Migration 17.8

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“He’ll be one minute,” the woman at the front desk spoke.

Trickster nodded.

“If you’d like to take a seat…”  The woman trailed off.

“I prefer to stand.”

“As you wish.”

“Can I smoke?”


“If I open a window-”

The woman at the desk frowned.  “My employer is… particular.”

“I’ve heard.”

“If you leave the cigarette butts lying around, or if this room smells too strongly of smoke after you’ve left, he will be upset.”

“I understand.”

“It’s your funeral,” she said.

Trickster stepped over to the window, found the latch, and swung it open.  He rested his elbows on it and leaned out, drew a cigarette and lit it, being sure to hold it and exhale outside of the window.

The Boston skyline stretched out before him, with the ocean in the distance.  Over the last year and three months, he’d picked up on how things were subtly different in this world.  It wasn’t explicit, wasn’t overt, but he couldn’t help but notice that all of the newer constructions were sturdier.  Buildings were more reinforced, just a little thicker where supports were required, as though disaster was always at the periphery of the designer’s attention.  At the same time, windows were often larger, and many apartments had floor-to-ceiling windows for a wider view of the world beyond.

How had Jess put it?  This world was sublime.  A world that was awesome in the truer sense of the word, greater in so many respects.  In a metaphorical sense, the peaks were higher, the valleys lower, works of art more artful, extremes more… extreme.  It wasn’t a good thing.  Make the mountains twice as tall and the chasms twice as deep, and things start crumbling.

He missed home, but every day, every week, home felt a little further away.

“Accord will see you now, Trickster.”

Trickster nodded, crushed his cigarette against the outside of the building, flicked it over the ledge, and then stepped away to close and latch the window before entering the office. He was sure to remove his hat.

Supervillains were weird.  Every one of them had different rules, different aesthetics, different goals.  All of them, himself included, had their own issues.

Accord wasn’t the most influential figure in Boston.  That was why Trickster had approached him.  He didn’t even look like a supervillain.  He looked like a CEO.  Only an ornate mask with curling, overlapping bands of dark metal trimmed in silver marked him as anything more.  His hair was oiled and neatly parted, and his white suit had been brushed clean with immaculate care.  Trickster doubted there was even a fingerprint or a glimmer of tarnish on Accord’s silver tie pin.  For all his presence, Accord was barely over five feet in height.

For his part, Trickster had taken care to clean his own clothing and comb his own hair.  It was becoming a ritual, entering a new city.  One typically had to find the meeting place.  Virtually every city with ten or more supervillains had one, a neutral ground for the villains to meet.  He would then find the people in the know, pay some of the money he’d held on to from the last city to get the necessary information on who was who and how they operated, and move on from there.  He’d been briefed thoroughly on Accord.

“Trickster, was it?”

“Yes,” Trickster stepped forward.  He offered his hand.

Accord shook it, his grip strong.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m observing formalities.  My team, as you may know, tends to move from location to location, city to city.  It’s a bad idea to settle down for any length of time in an area owned by a local power, so I wanted to ask permission first.”

“I see.”

“If you saw fit to grant that permission, I would then ask if you’d let us engage in some minor activity.  Robbing low-level stores, primarily.  Possibly a bank.  All in your area.”

If I granted that permission, Trickster,” Accord raised a warning finger. “I would not be doing so for free.”

Trickster nodded.  “I understand, and I wouldn’t expect you to.  We’ve recently passed through Richmond, Paine, Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Each time, we paid a modest up front fee to anyone that hosted us in their territory.  We also offered up a twelve, thirteen, twelve and ten percent share, respectively, of our take.  For you, if you’ll allow me to make an opening offer, I’d suggest ten thousand dollars up front and a fourteen percent share of anything we gain.  We’ll be saying for ten days.”

“So you’ll give me fourteen percent when you offered less to others.  You think you’re flattering me.”

“Yes.  We’re staying a little bit longer here.  We looked into it, the heroes don’t have a strong presence here in your Charlestown territory.  We can get away with just a little bit more.”

“Don’t think I won’t look into the amounts you just gave me.”  Accord was using a stylized fountain pen to make a note on a pad of paper.  Trickster wasn’t entirely sure, but the paper didn’t seem to have lines, and Accord was still making them meticulous, with neat, tight, flowing script.

“I wouldn’t lie,” Trickster said.  “That’s a good way to get killed, and I rather like being alive.”

“It has its moments,” Accord said.  He wiped the end of the fountain pen and snapped the lid into place.  The pen joined all the other objects on the desk, arranged with explicit care to even spacing and hard right angles.  It was almost artistic, the way things were arranged for both size and utility, and the uniform nature of the aesthetics, with the colors and materials seeming to flow from object to object.  Silver and wood in dark cherry.

Accord looked down and corrected the position of the pen on his desk before turning back to Trickster.  “Fifteen thousand dollars, and fifteen percent of any take.  The heroes don’t have a strong presence here because they don’t need a strong presence here.  I maintain the peace.  It will cost me if I have people here, active and causing trouble.”

A little steep.  “I’ll have to discuss that with my teammates.”

“Before you do, let me make you an alternate offer.  You do mercenary work?”

“We do.”

“I’d like to hire you for a task.”

“What task?”

“I’d like certain items stolen from a rival.  I can describe them to you and show you photographs.  Do this for me, and we’ll waive the fee for entering my territory.  Also, I’ll concede to have my share cut down to a mere ten percent.”

“Which rival?”

“Blasto.  A tinker.  Not quite the destructive personality his name implies.”

“I read up on him.  Blasto from the latin prefix, meaning bud, germination or seed.  Tinker botanist, grows walking, sentient plants in giant glass tubes.”

Accord gave Trickster an approving nod.  “Yes.  Tinkers are… bothersome.  Tinkers who work wet are especially bothersome.  They build, they learn from past research and past projects, each thing is created more elegantly or faster with the tools they’ve designed and amassed over time.  A tinker designs a better welding torch, to use an analogy, and that allows him or her to build a better power drill.  And so the cycle continues.  Steal Blasto’s tools for my trophy case, it will set him back weeks or months.  I’ll give you a further bonus if you destroy any other projects of his, as well as any computers or blueprints.”

“Dangerous, to attack a tinker in his lair.”

“Ah, you want more than just the waiving of your hospitality fee?”

Trickster was careful to be diplomatic.  “No offense intended.  If Blasto was that easy to handle, I’m sure you would have dealt with him already.”

“Agreed.  Hm.  As you surely already know, I am a craftsman.  Not a tinker, but I use my power to create quality goods.”

“I’m aware.”

“I will pay you a moderate sum, and I will also supply a set of costumes for your team.  Use your free time over the coming week to make notes on what you desire.  Newspaper clippings, printed images or links to online images each of you individually like.  They do not necessarily need to be of costumes or clothing.  I would meet each of your teammates to assess their preferences.  With that, I can guarantee you costumes that everyone in your group will like.”

And you bring the world a little more in order, Trickster thought.  Accord was a thinker, and the running theory on his power was that he got naturally smarter as the problems he was addressing got more complex.  It gave him an intuitive understanding of groupthink, politics, and convoluted designs.  It also made him a local warlord capable of devastating counterattacks.  The power failed to grant him the same advantages in a one-on-one fight, and he wasn’t quite the same battlefield strategist when it came to direct assaults.

Which was, Trickster understood, why Accord wanted him and the other Travelers to handle the attack on their own.

“Only four of us need costumes,” Trickster said.  “The other can make her own.”

“Only four costumes?  When there are seven of you?”  Accord’s tone made it all too clear that he knew he was admitting knowledge he shouldn’t have.

He knows about Noelle.

“When there are seven of us, yes,” Trickster said, feigning a lack of concern.

The door banged open.  Trickster tensed, his power reaching, even before he saw the threat.

It was Sundancer, with the receptionist following quickly behind.

Idiot, Trickster thought.  I told you to stay back.

“Trickster,” she said.  Then she saw Accord.  “I’m sorry for interrupting.”

“The deal was for a one-on-one meeting,” Accord said.  His tone was strained, indignant.  Accord looked at his receptionist. “You didn’t warn her at the door?”

“I tried,” the receptionist said.  “She charged on through.”

“It’s an emergency,” Sundancer said.  “Trickster, we-”

“Shut up,” he said, and the tension in his voice coupled with Accord’s seemed to clue Sundancer into the gravity of the situation.

She fell silent.  She’s smarter than this, which means the situation’s bad.  But I can’t do anything about it until I finish dealing with Accord.

His heart was pounding.  “Go wait outside, Sundancer.  I was in the middle of a meeting.  If Accord is willing, we’ll wrap up this business quickly, I’ll… offer him something by way of apology, and then I’ll come and talk to you about the issue.”

Sundancer backed towards the door, turned and left.

“Very sorry, sir,” the receptionist murmured.  She closed the door.

Accord stepped over to the window behind his desk and stared outside.  Trickster waited patiently as the man composed himself.  Long seconds passed, and Trickster couldn’t help but imagine the worst case scenarios that would have Sundancer forgetting common sense and crashing a private meeting between supervillains.

“I am something of an oxymoron, Trickster,” Accord said, turning around.  He was measuring his words, stretching out the sentence, as though he were fully aware that Trickster was now in a hurry, and he wanted to apply pressure.

“Is that so?”

“You see, I deal with complicated things,” Accord touched his mask, “And I excel at them, but deep down, I’m a very simple person.”

“I think we’re all very simple when you look past the surface,” Trickster said.

“Quite so.  I like order, Trickster.  Order means everything has its place,” Accord touched his desk, moved his chair a fraction of an inch so it was squarely in place.  “And everyone has their place.  Your subordinate’s place was not here.”

“I understand.  I’m willing to make amends.”

“Of course,” Accord said.  He looked up and met Trickster’s eyes.  “I will be rescinding my earlier generosity.  Fifteen thousand dollars will find a way into my hands within the next twenty-four hours.”

“Agreed,” Trickster said.  There goes our pocket money.

“You’ll do my favor for me and expect no recompense.”


Accord paused, seemed to consider something.  “She’ll have to die, of course.”

Trickster tensed.  Really, really didn’t want to have to fight this guy.  “Let’s… not be so hasty.”

“There are two kinds of people in this world, Trickster.  Some fit into the intricate machine that is society, and they serve as cogs, gears, levers and weights.  I think you’re like that.  I liked you right off.  Even your power… balance, isn’t it?  Move things from one place to the next, but things remain fundamentally equivalent.”

“Well said,” Trickster replied.  His mind was racing.  How to convince the lunatic to leave Sundancer alone?  If he couldn’t, would it be better to fight and kill Accord now or wait until he could recruit the others?  Accord wouldn’t have invited him to a meeting if he didn’t have some kind of safeguards.  Traps?  For all Trickster knew, there was a pitfall in the floor or dart traps in the walls.  Accord’s power, his knack for complexity, would make it trivial to weave such things into the architecture of his home and office.  If he knew, he could use his power, time it to put Accord in the way of his own trap… but it could be something else entirely.

Accord was still talking.  “Others aren’t so accommodating.  They are freefalling, careening elements, bouncing off any and every surface, damaging everything they touch.  Pyrokinetics so often fall into this category, I’ve found.  Rest assured, it’s better to eliminate this disordered element before it does too much damage.”

Trickster couldn’t find the words to reply.  Think, Krouse, think!

“What a shame, such a young girl,” Accord sounded genuinely upset.

“What if…” Trickster started, his mind racing.


“What if I told you she was an agent of order in the universe?  That this situation, it’s not her that’s causing the discord?  Like us, she’s just reacting to another force?”

“You don’t know the details any more than I do.”

“True.  But I know her.”

“You’re biased by virtue of being her teammate.  I see no other way than to act decisively.  Would you like to do the honors, or should I?”

“I’ll show you what I mean.  She’ll show you.”


“Just give me a second to go get her.  Maybe a bit of time to prepare-”

“Ten minutes, Trickster, and only because I like you.”

“Ten minutes,” Trickster answered him.

“And she comes alone.  If she’s truly an ordered individual, she’ll show me for herself.”

Trickster nodded, turned and walked calmly out of the office, counting in his head.

The second the door was closed, he bolted, checking the time on his cell phone.  That’ll be ten minutes exactly.  He set a timer, subtracting the time it had taken him to leave the office.

The entrance that led to Accord’s personal office was set in an alley, out of sight of the streets.  Trickster found Sundancer waiting.

“Trickster, it’s-”

“Stop,” he said, checking the phone.  Seven minutes left.  “Where’s your phone?”

She pulled it from her belt, “We-”

He used his power to swap her cell phone for his.  “No, listen carefully.  You just threw a neurotic, perfectionist supervillain’s world into disarray by intruding on our meeting like that.  He’s now rather intent on executing you for it.”


“And he’s a little guy with some big muscle at his beck and call.  We could maybe deal with them in a pinch, but it wouldn’t be pretty.  So I’m going to use your phone, call another member of our team to get filled in the emergency.  You’re going to fix your mistake, and you’ll do it in… six minutes and twenty-three seconds.  Look at the screen of my phone.  That’s your deadline.  Go, stop by a bathroom, tidy your hair, get it wet and comb it if you have to, but look proper.  Better to look neat than to look pretty, understand?  When the timer hits zero, you’ll walk into his office, then you’ll perform a ballet routine.”

“Ballet?  Krouse, I haven’t done it seriously in two years.”

“Pick a routine you can do perfectly over one that’s fancier or whatever.  Do it, apologize profusely for the intrusion, then bow out and leave.  If he gives any sign he’s not satisfied, or the second you fuck up, set the place on fire and scram.”


“Call me Trickster when I’m in costume,” he corrected, his voice hard.  “Don’t worry about burning him alive.  He’ll have escape routes.  You have five minutes and forty seconds, now.  It took me three to get from his office to here.  Go.”

Sundancer rushed to get inside.

Trickster called Oliver.

“Marissa?” Oliver asked.

“It’s Trickster,” he replied.  Need to talk about being more secure with our names.  “What’s going on?

“It’s Cody.  He touched Noelle.”

Trickster froze.  “How bad is it?”

Three times, Krouse.”

“Three,” Trickster said.  “Fuck me.  I’m on my way.”

There’s no way Cody’s stupid enough to make contact with Noelle.

There’s no way anyone would do it three times.  How?

Throwing caution to the wind, Trickster moved through the crowd of people by swapping with them, zig-zagging from one side of the street to the other, scanning the crowd.  People ran to get away from him as he appeared, but he didn’t care.  Just needed to minimize the damage.

Minimize the damage.  It’s becoming a running theme.

He found his target not by spotting him, but by seeing the reaction from the crowd.  People were hurrying to get out of his way, running away.

The guy was naked, covered in gnarly, tumorous growths, and was moving at a limping run, attacking anyone he could get his hands on.  One of his arms was larger than the other, and a fluid-filled blister covered his entire stomach, sloshing with the contents.  His jaw didn’t fit right, and had dislocated on one side, giving him a lopsided yawn.

A man shoved him and ran, sweeping his two children up in his arms as he fled.

Three seconds later, the man snapped back into the same position, in front of the creature.  Perdition… Cody.  Except not quite.  The man carried through the shoving motion, but Perdition wasn’t there any more.  Shoving empty space, the man stumbled and was clubbed over the neck and shoulders with a massive, misshapen fist.  He hit the ground with enough force that Trickster doubted he’d rise again.

The two children had fallen to the sidewalk when the man disappeared.  Perdition advanced on them.

Trickster crossed the street, swapping himself for one of the people who was fleeing the scene.  The children were running, but Perdition wasn’t one to let his targets slip out of his grasp.  The six year old didn’t get more than three steps before getting reset to his original position.

“Hey!”  Trickster called out.  “I’m the one you want!”

Perdition spun around, and Trickster was already swapping himself for someone else, not allowing his opponent more than a glance.

Hide in the crowd.  Can’t allow him a chance to get me.

“Kroushe!”  Perdition screamed.  He couldn’t completely close his mouth, and slurred the words.


“Keell you!  Mehk it shlow, mehk you beg an’ crah and sheht yershelf lekk a baby!”

The little kid was getting away.  Trickster allowed himself a sigh of relief.

“Shheh wush mine!  An’ you ruinn herr!”  Perdition screamed at a volume that distorted his voice even further, left it ragged.

Trickster winced.

“Muh cahreer, muh frenndsh, my guhll!  You ‘ook hem!  Yer a ‘hief!

Some of the time, the powers would be different.  Most of the time, going by precedent, they were stronger.  Trickster was left to wonder how Perdition’s powers had changed.  Duration?  Range?  The amount of time reversed?

Then his surroundings flickered, half the crowd disappearing.

Trickster didn’t waste a second in swapping himself elsewhere, moving across the street.

Perdition was only just turning in the direction of where Trickster had been.

He doesn’t need to see me now?

Trickster saw everything shift again.

He’s got a lock on me.  Not as strong when he does it this way, but he can track me, force little jumps backward.

Perdition charged, and the crowd scattered.

He reached for his belt, saw another shift, and Perdition was suddenly twenty feet closer, a few steps away.  With no time to follow through, Trickster swapped himself out of the way.

-And only belatedly recalled that he was putting another person in Perdition’s path.  Perdition knocked a young woman to the ground, grabbed her, and then slammed her into a wall.

She wouldn’t have survived the impact.

“Kroushe!” Perdition roared.

Another shift hit.  They’re about ten seconds apart, and he’s hitting me for anywhere from one to five seconds each time.

Perdition was halfway across the street.  With the way the crowd was scattering and the number of available people to swap with was dwindling, he was running out of options.  He could run or he could stay and fight, virtually powerless.

He stayed, reached to his side, and unbuckled the largest pouch on his belt.

Perdition was getting closer.  He seemed to have only a general sense of where Trickster was, wide, mad, bulging eyes roving over the crowd.

Trickster swapped himself for someone else, waited until Perdition started to turn, then did another swap.

Perdition paced from one side of the street to the sidewalk, between the last two of Trickster’s chosen destinations.

Only one or two seconds were left before the next automatic time skip.

Trickster swapped himself for the body of the girl who Perdition had thrown into the wall, drew his gun and fired it, all in one smooth motion.  Screams of alarm erupted in the wake of the gunshot.

He stepped closer, then emptied the remainder of the clip into Perdition’s head and chest.

He swapped himself for someone in the lingering crowd, grabbed the closest person.  “I hope you own a car.  Because you’re going to lend it to me.  Fast.”

Krouse pulled the car into the driveway.  Oliver was outside, and hurried to Krouse’s side.

