged absorption attack.  I had to attack him from range, and the rain of dirt and small stones wasn’t doing anything, as far as I could tell.

I turned to a tactic that had crossed my mind while fighting Echidna.  She, like Sere, had been tricky to get close to.  Unlike Sere, she’d been too big to really tie up.

Spiders drew out lines of silk and formed them into cords, weaving them into one another to form extended lines, fifty or so feet long.  With the combined efforts of dozens of flying insects, half gripping one end and half gripping the other, the lines were flown in Sere’s direction, so he was caught by the middle.

The bugs holding the ends then continued onward, keeping the cord taut as they circled him, one group flying clockwise, the other flying in the opposite direction.  In this manner, they orbited him, winding him up in a single length of cord.

With five cords being wound around him in that fashion, I soon had him hampered, his arms and legs restricted in movement.

He kept moving forward, attacking my decoys.  As he passed a signpost, I hurried to have my bugs wind the remaining lengths of cord around it.  Lines went taut, cords constricted around him, and he fell.  He struggled, but it didn’t seem he would be on his feet anytime soon.

With Kid Win on the ground, thrashing, that was two down.

The other two, I was pretty sure I could deal with them if it came down to it.  I wasn’t sure what Clockblocker’s glove did, but I had a suspicion.  Adamant’s armor was just begging to have silk cords wind through the chain links and armor plates.

My bugs rifled through Kid Win’s pouches and armor compartments.  Masses of bugs and teams of the larger, stronger bugs working to pull silk cords helped to divest him of various tinker tools and components.  His smart phone, a cylinder with a trigger on the front and a button on top, a sphere with a hole through the center, with screw-like rifling and electrical connectors in the interior.  There were two devices like tuning forks, too, with tines that wound around one another without touching, and wires beneath the handles.  Bugs in his ears helped to work an ear bud out of position and carry it off.

Once he was denied as many of his tools as I could move, I dragged them away.  It was only when I was sure that he wouldn’t be able to use them against the swarm or against me that I eased up on him.  I let my bugs drift in the general direction my decoys had gone, as though I were leaving or gone.

He stood, gagging and choking.  Sere wasn’t in sight, and I’d taken Kid Win’s phone.  There was only one place for him to go if he wanted to communicate with the others and touch base.  He headed back into the school.

I was ready.  Bugs flowed out of his pockets, gaps in his armor and from where they’d clustered at the small of his back.  I tied his wrist to the door handle.

It took him a long few seconds to realize the door wouldn’t swing shut until he moved.  That bought the remainder of my swarm time to turn around and flow through the open entryway.  They headed straight for the guards, and swept into their pockets the same way they had with Kid Win’s pouches.

Keys?  Yes.

While Kid Win and the guards were blinded, my bugs fetched the keys.

I stood from the bench of the lunch table.  “I think I’m set.”

“Just like that?” Charlotte asked.

I looked at the front of the room, where other students were feeling hunger and teenage appetites overcoming their fear of what was going on elsewhere in the school.  Only a dozen or so.  Maybe they don’t have a steady supply of food where they are, I mused.  There were areas of town which weren’t in good shape.

There’re pizza slices, I noted.  It was a reminder of how the day wasn’t going as I’d planned.

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.  Get out, then see what Tattletale can manage as far as damage control.  “Wish me luck.  I’ll send you a message and meet you at the lair after school if everything goes according to plan.”

I crossed the cafeteria, heading for the buffet tables and sneezeguard-protected counters with empty trays waiting to be filled by staff.  Emma was at her table, I noted, surrounded by secretaries and teachers.  I was joined by other hungry students, eager for their free food, and their bodies helped to block me from the sight of both Emma and the staff.

Confidence, I thought.  I stepped around the counter and through the doors that led into the kitchen.  Confidence made it look like I knew what I was doing; being furtive would only arouse suspicion.  My bugs were still carrying the keys, bringing them along an air vent.  I’d need to find a way to open a vent cover and retrieve them, but it was among the smallest of the problems I’d face today.

I found a door to the outside.  My bugs clustered on the other side, my hand pressing against my own, separated by an inch and a half of door.  I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I hadn’t been followed, then started looking for a way into the air conditioning duct.

The smallest of the problems I’d face today.

There was an impact, heavy enough that the lights flickered.  Even the bugs I’d gathered on the door were knocked loose, both by the force of the landing and the flying dust and debris.

Right outside the door.

I didn’t need to move my bugs to search out the identity of this antagonist.

A figure strode through the swarm of bugs.   He tapped the door with the end of his weapon, and the breath was knocked out of me.  Every bug within thirty feet of the door died, including the ones in the air conditioning duct.

I was still reeling as he pushed against the door.  It was deadbolted, but the metal of the door’s surface buckled, and it tore free of the frame.

He was wearing armor, forest green and gold, with the stylings of a lizard’s frills or bat wings on the trim, and a faint etching of scales to the green portions.  His spear, too, bore a distinctive design, with an etching like a lizard’s skull worked into the heavy spearhead.

He advanced, his spear point leveled at my chest, and I backed up, maintaining a distance between us.  To do otherwise would mean letting him drive the weapon into my chest.

On the other side of the campus, another heavy armored suit touched ground, somewhat more gently.

He stopped when we were at the front of the cafeteria.  I kept backing up, knowing it was futile.  Dragon had exited the other suit, and was using a jetpack to navigate the hallway, flying towards us with an accuracy and ease of movement that belied how fast she was moving.

I didn’t have an escape route.  The woman stopped directly behind me, at the entrance to the cafeteria.

“Dragon,” I said.  “And Armsmaster.”

“The name is Defiant,” Armsmaster corrected me.  His voice had a funny sound to it.

“Skitter,” Dragon answered me, loud enough for everyone to hear.  Her voice was almost gentle.  “I’m sorry it worked out this way.  My hand was forced.”

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Chrysalis 20.2

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It couldn’t be easy.  No.  Everything was finally starting to settle down, and then this.  Inconvenient timing, inconvenient in every way.  It had to be at the high school, of all places.

Tattletale and Grue would be meeting with the Ambassadors soon.  That took them out of the running, as far as people I could call.  Forrest was just a little too old and a little too attention-grabbing to be seen lurking around the local high school.  Regent, Imp or Bitch?  I was trying to fix the situation, not make it worse.

I pressed Charlotte for more information:

RT:
You see him?

Charlotte:
no.  no bars here. had to leave to make call.

Right.  Arcadia was one of the schools that had a Faraday cage, if I was remembering right.  Something to stop kids from texting and making calls in class.

RT:
What was he doing?

Charlotte:
asking about u in hallways, checking with ppl to see if u were around.

Charlotte:
i approached him and asked how he knew u.  he said he didnt.  seemed too intense for that so i called u.

RT:
GJ.

All in all, almost exactly what I might have told her to do if I’d been in direct contact with her at the time.

RT:
This is Eric with blond hair?  Blue eyes?  Talks like he’s going to run out of breath and pass out?

Charlotte:
Yes.

My suspicions were confirmed.  Greg.

Charlotte:
is break btween class atm.  have 2 go soon.  what shld I do?

No time to think or plan.  It was annoying how these codes and protocols that Tattletale and I had come up with were costing us precious seconds.

RT:
Go back inside to see if there’s drama.  Tell him I’m not at school, if you can, but that I can meet him later.

Charlotte:
k

While I waited, I patted the mattress dry where the cleaner had soaked into it, then dragged it upstairs.  My phone buzzed before I’d dressed to take it out to the balcony.

Charlotte:
he gone.  class starting.  no drama I can see.

Damn.  Not as bad as it could be, but the situation wasn’t resolved.

RT:
What’s your next class?

Charlotte:
Eng.

RT:
Go.  I’ll see if I can track him down.  Will find you if I need you but don’t worry.  Good job.

I’d let her return to business as normal: I didn’t want her too caught up in this.

There was something to be said for having good help.  I felt more than a little guilty.  Much like Sierra had during the worst periods, Charlotte was picking up my slack.  In managing my territory while I was going home to sleep at my dad’s house, she was earning her wage twice over.  I would have increased her pay but she didn’t want me to, claiming it would arouse suspicion.

Maybe I could get Tattletale to arrange some kind of scholarship for her.  We had funds.  Tattletale had acquired everything Coil had owned, and it had been easy enough to assume his false identities and take over the dummy corporations.  Now that the city was starting to pick up and people were talking about the potential the portal in the downtown area had, the land was skyrocketing in value.

Not to mention that the Ambassadors had given us a healthy lump of cash when they’d arrived in Brockton Bay, and were paying rent in the thousands of dollars so we’d be copacetic with them just being around.

Apparently that was villain protocol, in a way, doing jobs or giving gifts when intruding on another’s territory.  I could see why: it let one ask for permission and show respect while still giving evidence to a measure of power.  If these guys were willing to hand over tens of thousands in the same way other people gave gift baskets, it showed they had that kind of money to spare, and they were confident.  The side benefit for us specifically was that it kept Tattletale from complaining too loudly.

With luck, there would be others like them.  Which wasn’t to say I trusted them.

I dressed, pulling on my running shoes, a tank top and the lightweight cargo pants I’d worn to run.  I left the grungier clothes laid out on the bed, and made doubly sure I had my cell phone, identification and my knife.  I doubted I could have it in plain sight, so I stuck it in my sock and pulled my pants leg down around it.

It was nine fifty in the morning, and I figured I had an hour and forty-five minutes before the second class of the day ended and the lunch hour began.

I had to find a way to drag Greg out of class and talk to him without alerting others.  That, or I’d have to wait until lunch started and postpone plans with my dad.  Inconvenient.

The bus was running on a reduced schedule.  There were fewer intact vehicles, fewer drivers in the area, and routes were longer with the detours that they had to take.  It wasn’t as bad as it might otherwise be: a twenty-minute wait.

I stewed in my own frustration.  There had been occasions in the past where I’d had to leave my territory to handle greater threats.  It irritated me more than it should have, to be forced to leave for this.  Such a minor thing, but prickly enough that it had the potential to become something major if ignored, and awkward overall to handle.  How did I even approach the conversation?

I’ve faced down a handful of the scariest sons of bitches in the world, I’ve been intentionally trapped in a burning house, blinded, had my back broken, I’ve been paralyzed and at the mercy of no less than two lunatic tinkers, and I’ve killed a man, I thought.  And going back to school stirs up old feelings of anxiety.

I could feel the building tension and a shift back to old ways of thinking, and the ridiculousness of it made me smile.  It was the middle of the morning, the bus was almost empty, and I stretched as though I were just waking up.  One or two people glanced my way, and I allowed myself to not give a fuck.

It helped, as though I were physically shrugging off the old burdens that were settling on me.

The wind from the open windows of the bus stirred my hair, and I exhaled slowly, turning my face into the sun, letting it warm me even as the breeze cooled me off.  I couldn’t do anything about the time it took to get there, so I might as well take the opportunity to get a breather.

Arcadia High.  I’d seen it in the midst of some of Brockton Bay’s worst days, but effort had been expended to fix it up and get everything sorted out.  New windows, that caught the light in a way that made them look almost like compound eyes.  Some kind of sub-layer or something worked into them that made for a number of quarter-sized hexagons.  The front gate had been rebuilt, cracks paved over, and vandalism cleaned up.  It was pristine, with panels of white tile and glass that almost glowed in the morning light.

The thing that caught me off guard was the people.  Classes had started, but there were forty or so students gathered around outside, sitting and talking, texting or simply enjoying the sun.  A half-dozen adults in outfits that were uncomfortably similar to the enforcers of the old Boardwalk were stationed at the gates and at points around the school grounds that let them keep an eye on things.  Security?  Volunteers?

That wasn’t the entirety of it.  The students fell into two groups.  One was very much what I might have expected, kids in new clothes or casual summer wear, smiling and talking.  Months ago, I might have felt like the smiles and periodic laughs were directed at me, and not in a flattering way.  I’d always rationally understood that they weren’t, but not to the point that I could convince myself.  Now I reveled in my anonymity.  I knew what it was to have every set of eyes on me, people covertly trying to gauge who I was and what I was doing every time I moved a finger.  This wasn’t it.

The other, larger group of students, adding up to maybe thirty-five of the forty kids present, was something else.  They were the Sierras, the Charlottes, the Ferns and the Forrests.  They were the Jessies and Bryces, the Taylor and Danny Heberts.  The people who had stayed.

I just had to look at them, and I knew it.  Some had dressed in new clothes, but others wore the clothes that had weathered the last few weeks and months, worn and frayed at the edges.  Physically, some were frayed.  They had lines in their face that spoke to weeks with a bare minimum of sleep, and both skin and hair bore the coloration that resulted from days spent outdoors.

One or two, I noted, carried weapons.  One had a knife displayed visibly at his hip.  A girl with a burly frame very similar to Rachel’s was sitting beneath a tree, eyes closed, her hands on a stick with an electrical tape grip.  There wasn’t anything definable, only little clues that added up, and a general atmosphere about them.

I didn’t miss the division between the two groups.  The five or so fresh-faced teenagers weren’t hanging out with the ones who had stayed.

“You just arriving?” one of the enforcers at the gate asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.

He studied me just long enough that I felt acutely aware of my bare shoulders and arms, and how my top clung to my stomach.  I glared at him, and he met my eyes with an ease that suggested he didn’t care I’d caught him looking.  Creepy.

“Got a weapon?”  he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Can’t keep it if you want to go inside.”

I was only keeping myself armed as a matter of practice, and I was aware I wasn’t alone on that front, or I wouldn’t be doing it so casually.  I reached into my sock and withdrew the sheathed knife.  It says something that we can even take this conversation in stride.

I handed it to him.  It wasn’t worth the time it would take to argue.  “What’s with these people outside, here?”

He shrugged.  “Easing into it.  We asked if we should round ’em up and take them inside, but the principal said we should give them a few days to depressurize if they wanted it.”

“Depressurize,” I said.

He glanced at the knife, “All I know is we’re not enforcing a lot of rules yet.  Sometimes a few take a break and come outside, smoke, talk, get some fresh air and sun.  Those ones don’t tend to stay long.”

He was looking at one group by the front door, three of the ones who didn’t have that weary, worn, and wary sense about them.  The ones who’d no doubt fled the city when things turned ugly.

I’m not the only one who sees the distinction, I mused.

“I think they’re intimidated.  Or you and I see it as a nice sunny day and they see it as being outside in a shithole of a city.”  When I didn’t keep the conversation going, he shrugged, “If you’re going in, you’ll want to go to the office.  They’ll sort out where your classes are.”

“Okay,” I said.  There was no need to explain that I wasn’t here for classes.

