Monarch 16.6

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“We should throw a party,” Imp said.  “Celebrate.  Rub it in a little.”

“Rub it in?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  Party in the streets, maybe some fireworks.  Show the heroes that we know we won and we’re doing fine.”

There were a few chuckles from the others.  Regent and the Travelers, primarily.

“In what way is that even close to being a sensible idea?”  Grue asked.

“I didn’t say it was sensible.  But it’s fun, and that’s why we got into this, right?”

“No.  No it isn’t.  It was maybe a side-bonus when I joined the group, if anything, but things have changed since then.  I warned you this would be hard work, that it wouldn’t be fun and games.  And throwing a party to celebrate a win is a monumentally bad idea when we don’t even want the heroes to know we consider this victory anything out of the ordinary.”

“It is out of the ordinary.  We’re not giving anything away if we’re celebrating scaring off Dragon.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Regent chimed in.  Grue turned his way, and I could imagine the death glare that was behind his mask.  Probably scarier than the mask itself.

“Maybe you’re right,” Grue said, “Maybe, I won’t say you’re absolutely right there-”

“Of course not,” Imp said, sighing.

“-But we definitely don’t need to rub it in the heroes’ noses.  Not if it means they have both an excuse and motivation to try this again, sooner.”

“If you’re afraid of that, we’ll never be able to celebrate a win.”

“I’m okay with that,” Grue said.

“Do we get to chime in?” Trickster asked.  “Because I’m siding with the Imp, here.  Morale could become pretty important if we’re going to be building up individual gangs and collections of henchmen.”

Grue sighed.  “Feeling outnumbered here.  Skitter?”

“What?”  I blinked.  “Sorry, not keeping track of the conversation.”

“She’s out of it.  Tattletale broke Skitter when she said we won,” Regent said.

“I’m… I’m alright.  Lost in thought”

Grue settled a hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t read his expression with his mask in the way.

I sighed and confessed, “I’m… I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Isn’t that what happens?  The second things start to go right, the next disaster strikes?  Empire Eighty-Eight, Leviathan, The Nine, Dragon…”

“That’s a pretty defeatist way of thinking,” Trickster commented.  “Didn’t Tattletale basically say that there’s nobody left to cause us any problems?”

“There’s always something,” I said.  “I’d rather anticipate it and be ready.”

“Look at it this way,” Genesis spoke.  She was in a human-ish form, not unlike her real self, though she was wheelchair-free.  “If it’s more dangerous than Leviathan, the Nine or the Dragon suits, there’s no way we can make some plan to deal with them until they make the first move.  If they’re less dangerous, we can deal.  Relax.  We’re in good shape.”

I shrugged.

“Sooo,” Imp drew out the word, “Party?”

“No,” Grue and I spoke at the same time.  Imp groaned.

“Coil told us to check on our territories.  We should do that,” I said.  “Take your costumes off, take it easy.  I’m going to see if the food and drink I’d arranged to go to people in my territory is still okay, and make sure that they get fed and don’t have cause to lynch me.  Then I’m probably going to sleep for twelve straight hours.”

“Wait, didn’t you just say no party?” Imp asked.

“It’s not a party.  It’s something I was doing before the Dragon suits came.”

“Do the heroes know that?”

“Dragon could confirm it,” I said.  “She disrupted the preparations.”

“Dunno, that sounds pretty flimsy,” Imp said, sounding way too pleased with herself, “Maybe you better cancel, just to be safe.”

“Imp,” Grue growled the word.

Imp laughed, “I’ll go patrol our territory.  I’ll be using my power, so no worries about being seen in costume.”

“Coil said we shouldn’t go out in costume at all,” I said.  “I thought that part of the message was pretty clear.”

“Fine,” Imp said.  “Whatever.  If I’m not supposed to do anything, I’m going back to our place, gonna to kick back and catch up on some shitty reality shows.”

“No TV,” Grue said.

“Nuh uh.  No way.  If you two want to play hardass mom and dad and be controlling assholes, okay.  But you can’t tell me I can’t watch T.V.”

“I mean you won’t get any channels.  There’s no cable, no digital connection and no satellite.  Only static.”

Imp groaned, an agonized sound one might expect from someone who had just been speared through the gut.

What did it say about me that my metaphors were tending towards that kind of violent imagery?

“Why don’t you come by?” Regent asked her, “Play video games?  I’ve got shows on DVD.  No shitty reality shows, but stuff.”

I looked Grue’s way to gauge his reaction to Imp and Regent hanging out, only for our eyes to meet, so to speak.  We were thinking the same thing.

“I don’t think-” Grue started to speak.

Imp wheeled on him, jabbing a finger in his direction, “Enough!  You don’t dictate how I live my life!”

“No fighting, please,” Sundancer said, from the sidelines, “We’ve been through too much already.”

Grue stepped forward, raising one hand, but Imp didn’t give him a chance to touch her, backing away, swinging one hand through the air, as if to swat his hand away if he tried.  “You’ve said enough!  You don’t want me to celebrate my first legit win where I was actually fucking useful?  Fine!  Don’t want me to go on patrol?  Fine!  I’ll accept that shit because I’ll take orders from the guy who actually pays me.  But if you’re going to whine because I want to play video games with a teammate, I’m not going to stand here and listen to it!  Deal!”

“If you’d just-” Grue started.  He stopped and sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say something,” he said, turning around.  “But I can’t remember what.”

We experienced a moment where the conversation died, where nobody was sure what to say next, and nobody was able to tie things back to the prior conversation to resume an earlier topic.

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Trickster said, finally.  “Good work.  Skitter’s right.  Let’s go retreat, tend to any wounds, and we’ll take a breather.”

There were nods and murmurs of assent from everyone present, myself included.

More to his team than the rest of us, Trickster said, “I’m located closest to Coil, so I’m stopping by, going to check on Noelle, see if Tattletale needs help setting our captive Director free, and then I’ll talk to Coil about his progress with our issues.”

“Don’t get on his case,” Genesis said.  “Whatever his plan is, he’s under a lot of pressure right now.  I’d rather wait another few days and then talk about it with him than push it now and risk upsetting him.”

“The difference between us,” Trickster said, terse, “is I’m not willing to wait.”

With that said, he tipped his hat at me and walked away.  He wasn’t three paces out the door before he found something to swap with, leaving a mailbox at the mall’s edge.  The rest of the Travelers began to file off.

“I’ll be off too,” Regent said.  He offered me a sloppy mock-salute, “Good work, chief.”

I winced at that.  I hadn’t wanted to raise the subject of me taking over as leader for the previous confrontation.  I glanced at Grue and found him looking at me.

“Can we talk?” he asked.  Thanks, Regent.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We did make plans.”

“You’re dating?”  Bitch asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Grue said.

“But you’re dating.”

“Yeah,” he admitted.  Bitch looked at me to double check and I nodded.

“Hm.”  She somehow conveyed smugness with the monosyllablic response.

“You want to come?” I asked her.  “Hang out?”

“Nah.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “You’re welcome to spend some time with us, kick back, watch something, eat some good food?”

“Being around people’s too tiring.  Warm night like this, nice weather, figure I’ll go play with my dogs.  Make sure they aren’t too hurt, throw a few balls for ’em in the moonlight, eat when I want to eat, sleep when I feel like sleeping, not having to worry about getting in anyone’s way.”

“You wouldn’t be getting in the way,” I assured her.

“It’s all good.  I’m happiest doing this.”

“Well, stay in touch.  If you feel like some company, come by again?”

She shrugged and turned to leave, Bentley to her right and Bastard to her left.  With every step Bentley was taking, he was getting larger.  When she was nearly out of sight, Bentley was big enough for her to climb on top of.

Leaving Grue and me standing in the mall.

“I’d almost think you didn’t want to spend time alone with me,” he commented.

He was looking at me.  I felt scrutinized, like every movement and every part of me was suddenly under the spotlight, anything I did potentially being read as meaning something.

“No,” I said, very carefully.  Not exactly.  I just didn’t want to hurt him by taking away his role on the team, and I knew it would come up.  I tucked my hair behind the spot where the armor of my mask covered my ear.  “No.  Being alone together is good.”

“Your place?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

My people were active in my territory, but they were busier cleaning up the mess than they were actually getting stuff done.  It was irritating on a lot of levels.  We’d been accomplishing something, and Dragon had interrupted.  We’re in the world on the other side of the looking glass, I thought, where it’s the heroes who get in the way of progress and recovery.

I could understand why Dragon did it.  I wasn’t saying it was her fault, exactly.  Especially if it wasn’t actually her directing the suits.  But it was still irritating.

The silence between us was a tense one.  I wished Bitch had decided to come along.  Not because it would have generated conversation, but because it would have put off the subject of discussing team leadership, and the third wheel would have made for a reason for the quiet.  Was it bad of me to think about using her like that?  Or was it just accepting that she made an uncomfortable silence comfortable by her very nature?

I used my power to scout for any groups of people as we made our way to the beach.  We weren’t supposed to be out in costume, but we didn’t have any great options at this point.  I figured Coil would forgive us this much.  We entered the storm drain and made our way up to my lair.

Charlotte and Sierra looked surprised to see us as I opened the door.  Charlotte had three kids sitting on the couch with her, while Sierra reclined.  She rose to a sitting position.

“What happened?” Sierra asked.  She glanced nervously at Grue.

I saw Charlotte and the kids had plates on their laps.  The pork we’d been cooking earlier in the day.  I headed for the fridge and found a hunk of it wrapped in cling film.  “The PRT didn’t like the fact that we’d claimed control over Brockton Bay, so they sent in seven Dragon suits to root us out.”

“What do you want us to do?” She asked.

“Nothing.  It’s fine.  Stick to business as usual.  I’m glad you managed to get back to the food in time to make sure it finished cooking alright.  Any other problems?”

“We didn’t get a lot of work done,” Charlotte said.

“We weren’t going to anyways,” I said, “That’s fine.  I’m going to grab some food.  Grue, you want any?”

“Yeah.  Please.”

“Seven Dragon suits?” Sierra said.  “If they come back-“

“They’re dealt with,” Grue said.  Was the surprise on Sierra and Charlotte’s faces because of what Grue had said, or was it the way he’d said it with such confidence in his strange, echoey voice?

I set two servings worth of the pork onto one plate and put it in the microwave.  “They may come back, but that’ll be a little while coming.  What I’m worried about is my territory.  Were people upset?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said.  “A few people got shocked by those floating flying saucer things.”

“The drones,” I said.  My heart sank a little.  My promise to protect my people had been broken yet again.

“Yeah.  Drones.  People were pissed.  They were trying to get the drones, catch them in trash cans, but the wings got in the way, so they started using tarps.  They even got hold of a few before the drones started fighting back.”

Grue gave me a look that I couldn’t read.  Stupid masks.

“Anyone seriously hurt?”

Sierra shook her head.

“Ok, good.  Listen, I’m going to be working from the background these next few days.  I won’t be appearing anywhere in costume or overtly using my powers.  Are you okay with keeping things running smoothly?  I’ll be available by phone if you run into any problems.”

“I, um, I don’t know.”

I opened the microwave and withdrew the plate of smoking, herb-rubbed pork.  “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried people are going to recognize me, and it’ll get around to the people I know.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything criminal.  I’m just looking for someone I can trust enough to put in a management role.  Make sure things are cleaned up and that nobody’s slacking off.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t be doing working for a cleanup crew somewhere else in the city.”

“Except I’m doing it for you.  I’m working for a criminal.  Even doing what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t sit right.  No offense.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  I was apparently taking too long to prepare the food, because Grue was edging in to take over the preparation, cutting the meat into two portions and arranging the plates.  How was I supposed to manage this?  “Listen, I’ll take five thousand dollars out of the safe upstairs, sometime late tonight or early tomorrow.”

“It’s not about the money, or the lack of money, or any of that-” she protested.

“I know.  I’m not trying to bribe you.  Not exactly.  I guess, um…” I trailed off.  I was tired, thinking at high intensity for too much of the day.  “Um, I’m trying to say I trust you, and I value the work you put in.  So take that money, then if you know of someone who could do what I’m asking, someone like Charlotte or someone else you think we could trust, give them as much as you think is appropriate.  If there’s any left over, maybe you and Charlotte split it.  Or split an amount between the people who fought the drones, and be sure to tell them that as much as I appreciate them standing up to Dragon, I don’t want them to do anything like that again.”

“You don’t?”

“The last thing I want is people who live in my territory to get hurt for my sake.  And I don’t want you to be inconvenienced either.  Think about what you’ll do with the money tonight.  But don’t overthink it.  It’s a gift, a thank you.”

“I can’t take your money,” Sierra said.

“Then don’t,” I told her, trying to look like I was more focused on the food than anything else.  It wouldn’t do for her to see how much this was gutting me, and I didn’t want her to get guilted into anything.  I grabbed a coke from the fridge.  I gestured with it to Grue, and he nodded.  I grabbed another for him.  I had to swallow and clear my throat before I said, “I hope you’ll stay.  I really do.  But if you’re not comfortable doing what you’re doing, that’s okay too.  You can take a secondary role, or you can leave.  I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t be angry.”

“Okay.”

I looked at Charlotte and the kids, the steaming plate in my hand, a coke in the other, my right foot resting on the bottom stair of the staircase.  I asked Charlotte, “Are you okay with the status quo?”

“Yeah.  But I’m just looking after the little ones, and making sure people get fed.  I’m out of sight, I don’t come off like a second in command or anything.  I- Sierra and I have talked about this, before, her being uncomfortable.  I’m okay because this works for right now, but I understand what she’s saying?”  Her voice quirked with uncertainty as she finished speaking, as if she were asking a question, or asking permission to have that opinion.

“I understand too,” I said, sighing.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been around enough for you to talk to me about this, Sierra.”

“You’ve had bigger things to worry about.”

“And I shouldn’t have forgotten about this stuff while I was doing it.  I’m sorry.  You do what you need to do, decide if there’s any compromises or options you want to ask for.  I think I’ll understand, whatever you do.”

She nodded.

Grue had walked ahead of me and stopped halfway up the stairs.  I followed him, leaving my nanny-cook and reluctant lieutenant behind.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You going to work that out?” Grue asked.  He paused on the second floor.  After a moment’s thought, I tilted my head up toward the next set of stairs.

“Don’t know.  Hope I can keep her.  Wouldn’t have made it this far without her to hold things together when I was away.  If there was something I could do for her, maybe I would.  I dunno.”

We stepped into my bedroom.  I was glad I’d left it more or less tidy, but I had to take a second to hastily make my bed and throw some stray clothes in the hamper.  I moved some folded clothes from a wooden chair and let Grue take the seat.  I grabbed a remote and turned on the TV, only to remember that there wouldn’t be anything to watch.  I left it on the display screen for the DVD player.

Edgy with nervous energy, I took a moment to remove my mask and find a pair of glasses from the bedside table before seating myself on the edge of my mattress, my soda at my feet.

Grue had pulled off his helmet in the meantime to start eating, and I saw his face for the first time since we’d left his apartment for Coil’s.  I could see the dark circles under his eyes, which suggested he probably hadn’t slept well last night.  He wasn’t better, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to be.

Brian swallowed, “I wish I could offer you advice, but Imp and I are at a point where it’d be nice if we had to worry about retaining… what did you call them, way back when?”

“Employees.”

“Right.  If we had to worry about keeping our employees, it’d be good, because it’d mean we actually had some.  I’m not sure how to get underway on that front.  We’re intimidating.”

“I’m intimidating,” I said, admittedly defensive.

“You are.  But I’d say you’re more intimidating as an idea than you are in person.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No.  That’s not bad.  You’re more intimidating overall than I am, and yet you’re more approachable than I am.  I’m tall, I’ve got broad shoulders, I’ve got the mask, I’ve got the mass of darkness rolling off me.  People run when they see me coming for them.”

“My costume isn’t exactly lovey-dovey, either.  I’ve got the bugs crawling on me.  Sure, I’m smaller, narrower, but-“

“The idea of being attacked by you might be spooky, but even if you can hold your own most of the time, people don’t imagine getting in a hand to hand fight with you and feel scared.  It’s your power that’s scary.  Me?  I think people look at me and they can imagine me pounding them into a bloody pulp, or worse.  My power’s inconvenient, it’s spooky, but it’s not the scary thing.”

“You can’t really see your darkness, though.”

He shook his head, “I know where it is, but I don’t really see it.”

“I think you underestimate what it’s like.”

“Maybe.  But my point is that people are more likely to run than stick around and talk when I’m approaching.  You can take your bugs off the table, make it clear they aren’t a threat, and people feel less threatened, they’re willing to hear you out.”

“Maybe.  But if that’s the case, don’t give them a chance to run.”

“What?  Pop out from around a corner, scare the living daylights out of them, then offer them a job?”

“Sure.  Why the hell not?  Or have Imp break into apartments and leave a card.”

“I don’t think that would send the right message.  It’s vaguely threatening.”

You’re vaguely threatening.  If your prospective hires can’t deal with that much, then they probably won’t handle the job all that well, either.  If you can’t find anyone, then maybe I send some of my people your way to help get you started, or you could shell out for some decent mercenaries.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s options.  Don’t stress about it.  Whatever else happens, we have a few days before we decide on the next leg of our plan.  Let’s relax.  Movie?”

“Sure.”

I stood from my bed and began going through the box of DVDs that Coil had supplied with the TV.  Most were still in the tight plastic wrap that they’d been bought in.  I looked through, then handed some to Brian before turning back to the bag to keep browsing.

What the hell were we supposed to watch?  I didn’t want anything that would ruin Brian’s mood or remind him what had happened, so horror was probably out, I was sick of the high intensity stuff, but I couldn’t stand romance or bad comedies.

“Going back to the earlier topic,” Brian said, “The subject of leadership, being in charge…”

I winced.

“You took over today.  Are you wanting that to be a permanent thing?”

I turned around.  “No.  Not permanent.  Just until-” I stopped short.  How to put it?

“Until?”

“When I was getting really obsessive about what I was doing, when I was losing sleep and making mistakes, I deferred control.”

“To Trickster,” Brian said.  I could see a shadow pass over his expression.

“Yeah.  And that’s a bad example because it didn’t work.  It’s just that we both know you’re not getting enough rest.  So maybe I can pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Brian sighed.  He didn’t look any happier.

“I don’t want to make you unhappy,” I said.  “I’m not wanting to oust you, or co-opt your role permanently or completely.  You were the leader, even if we didn’t really establish an official title over it.  But we can divide the duties for the time being.  Tattletale handles the information angle of things, I maybe keep Bitch reined in and handle the spur of the moment calls, while you handle Regent and Imp and all the rest.”

“Which is less than it sounds like, especially when you and Tattletale contribute on ‘the rest’ in little ways.”

“No-” I started, then I sighed.  “Maybe, yeah.  I don’t want to come off as manipulative or anything.  Like I said, I don’t want you to be unhappy, but at the same time I do want the whole team to get by in the meantime.”

“You don’t sound manipulative,” he said.  His fork hit the plate with a clatter.  “Jesus, this sucks.  I know you’re right.  I know this is for the good of the team, and if I could just get over this shit-“

“It’s not that easy.  Don’t do yourself a disservice and expect too much.”

“My whole life, I’ve been bigger than my peers, I’ve been stronger than most.  Spent my time around pretty powerful guys.  Boxers, martial artists, other criminals.  I didn’t have many friends, but they were the people who were around me, you know?  And they were the types to go after you if you show any weakness.”

“You get shot, nobody’s going to call you a wimp.  I don’t see why it’s different if the damage is mental or emotional instead of physical.”

“I know, but you’re not getting it.  I was the type to go after someone if they showed a vulnerability.  Wasn’t until I’d had my powers about a year, Aisha tells me I was being an asshole, just like one of her stepdads used to be.  So I tried to be better, but I always wanted to protect her, always wanted to help others.  Teach you and Alec to fight, step up and take charge when a situation demanded it.  Sometimes when a situation didn’t.”

“Yeah.”

“So it isn’t just about me trying to adjust.  Christ, it’s me having my world turned upside down.  It’s others protecting me, others helping me, others covering me in a fight, others taking charge.  Aisha’s the one fixing things for me.  And you-“

“Me?”

“This thing with Coil.  Don’t think I’m so obsessed with what’s going on with me that I don’t see it.  It’s like a burden’s fallen from your shoulders.  You’ve got concerns, but you’re more relaxed.  You’ve got hope that you didn’t have twelve hours ago, and it’s dramatic enough that your posture’s changing.  Even since we left the mall, it’s like you’re slowly convincing yourself that this is over, Coil’s going to follow through, we’ll move on to taking care of our territories and everything works out in the end.”

I folded my arms.  “I don’t think that.  Like I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You say that, you tell yourself that, but I don’t know that you’re feeling it.  I’m worried you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment, and that you’ll be affected enough that you won’t be able to deal when it happens.  But I’m mostly worried that all that will happen and I won’t be in a position to help because I’m distracted by my own shit.”

“You don’t have to take up all the slack.  We have other teammates.”

“Lisa isn’t exactly a heavy hitter, and let’s not fool ourselves into believing that Alec, Rachel or Aisha are going to offer any meaningful emotional support.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ve managed this far.”

“More or less.  Problem is, ‘managing’ is fine, up until we don’t manage, if that makes any sense.  Then it’s over.”

I sighed.  “How did Genesis put it?  There’s no use in getting worked up over it if we can’t plan around it or do anything to change it.  So we’ll each do our own imperfect jobs of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves, and be as ready as we can for whatever comes up.”

He sighed.

“We’re not perfect.  We’re flawed people, and as much as I want to help you in every way I can, I know I can’t.  I don’t- I’m not good at this.  I don’t know how to act, or what to say.  But I like you.  I care about you.  I’m going to do my best, even if I know it’s not good enough.  And I won’t expect any more of you.”

He nodded, but he looked glum.

“No hard feelings?”

He shook his head.  He didn’t look happy.

“I won’t be leader forever.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Might be better that you keep the job, even if I do bounce back eventually.”

“Except I don’t want the job.”

“That might be why you should take it.  I don’t know.  Can we drop the subject?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Just… heavy topics, with lots of ramifications.  And it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts.  I’d rather talk along the lines of what you said before, about taking care of each other.”

“And taking care of ourselves,” I said.  “Getting enough sleep, eating right.”

“Okay,” he said.  There was a pause.  “I slept well the other night.”

“Then stay over.  There’s nothing pressing coming up, so we’ll watch movies until we fall asleep.”

He smiled a little, and for the first time in a long time there was a glimmer of that expression that had gotten my attention in the first place.

I put three DVDs into the drive so I could use the remote to play the next movie without having to get up, then pulled off the armor panels of my costume before settling into bed.  My back pressed against his chest, and I could feel his breath against my hair.

I felt so self conscious that I could barely keep track of what was going on.  I was thinking every unromantic thought there was: worrying if I had body odor from being in costume and running all day, wondering if I should get up to go to the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to go as desperately as I had the other morning.

I felt his hand on the zipper at the back of my costume, lowering it an inch, then stopping.  A fingertip traced from the ‘v’ where the top of my costume parted, all the way up to the the nape of my neck, then back down.  I could feel his fingers on the zipper, felt every tiny hair on my body standing on end.

A million thoughts raced through my head at once.  All put together, they amounted to a mumbled, “Um.”

There was no response from behind me.  I could hear him breathing, I could feel the warmth of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back.  He was waiting for me to make my decision, and the thing that loomed largest in my mind was the sensation of his fingers on the tiny tag of the zipper, strong, insistent, there.

Any confidence I’d picked up in the past weeks or months fled.  I felt as vulnerable as I had in early April, brought to tears in front of my worst enemies.  Except this… wasn’t wholly negative.  Not entirely: I still felt acutely aware of every vulnerability, I thought of every part of myself that I tried to ignore when I looked in the mirror in the same way I might see my life flash before my eyes before I died.

Again, thinking that way.  Why couldn’t I think in a more romantic way at a moment like this?  Was I broken in my own way?

“Let me get up and turn off the lights?” I asked.

His power blanketed the room.  I could feel the phantom touches of it on against the thin fabric of my costume and my bare face, leaving me blind and deaf as we were plunged into darkness.

As was plunged into darkness; he could see just as well.  This totally wasn’t what I’d wanted.

“That’s not fair,” I murmured.

He placed one hand on the side of my head to get me to turn his way, then pressed his lips against mine.

I didn’t protest any further.

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Monarch 16.1

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Just because I was miserable wasn’t any reason I should inflict that on my followers.

A solid sixty or so people were gathered in a loose circle.  The roads were impassable, so we’d set up in the middle of an intersection, piling concrete blocks onto one another with a metal rack at the midway point.  A hole in the bottom let us feed the fire, and the pots we’d placed inside contained pork shoulders in baths of beer, carrots, onions and garlic cloves.

The smell had drawn people here from across my territory.  The temptation offered by the block of beer, soda and candy that was wrapped in plastic and sitting on a nearby pallet didn’t hurt either.

Charlotte and the group of older kids I’d assigned to keep people from pestering her were handling the food.  Sierra sat on top of the pallet of supplies, making sure that everyone got one beer at a maximum.  I’d assigned two people to guard her, but it was almost unnecessary.  Anyone here was either aware that I would stop them if they tried or they would have friends to warn them.

On another day, I might have made people get back to work.  The pork shoulders would take four or five hours to cook, and I didn’t want to give up a whole day of good weather while people hung around, waiting for the moment things were served.  I left them be.

Coil knew what we were up to, and he’d shut down Tattletale.  Dinah felt out of reach, and my hopes of regaining some connection with my dad had ended less than perfectly.  Not badly, but not as well as I’d hoped.

Hope wasn’t lost on either count, but I felt pretty low.

This, right here, was the one thing that I could feel good about.  My people, my territory, doing something to rebuild.  Maybe I could have cracked the whip, but I’d rather they were happy.  It would do more in the long run, even if it meant less work got done.  They’d be dicking around waiting for the food to finish, and wouldn’t get anything done tonight, after I gave them less restricted access to the beer and wine I’d had Cranston deliver.  Probably less in the morning, too, now that I thought about it.

Which was fine.  Coil had ordered us to expand our territory and deal with threats.  The people in my territory had cleared enough space for people to sleep, to store necessities and tools, enough that if twenty or thirty new people decided to work for me in the next twenty-four hours, I had space for them.  Expanding my control beyond this point would be a staggered process with phases of clearing followed by phases of settling.  There was no point to going the extra mile to clear more space if neither I nor my enemies would be occupying it before his deadline.

He’d specified three days.  We’d taken one to deal with the Chosen, I’d used the next to talk things over with Parian and visit the mayor.  We were officially done tonight or early tomorrow.

My swarm informed me of a visitor.  I stepped away from the pallet that Sierra was sitting on.  It was a bit disconcerting to see how the crowd parted to give me a path.  In my first night out in costume, I’d seen the ABB do it for Lung.  How much of that was respect, and how much was fear?

Maybe they weren’t so distinct when it came to supervillains.

We met in the middle of the street.  Grue was wearing his new costume, complete with mask, and the semiliquid darkness rolled off him to spread out over the ground, hiding much of his body.

I folded my arms.  Speaking quietly enough that the others wouldn’t hear me, I murmured, “Any problems?”

His voice was hollow with the effects of his power, “Just checking in.  I expected a call after your job.  I had to get the update on how you were doing from Tattletale.”

“Sorry.”

“I also heard about what the boss was planning.”

“Going to give me a hard time for going?”

“No.  I don’t like it, but I understand you didn’t have a choice.  Or you did have a choice, but you weren’t about to take option B.”

“Yeah.  Which turned out to be the right choice.  He was playing us, trying to send us a message without rocking the boat.”

“You’ve got a lot of stake in this.  You holding up?”

I should be asking if you’re holding up, I thought.  “I’m dealing.”

“And dealing involves a barbecue?”

I glanced over my shoulder at the crowd that was watching us.  “Building loyalty.”

“You don’t think you’re going over the top?  Being too nice?”

“They’re working hard.”

“That’s all?”

I almost shrugged, but decided to maintain my composure, look confident in front of my people.  I needed a better term for referring to them.  They were sort of employees, but that was vague.  Should I take the same approach Parian did, identify my territory somehow?  The residents of Spiderville?  The Bugwalk?  The Hive?

“No, not all.  I figured I’d go all out, as much for me as for them.  This is the only thing that I’ve got going on that I can really feel good about right now.”

“The only thing?”

I looked up at him.  Oh.

“No, not the only thing, you’re right.  Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing or what we are.  Not like we’re in a position to go out to dinner and a movie.”

My heart was pounding so hard I worried he’d notice.  This would be the moment he’d tell me he was having second thoughts, that it was a mistake, he’d been in a bad place.  Or would he go one step further and accuse me of taking advantage of him, get angry?

“I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said.

“It’s okay, though?  Us?”

“Yeah.  Definitely okay.”

What would my people think if they could overhear?

“I know we can’t exactly go out, but if you’re okay with it, you maybe want to come by tonight?  We’ll let my people celebrate a week of hard work and head into my lair, eat, watch a movie on the couch?”

“Okay.  Not sure if I can get away before dark, if I’m doing a serious check of my territory.  Imp’s doing more than her fair share.”

“It’s fine.  I- I’m not sure how to put it, so I’ll be upfront about this,” I told him.  Which is easier said than done.  It took me a second to organize my thoughts.  “I don’t expect to be priority number one.  We have a job here.  I’m not sure what the boss is planning, or if we’re still going to be doing this a few months from now, or even a week from now.  But I totally get it if the territory comes first.  Or if Imp comes first, or we have a job that interferes with our schedules.  We fit each other into the breaks.”

I caught a glimpse of his arms through the darkness as he folded them.  “You can say that, but I’m not sure it’ll be true when it happens for the third time, or the tenth.”

“It’s not set in stone.  If it doesn’t work, we talk about it.  Maybe it’s best we say whatever’s on our minds, given who we are.  We’re not the best at the social thing, you know?”

“I know.”  He paused, glancing away.  “In the spirit of saying what’s on my mind, I’m kind of wondering how your people would react if I kissed you right now.”

So glad I have the mask.  I felt my face heat up in what would have been an embarrassing flush if anyone could see it.

I swallowed.  “No.  Don’t.  It’s not that I don’t want you to, but it would mess up their image of me.”

“I know.  That’s the only reason I didn’t do it.  That, and the masks would be hard to manage.  Can’t really be spontaneous when fumbling to find a way to lift the mask up.  And the stuff on this mask kind of makes it hard to lift it up.”  He tapped one finger on the criss-crossing fangs I’d designed into the face of his mask.  It would make it rigid, hard to remove without taking the entire thing off.

“Something to fix for a future version.  You want to grab something for lunch?”

“I should be getting back.  There’s some stragglers to deal with, and Imp’s been going full-tilt long enough I think I should relieve her.”

“She’s taking this seriously, huh?”

“Yeah.  I’d be happy about it if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

“With luck, the danger will pass soon.”

“Yeah.  See you later?”

I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped as I felt a tremor.  “You feel that?” I asked.

“No.”

No, I hadn’t felt it with my own body.  My swarm had sensed it.  A vibration through the area.

My bugs could scent exhaust.  The acrid taste of ozone, for the lack of a better explanation.  I honed in on it, and realized that one of the buildings near the edge of my range had a new addition on the roof.  It was big, like two eighteen wheelers parked side-by-side, with two more stacked on top, but all one piece.

“Shit,” I said, as the general shape took form in my mind.  I wheeled around to look in the direction it had settled.  “Trouble.”

Darkness billowed out around Grue, making him look larger.

My first thought was Squealer, but she was supposedly dead.  The other alternative… Shit.

“Listen up!”  I called out, augmenting my voice with my swarm.  Most of the crowd was already paying some attention to me, but my shout got everyone else to turn my way.  “Threat incoming.  Stop what you’re doing and clear out of here, that way!”  I pointed.

Some people started hesitantly heading the way I’d indicated.

“Now!”  I shouted.  The crowd began to move.  Sierra and Charlotte were among them, abandoning the food and the makeshift oven.  Sierra looked my way for confirmation and I gave her a tight nod.

I doubted that my people were in any danger like they’d faced with Mannequin or Burnscar, but I wasn’t taking chances.

“Who?”  Grue asked.

“Pretty sure it’s Dragon.”

