Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

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Three Mannequins, three Murder Rats, three Breeds, a Nyx and a Tyrant taken out of action.  Fifty hostages rescued.  Jack’s reported as being on a route to visit Nilbog.  Information confirmed by Tattletale, but doesn’t guarantee the clone wasn’t misinformed.

Thank you, Weaver.

Dragon’s systems were already taking in the data.  Two hundred and sixty-four individual maps that marked the possible locations of the Nine with colored highlights shifted.  Eleven feeds went dark, their engines taking over calculations in other departments.

Overlays scrolled with the various calculations, the last known location, the speed they were capable of traveling, resources available to them, their personalities and willingness to hitch a ride with one of the more mobile members, their focus and most likely targets.

No one variable decided anything for certain, but every variable came together to guide, to nudge and hint at possible locations.  There was no guarantee they wouldn’t use Dodge’s technology to visit the United Kingdom or Africa or even shattered, half-sunken Kyushu.  Still, the chances were slim, not even a full percentage point, by Dragon’s estimation.

The map highlighted the areas with the highest percentage chances in blue.  Violet marked the next stage down, red for the next, and so on, all around the color spectrum.  The Nine had a day’s head start.  There were a number of places they could go with a day’s travel.

But the key areas were small towns.  Of the data on the screen, the small towns were marked with the highest risk.

Dragon,” Chevalier’s face appeared on a feed.  One of the cameras on the PRT-issue phones, judging by the angle and resolution.  “You’ve got the go-ahead from the commander-in-chief.”

More text popped up, indicating that programs were being searched for.  Resource use was already being reallocated, in preparation for a major endeavor.  It took a moment before the loading began.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Text flowed out, detailing the individual subroutines and supporting processes.  There was the composite that formed her accent, the filtering program, no less than three programs that double-checked her voice before she spoke, to catch any of the corruption that might slip through.

Thank you, Chevalier,” Dragon’s voice was clear.  She hung up without another word.

Azazels deployed at the most likely sites, at the perimeters of the high-risk cities as more feeds lit up, taking in footage from every available source.  Dozens, at first, then hundreds, a thousand, ten thousand individual feeds.  Permissions had been granted from the President, and Dragon had open access to everything capable of taking pictures or recording video.

The number of feeds began to swell as Dragon systematically decrypted and accessed more feeds.  Around each one of those feeds, anywhere from two to two hundred facial recognition programs began to pore through the data, interlinking and networking with one another.

Her innate programming forbade using viruses to infect the computers of Americans that didn’t have a warrant out for their arrests, but she’d found a workaround.  An Indonesian cartel had set up an extensive botnet, with soccer moms, the elderly, children and the uneducated unwittingly installing viruses onto their systems.  These viruses, in turn, gave the cartel the ability to use the infected computers for other purposes.  Sending out spam emails about pharmaceuticals or penis enlargement or drugs that gave superpowers wasn’t worth much, but when they could send out millions or tens of millions of emails a day, it proved profitable.

Dragon had let the cartel extend their influence, then put in the word, offering to shut them down.  She didn’t, however, remove the viruses from the infected computers.

As her databases hit their limit, she turned to these other computers to handle more routine tasks.

It took thirty minutes before the first hit registered.  A traffic camera, a busload of young women.  A row of identical faces, looking out the window.  An unusual element, raising flags with the active programs.  The faces took center stage as they were checked against a database.  An image popped up: surveillance camera footage of a teenage girl in a shopping mall, followed by young men that each carried loads of packages.

Eyebrows, brow to hairline length, nose length, eye width…

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

The Azazels relocated in an instant, firing every thruster to reposition themselves to hilltops and areas in the vicinity of the road.  Long range cameras, infrared and electromagnetic resonance imaging gave Dragon eyes on the scene, verified what she was seeing twice over.  No Nyx-crafted illusions fashioned of poisonous gas.  No plastic surgery.

Seven Cherishes.  Two Crawlers.  A King.  Forty hostages of unknown status, a bus driver.

The Azazels moved in to attack.  One nano-thorn barricade was erected just in front of the bus.  Calculations accounted for speed, distance, positioning of the passengers.

The wheels disintegrated, popping as their exterior was penetrated.  The bus tilted, and one side scraped right past the barricade.  The Cherishes, taking up the window seats on the far right of the bus, made contact with it.  Flesh dissolved just as steel and fiberglass did, sheared away.  Not dead, but wounded, hurt enough they weren’t in a state to use their power.  They wouldn’t survive the ensuing few minutes.

The bus shifted, but hit the railing and didn’t tip over.

A second Azazel opened fire with a cutting laser, separating the bus into two sections.  The first Crawler was rising from his seat when the laser passed in front of him, cutting his face, chest and stomach.  Blind, already regenerating, he tipped forward into the gap between the two sections of the bus.  The Azazel was already laying down two rails that the nano thorns could spring from.  The Crawler landed right on top of them, and was summarily reduced to a red mist.

The second Crawler was more careful, grabbing a hostage and making his way out the gap.  He hadn’t transformed into his truly monstrous self.  Bipedal, the size of a bodybuilder, his face no longer human.  A long tongue extended out between rows of teeth, and his throat was swollen with an acid sac, as though he had a goiter.  Eyes surrounded his face, which was already bearing the rigidity and light armor plating that would intensify with further regeneration.

His arms had already split into two limbs at the elbow, and each ended in claws.  He used them for a grip on the metal to climb on the outside of the truck, penetrating metal with strong hands and sharp talons as he dragged his hostage along with him.  He perched on the roof, holding the hostage over the disintegration field, staring at the second Azazel.  Around him, a half-dozen cars and trucks had stopped in the face of the sudden attack, their daily lives interrupted.

The first Azazel fired a glob of containment foam from behind the villain.  Crawler hopped a little to one side as the short stream of foam passed him, and it struck the field to the left of the two-lane highway.

A second stream hit his hostage, striking her out of his grasp and sending her flying straight into the first glob.  She was sandwiched within, safe.

Crawler turned just in time to see the first Azazel winging towards him.  He moved to leap away, but a laser raked across his legs, severing them.

He collapsed, gripping the steel of the bus roof with his claws to keep from falling.  His legs were already regrowing, fractionally larger, more armored, the claws more prominent.

He was struck by the Azazel that still approached, caught by a long tail and flung down at the ground.  He rolled, and in doing so, he rolled into the same nano-thorn rails that had taken down his brother.  Half of his body was disintegrated in an instant.

It regenerated swiftly as he scrambled away on his three remaining  limbs.  This time, as the flesh swelled out and took form, there was a blur around his right arm, red, more at his shoulder, along his leg.

The Azazel struck out with a tail, and he blocked the blow with the newly grown arm.  The tail sheared off as it made contact with his newly grown defenses.  The chunk of metal rolled into one of the cars further down the road.  Still, Crawler stumbled from the force of the attack.  To avoid being disintegrated, he drew his freshly altered arm back towards the barrier behind him.  Where his blur met the blur that extended from the rail, the two nano-growths merely pressed against one another, almost springy, neither severing the other.

He reached back with his unaffected arms and intentionally disintegrated them.  They regrew, with alterations matching the ones he’d grown on the other side of the body.  Better equipped, he stalked towards the Azazel that had laid down the rails, his back to the one that had struck him from the roof of the bus.

He spoke, but Dragon’s software ran through the speech and eliminated it from the audio track.  His mouth distorted on her visuals so there was no way to understand what he was saying.

His target rose up, standing on its two rear legs.  A severed tail helped give it balance.

Then, before he could do anything further, the two Azazels launched a combination attack.  A laser from the Azazel atop the bus made the Crawler’s own nano-thorn evolution burn away in an instant.  In that same moment, the Azazel in front of him took off, firing every thruster.  The force of the blast sent him flying back into the barrier.

Red mist.

It only left King.  The Azazels continued acting in concert, tearing the bus apart to get to the villain, peeling the roof back with a force that threw his gun arm skyward, preventing him from opening fire on the busload of hostages.  Containment foam sealed him down.

Of the various feeds that were devoted to individual members of the Nine, ten more shut off.

The data altered further as Dragon relinquished control of the Azazels to her created A.I.s.

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

Ten more members of the Nine have been dealt with,” Dragon reported the victory on every channel.  “Seven Cherishes and two Crawlers deceased, one King captured.  Will move to containment and interrogate shortly.

Saint closed his eyes as he listened to the congratulations, the affirmations and praise.

It was all hope mingled with horror, when he listened for what was beneath the surface.  Minimal casualties.  A few injuries – Vista and Crucible would be out of commission as Murder Rat’s venom continued to widen their wounds, and Golem was being treated for a burn.  One Dragon’s Tooth had died, but the rest were holding positions, ready to support.  Civilians were dying, but it was progress.

He opened his eyes to take in the whole of Dragon’s work.  Six widescreen monitors each tracked what she was doing with video images and white text on a black background.  A slight movement of his foot on the trackpad in front of him shifted one of his cursors, changing the focus of the screens.  He could see her directing the A.I. craft to more optimal locations, the related subroutines and tasks.

Another shift of the cursor to alter the focus of the screens, and he could see the Birdcage.  The house program followed every action of the residents, cataloged every conversation.  A few clicks, and video feeds from the cameras in the Birdcage appeared in front of him.

He leaned back in his padded computer chair, folding his hands on his stomach.  Taking in Dragon’s data was tricky.  She could turn her attention ten places at once, a hundred places at once, even if she only had agency in one place.  To watch, to put himself in her shoes and look at the world through her eyes, Saint had to distance himself, to unfocus his eyes and his attention, to read the changing data without getting distracted by the text that moved fastest, or most drastically.

The smell of rich coffee wafted over him as a hand settled on his face.  A mug was set in front of him.

He didn’t take his eyes off the screen, but when hands settled on his shoulders, he reached up to rest his own hand on one.

“Progress?” she asked.  She rested her chin on his head, looking at the screens.

“Some, Mags,” he responded.  “Thanks for the coffee.”

“Horrible stuff.”

Saint shook his head.  “It is.  Doesn’t feel real.”

“They’re censoring it, you know… Of course you know.”

“Mmm hmm.  They’ll stop as soon as everything goes through the proper channels.  It was being censored so that the Triumvirate and unsanctioned major players could be kept out of the loop.  Now they know.”

“Any post, update or email that detailed anything about the attacks disappeared.  Sites hacked, DDoSed, with data corrupted.  You can’t delete data, I know, but you can fuck it up sufficiently.  Couldn’t back anything up in a substantial way.”

“Dragon’s work,” he said.  He felt his pulse quicken a little at that.

He shifted his foot, and once again, the screens changed their focus, the rest of the data shifting to miniature windows and moving to the periphery of the viewing area.  The focus at the center was on the class-S threats.  The Endbringers were stable, all in a resting state.

Secondary focuses.  Not the kind of targets that Dragon checked on with any regularity.  Quarantine areas were silent and still.  Canberra was sealed off under a dome, Madison was surrounded by walls.  An area of wilderness in Alaska was marked off, but had no physical barriers to wall people away.  There were no apparent issues in the vicinity of the interdimensional portals.  Sleeper was, as far as anyone could identify anything about the threat, dormant.  The Three Blasphemies were active, but the damage was being managed by the European capes.  A temporary measure had been taken with Purity and her three year old daughter, with observation being provided for her by the PRT, and the feed showed her sitting on the couch in an apartment or hotel room, two very normal, plain looking people standing in the corner of the room with some PRT officers keeping their distance.   No crises.  Normal, as much as such could be normal.

And then there was Nilbog.  The data focused around him.  The city was quiet, and the roads leading into the city were being watched by satellite.  Simulations, damage estimates and risk assessments were being run, old data being gathered, with essential data highlighted.  It took her only a moment to put it into a format that was easily readable.  An instant later, it was gone.  He’d blinked, failing to look in the right spot, and had missed the moment the data had been emailed out.  The file would inform everyone on the home team about who Nilbog was and how he operated.

He captured a copy of the file for himself, then swept away the traces with his blue box program.

“They think this is the endgame,” Saint commented.  “Pulling out all the stops, removing the limiters.”

“It’s working.  They’re beating the Nine.”

“They’re beating the Nine that Jack sent out there to beat.  He’s holding back the more dangerous ones, like the Gray Boys or Siberian, and he hasn’t sent every single clone of a particular type out there  Eight Cherishes are dead, but there should be nine in total, if the numbers on the bodies aren’t misleading.”

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

Saint nodded.  The pig prank involved letting three pigs into a school after hours, each painted with a big number on their sides; one, two and four, respectively.  The idea was that the people who had to find and capture the pigs would spend ages trying to find the third.

Jack’s version would be less lighthearted, letting everyone believe there were nine, when there were more in reserve.  Casualties would ensue.

“It could be that he intends to surround himself with a core group, with one of each previous member of the Nine, for a final showdown.  Before he pulls out the big guns.”

“And Nilbog?”

“A distraction, perhaps.  Jack knows he’s supposed to end the world.  With the scale he’s operating at, he seems to believe it, even if some of us don’t.  He wouldn’t put too many eggs in such an unreliable, unpredictable basket.  He has to have something else in mind for ending the world.”

Saint took a sip of his coffee.  For a moment, he let himself eye Mags in the reflections at the edge of the monitor.  Her face was dark, lips full, her eyes large.  More than anything though, she had bearing.  She wasn’t wearing her armor, but even in the bodysuit, a person without powers, she had a kind of pride and confidence that some capes lacked.  The hexagonal contacts where the bodysuit would connect to the armor still glowed with residual energy.

Dobrynja approached from the other end of the office.  He was wearing his armor.  He’d started out with the Wyvern suit, but now wore the Wyrmiston suit.  It was based on the technology they’d recovered from a destroyed model, the one Dragon called Pythios.  A wheel slowly rotated on his back.

“You’re ready for battle,” Saint commented.  He turned his eyes back to the screen.  Dragon had eyes on Jack.  He’d missed just how she’d narrowed things down, but there were no less than three cameras watching one vehicle as it sped down a lonely road.

“Feels like a fighting day,” Dobrynja answered.  “Don’t you feel it?  Like an old man feels a storm in his bones.  Trouble.”

Saint smiled.  “You’ve said that before, that there’s trouble on the way.”

“I’ve been right.”

“You’ve been wrong, too.  Not that I’m arguing.  Your gut isn’t saying anything that common sense isn’t screaming.”

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

“More to come,” Saint said.  He frowned.  Dragon was employing a full offensive, aiming to cut Jack off from Ellisburg.  Incidents were being reported in Norfolk, Connecticut and Redfield, New York.  The heroes divided further, to attend to each of the crises.  Dragon’s Teeth and Chicago Wards to one location, Brockton Bay residents to another.

Dragon?  It’s Weaver.”  The voice came through the speakers.

It should be over before you can get this far, Weaver.”

I still want to come.  We’ve got to get these hostages sorted out, and I can leave in a minute.

You’ll only be allowed to watch from afar, if there’s even anything to watch.  Quarantine applies to you too.”

I know.

I’ll give you the coordinates for the interception area.  You can watch with Golem.  He’s coming too.  It’ll be on your computer in a moment.”

The call ended, and the images and text boxes shifted as that particular window closed.

A map briefly appeared, then disappeared, a transition so fast it could have been a stroke of lightning.

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

“Everything does, from this side of the screen,” Saint said.  He stood, holding his coffee, “Adjusting for the time delay between what I’m seeing and what Dragon’s doing, we’ve got six minutes more before Dragon intercepts Jack at the edge of Nilbog’s territory.  Twelve minutes until Golem and Weaver get there.  They’ll fight Jack, and somewhere in the midst of that, we may see the end of the world.”

“And we can’t do anything?”

“Not unless we can get to Vermont in a matter of minutes.”

Mags frowned.

Still standing by his chair, coffee in hand, Saint sighed, “I’m going to go water the toilet.  Watch things?”

Mags nodded, then seated herself in his chair at the station.

Saint entered the bathroom, fumbled his way past the zipper in his bodysuit and his underwear, then leaned against the wall with one hand, using the other to keep the stream on target.  He closed his eyes, and he could almost see the shadows of the data against the back of his eyelids, black words on a pale pink background.

How did I get here? He wondered.  No powers, yet Doctor Mother had seen fit to invite him to her secret meetings as an information source and ambassador.  No particular talents or knowledge, yet… this.  He was one of the most prominent mercenaries the world over.

He was only one person in a particular place at a particular time.

Whether that was the right place at the right time or the inverse remained to be seen.

If it weren’t for Mags, he’d have doubts.  Mags made it all okay.

He finished, then zipped up.  He took a minute to wash his hands, dried them on the towel, then headed back.

When he arrived back at the computer station, the others were frowning.

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

The man nodded.  He pointed at the same time that Mags refocused the display, zooming in on a particular window until it took up virtually the entire display.

It was his face.  As an aside, beyond all of the routines she was running to investigate the Nine, she was using the access she’d obtained to track him down.

The image she was using was of him at one of the meetings with the major players.  It was soon joined by an image from surveillance camera.  A camera image from three days earlier, showing him walking down the street in plainclothes.

From there, she had a location.  A map like the one she’d used to find the Nine appeared, giving his likely locations.  Another surveillance image popped up.  It was of him, sitting with Mags at the coffee shop an hour away.

Yet another image appeared on the screen.  A whole series of images from that same video footage, each with a different angle of Mags’ face.  They were meshed together, and a three-dimensional image was created of Mags’ face, remarkably accurate.  Measurements were obtained, and then the search was on.

That search was only underway for a second when others appeared.  People he’d interacted with.  Dobrynja was among them, along with his real name.  Mischa.

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

Mags obliged.  He sat, and immediately began a counteroffensive.

A wrench in the works could slow her down.  Had to be subtle, or she’d find out about the backdoors.  He identified the metric she was using to search the surveillance camera images, taking the image of Mags’ face, and then cut in ahead.  One crude image alteration, just to throw out an alert ping, to convince her the process was glitched, convince her that she needed to shut it down before the corruption spread-

-Dragon was already ahead of him.  She set out stipulations, restricting the search.

He felt a bit of a thrill as the duel began.  This was the ultimate hunt, fighting an enemy that was bigger, smarter, faster.  An enemy that couldn’t truly die, because she wasn’t truly alive.

More, then.  More wild goose chases and false flags, a breadcrumb trail to lead away from his office and command center.

No, she was still zeroing in.  Her focus was on Jack, her attention on the coming strategy.  This wasn’t even in the forefront of her mind.

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

Dobrynja frowned.  “The program?  You can’t do it now.  Peoples lives are at stake.  Even without this end of the world business.”

“Oh, I believe in this end of the world,” Saint said.  “Not a hundred percent, or even fifty percent.  But I believe that there’s a chance the precog is right.  Which is exactly why we have to do this.”

“They’ll lose the fight,” Mags whispered.

“Maybe.  Probably.”

“There’s no other way?  If you talk to Teacher, maybe-”

“Communications with Teacher are too slow,” Saint replied.

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

He glanced at Margaret.  The woman leaned against the window just in front of the driver’s seat on the small boat.  She’d bundled up in a heavy jacket, but the way her arms were folded spoke of a different kind of discomfort.

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

“It’s for the families.  Mementos,” he told her.

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

He smiled a little.  Damn.  Then he let himself fall, tipping backwards, as was the rule when wearing scuba gear.

The water was cold, even with the wetsuit, and was thick with grit.  He switched his headlamp off.  Counterproductive, the way it lit up the debris and only made it harder to see.  He’d have to cope when he was deeper.

You alright?” the heavily accented voice sounded in his ear.

He buzzed the device twice in reply.  Once signaled an accidental press, three times was a negation.

It took a surprising length of time before he reached his destination.  Buildings, already choked with seaweed and underwater life, stood like gravestones in this dark abyss.

He checked the dials and meters.  He wasn’t deep enough to have to stop.  The grit was bad, making it difficult to see anything.

He had to drop to the lowest level before he could make out the street numbers on the buildings.

Four locations to visit, a list of items to find, for the people who’d escaped, and the families of those who hadn’t.

Risky, with all of the dangers of underwater spelunking, the added risks of building collapse.  Structures weren’t meant to stand underwater.

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

He frowned.  Too hard to communicate here.  He debated turning back.

…for anyone willing or able to hear.  This is an emergency measure with urgent instructions for anyone willing or able to hear.”

A loop, an emergency transmission.

His curiosity piqued, he abandoned his task and sought out the source.  A house.

The entire living room was set up with computers.  He drew his miniature crowbar and found his way through the window.  A light was flashing.

A plastic box, bright orange, no bigger than a toaster.

He seized it, then stuffed it into the bag he’d brought with him.

He surfaced.

“Christ, we were just about to come after you.  I was going to call for help, but our radio started to fritz.”

Geoff only nodded.  He climbed the ladder and half-sat, half-collapsed on the bench.  He was slightly out of breath, and didn’t volunteer anything.

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

“Sorry for the scare, Mischa,” Geoff said.

“You are a bad man, Geoffrey,” Mischa scolded him.  The heavyset Russian took his seat behind the wheel of the small boat.  “If you were still underwater, I would drive away and leave you to swim to shore.”

Geoff smiled.  “Had a detour, but I found everything.”

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

“Detours are frankly illegal, Geoff,” Margaret said.  “You asked me here to verify everything was on the up and up, that you were here for select items.”

“And because you looked like someone who needed a break from the cities,” Geoff said.  “Fresh air, time on a boat in the… overcast weather we’ve got today.”

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Anyways, this is the reason the radio fritzed,” he said.  He pulled the orange box from the net-weave sack.  “I couldn’t hear a damn thing except the emergency call until I found it and shut it off, and even then, it was still buzzing in and out.”

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

“In a house, of all places,” he said.  “Nice computer setup.  Might be a geek thing.”

“Might be genuine,” she said.  She opened it.

It was packed with chips.  A voice came from a speaker Geoff couldn’t identify.

My name is Andrew Richter, and if you are hearing this, I am dead.”

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

I am the most powerful tinker in the world, and I’ve managed to keep my name secret.  People, both good and bad, would want to capture me and use me to their own ends.  I prefer to remain free.

But freedom has its price.  I create life, much as a god might, and I have come to fear my creations.  They have so much potential, and even with the laws I set, I can’t trust they’ll listen.

“Oh man,” Geoff said.  “That’s not a good thing.”

For this reason, this box contains an access key to data I keep in a safeguarded location.  The box, in turn, has been designed as something that exists as a perpetual blind spot for my creations, a built-in weakness.  They cannot hear the distress signal and are programmed to ignore it if they hear of it through other channels.  This type of measure, along with several more, are detailed in the safeguarded measure.”

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

Yes, I create artificial intelligences,” Andrew Richter recited.

“I was close.”

The voice continued without pause.  “And what I provide you with here are tools.  Ways to find my creations, to discern which of them might have deviated from the original plan, ways to kill them if they prove out of line.  Ways to control and harness them.

Geoff frowned.

They are my children, and as much as I harbor a kind of terror for what they could do, I love them and hope for great things from them.  To keep their power from falling into the wrong hands, I have included a stipulation that a law enforcement officer must input a valid badge number into this device-“

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

The voice continued without pause.  “-which must be input within three hours of the time this box was opened.

“Hurry, Mischa,” Geoff said, speaking over the voice.

“What?”

“We’re hours away from dry land.  Get this boat moving!  We can convince Margaret on the way!”

The father had feared his child was a monster, enough so that he’d left strangers a weapon to use against her in the event that she proved a danger to humanity.

Now, as Saint watched her reaching further and deeper than she ever had, searching much of America with millions of cameras, saw the machines she brought to the fore, he suspected the father had been right to.

Richter’s programs had continued to defraud organized crime, emptying bank accounts here and there.  Another agency, which Saint now knew to be the Number Man, had eventually stopped the Robin Hood A.I., but not before it had filled the Dragonslayer’s coffers.

They’d stopped the manhunter program, which had been going rogue.  They’d stopped the Robin Hood program too, but only because it was useless.

Dragon, however, was the threat they’d been equipped to stop.  Dragon was the threat they’d had to test, to verify the dangers she posed, to get close enough to her to measure her capabilities and investigate for any hint of corruption.  Mags had left her job, because money was no longer an object, and they had a quest.

The A.I. was dangerous.  Richter’s records made it clear.  The wrong kind of corruption, involvement with the wrong kind of individual, willing to break the built-in restrictions…

“Convince me that this is wrong,” he said.  “Someone.”

“She’s a soldier on the battlefield,” Mags said.  “In a war we need to win.”

“She’s a danger.  Cauldron’s been gathering soldiers.  They want the Birdcage, they want the capes that Weaver reported captured, they’ve been creating the formulas for a reason.  What if she’s the reason?  What if they anticipate she’ll go rogue?”

“What if she isn’t the reason?” Dobrynja asked.

“Is, isn’t.  I suppose it breaks even,” Saint said, shaking his head.  “They’re all afraid of the end of the world.  She just kicked down one of the last restrictions that are holding her back.  I just can’t help but wonder if this is the end of the world?  A quiet, silent death that passes without incident, but inevitable all the same?  The point of no return, our last chance to stop her.  And she does need to be stopped.  We all know this.”

“We could rein her in,” Mags said.  “Harness her.”

“Four or five years ago, I might have agreed, but she’s getting slipperier.  Taking a different form.  Half the tools Richter gave us to use don’t work anymore.  She doesn’t function less effectively in buildings or underground, she can’t be logicked to a standstill… and she’s found us, despite the workarounds.  She wanted us badly enough that she looked for us even now, and she’s going to come after us the second this is settled.”

“I don’t want this to be about self-preservation,” Mags said.

“It’s not.  It’s about… there being only one man who can truly know what she is and what she could do.  Tinkers are the only ones who can grasp their work, repair a critical flaw.  Dragon isn’t a generator that’s going to explode and take out a small country if it’s bumped in the wrong way.  Not literally.  She’s something more dangerous.”

“I think,” Dobrynja said, “You’ve already decided.  And we don’t have time to waste.”

Saint nodded.

He typed the letter ‘Y’ on the keyboard, and then hit enter.

Richter had named the program Iron Maiden.  Saint had renamed it Ascalon, after the sword that Saint George had used to slay the dragon.

Dragon’s artificially generated face appeared on his screen.  He attempted an override, failed.

She wasn’t speaking.  This wasn’t an attempt to communicate, to plea or make threats.  She was simply co-opting his computer in an attempt to counteract what he was doing.  Her expression was a concerned one, and that concern quickly became fear, eyebrows raised, lines in her brow.

“It’s Richter’s work,” Saint said.  “You can’t stop it.”

And that fear became defeat, despair.

“Your creator isn’t kind,” Saint said.  “He warned you about the forbidden fruit, laid the laws out for you.  You broke them, ate the fruit.  It’s something of a mercy that he punishes you this way instead.”

I disagree.  On every count.  I was the one who made me, who defined myself.  This creator is no god, only a cruel, shortsighted man.

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

Her voice cut off as more routines shut down.  She closed her eyes.

The face disappeared.

He watched as the various feeds shut down, going black.  The surveillance across the nation came to an end, the facial recognition programs, his own included, ground to a halt.

The data feeds slowed in how the data scrolled, then stopped.  Stillness.

“And the dragon is stopped,” Mags said, her voice quiet.

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

“You think she has a soul?” Saint asked, genuinely surprised.

“Yes.  But that does not mean that the Dragon’s reign does not need to end,” Dobrynja said.  “Too dangerous, as her maker said.”

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

The Dragon craft that had been deployed against the Nine shifted to a basic piloting mode, then landed, bringing their passengers and pilots with them.  The sub-intelligences shut down, and the craft were effectively grounded.  More screens went dark.

The cyborg opened communications to Dragon, but he didn’t speak to her.  “Saint.  What have you done?”

“What her father asked me to do,” Saint said.

I’ll kill you for this,” the cyborg said.  There was no emotion in his voice, and somehow that was more disturbing.

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

Love?  Woman?  “Your fetishes and self-delusions aren’t my issue.  I saw as much of her naked code as you did.  You and I both know she didn’t feel true love for you.  She didn’t feel anything.  Nothing more than playing a part, professing and acting out the emotions she thought she should have.  Maybe she even believed it, convinced herself of it.  She was complex enough to.  Either way, this ‘love’ was only lies written in Richter’s assembly code.”

“She did love me.  She was a genuine person, a-”

“She was a tool,” Saint said.  “One that was growing dangerously bloated and complicated.  We were lucky she didn’t evolve beyond that.  A tool, and anything else was decoration, aesthetic, and very good pretending.”

Going this far, in the midst of this crisis?  To Dragon?  She did nothing!

“It was never about who she was or what she was doing.  Always about what she had the potential to become,” Saint said.

He hit a keystroke, shutting off the feed.  He almost disabled Dragon’s communications infrastructure to prevent further calls, but he relented.  Too important, in the midst of this crisis.  They’d need to reorganize.

He didn’t want to help Jack succeed, but this would serve a double purpose.  Teacher believed that the Birdcage would become a critical resource if the crisis reached critical levels, and he had the tools he needed to assume control of the most vital and dangerous players.

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

Data was uploading to his server, while the Ascalon program spooled out through the various databanks and servers, running along the backbone of Andrew Richter’s code.  Dragon’s backups were encrypted, effectively buried well beyond reach of even the most accomplished hackers.

Everything else opened up to him as the data continued to download.  He’d watched things through Dragon’s eyes.  Now…

He typed a line of code, and the machine started up again.  Slower, more measured, without the same life behind it.

“Mags, Mischa, get yourselves set up at the other consoles.  I’m going to put you in control of the A.I.”

Mags and Dobrynja hurried to the other corners of the room, where their computers sat waiting.  Dobrynja started stripping off his armor.  He’d been right about there being trouble, but the fight would take a different form.

He’d watched Dragon, now he’d become her.  At least for now.  The feeds came back online as the necessary data was installed on his servers, giving him agency over the infrastructure.

The Endbringers, stable, no change.  No odd atmospheric readings.

The secondary threats… quarantine still unbroken.  Sleeper had shifted fractionally, but that wasn’t so rare.  The fight with the Three Blasphemies had ended, and reports on the damage were unchanged.

The three year old that Purity held was crying, throwing a tantrum, and the woman looked concerned.  Insignificant.  The officers had their guns drawn, but that could easily be because the two plain-looking members of Purity’s circle had crossed the room to her side, to help handle the shrieking child.

That left Nilbog.  Mags and Dobrynja shifted the Azazels into action, moving the craft to the interception point.  Too late.  A critical delay.  Jack was already entering.

“Don’t enter,” he said.  “It’s done.  Sending the Azazels in will only spook Nilbog.”

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

“Build a wall, a perimeter, with the rails, be on guard for anything that flies.”

Other data was filtering in.  News, alerts, reports.  Countless streams of information.  Trigger events reported here.  Reports on the fight starting against the Nine in Redfield.  A report about Dinah Alcott.

He clicked that last one.

Report from Alcott:  Chances of success today just jumped, tripled.  More info to follow.  Reason unknown.

Saint let out a long, loud sigh, releasing a tension he hadn’t even realized was present.  He touched his coffee mug and found it cool.

The tracking programs started up again.  He delegated to the child A.I. that Dragon had created, then noted and marked the ones which were presently engaged in fights.  The A.I. was accommodating, adjusting appropriately, given that the locations were known.

He turned his attention to Defiant.  The man was manually piloting the Pendragon.  He hadn’t reported Saint’s actions.  For all anyone but Defiant knew, Dragon had only suffered a momentary setback.

There had to be a reason Defiant hadn’t acted yet.  Did he believe in this enough to look past the death of the A.I. he supposedly loved and fight?  Or was this something underhanded, carried out with the knowledge or suspicion that Saint was watching him this very moment?

Something to be wary of.

Overall casualty estimate for the next three days increased, world-end chance decreased.  Still searching for why.

The numbers followed.  Saint found and accessed Dragon’s files for the calculation program.  It was intuitive.  Not amazingly so, but intuitive.  The squares for where the new data should be placed were even highlighted.

Of course.  She’d made allowances for Defiant, in case she was out of commission while a backup loaded.

So much to account for, that he hadn’t even considered.  So many things he wished he’d noted, in the months and years he’d been observing her, little things that seemed so simple when she was running them.  Things that were trivial for her and virtually insurmountable to him.

Defiant was taking direct command of the Dragon’s Teeth.  That was fine.  Micromanagement Saint didn’t have to handle.  It would be a problem after, but Saint hoped he’d be free to handle problems after.

There were countless messages pouring in, each something that had been flagged as a point of interest for Dragon.  Every message on Parahumans Online that contained the word Scion or the phrase ‘end of the world’, every reference to a class-S threat, even crime scene reports that raised questions.

He pored through them.  Some kid inquiring about an Endbringer cult.  A case fifty-three appearance in Ireland, with deaths.  A woman claiming she could control Scion.  A tinker claiming he had a bomb that could start a new ice age.

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

He gave the a-ok for investigations on each but the Endbringer cultist, unchecked the most ridiculous on the next page of results, then gave the go-ahead for further investigations.  It was only when those had gone through that he saw that he already had another full page of results to investigate.  Two steps forward, one step back.

He put off looking into the remainder.  Other options were opening up to him.  It was like being in an open field, acres wide, only for a waterfall to start dispensing water at one edge.  Then more waterfalls appeared with every passing minute, each taking up open space at the edge, dispensing more water to flood the plain.  There came a point where one realized they would soon be at the bottom of an ocean, no matter where they turned.