Oliver was taller than him, now.  The baby fat was gone, and he was fit.  Krouse had wondered at times why Chris had been so attractive to the ladies.  He didn’t wonder with Oliver.  Oliver was attractive in a way that meant he could model, he was naturally athletic, he was even smart.  It was scary how fast he was picking up new skills.

But he was still Oliver.  Whatever gradual transition his power was offering, it hadn’t changed the person at the core of it; an insecure, socially stunted teenage boy.  In a way, it had made it worse.  Oliver’s face and body changed according to his basic perception of attractiveness, and that changed a little every time he saw a new face.  In little ways, his face changed day by day, to the point that it wasn’t always easy to recognize him.

Fuck you, Simurgh, Krouse thought.  They’d all been forced to deal with their individual tragedies.  Noelle’s went without saying.  Jess hadn’t gotten to walk, Luke hadn’t gotten to fly, Oliver got a physical and mental overhaul without any fixes for the real problems, and Marissa had been thrust into the situation she’d fought so hard to escape, where she was forced to pursue a life she didn’t want.

Krouse’s tragedy was waiting for him inside.

As for Cody’s…

Oliver helped Krouse move the body out of the passenger seat.

They grunted as they carried it through the front door.  Krouse double checked nobody was observing.  He’d parked briefly to remove his costume, then swapped himself and the body for people in another car before continuing en route to their current hideout.  It was the middle of the day, and virtually everyone in this neighborhood would be at work or at school, but he feared some college student or elderly person would just happen to be outdoors or walking a dog.  It would make things complicated.

Accord wasn’t so wrong on that subject.  Things were better when they were simple.

Krouse and Oliver dragged the body to the middle of the living room.  It joined two others.  Each was different in the mutations, in the distortions and impurities.  Each of the three bodies was Perdition. Was Cody.

He looked at Ballistic, Jess and Oliver.  “Three?  You’re sure?”

“Sure enough,” Ballistic said.

“How’s she?”

“Upset.  You’re going to have to talk to her, calm her down.”

Krouse winced, nodded.

They all stared at the bodies.  This would be the third incident.  Or incidents three through five, if he wanted to count it that way.

“How much damage done?” Krouse asked.  “Anyone hurt?”

“A bunch hurt but nobody got killed by the one I went after,” Jess said.

“Yeah, a few hurt,” Ballistic said.  He paused.  “One dead.”

“Fuck,” Krouse said.  “At least two dead at the hands of the one I stopped.  Not as bad as last fall.”

Ballistic shook his head.

“We… we can’t let this happen again,” Jess said.

“That’s what we said last time,” Krouse noted.

“She’s getting stronger,” Jess said.  “And more volatile.”

“We’ll fix her,” Krouse said, his voice a touch hollow.  “We’ll fix her, and we’ll get home.”

Just words.  How can they believe me when I don’t even buy it?

“Where is he?” he asked, breaking the lingering silence.

Ballistic pointed in the direction of one of the ground floor bedrooms.

“What happened?” Krouse asked.

“We don’t know.  Neither Cody or Noelle are saying.”

Fuck.  Okay.  I need a smoke, then we’ll resolve this.”

“Krouse-” Luke said.  But Krouse was already out of the living room, pushing his way through the front door.

He stepped outside, sat on the front steps, took his time in getting his cigarette and lighting it.  He finished the first, started on the second, and gave serious consideration to having a third after that.

He shut his eyes.  Just need a moment of calm, a few minutes to organize my thoughts.


He resisted the urge to sigh.  Marissa was there, coming down the path from the driveway.  “Mars.  Glad you did okay with Accord.  Sorry to leave you like that.”

“It’s okay.  It was better that you went to deal with the situation.  I couldn’t have.  I don’t have it in me, even knowing they aren’t real.”

Krouse nodded, closed his eyes.

“He said I wasn’t perfect.”

Krouse froze, turned to see her leaning against the railing just beside him.  She’d changed into civilian clothes.  “You burned his place down, then?”

“No,” she said.  “He said I wasn’t perfect, but that he saw what you meant.  He said I was trying, despite myself.  I… I don’t know if that was a compliment or not.”


“Um.  He wants you to see him tonight.  Nine sharp.  And, um.  He said that if I’m not the problem, he fully expects you to bring the real culprit.  Did he mean Noelle?”

“Cody,” Krouse said.  “Shit.  Not the way I wanted this to go.”

“What!?  Krouse, he’s going to kill him.”


“We can’t!”

“We may have to.  If we don’t give him a scapegoat, he’ll send assassins and homicidal underlings after us.  We need someone to blame, not just for intruding on the meeting, but for the three very violent scenes that erupted in his territory earlier today.  Not to mention that we can’t afford to pack up shop and move right now, not while Noelle’s as upset as she is.  Between the two of us, I think we’ve charmed Accord enough that I’d bet we can get away with giving him Cody and paying him a fair sum.  We do that, we can stay for ten days.  We’ll gather some funds and give Noelle time to quiet down.”

“You’re talking about killing a teammate.”

“He was never a teammate.  He was one of us, yes, but he never cooperated, never worked with the rest of us.”

“We made a pact, a promise.  To stick together, no matter what.  To do what it took to fix Noelle and get home.”

Krouse shut his eyes.  “I know.  Not an hour goes by that I don’t think about it.”

“You’re breaking that promise if you give Cody up.”

Krouse sighed, took a drag of his cigarette and blew smoke out through his nostrils.


“Mars.  There’s no reason he’d enter her room and intentionally touch her three times.  You know that, I know that.”

He turned around to glance at her, saw her frowning.

“What do you mean, Krouse?”

“I mean he waited until the rest of us were busy, then he entered her room and he enraged her.  Because for there to be three points of contact, three uses of her power, she’d have to be the one making the contact.  She’d be using her power on purpose, and she wouldn’t do that if she wasn’t berserk.  I’m guessing he was badly hurt?”

“Broken arm, broken leg.”

Krouse nodded.  He took another drag of his cigarette.

“Why?  How?”

“He had a goal in mind, only he didn’t anticipate how fast she moves, how strong she is.  He was trying to do one of two things.  Either he did something general, said something, with the aim of making her go berserk… or he tried to kill her.  One way or another, Cody wanted to end this.  End our mission.  Free himself.  He doesn’t give a fuck about the promise, so I don’t see why the promise should protect him.”

“I don’t- I can’t believe that.”

“You can’t believe that Cody is that self-centered?  Did you just come from an alternate universe with a different Cody?”

“No.  I… I can almost believe it.  But you’re talking about killing.  Or giving him to someone else so they’ll kill him.”

Krouse finished the cigarette and tossed it to the base of the steps, crushed it under his toe.

“Tell you what,” he said.  “Let me talk to the others.  Maybe Cody too, just to confirm suspicions.  We’ll see if the others come to the same conclusion.”

“Krouse, you’re talking about sentencing Cody to death.”

“He knew what he was getting into.  And whatever else happened, three innocent people are dead because he fucked up.  So we’ll talk to the others.  We’ll come to a consensus.”

“This is ugly.  God, Krouse, it’s still Cody.”

“Yeah.  It’s not pretty.  So why don’t you take a break, clear your mind?  Maybe go do a food run for Noelle.”

Marissa frowned.  “Hate these runs.”

“We have to, and your turn’s up.”

“I know, I know.  But people look at me funny when I bring a cart of meat and only meat.”

“Tell them you’re buying for a restaurant and the wholesaler dropped the ball today.”

“It still looks weird.”

“Maybe find a butcher?  We’ve got a backyard here, if you want to get maybe two whole pigs, you can tell him you’re throwing a party.”

“Fuck it,” she muttered.  “Keys?”

Krouse fished the keys and the carton of cigarettes from his pocket.  He tossed her the keys and tapped another cigarette out of the box.

“And stop smoking.  You’re killing yourself, Krouse.”

“I know,” he said.

She was all the way at the car when she turned around and hurried back to the front steps.

“What?”  Krouse asked.

“I almost forgot.  Accord.  He wanted me to pass this on.”

She handed him a piece of paper.  There was a number printed on it.  Different area code.

“What is it?”

“He said someone was trying to get in contact with you.”


Marissa shrugged.

“For the record, Marissa, with guys like Accord, you can’t almost forget to pass on messages, and you don’t waltz in on a business meeting.  Things could have turned out a lot different today.  They still might.”

“I… I don’t want to interact with guys like him.”

“We have to.  Only way to go about it.”

“I know.  I just… next time we run into someone like that, I’ll stay hands off.  Keep my distance.”

“Alright.  Go, shop.  Take your time.  Give yourself a break, buy an ice cream or something.  You have my permission and my orders to go distract yourself.”

Marissa retreated to the car.

Krouse puffed for a minute on his second cigarette, pulled out his phone, and dialed the number.


“Accord gave me this number.”

Then this would be Trickster, I presume.


I have a business proposition for the Travelers.

“Well, things have gone a little south with Accord, here, so I’m not quite sure where we stand, but I need to do this job for him before I take on anything else.”

This is more of a long-term job.

“We don’t really do long-term.  We don’t stay in one place for long.”

I’m well aware of your circumstances.

Trickster took a long haul on his cigarette.  “That so?”

I know Accord through a mutual acquaintance.  Through this acquaintance and my own resources, I’ve gathered a fairly robust set of data on you Travelers.

“That sounds vaguely threatening.”

I suppose it might, to individuals trying to avoid scrutiny.  Rest assured, it is just the opposite.  I know what issues you face, Trickster, and I am offering you a solution.

“A solution?”

I’m offering three things, to be precise.  Work for me.  Help me achieve my goals and I will allow you to achieve yours.”

Krouse leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees.  he held the cigarette in one hand and the phone in the other.  “What do you know of our issues?”

I know what the PRT knows.  I know you appeared out of nowhere, that a Luke Casseus and a Noelle Meinhardt were admitted for care to St. Mary’s hospital, yet there are no such students on any high school rosters.

“We’re not from there,” Krouse said.

Then why did Luke Casseus put down Madison, Wisconsin as a place of residence?

Krouse suppressed a groan.

Rest assured, Trickster, there is no need for any alarm.  The fact that I know these things is an asset to you.  A contact of mine in the PRT has taken over your case file and requisitioned all details on your encounter with Myrddin.  That case will not be pursued further.

“And why are you doing this for us?”

Because I have goals of my own, and I believe one can’t be too careful.  When hiring expert help, I prefer that help to be loyal.  I will get that loyalty by giving you what you desire.  Everyone has their price, and my research into you Travelers has been done with the goal of discovering what that price is.

“Yeah?  Let’s hear it.  What’s our price?”

All the money you require, for one.  So long as you’re in my employment, I will pay for whatever you require.  Even if it is nearly one thousand, five hundred dollars in groceries per week.

“How generous.”

Number two?  I will send you home.

Krouse stopped, the cigarette dangling from his lips.

A man in power like myself has contacts.  Through one of these contacts, I have access to a man who can create doorways between worlds.  The caveat is that I won’t have the power, funds or leverage to request assistance from this individual until my own goals are met.

“So we have to help you for you to help us.”

Exactly, Trickster.  As for your other problem, well, that is a more daunting task.


“You said you could help.”

I can’t guarantee anything.  I can offer all of my resources, which are considerable, and all of the resources I will have, which are even more so.

“Sounds pretty wishy-washy.”

Perhaps.  But when making an argument or making a sale, I find it’s best to lead with the second best offer, move on to the weaker ones, and then close with the best.  I am offering you one more thing.


The man on the phone told him.

It was another minute before Krouse hung up.

Krouse spent fifteen more minutes sitting on the front steps of the house.  It was the first time in a year that he’d had a moment to stop and think and he didn’t reach for his  cigarettes.

When he stood, he was in something of a daze.

He stepped back inside.

“Krouse,” Luke said, “We need to talk about what we’re doing with Cody.”

“Later,” Krouse said.

“What’s going on?”

“Going to go talk to Noelle.”

“She’s pissed, Krouse.  She’ll flip out on you, and I’m not doing this again.  I won’t fucking hunt down deranged mutant clones.  Especially not yours.”

“Not an issue.  She’ll like what I have to say.”


After, Luke,” Krouse said.  He spun around, faced his friend. “I think we’ve got what we’re looking for.”


“A way home.  Maybe even a fix for Noelle.”

“How?  Who?”

“Some supervillain in Brockton Bay.  Wants us to work for him for a little while.  There’s more, but…”


Trickster met Luke’s eyes, “I want to tell her first.  Everything that’s happened, I have to.”

“We deserve to know too, Krouse.  We’ve been working at this as long as you have.  We’ve had our hopes up and had them dashed too.  Too many times.”

“I know.  I know.  Just… I’ll tell you after I’ve told her.  I think this is it.”

He caught a glimpse of Luke’s expression as he turned away.  A look of deep sadness.  Krouse hesitated.

What was he supposed to say?

“Just a few minutes,” Krouse said, “I’ll be back, then I’ll explain.”

He made his way to Noelle’s room, knocked.

Go away.”

“It’s Krouse.”

There was a long delay.

“What do you want?”

“I want to come in,” he said.

“No you don’t.”

“I do.  Please.”

There was a long delay.  He took that for assent.

Noelle didn’t meet his eyes as he entered.  He noted the mangled bedframe, the splintered wood from the boxspring, and the mattress torn in two.  An oak cabinet had been demolished, and both bedside tables were in ruins.  There wasn’t a single intact piece of furniture left.

He turned towards her.  “I-“

“Don’t look at me,” she said.

He stopped, then he seated himself on the floor with his back to the remains of the cabinet, his back to her.

“Come to talk?” she asked.  “Keep me company?”

“I was planning on doing it a little later. Things are kind of a mess out there, you know.  The Cody situation.”

“Nobody keeps me company any more.  Only you.”

“Yeah.  But that’s not why I’m here.”

“You want to know what happened with Cody.”

“I know what happened with Cody.  He tried to kill you.”

There was a long silence.

“I can’t die, Krouse.  I’ve tried.  Tried to end it.  Spare you guys from looking after me.  I can’t.  Nothing works.”


“I’m one of them.  Or I’m becoming that way.”


“An Endbringer.”

He felt a chill, and it wasn’t the early spring temperature.

“Maybe.  Or maybe you’re more like those monsters that were dumped on the street.”

They could die.  You told me that you killed one of them.”

“Probably.  But I saw another one die, you’re right.”

“And my power, if I get stronger, if I get more out of control-“

“You won’t.”

“I’ll be just as bad as the Simurgh.  In a different way.  I touch someone, and then I spit out copies.  Uglier, stronger… meaner.  I can’t control them.  If I got my hands on one of the major heroes?  Someone like that Myrddin guy?”

“You won’t.  Listen to me, Noelle.  I was just talking to someone.  We may have an answer.”

He heard her shift position, flinched despite himself.

“You’ve said that before,” she said.

“This sounds like it.  He’s not saying he might be able to make something that can get us home.  He’s saying he already knows someone who has a way.  Someone who goes back and forth.  And he knows people.  Scholars, scientists, this one girl with powers he didn’t explain, who knows stuff.  Like Accord does.”

“The guy you saw today?”

“Yeah, the one I told you about,” Krouse was getting excited, despite himself.  “The way this guy described it, there’s a solution out there, and he can get it.”

“Krouse, it’s- it’s not that easy.”

“I know.  I know it’s not easy, but there was a third offer on the table.  A third thing he was giving us.  He said we should consider it a bonus.”


Hope, Noelle.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He just got someone working for him, and this person can see the future.  And she says there is a way to help you.  Definitely.  Chances are low, but he says he’s confident he can maximize them.”

“He could be lying.”

“No, listen.  The Simurgh?  This guy said she has a weakness.  Two ways where she can’t see the future.  Two ways to break free of her cause and effect.”

Noelle didn’t say anything.

“The first way, you’ve got to be basically immune to powers.  Scion is.  He’s immune to precognition, throws everything out the window when he shows up.  I saw it when he fought the Simurgh.  She couldn’t automatically dodge his stuff, because she either couldn’t read his mind or she couldn’t see the attacks before they happened.  So he hit her, a bunch of times.  I saw it.”

There still wasn’t a response.

Krouse was getting more excited, had to press his hand flat against the floor to stop it from shaking.  “And the other way?  There’s thinker powers that mess with her ability to influence events. If another precog gets a hand in events, the Simurgh automatically shuts them down and vice-versa.  The way this guy said it, the precogs get overloaded with the second-guessing the other precog, on top of having to figure out all the quantum possibilities and split paths.  And this guy?  He has a power that messes with precogs some, and the precog working for him has a power that will help circumvent the Simurgh’s power.  Get it?  So long as we work for him, we’re free of it.  No more cause and effect.  No more feeling like we’re doomed no matter what choice we make.  We go from that kind of safety to home.  To our world.

Krouse turned around, and despite himself, he was smiling.  He had to blink rapidly to clear the tears that were collecting in his eyes, threatening to run down his face.

Noelle was perched on the ruined bed.  Her fingers were clutching a sweatshirt, with no shirt beneath.  Still the Noelle he’d always known.

From the waist up.

Around where her pelvis should have been, she’d changed.  The mass of tissue left her tall enough that she had to hunch over to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling, and she was lying down.  Half of it was angry, red, wrinkled or blistered.  The other half was smooth tissue, dark greens, dark brown and pale grays.  The head of an animal, half-bovine and half-canine, extended from the front, large as a horse from the back of its skull to the tip of its flaring nostrils.  Another head was in progress, emerging just to the left.  Two forelegs extended to either side of the heads, rippling with powerful muscle, ending in something that fell between claw and hoof, massive and easily capable of tearing through steel.

There were the fingers and thumb of a hand, extending from her right hindquarters, each digit thicker around than Krouse was, with another, smaller limb extending from the palm.  Her rear left hindquarters featured only a mess of tentacles, some bearing partial exoskeleton, some long enough that they had to encircle the massive head and numerous limbs, or wind in a wreath around her as she lay down, lest their coiled mass fill the master bedroom of the house and leave Krouse nowhere to sit.  Despite the apparent lack of bones, the tentacles were capable of supporting her weight.

She didn’t expel waste.  She only grew, or she reinforced what had already grown.

She’d tried to starve herself, to die of thirst.  It had turned out badly.  She’d gone berserk and killed forty people in one autumn night.  Their tissues had played a large part in building the massive fingers and thumb that extended behind her.

The others didn’t know quite how bad things had gone, then.  He’d managed to shield them from the news reports, the total body count, had kept them moving from city to city until the story died away.  They knew people had died, they didn’t know it was forty.

It was bad.  A bad situation overall, one that had Krouse retreating from the house in the dead of night, just to find the most remote location he could reach, to weep, to scream his frustration, rage, shame and guilt and not worry about the others hearing it.