She wasn’t moving.  She’d settled on the tallest building in the area, not too far from where I’d started my costumed career, fought Lung and met the others.  She was large enough that her mechanical forelimbs could grip two corners of the building.  She lay there like a resting jungle cat or sphinx, head raised, slowly rotating to take in her surroundings.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for this,” he said.  He settled one hand on my shoulder and pulled me in the direction my people were running.  “Coil wanted us to be done today.  Now the heroes are making a move?”

“Retaliation for the mayor,” I said.  “We pushed things, now they’re bringing in the big guns.  Maybe literally.”

“Plan?”

“No clue.”  I got my phone out and dialed Tattletale.  She picked up on the first ring, as I was clicking through the menu to put it on speaker phone.

“Dragon’s here-” she started.  There was a flare of static, not unlike the noise from an out-of-tune radio station, “-don’t fight.”

“Why?” I asked, but the static flared up again as I spoke, and I couldn’t be sure Tattletale heard me.  “She’s here.  How is she there?”

“Hitting multiple territories at once-” Whatever she said next was obscured.  It was getting worse, fast.  “-fight and heroes come to back her up.  Run, hide.  Meet-”

Then she was gone, lost in the sea of static.  I waited for several tense seconds, hoping she would come back on the line.

“Skitter.”  It was Dragon who spoke over the phone.  “I’m cutting off communications.  I look forward to talking to you once you’ve been brought into custody.”

The phone died.  There wasn’t even a dial tone.

“Oh hell,” Grue said.

“Let’s go.”

We’d been retreating, but we broke out into a full-on run as the phone cut out.

Dragon, for her part, made a move.  Metal objects the size of a beachball were filing out of the sides of her suit.  They floated in the air, spreading out in formations.  Dozens of them.

“She’s trying to beat me at my own game,” I said, panting, “Minions.  Hate tinkers.  Hate tinkers so fucking much.”

A collection of my bugs died all at once, the sphere dropping to the pavement below with a thud that the bugs could feel.

I’d encountered this before.  Armsmaster’s electric pulse, the one he’d used with his halberd.

“And I really hate tinkers who share their work.

As I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the drones flowing into the sky in waves.  I ordered Atlas back to my lair to keep him safe.  I didn’t want to risk him, didn’t want to get shot out of the air while flying and I wasn’t able to bring Grue along, wasn’t willing to leave him behind.

Was this what my enemies experienced?  A vague feeling of dread as an unreachable opponent massed her forces?  I couldn’t necessarily fight back against them and even taking down one drone was useless.  Five or ten more would be ready to take its place.

They were overtaking us.  Any time I gathered more than a handful of bugs together, a drone would obliterate them with a point-blank electrical charge.  That was the only thing slowing them down; they would spend their charge, fall to the ground and then rise again a few seconds later as they rebooted.

I got a better look at the drones as they approached.  Each was an identical black sphere with two wings like the blades of a battleaxe, the tips of one blade connecting with the other.  A camera with a red lens was mounted on a plate that roved across the sphere’s outer surface, while another plate glowed in the same way Kid Win’s antigravity skateboard had, always pointing toward the ground.

One passed over my head, then stopped, hovering in place a few feet above me as I ran.  I turned on my heel and shifted left, and it followed me unerringly.  I zig-zagged and failed to shake it.

Attention citizen,” it blared, in the same voice that I’d heard from the armbands during the Endbringer fight, “For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”

“Fuck!”

“Here!”  Grue called out.  He was turned toward me, bent to one knee, his fingers interlaced, nearly touching the ground.

“Five seconds.”

I ran towards him, setting my feet in the cup of his hands, while drawing my knife.  He straightened, heaving me up.  My timing was off, and I didn’t manage to jump in time with the push, but I did manage to stay balanced.  As he lifted me, I raised one foot and placed it on his shoulder, using it as a foothold to lunge for the drone.  I stabbed my knife at the antigravity panel.

It raised higher into the air.  I missed by a hair.

Failure to comply.”

I felt the hairs all over my body stand to attention a second before it hit us.  It felt more like getting a truck dropped on me than I would have expected an electrical charge to feel like, but I could feel the not-unfamiliar sensation of snakes writhing across my body.

It had knocked the wind out of me, leaving me lying flat on top of Grue.  The weight of the drone had followed soon after, no less than a hundred pounds landing on top of the two of us.

Grue made a guttural sound.

“On your feet,” I gasped the words as I tried to haul air back into my lungs.  “Hurry.”

“We’re not unconscious?”  He gave me a hand as we climbed to our feet.

“Spider silk’s partially insulated against el-” I stopped to cough.  “Electrical charges.”

Attention Citizen.  For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”  The broadcasts overlapped, two voices a half-step apart in timing.

I looked up.  Sure enough, there were another two drones in place over me and Grue.

Grue drenched us in darkness, seizing my wrist and hauling me away with enough force that I could barely keep my feet under me.

“Won’t work,” I gasped out the words, “She’s not reliant on conventional senses.  Saw Imp.”

I couldn’t hear a response, of course.  I focused my attention on the drones, getting bugs onto them to track their movements, and getting some onto Dragon to see what she was doing.

The drones were falling.  Grue’s darkness spread throughout the area, and drones were descending slowly from the air to touch ground.  They weren’t discharging their electrical loads either.

Whatever signal Dragon was using to command them, Grue’s darkness was cutting it off.

He banished the darkness in a small clearing around us, “The drones are down.  We could double back, hit her main body.”

I turned my attention to Dragon.  She was rising, planting her claws at the roof’s edge, and turning her head to face us.  Her mouth opened.

“Incoming!”  I shouted.  This time it was my turn to grab Grue and pull him away.  We headed for the side of a series of stone stairs.  Crouching so our heads weren’t sticking out, we pressed our backs against the side of the stairwell that was closest to Dragon.

The attack was silent, but that was par for the course when Grue’s darkness was involved.  It speared down the length of the street like a tightly focused gust of wind.  It scattered Grue’s darkness and made the drones skid hundreds of feet along the road’s surface.  My hair whipped across the face of my mask in the wake of the attack.

We moved in sync, rushing out of the doorway and rounding the first corner to our right.

With the darkness cleared, the drones were rising again.

“She’s prepared for me,” Grue said.

“Maybe planned to come after you when she was done here,” I said.  I glanced nervously at the drones that were turning their red eyes to every surface and object, searching for ‘citizens’ to detain.  “Or it’s part of a more complicated setup.  This way.  There’s a path through the building and out the other side.”

We were halfway through when a trio of drones moved to cut us off, another drone moving to block our retreat.  It was a precise enough maneuver that I knew Dragon had to have some kind of thermal vision at play, or another means of tracking us.

Grue hit the drones with his darkness, shutting off the connection to Dragon.  We pushed our way past as they settled to the ground.  Dragon was orienting herself for another shot. We had cover, but she had to know that.

The blast of hot wind ripped past us.  The building obstructed the worst of it, but it was less focused than the former.  Again, it stripped away much of Grue’s darkness.  He covered them in a fresh layer and we continued running.

Dragon didn’t give chase.

We arrived at Coil’s base and I knew from a single glance at Regent’s posture that we hadn’t all made it.  It was as though we were afraid enough of the answer that we weren’t willing to ask; Nobody spoke as Regent and Shatterbird led the way into the underground base.

Imp was just past the last door.  Grue hugged her, and for once she didn’t fight or complain.

Coil’s soldiers were armed and at the ready, guns resting on knees or from the straps at their shoulders, each man and woman with their specialized body armor strapped on.  Thirty or forty sets of eyes watching us, each of them utterly still.  Coil stood on the walkway opposite us, Trickster to his left, Sundancer and Oliver to his right.

“You made it,” Tattletale called out.  I’d nearly missed spotting her in the midst of the soldiers.  She was in the company of Fish and Minor, two of the squad captains.

“Who are we missing?” Grue called out.

“Ballistic, Genesis and Bitch.”

Damn.  I didn’t particularly like or dislike Genesis, but I didn’t want her to suffer.  Ballistic… I couldn’t bring myself to care that much.

Bitch, though?  That was bad.

We waited while Coil and the Travelers traveled across the walkway and Tattletale crossed the bottom floor to the staircase.

“This is not ideal,” Coil spoke.

“No,” Grue responded.

“Seven of those things,” Tattletale said.  “They hit Sundancer, Genesis, Ballistic, me, Bitch and Skitter.  Tried to hit Trickster, but he was recuperating here.  My gut says Dragon’s controlling these things with an A.I..  Smart A.I., but they didn’t seem quite as sharp as she was in our last run-in with her.  Or her attention’s divided too many ways.  Can’t say.  Her objective seems to be disrupting our control over the city rather than stopping us outright.”

“I think the pair of us only slipped away because she wasn’t expecting me to be there,” Grue said.  “Did she use the drone-deployer against you guys?”

“No,” Tattletale replied.  “She was piloting an updated version on the thing she used against Leviathan.  Spewed containment foam everywhere.  My guys hammered it with rocket launchers and bought me time to run.  Maybe lost half my squad, depending on how things went.  Only Minor and Brooks have returned so far.”

“Came after me with a bloated floating ship, kept drawing forcefields around me,” Sundancer said.  She was hugging her arms to her body.  “My power couldn’t even knock them down.  I burned myself an escape route through the ground.  Nearly got trapped in the molten sludge.  It was stupid, I could have died.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder.

“Seven different ships,” Grue said.

“This is well-timed enough that I’d suspect a traitor in our midst,” Coil spoke, pausing for a moment while his head turned fractionally to take us all in, “But I haven’t spoken of my overall plans to anyone, and there is nobody capable of reading minds to figure out my overall strategy, much less in Brockton Bay.”

“Just bad luck and good planning,” Tattletale said.  “Communications are down, no camera feeds, no radio.  Phones too.  No cell or satellite signals are making it out there.”

“So we’re going to have to stick together instead of coordinating attacks,” Grue responded.

“Trouble is,” Tattletale said, “They’ve already laid out their game plan, and it’s a toughie.  Seven suits babysitting our territories and keeping us from settling back in.  If we pick a fight like Ballistic did, then they deploy the Protectorate, the Wards and probably any unoccupied suits as reinforcements.”

Nobody had a response to that.  Dealing with just the one Dragon had been hard enough.  Dealing with Dragon plus a contingent of heroes would be next to impossible.

“Can Grue borrow her power?”  Trickster asked.

Grue shook his head, and the darkness around him seemed to expand a fraction.  “No.  Don’t get much from tinkers.”

“Then there’s Regent,” Trickster said.  “Or, more specifically, Shatterbird.”

“Sure,” Regent said.

“She might have a countermeasure in mind,” I said.  “She knows Shatterbird’s here.  It could be as simple as the long ranged wind cannon thing she used to clear away Grue’s darkness.  She could shoot Shatterbird out of the air the second she shows herself.  Or any number of things.”

“Try a larger scale detonation?”  Trickster asked.  “See if you can’t wipe out a couple of suits at once, without revealing yourself?”

“No,” Regent said.  “Don’t know if I can control the area of it if I push out too hard.  It’s slippery… I’m not good at explaining this stuff.  I can turn the dial to anywhere from one to ten, but for each number you go up, it goes maybe twice as far, maybe five times as far.  The effect… I dunno.”

“It gets exponentially more powerful, as you put more effort in,” I suggested.

“Sure.  Don’t know what that means, but sure.”

Coil cleared his throat, “I’ve invested a great deal of time and money into establishing your two groups here in Brockton Bay, and I did it for precisely this sort of scenario.  Again, the timing is unfortunate, but I still expect you to address this situation.  You’ll want to verify whether Bitch, Ballistic and Genesis are captured or simply pinned down somewhere, rescue them if need be and dispatch Dragon.”

There go my plans with Brian.

“This may be just a smidge above and beyond the call of duty, bossman,” Regent said.

“You’ll have access to all of my resources,” Coil responded.  “But the previous orders about clearing out and establishing your territories by noon tomorrow stand.”

“Or?”

Every set of eyes moved to Imp.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Hey, I’m in this for fun, for fame and money.  Getting beat down and arrested isn’t any of those things.”

“I see.  I thought you would be more professional.”

“Me?”  Imp shrugged, “Hell no.”

I could feel the tension in the air.  There were fifty trained soldiers here.  Men and women who could shoot and hit their target.  If Coil gave the order, I wasn’t sure we’d walk away in one piece.  Intentionally or not, Imp was pulling the chair out from under Coil at a time when he was already vulnerable and unsteady on his feet.

Good.

“Do the rest of you feel this way?”

“The Travelers aren’t in a position to walk away.  You know that,” Trickster said, “And we have to rescue Genesis and Ballistic if they need it.  So no.  We’re definitely in.”

Tattletale, Grue and I exchanged glances.  Tattletale’s eyes lingered on me for a long second.  Was it up to me?

“Honestly?” I said.  “I don’t know what call I’d make.  This is pretty dangerous, as stuff goes, and we didn’t exactly sign up for this.  I’d go in just to make sure Bitch comes out of it okay, but doing that and cleaning up this mess in the kind of timeframe you’re talking about?  That’s asking a lot.”

“You’ll be adequately compensated for the risk you face,” Coil said.

“I figured as much.  But I don’t want money.”

“Ah.  What do you want, Skitter?”

“You know that already.”

“I’ve already told you I’ll consider your request.”

“I want a promise.”

He didn’t reply.  Instead, he stared at me, his mask opaque, no holes for the eyes, nose or mouth.  I had to read the little details, the movements in the raised portion of his brow, the set of his chin, the movements and tension of his fingers where he had his hands clasped in front of him.  If I had to venture a guess, I’d think he was offended.

“Then you have it, Skitter.  Provided you deal with this situation in the next twenty-one hours and your team has reclaimed their territory, I will consider your end of the bargain filled.  I’m hoping I have the rest of the Undersiders as well?”

“I’m not promising anything until I get something too,” Imp said.

“What would you require?”

“My own territory.”

“That can be arranged.  Given how critical this situation is, are you content to discuss the matter after the situation is resolved?”

“Come again?”

“He wants to know if you’re okay with deciding what territory you get after the job is done,” Grue said.

“Yeah.”

“Grue, Tattletale, Regent?”

“I’m with her,” Tattletale jerked a thumb my way.  Grue nodded, glancing at Imp.

“I’m not about to be left out,” Regent said.  “But maybe you could pony up a nice cash bonus?”

I could hear the slightest of sighs from Coil.  “That can be arranged.”

“Cool.”

“Then that’s settled.  I’ve been made aware that Dragon is also making a bid to claim, seize and lock out digital goods within the city.  Victor has agreed to work with my teams and do what he can to minimize the damage.  If there’s nothing else-“

“There is something,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell.”

“That data we grabbed from the PRT offices.  You crack it yet?”

“Some.  It’s badly degraded.”

“I need it.  As much as you can give.”

“Done,” Coil said.  “I can show you the way.”

“One other thing.  You said we had access to all of your resources?”

“Yes.”

“Just how much money are you able to spare?”

“We can discuss that on our way to the room where the databases are stored,” he said, firm.  “Undersiders, Travelers, I wish you luck.”

He strode off with Tattletale following.

Too easy, I thought.  He made that promise too easily.

But it was something.

“Let’s go,” I said.

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Colony 15.7

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How the hell was I supposed to get medical assistance when the guy I was supposed to ask was looking for a covert way to murder me?

And I did need help.  I was bleeding, for one thing.  It had only started when I’d moved my arm to unstrap my armor.  If I’d known, I would have tried to undo the straps with my bugs.

Worse, the spike had penetrated the bone of my shoulder and any movement of my arm rewarded me with scraping sensations in my shoulder socket that made my skin crawl, not to mention the pain.

I was surprised it didn’t hurt more.  I hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.  My fingers moved without a problem, but the lack of pain could still point to bigger problems.  Pain was a natural response, after all, and the lack of pain was unnatural.

I called Tattletale instead.

“Skitter?” she answered.  “How did it go?”

“Could have gone worse.  I paid Parian off, and she’s leaving the city.  No blood shed, mostly.”

“Mostly?”

“Flechette was there.  I got stabbed.” I remembered that Coil could be listening in.  “I don’t want to bother Coil with it, busy as he is.”

“Being stabbed is serious.”

“It’s not too bad.  Can you lend me your medic?”

“You’re just leaving Dolltown now?”

“Flying home.”

“He should be there before you arrive.  I know you two haven’t gotten along in the past, but he won’t trouble you.”

He won’t trouble me.  Was that her way of informing me that he was safe?  Well, I still felt better than I would be if I were putting my life in Coil’s hands.

My desire to convey the image of someone who was confident, fearless and untouchable had led to me getting impaled in the shoulder.  It was something of a weakness, but I still found myself doing it as I reached my own territory.  I landed Atlas on the beach and made my way into the storm drain, wincing every time my arm moved.  By the time I was inside, however, I was pulling myself straighter, raising my chin and squaring my shoulders.  I tried to focus on my power to remove my attention from my body.  Checking the status of the various cleanup projects, some basic reconstruction, setting up dry and clean sleeping areas, stocking up on food and medical supplies…

Sierra and her little one-handed brother Bryce were there as I stepped into my lair, along with a small cluster of older kids and Tattletale’s medic, Brooks.  I sat down on the stool by the kitchen counter and Brooks started examining my shoulder.

“You guys get the most interesting injuries,” he said, in his characteristic, hard-to-place accent that seemed to put hard emphasis on syllables.

“Interesting?”

“Metal bonded to the bone.  You have some sticking through and into the cavity your socket sits in.  I have no idea how I’m going to get to the far end, cannot pull it out, and if I try sawing it off, I am not sure the shavings and flecks wouldn’t do catastrophic damage over the long run.  I would say you need surgery.”

“Damn it,” I said.  “She probably intended for something like that, and every hospital in the area’s going to be looking for someone with a spike in their shoulder.”

“I could try to handle it, but it’s going to take time to get necessary tools.”

“What tools?”

“At the very minimum, a small rotary grinder, suction, some fine wire, blood…”

“We have those things.”

He looked surprised.

I looked to Sierra, “We did get that delivery of stuff for Dr. Tegeler?”

“The dentist?  Yeah.  But it’s not unpacked.”

I turned to Brooks, “We have rotary grinders that we’ve been using for the cleanup, not sure how clean they’d be.  But the rest of that stuff, we’ve been having it delivered, so the people with medical training can start helping out.  Since we already have an able-bodied dentist, we’ve been setting her up.  It’s kind of surprising how many people will start having issues with their teeth over just a month.”

“Okay.  Let me pack this wound and then I will need to go there.  I’ll grab what I need myself.”

I waited while Brooks unpackaged and pressed bandages in place around the spike.

“How is the pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

“Ten high?  Maybe a three until I move it, then it’s more like a seven.”

“I am surprised you are not passed out already.  Do you have a high pain tolerance?”

“I wouldn’t have thought so.  But maybe.  Or maybe the way it bonded kept it from damaging or exposing nerve endings?”

“Maybe.  Okay.  Ginger girl, show me the stuff?”

Ginger girl?”  Sierra asked, archly.

Brooks smirked.

“Brooks,” I said, “Treat my employees with respect or I’m going to have words with Tattletale about you.”

“Yes.  I am sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all.  “Please show me where I can find the dentist’s equipment.”

Sierra looked at me, and I gave her a nod as my ‘go ahead’.

That left me with the kids and Bryce.  I studied him.  His black hair was cut so short he was nearly bald, and like Brooks he was wearing dark gray cargo pants and a beige sleeveless t-shirt.  He’d put on some muscle since I’d seen him last.  His still-bandaged stump of a wrist tapped impatiently against his leg.

And the kids… they were wearing some of the clothes I’d had shipped in, but they didn’t look like the typical bunch of kids one would see around a schoolyard.  Before taking advantage of what I had to offer, they’d been eating the bare minimum, spending all of their time outdoors.  But diet and exercise weren’t entirely to blame for the lack of softness in their faces or expressions.  They’d seen people they loved die.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  Making small talk seemed like it would lower me to their level.

I used my power to check on progress in the area instead.  I’d had a hand in getting recovery efforts underway and ordering both tools and supplies, so I was fairly in touch with what was going on.  The streets were draining or drained in the areas we’d settled, with sandbags holding back or diverting the flooding.  Crews were filling more sandbags and loading them onto trucks at the beach.  Still others were working to clear the storm drains of blockages where they’d verified that both sides were clear of water and that the storm drains were intact.  The storm drain leading to my base had been classified unsafe for the time being, meaning I wouldn’t find strangers nosing around in there.

Burned buildings were being torn down where there wasn’t any hope of salvaging them, and small crews of people with the necessary skills were working to assess what could be recovered, assigning simple tasks to people who didn’t have the training or know-how.  Massive tarps were going up over roofs and being tied down.

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fantastic, but it was something.  My bugs noted a hundred and seventy people at work, one-seventy-four if I included the kids here.

One-eighty-four, I realized I’d nearly missed a crew that was working beneath the streets.  The numbers were growing.

It was a little intimidating.  I didn’t have any particular training or talents that really equipped me for a leadership position.  Now I was in charge of this many people.

Well, I’d do what I could.  Supply what they needed, keep an eye on things.

“Your name?” I asked one of the oldest kids.

“Guy.”

“Sierra didn’t have anything for you to do?”

“We’re waiting until Char comes back,” he said, pronouncing it ‘shar’. “She said she was going to put us in charge of some younger kids, then have us run water out to the people working.”

“Good.  For now, you can run an errand for me.  Head out the door, turn right, go two blocks.  There’ll be an open manhole with a cordon around it.”

“A what?”

“Tape and warning signs.  Ignore the warnings, just go to the manhole cover and shout down at them, tell them to get back to work.  I know they’re just sitting in the dark and drinking.  And tell them no power tools, now.  Not if they’ve got alcohol on their breath.”

“Okay.  If they don’t listen to me?”

“I’ll take care of that,” I told him.

He ran off.

“Big bad supervillain, giving orders to little kids,” Bryce commented.

Why did people insist on testing me?  Was it something about being in charge that demanded that they try to establish their dominance?  Did people like Bryce have a natural propensity for bucking authority, with me as the only clear target?  Or was it more that they were angry in general?

Either way, what did that mean for this city in the long run, if anyone who tried to change things for the better was facing this sort of resistance.

“I’m giving orders to everyone.  Everyone contributes, everyone benefits.”

“To be more specific, you’re having my sister give orders to everyone while you go out and get yourself injured in fights with other capes.”

“Don’t you dare,” Sierra said, stalking back into the room.  She put down a plastic tote of medical supplies.  She sounded angry.  And scared?  “Do not pick a fight with my boss.”

“I’m just saying-”

“Don’t.  Don’t ‘just say’ anything.  If nothing else, she saved your life.”

“I wouldn’t have needed saving if she hadn’t been there,” Bryce said.  He gave me a look that was just short of a glare.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sierra said.  “You were with the Merchants.”

“And things were cool.  Party all day, relax, had a girlfriend.  If she’d left things alone, I’d be okay.”

“I’m surprised Tattletale didn’t mention it,” I said.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine eradicated the Merchants.  Barely one in twenty survived.  The ones that are left are scattered across the city.  If you’d stayed with them, you’d be dead.”

“She did mention it.  But I would have made it.”

Cocky.  “Then you’d be starving to death, dirty, probably sick.  Going through withdrawal, maybe.  Don’t know what you were taking with them.”

He scowled, glancing at his sister.  “None of your business.”

“Hey!”  Sierra raised her voice.  She grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, and he slapped her hand away.  She stabbed a finger into his chest, “Treat her with respect, damn it!”

Again, that note of fear.

“I treat people with respect if they deserve it.”

“She does.  She’s saved us, here.  That’s big.”

“Wouldn’t need saving if it wasn’t for the people with powers being around here in the first place.”

He wasn’t wrong.  As validating as it was for Sierra to stick up for me, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt at the idea that these circumstances were because of capes.  Hell, if I hadn’t provoked the Nine by humiliating Mannequin then this district wouldn’t have come under fire by Burnscar.  There was Dolltown too, and my complicity there.  I was personally at fault when it came to some of the damage that had been done across the city.

“You want a better reason?” she asked.  She stepped close and pulled him down to hiss words in his ear.  She wasn’t being as quiet as she seemed to think she was, trying to hide her words from me and the kids.  “…they attacked me and Char… mauled them…  Mannequin…

I shifted positions, and Sierra must have seen it, because she lowered her voice to an inaudible hush as she finished.

Rattling off a list of the things she’d seen me do.  Reasons that gave her cause to be spooked if her brother was mouthing off to me.

When we’d met, Sierra had commented that I wasn’t what she’d expected from a supervillain.  Somewhere along the line, I’d painted a different picture.  She clearly had no trouble with me on a day-to-day basis, but she also knew that when I was pushed… well, I’d gone easy on the three ABB members that had attacked her and Charlotte, but that was only in a matter of speaking.  I’d still left them fleeing in mortal terror.

Bryce looked at me and I could see him give me a once-over glance, as if assessing me in a new light.

“Go help Brooks,” I told him.  “I’ll direct you to him with my swarm.”

It took him a second to weigh whether he wanted to or not, but he did turn and step out the front door, following the thin trail of bugs that I was gathering between him and the warehouse we were keeping supplies.

“Want me to go, too?” Sierra asked.

“Your choice.  Might be better to give him space.”

“I keep having to do that.  When do we start being a family again?”

I’m not the person to answer that question.

“If you decide to leave him be, I could use a hand collecting some things so I can make effective use of my time.”

“Okay,” she said.  She seemed to pull herself together a bit.  “What do you need?”

“My laptop from my room, and the surveillance stuff from the cellar.  There’s another set of surveillance gear in the bag beneath the shelves.”

Sierra hurried off to gather the equipment.

The ensuing minutes were a little disorganized, as Bryce and Brooks both arrived with the last of the medical equipment.

“Blood type?”

“AB.”

He took one bag of blood out of the box and placed it on the counter.  “Want to do this in your room?”

“I have an armchair on the second floor I could sit in.”

“Need you reclining.”

“I have somewhere to be tonight,” I told him.  Though this would be something of an excuse to avoid the kill.  “Don’t put me under.”

“This is going to hurt.”

I had another reason for not wanting to be put under.  I wanted to keep an eye on him.  My conversation with Tattletale had suggested he wasn’t a threat, but I’d feel a heck of a lot better if I could verify that for myself.

“Do you have local anesthetic?” I asked.

“Yes.”  He tapped one finger on a tiny bottle.  Lidocaine.  I recognized the name.  “But will not prevent all pain.  I do not want to use too much.”

“We’ll try that, then.”

We headed up to the second level and I settled into my chair.  For additional lighting, I had my ‘switch beetle’ flick the concealed switch that was contained in his terrarium.  They lit up as I settled in.

Brooks hooked up the blood bag but left the tube hanging, unconnected.  Other supplies were arranged on the table he’d had Bryce bring up.  He seemed very particular about the order and what was being kept

“For a field medic you seem pretty well versed in this stuff.”

“Worked in many hospitals,” he replied.  “Many places.  Often with less than this.  Sometimes with more.”

“Okay.”

“We will have to dislocate your shoulder to access the inside of shoulder socket.”

“Okay.”

“You will take muscle relaxant to minimize damage from dislocation.  You will need to exercise arm to prevent more dislocations.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, the possibility that it was actually poison, but the muscle relaxant came from the bottle, and they had the brand logo etched into them.  One potential danger averted.  No way he’d arranged it this quickly.

“I can do that.”  I took the pills with a swig from the offered bottle of water.

Sierra arrived with the laptop and a large bag.  She handed me the laptop and then plugged it in beneath one of the lower shelves.  I balanced it on my armrest, turning sideways so I was sitting with my bad shoulder facing out front, my legs curled around me for as much stability as I could hope for.  Sierra began arranging towels and plastic cloth around the chair.

“This would be easier if you just lay down,” Bryce said.  I saw Sierra scowl at him.

“It is fine,” Brooks said.  He lifted my arm and let it flop back down.  I tried not to react to the pain that elicited.  “Only one that suffers is her.”

“Ever a charmer, Brooks,” I commented, but my attention was on the laptop.  I used the switch beetle to open all of the terrariums, and withdrew collections of spiders, dragonflies, large moths and roaches.

“They should not touch chair,” Brooks said.  “Or anything on table.  Must keep everything as sterile as we can.”

“I know,” I said.

I gathered the components from the bag, using my bugs to draw them out and airlift the miniature cameras, microphones and transmitters into the air.  One by one, I turned them on and used the laptop to connect to them.  I used my free hand to click through each camera in turn, making their feeds the focus of the main window.

Using my bugs, I drew forms around each, vaguely humanoid.  It wasn’t as intuitive as I was forced to use my own eyes to assess the accuracy.  Still, I managed to rearrange each until they vaguely resembled me.  I marched them down the stairs.

“Outside end first,” Brooks said, starting up the rotary saw.

Not my favorite sound.  And the sensation of it sawing at the metal, it brought back even more unpleasant memories.  Being on my back, Bonesaw trying to cut a hole through my skull…

I shivered.

“Don’t move,” Brooks said.

I focused on my swarm-clones, staying totally still while he worked on removing the metal end of the dart.  They were largely composed of flying bugs, but I was bulking each of the forms out as more bugs arrived, giving them a more solid mass.  I used my free hand to pop my ear-buds in.

I felt bad about leaving my territory as often as I had been.  People were spooked, scared and insecure.  Having a leadership figure that was never around wasn’t helping matters.

This would, I hoped, establish a kind of presence that had been lacking.

Sierra had been coordinating everyone, trying to put people with experience in charge of people who were lacking it.  It was interesting, trying to hold multiple conversations at once with the various project leaders.  Difficult, too.  For one thing, my speech with my swarms was somewhat lacking, missing consonants, but I could still make myself more or less understood.  For another, my ears could only process one thing at a time.  I managed by talking with one or more swarm-clone while listening with one at a time.  After too many misfires and moments of confusion, I scaled down my efforts to a single conversation at once, simply standing silently by with my other selves.

I made a mental note to try to practice with that.  Exercising the range of my power hadn’t done anything for me, and there didn’t seem to be any upper limits to how many bugs I could control at once, but there had to be other ways I could train my abilities.  Multitasking was one I hadn’t tried yet.  Trying to interpret the senses of my bugs was another, though I feared it would take a more concerted effort to effect any sort of change.

When Charlotte returned, I was in the middle of helping a foreman with the layout of a building, using spiders to draw out a loose web in the general shape of the planned shelter, lifting bits of wood to make the lines more visible from a distance.  I adjusted the threads as required to meet his needs.  Charlotte climbed out of a truck with five more of my people and made a beeline to my swarm-clone.  One hundred and ninety people working for me.

Word was apparently getting out about this being a safe haven.

My conversation with her was delayed as Brooks enlisted Bryce in twisting and pulling on my arm while Brooks held my neck and torso.  Bryce drove his elbow against my shoulder while it was being twisted to its absolute limits, effectively knocking my arm out of its socket.

I managed to avoid making any noise beyond a guttural grunt, then took a few seconds to try to avoid blacking out from the pain.

As heavily as I was breathing, back in my lair, my swarm-people didn’t show any sign.  I focused the whole of my attention on them, as if I could remove my consciousness from my real body.

“Any problems?”  I asked Charlotte, once I’d recovered enough to pay attention.  Glancing at my shoulder, I could see Brooks making an incision in the skin of my shoulder.  He’d managed to open the tear in my costume.  I hadn’t been paying attention to how.  I deliberately looked away as Brooks tried to forge a path  to the inside of my shoulder socket.

“Not sure,” Charlotte said.  “Have a look.”

It was Parian.  I’d been so focused on my shoulder, the three-dimensional web-blueprint and my swarm-selves that I hadn’t noticed her getting out of the truck.

“You didn’t leave,” I said, when she’d joined Charlotte and my swarm-clone.

“I didn’t think the money would be real,” she responded.

“Of course it was.”

“It’s… it was a lot of money.  Very generous.  But we were talking about it, and split between us, it’s not enough to give everyone all the care they need.  I told them to go ahead, that I didn’t need a share.”

“Sorry.  I was worried it wouldn’t be enough,” I said.  “Are you saying you want more money?  I might have to say no.  There’s a limit to what I can spare.”

“No!  No.”  She hugged her arms to her body, looking around at the people who were working.  “Just… I thought maybe I should hear you out.”