By the time I’d reached the front door, a trio of teenagers younger than me had already approached the same guard.  It would be another litany of questions.

It did something to explain why the guards were there.  The two kids who hadn’t been willing to part with their weapons were no doubt another part of that.  The whole dynamic was skewed, now, and they were mediating the worst of it.

I’d been in Arcadia High once, and it had been more of a life or death situation, one where I had been able to tentatively use my bugs.  In this unfamiliar territory, with a thousand or more students throughout the building, I had to actively work to suppress the powers I’d been using on an almost automatic level.  I couldn’t be sure that a small cloud of flies would go unnoticed as they traced the contours of a hallway.

Much like I’d seen outside, there were a handful of students who hadn’t yet made their way to class, or had stepped out for a breather, congregating in pairs and trios, or standing alone.

I knew I could have asked them for directions, but I wasn’t keen on approaching people who were in the process of avoiding socializing.  The men and women in uniforms that were stationed at the intersections where the halls met?  More of a possibility, but there was no need.  Directions were posted on the wall.

I glanced at a note on the wall.  One sentence, with no punctuation, and a big black arrow pointing one way.

New sudents go to front office

If I’d had a little bit of hope that things were working out here, they faltered some when I saw the typo.

I noticed another set of papers that were arranged on the wall, not because of what it said or the title, but the cartoon etched on the wall in permanent marker.

The heading of each of the sheets read ‘Know where you are’.  The paper with the graffiti was Rachel’s; a crude drawing of a dog was violating one corner, which had been torn slightly to accommodate the dog.  A speech balloon over the smiling dog’s head read ‘you don’t know shit’.

Fitting, if it was one of Rachel’s followers.

I headed in the direction of the office, feeling strangely out of place.  This entire thing was surreal.  There were the hallways with gleaming floors smudged by the passage of hundreds of feet, the bright primary colors in trophy cabinets and on bulletin boards, all contrasted with the security guards that were set up and standing to attention as though they expected a fight to break out any moment, and the innumerable teenagers who were being allowed to roam the grounds, some hanging around with weapons at hand.

But more than anything else, it was the notion of where I fit in the grand scheme of things.  Growing up, attending school, there had always been this general sense of the local gangs and powers and their influence.  It was the little things.  The gang tags scrawled on walls, the posters informing Asian students of who they could contact if the ABB started pushing them to join or pay tribute.  There had always been the rougher kids who wore certain colors and symbols of their affiliation.  It had meant something when a teenager wore yellow, or when an adult had an eight-ball tattooed on them.

was aware that Arcadia High had been scrubbed clean, and that things wouldn’t become fully apparent until people had gotten more settled and more comfortable.  Even with that, though, it was unsettling to notice that for the first time since I was eleven, I couldn’t see anything relating to the hostile gangs in the area.

There were no real gangs except for ours.  Grue, Tattletale, Bitch, Regent, Imp, Parian and I were the vague, intimidating forces that people worried about crossing.  We weren’t as bad as some of the ones that had come before us, sure, but people still saw us as something to warn others about.

I’d seen all the people working for me, sensed them with my bugs.  I’d read about myself on Parahumans Online, and in news articles.  At the same time, high school was sometimes described as a microcosm of the world at large.  There was something else about being in the midst of a three-dimensional model of it all, seeing it have a concrete impact on a place that was more familiar.

Four teenagers were sitting along the side of the hallway as I walked by.  They stared at me as I passed.

I had to work to reassure myself that there was no connection between what I was thinking and the fact that they were looking at me.

It did remind me that the Wards were here, and whatever else had happened, they might have seen my face.  Not my face, but they could easily have seen a deformed evil clone of me.

There was that surreal sensation, again.  Was it weird that I felt most like Taylor at school?  That I was all the more cognizant of the weirdness of all the cape stuff?

They were still looking.  I gave one a curt nod, and she nodded back.

I quickened my pace as I headed to the office.  I wanted to be gone.

There were a lot of students in the office, and I was soon aware of why.  There were capes present.  Ones I only barely recognized.  Adamant and Sere.

“Listen!”  a woman behind the counter raised her voice to be heard over the general babble.  She had more authority than I might have expected of a secretary.  “Get in a line! If you’re here to look at the superheroes, you can do it later!  They’ll be here all week!”

Nobody listened, of course, and the secretaries weren’t really helping, taking requests and giving out information to whoever was closest to the front.  It only encouraged the press of bodies.

I headed to the other end of the room, hoping I’d be able to work my way around the end of the crowd.

I glanced at the clock.  Ten-forty.  I had maybe twenty minutes before my dad called me, and getting back in time would be difficult, even if I was lucky enough to have the bus show up at a convenient time.  I could postpone, plan a late lunch, but I really didn’t want to.

“Please,” Adamant spoke, and his voice was filled with confidence, “Do as Principal Howell is asking and form lines.”

That worked, but not all that well.  People elbowed and pushed against me as we arranged ourselves into loose columns.  I’d never liked the feeling of being in a press of bodies, and it made me think of other unpleasant situations: Bonesaw straddling me, being drawn into a massive, monstrous lump of flesh.  It made me exceedingly uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable made me instinctively reach for my bugs.

That was another reason to not be in classes.  How long would it be before my power did something while running on autopilot and drew attention?

I studied Adamant and Sere while I waited.  Adamant, naturally, wore a metallic costume, featuring metal bands and panels that were loosely linked together by chains, fit over a black bodysuit.  He’d been at the fight against Leviathan, if I remembered right.  He was a member of Legend’s team in New York.  Or he had been.  Legend was gone now.

Sere wore cloth, in contrast to Adamant.  He wore a kind of nomadic, desert-tribe style of robe, all in pristine white with a fine pattern embroidered onto it.  His mask was more stylistic than representing anything, a solid white plate with light blue lenses for the eyes and no opening for his nose or mouth.  What made him stand out was the moisture that flowed from the gaps in his handwraps and from around his mask.  It swirled around him like a breath outdoors in winter, pale.  Almost an inverse of Grue.

Powerwise, I knew Adamant was a bruiser, though I didn’t know the specifics.  Sere, I did know about, but only because I’d once come across a cell phone video of him brutally taking down a number of thugs, posted online somewhere, months ago.  Some capes shot fire from their hands.  Sere was the opposite – he could draw moisture to himself with surprising speed and violence.  It didn’t matter if a foe was armored or behind a forcefield, he could dehydrate them in a flash.  It was the kind of power that might have earned him a villain label if he hadn’t had all of the Protectorate’s PR at his back.

I idly wondered what had made the pair stick with their employer, in the wake of the recent events that had so many leaving the Protectorate with little to no explanation, Legend among them.

More than that, I was wondering how I’d fight them if it came down to it.  With the way the armor and chains of his costume were arranged, Adamant was just begging to be tied up. Sere would be trickier.

“You’re next, black curls,” the secretary closest to me spoke.

I focused my attention closest to her and approached the counter.

“What do you need?”

“I need to get in contact with someone.”

“We can’t give out personal information.”

“Not even if it’s an emergency?”

“If you need to inform a student of something critical, we can make an announcement.”

“No.  That’d be the opposite of what I need to do.”

“You could always look for them during the lunch break.”

I frowned.

“If there’s nothing else, there are others in line.”

“What’s the procedure for signing up for classes?”

“You tell us your old schedule.  We slot you in as well as we’re able.  Core classes are in classrooms.  We’ve adopted another system for non-core classes.”

“Non-core?”

“Anything besides maths, science, phys ed, and all those.  Non-core classes are held in the computer labs.  You’ll have a rushed curriculum, alternating reading assignments with quizzes and worksheets on the computers.  There are teachers at the front of the lab if you have any questions.”

“I don’t suppose you could tell me all the classes that are second period?”

She gave me a stern look.

I was feeling the pressure.  This maybe wasn’t the brightest move, but I wanted to find Greg, get this solved, then return to life as normal.  Lunch with my dad, in an ideal world.

What classes did Greg take?

I could remember him talking in Spanish.  God, it felt like years had passed, not months.

“World issues-”

“Grade?”

“Ten.  World Issues, Spanish…”

Not English.  Charlotte’s in that class and she probably would have slipped out to send me a text.

“…History and Music,” I finished, picking two more that weren’t likely to be on the computers.

“World issues is a non-core class.  That’ll be your fourth period.  You have History now.”

She struck a key and the sheet began printing.

“You don’t need my name or ID?”

“We have zero notice on who’s going to be here or not.  For now, everyone is to go to classes.  Do your best to catch up for the tests in one week, where we evaluate where everyone is.  We’re adding students to the system on a priority basis.”

I nodded.  Something of a relief, that this wasn’t set in stone.  She handed me the paper and I took it, turning on my heel to head out of the office.

Computer labs first, I thought.  I hated to do it, but I drew on my bugs to find the labs in question.  With my luck, Kid Win would have put something together something to track unusual bug movements, and I’d get found in a second.

The first lab was a bust.  Nobody got in my way or spoke up as I entered the room.  There was only an older teacher who pointed wordlessly at a space where computers were unattended.

I walked up between the rows and looked at the students.  No luck.  I left through the back door at the other end of the class.

Halfway through the second lab, I saw Emma, clustered with a group of others.  Her hair was dyed blond, done up in a french braid, and her clothes were brand new.  Their eyes were on a computer screen where they were watching a video on a streaming site.  I wasn’t surprised that she’d drawn people to her so quickly.  She had that magnetism to her.

She looked up and noticed me, no doubt expecting to see a teacher, and I could see her eyes widen a fraction in recognition.

But I was already walking, moving on with my search.  She wasn’t a priority.  I deposited a single fly in her bag so I could keep out of her way and headed out of the room.

Ten minutes passed as I moved from area to area.  I was aware of the moving timeline, and felt a knot of anxiety in my stomach that had nothing to do with school.

Fuck him.  Seriously.

By the time I found him in the smaller gymnasium, where long tables and computers had been arranged to form an impromptu computer lab, it was past eleven.  My dad would call any minute.

I walked up to him and tapped him on the shoulder.

The change in his expression when he saw me, with the spreading smile of a child that had torn open the wrapping paper to find the very present they’d wanted… fuck me.  I could see where Charlotte had been concerned.  There was zero subtlety to him, and a bare minimum of restraint.  Or maybe it was the other way around.

He pointed at the door, and I nodded once by way of reply.  I headed in that direction without waiting for him.

At least he didn’t blurt out ‘Skitter!’ in front of everyone.

“I can’t believe you came, you-”

Seeing his awe, the unrestrained excitement, I decided on a strategy.

“Are you stalking me?” I asked, cutting him off.

I could see his expression change, shifting from enthusiasm to confusion.  He looked decidedly deranged for the split second he was midway.

“No,” he said.  “The reason-”

Can’t let him get going or it’s all over.  He’ll keep talking until he says something we’ll both regret.  “Then you have a grudge against me.  Some vendetta or something?”

“No!”

“Because you barely know me, and a friend said you were being seriously creepy with the way you were trying to get info on me.”

“I wasn’t!  I was trying to help!”

Help?

I fumbled for a question that wouldn’t give him an excuse to say anything vital aloud.  I felt like I was channeling Rachel as I spoke, “I don’t need your help.”

“I-”

“In fact,” I cut him off.  “I’m offended you would say it.”

I know!” he strained the words at me, two words said in a way that was too excited to be a successful whisper.  He wasn’t talking about me being offended.  He was talking about my secret identity.  Fuck me.

“Greg,” I said, reaching out to put the flat of one hand against his shoulder, as if pushing him away, “You don’t know anything about me.”

“We’re not that different,” he said.  He’d shifted gears to bewilderment.

“In what way are we the same?” I asked.  Safe question, unless his answer included a confession that he had powers.

“We’re… not social people.  We like reading,” the answers were weak, and from the look on his face, he knew it.  There was a benefit to him being this transparent, and I was counting my blessings that he wasn’t very good at articulating what he was thinking.  “We like computers.”

And, fuck me, I couldn’t help but admit that he was nice.  Part of the reason he was struggling to provide an answer was that he was couching his statements to avoid hurting my feelings.  The answer was short: we’d both been the losers, but he wouldn’t say it outright.

I let him flounder for a little bit longer.  I didn’t want to tear him down, but every second that his confidence wavered was an advantage to me.

“You don’t know anything about me,” I repeated myself for effect, then quickly added, “You kind of messed up my day doing this.”

With the reaction I got, someone might have thought I’d slapped him.

“I wanted to help,” he said.

“I was spooked,” I said, feeling like shit even as I continued to leverage his better qualities against him.  “All I got was a friend texting me to say someone’s looking for me like they have a vendetta.”

“That’s not it…” he said, trailing off, but his enthusiasm was crushed.  He was visibly sagging, as though someone had let the air out of him.

“And I found out it was you, and all I could think was that you were angry and you wanted to hurt me, or maybe you had some crazed infatuation with me and you were stalking me.”

I could see the look on his face.  Horror mixed with panic.

“Fuck, Greg-”

“No.  That’s not what it was-” he said, breathless.  His face betrayed the lie.  It was at least part of it.  “It wasn’t like I was crazy over you, it was a little thing, a while back.  That’s not-”

“I have a boyfriend,” I blurted out the words in my haste to cut him off again.

It was like kicking a dog.

He went silent, and I took the opportunity to get my mental footing and plan out what to say next.

A boy stopped in his tracks on his walk way down the hall.  A little shorter than me, red haired.  Apparently our atmosphere was screwed up enough that he’d noticed.  “Problem?”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “We’re in the middle of resolving it.  Personal stuff.”

“That’s-” Greg started, then he stopped, looking at the boy.  Even he wasn’t so clueless as to say something in front of a stranger.

The boy looked between us, and then gave me a curious look.  He was one of the ones who’d stayed, I could tell at a glance.  Unlike some, though, unlike me, he hadn’t gotten much sun.  Odd.  Maybe he’d holed up in a house or a shelter for the last few months.  Staying indoors would have been safest.

From the way he was looking at me, I wondered if he saw something like that.  Difference was, I had a secret to keep.

“Thank you, though,” I told him, before he could figure anything out.

He took it for what it was: me saying ‘go away’ in the politest way I could manage.  He left.

“Greg,” I said, “I don’t want to hurt you and I don’t want to be your enemy.  You have to understand, the last while has been scary.  I’m guessing you didn’t stay in town?”

“I did,” he said, then he stopped, breaking eye contact.  “I was on the outermost edge of the city.  Other side of Captain’s Hill.”

There’s a mountain on the far side of Captain’s Hill, I thought.  Which meant he wasn’t close enough to matter.  I would have hesitated to call that area a part of Brockton Bay, but I could see where maybe Greg had convinced himself it was close enough to count.