But with all of that, with her sheer intimidating presence, he was nonetheless able to look up and meet Noelle’s eyes.  Hers were welling with tears, too.

“I believed what he was saying,” Krouse said.  “I think this might be it.  Our best chance.”

“You think so?  We can hope?”

“We can hope,” he repeated, whispering the words, as much to himself as to her.

A wave crashed against the beach.

He hurt all over.  His body wasn’t listening as he told it to move.  His hand slipped on the pavement as he tried to push himself up off the ground.  There was sand filling the cracks in the pavement, denying him traction.

He flipped himself over onto his back, instead, then sat up.  He wobbled as he stood.

The first thing he saw was Jess.  Jess in her wheelchair, at the edge of the grass, where it dropped down to the beach.  She was staring at the ocean.

“J-” he started to shout, had to force more air into his lungs before he could.

“Jess!” he hollered.

She didn’t move.

Sundancer was lying beside him.  He raised her mask and checked that she was breathing.  She was just unconscious.

His eyes roved over the empty lot.  No people.  No soldiers.  No other parahumans.

His eyes settled on a dense cluster of seagulls.

Krouse nearly fell as he made his way towards them.  He didn’t miss the tracks Jess’s wheelchair had made.  She’d been here.  She’d seen.

The seagulls scattered as he approached.  He saw a white feather that had been left behind, ground it under his toe as he might one of his cigarettes.

The birds had been gathering around a mark.  A stain.  There wasn’t a better word to sum it up.

It was blood.  Enough blood that whoever it had belonged to wasn’t alive anymore.  Drag marks extended off towards one side of the lot.  The soldiers had taken the body, and the seagulls had taken much of the remaining gore.  All that was left were bits of skull, and little fatty blobs that might have been brain.  The bullet would have passed through and shattered the cranium, by the looks of it.

He had no doubt as to who had died here.  Could remember the scene as it had been just before he’d been knocked unconscious, could remember where people had been standing.

Another wave crashed against the beach.  He heard the seagulls cawing angrily, wanting the morsels that littered the ground in front of him.

Krouse spent a very long time staring at the stain.

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Monarch 16.13

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

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

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

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

“Except it wasn’t me.”

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

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

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

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

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

“It’s fine.”

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

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

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

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

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

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

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

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

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

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

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

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

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

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

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

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

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

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

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

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

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

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

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” I muttered.

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

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

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

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

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

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

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

I closed my mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You said she teleported away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know where Dinah is.

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

“You’re sure?”

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

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

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

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

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

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

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

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

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

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

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

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

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

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

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

“If-”  Calvert started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding,” Imp said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then-” Grue started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Farewell, Under-“

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

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

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

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

“Against your rule.”

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

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

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

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

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


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

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

“None of us?” I asked.

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

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

“The requests first, if you please.”

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


“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

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

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

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

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

“Fine.  Is that it?”

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

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

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

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

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

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

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

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

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

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

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

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

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

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

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

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

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.


“Any further questions?”

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

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

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

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

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

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

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

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

Bitch fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rose-L,” I called out.

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

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

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

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

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”


“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From me?”

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

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

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

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

“That was your idea.”

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

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

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

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

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

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

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvert only glared.

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

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

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

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

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

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded into his shoulder.

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

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

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

“You okay?” Grue asked.

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

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She bobbed her head in a nod.

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

“Medical care,” Grue said.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t notice?”

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

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

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

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

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Monarch 16.11

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I’d sensed the movement of his finger a fraction of a second before the gun went off, and tried to lean out of the way.  It didn’t help.  Dodging bullets wasn’t a trick I had my repertoire.  Judging by the way the gun followed me as I moved, Thomas Calvert either knew his way around guns or he was using his power to help ensure he hit his target.  Or, more likely, it was both.

Getting hit, the smallest part of me could only think costume can’t stop a bullet after all.  Except it wasn’t even a complete thought.  Just a momentary disappointment as I felt the impact of the bullet passing through my chest to my back.

I hit the ground, my mouth agape, and I couldn’t feel my heartbeat in the aftermath of the hit.  It felt like a sledgehammer had hit me in the dead center of my torso.  I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think in a coherent fashion.

But the remainder of my bugs were already flowing out of my costume as I fell prone.  Capsaicin bugs moved in the general direction of Thomas Calvert and his soldiers, pre-prepared cords of thread unspooled from beneath my costume, trailing behind flying insects.  I couldn’t think straight enough to orchestrate a smart attack, to tell them to go for the weak points, but they advanced swiftly, biting exposed flesh and forming a barrier between me and my attackers.

Calvert backed away, his nose and mouth tucked into the crook of his elbow, eyes squinting shut.  He emptied his clip in my general direction, but he didn’t have a bead on me.  He couldn’t see, between the cloud of bugs between us and the bugs crawling on his face.

I had flying insects catch the end of his gun with a cord and pull it off target further, and he backed up.  I went a step further and wound threads around other guns, hoping to forestall the inevitable onslaught of bullets.  If I could find leverage, someone or something that was moving, and pull them off-target before they shot me down-

When he spoke, his voice was raised to be heard despite the muffling effect, “Out of the room.  Fill it with bullets… no.  Scratch that.”

He’s coming up with counter-counter-plans before I even have a strategy in mind.

“…Set her on fire.  Her costume is bulletproof, and I want this done.  I need to attend to other matters.”

I couldn’t breathe.  I could exhale, was huffing small breaths of pain, but I felt like my chest had caved in.  My pulse wasn’t pounding, my blood seemed to move too slowly through my veins, and I couldn’t inhale to inflate my crushed chest.

Through my bugs, I could sense the two men stepping forward.  Each wore gas masks and each had a bottle in one hand.  A pungent odor trailed behind them, overwhelming and oppressing my bugs’ senses of smell and taste.

I pressed one hand to my chest, as if I could gauge the damage done, and reflexively pulled it away as I touched something hot.  A snarl of metal, embedded in the thickest portion of the armor I’d designed into the chest, and it was hot enough that it hurt to touch it.  A bullet, I thought.  I’d never considered that bullets would be hot.

The realization coupled with the sting of the burn at the base of my palm helped to clarify my thoughts.  The bullet hadn’t penetrated.  I’d felt, what, the shockwave of the bullet hitting?  Or I’d filled in the blanks wrong in the expectation of getting shot?

It didn’t matter, because one of Thomas Calvert’s soldiers had just flicked the switch on a lighter, and I realized the bottles they were holding had to be makeshift molotov cocktails.

Though my body was numb and my responses felt too sluggish, I reached behind my back.  With some of the non-flying bugs still residing in my utility compartment, I found what I was looking for in a flash, drawing it from the slot I’d dedicated to it and getting it in position in my hand in an instant.

I aimed the pepper spray at the lighter and fired.  It offered ten feet of range, and they were on the other side of the room, with a heaping mess of containment foam between us.

The pepper spray ignited and set fire to his sleeve and the shirt around his upper body.  The lighter dropped to the ground as he thrashed, trying to pull his shirt off despite the gloves and the gas mask he wore.

It wasn’t the brightest move, trying to stop someone from lighting a fuse by setting them on fire, but I wasn’t in a position to be picky.  I tried to push myself to my feet, but my chest flared with pain and I collapsed, putting me in a position that was almost worse.  The pain lanced throughout my ribcage, as if the structural integrity wasn’t there, and putting any strain on my torso threatened total collapse of everything that held it together.

My bugs were already moving towards the other guy with the molotov.  He’d hesitated at seeing his buddy go up in flames, and now cords of thread were winding around the neck of the bottle, the fingers that gripped it and his wrist, entwining them.

Irritating,” I was aware of Thomas Calvert’s voice in the next room.  He’d retreated and shut the door behind him, but it burst open as the man with the molotov tied to his hand beat a retreat before it could be ignited by the still-thrashing man.  Calvert added a snarled, “Damnation.”

“If we use grenades-” one of the soldiers started.

“Do not use grenades.  I assure you it does not work out the way you imagine it will.  Give me that.”

I could sense Director Calvert tearing the bottle free of the man’s hand.  I began arranging my bugs, creating a loose net with threads.  It wouldn’t stop the forward momentum, but I had some cord left.  I began winding it around the light fixture on the ceiling.  If I could catch the bottle-

He didn’t do as I’d expected, he didn’t light the rag, for one thing, and he didn’t toss the bottle at me.  Lobbing it underhanded, he tossed it at the floor just past the door.  The bottle shattered and the contents, gasoline by the smell of it, spread across the other half of the room.

The burning soldier that was still in the room with me screamed, yelped out the word, “No!”

He made a break for the door, and Calvert shot him.  The bullet wasn’t enough to stop the soldier’s forward momentum, but one of the other soldiers kicked him hard in the stomach.  Calvert used his foot to push the door closed as the man fell onto his back, landing in the pool of gasoline and broken glass.

His still-burning clothing ignited the accelerant.  In a heartbeat, the floor in front of the door was on fire, and the room was filled with the shrill screams of the thrashing, burning soldier.

I experienced a moment of animal panic.  The kind of mindless fear that was hardwired into our brains on a basic level, so that we, like a wolf, a deer or an ape would, knew that fire was bad.  Smoke was bad.  Fire was a thing to run from and I had nowhere to run.

I shook my head.  Had to think.

There was one exit to the room.  To get to it, I’d have to leap over a heap of containment foam, which I wasn’t sure I could manage with the way my chest was hurting and with no real running start.  Even if I passed the hurdle -and failure would mean I was stuck and trapped- I’d have to run through a pool of burning gasoline, avoid tripping on the flailing, burning man, get to the door and pull it open.

Except Calvert was calmly, efficiently ordering his men to gather tables and chairs and stack them against the door, as if the fire in the next room wasn’t even a concern.  A chair was propped up so it was under the doorknob, a heavier dining room table blocked the door itself.  Three soldiers worked together to move a tattered sofa, lifting the end to put it on the table.

My bugs.  I didn’t have enough here in the building, not enough to mount a serious attack on Calvert.  Most of the ones I’d brought with me had burned up as the room caught fire.  Some clung to Calvert and his men, but they were too few to do more than hurt and annoy.  In my mindless fear, I’d called for my bugs to come to me.  Or my passenger had, perhaps.  Maybe it was the two of us, working together through my subconscious.

Either way, I had only a few usable bugs, a whole mess of useless ones like moths, houseflies, cockroaches and ants from the surrounding neighborhood, and Thomas Calvert, Coil, was on his way out of the building.

I looked at the bigger scene.  I was in one of the areas that had been abandoned when Leviathan attacked.  This house hadn’t been nice to begin with, and the flooding had made things worse.  Calvert had prepped the area prior to teleporting me in.  The house sat on the corner of the block, and the two neighboring houses had been bulldozed.  There were no people in range that I could see.  He would have cleared it out so there were no eyewitnesses.  Portable chain link fences had been put up and bound together with loops of chain at the perimeter of the property.  He was stepping through an opening now, and his men closed it behind him, threading chain through.  Going by the lock one soldier held in his hand, they clearly planned to lock it as they had the others.

Just past the perimeter of the fence, there were a dozen trucks and cars surrounding the building, each turned toward the property, their headlights on.  Squads of soldiers stood beside and in front of the trucks, guns raised and ready.  Most had machine guns or handguns, bandoleers of grenades and all-concealing body armor.  Three had containment foam dispensers.

Leaving the property would be impossible, which didn’t matter because I wasn’t capable of leaving the room.  There were two windows, only one of which I could reach, and both were boarded up.  Not even just boarded up against the window frame, but the planks of wood were long and fixed to the studs of the wall, too.  I ran my hand over the end of one plank and felt the raised bumps of nails or screws.  An ant climbed off my fingertip to move over the surface of one bump.

Screws.  Screws with hexagonal slots.  Because Calvert wasn’t willing to risk that I’d have a screwdriver on hand with a more typical head on it.

I laughed.  It made my chest seize up in pain, it probably sounded a little crazed, but I laughed.  It was too much.

This would be a perfect time for a second trigger event.  Hadn’t Lisa said that my mind-power link was enhanced whenever I felt trapped?  I doubted I’d ever feel more trapped than I did right this moment.  I couldn’t see just how far the fire reached, because I was blind, and the heat of the fire was killing the bugs I needed for sensing my surroundings.  I had only a minute or two before the room became an oven and killed off the rest, leaving me blind and roasting to death.

I coughed as a wave of smoke hit me, and ducked my head low to keep breathing.

No, I probably wouldn’t burn to death.  I’d suffocate as the flame ate up the oxygen, go out quietly before I started burning.  Maybe I’d trigger then, after things got that bad.  It wouldn’t help, probably.  I couldn’t think of a single permutation of my powers that would get me out of this mess.

I went on the attack, sending my bugs after Calvert and his people.  Too many were useless, many weren’t even capable of biting.  Still,  I found three black widows in the immediate area.  After a moment’s consideration, I delivered them straight to Calvert.  They found flesh at his neck and bit.

He swatted at them, pinched one between his fingers, and raised it in front of his face.  Then he said something I didn’t catch.

There was no hurry in his movements as he flicked the dead spider to the ground and called out an order to his men.

The order, I feared, I actually heard and understood.  It helped that I had enough context to guess what the words were and fill in the blanks.

Burn it to the ground.

Fuck you,” I whispered, pressing my hands to the wooden planks.  I coughed as I inhaled another waft of smoke, then coughed harder as the combination of the pain in my chest and the smoke I was inhaling in my attemtps to catch my breath made for a self-perpetuating cycle.  Calvert’s men were lighting more molotovs, tossing them over the fence they’d erected.  One hit the side of the building.  Another hit the front porch.  Three or four more hit the lawn and surrounding property.

Calvert glanced over his shoulder, then confidently strode over to a car and took a seat in the back.  He didn’t have the driver take him away.  No, he’d be more interested in watching, in verifying that things went according to plan.  Putting himself in the car meant only that he was out of the reach of my bugs.

Not that he’d seemed concerned about the black widow bites.

Chances were good he’d already taken the necessary antivenins.  Damn it, and the antivenin that worked on black widow spiders also worked on any number of other spiders.  He’d probably suffer side effects, but that wouldn’t be immediate.

I had to refocus.  The one in immediate peril here was me.

I considered waiting for the fire to weaken the floorboards before leaping over the foam and plunging down to the lower level, then dismissed that idea.  I wouldn’t last that long, for one thing, and there was too much chance of me being injured.

There was only one real way out of the room, and that was the window.  I’d have to ignore the men stationed outside for now.  I considered using my knife to try to pry the board free of the wall and the frame.  I doubted I had the strength, with my chest hurting like it was, and I doubted I could pry enough boards free in time.  He’d put three screws in at each point of contact.  Hell, I had suspicions that Calvert had considered the knife when he’d ordered that the windows be boarded up.

I drew my gun.  I wasn’t sure how much information Calvert had, but he hadn’t seemed to care about the possibility of me opening fire on him while he’d been here.  That, or he figured his power would give him an out if he happened to get shot in one reality.

It was hard, not just moving and aiming the gun while I was coughing and still reeling from the hit to my chest, but aiming at the targets I needed.  I had only so many bullets, and there were too many planks to use several bullets to remove each one.  No, it was better to angle the shot so I was hitting more than one plank at once, both the ones that had been nailed up on the outside of the building and the planks inside the room.

The recoil of the shot was so fierce that it made the pain in my chest flare up.  I dropped the weapon, suppressing coughs.  Even behind the lenses of my mask, my eyes were starting to tear up.  Not that it particularly mattered, given how I couldn’t see, but it was one more distraction.  Bending over redoubled the pain and brought me to the point where I nearly collapsed, coughing to the point that I was seeing spots.

The floor was warm enough that more sensitive bugs were dying as they touched it.  Finding where I’d dropped the gun was a combination of guesswork, fumbling with my hand and using more durable bugs to feel it out.

I picked it up and shot twice more.  Fighting the pain in my chest, I reached up and pulled down on a board.  It was splintered in three by the gunfire, two on the left and one on the right, and I managed to use my body weight to get the necessary force to tear it free.

Three more bullets and I was able to remove one more from the inside.  I used the removed board and wedged it into the crack between the two boards on the far side, leveraging one free.

The gunfire had attracted attention.  Someone called out an order, and a dozen machine guns pointed to the window.  I went low, hiding not at the base of the window, but near the corner of the room, lying with my feet pointing towards them, my hands over my head, all too aware of the flames on the wall, within arm’s reach.

Bullets punched through the exterior walls and interior walls both.  One clipped through the floor to hit the armor at my back.  The impact prompted another coughing fit, worse than any of the ones before.

I needed to get out, and soon.

They knew I needed to get out, and they weren’t giving me the opportunity.  There was a momentary pause as the soldiers ejected magazines.  Or clips.  Whatever I was supposed to call them.  Guns weren’t my thing.  They replaced the clips and opened fire with another barrage.

I couldn’t lie there, waiting for one to get lucky and hit me, for the smoke to get to me, or for any of the other possible fates I faced.

My bugs had gathered around the exterior of the building, called to me by my power, clinging to the roof and outside walls near the room.  I took note of the cockroaches, then directed them to the trucks that had the building surrounded.

Cockroaches retained the ability to eat virtually anything.  I could have used more, but I’d have to make do. They began eating through wiring.

My own situation was getting bad, now.  The floor was quickly going from warm to hot.  The containment foam was stopping the spread of the fire across the floor, but it wasn’t stopping the progression of the flames beneath the floorboards.  If the floor caved in beneath me, I’d be as dead as anything.

Commands went out, and the soldiers switched to firing at me in shifts, only a few firing at a given time while the others stood at the ready.  It made for a relentless, unending barrage.  The second shift was just starting up when the first of the headlights went out.  The cockroaches had found the right wires.

As the truck headlights started flickering out, I commanded my bugs to gather at the base of the window.  No less than five bullets tore through the mass as the bugs collected.  The soldiers had only the light of the fires to go by, now, and they’d spotted the anomaly at the window.

The lump of bugs dropped to the ground, and more bullets penetrated the heap that landed at the base of the building.  When the bugs rose, they rose in the general shape of a person, of me.

I desperately wanted to be out of the room.  I was coughing more than I was breathing, and I worried that the next serious coughing fit would see me blacking out before I sucked in enough oxygen.

But I had to wait.  I gathered more swarms and dropped them from the edge of the window.  Every bug in a three block radius contributed to forming decoys.

Each decoy, in turn, had to act like it was sustaining gunfire.  They moved slowly, stopping when the bullets hit, some flattening out to mimic falling to the ground.  It made for slow progress as they advanced to the fence.