“Okay,” I responded.

“Except it’s not really you?”

My clone shook her head.

“Can I talk with the real you?”

“I’m in my lair, and I’m preoccupied.  You’ll understand if I don’t reveal the location, given who your friends are?”

“Yeah,” she said.  She was still looking around, watching as a group moved by, pushing wheelbarrows of burned wood.  “I… I was telling myself that there was no point to taking your offer, that I could use my power and make more money legitimately.  But that’s not true at all, is it?”

“Walk with me?” I asked.

She nodded.

I led the way through my territory with my clone as I talked.  “Crime does pay.  I made the offer to you because I thought it would be the best way to get your Dolltown residents the money they needed to get their old lives back.  Or get as close to their old lives as possible.”

“I kind of hate you,” she said.

“Why?”

“You’re making it out like I’m a bad person because I won’t betray Flechette and my own moral code to help them.”

“I don’t blame you for your decision.  I don’t think any less of you.”

“But you wouldn’t make the choice I’m making.”

“No.  I didn’t.”

“And you’ve done more to help my people than I have.”

“You’ve protected them to the best of your ability through this city’s darkest hours.”

“You really think we’re past that?  The bad days?”

“Yes.”

I winced as the grinding resumed, this time inside my shoulder socket.  A makeshift rigging inside the cavity caught the metal shavings, while Bryce held the tube to suction the metal shavings out.  So far, no assassination attempts.  Good.

“I don’t know what to do,” Parian admitted.  “This is… seeing it makes me wish I’d done something like it.”

“I’m not going to push you towards one choice or another.”

“I know.  You made that clear when you gave me the money with no strings attached.”

“Look,” I said.  “I know Flechette was saying my perspective is warped, but I think the system… you know, society, it’s like a series of rules and expectations that we established under some general expectations.  But recent events have made it pretty clear that those expectations, those assumptions, they might not apply.”

“Because of us?  Capes?”

“Yeah.  At the end of the day, barring some extreme examples like powerful dictators, there’s always the fact that any bad person who doesn’t have powers can be killed with a gun, a knife, or even a good punch in the right place.  That’s not the case with us parahumans.  The balance of power is pretty damned off-kilter.  Things aren’t fair.”

“Are you making that imbalance better or worse?”

“I’m… addressing the problem.  I’m saying there’s no point to trying to hold on to the old status quo when it’s based on a foundation that no longer exists.”

“So you’re going to take over the city.”

“Yes.  Because at least for right now, I can give these people what they need.”

I moved my clone’s ‘head’ and followed a group of kids who were running away from my lair, carrying six-packs of water bottles.

“And later?”

“I don’t know.”

We walked in silence, past a bonfire where scrap wood was being burned.  Brooks and Bryce, meanwhile, set to shoving my arm back into its socket.  All of the ambient pain disappeared in an instant.

Parian needed the money, she needed the assurance that she could help the people she’d failed.  I understood that.

“I can offer you one last compromise,” I said.

“What?”

“I can’t guarantee it’ll work, I can’t say if anyone else will accept the proposal, and I don’t know what’s going to happen long-term, but we don’t have to call you a member of our team.  We don’t have to call you a villain.”

“But I’d take territory for myself anyways?”

“Yes.”

“Others would call me a villain, just because I wasn’t fighting you guys.  They’d know I was cooperating with you.”

“Not necessarily.  Maybe the people in charge, the Protectorate and Wards, maybe they’d understand it, but the people on the ground level wouldn’t.”

“The media would out me.”

“I think we control the media.  Or enough to throw some doubt into the mix.  The rules are pretty simple.  You take territory, you hold it, and you ensure that there’s no crime or parahumans operating there without your consent.”

“And Flechette-”

“I don’t know her.  I can’t say how she’ll react, but maybe if you explain nicely, maybe if you frame it right, you could convince her it’s for the greater good.  So long as she convinced the other heroes to leave your territory alone, let you enforce the law there all by yourself, you wouldn’t have to fight them.”

“And if she didn’t-”

“That’s up to her.  Or you.”

She stared around my territory.  It wasn’t pretty, there was still devastation everywhere, but things were getting better.  It was maybe the only place in the city where things were improving as fast as they were.  We weren’t taking two steps forward and one step back.  It was all forward momentum.  Not even a week had passed, admittedly, but it was progress.  And it was apparent.

“I don’t think I could accept if Flechette doesn’t agree.”

“Okay.”  The alternative was unspoken.  If she does

“I hate you,” Parian said, and it was answer enough.

Brooks was finishing stitching up the incision in my shoulder.  I already had two pieces of scrap spider silk at the ready – one to cover the hole in my costume and another to serve as a sling until my shoulder was stronger.  If I adjusted my cape, I could cover the arm so the injury wasn’t too obvious.  I stood from the chair and stretched, then reached for my cell phone.

“I can live with that,” I told her, speaking through my swarm-clone.  I clicked through my contact list and called the man who was plotting to kill me.

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Colony 15.1

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Bentley lunged in my direction, and I could feel my people backing away behind me.  I stood firm.  The mutant bulldog landed with both front paws first, the impact so heavy that spittle and moisture was flung from his massive body.

A low, guttural noise tore its way from Bentley’s throat as he surged forward again.  I could hear yelps and shouts of alarm from the crowd behind me.

Wood splintered, cracked, and finally gave way.  Behind Bentley, the husk of a fire-scorched building collapsed.  Chains that had been lashed to the building’s wooden supports trailed from the dog’s harness as he bounded toward Bitch.  Of everyone present, only Bitch and I held our ground as the dog barreled into his master, practically bouncing with joy.

Bitch, for her part, wrapped her arms around his head as he lifted her off the ground.  “Good boy!”

He’s just a dog.  Beneath the three-thousand-ish pounds of muscle and the exterior of tangled muscle and bone, he was still a dopey dog who adored his master.  Bitch had given him what he’d been yearning for since he was abandoned or abused in his past life.  She’d offered him the affection and companionship he’d been wanting for years.

I could relate.  Not in terms of Bitch, specifically, but I could relate.

“Get to work clearing that up!” I ordered.  My swarm augmented my voice to carry it across the crowd of my followers.  There were twenty-two adults and twenty kids.  With Coil’s assistance, I’d brought in work gloves and black hazmat suits, but most people were wearing only the lower body of the suits.  It was too warm for the full suits, and the masks were largely unnecessary.  Everyone was dripping from the rain, but nobody was really complaining.  I rather liked it; it was refreshing in the otherwise warm day.

A generator stirred to life a short distance down the street, and there was something of a rush as people hurried to get away from the intimidating presence of the big bad supervillains and their mutant animals.  That, and there was something of a fight to get the power tools.  There were only so many circular saws and chainsaws to go around, and anyone who didn’t have one was tasked with carrying the cut wood instead.

I created a barrier of bugs to stop one of the teenagers from reaching for a circular saw.

“If you’re under eighteen, you don’t get to use power tools,” I called out.  “Priority goes to the people who know how the tools are used.  Able bodied adults get second dibs.  Listen carefully to the guys who know what they’re doing, and work somewhere dry if possible.  We’ve had enough casualties, let’s not have anything stupid happening with someone slipping or losing their grip in the rain.  If someone’s being an idiot, tell Sierra, and she’ll inform me.”

Sierra glanced at me and nodded.

I turned my attention to Bitch.

“You owe me,” she said.  The rain had plastered her short hair against her scalp.  Her gang of four people stood by with dogs on leashes: Barker, Biter, a college-aged kid with the scars of four parallel claw marks running across his face, and a girl with her arm in a sling.  They didn’t look scared, like my people had, but they still didn’t look fantastically thrilled to be in close vicinity to one of Bitch’s dogs on full throttle.

Nevermind that you were the one that came here early.  “Of course.  We’ll get you and your people some lunch.”

She frowned.  “Lunch?”

There was a bit of a pause.  I waited patiently as she considered the idea.

“Fine,” she decided.

“Come on,” I told her.  “We’ll go to my place while we wait for the others.”

While Bentley had been helping to tear down and dismantle the derelict building, I’d been contemplating how I’d leverage Bitch’s early arrival to mend fences and rebuild some trust.  I’d decided on something simple, as that seemed to work best with Bitch.  I imagined that she hadn’t paid a lot of attention to stuff like food as she took hold of her territory.  Odds were good that she’d asked Coil for a lot of easy food she could stuff in her pockets and eat on the go.  She probably wouldn’t pay much attention to stuff like seasonings or variety in courses.

I’d recently spent some time looking back on our past interactions.  Her perspective toward me had zig-zagged between a kind of hesitant acceptance and hostility.  We’d met, she’d attacked me.  We’d gone to the bank robbery, and she’d been open and excited, only to do a one-eighty and start shouting at me after misinterpreting something I said.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Until I’d left the group and then been outed as an undercover operative a short while later.  That had been a good solid one-hundred steps back.

Recovering from that breach of trust had proven far more difficult than anything that came before.  Not quite impossible, though; I’d apparently proved myself in the recent past, because Bitch was making an effort on her end.  She was here earlier than I’d asked, for one thing, and she hadn’t murdered me when I asked for a hand with some things I couldn’t handle with my own power.

She glanced back at her group and whistled once, making a ‘come hither’ gesture.  I couldn’t tell if she was signaling her dogs and expecting the people to follow or if she was treating her own people like she did her dogs.  She grabbed the chain at Bentley’s neck and used it to lead him.

Barker and Biter looked pretty unimpressed, either way.  Barker especially.

We didn’t talk as we made our way to my headquarters, and I was okay with that.  Every exchange between us was one more chance for me to inadvertently offend her, and the silence gave me a bit more time to consider how to tackle all of this.  I was used to feeling like I had to approach every conversation with a strategy, planning out what I was going to say so I didn’t sound like an idiot.  That went double for Bitch, because a slip-up could set me back days or weeks in terms of our friendship.

Should friendship even be my goal?  Maybe I was better off just trying to be a teammate.

If it was just for my sake, I could probably convince myself.  As it stood, though, I was thinking of Bitch.  I felt like I would be abandoning her to a pretty lonely existence if I didn’t at least try.

I let them into my lair, after sweeping the area with my bugs to check for any observers, unlocking and opening the shutter.  Charlotte had experienced a few sleepless nights since the scare three nights ago, so I’d given her permission to take it easy here, with the warning that I’d have guests and would want her assistance.  She still looked a little wary as Bitch, Biter, and Barker entered.

“Hamburgers?” I asked Bitch.  She nodded.  When I looked at her minions, they signaled agreement.  Good.  Easy and simple.

“Charlotte, would you mind?  Maybe fries, too, if you know how to make them on the stove?”

“I don’t, but there’s some in the freezer that I can do.  They aren’t bad,” she replied.

“Good.  When you have a second, some towels for the dogs, too.”

“Okay.”

I led the others into the sitting area on the ground floor.  With the shutter up, some dim light filtered through the rain-streaked windows.  Bitch was outside, tending to Bentley, who had yet to shrink to a more normal size.

I stepped outside to give her directions to where she could stow Bentley until he’d returned to a more normal size, pointing the way to the beach.  She marched off with the one-ton monstrous dog, not offering a response.

Which left me to deal with her people in the meantime.

Barker and Biter gave me something of a George and Lennie vibe, with the smaller guy as the brains of the outfit, the larger one as the big oaf.  While I didn’t have any major clues to Barker’s powers, Biter was clearly a physical powerhouse.  He stood over six feet in height with a severe underbite exaggerated by a metal bear-trap style band of metal around his lower jaw.  His teeth, I saw, were filed into points.  His costume featured spiked knuckle-dusters and a number of leather straps and belts over his clothes.  Each length of leather was studded with sharp spikes.

Barker was an inch or two shorter than me, his hair and beard cut short enough that there was more skin than hair showing.  His eyes seemed overly large for his face, with heavy lids and folds around them that made him look older than he probably was.  His ‘costume’ consisted of a black sleeveless t-shirt, jeans and tattooing around his mouth.  I’d seen him in something more conventional when Coil had introduced him to us, but now the only sign of his parahuman nature was the faint smoke that curled out of his mouth.  Just going by his lack of bulk and short stature, I thought I might be able to take him in a no-powers fist fight.

I’d nearly forgotten about Bitch’s henchpeople in the chaos of dealing with the Nine and all of the fallout that had ensued.  I realized I knew very little about them.

To my surprise, it was Biter who did the talking.  He had a low voice, and his words were muddled by some combination of the mouthgear and the underbite.  “You get along.”

I folded my arms.

He spread his hands, “How?”

“How do Bitch and I get along?” I asked.

He nodded.

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking behind her back.”

The girl with her arm in a sling spoke up, “She acts like she’s frustrated with us.  And I think we’re frustrated with her.”

“I don’t want to be rude, but that’s really her business with you.”  They’re her property, her territory.  If I screwed around with her minions or started something, it would effectively be stepping on her toes.

“You can’t offer us any tips?” she asked.

She looked so hopeful.  Damn it.

“I can, but it’s going to sound pretty damn basic.  Be honest, be absolutely clear in what you’re saying.  Be obedient, but be assertive.  Don’t let her walk all over you or she will walk all over you.  At the same time, if you think there’s something worth arguing over, be prepared to fight tooth and nail for it, because you’ll be in a weaker position if you fight over it and lose.  Respect her space and her things, and remember that she’s your boss above all else.”

“She doesn’t act like a boss,” Barker said, and he made it sound almost insulting.  Puffs of the dark smoke spilled from his mouth with each word, but they seemed to carry further than cigarette smoke would.  It seemed to be tied to the stress or emphasis on the sounds that drove it forward.  “She does her own thing and she leaves us to clean up shit.”

“Adapt,” I told him.  “That’s all I can say.  If you’ve proven yourself reliable, showed that you’re willing to clean up after the dogs and take care of them without complaining, she’ll test you in other ways.  That’ll be your chance to prove you’re useful.”

He sneered, looking at the girl and the boy with the scars on his face.  “She’s cutting them more slack than she’s cutting Biter and me.  We shouldn’t have to prove anything.”

“What do you do?  Your powers.”

He looked up at me.  “You want to see?”

I shrugged.

“Whore.”

The puff of smoke that accompanied the word detonated like a small thunder-clap, mere inches from my face.  I flinched, but it hadn’t been intended to harm.  Only to alarm.

He sniggered.  I’d never met anyone who really sniggered before.

I could see how Coil thought Barker and Bitch would be a match.  I could also see where there would be some friction between the two.

I sighed a little, watching as Barker looked to the others, then over at Charlotte, as if they’d be joining him in his amusement.  None did.  Biter earned a brownie point in my book by staying quiet and simply watching.

I caught my baton from behind my back and swung it underhand, still folded up, into Barker’s chin.  His teeth clacked shut with percussive force, and I stepped closer to push at his upper body while hooking at the chair leg with my foot to pull it in my direction.  He toppled backwards, his head hitting the wall behind him.

I didn’t have a full measure of his ability, but I did know his mouth was his weapon.  It made me look weaker, but I stepped back so his legs and the chair seat gave me cover in the event that he decided to attack me.

For extra measure, I drew the bugs out of my costume and sent them straight for his nose and mouth.

He went bug-eyed as he sat up, coughing and sputtering in an attempt to clear the bugs from his airway.  After one rolling cough, he created another detonation in and around his mouth, obliterating a majority of the bugs I’d tried to gag him with.

I glanced at Biter.  He was still seated.  Good.  I’d somehow thought that the guy would be stepping up to defend his partner, making this a two-versus-one fight.

Barker was climbing to his feet.  I saw him falter, then start coughing again, gagging.

The capsaicin had kicked in.

“That’s the sort of thing you have to watch out for,” I told him, as he fell to the ground, writhing and coughing, tears welling in his eyes.  I kept my voice level.  “You’re in my house, my territory, and you fuck with me?  That’s the sort of thing that would get you in your boss’s bad books if you did it to her.”

“He has,” the boy with the scars on his face spoke.

Barker only gagged in response.

“Guess that’s why he deserves shit duty,” I commented.  I leaned against the wall, folding my arms, my telescoped baton still in one hand.

Bitch had chosen that moment to return.  She stared at the scene.  Me standing idly by as Barker was curled up on the floor, wheezing and making pathetic noises, a few stray bugs crawling across his face.

She looked at me, glaring.

“He started it, I finished it,” I told her.

She looked at Biter, who shrugged and nodded agreement with my statement.  Bitch seemed to accept that as answer enough.  She picked up his chair, moved it a few feet so it wouldn’t be in Barker’s way as he kicked and spasmed, and sat down.

“I’m surprised there’s no objections about me attacking your partner,”  I told Biter.

“Your house, your rules, you said.”

“What do you do?  No demonstrations, please.”

“I make parts of myself bigger.”  He pointed to his mouth, then to the fist with the spike-studded knuckle-duster.  “Open wide, swing with bigger hands.”

Nothing that would have been that great against the Nine.  I couldn’t blame Bitch for leaving them behind.

“Fair enough.”  I addressed the two unpowered individuals from Bitch’s group.  “And you two?  Why were you picked for her team?”

“I was just starting my first year as a vet before everything went to hell,” the girl said.  “Needed money to pay my boyfriend’s hospital bill, was offered more than enough.  He got better a week ago, then broke up with me.  Not even a thank you.  Guess I’m still here because I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I like taking care of the dogs.”

I saw an opportunity.  “Did you have a dog growing up?”

“Greyhounds.  Eclaire and Blitzen.”

“Blitzen?  Like the reindeer?”

“No.  Like German for lightning.  And Eclaire is French.”

I could see Bitch was tense.  Something about this line of conversation?

I guessed what it might be and continued the questioning.  “Why greyhounds?  Don’t they need a lot of exercise?”

She shook her head.  “No.  They’re running dogs, but they only need about a half-hour of walking a day.  They work really well living in an apartment, which we were.”

“They howl,” Bitch said.

“Only if they’re unhappy,” the girl protested.  She glanced down as Barker thumped on the ground with one fist, then looked up at Bitch and smiled a little, “And ours were happy.”

Bitch seemed to accept that.

“Do you have a dog now?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I don’t have the money.  Or I didn’t have money, before Leviathan came.  Student loans and living expenses kind of ate up whatever I made.  I’m hoping to save up enough with the work I’m doing now.”

“You buying the dog?” Bitch asked.  She seemed interested, now, but there was still a tension, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  One wrong answer, and this could turn ugly.  I could only hope the girl had the right answers.

“I kind of want another greyhound, because it’s what I grew up with… and you’ll get greyhounds from an animal rescue ninety percent of the time.  There’s one I’m pretty fond of that’s in one of your shelters, but he’s yours, of course.”

She’d taken my advice about respecting Bitch’s ownership.  Good.

“Greyhound?  Chase or Ink?”  Bitch asked.

“Ink.”

Bitch frowned.  I tensed, ready to jump in and distract with some mention of food.

Grudgingly, Bitch said, “Rather they have a proper home than stay with me.”

I could see the girl’s eyes widen in surprise.  “I didn’t- um.  Thank you.”

“If I see him in some cage in a shelter after you’ve taken him home, I’m going to track you down and dismember you,” Bitch growled.

I could see from the expression on the girl’s face that she believed Bitch.  Still, I saw her steel herself as she replied, “If I fuck up, I deserve it.”

There wasn’t much more I could do to help that conversation.  I had hope that this would set Bitch’s underlings in the right direction.

While they continued talking, I stepped away to check on the hamburgers that Charlotte was cooking on the stove.

“Is he going to be okay?” she asked me.

It took me a second to realize who she meant.  I looked back at Barker.  “Yeah.”

“I mean, is he going to attack us?”

“I dosed him with pepper spray, basically, as well as a few stings and bites to add to the hurt.  That’ll generally put someone down for half an hour, so I don’t think he’s a threat.  I don’t think he’s stupid enough to attack with Bitch and I here.”

She nodded, but she didn’t look relieved.  I would have asked what was up, tried to pry for more clarification on just why she hadn’t slept well, or why she was so easily spooked, but I was interrupted by the vibration of my phone.

I stepped up into my lair to take the call.

“We’re a few minutes away,” Lisa told me, the second I picked up.

“Bitch is here already,” I answered.  “Come in the front door when you get here.”

“Righty-o.  Ta ta.”

She hung up.

I took a second to compose myself, alone in the second floor of my lair.  Dealing with people, the sensitive management of Bitch and her underlings, pretending confidence where I didn’t necessarily have it, and thinking of all the little details that would help me convey the image of someone confident and powerful… it was draining.  It meant standing straighter, having the answers, thinking two steps ahead and using intimidation and fear to prevent any argument or insubordination like Barker’s little stunt.  It meant retaliating in excess to any slight or disrespect.

Barker had pushed me, I’d left him mewling like a baby.

At the same time, I faced a dilemma on the opposite end of things.  I wanted to help people, and I wanted to build friendships with the others.  With the way Bitch sort of mandated that I go the extra mile, it was hard to be nice to her without seeming weak to others.

Well, what they didn’t see didn’t hurt them.

I stepped downstairs.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “A word?”

She frowned, glancing at the food.

“We’ll be done before the food is,” I promised.

She followed me up the stairs.

“It’s not complete,” I admitted, walking over to where I had fabric draped over a workbench.  I picked up one piece and flicked it out.  “I just figured you’d want to see it and voice any complaints before the others got here, so your voice doesn’t get drowned out.”

She took it from my hands.  It was a jacket, not dissimilar to the one she’d lent me once upon a time, but it was naturally lighter.  There was a hood with a fluffy fur border at the edges, extending around in front of her shoulders.  Besides the zippers and buttons, the fur was the only thing I hadn’t made myself.

“I dyed it dark gray.  I figured if you wanted it any color, you’d want it something dark, so I can tint it dark red, dark blue, dark green, or whatever you want.”

She stared at it, her forehead creased.

“It’s spider silk.  Tensile strength like steel, but flexible enough to resist wear and tear that steel wire would experience.  And it’s lighter than the steel would be.  Knives won’t cut it.  I figured you’d want a heavier feel, judging by the jacket you lent me before, so I put rectangular panels of armor in between the inner and outer layer to give it more substance.  I originally meant for there to be an undershirt or something you can wear to protect your upper body for when you don’t have it zipped up, but I kind of cannibalized it for my own costume, after I burned my legs.  I’ll have the shirt ready for you in a week or two.  Here, there’s leggings, too.  They survived.”

I picked up the leggings.  Unlike the jacket, they were skin-tight.

“I don’t wear tights,” she said.

“I thought you could wear them under your pants if you were expecting a serious fight.  I gave you an inner layer with a really fine weave for the inner thighs, for when you’re riding, so there’s less chafing.”

“Uh huh.”

“I went out of my way to give you lots of pockets like you had in the other jacket.  I don’t think it’ll be too hot.  There’s zippers in the armpits so you can ventilate some cool air inside, and you can detach the hood if you want, but I liked how it looked with the fur.  I’m planning an inside liner for when it’s-”

“It’s fine,” she interrupted me.  “Stop talking.  It’s good.”

“Yeah?  I didn’t get a chance to get your measurements, so I went by memory, based on the jacket you lent me.”

She pulled it on and adjusted the front.  “Fits fine.”

“Here,” I said.  I turned around and grabbed the next piece.  I handed it to her.

She turned it around in her hands.  I’d cheated and formed the base sculpt out of chicken wire, covering the remainder with layers of dragline silk and painting the end result.  It was, as close as I’d been able to manage, a recreation of what her power did to her dogs in the form of a mask.  Except I’d made it half human and half dog.

“Looks like Brutus,” she said.

I didn’t see it, but I didn’t see fit to correct her either.

She pulled it on.

“It’s just a little bit flexible, if you want to bend any bits that are rubbing in the wrong place, or shape it to fit your face better.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  She adjusted her jacket again.

“If you want me to change anything-”

“No.”

Her refusal was so curt it gave me pause.  I couldn’t tell if she was upset or happy.

I forced myself to keep my mouth shut.  I’d give her a few seconds to let me know either way.  If she didn’t, I was ready to escape by pointing out that lunch would be waiting for us.

“You made stuff for the others?”

“Yeah.”

“But I didn’t ask for it.  I told you to fuck off when you asked me for my measurements, remember?”

“I made it anyways.”

She adjusted her mask, turning it so it hung off one side of her head.  She was glowering at me.  “Why didn’t you listen when I told you to fuck off?”

Two ways I could interpret that question.  “Don’t worry about it.  Look, the hamburgers will be ready soon…” I trailed off.

An awkward silence reigned.  I turned to head downstairs.

“What do you want for this?”

I looked over my shoulder.  “What?  Nothing.”

“You’re trying to get some favor from me.”

“No, I’m really not.  It might feel like it, with the timing and what we’re going to talk about with Lisa and the others, but it’s really not.  You’re free to argue and disagree with me or the rest of us, just like usual.  The costume’s a gift.”

“I don’t get many gifts.”

I shrugged.  What was I supposed to say to that?  I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a little more socially adroit, I’d have had a snappy answer.

She kept talking.  “All of the stuff I’ve gotten, it’s been with strings attached.  Used to get gifts from one of my foster dads,” she paused.  “And I get the money from Coil.”

“Those aren’t really presents.  They’re more like bribes or enticements.  Really truly, this is no strings attached.  You can act like you normally would, I won’t expect any different.”

Again, that glower.

I swallowed.  “Wear it or don’t wear it.  It’s okay either way.  It’s not a big deal.”

“I’ll wear it,” she said.

When I turned to head downstairs, she followed.

I guess that means ‘thank you’.

We were greeted by the others in the kitchen.  There was just enough time to grab and prepare our burgers before the others arrived.  Grue, Tattletale, Imp, Regent and Shatterbird.  They turned down the offer of food, and together, we ventured back upstairs.

With everyone gathered in my headquarters, I handed out the costumes.  Like Bitch’s, the other costumes were in various stages of completion, primarily with minor details missing or askew.  I ate while the others tried it all on.

Lisa’s costume was virtually the same.  The complicated aspect had been maintaining the crisp differences in color without any bleeding of black into lavender or vice versa.  There’d also been the issue of getting the mask to fit her face well.  I’d accomplished the former by making the black and lavender pieces separately and attaching them to a gossamer-thin sub-layer when I was done.  We had the boys and Shatterbird turn away while Lisa and Aisha changed at one end of the room.  The mask was a failure, it didn’t sit right around the eyes, but I was left with an idea of what to do.

Grue’s costume was not unlike his motorcycle leathers in terms of thickness and design, making him one of the most heavily armored of our groups in terms of the amount of material he was wearing.  His headwear was the part I’d changed the most: I’d modeled the face-plate after a figurine he’d bought at the market.  It was a step away from the visor he’d worn up to now, more demonic than skeletal.  The only real trick there had been making it non-porous enough that his darkness wouldn’t bleed through.  A quick experiment proved that my efforts had turned out alright.  In costume, the face-mask down, the darkness framed his mask but didn’t cover it unless Grue forced it to.  A demon’s face in dark gray in a vaguely human-shaped twist of darkness.

For Regent and Imp, I’d settled on bodysuits and masks.  Regent would wear his beneath his costume and Imp would wear hers as a simple black bodysuit, complete with a scarf and the horned mask Coil had provided.

There was more to do: belts, Imp’s scarf, Tattletale’s mask and Bitch’s shirt, not to mention finishing my new mask, and my plans for different masks for our various minions.

When we’d been fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d lamented the fact that I hadn’t better outfitted the team, and people had been hurt where the costumes would have otherwise protected them.  In the days I’d had to wind down, focusing on getting people organized and working on cleaning up the area, I’d been in range to get a serious effort going on the costumes.

I was satisfied with this.

By all appearances, they were too.

“Safe to turn around,” Tattletale told the boys.

They did.  I gestured, and people found seats in the various chairs.

“Feels like we’re different people than we were an hour ago,” Imp said, looking around.

I considered her words.  “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think it’s more accurate to say we’re different people than we were a week ago.”

There were some nods.  I glanced at the scar on Tattletale’s cheek, at Shatterbird, who stood obediently behind Regent, and at Grue, who had transformed more than any of us.

And I couldn’t forget the change I’d undergone, even if I didn’t have the objectivity to nail down exactly what about me was different from a week ago.  Sure, my costume was different, and I had the three hundred pound beetle that was resting on the roof.

“You wanted to touch base?” Brian asked, after he’d pulled off his mask.

“I had some words with Skitter,” Lisa answered.  “I think it’s about time we all got on the same page.”

“In terms of tactics?”

Lisa shrugged, “There’s that.  I think working independently is kind of throwing us off, and it leaves us weak against any coordinated attacks from the Chosen.  We work best when we complement one another.”

Alec shrugged.  “Okay.  That’s easy enough to arrange.  Not really a reason to throw a major group meeting.”

“There’s something else,” I said.  I swallowed, looking at Regent, Imp and Bitch.  “I’ve already talked about this at length with Lisa, and I’ve discussed it some with Brian.  This isn’t an easy topic to broach, because it sort of fucks with the team’s status quo.”

That had their attention.

“I guess the question is, how keen are you guys on continuing to work for Coil?”

“Are we talking quitting in the short-term or what?”

“I don’t know exactly what we’re talking about, because so much depends on how you guys respond and how things unfold in the next while,” I said.  “But this thing with Dinah, I’m not happy with it.  I know Lisa and Brian have their issues with that, even if they don’t share my perspective in how culpable we all are in that.”

“I’m not responsible at all,” Aisha pointed out.

“Aisha,” Brian’s tone was a warning.

“Just saying.”

“You aren’t responsible, I know,” I told her.  “I get the impression you’d side with Brian, Lisa and me if it came down to it.  The people I’m really directing this question at are Alec and Rachel.  I’m under the impression they’re the least invested in helping Dinah out, and they’re most interested in what Coil has to offer.”

“Doesn’t Brian have a stake in this?” Alec asked.

Brian shrugged.  “Coil approached me a few days ago about increasing my pay.  I think he knows I’m not that reliant on him anymore.  I got into this because I wanted to get Aisha away from my mom.  With the way things in the city have been turned upside-down, I know and Coil knows that I don’t need help.  The fact that I can say I’ve got money saved up, I can arrange to get a place and Aisha’s safe and sound with me?  That’s almost enough to decide the court case as is.”

“And mommy’s on a bender,” Aisha said.  “Don’t think it’ll end anytime soon.”

It was odd, but Brian looked more upset at hearing that than Aisha was about saying it aloud.  Hadn’t he grown up with his dad?

“So it’s really down to you two,” I addressed Alec and Rachel.

“If I were to say I wanted to stick around?  That I like the status quo?” Alec asked.

“That’s fine,” Lisa said.  “You’d be an asshole and a prick, but we’d work around you.”

“That’s vague,” Alec commented.

“We can’t exactly share our game plan with you if we’re going to wind up on opposite sides,” I pointed out.

“It’s a hassle.  Why make things complicated for all of us, because one member of our group has a moral quibble?”

“A preadolescent girl was kidnapped, with our help, and she’s spent the last few months in a dungeon, drugged out of her mind, all so Coil can use her power,” I said.  “That’s not a quibble.”

Alec sighed dramatically.  “I’m just pulling your legs.  World’s going to end in a couple of years.  Won’t kill me to help you make peace with yourself before it does.”

There was a long pause where nobody spoke.

Nice, Alec.” Brian said.

Alec chuckled.  “What?  It’s true.  That Dinah kid said it was.  Don’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  Might as well live it up before everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

“There’s a chance it won’t,” I replied, my voice quiet.  “And with the sheer variety of powers out there, there’s got to be an answer.”

“That optimism’s bound to be wearing thin by now,” Alec commented.

“Enough,” Brian said.

“Why are you guys freaking out?  Because I’m calling you out on your willful blindness?  The world’s gonna end, and I’m okay with that.  Therefore I’m saying I’ll go along with your plan, whatever it is.  Why argue with me?”

Brian sighed.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “I know Coil’s set up your dogs in those shelters, and we’d be asking you to potentially lose that, depending on how this plays out, but…”

“I’ve managed without money before,” Bitch said.  “Smarmy bastard conned me.  Promised me I’d be left alone if I joined the group.  That hasn’t happened.  If he thinks I’ll forget that because of what he’s given me, I’d like to see the look on his face when he finds out how wrong he is.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So we’re all in?” I asked.