“You didn’t stay in town, then,” I said.  “That’s fine.  Smart.  But maybe you don’t get what it’s been like here.  All I want is peace and quiet.  I want to spend time with my dad, who I very nearly lost.  I don’t want trouble.  I don’t want complications.”

“I was trying to help!” he protested.

“Greg-”

He bowled over me this time, “But I was thinking, you know, if I could figure this out, others could too.”

I glanced over my shoulder to ensure there was nobody in earshot.  A few fruit flies ventured out of a locker and checked around the corners.

“Greg, what is it you think you know?”

You’re Skitter,” he whispered.

“No, Greg,” I said, calm, quiet.

“I was reading online, and it’s like, there were people wondering if you were an adult, and it got me thinking what Skitter must be like in real life, and then it clicked.”

That was just about the most horrifying thing he could have said, barring near-impossibilities like, ‘I got powers and I ate your hair to get pregnant with your child.’

“A feeling, Greg?”

“It’s more than that!  It all makes sense!”

“I was going to spend time with my dad,” I said.  “That was my whole goal for the day, it’s my only goal.  I just want to unwind and relax after weeks and months of living in this hellhole of a city.  And you pull me away from all that because of a hunch?”

“It makes sense.  Your age, your location, your attitude.  Even with the bullying, your trigger event-”

I cut him off, “Trigger event?”

“Yeah, you-”

“What’s that?” I asked.

He stopped, trying to think of a way to parse the answer, and I could even see a flicker of enthusiasm, as he imagined explaining the concept.

The enthusiasm drained from his face.

“You’re playing dumb,” he said, but the confidence had taken a hit.

“You know that capes hurt my dad?” I asked.  “Both times he got hospitalized.  Shatterbird the first time, the explosion at the town hall the second.   Superpowers are really the last thing I even want to think about.  We can talk, but I really don’t want to talk about the superhero stuff.”

Fuck me, I felt slimy, playing him like this, using my dad for leverage.

“I can’t talk about this without talking about capes.”

“About me being one of the villains?  Isn’t it kind of insulting?  No, Greg.  I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.”

“But the proportions, the appearance-”

“You’re wrong,” I repeated.  I was feeling enough sympathy for him at this point that it wasn’t hard to inject some into my voice.

“Everything fit,” he said, his voice small.

Fit, not fits.  He’d already come to the conclusion I’d wanted.  I kept my mouth shut.  I wanted nothing more than to be gone, to arrange things so I could meet up with my dad with a minimum of questions, but I stood there and waited for Greg’s response.

“I’m sorry,” he said, in the end.

“You’re not a bad guy, Greg,” I said.  “Sorry I’m not the person you wanted me to be.”

He nodded, mute.

“Take care of yourself.  Good luck with school.  Maybe I’ll see you around.”

“I hope your dad’s alright,” he said.

“Thanks,” I answered him.  Then I turned to leave.

God damned people.  I felt like crap, both for manipulating him and the way I’d manipulated him, but there’d been no other choice.  What the hell had he even expected?  That I’d admit it and be bursting with gratitude that he’d let me know I needed to take some extra measures with my secret identity?

Probably.

I headed for the front door of the school.  As crummy as I felt, I could relax a bit, now.  Crisis averted.  I’d send Charlotte a text, then see about meeting up with my dad.  I wanted to leave.  There was nothing for me here.  Only ugly feelings.

Except the difference from then and now was that I felt a hell of a lot more like an Emma than a Taylor.

Speak of the devil.  I could sense her by the front door, hanging out with a group of her new friends.  I changed routes and found a door in a stairwell, and stepped outside that way.

The problem was the gate.  A short wall surrounded the grounds, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb it, not with the attention it would attract.  Going through the exit at the parking lot would take me in the opposite direction I’d wanted to go, and I was in something of a rush.

And maybe a part of me didn’t want to run.  Avoiding her was one thing, but going five or ten minutes out of my way to circle a whole city block just to keep out of her way was something else.

I walked briskly for the gate.

She saw me, walked to intercept.  Fuck her.  Of course she’s starting something.  It can’t be easy.

She placed herself between me and the gate.  She was almost playful as she stepped right, then left to cut me off as I changed direction.  I was forced to stop.

A sly smile was plastered on her face.  I was aware of the others looking.  The people who were sitting outside, the guards… her friends were approaching to join her.

“Sneaky, sneaky,” she said.  She looked like she was having a ball.  “Trying to avoid me?”

I didn’t reply.  I was a little spooked at how quickly my bugs were responding to my irritation.  Half of my psyche was saying ‘fight’, the other half was saying ‘ignore her’, and the bugs were only listening to the first half.  The second half was needing a bit of a push on my end.

There were few people in this world that had truly earned my hate.  I’d put a bullet through the last one’s brain.

Emma?  I couldn’t care less about her.  That was what unsettled me.

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Chrysalis 20.1

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I stepped out of the shower, but I didn’t dry off.  It was hot out, and the cold beads of moisture on my skin offered something of a reprieve.  I felt acutely aware of the breeze blowing into the room, as it traced frigid lines against my body.  My hair was wet, plastered to my neck, shoulders and back, and water ran down from the individual locks of hair in thin streams.

More than anything, the cool sensation of the wet hair on my head was a contrast to the workings inside my skull.  It wasn’t even seven in the morning, and in purely mental terms, I was hitting the ground running.  Had to.

I leaned over the sink, letting the droplets fall from my eyelashes and run down my face.

I reached out, and my toothbrush found its way to my hand, as much as my hand found it.  The toothpaste was much the same, maneuvered to my hand by a dozen threads and twice that many insects.  I took two minutes brushing, another minute to use some mouthwash, and then stood straight, stretching.  My skin felt tight, contracted by the temperature.

Like the act of rubbing one’s stomach while patting their head, I was moving out of sync.  I held out one hand for the hairbrush, closed my fingers around it, then set to tugging the plastic bristles through the tangles and knots, slow, strong, deliberate movements, a patient, calming exercise.

My mind?  I was watching, studying, sensing and experiencing ten thousand things at once, an engine going full-bore.  I could follow my dad as he moved through the house, picked work clothes out of his closet, threw away a sock and its matching pair.  I watched every entryway into the house, the windows and doors, tracked the movements of the neighbors, and our neighbor’s neighbors.  With fleas, I could track the movements of the neighbor’s outdoor cat, a surprisingly violent creature with a sizable body count of local frogs and mice, many killed purely for sport.

I could track each of these details for roughly a thousand feet around me, to the point that I was aware of every person and every piece of terrain in the area.  There were bugs crawling inside walls and the dark corners of houses all up and down the street, and I had only to pay attention for a moment to grasp the layout of each house and home.  I could feel the worms crawling through the earth, the ants navigating the surface, struggling but surviving in the humid heat of the outdoors.  I could feel the maggots that were devouring one of the cat’s abandoned victims, the ants working to collect the food before descending into their labyrinthine hive.

And I thought of my own hive, of jobs that needed doing and positions that needed filling, of threats and threat assessment.  I was prioritizing, knowing it would be impossible to do every job in the time I had.  I had to check in with everyone, to look after the individual groups, get more information on construction and finances, to make sure everything was running smoothly.  Each and every task could potentially be interrupted at a moment’s notice, so I had to ensure I had people at hand that I could delegate to in a pinch.

It was a lot to take in, a jumble of half-formed thoughts that I only considered for moments at a time before categorizing them, making or postponing a decision.  There were too many I wouldn’t be able to address yet.  Tasks that I needed eyes on, people I needed to talk to for information.

I toweled my hair dry, brushed it again, had the bugs clean up the silk strands that littered the bathroom, and then wrapped a towel around myself to venture to my bedroom and get dressed.

By the time my dad descended to the ground floor, I was already halfway done preparing breakfast, standing by the stove with my damp hair tied back into a loose ponytail, wearing a strapless top and loose-fitting, lightweight cargo pants.

Preparing breakfast was another of those routine activities, rubbing my stomach.  I was still patting my head, thinking of how to address one sensitive issue.  When my dad entered the scene, though, I made a deliberate attempt to break from that mode of thinking, to shift mental gears.

“You’re going to school wearing that?” my dad asked.

“I’m going running like this,” I replied.

“In this heat?  Take some water with you.”

I pointed at the kitchen table, where I’d set two water bottles by the salt and pepper shakers.

“Good.”

“Crepe?” I asked.  “And fruit salad?  We have some left over from last night.”

“Please.”

I slid the crepe out of the frying pan and onto a plate, then handed it to him.  I dropped some butter on the pan, poured more batter on, and then tilted it until the batter was spread thin over the surface.

“You’re usually out the door by now, and back fairly late.”

“Trying to do my part,” I said.  “And I wanted to talk.”

“Okay.  I like talking,” he said.  “Unless this isn’t the kind of conversation we look forward to?”

He made a face as he eased himself down into his chair.   He’s still not completely recovered.  I admitted, “It isn’t.”

“Ah,” he said.  His expression was placid, his eyes watching me carefully.

“I was thinking… I don’t think I’ll go back to school.”  I turned my eyes to the crepe.  I poked the spatula at the corner to verify it was more solid, lifted it, then flipped the thing over.

I could hear him pouring orange juice.  Flies hidden on ledges and on a shelf between cookbooks could see the vague movement as he raised the glass to his lips and drank before he spoke.  “It’s a month and a half of classes.  Everyone will be catching up, not just you.  We couldn’t ask for better circumstances.  A new environment, new people, a new dynamic.  You’re different.”

“I am,” I said.  I slid the crepe onto a plate.  I didn’t use the fruit salad, but instead went straight for the blueberries I’d defrosted, adding a spoonful of cream.  I rolled it up, spooned some fruit salad onto the side of the plate, collected my mug of tea by the side of the stove and then sat down opposite my dad.

He looked so old.  Two serious sets of injuries, one he hadn’t fully recovered from, and a measure of stress that I was partially responsible for, all adding up to artificial years.  I felt a pang of fondness mixed with regret.

“If I asked you to, would you?” he asked.  “Hypothetically.”

“If you did, I would,” I admitted.  “But it’s not where I want to be right now.”

He nodded, taking a bite.  A dribble of fruit juice ran down from the corner of his mouth, and he thumbed it away.  I reached for a roll of paper towels, tore one off and handed it to him.

“Thank you,” he said.  It wasn’t a response to my statement.

If he asked, I’d find a way.  Work things out.  Reprioritize, filter out the nonessential tasks, shift things around.  Everything would take longer, there would be issues in countless areas, more things I couldn’t do and people I couldn’t protect.  But I’d do it.

“What will you do instead?”

“What I’ve been doing.  I’ll work,” I said.  “There’s cleanup work, still.  It pays pretty well, all things considered.”

“It’s not easy,” he said.

“I’m tough,” I said, flexing an arm.  I had some muscle, but it looked pretty sad on my thin arm.  I let my arm drop.  “At least it’s not all heavy lifting.”

“But it wears you out.  I won’t say it’s bad work, we both know how many hundreds of people I’ve worked with who are employed along those lines.  I’ve been employed along those lines.  But you’re smart.  Your mom and I both expected you to go on to college.  The idea that you might never graduate high school never crossed our minds.”

Bringing Mom into it.  I sighed.  “I will graduate.  I promise.  But I can wait a year, study online.”

“Why?  Why put things off and study for half a year to a year, when you could pass tenth grade in two months?”  He didn’t sound angry or upset, only confused.

Prioritizing, weighing every action against the costs involvedSpending most of my day at school, everything else takes a back seat.

“Like you said, I’m different than the person I was,” I replied.

He looked up at me, met my eyes, and I could feel my blood run cold.  That searching, studying look…

He knows?

“You are,” he said, simply.  Not a confirmation of my fears, not dismissing them either.  It was only an admission of what we both knew as truth.

“If you want me to go, you can tell me to go.  I will.  You’re my dad.  You can tell me to do something, and I have to do it.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head.  “We both know that’s not true.”

I took another bite of my crepe instead of replying.

“Being a parent, there’s always that niggling fear, that notion that maybe one day your child will realize you’re not all-knowing, not all-powerful.  That they don’t really have to do anything you say.  But you spend years growing up together, parent and child, as a parent you get accustomed to acting like you’re in power, believing it as much as your daughter does.  For some, for most, that confidence gets worn down after the child hits adolescence, and the parent changes from being one of the most important figures in their child’s life to being an embarrassment.”

“You were never embarrassing to me,” I said.

“I know,” he said.  “But that makes it harder, doesn’t it?  For all those other parents, it’s a transition, a transformation, as their children gradually test their authority and discover how very fragile a thing it is.  For me?  I didn’t have nearly enough time to get used to it.  One night, one conversation, and you decided I didn’t have any say in your life anymore.”

“You do,” I said, feeling alarmed, in a way I couldn’t articulate.  “I want you to have a say.  I’m saying you can set curfews or demand that I go to school, and I will.  I might complain or argue, but I’ll listen.  I’ll let you have a say.”

He reached across the kitchen table, taking my hand.  He pulled it towards him, and I let him stretch my arm out straight.  He bent over and kissed the fingers.

His voice was quiet, “I hope that, if and when you ever have a child of your own, you never have to hear them say anything like that.”

He released my hand, and I withdrew it.

“You’re sure you don’t want to go to school?”  He asked.

I nodded.

“It’s your decision,” he said.  “Yours, not mine.  Where would you work?”

“The Boardwalk,” I said.  “It’s close, it’s good pay, good food, and it’s safe.”

“A little more directly involved with the local supervillain-in-power than I’d recommend for  any employees of mine that were looking for a job,” my dad replied.

I didn’t have a response to that.  I ate the last bite of my crepe.

“Will you still be there at lunchtime?”

I nodded.

“I’ll meet you.  Things are busy, things are good, but I’d like to set aside a block of time.  We can pick up lunch, or I’ll bring something.  How’s that?”

It was awkward on a dozen different levels.  Even staying here caused me any number of problems.  It removed me from a place I needed to be, it made for awkward transitions between my civilian and costumed life, and every conversation with my father stressed me out, left me wondering if he could guess.  Or maybe when I stepped in the door, I might find out that the local heroes had recognized me, using one of the mutant clones that had been running around, or any number of other possibilities.  My dad waiting to ambush me with the fact that he’d received a telling phone call, like he had when I’d skipped school, only he’d be backed up by superheroes.

The last big conversation in that vein had done irreparable damage.  Enough that I found myself checking my house and making sure there wasn’t an ambush waiting for me on the other side.  On my dad’s side of things, well, we’d just discussed that in some depth.  Our relationship wasn’t any better for it.