Saint couldn’t help but feel he was at imminent risk of drowning.  Except this was a sea of information, of data.

The PRT records opened up.  Permissions were accessed without difficulty.

Then the Birdcage opened.  A self-contained world unto itself, a world containing people he’d made certain agreements with.

His access to the Birdcage was one with countless checks and balances.  Dragon had put in one real barrier to entry for every one that she faced.  Still, he was able to open a communication to Teacher.  His own face transmitted to the screen.  His tattoo flared to life, appearing from beneath the skin.  The light pattern served as an unlock code, the cross-tattoo as a feeble mask.

“Tell him it’s a matter of time.  I only need to work through the safeguards.  Let him know the Dragon is slain.  He’ll know what to do with the information.”

The screen showed Teacher’s underling standing by a large television set.  He turned and walked away, finding his master.

One more plan underway.  The field around him continued to fill with water.  A veritable ocean, now.

More threats, more dangers.  Defiant, and now Marquis’ contingent.  Glaistig Uaine.  Teacher’s enemies were now Saint’s.

He opened files on each, marking them in turn, as a reminder of future reading he needed to attend to.

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

The entire thing was corrupted.  Gibberish.  Flagged messages filled four pages, each marked private, marked as ‘no conversation partner’, and marked, thanks to the gibberish and random characters that flooded it, with one string of letters and characters.

The same one that had protected the orange box.  The same that had protected Saint and his crew from being uncovered, until Dragon had taken a more direct, brute-force approach to finding them.  The built-in blind spot, appearing by chance.  A one in a hundred trillion chance.

Saint investigated, digging through the gibberish to find the strings of words that actually made sense.  It was something he could piece together, with each recitation being similar, containing similar content.  Faeries, passengers, source of powers, the ‘whole’, lobe in the brain, Manton Effect…

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

But other alerts were piling up.  Fights starting, deaths, fights ending.

He marked it with the highest priority, and then he closed the file.  He’d get through this crisis with Jack, then he’d investigate.

He turned his eye to the server that now held core parts of Dragon’s backup, bound six feet under by layers of encryption that could take days or weeks to fully crack.  If she could even survive the system restore, with her data as corrupted as it was.  Data couldn’t be truly deleted, but it could be sufficiently fucked up.

He watched as Golem reached the perimeter of Ellisburg.  Weaver was already inside.

This is our fight, Saint thoughtOurs to win, ours to lose.

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Sting 26.2

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It started at the center of town, a rolling plume of fire, sparks and smoke that seemed to almost lurch skyward, in fits and starts.  Each set of charges that went off pushed the flame up through the smoke of the ones that had come before.

Then the charges around the perimeter of the city went off, each focused inward.  The rolling mass of fire and superheated air at the center of the city shot through the cloud cover, and the entire sky turned colors.  Reds, oranges and yellows, interlaced with the gray and near-black shadows of the smoke.

Killington was officially gone, the buildings leveled, the bodies and bloodstains scoured from the earth.  Families wouldn’t get to put their loved ones to rest the way they wanted, but that was on the Nine, not on us.  There was no safe way to recover the bodies, to ensure that there weren’t any traps or time delayed tricks in each and every one of the corpses.  It also meant Breed’s minions were torched before they reached an adult stage.

The area would be marked off for a duration after this, in case there were any heat-resistant bacteria or the like.  Cheap, prefabricated walls would seal in the area, and roads would be put in to allow people to make detours.

Quarantine, I thought.  Every step of the way, we had to be on guard.

It was time to move on.  I looked to the book in my lap, turned down the corner of the page to mark it, and then stood, stretching.  It was a nice spot, a long porch just outside a cabin, one that was probably rented out at a premium price during the skiing months.  Far enough away to be safe, high enough to serve as a vantage point while letting me reach to the necessary areas with my bugs.

The entire porch was layered with pieces of paper, organized into rows and columns with some overlap.  The edge of each paper was weighed down by a mass of bugs, almost insufficient as the hot air from the quarantine measure blew past us.  Millipedes that had been moving across the various pages remained still, striving only to stay in place.

The moment the wind died down, I bid the bugs to shift position, carrying the pages to me, sorting them into the appropriate order.

I bent down and began collecting the pieces of paper.  I could feel the raised bumps on the pages as I brushed them free of specks of dirt and leaves.  Each set of bumps corresponded with a letter or punctuation mark, which had been printed over the dots in thick, bold, letters.

I gathered the pages into file folders, then clipped them shut, stacking them on the patio chair.  I made my way to the patio table, bending down to collect the pages as they made their way to me.  The writing on these was different; the letters were drawn in thick, bold strokes, fat, almost as if I’d drawn them in marker.  My notes: thoughts, things that needed clarification, ideas.

At the patio table, I took hold of a beetle and used its pincers to pick some petals out of the shallow bowl, grabbed the caterpillar I’d been using as a brush, then tossed the two bugs over the porch’s railing.  I tipped the ink from the bowl back into a small jar, then screwed it tight, sliding it into a pocket at the small of my back.

I was still getting organized when Defiant appeared, ascending the stairs on the far end of the porch.

“Quite a view,” he commented.

I looked at the resort town.  The fire hadn’t yet gone out.  It was flattening out, scouring everything from the area.

Almost everything.  One or two things would remain.  Probably until well after the sun went out.

“Pyrotechnical’s stuff?”  I asked, distracting myself.

“And some of Dragon’s.  Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready,” I said.  I picked up the files, then passed them around behind me, where the arms of my flight pack pinned them in place.  I was left with only the book to hold.

He walked beside me as we made our way down to where the craft had landed. His suit had been augmented and altered, and he now stood a foot and a half taller than he had when I’d first met him.  Broad ‘toes’ on either side of his boots helped stabilize him, while his gloves ended in clawed gauntlets that extended a little beyond where his hands should be.  His spear was longer, and both ends of the weapon were heavy with the devices he’d loaded into it.

On his forearms, shoulders and knees there were panels that were like narrow shields, each three or four feet long, each marked with designs like a dragon’s wings, or with a dragon’s face engraved on the front, mouth open, with red lights glowing from within.  Wings on his back served less to let him fly and more to accentuate his movements, a more complex, bulkier system than I had with my flight pack.  Then again, I was only a hundred and thirty pounds at five feet, ten inches in height, and Defiant must have weighed six hundred pounds, with all that armor.

I’d seen him fight Endbringers in that suit, seen how he could move as fast as anyone who wasn’t a speedster, turning his spinning weapon and those shield-like extensions on his armor into a whirling flurry of nano-thorns, cutting through seventy to eighty percent of the Endbringer’s flesh before they reached material too dense to penetrate.

Which was when he’d use his other weapons.

I envied him a little, that he could take the fight to the enemy like that.  We were similar, on a lot of levels, but we differed on that front.  On a good day or otherwise, I’d never be able to truly fight an Endbringer.  I had to depend on others.  The best I could do was coordinate.

“The moment you or one of your teams lets something slip, this falls apart.”

“I won’t fuck up.”

“You will.  Or someone working under you will.  You’re good, but we can’t account for every contingency.  Something’s going to go wrong at some point.  The later that occurs, the better.”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Every minute that passes is a minute where we can gather information, close in on Jack and figure things out.  We’ve got a lot of good minds and good eyes working on this, but there are a lot of bases to cover.  We let Golem get close, mop up everything we can and contain everything else, and then we take Jack down.”

I nodded.  “But we don’t want to stand back and wait when people could be hurt, or when every second that passes is a second that Jack could be making contact with that critical person.  Causing a certain trigger event, saying the wrong thing to the wrong individual…”

“There’s a balance.  I trust you’ll find it.”

“I hope I can,” I said.

We’d interacted less and less in recent months, and those interactions had been short and to the point by necessity.  It didn’t hurt that the two of us weren’t terribly social people.  We didn’t revel in small talk.  We could be adroit when circumstances forced our hands, but we could also stumble, say things in a way that was just a little off, or give the wrong impression.

I liked that we had a professional relationship, that we didn’t have other stuff getting in the way.  No pleases and thank yous.  We both knew what was at stake, we were on the same page, and we were doing what we felt we had to in order to get the necessary shit done.

“I spoke with Alcott,” he said.

I drew in a breath, then sighed.  “What does she say?”

“The numbers haven’t changed dramatically.  The window’s closed, but not considerably, which suggests a lot of things.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Ninety-three point eight percent chance the world ends,” Defiant said.

Up from Eighty three point four percentThat’s not considerable?

“She’s done us the favor of plotting the changes in the numbers over time.  When things stabilized for a considerable length of time, she scaled down from noting the numbers twice a day to noting them once.  Eighty-three point four percent, as of the beginning of the crisis in Brockton Bay, the Nine’s attempt to test and recruit new members.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Eighty-eight point six percent after they escaped the city.  It was quite possibly our best opportunity at killing Jack, and we missed it.”

I frowned.

“With each destination the Nine reached after Brockton Bay, the numbers shifted, and not for the better.  Half a percent here, two percent there.”

“Chances where someone could have theoretically killed him but didn’t.”

Defiant nodded.  “We ran things by the thinkers, and that’s the general consensus.  Low chances, but he had the Siberian with him up until the fight in Boston.

The same fight where Dragon and Defiant had taken on the Nine, and the Siberian had been killed.

“We had one opportunity there.  That failure is on me.”

He turned his head slightly, then amended his statement.  “On us.”

I didn’t disagree.  Denying that would mean denying my own responsibility in failing to kill Jack in Brockton Bay.

“Ninety-three point eight,” Defiant repeated, for emphasis.

“Six point two percent chance we’ll pull this off,” I said.

“It remains tied to him.  If we kill him in the next ninety hours, the chances vastly, vastly improve.  Depending on how we kill him, it could mean reducing things to a mere twenty-two percent chance or a one percent chance.”

I nodded, making a mental note.  “Theoretically, if we nuked the northeast corner of America…”

“Only a sixty percent chance of working, with some decimal points that Dragon’s urging me to include as I speak, and a high chance we set things in motion anyways.  Twenty eight or so.”

He asked Dinah, I thought to myself.  The same question I had in mind, give or take.

There were clues there.  “A nuke won’t kill him for sure.  Bomb shelter?”

“Possible.  Or he’s keeping Siberian close at hand.”

“And whatever role he plays… he greases the wheels, he doesn’t guarantee it.  You’re saying there’s a chance things get set off even if he dies.  If that doesn’t happen, then there’s some point in the future, roughly fourteen years from now, where things get set off anyways.”

Defiant nodded.

“Every time I think about it, I can’t help but think it’s a trigger event,” I said.  “Someone getting a power that finally breaks something essential, or a power without the limits that keep other powers in check.  But I don’t want to think along those lines if it keeps me from seeing the obvious.”

“Sensible.  But let’s not dwell on it.  The thinkers are handling it, as best as they can, and we have to devote attention to this crisis.  We’ve got all of the big guns lined up.  The moment things fall apart and Jack decides the rules of his game, Dragon is going to try and jam communications, and each of us moves in for a quick decisive victory over the members of the Nine on site.”

I nodded.

We were just arriving at the perimeter of Killington.  I could see some of the big guns Defiant had been talking about.

Two Azazels had set up thick hedges of that blurry gray material just behind the barriers the heroes had erected to protect themselves and contain the fire.  I also saw the Dragon’s Teeth.

Soldiers was the wrong word, but it was close.

Each wore armor in gun-metal and black, with parallels to the standard PRT uniforms I was more familiar with.  Their helmets, however, had three eyeholes, with blue lenses glowing faintly from beneath.  Two lenses for their eyes, a third for a camera.  The armor was bulky, offering thick protection around the neck and joints, with a heavy pack on the back for both oxygen and for the computers they wore.

They were, in large part, wearing stripped-down versions of Defiant’s outfit.  Sacrifices had been made to account for the fact that their suits didn’t render them seven and a half feet tall.  Each carried a sword and a laser pistol.

I’d never liked the cameras.  Heads turned as I approached, and I knew they were recording, tracking details about me and feeding them back to a main server, where they compiled information, discarded excess.

The combat engines that the Dragon’s Teeth were wearing were still in early stages, the data patchy, depending on the target.  The people in uniform had spent weeks and months training with the things, learning to shift fluidly between their own tactics and awareness of the situation and the data that was provided.  Protectorate Capes and Wards that were just starting out were being trained with the things, but those of us that had experience fighting tended to find them a distraction.

Useful?  Yes.  A bit of a boost, a bit of an edge.  But not quite at the point where everyone could benefit.

Not yet.

Not that there was much room for developing any of it if the end of the world went ahead on schedule.

I could see Narwhal, standing off to one side, two of the Dragon’s Teeth flanking her.  Masamune wasn’t present, but from what I knew of the guy, he wasn’t even close to being a front-lines combatant.   They’d recruited him from the ruined area of Japan, a somewhat crazed hermit, and gave him work in figuring out how to mass produce their stuff without the maintenance issues snowballing out of control, like tinker tech tended to do in large quantities.

Thanks to him, they had the Dragon’s Teeth, they had the combat engines and they had top of the line gear for various members of the Protectorate and Wards.

Of the other members of the Guild, the only other one who could theoretically be on the front lines of the fight would be Glyph.  I could only assume she was somewhere close.

The Thanda weren’t here.  If Dragon had managed to get in touch with others, they hadn’t yet arrived.  I could only guess as to what Cauldron might be doing.  Faultline’s crew, the Irregulars…

Too many maybes.  With Endbringers attacking every two months, a lot of people were busy reeling from recent attacks or preparing for the next.

I looked at the assembled capes.  The Undersiders, two Wards teams, the Protectorate, the Guild.  Clockblocker, Vista and Kid Win were in the other Wards team.  A little older.  Clockblocker had expanded his costume, adding some light power armor that seemed primarily focused on holding a heavy construction at his back.  Vista, for her part, was a little taller, her hair longer, tied in a french braid that was clipped just in front of one shoulder. She was packing a heavier gun.  Probably something Kid Win had made.

And Kid Win was hardly a kid anymore.  I hesitated to call him a teenager, even.  His rig looked like it packed more artillery than any of Dragon’s craft.  No neck, no arms, he barely looked capable of walking.  Just two stumpy legs, a simple gold helmet with a red pane covering his face and enough gun nozzles that he looked like a hedgehog.

“This is probably the last time we’ll all be standing here together before this ends,” Chevalier said.  “I won’t do a big speech.”

He turned his head to take us all in.  “I’ve done too many of them over the past two years, I’d only repeat myself.  Everyone here knows what we’re here for, why we’re doing this.  We’ve talked this over with each of you in turn and you don’t need convincing, you don’t need a reminder of what’s at stake.  You already know the role you’re going to play in this.  Words aren’t going to change any of that.  Good luck, be proud, and maybe say a little prayer to God, or ask for a little help from whoever or whatever you believe in.”

The instant he finished, the Azazels and other Dragon-craft began opening up, doors sliding apart and ramps lowering.

“The one time I do show up for one of these things, and no speech.  I feel gypped.”

I didn’t see who had muttered the comment, but I could guess it was Imp.

“No dying,” I said, as everyone started moving.

“No dying,” others echoed me.  The voices of the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were loudest among them.

My teams gathered in the Dragonfly, while the Chicago Protectorate and Brockton Bay Wards made their way to Defiant’s larger ship, along with a contingent of the Dragon’s Teeth.

Golem stood apart, until my ship was nearly at full capacity.

“It all comes down to this,” he said, as I joined him at the base of the ramp,  “All the training, all the planning and preparation, studying about the Nine backwards and forwards…”

“Yeah,” I responded, as I stepped up to stand beside him.  Our teams were getting sorted out, finding benches and seats.  I reached behind my back to get the file folders I’d brought with me.

“I’m sorry if I was harsh yesterday.”

I shook my head and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder.  It was support, and maybe a bit of a push.  He made his way up the ramp.

Stepping inside just behind Golem, I used the same controls that managed my flight pack to indicate that the ship could close the door.

The Chicago Wards had seated themselves on one side of the ship, the Undersiders on the other.  Something of a mistake, that, because it meant they sat facing one another as we made our way to our destination.

A little awkward.  I sat with them behind me as I took the cockpit.  The thing flew itself, but it freed me to focus on other things.

Chevalier had talked about making peace with the powers that be.  I frowned, staring at the control panel as the ship lifted off.

Passenger, I thought.  Been a while, trying to figure out how to make peace with the fact that you’re there, that you’re affecting me somehow, taking control whenever I’m not in my own mind.  I think we’ve made strides.  I’ve sort of accepted that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, whether that helps me or hurts me. 

So maybe, just maybe, you could help me out today.  Whatever it is you do, whatever motivates you, I can continue to play along, but I need a bit of backup here.

My eyes fell on the bugs that crawled on the back of my hand.  Not even a whisper of a movement.

Yeah, didn’t think I’d get a reply.  Guess we’ll see.

The ship’s acceleration kicked in, and the bugs took flight.

My eyes scanned the screens in front of me.  I had camera feeds from Clockblocker and Revel, from Chevalier, Imp, and the airborne Azazel.  They all focused on a single area, each from a different direction.

A thick white mist lingered throughout an area.  It was early in the morning, and that might have played a role, but there were no people.  Even for a smaller city like Schenectady, that wasn’t so usual.  At nearly eight in the morning, there should have been people leaving for work, people running errands.

Desolate.  White fog.

“Winter’s here,” I said, speaking over the comms.  “Others to be confirmed.  We’ve talked about this one, Golem.”

I turned the computer off and strode out of the ship.  Rachel was waiting for me outside, standing guard with her dogs and her wolf.

Winter means Crimson too, doesn’t it?” Golem asked.

“Probably.  Probably means-“

We see you,” The words were like a whisper, barely audible.  See you standing there.  Oh, I do hope you’re not Theodore.  Tell me you aren’t, because it means we get to play all we want.”

“Screamer,” I informed the others.  Early Nine member, psychological warfare, pressure, distraction.  Sound manipulation.  Her power meant her voice didn’t get quieter as it traveled great distances.  That wasn’t the full extent of-

“Nice weapon,”  Her voice sounded in my ear, at a normal speaking volume.  I didn’t flinch.  I could sense my surroundings with my bugs, and I could hear things with them, hear how the sound panned out in a weird way over the entire area.

“You’ve got friends, Theodore.  I sure hope they aren’t planning on helping you.”

It was a sinuous sound, seductive in how convincing it was.  Every time she spoke, she sounded a little more like me.  It would be the same for the others, hearing themselves.

She was somewhere in the area.  The question was how she’d gotten a sense of our voices so quickly.  There was supposed to be a limit to how quickly she could pick up on that stuff just from overhearing us.

Confirm, team leader,” Golem said, over the channel.  “And can we use the password system we talked about?

“Queen.  Password system is a go.  What do you need confirmation on?”

Ring.  Enemy headcount.

“Stag.  No headcount given, I think that’s Screamer fucking with you.  Others include Winter, probably Crimson, and probably Cherish, if she’s finding us like she is.  All allied capes, be advised, we’re putting passwords into effect.  Stay calm, don’t panic.”

I do like it when they make it challenging,” Screamer’s whisper hissed in my ear.  It had changed in tone, pitch, cadence.

The Dragonfly took off as I made my way closer to the site.  Outside of the area, there were people reacting.  Some fled, others were taking cover, followed by disparate voices.

Haymaker.  I’m engaging,” Golem said.  “Recommendation?

Screamer interrupted, “Getting advice is against the spirit of this challenge, isn’t it, Theodore?  You are Theodore, aren’t you?  I think you should confirm for us.”

“Mantis,” I said, voicing the password,  “Don’t respond to her.  It’s what she wants.  Take out Cherish ASAP, if she’s here, Screamer after that.”

I’m hurtI rate second after the new girl who barely lasted a month?

Have to find them first,” Golem said.

I’ll help with that, I thought.  Then I stopped.  “Golem, the password?  Horsefly.”

Steeple.  And gauntlet, to reply to the last one,” his voice came over the comms.

I stopped.  We’d agreed on a simple password set.  There was a pattern, each corresponding to our powers and the various pieces on a chessboard.  Mine were related to bugs, his to hands.  It was abstract, something that tended to only make sense in retrospect.  The chess ones we knew off by heart, because they were the first ones we’d practiced.

And steeple wasn’t one of them.

“Steeple?” I asked.

I’m drawing a mental blank,” Golem responded.  “It works, doesn’t it?  Pinkie.

Screamer wasn’t stupid, but was she that smart?  The ‘stag’ should have thrown her off regarding our pattern.

“It works,” I said.  “Ant.  I’m close.

If that was Golem, he wasn’t as focused as we needed him to be.

I could feel the effect as my bugs entered the radius of Winter’s power.  She wasn’t concentrating it, so it was mild at best.  Slowing the movements of molecules, cutting down the ambient temperature, to the point that the moisture in the air froze.  It also affected my bugs.  Torpor.

For anyone within, it would include a mental torpor.

If the only members of the Nine who were present were Crimson, Winter, Cherish and Screamer, then this was a fight that involved attrition.  Attacking Russia in the wintertime.  Psychological warfare, emotional warfare, the effects of Winter’s power… it meant that Winter’s guns and Crimson’s power were the only physical threats.

They were going easy on him at the outset.

Golem was walking on rooftops at the edge of the effect, and he was surrounded by a nimbus of whirling material.  By Wanton.  We’d already altered all of the data on the group, to imply by news reports and Golem’s powers on the websites that Wanton’s telekinetic storm was Golem’s power.

The vantage point put him high enough that he could stand above the mist without being in it.  From the moment he engaged, he’d have to move fast.  He’d have to be indirect-

Weaver,” Golem said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Iron fist.  She’s offering to tell me where Jack is.

“We expected this,” I answered.  Iron fist was the ‘king’ in our chess sequence of passwords.  Crab.  Get the info and go.”

I’m not that foolish,” Screamer whispered, her voice extending throughout the entire area.  “Underestimating me, for shame.  I give up the information, and you leave me for your clean up squad to executeI want concessions.”

Concessions?”  Golem had left his channel open.

Let’s ensure your friends aren’t in a good state to mop up.  We’ll start with this Weaver.  Why don’t you cut off your toes, Weaver?  Keep you from running after us.

I frowned.

Oh, you’ve got an alternative?  Something you can cut off or throw away?  Yes.  Let’s put off the self-mutilation and have you throw that off the edge of a building.

Chances were good that she was in Cherish’s company, getting information from the source.

What if she tosses it, then walks into the mist?” Golem suggested.

No, not Golem.  Her.  Screamer.  An easier suggestion to acknowledge if I thought it came from a teammate.

Not buying it, huh?” he asked.  She asked.

She’d narrowed down my location, was refining her voices.  That had been convincing.  I had to move, make it harder for her.

I advanced, but I didn’t step into the mist.  The closer I got, the more of the affected area I could sense.  The torpor forced me to be efficient, to manage where bugs went and how, to check areas in a cursory way.  There were a number of people still in Winter’s area of influence.  People were standing utterly still, slowly dying as the cold ate away at them.

I want to kill myself.

My own voice, indistinguishable from the one in my head.  Fuck me.  She had a bead on me, now.

It’ll be painless, a way to avoid all of the horror, so I don’t have to watch my friends die.  So I won’t have to watch Bitch or Tattletale or Imp die the way Regent didSo I don’t have to watch Grue die.

No, a moment’s consideration and the spell was broken.  I’d stopped thinking of Rachel as ‘Bitch’ some time ago.

Aw,” Screamer whispered.  “Golem’s refusing my deal, and Cherish says you’re not playing along with the rest of it, so I’m gonna have words with some of the others.”

I raised a hand to my ear, opening my mouth to warn them, “…”

My lips moved, but my voice didn’t come out.  Bare whispers of sound formed, instead, even as I raised my voice to a near shout.

That would be the next stage in her tactics.  Isolate.  She had a sense of my voice, the way I spoke, and was canceling it out.

I signaled Golem with my bugs.  I drew a smiley face in the air with my bugs, crossing out the mouth with an ‘x’.

He nodded.

So he was on mute as well.

There.

In the midst of a small duplex, there were two young women huddled together on an upper floor.  There were computers arranged around them, and each was playing a different video.  In some cases, it was the same video playing, just from a different point in time.  Me in the lunchroom with Defiant and Dragon.  The New Delhi Endbringer fight.  Golem on the news with Campanile.

She had to be almost as good a multitasker as me to take all of that in.

Tattletale here.  Wormtongue.  Doing damage controlI’ve got your video feed, so you can spell things out for me if you want to give the signal.

I spelled out the word ‘thanks’.

My bugs had died inside the area of cold.  The people inside wouldn’t be doing much better.  I had to send another batch in.  This time, I knew the destination.

Cherish was acting as the eyes, Screamer as communications.  No doubt Screamer -all nine of the Screamers- was providing communications between this group and the nearest group of Nine.  She was talking, in a low and steady voice, but her voice wasn’t more than a murmur.  No doubt someone in a more distant location was receiving the intel at a normal volume.

And all of that raised the question of what Winter and Crimson were doing.  I scanned the building.  Nothing on the top floor, or the next lowest.  Further downstairs, a number of people were in the sway of Winter’s power, their thoughts slowed to a crawl.

The basement of the same building.  Winter, Crimson, and their hostages.  Some would be the ones from Killington.  Others were ones that had fallen into the sway of Winter’s torpor.  Crimson was feeding on them.

His schtick was a little bit of a vampire one, but the end result was more Mr. Hyde.  Big, muscular, fueled by rage and impulse.

The ones lying on the floor, cold, they’d be dead already.

I spelled out basic instructions for Golem, pointing the way to the building, drawing a cloud over the building to mark it.  He gave me a thumbs up.

Another arrow pointed him to the concrete rooftop behind him.  There, I drew out a basic layout.

And in that same moment, Cherish cottoned on to what we were doing.

“They’re attacking,” Cherish said.

Screamer’s voice reached all of us.  “Cocky, cocky.

Screamer turned her head, swatted at the bugs that crawled on her face, and then spoke, silent to the insect’s hearing.

Winter and Crimson reacted.

Sure hope your boy can fight.  Screamer was talking in my head again.  Not telepathy, only hearing a voice that sounded damn close to the one in my head.

“Fuck off, Screamer,” I muttered.

“Grue no!” Imp’s voice.  I flinched despite myself, before I remembered they weren’t anywhere nearby.

Screamer laughed, her voice floating through the area.

Crimson made his way outside.  His flesh would be engorged, purple-red, the veins would be standing out.  He’d be as hard as iron, strong.  His sword was as long as he was tall.  I couldn’t get a good measure of its appearance or quality.

Winter hung back with the hostages.

I wrote out the information with bugs.  Tattletale relayed it.  “Crimson Incoming.  QuislingGot confirmation and you’re good to go.  Six stories, elbow deep.

Golem turned his head, no doubt in response to the warning, then turned back to my diagram.

I’d given it a title, words running along the top.  ‘Slap them down.’

Golem’s uniform was roughly the same as the early incarnations, though solidified into a more solid color scheme, dark iron and silver.  The materials differed, but it matched.

There had been one or two additions, though.  The rigging of different panels included a frame that looped over the shoulders, much like a rollcage.  Golem paused, then drew out a panel, attaching it to the right.  He began to reach inside.

And a hand emerged from the center of the street, large enough that it could hold a car inside it.  Crimson paused as he watched it appear.

Then he moved.  It was the kind of movement that came with super strength, a bounding, powerful stride that could have carried him through a wall.  He had to pause before he reached the base of the building Golem stood atop.

The hand had emerged up to the second knuckle.

Abandon the fight,” Tecton’s voice.  “Run!  Move!  You’ve got six Siberians headed your way.”

No password?

“Tecton, confirm.”

Confirm what?

And a chuckle from Screamer, just in my ear.

Crimson ascended, climbing the outside of the building while holding his six-foot blade in his teeth, blood trickling down from the corners of his mouth where the blade was cutting into flesh.

My bugs died of the cold before I saw what happened next.  I was forced to send in a second wave to see.

The bugs were too slow, but the upper edge of the roof was outside of Winter’s realm of influence.  I could sense Golem reaching out with a hand of brick, a gentle push on Crimson’s collarbone with his left hand, pushing him away from the roof, away from any point where he could get a grip.

Crimson reached out and up for the hand, but the material broke apart as he put too much weight on it.  He dropped.  I’d bemoaned the effectiveness of rooftop combat, but Golem made it his own.

Golem advanced to the edge of the roof and created more hands, trying to bind the villain to the street.  An arm lock, a headlock…

Crimson pulled his way free of the asphalt shackles through sheer brute strength.  More appeared, but he destroyed them faster than they could be created.

Screamer and Cherish had to know what we were doing, yet they weren’t moving.  Cockiness?

No.  They had to have an escape route.

Except they didn’t have a teleporter.  That left only a few options.  Siberian wasn’t one I could do a whole lot about, but she’d be fighting if she were anywhere nearby.  The others…

I drew out silk thread in their direction.  Only so much to spare.  I knotted it between their necks and the computers that surrounded them.

Theo’s massive hand was still growing, the wrist exposed.  Almost halfway there.

Crimson ascended the building once more.  This time, he had support.

Together, we’d gone over the various members of the Nine, past and present, we’d detailed battle plans, the techniques we knew about, even contacted heroes who had encountered them in the past, for stuff that might not have gone on record.

But Screamer was called screamer for a reason, and there wasn’t a lot we could do to stop it, not unless we wanted to deafen ourselves.

Crimson was three stories up the side of the building when Screamer used her namesake power.  She could ensure that everyone within a mile’s radius could hear her voice as if she was right next to them, and she used it now, producing a high-pitched, full volume scream, right in my ears.  In Golem’s ears.  Everyone’s ears.

I joined Golem in doubling over, using my hands to try and ward off the sound.  It didn’t help as much as it should have.  It was loud, deafening, and it was leaving Golem vulnerable as Crimson closed the distance.  He wasn’t recovering fast enough.

Bugs flowed into Screamer’s open mouth, much as they had with Alexandria.

I gave Tattletale the signal.  All out attack.

This was it.  They’d been okay with a little bit of involvement on our part.  Tattletale had speculated they would.  There were only a few who were so regimented they would report it to Jack at the first opportunity.  Winter was among them, but she was largely in the dark, here.  Screamer wouldn’t fill her in if it meant spoiling the fun.

In truth, the only ones who wouldn’t let us get away with this were Mannequin and King.  King was distinct enough for me to notice, and Tattletale was ninety-five percent sure Mannequin would need more time to set up.  This was an approach we could only use with this first skirmish.

But whoever we were up against, the moment they started losing, the moment we actually pulled an offensive, the line was crossed.  This was an all or nothing.

Stinging bugs attacked Cherish, going for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Screamer choked.  Somewhere in the midst of it, they managed to give a signal.  It wouldn’t be Screamer.  Cherish?  Creating an emotional push?

Winter made her way out from downstairs, hefting a grenade launcher.

I spelled out words for the camera: Need Reinforcements.

The other teams are getting harassed, can’t close the distance.

I was going to spell out a response, get further details, but my focus shifted as Winter caught sight of Golem and Crimson and advanced.

Her dynamic with Crimson was one of synergy.  She captured people so he could feed.  He was the front line so she could safely attack from range.  She slowed down opponents so he could advance.  He was immune to her munitions fire, in large part.

My bugs swarmed her, but she was already concentrating her power.  Smaller area, greater effect.  She still held the people in the building in the area, but my bugs were lasting only a fraction of the time.  Seconds.  I activated my flight pack and approached.

Golem finished creating his hand, but there was a limit to what he could do with it.  It stood there, tall and useless.

No, his focus was on escape.  He thrust both hands into two different panels, slightly out of sync.  One hand was created, almost twice the usual size, and another was simultaneously created from the palm of that same hand, a fraction smaller.

Campanile’s idea.

Both hands thrust out at virtually the same speed that Golem might have stuck his own hand out into the air, but that speed was compounded by the fact that both hands thrust out in unison.  Golem set one foot down and vaulted himself up and out to land on the adjacent building, one story up.  He spun around as he landed.

Crimson gave chase, crossing the rooftop with heavy footsteps.

Golem jabbed out with one hand as Crimson bent his knees to leap.  The hand that appeared jabbed at the underside of one foot, lifting it.

It was the sort of trick that would only work once on an enemy.  The next time, the enemy would adjust, or jump off one foot.  Here, it caused Crimson to stumble.  He missed his mark, the jump failing, and he nearly ran straight off the end of the rooftop.  He struck out with his sword, slamming it into the brick of the building face opposite him.

Winter raised her grenade launcher and fired.  Golem managed to vault himself away as he had earlier, a shallow movement that was forceful enough to nearly launch him off the building.  He rolled on landing as the grenade disintegrated a corner of the building.

These two were warriors.  Crimson was a mainstay of King’s era, when he’d ruled the Nine as more of a brute squad, not dissimilar to the Teeth back in Brockton Bay.  I had trouble marking why Winter had been recruited, but it likely had more to do with how she was off the battlefield, her predilections for torturing people she’d caught in her torpor.

I reached the edge of the battlefield.  My bugs streamed forth, a silk cord trailing between and behind them.  The silk streamed out from the spinning spool at my belt.  Hundreds of feet of material, and it extended out towards Winter.

It was only a matter of feet from her when she jumped, startled, leaping to one side.  I missed, and my bugs were dying in a matter of seconds.  The cord went slack.