“It was fun,” Alec shrugged, “That’s why we got into this, wasn’t it?  Easy money, fun, get to do what we wanted.  No pressure, no responsibilities.  It’s become something else.  So maybe we end that.”

“I don’t necessarily want to end it,” I said.  “I’m not talking about taking Coil head on, and I do want to preserve my territory, if I can help it.  It’s helping people.”

“So what do you want?” he challenged me.

“For right now?  I mainly wanted to know you’re on my side.  I really appreciate that you are,” I said.  I looked at Bitch and repeated myself, “Really.”

“And for the future?”

“We’ve got an awfully small window,” Lisa said.  “One and a half weeks, roughly, before Dinah’s power is back online.  Once that happens, Coil becomes a thousand times harder to take on.  There’s the mayoral elections, the question of whether the city gets condemned-”

“What?” I cut in.

“It’s arguably more expensive to fix the problems here than it is to abandon the city entirely.  Depends on what the consensus is from the President and all the other folks in charge.”

“If that happens, what will Coil do?” Brian asked.

“Leave.  Start over somewhere else, transporting any resources he can, leaving behind all liabilities.  He might bring some of you with him, offering some hefty bribes.  Somehow I don’t think he’ll bring Skitter.  Even my own currency is running pretty thin,” Lisa shrugged.

“He can’t afford to lose you,” Brian said.  “You’re too dangerous as an enemy.”

“Oh, I think he’s studied me enough to feel pretty confident he can off me if he wants to,” Lisa said. “Trick is making it a sure enough kill that there’s no chance of it backfiring on him.”

“And me?” I asked, feeling a pang of alarm.

“He knows your weak points.  The gaps in your power, your dad, your identity, your morals.  You already know that.”

I did, but hearing it said so clearly, it was one of those cases where having the details laid out in front of me didn’t make me feel more confident.

“So this is going to be a different kind of fight,” Brian mused.  “It’s about control and subterfuge.  If he figures out what we’re doing, if we clue him in, he’s probably better equipped than any of our past opponents when it comes to knowing how to deal with us.  If the city gets condemned, we’re boned.  And if Dinah gets her powers back, he’ll be impossible to beat.”

“That’s the gist of it.  Even I don’t know what he has planned for his endgame, here.  It’s looking pretty ugly, to be honest.”  Lisa counted off the points on her fingers.  “The Chosen will be gunning for us, Coil’s got a small army of pretty excellent, well-equipped soldiers at his disposal, he’s got some pretty fucking heavy hitters with the Travelers, the heroes are going to be going into overdrive to establish some sort of control and last but not least, he’s Coil.”

“Well,” Alec said, chuckling a little, “At least we’ll have something to help pass the time while we wait for the world to end.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 14

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Lift!” Sierra grunted.

The tightness in her back was reminder enough to use her legs to rise to a standing position.  Her hands were blistered and every knuckle was scraped or bruised.  They were carrying a door, torn from its hinges; the peeling paint, the worn wood, and the weight of their burden made it less than comfortable to hold.

She held one end of the door.  Jay was at the opposite end, his back to the man who was draped over it.  She wanted to ask Jay to hold the other end; she doubted looking down at the figure as he carried the makeshift stretcher would even bother him.

But she didn’t ask.  She couldn’t spare the breath.  They’d been working so long already, it was easier to forge ahead than to stop for any reason.

Still, her silence meant she was faced with the corpse of the man who had once lived here.  Once upon a time, he’d had parents, had a first day at school, had made friends, even had a crush on someone.  He had probably worked.  He’d had things he loved about life, no doubt, and if he was living here, he probably had more than enough things about life that he’d hated.  Whoever he’d been, he was another one of Mannequin’s victims now.  Not quite so disturbing as the ones killed by Burnscar.  He didn’t have a wallet on him, so he was a John Doe for now.

When they’d started working yesterday, that sort of thinking had made her want to cry.  Now she felt numb.  She could have thought about something else, but a part of her wanted to pay John Doe his due respect.  If nothing else, he deserved to be looked at as a human being rather than another body.

She bent down to set the door on the ground.  Jay took hold of the man by the shoulders, she lifted by the pants legs, and they moved him three feet to the right.  John Doe was set down on the concrete floor.  He joined twenty-nine other bodies, now arranged in two rows of fifteen people.  Too many were fellow John and Jane Does.

A blister had popped on her hand as she’d carried the door.  It smarted, but her focus was on the man.  Forty or so, but the yellow of his skin pointed to liver problems.  He could be as young as thirty, prematurely aged by alcoholism; it wasn’t like she hadn’t seen enough drunks around the city to be blind to the signs.

She felt like she should say something, but the words didn’t come to her.  Had he been a mean-spirited lecher of a drunk?  Someone who’d worked hard at whatever job he could find to support his family, then drank his worries away with his buddies after a shift?  A lonely man without anyone to care for him?

She considered a simple ‘sorry’, not necessarily because she felt guilty.  She was speaking more for the fact that she couldn’t do more for him, and apologizing on behalf of the random, senseless events that had taken his life.

“Next?” Jay asked.

She looked at him.  He was tired, but she didn’t see any signs of the same emotional drain she was experiencing herself.  He’d been a gang member in the ABB, had preyed on others, maybe even killing.  This job didn’t faze him in the slightest.  Behind his shaggy hair, his narrow eyes were cold, uncaring.  He could have been carrying groceries for all he seemed to care.

It creeped her out.

“No,” she said.  “I’ve hit my limit.  Can you find someone else to move the last two bodies from the factory to here?”

“Okay.”

She stared at the bodies.  Hopefully they could arrange something early in the morning.  Maybe if she put together a group and sent them downtown to verbally request help?  It was only one of a growing number of issues she was having to solve.  She sighed.  “I’m going to go see how things are inside.”

“Okay.”

She watched as he left to rejoin Yan and Sugita, the other two ex-ABB members.  He must have said something to them, because Yan turned to look at Sierra.  The look was intense.  It wasn’t jealousy from the Chinese-American girl.  It was something else.  As creepy as Jay was, his girlfriend’s stare scared Sierra more.

Exhausted and unnerved, Sierra headed back to Skitter’s headquarters.  She double-checked that nobody was following before entering the storm drain.  It was pitch black inside.  Humid.  She walked with fingertips tracing the right-hand wall.  When that wall ended, she kept walking.  It was disorienting, uncomfortable, walking without a guide in darkness so absolute she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face.

She felt the wall again, and she kept her hand on it as she rounded the next corner.  There was a wet patch where some small amounts of water were trickling down from the street above… two more paces, then a left hand turn.  She fumbled around briefly to find the opening.

That was the hardest part.  The rest was easy – finding the doorway, entering the cellar, then heading upstairs to the main floor.  She was glad to see light, to let go of that fear that she’d miss the gap and find herself wandering the storm drains and getting lost, unable to find a way back to the surface or the beach.  She wondered if Skitter had felt the same way.

She nearly tripped over a small child as she made her way into the kitchen.  Charlotte was there, and she was busy emptying the cupboards.  Everything edible was on the counter or on the floor, neatly arranged.  Sierra estimated roughly twenty children were on the ground floor.

“There’s more than there used to be.”

“O’Daly clan.”

Sierra frowned.  “They need to take care of their own kids.”

“They’re kind of preoccupied.  They were hit harder than anyone else by the attack.  I think only six of the twenty who were with us are left.”

“I know.  But they still need to take care of their kids.”

“Give them one more day to mourn?”  Charlotte asked.

“It’s your call.  You’re the one babysitting in the meantime.”

“I’m trying,” Charlotte said.  “But they’re switching between playing and being pretty normal kids to crying because their parents are… you know.”

Dead.

“Yeah,” Sierra confirmed.

Charlotte had taken off her mask and was using it to tie her hair back.  She straightened it and tied it over her forehead again.  “Isn’t the city supposed to handle this?  There should be something like foster care, or a special evacuation plan for orphaned kids.”

“I don’t think the city knows.  It’s not just the kids.  We’ve got thirty dead bodies and it’s not exactly cool out, and there aren’t any ambulances or anything showing up to handle it. We just spent the entire afternoon moving them to a new spot with Jay and two locals.

We were talking about burning them in a mass grave, but I’m worried that’s against the law.  And since half of them don’t have ID, we might ruin any chance of their families identifying them.”

“Not easy.”

“No,” Sierra admitted. “How’s the rationing?”

“It’s less like she went shopping and more like she wanted to stock this place like it was a miniature grocery store.  A little bit of everything.  I’m trying to organize it by expiry date so we can prioritize eating and serving the food that’s going bad now, in case she never comes back and the food starts to get low.”

“I know it’s a bit late, but there’s a lot of us who’ve been working hard, cleaning up the mess from the attacks…”  Sierra hedged.

“You want dinner?”

Sierra pressed her hands together in a pleading gesture.

“Maybe soup?  I figure we need to eat these vegetables, there’s stock, and if we water it down so we can split it up more…”  Charlotte trailed off.  “I never really cooked at home.  I helped my parents cook, but that’s not the same thing.”

“It works.  Prepare some rice from the supplies, since we have more than enough of that.  Bulk it out.  We have a lot of mouths to feed.”

“Okay.”

All she wanted to do was stop.  Instead, she stepped into the living room, where makeshift beds had been arranged with piles of blankets and sleeping bags.  Only two kids were sleeping there, both clearly brother and sister.  It was as much privacy as she was going to get.  She plucked the satellite phone from her pocket.

This scenario wasn’t what she’d expected, on any level.  Even as Skitter had explained the job duties as being helping out, rebuilding, organizing, Sierra had maintained doubts.  She’d been waiting for that one job where Skitter tested her limits, asked her to do something a little dangerous, something morally ambiguous.  It would be subtle, or it would have consequences she wasn’t immediately aware of, but it would set her on the road to something darker.

Except it hadn’t happened yet.  Even the scope of what she was doing here caught her off guard.  There were innumerable dead, and yet more people forced out of their homes by the fires Burnscar had started.  It seemed like everyone was walking a narrow line between banding together as a community and killing one another.

It felt strange to identify as one of the key people who were pulling for the former.  She was organizing everone, keeping in touch with the groups handling the other cleanup jobs and working tirelessly at the hardest and most unwanted jobs in the hopes of inspiring others to keep going.  When the smell of shit and rot that accompanied the dead got to someone, Sierra was at their side, helping calm them down, always ready to name another place where they were needed.

It was almost too much.  A huge part of her wanted to call Skitter, to get some guidance, to order supplies and defer on the harder problems, like the bodies.

Another part of her was scared to.

She dialed another number instead.

“Yes?” the voice was deep.

She was put in mind of being a little kid, calling a friend and hearing an adult on the other end.  It felt awkward.  She sort of resented it.

“I’d like to talk to Bryce?”  It came out as more of a question than a statement.

“One moment.”

She watched with the phone pressed to one ear as Charlotte recruited some of the older children to prepare dinner.  They started putting things back in cabinets, ordered not by the type of food, but by how long it would last.  One of the children found a cutting board and began to cut lettuce.

“Sierra?”

“Yeah,” she answered.

“Well?  What do you want?”

“Checking up on you, moron.”

“I’m fine,” Bryce said.  He managed to sound sullen.

She crossed the room to approach the kitchen counter and mimed proper cutting technique for the ten-year-old that was preparing the lettuce.  It wouldn’t do to have the kid lose any fingertips.  Or maybe she was sensitive to the idea while talking to Bryce.

“Is that it?” Bryce asked.

“I was hoping for more than two words of response.  How’s your hand?”

“Hurts.”

“That’s going to happen.  You lost all four fingers.”

“No.  It hurts like my fingers are still there and they’re being crushed.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.  I’m sorry?  You deserved what you got?

“Ask Tattletale about it?”

“She’s gone.  Has been for more than a day, now.  Jaw said she’s not to be disturbed with phone calls or anything like that.”

Skitter had been gone for roughly as long as Tattletale.  According to Charlotte, Skitter had invited a bunch of local villains over and then left shortly after.  They were probably the other eight territory bosses who were working to occupy the city.  That had been over forty-eight hours ago.

“Jaw gave me some painkillers,” Bryce said.

“What kind?”  Sierra felt a stab of alarm.

It must have been audible, because Bryce replied, “Relax.  Over the counter stuff.”

“Okay.  What have you been doing?”

“Nothing big.  Keeping track of some members of the Chosen as they move around.  Hookwolf’s guys.”

“I know who they are.”

“They’ve been moving in.  I thought we were going to get in a fight, but Jaw had us all retreat.  I think because I was with them.  It’s annoying.”

“It’s a good thing that you’re not being dragged into a firefight.  Especially one with capes.”

“They’ve been teaching me how to fight with a knife, how to throw one, how to use a gun-”

“I don’t want you learning that stuff.”

“I have to, in case we get ambushed or something.  And I’m not bad at it.  We could have fought those guys.”

“Did Tattletale tell you that you should fight them?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Like I said, Tattletale isn’t around and hasn’t been for a while.”

“So the answer is no, she didn’t give you the go-ahead.”

“No.”

“That’s a good enough reason to back off, then.  I don’t know exactly who she is or what she does, but she knows what she’s doing.  Trust her in that.”

“Always awesome to talk to you, Sierra.  Thanks.  Bye now.”

“Don’t hang up on me.  Put me on the phone with Jaw.”

Bryce hung up.

He’s supposed to be getting better, more disciplined.  Had she made the wrong call?  If Bryce was getting training with guns and knives, and still failing to shape up, this thing with him being recruited by Tattletale could be disastrous in the long run.

She waited a minute, then called the same number.

“Yes?”  Again, Jaw’s deep voice.

“He hung up on me.  I wanted to ask you how he was doing.”

“The boy is learning.”

“I’d rather he wasn’t learning how to use weapons.  If he’s getting in a situation where he needs to fight, you guys aren’t keeping your end of the deal.”

“That would be Pritt.  He thinks she’s attractive, and listens to her best, so Minor has her accompany him much of the time.  She is a former child soldier, she would have thought self-defense was a good way to regain confidence after the boy lost his fingers.”

She could imagine Jaw saying that with Bryce overhearing, her brother getting simultaneously annoyed and embarrassed.  She liked it.

“Have her cut it out?  I don’t want to sound like I’m giving you orders, but I don’t want my little brother shooting people.”

“It’s fine.  Tattletale told us to do whatever you required as far as the boy is concerned.  I will tell Minor, and he will order the others to keep the boy away from weapons.”

“Thank you.”

“I will also decide on a punishment for the boy for being rude and hanging up on his sister.  I think we would all like him to learn some respect for his betters.”

She could imagine him looking at Bryce as he said it.

“Nothing too serious?  As punishment goes?”

“Nothing serious.  It will build character.”

“Thank you.  Any word on what Skitter and Tattletale are doing?”

“No.  All I know is that it will be dangerous, and every squad is on high alert.  We are sleeping in shifts, maintaining combat readiness and doubling patrols.  We were informed three hours ago that the downtown area is off-limits.  I know Lieutenant Fish was deployed there when the order came down, and he has ceased all communications.”

All of downtown?”

“Yes.”

She hung up and headed for the bathroom to tend to the damage her hands had accumulated over the day’s work.  Disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, bandages.  Every time she thought she’d found the last small scrape, she found another.

By the time she was done, her hands had as much in the way of bandages as there was exposed skin.  She flexed her fingers to make sure she could still move them, adjusted two bandages, and then returned to the kitchen.

“Progress?”

“Nearly done.  It hasn’t cooked very long, and I’m worried it’ll just taste like boiled vegetables in water, but you said people were hungry.  How do you want to get the soup out there?”

“There’s three spots where people are sleeping tonight.  Let’s mobilize the kids and get some food out to everyone.”

“The kids?”

“Everyone needs to contribute.  Maybe if they see seven-year-olds doing their part, the O’Daly clan will get the message.”

“Sierra,” Charlotte made a pained expression as she spoke, “They’ve been through a lot.”

“They’re using our sleeping space, they’re eating our food supplies.  We can’t hold their hands and baby them.  Everyone’s having a hard time these days.”

“That’s cold.”

“Maybe, but I’ve been working from sunrise to well after dark, here, and they were just sitting around, getting in the way, complaining and crying.”

“Most of their family died just a few days ago.”

Sierra didn’t have a response to that.  They were still eating far too much and taking up too much room for people who hadn’t lifted a finger to help.  “Anyways, think I can use the kids?”

“Don’t push them.  Some are pretty emotionally sensitive.  But yeah.”

Sierra turned around, “Hey, munchkins!  Got a job for you.  Help out and we’ll give you first dibs on the after-dinner treats!”

Roughly half of the little ones approached her.  Six to ten years old, boys and girls, a variety of ethnicities.

“Who’s the oldest?  Raise your hand if you’re ten… okay, if you’re nine?  Eight?”

She mentally sorted them out, then directed them, “You, you’re in charge of those three.  You’re in charge of these two… You’re in charge of this pair, okay?”

Older kids looking after little kids.  They sorted into their groups.

“You’re carrying soup out to the sleeping areas.  We’ve got something to carry them in, Charlotte?”

“Yeah.  Just give me a minute.  Don’t want them to burn their hands.”

“Everyone carries what they can.  Take the soup out there and then come back here.”

Charlotte put the lids on the first few containers of soup, and the kids scampered off.

Sierra didn’t give it a second thought until she heard the shutter sliding open.

“Not the front door!”  Sierra called out, but the kids were already out the front door.  She sighed.

“They’re afraid of the storm sewer,” Charlotte pointed out.

“I know.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go out with the next group, just to keep an eye on the delivery process.”

“Okay.  I’ll prep some for you to carry,” Charlotte said.  “Find more tupperware or pots I can put this in?”

Sierra nodded and turned to do as she’d been asked, but the kids were already hopping to the task.  She let them go ahead.  It seemed they were glad for something to occupy themselves with.  Maybe they recognized how shitty the overall situation was and they wanted to help fix it.

She suspected she’d find the necessary tupperware faster than the four kids combined, but it wasn’t a big deal.

“Well, well, well.”

Sierra whirled around before the man was even finished talking.  Not a man, exactly, but boy didn’t fit.

It was Jay.  The Japanese-American boy glared at her through his mop of hair.

“Jay.  You weren’t invited here.”

“I can see why.  Electricity, running water, food… you’ve got it made.  Was wondering where you were going, tried following you, but you disappeared.  Thought we’d missed our chance until we saw some ankle-biters running down the street with plastic containers of food.  Seems you’re hoarding the good shit.”

“We’re not hoarding,” she spoke.  She had to swallow to clear her throat.  She knew she had to sound confident, “This is Skitter’s place.”

“Skitter’s, sure.  If she’s still alive.  But not your space.  Don’t see why you can have this stuff and we can’t.”

“Skitter gave us permission.”

“We supposed to believe?” Sugita asked, his voice heavily accented.

“Yeah.”

“No,” Yan spoke.  She reached behind her back and drew a handgun.  “Don’t believe you.”

There are kids here, Sierra thought.

“Stupid,” she spoke without thinking.

Yan pointed the gun at her.  “What did you say?”

“You know Skitter gave us the go-ahead to use her place.”

“That so?  I overheard someone complaining that Skitter left without announcing anything, after the fires,” Yan said.  Her tone was mocking.

“You assholes.  Least you can do is drop the bullshit and admit you just want to take our stuff.”

“Was thinking about it, sure,” Jay said, “Doesn’t look like Skitter’s coming back.  Two days, situation like this?  But you’re dreaming if you think we’re going to just walk away with some food.  I think we’re going to evict you.”

“Evict us?

“Move out of the way,” Yan ordered Sierra, twitching the gun to her left.

“Why?” Sierra asked.

“Because I’ll shoot you if you don’t,” Yan said.  “I can’t believe you’re not listening.  You’re either stubborn or stupid.”

“I’m tired,” Sierra replied.  “And what you’re doing here isn’t exactly brilliant.  Think about it. Where did this food come from?  The equipment?”

“Skitter bought it.”

“From who?  From where?  It’s pretty obvious this place was set up after Leviathan came, but where’d she get it?  She had it delivered.  And the same people who make deliveries like this to a supervillain are going to be pretty ticked off if they find out someone’s messed with one of their customers.”

The argument was feeble, and she knew it.

“If these people exist, they won’t show up tonight.  We’ll spend the night.  I figure we’re overdue for a party.”

“Leaving us to clean up the mess?”

“Sierra,” Charlotte spoke, her voice quiet, “Not worth it.”

Yan gestured with the gun, and Sierra listened this time, stepping out of the way.

Sugita and Jay headed past the counter and into the kitchen, while Yan stood where she could block the front door.  Sierra could see Charlotte shrinking away.  Like a shark that smelled blood, Sugita turned his attention to her.  He stepped close, invading her personal space.

Don’t show fear, Sierra prayed.

But Charlotte did.  In an instant, it was as though she was a different person than she’d been five minutes ago.  Weak-kneed, cringing, not even resisting as Sugita grabbed at her wrist.

There was something at play there that Sierra hadn’t been told about.  “Leave her alone!”

“Shut up, bitch,” Yan stepped closer, waggling the gun, “You want to get shot?”

“Just let us go.  Do whatever the fuck you want here, it’s on your head, but let us go.”

“Don’t think so.  I hate arrogant bitches.  Going to spoil my mood if I don’t do anything about it.  Your choice.  I can shoot you through your palm, shoot you in a knee, or I can shoot one of the kids.”

Sierra glanced at the kids who had shrunk back against counters, cabinets and the wall.  There were tears tracking through the dirt on their faces, but they were mostly managing to keep quiet.

“Well?” Yan asked, raising her voice.

Sierra couldn’t bring herself to speak.  Being shot in the hand- she might never use it again.  But the knee was supposedly the part of the body that had the hardest time recovering from a major injury.

Yan bent down and grabbed one of the oldest boys by the hair.  Ten years old, blond hair in bad need of a cut and a pugnacious nose.  He squealed and writhed in pain at the grip on his scalp, until he wrenched himself out of Yan’s grip, falling flat on his back.

The girl jammed the gun in his mouth before he could recover, and he froze.

“Choose!”

“My hand.”

Yan smirked, taking the gun out of the boy’s mouth.  “Put it flat against the wall.”

Sierra started raising her hand, then stopped.

A figure stood behind Yan.  Her costume was barely recognizable – She wore a short cape of tattered black cloth over her body armor, a skintight black suit beneath that, and there were folds of black cloth draped around her legs like a dress or a robe.  The entire fabric seemed to ripple and move.  It took Sierra a second to realize it was crawling with a carpet of insects.

The disconcerting part was the girl’s face, or lack thereof.  Her expression was masked behind a shifting mass of bugs that moved in and out of her hairline.  Sierra couldn’t even tell where the bugs ended and the scalp began, as the small black bodies crawled into and onto the black curls.  There was a hint of something like glass where Skitter’s eyes were, but the bugs ventured far enough over her eyelids and around the frames that nothing was visible in the way of goggles, glasses or skin.

Skitter hadn’t made a sound as she entered.  She hadn’t spoken, and her footsteps had been quiet.

Yan pointed the gun at Skitter.  “You’re back, huh?”

The villainess didn’t speak.  She pointed to her right instead.

Advancing toward the group was a beetle the size of a small pony.  It didn’t use its forelimbs to walk, but held them up so the razor edge was both visible and ready to strike.

“Call it off or I shoot!”

“Shoot and you die,” Skitter’s voice was distorted, not really resembling a sound from human lips.  The beetle seemed to offer a deep buzz to accompany the ‘oo’ sounds.  “It won’t be pretty.  Brown recluse venom makes your muscles necrotize.  That means it decays while you’re still alive.  It takes days, but the only real cure is taking a knife to the area around the bite.  That might be okay if you have one bite, carve out a half-pound of flesh, let the wound drain, stitch it up.  But what if you have three or four bites?  Or ten?”

“You’re bullshitting me,” Yan spat the words.

Skitter ignored her.  “It’s excruciatingly painful.  Nothing you experienced during your initiation into the ABB even compares, I can guarantee it.  You’re rotting alive, your flesh turning black as it liquefies.  So maybe you shoot me.  Maybe you even kill me, though I doubt it.  Either way, whether I walk away from here alive or not, you get bitten.  They’re already on you.  All three of you.”

Yan glanced down at her body.  In that same instant, the beetle took flight.  It crossed the room in the span of a heartbeat and slammed into her.  Its blade-like forelimbs caught around Yan and pulled her to the ground.

Sierra turned her attention to the other two, saw Sugita lunging to one side.  She practically threw herself between him and the countertop where the knife still lay on top of the cutting board.  Jay drew his knife, but dropped it in the same motion.  His other hand clutched his forearm as his eyes went wide.

“That’s one bite, Shaggy,” Skitter said.  “Giving you two seconds to kick the knife under the stove before I give you another.  One-”

Jay kicked the knife across the kitchen floor.  It slid out of sight.

“And you, I think you were the one with the bad accent?  You can step away from Charlotte now.”

Sugita scowled, but he did as he was asked.  He backed away from Charlotte until he stood beside Jay.  Charlotte let one sob escape before she hurried across the kitchen and moved to stand behind Skitter.

She’s been through something, Sierra thought.  She knew Charlotte was staying in town only because of her family, that she’d been captured by the Merchants and held for at least a short while… and there was some reason she couldn’t explain that to her family and just leave the city.

“I hope the rest of you are okay?”  Skitter asked.

“Where were you?” Sierra returned the question with one of her own.

“Dealing with the Nine.  They’re not a concern anymore, at least for now.”

It was surreal, hearing the girl talk about dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They weren’t in the same category as your average villain.  They were like monsters from horror films, the killer who always got up at the end of the film, the monster who never died.

“You mean they won’t attack anytime soon, or-”

“They’re dealt with.  Burnscar’s dead.  Crawler’s dead.  Mannequin’s probably dead.  Cherish and Shatterbird wish they were dead.  Found Siberian’s weak point, and it’ll be international news soon, if it isn’t already.  She, Jack and Bonesaw ran.  Tried to pursue, couldn’t track them.  It’ll be a while before they bounce back.”

“You took on the Nine and won?”

Skitter ventured toward Yan, then used one foot to hold the girl’s arm down against the ground.  The beetle pinned it there, pressing the point of one forelimb into her palm with enough pressure that a bead of blood appeared.  Skitter stepped around the girl so the beetle could do the same.  When Yan clenched her fist, Skitter stepped on her fist, crushing it underfoot.

She took her time responding.  When she did speak, all she said was, “I didn’t say we won.”

She lifted her foot, Yan unclenched it, and the beetle stabbed down with another pointed forelimb to pin it to the ground.

“What are you doing?” Yan asked, a note of desperation in her voice.

Skitter didn’t respond.  “Sierra?  Charlotte?”

Charlotte didn’t venture a reply, but Sierra managed one.  “Yeah?”

Were it not for the accompanying buzz of the bugs, Sierra suspected she wouldn’t have heard Skitter speak.  “You’ve been working hard.  Thank you.  I didn’t expect to have anything to come back to.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra said.  The words were a bit of a non-sequitur, but Skitter seemed to accept them.

“Thought you would have left,” Skitter said.

“Anyone that’s still in the city probably has some reason they can’t go.  But things here aren’t good.”

“We can fix that,” Skitter said.  It sounded more like she was talking to herself than to anyone in the room.  It would have been reassuring if she hadn’t been staring down at Yan.

“What are you going to do?” Yan repeated herself.

“Charlotte, would you take the children into another room?”

Charlotte seemed relieved to have the chance to escape.  Every child that was present flocked to her and she hurried into the bedroom.

Yan raised her voice, “You left!  You abandoned us!”

They were as insecure as the rest of us, Sierra thought.  Not that it excuses their behavior.

“Hand or knee?” Skitter asked.

“Fuck you!”  Yan shouted.

Then she convulsed.  She thrashed, dragging her hands against the pointed forelimbs with such violence that she opened ragged cuts in her palms.  She stopped as quickly as she’d started, her eyes going wide.

She’d been bitten, more than once.

“Shaggy-hair, hand or knee?”

Jay’s eyes went wide, but he very calmly stated, “Hand.”

His eyes went wide as a spider crawled down the length of his arm to the back of his hand.  He jumped like he’d been electrocuted.

“And Mr. Accent.  Hand or knee?”

Sugita glanced around, then lunged for Sierra.  Going for the knife on the counter yet again.  She blocked him for the second time, he tried to shove her aside, and she used the distraction to drive her knee into his stomach.  He grunted and folded over.

“Both, then,” Skitter said.

Sugita was too busy reeling from the knee to the gut to respond or react.

“Attacking my people?  That was dumb.  Attacking a little kid?  Dumber.  Consider my territory to be a very bad place to be from now on.  My bugs can see you, they can hear you, and I’ll know if you slow down even a little as you leave, give you a few more bites.”

The beetle climbed off Yan, using its forelimbs to pick up the gun by driving the points through the trigger-guard.  It moved to Skitter’s side.

Yan, Sugita and Jay all took that as their leave to climb to their feet and head toward the door.  None of them even looked at Skitter, but they stopped when she pushed the door closed.

“There’s no safe haven for you in Brockton Bay.  My allies have control of every district, every territory.  No shelter will host you, and our individual forces will be searching every other place you might want to sleep.  Before you get far enough to find a doctor and get those bites treated, my contacts will have spread the word.  The doctors may have to treat you, but we can have our people sitting in the waiting rooms, or working as assistants to the doctors.  If you show your face, you’ll get attacked.  Maybe it’ll be a direct attack, maybe it won’t.  Trust me when I say you won’t be in any shape to defend yourselves.”

“So you’re condemning us to die?”  Any bravado Yan might have had before had been excised and replaced by wide-eyed fear.

“No.  Leave the city as fast as you can, and you can get help somewhere else.  I don’t really care, so long as you’re out of my city.  You’ll have some ugly scars if you don’t hurry.”

Skitter gestured to the door, and the three were quick to leave.  “Sierra, the shutter.”

She hurried to obey, stepping into the open doorframe and reaching up to bring it down to the ground.  It latched at the door’s base.  She shut the door after it.  “There’re kids still on an errand, I think.”

“I’ll let you know when to open the shutter again.”

“Okay.”

Skitter scattered the bugs around her face and ran her gloved fingers through her hair to straighten it.  “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Sierra replied, not quite sure what the apology was for.

“Couldn’t focus on this place and the Nine at the same time, and I thought this place was a lost cause.”

That stung, but Sierra didn’t voice the thought.  “Might be.  We’ve got bodies to get rid of-”

“I’ll handle that tonight.”

“The Chosen have been moving into the edges of your area, here and elsewhere, according to Tattletale’s soldier.”

Skitter let herself drop into a chair.  “Anything serious?  Ongoing attacks?”

“Just occupying the territory, I think.  Maybe making trouble for minorities nearby, but nothing so serious that I’ve hard about it.”

“Then I’ll deal with them after an afternoon’s rest.  Maybe open a discussion before I try anything more serious.”  Skitter’s voice buzzed as she spoke.  She pulled off the mask that covered the lower half of her face.

“Your voice.  You’re still doing the thing where your bugs talk with you.”

“Sorry,” Skitter said, the swarm suddenly quiet.  “I don’t even think about it anymore.”

“Your gang’s a lot smaller.  A lot of people died.”

Skitter put her elbows on her knees, removed her glasses and buried her face in her hands.

Crying?

Sierra hesitated.  What was she supposed to do here?

She ventured forward and reached out to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.  She stopped when she saw the carpet of ants, cockroaches and wasps.

“I’m okay,” Skitter said, without looking up.  She removed her hands from her face and leaned back.  There was no sign of tears – her eyes were dry.  Just tired.  “Could I bother you to make me a cup of tea?  Milk, drop of honey.”

Sierra nodded, “I remember.”

Silence reigned as she filled the kettle and set it down on the stove.  Still have to deliver the soup.  Sierra tried to surreptitiously examine Skitter.  The girl was removing all of the bugs from the surface of her costume and the gaps in the armor.  The swarm flowed up the stairs as a single mass.

“Those three… are they going to die?”

“No.  The bites weren’t from a brown recluse.  They’ll hurt, they’ll swell, and the three will probably leave the city to find a doctor.  Even if they realize I conned them, I think I scared them enough that they won’t be coming back to challenge me.”

“Ah.”