Taking time away from everything else I had to do, to eat lunch, to fill in the details and arrange things so my dad didn’t discover I was bending the truth yet again?  To have another awkward conversation?

I was willing.  “I’d really like that.”

He smiled.

I grabbed the notepad by the phone that we usually used for writing down numbers and put down my cell number.  “Call me when you’re coming around, so we can find each other.”

“Your cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

He looked sad for a brief moment, then perked up a little, “I suppose you need it if you’re going to stay in touch with the others.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I should go.  I want to get a light run in and maybe catch up with some people before I start working.”

“Take care of yourself.  I’ll be in touch around eleven or eleven thirty.”

I nodded.  I gathered a billfold with some ID and cash, a fresh tube of pepper spray, and then a sheathed knife from the backpack that hung by the back door.  It wasn’t my good knife: I wouldn’t be able to explain how I had a knife of that kind of quality.  This one was serviceable for self-defense, the kind that was currently being worn by countless people around the city.

I glanced at my dad, but he seemed to be going out of his way to avoid looking as I did everything necessary to prepare myself for venturing out into the city.

Was it him suppressing his worry for my well-being, or were my doubts on target?  Did he suspect, and simply not want to know for sure?

I couldn’t ask, couldn’t hint or try to get clarification, not without potentially seeding the idea in his mind, or prompting him to give me an answer I didn’t want to hear.

I stepped outside, and the hot air was like a physical barrier.  I’d known it, had anticipated it with the knowledge my bugs provided me, but there wasn’t anything quite like that first faceful of eighty-five degree weather, so humid it went straight through both skin and clothing.

The second I was out of sight of the house, I had my phone out.  I re-checked the messages that had come in last night and this morning.  Twenty in total.

Charlotte:
I know its already pretty late, not a big deal, but was wondering if u wanted to go out and grab ice cream?  terrys craving some.  we can grab jelly beans and a chocolate for my brother on our way back.

Charlotte:
eric stopped by.  no drama.  you should say hi while he’s around.

Forrest:
saw Eric 2nite.  shuld say hi.

Forrest:
n/m Char already sent you msg.

Charlotte:
taking my little brother to school today.  if I dont see u, have a good day, will see u tonite.

All code.  Mostly code, anyways.  The names dropped were a shorthand for specific kinds of situations and people.  ‘Eric’ was trouble.  ‘Little brother’ meant the kids Charlotte was looking after.  ‘Terry’ was the catch-all term for people in my territory.

There were two for me, as well.  ‘u’ and ‘you’, as odd as it sounded.

People were probably craving some luxuries in the food department and some treats for the kids wouldn’t hurt.  There was some kind of trouble while I’d been out, but it was handled and I should pay a visit in costume to make sure it was resolved.  Charlotte would be going to school, taking all the little ones with her.

There were other messages.  Among them, there was a mess of some sort one of the side streets hadn’t been cleaned up and ‘Terry’ had been complaining, there were some vague concerns about the food supplies for lunch later today, and Lisa had called about a nebulous ‘party’.

I ran the rest of the way to the Boardwalk.

There weren’t many people up and about yet.  Some cars on the road, the sounds of construction starting to get underway, and some parents with kids to see off to school and no cars getting an early start.

I passed by my headquarters and found someone unfamiliar inside, in the main room with Charlotte.  She was helping a little boy put a shirt on.  Forrest was in the kitchen, mass-producing kids’ lunches with the supplies I’d had brought in yesterday.

I made my way to the beach, entering the storm drain that led, in a roundabout way, into my base.

The original plan, as far as I was aware, had been for this entrance to be temporary.  Work would continue on the Boardwalk, and it was inevitable that someone would run into the storm drain, either where it was deliberately blocked off or entering from the beach as I was.  It would have changed, with Coil leveraging his resources to set up something else that would serve as a covert entrance.

I’d have to contact Tattletale, though she was probably busy enough that my to-do list looked trivial.

Bugs flowed down the stairs, surrounding me as a thick cloud that would hide me from sight. I could sense the kids reacting as I made my appearance.  Fearful starts and backing away, taking shelter behind Charlotte.

I singled out a handful of butterflies and sent them towards the kid nearest me.  They flew in formation, forming a circle around her hand.  She stretched it out, and one butterfly landed on her thumb.

As other children reached out, I settled butterflies on their hands as well.  The distraction was good enough that I could walk past them and head upstairs without causing anyone to burst into tears.

I locked the door behind me and quickly changed.  I draped the shawl-cape over my armored shoulders, and then covered it in bugs.  Wearing black in the summer would be uncomfortable, especially with the added heat and weight of the bugs, but maybe I could provide myself with some shade using a swarm overhead.

It would make me a target to any heroes paying a visit, though.  The PRT had recognized the potential for trouble that surrounded the door, Tattletale’s improvised portal to another universe, and out-of-town capes were being given permanent positions on the local Wards and Protectorate teams. It said something, given the state of the PRT these days, that they were willing to devote the manpower.

A pair of villains from the Fallen were lurking somewhere in Imp’s territory, and their presence meant that Haven felt obliged to send two or three capes our way as well.  Until the Fallen were dead or gone, Haven would have something of a local presence.

I’d done my part to try to help find the two Fallen, just a few days ago, but even with Tattletale’s help in identifying the general area, I hadn’t been able to root them out.  Her gut told her that one of the two was Valefor.  Despite the intimidating names and the fact that they called themselves an Endbringer cult, the Fallen didn’t pose a grave threat.  They were thieves and vandals, allegedly committing incest in the belief that it would guarantee that their entangled family produced more kids with powers, but only a few people in the controlling body of the family were demonstrably capable of murder.  They were far from being the Slaughterhouse Nine.

Still, both Imp and Valefor were what the PRT termed ‘strangers’.  Capes with abilities that tended towards subtlety and subterfuge.  That wasn’t a fight I wanted to get caught up in.  I would if it came down to it, if people were in danger or Aisha needed my help, but I was perfectly content to not be in a position where I was looking over my shoulder every few seconds.  I’d dealt with that enough.

All of that wasn’t even touching on the other villains seeking a foothold in the city.  The Ambassadors were looking for a slice of the Brockton Bay pie, and both Grue and I were tentatively willing.  The group of villains was willing to play by our rules and participate in our alliance, they would add their own strength to ours, and they were more interested in shady but legitimate dealings and preying on other villains than they were on causing trouble or bucking with the local authorities.  I couldn’t be entirely sure whether that was because of their general ethos or because they were recuperating from being nearly wiped out, but their simple existence and their membership in our alliance would help scare off troublemakers.

It all added up to making the Ambassadors as ideal a partner-group as we could hope for.  The only sticking point was that their leader was a Thinker, and Tattletale almost automatically disliked him.  It would take a great deal more convincing to get her to play along.

The Teeth had tried to take a bite out of Parian’s territory.  They had a history in the bay, and like the Ambassadors they had been nearly wiped out, only it was nearly a decade ago.  They’d settled elsewhere while they bounced back, with a turnover rate high enough that none of the original members persisted.  There was only the name, and an ethos of violence, anarchy, and profit at any cost, not unlike the ABB.  Parian seemed to be making a point of not asking for our help, and I wasn’t intending to offer it until she did.

I had others to take care of, and I could only trust that she knew what she was doing.

“Skitter,” Charlotte said, as I returned downstairs.  I could see the other girl, plump, with a shorter haircut that only seemed to accentuate the roundness of her face.  She seemed more scared of me than the kids were.

Forrest, by contrast, was almost bemused.  He leaned over the kitchen counter.  He had a barrel chest, a burly build, a natural glower, a thick black beard and coarse, unkempt hair.  He might have looked savage if it weren’t for the tight-fitting striped polo shirt and the nerdish thick-framed glasses.  It hadn’t been that long ago that he’d helped sway the outcome of my fight against Mannequin, putting his life on the line to help take down a monster that even some top-tier capes had been scared of.

I’d asked Charlotte to find someone who could serve as my second in command.  I considered it serendipitous that she’d nominated him.

“Any urgent issues?” I asked.  She shook her head.  I let myself relax a touch and gestured toward the new girl, “Who’s this?”

Charlotte looked guilty.  “She’s an extra set of hands.  Don’t worry.  Forrest and I blindfolded her while bringing her here.  I didn’t think I’d be able to manage looking after the kids all by myself, and I was ok with paying her.”

“I can cover that cost,” I said.  “No trouble on that front?  Taking care of the kids?”

“We’re just about ready to go,” she said.  “Kids are washed, fed and clothed, lunches nearly finished.  They have their bags…”

“Good,” I said, “The school bus is arriving soon.  Can you spare a minute to fill me in?”

“I can’t even remember all of the stuff that’s been going on.  I’m kind of frazzled.”

I felt a pang of sympathy.  This was the cost of me staying with my dad.  “The pertinent points only, then.  Who or what is the ‘Eric’?”

“Forrest can explain.  Some thugs were causing trouble for some people living further north.  Your guys caught them.”

“The mess in the alley?”

“The garbage trucks couldn’t get down the road.  Shale avenue is still in rough shape, and nobody told the residents they shouldn’t put their trash on the sidewalk there.  It’s piled up and it’s hot, so it’s smelling.”

“I’ll resolve it.”  Wasn’t so long ago this whole city stank, and people weren’t complaining this much then.  “The lunch supplies?”

“One of the pallets of vegetables you ordered was in bad shape.  Past ripe.  I’d planned to have something done last night that Forrest could warm up for people’s lunches today, but I couldn’t work with what I had, and I thought you’d want something better than a thin soup.  Then I was occupied looking after the kids and forgot.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You’ve done an excellent job.  Better than I could have hoped.  I’ll figure something out for lunch.  Maybe reach out to a local business.  What’s a food most people would enjoy, which we haven’t had available for a good while?”

“Pizza!” one boy in Charlotte’s herd of children piped up.

“Pizza it is,” I said.  “With luck, there’s someone trying to get set up somewhere in the north end.  We can order a batch for everyone that’s working here, then another batch for tonight, for the kids?  If they’re good in school and they do their homework.”

The children almost crowed, and one literally jumped with glee.

“Forrest,” I said.  “Can you see them off to the bus stop?  I need to have a word with Charlotte.”

Wordless, Forrest stood straight, gathered up the paper bag lunches in two hands and then approached the kids.  Like magnets, two kids gravitated to his legs and clung to him, and he walked stiff-legged to the front door with them hanging on him and the rest trailing after him like my bugs trailed after me.

My bugs kicked into motion, blocking the line of sight to the door.  No use giving Charlotte’s friend a view of the street outside and a clue about our location.  She made a small frightened sound and backed away.

Did Charlotte honestly bring in someone who’s afraid of bugs?

I glanced at the two girls.  Charlotte’s eyebrows were knitted in concern.  Her friend, by contrast, looked terrified: her fingers were knotted together, her eyes wide.

“Jessie’s still wetting the bed, I see,” I noted.  My bugs could feel the damp on one of the bunk beds in one of the other rooms.  Something mundane, so we don’t frighten the new girl further.

Charlotte’s eyes widened.  “Shit!  I was so busy trying to get things organized-”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “I’ll handle it.”

“You shouldn’t have to,” she said, “Fern-”

“That’s the other thing I wanted to mention.  Your friend-” I glanced at the girl.  She didn’t look any less spooked.  Why did Charlotte bring her here if she’s going to be so afraid?  “Did Tattletale vet her?”

“It was a spur of the moment thing.  I know it was sorta dumb, but-”

“I don’t want to be hard on you,” I said, “But this is something I’m going to be strict about.  Someone comes here, they have to be vetted first.”

“I’ll be more careful.”

“Please.  And are you sure there isn’t anything I can do to thank you for your help?”

“You’re paying me more than enough.”

“Let me know if anything comes to mind.  In the meantime, pizza and some candy for the kids tonight?”

“It’s tough, going back to school, trying to get back to something even resembling a normal routine.  They’d appreciate it, I think.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t mention the candy.  Let it be a surprise.  I think the bus is coming, so you should head to the stop.”

“Blindfold on, Fern,” Charlotte said.

A minute later, they were gone.

I sighed and set to tidying up.  Bugs carted away the unused paper bags and scraps of lettuce.

And everyone’s off to school, I thought.

I felt a pang of regret.  A part of me wanted to go, to prove to myself that I’d grown past it, to have another normal thing in my life, like breakfast with my dad.

At the same time, there were so many reasons not to.  My face having been exposed in a roundabout fashion, the presence of the Wards somewhere in that school, the time it took away from other things that needed doing…

Better to keep out of it.

Forrest returned.  “Want to see ’em?”

I nodded, and we ventured out into my territory.

All around us, the Boardwalk and what had been the shadier parts of the Docks were coming together.  New streets, new sidewalks, new buildings.  There were more people out and about than there had been just ten or fifteen minutes ago, and everyone present was getting ready to work or even starting early.  Building something as a community.

Conversations died as I approached, power tools were turned off, and heads turned.

My bugs followed behind me like the trail of a fancy gown, rising from my shoulders and hair like pitch black sparks from a fire.  Image.  I’d done what I could to earn the loyalty of my people.  I’d tried to be even-handed, tried to be generous, but image and attitude was a big part in keeping that loyalty.

I was put in mind of my dad’s thoughts on a parent’s authority.  Was this so different?

“The attackers were leftovers from the Chosen,” Forrest explained.  “I’m not even sure they were full members.”

“Is the family okay?”

“They’re okay.  Scared, they lost a few possessions, but nothing really valuable.”

“The little things matter most when you have the least,” I said.

“Profound.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, and I couldn’t see his face without glancing over my shoulder, so I didn’t say anything..

The cells were hidden in one building, much like my base was.  A few of the O’Dalys were lingering at the front.  They stood at attention as I approached.  The closest thing I had to foot soldiers.

A Japanese couple stood nearby as well.  The man had a bandage across his nose, blood crusted around his nostrils.  Bruises stood out on both of them.

I walked past them to step inside, and looked at my prisoners.  Three thugs, no younger than fifteen, nor older than twenty-five.  They wore so much face paint I couldn’t make a good guess beyond that.

My soldiers and the couple had followed me inside.

“You came for revenge?” I asked.

“N-no,” the man said.  “I came to ask for leniency.”

“Fuck you, faggy ass fagass!” one of the people in the cell shouted.

“For them?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“They hurt you.”

“Out of ignorance,” he said.

You’re ignorant, assfaggot!”

“My wife and I consider ourselves good Christians,” the man said.  “He would want us to show mercy, to turn the other cheek.”

“Why don’t you spread those cheeks and get fucked, faggot!?”