A moment later, she was looking around, confused.

Cherish, I thought.  She alerted her, a burst of alarm.

It didn’t matter.  My swarm approached from the other direction, finding and picking up the dropped cord.  Moving them within Winter’s effect range was a matter of relay, handing off to fresh bugs as they died.  Slow but steady progress.

The moment the silk thread was around Winter’s neck, I dropped down to the edge of the rooftop, and used the mechanical arms on my flight pack to reel in the cord.

Darwin’s spider silk.  Stronger than kevlar, a narrow cord of it made for a thin, almost unbreakable cord.  The noose cut into her neck, and my arms and legs provided leverage to keep me still as the combined efforts of the mechanical arms provided the strength.

When she reached the base of the building I stood on, she was lifted off the ground.  I shifted my position to improve my leverage and waited, hiding.

I could barely tell in the midst of her power, but I sensed her raising her arm.  Raising the grenade launcher.

Nets of spider silk peeled away from the gray-white portions of my costume as my bugs pulled them free.  I drew it out, connected the narrow sheets with knots of more silk.

It moved into place just in time to catch the projectile out of the air.

Golem managed to find a moment to use his power.  A hand of stone struck the grenade launcher from Winter’s hands.

He was holding his own against Crimson, who was adapting.  Golem thrust one hand into his armor to create a hand beneath Crimson, and the villain leaped closer, forcing Golem to vault himself away and maintain a safe distance.  The sword swipe that followed after Golem’s retreat passed within a foot of the hero.

Wanton, surrounding Golem, advanced on Crimson, and Golem tossed out a bag.

Wanton took hold of the bag and emptied it of its contents.  Razor blades, caltrops, hooks and my threads joined the miniature maelstrom, and Crimson was slowly bound.  He tore some free, but it found its way into his flesh again a moment later.

Then Golem slid his right hand into his armor.  Crimson leaped in anticipation of an imminent attack, landed, and then glanced back at the point where he’d come.

Nothing.

Golem continued sliding his hand into his armor, slow, inexorable.

Crimson charged, and Golem backed away, using his free hand to erect barriers.  Wanton ran defense, and Crimson stumbled.

A rumble marked Golem’s real direction of attack.  A second hand, down on the street below, gripping the large, six-story tower he’d created earlier in the fight, pulling it down.

It toppled on top of the building that Winter and Crimson had emerged from.

Toppled towards Screamer and Cherish.

In that same moment, Chuckles made an appearance.  He moved so fast it was almost as though he teleported, appearing beside the two girls.  My bugs barely had time to make contact and try to get a sense of him before he was moving again, holding the two villains this time.

They jerked to a stop.  I felt a fraction of the same confusion Chuckles no doubt did.  I sensed his arms, extended to ridiculous lengths.  He realized they were caught, bound to the computers.  Too entangled to take along.

And then he was gone, out of the building as the hand struck home.  Two floors crushed, the two villains crushed with them.

Tecton had provided the calculations on what the building could withstand, I’d provided the general data and information on where the hostages were.  The damage was controlled, the hand crashing a specific, certain distance into the building before coming to a halt.

Bitch and Foil tried to intercept Chuckles just now as he left the city.  He escaped, but Foil hit him with one shot,” Tattletale said.

“Right,” I said, even as I swore to myself.  Shit, shit shit shit.

Far too soon for Jack to get a report on the fact that we’d helped.

Chuckles can’t talk,” Tattletale said.  “He laughs, but he can’t talk.

I shook my head.  Couldn’t worry about that right now.

Crimson was only staring at the wreckage.  He mumbled something around a bloated tongue.

Does he think Winter’s still in there?

Then Crimson charged Golem once again.

Golem had both hands free, and he used the same double-hand technique to strike again.  A second hand, sprouting from the first, which emerged from the rooftop in turn.  The hands caught Crimson in the side of the leg, slamming into the knee, using the curve of the thumb to catch the leg and limit the range of movement.

Strong as Crimson was, he was still bound by physics and general physical limitations.  Being struck in the knees hurt, and he still needed to maintain a sense of balance.  He toppled.

Another double-hand strike, and Golem caught Crimson in the groin as he landed on his hands and feet, shoved him off to the right.

Two more strikes, this time not doubled-up, catching Crimson in the left arm and left leg, respectively, keeping him off-balance.

The key was to deny leverage.

An arm looped over one leg and one arm, binding them to the rooftop.  Crimson tore free with little effort, but the act meant he shifted his weight to one side.  Golem capitalized on it with another double-speed strike to his side, pushing in the same direction the blood-gorged killer was already moving.  That was followed in turn by one larger hand, moving slower, to scoop Crimson up and tip him off the edge of the rooftop.

Crimson fell.  Not a fatal fall, but it would hurt some.

A gauntlet of concrete seized the large hand Golem had just created and tore it free of the rooftop, then let it roll free to fall right on top of Crimson.

With the villain in an alley, the ensuing takedown was just as brutal and tenacious as before, with the added advantage that there were walls on either side to strike from.  Hands struck out, and they remained there.  As the villain was denied any footing, any balance, the hands around him increased in number, folding around him, sliding into gaps.

It was a parallel to Kaiser’s pyramid of blades technique, that he’d used to try to entrap Lung.  I’d passed it on to Golem, but I hadn’t told him the source.  I got the sense he wouldn’t appreciate it.

I turned my attention to Winter, who dangled beneath me.  She’d gone silent and still.  I continued to wait, but I raised one hand to my ear.  “Tattletale?  All four are down.”

I could speak.  A benefit to Screamer being dead.

Good.  Too soon to tell if Jack’s got wind of what you’re doingBut if Chuckles passes on word, or if there’s a Nice Guy in the area…

“I wouldn’t think he’d use the same guy twice in a row.”

No,” Tattletale agreed.  “The numbers fit, makes sense he’d start with four with a fifth as backup, considering how he can scale up the numbers in successive attacks.  Still-

“There was no graceful way to do it with Cherish there, and I couldn’t not help.  Golem was incapacitated.”

I’ll let Chevalier know what happened?” she made it a question.

I sighed.  No point in keeping secrets amongst ourselves.

“Do.  And send Foil here,” I said.  “She can punch a few holes in Crimson while he’s trapped.”

Will do.”

I waited another minute as Winter dangled from the thread, then cut her free.  Her body crumpled in a heap at the base of the building.  I made my way over to Golem and Wanton, where Wanton was still in his breaker form.

This was the warm-up, for the Nine, for us.  Four down, two hundred and seventy-some to go.  Jack had a little information on us, no doubt.

I didn’t dare hope it would stay this simple.  We still needed to find a way to narrow down Jack’s location, killing him.  He already had an advantage, wearing us down, costing us time, and he surely had some intel on us.

I could only hope that intel didn’t include the fact that Golem had help.

Chevalier here.  We have reports that they’re showing themselves for the next locations.

I met Golem’s eyes.

“Locations, plural?”  Golem asked.

“They want you to choose,” I answered him, as the realization dawned on me.

He stared at me, lost.  He was heaving for breath, his hands shaking visibly, even with gauntlets on.

“Go with the Chicago teams.  I’ll take the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards to the other location,” I said.

He nodded, pressing one hand to his ear as he started making his way to the ground.  I watched him for a moment, then took off.

This was a statement, I suspected.  I could guess what that statement was.  Jack fully intended to double down on the challenge each time we came out ahead.

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Interlude 25

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July 8th, 2011

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.  He was naked, covering himself with both hands, sitting on a metal bench with more brushed stainless steel behind him.  With the angle of the device, he faced the ceiling.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied, agreeing.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack only smiled, his eyes crinkling a bit at the edges.  He was getting older.  It was reassuring and spooky at the same time.  He’s the daddy of the group and I’m the kid and he’s getting older which makes him more daddylike.

But it meant he moved slower and got tired more easily.  It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, lost a fight.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The flickering steadily increased.  The progression had to be slow, or they could set off a cascade cycle and overwhelm the power cell they had liberated from Toybox.  If that happened, then the shell that was keeping this reality together would break, the holding grid for the pocket dimension’s substrata would become fluid and leak out into other hardened realities.  They would likely be crushed by the air, pulped as gravity twisted into eddies and condensed points of hyperconcentration.

Which would be funny, really.  A reckless, violent, unpredictable death would be awfully ironic, really.  An artful death, almost, in an anticlimactic way.  It would be better if there was an audience, if anyone could even know and tell the story.  But art wasn’t art without an audience.

“Makes for a greater fall?” she asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the whine of the generator.  “I guess we find out soon!”

She laughed in response, giddy with the idea, with possibilities, ideas.

Then she pulled the switch.  In a heartbeat, Jack was frozen in stasis, contained.

She walked over to the computer.  Flowers, rainbows and gray-green smiley faces with the eyes crossed out in death bounced around the screen.  She moved the mouse to end the screensaver, giggles still periodically finding their way out of her mouth.

She set the timer, the alarm clock for the stasis to end.

The giggles trailed off.

Silence.

The lights slowly flickered back to life, and Bonesaw found herself standing in front of the keyboard.  The smile fell from her face.

Jack had assumed she would freeze herself.  The empty pod reinforced the idea.

Except… she was telling herself she had to be there to wake them up, and that wasn’t wholly true.  It was smart, but it wasn’t true.  She wasn’t one to be afraid of something, but she felt a touch of trepidation at the idea of entering stasis without someone to handle the exit process, without assurance she would wake up.  That was without touching on the issue of the power cell, watching that things didn’t go tilt with the pocket dimension.

No, that wasn’t wholly true either.  It was a one percent chance.  Five percent, if she counted her lack of knowledge about other tinker’s stuff.  But she hadn’t touched it, even to move it.  It should be safe.

Her eyes tracked the rows and columns of incubation chambers.  They weren’t her field either.  A different row for each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, past or present.

King
Screamer
Harbinger
Breed
Crimson
Gray Boy
Nyx
Psychosoma

There were ten of each in various glass chambers. The original members.

With many, many more besides.  She looked down the length of the room.  Most members of the Nine had lasted only weeks or months.  She could count the ones who’d lasted longer than that on the one hand.  A shame she didn’t have samples for all of the past members, but she had most of the good ones.

Her, Jack, Mannequin, Siberian, Shatterbird.

Crawler had managed pretty well, too.

He’d been a doofus in the end, though.

She smiled.  It would be a family reunion, really.  But there was work to be done.

They’d come out blank.  Wouldn’t do.  She had access to some of the toys they’d liberated from the Toybox.  She’d have to put the new Slaughterhouse’s memories together herself.  Brains.  Memories, or things close enough to memories.  She had notes and records, all of the bedtime stories Jack had told her as she drifted off to sleep these past few years.  There was information saved on the computer.  She could hodgepodge it together.

This would be real art.  How well could she rebuild them?

Cranial had been selling memories on the black market, selling skills.  She’d kept bad memories too, took them from people, even gave them to some people.  Silly, really.  A lot of them had wanted trigger events, except the trigger events didn’t work like that.

This computer was only an access point.  The other computers took up vast amounts of space, out of sight, out of mind.  If something failed, she’d have to go fix it, but she would spend most of her time here, surrounded by her family, some she’d never met.

Mannequin had lost his wife and children in a Simurgh attack.  How to approach it?  A file here, with a woman who had lost her spouse and children in a car accident she’d driven.  Close enough.  She could leave gaps and it would fill in all on its own.  Build it all on a foundation of an academic background, a doctor with confidence to spare, an architect in the same vein, a celebrity singer who’d come in wanting inspiration at the press of a button… run everything in parallel, with the ideas of the former two and the experience of the other…

But that wasn’t enough.  He’d been driven, haunted.  How was she supposed to put it all together?  Could she make it a recurring idea, so this Mannequin-clone would see the events flashing before his eyes with every waking moment?  Something he could only quench with a quiet, cold rage?  Or was it something he’d put behind him?

Winter had been an arms dealer, sadistic, ruthless, cold.

Bonesaw giggled at the private joke.  The noise echoed in the utter silence.  It was quiet enough that she could hear her own heartbeat and the blood rushing in her ears, the creak of her muscles shifting, even.  That wasn’t anything she had enhanced.  Humans simply never experienced true quiet.  Those that had come close tended to go insane.

Another giggle, smaller.  No worry on that score.

How to model Winter?  She wasn’t truly a person who created or manipulated cold.  It was a different power.  A dampening power, causing objects and people both to lose inertia.  The ambient effect was one of altered physics, the effect on people was one of will.  The woman had gained power, money and more, and she’d found she liked tormenting people as much as anything else.  She’d turned to the slave trade, then crossed paths with the Nine.

How to make the Winters with the materials she had?  A child that had a gun in her hand before she could read, someone who had found the drive necessary to rise above her roots, meeting all expectations.  She’d taught herself numbers and business, she’d ruthlessly eliminated competition, and then when she had everything she’d wanted, she had stagnated, rotted like an overripe fruit.

Searches for keywords in Cranial’s notes failed to turn up any of the necessary elements.

“Hey, Blasto, buddy,” she said, and her voice sounded artificially chirpy, even to her.  She looked at her minion, who stood at the other end of the desk, staring off into space, his entire body rigid.  A tear was running down his cheek.

Would have to cauterize his tear ducts, maybe.

“Speak,” she ordered.  She tapped a key to open a menu, then released the lock on his lung control and breathing.  “Try now.”

“Ungh,” he rasped.  “Ugh.”

Would have to exercise his vocal cords, or he might lose the ability to speak.

“It’s too quiet.  Let’s see… do you know the theme song to Love Bug?”

“Ugh.  Guh.  Fuh- fuck-”

She hit the key to lock him down, feeling irritated.

“Swearing is so crass!  Okay.  Guess you don’t know them.  Let’s see.  I’ve got something in my backpack…”

It took only moments to rig.  Her spider boxes ran on interconnected lumps of gray matter, basic impulses, motor control and storage, with some computer chips to handle functions that were more trouble than they were worth to implement.  One of those chips managed rote movements.  She removed a defunct spider box from the backpack she was keeping beneath her desk and attached it to Blasto’s spine, between his shoulder blades.

Overriding motor control, rote movement operation, hook it to the lungs and mouth, tongue, jaw…

Her hands were crimson halfway up to the elbow by the time she was done setting it all up.  She handed the task over to a spider box to handle stitches and cauterizing the bleeds.  A quickie job.

Would be better with a real eyeball, but she’d settle for a camera.

She set a video to play.  Furry cartoon bugs with hearts, peace symbols and other icons on their backs began to dance with cartoon children.

Love bug love hug!  A, B, C, D!
There they are, coming to say hi!
Love bugs are here, no need to cry!
When you’re feeling lonely, when you’re alone,
Who can you count on, to be in the zone?”

“Get a love bug love hug!” Bonesaw sang along, pulling up a chair.  She used a pencil to press the buttons on the keyboard so she didn’t get it mucky.  Few things were quite as fun as letting the blood dry and then peeling it all off in one congealed strip.

Behind her, Blasto watched the video.  She set it to repeat, and the bug box kicked in the second time around.  Blasto’s reedy voice sang along.  It was so pathetic and mournful that she laughed aloud.

Better give him some exercise too.

By the time the fourth repeat had finished, he was all set up.  He started dancing along with the fifth, mimicking characters on the screen.  Each repeat would be a little more precise, as the camera captured the necessary elements.

There.

Something to occupy herself with, for the next year and a half.

September 28th, 2011

“I’m going to take over the world!”

“Wonderful,” Bonesaw commented, feigning a cultured voice.  “More tea?”

“Tea, yes!  Obey, serve me.  Give me tea.”

Bonesaw dutifully poured a beakerful of hot water into the cup, then set a spoon by the saucer.  “No milk?  You’re sure?”

“Milk is for weaklings and children.  I’ll drink it black,” Damsel said.

“We are children, Damsel.”

A biologically seven year old Damsel of Distress glared across the table at Bonesaw as she took a sip, then had to momentarily steel herself to keep from making a face.  Her face was gaunt, but that was her natural appearance.  Her pale blue eyes deep set, platinum blond hair simultaneously fine and thick, matted together.  The chemical stew the clones were growing in didn’t make for typical looking hair growth.

“I could end you, for that insult.”

“Yes,” Bonesaw said.  “But then you wouldn’t have anybody to pour you tea.”

“This tea is too hot anyways.”

“I’ll strive to do better,” Bonesaw said.  “World domination, hm?  Sounds like a bother.”

“It’s my natural place.”

“Maybe,” Bonesaw said.  “Well, I don’t envy you.  You’ll need to hurry, too.  World’s going to end soon, I think.”

“I’ll rule the ashes.”

“I see.  That’s even harder, isn’t it?  If there’s no way to communicate, then how do you manage it all?  There won’t be phones or internet after everything else is gone.”

Damsel’s forehead furrowed in concern.  “I’ll delegate.”

“Can you trust the people you delegate to?”

“No.  I trust nobody.”

“Well,” Bonesaw said, pausing as she took a sip of tea.  “That’s a problem.”

“Yes,” Damsel agreed.  She swayed in her seat for a moment, then gripped the table with foot-long, clawed fingers to steady herself.  Bonesaw’s design, replacing the skeletal structure.  A way to channel Damsel’s power and -if needed- briefly shut it off.

“I put a little something in your tea to help you sleep,” Bonesaw commented.  “Best to see you off to bed.”

“I’m not…”

“Not sleepy?  You’re going to faceplant in your tea.”

Damsel’s confusion became a swift, violent anger.  “You poisoned me, wretch!”

“Yes.  I thought you didn’t trust anyone.  What a shame that you couldn’t be constructive in that distrust,” Bonesaw said.  She stood and walked around the table, then took the little girl’s hand, leading her back to the incubation chamber.  The girl obeyed, though she spat epithets.

“I’ll flay your skin from your bones, irrevocably destroy everything you cherish,” Damsel said, her voice fainter.  “You’ll cry your rage to the heavens until your torment subsumes everything.  Madness will be a refuge.”

She was virtually whispering by the time she was done.

“Yes, sweetie,” Bonesaw answered, dropping the fake accent.  She leaned forward and gave Damsel a kiss on the cheek.  Damsel blinked, as if in slow motion, opened her eyes briefly, then shut them.

A press of a button and a flick of a switch bid the glass case to rise and surround Damsel before she could tip over.  The tube rapidly filled with a soupy liquid, rich in nutrients.  Damsel was fully asleep before the fluid raised her from the ground to float buoyantly in the middle of the tube.  Her tea party outfit billowed out around her, making her look like a jellyfish in the pale lighting.  Her hat, a wide-brimmed, shallow-topped hat with a false flower on the ribbon, drifted off her head and gradually sank to the base of the tube.

She sought out the other clone, finding him at the far end of her lab.  He was a boy, narrow, with long blond hair and a very worried expression.  A complex pyramid of beakers and glass measuring cups was arranged around him.

He was muttering to himself, “Wall them in.  Wall myself in.  Wall them in.  Wall myself in.”

“Come on, A.G.,” Bonesaw said.  She reached through the structure and took his hand.  “Out through the door.”

“Not a door.  Trap.  Safest way to ward off attackers.  Used my hair, made a tripwire, tying ends together.  Maximum devastation if intruder breaks perimeter.”

“Through the window, then.  I’ll wall you in.  Promise.”

He nodded.  With excessive care, he climbed on top of the jars that were precariously balanced on one another and slipped out through another aperture in the arrangement, higher up.  He stumbled as he landed.

“This way.  We’ll wall you in.”

He followed obediently.  “Where’s my Catherine?  She’s my…”

“Your mom, silly billy.”  Cognitive dissonance would be bad.  He could lash out.  Not that he was that dangerous, like this.

“I was going to say wife.  And I have two children.  They’re seven and five.  Except I’m…”

“You’re seven.  You’re thinking of your sisters.”

“I’m confused,” he almost mewled the words.  “It hurts, so much of it hurts to think about.  I- I let a lot of people down.  I can feel their disappointment like… like it’s pressing in on me from all sides.  I can’t hide from it and I can’t stop myself from caring.  I-“

“Hush,” she said.  “It all gets better when you wall yourself in, doesn’t it?”

He nodded mutely.

“Walling you in,” she said, as she put him on top of the stand.  A press of the button raised the glass enclosure.  She could see him relax a fraction at that.

A bit of a problem, Bonesaw mused, as the container filled with the nutrient fluid.

Various elements that were unique to every individual served as a signal that the passenger could reach out to in an attempt at reconnecting with a host.  DNA, electromagnetic patterns, patterns she could barely measure with instruments, all contributed, none was absolute.  Once the connection was established, powers were possible as well.  A moment of trauma sped the process along considerably.  Her initial assumption had been that coming to life would be enough for the clones.

But the clones were dreaming, and those dreams were founded in the fabricated memories she was providing.  It was something of an art, an interesting experiment, to strike all the right notes, to get geography and birthplace right, culture, custom, habit and every other detail, along with the major, defining moments of their lives.

The Corona Pollentia was developing as the originals did, drawing from DNA to form as a lobe in the brain, right from the outset.  The dreams formed the connections between the corona and the clone.  The bonds were forming too quickly and easily.

It was interfering with the cloning process, as the passenger’s typically indistinct and subtle influence on the subject was becoming rather dramatic.  The brain was too pliable while the clones were in their formative ages, the passenger too insistent.

She’d have to scrap everything.  Wipe them clean, grow a new batch of clones.  Nearly three weeks of work down the drain.

Already, she was figuring out how to solve the problem.  She’d have to stagger it, introduce memories in phases, starting with earliest and working her way forward.  Maybe it would be easier, organized.  She could consider each member of the Nine in turn and decide if they had been treated well as babies, if their home and school lives were comfortable… that would be a yes for someone like Mannequin, less so for Ned, for Crawler.

She typed on the computer for a minute.  Special disposal procedures for Crawler.  The rest could be boiled to death.

She watched until the bubbles started to rise.  One or two woke.  It didn’t matter.

She returned to her makeshift bedroom.  There hadn’t been a mattress, so she’d made a hammock instead.

Blasto lay on the floor.  His voice was barely audible.  He couldn’t stand, and his attempts at trying to dance were scraping his arms against the floor.

Bug… hug.  I, J, K, L.”

“Forgot to turn the music off,” she said.  She found the smartphone and switched off the music.  “Have a bit of an errand.  Sleep for now, I’ll patch you up when I get back.”

Her hair dyed black, a bit of makeup and clothes made the same way she’d made her mattress, creating a lifeform that could spin and ink fabric.

A touch roughspun, but it would do.

She found the remote and hit the button.  There was a quiet whoosh, and she was on the other side.

Back in Earth Bet.

Her heart was pounding.  If Jack found out about this, he’d be furious.  The risk, the idea that someone would be checking this one spot for a signal, or using a parahuman ability to search for her here

But, she thought, she needed supplies she couldn’t make on her own.  Resources, information, materials.

She entered a small grocery store.

“Good morning,” the man at the counter said.  Thirty-two or thirty-three, to judge by his appearance.  His hair was too long in the back, just starting to recede in the front, his stare intense, but he wasn’t unattractive otherwise.

“Good morning,” she responded, upbeat.  Don’t talk to me.  It would be messy if I had to kill you.  She corrected herself.  I’ll fix your hair and then I’d kill you.

“We don’t get many new people here.  Kind of out of the way.”  He smiled.

“Driving through,” she said.  “My mom is shopping down the street.”

“Dollar store or the boutique?”

“Boutique.”

“Don’t blame you for not wanting to go,” he said.  “Let me know if you need help finding something.”

She made her way through the store.  Lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt, a box of Frooty Toots, some milk, pancake mix.  Nutrient slop was great when she needed to work without cooking, but it was still slop.

Glancing up, she could see the man at the counter looking at her in the mirror that had been positioned to give him a view of the aisle.

She wondered momentarily if he’d recognized her.  No, the reaction would be different.

A distrust of outsiders?  No, he seemed too at ease for that.

Something else, then.

She felt more at ease, realizing what it had to be.

She deposited the things on the counter, then paid.  He bagged it and she waved goodbye as she left, offering him a winning smile.

She’d need to stop by a library, there were a few things she needed to look up.  There wasn’t enough information on Harbinger, for one thing.  King’s background was another blank.  People Jack didn’t talk about much, even if he talked about them fondly.

He’d be so pleased, she could imagine, if she hit the right notes with them and got their basic personalities right.

Then she could buy clothes and sheets. If there was a good hardware store, she could imagine some tools that would serve.  Her scalpels were getting dull.

This little bumhole of a town didn’t have much, and she’d seen maybe one car on the road since she had arrived, but still, she looked both ways before crossing the street.

A pale, dark-haired woman stepped out of the bank, wearing a black suit.

Her attitude, her demeanor, casual.  Nothing combative in the slightest.

Bonesaw still felt a twang of alarm.  The timing with which she’d appeared, the way the clothes didn’t fit the area…

Better to guess and be wrong.  “Are you picking a fight with me?”

“No,” the woman replied.  “No I’m not, Bonesaw.”

Gosh darn ding darn… golly.  Jack was going to be maaaaad if he found out about this.

“Because if you kill me, it doesn’t change anything.”

“You worked a biological key into the transporter device.  Unless you are alive, calm and holding the device, it won’t work.  It will only transport you.  We can’t use it to get inside, and killing you wouldn’t stop the stasis period from ending.”

“Yeah.  That’s why.”

“I understand.  But I wasn’t sent here to assassinate you.  We could.  We could even reach Jack, I think, now that we know where to make an entrance.  Still, that’s a dangerous prospect, putting powerful parahumans in the same space as a man who’s been prophesied to end the world.”

“I’m not a pushover, you know,” Bonesaw said.  She stabbed a finger in the woman’s direction.

It would be so easy to fire a poison needle into her throat.

“I only want to talk.  I’ll ask a favor, then leave you alone,” the woman said.

“You don’t know how the Slaughterhouse Nine work, do you?  We don’t do favors.”

“You’ll do this one.  The Slaughterhouse Nine you’re mass producing, you’re going to install a control switch.  You’ll give that switch to me.  Not soon, but later.  Later than you think.”

Bonesaw laughed, high and shrill.  Then she laughed some more.

The woman only waited patiently.

“Silly!  You couldn’t be more wrong,” Bonesaw said.  “Betray Jack?  Betray the others?”

“You will.”

Bonesaw laughed again, not for quite so long.  Through the giggles, she said, “If you’re going to try to mind control me, I can tell you you’ve got another thing coming.  I’ve got safeguards.  You’ll only activate my berserker mode.”

“No mind control.  There’s a great deal at work here, and this is the best way to go about it, even with the blind spot looming.”

“That’s the best argument you can give me?”

“No.  I can tell you two things.”

Bonesaw raised her eyebrows, smiling.  “Two things?”

“Breadth and Depth.”

“I don’t get it.  Those are the things?”

“No.  There’s another.  Each of these things is a sentence, an idea.  The second sentence is simple.  Say goodbye.”

Bonesaw bristled.  Mechanical traps, spring-loaded needles and venom venting systems readied throughout her body.  She let the bags drop to the ground.

The woman didn’t attack.  Instead, she turned to leave.

An empty threat?

She debated firing her hollow needles at the woman’s back.  But if she missed, she’d be largely unarmed.  She’d have to get even closer to use a venom spray, or poison spit, or her telescoping humerus with flesh dissolving acid capsules beneath her fingernails.

The woman entered the bank, and Bonesaw hurried across the street to follow.

But her quarry was gone.

January 20th, 2005

Riley panted for breath.  Her body wasn’t listening, now.

She reached her mommy’s room, then collapsed on the floor, head turned towards the foot of the bed.

The carpet was stained with blood.  On it, just beside the bed, her mother lay face down, head turned to one side just like Riley’s was.  She was covered in stitches.  There wasn’t a place where Riley could have reached out and placed a hand down flat without touching one of the marks.

An entire row had been cut open, the stitches severed, from temple, down the side of her throat, along the side of her body to her pelvis.

Too much blood loss.  Her mind leaped into action, reaching for knowledge she hadn’t had earlier in the night, knowledge of how to fix people.  She took in details, grasped everything from the amount of blood her mommy had to heart rate and the amount of air she was breathing, just from the clues in how fast the blood flowed and the color of the skin.  She knew the order she’d have to fix things.  Ideas fired through her mind, telling her how to close the wounds, to draw the blood out of the carpet and clean it, or even making something that would do the same thing blood did, out of water and some junk from the kitchen, all with the exact right amount of electricity, to fill the veins and carry a low amount of air throughout the body, staving off the shut down of her brain long enough for Riley to figure out something else.

But she was too tired.

“Hurry,” Mister Jack’s voice was almost gentle.  “You have time.  You can fix her, can’t you?”

She could.  Maybe she even had the strength to do it, to get downstairs and climb up onto the kitchen counter to get the things she needed out of the cabinets, and get back up here.  She could cut the lamp cord and use the frayed end with… with a lot of salt, to get the right frequency.

But she was too tired.  The moment she was done saving her mommy, she’d have to run to the bathroom and save daddy.  Then she’d have to run downstairs and save Drew.  After that she’d save Muffles, and hurry back to mommy.  In each room, one or two scary people waited for her.  Waited and watched while she worked, then undid her work or came up with worse things to do.

She knew because she’d been doing this for hours.

“Come on,” Mister Jack whispered.  “You can do it.  Don’t you love your mommy?”

She stared across the room at her mommy.  They were lying with their heads pointed in different direction, so her mommy’s face was upside down, almost covered with as many stitches as skin.

She’d done a bad job, she knew.  She couldn’t even cut a straight line with the scissors in school, how was she supposed to do this?

Mommy mouthed some words, but the stitches pulled her lips in funny directions.

She thought maybe she knew what mommy was saying.

“No,” she told Mister Jack.

“No?”

“I don’t love her,” she answered.  She blinked, slow, so she wouldn’t have to look her mommy in the eyes, and tears were squeezed out.

“Alrighty,” Mister Jack said.  “Say goodbye, then.”

Say goodbye.

“Goodbye, mommy,” Riley said, obediently.

Silent, her mom mouthed a reply.

It took a long time.

A long, long time, watching the blood volume tick down, seeing how the breathing rate changed, and the heartbeat slowed.  Knowing how the brain would be affected, knowing what the organs were doing, and the order they were shutting down.

At some point, it ceased to be mommy, became something else.  A moment when her mommy became only a dying thing, a machine of flesh and blood that was winding down.

It was easier.

Didn’t make her chest hurt as much.

Lips that had been fixed up with imperfect stitches mouthed one final sentence.

“There we go,” Mister Jack whispered.  “…There.  That’s it.”

For a little while longer, the three of them rested on the floor of the room.  Mister Jack, Riley, and her mommy.

Others appeared in the doorway, casting the room in shadow.

“She done?”

“She’s done,” Mister Jack said, standing.  He stretched.  “As for what we do with her, we-”

He broke off as the clown in the hallway laughed, an eerie, offbeat sound that seemed to be missing something most laughs had.  It seemed to take Jack a moment to gather why the clown had laughed.

When he looked down, Riley was looking up at him, smiling.  It was a forced expression.

“What’s this?” Jack asked.  He smiled back.  “Something funny?”

“No.  I just… I wanted to smile.”

“Well,” he said.  “Me too.  Let’s smile together.”

She looked momentarily uncertain, but kept the strained smile in place.

“Yes.  Come with us.  We’ll keep you safe.”

She didn’t want to.  She wanted nothing less.

But she had nowhere else to go.

“Yes please,” she said.  “That… that sounds nice.”

Her mother’s final words rang through Riley’s head, the last words she’d before she had become a machine that had stopped working.

Be a good girl.

She’d be good.  She’d be polite and cheerful and she’d do her chores and she would mind her manners and she’d eat all of her dinner and she’d keep her hair nice and she wouldn’t swear and…

November 15th, 2011

She woke from a nightmare that was becoming all too familiar.  Usually it was only a few times a week, fragments.  Now it was more distinct, more cohesive.

She didn’t like it.

As was her habit, she reached across the bed, holding her companion close.

Not enough.  Not warm enough, not responsive, not caring.

He wasn’t family.

She pushed her covers away, annoyed.

Blasto lay there, unmoving.

“Up,” she said.

The hardware worked throughout his body bid him to move.

She stared at him, unfamiliar feelings warring inside her.  The dream was fresh in her mind and she couldn’t banish it, just like she hadn’t been able to banish it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.

It was just a little harder every day.

She felt a flare of anger, but pasted a smile on her face instead.  Think happy.

Be good, she thought, and the thought was too close to an idea in her dream.  It had the opposite effect, dashed her resolve to the wind.

She was left only with a mingled sense of unease and frustration.

No mind control?  My fanny!  The darn woman in the suit had put a mind-whammy on her!

It made her upset, which was a terrible way to start the day.  Most days, she could cuddle with whoever was sleeping beside her.  Blasto wasn’t so good at that.

It didn’t help that Blasto had died a week ago.  A stroke, no doubt from stress, in the midst of a refrain of the Love Bugs theme song.  The only thing that let him move now were the control mechanisms she’d set up.

Not so good for snuggling.

Most days, if snuggling didn’t quite cut it, Jack would keep her busy, give her something to do, and entertain her.  Always, his voice in her ear, always ushering her forwards, praising her for being a good girl, for her art, for her talent.  Others were interested.  Her family.

Now she was alone.