They say we fear the unknown, Sierra thought to herself.  So why does she freak me out more as I get to know her?

She brought her employer tea in the largest cup she’d been able to find.

“Things are going to get better now?” she asked.  “You’re not worried about the Chosen?”

“No.  I think their leader is gone, and after facing down the Nine, somehow I’m not worried about dealing with them.”

Facing down the Nine.  Sierra shivered a bit.

“No,” Skitter thought aloud.  “I think the biggest challenge I face comes from within our organization.”

That gave Sierra pause.  Had Skitter intended to include her with that ‘our’, or was it just vaguely phrased?

“An ally?  One of the other people with their own territories?”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Skitter said.

There was a pause.  Sierra thought of how she would excuse herself, go tend to the soup and check on Charlotte, but Skitter spoke first. “But no.  Not an ally.  At least half of them might get involved, and that could get pretty ugly, fast, but I’m thinking the biggest issue right now is the man at the top.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Bad, bad, bad, bad.

Burnscar stood with Mannequin just behind her, sporting a red shirt and black jeans, cigarette burns running down her cheeks, and a dead look in her eyes.  Bitch, Grue, Sirius, Bastard and I stood a dozen feet away, walls of flame like bonfires barring our escape routes to the rear or sides.  Droplets of rain fell all around us, making ripples on the inch-high water that flooded the street.  The air was thick with the smell of smoke.

We’d at least had time to mentally prepare for the idea of facing Mannequin.  My strategy had been last-minute, but I’d been in the right frame of mind to fight a tinker, to anticipate ambush and tackle someone with decent offensive abilities, strong defenses and a crapton of tricks up his sleeve.

Burnscar had flipped things on us; she was in a totally different ballpark from Mannequin.  If I had to guess, her offensive capabilities were top-notch, even if they didn’t break the scales like some other members of the Nine.  I couldn’t even guess where she fit on the spectrum of defensive ability, but she’d been with the Nine for a little while and she was still alive, so that was some indication.  And utility?  She had every trick a pyrokinetic like Lung had at his disposal and she could teleport through flames as well, opening up a mess of tricks and avenues of attack.

“Happy now?” She asked Grue.

“Not so much.”

Burnscar’s voice was flat, without humor, like an actor reading the lines from a script without actually emoting them.  “I am following the rules, now.  Let’s see.  Trying to remember how this is supposed to go. Test you, you pass or fail, and then I kill you.”

“You only kill Bitch if she fails,” I said.  Opening my mouth was more automatic than intentional.  The majority of my focus was on our current situation.  Options.  What avenues of attack did we have?  What about self-defense or escape?

I had my pepper spray.  My knife and baton were available too, though I doubted my ability to dish out more hurt than I suffered in an exchange of hits with Burnscar.  Grue had his darkness, and both of the remaining dogs were in okay shape.  I had my bugs, but neither my costume nor my bugs would do well against the flame.

“I can still kill tall, dark and eerie and the alien girl,” Burnscar said.

“Bug girl,” I corrected.

“Don’t really care.  Bitch, the test is an old one, but it’s good.  We don’t get to do it often enough, because it requires research.  Got to do it with Cherish because she gave us the necessary info.  Wasn’t very bright, but she did.  Now that she’s on the team, she can give us all the info we need.”

“You talk too much,” Bitch snarled.  “Get to the point or go the fuck away.”

“You’re going to have to face your greatest fear.  Destroy any hold it has on you with violence, blood and death.  I don’t want you to just conquer your fears.  I want you to murder them, before anyone else can use your feelings for them against you.”  She put a special inflection on the word ‘murder’, making it clear she was being quite literal.

I expected Bitch to say something along the lines of ‘I’m not afraid of anything’.  She didn’t. Her eyes narrowed.

“I’m not going to fucking hurt my dogs.”

“Not asking you to.  Dogs are easy.  Replaceable.  Sure, you might cry when they bite the dust, you love them.”  The lack of inflection or emotion in Burnscar’s voice made the words sound almost mocking.  “It’s sweet.  But that hole in your heart mends, time heals the wound, you get more dogs and you bounce back.”

“I think you’re underestimating how much she loves her dogs,” I said, “A wound like that never heals.”

Bitch turned her head just enough to give me a hard look.

“I’m not saying she doesn’t,” Burnscar shrugged.  “I’m saying the idea of losing them isn’t what scares her the most.  So forget the dogs.  I’m not asking you to hurt them, maim them, murder them or anything like that.”

Bitch glanced at Bastard.  He was growling, barely audible, low and steady, and his hackles were raised.  Were they still hackles if they were mostly fragments of calcified muscle and bone spikes?

“Kill them,” Burnscar said.  She pointed at Grue and I.

Bitch laughed, if you could call it that.  It was more of a snort, with zero humor to it.  “That’s supposed to be my biggest fear?  I don’t give two shits about them.”

“You do.  They’re the closest thing to a human connection you’ve had your entire life.  Maybe you haven’t thought it out loud to yourself, but you’re terrified at the idea of losing them.  You know as well as anyone else that this relationship with your team, it’s like winning the lottery for you.”

Bitch scoffed.

“Sure, it’s shitty as relationships go,” Burnscar continued, “Anyone else would find it depressingly lame.  But they’re the best you’ll get.  The best you can hope for, because you’re fucked up.  Believe me, I know when someone’s fucked up.”

“Like I said, you talk too much.”

“They’re the best you’ll ever get, and according to Cherish, you’re losing them.  Whatever bond you made with them, it’s fucked up now.  Maybe you did it, maybe them.  Maybe both.  But it’s dying a slow death, dog girl.  Rip off the band-aid and finish off these losers who aren’t going to be your friends in a few weeks anyways.  Do it, and I let you and your dogs walk away.”

“Why the fuck should I listen to you?”

“Because if you say no, if you try to run or walk away, if you attack me, I’ll consider your test a fail.”

“So?”

“I’ll have no reason to hold back.  Your team dies, your dogs die, and you’ll wish you were dead.”

“Fuck you,” Bitch retorted, but she glanced at Grue and I, and I could have sworn I saw doubt.  Was it indecision?  The way Burnscar had framed this, Bitch either had to admit she cared about us and fight for our sake, or Bitch could attack us to secure her safety and her dogs.

I couldn’t say which road she’d take, not with any kind of certainty.  My gut told me it wouldn’t be the answer I wanted.

She’s considering it.

Which meant I had to take matters in my own hands.  Burnscar held the advantage, and Bitch was leaning her way.  I needed to flip things and take that certainty away from her.

I drew from the capsaicin-treated bugs in my armor compartment.  There hadn’t been any point in using them against Mannequin, but they might incapacitate Burnscar.  The trick was catching her off guard.

“You’re doing it wrong,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Did you even read the rules Jack gave us?”

“Yes,” Burnscar frowned.  “I did.”

“Then why are you doing it differently than he did?”  Grue pointed at Mannequin.

He was buying us time, using Mannequin’s inability to talk and Burnscar’s less than firm grasp to throw her off her stride.  He didn’t know it, but he’d also provided me with a distraction.

My capsaicin-laced bugs made their way down my back and the backs of my legs.  Near the surface of the shallow water, they spread out, sticking to shadows, the cover of burning rubbish and the darkness that swirled around Grue.

“Doing it differently?  This isn’t that complicated,” Burnscar said.

“How’s it going to look if you do it wrong?  I imagine Mannequin’s going to get punished for fucking up,” Grue said, “But he at least tried.  If you screw up here, right at the beginning, you really think your team is going to be impressed?  No, they’re going to be embarrassed.  And I bet they’ll take it out on the person who embarrassed them.”

Mannequin tapped on Burnscar’s shoulder.  She turned, and he parted his mouth slightly before drawing an ‘x’ over it with one finger.

“Mannequin says you’re lying.”

Crap.  My bugs weren’t in position to attack yet.

“You really going to gamble on that?” Grue asked.

“Yeah,” Burnscar said.  The flames around us swelled in size.

I had no time left for subtlety.  I gave the order for my bugs to attack directly, closing the distance by the fastest and most obvious routes available.

They rose from every corner and shadow in the area, approaching Burnscar from every direction.  I directed them towards the exposed skin of her hands, ankles, face and neck.

The second they landed, they bit, stung and clawed at her.  I even felt a few touch her face.  Then I felt her move.  For an instant, I thought she had some kind of enhanced strength or speed that let her throw herself to one side like she did.  Except it wasn’t her.  It was Mannequin that moved, throwing her to one side, so she landed in the midst of a flaming pile of trash.  The bugs on her were burnt to a crisp and she promptly disappeared.

“Run!” Grue shouted.

Bitch hauled on Bastard’s chain, shouting, “Go!”  She climbed halfway onto Sirius’ back, unable to climb up higher with her injured leg.  Grue and I followed as Bastard crashed into  one of the walls of flame, sending burning trash flying and spreading out the flaming water.  Bitch rode Sirius through the break, and Grue and I hurried after.

Hot.

I stumbled as the heat built.  I was supporting Grue as best as I was able with the pain in my ribs protesting even the slightest movements of my arm, let alone trying to support a nearly-grown teenage boy.  The heat of the flames increased.  I think we could have made it if it was just one or two steps, but it wasn’t.  Five paces failed to carry us out of the flames.  We were too slow to keep up with Bastard and make use of the way he was scattering the flames for us.

I fell in the same moment we finally got free of the flames, and Grue fell with me.  There wasn’t fire underneath us, but I could still feel the heat, intense, accompanied by a blinding pain.  I was on fire.  The water was too shallow to extinguish the fires as they licked around us, and even rolling in it failed to do anything substantial.

Grue smothered us in darkness.  I’d fought alongside him before, I’d been under the effects of his power countless times, but this was different.  I was hurting, I wanted to find solutions, and now I couldn’t see.  I couldn’t even use my swarm sense to assess the situation, because the flames Burnscar had spread around the area were limiting my bugs’ movements.  Our enemies, Mannequin and Burnscar, were similarly out of my reach.  I felt a swelling panic as I thrashed, trying to immerse myself.

I felt something heavy on top of me, then three quick taps on my shoulder.  A signal?  Grue.  I didn’t fight him as he used what must have been his jacket to pat me down and splash water onto me.  I felt the water touch bare skin.

The pain and the heat continued as Grue hauled me to my feet, but the rational part of me knew he wouldn’t do that if I was still on fire.  I was burned.  It hurt, but I wasn’t in imminent danger from anything or anyone except Burnscar and Mannequin.

Using my power, I found difficulty at every turn.  Everywhere I sent my bugs, I encountered fire.  I felt like a blind person tapping their cane around himself to get a sense of the surroundings, encountering only danger, destruction.  A picture was gradually unfolding, and it was an ugly one.

We ran, Grue leading the way.  We fell four times.  My legs and back were burned, Grue had his injured leg, and we were running slightly downhill.  He was clutching my shoulders hard enough that it hurt, and leaning heavily on me with every other step, while my legs had none of the strength needed to support him.

When we moved past the darkness, we were standing in the midst of the shattered Boardwalk.  We half-slid and half-climbed down the ruined area to the beach, and walked over to the water’s edge.  From our new vantage point, we could see what Burnscar had done.

My territory was on fire.

Grue’s shadows still covered the ground levels of the area, but I could make out the tops of the taller buildings.  Not every building burned, but there were enough.  Rain fell around us, but it wouldn’t matter against a blaze like that.  In the gloom, the plumes of smoke that were as thick around as any building appeared black against the light gray backdrop of gray rainclouds.

“Come on, Taylor,” Grue said.  He tried to pull me to my feet, and I didn’t move.  “We can deal with all that later.  Right now, we’ve just got to get away.  We survive.”

“Survive,” I muttered.

I’d been prepared to die against Mannequin if it meant removing one monster from the world.  It was a pretty good indication of how much I valued my life at these days.  I’d cut ties with my dad, dropped out of school, helped get Lung arrested and started chain of events that had led to the ABB terrorizing tens of thousands of people.  I’d served as a distraction so a power-hungry supervillain could kidnap a girl and keep her drugged up in some underground cell for months.  I’d stood by to let a man die.  I’d become a full-fledged villain.  Pledged to protect people and then let them die horribly.  Not once, not twice, but three times.

What the hell had I been thinking, wanting to become a superhero?

“Come on,” Grue urged me.

I stood, leaning against the concrete wall that divided the beach from the street above.

“Genesis is going to be there,” I said.  “We need to go find her and help her.”

“We’re too hurt to do anything,” Grue answered, “Genesis can handle herself.  She can always make a new body with her powers.”

“And her real body?  She had it sent to my lair.”

Grue paused.  “Your lair could be on fire.”

“Exactly.”

He considered for a few moments.  “Alright.  Just let me call Bitch.”

“Don’t.”  I stopped him as he got his phone in hand.

“What?”

“A call at the wrong time, her ringer going off, it could mean alerting the enemy about her position or distracting her.  Wait.”

He nodded, and we ran.

Grue was letting his darkness dissipate, for the most part, as we were under cover and out of the way.  We made our way to the storm drain, using the wall for support.  We headed through the secured doors and into my cellar, then up the stairs to the main floor.

My lair wasn’t burning down, but I could see the faint flicker of flame on nearby buildings through the slits on the shutters.  A quick investigation with my power showed that it wasn’t anything serious.  I set bugs in place as an early warning system.

We headed straight for the bedrooms.  I wasn’t expecting to see what I did.

There must have been fifteen of them.  Kids, none of them older than ten, some as young as four.  There were three to a bunk, sitting up or lying down.  Charlotte was with them, the eldest.

“Don’t be mad,” she said, in a small voice.

“Mad?”

She spoke quietly, as if the kids wouldn’t hear, “I didn’t know where else to take them.  Sierra said we had to hide, that Mannequin was coming.  I saw him killing people without even moving.  He went after families, but he was focused on the parents, not the kids.  He killed them and let the kids run-”

“Stop.”  My voice was harder than I meant it to be.  “I don’t want to hear it.”

This is my failure.

“I didn’t know where else to take them.”

“You did good,” I said.  I sounded like Burnscar did.  No emotion behind the words.  “Someone else should have come here.  A girl or a woman, probably with an escort.”

Charlotte didn’t answer, but moved aside.

Genesis.

Genesis slept on one of the bunks I’d set aside for my employees.  Her face was contorted in an expression of concern.  Average looks, if a little round-faced, she had long eyelashes, and her auburn hair was a mop.

She had to sleep to use her power.  Could we afford to disturb her?  If we tried to move her and she woke up, would it mean taking her out of the middle of a fight where she could do something to Burnscar or Mannequin?

“Where are the rest of my people?” I asked.

“Sierra divided us into teams and sent each of us in a different direction, telling us to get people to evacuate.  I almost ran right into Mannequin.  I hid and saw him attack.”

I felt out with my power, sticking exclusively to the building interiors, to avoid inadvertently barbecuing my bugs and frittering away my resources.  I used the bugs in the area to try to get a headcount.  The geography and the spread of people in this area was becoming familiar to me.  Very few were still alive and in this area.  Too many had died.  How many bodies were there?  Thirty?  Forty?

I didn’t want to think about it.

“Charlotte, did you come in through the front door or the other entrance?”  I asked.

“Front door.  I was thinking about taking these kids and running for it, but I didn’t know if you’d want-”

“Secrecy is not that important right now.  Take them down to the storm drain and stay there.  It’s more or less fireproof, it’s not going to collapse on their heads, and it’s a better hiding spot than this.”

It seemed like getting orders invigorated her.  “Okay.  Come on, guys.  Get ready, shoes on, this way.”

The kids began to get sorted and follow Charlotte’s instructions as she herded them out of the room, staying by the door to ensure nobody was left behind.  There were no complaints and there was nothing like chatter or crying from the kids.  How many of them had watched their parents die for them?  They were so stoic, or shocked.

Grue looked at me, “What are you thinking?”

“They take cover, we stay.  I’m going to try to use my swarm to get a sense of where Genesis is and how the fight’s going.  The second things go south or this area gets too dangerous, we get her out of here.”

“You’ll need this,” Charlotte said.

I hadn’t noticed it with all the people in the room.  At the foot of the bunk, in the corner of the room, there was a folded up wheelchair.

Can’t ever be easy.

“That might complicate things if we have to run for it,” Grue said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

Charlotte left with the kids, and we took the time to manage our wounds.  I headed into the ground floor bathroom to run cold water over the burns on my legs and back.  Grue sat on the toilet’s lid and began gathering the necessary things from the first aid kit.

My power found Genesis, but only briefly.  She was big, some sort of flying pufferfish with a hard exterior and tentacles.  It was a hard image to piece together.  She floated slowly over the streets, and the bugs that I had on her died as Burnscar pelted her.  I tried to send some bugs after her, but she disappeared into the side of a burning building as they approached.  I tried and failed to find where she’d teleported to.  Frustrating.  Whatever her destination, it was a place my bugs couldn’t touch, so I had to wait for her to move away or start attacking from another vantage point.

Nearly half a year ago, I’d gotten my powers when I was trapped in a locker, wanting to be anywhere but where I was then.  I’d reached out, my mind extending out for something, anything to distract me and draw my focus away.

I wasn’t trapped in a locker, but I felt very close to how I had then.  Except it wasn’t the feeling that I was trapped.  My power’s range hadn’t increased.  It felt like that in a different way.

“We can’t do this,” I said.

“Hmm?”  Grue had torn open his pants leg and was suturing one of the cuts.

“We can’t endure this.  We won’t last.”

“We got unlucky and took the brunt of it.  We’ll get a breather.”

“Will we?  These guys are experts in preying on weakness!  They’re going to target us and come after us until we can’t defend ourselves, they’ll kill us, then they’ll go after Panacea, or Armsmaster, or Hookwolf, or Noelle, and they’ll do the same thing!”

“Taylor.”

I pushed myself to a standing position.  “They’re going to do the same thing they’re doing to us, and they’re not just going to win.  They’re going to ruin everything while they do it!”

“Stop!”

I hobbled past him, and he grabbed my wrist.  Between anger and the fact that my sleeve was wet with the water of the shower, I managed to rip my hand from his grip.  “Don’t.  Don’t do that.”

“What do you think you’re going to do?”

“I’m going out there.  They’re just bullies.  They’re powerful, they’ve got every advantage, but that’s all the more reason we can’t let them get away with this.  I’ll bait them out, or find where they’re hiding.  I can take Burnscar down if I can get the right bugs to bite her, or sting her enough times.  I just have to do something.  I can’t just stay here and let them get away with this.”

“You’re so hurt you can barely walk.  If they find you, you won’t be able to run.”

“Sick of running.”

He stood and followed me.  He got ahead of me despite the fact that he was probably hurt worse than I was.  I ducked around him, and he pushed me against a wall.  “Don’t do this.  If you want to get revenge on those guys, if you want to help your people, you need to stop, rest, recover and plan.”

I struggled briefly, but the pain in my ribs and the burn on my back made that far more trouble than it was worth, and it was already pretty futile.

Hated this.  Hated feeling weak, even if it was Grue I was comparing myself to.

My bugs alerted me to movement from Genesis.  I didn’t say anything to Grue, and simply waited as she grabbed her wheelchair, unfolded it and transitioned into it, before wheeling out into the hallway.

“Did we wake you?” Grue asked.

“No.  I can’t be woken by anyone except myself if I’m like that.  It’s more like a coma than sleep.  You were watching me?”

Grue and I nodded.  He must have felt self-conscious, because he backed off, letting go of me.  I did note that he positioned himself between me and the end of the hallway.  I wouldn’t be able to run for the cellar or the front door without going past him.

It didn’t really matter.  He was right.  Maybe I would have gone on if he hadn’t stopped me, using my anger and frustration to drive myself forward until I got myself killed.  Grue and Genesis had, in their individual ways, interrupted that.  I felt simultaneously angry at him and embarrassed that he’d had to stop me.

“What happened?” I asked Genesis, trying not to look at Grue.

She glanced between the two of us.  “Realized Mannequin was using a gas, got a form together to fight that and occupy him, like you recommended, but he wasn’t there when I reformed.  Burnscar was.”

“Mannequin forfeited his turn.  Burnscar went up next,” I explained.

“Ah.”

“You manage to stop her?”  Grue asked.

“No.  I wasn’t prepared to fight her, but she couldn’t really hurt me either.  She left.”

“Can you get a body together to fight the fires?” I asked, hugging my arms against my chest.

“I’ll try.  My reserves are low.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to stop them.”

Grue got his phone out while Genesis retreated back to her bunk.  I made my way upstairs to curl up in the armchair.

So many dead because I couldn’t save them.  I felt doubly guilty because my reasons for regretting their deaths were partially selfish.  It was a deathblow to my plans to seize my territory, earning Coil’s respect and make inroads into saving Dinah, one way or another.

I took off my mask and let it drop to the ground.  My costume, I saw, was in tatters where it had burned.

Our enemies were good, they were smart.  Mannequin had been toying with us, and we’d taken that advantage and beat him to the ground with it.  But every action was calculated.  Cherish was informing them, Shatterbird was apparently smart in other ways, and Jack was the brains of the operation.

Had Jack calculated things so everything would play out the way he wanted, like Mannequin was?

Grue appeared at the top of the stairs.  “Bitch isn’t replying.  We should go look for her.”

“Okay.”

“You okay?” Grue asked.

Pissed.”

“Me too.  Though I get that you have more reason to be angry.”

“I just-” I stopped, clenching my fists.  “I don’t-”

I blinked back tears.  Fucking contact lenses.

He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

My face was mashed against his shoulder, his grip was too tight, my back was sore where his hand touched a spot near the burn.  There was also that mess of awkwardness from when I’d confessed my feelings for him, that now seemed so minor and distant compared to everything that was going on.

“We’ll get through this.”

“No,” I said, pulling away,  “Not like this, we won’t.  We fight them every time they come, we’re going to be worn out, exhausted from always being on our guard, and if these past fights have been any indication, we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.”

“The way you phrase that, you don’t sound like you did in the shower.”

I shook my head.  “No.  Because I’ve realized Jack wants us to focus on each of his people, one by one, because he knows it’s going to play out like it has so far, and that we won’t make it through eight rounds of this.  Let’s change that dynamic.  We take out testers before they get their turn.  We go on the offensive.”

“Offensive?  Dinah said that a direct attack would be suicide.”

“So we go for the indirect attack.  They want to play dirty?  Let’s play dirty back.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I hadn’t actually slept in for a long, long time.  It was not the start I wanted for my day.

I’d been too tired to sleep, I hadn’t been able to get my thoughts to slow down, and I hadn’t been able to resist just one more check of my territory to ensure people were safe and sound.  Compounding it all were my injuries, which did an excellent job of jolting me from the twilight of almost-sleep any time I moved the wrong way or shifted position.  When daylight had started to stream in through the slits in the metal shutters, I’d pulled a pillow over my head and tried to get just a few hours more.

If I wound up having to face down Mannequin or any other members of the Nine, I’d need to be well rested.  Running on two or three hours of sleep would get me killed.

It sure didn’t feel like the added sleep I got made any difference.

My injuries and the general aches from running barefoot and fighting Mannequin had all melded together into one giant, stiff bruise.  It would be easier to name the parts of me that didn’t hurt.  My chest was the worst, each of my breaths drawing a stab of pain from the lowermost ribs of the right side of my body.  It took me two tries to get up from my bed and stand.

A quick investigation showed that bruises had spread across my abdomen, yellow and blue.  Some careful prodding showed that the tissues beneath the bruises weren’t rigid or particularly tender.  That meant there was no serious internal bleeding, if I was remembering right.

If this kept up, I was going to need another go at the first aid courses, to refresh my memory on the particulars and brush up on my skills.  February felt so very long ago.  So much had happened in the last few months.

Shuffling over to my bathroom, I groaned quietly at the sight of the shards of mirror and shower door that were carpeting the floor.  I made my way back to my room and put on some slippers, grabbed a shirt I didn’t care much about and dropped it on the bathroom floor.  I kicked it around enough to get the worst of the shards out of the way, brushed the glass out of the shower and onto the tiled floor, and then cranked the shower on.  The water pressure wasn’t even half of what it should be, and it was cold.  It didn’t warm up over the thirty seconds I stood there holding my hand under the flow.

I jumped in anyways, in the hopes of waking myself up and getting my hair wet enough that I could make myself look somewhat presentable.  I knew from experience that not washing my hair had a way of making it frizz out hardcore.  Not that I’d be able to tell, with every mirror within a thousand miles in pieces.

I dried off, put on my contacts, combed my dripping-wet hair into place, and stepped back into my slippers to navigate through the sea of glass shards and head back to my bedroom to dress.

My TV, laptop and phone were all useless.  There was no way to get information on recent events.  I couldn’t call the others, couldn’t check the news for details on the events of the past night, couldn’t even know if I’d managed to save anyone when I’d been waking them and leaving messages.  I was left to expect the worst, and it soured my already iffy mood.

I made my way downstairs, unlocking the door that led between the second and third floors.  The second floor was relatively unscathed – the metal shutter had kept the floor-to-ceiling windows from sending their contents indoors, and the terrariums were hard plastic rather than glass.  Knowing Shatterbird was in town, I’d been reluctant to spend much time in a room with sixty or seventy sturdy glass cases, and I was glad to have one less room to clean.  Still, there was no shortage of mess.

Sierra and Charlotte were downstairs, talking at the kitchen counter.  They fell silent as I appeared.

They didn’t speak as I walked over to the cupboard.  Tea.  Tea, maybe some toasted breakfast pitas, some bacon, an egg…

Opening the cupboard, my hopes of having a solid breakfast to start my day were dashed. Bottles of spices that had been on the same shelf as the teabags had exploded, sending their contents and countless glass shards throughout the cupboard.  The cupboard reeked of cinnamon and cumin and various peppers.  They weren’t the only casualties there.  Bottles of cooking supplies had exploded on the upper shelves, and their contents had settled overnight, most of it pooling on the shelves in layers of congealed liquid that were thick with the needle-thin particles of shattered glass.

I looked at the pair of them.  Neither spoke, and Charlotte even looked away.

I hated this.  Hated feeling flawed, knowing they saw me that way.  Being bruised, sore and stiff, I was visibly mortal to them.  I hadn’t been able to stop Mannequin from hurting bystanders, or protect and warn my people about Shatterbird.  How were they supposed to respect me as someone in charge?  Sierra was even older than I was.

Well, I’d have to make use of them anyways.  My focus on the cupboards and the damage inside, I asked, “Charlotte, you up for a job?”

“Yeah,” she said, behind me.  When I glanced back at her, she looked away again.  I knew I’d taken some hits, but did I look that bad?

“It’s a bit of a walk, but I need to get up to date on events.  You’ll be going to the territory of a guy named Regent.  He’s a friend, and it’s close.  Tell him about the Mannequin incident, tell him I’m alive, and get details on what happened to Tattletale and the father.”

“The father?”

“He should know what I mean.”

“Okay.”  She met my eyes as she responded.  Better.   I wrote the address down for her, then watched as she headed off to pull on her shoes and make her way off to the cellar exit.

“And me?” Sierra asked.

“Go to the basement, get a box of supplies, and bring it up.  There should be a propane stove in there.  Cook up some rice, and then start cleaning out the cupboards.  Wear gloves, and focus on picking out the stuff we can keep from the stuff that needs to be thrown out.  Use the box from the supplies to hold some of the extra trash if you need to.”

“Okay.”

I walked over to the corner to find a broom and dustpan.

“You’re cleaning up too?”

“Yeah.  You were at the hospital last night, right?  How did things go?”

“Nobody listened to me at first when I tried to warn them.  It was only when Battery showed up at the hospital and confirmed that the Slaughterhouse Nine were around that people started trying to prepare, but there wasn’t a lot we could do in those ten minutes.  There were a lot of people in the hospital, and a lot of equipment, monitors and displays, lots of windows.  Everyone who could got under their beds, and people put mattresses against the windows in rooms where there were people who couldn’t move.”

“But they were okay?”

“Most?” Sierra frowned. “I couldn’t really tell.  It was chaotic, lots of people running around, equipment failing.  Battery tried to grab me to ask me how I knew what was happening, and I used the chaos to slip away, spent the rest of the night in my parent’s room, hoping she wouldn’t spot me.”

“And they’re okay?  Your parents?”

“They’re okay.”

I smiled a little.  “Well, that’s good.”

She smiled back.  “You know, you’re not what I expected.”

“I’m not what expected, frankly,” I said.  I turned my attention back to the cabinet, found the dustpan and stood up.

“That reminds me-”  She paused.  “Nevermind.”

“Say it.”

“It wasn’t last night, but I overheard something at the hospital.  Something involving you and Armsmaster?”

I sighed, suddenly reminded of how weary I felt.  I saw her expression fall.  She said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No.  It’s fine.  What did you hear?”

“That you betrayed your team, and that you’d wanted to be a hero but, um,” she paused, “Couldn’t?”

She’d changed her mind about how she was going to finish speaking.  What had she left out, and had she stopped herself from saying it for my sake or for her own self-preservation, not wanting to piss off the villain?  I wanted to be a hero and I failed?

Given recent events, I wasn’t sure I could blame her for thinking along those lines.

“No, that’s not exactly right,” I responded.  “Long story short, once upon a time, I wanted to be one of the good guys.”

“What happened?”

“Took me a while, but I decided I’d rather have the likes of Tattletale and Grue at my back instead of siding with the sort of people who follow Armsmaster.”

“Really, Armsmaster?  Is he that bad?”

“Bad enough that Mannequin wants him to be the ninth member of their group.”

Sierra’s eyes widened.

I figured I wouldn’t mention that two of my teammates, including the one I’d sent Charlotte to meet, had also been nominated.  Regent had only been nominated out of spite, and Bitch… I wasn’t sure what the story was there.  “I’m going to be upstairs, cleaning up the balcony and the other rooms.  Give me a shout when the rice is done, or if you find anything breakfast-ish that’s edible.”

“Okay.”

I headed up to my bathroom and began to sweep up.  I deployed bugs to help me find the shards that the broom wasn’t catching.

I occupied myself with my other bugs as well.  I went out of my way to avoid using the spiders I’d employed to fight Mannequin, drawing from bugs in the streets and surrounding area instead.  I sent the weakest, smallest and most useless of the bugs to my spiders for a morning meal, then fed the non-spiders who were a little less reliant on protein.  With the other nearby bugs, I started collecting the smallest pieces of glass throughout the house.

The uncertainties of the day, the worries about Lisa and Dad, having my routine disrupted and the spoiling of my breakfast and morning shower had put me in a bad mood.  It would have been nice to say that it made me feel better, getting things in order again, and it did, but it wasn’t a cure-all nor was it a perfect distraction.  There was no way I could relax with the things I had hanging over my head.

Doing this felt like I wasn’t doing something to help Dinah.

Once I finished the bathroom, I tidied my room and opened the shutters on the windows.  Glass that had fallen against the shutter sloughed off to the second floor balcony, with stray shards falling onto the hardwood.  My bugs obligingly fetched them up for me.

Reams of glass shards fell as I opened the heavy shutters that stood just behind the pedestals with the mannequins I was using to design the costumes.  I stepped out onto the balcony and set about sweeping up the glass and dumping it into the trash can, using my bugs to collect what the dustpan wasn’t catching.  I wasn’t in costume, and I was in plain sight on the balcony, but I doubted the concentration of bugs was enough to draw attention.

Ten minutes passed before I heard from Sierra.  I assumed it would be about the food, but it wasn’t.

“Skitter!  You’ve got company!”

Every bug I had in the cabinets and corners of the room streamed forth to check the intruder, my thoughts immediately shifting into a combat mode.  What escape routes did I have?  Could I help Sierra if there was trouble?  What tools and weapons did I have on hand?

The second my bugs settled on the intruder and felt that familiar emanation of outward pressure, like a faint breeze, I calmed down.  I felt a mite embarrassed as I made my way downstairs to greet Grue.

“Christ, T- Skitter!” he exclaimed, the second he saw me.

“What?”

“Your, um-” he gestured at Sierra shaking his hand, agitated.

“Employee?”  I suggested.

“Your employee just informed me that you fought Mannequin last night?

“Yeah.”

“Are you suicidal!?”

“He’s not that strong,” I said, defensively.  “I mean, scary as fuck, he’s strong, but he was beatable.”

“Do you not recall the very specific numbers we got on our chances against these guys?  Fifty-five percent chance we die if we fight them!”