“Quiet,” I said.  A handful of bugs flowed into the cell, the boy opened his mouth to retort and choked on a fly.  To the man, I said, “You’re tying my hands here.  I can’t let them leave unscathed.  It would send the wrong message, and that would do everyone in this territory a disservice.  You, me, them, everyone else.  People need to know they’re safe, especially after everything that’s happened.”

“The police can take care of them.  Call it a citizen’s arrest.  We won’t mention your name.”

“And if they go free?  If the police decide there’s not enough evidence, or the officers are too busy to give your case their full attention, and these three get to go on and hurt others?”

“If that’s the cost of having a system that otherwise works.”

I glanced at the three thugs, and my bugs flowed over them.  Silk was threaded in strategic locations, and bugs deposited where they wouldn’t be able to reach.

“Open the cells,” I said.

I could see the fear on the faces of the couple as they backed away.  Forrest pulled the switch, bidding the three iron-barred doors along the hallway to slide open.

One of the thugs glared sullenly at me, but he was smart enough to not mouth off.

“There’s a small police office nearby,” I said.  “You three can head down Shale avenue, stop one block short of Lord street, and turn left.  It’s a tent, and there’s two officers and a police car there.  They’ll take you into custody.”

“Right.  We’ll totally turn ourselves in,” a second guy said.

“Do I need to repeat the directions?”

“Nah,” the first one smiled.

“Go,” I said.  My bugs cut the silk threads binding them to the bars.  If they’d lunged or tried to attack us, they would have fallen short, possibly choking or tripping.

“Seriously?” Forrest asked.

“Cool shit,” the lead thug commented.  He gave Forrest the finger as he headed to the door.  Forrest moved as if he was going to hit the punk, and the thug flinched, but there was no follow through.

They bolted the second they were out of sight of the O’Dalys who were stationed at the front of my miniature jail.

I commanded the bugs I’d planted on the three thugs to bite, then gestured for the contingent of people around me to follow me.

All three boys were still lying on the ground, writhing, when we arrived.  One was screaming as though he’d been jabbed with a hot poker.  Another was arching his back, as though his ribcage was trying to force its way free.

“What did you do?”  Forrest asked, in mixed horror and awe.

The third thug’s screaming joined his friend’s.

“Bullet ants,” I said.  “Their bites top the scale in terms of sheer pain caused.  People have compared their bites to being shot.  Thus the name.”

The thug was still screaming, albeit with less volume and more intermittent whimpers.

“It’s also known as the twenty-four hour ant,” I added.

“Why?”

“That’s how long the pain lasts.  Get up,” I ordered them.  “Now, or you get bitten again.”

It took them a second, but they were making a halfhearted effort, and I didn’t follow through on my threat.  They stood, one of them hunched over, two moaning audibly.  They glared at me.

“You brought that on yourselves,” I said.  “This is your second chance.  Get yourselves to the police station and turn yourselves in.  This time, I’ll have them bite each of you periodically to hurry you along.”

“What the fucking-”

He broke off mid-sentence as he screamed and fell to the ground, thrashing.

“If you think of doing anything but admitting your full crime to the police officer right then and there, I’ll try figuring out how many times those ants can bite you before they run out of venom.  Now go.  Run.”

Two of them ran, stumbling as they twitched and flinched at the continuing pain, while the third crawled.  I had an ant bite the mouthiest one when he was only a few paces away, to hurry them along.

I turned to the others.  The Japanese-American man was staring at me.

“You should go to the police too,” I said.  “Give your side of the story, let them take photos.”

“I will,” he said, his tone curt.  He turned to leave, then paused.  “I asked you to be lenient.”

How can I even explain?  I’ve seen the worst of the worst.  I want to protect each and every one of you from it.  The system won’t stop them, not all on its own.

But if I explained, they would argue, and every counter-argument would make me look weaker, damage my image and hurt people’s confidence in me.  There were people who would be happy with a firm hand being used to deter criminals, there were others who wouldn’t be happy, but they’d accept it as the price that came with everything else I had to offer.

I didn’t like it, but I’d do it.

He was still staring at me, his question lingering.  I asked you to be lenient.

“I was,” was all I said.

I returned to my lair, and took the time to strip out of my costume.  It stuck to my skin as I pulled it off.

I’d need to design something lighter for the warmer months.  More porous, while still offering protection, maybe a paler color, if I could manage it and still have it blend into the swarm…

The major tasks were done.  I’d called Lisa, and through her I’d gotten caught up on all the other essential details about what was happening around the city.  She and Grue had a meeting with an Ambassador – not the leader of the Ambassadors, which I was thankful for.  I would have wanted to be present for a meeting that volatile.  As it was, I could hope that Grue was in a good enough headspace to keep Tattletale on course.

I’d contacted everyone necessary to clear garbage out of the alley, to order pizzas for lunch and to order more food in to make up for the bad batch of vegetables.  I’d shown my face as Skitter and now a swarm-clone lingered on a rooftop, standing in plain view of the people on the street, overlooking a construction in progress.  ‘Skitter’ would appear here and there over the course of the day, just to reassure others she was here.

Which she was.  I was.

I stripped out of the rest of the costume.  I laid out a grungier change of clothes.

I hadn’t been lying to my dad when I said I’d work.  I’d put in the hours, work alongside the other members of my territory.  It was easier to do my share and be working here on a legitimate basis, even part-time, than to try to sustain the lie.

Before I started, I had only one minor chore.  I headed downstairs and I pulled Jessie’s mattress off the bunk bed, dragging it into an open space so I could clean it.  The mattresses were thin, and would dry after a day in this heat.  The humidity was a problem, but I could put it in direct sunlight.

My phone buzzed, still in the utility compartment upstairs.  My bugs brought it to me.

Charlotte:
I met someone in class.  I think it could be big Eric?

Big trouble?  I contemplated sending a reply, but the next text wasn’t far behind.

Charlotte:
says hes an old classmate of urs.  asking where u are.  loud insistent intense.  wouldnt believe that u werent at school.  sounds like he might want to talk to you.

I didn’t miss the distinction.  ‘u’ meant Taylor.  ‘you’ was Skitter.  If this person was careless enough that Charlotte had caught on… Fuck.

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Interlude 19 (Donation Bonus #2)

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♦  Topic:  What the Fuck Happened?
In:  Boards ►
News ► Events ►America
Bagrat
(Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (The Guy in the Know)
Posted on June 22nd, 2011:

I admit it.  I’m a cape geek.  You know it.  I know it.  I’m the cape geek the OTHER cape geeks go to for the crusty, juicy details on what’s happening and where.  Look at my badges^.  I’m the guy in the know, and everyone on the News boards knows me.

Except I’m not in the know.  I’ve been calling in every contact I know, some CAPES, even.  I’ve been watching four different news channels and scouring the internet, and I’m CLUELESS.

Someone clue me in?  I’m desperate.  What the hell happened in Brockton Bay?

EDIT:  Board rules say I’m supposed to contribute something if I’m starting a thread, so here’s what I do know.  Someone help fill in the blanks:

•  June 18th:  Mayor Christner of Brockton Bay flies to Washington.  Makes argument against evacuation.  Surprises more than a few people.  At the same time, multiple Dragon suits are reported in the city.

•  June 19th:  Explosion at Brockton Bay town hall, after supervillain Coil attempts coup and tinker equipment misfires in the ensuing skirmish.  Christner and Director Emily Piggot hospitalized and sent to ICU.  Thirty or more people reported dead, including Coil and subordinates Über, Leet and Circus, and a number of field reporters.

•  June 20th:  Massive deployment to Brockton Bay.  Unspecified class A threat.  Cape wives on the boards confirm: something’s up.
Two hours later:  Threat level upgraded to class S.  All Protectorate capes who subscribed to the emergency response measure and accompanying pay increase now forced to get over to Brockton Bay and help.  Legend and Alexandria are among them.
We have a report (see link) from White Fairy, one of three more notable board members on the ground in Brockton Bay, who says they started establishing quarantine procedures around the site of the battle.

Cape wives on the boards report calls from their husbands and wives saying they’re ok by about noon.  A few casualties, Myrddin among them.  No report on what happened and who the cape was on the opposing side.

•  June 21st:  Almost a day later, capes start filtering home.  Still no reports.
Brocktonite03 (second of the three excellent people on the ground that are giving us reports) travels all the way out of town to get his hands on a working computer.  Reports Shatterbird attack and apparent quarantine procedures in the middle of an empty lot downtown.  White tent and beginning construction around it.

And then nothing.  Help me out!

(Showing page 242 of 243)

►  Ekul (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
The theory makes sense.  Huge clean up involving a hundred plus bodies, portal to another world, it would be something that they’d want to keep from the public, and you could even call it Class S if that world had capes of its own.  Which they’d have to, if they wanted to kill Myrddin.  Were we at war with another Earth on June 20th?

AverageAlexandros (Cape husband)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Does that fit the Class S scenario?  If nobody can answer I can ask my wife if she’ll let me look through her regulations handbook.

Lolitup
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Class S includs situations where threat can produce more threats which can produce more etc.  In scenario with a whole alt world of capes on par with our own they could have powers like that.  Sitch got upgraded to S after the first showed up?
(Posted from phone, sry)

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Scary [censored].  Imagine if they had their own Endbriners or Alexandria.

Robby
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Two things:
1)  You don’t need to censor yourself.
2)  Doesn’t fit with what we know of alternate Earths. Breakdown of Haywire’s research says we can’t get to alt. Earths that are too close to our own.  Closest Earth to our own is Aleph, and deviation from that world started 30 years ago, the moment Scion arrived.  Anyone over 30 was born in both worlds, anyone under 30 wasn’t, or the odds are almost impossible (same sperm, same egg, same time of conception required to have the same kid, and that’s ignoring all the environmental influences during the pregnancy, and everything post-pregnancy that shapes the personality.)

► TheGnat
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But Alexandria is over 30, isn’t she?  It’s not impossible they’d have a version of her.

Robby
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
With powers?  Improbable.
I doubt this alternate world we’re talking about is exactly as far away as Earth Aleph, anyways.  I’d assume the point of deviation occurred more than thirty years ago, which lowers the chances even more.
In brief:  I doubt we have to worry about Endbringers and an evil Triumvirate.  This isn’t the movies, and evil alternates are so overdone.

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I censored myself because I don’t want an infraction and a ban for swearing.

Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Void Cowboy: they don’t give out infractions for swearing.
@ Everyone else:  I get that it makes sense on a lot of levels, but nothing’s confirmed.  Any other theories?

TRJ
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I’m going to get called a tinfoil hat, but what about that thing where the guy was talking about posts with the word C*auldron getting screened if they weren’t censored?

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 5241, 242, 243

♦  Private message from GstringGirl:

GstringGirl:  i started to play it. i’m not good with the controls.
XxVoid_CowboyxX: Takes practice.  You gotta at least play through the individual template packages.  that lets you unlock the skills and takes the skill cap off for the individual traits.  Then you can build your own class and play in the Hero League with me.  I can show you the ropes and help you figure it out.
GstringGirl:  i have it figured out.  i read the forums and watch videos.  i understand all that stuff. its the controls i struggle with.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:  Practice, practice practice!
GstringGirl:  i have a 33 percent win rate.  makes it so slow to unlock everything.  i liked that other game more.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:  Don’t even mention that game to me.  I’m still mad about it.
GstringGirl: sry. and i have to go now.  my parents want me off the computer. sister wants a turn.
XxVoid_CowboyxX:   Sorry I didn’t reply.  Was in game.  Guess you already went to bed.  Listen, I’ll be traveling this summer with my family.  Could swing your way, if you wanted to meet up.  Grab coffee?
GstringGirl *New Message*:  Oh.  Wow.  My parents are really strict, so I don’t think I’ll be able to.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  You haven’t replied, so I sent you a text.  I can’t receive texts back, so PM me, plz.

♦  Topic:  The Ground Zero Badge
In:  Boards ►
Places ► America ►Brockton Bay ►Ground Zero (Private Board)
White Fairy
(Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Posted on June 31st, 2011:

I’m getting kind of fed up with this.  I talked about it with Alathea and Judge (the two original Brockton Bay board moderators) and Bagrat (major guy in the news section).  We got special dispensation to issue Brockton Bay Refugee and Ground Zero badges.  The goals were:
•  It automatically give more weight to those of us who know more about what’s going on in Brockton Bay, either because of our familiarity with the local capes or because we’re there.
•  It’s a way to get aid to people in trouble.  This was essential early on.  Someone’s low on food or needs medical attention, the fact that they have a badge and that the badge is (presumably) validated means we can take a cry for help as something serious rather than a hoax.  (And for the record, I don’t think a temporary ban is enough for the scumbags who faked cries for help – in the early days, traveling across the city to deliver supplies was life threatening)
•  It furthers the interests of Parahumans Online, to disseminate information and allow network among people in the right positions.  The badges let people know who can be contacted for more information or people we can coordinate with for certain tasks.  Case in point: Bagrat contacts Brocktonite03 about the incident a week and a half ago, Brocktonite03 goes and finds the quarantine tent and construction.  I can then contact Brocktonite03 and we organize a way to take turns visiting the construction site and then report progress to the boards, with picture progress so you guys can speculate or offer your own expertise.
•  Filters access for getting onto the private board, so people in the prior two situations can manage

But there’s certain individuals who aren’t using the system as it’s meant to be used.  People got the badges with the loose verification system that existed in the early stages (and the mess of new moderators that came on board to manage the board), and they’re using them for status or to put incorrect information or outright lies out there.  Alathea and Judge said they’re willing to do a ban from this sub-board (and all related boards) if details can’t be confirmed with further validation.  I’m talking to moderators of the main boards about maybe banning them from the site altogether.

So we’re proposing further validation…
•  A photo of yourself at any construction in progress or recent piece of paperwork (flier, shelter pamphlet, whatever), with the date and your username prominently displayed.  Doesn’t have to show your face, a photo of a hand with the details written on it, with the quarantine building in the background is perfect.
•  I will meet you.  Time and place of your choosing, though I’d prefer to meet you halfway if you’re a ways away from the Towers, and I won’t go into any of the danger zones.  If you need supplies, I have access to batteries, supply kits, gas and a car, and I will deliver it to you when we meet.  I might have luxury goods, but you’ll have to pay for those.

There’s a limited time window here, because the city’s slowly coming together, and people are moving back in.
Edit:  Now that people are moving back in, we’ll start banning people who weren’t able to verify.  If you contact us and can explain why you weren’t able to verify, that’s ok (stay in hospital, no connection/power where you were at).  We’d like to meet you in person or see where you were staying for verification that you were in the city during the time of crisis.