I couldn’t stand to wait any longer.  I knew I should make one or two more decoys before going ahead, but the conditions of the room were going from unbearable and dangerous to critical.  I approached the windowsill as the next mass of bugs gathered, submerging myself in the midst of them, my hands on the window frame.  I tried peeking through, but my hazy, ruined eyesight only offered me a glimpse of one blot where a single truck far to my left had a working headlight.  I faced a small army; I was about to drop two stories to what had once been someone’s garden, now a muddy mess of dirt and detritus, and-

One bullet hit me in the forearm, not too far from where Brutus had bitten me, months ago.  I slumped onto the windowsill, cradling my arm.  More out of desperation than anything redeemable, I forced myself forward between the broken planks and let myself drop to the ground below.

The landing wasn’t as hard as it could have been, but it wasn’t gentle either.  I was left writhing, dry heaving, much of my attention on keeping from screaming in pain and keeping the bugs all around me.

I used all the residual willpower I could manage to turn over, putting my back with the armor of my utility compartment and the added fabric of my cape towards the ongoing gunfire from Calvert’s personal army.  I covered the back of my head with my hands and fought the urge to cough.  I doubted anyone would hear if I did, with the constant gunfire and the sound of something collapsing inside, but I couldn’t risk a coughing fit that left me blind to my surroundings or passing out.

Now I was left with the task of passing through the perimeter.  One of my swarm-decoys had reached the fence, and was apparently doing a good enough job of selling the possibility that it was me that they felt compelled to double-check with the occasional burst of machine gun fire.  I commanded it to start climbing.

I had six decoys now, with another in progress at the window.  I’d planned to crawl, to get to the fence and find my way through, but with my wrist like it was…

One of Calvert’s men lit another molotov and tossed it at the base of the fence where the decoy was climbing.  It was obliterated in an instant, and Calvert’s men were forced to back away from the resulting bonfire.

If Thomas Calvert was using his power to guide his men, to give them an advantage and give them directions that would help narrow down the decoys, then I’d inevitably face the same fate as the decoy had after I got to the fence.

But he wasn’t giving directions.  He was in the truck, watching.  No radios were sounding with instructions, not yet.  He had to protect his perimeter, keep me from getting to freedom… but he was in a reactive position, not an offensive one where he could command an attack and then make it so it never happened if the attack went awry.  No, I’d weathered that initial attack.

I wasn’t sure exactly how I’d weathered it, but I had.

I crawled with three limbs, while my decoy formed a standing figure above and around me, then I joined the other decoys that were advancing on the fence.

Another molotov sailed over the fence to strike the lawn on the other side, incinerating one decoy that had ventured too close.  Again, I noted, the soldiers backed off.

That wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  The more they backed up, the thinner the defensive lines were.

But I still needed to get to the fence and get over it without getting shot or set on fire.

I still had more bugs arriving from the extent of my range.  Being trapped like I had hadn’t given me a second trigger event.  I wasn’t so lucky.  But it had extended my range.  I tallied the resources I had at my disposal, considered how many more decoys I could create…

Then I reconsidered.  No, I needed a distraction, and these slow-moving decoys weren’t that.

The bugs I still had in reserve swept into the ranks of the soldiers, and I went flat for my own safety, covering my head.

“Behind you,” one collection of bugs whispered to a soldier, my swarm-speak forming the necessary words.  He whipped around to see nothing there.

“I’m going to eat you alive,” another swarm spoke, somewhere nearby.

Crawl inside your body and lay eggs.”

Calvert’s voice sounded over a dozen radios in the area, “She’s playing mind tricks.  She’s still near the house, and she’s never killed or tortured before.  Maintain the perimeter and do not use grenades.”

Again, with the refusal on the subject of grenades.  A reminder, even, this time.  Was this a point where he’d split the timelines, bombarded the house with grenades in one reality and stuck to the guns in another?

Or had he already verified that I had a counterattack in mind for the grenades?  He could have employed them in an earlier scenario and had things go catastrophically wrong on his end.  There had to be a reason he wasn’t using them instead of molotovs.  Grenades would have been faster, given more immediate, definite results.

Then there was the possibility that this tied into his alibi, that he didn’t want the Undersiders or even the Travelers to know he’d gone after one of them, and the use of several grenades would be too easily traced back to ‘Coil’.  He would stick to an over the top arson, maybe hide the police reports and suppress the media.  If I was in a territory owned by the Travelers, maybe they’d accept a price for keeping this quiet from the Undersiders.

Or any combination of those things.

Then I remembered how I’d escaped from the hospital bed after the Endbringer attack.

The bugs continued whispering as they went on the attack, but their attack wasn’t a headlong rush with stingers and pincers.  As I lay flat on the ground, arms shielding my head, I took a different tack.  I raided.

Bugs swept into pockets and pouches, searching the contents.  First aid supplies, no.  Gun magazines, almost too heavy.

I noticed the bandoleers of the grenades that Calvert had alluded to.

The decoys had forced the enemy to spread out gunfire.  The soldiers were further diverted as my bugs tried to divest them of possessions, pushing at the gun magazines and attempting to slowly nudge them free of pouches.  Spiders wove silk cords, and I chose my target, a soldier by the fence, between me and Coil.

Long seconds passed as bullets hit the earth only a short distance from me.  I waited, prayed that the next thrown molotov wouldn’t land near me.

At my instruction, flying bugs carried a cord out, connecting a grenade on his bandoleer to the fence.  Another connected the same grenade’s pin to the soldier next to him.

Lose the grenades,” my swarm buzzed, right next to him.  “I’m pulling a pin.”

The man next to him heard, stepped away, and the cord went taut.  The pin slid free.

He had the grenade free in a second, but he simply held the bar at the side of the grenade down.


Think fast.  Pulling two more,” my swarm spoke.  A benefit of speaking through the swarm was that it was hard to hear a lie in the tone.

He realized that he had only the two hands to hold down the bars for three grenades, and tossed the one in his hands towards the house.  The cord connecting it to the fence halted the grenade’s trajectory and it swung straight down into the waterlogged lawn on the far side of the fence.

When it detonated, it ripped through a section of fence and sent soldiers scattering for cover.

Be patient, I thought.  I could have made a run for it then, but there was no use.

“She’s pulling the pins!” the soldier who’d been near my target shouted.

They began retreating, and the defensive line thinned out further.  Some soldiers were standing on the far side of the neighboring property, now.

“Need a visual!” someone shouted.

A flare sailed through the air to land on the lawn, fifty feet to my right.  The light it provided would let them see through my decoys.  If they put one too close to me, they’d see my silhouette.

More sailed my way, and I set to moving them before any landed too close to me.

I maintained the pressure, an indiscriminate attack that Calvert couldn’t necessarily counter.  I repeated the process, roughly, that I’d used to get the one soldier to throw a grenade, aiming to knock down the fence on the opposite side of the property.  I made the cord tying it to the fence too thin, however, and the grenade landed closer to the base of the house.  The fence remained standing, but the soldiers backed away in the face of the dust, smoke, and hot air that billowed out from within the building.

I’m pulling your pins next.

Crawl up your asshole and leave you some tapeworms.

I’m behind you.

I can have centipedes crawl beneath your eyelids.  Chew your eyes out at the root.

Ever wonder if a mosquito could pass on the H.I.V. virus?

The psychological pressure was important, too.

Do not throw the grenades,” Calvert’s voice sounded over the radios.

The drawback of the psychological pressure was that many soldiers were now shooting indiscriminately at the property, and I didn’t have anything even remotely resembling cover.  I began belly-crawling across the grass, using my one good arm and my knees.

I felt an impact across my face.  The briefest shriek escaped my lips before I remembered to clam up, managed to convince myself that it was only a clod of grass and dirt that a stray bullet had kicked up.

Someone had heard.  A female soldier, she was on the other side of the fence, not five feet in front of me, and her head had snapped in my direction as I’d let the sound escape.

I barely had any of the pre-prepared silk cord left.  I split the swarm around me into two, and sent one to my left.  The soldier held her machine gun in one hand and fired at the running swarm, drawing a flare with the other hand.  In the meantime, I was getting my feet under me, lunging.

Dragonflies carried the silk cord between the wires of the fence.  I didn’t go for the grenades on her bandoleer, but the can at her waist.  They circled the pull-tab, and I held the other end of the cord, pulling.

My first guess was that it was a flashbang, in which case it could leave my bugs stunned and me exposed.  My second guess was that it was incendiary, in which case I’d be murdering someone.

When it went off, I felt only relief.  Smoke billowed around her as she called out to others, telling them I was near.  I sensed her backing away, getting the canister free of her belt and tossing it aside, and had my bugs collect it and cart it her way.  I crawled in the direction she wasn’t walking, using my power to identify where the soldiers were moving and using the smoke for cover.

Scavenging used silk from previous attacks, my bugs arranged to pull more pins for smoke canisters.

The end result was chaos.  It was the best result I could hope for.  With the smoke at the open area of the fence and the possibility that I had climbed over where the smoke masked things, they couldn’t be sure of my location, and they couldn’t shoot into the midst of their allies, so they were forced to retreat further.

I sensed Calvert’s truck pulling away.

Calvert could use his power to prune away possibilities that didn’t work for him, but only if he was aware of me, aware of my movements and how I was mounting my attack.

His retreat left me wondering if he’d deemed this situation unsalvageable.  Had he deemed this a loss?

Was there another maneuver he had in mind?  A bomb, a parahuman underling that he could sic on me?

Or would he seek leverage elsewhere?

My dad.  The others.

I suddenly felt the urge to get away, and get away quickly.

My bugs hefted the items they’d successfully scavenged from pockets and pouches, carrying them to me.  As the soldiers moved to cover the weak points in the perimeter, I struggled to my feet and walked through the smoke to the point where two of the temporary fences joined together.  I used the keys my bugs had found and tried them, attempting to find the right key for the lock that linked the chain.

There were only so many possible keys, especially when I narrowed down the options to the three from soldiers nearest this lock.  It popped open on the second try, I removed the chain as quietly as I could, and then I bit my lip to keep from crying out as I shifted the two sections of fence far enough apart that I could slide through.

My bugs carried the fuming smoke canister a short distance ahead of me, giving me some added cover to slip through the point where the enemy lines were thinnest.

Their radios crackled with instructions from their captains, and the soldiers started tossing their canisters of smoke towards the house before they could be used against them.  It didn’t matter.  I’d already slipped past the worst of them.  I approached one of the trucks that was furthest from the conflict.  My bugs were on the soldier’s helmets, and I knew which direction they were facing, allowing me to stay behind them, using the soft soles of my costume to move in near silence.

Behind you,” my bugs whispered.  The soldier ignored them as he’d ignored the taunts and threats that were echoing through the neighborhood, without cease.

I slipped behind him and pulled his helmet off.  He drew in a breath to cry out an alarm and only choked on the flood of flying insects that flowed into his nostrils and mouth.  I was already dropping the helmet, switching my baton from my injured left arm to my right hand and striking the handgun out of his hand.  I had to strike him in the head five times before he collapsed, blind, gagging and choking on the bugs.

Maybe he was faking, maybe he was unconscious.  It didn’t matter.  My bugs swept over him and checked every pouch and pocket.  I found his keys, then hurried over to the nearest truck.

I found the right key and started up the truck.

I’d turned sixteen without realizing it, not long ago.  It was fitting that I’d be teaching myself how to drive right about now.

Driving slowly so I wouldn’t call too much attention to the fact that I barely knew what I was doing, I pulled away from the scene.

I pulled over, pulled the emergency brake because I wasn’t sure how to park, then checked my satellite phone.  No service.  It made sense Coil would cut my lines of communication.  I tossed it out the window.  No use giving him a way to track me.

We’d moved towards the beach from Coil’s place.  It made sense the other Undersiders would be heading north, to their individual lairs.

I was struck by an ugly connection between two thoughts.  Calvert had mentioned he had other matters to attend to, and if Chariot’s teleportation device mimicked Trickster’s power, they’d had to swap something or somebody in.  If he’d replaced me with a body double, he would want to stay in contact with her and help ensure things went her way with the other Undersiders.

On the other hand, if Calvert was looking for a way to get leverage over me, my dad was one very vulnerable target that he was aware of.

I was left to decide if I would go check on my dad or tackle the bigger, cape-related issues.  It was a decision I’d had to make too many times in recent weeks.

It would have to be the Undersiders and Dinah.  I hated to admit it, but if my dad was attacked and I had the Undersiders there by my side, they could only help.  If the opposite were true, my dad would hamper me.

I disengaged the emergency brake and eased the truck into motion, fighting the urge to cough, knowing it would lead to wracking fits that forced me to stop in the middle of the street.

I’d seen how involved Calvert’s maneuver had been at the debate.  He had a grand plan, and it wasn’t necessarily the one he’d shared with us earlier.  I was now a glitch in his system, threatening to unravel everything he’d put together.

He had no reason to hold back, and he knew more about me than anyone I’d fought yet.  He’d tried to strike at me directly, and I’d only barely escaped.  I had little doubt he had other plans in mind, failsafes, traps and safeguards, and I had little choice but to run headlong into the thick of them.

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”


I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”


“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Monarch 16.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s hear what Grove has to say.”

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

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

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

‘I’m here.  Stop.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mister Mayor,” Coil spoke.

“This is insanity,” Grove spoke.

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

Grove said, “The local heroes-”

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

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

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


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

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

“What are you going to do?”

“Let me demonstrate.  Circus?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s a greater plan, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now!”  Weld shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monarch 16.7

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Living in a city meant dealing with some recurring issues.  Crime, having to lock the doors, congestion on the roads, crowds getting in the way on footpaths; stuff we dealt with so often that we considered it routine.  We considered it background noise or we managed without even thinking about it.  Construction work was something we couldn’t dismiss so readily, something that always seemed to elicit groans and complaints.  Maybe because it was so blatant, so grating, and it changed in tone, location and degree often enough that we couldn’t adjust.

Not today.

No, I felt a level of satisfaction and security as the bulldozers and piledrivers went to work in my territory.  For every car on the road, there were ten trucks carrying debris out and five trucks bringing materials in.

A lot of that would be Coil’s doing, I knew.  There was construction and clearing going on throughout my territory and building inspectors were checking blocks, all despite the warnings that were going around regarding big, bad, unpredictable Skitter, and that would be because he greased palms or the construction companies at work were his.

Damn it, I felt restless.  I wanted to go to Coil’s territory and discuss Dinah, and I might have, if Trickster hadn’t been the first to speak up and declare he was going to confront Coil.  I suspected that Coil wouldn’t release Dinah this soon, and if he was under too much pressure to hear Trickster out, he certainly wouldn’t listen to me.  If he did have something to offer Trickster, he wouldn’t welcome my distraction.  I had to wait.  I hated it, but I recognized it as the sensible route.

Trickster’s focus was on Noelle, though, and nothing I’d seen indicated that Coil had made any advances on that front.  All I knew, really, was what Tattletale had told me and the little things that had come up in our brief discussion with the Travelers about our strategy.  She’d been a girl, maybe not in the best of health.

It was possible Trickster had been trying to save Noelle in the same way I was trying to save Dinah.  The circumstances were different, obviously: Coil was the best answer the Travelers had to Noelle’s situation, but he was the cause of Dinah’s.

Still, it made me think.

I was officially hands-off in my territory.  I wasn’t going to deviate from orders now and risk upsetting Coil.  That meant no costume, no showing my face, no intervention in the management of things.

Which turned my thoughts to Sierra.  As far as my ability to sense things with my swarm went, Sierra was easier to identify than many.  Her dreads gave her a distinct profile.

I couldn’t find her.

could find Charlotte.  That wasn’t a problem; she was in the company of the kids, half a block away, giving each kid two six-packs of plastic water bottles to ferry out to the various work sites.

“You’ve been lying there since I woke up, eyes half-open, staring off into space.”

I blinked hard, then rubbed my eyes.  “Hey.”


I looked at Brian.  He was pulling himself up to a sitting position, the covers over his lap.  I glanced over his upper body.  None of the battle wounds I’d seen him sustain in the past were there anymore.  The scars from the shallow cuts Cricket had carved into his chest were gone, as were the defensive wounds and old scars on his hands and arms.  He was in perfect shape, physically.  Physically.

But I’d sort of explored enough to discover that last night.  It hadn’t been a perfect night, not even excellent, but it had been nice.  Considering all of the other humiliating or awkward possibilities, I was happy to take nice.

Thinking about it made me self conscious.  I pulled the sheets up to my collarbone.  “You sleep any?”

“Some.  Woke up in the middle of the night, I made some noise.  I’m surprised I didn’t wake you.”

I frowned.  “You should have.”

He shook his head.  “You were exhausted.  Once I saw you there, it helped me to realize where I was, dismiss them for the dreams they were.  Took me a bit to relax, but it wasn’t bad.  Being here.”

Hated that, that he was struggling like that and I couldn’t help fix it.

“Do you need to talk to someone?  A psychiatrist?”

I could see him flinch at that, his entire upper body stiffening in some kind of knee jerk resistance.

I waited, not pushing.

He sighed, and I watched that battle-readiness slowly seep from him, the tension leaving him.  Up to a point.  “Don’t we all?”

“Probably.  But you’re the one I’m worried about.”

“I’ll figure this out myself.  Have to do this myself, or I feel like it won’t count, it won’t really be a fix.”

I didn’t like that response, but it was a hard one to argue with.

“I won’t pester you about it.  But can you at least tell me that if this goes on for any length of time, you’ll go get help?”

“It’ll get better.  Has to.  I feel like I’ve taken strides forward, forcing myself to let down my guard, to be here with you.”

I tensed, “Forcing yourself?”

“That’s not what I mean.  I mean, you know.  I… I can’t relax.  Can’t stay still, can’t stop watching over my shoulder or make my brain stop replaying scenes in my head.  Except I can, if I’m active, if I’m doing something like we were against those Dragon suits, or if I’m with you, and I’m lying here in your bed, trying not to wake you up.  Then I know I can’t get worked up, it gives me these boundaries I can force myself to work inside.”

My eyebrows drew together in concern.  “It sounds like it’s causing you more stress in the long run.”

“No,” he said.  He reached out and used both of his hands to seize mine.  He squeezed.  “Come on, no.  Is that really what you want to talk about right now?”

“I’d love to talk about other stuff,” I said.  I wasn’t sure I was telling the truth.  Things were more awkward in the light of day.  Only seconds ago, I had prodded a sore spot for him by raising the idea of psychiatric help.  Offended him.  If I didn’t clear my head and get centered, I wasn’t sure I trusted my ability to avoid another misstep.