“There were people in danger.  My people.  I thought a forty-five percent chance of survival was worth the risk.”

He tapped his finger against the forehead of his helmet.  I could almost make out the noise through the thin emanation of his power.  “Could you ask your employee to give us some privacy?”

“I can go for a walk,” Sierra said.

“Thank you,” I told her, “I’ll signal you with my power when we’re done.”

My heart was speeding up just a bit as we waited for her to leave.  I distracted myself by limping over to the propane stove that was positioned on the countertop and checking the rice.  There were containers and boxes of food arranged on the counter that Sierra had apparently checked and deemed edible.  Nothing especially good for breakfast.

As the door closed behind Sierra, I hugged my arms against my body and said, “Please don’t tell me you asked her to leave because you have bad news about Lisa or my dad.”

Grue pulled off his helmet and the darkness dissipated around his head.  It was Brian’s frowning face I saw, now.  “Your dad is fine.  He was already fully checked out and sent home.  Lisa is… less fine.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s not life threatening.  I just don’t know if it’s hit her yet.  Coil’s doctor stitched her up, but he told her to expect a scar.  I don’t know if it’s shock, the blood loss, or if it’s that she hasn’t seen herself in a mirror, but she doesn’t seem to care.  Cracking jokes, even.  Isn’t- is it sexist of me to wonder why a girl doesn’t care more about her looks being spoiled?”

“It’s easily possible she does care,” I said.  I was thinking back to her interactions with our enemies in fights.  In particular, our run-ins with Glory Girl and Panacea during the bank robbery and Jack Slash last night seemed to stand out.  “I think maybe she handles stress and problems by throwing herself headlong against them.  It’s how she operates in costume, against serious threats and unexpected situations.  There’s a word I’m trying to pin down, it’s not reckless, but-”

“I think reckless may be a very good word to choose,” Brian replied.

“No.  It’s…” I reached for the word and couldn’t find it.  I was too tired, and my brain wasn’t really in that gear.

“I’m surprised, sometimes, at how much attention you pay to us.  You seemed to have Rachel down cold, and your description of Lisa seems pretty apt.  Makes me wonder how you’ve analyzed me.”

“I’m not all that.  Really.  There are exceptions, but dealing with people isn’t my thing,” I said.  Feeling awkward, I distracted myself with the rice, taking it off the propane stove and scooping some out into a bowl.  Holding the pot, I pulled at the wrong muscle and felt my rib protest.  I winced, and I wasn’t able to hide it.

Noting my pain, Brian commented, “I can’t help but worry you’re self destructing, Taylor.  You can’t go up against the Nine to protect people you don’t even know.”

“I can.  I’ll manage.”

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“Dunno.  Two or three hours, but I slept in.  What time is it?”

“Nine.”

“Maybe four hours?”

“You’re going to run yourself into the ground at this rate.  Or get yourself killed.  Take your time.  Go on the defensive, tell your people to stay out of trouble and avoid drawing the Nine’s attention, rest.  You can work on this territory thing over the next few weeks, instead of days.”

I shook my head, “I can’t.”

“Right.  Just like you rejected Hookwolf’s suggestion that our groups take a break.  I won’t say that hearing you muttering to yourself was the entire reason I refused his offer, or even half the reason, but it was a factor, and I think I deserve answers for going up to bat for you.  What’s going on?”

“I made a deal with Coil.”

Brian folded his arms, much as I was doing.  “What deal?”

“He said that if I can prove my services are worth it, he’ll release Dinah.”

Brian shook his head.  “No.  There’s got to be more to it.  You’ve been distant, driven, and you’ve done some very un-Taylor-like things in the past few weeks.”

I ate some of the plain brown rice.  Could I tell him?

“There is more to it.  Lisa and I talked it over after the Endbringer thing.  She doesn’t like the Dinah situation either, even if she’s more willing to roll with it.”

“Right.  Just for the record, I’m not in love with the kidnapping and confinement of some kid, either.”

I nodded.  “So Lisa suggested the deal.  But knowing Coil, and from what Lisa says, and from the way Coil framed it when I posed the deal to him and just my gut, I- we don’t think he’s going to let her go.”

“No, I don’t think he would.  Her talents are too valuable for him.  But that doesn’t explain your attitude lately.”

I shook my head.  “I-”

I stopped and raised one hand.  Sierra was outside, not too far away, and there was a small group of people around her.  What had gotten my attention was the fact that she was tapping her finger against the origami cube.  She’d wanted to signal me without doing anything overt, maybe.  Or without my calling a swarm down to her location.

“-Something’s going on outside.  Come with?”

Brian nodded.

I headed upstairs and got my costume on in record time.  I couldn’t help but note how dusty it was from last night’s encounter, and how the one arm was still crusty with old containment foam.  It was torture to actually get my limbs into the legs and sleeves and zip up, and to contort myself to attach my armor.  Especially doing it quickly.  I ended up enlisting Brian’s help with the armor at my shoulders and back.

I could feel Sierra’s steady but insistent tapping on the cube all the while.

They were a short distance down the beach, but they started walking towards us a little bit after we entered the storm drain, and met us halfway.

Sierra was in the company of a pair of Japanese boys and a petite Chinese girl with a pierced nose and a thousand-yard stare.  There was a degree of attitude coming from them that was all too familiar.  Gang members.  Of course.  Just because Lung and Bakuda were no longer around didn’t mean there wouldn’t be scraps of the ABB in the area.  They wouldn’t be liked, but they were there, they were equipped for trouble and criminal activity was all they knew.

“Sorry to interrupt your business meeting,” Sierra said, looking from me to Grue.

“It’s fine.  What’s going on here?”  I controlled the tone of my voice.  They didn’t seem too fazed by this encounter with two supervillains.  Were they veterans of Lung’s rule?  Or Bakuda’s?

A Japanese guy with a mop of hair covering his eyes and a bad slouch looked from Sierra to me and spoke in a very American accent, “You still looking for muscle?”

He didn’t look like he had much muscle, but I wasn’t about to comment on that.  If nothing else, I was a little too stunned at what he was offering to say anything witty.  “Pretty much.”

“We heard you took on Mannequin,” the girl said.  “That’s ballsy.”

“Thanks,” I said, in my driest tone.  Stupid as it was, that statement meant something to me.  Nobody had really congratulated me since my fight with Mannequin.  I hadn’t congratulated myself.  It was hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that they respected me for what had happened with Mannequin.  A victory was a victory, but people had gotten hurt, I’d gotten hurt.

The second Japanese guy spoke up.  He was in his early twenties and his accent was thick enough that I didn’t realize he was speaking English at first.  He pronounced ‘girl’ more like ‘gurru’. “Other day, girl was knocking on neighbor’s door, talking about you.  Said you was good boss.  Nice, generous, fair.  But we think that means you weak, before, not so much of that now.”

I shook my head slowly.  “No.  I’m not weak.”

“We know you has trouble with Lung and ABB before.  Not friendly.  But they gone, we still here.”

“You should know this isn’t about preying on the people in my territory.  Just the opposite.  If you’re looking for an excuse to bully the people around here, you’re in the wrong place.  The only people we fuck with are our enemies.”

There were nods from all three.

“No starting violence, no drug dealing, no prostitution, no threatening people, and no drug use or drinking unless it’s a hundred percent limited to your own time.”

A look passed between the two boys.  Which of my points had given them that momentary hesitation?  Still, they nodded again.

“Do you guys have a place?”

“Nah,” said shaggy-hair.

“Come on,” I said.

I led them to the nearest spot to get from the beach to the old Boardwalk, and into the Docks.

I had our destination in mind.  During my stay in the area, nobody had occupied it.  A thorough check of the structure found no splintering supports or framework, and there was no crumbling masonry.

I opened the doors and strode inside, followed by the new members and Sierra.  Grue followed at the tail end of our group.

The square building had been a garage for the biggest sorts of trucks or for boats, and sported three sliding metal garage doors, only one of which still opened.  A cargo container sat in the back corner.  I had my suspicions that boxes of recyclables had been piled up along the walls when Leviathan’s wave hit.  Now, scraps of metal, paper and other trash littered the floor inside until the floor was barely visible.  “If you’re really interested in joining, you can start by cleaning this place up.”

“Why?” the girl asked.

“If my say-so isn’t good enough-”

“No,” she raised her hands to stop me.  “Just… can’t I know what the point is?”

“I want you somewhere accessible.  This is close to my command center, it’s dry, it took a hit from a tidal wave and it’s still in remarkably good shape, and it’s spacious enough to serve our purposes.  At least to start off.”

“Can I ask what they are?”

I looked around, and it was Grue I looked at while I spoke.  “Having everyone in the Docks spread out like this, over this wide an area?  It’s a problem.  We’ve got single families living in warehouses and factories that could comfortably house three to five families, and they’re dealing with problems that we could handle far more easily as a group.  And there’s the logistics of it, getting supplies to everyone when there’s only three to six groups of people on a given city block.  I want to bring people from the fringes in, so we’re not so spread out.  Get everyone working for the collective good.  Build a community and tie everything to a smaller area.”

“There’s going to be resistance,” Grue spoke.  “People aren’t going to want to move, and they’re too spooked about run-ins with Chosen and Merchants to trust one another.”

“If-” Sierra started, but she stopped when Grue snapped his head around to face her, intimidated.  She tried again, “If she’s going to try it, now would be a good time.  Word’s getting out.”

“About what, specifically?” I asked.

“You fought Mannequin, you said you’d make him pay, and then you did.  And you did it to save people, people from the docks.  I think people are realizing you’re for real.”

I couldn’t think of a response to that, and nobody volunteered anything further.  Instead, I said, “Come on, let’s get to work.”

It wasn’t the nicest of jobs, but my new employees worked without complaint.  Or, to be more specific, the girl and shaggy-hair complained often but they didn’t direct those complaints at me or the job, specifically.

Since the usual means of communication were out, and it might be some time before cell phone towers were out, I’d have to use messengers to pass word on to Coil.  I began explaining what I planned to do with the space to Sierra, outlining the need for bunk beds, a cafeteria or kitchen and an area for people to sit.  The area wasn’t a quarter of the size of Lisa’s shelter, but it was a refuge, maybe.  A place where people could congregate and get some peace.  And, ideally, it could be a barracks for my soldiers.

I instructed my new employees to stack the crates of trash outside the door.  I stayed outside with Sierra and Grue when they went back in to get more.

“You’re going to have to watch those ones,” Grue said.

“I know.  Listen, I want to send Sierra down to meet the boss, pass on word about stuff I need.  Can you escort her part of the way?”

“Sure,” he said.

“If you’re willing, Sierra?  I know it’s somewhat dangerous to cross the city, and our groups don’t control all of the territory between here and there.  I could send one of those guys with you.  Bit of a walk, though.  Maybe forty-five minutes both ways.”

“No, I can go alone, if it’s not too bad.”

“Good,”  I said.  I turned my head to see a trio of young men who were approaching us.

It took the one in the lead a bit of courage before he could approach me.

“Yes?” I asked, when he didn’t speak.

“We were remembering how some girl was saying you were recruiting, the other day.”

“I was and I am.”  My heart was pounding.  Why was this happening now, when it had met with only resistance earlier?

“Don’t want to do anything illegal.”

“Not asking you to.  You okay with starting with some clean-up?”

He looked at his buddies -or were they brothers?- and nodded.

“Sierra here will tell you what needs to be done.  Put in a good effort and I’ll pay you at the end of the day.”  My thoughts were on the small safe that I was using as a bedside table.

His eyes widened slightly at that.  “Mind if I go and get my cousin?  He’ll be interested too.”

“Go.”  I ordered, and Sierra led two of them inside while the leader of the newest group ran off at a half-jog.

“Seems like you started something,” Grue said, when the last of them were out of earshot.

I shook my head.  “I don’t even understand how.”

“Still think you’re moving too fast.  Like I said earlier, there’s no good reason for it.”

“Dinah’s a good enough reason for me.”

“Maybe.  But you’ve got to find time to relax, get some sleep, maybe have some fun.  Or you’re going to make mistakes, and you’ll set yourself back days or weeks in your plan.  Slow and steady wins this race.”

“Can’t afford slow and steady,” I said.

Why?  You were telling me earlier, but we got interrupted.”

I’d been glad for the interruption, and I was profoundly disappointed the subject had come up again.  I folded my arms and looked away, down the road to where it gradually sloped to the shattered Boardwalk and the ocean beyond.

Here was the leap of faith.  The test of my trust in him.  “Because if I don’t amaze Coil, if I don’t force his hand and give him absolutely no reason to say I failed… he’s going to keep Dinah.  If he does, the only way to free her is going to be if Tattletale and I take Coil down.  And I don’t think we’d succeed.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Mannequin lunged for me, his bladed toes biting into the ground for traction.  He moved fast enough that his arms trailed behind him like twin ribbons in a strong wind.

He stopped several paces away from me, turning his body to swing at me with his right arm and the three foot long blade that was attached to it.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought he’d fall well short. But his arm extended on a chain, giving the swing just enough reach to put the blade on a collision course with my head.

I parried it with my baton.  The hit was heavy, more like trying to fend off a sledgehammer than what I’d expected.  I almost lost my grip on my weapon.

As the blade bounced off my baton, he reversed the direction his upper body was turning to start spinning like a top.  His one attached arm hurtling around him, he sprung at me.  I threw myself back and away, escaping by a mere two inches.

His spinning upper body had, with his right arm spooled out, caused the chain to wind around his body.  He began reeling it in, the arm and blade drawing a lazy circle around him.  I backed away, thinking I finally had a chance to get my bearings.

As his detached arm reeled in, the fingers folded backwards around the end of one of his feet, gripping it.  He retracted the blade at the toe of the other foot and dropped that foot flat on the ground.  The motion seemed to unbalance him, and he teetered, almost falling over.  Then in one sudden motion, he righted himself and thrust out with his other leg and the three-foot blade that was now attached to it.

I didn’t have time to get out of the way, to bring my baton up to defend myself or even to do more than belatedly realize his near-collapse had been a feint.  He caught me in the stomach with that same surprising strength as before, then slashed up toward my collarbone with enough force to lift my feet up off the ground.  I landed hard on my back, my armor absorbing the brunt of the impact.  The sides of my armor panels bit into the ribs of my back where they curved toward my body.

Keeping the lessons I’d learned from sparring with Grue in mind, I tried to scramble back and away while Mannequin righted himself and put the forearm and hand he had connected to his foot in the right place.  Before I could get to my feet, he started striding toward me.

I drew my bugs around me to conceal my movements as I rolled to one side, set my feet under me and sprinted to his left.

While still beneath the cover of my bugs, I was struck from behind and knocked face first to the ground.  The surprise was as bad as the pain.

Through the swarm, I sensed him approach until he stood with one foot on either side of me.  I felt him wind his fingers into my hair and pull my head up and back.  I struggled, trying to catch him in the knee with my baton, but he wrenched me to one side, and I felt a blade press against my throat.

As he’d done with the gray-haired doctor, he pulled the blade hard against my throat in one long, smooth motion, adjusting for the curvature of my neck.

In one heartbeat, I formed and initiated a plan.  I grunted and made a choking sound, which was all the more realistic because he’d just pulled a length of metal hard against my windpipe; I did want to grunt and I did choke.  Then I went limp and had every bug in the area cease moving.  Like snowflakes, the flies began drifting down from the air.

He let go of my hair, and my mask clacked hard against the floor.  I heard a girl scream, heard noises and shouts from everyone else.

I swallowed, partially to check that my throat really hadn’t been cut.  My costume had saved me.  I wished the gathered onlookers hadn’t witnessed the scene.  It would have been better if the bugs had blocked their line of sight, as their noises of fear and alarm were going to get his attention.

I just needed a second to think.  Mannequin could press an assault indefinitely, until he succeeded in cutting my throat open or delivering that mortal wound.  It was like sparring against Brian, but worse in every way.  Mannequin was stronger, faster, he had more reach, he didn’t get tired, he was good and he was out to kill me.  He was versatile in a way no ordinary human could be.  He couldn’t be caught in an arm-lock- his limb would just come free or bend in some screwed up way.

He could sense me somehow.  How?  It had been reckless of me to assume that he used sight to get by, especially when he didn’t have eyeholes in his mask.  The fact that he hadn’t noticed I was faking meant he wasn’t relying on sight, or his sight was limited enough that he couldn’t make out the lack of blood through the cloud of bugs around us.  If he wasn’t hearing my breathing, I doubted he had super hearing either.

Did he use radar, like Cricket?  It would be my first assumption, except my bugs hadn’t heard anything of the sort.

No.  This line of thinking wasn’t accomplishing anything.

I heard him sharpening his blades against one another with the sound of steel on steel.  I could sense the movement, from the bugs that were drifting down onto him.  A man in the crowd whimpered, and Mannequin turned towards him.

The metal singing in the pauses between the scrapes of blade on blade.  Mannequin was standing still, observing.

I had to come up with a plan of attack, or others would pay the price.  My deadline was the point, I suspected, that someone lost their nerve and tried to run.

If I was going to attack, I needed to find a weak point.  But he was smart.  Before the disaster that had turned him into this, he had been on the brink of solving many of the world’s crises.  Overpopulation, renewable energy, effective recycling, world hunger.  Even with tinker abilities offering the means, it took someone special to manage that and actually make progress.

It was a given that he wouldn’t have any blatant weaknesses.  Any measure he didn’t think of himself, he would have shored up by now, by virtue of being a longstanding member of the Nine.  He’d fought heroes and villains better than me, and he’d learned and improved in the process.

In that respect, perhaps, he and I weren’t so different.  I’d developed in much the same ways.  The difference was that he had years more experience.  That, and he was batshit insane.

What would I do in his shoes, with his power?

I wouldn’t leave any vital openings uncovered.  That was a given.  My focus -Mannequin’s focus- would be on designing way to make himself a completely closed system.  It wasn’t just sensible, it was the whole point of his transformation.  He’d have perfect recycling of all waste, dissipation of excess energy by diverting it to mechanical movement, intake of energy by absorption of heat.

Could that be a clue as to how he sensed the world around him?  Heat?  Or was it something completely different?  Radiation?  Radio waves?  Electromagnetics?

Putting myself in his shoes, I had to think of his motivation.  Why this form?  I’d make myself resemble a doll or a store mannequin because… it was an eternal reminder.  Didn’t his wife and kids die when the Simurgh attacked?  There was a story there.

But what else?  Why resemble a human?

To mislead?  Maybe the configuration of ‘my’ organs and parts wasn’t human in the slightest.  I might have gone the Aegis route and built-in redundancies for everything I could spare.  I wouldn’t need a heart, kidneys, or a conventional digestive system, bone marrow or any of that stuff.  Everything I could strip away would be more room for equipment, more room for all the pieces and parts that help turn ‘my’ individual body parts into perpetually self-sustaining systems.

His torso was the biggest section of his body.  It wouldn’t have his heart, lungs or any of that, because he didn’t have a circulatory system.  More likely, it contained his brain, his sensory organs/system, and whatever mechanism he was using to remotely control his arms, legs, hands and feet.  Unless he didn’t want to put all his items in one basket.  It was easily possible for some of that stuff to be in his thighs and forearms.

If I were him… I would have spent hours carefully balancing the ‘ecosystems’ of each individual part of my body.  Something that exacting and that fine tuned would be sensitive, fragile.  They’d be resistant to impacts, I wouldn’t go around getting into fights if they weren’t.  But heat and cold?  A crack in that exterior of his?  It could wreak havoc.

Okay.  I was getting a sense of him, maybe.  That said, none of that mattered if I couldn’t hurt him in the first place.  Maybe I was thinking about this all wrong.

Bugs dealt with threats that were encased in hard shells all the time, didn’t they?  They dealt with other species of bugs.  There were a hundred solutions there, if I was willing to look for them.

That was the spark of inspiration I needed.  In a matter of seconds, I had a plan.

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was something.  As a just-in-case measure, I could try some other smaller plans, on the off chance that they might distract or even work.  Having those options, if nothing else, would make me feel better.  Mannequin had just brutally and unquestionably kicked my ass in the span of fifteen seconds, and it was going to be at least two minutes until I could even begin my plan, judging by how long it had taken my bugs to deliver the supplies from my lair.

The same instant I had that thought, I started everything in motion.  Every flying insect near my lair headed indoors to gather what I needed.

I made a mental note to make a more easily accessible opening to my lair, so I could do this faster in the future.

I made another mental note to set up a clock with ticking hands, so I could have bugs ride the three hands and have a precise way of tracking time when I was in my territory.  I supposed it would have to be an old-fashioned clock, since Shatterbird had screwed up everything else.

I had to guess.  Roughly two minutes until I could start my plan.

As I lay face down on the floor of the factory, I tried to control my breathing so he wouldn’t notice I was still alive.  The beat of my heart in my chest was so intense I was worried it would give me away.

Staying still was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, and I had done some hard things before.  Knowing that he might leap for someone and end their life any moment, it had me on edge.  Every second I could buy here counted because every second I didn’t have to fight him was crucial.

“Mommy,” the word was drawn out.  Had to have come from someone young.  A toddler?  “I don’t want to be here!”

The rhythm of steel rasping against steel ceased.  Mannequin went still.

Shit.  So much for my reprieve.

I pulled myself to my feet and stirred all of the bugs in the area into action.  They rose from the floor like a dark whirlwind.  I sheathed my knife and gripped my baton in both hands.

“Mannequin!”

He stopped and turned his upper body to face me.  His head cocked to one side.

“Yeah,” I said.  “You didn’t get me.”

He turned back around and started walking toward the mother and the little boy.  The pair were huddled between an empty metal frame and a workbench.

“Hey!” I shouted.  “Come on!  Fight me!  Don’t you have the balls to take on a teenage girl?  Or are they one of the things you cut away!?”

He didn’t slow or hesitate at my words.

“Bastard!”  I ran for him.  It was a hundred percent possible he was baiting me, forcing me into a situation where I had to do something stupid or let the mom and the little kid get hurt.  Maybe if I’d been a harder person, I could have let him hurt them, knowing it was smarter in the long run.  But I wasn’t capable of doing that.

What could I even do?  I had to make the call in the three or four seconds it took me to cross the floor of the factory.  He was more than half-again as tall as I was, and my weapons couldn’t do anything to him.

I threw myself at the backs of his legs, colliding with the back of his knees and his calves.  Not all of his precarious balance was an act.  He teetered and collapsed backward onto the floor, his legs on top of me.

“Go!” I screamed at the mother.  “Run!”

She did.  Mannequin reached out to extend a blade into the back of her leg, and she fell, but someone else hurried forward to help her.

Mannequin’s left leg snaked around my throat in an impromptu headlock.  I tried to slip out, to force his leg apart.  Even though I could move it, I couldn’t squeeze my head through the gap.

Not counting the time I’d spent lying on the ground, buying time, how long had I lasted?  Less than thirty seconds?

Four blades sprung from the calf of his right leg.  He extended it high above me, and they began to rotate, slowly at first, then faster, like the blades of a fan.  Or a food processor.

He had me in a headlock, but the rest of me was free to move.  Gripping my baton with both hands, I swung it into the whirling blades with as much strength as my leverage afforded me.

My baton went flying out of my grip, but the blades stopped.  My heart sank as I saw them begin to rotate again, slowly.

They didn’t return to the same blurring speed they’d been at before.  A few seconds passed, and they retracted back into his leg.

I might have been relieved, but I was still in his grip.

He heaved me upward, positioning himself with two hands and one leg on the ground, the other leg holding me up high.  My toes scrabbled to touch ground and fell short.  The grip on my neck wasn’t perfect: it wasn’t cutting off my blood flow, it barely impacted my breathing, but it still hurt, and my neck strained with the weight of the rest of my body.

I drew my knife and gripped the handle.  Then I drove it at my throat.  Or at Mannequin’s leg, which was folded around my throat.  Same idea.  I aimed at the ball joint, striking a mere two or so inches from my own face.  Once, twice, three times.

I was swinging for a fourth hit when he shifted positions.  I couldn’t be sure if he had hoped to gradually strangle me, to leave me dangling until I started begging or if he’d been poised for something else, but he’d apparently changed his mind.  He turned over, his leg unfolding from my throat at the same instant one large hand closed over my face.

He whipped me around himself in one tight circle, then let his arm go free from the socket, the whirring sound of chain feeding out swiftly becoming distant as I hurtled across the room.

I crashed into a pile of wooden boards that were riddled with nails and screws.  The metal points jabbed at me but didn’t penetrate my costume.  I tried to get my feet under me, but the boards only slid underfoot.  His hand was still attached to my face.

He began to pull me forward, no doubt to repeat the process.  Half blind under the grip of his hand, I reacted in a heartbeat, slamming the point of the knife into the gap between his hand and my face.

Tattletale had said it was strong enough to serve as a crowbar.  I was glad to discover she was right.  Between the pull of the retracting chain and the leverage of the knife, I freed myself from his grip, his fingertips scraping hard against my scalp.  Flying back to him, his arm clicked back into place.  I tried to blink a blurry spot out of my vision, only to realize I had a scratch on the right lens of my mask where I’d hit it with the knife’s edge.

The pain from being thrown around was belatedly making itself known.  Bruises, I could deal with.  Just so long as my body moved where and when I needed it to.  I felt the dull ache of a building headache.  From where I’d been gripped in the headlock?

Okay.  Still in one piece, more or less.  How much time had I bought?  One minute?  One and a half?  Could I hold out for long enough?  Could the bystanders?  The moment my bugs arrived would be the moment I could begin my plan.  I’d still have to survive after that, and there was no guarantee it would work.  In fact, my gut was telling me it was a long shot.

Thirty seconds to a minute.  I was panting for breath, counting every second that he silently stared at me as something I should value.

What was going on behind that expressionless mask?  Was he coming up with a battle plan?  Maybe, maybe not.  He didn’t really need one.  It could be that he was calculating how best to destroy me: not just killing me, but ruining me.  There were enough ways he could do it.  Inflicting lifelong scars and injury.  Or he could go down the opposite road and murder the civilians, leaving me as the only one standing.  Both were very real possibilities, both devastating in their own way.

Or maybe, behind that hard shell, he was in the throes of mental anguish.  Maybe he was spending every second of every day reliving the day he lost his family and his dreams to a nigh-unstoppable, malignant force.

There was nothing I could do about his past.  Whoever he had been before, he was a monster now.  I had to pull out all the stops to try and stop him from hurting anyone else.

It was time to enact battle plan number one, one of the two ideas I had in mind that almost definitely wouldn’t work.  I set my swarm on him.  Up to this point, I had kept them largely at bay, using only the bare minimum necessary to keep track of my surroundings.  Now I smothered him, piling them on every available surface.

It didn’t accomplish a thing, of course.  He started running toward me, weapons at the ready.  He wasn’t impeded in his movements, nor were his senses -sight or otherwise- impaired.

I ducked beneath his first swing as he closed in, but I couldn’t avoid the follow-up hit.  His second swing scraped off the armor on my shoulder and struck my chest.  Beyond the momentary pain, I was almost grateful for it, because the strike knocked me further out of his reach.

Some of my bugs managed to squeeze inside the slots where his weapons had emerged.  The spaces didn’t perfectly match the bases of the blades, and the bugs were small.  There was nothing organic inside the sheaths.  Even the interior was completely sealed off.  Still, I managed to get bugs into the mechanisms, lodging their bodies inside the finer workings or killing one another to spill ichor and their bodily contents onto anything that felt sensitive.

Mannequin stepped back, and I watched as he retracted all of his blades, the slots they’d speared out of sealing closed behind them.  A wave of pressure and heat killed off every bug and likely most of the gunk I’d managed to smear inside.

Yeah, I hadn’t figured that would work.  Plan one down.

For plan two, I needed my baton.  I could only hope it was in one piece.  I used my power and my eyes to search the factory floor, while keeping my head still, so he couldn’t see what I was doing.

My bugs were almost here, arriving in droves.

I found my baton lying against the wall near where I’d been pinned by Mannequin.  I’d have to get by him to get it.

Fetch.  I ordered my bugs, as Mannequin lunged for me again.  I didn’t have a second thought to spare as far as telling them how.  For now, I needed to survive.

This time, his attack was frenzied.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought he was irritated.  I hopped back out of reach of the first swing, then quickly backed up as he followed that up with a series of rapid rotations of his upper body, momentarily becoming a blender-whir of whirling blades.

I was so busy trying not to get hit by the blades that I missed it when he tilted.  He balanced on one leg and kicked out wide with the other, letting the chain out so it could stretch the seven or eight feet to me.  I was knocked back onto the wood pile a second time, landing on the edge and falling to the ground a second later.

He stopped spinning and retracted his leg, apparently unfazed after the dizzying act of spinning like a top.  I saw my bugs tugging the baton, but Mannequin spotted them at the same time.  He stepped back and placed one foot on top of it.  With a kick, he sent it sliding across the floor, away from me.

Fuck.  I’d have to take the slightly less efficient route.  I grabbed a stout two-by-four as I stood.  It was old, dusty, damaged by years of exposure, and the screws that clustered in one end were rusted.

Better than nothing, as weapons went.

His blades made that rasping sound as he sharpened them against one another, one edge of each blade, then the other.  After doing it just long enough to lull me into a false sense of security, he lunged, blades spearing for my chest and throat.  I struck out simultaneously with the piece of wood.  It seemed to catch him off guard.  I struck too soon to hit him, but he wasn’t my target.

I clubbed at the uppermost blade, driving it down toward the floor.  I tried to avoid the edge and strike the flat of the blade, but my strike wasn’t spot on.  I didn’t see if I’d had any of the desired effect, because he collided with me, both blades striking the armor of my chest.  Pain exploded in my collarbone and ribs, but I didn’t experience any of the telltale pain of impalement.  My armor had saved me.

Finding the tips stuck in the denser material of my armor, he whipped both arms to one side, throwing me a solid ten or twelve feet.  I sprawled where I landed.

I huffed out a breath, feeling pain in my chest with every movement.  Then I smiled a little.

My swarm had finally arrived.

The bugs flowed into the room as a singular mass and roughly half of them swept over Mannequin.  He wobbled a little, then turned his attention to me, uncaring.

Which was a good thing.  It was better that he didn’t pay much attention.

Behind him, the bugs moved in an almost kaleidoscopic pattern, slowly expanding outward from a center point, their arrangement symmetric.

He paused and looked over his shoulder at the swarm.

He was apparently able to sense my bugs on the floor, floating in the air.  That much was apparent.  He hadn’t, at the same time, been able to tell I wasn’t bleeding out into a pool on the ground, or that I was still breathing while I lay prone on the factory floor.  My plan hinged on two things; whether his peculiar means of sensing things would let him grasp what I was doing here, and if he would be able to do something about it.

The formation ceased expanding, then swept over him again.  Once again, he wobbled, staggered a step.

He charged through the mass of bugs that now sat between the two of us, running towards me.  I managed to parry one swing of his blade with my piece of wood, then jump out of the way of the second blade.  When I tried to block his kick with the two-by-four, however, I lost my grip and it fell to the ground.  He kicked me a second time, hard, and I staggered back, hand to my stomach, nausea building up in my throat.  I controlled my breathing to keep my dinner down.

Third pass with my swarm.  They focused on his legs, and very nearly unbalanced him.

I could see him pause, watched his head tilt quizzically.  I bit my lip.

To his right, my left, the swarm had once again gathered in a tight cluster, and were expanding slowly, with controlled movements.

The swarm consisted of pairings of flying insect and arachnid.  Every spider from my lair was clutching a bee, a wasp or a larger dragonfly, who clutched the spider in turn.  A thousand pairs.

Connecting to one another, these bugs quickly drew out five hundred or more lines of webbing.  Mostly dragline silk, this ‘net’ maintained enough of the sticky webbing to attach to him, draping over his artificial body and staying there.

I hadn’t used the black widow spiders I’d brought into the factory earlier out of a fear that he’d realize what I was doing and counteract it before I could really get the ball rolling.  Now I gathered them up and brought them into play.  I used all of the spiders I’d already placed on him, focusing on his joints, reinforcing the stronger webs that were already there.  Their silk was nothing compared to the black widows, but it was something.

He moved without a problem, either unaware or uncaring.  Silk strands stretched and snapped as he extended his arms, more broke free as he walked.  Alone, the threads were negligible.  It was together that they were stronger.  Much like my costume.