We’re going down the list.  The unconfirmed will be banned when verification stops being possible.

Confirmed:
•  Chilldrizzle – Met in person.  Delivered some fresh water and dog food.
•  Morgan Sinister – Met in person.  Brought chocolate, chocolate was paid for.
•  Lo A Quest – Met in person.  Talked for a few minutes, parted ways.
•  Char – Met in person.  Had the best meal I’ve had in weeks on the Boardwalk.
•  bothad – Photo verification
•  Laser Augment – Photo verification

Banned:
•  Aku-42 – Attempted to photoshop verification using an image Brocktonite03 already uploaded.
•  Whackograve – Admitted lie.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but we use systems like this for a reason.  It can mean life or death, even.

(Showing page 4 of 4)

►  White Fairy (Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@Void_Cowboy: you’re exactly the type I was talking about.  Where do I even begin?
Your posting hours on the site suggest you’ve got something occupying your time from early in the day to evening.  Like maybe school?  Except there’s no school in Brockton Bay yet (soon).  You state your location as the north end of Brockton Bay, profess to have a generator and satellite internet.  Ok, not unheard of.  Except you’ve apparently got enoguh gas stockpiled to keep the generator going 24/7 and, oh yeah, you’re in Bitch’s territory!  Bitch would maim or kill you for being in her territory, let alone making the kind of racket a generator does.

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I have a quality generator that doesn’t make much noise.

Laser Augment (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But no phone or camera to take a picture of yourself in the city?

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I have a camera, but I don’t feel comfortable leaving the house.  That’s the sort of thing that gets me killed by mutant dogs.

Laser Augment (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
You do know that Bitch left the north end a while ago?  How would you even miss the fact that you haven’t heard howling in the last while?  If you’re not leaving the house, why don’t you take a picture of yourself by this high end generator of yours?  Because it doesn’t exist.
You fuckers make me sick, like you can pretend to be all cool by being one of the survivors, who stuck it out through the Endbringer attack, the Nine and the gang wars.  But you left.  Your mommy and daddy took you out of town, and you’re pretending you stuck it out, that you’re here when you’re not, all for a stupid internet badge and a peek at the private board.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4

♦  Topic:  Legend Leaves the Protectorate
In:  Boards ►
Teams ► Protectorate
Brilliger (Original Poster) (Moderator: Protectorate Main)
Posted on June 26th:

Word’s out, and we’re waiting for the Protectorate to give a statement before we get further details.  Legend is stepping down, citing family reasons.  He’s already on record saying that he intends to offer his aid in crisis events, but will no longer be leading the Protectorate.  His successor has not yet been named.

(Showing page 1173 of 1180)

► XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
@ Lainerb
It should totally be Eidolon.

Valkyr (Wiki Warrior)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Lainerb
They haven’t picked a successor yet because it’s a little more complicated than picking the strongest hero.  They need someone who works on a number of levels, as a leader (both in terms of day to day paperwork and management and in the field), an ambassador (there’s no less than 30 teams around the world that work with the Protectorate to some degree), a powerhouse (can’t be weak or you won’t be respected) and from a marketing standpoint.

Coyote-C
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Cowboy
Can’t be Eidolon.  He’s strong, but he’s not a leader.  There’s a ton of references to people meeting him at conventions or cape wives meeting him at functions.  I won’t say he’s an asshole, though some have said he rubbed them the wrong way, but people definitely don’t walk away from meeting him with that universal “Oh my god he’s so nice!” reaction that they have with Legend.

Mock Moniker
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Not to mention that there’s rumors Alexandria or Eidolon might step down.  There’s a lot of animosity being directed at them from certain groups.  Look at this link and this one.  The monsters in the Protectorate have almost all left.  Only one who stayed, I think, are Hunch and Polish.  I’ve been thinking it’s another Bastion incident.  Someone higher-up says something racist or offensive, the Protectorate pulls strings to try and cover it up, but offended people are still offended.  Run off to make their own team.

Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I don’t know whether to be sad about it or not.  Weld’s awesome, and it’s great he gets to run his own team, but I was hoping he’d become a big figure in the Protectorate.  Why be a big fish in a small pond when you could be a big fish in a big pond?

Nod
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
We don’t know how big the Irregulars are going to get.

►  Chrome
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
But they’re never going to be the Protectorate big.

Weld (Verified Cape) (Irregulars)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I dunno, I’m optimistic. 😉
For the record, I harbor no animosity toward the Protectorate.  We’re still attached, and we’re receiving equipment, funding and contacts through them.  They were very respectful as a whole, but we got a chance to interact a few weeks ago, and we collectively agreed that while the Protectorate’s plan to build a rapport between us Case-53s (as the Protectorate terms us) and the public was sound (making me leader of the Brockton Bay Wards, for example), it was too slow, and we could do more as a group.

Answer Key
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Weld:
I have questions:
1 – How much did they pay you guys to keep quiet and play nice?
2 – I notice you said you don’t have issues with the protectorate ‘as a whole’.  You’re not denying there’s issues with one or two prominent members?
3 – What the hell happened on the 20th?
4 – How is making you leader of the wards in Brockton Bay a good thing?
@ everyone else:
Question – just wondering.  Who’s been leading the Protectorate since Legend left?

►  Whitecollar (Cape Wife)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
@ Answer Key – Tinfoil hats ahoy.  I can answer that last question, though.  Or my hubby can.  He says the Protectorate is currently being run by a joint team atm.  Chevalier, Alexandria and Prism are each handling different tasks.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 1172, 1173, 1174 … 1180

♦  Topic:  The Endbringers, Thread XXXIV
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Lasersmile
(Original Poster)
Posted on June 28th, 2011:

Starting a new topic because the last one hit post limit.
The Simurgh attacked Canberra, Australia on February 24th, 2011.  Thread here.
The Leviathan attacked Brockton Bay, America on May 15th, 2011.  Thread here.
Estimated time for next attack is August 30th, 2011.  This time is not exact, and is likely to deviate by as much as 15 days.
Official speculation points to Eastern Europe as the next likely target.

(Showing page 23 of 25)

►  Miss Mercury (Protectorate Employee)
Replied on July 5th, 2011:
Speaking for someone in the thick of it all, I don’t think that there’s any expectation or assumption that recent events (losing Legend, losing Myrddin, several members leaving) will change the outcome of the next attack.  The Protectorate and immediately related teams only make up 25-50% of the defending side when outside of North America, and North America isn’t a likely target.  There’s been no policy changes or anything of the sort in the Protectorate that point to that degree of pessmism
-☿

►  Space Zombie
Replied on July 5th, 2011:
I’m more inclined to think the PRT is making a mistake than to think they’re on the ball.

My money’s on a big-ass clusterfuck.  This is the first time since Behemoth first showed that we haven’t had all our ducks in a row.  May’s Leviathan attack had the lowest casualty rate we’ve ever had, but I think the next one’s going to hurt us bad.

►  Chaosfaith 
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
My cousins are traveling through Europe this year.  All the analysts say the odds are worse there.  Should I try convincing them to delay the trip to Greece?

I think I’m even spooked about there being an attack where I’m at (London, UK).  If I wanted to visit somewhere during the crisis point, would anyone have any recommendations?

►  XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
O_o  Definitely tell them to skip Greece.  I’ve seen an attack for myself and its worse than you think it would be.

I don’t know where you could run to be safe, though.  Alaska?

►  SenorEel
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Can’t let the Endbringers dictate your life.  Live it as you can, know where the nearest shelter is, and keep a well stocked supply closet.

►  ArchmageEin
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
If you wanted to go anywhere, and I agree with SeniorEel that you shouldn’t go just because you’re scared, apparently Brockton Bay is putting itself back together.  The Endbringers never attack the same place twice in a row, so it’s oddly the safest place to be, and it might help you to see the city for yourself.  The stories are/were bad, and scary stuff happened, but they made it.  They’re still there.  You might find that reassuring?

►  Tumbles
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
That’s if you don’t mind being in a city where supervillains run the scene.

Xyloloup (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Copy pasting from one of my posts in another thread.  Current state of the villains in Brockton Bay:
•  Skitter – Boardwalk/North end.  Five stars, almost no crime, free food, work if you want it.  Water and power both.  Heard from a friend that stayed there for a while that he ran into some trouble, his place got raided, stuff taken.  Mentioned it to someone in passing, and the next day it’s all returned, with some cash (two hundred dollars) and a note apologizing for the trouble, assuring him the matter was dealt with.  He left after that, which I don’t get (free money).  Said he was creeped out.
•  Parian – Not a villain, but apparently struck a deal for a slice of territory at the very upper end of the city.  Not great, not bad.  Good spot to stay if you want a clear conscience and don’t mind that the water and power aren’t always on (80% of the time?) and shelters are a bit crowded.  Four and a half stars.
•  Grue – Western end of the city, from the docks to the lake downtown.  Almost a nonentity, but he’s apparently dealt with some people who tried to set up shop.  Pick where you stay carefully, cuz there’s areas with power and water, areas without, and it doesn’t change much day to day.  Three stars.
•  Imp – Southernmost end of the city.  Shopping district, some of downtown.  There’s a few dregs trying to set up shop with the no-name villain calling it her territory, and a few fights as a result (doesn’t help that the big guns like Skitter are further away.)  I’d stay away from here because of that alone.
•  Regent – Eastern end of downtown.  Kind of a shantytown, area got hit hardest by the waves, shelter water and power nearly nonexistent, but the places that you can get are nice and very expensive.  Some violence bleeding over from Imp’s territory.  Nothing here unless you’re rich and want to live like a king among serfs.

Procto the Unfortunate Tinker (Not a tinker)
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
And Tattletale?  Bitch?

Sothoth
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
Sorry to continue derailing thread, but Bitch apparently has a slice of the more remote areas, where you don’t find many people living.  Captain’s hill, the woods/hills, the beaches at the south that haven’t been cleaned up yet.  Her gang’s growing though, or so I hear.  Tattletale’s not a fighter so it makes sense that she’s more a behind the scenes person than one of the local warlords.  I think what Xylopop was saying was that the town’s not so dangerous.  Probably more peaceful than it was at the start of the year, if you stay out of the very southernmost areas (and maybe the north – I heard there’s a few upstarts from New York and Boston trying to get a foothold there in Parian’s area) and turn around if you hear a lot of barking.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 523, 24, 25

♦  Topic:  Hypothetically, if I wanted to become a henchman…
In:  Boards ► Places ► America ►Brockton Bay ► Teams ► Undersiders
WagTheDog
(Original Poster) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Posted on July 1st, 2011:

Been a fan of Bitch/Hellhound/Rachel Lindt since the start.  Always loved dogs.  Always loved badasses.

She’s both, and now she’s one of the villains running the city?  So coooool!  If I wanted to become a henchman/henchwoman/henchperson (hypothetically) how would I do it?
(Showing page 1 of 1)

►  Char (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 1st, 2011:
Sent you a private message.

►  Good Ship Morpheus
Replied on July 2nd, 2011:
Yeah, I might be too late to say anything, but I wanted to warn you to be careful.  Really, the reality could be different from the ideal you’ve built up in your head.

►  WagTheDog (Original Poster)
Replied on July 3rd, 2011:
Omg.
It’s all good.
Harder than I thought but all good.

XxVoid_CowboyxX
Replied on July 6th, 2011:
I came through a link on the main board.  Is this real life?  Can’t you get arrested or banned doing something like this?

Laotsunn (Kyushu Survivor)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Better arrested or banned than dead.  I’d say death is the thing to worry about here.

WagTheDog (Original Poster)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
All good, my man.  All good.

End of Page.  1

♦  Private Messages from GstringGirl:

(Two new messages not included, click here to see)
GstringGirl *New Message*:
  my phone broke so i’m messaging you here. you have to understand its not what you think.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  i just wanted to hang out and play space opera. you were the one who approached me so don’t jump straight to the conclusion that I’m a “middle aged pervert trying to get into your pants”.
GstringGirl *New Message*:  theres a reason i cant send a photo but i don’t want to have to explain,.,  cant we just go back to the way things were?
GstringGirl *New Message*: 😦

♦  Topic:  Who’d you lose?
In:  Boards ►
Places ► America ►Brockton Bay Discussion (Public Board)
Brocktonite03
(Original Poster) (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Posted on May 29th, 2011:

See topic.  Friends?  Family?
On topic posts only, please.  No commentary.  Nc= no condolences via. private message.

(Showing page 17 of 17)

Mac’s Dual Rocket Propelled Grenades (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th:
Nobody close to me died, but I still did lose quite a few people.  My best friend moved away.  My other friend joined the Merchants because an artificial high was better than being lucid and uncertain.  Come to think of it, he might have died in that massacre at the Towers.  My parents were separated, but they still lived in the same city before.  My mom wants to move back, but my dad’s gone to Florida and I don’t know how much I’ll see him.
Nc.

►  Reave (Verified PRT Agent) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 6th:
My coworker and squad captain.  Went to school together, dropped out together, joined the PRT as grunt forces.  S9 got him, and as glad as I am he died fast, given what might have happened, doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone.  Loved him more than I love my wife, in a way.
Nc.

►  XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
My aunt and uncle.  They were attacked by Chosen, dragged out of their homes and beaten.  My uncle fought back and smashed this one guy in the nose, and wrestled a gun from his hand, but got punched in the throat and dropped the gun.  He fought back some more, but eventually got knocked to the ground and shot.  I wasn’t there, but I heard he went down like a hero.

►  White Fairy (Veteran Member) (At Ground Zero: Brockton bay)
Replied on July 6th:
My boyfriend.  He was in a shelter Leviathan attacked.  Only about half of us made it.  One of the heroes bailed us out.  Distracted the Endbringer and led him away.  Nc.
@Void_Cowboy: How do you know the story if you weren’t there?

XxVoid_CowboyxX (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 6th:
Leave me alone!
User received an infraction for this post: all posts must be related to the topic question.

Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE)
Replied on July 7th:
Gallant.  Aegis.  Battery.  Armsmaster.  Dauntless.  Velocity.  Glory Girl.  Browbeat.  One family member. I can’t say who for obv. reasons.
Nc plz.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 516, 17

♦  Topic:  Skitter
In:  Boards ► Places ► America ►Brockton Bay Discussion (Public Board)
Miraclemic (Original Poster) (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Posted on June 11th, 2011:

The reason arachnophobes don’t want to live in Brockton Bay.  Her discussion thread.

(Showing page 30 of 30)

  Mr. Fabuu (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
I’m not saying she’s right…  I’m saying she saved my life.  I get woken up by bugs.  Writing on the wall.  I go climb in the tub and *BAM*.  Glassplosion.