“But I made plans with my dad.  It’s…”  I paused, closing my eyes, “Nine-twenty-eight.  I figure I need to shower and get dressed, which might take an hour, eat, do a quick walk around my territory in civilian clothes, then head over.  I want to spend time with you, but after the intensity of the past little while, taking things slow this morning feels like a nice idea.”

“How do you know the time?”

“Bugs on clock hands,” I said, pointing toward my bathroom.

“Ah.  You want company?”

My eyes widened a little.  “In the bathroom?”

He grinned.  “For breakfast.  And the walk-around, if you want.  I could learn stuff.  We’re liable to lose track of time if we share a shower.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Please, we’ll have breakfast, walk.”

I climbed out of bed, tugging one of the sheets free of the bed so I had something to wrap around myself as I made my way to the bathroom.

With my bugs, I could sense Brian getting out of bed shortly after I’d abandoned the sheet, climbed into the shower and pulled the makeshift shower curtain into position.  He made his way downstairs and began putting breakfast together.  He set two plates down, and then said something to the empty room.

I still had the scene in mind a little while later, as I ventured downstairs.  I was dressed now, a tank top, jeans and sweatshirt around my waist, my hair towel dried but still damp.  “Were you talking to me?”

“I was saying it probably isn’t very hygienic to have houseflies landing on dinner plates.”

Ok, so he wasn’t going crazy.

“They landed on the edge, and they’re mine.  From the terrariums upstairs.  They’re in as sterile an environment as you’ll get.”

“Okay.  Just saying.”

“I can’t hear you through my bugs, by the way.  It’s not the first time you’ve done that.”

“Right.  Wasn’t sure, because Tattletale said you were working on it.”

I shook my head, “No progress.”

“And I’m getting used to talking to empty rooms.  Sometimes catch Aisha off guard.  Breakfast?  Sit down, I’ll put the kettle on.  Didn’t want to fill it while you were in the shower.”

“Thank you.”

Through some unspoken agreement, we didn’t talk about ‘work’.  We didn’t discuss Coil, Dinah, the Travelers, Dragon or the Nine.  Instead, our discussions turned to favorite movies and shows, my favorite books and memories from our childhoods.  Shows we’d watched and nearly forgotten, moments from school.

Emma came up a lot, as I thought back on it.  My parents too.  The three of them had been the focus of my world, with everything else taking a distant second place.  Emma had turned on me, my mom had left me, and my dad… I had to admit I’d left him.

I didn’t raise any of the heavier stuff, but I mentioned that Emma had turned out to be one of the bullies that plagued me throughout my stay in high school.

Brian, in turn, talked about his life growing up.  That did touch on the heavier stuff, and as much as I liked learning a bit more about the details of his life, I was glad when we detoured into a discussion of martial arts.  As he explained it, he was more interested in the broader strokes and philosophy of a given style than on the particulars.  Once he had a sense of how a given adherent of the style might approach a fight and enough basic techniques to see how they put it into practice, he tended to lose interest.

All around us, I could see people hard at work.  My people were deferring to any legitimate construction crew that set to work, shifting their focus to nearby areas.  I could see people moving supplies out of a nearby building so the crews could bulldoze it, others helping to unload a truck of building supplies.  When I got back to this and started to give orders, I’d have to find work for them that wouldn’t put them in the way.  I couldn’t quite track how many people were working for me in my territory, but it was far more than before.

I felt like I should be losing people each time I got pulled into a fight against a major threat.  I had, when Mannequin and Burnscar had attacked, but I’d walked away from the first Mannequin fight with something of a following, and I’d expected to see my people leaving in droves after Dragon made her move.  Except it wasn’t happening, and I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Our walk took us on a circuit, with us turning back to my lair, and I left to go back to my dad’s while Brian headed back to my place to use the shower.

I felt weird about that.  Parting ways so casually after spending the night together.  Oddly enough, I felt weird about letting him in my lair while I wasn’t there.  He’d be passing through my room, seeing my stuff.  I knew it was paradoxical to be bashful, covering myself with a sheet and feeling guarded about my privacy, all things considered, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt that way.  I wouldn’t refuse to let him use my bathroom because of it, but yeah.

In a way, we’d sort of done everything backward.  We’d started with the long-running partnership.  With the ‘family’, if I wanted to think about managing the others in that sense. In the course of that, we’d been through hell and back, we’d backed each other up, helped each other.  All hurdles one might face in a marriage.  Then there were the more recent cases of actually talking about the relationship happening, there was last night, then the more casual date and getting to know each other better this morning.  If it wasn’t a hundred percent backwards, it was at least pretty jumbled up.

Or maybe I was looking at it in an immature way, expecting some simplistic, formulaic, storybook notion of how a relationship was supposed to proceed.

I made my way to my dad’s, thinking about a thousand things at once, not wanting to think about anything in particular.

There were cars parked out front.  There was a strange car in the garage with the door open, two others in the driveway, my dad’s at the end.  With a few stray houseflies, I casually noted a dozen people inside the house.  My dad was there, too.

I immediately thought of Coil.  Had he divined what I had planned today?  Planned some counterattack?

I’d foregone my costume, so I wouldn’t feel compelled to use it in a pinch, and I’d removed my knife holster from the costume and had it clipped to the back of my waistband, so it was in the midst of the folds, blanketed by various wasps and spiders.  The setup might have been awkward for anyone else, but spending the past few weeks and months while using my bugs to help guide my hand left me fairly confident that I could slip my hand through the folds and draw it at a moment’s notice if I had to.

Then a man opened the door.  I let myself relax.

“No shit,” he said.  “Taylor?”

“Hi, Kurt,” I greeted my dad’s coworker and longtime friend.

“Been a long time.  Barely recognize you, kid.”

I shrugged.  “How’re you doing?”

He cracked a wide grin.  “Working.  Getting by.  Better than we were doing.  Now, you coming inside or are you going to stand in the driveway for the next five minutes?”

I followed him into the house.

My dad was in the living room, surrounded by familiar faces.  People I’d seen around when I’d gone to his workplace or when they’d dropped by the house.  I could only put a name to the people who my dad called friends: Kurt, Kurt’s wife Lacey, and Alexander.  Even Lacey was burlier than my dad, with a build like Rachel’s, muscle added onto that.  The other three were familiar, but I didn’t know them well.  My dad and myself excepted, every person in the house had spent their lives doing manual labor.  Just looking at him, he looked like the odd one out in every way, in clothes and body type and demeanor, but he was relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen in years, surrounded by friends with a beer in hand.

My dad saw me, mouthed the word ‘sorry’.

Kurt saw it.  “Don’t blame your old man.  Alexander brought a truckload of beer in from out of town, we got to drinking.  We thought we’d include Danny, drag him along, invited ourselves.  Didn’t know he had plans.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  Nobody that could be a threat, none of Coil’s people.  I let myself relax.  What had I been thinking?  That he’d strongarm my dad?

“Heya Taylor,” Lacey said.  “Haven’t seen you since the funeral.”

Nearly two years after the fact, it still hit me like a punch in the gut.

“Hell, Lacey,” Kurt said.  “Give the girl a second to get used to having people in her house before you drop that on her.”

I glanced at my dad, elbows on his knees, a 24 ounce beer clasped in both hands.  He’d lowered his head to stare at the can.  He didn’t look devastated, or even unhappy.  It hadn’t caught him off guard like it had hit me.  Knowing these guys, I could guess it came up with enough regularity that he was used to it.

“Ah, baby,” Lacey said.  She raised a beer in my direction.  “Just a little drunk.  Wanted to say, your mom was good peoples.  She hasn’t been forgotten.  Sorry if that came out a little direct.”

“S’okay,” I replied.  I shifted my feet restlessly.  I’d never felt more a stranger in my own house.  Didn’t know where to go, where I wouldn’t be drawing attention, have people asking me questions.  It was hard enough with my dad and I having this distance between us, but there were other people in the equation now.

Kurt spoke up, “We’re leaving in a few minutes.  It’s hard to get around, so they’re scheduling events together so we don’t need to make two trips.  The last debate is this afternoon, then mayoral vote right after.  You catch the debate the other night?”

I shook my head.  “Didn’t even know it happened.”

“Well, if that’s any indication, this one’s bound to be a pisser.  So we’re drinking to mellow out.  And I’d feel a hell of a lot better if your dad had more than the one beer, so he can relax some and hold back from choking one of the smarmy bastards.”

“Not about to do that,” my dad said.

“Wish you could.  But it wouldn’t be worth it in the end if you wound up in jail and left that daughter of yours alone.  It’s all good.  We’ll go in stinking of beer, offer some drunken commentary from the sidelines, punctuated by a few off-color words,” Kurt smiled.

“Please don’t,” my dad said.  He hadn’t raised his eyes from the beer in his hands, but he was smiling, too.

“You want to sit and let ’em say what sounds good for them?”  Kurt asked.

“I was thinking it’d be better to ask the hard questions, if we get a chance.  A big part of the crowd’s going to be people from the north end.  Good few of them are going to be from the Docks.  So why don’t we ask him what’s happening with the ferry?”

“He’s going to brush it off,” Lacey said, “Not in the budget, with everything that’s going on.”

“Then that’s a good time for some booing and drunken swearing,” my dad answered, smiling.

Kurt busted out a laugh.  “You want to start a riot, Danny?”

“No.  But might sway the undecideds to see just how unimpressed we are with the man.”

Everyone’s unimpressed with Mayor Christner,” Alexander spoke up.  He was a younger guy, heavily tattooed, with thick eyebrows that gave him a perpetual glower.  Every time I saw him, he had his hair cut in a wild style.  Today he had the left one-third of his head shaved, showing off a fresh tattoo of an old-school pinup girl in a bikini with her elbow appearing to rest on his ear.

“Disaster does that.” I spoke up.  “We want someone to blame, and the guy in charge makes for an easy target.”

“He’s a deserving target,” Kurt said, seating himself on the arm of the chair Lacey was in.  She wrapped one arm around his waist.  He went on, “There was this thing in Washington.  Talking about whether they should throw walls up around the edge of the city, blockade the streets and shut off services, get everyone out of here.”

“He said no, right?”

“He said no.  Asshole.  Probably earns more money this way.  Take a few million for restoring and helping the city, help himself to a percentage.”

That surprised me.  “You’re not happy the city was saved from being condemned?  Did you want to be kicked out of the city?  To leave your home?”

“It’d suck, but the way they were talking about it in the paper, there’s a big fund that’s set aside for covering the damages those Endbringer motherfuckers cause.  Idea was that they’d dip into those funds, give everyone that they ousted a bit to cover the cost of their homes.”

“There’s no way that’s doable,” I said.  “What about everyone who left when they were told to evacuate?”

“Don’t know,” Kurt said.  “I’m just saying what the papers did.”

I felt an ugly feeling in my gut.  “And they’d give us what the houses used to be worth?”

“They’d give us what the houses might be worth now,” he said.

“So not much.”

“It’s more than they’ll be worth a few years down the line, after the rot sets in and any mold problems get worse.  Getting expensive to get supplies into the city, which means it’ll be costly to fix things up and renovate.  Not necessarily worth it.”

“I saw construction crews at work.”

Kurt downed a swig of his beer and cleared his throat, “Sure.  The companies that are buying up all the materials, purchasing land on the cheap, all in the hopes that this city gets its act together and the land turns out to be worth something.”

“It could.”

Come on,” he made the words a groan, “We’re under the tyranny of supervillains.  Heroes don’t have what it takes.  Used to be they were outnumbered but they were trying, making a difference in little ways.  Now they’re outnumbered and losing.  What’s the point?”

“Just a hypothetical question,” I said, “But isn’t it better to be in a city that works, where villains rule the streets, instead of a failed city with the same villains in a less prominent position?”

Lacey groaned a little, “Sweetie, had a few too many to wrap my head around the question.”

“Might be time to stop then, Lacey,” my dad said.  Turning to me, he said, “I suppose you’re asking the classic question, Taylor.  Would you rather be a slave in heaven or a free man in hell?”

“Free man in hell,” Kurt responded.  “Fuck.  You think I’d be doing what I do, living here, if I was willing to make nice, suck up to the guys in charge and do what I was told?”

Some of the others were nodding, Lacey and Alexander included.

I looked at my dad.

“What’s your answer, Danny?”  Kurt asked.

“I’d rather not be a slave or in hell,” my dad responded.  “But sometimes I worry I’m both.  Maybe we don’t get the choice?”

“You’re the most depressing asshole of a friend I’ve got,” Kurt said, but he said it with a smile.

“Why are you asking, Taylor?”  Lacey asked.

I shrugged.  How much could I say without giving them cause for suspicion?  “Saw some of the stuff going on in the shelters.  Some sick people, unhappy people.  It was a long while before anything started getting better, and as I understand it, it was the villains who made the first move in getting things fixed up.”

“For their own benefit.  You can’t rule a hole in the ground,” Alexander said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Or maybe bad people can do good for the sake of doing good, at least once in a while.  They’re taking charge, they’re keeping things more or less quiet and peaceful.  It’s better than what we had.”

“The problem with that,” my dad said, “Is that we’d be setting humanity back by about three thousand years if we let that happen.  It’d be falling back into an iron age mindset and leadership.  The people with the numbers and the weaponry lay claim to an area through sheer military strength.  They stay in charge as long as they can through family lines, merging families with whoever else has the military strength.  That lasts until the family in power peters out or someone smarter, stronger or better armed comes in to seize control.  Might not sound so bad, until you figure that sooner or later, the person who gets control is going to be someone like Kaiser.”

“Kaiser’s dead,” Kurt said.

“Yeah?” my dad raised an eyebrow.  “Okay, but I was speaking in general terms.  Could just as easily be Lung or Jack Slash, instead of the relatively benign villains that are in charge right now.  Again, I stress, it’s just a matter of time.”

Just a matter of time until we lose -I lose- and someone else claims Brockton bay for themselves, I thought.

“What would you rather have happen?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he said.  “But I don’t think complacency’s the answer.”

“Last debate,” Kurt said, “People kept bringing up the capes, moderator kept shutting them down, telling them that they were supposed to be talking economy and education.  Today we’ll hear some talk on the crooks running the city.  Hear what the candidates have to say on the subject.”

“We should go soon,” Lacey said.  “If we want to get a seat instead of standing around at the sides.”

My dad looked up at me, “Can I get you any food, Taylor?  I promised you something.”

“I’m alright.  Had a late breakfast.  Maybe when we get back?”

“I’d offer you a drink,” Kurt said, chuckling, “But that’d be against the law.  How old are you, anyways?”

“Fifteen,” I said.


I turned to look at my dad.

“It’s the nineteenth,” he said.  “Your birthday was a week ago.”

“Oh.”  I’d been a little distracted at the time.  A week ago, that would have been around the time we were wrapping up our confrontation with the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Lovely.

“That’s the saddest goddamn thing I ever heard,” Kurt said, getting off the chair’s armrest and helping Lacey to her feet.  “Girl missing her birthday like that.  I’m guessing you don’t have your license, then, huh?”


“Damn.  Was hoping you’d be our designated driver so your dad could have another.”

“I’ve only had half a tallboy,” my dad said, shaking his can lightly to let us hear the contents sloshing against the sides.  “And we’ll be driving slow on these streets anyways.  Who’s driving the other car?”

Alexander raised his hand.  He only had a glass of water.

“Then we’re off.  Out of my house,” he said.  I could see him wincing in pain as he used the chair’s back to help himself to a standing position, but he recovered.  He started shooing the burly dockworkers out the door.  “Go.  Into the cars.”

We began to file out.  Kurt and Lacey climbed into the back seat of my dad’s car.  The others got into Alexander’s truck.

“Should you be drinking with the kidney damage?” I asked, as the doors shut.  “You had trouble standing.”

“I got cleared yesterday.  I’m back on a regular diet.  Any hurt is just the muscle and the stitches.  Thanks for worrying about me.”

“Of course I’m going to worry about you,” I said, frowning.

“You have changed,” my dad commented, resting his elbows on the roof of the car.


“Wasn’t so long ago that you would have walked into that situation and clammed up.”

“Feels like that was a year ago.”

“Anyways, I’m sorry,” he said.  “I’d hoped this would be just you and me, having a chance to catch up.  They invited themselves.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad that you’ve got friends like that.”

“They’re a bit overbearing,” my dad said.

“The window’s open a crack,” Kurt said, from inside the car.  “We can hear you.”

“They’re overbearing,” my dad repeated himself, raising his voice a notch.  At a normal volume, he finished by saying, “But they’re alright.”

Smiling a little, I climbed into the passenger seat.

“Hey, Taylor?” Lacey asked.  Her voice was overly gentle, and for a moment I thought she was going to mention my mom again.  I winced a little.

“What?”  I turned around in my seat, as much as I was able with my seatbelt on.

“Just wanted to say thanks.  For the warning.  You told your dad that Shatterbird was around, didn’t you?”

I nodded.

“He told us.  We were careful.  I don’t know if it saved our lives or not, but thanks for watching out for him, and helping us out as collater- collar-”

“You’re welcome,” I said, before she could fumble over her words any further.

was glad he was in touch with them.  From what I’d seen, I’d been left with worries that my dad was all on his lonesome.  Introverted people like him, like us, were best paired with  the Kurts of the world.  Or the Lisas.  People that wouldn’t be ignored or shrugged off, people who pushed the boundaries, so to speak, and drew us out of our shells.

I enjoyed the drive as we made our way downtown, more than I thought I would.  My dad and Kurt knew each other well enough that their dialogue flowed easily, and the same went for Lacey and Kurt, what with the pair being married.  I had a feeling that, by the end, Kurt was feeling like he’d wound up on the short end of both exchanges.

The town hall had survived the waves.  The stone building had crenelations and an American flag over the door.  We joined the trail of people who were filing in, walking past stands with the posters and images of the candidates, booklets of brochures about the issues and stands with newspapers from neighboring cities.  My dad and Kurt grabbed a few papers each and put them into the plastic bags that had been made available to us.  It was a nice thought, putting those out.  There wasn’t any TV at present and we had to keep abreast of what was going on somehow.

The signs led us past the old historical courthouse and to the auditorium.  We’d expected the seats to be filled, leaving us only with standing room, but the opposite was true.  The back of the auditorium and the rear rows were filled with reporters and camera crews, and the rest of the crowd had filled in random spaces on the benches.  Five or six hundred people.  Somehow less than I’d thought.