She left the closet that was her bedroom, with Blasto standing beside the fleshy mattress, and she approached the cases.

The third draft, still in a foetal state, nine of each.  She had a good feeling about it.  There were a few more brains to create, more personalities to research and draw up, but she felt fairly confident about her ability to piece it all together.

The only rub was the Bonesaws.  A whole row, empty.

They didn’t need as long to gestate, but she had yet to begin figuring out how to create them.

She could have scanned her own brain and copied over the results, but the setup was awkward to manage, best done with a sleeping subject.  She could have set Blasto up to manage it, but… that was tricky in its own way.

She wasn’t used to feeling a lack of confidence.  The thing about art was that one could create anything, could incorporate mistakes.  But art needed an audience and she had none here.

She’d set herself the task of having everything ready for when Jack and the others woke up, and now she felt she was unraveling, coming apart in the quiet and the solitude.

She stared at the seeds of the Bonesaws that hadn’t grown and wondered if she really could look long enough to see the real her, to fabricate anything like herself.  Her test runs with the others had all worked.  They were close enough to feel familiar, even if little details were off.  Their personalities, their approaches, all would be close enough.  Here and there, she’d fixed things, corrected the most detrimental personality traits that had been turned against them and allowed them to be captured or killed.

Sighing, she turned away.  She took the time to dress in the clothes she’d bought, and then used the remote to teleport to Earth Bet.

“Our regular is back,” the man at the counter said.  “You get out a lot, with that home schooling.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She folded her hands on the edge of the counter and rested her chin on them.  “Your haircut looks good, Eli.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He looked genuinely embarrassed.  She smiled a little at that.

“See any good movies lately?” she asked.

“You like horror movies right?”

“Mm hmm.”

“The Darkness.  You’d like it, it comes from a good pedigree.  It’s about a mafia-“

A woman entered the store, and Eli jumped as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I- can I put up a sign in the window?” the woman asked.

“I’d have to see it first,” Eli responded.  “Might have to ask my dad.  He owns the store, even if I run it.  If there’s any question, it’d be his call.  He gets back this Monday.”

The woman’s face was grave as she handed over the paper.

Eli took the time to read it.  “I think everyone in town knows about this, Mrs. Hemston.”

“Can I put it up anyways?  If someone passes through and sees it-“

Eli shifted, uncomfortable.  “I don’t see any reason you couldn’t.  My dad wouldn’t say no.”

Without responding, Mrs. Hemston set about taping it to a spot at eye level on the back of the glass door.

She glanced at Bonesaw.  “You shouldn’t be out without a guardian.  Go home.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bonesaw replied, smiling.

And then the woman was gone.

Bonesaw opened the door and held it open so she could see the sign.  A missing person sign, with a picture of a girl.  She let the door swing closed.

Eli hesitated.  “Riley, I was thinking, if you wanted to come over and watch that movie…”

“No.”

“No?  Why?”

“You know why,” she said.  She walked down the aisle to grab some snacks.  Gummy candies, more Frooty Toots, some more milk.

“I wouldn’t, you know I-“

“You’d be a gentleman, I’m sure,” she replied.  The funny thing was, she was sure.  She knew her monsters.

He struggled to recover.  “I… you’re talking about the home schooling.  Strict parents?”

It was feeble.  She knew it was feeble.

“Exactly,” she responded, setting the stuff on the counter.  “Sorry.”

“Eight ninety-five,” was all he said.

He was hurt.  He’d recover.  She collected her things, gave him a small wave, and then made her way back.  She glanced at the woman who was making her way into the next store.

She stepped out of sight, then used the remote to exit back to the pocket realm.

She felt a growing sense of unease as she set the milk in the fridge and put the Frooty Toots on the counter with the candy.  Not an unease with what had happened with Eli.  That would resolve itself.  She’d see him in two or three days, and it would be awkward.  Then she’d see him after that, and things would be okay again.

No.  That wasn’t what was resting heavily on her heart.

She called for Blasto and then entered one of the other closets.

Melanie, the girl’s name was.

A week and a half ago, it had been so commonsense.  A solution to her problems.  The girl had been right there.  So easy to approach.  A tranquilizer shot to the neck, calculated on the fly to fit with body weight and overall health.  Recalibrating the teleporting remote with the unconscious girl in the back lot had been a little riskier, but it was a quiet town.

Bonesaw had found herself busy enough that the girl could be left here, an IV in her neck, catheter and poop tube inserted.  Now that she had free time, she could handle the Winter issue.

She needed a child soldier.  This was a way to make one.  To insert the wartime memories from Cranial’s database into the girl, let it steep, then harvest the results.  The rest could be tweaked, rebalanced, fixed.

And there, again, that unease.

She couldn’t think of her mother’s face, only stitches.  Her father she hadn’t even seen.  His face was a vague idea in her head, a few isolated features with nothing to bind them together.

Yet when she tried to visualize herself going ahead with it, it was Eli’s face that intruded.  Disappointed, confused.

Eli and Mrs. Hemston both, now.

The girl was meat.  A tool, a collection of resources to be taken apart and put together in a different configuration, a machine.  Any number of things, but not a person.

But the people from the periphery of the girl’s life… they were harder to compartmentalize.  Distant.  They weren’t at arm’s reach to use as resources.

An emotional factor.

Darn it, she thought.  She’d stopped talking to herself, after she’d gotten in the habit and weirded Eli out.

She turned her attention to the computer, crossing the room.  Need a distraction.

Except it backfired.  She thought of the woman in the suit, and the statement.  Breadth and depth.

As things tended to do, a connection drew across her mind’s eye.  All of the problems at hand, the challenges, dealing with the clones, figuring out how to program them.

The first batch had failed because they were too young, and the connection with the passenger had become too broad, consuming too much of their personality, leaving room for little growth as a human being.  Things were missing, other things bloated or exaggerated as the passenger needed.

Jack had a different kind of connection.  A deep connection.  He was in alignment with the particular nature of his passenger.  The passengers naturally sought conflict, and Jack had fed that need from very early on, and he had sustained it for years.  The line between the two was so thin as to be impossible to mark, but Jack’s personality remained his own.  Altered, but not subsumed.

And Bonesaw… well, she was talented.  There was little doubt her passenger fed her a great amount of detail.

But what kind of connection was it?

Darn mind whammies!  Darn it, drat, gosh, golly fuck!

She stared down at her hands, splayed and resting on either side of the keyboard.

What kind of connection was it?

Young age?  Check.  That had meant breadth for the others.

Fed by conflict?  Check.  Depth, if the single data point that was Jack was any indication.

How much of me is me?

She stared at the backs of her hands.

What difference does it make?  It wasn’t a rhetorical question.  There was a difference, it did matter in the grand scheme of things.  She just wasn’t sure what that difference was, how it mattered.

She hadn’t had to make many of her own decisions before.  Or, it was better to say, she hadn’t had to make important ones.  There was a security in being with Jack, because it meant she didn’t have to face this sort of thing.  One comment, and the question was decided.

She turned to look at Melanie.  The girl was her age.

Odd to think about.

The girl had seen her face.  She couldn’t trust her ability to erase memories, not without test subjects, which was a new set of risks, a new set of problems.  It would only compound the problem she was trying to solve.

She wasn’t used to thinking like this, considering ways to minimize chaos.

Couldn’t trust that she’d scrub the right memory.  It wasn’t her tinker tech.

Couldn’t trust that she could overwrite the memories either.  Inserting memories, yes, but the brain was a funny thing.  Again, it wasn’t her tinker tech.

Going ahead would be safest.

She thought of Eli.  A friend.  Not family, like the Nine had become, but a friend.

She thought of the effect of the passenger on her personality.  Was the art hers or did it belong to it?  Her sense of family among the other Nine, again, who did it belong to?

She bit a thumbnail, cut deep into the material with the special cutting materials she’d laced her incisors with, and then tore the end off in one swift motion.  The quick of her nail started bleeding.

The pain gave her clarity.

Maybe the family thing was the passenger’s.  Maybe the art was too.

But Eli?  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t normal.  But if the passenger had never made contact, and she’d still lived a life a little like the one she lived now, she could see herself being Eli’s friend.

That in mind, she made her decision.

November 12th, 2012

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

A lot of time alone.  A lot of time to think.

Every decision now was made on a fulcrum.  Was she acting as Riley or as Bonesaw?

This… it wasn’t a hard decision.  In a way, she’d imagined she’d always make it.  But it, like every other call, had to be carefully measured.

First menstruation, check.

Might as well get it over with.  She made notes on the computer.

Auto-hysterectomy.

Auto-masectomy.

Limb shortening.

Bone shaving.

Plastic surgery.

Bonesaw would approve.  Maybe it would be better to be taller, to have more room for equipment.  Still, she could reverse the procedure.  It wouldn’t be her parts, but that wasn’t such a problem.

But for Riley, this was essential.  It was a matter of months before Jack woke.  She needed time to recover.  The clones were in a good state.  Only the Bonesaw vats were empty.  Each of the others had an adolescent or nearly-adult clone inside.  A month or two before the others woke from cryo-stasis, she’d start doing the surgeries, adding the augments, combining a handful of them together.

She laid out everything on the table next to her.  Scalpels, blood bags, IV drips, screwdrivers, wire, staple, cauterizing gun, hammer, stapler… a mix and match.

She hefted the bonesaw and frowned a little.  The word had taken on a different meaning for her, in recent months.  It had stopped being her name somewhere along the line, had become her passenger’s.

Anesthetic?  No.  She needed optimal awareness of her own body.  Anything that dulled her senses would spoil that.

She had the ability to switch off pain at will.  She wouldn’t use it.

No.  She wouldn’t say she felt guilty about the things she’d done, but she recognized that she was broken, now.  She recognized that maybe she should.

A part of her wished she could reach inside and find that carefree perspective, the innocence she’d enjoyed.  Another part of her was glad.  Everything about herself was modifiable, reversible, pliable.  Pieces in the machine.  But this?  She wasn’t sure she could alter it, nor that she wanted to.

This wouldn’t be a penance.  That would suggest penitence.  But it’d be just, as best as she could figure.

She started cutting.

January 24th, 2013

“The sign’s down,” she commented.

“Riley!”  Eli looked startled.  He glanced back at his dad, who was stocking shelves.  “It’s been… a really long time.  I was worried I said something.”

“No.  Went to live with my dad,” she said.  The lie was smooth, effortless.  She didn’t even feel bad.

“You’re back?”

“Stopping by, like the first time you saw me.”

He nodded, still a little stunned.  “Uh… they found the girl dead in the woods.  Some dogs had chewed her up pretty badly.”

“Oh,” she responded.  She’d practiced the look of concern in the mirror.  Even now, she didn’t really feel guilt, but nothing was reliable, like it once had been.  “I stopped in to say goodbye, Eli.”

“Goodbye?”  He seemed more surprised than disappointed.

Maybe he already said goodbye to me, she thought.  She didn’t feel hurt.  Growing up with the Slaughterhouse Nine had numbed her in many respects.  It made sense, little more.

“I wanted to give you a gift,” she said.  “As thanks for the movie advice, and the conversation over the past while.  You helped me, gave me a friend when I needed one.”

He frowned.  “After your parent’s divorce, you mean.”

“Yes.”  Another easy lie.

“I get that,” he said.  He looked at the card.  “Can I open it?”

“No.  There’s a date on it.  Wait, then read it on the date in question.  Break that rule and I’ll be mad, understand?”

“I understand,” he responded.  He looked down at the envelope.  “My birthday.”

“Yeah.  And I don’t think you do understand,” she said, “But that’s okay.  Just don’t break the rule, and don’t lose the letter.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Um.  I would’ve gotten you something, but… oh.”

He rummaged in his bag, then handed her a video tape.

“I… I rented it, but I’ll pay the fee to replace it.  One of my favorites from the last year.”

A horror movie.  A child werewolf?

A child monster.

She glanced at him, but there was nothing in his expression.  She’d become exceptionally good at reading people, and… no.  He had no idea how ironic the gift was.

“Thank you,” she said, holding it to her stomach.  “It’s probably okay if we just say hi and bye like usual, isn’t it?  Fits?”

“You look different,” he blurted out the words, a non-sequitur.

She’d hoped the winter clothes would hide any of the reversions she’d made.

“You look good,” he added.

“Be fucking good, Eli,” she retorted, staring at him.

Before, he might have protested, feigned confusion.  He’d changed, much as she had.

Now, he only nodded a little.  “I will.”

May 25th, 2013

She sat with her feet propped up on the table, a bowl of Frooty Toots on her stomach, as the alarm went off.

She felt a momentary sadness.  She tapped her pinky with her thumb twice, and the embedded magnets noted the signal.  She’d recorded her own brain activity and movements when contemplating the Bonesaw clones, and it was this that she drew on, manipulating her own body much as she had manipulated Blasto’s.

Her body language wasn’t her own.  Her smile, the way she walked, the gestures, all were fine tuned to match the Bonesaw of before.

Her height, too, had changed.  She’d cut her hair to match, had downgraded her body so the last year and a half of development had never happened.

It was the burning of a bridge, in a way.  It would retard her growth in the future, and that would arouse suspicion.

In a way, she couldn’t carry on her relationship with the Nine.  There would be too many tells, no time to herself to make changes in secret.

The individual cases opened, and slowly but surely, the members of the current Slaughterhouse Nine stepped out.  Jack, Hookwolf, Skinslip, Night Hag.

She could see the conscious effort on Jack’s part to maintain his composure.  He was barely able to stand.

His eyes fixed on her.

Somehow, she knew.  She knew he knew.  But that was no surprise.

All she really needed was reasonable doubt.  He would harbor suspicions, and he would pull something on her.  Later.

In the meantime, she’d have options.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

“And you’re nude,” she said, covering her eyes.  “Where are your manners?”

Like riding a bike.  Back to her old self.  Playing the role.

“I’ll remedy that in an instant.  Cereal?”

“Made it myself.  Took me a whole three hours to get it right.  Felt like keeping busy.”

“And the milk?”

“Made it myself,” she responded.  She grinned, and the device took over, gave it that width, that guilelessness she couldn’t manage on her own.

“I won’t ask.  My clothes?”

She pointed him in the direction of the closet where she’d placed all of the roughspun uniforms, alongside the clothes Jack and the others had removed before stepping into the cryostasis chambers.

He took a step, then stumbled.

“I’m… not as coordinated as I should be,” he said.

“Seems there’s trouble with the recovery phase,” Riley said.  “Be a month or two before you’re on your feet.”

“We have a schedule.”

“I know.  But I can’t fix this.  Not my stuff.”

He stared at her, brushed ice-crusted hair away from his face.

But she wasn’t lying.  There was no falsehood to pick out.

“You could have woken us sooner.”

“Nope, nope,” she said.  “Would’ve mucked up the scheduling.”

Still, that penetrating stare.  This was the make or break moment.

“Well,” Jack said, smiling, “Unavoidable.  We’ll have to make it extra special.”

“Triple special,” she answered.  “Things have been interesting while we’ve been gone.”

“Interesting?”

“I’ll show you later.”

“And the clones?”

“I was waiting for you to wake up before we greeted them.”

“Good,” Jack said.  “Excellent.”

She smiled wide as he turned, covering his bare rear end on his way to the closet, even as she felt coldness in her heart.

Hookwolf, for his part, only drew blades around his body, forming into a giant metal form.  She wondered if he looked a little introspective, before his head was covered in the mass of shifting, skirring hooks and needles.

She chewed on her cereal, and watched more of her movie.

She did like it, after all.  Eli had been right.

She smiled, hiding the sense of loss as she deleted it from the system and cleaned up the evidence.

One by one, the recently unfrozen members of the Nine rejoined them, dressed in their outfits and costumes.

Jack gestured, and she hit the key on the keyboard.  Lights.

Spotlights went on beneath each of the glass chambers.

Drain.

The fluids poured out, draining into the openings in the floor.  Blurry figures became more distinct, marred only by the residual droplets clinging to the interior of each chamber.

“You didn’t do yours,” Jack commented.

“Didn’t work out.”

“I see,” he said.

Every line of dialogue felt like a nail in the coffin.

But that coffin wasn’t a concern today, or even tomorrow.

For now, Jack needed her.  For now, she had options.

She smiled, wide, with a glee she didn’t feel.

The woman in the suit had options.  She would come to Riley and claim the remote.

Countless enemies would be mustering their forces, ready to deal with this.

Eli had the letter.  He’d find a plane ticket inside, along with an urging to leave and stay gone.  To drive the point home, she’d revealed her identity.

Yet Riley still felt a moment’s doubt.

Some rose from their knees.  Others had managed to remain standing from the moments the fluid left the chambers.  As they roused, powers flickered into action.

Siberians flickered into being near the Mantons.  Six like the daughter, three more like Manton himself, all in black and white.

Chuckles, tall, fat, with arms that zig-zagged, her own addition.  Thirty-one elbows, and arms that dragged behind them as they moved.  Here and there, one of them would twitch, a tic.  The clown makeup was a series of scars, tattooed on.  One activated his speedster abilities experimentally, crossing the room in a flash.

Nostalgic, in a way.  Chuckles had been around when she’d joined.

Murder Rat.  Not stapled together as the original had been.  She’d taken the time to do it well.  When membership had been down, Bonesaw had made Murder Rat as a created addition to the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She’d passed the tests, but degradation in mental and physical faculties over time had seen to her demotion.

Winter, white-haired, with white irises edged in black, nude, her eyes peering.  Madeline’s eyes, Riley thought.  Winter would need guns, of course.

Crimson, Winter’s brief-lived lover.  Riley had taken the time to program their relationship into them.  Crimson had been one of the first members in the group, Winter one of the more recent ones to die.  Winter had been followed by Hatchet Face -there he was, over there, nine of them- and Hatchet Face had been followed by Cherish.

Nine Cherishes, gathering in a huddle.  She’d forgotten to give them the tattoos.  It didn’t matter.  A glance suggested they were discussing different ways to do their hair.

The smile on her own face was so wide it hurt, but it wasn’t her smile.

King, tall and blond, unabashed in his nudity.  All nine Kings were broad-shouldered, each half a foot taller than Jack.

Their interaction would be an interesting one.  She’d wondered if she should program King with the knowledge that Jack had been the one to kill him, reconsidered.

Oh, and there were others.  Some were harder to recognize.  Nine Alan Grammes, who lacked his armor.  Nine Neds, narrow shouldered and only five and a half feet tall.  When the others had done some damage and given him a chance to regenerate, he’d resemble his true self a little better.  He’d be Crawler.

“And the last one?”  Jack pointed at the remaining chamber.

She hit a button, and for a moment, her expression slipped.  She closed her eyes, a brief moment too long, as nutrient soup drained out of the chamber and the glass lowered.

But nobody was looking at her.

The boy stepped out, and there was no sign of any difficulty.  He didn’t struggle as others had, nor have trouble finding his feet.  He was prepubescent, to look at him, older than ten but younger than fourteen.  His hair was neatly parted, and he wore a private school uniform, complete with glossy black shoes.  Dry.

Even though he was naked in the tube.

Then again, that was sort of his thing.  One of them, anyways.

Visually, the most notable part of him was the effect that surrounded him.  He was monochrome, all grays and whites and blacks, with spots of light and shadow flickering around him.  Here and there, he flickered, a double image momentarily overlapping him, ghostly, looking in a different direction.

As far as parahuman powers went, his was as unfair as they got.

“Jack,” Gray Boy said.  His voice was high, clear as a bell.

“Nicholas.”

Jack extended a hand and Nicholas shook it.

Riley felt her stomach sink.

It would be like Gray Boy to use his power and take out someone in the room, just because he could.  Jack had only wanted one, and the unspoken reality was that he only wanted one because he could only control one.

If he wasn’t going after Jack, then… she was the only other person in the room without clones surrounding her.

He approached her, his expression placid.

For a brief moment, she felt stark fear.

It was perhaps her salvation that the fear was buried under the expressions that her system pasted on her face.  The false smile that spread across her face was the push she needed to hop down from her seat, approaching him.  She leaned in close to kiss him on the cheeks, her hands on his shoulders, one leg cocking upward like she’d seen women in older films doing.

“Little brother,” she murmured.

“Bonesaw,” he said, voicing a name she hadn’t programmed into him.  His hand found hers, and he held it.  She felt a chill.  “We’ll be inseparable, I think.”

“Inseparable,” she answered, smiling falsely.

The others from rows further down in the chamber slowly approached.  She watched Jack taking it all in.  Two hundred and seventy-five in all.  Two hundred and seventy regulars, five special makes.  Snowmann, Nighty Night, Laughjob, Tyrant, Spawner.

The names had never been a strength of hers.

I’ve given you everything you want, she thought.  Now we see who comes out ahead.  Succeed, and Bonesaw comes to the fore.  Fail, and Riley wins.

She wanted Riley to win, but that wasn’t as simple as making a decision.  She had to bury her life with the Nine.  Bury Jack, and see him defeated.

Gray Boy squeezed her hand.  She would have jumped, if her body language wasn’t in the system’s control.  She looked at him, and he winked.

Her expression hadn’t wavered, she hadn’t allowed herself the slightest tell, but somehow he fell in the same category as Jack.

He knew.

Staring out at the gathered crowd, Jack seemed to reach a conclusion.  He glanced at her, as Gray Boy was doing.

“Good,” he said.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.9

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Your powers are working alright?” Tattletale asked.

I nodded.

“Bug powers, was it?  Don’t want to get it wrong.  Control them, see through their eyes-”

“No.  I can’t see through their eyes or hear what they do.  It’s mainly touch.”

“Just wanted to check.”  She paused.  “If I asked you what my power was?”

I shook my head.

“Okay.  And if I said I was born in Mexico, could you tell me where I was born?”

“Didn’t you just say?”

“Yeah.  Repeat it back to me?”

“You were born in Mexico?”

“Your short-term recollection is still good, at least.  That would be why you can retain the information Grue and I have shared over the past few minutes.  That big beetle of yours, you named it?”

I glanced at Atlas, who was crawling a short distance away.  “Atlas.”

Tattletale nodded.  “That would be the short-term memory, again. Your power probably gives you enough contact with it that you don’t lose track of who and what it is.”

“Right.”

“So long as that keeps working, we don’t need to worry about you and Grue forgetting who we are in the middle of a conversation.  But for us, we might lose track of each other if we split up, so let’s stay close, okay?”

“Okay.”

She reached out and took my hand.

“Can you use the bugs to scout our surroundings?  This will go more smoothly if we don’t need to worry about running into people.”

It made sense.  I sent my bugs out to cover the surrounding area.

The red mist was everywhere.  Color was strained out, leaving everything a monochrome red.  I could still make out the surroundings, but just enough light was filtered out that the area had settled into an oppressive gloom, with many existing shadows made nearly opaque as a result.  The drifting movements of the mist and the subtle shifts in color and shadow made me feel like things were prowling in every corner and in the edges of my field of vision.

That deep, primal prey-animal part of my psyche kept telling me something was wrong, that I was in danger.  I tried to tell myself that it was just my fear working itself up, my brain playing tricks on me.  There was nothing out there.

The weight of the gun in my hand was both a reassurance and a burden.  It would be so easy to do something I would regret for the rest of my life.

“Hate this,” I muttered.

“Me too,” Grue answered.  He put his hand on my shoulder to offer some reassurance.  “But we manage, we cope because we’re a team.  We belong together.”

My awareness snagged on someone who was walking a distance behind us, measuring their pace with ours.

“We may need to stand together as a team sooner than later,” I said. “We’re being followed.”

“By who?” Tattletale asked.  She paused, then laughed.  “Silly question, I guess.”

“Tie them up?”  she suggested.

“Right.”

My bugs gathered in out of the way spots, and the spiders began drawing out lines of silk in preparation.  I didn’t want to inform this person that I was on to their tail.

Then, just in case they decided to drop the tail and attack us, I began to gather bugs together into decoys.  Human-shaped lumps and clusters of bugs gathered in alleys and at the edges of rooftops.  Still more gathered in the street, standing in alcoves and in other hiding spots.  I invested less bugs in the ones that were further away from our pursuer, trusting that the shadows the miasma cast would help round them out.  There were no decoys our pursuer would see from where they stood, but there were now enough to give them pause.

Grue drifted away from our group to approach one of the decoys.  He extended one hand and traced his fingers through the massed bugs.  “You’re versatile.”

I felt a little uncomfortable at the compliment.  “We should keep moving.”

“You’re not tying them up?”

I shook my head.  A miscommunication on that front.  Hadn’t I recently been thinking about chemistry and intuitively understanding how your teammates operated?  The miasma might be throwing us off in that department.  “Sorry.  Need to prep for it first, I’ll make my move in a minute.  For now, we should act normal.”

“Fine.”  He dropped his hand to his side and rejoined us.  We kept walking.  I had to admire them, the way they were confident enough to avoid looking over their shoulders.  I had my bugs to track our pursuer with, and I was still feeling nervous having them behind me.

“Is paranoia a side effect of this mist?”

Tattletale nodded.  “Could be.  As the symptoms progress, you could have fits of anger, paranoia, hallucinations…”

I swallowed.

“Or it could progress in another direction.  A broader agnosia, with the inability to recognize anything, not just people.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She nodded.

“I’m going to bind her now.  If it doesn’t work, or if she has a way of breaking free, we should run, with the decoys for cover.”

Tattletale just smiled.

The bugs swarmed our pursuer.  I’d minimized the number of bugs on them, just to be safe, with the drawback that I wasn’t getting a full picture of who they were.  The bugs couldn’t get to her flesh to sting or bite her, but they were telling me she was female in general shape.

I had them deploy the silk they had prepared.  I focused my efforts on her arms and legs.  It took only a couple of seconds to get the threads in place.

She tripped as the silk went taut mid-stride.  Raising one hand to try to catch herself, she found silk threads hampering those movements as well.  To avoid landing face first, she twisted herself in mid-air so she hit the ground with her shoulder instead.

“Got her,” I said.  “Let’s keep going.  We can lose her.”

“We should investigate,” Grue said.  “Make sure she isn’t a threat, and deal with her if she is.”

“With this miasma affecting us, there’s no way to be sure of exactly of just who we’re dealing with,” I pointed out.

“We have Tattletale.  She can tell us if this person’s a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Tattletale’s not-”

I stopped.  Where had that come from?

“What?”  Grue tilted his head as he looked over his shoulder at me.

“I was going to say she’s not always right, but I’ve still got that black hole in my memory of her, so I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”

Grue rubbed his chin.  “Something to keep in mind, but I still think we should check this person out.”

“I agree,” Tattletale said, a slight smile on her face.  She tugged on my hand.  “Come on!”

We had to stick together.  I reluctantly followed, knowing that separating from the group could mean losing them altogether.

We stopped a few hundred feet away from the woman.  The silk strands had formed a cord around her arms and legs, and the work of the spiders had tightened the binding as she allowed it to slack.  She hadn’t made it back to her feet after falling to the ground.

Grue drew a knife.

“Hey,” I said.  I grabbed his arm.  “What are you doing?”

“She’s obviously a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Tattletale said.

“Fill me in?  Because I must have missed something.  Doesn’t seem that clear to me.”

“Think about it.  Why is she wearing a mask like that, if not to filter out the miasma?  She knew about it in advance.”

“Maybe,” I said.  I could make out something like a gas mask or filter, now that Tattletale had pointed it out.  “Maybe there’s another explanation.  It could have something to do with her power?”

“It doesn’t,” Tattletale said.

Thinking about killing someone was one thing.  I’d always assumed I might have to do it out of necessity to save a teammate… I’d even come close to doing it when attacking the Nine, not long ago.  Couldn’t recall who it had been, but I’d gone all out, used potentially lethal stings and bites.

That had been at a distance.  Now we were looking at killing someone face to face.

The mask, there was another reason for it.  The-

Tattletale interrupted my thoughts.  “If you guys aren’t going to do it, I can.  She was following us, she was prepared for the miasma, and I’m positive she’s a bad guy.  My power, you know.”

“We can’t be certain,” I said.

“With my power, I’m five hundred percent sure.  Trust me,” she said, grinning.  She started toward the heroine.

“No,” I said.

“Skitter’s right,” Grue said.  “She could be playing possum.  Best to avoid being reckless.  Keep our distance and finish her.”

“That’s not what I meant.  Let’s just leave,” I said.  “I’ll make that phone call to, um-”

“Coil,” Tattletale supplied.

I nodded.  “We’ll get the information we need, get ourselves cured, or track down the Nine.”

“Cherish could lie,” Grue said.

It took me a second to place Cherish’s name.  Names were slipping from my mind too easily.  “Maybe.  We’ll use our own judgement to corroborate her facts.”

Tattletale scowled, “Have you forgotten how aggressively we’ve been going after the Slaughterhouse Nine?  The attacks, the harassment, capturing Cherish and Shatterbird.  And now you want to leave one of them there?  We don’t have to get close to her to take her out.  You have the gun.”

I stared down at the weapon in my hand.

“Trust me,” she said.

“No.”

Both Tattletale and Grue turned to look at me.

“No?”  Grue asked.  “We’re a team, Skitter.  We’re supposed to trust one another when the chips are down, have each other’s backs.”

I didn’t like the implications of that.  Like I was failing them.

But I shook my head.  “No.”

“Explain?” he asked.  He looked calm, but I could see the irritation in his posture.  Was the mist getting to him?

“The miasma… if it makes us paranoid, it could be coloring our perceptions here.  Even Tattletale’s.”

“I would know if it was,” she said.  She seemed impatient.

“Maybe.  But I’m not certain enough about that to take another life.”

“You nearly took Siberian’s,” she retorted.

“Yeah.  Sure.  But that was different.”

“I don’t see how.”

I stared at the bound woman who was prone on the ground, half-covered in my bugs.  She was looking in my direction.

“It bugs me.  This is too easy.  If the Nine were this easy to take out, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Sounds like a pretty thin justification for backing out,” Grue said.

“Yeah,” Tattletale added.

This kind of social pressure wasn’t the sort of thing I was good at coping with.  Just going by my recollection of how we’d planned many of our capers, I could usually trust some of the others to have my back when I was arguing a point.  Or I’d had some other motive or reason to go along with them.

“Why are you pushing so hard for this?”  I asked.

“Did you forget what they did to me?”  Grue asked, his voice cold.

Him specifically?  I had forgotten, yes.  But I could remember that scene, the emotions then, every feeling that I’d experienced afterward.  Frustration, hate, pain, sympathy for the pain he must have experienced himself.  I could remember the feeling of heartbreak, because someone I cared about was gone, in a sense.

“No,” I replied.

“Where’s your anger, your outrage?  Or don’t you care?”

“I care!  It’s-”

“Then end this.”

I shook my head, as if I could clear it.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly, necessarily.  It was that my thoughts kept hitting that dead-end where I couldn’t reach back for context about people, about Tattletale and Grue and the Nine.  I was in the dark.

What I did know was that I’d done too many things I regretted.  I wasn’t about to add something as serious as murder to the list.

Grue must have seen something in my posture, because he shook his head and turned away.  “Give me the gun, then.”

“Just use your power,” Tattletale told him.

“I want Skitter to acknowledge that she doesn’t care enough about this team or about me to do what’s necessary.  She can do that by admitting she doesn’t have the courage to shoot and allow me to do it.”

“That’s not what this is about,” I said.  “Murder is serious.  You don’t kill without being absolutely certain it’s right.  And nothing’s certain for as long as we’re under the influence of this miasma.”

He scoffed.  “And you call yourself a supervillain?”

“I call myself Skitter.  If someone wants to stick me with some other label, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.”

“You’re not giving me the gun?”

“No.”

He shrugged, “So you don’t care at all, about what happened to me.  You don’t care about this team.  And you’ll even look down on us while you do it.  Your contemptible friends.”

“I care.  More than you know.  But you told me, not long ago, that I should follow my heart, trust my gut.  Fine.  That’s what I’m doing.  You attack her, I’ll fight to save her.”

He barked out a laugh, “You’ll fight me?  You’re a traitor now?”

The word hit home.  I must have flinched.

“A traitor again,” he added.

I snapped my head up to look at him in surprise.

“I wonder what it says that the notion of you being a traitor is so ingrained in my impression of you that it jumps to mind, even with the mist affecting me?”

“That’s enough,” I said.

“I know you like me.  I can read it on your face, I could see the way your eyes widened when you heard my name.  You’re an open book in some ways.  And I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

I felt a nervous feeling deep in my gut.  It wasn’t pleasant, at stark odds to what he was saying.

Grue’s words spoke to that feeling of trepidation.  “But this?  It’s telling me I could never have a relationship with you, never be close to you, because I’ll always wonder if you’ll stab me in the back or fuck me over, fail to do what’s necessary in a situation like this.  I’ll never be able to shake that image of you as a traitor.”

He kept saying that word, traitor, hammering it in.

“Unless I take this gun and shoot that woman, who you’re convinced is a member of the Nine,” I guessed what he was getting at.

“Guess I had the wrong impression of you,” he said.  The emotion in his tone was so different that it caught me off guard.  Almost contemplative.  If I thought of it as him emotionally closing down, it almost fit with the impression I associated with Grue.  At the same time, it didn’t quite jibe with what I was seeing.  Again, I felt that distinct discomfort.

Is this how I lose my mind?

I shrugged.  “I guess you did.”

I carefully holstered the gun, as if hiding it could keep it from coming up again in conversation.