►  WhedonRipperFan
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
This conversation’s going nowhere.  She’s bad.  But she fought an Endbringer!  But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s bad.  But she saved lives!  But that doesn’t change the fact that she’s bad.  But she keeps the peace!
Aside:  Anyone else find it really funny that we’re talking about Skitter being powerful like we used to talk about Kaiser and Lung?  If you’d told me the gawky bug girl was going to be one of the scariest motherfuckers in town, I wouldn’t have believed you.

XxVoid_CowboyxX
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
I wouldn’t have either.

Bruce Lao (Brockton Bay Refugee)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Easy to be one of the scariest people around if you’re one of the only people around.  It’s a question of surviving, and the Undersiders are the types who can get away from trouble, so they outlast the opposition.  How many capes are even left, now?

► Nondeceptive (At Ground Zero: Brockton Bay)
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
Makes you wonder what she’s like in real life.  Who’s the woman behind the mask (assuming woman from height)?  What’s her day job?

Antigone
Replied on July 7th, 2011:
She lives in the North end (apparently, first sighting, current location), slightly-above average height woman.  Slender.  Personality?  No idea.  What do we even know of her personality?

Greg stopped scrolling down the page.  The computer screen glowed in his dimly lit bedroom.

“A woman of above average height… or a tall teenager,” he mumbled to himself.  “North end, lives in the area.  Personality… vicious, smart, tough, a little unhinged?”

The image clicked.  A girl he’d had classes with, what felt like ages ago.  Taylor Hebert.

He’d thought maybe he had a shot with her, once.  Only she’d brushed him off.  It had bugged him more than it should have.  Why couldn’t it be like it was in the movies and on TV?  Why couldn’t the geeks band together?

He thought briefly of GstringGirl, felt a pang of disappointment and a momentary digust.  She’d refused the offer to meet up, then had turned down his request for a picture, or a webcam chat.  The conclusion had been obvious.  A creep.  A liar.

The name should have been a giveaway, but he’d held on to a shred of hope that there really was a girl out there more into gaming, coding and finding cool stuff on the web than on being ‘cool’ and going out on Friday nights.

Was Taylor a creep of an entirely different sort?  A degenerate villain?  An upstanding villain?  He could visualize her, sitting in class, tense with anger and frustration, the lines of her face hard as she bottled up a million little indignities and more than a few big ones.  It wasn’t that hard to imagine.  Was Taylor Skitter?

If he’d figured it out, others would too.  Or they would soon enough.  Her parents – did they know?  They had to.  How could they not?  Others.  Who else might have paid enough attention to Taylor to guess?  The girls who had been bullying her?  Maybe, maybe not.  Now that he’d thought about it, it was impossible to shake the idea.  But the bullies maybe didn’t know the real her, didn’t see the person.

There was no way people wouldn’t start connecting the dots.  Not with the eyes of the whole city, the whole country on her.  Leader of a villain organization that had claimed a town and driven out all comers.  Ruthless, standing up against Endbringers and the Slaughterhouse Nine.

He wheeled his computer chair away from the desk.  His eyes fixed on the bulletin board to his left.  A poster for Ransack took up half of it, and other scraps of paper took up more space.  A checklist of unlocks to get for the game, the ad for the computer class he was taking, and in a space all on its own, an information sheet.  The remaining summer months would feature special arrangements for classes, to make up for the weeks of classes students had missed in the wake of the Endbringer attack.

The eighth of July.  Tomorrow.

Did she plan to go?  Was she aware of how much attention people were paying to her?

He could imagine himself in her shoes and could almost guess.  To actually have some confidence, after having none for so long?  To have a second chance?

In her shoes, he’d do it in a heartbeat.

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

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Monarch 16.7

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Living in a city meant dealing with some recurring issues.  Crime, having to lock the doors, congestion on the roads, crowds getting in the way on footpaths; stuff we dealt with so often that we considered it routine.  We considered it background noise or we managed without even thinking about it.  Construction work was something we couldn’t dismiss so readily, something that always seemed to elicit groans and complaints.  Maybe because it was so blatant, so grating, and it changed in tone, location and degree often enough that we couldn’t adjust.

Not today.

No, I felt a level of satisfaction and security as the bulldozers and piledrivers went to work in my territory.  For every car on the road, there were ten trucks carrying debris out and five trucks bringing materials in.

A lot of that would be Coil’s doing, I knew.  There was construction and clearing going on throughout my territory and building inspectors were checking blocks, all despite the warnings that were going around regarding big, bad, unpredictable Skitter, and that would be because he greased palms or the construction companies at work were his.

Damn it, I felt restless.  I wanted to go to Coil’s territory and discuss Dinah, and I might have, if Trickster hadn’t been the first to speak up and declare he was going to confront Coil.  I suspected that Coil wouldn’t release Dinah this soon, and if he was under too much pressure to hear Trickster out, he certainly wouldn’t listen to me.  If he did have something to offer Trickster, he wouldn’t welcome my distraction.  I had to wait.  I hated it, but I recognized it as the sensible route.

Trickster’s focus was on Noelle, though, and nothing I’d seen indicated that Coil had made any advances on that front.  All I knew, really, was what Tattletale had told me and the little things that had come up in our brief discussion with the Travelers about our strategy.  She’d been a girl, maybe not in the best of health.

It was possible Trickster had been trying to save Noelle in the same way I was trying to save Dinah.  The circumstances were different, obviously: Coil was the best answer the Travelers had to Noelle’s situation, but he was the cause of Dinah’s.

Still, it made me think.

I was officially hands-off in my territory.  I wasn’t going to deviate from orders now and risk upsetting Coil.  That meant no costume, no showing my face, no intervention in the management of things.

Which turned my thoughts to Sierra.  As far as my ability to sense things with my swarm went, Sierra was easier to identify than many.  Her dreads gave her a distinct profile.

I couldn’t find her.

could find Charlotte.  That wasn’t a problem; she was in the company of the kids, half a block away, giving each kid two six-packs of plastic water bottles to ferry out to the various work sites.

“You’ve been lying there since I woke up, eyes half-open, staring off into space.”

I blinked hard, then rubbed my eyes.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”

I looked at Brian.  He was pulling himself up to a sitting position, the covers over his lap.  I glanced over his upper body.  None of the battle wounds I’d seen him sustain in the past were there anymore.  The scars from the shallow cuts Cricket had carved into his chest were gone, as were the defensive wounds and old scars on his hands and arms.  He was in perfect shape, physically.  Physically.

But I’d sort of explored enough to discover that last night.  It hadn’t been a perfect night, not even excellent, but it had been nice.  Considering all of the other humiliating or awkward possibilities, I was happy to take nice.

Thinking about it made me self conscious.  I pulled the sheets up to my collarbone.  “You sleep any?”

“Some.  Woke up in the middle of the night, I made some noise.  I’m surprised I didn’t wake you.”

I frowned.  “You should have.”

He shook his head.  “You were exhausted.  Once I saw you there, it helped me to realize where I was, dismiss them for the dreams they were.  Took me a bit to relax, but it wasn’t bad.  Being here.”

Hated that, that he was struggling like that and I couldn’t help fix it.

“Do you need to talk to someone?  A psychiatrist?”

I could see him flinch at that, his entire upper body stiffening in some kind of knee jerk resistance.

I waited, not pushing.

He sighed, and I watched that battle-readiness slowly seep from him, the tension leaving him.  Up to a point.  “Don’t we all?”

“Probably.  But you’re the one I’m worried about.”

“I’ll figure this out myself.  Have to do this myself, or I feel like it won’t count, it won’t really be a fix.”

I didn’t like that response, but it was a hard one to argue with.

“I won’t pester you about it.  But can you at least tell me that if this goes on for any length of time, you’ll go get help?”

“It’ll get better.  Has to.  I feel like I’ve taken strides forward, forcing myself to let down my guard, to be here with you.”

I tensed, “Forcing yourself?”

“That’s not what I mean.  I mean, you know.  I… I can’t relax.  Can’t stay still, can’t stop watching over my shoulder or make my brain stop replaying scenes in my head.  Except I can, if I’m active, if I’m doing something like we were against those Dragon suits, or if I’m with you, and I’m lying here in your bed, trying not to wake you up.  Then I know I can’t get worked up, it gives me these boundaries I can force myself to work inside.”

My eyebrows drew together in concern.  “It sounds like it’s causing you more stress in the long run.”

“No,” he said.  He reached out and used both of his hands to seize mine.  He squeezed.  “Come on, no.  Is that really what you want to talk about right now?”

“I’d love to talk about other stuff,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I was telling the truth.  Things were more awkward in the light of day.  Only seconds ago, I had prodded a sore spot for him by raising the idea of psychiatric help.  Offended him.  If I didn’t clear my head and get centered, I wasn’t sure I trusted my ability to avoid another misstep.

“But?”

“But I made plans with my dad.  It’s…”  I paused, closing my eyes, “Nine-twenty-eight.  I figure I need to shower and get dressed, which might take an hour, eat, do a quick walk around my territory in civilian clothes, then head over.  I want to spend time with you, but after the intensity of the past little while, taking things slow this morning feels like a nice idea.”

“How do you know the time?”

“Bugs on clock hands,” I said, pointing toward my bathroom.

“Ah.  You want company?”

My eyes widened a little.  “In the bathroom?”

He grinned.  “For breakfast.  And the walk-around, if you want.  I could learn stuff.  We’re liable to lose track of time if we share a shower.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Please, we’ll have breakfast, walk.”

I climbed out of bed, tugging one of the sheets free of the bed so I had something to wrap around myself as I made my way to the bathroom.

With my bugs, I could sense Brian getting out of bed shortly after I’d abandoned the sheet, climbed into the shower and pulled the makeshift shower curtain into position.  He made his way downstairs and began putting breakfast together.  He set two plates down, and then said something to the empty room.

I still had the scene in mind a little while later, as I ventured downstairs.  I was dressed now, a tank top, jeans and sweatshirt around my waist, my hair towel dried but still damp.  “Were you talking to me?”

“I was saying it probably isn’t very hygienic to have houseflies landing on dinner plates.”

Ok, so he wasn’t going crazy.

“They landed on the edge, and they’re mine.  From the terrariums upstairs.  They’re in as sterile an environment as you’ll get.”

“Okay.  Just saying.”

“I can’t hear you through my bugs, by the way.  It’s not the first time you’ve done that.”

“Right.  Wasn’t sure, because Tattletale said you were working on it.”

I shook my head, “No progress.”

“And I’m getting used to talking to empty rooms.  Sometimes catch Aisha off guard.  Breakfast?  Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on.  Didn’t want to fill it while you were in the shower.”

“Thank you.”

Through some unspoken agreement, we didn’t talk about ‘work’.  We didn’t discuss Coil, Dinah, the Travelers, Dragon or the Nine.  Instead, our discussions turned to favorite movies and shows, my favorite books and memories from our childhoods.  Shows we’d watched and nearly forgotten, moments from school.

Emma came up a lot, as I thought back on it.  My parents too.  The three of them had been the focus of my world, with everything else taking a distant second place.  Emma had turned on me, my mom had left me, and my dad… I had to admit I’d left him.

I didn’t raise any of the heavier stuff, but I mentioned that Emma had turned out to be one of the bullies that plagued me throughout my stay in high school.

Brian, in turn, talked about his life growing up.  That did touch on the heavier stuff, and as much as I liked learning a bit more about the details of his life, I was glad when we detoured into a discussion of martial arts.  As he explained it, he was more interested in the broader strokes and philosophy of a given style than on the particulars.  Once he had a sense of how a given adherent of the style might approach a fight and enough basic techniques to see how they put it into practice, he tended to lose interest.

All around us, I could see people hard at work.  My people were deferring to any legitimate construction crew that set to work, shifting their focus to nearby areas.  I could see people moving supplies out of a nearby building so the crews could bulldoze it, others helping to unload a truck of building supplies.  When I got back to this and started to give orders, I’d have to find work for them that wouldn’t put them in the way.  I couldn’t quite track how many people were working for me in my territory, but it was far more than before.

I felt like I should be losing people each time I got pulled into a fight against a major threat.  I had, when Mannequin and Burnscar had attacked, but I’d walked away from the first Mannequin fight with something of a following, and I’d expected to see my people leaving in droves after Dragon made her move.  Except it wasn’t happening, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Our walk took us on a circuit, with us turning back to my lair, and I left to go back to my dad’s while Brian headed back to my place to use the shower.

I felt weird about that.  Parting ways so casually after spending the night together.  Oddly enough, I felt weird about letting him in my lair while I wasn’t there.  He’d be passing through my room, seeing my stuff.  I knew it was paradoxical to be bashful, covering myself with a sheet and feeling guarded about my privacy, all things considered, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt that way.  I wouldn’t refuse to let him use my bathroom because of it, but yeah.

In a way, we’d sort of done everything backward.  We’d started with the long-running partnership.  With the ‘family’, if I wanted to think about managing the others in that sense. In the course of that, we’d been through hell and back, we’d backed each other up, helped each other.  All hurdles one might face in a marriage.  Then there were the more recent cases of actually talking about the relationship happening, there was last night, then the more casual date and getting to know each other better this morning.  If it wasn’t a hundred percent backwards, it was at least pretty jumbled up.

Or maybe I was looking at it in an immature way, expecting some simplistic, formulaic, storybook notion of how a relationship was supposed to proceed.

I made my way to my dad’s, thinking about a thousand things at once, not wanting to think about anything in particular.

There were cars parked out front.  There was a strange car in the garage with the door open, two others in the driveway, my dad’s at the end.  With a few stray houseflies, I casually noted a dozen people inside the house.  My dad was there, too.

I immediately thought of Coil.  Had he divined what I had planned today?  Planned some counterattack?

I’d foregone my costume, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to use it in a pinch, and I’d removed my knife holster from the costume and had it clipped to the back of my waistband, so it was in the midst of the folds, blanketed by various wasps and spiders.  The setup might have been awkward for anyone else, but spending the past few weeks and months while using my bugs to help guide my hand left me fairly confident that I could slip my hand through the folds and draw it at a moment’s notice if I had to.

Then a man opened the door.  I let myself relax.

“No shit,” he said.  “Taylor?”

“Hi, Kurt,” I greeted my dad’s coworker and longtime friend.

“Been a long time.  Barely recognize you, kid.”

I shrugged.  “How’re you doing?”

He cracked a wide grin.  “Working.  Getting by.  Better than we were doing.  Now, you coming inside or are you going to stand in the driveway for the next five minutes?”

I followed him into the house.