It was an odd election, in a way.  The city had been without working computers for a week and a half, most had lost their cell phones, and were left without landlines.  An election without media for advertisement.  For many here, this would be the first and last time they heard a candidate’s stances on the issues before voting.  Was this how it had been in the past?  When poorer households hadn’t gotten newspapers and there hadn’t been televisions or radios?

I looked at the candidates.  A dark haired woman in a dark blue suit, a blond man, and the older incumbent, Mayor Christner.  How many others in this auditorium were aware?  Some time ago, Coil had told us that two of the candidates for office had been bought.  Mayor Christner… well, I could remember standing in his backyard, him pointing a gun at me, pleading for me to step in and save his son’s life.

Would the debate turn to the subject of him arguing against the condemnation of the city, and if it did, how would Christner justify the decision he’d made?

I was caught between an ugly feeling of guilt and genuine curiosity in how the event would play out.  Mostly guilt, but I couldn’t do anything about that.  I’d done what had to be done.

On the curiosity side of things, I wondered momentarily if either of Coil’s mayoral candidates had military backgrounds or if he’d hand-picked his politicians the same way he selected his elite soldiers.

That train of thought ground to a halt as something caught my attention.

It was habit, now, to have my bugs sweeping over my surroundings, giving me a perpetual sense of what was going on in the surrounding three or four city blocks.  When the vans found parking spots around the building, it didn’t even warrant a conscious thought.  When the soldiers began filing out of the vans, it startled me.  Men and women with machine guns and body armor.  Not PRT.

No.  Definitely not PRT.

The armored limousine pulled into the middle of the street, just outside the front doors.  By the time Coil climbed out of the vehicle, his soldiers were either just past the doors on either side of the building or standing at the ready to accompany him by the front.

Coil, here?  It didn’t make sense.  He wasn’t the type to show himself.  It didn’t fit how he operated.  Hell, if the mayor was here, his son would be too.  Triumph would be in the crowd.

I glanced at my dad, and he squeezed my hand, “Not too bored?”

I shook my head, trying to keep my expression placid as my mind raced.

Coil was making his play right here, right now.

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Monarch 16.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“And dealing involves a barbecue?”

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

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

“They’re working hard.”

“That’s all?”

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

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

“The only thing?”

I looked up at him.  Oh.

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

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

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

“It’s okay, though?  Us?”

“Yeah.  Definitely okay.”

What would my people think if they could overhear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s taking this seriously, huh?”

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

“With luck, the danger will pass soon.”

“Yeah.  See you later?”

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


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

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

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

Darkness billowed out around Grue, making him look larger.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”  Grue asked.

“Pretty sure it’s Dragon.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh hell,” Grue said.

“Let’s go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“And I really hate tinkers who share their work.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Five seconds.”

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

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

Failure to comply.”

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

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

Grue made a guttural sound.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With the darkness cleared, the drones were rising again.

“She’s prepared for me,” Grue said.

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

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

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

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

Dragon didn’t give chase.

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

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

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

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

“Who are we missing?” Grue called out.

“Ballistic, Genesis and Bitch.”

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

Bitch, though?  That was bad.

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

“This is not ideal,” Coil spoke.

“No,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder.

“Seven different ships,” Grue said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can Grue borrow her power?”  Trickster asked.

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

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

“Sure,” Regent said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There go my plans with Brian.

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

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


Every set of eyes moved to Imp.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

“Me?”  Imp shrugged, “Hell no.”

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


“Do the rest of you feel this way?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah.  What do you want, Skitter?”

“You know that already.”

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

“I want a promise.”

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

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

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

“What would you require?”

“My own territory.”

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

“Come again?”

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


“Grue, Tattletale, Regent?”

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

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

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


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

“There is something,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell.”

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

“Some.  It’s badly degraded.”

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

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

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


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

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

He strode off with Tattletale following.

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

But it was something.

“Let’s go,” I said.

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Colony 15.10

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I passed the invisible boundary between the neatly manicured lawn of the mayor’s expansive backyard to the tall grass at the glade’s edge.  My hands were shaking and my breathing was heavy.  I hadn’t done anything more strenuous in the past few minutes than talking to the mayor and walking at a good pace, but my body was reacting like I’d just sprinted halfway across the mayor’s property.

I put a hand on a tree as I walked, as if it could steady me and keep me from falling.  I wasn’t in any danger of falling that I was aware of, but it was reassuring nonetheless.

Damn him.  How big was his property?  And he could still afford to hire someone to cut his grass?  Eat a nice dinner on a huge wooden table, complete with courses?  Blithely ignoring what was going on in the rest of the city with his superhero son and superheroine date?

No, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to get angry.  Couldn’t blame him for what I’d done.

I’d deliberately let someone come within seconds of dying, and he hadn’t been a monster, like Lung or the Slaughterhouse Nine.  He hadn’t even necessarily been a bad person.  If I’d waited just ten or twenty seconds longer, he might have stopped breathing.  CPR would be that much more difficult with a closed airway, and he could have died or suffered brain damage while they attempted to revive him.

Of course, my first aid knowledge wasn’t all that recent or complete.

I let go of the tree, adjusted my sling and moved on.  Drawing my cell phone from the armor at my back, I made a call.  “Cranston?”

“What can I do for you, Skitter?”

My voice sounded too calm for how my body seemed to be reacting.  “Need an ambulance to the mayor’s residence, backyard.  There’s a young man having breathing difficulties.  Can you use untraceable channels to get in touch with emergency services?”

“I’ll do that.  Anything else?”

“Tell Coil the job’s done.”

“The second this phone call is over.”

I hung up.

Triumph’s family would probably do that anyways, but it made me feel a little better.

I couldn’t afford to dwell.  I headed for Genesis, stalling her movements by signaling her with my bugs.  I wrote out a message: ‘Job done.  Trickster hurt.  Need help taking him to Coil.’

I directed her to me with my bugs, drawing arrows in the air.  A minute or two passed before she caught up.

Genesis had decided on a form that was an overlarge woman’s face carved out of bone, surrounded by long, thin, branching tentacles.  She would have come up with that as a counter for Triumph and either Prism or Ursa Aurora; something that could take a heavy hit, either from a bear made of forcefields or Triumph’s shouts and punches.  It would also be pretty effective against Prism for the same reasons I was: Multitasking and the ability to handle multiple foes at once.

“Where’s Trickster?” she asked.

I brought him down from above the treeline, unconscious and strapped to Atlas’ back.  “I can’t carry him all the way back.  It’s too far, and it’ll be too slow.  Atlas is leashed to me by my maximum range.”

And as long as I’m on foot, I’m vulnerable to any attacks from Coil or Prism’s reinforcements.

“You want me to carry you?”

I shook my head.  “I want you to carry him.  Flying Atlas is hard enough as it is without an uneven weight on top of him, and if Trickster wakes up and starts moving, he’s going to fall.”

“Fine.  Damn it.  Making a new body’s slow when I’m this far from myself.”

“Can you make it at the far end of this glade?  I can jog there by the time you’re done, and I’ll bring Trickster.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she began breaking down into a gelatinous, blurry mess.  Her power was like mine, I supposed.  It took time to prepare.  I had to get my bugs to the battlefield, she had to put herself together.

I checked Trickster was securely in place, adjusted my sling so my arm wouldn’t bounce too much and then hurried for the meeting place.  Atlas followed, flying just above the treeline.

It was times like this that I felt less normal, less human.  It was dark, the foliage overhead dense, branches blocked my way and the ground was riddled with roots, stones and uneven footing.  It barely mattered.  My bugs flowed ahead of me to check surfaces, clinging to branches and carpeting the ground.  I passed through the trees as though I’d spent my life among them, memorizing where everything was.  I extended my foot just a bit further to accommodate the slope ahead of me, ducked a branch with wickedly pointed tips and found a handhold on another branch to help myself hop over a spot where water had pooled.

I liked running.  For months, I’d used running as a way to forget about whatever was plaguing me.  Before, it had been the bullying.  Then it had been the pressures of dealing with the Undersiders, my undercover ruse.  Separating from my dad.  Dinah.  The fallout from the Endbringer attack.  Coil.

The times I hadn’t run, I’d felt like I was losing my mind.  Did correlation equal causation, there?  Or was it just that the moments I was unable to run were the same moments I was  under the most stress?  When the Slaughterhouse Nine had been in town, when I’d been living in the shelters after Leviathan hit the city, before I rejoined the Undersiders?

Either way, it was good to break free of my thoughts on Triumph and what I’d done to him. I could focus on breathing, on putting each foot exactly where it needed to be, keeping my balance and letting my subconscious guide me through the woods.

I felt vaguely disappointed when I reached the point where the small forest ended and the roads began.  One of the busiest streets in Brockton Bay was desolate, a lone car cutting a path through the shallow water as it headed away from the city.  I stayed in the shadow of the trees until it was well out of sight.  I didn’t want to do this, didn’t want to step back into the city and face everything that waited for me there.  The threats on my life from an employer who divided and pruned realities was only a small part of that.

I would have left, if I could afford to.  If Dinah and my people could afford for me to.

My bugs found Genesis, and even with the indirect route I’d taken, I reached her before she was fully formed.  She looked like a bison with wings, but her back had a bowl-shaped depression, and she had stubby little legs and antennae.  Since she didn’t have the means, I was left to try to ease Trickster into the basin.  I could see why she did it, cradling him and ensuring he couldn’t fall, but it was still dangerous and tricky to move him with just the one arm.  I wondered if she’d seen the sling.

We took off, and Atlas proved faster than she was.  She had to ride the air currents and she was heavier overall.  I scouted forward some in case we crossed paths with Legend or any other heroes.

I paused on one rooftop while I waited for her to catch up again.  I drew my cell phone and called Tattletale this time.

“Skitter?” She answered on the first ring.

“Job’s done.  Already told Coil.  Triumph was there, along with Prism.  They hurt Trickster, took Genesis out of action.  I stopped them and finished the job, got the mayor to agree to the terms we wanted.”

“Are you still there?  At the mayor’s place?”

“No.  Just left.”

There was a pause.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she told me.

“What doesn’t?”

“We’re clear to talk, no bugs, I’m ninety-nine percent sure.  So listen, if Coil wanted to assassinate you, that’d be his chance.  Once you leave the mayor’s property, that’s it.  He doesn’t know where you’re going.”

“Trickster got hurt,” I told her.  “Maybe he was supposed to do it?”

“Maybe,” she admitted, “But that still feels wrong.  Why wouldn’t Coil have a backup plan?”

“Or maybe Dinah’s power is working, and he’s got some bigger plan in mind?”

“I’m at his base right now.  It doesn’t fit with his movements.  He’s not really visiting her.”

I shivered.  Visiting her, dosing her with drugs, interrogating her for answers about his grand plan… I hated the images that popped into my mind when I thought about Dinah in captivity.

“Listen,” she said, “I’m going to try to find out more.  I’ll call you back.”

“I don’t like that you’re there without backup.  You said he might want to get rid of you too.”

“I’ll know if he does.”

“Like you knew he’d try to kill me?”

Another pause.

“I’ll call you later,” she said.

The line went dead.

I reluctantly put my phone away.  I had a hollow feeling in the center of my chest.  A huge part of me wanted to call Grue, but I couldn’t convince myself that it was really what I was aching for.  I might have anyways, but I wasn’t sure what I would have said.  Would I have asked for a hug, another cuddle?  For advice, tactical suggestions?  For reassurances?

I wouldn’t have said the thought had ever explicitly crossed my mind, but somehow I’d always assumed that I’d know what to do when I got into a relationship.  I didn’t want this thing to be designated the nice memory that we avoided mentioning until things had returned to the old status quo.

But I wasn’t sure he was the person I wanted to reach out to.  The people in my territory?  Was I seeking some validation there, some cheers, smiles, hugs and other assurances that I was really on the right track, doing the right things?

I couldn’t be sure.

I met with Genesis in the air, flying just beneath her so our heads were as close to one another as possible.  “Is he okay?”

“He was awake a second, then went under again,” she said, “Might be a good thing.  He’s hurting.”

“Probably.  Why?  Why did he pick a fight like that?”

“It’s how he operates.  I’m not saying this is usual, or that this wasn’t an extreme case, but… it’s always how he dealt with things, big or small.  The worse things get, the more stubborn and cocky he gets in going up against them.  It worked when we were just messing around together, just playing around.  But we were never suited to be… I dunno, a family?”

“A family?”

“We’ve spent two years together, with just each other.  I don’t know what you could call us, if not that.”

“Why don’t you quit?  Split up?  Is it Noelle?”

“She’s only half of it,” Genesis said.  She didn’t volunteer anything more.

We flew in silence for a few long seconds.

“Don’t blame him, okay?  He has his way of handling stuff, but those methods don’t scale up so well when we’re dealing with stuff this screwed up.”

“Things are getting better.  The Nine are gone, we’re cleaning up the city, our enemies are getting driven out of Brockton Bay.”

“Better for you, maybe, but those are your priorities.”

I didn’t respond, wasn’t sure how to.

“Just… don’t blame him.  I’m sorry things got so bad tonight.”

“Okay,” I said.  I hadn’t meant to get caught up in a conversation.  I saw a chance to say what I wanted to, “Are you good with going to Coil’s on your own?”

She looked surprised.

It was too dangerous to meet with Coil right now.  I wasn’t thinking straight, and I wasn’t willing to walk into the lion’s den.  Another day, under different circumstances, with backup?  Maybe.  But not now.

“I’m going to head back to my territory,” I lied.

“Yeah.  Sure.”

“Okay.  Good luck?  Coil can call me if he needs anything.”


I veered off to head north, leaving Genesis to continue in the direction of Coil’s headquarters.

As Tattletale had suggested, the window of opportunity had passed.  If I returned to my territory, would I be walking into a trap?  The same could be true if I went to any familiar place.  Coil had enough soldiers to have one lying in wait in any given area.

On the other hand, if I broke pattern and stayed somewhere off his radar, I’d be letting him know I was suspicious.  That might be all he needed to decide to step up his plans and go all-out.

I came to a decision, all my disparate thoughts and concerns snapping together into one simple, inelegant solution.

Too dangerous to go to my territory.  I set Atlas down on top of the tallest building in the area, climbed off and sent my bugs into my territory instead.  They flowed into my lair as a mass.  I left some in the appropriate terrariums to restock my supply of some of the rarer spiders and larger beetles.  The rest passed through the upper floors of my lair and retrieved the necessities.  They returned, surrounding Atlas as a cloud.

Once Atlas had landed beside me, I began getting everything in order.  Atlas held my rain boots in his front claws and carried my backpack and some of the clothes I’d had him pack on his back.  Using my hand, I swatted other items through the backpack’s opening as my bugs brought them into position – underwear, socks, wallet.

I ran one hand over Atlas’ rough exterior.  “What am I going to do with you?”

Atlas didn’t have the instincts to operate on his own.  He was an entirely unique creation, designed from scratch with no real blueprint or model for behavior.  He couldn’t move, couldn’t eat and couldn’t defend himself if I wasn’t in range to control him.

I’d have to figure something out.  Some place I could stick him so I could keep him close.

I picked out what I wanted to wear, checked there wasn’t anyone nearby and changed on the rooftop.  I had to take off the sling to free my arm, which maybe wasn’t the best idea, but I was gentle with my shoulder as I worked my way into a tank top.

When I was changed, I fixed my sling, I packed my stuff in my bag and bound my costume loosely in silk to keep it compact and tied that package loosely to Atlas’ back.  I wouldn’t be going anywhere without him, and wherever I was, he could probably bring my costume to me faster than I could access whatever hiding place I’d chosen.

I double-checked there wasn’t anyone watching, stepped up onto Atlas’ back and stayed standing as he lowered us to the street.  I skipped down with a bit of a splash, slung the backpack over my good shoulder and started walking.

Things were getting better.  The flooding was more under control, and less streets were sitting beneath inches of water.  The work my people had done in our district had helped, here.  We were downhill, and the efforts in clearing out the storm drains and dismantling the trash and rubble that was trapping water in certain areas had freed the water to flow down towards the beaches.

Still, that wasn’t saying a whole lot.  There were too many areas where it was dangerous to walk without proper boots, due to the glass and the wooden boards with nails in them. Piles of trash sat everywhere, with nobody to clear them away.  When people had run out of plastic bags, they began throwing the trash in cardboard boxes or plastic totes.  When those had proved too short in supply, they’d started throwing debris and litter wherever they pleased; out windows and into alleyways.  I could see rats in the spaces between some houses, not even shy about being out in plain view while I walked by with my oversized rain boots.

Plant life was alternately dying and flourishing, with trees and lawns drowned and algae and moss blooming.  Weeds were cautiously emerging wherever there was ground to take root.

It was funny how nature reclaimed this world in its own way.  It was silly to say humans were destroying the environment; we were simply changing it.  Nature would persevere until the world was a barren wasteland.  Whatever apocalypse Jack was supposed to set in motion, I suspected Jack was right in what he’d said to Bonesaw.  Something would undoubtedly survive, and this sort of thing would likely happen across the world, starting in the cracks, spreading out, only to overwhelm and bury the ruins of civilization.

A weird direction for my train of thought, but this was one circumstance where I didn’t want to think too much on things beforehand.

I stopped, not out of hesitation, but nostalgia.  The wooden staircase in front of me had rotted out on the bottom-most step.  Not recent, not a fault of Leviathan or the city’s conditions.  Older.  I skipped past it and headed up to the front door and rang the bell.

My heart pounded.  I tried not to think about anything particular.  Didn’t want to chicken out.

The door opened, and I found myself face to face with my dad.

It took all the courage I had not to turn around and run.  I was such a coward.  I’d been like this with school; I’d stopped going to classes for reasons that were more or less reasonable in the moments I’d made the decision, and somewhere along the line, I’d continued to avoid school because I didn’t have the courage to own up to my previous absences.

Only this wasn’t school.  It was my dad.  He still had marks all over his body where the glass had cut him, dried scabs in lines and circles all over his face and arms.  He had one large bandage on his shoulder.  Shouldn’t he have healed by now?  Or had it been that bad?

“It’s good to see you,” he said.  His forehead was creased in concern.  “You’re hurt.”

I looked down at the sling.  “It’s not major.”

“Is it why you-” he said, stopping himself as if he didn’t want to jinx things and scare me off with a poor choice of words.

“No,” I said.  I found myself searching for an explanation, opening my mouth to respond and then closing it when that explanation didn’t readily come.

He’s my boy, I could imagine the mayor’s voice, the pain and raw emotion I’d heard.  I only ever wanted what was best for him.

I just had to look my dad in the eyes, and I could see that same expression in my dad’s eyes.