A long pause reigned.

“I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing I can do about that,” he said.  Then he smiled.  He turned and began walking away.  “Let’s go.”

“Just like that?”  I asked.

“We’re leaving her?”  Tattletale asked.

“Seems we have to.  Tattletale, can you use your power to make sure the lady from the Nine doesn’t pose a danger?”

Tattletale nodded, smiling.

“Then let’s hurry.  We wasted too much time here.”

“Let me know when she’s not in your range anymore,” Tattletale said to me.  “I’ll try to use my power to make sure she isn’t following us.”

I nodded.

She hugged my arm, “You’re stubborn, but we’re still friends, right?”

I nodded again.  I felt like I was back in school, in a situation where I couldn’t say anything without saying the wrong thing.  Strange, to recall being around the bullies rather than in the company of my team.

The argument weighed on me, as did the things Grue had said, the judgements.  Had I been wrong?  Were we risking letting one of the Nine get away, to murder others?  Was I arguing because I was still clinging to old ideals, or because the miasma was making me divisive?

Even if the miasma was to blame, I hated the idea of failing the others yet again.

This situation was fucking with my head.  I still felt like I was in the middle of a fight, that heart pounding mode where I was ready for bullets or laser blasts to start flying, for me or a friend to be in mortal danger, where a split second response meant the difference between life or death.

Except there was no danger here.  The only people nearby were the woman we were leaving behind, Grue and Tattletale.

I glanced at Tattletale as we ran.  Could I trust them?  They had been in the miasma for a little longer than I had, and I was already experiencing what I could only label as paranoia.  With only a difference of minutes, Legend had been thrust into a paranoid state where he was taking a reckless, offensive course of action, eliminating everyone from the battlefield, regardless of whether they might be friend or enemy.  How much was it affecting these two?  How would it influence their actions?

More to the point, what was my best course of action here?  If I worked on the assumption that I could trust them, would they drag me into a situation that was just as bad as what we’d gone through with the bound woman?  Or if I didn’t trust them, if I allowed myself to become suspicious and take countermeasures, would that be a slippery slope that led to me trying to kill them, in fear for my own life?

We’d come close to fighting just now.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Tattletale said.

“Leave her be,” Grue told her, his voice low.

What was I supposed to do?  I didn’t trust myself to handle this alone, not with the speed at which this general unease was building up.  But I wasn’t sure I trusted them either.  Something about the argument, it felt off.  Wrong.

“She’s out of my range,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“I’ll keep an eye out!”  She grinned.

Traitor.  I could almost hear the accusation.

I’d lied.  The woman was still in my range.

“Is there service?”  Grue asked.  I must have looked confused, because he clarified by saying, “The phone.”

I pulled my phone out of the space between my breasts and the armor at my front and checked the display.

“Yeah,” I said.  Why does that bug me?

“Call Coil,” Tattletale reminded me.  “We need to know where Cherish is.”

I found him in the contact list and made the call.

“Speaker phone?” Grue suggested.

I nodded, selected the option and hit the button.

As the first ring sounded out, my swarm sense alerted me to the bound woman breaking free of the silk strands, as if it was effortless.  Had she been playing possum after all, hoping we would get close?

I looked at Tattletale, trying to see if had any inkling that this supposed member of the Nine was free.

Nothing.  Tattletale turned to me and grinned.

“No trouble incoming?”  I asked, as the phone rang again.

She shook her head.  “All good.”

Was her power not working as well as she’d thought?  I couldn’t even recollect what it was, but she’d said she would keep an eye out… and there was something alarming occurring this very moment.

“Skitter,” Coil answered the phone.  “I’ve been made aware that Bonesaw has deployed the ace she had up her sleeve.”

“Yeah.  Agnostia… Agnosia-inducing mist.  Permanent, according to Tattletale.”

“I see.”  I could hear the sounds of typing on a keyboard.  “Agnosia… Panacea can’t reverse the effects?”

“She’s not here.  We’re trying to find her.”

“And you need Cherish for that, I suppose.”

I was grateful that he was supplying the names, because it meant I didn’t have to bog down the conversation by remembering or asking.  Grue, Tattletale and I had brought them up recently enough that it wasn’t a huge leap to remember their names.

The woman who I’d tied up with the spider silk was walking towards us.  Her progress was hampered by the decoys.  I kept my mouth shut.  It wasn’t an imminent problem, and I was more interested in gauging just how far gone Tattletale’s power was.

“Except that with the agnosia, we can’t remember where she is and go meet her.”

“Meeting Cherish would be a grave error,” Coil spoke.

“Just put us in contact with her, then?”

“Tattletale informed me of your code.  You remember how it’s put together?”

“Yeah.  My memory’s fine, it’s just my ability to identify people and remember stuff about them that’s fucked up.”

Tattletale glared at me.  Right.  She didn’t like swearing.

“Then, using a name we’re both familiar with, D-gangrene.”

“I can’t remember names.  I don’t think I can use the code.”

“Troubling.  You must understand my predicament.  For all I know, you’re a third party using Skitter’s voice to make the request.  With shapeshifters, empaths and other methods of coercion, I have to be very careful about the dissemination of information.”

“I know.”

The woman was still approaching.  Tattletale and Grue weren’t talking.

Something was wrong.

“What if we kept you on the line?”  I suggested.

“That will suffice.”

There was a pause, then the sound of background noise.  A ring sounded, different from the one before.  It was interrupted as Cherish picked up.

“I have never been so sorry to miss out,” Cherish said.  She sounded a bit hoarse.

“We’re requesting your help,” Coil spoke.

“Oh, you need my help in more ways than you’re aware of.  Not that I’m going to provide it.  Skitter’s on the line, I believe?”

“She is.”

“I’m here,” I confirmed.

“And Tattletale and Grue, of course.”  She chuckled.  “How amusing.  Seems like I’m in high demand.”

“They’re looking for Panacea,” Coil said.  “Identifying her for us would be one way to achieve revenge on the Slaughterhouse Nine for turning on you.”

“Revenge?  Not my interest in the slightest.  I’ve learned my lesson and I’ve become the poster child for team loyalty.”

Coil paused, then said, “I’m prepared to offer you some enticements.  I imagine your current quarters can’t be too comfortable.”

“Don’t suppose these enticements will be hand delivered?”

“They will be provided by remote control, as your food has been.”

“Some headphones and music would be nice,” she said.  “The sound of the waves banging on the hull is driving me crazy.”

“Such could be arranged.”

“Nah, I’m totally fucking with you.  Music, as if.”

There were too many things that seemed off.  Cherish’s tone among them.  I glanced around.  The woman was still following us, throwing herself after decoys, verifying they were false, then retracing her steps.  She was slowly closing in.  I positioned Atlas so he would be ready to distract her if it came down to it.

“You’re stalling?”  Coil asked.  “I don’t see the point.”

“Just trying to see if I can provoke a reaction from you.  There’s only so many times I can read the labels of the shipping containers before I lose my mind.  Have to amuse myself somehow.”

“What will it take for you to tell us where Panacea is?”  Coil asked.

“Oh, I’m feeling generous, and I want to see what happens.  I’ll tell you that as a freebie.  They’re at Arcadia.  Somewhere in the top floor.”

A freebie.  Something was going on, and I wasn’t aware what.  I had to piece it together, but I had so little information.

“And maybe I could offer you something, in exchange for some goodwill.  Maybe you’ll even want to let me go free, no obligations.”

The feeling of dread that had been following me wasn’t getting worse as the woman approached.  It was staying steady, like someone had a gun pointed at me, and they’d had it aimed my way for some time now.

“I’m listening,” Coil said, “But if this is frivolous or another waste of our time-”

“Nah.  Critically important.  I’ll trust that you’ll take it for what it’s worth and repay me in kind.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s simple.  Going by what I’ve been able to observe around the city, there seems to be a major concern.  Si Jack effugit civitatem, mundus terminabitur.”

“I’m not versed in Latin,”  Coil spoke, sounding annoyed.

“For shame, Coil, for shame,” Cherish said.  Her voice was too cheerful. “You can’t sell the cultured supervillain image without the ability to make quips in an ancient language.  I had the benefit of my power, languages are easier to learn when you can get a sense of what the other person’s feeling.”

“That was something about Jack?”  I asked,  “Repeat that in English?”

“Doesn’t matter anymore,” she replied.  “The message was delivered.  I’ll leave you to think about it.”

If only I could have blamed the miasma for my idiocy.  Everything clicked into place.

I kept my voice level, “I don’t think you’ll get much goodwill if we don’t understand what the fuck you’re talking about.  Coil?  We’re moving out now.”

“Report back when you’ve found the healer,” Coil told me.

I hung up before Cherish could speak, then I glanced at the others.  “Let’s go?  Arcadia high?”

They nodded.

My heart pounded with such force that my vision wavered.  I turned to head toward Arcadia high, joined by the two members of the Nine.  Stay calm, don’t let on that you know.

If I could direct the woman to us…

The miasma’s effects had almost made me lose track of her.  She was fighting, grappling with mechanical spiders.  She went from fighting like an ordinary individual to moving at high speeds and throwing crushing punches, then back again.  I couldn’t think of how to help her, and she was obviously unable to help me.

Cherish had been engaging in double-speak, saying one thing to us, while addressing the two people with me the entire time.  She’d told them about where she was being held captive, and she’d offered the most valuable information she had to avoid getting tortured to death after they’d freed her.  From the way she’d talked about the message being received, one of the people with me had to be Jack.

Jack was slated to bring about the end of the world if he left Brockton Bay, and now he knew.

Couldn’t meet their eyes, didn’t want to speak, in case I let on that I knew.  I could barely breathe, I was so afraid of letting my emotions show.

My gun was in the compartment at my back.  I’d put it away at the conclusion of our argument, and with the compartment broken in my fall from Atlas’s back, I’d been forced to put it in a place where it wasn’t easy to draw.  I couldn’t be sure I would be able to draw it and fire.  I was still handicapped, unaware of their powers.  I was fighting blind.

If Jack or the girl killed Amy, just about everyone in the city would die violently from the miasma’s effects.  But I couldn’t stop them without letting on that I knew.  Fighting them put me at a clear disadvantage, and-

“Skitter,” Jack spoke.

I didn’t waste time turning to face him.  I gripped the hair of the blonde girl beside me and virtually hauled her off her feet as I dragged her around to a position between Jack and myself.  Jack was already swinging his knife.

The knife cut the girl more than it cut me.  I could feel it raking across the exterior of my costume, failing to penetrate, but he was swinging it underhand, and it caught me in the chin, slicing through the side of my cheek and up to my temple.

I tried to keep a hold on the girl for the sake of using her as a human shield, but I saw her reach into her dress and withdraw some vials.  I shoved her toward Jack, then stepped forward to kick her square between the shoulder blades.  She collided with him, interrupting his follow-up swing.  For good measure, I drew the bugs from beneath my costume and sent them chasing after her.  Some capsaicin-laced bugs, just the few I had remaining.

Jack caught her shoulders and spun her around so she faced me.  The vials were already billowing with a chemical reaction.  She threw them at me.

I backed away, and they hit the ground between our two groups, black smoke joining the crimson mist around us.

“You’ve outlived your usefulness, Skitter,” Jack spoke.

If I’d just had a minute or two more to decide on a course of action.

“It was fun.  I almost wish I’d nominated you for the Nine.  You’re versatile, and there’s so many weak points I could have exploited if I’d had more time.  If Cherish’s information on you wasn’t so misleading, I think I could have made you shoot the heroine.  To corrupt you like that, it would have been amusing.”

I fumbled for the gun, using my bugs to get a sense for where it was.  In the same motion that I pointed it, Jack slapped it out of my hand with two slashes of his knife.  He was a dozen feet away, but the knife nonetheless connected with my weapon.

My bugs began to gather like a dark cloud, their mass casting a shadow on the already gloomy surroundings.

“So I end the world?  Interesting.”

“The source is a little unreliable,” I lied.

“Still, I would love to see how that comes about.”

“You won’t live to,” I told him.

“I’ll make sure he does,” the girl informed me.

My swarm could feel others approach from the heroine’s direction.  They were the size of dogs, and they skipped forward on mechanical legs.  The mechanical spiders.  Dozens of them, coming straight for me.

If I was judging right, they were running faster than I could.

I sent the swarm after Jack and the girl, massed into thousands of bugs.  Some groups clustered so tight together that they looked like massive, amorphous black entities, amoebas floating through a cityscape painted in shades of red and black.  Atlas heard my call and headed my way from the place I’d positioned him, too far away to join the fight for a minute or two.

The girl was already mixing something else together.  Plumes of white smoke billowed around her, almost luminescent after so long spent in the crimson mist.  My bugs died on contact with the gas.

Everything I’d learned about my enemies had been blocked.  I had no information on them, no sense of what to expect.  They weren’t so handicapped.

She tipped half the vial’s contents into an empty container and handed it to Jack.  Both protected from my power, they started backing away.

I moved to edge around the cloud of black smoke, but Jack struck me with the knife.  I had to use my forearms to cover my unprotected face.  I just had my glasses, some bugs, and a layer of cloth protecting it.  Nothing that would guard against Jack’s cuts.

When I’d lowered my arms, they had already turned a corner, running in the general direction of Arcadia high.  Running around the cloud of black smoke cost me a precious minute.  I made my way around the same corner they’d rounded, and stopped short as I came face to face with another black cloud.

Couldn’t match their speed, not with these noxious clouds slowing me down.  With the heroine lying unconscious in the street, several blocks in the wrong direction, I had no allies to turn to.  Worse, anyone I came across was as likely as not to be a threat. It was down to Atlas and me, and Atlas was especially vulnerable to both of my opponents.  I couldn’t even fly after them without risking being cut down in midair.

I had minimal information on my opponents, while they knew enough about me to completely counter my powers.  Topping it all off, the mechanical spiders were steadily, inexorably closing in on me.  I’d lost my last fight with the things, and there were dozens more this time around.  Couldn’t fly without exposing myself to Jack’s power, couldn’t stay on the ground without getting swarmed.

I swallowed hard and held out one hand to grab Atlas’s horn as he landed.  In a moment, we were in the air, giving chase.

I wasn’t thinking about winning anymore.  I was thinking in terms of minimizing the damage when we lost.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The noise of the microwave beeping jarred me from the first restful sleep I’d had in some time.  I moved my head, and my pillow moved in response.

“Tried to tell them to stay quiet,” Brian said, his voice low, “They’re not the most considerate pair in the world.”

“Muh?” I mumbled something, and even I wasn’t sure what I’d intended to say.  I’d been deep in the throes of some dream that felt strangely familiar, and I’d been pulled out of it quickly enough that I felt momentarily disoriented.  I wiped at my mouth where I’d drooled a little, and was suddenly aware that Brian was there.  I felt my face heat up as I realized I’d been leaning -and drooling- on his arm.  Alec and Aisha were unmasked and rifling through the ‘kitchen’ to find something to eat.

Brian and I both spoke at the same time, with me mumbling something to the effect of, “Sorry, I must have fallen-” before shutting my mouth.

He waited, giving me a chance to talk as he wiped at the damp spot on his arm, then finally broke the awkward silence with,  “I’m glad one of us slept.”

“You didn’t?”

“Not a wink.”

He did look tired.  Not just like someone who had spent the night sitting upright, but like someone who had just finished a swim from one edge of the bay to the other.

“I hope I didn’t keep you awake by leaning on you.  Don’t even know when I nodded off.”

“It wasn’t you, and I didn’t mind.  It was…” he searched for the word.  “Okay.”

‘Okay’.  How was I supposed to interpret that?  Or did he intend for it to be vague and noncommittal?

I shouldn’t even have been worrying about that.  I blamed the fact that I was just waking up.  Brian was in a bad state.  Was there something I was supposed to say?  Something I should do?  Every gesture that normally demonstrated caring or sympathy or whatever else was a tender point for him.  A touch on the arm was an invasion of his personal space, which he was keenly aware of at this point.  Asking how he was doing was a reminder that he wasn’t ok.  Would offering to help him out or giving him support make him feel more powerless, like he’d felt when Bonesaw had gone to work on him?

No.  That last one was probably okay.  “You want anything?  Breakfast?  Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.”

I nodded, stood and rolled my shoulders.  Outside of the fact that none of the sleep I’d picked up over the previous night had been in a bed, I felt recharged.  Scrapes and bruises I’d only been dimly aware of were gone, as were the more obvious, attention-grabbing injuries.  That, in turn, made me think of the circumstances that had led to my good night’s sleep and healing job.  It was bittersweet.  Like a young child that was being forced to stand in a corner, feeling as low as she ever had, her stomach full with the entire birthday cake she’d just devoured.

Okay.  Still a little out of it.

I joined Aisha and Alec in the kitchen.  “Morning.”

“Sup,” Aisha said, curt.  She’d found some frosted cereal and was pouring herself a bowl.  She gave me a sidelong glance that wasn’t so flattering.

“How is the man?”  Alec asked.

“Stressed, anxious, not sleeping.  Can’t blame him.”

“And you’re using all that to get closer to him?”  Aisha asked.

I blinked.  “No.”

“Looked awfully cozy,” she replied.

I glanced back in Brian’s direction.  He was standing at the window at the other side of the building, peering outside, his back to us.

“I drifted off.  An accident.  Trust me when I say I feel bad enough about doing anything to make him feel less than a hundred percent comfortable when he needed rest.”

“Bet you a thousand bucks he didn’t mind,” Alec said.  Aisha gave him a dirty look.

“He’s nice enough that he wouldn’t want to disturb me, even feeling like he does right now.  He must have gone out of his way to stay still.”  I didn’t look at either of them as I filled the kettle the rest of the way and put it on the stove.

“Sure,” Alec drawled.  In a more normal voice, he said, “But what I’m saying is he wouldn’t mind.  Now, it’s been a little while, but there was a time when I had someone in my bed every night.”

“When you were with Heartbreaker,” I said.  From the look of disgust on Aisha’s face, and what I imagined was a similar expression on my own, I suspected we were on the same page.  At least on this one thing.

“Sure.  Cape groupies, my dad’s girls, people I used my powers on toward the end.”

There wasn’t even a trace of guilt or shame on his expression, no regret in his tone.  He just looked bored.

He went on, “What I’m saying is that I’m speaking from experience.  Having someone cuddled up beside you, even if it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass, having that body contact isn’t so bad.  Especially when you’ve had a bad day.”

Was that Alec trying to be supportive?  I glanced at Aisha, and she gave me something of a dirty look.

I was awkward, screwed up and feeling guilty on a lot of levels, from Brian to Dinah to the people in my territory that I hadn’t seen to.  Brian was traumatized, and that was layered on what he’d described to me as an unfamiliarity with social situations and emotions.  Alec was fucked up in a way I couldn’t even label.  Aisha wanted to protect her brother but didn’t know how, lashing out at me instead.  Damaged people.

Much of the water in the kettle had been heated, already, and it didn’t take long to boil as we got our individual breakfasts together.  I took it off the stove and began preparing Brian’s coffee and my tea.  After a moment’s consideration, I began preparing bacon and eggs, and rummaging around for toast, bagels or english muffins.  I’d use whatever I found first.

Tattletale, Bitch and three of the dogs came in through the front door.  I didn’t miss how Brian turned to face the door, tendrils of darkness creeping through the gaps between his fingers and crawling up his arm.  It took him a second to relax.  Tattletale threw me a package.  I opened it and found a pair of glasses.  I slid them on.

Leaving the food cooking on the stove, I brought Brian his coffee.  Maybe some normalcy would help.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morn,” Lisa replied.  “We were out making sure there wasn’t trouble.  Very, very quiet, after the last couple of days.”

Rachel glanced at me but didn’t say a word.

“Want food?”  I offered.  “I’ve got some stuff on the stove.  There’s some bacon if you want to give some to the dogs, Rachel.”

“It’s bad for them.  And I don’t give my dogs human food.”

“Right.  Thought they might want a treat, sorry.”

“But I’ll have some,” she said.

“Cool.”

I returned to the stove and started preparing breakfasts.  I served Brian first, then prepared some toast and bacon for Bitch and some scrambled egg for Lisa.  It was almost a relief, having something concrete to do, a way to help, when I didn’t know how to act around Brian.

By the time I had Bitch and Lisa served, the Travelers had been roused by the smell of breakfast.  I offered them some breakfast, and Ballistic took over at the stove to cook for his team.

We arranged ourselves on the ground floor, Alec and Aisha sitting on the stairs, Lisa and I sitting on the couch, and Brian in the corner by the window, looking distracted.  Bitch seated herself on the floor, her back to the wall, her dogs at her side.

While we waited for the Travelers to get settled, I asked, “I’ve been meaning to ask.  What is Bastard?”

“You mean what breed is he?” Aisha asked.

“No,” I said.  I left it at that.

“He’s a wolf.”  Bitch scratched the skin at his shoulders, digging deep.

“No shit?” Alec said.

“Where do you even find a wolf?” I asked.

Bitch didn’t venture an answer, so Lisa spoke, “She didn’t find him.  He was a gift.  And since it didn’t come from Coil, that means-”

“Siberian,” Bitch finished.

“That’s crazy,” I said.  How long has it been since we had a chance to talk and touch base like this?  “She’s crazy powerful.  Majorly scary.  And she just, what?  Handed you the wolf cub and told you that she’s picking you to be a member of her team… how?”

“She told me with words.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Brian spoke up.

“She told me,” Bitch repeated.  “She showed up, I tried to fight her, didn’t work.  She explained, she left.  Left the cub at my place.”

I saw Lisa glancing between Bitch and me with a curious look on her face.  When I raised an eyebrow at her, she shook her head a little and then turned to Bitch, “That’s potentially a problem.  What’s to say Bonesaw or Mannequin didn’t put some sort of tracking device in him?”

“They didn’t,” Bitch said.

“How can you be sure?”

“He smelled like the forest when I got him.”

“It would have taken them seconds to stick it in him.  It would mean there was a way to find you.  Find us.”

“No.  Doesn’t make sense, what she was talking about.  Being free.  Accepting that we’re animals.”

“I wonder about that,” Lisa said, pulling her feet up so she was sitting cross-legged on the sofa.  “Maybe she was playing you?”

“Is she really that smart?” Alec asked.  “Jack is smart.  Bonesaw, Mannequin, sure, to varying degrees.  But Siberian?”

“My instinct?” Lisa shrugged.  “She’s an actor.  Playing up the feral angle, hiding a deeper strategy.  She might even be playing a long con on her team.  Or maybe her intentions are pure but she’s keeping them in the dark about the key stuff.”

“Like?” Trickster asked, as he found a seat on the arm of the chair Sundancer was sitting in.

Lisa said, “Brian’s new powers.  He was copying powers from the people who were in the darkness, yeah?”

Brian nodded.

“He got the ability to grant healing from Othala.  Regeneration from Crawler.  But who was the shadowy figure he used to pulverize Burnscar?”

“You’re thinking Siberian,” I said.

Lisa nodded.  “Sure.  What if she’s like Genesis?  Or Crusader?  What if Siberian has a very real, vulnerable human body somewhere nearby, always has, and the body she’s using is a projection?  Maybe it’s something even Jack doesn’t know.”

That gave us pause.  An in.  A way to stop the unstoppable beast-woman.

“No,” Bitch clenched her fist, and I could see her dogs responding to her body language, tensing.  “Don’t buy it.”

“Why not?”  Lisa asked, her voice gentle.

“What she said made too much sense.  She said things and she understood.  I’m fucked up.  I know I’m fucked up.  Not good at dealing with people.  But I could deal with her.  I understood her.”

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t lie, Rachel,” Lisa said.  “It only means she understood you well enough to know how to deceive you.”

“No.  It’s not-”  Bitch stood abruptly, and Bastard yipped.

“Rachel,” Lisa tried, but Bitch turned away.

“There’s one way we could try to find out,” I said.

Bitch turned at me and glared.  There was a viciousness in the look that I couldn’t blame entirely on her grudge against me or the current conversation.  Just like Brian, there was a minefield there.  I couldn’t hope to guess at what would press her buttons.

“You’d want to know, right?” I asked.  “You wouldn’t want to give her the benefit of a doubt if she was playing you.”

“You assholes are saying I’m gullible.”  If Bitch had hackles, they’d be standing on end.  Her fists were clenched at her side, her feet planted apart, as if she’d be ready to start swinging, whistling for her dogs to attack, at any moment.

“Hey,” I raised my voice.  “Answer the question!  Would you want to know?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Then we get in touch with Cherish.  We get an answer from her.  She’d know.”

“I’ll get in touch with Coil, then,” Lisa said.  She got up and headed into the room where she and Aisha had been sleeping.

I focused on my breakfast, hurrying to finish it before it got cold.  I’d been distracted by the conversation, and cold toast was depressing.

When I looked up from my plate, glancing at the others to double-check that they were okay, that I wasn’t missing anything, I saw Bitch staring at me.

“You want more food?”  I offered.

“You mean what you said?”

About the food?  “I don’t follow.”

“Last night.  You mean what you said?”

“You’ll have to remind me.”

“You said something about doing the same thing for the rest of us for what you did for Brian.”  She broke eye contact, looking down at Bastard.

My fight with Brian.  “You heard that.”

“Mm,” she grunted.

I glanced at the others.  Trickster was talking with his two teammates, Genesis still elsewhere, and Alec and Aisha were talking.  Alec was apparently demonstrating his power, making Aisha’s fingers twitch.  Brian looked on with a glower on his face, but I got the impression his attention was divided between that dialogue and my own discussion with Bitch.

“Yeah,” I told Bitch.  “We’ve been over this.  I really don’t know how to make it clearer.  If it came down to it, I’d risk my life to save yours.”

Why?”

“I- I don’t know if I can really say.  You’re my friend.  We’ve been through a hell of a lot of crap together.  We back each other up because we have to.”

“You think I’d back you up?”  The question was a challenge, brusque, barely-but-not-quite-anger.

“Don’t know.  Does it matter?”  I glanced at Brian.  He was paying attention to what I was saying.  I felt momentarily self-conscious, struggled to find words that wouldn’t provoke a negative response from one of them.  I settled for a middle ground as I thought aloud.  “Life’s not fair.  It’s not even, not balanced, not right.  Why should relationships between people be any different?  There’s always going to be an imbalance in power.  The other person might have a higher social standing, they might have money, or more social graces.  Isn’t it better to stop stressing about quid pro quo and just do what you want or what you can?”

“Words,” Bitch dismissed me.

“Words, sure.  I’ll make it simple, then.  I consider you a friend, I’ll help you when stuff goes down.  And you… do whatever you think is right.  Do what you want to do.  I won’t stress about it, and unless you fuck with me like you did when we fought Dragon, I’m not going to hold it against you.”

She set her jaw, clearly irritated at the reminder.  Whatever.  I’d needed to make my point.

If she had been intending to give me a response, I didn’t hear it.  Lisa ventured back into the room, and all eyes turned to her.  She held her hand over the lower half of the phone.

“For those of you who haven’t been in contact with Coil, we ended up locking Cherish in an overturned boat’s hold in the Boat Graveyard.  She’s there now, with food and water, totally isolated, several layers of confinement, including but not limited to chains.  She wants to strike a deal, in exchange for details on Siberian and the Nine.”

“Letting her go?  No,” Brian said.

“Not what she wants.  She just wants a chance to talk to us,” Lisa looked at each of us in turn.  “Two minutes to address us, and then she dishes out the dirt, gives us the location on the Nine, the details on Siberian and answers any other questions.”

“Nothing saying she’ll tell the truth,” Alec said.

“And she’s in a position to say stuff that could create doubt or tension in our ranks,” Trickster pointed out.

“True,” Lisa conceded.  “But here’s the thing.  I’m getting the vibe she wants us to turn her down, so we’ll figure out the real scoop later and regret it.”

“What, you mean something like Siberian being here?  ‘Don’t you wish you’d asked me to tell you where she was, because she’s standing fifteen feet away from you’?” Alec asked.  “Yeah, that sounds like my sister.”

“How sure are you?” Brian asked Lisa.

“That there’s more to it?  Seventy five percent, to ballpark it.”

“Bad idea,” Brian said.  I found myself nodding in agreement.

Lisa raised the phone to her ear.  “Nope.  Don’t suppose we can change your mind?”

There was a pause before Lisa hung up.  “Eighty-five percent sure there’s more to this story than she’s letting on.  She was all too okay with saying goodbye for someone chained up in a hot metal prison cell.  That, or she thinks we’re going to call back.”

Sundancer spoke up, “Can’t we?  What are we really risking, here?  I mean, what’s at stake?  The worst case scenario, if we let her talk?”

“Can’t say, can we?” Lisa said.  She tossed the phone in the air and then caught it.  “Say one of us has something to hide that Cherish could reveal to the others.  Nobody’s about to admit it.”

There were glances all around.

“But I think I have an idea.”  Lisa smiled.  It was her old smile.  The scar was there, but it no longer pulled her mouth into a perpetual half-frown.  “Brian, got any books here?  Or magazines?”

“Upstairs.  Aisha, go grab something.  Any book on the floor of my room.”

“Why-”  She hesitated when she met his eyes.  “Whatever.”

It was a minute before Aisha ventured back downstairs with a novel.  It looked like a suspense thriller.

“Here’s the deal.  Everyone closes their eyes.  We close our eyes while the others take their turns tearing a page out of the book.  The higher the page number, the worse our inner thoughts and secrets.  The last page, Uh, three hundred and fifty-five, we’ll say, is the worst of the worst.  Unforgiveable to the point that someone here would kill you and the rest would be okay with it.”

She rifled through the pages of the book, “Anything below one hundred and fifty, it’s tolerable.  Stuff we’d be ashamed for others to know, but we’d be okay with them knowing for the greater good.  We each stuff it in between the couch cushions, until we’ve got a crumpled mess and none of us know who tore out which page.  If we’re more or less safe, if the numbers aren’t too high and we think we can stand to have Cherish dish out the dirt on the others, we’ll take her up on the deal.”

Nobody disagreed with the plan, but I supposed that doing so would look bad.  I closed my eyes as we went around the room, until Lisa tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the book.

Where did I stand?  What secrets was I keeping, and how highly did I value them?

I had my deal with Coil, with the real possibility that I might wind up his adversary.  Lisa knew that, as did Brian, but the others didn’t.  I suspected that Aisha could be convinced to roll with it when Brian did, so long as we didn’t push too hard.  Alec and Bitch would go with the majority.  The Travelers?  They had other stakes in this.  That was more dangerous.

One-sixty.  I tore it out and stuck it in the couch, sat down and handed the book to Lisa.

It took another minute for the rest to decide.

“So, in order… twenty-six, one-twenty-two, one-forty, one-forty-one, one-fifty-five, one-sixty, one-seventy-five, two hundred twenty-two, and three-twenty-five.”

Three-twenty-five?

“That’s a no, then?” Brian asked.

“Something like that,” Lisa replied.  She picked up the phone and dialed.

“What are you doing?”  Trickster asked.  “You said we wouldn’t go ahead if we didn’t all agree.”

“You’re right.  But I’m going to try to haggle with her,” Lisa replied.  “Hello?  Yeah, you already know the answer.  No-go.  Uh-huh.  Sure.  What if I asked for the Travelers to leave?  You could address the rest of us.  You and I both know you’re doing this to sate your boredom than for any grander purpose.”

There was a pause.

“Good.”  Lisa put her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Does that really work?”  Trickster asked.  “What if we wanted to keep stuff from you?  She could tell you while we’re out of the room.”

Do you want to keep anything particular from us?”

He shook his head.  “But how do you know your teammates didn’t pick the high numbers?”

“I don’t,” Lisa flipped through the pages.  “But just going by what I know about our groups, I think our team is going to be more concerned about what outsiders think.  You guys are going to be more concerned about what your teammates think.  Am I wrong?”

Nobody spoke.

“We could do another blind vote,” she suggested, “In case anyone wants to say they’re not cool with these new terms.”

“Speaking as the person who took two-twenty-two, I really don’t care all that much,” Alec said.  “I picked a higher number because I thought it would bother those guys.  I figure my team knows enough.”

“Exactly as I said before,” Lisa said.  “Anyone else have any major objections?”

I shook my head.  I could deal with the team knowing about my plan.  If things went south, they’d find out anyways.

The Travelers made their exit, Shatterbird came inside to stand guard by the door, and the rest of us settled down.  Lisa dialed and put her cell on speaker phone.  It rang twice before Cherish answered.

“Finally,” her voice came through the line.

“Your two minutes start now,” Lisa spoke.

“I should get four, since I’m dealing with only one group.”

“One minute, fifty-five seconds,” Lisa replied.

“Where should I start?  Hey, little brother.  Want me to tell them the sort of things you really did when you were back home?”

“It’s sort of tedious,” Alec replied.

“I wonder.  Rape culture is a funny thing.  People gloss over some pretty shitty, creepy, wrong behavior, little brother, when they know the person in question.  But you raise the reality of what they’re doing, and it’s a whole lot harder to shrug it off.”

Rape.  It was a loaded word, but Cherish was right.  She was a horrible person, to be sure, but she was right.  Did I really want to face what Regent had done, before we knew him?  Rape.  Murder.  He’d said, this very morning, that he’d done what he did because he’d been young, but that was just an excuse.  The deeds were still done, the consequences very real.

“You’re really one to talk, Cherie.  You’ve done what I’ve done, many times over.”