My dad was in the living room, surrounded by familiar faces.  People I’d seen around when I’d gone to his workplace or when they’d dropped by the house.  I could only put a name to the people who my dad called friends: Kurt, Kurt’s wife Lacey, and Alexander.  Even Lacey was burlier than my dad, with a build like Rachel’s, muscle added onto that.  The other three were familiar, but I didn’t know them well.  My dad and myself excepted, every person in the house had spent their lives doing manual labor.  Just looking at him, he looked like the odd one out in every way, in clothes and body type and demeanor, but he was relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen in years, surrounded by friends with a beer in hand.

My dad saw me, mouthed the word ‘sorry’.

Kurt saw it.  “Don’t blame your old man.  Alexander brought a truckload of beer in from out of town, we got to drinking.  We thought we’d include Danny, drag him along, invited ourselves.  Didn’t know he had plans.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  Nobody that could be a threat, none of Coil’s people.  I let myself relax.  What had I been thinking?  That he’d strongarm my dad?

“Heya Taylor,” Lacey said.  “Haven’t seen you since the funeral.”

Nearly two years after the fact, it still hit me like a punch in the gut.

“Hell, Lacey,” Kurt said.  “Give the girl a second to get used to having people in her house before you drop that on her.”

I glanced at my dad, elbows on his knees, a 24 ounce beer clasped in both hands.  He’d lowered his head to stare at the can.  He didn’t look devastated, or even unhappy.  It hadn’t caught him off guard like it had hit me.  Knowing these guys, I could guess it came up with enough regularity that he was used to it.

“Ah, baby,” Lacey said.  She raised a beer in my direction.  “Just a little drunk.  Wanted to say, your mom was good peoples.  She hasn’t been forgotten.  Sorry if that came out a little direct.”

“S’okay,” I replied.  I shifted my feet restlessly.  I’d never felt more a stranger in my own house.  Didn’t know where to go, where I wouldn’t be drawing attention, have people asking me questions.  It was hard enough with my dad and I having this distance between us, but there were other people in the equation now.

Kurt spoke up, “We’re leaving in a few minutes.  It’s hard to get around, so they’re scheduling events together so we don’t need to make two trips.  The last debate is this afternoon, then mayoral vote right after.  You catch the debate the other night?”

I shook my head.  “Didn’t even know it happened.”

“Well, if that’s any indication, this one’s bound to be a pisser.  So we’re drinking to mellow out.  And I’d feel a hell of a lot better if your dad had more than the one beer, so he can relax some and hold back from choking one of the smarmy bastards.”

“Not about to do that,” my dad said.

“Wish you could.  But it wouldn’t be worth it in the end if you wound up in jail and left that daughter of yours alone.  It’s all good.  We’ll go in stinking of beer, offer some drunken commentary from the sidelines, punctuated by a few off-color words,” Kurt smiled.

“Please don’t,” my dad said.  He hadn’t raised his eyes from the beer in his hands, but he was smiling, too.

“You want to sit and let ’em say what sounds good for them?”  Kurt asked.

“I was thinking it’d be better to ask the hard questions, if we get a chance.  A big part of the crowd’s going to be people from the north end.  Good few of them are going to be from the Docks.  So why don’t we ask him what’s happening with the ferry?”

“He’s going to brush it off,” Lacey said, “Not in the budget, with everything that’s going on.”

“Then that’s a good time for some booing and drunken swearing,” my dad answered, smiling.

Kurt busted out a laugh.  “You want to start a riot, Danny?”

“No.  But might sway the undecideds to see just how unimpressed we are with the man.”

Everyone’s unimpressed with Mayor Christner,” Alexander spoke up.  He was a younger guy, heavily tattooed, with thick eyebrows that gave him a perpetual glower.  Every time I saw him, he had his hair cut in a wild style.  Today he had the left one-third of his head shaved, showing off a fresh tattoo of an old-school pinup girl in a bikini with her elbow appearing to rest on his ear.

“Disaster does that.” I spoke up.  “We want someone to blame, and the guy in charge makes for an easy target.”

“He’s a deserving target,” Kurt said, seating himself on the arm of the chair Lacey was in.  She wrapped one arm around his waist.  He went on, “There was this thing in Washington.  Talking about whether they should throw walls up around the edge of the city, blockade the streets and shut off services, get everyone out of here.”

“He said no, right?”

“He said no.  Asshole.  Probably earns more money this way.  Take a few million for restoring and helping the city, help himself to a percentage.”

That surprised me.  “You’re not happy the city was saved from being condemned?  Did you want to be kicked out of the city?  To leave your home?”

“It’d suck, but the way they were talking about it in the paper, there’s a big fund that’s set aside for covering the damages those Endbringer motherfuckers cause.  Idea was that they’d dip into those funds, give everyone that they ousted a bit to cover the cost of their homes.”

“There’s no way that’s doable,” I said.  “What about everyone who left when they were told to evacuate?”

“Don’t know,” Kurt said.  “I’m just saying what the papers did.”

I felt an ugly feeling in my gut.  “And they’d give us what the houses used to be worth?”

“They’d give us what the houses might be worth now,” he said.

“So not much.”

“It’s more than they’ll be worth a few years down the line, after the rot sets in and any mold problems get worse.  Getting expensive to get supplies into the city, which means it’ll be costly to fix things up and renovate.  Not necessarily worth it.”

“I saw construction crews at work.”

Kurt downed a swig of his beer and cleared his throat, “Sure.  The companies that are buying up all the materials, purchasing land on the cheap, all in the hopes that this city gets its act together and the land turns out to be worth something.”

“It could.”

Come on,” he made the words a groan, “We’re under the tyranny of supervillains.  Heroes don’t have what it takes.  Used to be they were outnumbered but they were trying, making a difference in little ways.  Now they’re outnumbered and losing.  What’s the point?”

“Just a hypothetical question,” I said, “But isn’t it better to be in a city that works, where villains rule the streets, instead of a failed city with the same villains in a less prominent position?”

Lacey groaned a little, “Sweetie, had a few too many to wrap my head around the question.”

“Might be time to stop then, Lacey,” my dad said.  Turning to me, he said, “I suppose you’re asking the classic question, Taylor.  Would you rather be a slave in heaven or a free man in hell?”

“Free man in hell,” Kurt responded.  “Fuck.  You think I’d be doing what I do, living here, if I was willing to make nice, suck up to the guys in charge and do what I was told?”

Some of the others were nodding, Lacey and Alexander included.

I looked at my dad.

“What’s your answer, Danny?”  Kurt asked.

“I’d rather not be a slave or in hell,” my dad responded.  “But sometimes I worry I’m both.  Maybe we don’t get the choice?”

“You’re the most depressing asshole of a friend I’ve got,” Kurt said, but he said it with a smile.

“Why are you asking, Taylor?”  Lacey asked.

I shrugged.  How much could I say without giving them cause for suspicion?  “Saw some of the stuff going on in the shelters.  Some sick people, unhappy people.  It was a long while before anything started getting better, and as I understand it, it was the villains who made the first move in getting things fixed up.”

“For their own benefit.  You can’t rule a hole in the ground,” Alexander said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Or maybe bad people can do good for the sake of doing good, at least once in a while.  They’re taking charge, they’re keeping things more or less quiet and peaceful.  It’s better than what we had.”

“The problem with that,” my dad said, “Is that we’d be setting humanity back by about three thousand years if we let that happen.  It’d be falling back into an iron age mindset and leadership.  The people with the numbers and the weaponry lay claim to an area through sheer military strength.  They stay in charge as long as they can through family lines, merging families with whoever else has the military strength.  That lasts until the family in power peters out or someone smarter, stronger or better armed comes in to seize control.  Might not sound so bad, until you figure that sooner or later, the person who gets control is going to be someone like Kaiser.”

“Kaiser’s dead,” Kurt said.

“Yeah?” my dad raised an eyebrow.  “Okay, but I was speaking in general terms.  Could just as easily be Lung or Jack Slash, instead of the relatively benign villains that are in charge right now.  Again, I stress, it’s just a matter of time.”

Just a matter of time until we lose -I lose- and someone else claims Brockton bay for themselves, I thought.

“What would you rather have happen?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said.  “But I don’t think complacency’s the answer.”

“Last debate,” Kurt said, “People kept bringing up the capes, moderator kept shutting them down, telling them that they were supposed to be talking economy and education.  Today we’ll hear some talk on the crooks running the city.  Hear what the candidates have to say on the subject.”

“We should go soon,” Lacey said.  “If we want to get a seat instead of standing around at the sides.”

My dad looked up at me, “Can I get you any food, Taylor?  I promised you something.”

“I’m alright.  Had a late breakfast.  Maybe when we get back?”

“I’d offer you a drink,” Kurt said, chuckling, “But that’d be against the law.  How old are you, anyways?”

“Fifteen,” I said.

“Sixteen.”

I turned to look at my dad.

“It’s the nineteenth,” he said.  “Your birthday was a week ago.”

“Oh.”  I’d been a little distracted at the time.  A week ago, that would have been around the time we were wrapping up our confrontation with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Lovely.

“That’s the saddest goddamn thing I ever heard,” Kurt said, getting off the chair’s armrest and helping Lacey to her feet.  “Girl missing her birthday like that.  I’m guessing you don’t have your license, then, huh?”

“No.”

“Damn.  Was hoping you’d be our designated driver so your dad could have another.”

“I’ve only had half a tallboy,” my dad said, shaking his can lightly to let us hear the contents sloshing against the sides.  “And we’ll be driving slow on these streets anyways.  Who’s driving the other car?”

Alexander raised his hand.  He only had a glass of water.

“Then we’re off.  Out of my house,” he said.  I could see him wincing in pain as he used the chair’s back to help himself to a standing position, but he recovered.  He started shooing the burly dockworkers out the door.  “Go.  Into the cars.”

We began to file out.  Kurt and Lacey climbed into the back seat of my dad’s car.  The others got into Alexander’s truck.

“Should you be drinking with the kidney damage?” I asked, as the doors shut.  “You had trouble standing.”

“I got cleared yesterday.  I’m back on a regular diet.  Any hurt is just the muscle and the stitches.  Thanks for worrying about me.”

“Of course I’m going to worry about you,” I said, frowning.

“You have changed,” my dad commented, resting his elbows on the roof of the car.

“Hm?”

“Wasn’t so long ago that you would have walked into that situation and clammed up.”

“Feels like that was a year ago.”

“Anyways, I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’d hoped this would be just you and me, having a chance to catch up.  They invited themselves.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad that you’ve got friends like that.”

“They’re a bit overbearing,” my dad said.

“The window’s open a crack,” Kurt said, from inside the car.  “We can hear you.”

“They’re overbearing,” my dad repeated himself, raising his voice a notch.  At a normal volume, he finished by saying, “But they’re alright.”

Smiling a little, I climbed into the passenger seat.

“Hey, Taylor?” Lacey asked.  Her voice was overly gentle, and for a moment I thought she was going to mention my mom again.  I winced a little.

“What?”  I turned around in my seat, as much as I was able with my seatbelt on.

“Just wanted to say thanks.  For the warning.  You told your dad that Shatterbird was around, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“He told us.  We were careful.  I don’t know if it saved our lives or not, but thanks for watching out for him, and helping us out as collater- collar-”

“You’re welcome,” I said, before she could fumble over her words any further.

was glad he was in touch with them.  From what I’d seen, I’d been left with worries that my dad was all on his lonesome.  Introverted people like him, like us, were best paired with  the Kurts of the world.  Or the Lisas.  People that wouldn’t be ignored or shrugged off, people who pushed the boundaries, so to speak, and drew us out of our shells.

I enjoyed the drive as we made our way downtown, more than I thought I would.  My dad and Kurt knew each other well enough that their dialogue flowed easily, and the same went for Lacey and Kurt, what with the pair being married.  I had a feeling that, by the end, Kurt was feeling like he’d wound up on the short end of both exchanges.

The town hall had survived the waves.  The stone building had crenelations and an American flag over the door.  We joined the trail of people who were filing in, walking past stands with the posters and images of the candidates, booklets of brochures about the issues and stands with newspapers from neighboring cities.  My dad and Kurt grabbed a few papers each and put them into the plastic bags that had been made available to us.  It was a nice thought, putting those out.  There wasn’t any TV at present and we had to keep abreast of what was going on somehow.

The signs led us past the old historical courthouse and to the auditorium.  We’d expected the seats to be filled, leaving us only with standing room, but the opposite was true.  The back of the auditorium and the rear rows were filled with reporters and camera crews, and the rest of the crowd had filled in random spaces on the benches.  Five or six hundred people.  Somehow less than I’d thought.

It was an odd election, in a way.  The city had been without working computers for a week and a half, most had lost their cell phones, and were left without landlines.  An election without media for advertisement.  For many here, this would be the first and last time they heard a candidate’s stances on the issues before voting.  Was this how it had been in the past?  When poorer households hadn’t gotten newspapers and there hadn’t been televisions or radios?

I looked at the candidates.  A dark haired woman in a dark blue suit, a blond man, and the older incumbent, Mayor Christner.  How many others in this auditorium were aware?  Some time ago, Coil had told us that two of the candidates for office had been bought.  Mayor Christner… well, I could remember standing in his backyard, him pointing a gun at me, pleading for me to step in and save his son’s life.

Would the debate turn to the subject of him arguing against the condemnation of the city, and if it did, how would Christner justify the decision he’d made?

I was caught between an ugly feeling of guilt and genuine curiosity in how the event would play out.  Mostly guilt, but I couldn’t do anything about that.  I’d done what had to be done.

On the curiosity side of things, I wondered momentarily if either of Coil’s mayoral candidates had military backgrounds or if he’d hand-picked his politicians the same way he selected his elite soldiers.

That train of thought ground to a halt as something caught my attention.

It was habit, now, to have my bugs sweeping over my surroundings, giving me a perpetual sense of what was going on in the surrounding three or four city blocks.  When the vans found parking spots around the building, it didn’t even warrant a conscious thought.  When the soldiers began filing out of the vans, it startled me.  Men and women with machine guns and body armor.  Not PRT.

No.  Definitely not PRT.

The armored limousine pulled into the middle of the street, just outside the front doors.  By the time Coil climbed out of the vehicle, his soldiers were either just past the doors on either side of the building or standing at the ready to accompany him by the front.

Coil, here?  It didn’t make sense.  He wasn’t the type to show himself.  It didn’t fit how he operated.  Hell, if the mayor was here, his son would be too.  Triumph would be in the crowd.

I glanced at my dad, and he squeezed my hand, “Not too bored?”

I shook my head, trying to keep my expression placid as my mind raced.

Coil was making his play right here, right now.

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