“No,” I said, again.  “I just saw someone nearly lose her daughter.  It made me think of you and mom.”  I’d changed the genders on the spur of the moment to be safe.

As if I’d prodded a wound, I could feel that deep-seated ache from earlier come alive.  I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to meet my dad’s eyes.

“Do you,” he said, pausing, “Want to come in?”

I nodded.  He stepped out of the doorway and I stepped into the house for the first time since Shatterbird had attacked.  That had been the start of June, or thereabouts.  I hadn’t exactly had time to look around, nor had I really been in a stable state of mind.  The last time I’d really been able to look around the house had been the start of May.  Nearly two months ago.

I looked at the mantlepiece above the fireplace.  Things had been rearranged.  There was a small clock with a broken face, a family picture of Dad, Mom and me that had survived Shatterbird’s attack and a little statue/candlestick featuring a woman with a flowing dress.

I touched the statuette.  There were memories there.  Too many things in the house had them.  The statuette was part of a pair.  My mom had bought them at the market.  The overly tall, skinny, exaggerated figures had seemed to match my mom and dad, in a way.

“Where’s the husband statue?  Were you robbed?”

I looked at him, and he looked embarrassed.  “I traded it away.  More than a few things.”

“Why?  For what?”

“Selling and bartering for food,” he answered.

“But there’s supplies.  Did you not get enough, or…” I trailed off.  Why was I attacking him? Accusing him?  Was it guilt, failing to look after my dad and make sure he got the supplies he needed?

“The explosion with the glass.  I suffered some minor kidney damage.  The doctor advised me to up my iron and protein intake while we wait to see if it’ll scar.  Not nutrients you find in good supply in supply kits.”

Kidney damage.

“Is that the worst injury?  You’re otherwise okay?”

“I’m mostly okay.  Better than most, thanks to the warning you gave me about the Slaughterhouse Nine being in town.  Some of my coworkers owe you thanks as well.”

I nodded.  I was glad people were okay, but the fact that word was spreading, it put me in a dangerous spot.

“But I should be the one asking how you’re doing.  What happened to your arm?”

“Foreign body got trapped in there at some point,” I said, “Needed minor surgery.”

I could see the alarm crossing over his face.  Had he heard something?  Flechette passing on a message that people with injured shoulders-

Surgery?” he asked.

“It was only local anesthetic.  Really.  Not that big a deal.”

I looked over the bookshelves.  One of the better pictures of mom and me had been destroyed by the explosion of glass, ripped to shreds.  He had to have picked up that frame and stood it up on its own, sometime after Shatterbird’s attack.  I prodded at the picture, as if I could push the tattered remains back together.

“You’re so different,” he said.  “You’re standing straighter, dressing like you aren’t trying to hide in your clothes, moving with more purpose.  I think you’ve grown, too.  So many people, they seem like they’ve been burdened by what’s going on, they’ve given up a little, lost important things.  That just makes the contrast between you and them that much stronger.”

I turned around.  Was I?  “I don’t feel that much stronger.”

“I spent fifteen years raising you.  Two and a half of those years I spent raising you alone.  I can see a difference.”

“I’m not saying there isn’t a change.  There probably is.  I just- I dunno if I’m better because of it.”


A silence stretched out.  Neither of us were adept conversationalists, and any familiarity we’d had was gone.

“Do you want to sit?” he asked.

I nodded and seated myself.  There were papers on the coffee table.  Two loose stacks, headed with the title ‘Know where you are’.  They looked as though they had been printed using a fifteen year old photocopier.  I picked one up.

‘Know where you are:

The area extending east of Captain’s hill is believed to be under claim by the supervillains Grue and Imp.  Both are members of a group known as the Undersiders, who have joined with the Travelers in an unnamed alliance.  These villains will not attack civilians unless provoked, and clean-up is tentatively progressing throughout the area with no objections from either villain.

Grue has the ability to create clouds of darkness.  Should you find yourself in one of these clouds, retreat to the nearest cover you remember seeing and assume there is immediate and present danger from vehicles, gunfire, moving pedestrians and fighting between capes…’

I put it down.  There was more, noting a lack of information about Imp as well as the gangs and possible rivals that Grue and Imp might be fighting with, but it was over a week out of date.

The second paper:

‘Know where you are:

The area extending west of the ferry station north, including the factories and the remains of the Boardwalk, is believed to be under claim by the supervillain Skitter.  Skitter is a member of the Undersiders, who are allied with the Travelers in an as-of-yet unnamed alliance.  Skitter is an unpredictable young woman tending towards acts of apparent kindness to those she deems her subjects and bursts of sudden and extreme violence towards those she sees as her enemies.  The city is not funding work in her territory, as Skitter is handling matters there.

Skitter controls insects and senses what they do.  Anyone with allergies to stings or insect bites would be advised to leave this area.  She offers food, shelter and care to anyone who agrees to work under her, but the Dockworkers Association cannot suggest that anyone accept her offers, as her ulterior motives are unknown.

This area is not currently the site of any ongoing disputes between capes.  There is limited power in this area.  There is limited cell service in this area.  There is not water service in this area.’

Again, a little out of date.  Our water was running.  Still, it was startling to see this here.  From the beginning, I’d wanted to keep that part of my life and this part of my life separate. It had been a fierce enough desire that I’d avoided taking revenge on the bullies because of it, at least a little, and it might have had something to do with my running away from home.

“Your DAU has been putting these up?”

“Yes.  Making sure people are informed.  Too many stories of people taking the wrong path through the city and getting cornered by a mutant dog the size of a small tank.”


“You said you were staying outside the city, with Lisa’s family?  At the North end?  How did you get here?”

“I walked across the market, down to the Boardwalk and crossed through Skitter’s territory.”

I was pretty sure I wasn’t acting strange as I said the name.

“They didn’t give you any trouble?”

“They stopped me at the border and I asked permission.  They were nice about it.”


Lie after lie.

Another uncomfortable pause.

“Have you eaten?  I have some liver and mashed potato in the fridge.”

“I’ve eaten,” I lied.  No use taking some of my dad’s money when he was having to sell stuff to get food.

“Would you like some tea?”

“Please,” I said, grateful for an offer I could accept in good conscience.  He retreated into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I looked around.  It didn’t feel like my house anymore.  I’d only been gone two months, but things were different.  Things in the house had moved, or been sold, or they’d been damaged by Shatterbird’s attack.

The atmosphere was different too.  I wasn’t sure how much of that was the humidity, the lack of upkeep and the fact that the family of two had been just a family of one for nearly two months and how much of it was me.  It was all too possible that I was viewing my surroundings in a different light, tinting things with my paranoia about my dad making the connection between me and Skitter, viewing things more negatively because of my guilt over leaving him.

My dad rejoined me.  “If you give me a minute, I can make your bed-”

“I’m not staying,” I blurted the words.

“Oh.”  I could see the pain on his face.

In the mutual awkwardness that followed, the vibration of my cell phone was a mercy.  I picked it up and checked the display.  Heart-c-c-apostrophe-square.  Tattletale.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, hopping off the couch and hurrying out the door as I hit the button to pick up.

Please be okay, I thought, shutting the door behind me.

“Hey,” she replied.

“You’re okay?  Cactus-B.”

“Sun-Y.  Or Sun-N.  Whichever you prefer.”

“I’m not sure what color that’s supposed to be.”

“Neither am I.  Um.  So I talked to Coil.  Things have been clarified some.”

“Okay.  Should we-”

“It’s fine, pretty much, even if he’s listening in.  You’re not in danger.  No threat on your life at this present moment.”

“Okay,” I said, not sure how to expand on that.  She hadn’t precisely said it was Coil that was the threat, so maybe she was hedging her words to be safe.

“Which scares me,” she confessed.

“Scares you?”

“Um,” she said.  It wasn’t like her to be lost for words.  “I told Coil that Trickster got injured. I wasn’t sure if you’d told him.  He didn’t seem concerned.  There was zero indication that his plan had been disrupted.  Told him you were on your way back, again, no concern.  Everything that had been telling me he was harboring plans to assassinate you was telling me he wasn’t and hadn’t ever been, this time around.”

“Your power lied to you?”

“Um.  That’s what I thought.  I was thinking maybe I was working under a mistaken impression, tried adding and removing the elements to see if I could get a different result, interpret his earlier behavior differently.  No go.  And I was doing all this while having a perfectly normal conversation with Coil, until he says something like ‘Very dangerous.  You want to be careful who you’re picking a fight with.'”

I felt my blood run cold.  I had to sit down on the stair.  “He meant-”

“Oh, he totally meant.  If I was one-hundred percent sure he was planning on killing you before, I’m five-hundred percent sure he was telling me he knows what we’re up to.”

“What should I do?  What should we do?”

“I don’t know.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  I was still processing what he’d just said when he stepped toward the door to leave.  He put one hand on my shoulder, leaned close, and he spoke in this very quiet voice.  He said, ‘Be careful, Tattletale.  I value your service, but you should know your power isn’t as reliable as you like to think.'”

Sounding civil and caring while expressing a very clear threat.  “So the fact that it lied before-”

“It didn’t lie, Skitter.  I said he was testing me, before.  He was, just not like I thought.  He’s found a way to confuse my power, to counteract it.  This thing with the hit on your head.  It was just to scare us.  To let us know that any security my power afforded us, it doesn’t apply to him.  He can make us think you’re going to be killed when you aren’t, and-”

“And the opposite is true.  He can make us think we’re safe when we aren’t,” I finished.


“What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she said, again.  “Listen, I’ve got to call the others.  Are you with Grue?”

“No.  Maybe I’ll head that way before the end of the night.”

“We’ll figure something out,” she said.

Figure something out?  Coil was on to us, he’d effectively taken Tattletale out of the equation, and by all accounts, he seemed confident enough to continue letting us work for him, despite our intended mutiny.

I couldn’t bring myself to agree.  “Bye,” I said.


I hung up.

Before I could convince myself to head back to my territory and start plotting some counteroffensive, I stood from the stair and walked back inside.

Seeing my dad’s face, I was reminded of the dream I’d had, where my dad had turned out to be Coil, where I’d taken too long and Dinah had died.  I looked away, made my way back to the couch.  My dad set a cup of tea down in front of me, then sat beside me.

I wasn’t religious.  Didn’t believe in a higher power.  Mundane government was crappy enough, the idea of a divine one simultaneously scared me and made me want to laugh.  As a consequence, when I thought of a soul, I was thinking more about some collection of the abstract parts of the mind that covered a person’s mental and emotional well-being, their psyche and the defining aspects of their personality.  A more religious view of the soul would probably add up to a rough equivalent.

Whatever my overall motives might be, some part of what drove me was some desire to patch up the damage, fix that part of myself that had been taking a beating ever since I’d gotten that call about my mom’s death.

Only it wasn’t working.

Try to help the city, help the heroes, shore up my sense of self worth, find myself fumbling, tearing and discovering fresh holes in my subconscious makeup, with Dinah and my betrayal of the people who’d become my friends, betraying myself by failing to keep to that overall goal.  And there were other moments, moments where I’d been brutal and violent, accidental or otherwise.  Moments I’d made sacrifices, or where I’d been callous.  It wasn’t subtle, either.  The stack of papers in front of me said it, clear as day.  Sudden and extreme violence.

Even coming here, it had been at least partially motivated by my desire to fill that hole deep inside, that spot where family was supposed to fit.

I sipped on the tea.  My dad had made it with sugar, not honey.

This… sitting here and drinking tea with my dad, my head someplace else entirely?  It wasn’t fixing anything.  Wasn’t mending or filling anything.

I sipped again, then drank it in big gulps.  It burned going down, and I pounded my collarbone, as if I could banish that sensation.


I stood and picked up my backpack and shrugged it over the one shoulder.  “I’ve got to go.”

He stood too.

“I’m sorry.  We’re- we’re heading back, and it’s dark, so we’re going with a group.”

“I’ll come.”

“No.  You’d be alone going back.  It’s okay.”

He looked hurt.  “A hug?”

I hesitated, then stepped close and hugged him with the one arm.  He gingerly wrapped his arms around my shoulders and squeezed.

“I’ll be back,” I mumbled into his shirt.

“No vague promises.  You’re going to promise,” he said.

“Day after tomorrow?”

“Okay.  I don’t have work then, with the mayoral elections.  We can eat lunch here and then go to the town hall.”

Oh shit.  If Coil had something for us to do-

I stepped away, thinking of a way to formulate an excuse.  I saw his forehead creased with worry.  As thin as he’d been before, he looked thinner now.  Looked years older, wounded, tired, lonely.

“I’ll see you then, then,” I told him.

“See you,” he said, smiling sadly.  No pressure to stay.  He had no idea what was going on, I hoped, but he was still letting me do what I needed to.

I felt the need to reward him, to express some kind of gratitude, but I had only one thing to offer that he really wanted.  “I-  don’t know when.  But maybe I’ll come home?”

Vague, again.  Just like with what I’d said before, there was no set date.  I’d said the exact same thing when I’d left in the first place.  It was almost an insult.

But I saw him smile.  “Anytime, any day.  But we can talk about that over lunch, day after tomorrow.”

I nodded and turned to leave.  I wasn’t half a block away from the house before I felt the tears welling up, running down my face.

I couldn’t say whether they were because of my love for my dad or my despair for Dinah.

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Colony 15.8

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The benefit of using my swarm-clone to communicate with Parian was that I had relative privacy to talk to Coil.  He picked up on the fourth ring.  Not quite so prompt as Tattletale tended to be.


“I know you wanted me to use Ms. Cranston instead of calling you, but this is sort of important.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’ve talked with Parian, and we’ve come to a tentative agreement.  She’ll need to talk to other people before making a decision, but I think she’d join our alliance.”

“I see.”

There was a long pause.  I was getting ready to speak and ask if he was still there when he spoke once again.

“What are her terms?”

“She holds territory, she’ll defend it against all comers, but she’s not going to do jobs or do anything criminal.  As far as anyone else is concerned, she’s not a part of our takeover.”

“The implication being that we’re too weak to deal with her.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“It’s the conclusion others will come to.”

I felt a swell of frustration and anger, powerful enough that I might have snapped at him if I could have come up with what to say any faster.  I had to remind myself that I was anxious over the hit Coil had put on my head, and I felt betrayed.  I recognized that it was stupid to feel betrayed by Coil when I was actively planning to fight him if he didn’t cooperate on the Dinah front, but I also knew I didn’t tend to handle it well when someone I’d trusted stabbed me in the back.

Not that I’d ever trusted Coil but…

Okay, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking on that front.

I forced myself to calm down before saying, “I’m sure there’s a compromise.  Will you talk to her?”

“I will not risk revealing my identity, no,” Coil said.

Damn him.

“But,” he continued, “I will speak to her through a liason.”

“Thank you.”

“Though this could have been done more smoothly, I do appreciate your hard work.”

This from my would-be murderer.

“It’s not a problem.  Ballistic might be upset if he realizes I went behind his back on this, so maybe if anyone asks, she got spooked and came to you?”

“Perhaps.  I’ll be discreet, in any event.  It wouldn’t do to have friction between your two groups.”


“Speaking of inter-group relations, I believe Trickster is preparing to leave for the mission this evening.  You’ll want to contact him to arrange something.”

I’d been hoping to put this off.  It still felt like yesterday that I was watching my back every moment, waiting for an attack from any corner.  I wasn’t eager to return to that state.

“Okay,” I said.

He hung up without another word.

Parian first.

“I’ve raised the subject with others.  They’ll be in touch.  You should talk to Flechette and decide where you stand before then.”

“A lot of pressure.”

I don’t think you understand real pressure, I thought.  But I didn’t say it out loud.

“Yeah,” my swarm said.  The drones and buzzes that made up the syllables helped mask the lack of real sympathy.  I began working to use silk strands and flying bugs to lift a cell phone into the air.  I thumbed through the keypad and sent a text to Ms. Cranston to inform her about what I was doing.  “I’m flying a phone to you, it’ll be in your hands before you’re out of my territory.  Someone will use it to call you before the end of the day.”

“This is you subtly telling me to leave?”

“I’m in the middle of something, yes.  Thank you for hearing me out.”

“It was the least I could do, after the help you’ve offered my friends and family.”

“Whatever you decide, take care of yourself, Parian.”

“You too.”

I scattered the swarm, then paused to think.

The painkiller was starting to wear off, and I could feel the steady ache in my shoulder.  I still had a dart sticking through the bone.  Brooks had only removed the points on either end.  I could only hope the pain kept me sharp.

I’d hoped to take a break and formulate some strategy, some plan.  I had a few small ideas, but they weren’t broad enough to cover every base.  And there were a lot of bases to cover when someone as well equipped as Coil was after me.


I couldn’t do up all of the armor I’d removed with the one hand, so I enlisted Atlas’ help in putting the armor on my injured shoulder, using his forelimbs to hold things steady.

I took a deep breath.  It wasn’t confirmed one-hundred percent, but I had my suspicions that Parian was on board.  I didn’t want to die, exactly, I was prepared to fight tooth and nail to avoid it, but at the same time I was ready to die, now.

I didn’t really have friends, outside the team.  My teammates would miss me, but they’d recover in time.  Death was a reality in our business.

My dad hadn’t heard from me in some time.  If I died, well, perhaps not as great a shock as it might otherwise be.  I knew it would hit him as hard as my mom’s death had, that he’d be devastated… but again, he’d recover.  Maybe it would be easier, because at least here he’d have someone to blame, the city, the thugs, whoever Lisa told him was at fault for my murder.  I was pretty sure she wouldn’t reveal my identity to him when a simpler, to-the-point explanation would do.

And my people?  My territory?

I felt Parian receive the cell phone, a few blocks away, pulling it to her hand with telekinesis.  From the bugs that lingered on it, I could feel it vibrate pretty violently as it moved the short distance through the air.

If I died, Parian could take over my territory.  I had the feeling I could trust her to care about my people the same way I did, more than I could trust even my friends.  The transition wouldn’t be too difficult.

I took in another deep breath, then sighed.  For Dinah.  In any other circumstance, I’d back down, leave Coil’s employ.  But I was willing to brave this if it meant keeping her and her freedom in my reach.

I dialed Trickster.

Atlas carried me into the nice part of town, southwest of the Towers.  The Christian private school wasn’t far from here.  Immaculata.  New Wave was also based here.  I kind of hoped I didn’t cross paths with them.  If they shared any of Flechette’s opinions about me being at least partially to blame for whatever had happened with Panacea and Glory Girl, well, they’d be even less inclined to hold back.

I needed to find out the story there.  Had to ask Tattletale, when I had a free moment.