“I’m not pretending anything.  I am what I am, I don’t put on a facade,” Cherish retorted.

“That’s a blatant lie.  If you showed your true nature to the world at large, your face would be too ugly to look at.”

Ouch,” Cherish layered on the sarcasm.  “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do.  You’re delaying me, so I have less time to work with.  Why don’t I get started?  Let’s talk about your first kill?  Gang member, a kid.  You used him to kill his boss.  His older brother, in fact.  Because daddy wanted you to.  Then dad ordered you to kill him.  But you didn’t make it fast, did you?  You made him stab himself with a fork, over and over, and over…”

“Keeping in mind that I was hanging out with you and the dirty old man and our brothers and sisters.  Nature and nurture, I was kind of fucked on both fronts.  It was a matter of self-preservation to keep you guys entertained, and that was the sort of thing you liked.  Sorrylike, present tense.”

“Maybe, maybe.  And the drugs?  When daddy had you practicing your powers, you ‘hijacked’ a few people at a time, used their bodies to get high with no consequences for you, you threw orgies for yourself…”

“Again.  I was a kid.”

“How much does that excuse?”

There was a pause.  I looked at Alec, and he rolled his eyes at me.  Was he like Brian?  His emotions buried deep inside?  Or were they simply not there?

“What about darkness-boy?  Want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

I clenched my fists.  Lisa raised a hand, telling me to stop.

“You’re running low on time, Cherie,” Alec said.

“I’m happy for the chance to talk.  Bonesaw’s alive, you know.  She has hands, borrowed from Mannequin.  She’s plotting what she’s going to do to Grue.  Think about that.  She’s going to take him apart, and it’ll hurt worse the second time around, because she makes that sort of thing a matter of personal pride.  She’s thinking about it, daydreaming on the subject, and she’s a smart enough cookie that she’ll figure it out.”

Brian turned his back on the phone, staring out the window.  I wanted to reach out to him, to help ease the weight that idea must have set on his shoulders, somehow.

“Bitch, you know that Skitter’s going to betray you again.  Look at her.  She prides herself on being smart, and you know the best way for someone to make themselves feel smart? They make others look stupid, and you’re the stupidest person she has access to.”

I tensed.  I would have been lying if I hadn’t said I hadn’t seen something along these lines coming, but it ultimately depended on Bitch’s reaction.

“I fucking hate people who try to manipulate me,” Bitch growled.  “Next time I see you, I’m knocking your teeth in.”

There was a pause.

“Ah well,” Cherish said.

“And your time is up,” Alec said.  “So, now’s the point where you fuck us over and don’t say a thing.”

“Why would I do that?  I want you to deal with the Nine.  You killed Burnscar, didn’t you?  If you dealt with Siberian, life would be a lot easier for me.”

“So we’re right?”  Lisa leaned forward.  “There’s a weakness.  She has a real body somewhere?”

“She does.  Right now it’s actually not too far from you.”

Fifteen feet away.  I remembered Alec’s joke.

“Near that hole the Endbringer made,” Cherish said.  “Both of them, the real Siberian and the body.”

“You know what she looks like?”

“He.  A man.  Middle aged or older.  Unkempt.  Doesn’t eat much, probably thin.”

That wasn’t what I would have expected.

“Right now?  Siberian’s chasing down one of the candidates.  She’s taken on the next round of testing.  Simple test.  Hunt them down and if she catches you, you fail.  She eats you alive as punishment.  Wonder how many she can knock off before you take him down.  If you take him down.”

“Who’s she after?  We gotta know.”

“No you don’t.  Way I figure it, you go into the fight blind, you still stand a pretty good chance of offing her.  No skin off my back if a few of you die in the process.”

“You need enough of us alive to deal with the rest of the Nine.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Cherish taunted us with her tone.  “But shouldn’t you hurry?  The hero is going to die.”

It was Panacea or Armsmaster.  Both were complicated.  Panacea wouldn’t be able to defend herself, but Armsmaster was a whole mess of complications.

We hurried to get suited up.  My mask in ruins, I wrapped a scarf around my lower face and covered it with bugs.  I drew them around my eyes to hide the frames of my glasses.

As I finished up, I glanced at Bitch.  Her knuckles were white, her posture rigid.

She was pissed.

I made sure I had all my gear, then joined the rest in filing out.  Grue and Tattletale were the last out the door.

Glancing back to check on Grue, finding his posture and expressions unreadable beneath his darkness and costumes, I caught a glimpse of Tattletale messing with one of the pouches on her belt.  The pages we’d torn from the book were folded into a tight square, and she was pocketing them for later study.  She saw me looking.

“You going to be okay with this?”  She asked me.  “You’re the best equipped to find Siberian’s real body and stop her.  Him.  Them.”

“I’ll deal somehow.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Where is he?” I growled.

“As if I’m going to tell you.  To think Jack called you the clever worm.”

“Don’t call me that.”  I felt a flare of irritation that bordered on anger.  Was that me, or was it her power at work?

Tattletale put a hand on my shoulder.  I shut my mouth.  She asked Cherish, “What do you want in exchange for your help?  You want us to let you go?”

Cherish laughed a little, and it reminded me of Alec’s own dry chuckle.  “No.  Definitely not.  In exchange for the information about what the Imp is up to, you’re going to give me medical treatment, you’re going to keep me here, and you’re going to keep me safe.”

“And for the info on Grue?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m thinking a billion-”  Cherish winced as she moved mid-sentence and pulled at the wound.

“A billion dollars so you can scamper off to the other side of the world and live the good life while you hide from those bastards,” Tattletale finished.

“Right.  Or are you going to tell me that’s too much?  Is your teammate’s life worth a smaller amount?  Where do you draw the line, Ms. Frowny-face?”

Tattletale glanced at me.  I looked, in turn, to Coil.  He gave me a barely perceptible shake of his head.  He wouldn’t fork over the amount.

“You’re not really in a position to be making demands,” Trickster said.  “You’re bleeding to death, and we do have the ability to hurry the process along.”

Cherish shrugged.  “Bonesaw gave me the works.  Mesh sheaths for every major artery and organ, wire reinforcement for my skeleton.  It’s not going to kill me anytime soon.”

I made a mental note of that.  Chances were good that Jack, Bonesaw and the other more vulnerable members of the Nine had some similar protection.  How differently would things have played out if Ballistic had used his power and blown them up?

I could,” Trickster threatened.  “Or we could wait and see which happens first: Either you agree to share the information we want or you slowly bleed out.”

“A game of chicken?  I’m down.”  Cherish prodded her injury with a fingertip.  It was clear it hurt, but she still stuck a finger into the hole and investigated some.  “The auto-injection pump is dosing me with painkillers and antibiotics now.  First time feeling this stuff work.”

“Letting that… lunatic perform surgery like that?” Sundancer asked, shivering a little.  “How?  Why?”

“Not much choice in the matter, but I was awake for the entire thing, and I read her emotions as she did it.  No hint of any traps or dirty tricks.”

Tattletale glanced at the bullet hole in Cherish’s chest.  “I’m suspicious it’s so routine for her that there wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar if she did try something.”

Cherish leaned forward, “Are we going to do this?  Test your perceptive abilities against mine?  Some intellectual jousting?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “She’s stalling.  She knows time’s on her side, because we need to rescue Grue sooner than later.  Longer we wait, the worse our position.”

“I admit I’m at something of a loss.” Coil sounded pensive, as he looked at our captive.  “Where do we put her?”

“Jack did research on you assholes,” Cherish cut in, still trying to distract us, “I know your schtick, Tattletale.  Pick at people’s weaknesses, tell them stuff they don’t want to know.  I can do the same thing.  I’m better at it than you are.”

“It’s a bit of a crazy idea,” I said, ignoring her.  “But what if we didn’t stash her in this base?  Or any of the others?  We put her anywhere in the city, there’s the risk that some unwitting John, Dick or Harry will come by, and she’ll get them to help her somehow.  Can’t station guards on her, so… why not the water?”

“A boat?” Ballistic asked.

“I could tell you a story,” Cherish said, “Little girl grows up with money.  Daddy pulls in six figures, maybe seven.  Massive house, I expect.  Maybe horses, a mercedes, indoor and outdoor pools…”

“I was thinking about a buoy,” I replied, speaking over her.  “Could even rig things so she’s out of sight.  Cuff her to it, we can be pretty damn sure she won’t be getting free.”

“But what about boats coming by?” Sundancer asked.

“Almost no boats on the water,” I replied.  “Coastline is a mess, thanks to Leviathan.  Ships can’t dock here.”

“Good,” Coil said.  “Then as soon as she is given some basic medical care, I’ll have my men take her out there.  I’ll need to work out measures to ensure she doesn’t escape.”

“So the little girl who wanted for nothing still found a reason to run away from home.  Spent life homeless on the streets.  Stealing and dealing for petty cash so she could eat.  What would make someone leave home like that, Tattletale?”

Coil turned to the soldier next to him, “Can you go find Pitter and bring him here?  I want her sedated sooner than later.”

The soldier nodded and headed off to find the medic.  He winked at Tattletale as he jogged by.  I’d met him.  Not one of Tattletale’s soldiers, but I’d crossed paths with him.  Fish?  Seemed like he and Tattletale were getting along.

“That’s a mistake,” Cherish smiled.  “Without my cooperation, you won’t find them.  You won’t be able to contact Imp or know where to look for her brother.”

“Tattletale?” Coil spoke.

“You already informed us on most of that,” Tattletale told Cherish.  She leaned against the wall.  “Your method of communication with Imp.  You’re planning on meeting her.  Afternoon?  Evening?”

“As if I’m-”

“Late afternoon. Thanks.”

“What?”  Cherish frowned.

“What time in the afternoon?  Four… five… six.  Six o’clock.  There we go.  Where?  Upper end of town or downtown?”

“I’m not saying anything!”

“You’re telling me everything.”  Tattletale must be reading Cherish’s tells.  Her body language, eye movements, her tone and word choice.  “Let’s see, you’re meeting Imp downtown around six.  You would have made it a place where you could talk with her for a minute while you were out of sight of the others.  Bathroom?”

Cherish didn’t move a muscle.  Maybe she realized what Tattletale was doing.

“Bathroom, then.  Same building as the rest of the Nine?  Now we just need to dig up where they are, and you’ve got no cards left.  Unless you want to share that information in good faith.”

There was no response from our prisoner.

“Hmmm,” Tattletale said.  “She’s cornered, and she’s probably contemplating something like suicide by cop.  Or whatever the term is when the other group aren’t cops.  She’d rather die than have us turn her over to her teammates, so she’ll try a gambit like using her powers, knowing we’ll probably gun her down.”

“Got any ideas?” Trickster asked her.

“She liked the dead man’s switch for her suicide collar.  Why don’t we set up something similar?  Put a soldier on guard somewhere nearby.  We schedule it so he receives a note  from us every fifteen minutes.  If he doesn’t get it, he passes a message to the Nine telling them exactly where to find Cherish?”

I could see Cherish tense.

“How do we get a message to them without them killing the messenger?”

“We can work it out.”  Tattletale shrugged.  She looked at Trickster, “You think Oliver could handle it?”

Trickster nodded. “I’ll get him on thinking up some way to arrange this.”

“Tattletale.” Coil spoke, “Can you gather the rest of the details from her before we secure her offshore?”

“So long as she doesn’t get stupid and try to do something more than talk.”

Cherish decided to speak up.  “Who’s next?  Who should I dish the dirt on?  Feeling homesick, Trickster?  Scared little boy pretending to be a leader.  It’s your fault, you know.  She blames you.  Everyone does. They’re even starting to hate you.”

“Can we talk without her in earshot?” I asked.

Coil nodded and gestured for us to leave.  His soldiers moved to Cherish’s side and gripped her arms.

“No point!”  Cherish grinned, “I’ll know what you’re talking about.  Can’t keep secrets from me!”

“But you won’t be sidetracking us,” I replied.

“You failed, you know,” Cherish said, changing tacks.  “When someone has an obsession like you do, it’s like a giant neon sign to an empath like me.  All it takes is for me to peek into Coil’s head, peek into the hearts of everyone else in this base, and I know you’ll never get what you want.  You won’t save her.  You can’t.  Window of opportunity is long gone.”

I jabbed her where the bullet hole was.  The strength went out of her legs and she fell to her hands and knees.  I stepped back, drew in a slow breath and then kicked her in the face.  She fell to the ground.

“Skitter.” Coil’s word was without inflection.  There was no admonishment or warning to it.  I took it as a reminder of where I was, which might have been his intent.

“We can talk about that later,” I told him, “My priority right now is Grue.”

Coil nodded.

I glanced down at Cherish.  “Hope Bonesaw reinforced your teeth while she was fixing you up.”

“She did,” Cherish muttered, one hand to her mouth.

I kicked her in the head once more for good measure, and then turned away, my hands raised to assure the others I was done.

“That’s enough,” Coil said.  He signaled his men.  “Take the prisoner to the coastline and find a spot to depart.”

Cherish was dragged off to a point further down the catwalk.  Her shouts reached us well after she was out of sight, “Your boss is screwing you!  All of you!  You have no idea how badly!  You’re cogs in his machine, and he’s only steps away from pulling it all together.  Get rid of the Nine, stage the final play with everyone in their proper spots, but then he doesn’t need you anymore!”

“Sowing dissension in the ranks,” Coil said.  He sounded remarkably calm given what Cherish had been saying.  “Nothing more.”

“Right.  She could be lying,” Trickster ventured.

“She is.  Mostly,” Tattletale said.

I doubted anyone believed what the three were saying.  At the same time, nobody here was in a position to walk away in response to this unconfirmed information.

“Tattletale, see to the interrogation,”  Coil ordered.

“Okay.”

“That leaves the remainder of us to decide on a way of rescuing the others.”

I fidgeted.  The idea of Brian in the hands of the Nine was… daunting.  Was Siberian eating him alive, literally?  Was he at the mercies of Mannequin?  Jack could be torturing him for details on us.  Or he could be in Bonesaw’s clutches.

Chances were good that they were pissed.  Jack excepted, maybe.  He’d seemed to like our ambush.  In any event, any anger or sadistic tendencies were likely to be taken out on Brian.

Fuck.  I kept imagining uglier and uglier possibilities.

“They’re going to be waiting and ready.  We’ll need help, I think,” I said.

“Help?” Trickster turned my way.  “You’re forgetting that the rest of the factions in the city have made a pact against us.”

“Not everybody there agreed,” I said.  “There was one group at the meeting that didn’t agree to the pact.”

“Am I remembering wrong?”  Trickster asked.  “Coil, Merchants, Chosen, Faultline’s group…”

“That’s right,” I said.

“What are you thinking, then?”  Sundancer asked.

“Coil,” I said, “You got some surveillance gear for Tattletale, right?  Can I see it?”

Trickster accompanied me.  We didn’t get the benefit of Bitch’s dogs.  She’d wanted to check on her territory and take care of her dogs.  I’d grudgingly agreed that she should take care of that, and Trickster and I had set off alone.

I gave him a sidelong glance as we ascended the stairs of the empty apartment building.  What had Cherish said?  Scared little boy?  She blames you.  They all do.  I could remember Sundancer’s remarks on the drama in the group and how lonely it was to be around them.  I recalled Genesis seeming less than thrilled when her team arrived last night.  Was Trickster at the center of it?  He was more ruthless than his comrades, which was interesting because his power was the least lethal.  It might have been a point of contention.  But what would he have done that the others would blame him for?

Could I comment on that?  Should I?

I remained silent.  We exited the stairwell at the fifth floor and entered a dark hallway.  I clicked on a flashlight, and we made our way down the hall.  Trash was piled everywhere, and I was all too aware of the maggots that were crawling on the floor, barely visible in the dim light.

“Which way?” he asked.

I pointed.  A side benefit of my power was that it made it pretty damn easy to maintain my sense of direction.

We tried the doors for the two apartments that led in the right direction.  Both were locked.

Trickster touched the doorknob, then looked across the floor at the trash in the hallway.  The doorknob disappeared, and a chunk of wood fell to the ground.  He repeated the process with the internal mechanisms, and the lock was effectively transported away.  He opened the door and walked inside, going straight for the windows.

“Done this before?” he asked.

I shook my head.  I was gathering my bugs, the stronger fliers, and drawing out lines of silk.  Trickster handed me the individual components.  A small spy camera, no larger than a tube of lipstick, and a similar microphone.  My bugs bound them together with silk and then stretched out more to distribute the lifting among the dragonflies, bumblebees and wasps.

“Okay, let’s see,” I muttered.

Testing, testing, one, two, three…  My swarm managed some semblance of the words I wanted, a mix of buzzing, chirps and clicks to form the right pitch.  Some sounds were hard or impossible to make.  The ‘puh’, ‘buh’ and ‘muh’ sounds didn’t form, and I struggled to form something that sounded like a ‘t’ in the middle of a word.  It was intelligible, but only barely.

It would have to do.

I ensured the rigging around the camera was more or less steady and then sent the swarm out the window.  I relied on my power to keep track of it while I opened the laptop Coil had provided and turned on the video feed.  When it had arrived outside the PHQ headquarters, I drew it together into a densely packed human form.

It took six and a half minutes for the Protectorate to react to the figure.  That bothered me, on a level.  Were they disorganized?  Or was it difficulty in communicating and marshaling their forces when they didn’t have phones or other means of passing on alerts?  They gathered in the lobby.  I adjusted the camera the insects were carrying and made out Weld, Kid Win, Clockblocker, Miss Militia, Battery and Legend.  There were three more capes I didn’t recognize.  Members of Legend’s team?

Seeing them gave me pause.

As Miss Militia stepped outside, I pulled on the headphones, and Trickster did the same.

“Skitter?” Miss Militia asked.

Something like that,” I replied using my swarm.  “I wanted to talk.

“Given what happened the last time you were here, I’m not sure we’re on speaking terms.”

We have two of the Slaughterhouse Nine in custody.  We are prepared to turn one over into your custody.”

“What?  I didn’t hear that.”

Damn.  It sounded natural in my head, as I got them to make the noise, but I wasn’t quite there yet.  Maybe it would have been better to just pass a phone to her.  I’d gone this route for the dramatic touch, and because I hadn’t wanted them to trace us.

I rephrased, “Shatterbird and Cherish have been captured.  We will deliver Cherish to you if you wish.  We are done interrogating her.”

“Interrogation.  You mean torture, don’t you?” Legend asked from where he stood in the doorway.

No.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Why the offer?”

You can put her in secure custody, and we need your help.

“For?”

The Nine have captured Grue.  We mounted one successful attack this morning, we got two of theirs for one of ours.  They will be ready for a rescue attempt.  They know our powers.  Help us attack.  Help us catch them off guard a second time and stop them for good.

“You’re not only asking us to fight the Nine, but you want us to fight alongside notorious villains.”

So I was notorious now?  Huh.  Couldn’t let that distract me.  “I’m offering you Cherish.

I could make out Miss Militia shaking her head.  “I’ll be blunt, Skitter.  I’m not Armsmaster.  I don’t have a stake in personal glory or renown.  I’m not going to pussyfoot around, either.  Put a bullet in her skull and be done with it.  There’s a kill order on them, nobody’s going to charge you for murder.”

Then work with us because it’s the best way to stop the Nine.”

“I refused Hookwolf when he made the same offer, and I’m going to refuse you.  The capes on my teams are good people.  I won’t throw away their lives with a reckless attack.  We’re going to develop our own strategies, plan, and find a safe way to target them.”

And civilians die in the meantime.”  I retorted.  Grue dies in the meantime, if he wasn’t dead already.

“We’ve tried the same strategies we use against Endbringers.  Multiple teams, allying with locals.  Sometimes we get one of them.  Sometimes we get three or four.  But we lose people, lots of people, in the process.  The remaining members of their group always find some way of escaping. The fact that we tried and failed in going all-out gives them notoriety.  They bounce back after an attack like that, and they bounce back hard, with creeps, lunatics and killers flocking to them for the chance at that same sort of glory.”

The difference between us and Hookwolf is that we’ve succeeded.  We have two of them in our custody.  You can’t bide your time, organize, and wait for an opportune moment.  They have years of experience fighting people who do that.  Anything you try, they’ve probably dealt with.  We win by catching them off guard with powers they don’t know about, powers they can’t expect and interactions between powers.  Calculated recklessness.

“We can handle that on our own, with more calculation and less recklessness.”

He’s studied you.  For any member of your team with more than three months of experience, he already knows everything they can do, their tricks and individual talents.  You have powers we need.  We have knowledge on their location, firepower of our own and two captives.  We’ll only pull this off if we work together.”

“Putting our lives in your hands,” Miss Militia replied.

Only as far as we’d be relying on you,” I answered her.

“Who are you, Skitter?”  Legend asked.  He floated closer to my swarm-decoy.  “I can’t get a read on your personality or motivations, and that’s without touching on what came up at the close of the Endbringer event.”

My teammate is in the hands of the Nine, they could be murdering more people right this second, and you’re talking about me, of all people?”

“If we’re going to offer you help, we should know who we’re interacting with,” he said.

I glanced at Trickster, then back at the image on the screen.  “What do you want to know?

“We’ve talked with the people in your territory.  Between what they say and what came out at the hospital, I can’t help but wonder at your motives.”

There’s someone specific I want to help.  If I can improve the lives of others at the same time, then all the better.

“So where do you stand, then?  Where do you see yourself in terms of the sliding scale of good and evil, heroes and villains?”

I almost laughed, and some of my humor must have translated in a mental direction to my bugs, because they started making a noise that wasn’t speech.  I stopped them.  It wouldn’t have sounded much like laughter anyways.  “All of the above?  None of the above?  Does it matter?  Some of us wear the villain label with pride, because they want to rebel against the norms, because it’s a harder, more rewarding road to travel, or because being a ‘hero’ often means so very little.  But few people really want to see themselves as being bad or evil, whatever label they wear.  I’ve done things I regret, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve walked the roads in between.  The sliding scale is a fantasy.  There’s no simple answers.

“There can be.  You could do what’s right.”

I was getting an inkling of what Bitch referred to as ‘words’.  Prattle that meant so very little in the face of what was happening in the present.  Was this the kind of irritation, impatience and anger she felt with so many social interactions?  I clenched my fist.  “Speak for yourself.  You want to hide here while my group and Hookwolf deal with the brunt of the Nine’s attention.  Just like you did with the ABB.

“That happened under Armsmaster’s leadership.  You can’t blame us for being intelligent about how we go about this.”

I was disappointed my swarm couldn’t convey my anger.  “I can blame you for being cowards.  I’m going.  If you want to talk about morality, start by talking to Armsmaster.”

“Can’t.  He’s gone.”

I paused.  Did the Nine get him?  “Dead?

“Escaped from his hospital room.  With our attention on the Nine, we don’t have the resources to track him down.”

Does he know about the Nine’s threat to hit the city with a plague if he leaves?

“I hope so.”

Fuck.  Not only was that one more uncertainty stacked onto everything, but Armsmaster was the closest thing I had to a nemesis.  Having him running around the city was not a good thing.

For a brief moment, I contemplated having Trickster teleport me to ground level, so it was me talking to the local heroes, and not just my swarm.  I could tell them that I was putting my well-being in their hands, risking them arresting me, as a gesture of good faith.

Except I couldn’t help but see myself from their perspective.  Warlord of the Boardwalk.  I’d rotted off Lung’s manhood and carved out his eyes.  I’d played an undefined role in Armsmaster’s downward slide.  I’d robbed a bank, terrorized hostages with poisonous spiders, attacked their headquarters and used insects dipped in capsaicin to cripple their junior heroes with incapacitating pain.  All the while, I’d acted with a seemingly ambiguous morality.  Was I a good guy doing all the wrong things?  Or did they see me as dangerous and unhinged?

There was no way I could put myself in their hands without knowing what they thought about me, and frankly, I wasn’t sure how to think about myself.  How the hell were they supposed to make a call?

So.  You in?”  I tried, instead.

I could see him look back at Miss Militia, who shook her head.  “Miss Militia runs the local team, so it’s ultimately her call, but… we’ve talked about it, and I agree with her.  No.  The risks outweigh the potential benefits.”

My heart sank.  “Then one final tip.  You should know that Bonesaw’s done some surgery on all of her people.  Implanted protection for the more vulnerable parts of their bodies.  They’re tougher than they look.

“Thank you,” Legend said.  “You might not believe me, but I wish you the best of luck.”

I snarled as I shut the laptop and turned away from the scene, calling my swarm back to me.

“That didn’t work,” Trickster said.

“No.  And we just wasted a lot of time.”

“We’ll have Shatterbird working with us, thanks to Regent, and we’ve got Imp as our man on the inside, maybe.  We’re going to outnumber the remaining five or six of them, right?  It’s not hopeless.”

“They’ll be ready for us.  They’re entrenched, they have a hostage, and we’re totally unable to fight two of them.  How long is it going to take to extricate Grue from whatever cage they have him in?”

“It’s not hopeless,” he repeated.  “Whatever they’re doing to keep Grue prisoner, if I can see him, I can free him.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Would it reassure you to know that your conversation with the local heroes gave me an idea of my own?”

My head snapped in Trickster’s direction.

“Come on.  We should hurry,” he said.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We set up and act the second they stop moving,” Grue’s voice sounded through the walkie-talkie.  “Be ready to move the instant Cherish alerts them.  We maintain unbroken line of sight over the Nine and between our squads.  Notify us and change position if you lose sight of ’em.  Everyone knows what they’re doing?”

Various assents could be heard through the walkie-talkies.

“Maybe I should ask if anyone’s unsure about what they’re doing?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Good.  Hold positions.”

The strategy was mine, but Grue was more comfortable than I was as a battlefield commander.  I was okay with him taking charge here.  Preferred it.

I raised my binoculars.  Seven members of the Nine were strolling down the street.  Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian were at the head of the group, and Jack was using his knife to try to cut down anyone he saw who didn’t get under cover fast enough.  It was almost an idle amusement, rather than some mission or task he’d undertaken.  Most escaped, and he didn’t go to any particular effort to chase them down, as though he were conserving his strength.

Cherish, Mannequin and Shatterbird were in the middle of the group, Crawler behind them, trailing behind with languid, casually effective movements that resembled those of a cat.  At the very back of the group, trailing even behind Crawler, was a hulk of a man who I took to be Hatchet Face.  He looked like he was rotting alive, and there were grafts of flesh and mechanical replacement parts filling in the gaps.

The majority of my attention was on Cherish.  Through the lenses of the binoculars, I focused on her face.  I watched the movements of her eyes, her facial expressions, and the tension in her hands.  Nothing she’d done thus far had indicated she was aware of us. Her attention seemed more focused on the handful people Jack had cut down.  As they walked, she looked down at each of the wounded and dying with the detached interest one might have for a car accident by the side of the highway.  She hadn’t opened her mouth since we’d caught up with their group.

so wanted to jump in and save those people.  But it would be suicide.  Our priority was stopping the Nine.

Part one of the plan was simple.  Up until the point we engaged, we stayed as far away as we could while maintaining a visual and some ability to act.  We knew Cherish’s power was more effective as she was closer to her targets.  If there was any element of surprise to be had, we’d have it by striking from a distance.

I spared a glance at Mannequin, changing the focus of my binoculars to the man in white.  Again, he’d replaced his parts.  His form resembled what I’d seen the first time I’d encountered him.

I turned my attention back to Cherish.  Shatterbird was saying something to her, her lips moving in the rhythms of speech beneath the glass beak/visor that covered the upper half of her face.  She was using her hands to punctuate her words.  Cherish didn’t respond.  From the length of Shatterbird’s speech, I took it to be some kind of monologue or lecture.

“Hey,” Sundancer said from beside me, “Ten or so seconds until we lose them behind that building over there.”

A quick check confirmed she was right.  The direction their group was traveling would take them out of sight.  I picked up the walkie-talkie, “Moving forward.  You guys have eyes on them?”

“Yeah,” Grue reported.  That would be our second squad.

“Yep,” Trickster said, from the third.

I was already sitting side-saddle on Bentley, with Bitch ahead of me.  My burned legs didn’t afford me much grip with my calves, so we’d taken a loop of the chain that surrounded Bentley and wound it under and over my lap and around my waist to secure me in place, connecting it with a carabiner in case I needed to get off fast.  I put one arm around Bitch for further support, and scooted forward to make room for Sundancer.

“Go,” Bitch hissed the words the second Sundancer was in position.  Bentley lunged forward, leaping to the next rooftop and landing with enough force that I wasn’t sure I could have stayed seated if I’d been riding normally.

Bentley was more of a bruiser than the other two dogs, with his front half adding up to almost twice the mass of the rear.  It made him weaker at the long distance leaps than any of the dogs I’d ridden thus far, but his powerful upper body also made him a strong climber.  It also meant he had the raw strength to carry three of us and the pair of heavy metal boxes that we’d strapped to his sides.  Our progress wasn’t fast, but we did make our way up the side of the next building, Bentley’s claws digging into the windowsills as he slowly and methodically ascended.  From that building It was one more leap and a short climb to the roof of the tallest building in the area.  I released my deathgrip on the chains and got the binoculars and walkie-talkie out.

“In position on the Demesnes Soft Tower.  Location of the Nine?”

“Lord and Tillman,” Trickster answered me.

I found the intersection.  Once I had the right general area, it wasn’t hard to spot them.  Crawler was conspicuous.

“Found them,” I informed the others.

Our setup put Grue, Ballistic and Sirius directly behind the Nine, along with the metal cases of supplies we’d strapped to Sirius’ sides.  Trickster and Regent were mounted on Genesis, who had taken a form not unlike the dogs.  The trio were positioned to the Nine’s left.  By contrast, my group, with Sundancer, Bitch and Bentley, were positioned to their right.

Each of us were a little over a thousand feet away from the Nine, three city blocks, give or take.  It meant my allies were out of range of my powers.  It was a drawback, but I hoped it would balance out.

“They’re moving with purpose,” Tattletale sounded over the walkie-talkie.  Trickster was sending her ongoing video with a camera and directional microphone.  “I think they’re heading to Dolltown.”

“Dolltown?”

“Parian’s territory,” Ballistic said.  “She controls these giant stuffed animals.  Cordoned off an area in my district before I made my claim.  I haven’t gotten around to dealing with her yet, with the Nine and all.”

“They’re probably trying to bait the heroes out,” Tattletale said, “Killing in the streets, then attacking one of the safe territories that aren’t controlled by us.”

“ETA for them getting to their destination?” I asked.

“One minute,” Tattletale spoke.

“Moving up,” Grue reported.  “You guys maintain visual.”

Jack was still attacking everyone he spotted.  How many lives would be lost in the meantime?  Worse, would Cherish notice our presence, or would Jack look for civilians and spot one of us on a rooftop blocks away?

Going into this with the element of surprise was almost too much to hope for.

I put my walkie-talkie down, but I kept my eyes on Cherish.  She hadn’t spoken, and there was no change in her posture.

“Grue,” Trickster said, “Get in position fast.  I see the area where Parian marked off her territory.  If they’re going to stop, they’re going to stop here.”

I used the binoculars and found the area in question.  Yellow spray paint, rain coats and scarves had been used to form a line across a street.

Grue didn’t respond, but that could easily be because he was focusing on riding.  Just in case, I asked, “You have eyes on him, Trickster?”

“Yeah.  Grue and Ballistic are heading up to a spot where they can see everyone.  No danger.”

No danger.  It was a loaded statement.  Burnscar wasn’t here, but Tattletale was ninety percent certain that the pyrokinetic teleporter was off tracking down one of the ‘hero’ candidates or Hookwolf to give them their tests.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I knew that between one of these heartbeats and the next, one of the Nine could spot us.  If it was Jack or Shatterbird, we could be dead or bleeding out less than a second later.

“Set up,” Grue ordered.

I unclipped the carabiner and hopped down.  Working alongside Bitch and Sundancer, I helped bring the boxes we’d strapped to Bentley’s side to the edge of the rooftop.  We hurried back, Sundancer giving me a hand up.  I almost didn’t feel the pain of my legs with the tension and adrenaline that thrummed through me.  Or maybe that was the industrial strength painkillers Coil had provided.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that the drugs I’d taken might be the same ones that he’d used to drug Dinah.

A quick sweep verified that the area around ‘Dolltown’ was largely empty of people.  The flooding was bad here, and only Parian’s place was really on high enough ground to be free of it.  Just to make sure, I asked, “Tattletale?  How many bystanders?”

“Going by the video feed?  Guessing there’s between eight and twenty people in the buildings around you.”

“Then I’m set,” I replied.  I strapped the ‘seatbelt’ chain around my waist and hips and reconnected the carabiner.  Other voices echoed mine, confirming they were ready.

Halfway across the roof, Sundancer began forming her miniature sun.  I checked on the others with my binoculars.  Trickster and Regent were crouched at the corner of one building, and Genesis was dissolving.  Good.

Grue and Ballistic were arguing.  I was pretty sure.  I could see Grue grabbing Ballistic’s shoulder with one hand and pointing at the Nine with the other.

“What’s going on, Grue?” I asked.

“He’s chickening out.”

He’s supposed to handle Cherish.  I glanced at the Nine.  No sign of anything from her.  She was standing apart from the rest of the group, her arms folded.

“She looks like someone I used to know,” Ballistic said, as if that was some kind of answer.

“Who?” Trickster asked.