He tried to retract the blade in his right arm, but it caught.  Pressing the point against the ground, he bent it back into alignment.  It retracted on his next attempt.  My strike with the two-by-four hadn’t done much there.  My second just-in-case measure hadn’t worked out.

That same arm disconnected and extended towards me as he tried to grab for me, and I turned to one side just in time to avoid being caught.  He fired the other arm out with an almost explosive force and I managed to catch hold of it before it got a grip on my costume.

My swarm made a fourth pass, focusing on the chain of his extended arm and the joints of his shoulders, elbows, crotch and knees where the webbing had already accumulated to some degree.  Fifty or sixty spiders stayed on the extended chain, spitting out large amounts of their stickiest webbing.

He was trying to maneuver the arm I was holding to grab onto me, his fingers and wrist bending at unnatural angles as he sought a grip on my hands and wrists.  He changed tactics, making the blades in the arm spear out at random, to make it as impossible to hold as he could.  When that failed, he whipped the chain.  I let go of the hand just in time to avoid being caught by the tail end of the whiplash.  He reeled it in, and it got about three-quarters of the way in before he ran into a slight snag.

The last quarter of the retraction process was a fraction slower.  Silk glue gumming up the works, I could hope.  I saw him look at his arm, then flex the fingers, as if to test them.

While he was distracted, I made a fifth pass with my formation.  I tried to be more subtle about it, carefully draping the silk over him rather than letting it pull tight against him with enough collective force to move him off-balance.

He attacked, stretching out the arm I hadn’t gummed up.  The pain from the most recent hit to my stomach slowed me down, and his fist collided with me, knocking me over for what seemed like the hundredth time.  I managed to backhand it off of me before he could do anything, and hurried to my feet.

While the arm was still partially extended, I managed to deposit spiders on the chain.  They immediately began straining to produce silk glue on and around the mechanisms that allowed the chain to retract.  One spider wasn’t much, but all together, it added up.

I could pinpoint the moment he realized what I was doing.  Extending the chain, he flung it across the room, the blade cutting a wide swathe.  I ducked clear, but two bystanders were struck down, screaming.  When he moved to retract that chain, the mechanism stalled.

His body was like Armsmaster’s powersuit, but every piece of equipment he added necessitated that he cut away a pound of flesh.  I was inclined to suspect that, crazy as he was, that reality made him more inclined to go for elegant, efficient design over more rugged craftsmanship.  The propeller blades in his ankle, the chain retraction mechanisms in his arms, they were built to be lightweight, to use minimal energy, and achieve maximum effect at the same time.

He tilted his head, looking at the arm that was stubbornly refusing to retract back into place.

I made my sixth sweep with my bugs.  As the swarm passed, his head snapped up, looking at me.  As much as he could without eyes, anyways.  He knew what was happening.

A better cape than I might have had a quip there, an insult.  I hurt in too many places, in my ribs, my stomach, my shoulders, neck, back and legs.  Some of the pain was fierce, like a red-hot poker being driven with a constant, ceaseless pressure into the body parts in question.  I couldn’t spare the breath.

The chain dropped from his elbow socket, and I watched as he paced over to his fallen arm, picked it up, tore the remaining chain out, and clicked it into place.

“Come on,” I muttered under my breath.

Blades speared out of slots all over his body, some of which I hadn’t even guessed were present.  Then he began spinning furiously, every body part rotating the individual blades with enough force that webs were cut before they could be secured in place.

Different tactic.  This time, the swarm took its time passing over him, thirty or forty spiders working at a time, their work relentless, ceaseless.  Each spider cut the threads so they drifted down like strings in the wind.

Falling gently instead of being stretched taut, they would drape over the spinning blades, attach to other trailing silk, and form a looser cloud.

I’d anticipated this.

The part where I was caught off guard was when he changed tactics, going after the civilians for the second time.

“Hey!” I shouted after him.

I’d hoped to be more subtle about my second phase of attack.

Half of the swarm I’d brought from my lair was still waiting for the instruction.  I deployed them while running after Mannequin, stopping at the wood pile to get another two-by-four.

Someone screamed as Mannequin started cutting into them.  Two or three people, cornered by the monster.  One already in harm’s way.

“Fucker!  Stop!”  I shouted, my words useless.

I moved on to the second phase of my attack.  As I’d done with the pens, markers, the candles and the bottles of disinfectant, I’d instructed my bugs to arrive with supplies in hand.

Some carried the scraps of silk cloth from my work on the costumes: The masks I’d made as trial runs, the belts and straps.  As with the silk that drifted in the air, they were caught by the blades rather than being cut.  Mannequin soon had a dark blur whirling around his upper body.

Other bugs packed the remainder of my costume design supplies.  Tubes of paint were rigid enough to be cut by the blades, creating small, wet, colorful explosions.  A large bottle of glue made its way to my hand, and I hurried to tear off the lid before a large group of bugs carted it off to him, holding it upside-down over his head so streams of the stuff could spill onto his head and shoulders.  Packages of dye were torn in half by his blades, expanding into clouds of black, brown, gray and lavender powder, sticking to any liquid on him, filling every gap to highlight the hidden slots for his weaponry and the seams where everything fit together.

Swinging underhand, I brought the two-by-four up toward the widest part of the buzzsaw whirl that was Mannequin.  Through luck as much as intent, I managed a glancing blow on the end of the blade, knocking it up toward the ceiling.  The momentum of his rotation managed the rest.  He tipped and crashed onto his side, literally falling apart in the process.  Lengths of chain connected everything, but nothing was in the right socket.  Some sort of built-in defense mechanism against heavy impacts?

My swarm flooded over him to draw out more lines of silk and to spill glue -both organic glue from my spiders and brand name supplies- where possible.

He began to reel the various parts in, slowly.  I hurried in to grab the one arm he’d disconnected from the chain and hurled it away.  Then I seized his head.

I knew he wouldn’t have anything particularly valuable in his head.  It was too obvious a target.  But it was easy to get my hands on, it wasn’t connected to too many other things, and there was a chance he might want to keep it.

Holding the head, I hauled back, pulling more chain from the neck.  With one hard pull, I hauled half of his body in my direction, the exertion making every injury I had screaming in protest.  Another pull, and I dragged his body another half-foot back, but I got one or two feet of length from the neck-chain.

Even with stuff gumming up the works, his chest clearly had stronger mechanisms inside it than the rest of his body did.  The chain began slowly retracting.

Someone appeared behind me, and his hands gripped the chain, just a bit behind my own.  He added his strength to mine, and Mannequin’s body was dragged another two or three feet back.

“Where?” he asked.  It was a burly bystander with a thick black beard, thick rimmed glasses and a red and black striped t-shirt.  One of my people.

I turned and let go to point.  There was a metal frame that had once stood around some equipment.  Now it stood empty, just a connection of metal bars.

“Stand back,” he said.  I let go and backed off.  Without me in the way, the bystander was able to haul Mannequin another four or five feet towards the frame.  Another haul, and they were close enough to the frame.

I hurried forward, gripping the head, and winding it through and beneath the bars, tying it in the crudest of knots and tangling it in the bars in the process.  It dangled, the stump facing the ceiling.  Fifteen feet of chain trailed between it and Mannequin’s body.

Mannequin had only just managed to reel in the chain and reconnect his remaining arm, and was using it to attach his legs securely into place.

I had only seconds.

Having my bugs in the area, I knew exactly where to find what I was looking for.  I hurried over to the corner and hefted a cinder block.

I wasn’t halfway back to the head when I saw Mannequin stand.  I abandoned my plan, dropped the block and stepped away, circling him, putting distance between myself and his head.  His attention seemed to be on me.

Had I pissed him off?

He wasn’t spinning any more, and I could see the damage the bugs had wrought.  Dense webs and scraps of cloth had collected across his body, and only half of the blades had succeeded in retracting in the face of the silk, glue and other gunk.  Color streaked him, both liquid from the paints and powder from the dyes.

I gathered my bugs into another formation.  We were running low on silk, but I’d have to deal.

He stepped forward, and his movements were more awkward than usual.  Good.  That might mean the ball joints weren’t in pristine condition anymore.

He moved again, disconnecting the chain to free himself from the metal frame I’d tied the neck-chain to.  He wasn’t focusing on me.  I felt out with my bugs and sought his target.

His arm.  It crawled weakly for him, using the fingertips to scrape forward.

The moment I realized what he was after, I redirected a portion of my web-spinning swarm to the hand.  Then I limped to my left to put myself between him and his target.  My swarm passed over him.  The seventh strafing run.  He slashed at it as it passed in a surprising display of emotion.

He reached into the hole where his neck and head were supposed to be and withdrew a small knife.

I adjusted my posture.  He was a tinker, and that knife could be anything.

He pressed a switch, and it was soon surrounded with a gray blur.  I recognized it as Armsmaster’s tech.

A weapon with that exact same visual effect had done horrendous damage to Leviathan.

He stepped forward, and I stepped back.  Behind me, the arm jumped.  Mannequin was using the telescoping blade to help push it in the right direction.  It was trying to take a circuitous route around me.

My bugs made their eighth sweep past the headless Mannequin.

He lunged for me once again.  This time, there was no blocking the hit, no letting my armor absorb it.  His movements were ungainly, unbalanced by his lack of an arm, but he stood nine feet tall, usually, and that meant he had reach, no matter the type of weapon he was wielding.

I backed off, rapidly stepping away, all too aware that my spiders weren’t working fast enough to stop him before he landed a hit.  I was swiftly running out of room to retreat.

There was a sound, a heavy impact followed by the noise of ringing metal.  Mannequin stopped and whirled on the spot, striding back the way he’d come.

The sound came again.  I chased, trying not to limp, knowing there was little I could do to stop the monster.  I crossed half the factory floor before I saw what had earned Mannequin’s attention.

The man who’d helped me with Mannequin had the concrete block in his hand, and for the third time, be brought it down on Mannequin’s head.  The head came free of the chain and fell to the ground, rolling briefly.

The man hefted the cinder block again, saw Mannequin approaching, and changed his mind.  He dropped the block onto the head and then ran.

Mannequin didn’t give chase to his attacker.  Instead, he stooped down to pick up his head, then stood straight.  I stopped where I was.

For long moments, Mannequin held the head at arm’s length.  Then it fell to the ground.

Seconds stretched on as his arm flopped its way towards him.  My spiders swarmed it, surrounding it in silk.  Only the blade was really allowing it to move, now, the fingers struggling around the silk to move it into position for the next sudden thrust of the blade.

Mannequin turned his attention to his arm, and I set my swarm on it.  A thousand threads of silk, each held by as many flying insects as I could grip it with, all carrying the arm aloft.  I brought it up to the ceiling, and began fixing it in place, building a cocoon around it.  My enemy turned his attention to me, his shoulders facing me square-on.  As he no longer had a head, I found his body language doubly hard to read.  Had I irritated him, doing that?

He stepped forward, as if to lunge, and the silk that wreathed him hampered his full range of movement.  His leg didn’t move as far as he intended, and his missing arm displaced his sense of balance.  He collapsed.

“Want to keep going?” I asked his fallen form, my heart in my throat.  I stood ready to jump and react at a moment’s notice.

Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet again.  Twice, he used the knife to slash at the silk.  On the second attempt, I hit him with the formation of bugs for an eighth sweep of the silk net, hoping to throw him off-balance enough that he’d stab himself.  No such luck.

Standing straight, Mannequin shifted his grip on his knife and then raised one finger.  Wagged it left and right, that same gesture of disapproval, condemnation.

Then he turned to leave, striding for the door.  I didn’t try to stop him.  I didn’t have it in me.

I watched him leave with my bugs.  Felt him get three, four, then five blocks away with my power, before he was out of my range.  The second he was gone, all the strength went out of my legs.  I collapsed onto my knees in the center of the room.

I hurt all over.  If Mannequin hadn’t broken something in my ribs or collarbone, he’d fractured something.  But pain was only part of it.  Physically, I was exhausted.  Emotionally?  Doubly so.

Charlotte appeared at my side and offered me a hand.  The murmurs of conversation started to sound around me.  I tuned it out.  I couldn’t take the criticism, and I didn’t deserve any praise.  How many people had been hurt while I fought Mannequin?  How many people had died because I hadn’t been on the alert?

With Charlotte’s help, I stood.  I shook my head at her offer for support standing.  Moving slowly and carefully, not wanting to embarrass myself, I walked over to the dismembered head.

It was miniscule, but there was a drop of black fluid beading at the seam in the neck where the chain had been threaded.  Apparently that was enough of a flaw for Mannequin to abandon it.  I left it where it was.

Then I hobbled over to the body of the gray-haired doctor.  Getting onto my knees was painful, but I did.  I gently turned her head and stared into her open eyes.  Light blue, surprised.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

I couldn’t think of anything more to add or say.  A minute or two passed before I gave up on it.  I left her eyes open; using my fingertips to close her eyes seemed presumptuous and trite.

I cut the threads with my bugs and let the arm fall from the ceiling.  More than one person was startled at the sudden drop and impact.

“Throw the head and the arm into the ocean,” I said, to nobody in particular.  “If you can find a boat, drop it somewhere deep.”

“Okay,” Charlotte said, her voice quiet.

“I’m going to go.  I’ll be using my bugs to watch for more trouble,” I said, as I began limping toward the door.

I’d won.  So to speak.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I never thought I’d be thankful in any way that Leviathan had trashed my hometown.  Leviathan’s tidal waves had shattered many of the windows and the residents had put plywood, plastic and boards up in their wake.  It meant there was less material for Shatterbird to use against us.  Countless people had been spared from injury and death due to Shatterbird’s glass shards because Leviathan had gotten to us first.

But even without the glass, there was still sand.

I stepped out of the way as a trio of people moved down the street, supporting each other as much as they were able.  Each of them had been blasted by the sand, their skin left ragged.  It had turned a bruised combination of black brown and purple where it hadn’t been scraped off and left raw, red and openly bleeding.  One looked as though he’d been blinded.  The sandburns covered his upper face.

Two ambulances had stopped at an intersection just a block away from where I had announced my claim of territory.  At a glance, I could tell that they’d had all mirrors removed and all glass stripped from the dash, doors and windshield.  Those that had emerged from their homes and shelters were gravitating towards the ambulances.  There was still dust settling on the streets, and I could taste it thick in the air, even through my mask.  I wondered if we needed to be getting masks out to people.  It couldn’t be healthy.

Heads turned as I approached.  I’d put my costume on again, and I had a swarm of bugs following in my wake, giving me more presence.  When people were this hurt and scared, it didn’t take much to tap into that primal part of their psyches and intimidate them just a little.

Surveying the scene, I could already tell there were going to be issues.

Hundreds, thousands of hurt people, many in critical or potentially critical shape, there were only two ambulances here, and the hospitals would be overcrowded.  People were going to panic when they realized that they wouldn’t necessarily get help.  They would get upset, even angry.  This already unstable situation would descend into all-out chaos.

I told them I’d protect them, but there was no stopping this.

I wasn’t on my game.  My thoughts were on Dad and on Tattletale, not on these people and all the factors that I was supposed to take into account.  But I didn’t have a choice.

I gave the order, and my swarm spread out, flowing through the crowd.  It was enough bugs to get people’s attention.  I just hoped the benefits of having the bugs there would outweigh any fear or discomfort the bugs generated.

Using the bugs I’d spread around the area, I augmented my voice, allowing it to carry.  “The most important thing is to remain calm.”

More people turned toward me.  I stepped closer to the ambulances, where paramedics were working with some of the most critical cases.  I felt like a charlatan, a pretender.  The look of mixed fear and incredulity from the paramedics didn’t help.  Still, someone had to take control and organize before people started lashing out, and the city’s heroes were apparently occupied elsewhere.

“I don’t intend you any harm,” I reassured them.  “If you’re unhurt and able-bodied, there are people who need your help.  Step forward so I can direct you to them.”

Silence and stillness stretched on for long seconds.  I could see people who had no visible injuries, who were staring at me, unwilling to respond to my appeal.  Generally speaking, the types of people who lived in the Docks weren’t the sort who were used to being neighborly, to putting society’s needs above their own.

Fuck me.  My head wasn’t in the right place.  I’d forgotten.  I’d been taught in the first aid classes you had to be direct and specific when dealing with people in a crisis.  Asking for help was begging for disappointment, because people would hesitate to step forward, or assume that someone else would handle the job.  Instead of asking for help, we were supposed to single someone out of the crowd of bystanders and give them a clear, identifiable task.  Something along the lines of, ‘You in the red shirt, call nine-one-one!’

And now that I’d fucked that up, I’d entrenched them.  The status quo was now quickly becoming ‘not listening to the supervillain’, and it would be twice as hard to get them to go against the rest of the herd.

Which left me three unpleasant options.  The first option was that I could abandon that plan, look weak, and lose standing in the eyes of everyone present.  Alternately, I could speak up again, appeal to their humanity, beg, plead, demand, praying all the while for someone to come forward.  That was the second choice, and it would make me look even worse to everyone watching, with only a miniscule chance of success.

The silence stretched on.  I knew it had only been five or six seconds, but it felt like a minute.

The third of my ugly options?  I could make them listen.  Goad them into action with threats and violence.  It meant I risked provoking the same sort of chaos and violence I was hoping to combat, but I suspected that chance was relatively minor.  I could get people to do what I needed them to do.  I’d maybe earn their respect, but I’d probably earn their enmity at the same time.

Could I do this?  Could I become the bully, even if it was for the greater good?  I was going to hate myself for doing it, but I’d left my dad behind to be here.  I wasn’t about to fail.

“Alright,” I said, sounding calmer than I felt.  My fist clenched at my side.

I hesitated.  Someone was approaching.  I felt them passing through the bugs I’d dispersed through the crowd.  Charlotte.

“You’re not wearing your mask,” I said, the second she was close enough to hear me, my voice quiet.  “Or the paper cube.”

“The cube got crushed when I was helping someone.  I was glad you didn’t use your power,” she said.  Then, loud enough that some people nearby could hear her, she asked me, “What can I do?”

I owe her one hell of a favor.

I’d had my bugs sweeping through nearby buildings since I’d arrived.  I hadn’t really stopped, even after I got home.  I had found several of the wounded.  A man lying prone, two kids huddled near their mother.  The mother’s face was sticky with blood, her breathing quick.  The children were bleeding too.  I could sense a man stumbling blindly through what had been his home, hands to his face.

I almost sent her after the blind man, but reconsidered.

I pointed at a warehouse, and spoke loud enough for others to hear, “There’s a woman and two little kids in there, you won’t be able to help them alone.”  Which was a large part of why I had chosen them.

I spotted a twenty-something guy with an impressive bushy beard and no shirt.  Aside from one cut on his stomach and some smaller patches of shredded skin where the sand had caught him in the back, he seemed to be in okay shape.  “You.  Help her.”

He looked at the older woman beside him.  His mother?  She was clearly hurt, and had the remains of two or three white t-shirts bundled around her arm.  It was clear the limb had been caught by the sand; it looked like a mummy’s arm, only bloody.  Anticipating an excuse on his part, I pointing to the nearest group of injured and told him, “They’ll look after her.  There are people who need you more.  Second floor.  Go.

He looked at his mother, and the look she gave him was answer enough.  He helped her hobble over to the group of people I’d indicated, leaving her in their care, and joined Charlotte in running for the warehouse where the woman and kids were.

Now I just had to keep my momentum.

“You and your friend,” I spoke to a middle-aged guy and his buddy.  “There’s a guy slowly bleeding out in the factory there.  Go help him.”

The second that passed before they moved to obey left my heart pounding.

I turned to the next person and stopped.  He was one of the few people with actual bandages on his wounds, and he stood near his family.  Even with the gauze pads strapped to his face, I recognized him from earlier.  Or, to be specific, I recognized the little boy R.J., and I knew this man as his father, patriarch of the rat infested house from early in the day.

“There’s a blinded man in the brick building over there,” I told him, facing him squarely.  “Go help him.”

“Why?” he challenged me, his voice gruff, his gaze hard.  “I’m hurt.  If I go, I’m going to miss my turn with the ambulances.”

Asshole.  There wasn’t even a shred of gratitude for what I’d done to help him and his family, and he didn’t even seem to need his turn at the ambulance that badly either.  I had to resist the urge to hit him or set my bugs on him.

Worse, I couldn’t help but feel like he was seeing through the image I was trying to portray.  Seeing the girl behind the mask, who was just trying to pretend she knew what she was doing.

I turned to the next person, a solidly built woman with scratches and the sandburns I was quickly coming to recognize all over her face.  She had even taped half of a sanitary pad over one eye.  It wasn’t my brightest move, but I asked her, “Are you going to whine like a little girl, too, if I ask you to help someone?”

She smiled a little and shook her head.

“Good.  Go.  Left side of the building.  He’s blind, and there’s nobody else there to help.  I think he might have inhaled sand, he’s coughing pretty violently.  Don’t push him to move too fast or too much.  Take your time walking him back, if the bleeding isn’t too severe.”

She obeyed, moving off with a powerful stride.  When I looked, R.J.’s dad was gone.  He was stomping off toward the ambulances, keeping the crowd between us, dragging his wife at his side with R.J. hurrying to keep up.  Knowing how angry he was, I had to hope he wasn’t the type to take out his anger on his family.  I didn’t want to be indirectly responsible for their pain.

There were more people to pick out of the crowd, more orders to give.  It was all about setting them up so that refusal made them look bad, both to themselves and to others.  Social pressure.

By the time I’d sent two more groups, some of the others were coming back to be directed to the next few injured.  I gave them their orders.

Which only raised the greater problem.  How were we supposed to handle these people who were hurt and waiting their turn?  They were scared and restless.  That unease bled over into their friends, families and maybe their neighbors, who were scared for themselves and the people they cared about.  Already, they were gathering around the ambulances, pleading for help from too small a group of people, who had their hands full saving others’ lives.  Some were simply asking the paramedics for advice while keeping a respectful distance, others were demanding assistance because they felt their loved ones were more important than whoever was getting care or attention at that moment.  The paramedics couldn’t answer everyone.

People in this area formed closely knit packs.  They would step up to defend the people they cared about far more quickly and easily than they had with my appeal to help strangers just minutes ago.  I didn’t trust them to remain peaceful if this kept up.

What the hell was I supposed to do with them?

As lost as I felt in that moment, I managed to look calm.  My bugs gave me an awareness of the situation, and my eyes swept over the scene to get a sense of the mood and what people were doing.

I spotted a mother picking at one of her son’s wounds, and I realized what she was doing.  I hurried to stop her.  “What are you doing?”

Riding the highs and the lows of emotion from the past hour or two, I might have come across sounding angrier than I was.  She quailed just a bit.

“He has glass in his arm.”

He did.  There were slivers of glass no longer than the nub of lead in an old-fashioned pencil, sticking out of his cuts.

“Those are probably okay to remove,” I told her, “But avoid disturbing any close to the arteries, here, here and here.”

“He doesn’t have cuts there.”

“Good,” I told her.  “But you should know for later, for when you’re helping others.”

She pointed at her leg.  Sand had flayed the skin of her foot and calf and turned the muscle a dirty brown color.  “I can’t really walk.”

“You won’t need to.”

A plan was coalescing in my mind.  A way to give people something to do and give them some indication they’d eventually get help.  The problem was, I needed materials to carry this out, and there wasn’t much nearby.  It meant I had to get the materials from my lair.  I wasn’t willing to leave for any length of time, though, and I didn’t want to spare Charlotte, either.

I had to use my bugs.  That wasn’t so simple when the things I was retrieving weren’t small.

I had a box of pens and markers in my room, for sketching out the costume designs.  I also had first aid kits in my bedside table upstairs and in the bathroom on the ground floor.  Bringing all of that stuff here meant opening the boxes and retrieving everything I needed, carting them here on a wave of crawling bugs, past puddles and flooded streets.

I collected markers, pens, bandages, ointments, iodine, candles and needles.  Especially needles.  Smaller bottles of hydrogen peroxide.  At least, I hoped it was the iodine and hydrogen peroxide.  I couldn’t exactly read the labels.  The bottle shapes felt right, anyways.

More people returned with the injured.  I administrated my bugs while I gave new directions to the rescue parties.

Just carrying the things on a tide of bugs wasn’t going to work.  The crawling bugs couldn’t pass through the water, and there was no way to have flying bugs carry things – too many of the objects were too heavy, even with the flying insects gathered on every inch of their surface and working in unison.

Minutes passed as I tried different configurations and formations of bugs, trying to wrangle things like the small bottle of hydrogen peroxide with my swarm.

Then I saw the woman with the maxi-pad eyepatch and a man of roughly the same age carting someone to the ambulance using a blanket attached to two broomsticks as a stretcher.

I could do the same thing.  I called on my black widow spiders, drawing some out from the terrariums where I had them contained.  Wasps carted them to the necessary spots, and I had them spin their silk around the objects in question and tie that silk to the necessary bugs.  Silk looped around the neck of a marker, then around a series of roaches, who could then be assisted by other bugs.  I did the same for the other things, the iodine, markers, pens, candles and more.

When I was done, I called the swarm to me.

I turned my attention to the injured who were clustering around the ambulances.

“Listen!” I called out, using my bugs to augment my voice.  “Some of you have been picking the glass out of your skin!  I understand it hurts, but you’re slowing things down!”

I got some confused and angry looks.  I held up my hand to forestall any comments or argument.

“Any paramedic, nurse or doctor that helps you has to make absolutely sure that you don’t have any glass embedded deep in your body.  I don’t believe x-rays can detect glass-”

I paused as a paramedic snapped his head up to look at me.  Okay, so I was wrong.  I wished he hadn’t reacted, though.  People were paying attention to the paramedics, they’d noticed, and it wasn’t critical that these people know the exact details of the treatment they’d get.  If he’d just let me lie or be wrong, this would have gone smoother.

“Or at least, glass as fine as the shrapnel that hit you,” I corrected myself.

A shrug and a nod from the paramedic.  I got my mental bearings and continued, “If you’re pulling the glass out of your cuts and wounds and you lose track of which ones you’ve tended to, they’re going to have to explore the wounds to investigate, queue you up for x-rays and maybe even cut you open again later, after the skin has closed up, to get at any pieces they missed.”

I could see uneasy reactions from the crowd.  I raised my hand, just in time for the first of my swarm to arrive.  I closed my hand around a pen as the cloud of airborne insects delivered it to me.  They dispersed, and the pen remained behind.

“I’m going to give some of you pens and markers.  We’re going to have a system to make all of this easier on the doctors.  Dotted lines around any injuries with glass sticking out.  Circles around wounds where the glass may be deeper.”

The paramedic waved me over.  I moved briskly through the crowd to the stretcher.

“Tetanus,” he said, when I was close enough.  “We need to know if they’ve had their shots.”

“They probably haven’t,” I replied, using my swarm to augment my voice, but not to carry it to the crowd.

“Probably not.  But we have to ask, and time we spend asking is time we could spend helping them.”

I grasped the hand of a grungy old man who stood next to me, stretching his arm out.  “Have you had your shots?”

He shook his head.

I used the pen to draw a ‘T’ on the back of his hand, circled it and drew a line through it.  I pressed the pen into the old man’s hand, “You go to people and ask them the same question.  If they haven’t had their shots, draw the same thing.  If they have, just draw the T.”

I saw a glimmer of confusion in his eyes.  Was he illiterate?  I turned his hand over and drew a capital ‘T’ on his palm.

“Like that, if they have had their shots” I said, raising his hand for people to see, then turned it around.  “Like that if they haven’t.”

He nodded and took the pen, turning to the not-quite-as-old man beside him.

I addressed the crowd, “Remember, dotted line around the wounds if you can see the glass or if you’re absolutely sure there’s no glass in there, circle if you can’t tell.  Once you or someone else has drawn the dotted line, you can take out the glass if it’s smaller than your thumbnail.  If it’s bigger, try to leave it alone!”

“We need some elbow room,” the paramedic told me.  His blue gloves were slick with blood.  People were standing within two or three feet of him, watching what he was doing, trying to be close enough to be the next to get help when he was done with his current patient.

That wasn’t the limit of the potential patients, either: there were the injured that Charlotte and the others were retrieving.  The people who hadn’t been able to get here under their own power.

“We’re changing locations,” I called out.  I could see them reacting to that, balking at the idea.  “If you’re able to stand, it’s going to be a long time before you get the help you want.  There’s plenty more people with worse injuries.  Suck it up!”

I waited for someone to challenge me on that.  Nobody did.

“If you listen and cooperate you’ll get the help you want sooner.  We’re going to gather inside the factory right here where we’ll be clear of the worst of the dust.  It’s dry inside, and there’s enough space for all of us.”

It took some time for everyone to get moving, but they did.  My bugs passed me some candles and a lighter and I started handing them out with the pens and markers.  I followed the mass of people into the defunct factory that was next to the ambulances.

Sheets and cloths were pulled from machinery and laid atop boxes and on the ground, so people had places to sit and lie down.  Gradually, people set about the process of marking the types of wounds and the presence of glass, buried or otherwise.

“Disinfectant?” a woman asked me.

I turned.  She was older, in her mid-fifties, roughly my height, and she had a pinched face. “What about it?”

“You’ve been pulling things out of the clouds of flies,” she told me, “Can you produce some disinfectant for us, or are you limited to art supplies and candles?”

I got the impression of a strict schoolteacher from her.  The kind who was a hardass with even the good students and a mortal enemy to the poor ones.

I reached out my hand, and a portion of my swarm passed over it.  Thanks to the fact that many of them were in contact with the bottle, it was easy enough to position my hand and know when to close it.  The bugs drifted away, and I was left holding the three-inch tall bottle.

My theatrics didn’t seem to impress her.  Her tone was almost disparaging as she said, “Nobody uses hydrogen peroxide anymore.  It delays recovery time.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” I said.  “If the wounds heal over embedded glass, it’ll be that much more unpleasant.”

“Do you have medical training?” she asked me, her tone disapproving.

“Not enough, no,” I said with a sigh.  I had the swarm pass over my hand again, picking up the hydrogen peroxide and depositing another plastic bottle in its place.  “Iodine?”

“Thank you,” she said, in a tone that was more impatient than grateful.  “We’re going to need more than this.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told her, trying not to sound exasperated.

She headed for a group of people and knelt by one of the wounded who was lying on a sheet.  I could see her posture and expression soften as she talked to them.  So she wasn’t like that with other people.

Whatever.  I’d been prepared to be hated when I committed to villainy.

I gathered all of the supplies I’d brought and sent more bugs out to scout for more.

What I wouldn’t give for a working cell phone, to find out about how Tattletale was doing, even to ask after my dad.  But cell phones had computer chips, and computer chips had silicon.

Everything that was electronic and more complicated than a toaster was probably fried, with exceptions for some tinker-made stuff.

There was no use dwelling on the fact that two people I cared about were gravely hurt.  I couldn’t do anything about it now, and time spent wondering was time I wasn’t protecting and helping these people.

In terms of protecting these people, I spread my bugs out over every surface, until a potential threat wouldn’t be able to take a step without killing one.  It would serve as advance warning in case any members of Hookwolf’s alliance came through to make trouble.  I spread out some flying insects to try to detect airborne threats like Rune.

Most of the flying bugs, however, I was using to sweep over my surroundings, checking buildings and building interiors.  I wanted first aid kits, anything these people could use to clean their wounds.  Noting the lack of suture threads, I had my spiders start using their silk to spin something long, thick and tough enough, threading it through the holes of needles for their use.

It would slow down my costume production a touch, but I could deal.

“That doesn’t look very sterile,” a woman said, from behind me, as I checked the length of the thread one set of spiders had produced.  It was the pinched, gray-haired woman from just a little bit ago.

“More than you’d think.  I raised these little ladies myself.  They live in terrariums.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s clean enough to thread through someone’s open wounds.”

“No,” I replied, feeling a bit irritated, “But in the absence of good alternatives, I’d rather use this and then supply everyone here with antibiotics at some point in the next day or so.  Which they probably need anyways.”

“People use antibiotics too often,” she said.  “I try to make a point of using them sparingly in my clinic.”

Seriously?  “I think situations like this are the exact right time to use antibiotics.  These people have open wounds, they’re undernourished, dehydrated, stressed, their immune systems are probably shot, their environments are filthy, there’s probably countless other reasons.”