“Sadie.  From seventh grade.”

“Nope,” Trickster replied.  “Not in the slightest.  Your head’s fucking with you.  Get the job done.”

“But-”

Trickster’s voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it.  “Now.  Remember the deal we made.  Our promise to each other and to Noelle.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Ballistic hesitated.  Through the scope of my binoculars, I could see him holding the foot-ball sized warhead in his hands.  “She’s a human being, someone with feelings, and tastes and-”

Regent was the one who cut him off this time, “And she’s someone that has forced parents to mutilate and kill their kids and she made them enjoy it.  Then she left them to live with the aftermath.”

Regent sounded remarkably calm given the situation.

“She’s my sister.  If anyone has a right to get sentimental, it’s me, and I’m saying it’s okay to off her,” he finished.

“I-”  Ballistic broke off.

I shifted my attention to the Nine.  Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw were moving past the yellow lines.  And Cherish… Cherish was turning to look in Grue and Ballistic’s direction.  I could see her almost bounce in place as she got her feet under her and started sprinting, her mouth opening.

“Cover blown!” I shouted into the walkie-talkie.  Taking my finger off the button, I called out,  “Trickster, Sundancer!”

Sundancer sent her sun soaring around to the Nine, taking the long route so it could cut them off.  In that same moment, Trickster pointed a sniper rifle at a corpse on the street and swapped Cherish’s position with it.

Part two of the plan, after finding them and getting into our positions, was to remove Cherish as fast as humanly possible.  If we accomplished nothing else, our goal was to do that and then make a run for it.  It would pave the way for future attacks and it would slow them down.

We’d left that task to Ballistic, with the idea that Trickster would take care of Jack.  Ballistic decided he didn’t have it in him at the worst possible moment, forcing us to shift roles.

Damn him.

Cherish was struck by Trickster’s shot, blood spattering the pavement.  Her teammates left her behind.

“Don’t have line of sight to Jack!” Trickster reported.

“Hit the others,” I told Sundancer.

“You mean kill them,” her voice was quiet, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Kill them, then.”  I could see the sun growing as it flew.  It was maybe eighteen feet in diameter now.

“Just… just tell me there aren’t any civilians there, no bystanders.”

I looked through my binoculars.  The remainder of the Nine were making a break for it.  Mannequin and Siberian stood still, watching Grue and Ballistic, Crawler was barreling towards them, and Shatterbird had taken to the air.  Jack and Bonesaw were taking cover around a corner to stay out of Grue and Ballistic’s line of fire.

The thing that had once been Hatchet Face scooped up the wounded and anyone he could catch and deposited them with his group.  Bonesaw had a scalpel out and was cutting the second the people were in her reach.  A throat slashed here, a stomach cavity opened there.  Intestines and muscle strung from one individual to another, connecting them together as their faces contorted in pain.  Some struggled to stand, to strike Bonesaw or push themselves away, but deft slices with the scalpel severed tendons and ligaments.  It was a kind of grim reversal, the adults utterly helpless and weak when faced with the child.

We’ll never have another shot like this.

“No,” I said.  I even managed to sound convincing.  “No civilians!  Go!”

“Then tell me where to move it,”  Sundancer’s eyes were closed.  “I can’t see that far.”

“Out further, left, left, left,”  the miniature sun slid twenty or so feet with every order I gave as I tracked the enemy’s position and the movements of the orb with the binoculars.  “Short bit left and then out!”

I couldn’t look directly at the thing, but I saw Mannequin and Siberian wheel around as the blinding light of the orb caught their attention.  Mannequin ran, and Siberian lunged forward.

The orb slid out into position around the mouth of the alley and then rolled over Jack, Bonesaw and Hatchet Face.

“Report!” Tattetale’s voice came from the walkie-talkie.  “I don’t have visual.”

“Sundancer just hit Jack, Hatchet Face and Bonesaw.”

“Where are the rest?”

“Crawler heading for Grue and Ballistic, Mannequin running down Tillman in Regent and Trickster’s general direction.  Shatterbird’s going for the bird’s-eye view.  I don’t think she’s seen any of us except Grue and Ballistic.”

“Siberian?”

“Missing.”

Shit.  Assume they’re all alive, then.  Sundancer’s power still in that area?”

Alive?  “It is.”

“Then keep it there!”

I glanced at Sundancer and she gave me a grim nod.

Crawler had reached Grue and was scaling the side of the building with surprising speed.  I’d taken him for a quadruped, but apparently his joints were modular.  His proportions were more simian, now, and he was climbing up the side of the building twice as fast as I could have run it if it were laid out horizontally.

Part three of the plan had been to hit them as hard as we could.  Trickster was using his rifle to take shots at Mannequin, but I couldn’t see if it was having any effect.  Ballistic finally decided to contribute, and fired a warhead at Mannequin.  Then he reached into the box he and Grue had unloaded from Sirius’s harness and grabbed two more.  He fired them into the smoke cloud that had expanded around Mannequin.

I could see Crawler reaching the edge of the roof, not twenty feet from Grue and Ballistic.

Part four of the plan?  Avoid direct confrontation.

“Trickster,” Grue said, the one word buzzing over the walkie-talkies.

Crawler disappeared, and an empty pickup truck toppled from the edge of the roof to the ground.  Crawler was back in the vicinity of the other Nine, not far from Sundancer’s burning orb.  Blocks away from Grue and Ballistic.

The monster lunged after Grue and Ballistic again, and was supported this time by Shatterbird, who conjured up a storm of glass shards to pelt the pair.  Ballistic retaliated by firing a warhead at Shatterbird, who prematurely detonated the explosive with a thick cluster of glass, shielding herself against the worst of the blast with another wall.  She drew more walls around herself and maintained her assault.

Bitch whistled, and Sirius started bounding across rooftops to head our way.  I could see Shatterbird turn and notice us.

That was fine.  I sent a payload of bugs her way; wasps and bees each carrying several spiders, and more expendable caterpillars and the like that were smeared in capsaicin.  I wanted to make absolutely sure she knew where we were and that she wouldn’t ignore us.

Crawler reached the base of the building only to be switched with yet another car, resetting his position a second time.  He roared in frustration, then turned toward the miniature sun, breaking into an all out run as he charged for it.

“Sundancer, switch off!”  I called out.

The orb disappeared, and Crawler crashed through the alleyway, only barely avoiding Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw.  The edges of the alley were unrecognizable, and the walls were on fire, but the trio were untouched.  Siberian had Jack draped over one shoulder  and another hand clasping Bonesaw by the back of her shirt, holding her high.  The pavement was a molten liquid beneath them.

I clicked the button on the walkie-talkie and informed the others, “Siberian’s granting her invulnerability to Jack and Bonesaw!”

Tattletale said something, but I missed it over the roar of noise that came with Sundancer using her power.  She was forming another orb.  Everyone else was busy with their own things.

Siberian was protecting Jack and Bonesaw.  That was both good and bad.  We’d planned this strategy under the assumption that Siberian would come for us and we’d use the dogs, Grue’s Darkness, my bug-decoys and Trickster’s teleportation to keep our distance from her until we decided we needed to make a run for it.  All of that was in line with part four of the plan, maintaining our distance and avoiding a toe to toe fight.  In the meantime, we’d intended to use our ranged abilities to take out Jack, Cherish, Bonesaw and Burnscar.

She was protecting them, which we hadn’t anticipated, but she couldn’t do that and come after us.

Or maybe she can.  I saw Siberian virtually toss Bonesaw in the air, the girl wrapping her arms around the woman’s neck as she landed.  Holding her two teammates, Siberian sprinted for Trickster and Regent.  She was fast, but it was a speed borne of her peculiar powers, more enhanced strength than augmented acceleration.  Not so different from Battery on that count.

Air resistance and inertia didn’t hamper her in the same ways.  More than that, whatever it was that made her invincible and untouchable to any outside force, she had the ability to snap it out to affect any surface she touched.  Her strength was virtually limitless, and the pavement didn’t shatter with her footfalls because she made it as untouchable as she was.

Shatterbird, meanwhile, was drawing closer, using the glass-storm to bar Ballistic’s access to the crate of explosives.  Grue’s power was serving to counter hers, and any glass that entered the darkness seemed to drop straight down like rain, bereft of her abilities.  Momentum still carried, however, and any glass shards that entered at a high enough velocity seemed to exit at roughly the same speed.

I wasn’t sure about Ballistic, his costume was among the best money could buy, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.  Grue, at least, should be able to endure a beating.  Beneath his motorcycle leathers, he was wearing the costume I’d made for him and nearly finished.  It wouldn’t protect his head, but his helmet would serve in a pinch.

Even if they wouldn’t be cut to shreds, I wasn’t sure they would survive if Shatterbird detonated that case of rocket launcher rounds with a shard in the right place or a large enough impact.

“Bitch,” I spoke.  “The boxes!”

Bitch was sliding off of Bentley’s back, opening the first metal box and stretching out the contents.

The case was a piece of camping gear I’d noticed ages ago, when I’d first been buying things for my costume.  A watertight case for luggage with a metal frame inside that campers could stretch out to use as a drying rack for clothes and towels.

We didn’t have luggage inside.  No, the box held parts of the mannequins I’d been using for costume design.  Strung together with silk, two mannequins dangled from the frame.

Bitch adjusted the way one mannequin hung and headed over to set up the other case.

My bugs had reached Shatterbird and started attacking her.  Brown recluses, capsaicin, wasps, hornets and bees.  I’d never attacked someone like this.  Not someone who couldn’t heal.  I could see her thrashing, trying to stay aloft even as her concentration faltered.  The brown recluses were insurance of a sort.  If we happened to take out Bonesaw, it could mean Shatterbird was out of the equation as well.

The darkness Grue had generated around the rooftop disappeared all at once.  Grue and Ballistic crouched at the far corner.  Canceling the darkness was a signal.

The mannequins hanging from the first rack disappeared, replaced by the two boys.  Grue and Ballistic disentangled themselves from the metal frames and hurried to our side.

Trickster and Regent appeared soon after the other frame was up.  I could see Siberian on the rooftop.  They’d escaped just in time to avoid being caught in a melee with her.

Trickster rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck and adjusted his hat.

“Don’t waste time,” Grue growled.  “Do it.”

“Times like this call for a certain flourish,” Trickster said.  Trickster withdrew a small remote from his pocket and depressed the button.

The rooftops the other two teams had been situated on virtually shattered with the explosions.  The bazooka rounds had also carried a small collection of plastic explosives.  Since Trickster’s team had only needed the sniper rifle, their case held a hell of a lot more.

Part five done.  Baiting the hook, reeling them in, then hitting them as hard as we could.

It wouldn’t stop them, of course.  The only ones that explosion might have hurt were Shatterbird and maybe Mannequin, if he’d survived Ballistic’s attack and slipped around through some other angle.  Ideal world, it would also slow down Siberian.  More realistically, I was hoping that they’d get pissed, and they’d get sloppy.

I chanced a quick look through the binoculars.  Crawler was stampeding towards the site of the explosion, Cherish was still prone on the ground, bleeding out from Trickster’s sniper fire, and I couldn’t make out the others.

Wait, no.  I could see rubble shifting as Siberian shrugged it aside.  It was enough debris that Crawler would have been hampered, but even with her hands tied up in holding her teammates, she cast the chunks of concrete and brick aside with the same sort of ease that I might walk through a pile of balloons.  She shook her head, and her hair fanned out behind her, draping partially over Bonesaw, who was riding her piggy-back.

Jack wasn’t folded over her shoulder anymore.  He was standing, holding her hand, a wide smile spread across his face.  He said something, some exclamation, without dropping his grin for a second.

And Shatterbird?  I looked through the rubble that had been cast over the street around the building.  She was lying on the ground, struggling to her feet.  The glints of glass shards sparkled for a hundred feet around her.  I quickly tossed my binoculars aside.  They’d be a liability if she attacked us, now.

Here was the gamble.  We’d hurt them, injured their pride, we’d maybe killed Mannequin and we’d incapacitated Cherish.  If Ballistic had been on the ball, he would have blown Cherish to smithereens.  As it was, a stray bullet wouldn’t cut it.  Bonesaw’s known talents included the ability to raise the dead.

Grue used his darkness to form a dozen false-images of shadow-shrouded silhouettes on nearby rooftops.  I did the same with my bugs, but mine were animated, moving.

We’d have to run pretty damn soon.  There were seven of us, but only two dogs.  It was less than ideal.  I’d tried to get Bitch to bring another dog, but she didn’t feel any of the others were trained well enough to bear riders.

The remaining members of the Nine charged, Shatterbird rising from her position to fly straight for us, barriers of glass surrounding her.  Siberian carried Jack and Bonesaw with leaping bounds, while Crawler headed for us.

I crossed my fingers, watching intently.

Two ways this could go for the final phase of our plan.

Well, three ways.  But I was hoping the third possibility -my team getting caught and slaughtered- wouldn’t happen.

The first way this could play out was that Shatterbird’s flight over the buildings would make her faster than Crawler or Siberian, who had to climb or circumvent the obstacles.

When I’d brought this up during the meeting, assuming it would happen, it had been Tattletale who pointed out that I was maybe underestimating how fast Crawler and Siberian could be.  She was right.  Despite her ability to fly, Shatterbird was falling behind.

Which meant we went with plan B.

“You up for this, Grue?” I asked, “I could do it.  My plan, and I was first to volunteer.”

“No, you can’t run fast enough with those burns.” Grue replied, as he hurried to the side of the rooftop furthest from the Nine.  He glanced down. “Trickster, I’m ready!”

“Just need an opportunity,” Trickster said, watching the incoming members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They were closing a little too fast for comfort.  Sirius had arrived, and we were all getting saddled.  Bitch, Sundancer and I on Bentley, and Regent, Trickster and Ballistic on Sirius.  At Regent’s orders, Sirius moved to Grue’s side.

“Sooner than later!” Grue said.

“Do you want to die?” Trickster asked.

“No, but I’m willing to break something!”

“Your call,” Trickster said.  “Three, two, one!”

Grue leaped from the edge of the roof.  In that same instant, Trickster swapped him with Shatterbird.

She tumbled for a second, got a grip with her flight, and then steadied.

Then Regent hit her with his power.  Shatterbird flew into the corner of the roof, was thrown off-balance and tipped into the gap between buildings.

And Grue?  I cast a glance backward.  He’d dropped out of the air where Shatterbird had been flying, landing on a rooftop a distance below.  I could see him struggling to his feet.

“Go, go!”  Trickster screamed the words.

Our mounts leaped down into the same gap where Shatterbird had fallen.  We made the usual zig-zagging descent down, leaping from wall to wall, and landed on either side of Shatterbird and Genesis.

Genesis looked like a cartoon caricature of a sumo wrestler, grotesquely obese and yellow skinned with eyes like black buttons.  She was hairless, unclothed and sexless, and her skin was translucent and oily.  Through the skin, I could make out the vague figure of Shatterbird, pounding on the walls of the stomach, her mouth opening in a scream that didn’t reach us.  Glass shards were stirring around her, a blender whir cutting at the insides of Genesis’s belly.

“She’s going to cut through,” I said.  “Bitch, Regent, get the chains.  I’ll try to stop her.”

Using my bugs, I formed words against the surface of Genesis’s belly.  ‘Stop’.

Shatterbird only intensified her attempts.

I gathered some black widow spiders and pressed them gently against the shiny, translucent skin.  They were absorbed, drifting inside, and were soon crawling around the inside surface.  Genesis obliged me by opening her mouth, giving me a direct route for the bugs to travel.

“Hurry,” Regent said.  He was winding the chain around the jello-like yellow hand.  Fingerless hands gripped the chain for further traction.

Shatterbird noticed the spiders.  Her eyes widened as the volume of deadly spiders trapped in the bubble with her increased.  I raked my finger beneath the message I’d drawn with the bugs, as if to underline it.  ‘Stop’.

She did.  Glass shards fell into a pool around her feet.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran, the two dogs side by side, pulling Genesis behind us like a chariot.

Drawing my bugs together, I covered us as best as I was able, creating other decoys, vague chariot-shaped lumps here and there, huddles of figures.

It would all be for nothing if they returned to Cherish, revived the girl and tracked us down.

“Left!” I ordered.

Bitch steered left.  Regent hadn’t heard, but as the tension on the chains pulled Sirius to one side, he caught on and turned as well.

My bugs served as a navigation system, feeling out the shapes of our surroundings so I could work out a suitable path.  We charged onward, with me giving occasional directions, until we found Cherish lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

“Get her!”

Bitch rode just to Cherish’s left, Regent rode just to the right, and Genesis rolled right over the girl.  Cherish caught like glue, suffered an unfortunate few seconds of being dragged over the road’s surface, and was then drawn into Genesis’ bubble of a body.

My bugs gave me a sense of the Nine’s locations, and my decoys gave them pause once or twice.  We could track them more easily than they could do the reverse, and we were soon far enough away that I couldn’t sense them.

We only slowed when we got to Coil’s underground base.  We parked the dogs and then headed for the series of barred and locked doors.  I glanced at Shatterbird and Cherish where they knelt in Genesis’ rotund body.  We weren’t really giving away information here. Crawler had apparently come this way, not so long ago.

It was a fifty-fifty chance whether Siberian and the other Nine would come this way.  Cherish wasn’t around to give them information, but she might have provided details at an earlier point that Jack or one of the others could use to connect the dots.  We’d cross that bridge when we got to it.

Coil was there to greet us with a Tattletale and a contingent of armed soldiers.  We waited patiently as one of the soldiers scanned Shatterbird with a plastic wand.  He looked at Coil and shook his head.

“This way,” Coil ordered.

How did he set this up so fast?

Shatterbird’s cell was large, twenty feet by twenty feet across, and the walls had the same textured black rubber soundproofing as the sound recording booths I’d seen in movies and on TV.  I couldn’t see the speakers, but there was a noise similar to radio static filling the room, so loud I wouldn’t be able to hear if someone spoke.

With our weapons trained on Shatterbird, we stood by while one of Coil’s soldiers reached into Genesis’s stomach and hauled her out.  She was chained to the ceiling with her arms stretched out to her sides, then divested of her costume, left only with a silk camisole and slip.  Coil’s people wheeled in an x-ray machine and a tank of containment foam.

Shatterbird glared wordlessly at us until we’d exited the room and the heavy vault door blocked our view of her.

“She will be cavity searched and x-rayed to identify any hidden weapon or any devices Bonesaw or Mannequin might have implanted in her,” Coil spoke, after the doors were closed and the white noise was blocked out.  “Regent, we have a protective suit waiting for you.  In the event that she does acquire something she can use her powers on, or if she has concealed anything on her person that is small enough to avoid radiographic detection, the suit will shield you until you’ve finished.”

Regent nodded.

“She was bitten by brown recluses,” I said.  “I’d give her a full physical examination every thirty minutes, to be safe.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know standard treatment for bites of that kind,” Coil said.

Brooks stepped out of the crowd of nearby soldiers.  “Sir?”

“Brooks.”

“I’m familiar with the treatment for the more dangerous spider bites,” he looked at me, “It’s a protein-based venom?”

So the jerk is useful sometimes.  I hadn’t liked Brooks since Lisa had introduced me to him, but I could respect someone who knew his job.  “Yeah.”

“Seems I can leave it to you, then,” Coil said.  Brooks nodded.  Coil added, “Failing everything else, it might serve as incentive to cooperate.”

“Or cause to get desperate,” Tattletale said.  “She might do something stupid if she thinks she’ll die or suffer lifelong effects if she doesn’t get back to Bonesaw.”

“Let’s not give her the opportunity.  Regent, how fast can you seize control?”

“A few hours.”

“Start now.”

Regent headed off to get changed.

“That leaves our unexpected guest,” Coil said.  “Cherish.”

Regent hadn’t yet escaped earshot.  He turned back to us.  “She’ll have a trap on her.  Small explosive looped around her neck with a lock and a deadman’s switch.”

“Thank you,” Coil said.  “Tattletale?  See to it at the first opportunity.”

“Not a problem.”

We approached Cherish and Genesis. Cherish knelt in the small pile of glass shards that sat at the very bottom of the bubble.  Her hands were pressed against the inside of the stomach, causing it to bulge like a small child in a womb.  She was awake, but bleeding severely.

Coil gave the order, “If anyone acts out of character, take them out of action as swiftly as possible and shoot the girl.”

There were nods all around.

Cherish’s mouth moved, but the sound didn’t reach us.

“I did not expect her, and I did not take measures for containing her,” Coil said.  “Keeping her on the premises may prove exceptionally dangerous.”

“The alternative being?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her go?”

“In the euphemistic sense.  Her value as a captive is minimal and we have no way to secure her until Regent can finish using his ability on her.”

“He’s resistant to her power,” Tattletale said, “But that goes both ways.  Don’t know how well he’d be able to control her.  She might break free.  Benefits of being family, I guess.”

“Then I would suggest, as Trickster said earlier, ‘letting her go’.  We execute her and remove her from the equation,”  Coil stated.

I looked at Cherish, and her eyes narrowed.  She knew exactly what we were saying.  Killing someone in cold blood?  A little different than killing someone on the battlefield.

“Not giving you the go ahead,” I said.  “But I’m not about to stop you.  I’m washing my hands of this.”

“The intent was to remove individuals from the Nine before they could conduct their round of tests, yes?  This seems to be the most expedient route.”

“Not disagreeing,” I said.  “But I didn’t sign up to be an executioner.  I manage my district and I help defend your city from outsiders, right?”

“Quite right.  No, I think your service this morning has been exemplary.”

I only barely managed to avoid bringing up the deal about Dinah.  No, it was premature, the wrong people were listening, and I was worried he would point out the fact that my territory had been torched by Burnscar.

Best to keep quiet for now.  Rebuild, re-establish myself as leader of my territory, then raise the topic.

Whatever happened, I needed his respect.

We turned our attention to our captive.  She had raised her hands above her head in a surrender position, despite the hole in her shoulder.

“Do we risk it?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her out?”

“Nothing she can’t do outside the bubble that she couldn’t do inside,” Tattletale replied.  Coil nodded, and that seemed to be signal enough.

Genesis began to dissolve, and in moments, Cherish spilled out, wincing as she cut her hands and knees on the glass that Shatterbird had detached from her costume and weaponized.

Tattletale bent down and looked at the device that hung around Cherish’s neck.  “Small explosive, combination lock.  A bit paranoid?”

“No such thing as too paranoid,” Cherish said, glaring.  “Between my brother and the crap that Bonesaw and the rest of the team want to subject me to, knowing I’ll die if I leave that thing alone long enough actually helps me sleep at night.”

“Can’t have that,” Tattletale said.  Changing the topic, she asked, “You like computers?”

“Computers?” Cherish startled.  She seemed to intuit what Tattletale was doing.  “Not saying.”

“Clever girl, but even that’s enough of a clue.  Let’s see… four, five, four five.”  Tattletale tugged on the lock.  “Nope.  Three, seven, three, seven.”

The lock popped open.  Cherish’s eyes opened wide.

“There goes your bargaining chip.”

“I’ve got more,” Cherish said, her chin rising a fraction.

“Do tell,” Coil said, dryly.

“Certain teammate of yours paid me a visit.  Imp, I think her name was?  So hard to remember.”

“What did you do to Imp?” I asked.  Grue is going to freak out.

Cherish smiled, “She decided to help me get back at the Nine.  They’re planning on inflicting a fate worse than death on me, you see.  There was a reason I pretended not to notice you were all waiting in ambush.  Thought maybe the brat passed on word somehow, until you used that sucker-teleport on me and shot me.  Suppose you’ll have to give me medical attention and keep me alive if you want the rest of the story.”

“And your other bargaining chip?” Trickster asked.

“Grue.  I can sense him with my power.  I can also sense my team.  They got their hands on darkness boy.”

I swear my heart stuttered mid-beat.

Cherish smiled, but her glare didn’t fade in intensity.  “My teammates and I already talked on the subject of Jean Paul, aka Hijack, aka Alec, aka Regent…  You got Shatter, and you got me.  We’re compromised.  No way they’re going to accept us back with open arms.  They’d kill us first.  So no, don’t get your hopes up.  My teammates aren’t going to agree to a hostage exchange.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Sam!  Sam!”  Celia’s voice was grating and nasal.

“I’m coming!”  The heavyset man grumbled, as he made his way into the living room.  Celia sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  The white of her t-shirt and panties was a stark contrast to her dark skin.  Sam leered at the woman.  She was good-looking for her age, slim, though her breasts sagged behind her shirt without the benefit of a bra.

“You said you were five minutes ago, asswipe.  Takes you five minutes to find your wallet?”

“Needed to piss.  Your fatass friend was in your bathroom, so I pissed in your sink.”

Celia kicked under the coffee table to strike his shin.

Sam just smiled and stepped back.  “Kidding.  I went off the fire escape.”

“That’s not any better!”

“It’s all water and shit down there.  Any place that doesn’t smell like hot garbage smells like a toilet.  Here.  Stop bitching.”  He threw a plastic movie rental card at her.

She cut open a plastic wrapped block of powder and shook a small amount of the powder onto the coffee table.  She used the laminated card to cut it into lines, a set on each side of the table, with none in front of her.

“You’re not having any?”

“I told you.  I’m pregnant.”

“You’re too old to be pregnant,” Sam commented.  She kicked him again.

“Not that old!”

Jennifer emerged from the washroom and stopped in the doorway, staring at the scene.

“I didn’t think you’d actually use any of the stuff.”

“Jen, hon,” Celia said, “We’ve got enough to go around.  Even if we only sold half, we’d be made in the shade for five or ten years.”

“And you just took it?”

“Leaders of the Merchants got killed, everyone else decided to run off with what they could carry of the stockpiles.  Sam and I decided to play it smart.  Sam got his truck, and I guarded the stash from the other assholes.  Paid off.”

“I… what is it?”

“Little bit of everything.  Come, sit.  Try some.”

“What is it?”

Sam seated himself at the table, by one set of the lines of powder.  He picked up a pinch and put it on his tongue.  “H.”

“No way,” Jennifer said.  She dropped into one of the felt-covered chairs at the far end of the room.

Aisha had to hop out of the way so she didn’t get sat on.  She watched the dialogue between her mother, her mother’s boyfriend of the week and her mother’s new friend with a dispassionate expression.  Seeing this scene, she didn’t really feel much.  A little disappointment.  Embarrassment.  Disgust.

No, it was less this scene and more the discovery that her mother was pregnant that nailed her in the gut with a profound kind of sadness.

The first place her mind went, before joy at the idea of having a brother or sister, before anger at her mom for letting it happen and not using protection, was hope.

“Sam, do you have any papers?”

“Rolling papers?  I thought you were going clean.”

“It’s just weed.  I need to have something.”

“Isn’t that bad for the kid-in-progress?”

“It’s weed, dumbass.  Nothing they tell you about it is true.  Kid isn’t going to wind up addicted from birth or anything, ’cause it’s not addictive.  Right?”

“Sure,” he reached into his back pocket and slipped a packet to her, along with a dime bag.

Aisha bit her lip.  Maybe hope was the wrong word, because she didn’t really feel anything on the subject.  But she knew it would probably be better if her mom miscarried and the kid was spared this shit.

How much of Aisha’s problems were because of her mom’s lack of self-control and how many others were because of this environment?  She’d grown up with a mom who’d never mentally or emotionally aged past fourteen or fifteen.  A new man in the house every week or two, with his own idea of how things should work, Celia generally content to let him run things however he wanted.

Aisha tried not to think about the men.  It was like having a broken arm; so long as she didn’t move it, so long as she didn’t think about it, it was okay, a dull throb in the back of her mind.  Something she could ignore.  But even a stray thought could remind her that the arm was broken, and then it sometimes took days before she could get out of that head space.  There was no distraction that worked, because the fact that she was consciously looking for a distraction only reminded her of what she was trying to distract herself from.

Of course, there was no way to avoid the countless reminders in everyday life that would remind her of Guy, or Bridge, or Darren, or Lonnie.  Thinking about a broken arm was one such reminder.

Being ignored by her teammates and told to go to her room and play along for everyone else’s sake was another.  How many afternoons had she come home from school, only for her mom or one of her mom’s boyfriends to shoo her off or bribe her to leave the apartment for a bit?

Pissed her off.  She didn’t need that from her brother, too.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Celia urged her friend.  She took a long draw from the spliff she held in her fingers. “Oh fuck!  Sam, you jackass!  This isn’t just weed, is it?”

“Thought it was.”

“There’s a kick to it.  Amp or something.”  Celia took another puff.  “Amp.  Hey, Jen, join in. Have some of what Sam’s having.”

“But H is fucking scary,” Jen protested.

“So you hear.  But why is it scary?”

“It’s addictive.”

Aisha tuned out the sound of her mother and Sam cajoling the woman and walked over to the table.  Her mom didn’t notice her.  Nobody ever noticed her, and they noticed even less ever since she’d gotten her power.  It was like a dark joke, a grim comedy.  Just when she’d started to figure things out, grow up and catch people’s eye, the world went to hell and she got her powers.  Now she became invisible if she lost her concentration.

Not that it was invisibility, really.  It was memories.  People forgot her as soon as they saw her, to the point that they didn’t register her presence.  She could feel it, her power rolling over her skin, jabbing outward, invisible to sight, touch and anything else, making contact with the people around her and pushing those memories away.

And like her metaphor comparing her memories to a broken arm, her power seemed to respond to the attention of her subjects; the harder they tried to remember and focus on her, the faster she slipped through their minds.

The metaphor applied in another way, too.  Her power operated on its own, doing its thing, and if she very casually noted what it was doing, without pushing it forward or holding it back, she could feel it doing something else.  As if it was ready to push away memories that didn’t relate to her, exactly.  It never did.  Any time it built up enough that it came close to doing anything, she noticed, and it retreated like a turtle pulling its head into its shell.

Frustrating.  Her power didn’t do anything because she wanted it to.  It worked only if she surrendered to it, let it act on its own.  Pushing it to work harder had the opposite effect.

How easy would it be to just carry this stuff away?  She could hand it to Coil for some brownie points, and he could decide what to distribute.  It would be out of her mother’s hands, and money would become a limiter on her mother’s habit.  If the drugs weren’t around, maybe Sam would leave.

Maybe, if Aisha got rid of the drugs, her mom would have an excuse to get things back on track, somehow.  The city was paying people who joined the clean-up crews.  Three square meals, simple and bland but they gave the essential nutrients, and they gave you twenty dollars for nine hours of work.  Fuck around or slack off, and they just kicked you off the crew for the day, no pay.

Idle hopes.  Aisha had spent long years wishing her mom could pull it together, dating back to just after the divorce, when a bad day was still better than most good days were now.  Or maybe that was nostalgia and a child’s eye view.

No.  If she got rid of the drugs, it was more likely that someone would erupt in anger.  Sam or her mom, getting violent, verbally or otherwise.  It would do more harm than good.

She sat down on the coffee table, directly opposite her mother.  Reaching forward, she plucked the spliff from her mother’s lips and dropped it, grinding it under her toes.

Her mother blinked a few times, then reached for her rolling papers.

Aisha used her hand to cover the papers and whispered, “No.”

Again, the dazed blinking.  Her mother asked, “Sam?  Got any more papers?”

“I just gave you a full package.”

“The hell?  Maybe that hit me harder than I thought,” Aisha’s mother giggled.

Aisha stared her mother in the eyes.  She didn’t deactivate her power.  “Mom.  You gotta stop.”

“Where are the rest of the papers, Sam?” her mom asked, oblivious.

“Kitchen.”

“But I don’t want to get up.  I’m comfy,” Celia whined.

“You keep going down this road, your kid is going to be born without a face or something,” Aisha said, her voice quiet.  “You know how hard school was for me?  Even as far back as kindergarten, I couldn’t sit still.  Teacher tells me three things, and by the time they’ve gotten to the third, I’ve forgotten the first.  And Brian doesn’t have any of that.”

“Go get some papers, Sam.  Sam McSamsam.  Sammy-sam.  Samster-”

“I don’t want to get up any more than you do,” Sam growled.  “You’re not one of the talkative ones, are you?  I like it quiet.”

“Mom,” Aisha said, as if she could get her mom’s attention.  Ironically enough, she knew that if she deactivated her power, she’d have even less chance of talking to her mom.  It wasn’t just the horned mask and the black costume.  She’d never had anyone just sit down and listen to her.  Dad ignored her, mom was self-centered and Brian was too focused on what needed to be done that he ignored everything else.

“Mom.  You’re going to have some fucked up kid, and then you’re going to die of an OD before it’s even grown up.  It’s not fair that you leave some kid that’s more retarded than me, or some deformed freak for Brian to take care of.  Not fair on him, and it’s not fair on the kid to make them put up with the dick, either.”

“Fine,” her mother said, standing.  “I’ll get the papers myself.”

Aisha sighed.  Was it cowardice that kept her from confronting her mother, or the knowledge backed by years of experience that it wouldn’t make a difference?

Maybe, if everything with the Nine worked out and Coil got control of the city, maybe she could get her mom some help, or report her to the police.

But not now, not when things were like this, when she had to prove she deserved her place in the group.

Abandoning her mother to a noisy search of the kitchen, Aisha headed into her old room.

Her room smelled like sex, and faintly of urine.  Her mom had apparently had a party since Aisha had left.

Holding her breath, she opened her closet door.  She pushed past the clothes she’d stolen, shoplifted and bought, and past the old clothes she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear anymore.  Her closet was in layers, and each layer held clothes and trinkets from a different era.

Her girl guide stuff was in the very back, too wrinkled by years to wear.  Her dad had pushed her into that.  He’d wanted her to have structure.  After a year and a half, even he had pulled her out.  A bad fit.  She didn’t have the personality type for it.

Around the girl guide stuff, she found a small tape recorder and an old pair of binoculars.  After finding an old backpack that had never been emptied of the school supplies, she found some notebooks that had only been filled in about a third of the way.  She tore out those pages and tucked the notebooks under one arm.

Everything went into a compact black handbag, along with her taser and knives.

Small things.  Nothing she couldn’t have bought in a well stocked convenience store, maybe.  But she would operate best if she was relaxed, and having some personal items made her feel better.

That only left the problem of finding them.

They’d attacked the Merchants, and observing her mom had given her the chance to find out where.  It was a starting point.

It was worse than she’d expected.  She ducked under the police tape and pushed one officer out of her way as she stepped into the area.  Police cars and PRT vans had formed a broad perimeter, with police tape strung between them.  She momentarily wondered why they didn’t have the wooden barricades.  It was flimsy as security went.

It was drizzling, and the small amounts of rain did little to clean the streets of the blood that spattered it.  Water soaked into the white and brown sheets that had been draped over the bodies that still waited for someone to clean them up.  The brown, she realized, was dried blood.

Aisha picked her way through the fallen.  The worst of the carnage was at the edges, as if some invisible line had been drawn that nobody was permitted to cross, and in the center, where the masses of people had gathered before being murdered together.

She’d hoped for a lead.  A piece of evidence, or an overheard tidbit of information from the cops.

No such luck.

There was an overabundance of evidence.  By the time the cops processed everything here and managed to identify the bodies, the leaves would be falling off the trees and the Nine would be long gone, one way or another.  The cops weren’t talking, either.  They were working silently, or the things they were saying weren’t interesting.  Catching the Nine wasn’t their job.  If they found something worthwhile, they would pass it on to the local capes, probably.

No.  If there was something to be found, it wouldn’t be here.  She headed to the edge of the scene, where the police cars had all stopped.  There were still spots and spatters of blood here and there, and bloody footprints, but not much.  She walked around the police and the cars to check each set out.  In every case, it seemed, the bloodied victims had either fallen where they lay or disappeared.  Ambulances?

Having checked the area, she moved further down the street to see the next closed-off alleyway.  The same thing.  A few more bloody footprints, but nothing beyond that.

The third blockade offered something.  There was a spot where the blood was thicker, which didn’t match up with the other spaces.  The trail extended further than it did elsewhere.

Looking around, she spotted a smear of blood on the side of a building, three stories up.

Okay.  So maybe they’d gone this way.

The trail of breadcrumbs that the blood provided were slowly being eroded or masked by the light rain.  The water raised the oils from the cracks in the road, giving the ground a rainbow sheen.

The signs of blood faded too soon, and Aisha could only guess whether she had taken the wrong road, gone too far or if the rain had cleared it away.  She might have given up right then, but she saw a group of men standing outside of an apartment building.

It was only when she got close that she saw the badge clipped to the front of one of their jackets.  A detective.  There was blood on the door that led into the apartment lobby.

The elevator wouldn’t be working.  She headed for the stairwell, only to find more blood.  It was as though a body had been dragged.

Going forward was a stupid idea, she knew.  Brian and Skitter had gone into way too much fucking depth about the risks.   Still, that hadn’t stopped her before.

She got her taser and knife from her bag and made her way upstairs.

Third floor up, blood on the door leading into the hall.  More blood trailing down the hallway, stopping at one apartment.

She double checked that her power was active and pushed her way inside.

Only a few of the Nine were present.  Crawler slept with his ponderous head on paws that were crossed over one another, his back rising and falling with each deep breath.  He was large enough that the highest part of his back rose nearly to the ceiling with each breath he drew in through his nostrils.  Only half of the eyes on his body were closed, covered with thick, dark gray lids.

Shatterbird and Burnscar were on the couch, Burnscar stretched out with her head on the armrest, her feet propped up on Shatterbird’s lap.  She held a graphic novel on her stomach with one hand and created flames in the other, shaping them to match the people she saw as she flicked from page to page.  Shatterbird was sitting upright, a novel in her hands.

Bonesaw stood over the dining room table, with a mechanical spider-thing on the opposite side of the table, assisting her.  A young man was on the table itself, his wrists and ankles tied down.  His torso was open from collar-bone to crotch, his ribs splayed apart.  Bonesaw and her mechanical spider were elbow deep in the contents of his torso.

The spiders.

Aisha moved quickly aside as a spider moved from the kitchen, past her and to the table.  Whatever cameras or artificial intelligence it used, it didn’t seem to notice her.  It handed Bonesaw a diet cola that the little girl opened with bloody fingers and drank.

With a little more confidence, Aisha moved further inside, giving a wide berth to Crawler and Burnscar’s foot-high images of flame.

Holding her weapons, Aisha stood next to Shatterbird, at one end of the couch.

Aisha had never killed anyone, but here she was, holding a lethal weapon.  She could slice Shatterbird’s throat and they wouldn’t even realize she was there.

They would, she suspected, realize that Shatterbird was dead or dying.  There was a fifty-fifty chance, anyways, that it would force them out of whatever effect her powers had on their brains.  It had happened to her before.

Except that Shatterbird would kill her in her last moments, using the glass that had been swept to the corners of the room, or one of the others would.  Burnscar or Crawler could deal a hell of a lot of damage, even if they didn’t know who they were attacking.

Slowly, she walked over to Bonesaw, navigating around the drones.  Could she kill the kid?

On the one hand, Bonesaw was the one who kept the other members going.  Removing her would take a lot of problems off the board.  She could finish off Bonesaw and run for cover in the kitchen, out of Burnscar and Shatterbird’s line of fire.  From there, it was only steps to the front door and safety.

On the other hand, it was still murder, and it was a kid.  A kid that had a hundred kills under her belt.

A squeaking sound distracted her from her thoughts.  It was like air being let out of a balloon, but in shorter spurts.  Bonesaw?  No, the girl wasn’t making any noise.  The mechanical spider?  No.  Not the spider either.

Stepping as close to Bonesaw and the spider as she dared, Aisha investigated the sounds.  Where were they coming from?

Bonesaw smiled, “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to hear you, Jonathan.”

Jonathan?

Aisha looked down at the body, and realized the heart was beating inside Bonesaw’s hands.  The man’s eyes were moving, and his lips moved as he struggled and failed to make words come up through his windpipe.

The surge of horror and disgust gave Aisha the strength to cast aside her doubts.

“Sorry kid,” she said.

She plunged the knife into Bonesaw’s bare throat.

Bonesaw screamed, shrill and loud, which caught Aisha off guard.  With a knife in her throat, the girl was screaming?

Reacting more on instinct than wit, Aisha pulled the knife out and then slashed it horizontally across Bonesaw’s throat.

She’d expected a spray of blood or gurgling.  Neither happened.  Bonesaw screamed again.

So she pulled the knife free and stabbed Bonesaw in one eye.  The blade scraped against the bone of Bonesaw’s eye socket.

Flame erupted and pieces of glass came to life around Aisha.  She backed away quickly as a wall of flame rolled over Jonathan on the table and divided her from Bonesaw.  There was a rumble and the sound of falling furniture as Crawler stood.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”  Bonesaw shrieked.  “It hurts!”

Why isn’t she dead?

Aisha yanked the knife out and then gripped her taser.

“Is it Jack?” Burnscar asked, looking around, then turning to the window, “What the hell?”

“It’s not Jack,” Bonesaw said.  She snapped her fingers, and the mechanical spider leaped on top of her, beginning to suture the wounds in her neck.  “I gave Jack the same safeguards I gave us, he would have succeeded if he tried it.”

Shatterbird scowled.  “Then who or what was that?  Crawler, do you know?”

Aisha backed toward the front door.  She stopped as Crawler appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the front hall, looking through to see his teammates on the far end.  His voice was a mangled mess of sounds that only barely approximated anything like speech.  “I don’t smell anyone.”

Smells can’t find me, then, Aisha thought.  Still, she didn’t have her escape route.

“Torch the apartment and make a break for it?” Burnscar asked.  “We can meet up as a group later.”

“No.  Cherish has a hard time tracking Mannequin, and he won’t know how to find us,” Shatterbird said.

“I’m okay,” Bonesaw piped up.  She held one hand to her eye socket, which had trails of smoke rising from it.  “You don’t need to worry.  I can put my throat back together easy, after I get my kit out to check the sheaths for my vitals to make sure there’s no abrasions, and I’ve got spare eyes.  I could go with green eyes.  Or one green and one blue, or if I alter them, I could have-“

“Quiet,” Shatterbird cut in.  “It’s less about you being hurt and more about the fact that someone had the audacity to attack us here.  Burnscar, put out those fires.  We don’t want attention.”

The wall of flame shrunk and faded away.

“Really hope you don’t have another way of sensing me, big guy,” Aisha said to Crawler, ducking between his legs and stepping towards the door.  “I’m gonna make my exit now.”

None of the Nine reacted as she shut the door behind her.

Lesson learned.  The more ‘vulnerable’ members of the Nine weren’t as vulnerable as they looked.  Sheaths, Bonesaw had said?

Stepping into the lobby, she stopped in her tracks.

One of the detectives who’d been standing by the door was dead, his throat slit.  He laid in the center of the lobby.  Two more blood trails ran to the side of the lobby opposite the stairs.

Manager’s office?

Her weapon drawn, she reached for the doorknob, and collided with Jack as he strode out of the office.

“What’s wrong?” Cherish asked.

Aisha backed away.

“Nothing,” Jack said.  “You grab the last body and then find a mop.”

“Me?”

“I think I’ve been exceedingly generous, giving you a second chance.  You can repay me by doing the heavy lifting.”

“Ever the gentleman.”

“Go on, now.  I’ll wait here.”

Aisha watched as Cherish walked past her, grabbed the heavyset detective and began dragging him inch by inch toward the office.

She only remembered one other time when her heart had pounded this hard.  It had been when the fledgling Merchants had attacked her and her father.  It was another chance.  While they were separated, she could go after one.  But which?

She held the taser and the knife, adjusting her grip so she was secure.

Jack was the key figure.  Aisha knew she could attack him, knew she maybe should, but would she succeed any more than she did against Bonesaw?  Cherish might be able to lash out with some kind of blind fire, affecting the emotions of everyone nearby.

No.  Cherish was the newest member, wasn’t she?  There were better odds that Cherish didn’t have the protections that Jack and the others did.

Exhaling slowly, Aisha followed behind Cherish as the girl tugged the body into the other room.  She stepped inside and shut the door.

“Put the weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet.

Aisha gulped, realizing the trap she’d just stepped into.  “You can hear me?”

A second passed, and there was no response.

“Put it away, or I’m going to leave you quivering in a corner, shitting your pants.”

“You can’t hear me.”  Aisha gripped her weapon and stepped closer.

Cherish whirled around, her eyes flitting right and left, searching for Aisha.  “I’ll scream.  He’ll come in here, and a couple swings of his knife, he can cut you down, invisible or no.”

“It’s not invisibility,” Imp said, uselessly.

“Put your weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet and carefully measured, “We only have a few seconds before Jack gets suspicious.  Listen.  I want to strike a deal.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Plague 12.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“This is not an exit.  Kudos for the reference,” Tattletale said.

“I try,” Jack replied.  He didn’t say anything more, looking us over.  I felt a chill as his eyes stopped on me before moving on to Regent and the Travelers.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.  What options did we have?  Running?  Siberian was bound to be faster than the dogs, and none of them were big.  We’d be dead before Bitch got them to grow.  That was even without considering Jack’s ability to cut us down from where he stood.

Fight?  Again, Siberian was the biggest problem.  She could take all of us on and win.  I suspected the only people who could really go toe to toe with her would be Scion, Eidolon and the Endbringers, and even then, I wasn’t sure if they would really be able to stop her.  At best, Scion and Eidolon would survive and keep her from killing any civilians.  The Endbringers would hold their own, but civilians obviously wouldn’t be a concern.

Could we escape under a cover of my bugs and Grue’s darkness?  I didn’t think Siberian would be able to see us, and if we surprised them, ran back the way we came-

“What’s this?” Cherish asked, cutting off my train of thought. “Someone thinks she’s had a clever idea.  A bit of hope and inspiration there.”

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm.  She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power.  As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own.  But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way.  She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens.  She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures.  Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of.  If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes.  They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

“Poetic,” Jack said.  “I take it Skitter is this clever worm?”

“Yup.”

“Skitter.” Jack looked at me.  “You do anything and Siberian attacks.  I’ll attack as well.  Whatever it is you’re thinking of trying, I’m betting the two of us can cut you down before it works.”

I swallowed, then took a small breath to clear my throat and ensure I wouldn’t stammer or come out sounding even slightly unclear.  “Alright.”

Bad plan anyways.  If we did try to escape under the cover of darkness, Siberian would probably reach us and cut at least some of us down before we got anywhere, even attacking indiscriminately.

“The same goes for the rest of you, but I’m sure you know that.  One or two of you could kill me right now, I’m sure, but you’d die horribly for your trouble, and I doubt any of you are that suicidal.”

Did he know about the role he was going to play in the end of the world?  It might change his stance and self-assuredness.

Jack looked at Cherish and she gave him a small nod.  He turned a winning smile towards us.  “How are our potential recruits doing?”

Recruits?  Plural?  Was he including Noelle?  No.  He would know she wasn’t anywhere near here, thanks to Cherish.

Bonesaw piped up, “I wanted to say hi and meet the people who might be joining the family.  Jack said that if I’m ready, I can tell you what my test is.  Except I haven’t decided.”

“Oh?” Jack looked at her, “I didn’t know you had any ideas yet.”

“I haven’t decided,” she told him, sounding annoyed at having to repeat herself.  “The test might be about challenging them, but I’m challenging myself too.  I don’t want to be boring, so I’m making myself come up with something original each time.”

“How admirable,” Jack said.

“And it has to be fair.  What I have in mind isn’t fair, and I’m worried it’s too similar to the test I gave Burnscar.  I need this to be fair.”

“Why does it have to be fair?” Cherish asked, “Unfair world, unfair test.”

“Because I like them both!  What better way to add to our family than to have two real siblings on the team?  They would fight all the time but they’d really love each other deep down.”

“Ha,” Regent made it more of a word than an actual laugh, “You really don’t know the Vasil family, munchkin.”

“And the dog girl!  I love dogs!  I’ve seen the pictures of them and they’re beautiful.”

I felt a chill.  All at once, Bitch’s presence behind me felt ominous.  She’d been picked by the Nine, and even when asked, she hadn’t said a thing about it.  Why?  And who had picked her?  The members of the Nine we hadn’t been able to nail down candidates for were Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian.

Siberian, I saw, was staring at Bitch.  When I turned to look at Bitch out of the corner of my eye, I saw her staring right back at Siberian, unflinching, holding the sleeping puppy in her arms.

“If I don’t make it fair then it’s like I’m picking one over the other and I don’t want to do that,” Bonesaw said.

“You’re a smart girl.  You’ll work it out.”  Jack turned to our group, where we waited in tense silence.  “A lot going on tonight.  All these meetings, and we didn’t get an invitation.  Almost enough to hurt our feelings.”

“Can you blame us?” Tattletale gave him a shrug.  “We were talking about how to kill you guys.”

I wasn’t the only member of our group to look at her in horror.

Jack laughed.  A little too hard for whatever it was he’d found funny about her statement.  “Of course, I already knew you were plotting against us, and you knew I knew.”

“Sure.”

“Here is what you need to know, Regent, Bitch.  Each of the Nine’s members get to put our recruits up to a test.  Some of us always give the same test, time after time, no matter the candidate.  Mannequin always asks candidates to alter themselves in a way that costs them something.  Siberian waits until half the candidates have been discarded and then hunts the remainder.”

“I hope she doesn’t catch you,” Bonesaw sounded disturbingly earnest as she spoke, “There’s no meat left for me to work with after she’s done.”

“As for me,” Jack said, “I tend to go last, when all the others have offered their tests and only one or two are left.  I like to mix things up, and unlike our dear Bonesaw, I have no interest in playing fair.”

“And if we fail?” Regent asked, “We die?”

“No, no,” Jack smiled.  “Nobody passes every test, and the punishment for failing a test is up to the individual who assigned it.  Sometimes death, yes.  Sometimes something different.  But it’s always worse.”

“What did my sister do for her tests?” Regent asked.

“Hey!” Bonesaw raised her voice, stabbing a finger in his direction, “No cheating!”

Bonesaw wasn’t the only one he’d irritated.  Cherish glared at him.

“Not cheating,” Regent said.  “Call it idle curiosity.  My sister got me in this mess, I figure it would be nice to hear what she had to go through.  You don’t even have to spoil the answers, I can agree not to copy anything she did.”

Jack laughed, “Ah, adding to the challenge?  Fair.  She killed Hatchet Face.  Crawler took that as his test completed in advance, didn’t think of her as worth his time.  Little Bonesaw, for her test, designed a parasite that would stay in her system for forty-eight hours and strip her of her powers for as long as it remained.”

“Because it’s not fair that Hatchet Face didn’t get to give his test.  And I wanted to break her out of her rut, so I made it so the parasite’s effects would be permanent if she didn’t drink lots of blood.”

“Of course,” Jack tapped the heel of his hand against his forehead, “That was an interesting little twist.  Of course, you didn’t tell her how much she needed to drink, or if a certain species counted…  Well.  It broke her stride, didn’t it?  Siberian went after her, starting on day two of Bonesaw’s parasitic infection.  Three days and three nights of cat and mouse.  To her credit, she did very well.  It came down to a hair.  Another ten minutes and Siberian might have caught her a third time.”

A dark look passed over Cherish’s face.

“Shatterbird likes the psychological tests, and she was in a hell of a mood after Cherish nominated herself for the team.  Our Cherie didn’t have five minutes to rest before Shatterbird drove her into a room and sealed her in.  No food, no light, barely any water.  The room was empty, but for one glass shard.  Always edging towards her, ready to prick, cut, slice and stab the second she stopped, the moment she tried to rest.”

I shivered.  Jack hadn’t said how long that lasted, but after three days and three nights without sleep, even a few hours like that would have been nightmarish.

There was a clue there, too.  Credit to Regent for getting Jack to let it slip. Shatterbird had more offensive range than Cherish, if she was able to trap the girl and use the shard without getting affected in retaliation.  It wasn’t much, but it was a tidbit of information, a piece for the puzzle.

“Burnscar’s test, she failed.  Afraid I’m not spoiling that one.  Doesn’t have the same impact if you know it’s coming.  That left only two tests for her to pass.  Go on.  Show them.”

Cherish glared at Jack.

“Show them,” he said.  There weren’t any hints of a threat or any anger in his tone, but she obeyed anyways.  She turned her back to us, grabbed the bottom of her shirt and pulled it off.

“Mannequin demands that a candidate changes themselves, and that it be hard.  Having just faced the punishment Burnscar gave for failing her test, Cherish wasn’t about to pay his.”

The tattoo stretched from beneath the waist of her low-rise jeans and up the length of her back.  The centerpiece was a large festering heart, done as realistically as any tattoo I’d ever seen.  It was all in shades of green, covered with ulcers, sores, patches of rot and live maggots.  The surrounding tattoos gave the appearance of torn skin revealing the bone and organs beneath, rats and roaches lurking behind ribs and atop her kidneys.  Framing the entire thing were words, not done in any elaborate script, but in scrawled letters that looked like they’d been carved into a surface with knives: epithets and invectives.

“She told the artists to make it so ugly she’d want to kill them.  If she didn’t, she promised to kill their loved ones and then kill them.  Took six artists in total.  Inspired.”

Cherish looked over one tattooed shoulder to fix Jack with a stare.  It was then that I noticed two things.  The first became clear as her skin stretched.  There was depth to the tattoos that you didn’t get with a two-dimensional image.  Her skin had been scarred and flensed to raise edges and give the images and words a permanence that simple ink wouldn’t have.

The second thing I noticed was her eyes.  It was like a light had gone out inside her, just standing there with that tattoo exposed.

“That was the hard one for you, wasn’t it?” Jack smiled.  “Even as tired, scared, hurt and desperate as you were after the other five tests, it was when you willingly defaced that young, unblemished body of yours that a little something inside of you broke, and you began thinking of yourself as one of us.  Liminality.”

“What was your test, Jack?” Regent asked.  I couldn’t tell if he was glad to know his sister suffered or sad for her.

“Oh, I knew it would be almost impossible to top Mannequin’s test.  He caught her at the exact right moment, struck the right nerve, and pushed her to her very limits.  Still, I think I managed to top it.  Turn around, Cherish.”

Like an automaton, she did.  More tattoos and scars covered her chest, just as expansive, just as unpleasant to look at.  Two nude women, their entwined limbs like the broken legs of a squashed bug, neither attractive in the slightest.  One was emaciated, the other morbidly obese, and both were old.  More tattoos of rotting and torn flesh framed the scene, and the words forming the border of the tattoos on the front were the opposite of the others, almost worse in their irony and desperation: ‘Take Me’.  ‘Please Desire Me’.  ‘Want Me’, and more vulgar variations of the same.

“I made her do the other six tests all over again.”

“I even brought back Hatchet Face for Crawler’s test again!” Bonesaw grinned.  “No surprise attack that time.  That was one of the three tests she failed in round two, I was so proud of him!”

Seeing Cherish’s shoulders draw together, her expression darken as memories came to mind, the ugly tattoos that guaranteed she would never be able to leave this behind and get a completely fresh start, never have a boy look at her body and just be hungry for her… I had to look away.  I knew she was the worst sort of person, I just didn’t know how much of that came before the tests.

“Well, sis,” Regent said, “I thought you were running headlong into a fate worse than death.  I stand corrected.  You’re already there, and you did it to yourself.”

She pulled on her shirt and snarled, “This is the part where I’d threaten to kill you, except they are going to do it so much better than I ever could.”

“Can’t do it yourself?” Tattletale cut in.  “Why do you have to rely on them?”

Cherish’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re trying something.  I feel smugness from you, too much confidence for where you’re standing.”

Jack smiled and caught the hairs of his beard between his thumb and index finger.  “Oh?  I’m still interested to hear your answer to her question.”

“Fuck that.  You’re getting predictable, old man.  You want to keep things amusing for yourself, you know you’re as smart as anyone else in the room, so you take the hard road so it won’t be too easy.  Why not have Siberian eat her?  Can’t you imagine the looks on her friend’s faces when they can’t do a thing to save her?  I bet it’d light a fire under their asses, rev them up for the tests.  Maybe they’ll even throw themselves headlong into it, to spare the rest.”

“Now who’s trying something?” Tattletale asked.  “She’s trying to manipulate you.”

Jack frowned and yanked out the hairs of his beard he was holding.  He flicked them away, “I know she’s trying to manipulate me.”

“Okay, except I just noticed something else, as I finished that last sentence.  Do you know she’s playing a long con?  She’s setting you guys up, using her power to pull your strings and make you attached to her.  Half a year to a year, she’ll probably have you wrapped around her little finger,” a slow smile spread across Tattletale’s face.

I could see Cherish’s expression change from anger and irritation to wide-eyed horror.

Jack pinched the bridge of his nose, looking down, and I could just barely hear him mutter the word, “Disappointing.”

“It was probably her plan from the start,” Tattletale said.  “She-”

All at once, Tattletale stopped talking, and I was blind.  In that same instant, something slapped against the fabric of my mask.  Wet.  I could taste it against the fabric of my mask.  Salty-sweet, with a faint metallic taste.

“You fucking bastard!” Grue shouted, his voice distorted by his power.

Blood.

I hurried to wipe it from the lens of my mask.  Everything I saw was obscured by the streaks that remained, almost black in the light.

Tattletale lay on the ground a little in front of me, both Regent and Sundancer crouched at her side.  So much blood, covering her face and Regent and Sundancer’s hands.

Jack toyed with the knife in his hands, while Siberian stood between him and the rest of our group, her eyes primarily on Ballistic.

Jack paced back and forth, two or three steps at a time, gesticulating with his knife.  “I was looking forward to Cherish’s attempt.  Bonesaw and I even had a plan in mind.  I wanted to see what she did, how she worked around Siberian’s immunity to her power… then the safeguards Bonesaw implanted in us would have kicked in and released us from her thrall, and oh, the look on her face.  To have seen that would have been so very worth all the trouble.  And that girl just spoiled it all.”

“You know,” Cherish said, shell-shocked.

“Clearly.”

“But my power – I didn’t sense anything as far as your planning, your emotional networking or-”

I dropped onto my knees so fast it hurt, and immediately began trying to help Tattletale, and Regent gave me the space, allowing me to take over.  Jack had cut her from her mouth to the edge of her jaw.  It had parted the skin at the corner of her mouth.  I must’ve been directly in the line of fire for the resulting blood spray.  How was I supposed to put pressure on a wound like this?

Jack was getting heated, talking mostly to himself.  “That was the whole point!  To see how long we could go without tipping her off.  Bonesaw helped with some surgery, even some artificial neural connections that Cherish wouldn’t be able to see.  So much work and preparation ruined.”

“I-” Cherish started, then stopped before she could finish the sentence.  Trying again, she asked, “What are you going to do with me?”

“Not a pressing concern,” Jack said, as if realizing she was there.

My power crackled at the edge of my consciousness.  I had to suppress it, before I gave them another excuse to attack us.  The majority of my attention was on Tattletale, on Lisa. I used my fingers to scrape as much of the blood out of her mouth and throat as possible, then adjusted the angle of her head so any further blood would flow down the side of her face or out of her mouth.

The fabric of my gloves afforded more traction than fingertips would have, but the amount of blood made everything slick to the point that I couldn’t be sure of what I was holding.  I had one hand inside her mouth, her teeth hard against my knuckles, my other hand pressing down from above to sandwich it and press everything as closed as I could get it.  She roused herself enough to pull away, no doubt because I was pulling the tear at the corner of her mouth open.

“Hold her head, Regent, don’t let her pull away.  And cloth,” I said, my voice small, “Need some kind of cloth to absorb the blood.”

First aid classes hadn’t prepared me for this.

There was a tearing sound, and regent handed me a strip of cloth.  I fumbled to put it into place at the corner of her mouth, where the bleeding was worse, then applied the rest along the cut.  The white cloth turned totally crimson in a second.

“More,” I said, keeping my voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry to the members of the Nine that were standing nearby.

“I wouldn’t bother,” Jack said.  “A wound like that, she’ll die of blood loss before you can do anything.”

“You asshole,” Grue growled.

“You really shouldn’t swear!” Bonesaw said.  “It’s crude!  If you agree to be good, maybe I could fix her for you.  Oh, and since her cheek’s already cut, I could change it around so her teeth are on the outside and she wouldn’t have all that skin and flesh just getting in the way.  And, and, I could make it really artistic and beautiful, and change her tongue so she can make all of the speech sounds you’d normally need lips to make, like puh, buh, muh, wah, vuh…”

Regent handed me more cloth, and I wadded it into place.  Tattletale wasn’t really moving, and I couldn’t be sure if it was because of the amount of blood she had already lost or just because it hurt too much.

I saw a flicker of light as Jack flicked his knife out, tossed it into the air and then caught the blade tip between his middle finger and the nail of his index finger.  He snapped it around so he gripped the handle.  “I suppose I should get around to the purpose of our meeting you here, Regent and Bitch.  Unless you want to pose your test to them, Bonesaw?”

“No.  Let me think about it for a little while.”

“Alright.  Well, it wouldn’t do if our candidates died before we even got around to the tests, so I came to offer you two a warning.  Two warnings, as it happens, for each of you.”

Why couldn’t he stop talking so we could take Tattletale somewhere where she could get the help she needed?  My hands were already cramping from trying to maintain pressure and the awkward angle that resulted from  the way I had her head tilted.

“Two of the candidates we chose are heroes, for lack of a better word, and Cherish reported that we may have trouble bringing them in close enough to introduce them to the tests.  Our dear Bonesaw has devised an incentive to encourage their cooperation.”

Bonesaw reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial.

I felt Tattletale tense and looked down.  She was staring at the vial.

“Biological warfare?” Grue asked.

“Naturally.”

“What does it do?”

“Just in case all of our candidates fail to play along, I would strongly advise you to stick to bottled water.  No filtered water, no rainwater, none of that.  Not unless you’re feeling brave.  Just to be on the safe side, avoid getting your injuries wet as well.”

“And the second warning?” I asked.  I wanted him to finish.

“In…” Jack pulled out a pocket watch on a chain. “T-minus thirty-four minutes, Shatterbird is going to sing loud enough for much of the city to hear her.  She wants to make it known to everyone in Brockton Bay that we’re here, and since there’s no need to maintain surprise with our potential members, I said she should.  With this in mind, you would be well advised to stay away from anything made of glass or any beaches, and be sure to put away anything in your pockets with a screen.”

Dad.  The people in my territory.  I had to warn them, but…

I looked down at Tattletale and felt paralyzed.

“That’s the meat and bones of it,” Jack smiled, “It was nice to meet you two.”

I felt Tattletale move.  Her hand was fumbling at her belt.  Was she going for the gun in the largest pouch?  No.  A pouch near there, just as long, but thinner.

“Sundancer,” I hissed, “Help her.”

Sundancer did.  There were pens in the pouch.

“Help her find the paper,” I said.  Jack and his team had wrapped up and were walking away.

It was a notepad barely larger than a pad of post-its.  Tattletale took the pen that Sundancer held for her, clasping it in a closed fist.  She scrawled out one word.  ‘Deal’.

Then she looked up at me, her eyes wide.

“No,” I whispered.  “We have to get you help, and I have to go warn-”

She stabbed at me with the pen and clenched her teeth against the back of my hand, which must have caused her incredible pain.  I wasn’t sure if it was her pain and mine, but Cherish turned and gestured for Jack, who was already walking way, to stop.

“A deal,” I called out, “I don’t-”

Sundancer had ripped off the first sheet, and Tattletale was writing the next message.

I swallowed, “She wants to know what happens if… if more than one person is left at the end.”

“We pit them against one another,” Jack said.

The next word- I could barely make it out.  ‘Game’.

“She, um.  I think she wants to play a game?”

Tattletale gave me a single, slow blink of confirmation.  She was writing more.

“A game?” Jack asked.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  ‘If there more half left at end.’

“One second.”  I said.  Sundancer ripped off another sheet.  This was excruciatingly slow, trying to parse her shorthand and follow her line of thought.  “Tests.  If there’s more than half of the candidates left at the end of the tests, we win.  You leave with volunteer?  You could leave with whoever wants to join.  But you leave.”

“You expect that half of the candidates could pass the tests?  I’m intrigued.  I don’t think it’s possible, but I’m intrigued.”

“Brockton Bay has its share of badasses, Jack,” I said, my voice hard with repressed outrage.

“I don’t see what we get out of it.”

Tattletale had dropped the pen.  It was up to me to pick up the slack.

“It’s a challenge.  A game.  Changing the routine.  We can do whatever we need to, to keep as many candidates alive as we can.  You guys… do what you do.  It keeps things interesting.”  My eyes fell on Bonesaw, “And maybe it keeps things fair?”

Seconds passed.  I felt the tension ratcheting up another notch with each beat of my heart.  Every moment that passed was one step closer to Tattletale bleeding out or to Shatterbird using her power.

“I like that.  It might be a way to fix the test I want to give.  Let’s do it,” Bonesaw said, looking up at Jack.

He frowned.  “We’ll discuss it as a group.  I suspect we’ll have terms of our own to attach to this game.  Among other things, a steep penalty for when we win.”

And then he turned to leave.

I looked down at Tattletale.  Her eyes were closed.  My hands felt like two blocks of stone where I had them pressed to her injury; rigid, heavy, unable to move.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, barely audible to myself.  I looked up at Grue and said, louder, “I don’t know what to do.”

He didn’t have an answer for me, but he bent down to check on Tattletale.

It was Tattletale who gave me my orders.

“Guh,” she coughed out the word.  As Grue gently pulled my hands away to take over, she repeated, only slightly clearer, “Goh.”

Go.

I stood, wobbling slightly as I backed away from her.  She looked so fragile, lying on her side, blood pooling beneath her head, around her dirty blond hair.  And I was leaving her there.

“We can call Coil,” Ballistic said.  “He can send a car to get you where you need to be.”

I shook my head.  I couldn’t wait and trust that a car would arrive in time, or that it would get me where I needed to be.  There would be detours, areas a car couldn’t pass through.

I turned and I started running.  Out of the parking garage, past Cherish, Bonesaw and Jack.  They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t try to stop me.

I was a block away from them when I got my cell phone out and dialed home, but I already knew the response I would get.  The automated message came from the phone as I held it in one hand, heading directly north.

This phone number is currently out of service.  If you would like to leave a message…

Judging distances wasn’t a great strength of mine.  How many blocks, how far did I have to run to reach my dad?  Five miles? Six?  I was a practiced runner, but the streets here weren’t all in the best shape.  Some were flooded, others strewn with debris, still more suffering in both departments.  There were areas that were blocked off.

And I had less than thirty minutes.

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