She said something, sounding even more irritated than before.  I think it was a repeat of the question from earlier, about my credentials in medicine.  I wasn’t listening.

The paramedics hadn’t come out of the ambulance in several minutes.  A check with my bugs found them lying on the floor of the ambulance.  No blood, as far as I could tell.

Ignoring the woman, I turned and headed for the door, hurrying outside.  She barked something snide at my back.

I was battle ready as I approached the ambulance and checked the area.  Nobody.

Stepping inside, I checked on the paramedics and the patient with an oxygen balloon strapped to his face.  The paramedics were beyond help, dead, their heads twisted at an ugly angle.  The patient hadn’t been dispatched the same way.  I checked his throat to find him still warm, but he wasn’t breathing and he had no pulse.  I squeezed the balloon, and huge amounts of blood bubbled from what I had taken to be a shallow cut in his chest. The bubbles meant the oxygen was leaking from his punctured lung.

This wound – there was no way he could have had it when he came into the ambulance.  It was fresh.  All three of the people here had been executed.  It had been done in cold blood, clean, and I hadn’t even noticed with my bugs on watch.

Which left me very concerned for the people I’d left in the warehouse.  I hopped down from the back of the ambulance, checked my surroundings, and then ran across the street.

I was a single step inside the door when I saw him.  Tall, faceless, featureless, but for the chains and ball joints that connected his ceramic-encased limbs.  One hand was raised, a single finger raised, ticking from side to side like a metronome.  Like an old-fashioned parent scolding an errant child.

The other hand was folded back, a long telescoping blade extended from the base of Mannequin’s palm.  The blade was pressed to the neck of the gray-haired doctor, so she had to stand on her tiptoes, her head pressed back against his chest.

I didn’t have a chance to move, to speak, or to use my power before he retracted the blade.  It slid across her throat, shearing through the skin, and arterial blood sprayed forth to cover some of the ground between us.  She collapsed to the ground.

Mannequin’s knife hand went limp, dangling at his side.  His other hand remained in position, finger wagging, as if admonishing me for what I had been doing.  Saving people from the Nine, tending to the hurt and scared.

I should have anticipated this.

I stepped forward, almost without thinking about it, and he dropped his other hand while taking three long steps to back away from me. His movements were ungainly, as if he was about to collapse to the ground with each one.  No sooner had I wondered why when I saw his feet.  His ‘toes’ pointed at the ground, and blades had sprouted from slots at the front of each foot.  He was perched precariously on the honed knife points, walking on the blades.

Reaching behind my back, I drew my baton and knife.  I tensed as he moved in reaction, closing half the distance between us, lurching three or four feet to the right, then back again.

I caught on immediately.  He was evading the bugs that had been hovering in the air between us, the knife-stilts that extended from his feet delicately avoiding contact with the bugs that were on the ground.  The contact he did make with the bugs was gentle, sliding against them like a brush of wind.  I only noticed because I was paying attention.

He didn’t need to avoid my swarm.  He was taunting me.  Letting me know exactly how he had gotten so close without me realizing it.

I flicked out my baton to its full length.  He responded by doing the same with the telescoping blades that unfolded from his arms.  His weapons were longer, both sharp.

Not taking my eyes off him, I used my bugs and my peripheral vision to track the other people in the warehouse.  Too many were too hurt to move, and those who could move had backed into corners and to places where they had cover.

Still, this was his battlefield.  He had far too many hostages at his disposal.  He was faster than me, stronger, tougher.

I was pretty damn sure that his power was as complete a counter to mine as anyone could hope for.  Anyone who had paid attention to the news in the past five years knew who he was, what his story was.  Mannequin had once been a tinker who specialized in biospheres, terrariums and self-contained ecosystems.  A tinker who specialized in sustaining life, sheltering it from outside forces; forces that included water, weather, space… and bugs.

The only difference between then and now was that he was using his power to help and protect himself and himself only.

“Motherfucker.”  Even without intending to do it, I used my swarm to carry my voice.  His head craned around, as if to look at the swarming bugs who had just, for all intents and purposes, spoken.  Eventually his ‘face’ turned back to me.

“I have no idea how the fuck I’m going to do it,” my voice was a low snarl, barely recognizable as my own beneath my anger and the noises of the swarm.  “But I’m going to make you regret that.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The first beetle gripped the corner of the paper in his mandibles and slowly pulled it back.  Two more moved to the edges of the folds and held them firm.  The fourth and largest of the four beetles ran its head left and right along the paper until it was firmly creased.  Each of the four changed positions and repeated the steps at a different point.

“That’s really creepy to watch,” Charlotte said, from where she sat at the kitchen table.

I looked up from the laptop I was using to view a webpage on origami.  “Is it?  I’m pretty used to them, so I don’t give it a lot of thought.”

“They’re so organized and human.  Bugs shouldn’t act that way.”

“I don’t really believe in thinking that way anymore,” I said, absently.

“What way?”

I had to stop to compose my thoughts.  I glanced at Charlotte, and Sierra, who was standing by the fridge, silently eating her breakfast.  “I don’t believe in shouldn’t, like there’s some universal rules about the way things should be, the way people should act.”

“So there’s no right or wrong?  People and animals should do whatever?”

“No, there’s always going to be consequences.  Believe me when I say I know about that.  But I do think there’s always going to be extenuating circumstances, where a lot of things we normally assume are wrong become excusable.”

“Like rape?  Are you going to tell me there’s a situation where rape is okay?”  Charlotte asked.  I would have thought I’d touched on a hot subject if her voice wasn’t so level.

I shook my head.  “No.  I know some things are never excusable.”

“Right.”

“But as far as bugs are concerned, at least, I figure anything goes.”

“It’s still creepy.”

“Give it time.  You’ll get used to it.”  I picked up the tightly folded piece of paper that was the end result of my little experiment.  I pushed at two corners of the tight paper square, and it settled into a cube about three-quarters of an inch on each side, with holes on two opposing faces.

I directed a housefly into one hole and settled it inside, then fed a braided length of twine through the holes.  I handed the result to Charlotte and ordered the bugs to start making another.

“A necklace?”  Sierra asked.  She put her plate down in the sink and ran water over it.

“Or bracelet, or a key chain.  So long as you have this, I’ll know where you are, because I can keep an eye out for the fly in a box.  The real purpose of this, though, is when there’s an emergency.  You can crush the box and the bug inside, and the moment that happens, I”ll use my power to protect you.  It won’t be instantaneous, but you’ll have a swarm descending on whoever is giving you trouble in anywhere from fifteen seconds to a minute.  If it works out, I can make something a little more stylish for the future.”

There were nods from both of them.

“I can’t protect you from a bullet or a knife wound, but I can screen the people in your vicinity, feeling them out to see if they have weapons on them and give you a heads up so you don’t get in that situation to begin with.  If there’s potential trouble like that, I’ll warn you by drawing this symbol with my bugs…”

I drew three lines that crossed in the center, using the flies and beetles that were working on a cube for Sierra.

“Okay,” Charlotte said.  Sierra nodded.

I got the bugs working on the second cube again.  “I’ll use numbers to inform you on the number of people nearby.  You’ll want to approach a situation differently if there’s twenty people than if there’s five.  Maybe have one of you hang back and be in a position to crush the cube, or just keeping your distance.  Or just avoid the situation.  Trust your gut, use your best judgement.”

“What exactly are we doing?”

“For now, just door to door.  I’m going to mark the places you should visit, where there are families or groups of people.  I need the info I can’t get with my bugs.  Who are the people in my territory?  What do they need: Maybe medical care, clothes, more food, maybe someone’s giving them trouble?  You find out, take notes, then pass that information to me.”

“That’s it?”

“For now.  I’m going to ask you guys to travel as a pair, obviously.  You’ll be safer and there’s a better chance you’ll be able to signal me with the necklace if something goes wrong.  Not that you should need the cube, but I prefer having some redundancy.”

The pair nodded.  Sierra bent over to pull on the rain boots I’d provided her.  Charlotte was already wearing hers.

“That’s the general plan.  We’ll work out other tasks and maybe other signals later, in case you need my attention but not for an emergency, or if you want to cancel a request for help, whatever.  That leaves payment.”

“I was wondering about that,” Charlotte said.  “But didn’t know how to ask.”

“We’ll try for six to eight hours a day, five days a week, but consider it flexible.  Not to spook you or anything, but I’ll know if you’re slacking.  I’m thinking two hundred and fifty dollars a day, and obviously it’s under the table, so you’re not getting taxed on it.”

“That’s a little more generous than I was expecting,” Sierra said.

I didn’t like Coil, pretty much despised his methods, but I did agree with his sensibilities on some things, like personnel and making sure people wanted to work for you.  It wasn’t like I couldn’t afford it.  I had yet to spend the earnings from any of my earlier villainous stints, since Coil was providing everything major I needed.

“There’s another reason I’m putting you guys out there.  Two people aren’t going to be enough for what I’m planning long-term.  I want you two to trust your guts on this, but you’re also going to be keeping an eye out for possible recruits.”

“You’re hiring others?” Charlotte asked.

I nodded.  “I’m looking for people who are young, reasonably fit, and able to follow orders.  With you two out there, I’m hoping others see a pair of girls who are secure, happy and healthy in my employ.  You recruit someone I decide is worth keeping?  I’ll reward you.  But this isn’t a competition, got it?”

Both girls nodded their heads.

“If you don’t have any questions-”

“I do,” Charlotte piped up.  “Do you have a mask I could wear?”

I frowned.  “I was hoping you guys would put a more human, less sinister face on things.”

“I don’t want to run into someone I know and have to explain.  Not that I think anyone I know lives around here, but-”

“Okay, no, I wouldn’t expect you guys to go unmasked when I won’t.  That wouldn’t be fair.  Give me a few seconds,” I told them.  I headed upstairs to my office.

Over the past few days, I’d received deliveries of the more specific and obscure items I had requested from Coil.  Among them were cases of more exotic bugs, a sturdy work table I kept upstairs in my room and five mannequins with custom measurements.

Coil’s people had taken the time with Brian, Lisa, Alec and Aisha to get comprehensive measurements and hand casts.  Bitch had refused.  This had led in turn to the creation of the mannequins, which had been shipped to me and set up on the pedestals beneath the shuttered window.  One mannequin for each of my teammates and one for me.  There was also a little folder of notes from each of the others on what they wanted, including some photos, clippings and print-outs for reference.  Grue had included pictures of the little statuette he had bought at the Market, which he wanted me to copy for his new mask. I hoped to have a costume for each of us in short order.

I’d already finished a few draft attempts at designing Lisa’s mask, since it didn’t require much cloth and the nuances of it were tricky.  The way her old mask fit her, it hid her freckles and eyebrows and changed the apparent angles of her eyes and cheekbones so her entire face had a different look to it.  Emulating that was hard, since the texture of the silk compared to the material of her mask didn’t let me copy it over exactly.  I’d used the scrapped attempts to test different dyes and how they reacted with the fabric.  I grabbed the failed masks, pressing each against a white piece of paper to ensure they weren’t going to stain skin, and then headed back downstairs.

“Got black, more black, dark purple, blue and blotchy crimson.  Take your pick.”

Charlotte took a black mask that would cover her eyes and the lower half of her face, adjusted it until the eyeholes were in place, and then set about fixing her hair.

“Sierra?”

“Not much point.  My hair is pretty recognizable,” she flicked one of her dreadlocks.

“Won’t do any harm.”

She took the second, smaller black mask.  While she put it on, I deposited a fly and threaded twine into the second origami cube so she had her emergency signal.

“Good luck,” I told them, grabbing two black clipboards with attached notepads and handing them over.  “Come back around noon, we’ll eat, and you can give me an update on how things are going.”

“Will do,” Sierra replied.

My minions moved on to their morning’s tasks.  I headed back upstairs and finally let myself breathe.

I missed staying at the loft, when things were easy and I was free.  I was happy with how things were going with my new recruits, but I was realizing that living with them would mandate changes to my lifestyle.  There were appearances to maintain, and I couldn’t be seen slacking off or being a slob.  I couldn’t sleep in or put off my shower until later in the day.  I couldn’t let myself collapse in a sweaty heap after a hard morning run.  I’d woken up at six in the morning to be sure that I could run, shower, dress and look like I was on top of things by the time they were up.  After a late night, it left me feeling a little worn around the edges.  I harbored some concerns about my ability to help Dinah if this kept up.

The pair had spent some time with their families before returning to my lair.  I’d been anxious in the meantime, worrying they would have second thoughts or turn me in, wearing my costume and waiting in a nearby position in case capes converged on my lair. I’d been both gratified and relieved when they’d returned.  One hurdle crossed.

Both Sierra and Charlotte had seen me bleeding, when I’d come back from rescuing Bryce.  It sounded so minor, but I didn’t want them imagining me as hurt and mortal when they were supposed to trust me and look up to me.  What bugged me even more than that was the fact that Charlotte knew my secret identity. I was fairly certain she would keep it to herself, but she’d seen me as Taylor.  She’d seen me at what was perhaps the lowest point in my life.  From a distance, but she’d seen it.

Charlotte now served under me out of a mixture of obligation and fear, but I wouldn’t feel secure in my reputation until I’d divorced Skitter from that image of a weaker, abused Taylor.

I worked on all five costumes at the same time.  Low-level multitasking was either a minor benefit that had come with my powers or, more likely, a skill I’d developed in the half-year I’d spent micromanaging thousands or tens of thousands of bugs at the same time.  I didn’t need to expend any focus on the simple task of laying out the thread, and the only time I really had to pause to give them direction was when it came to the creative input and the more complicated tasks of deciding how everything fit together.  I could only make some calls on style and what would suit the respective recipients’ tastes when I’d made enough progress and seen the groundwork laid out.  Where I could, I used my bugs to model ideas and options, forming possible shapes for masks, collars and armor panels.

When I wasn’t occupied with that, I focused on Sierra and Charlotte.  I checked their surroundings, discreetly screened nearby groups of people for weapons.  I marked each door with symbols to count the people inside, notified the girls if people were armed, and I put a circle on doors that they were to visit, an ‘x’ on doors they should skip.

A lot of people were ignoring the knocks.  I let them be.  After a few days, if they were still ignoring my minion’s attempts to talk to them, I’d maybe give them a bit of a nudge or leave them a message using my bugs.

Apparently overwhelmed with the requests from his various rulers of the Brockton Bay territories, Coil had started delegating some of his people to act as intermediaries.  I got in contact with Mrs. Cranston, the intermediary he’d designated to me, and outlined what I needed.  Waste removal was a big priority, as was clearing out the storm drains so the water could drain from the flooded streets.  I let her know that my services were available if she wanted help identifying where the blockages were, or if the trash removal teams needed protection from interference.

Once those big issues were resolved, a lot of the smaller ones could be attended to.  Too many problems came with large numbers of people spending the majority of their time wading ankle-deep in water that was swimming with warm garbage.

Time passed quickly, what with my focusing on the costumes, Sierra and Charlotte, arranging the cleaning up of the area, using bugs to sweep for troublemakers in my vicinity and experimenting on a smaller scale with dyes and costume options.  I had a smaller collection of Darwin’s bark spiders that Coil had procured for me in a specialized terrarium to emulate the hot temperatures they were used to, but I couldn’t use them to make anything until they had given birth to at least one new generation.  When I did, though, I expected that the fabric they created would be as superior to the black widow’s work as the black widow’s silk was to conventional cloth.  There wasn’t much room for error with the small number Coil had provided, so I was being careful with the breeding process.

My cell phone rang, and I knew from the bugs I had placed on the two girls that it was Charlotte calling.  That, or someone else had coincidentally phoned me the same instant Charlotte dialed on her phone and raised it to her ear.

“Yes, Charlotte?” I asked.

“Um,” she was taken back a little.  “There’s this place here with two families, and they’re in the middle of packing up to leave.  I thought you’d want to know, in case they were gone before we came back at noon to eat and tell you about it.”

“That’s fine.  What’s the problem?”

“Rats.”

Of course.  The trash would offer a steady diet to vermin, and the flooding would deter many of their natural predators.  The rodent population had exploded, and it could easily be getting to the point where it was interfering with people’s daily lives.

“Their neighbors have the same problem?”

“We haven’t been able to get any of them to answer the door.”

I searched the area around Charlotte.  Sure enough, there were hundreds of rodents lurking in the areas where humans weren’t active.  They nested in rafters, walls and piles of rubble.  Some were apparently getting courageous enough to venture into people’s living spaces, climbing onto tables and into discarded clothes and beds.

No wonder they wanted to leave.

“Tell them to step outside.  If they hesitate, warn them they might get hurt.  They won’t, but it’ll make them move.”

“Okay.”

I hung up, then hurried to pull on my costume, donning latex rubber socks before pulling on the leggings.  At the same time, I gathered a swarm near the rat house.  I began a systematic attack against the rodents there.  Bees, wasps, hornets, fire ants, regular ants, mosquitoes, biting flies and spiders gathered and began attacking the rats furthest from the house and began steadily working their way inward.  Some rats fought or ran, but more bugs gathered each second.

I hurried out the door and took my shortcut through the false storm drain to the beach.  Drawing a host of bugs around myself, I headed toward the rat house with long strides.

The compartment of armor at my back buzzed, and I reached back to retrieve my cell phone.  It was Grue:

can I come by?

I quickly replied:

On errand.  Don’t come to my place.  Meet me at Bayview and Clover.  Not too far from our old place.

It was only a moment before I got a reply:

got it. am already otw.  close.

So he was already on the way when he called?  I wasn’t sure what to think about that.  It suggested it was a social call with the assumption I would be okay with it, which I didn’t mind, but that didn’t really fit his personality.  More likely there was something that he wanted to discuss with me in person.

The rats died at the hands of my bugs, thoroughly poisoned or envenomed, or even eaten alive by the ones that bit repeatedly and didn’t even bother to chew or swallow the flesh.  It wasn’t a fast job, as there were hundreds of the rodents and they were surprisingly tenacious. I wanted to be thorough.

It took me eight or so minutes to arrive, with the roundabout route I had to take to get from my lair to the beach and then back over toward the Docks.  A heavy cloud of bugs surrounded the house, and a group of eight people of different ages were clustered on the far side of the street, watching the scene like they were watching their house burn down.  Sierra and Charlotte stood apart from the huddle, a short distance away.

I covered my approach with a cloud of bugs and slow, quiet footsteps.  Nobody noticed me arrive.

“Just a minute or two longer,” I said.  Charlotte and some of the family members jumped.

“You,” a man who might have been the patriarch of one of the families pointed at me, “You did this!”

“Yes,” I answered him.

“Is this some sort of game to you!?  We were prepared to leave, and you keep us from getting our things?  Add another infestation to the one that’s already there!?”

“She’s just trying to help!” Charlotte said, with a tone like she wasn’t expecting to be listened to.  I got the impression she’d tried convincing him earlier.  I raised one hand to stop her.  It was better if I handled this myself.

The man drew himself up a fraction, “No reply, huh?  I’d punch you right here, right now, if I thought you’d give me a fair, no-powers fight.”

Irritated, I told him, “Count backwards from a hundred.  If you still want to when you’re done, I’ll give you that fight.”

He set his jaw stubbornly, refusing me the courtesy of a countdown.

Ignoring him, I looked at a young boy in the group.  Eight or nine years old, “What’s your name?”

He looked up at his mother, then at me, “R.J.”

“R.J.  Can you count to a hundred?”

“Of course,” he looked offended at the idea that he couldn’t.

“Show me.”

“One, two, three…”

Only a small fraction of the rats were left.  The largest mass of them had been herded into a corner by the swarm, and in their panic they had done nearly as much damage to each other as they were doing to the bugs.  Stragglers remained elsewhere, but as good as they were at navigating the nooks and small spaces of the house, the bugs were just as good, organized by my will, and they vastly outnumbered the rodents.

“Thirty-one, thirty-two…”

Before the last of the rats were dead, I began organizing roaches and other sturdier bugs to have them cart the dead rats away.  I filled the corners of the stairs with massed insect bodies, until it was more like a ramp than a set of steps.  I stepped up to the house to open the door and let the swarm start bringing the dead rats outdoors.

“Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine…”

I knew I wouldn’t quite have enough time to clear out the entire house of the rat corpses, so I cheated by hauling the rats through the walls, into the unoccupied neighbor’s residence and out the kitchen window at the back of that building.  The last of my bugs left the sky around the house.  I timed the arrival of the last few dead rats with the end of R.J.’s countdown.

“So many,” Charlotte gasped, as she saw the three or four hundred rats held high by the swarm.  Judging by the family’s expressions, they hadn’t known how many rats they’d had nesting inside their home.

Turning to the dad, I told him, “Your rat problem is dealt with, and nearly all of the bugs are gone.  Some of my swarm will remain so I can keep an eye out for any future infestations, but you won’t see them.  Now, if you still want to swing at me, I’m okay to go a round or two.  No powers.”

His mouth twisted in a scowl, but he didn’t move to attack me.

Walking over to Sierra and Charlotte, I quietly asked them, “Would I be right if I guessed he wasn’t the one who asked for help?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said, “She did.”

Sierra pointed at the woman who was protectively clutching R.J.’s shoulders.

“Is this satisfactory?” I asked the woman, raising my voice.  “The dead rats will be cleared out of the area in a few minutes.”

“They’re really gone?  They won’t come back?”

“They’re gone, and they won’t come back until someone forces me to move out of this territory.”

“Thank you,” she said.  She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something else, then stopped.

Well, at least the mom thanked me.

“You’ll want to sterilize the place.  Rubber gloves, bleach.  Boil or replace every dish, every piece of silverware, toothbrushes, linens and clothes.”

“We don’t really have the ability to do all that.  We don’t have much money, let alone those things.  Stores aren’t exactly open, and we don’t have running water or electricity either.”

Geez.  “What have you been drinking?”

“We have a rain barrel and we have a water collector on the roof that came with the supply kit.”

That’s not good enough for this many people.  “Do you have a propane tank?  One should have come with the supply kit.”

“It’s nearly empty.  We’ve been using the propane to cook rice, but we don’t have measuring cups, and if we use too much water, it takes too long to cook, and so we’re running out of the gas.”

She sounded so tired.  Getting by with eight people in one household and no facilities would be such a chore.  Add the stress of rats getting into the food, tearing at sheets to get material for nests, crawling on them as they slept?  I didn’t know how she’d coped.

I hoped my dad’s situation was better.

“Make a note,” I ordered Sierra, “If these people are having trouble, it’s easily possible others are in similar straits.  We’ll want a fresh set of supplies going out to everyone in my territory.  For this family, a delivery of cleaning supplies; bleach, rubber gloves.  They’ll want some new clothes, you can get their sizes after I leave.  Supplies, of course, and containers to keep the food in.  Tupperware.  We’ll arrange for a doctor to come by and check them for bites, scratches and infections.  Standard inoculations.  The doctor will know how to handle that stuff better than we do.”  Hopefully.

“Okay.”

“And measuring cups.”  I smiled behind my mask.

“We can’t pay you back for this, even if you give us a loan, we won’t be able to.” the mom said.

So they were assuming I was putting myself in some loan shark role.  Get them indebted to me, leech them for cash.

“It’s on the house,” I waved her off.

“Thank you,” she said, again.  I felt bad for feeling the way I did, but I thought her gratitude was a little muted for what I was giving her.

I could sense Grue a block away, my bugs settling on his helmet, unable to see as they got close.  I could feel that faint push of the darkness billowing away from him.  He’d been watching for a minute or two.

“If there’s nothing else that’s pressing?” I asked.

Silence, a few shaken heads.  I turned to go and meet Grue where he stood at the corner of one building.

“Taking up a side business in extermination?” he asked me.  I thought I detected a note of humor in his voice.

“Assisting my people.  Some goodwill will help when I’m more firmly in power here.”  I couldn’t help but sound a mite defensive.

“Yep.  That guy over there will be singing your praises.”

I looked over my shoulder at the ‘dad’ who’d been giving me a hard time.  He was ignoring Sierra and Charlotte, who were talking to the larger group of people.  Instead, he watched the bugs cart the dead rats down the street, as if he thought I would slack on the job.

“I don’t understand people sometimes.”

“My guess?  When everything went to hell, he told himself he’d be the ‘man’ for his family.  Take charge, provide, protect.  He failed.  Then some little girl waltzes in and takes care of all that all at once?”

“Little girl?”

“You know what I mean.  Look at it from his perspective.”

“What if I recruited him?  Gave him the opportunity and the power to help others?”

“He’d be intolerable.  I mean, sure, things would get better in the short-term.  But over the long haul? You’d wind up with someone who criticizes every last thing you do, every last call you make, to make himself feel better about the fact that he isn’t the one in control, the one calling the shots.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “I thought you said you weren’t good with people.”

“I’m not good with girls, mainly.  Guys?  Or ‘manly’ guys like him?  I’ve met enough people like him in the gyms with my dad, in fighting classes.”

“Guys and girls aren’t that different.”

“Aren’t we?  Look at our group.  Regent and I are going on the offensive.  I’ve got Aisha and I making constant, coordinated attacks against enemies in my territory, terrorizing groups with attacks from the cover of my darkness, or from someone they can’t even remember fighting.  Regent’s got a squad of Coil’s soldiers with him, and he’s tracking and kidnapping the leaders of enemy groups and gangs, using his power to control them and then having them sabotage their own operations, or start fights with other groups that leave both almost totally wiped out.  Then he cleans up the mess.”

“And us girls?”

“Lisa’s running the shelter, and she says she’s doing it to get more info, but I think she doesn’t mind how it connects her to the community there, either.  You, too, are almost nurturing in how you’re treating the people in your territory.  And you’re acting like you’re getting that aspiring superhero thing out of your system.  Or entrenched deeper into it.  I can’t tell.”

I didn’t like that he was mentioning that.  Sore spot for both of us.  “Just following my instincts.”

“And maybe pushing yourself a little too hard, too fast in the process.”

“Mmm,” I offered a noncommittal response.  I could have asked how Bitch fit into his interpretation of events, but I already knew the answer.  Normal rules didn’t apply to her.  “I think all this ties more closely into how our individual powers work than it does to gender.”

“Maybe.  But… no,” he changed his mind after thinking for a second.  “I think both you and Lisa could be a lot more aggressive.  It kind of worries me that you aren’t.”

“Worries you?”

“If you aren’t taking out the other gangs in your territory and turning a profit, why should Coil bother keeping you there?”

“First of all, I’m totally prepared to squash any troublemakers the second they make themselves known around here.”

“Assuming you can find them.”

“I can.  Second of all, Coil didn’t say a thing about turning a profit.  He has money.  Scads.”

“He has his own money.  Money that he has to devote time and attention to earning.  If your territory never starts earning for him and just becomes some black hole that sucks up tens of thousands of dollars of his money each week, you think he’s going to be okay with that?”

“What do you want me to do?  That doesn’t involve taking protection money or peddling drugs?”

“Those would be your biggest revenue streams.”

“I’m taking control like he wanted me to.  Faster than the rest of you.”

“But you’re not leaving yourself in a position to do anything with that control.”

“I can get all of the people in my territory onto Coil’s side.  And I have over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars I can put towards infrastructure here.”

“That’s not as much as you might think it is, when you’re talking about this much territory.”

“No, but it’s something.  Look, Coil’s a proud guy.  He said it himself.  He’d be upset if he took over the city and it wasn’t better than it was before.  I’ve got the old Boardwalk here.  I can help set that going again.  I’ve also got the Docks, here.  A part of it.  If I can improve things here, if I can take this place and make it better than it’s been in decades, wouldn’t that be a feather in his cap?”

“Even if things went smoothly, that’s not going to happen fast, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Not fast.  Grue had been pretty merciless in trying to poke holes in my approach, but the realization that he was right on that score was like a punch in the gut.  “If I can show Coil I’m making headway…”

Even I wasn’t convincing myself.  Coil wouldn’t give Dinah up for something as minor as a good start.  I think Grue noticed my dejection.

“I’m sorry if I’m being hard on you,” Grue settled one hand on the armor of my shoulder.

“No.  You’re right.  I’ve been thinking too short-term.”

“I really did want to come by and talk about less serious things.  It’s a shame we can’t.”

“We have time to do that, don’t we?  We could go back to my lair, hang.  I can show you what I’ve got done on your new costume, and we could talk about the mask,” I suggested.

He shook his head.  “No.  What I meant was that I’d hoped to spend today talking about that stuff.  But we’re not going to get the chance.  Something more serious has come up.”

“Oh hell.”  My initial suspicions had been right.  This wasn’t a social call.

“Regent got a visit from one of the Slaughterhouse Nine last night.  So did Coil, though the man is quiet on details.  Coil’s also reporting that Hookwolf got a visit on Tuesday, and one of Coil’s undercover operatives died in the ensuing carnage.  The PRT office downtown also got hit, according to Tattletale…”

“They’re active.”

“Yeah.  More to the point, they’re recruiting.  Looking for a ninth to round out their group.  Regent was one candidate.”

“Who was the other, at Coil’s?”

“Coil isn’t saying.  We think, with Tattletale’s educated guess helping us out, that Hookwolf might have been another possible recruit.”

“And at the PRT offices?  Shadow Stalker?”

“As good a guess as any.  We’re not sure where she wound up.”

“So what does this mean?”

“It means Hookwolf is calling together a meeting of the local powers that be.  Crook, criminal, mercenary and warlord.  We have to decide if we want to go.”

“He was one of the people they visited.”

“He was.  Which means this could be a trap.  Some kind of grand slaughter to commemorate his joining the group.  Taking out the other prospective members in the process, like Regent.”

“Or it could be a target for the Slaughterhouse Nine to attack.  Create chaos, maximum bloodshed, the kind of stuff that gets attention.  They’d be killing some of their possible recruits, but that’d suit them, being unpredictable, never letting you think you’re safe.”

Grue nodded.

“At the same time, if we don’t go, it’s crucial info that we’re missing out on.” I thought aloud.  “What does Dinah say?”

“Her power is out of commission after the attack on Coil’s base, apparently.”

“So we’re flying blind, with only Coil’s power to back us up.”

“Whatever it is.”

“Whatever it is.” I echoed him, feeling bad for the dishonesty and my lack of disclosure. “What do Coil and Tattletale have to say about the meeting?”

“Coil wants everyone present.  Tattletale thinks Hookwolf is on the up and up, but he’s only one of the potential problems that could come up.”

I thought of the others who would be at the meeting.  “Like the fact that Skidmark is one of the local powers.  Or he is if he’s managed to recuperate rep-wise from the ass kicking that Faultline gave him.  He’s not exactly the type to keep to the truce at the meeting.  An unpredictable element.”

“Yeah.”

“But if Tattletale is right, and Hookwolf isn’t on the side of the Slaughterhouse Nine, if we can trust Skidmark to have the basic common sense to back the rest of us up if they attack-”

Brian turned toward me, and I could imagine him giving me an ‘are you serious?’ look behind his visor.

“-Or at least not get in our way,” I corrected myself.  “We could fight back, if it wound up being most of the villain groups against the Nine.  Our group’s powersets lend themselves to slipping away if that went sour, and Tattletale might be able to sense trouble before it hit us.”

“You’re talking like you want to do this.”

“I do.  Kind of.  If all the top villains of the city attend and we don’t, are we really doing ourselves any favors?  Our rep will take a nosedive, we’ll be out of the loop, and there’s nothing saying we wouldn’t be targeted by the Nine all the same if we sit it out.”

“Why do I get the feeling your decision here is motivated by your rushed attempts to get more control, more rep and finish this phase of our territory grab as soon as possible?”

“Because it is.”

He sighed, and the sound was eerie, altered by his darkness.  “To think I used to like that you were hardcore serious about the supervillain thing.”

That touched on that sensitive subject again.  My original motivations, my act, such as it was back then.  I turned the subject of our debate back to the meeting.  “What do you think?  If it was up to you and you alone, would you want us to go?”

“No.  But it isn’t up to me and me alone.  When I weigh everything in my head, including the risk of our groups spending time fighting and arguing on the subject when we could be organizing and putting measures in place to protect our territory in our absence?  I think it makes more sense to accept it and go with the flow.”

“When is the meeting?”

“With a situation this critical?  There’s no time to waste.  Tonight.”

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