The area was riddled with hills and glades, with ridiculously large houses gathered in small neighborhoods.  Brockton Bay tended to zig-zag pretty drastically between the poverty-stricken areas and the wealthy.  The contrast seemed even greater here where things were largely untouched by Leviathan’s attack, compared to the rest of the city where streets sat under inches of water.

I didn’t join Trickster and Genesis.  Instead, I set Atlas down in one of the wooded glades close to my destination, glanced at my phone to ensure I’d followed directions to the right spot, and then got my laptop out to prepare.  I was a little early, which meant I could afford to take the time to prepare.

The range would be lower with the trees and any buildings between me and my destination, but I was still better off using my swarm-clone as a body double.  I double checked my equipment and weapons while I waited for my ‘clones’ to gather together.

Centipedes and bugs chained end-to-end for the hair.  Larger bugs formed the bulk of the legs, torso, and the core of the head.  Smaller bugs filled the gaps, while flying insects clustering together to form the arms and the parts too unwieldy to be supported by the rest, like the face.  Once the basic form was there, it was just a question of refining it so the general silhouette was right, and positioning the miniature camera and microphones so they had eyes and ears I could use.

Once they were ready, I gathered one swarm on top of Atlas and flew it to Trickster and Genesis.  I walked with my swarms at my side, my laptop open and held with my good arm so I could see the video feed.  As I gathered more bugs on top of my costume and in my hair to make myself resemble the clones, I used stray bugs to form similar laptops for the other clones.  They didn’t have glowing screens, but the generally rectangular shapes would serve for anyone looking at a distance.

If ‘I’ was in immediate danger, my clone on Atlas’ back would take the hit.  If my enemy or enemies saw through the ruse and came looking for me, they’d have to pick me apart from my clones.  That meant they would have to take the time to find a telltale clue, they’d have to guess with only a one-in-four chance of hitting the real me or they’d have to spread their attacks out among each of my clones.  I had the additional security of bugs filling the area, sweeping over surfaces and ledges to spot anyone who might be in place to stalk or snipe me, and my costume served as a final line of defense.

Redundancies.  It didn’t feel like enough.

Trickster and Genesis were waiting as Atlas descended.  They were crouched with their backs to a stone wall that bordered one property at the edge of a hill.  Trickster was holding binoculars, gazing down at the neighborhood below us.  Genesis was in the form of a ghostly woman wreathed with chains.  Her white hair was smoky, wispy, and covered her face, and her fingers were talons.  She had no lower body extending from the tattered poncho-style cloak she wore, and simply floated as though she were as light as air.  How had she done that?  Some basic flight mechanism?  A gas balloon in her stomach?

So powerful.

“Welcome.  Have a look,” Trickster said.  He extended one hand with the binoculars.  Binoculars I couldn’t use with my camera.

“Don’t need them.  Which property?”

He pointed.  It took me a second to relate the direction his arm was pointing with the camera angle and relate that to my own position relative to my clone.  I could have figured it out in an instant if I’d put a bug on his hand, but I didn’t want to clue him in if I didn’t have to.

The grounds of the building he was pointing to was nearly as large as the city block where I’d grown up and lived until a couple of months ago.  There was a fence, but it seemed to be directed at keeping the family’s dogs in rather than keeping intruders out.  Chain link, no barbed wire.  I knew he had dogs from the flies that were clustered on the feces in the back yard that hadn’t been picked up, and the larval young that festooned each clump.

Not too many bugs inside the house.  There were some in the walls, but the home seemed relatively new, and the insulation was packed tightly enough that nothing was really living in the walls.

It took me a minute, but I did manage to start a headcount.

“There’s guards?”

“There’s a police presence in this area.  I think they’re expecting trouble,” Trickster said.  “Anyways, the reason we’re here at this time and place is that the mayor always eats dinner with his family.  Tattletale says he’s only missed three meals in twenty years, and that was only because he was out of town for work.  His planned trip to Washington is going to be his fourth time away from home, so this is the one place we can be absolutely sure we’ll cross paths with him.”

I found the dining room and started counting the number of shoes under the table.  “Four adults.  I think two male, two female, judging by the footwear.  Two younger girls. Going by their size, I’d guess between eight and twelve.”

“He has a son and two twin daughters,” Trickster said.

I arranged bugs on the ground by Trickster to sketch out a rough floor plan of the house and show the pair where the family was relative to us.

“How do you want to do this?” Genesis asked.

“We scare the wits out of them, then we’ll introduce ourselves to the mayor,” Trickster said.  “You guys start us off.  I’ll keep an eye out for trouble and handle things if any cops show up or if anyone flees.”

“We’re attacking with their family there?” I asked.

“Sure.  Bigger impact if we threaten them too.”

“Not sure I like that.”

“When I was talking to Coil about what Tattletale said about the schedule, he suggested it.  Unless you want to go against him?”

He was talking to Coil.  I made a mental note of that.  Did I need to watch out for an attack from Trickster?  It would be as simple as swapping the positions of an active grenade with a stone near me.

It was possible.  He was ruthless, he didn’t seem to have many compunctions about killing and he was in the best position to do it.  I couldn’t sense any people who might be Coil’s soldiers.

There was the possibility that I was walking into a trap, that everyone in the house we were about to attack was a threat.  I could handle that much.

Too many potential avenues of attack.  Too many potential threats.  And with the possibility of long-range weapons, Trickster or even a surprise attack by Genesis, it could come at any instant.

“Skitter?”  Genesis asked.

“Hm?  Right.  Um.  I suppose not.  We just scare them, right?  We don’t do any physical harm?”

“Right,” Trickster said.

Well, I could do that.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d done in my first job with the Undersiders.  I’d terrorized hostages then for a greater purpose, and I could do the same with a family for the same reason.

“Just give me a second,” I said.

“I’m going, then,” Genesis said, floating over the edge of the hill.

“Not the first time you’ve needed time to get ready,” Trickster commented to me.


“Just seems like a drawback.”

Is he threatening me?  Letting me know he’s on to one of my weaknesses?

“I’m a general, and it takes time to mobilize my army.  Better to hit hard with all my forces at once.”

“Not always.  You could have built up to a crescendo there.”

“And give them a chance to scatter?  I’d have to divide the swarm to cut each group of people off, which would mean less bugs for each, smaller effect overall.”

He shook his head.



“You seem just a little more hostile than before,” I said.

“Do I?”

My bugs had gathered around the handful of entry points I’d been able to find.  Windows were open, but each window had been set up with either plywood or screens to compensate for the glass Shatterbird had destroyed.  There was a fan system for the bathrooms that was structured to discourage bugs from crawling through in reverse, with flaps that would presumably only open when the fan was active, and that was easy to bypass with some cooperation of the arthropodic collective.

“Yeah.  Any reason for it?”

“Not a huge fan of you stepping on Ballistic’s toes.  He’s sort of a friend.”

Not the way he tells it.  “I didn’t intend any offense.”

More bugs were entering through one of the doors at the side of the house, which was ajar.  I presumed it was to let the warm late-spring/early-summer air flow through the house.  The challenge there was keeping the bugs from being spotted before I was ready.

When I realized what Genesis was planning, I shifted my bugs to follow.  She headed straight for the kitchen window and crashed through the plywood there.  She was followed shortly after by my swarm, spilling into the room to spread over windows, ceiling and floor, only a small few darting around the people.

They turned to run, naturally, running for the door that led to the kitchen and to the hallway.  They were met by the remainder of my swarm, a thick cloud of flies, dragonflies, moths, roaches and beetles.  I could feel them backing away, four adults, two children.

“Police are on their way.  Gonna swap them with us the second they get to the house.  Warning you in advance so we can look confident.”


“Appreciate that line of thinking, but there’s one small problem,” I said.

He looked at me, then frowned.  “I can’t get a grip on you.  You’re doing what you did when you were talking to Legend and Miss Militia.”

“A little more refined than that, but yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said.  Then he groaned. “And now I’ve lost sight of the cops.”

“I can deal with them, if you want.”

“Just find them and I’ll handle that.  Where’s your real body?”

I hesitated.  Then I had my clone turn and point to another clone.  Just in case he decided to go on the attack.

“I see you.  Right.  And the cops?”

“Over there, but don’t teleport me,” I said.  “I’ve got something else in mind, and the visual effect will be stronger.”

“If I don’t teleport you, I have to fight whichever cop I’m not teleporting,” he noted.

Cope, I thought.  I deigned not to respond, and dismantled the clone that was standing next to him.  I did draw an arrow pointing him to where the two officers had circled one corner of the property.

Rather than visit the house myself, I gathered some of the bugs I’d sent to the room and began forming a clone there.  From what I’d seen of the process, it was sort of spooky in its own right.  A person materializing from vermin.  I carried the small camera and microphone towards the swarm, using the video feed to remotely see the clone from a short distance so I could match the finer features and body shape.  When I was done, I added the remaining bugs to the swarm, the camera and microphone hidden in their midst, and shifted the camera into place.

I recognized our mayor.  Never someone I’d paid a whole lot of attention to, given how I wasn’t exactly a voter, but I recognized him in a general way.  His face tended to pop up in advertisements and media.  If the city wasn’t in the state it was in right now, it would be on every TV channel, well into the swing of things for the imminent mayoral elections.  He was fifty or sixty, with horseshoe-pattern baldness on a round head and large ears that sort of stuck out.

The woman next to him would be his wife.  She had the look of someone who had purchased their good looks, with stylish clothes, an expensive haircut and top-notch makeup and skin care.  She was clutching her husband, who was holding his two twin daughters.

There were two young adults there too.  Older teenagers or young twenty-somethings.  The guy looked seriously well-built, the girl statuesque;  I got the vibe of an athlete and his cheerleader girlfriend more than I got the impression of a brother and sister with good genetics.  The guy stood a little in front of his parents and girlfriend, as if he wanted to protect them.  Genesis and I stood on the other side of the dining room table.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“A conversation,” Trickster spoke.  He had hopped up to the ledge of the ground-floor window and was now hopping down, one hand on his hat.  He adjusted it.  “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

The mayor looked at each of us in turn.  Well, at Trickster and the fake-selves that Genesis and I were producing.  “To what do I owe this questionable pleasure?”

“We hear you’re going to Washington tomorrow.”

I saw the son turn to look over his shoulder at his dad.  I also noted that he was discreetly drawing a phone from his pocket, concealed by the way he’d turned his body.  If I couldn’t sense movements through my bugs, I would have missed it.

I could have said something, but I stayed quiet.  Instead, I drew Atlas to a point near the window and began uncoiling and stretching out the lines of pre-prepared silk I’d already drawn out for emergency use.

“I am.”

“Well, I think it would only be fair if you heard from all of your constituents,” Trickster remarked.  “Before you come to a decision.”

“You pay taxes?” The son asked, shifting his position again so his right hand was hidden behind his girlfriend.  I could feel him adjusting his grip on the phone.  As far as I could tell, he hadn’t actually done anything to it.  I waited for him to stop moving his hand, and then threaded a series of flying bugs between his fingers and the device, winding the thread around it.

“Rory,” the mayor spoke, his tone a warning.  He turned his attention to Trickster.  “And?  Which outcome are you hoping for?”

“I think it would be excellent if the city kept on going.  Things are getting better.”

“And you’re putting yourselves in charge,” the mayor noted.

“We’re just keeping the peace,” Trickster said.  “Doing a better job than your local heroes.”

“If you have a liberal interpretation of ‘peace’, maybe,” the mayor said.

Rory moved his fingers, tapping the screen, and I had Atlas fly away from the window.  The phone was torn from his hand and bounced off of the window pane before landing outside.  Atlas reeled it in further while Rory looked around in confusion and alarm.

“No phone calls,” I spoke, buzzing through my swarm.

“Give that back,” he said.

“Is your phone really a priority?” Trickster asked.

“Yeah,” Rory said.  “Yeah it is.”

“Then you should have known better than to use it here,” Trickster said, shrugging.

Give it back,” Rory turned to glare at ‘me’.  At my swarm-double.

Trickster chuckled, “Never really got that smartphone craze.  People go gaga over the things.”

No, I thought.  Something’s off.

What I wouldn’t give for Tattletale’s power.  Or even to have her present.  How would she pull the pieces together, fill in the blanks?  She could have looked at the big picture here and known exactly what was going on, while I was left to guess.

The obsession over the phone?  I couldn’t draw any conclusions.  What else?  The family dinner with the son bringing his girlfriend over?  Nothing too strange.

They weren’t scared.

The little girls were glaring at us as they clutched their dad, Rory was too focused on his phone when his family was in imminent danger, and Rory’s girlfriend was staying very still.  Topping it off, the mayor was too casual in how he was addressing us.


“I think it would be in everyone‘s best interests if Brockton Bay kept going.  Not quite fair to judge the fate of the city at its lowest point,” Trickster said.

“Are you being ironic on purpose?” The mayor asked.  “You’re making a very strong case for why the city shouldn’t continue down the path it’s been going down, just by being here.”

Again, that confidence.  One didn’t trade banter with someone who was implicitly threatening them and their family with bodily harm.  Not if they didn’t have some measure of security their would-be assailants weren’t aware of.

I considered the various possibilities.  Not too hard to narrow down the options, with the process of elimination.

I drew the words against the wall, above and behind the gathered family.

Trickster didn’t seem to notice.  “I’m surprised you aren’t showing us more respect.  You’d think we’d almost be equal on a level, current guy in charge of the city talking to the aspiring rulers.”

“I earned my position through hard work, dedication and by convincing the people that it was in their best interests to vote for me.  Which it was.  You three?  You’re criminals.  Thugs.  You didn’t earn anything.”

Thugs?  Do Thugs take on the Slaughterhouse Nine and walk away?”

“All you have going for you is violence and intimidation.  You can’t accomplish anything but destruction that way.”

I made the words on the wall bigger.  Trickster didn’t see them, or he didn’t care.

“Trickster-” I started, speaking through my swarm.  I need to have a word with you.

“Well,” Trickster said, cutting me off, “If you insist, who am I to argue?”

In an instant, one of the two twin girls was replaced by one of the dining room chairs on our side of the table, and vice versa.  Trickster grabbed her hair and pulled her close, drawing a gun and pressing it to her head.

“Trickster,” Genesis said, in the same second I moved forward to stop him.

Was she trying to stop him as well, or had she seen the words?

She settled one talon on his shoulder.  I wasn’t sure what signal she gave, but Trickster paused.

Whatever it was, he must have looked up at the words I’d written, because Rory noticed.  He whipped his head around to see, and I couldn’t disperse the bugs fast enough.

‘Triumph’ written on the wall with bugs with a triangle beneath, pointing at his head.  Above his ‘girlfriend’ were the words ‘Prism or Ursa’.

The mayor’s son was the civilian identity of Triumph.  Enhanced physical prowess and a concussive shout that could punch holes through concrete.

He whipped his head around and stared at Trickster.  Before the teleporter could pull the trigger or do anything else, Triumph shouted.  His sister was untouched, but Trickster was sent flying into the wall hard enough that he was half-buried in the drywall.

“Duck, Kyla!”

The little girl threw herself to the ground as Triumph lunged forward, kicking the dining room table.  It slid halfway across the room, over ‘Kyla’ and into the wall. The side slammed into Trickster’s midsection, and the table’s contents flew into the villain and the wall around him.  Trickster went limp, his upper body flopping over the table.

I mobilized the swarm, but Triumph was already shouting again, slamming Genesis into a wall, much as he’d done with Trickster.  A third bellow annihilated my swarm-clone, and he turned to start eradicating my spread out bugs while his family ran for the hallway, led by the superheroine.

Couldn’t get a serious number of bugs together in one place to mount a serious attack without Triumph obliterating them and he was either too angry or too stubborn to surrender to the stings and bites I was managing to inflict.  The superheroine had her phone out and I wasn’t able to tug it from her hand like I had with Triumph’s.  They would be getting reinforcements shortly.  Even if I took all of them out of action, I’d still have to get Trickster out of there and escape with my own hide intact.

“Damn it,” I cursed.  I broke into a run, accompanied by my swarm-doubles, hurrying for the house.  I couldn’t leave him there, not without jeopardizing everything.  He struck me as being disloyal enough to offer information for his own sake, or information about the Undersiders, at the very leastAnd leaving him behind would leave a permanent rift between our team and the Travelers.  It could even mean being dropped by Coil, an excuse for him to separate me from my teammates.

That said, I couldn’t save him or mount a serious attack with just my doubles.  He was hitting too hard, handling my bugs too effectively.  I could have killed or critically injured his family with the few bugs I did have, brought them down with the more dangerous insects, but I wasn’t willing to go that far.  Not with people who didn’t deserve it.

Atlas wouldn’t be strong or versatile enough to carry an unconscious body to safety.  If I was going to haul Trickster out of there, it would have to be with my own two hands.

I could only pray I wasn’t exposing myself to whatever assassination ploy Coil had in mind.  Or worse, that I wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted me to do.

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Colony 15.4

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Sundancer had once described her life in costume as intense, violent and lonely.  I’d had a hard time understanding the last point.  That had been about the same time that I had been riding the high of having friends for the first time, after a couple of years spent in almost total solitude.

Maybe, if the subject had come up again in recent weeks, I might have understood, nodding my head in sympathy.

Powers raised us above the common people.  It was maybe arrogant to think that way, to say I was better than the likes of Sierra, Charlotte or my father, but I sort of was.  I had all the potential they did and then more.

Even if I looked at how powers elevated us, though, I had to admit we weren’t raised to the same level.  We weren’t all raised up together.  If anything, the powers drove us apart: our trigger events, our reasons for wanting to use our powers, the agendas and missions we took upon ourselves, and even how those powers made us think and operate in different ways… they put barriers between ourselves and others.  I just had to think of Panacea or Bitch, and I had some damn good examples of that.

I couldn’t think of two capes who were in a committed relationship where there wasn’t some degree of fucked-up-ness.  Night and Fog were, if I’d understood Tattletale right, essentially functional sociopaths.  They’d acted out the role of a married couple with none of the affection or fondness.  Victor and Othala were screwed up in a different way, burdened by a shared event in their past.  Brandish and Flashbang?  If their kids were any indication… yeah.  Fucked up.

It was no small wonder we were all so fucked up.  It was the human condition, to need a supporting hand now and again, and yet we could barely help ourselves, let alone each other.

Worse, if by some small miracle two capes managed to find comfort and support in each other, there was no guarantee that those other two points that Sundancer had raised wouldn’t ruin things.  The intensity of our lifestyle and the sheer violence.  Lady Photon had lost her husband in the Leviathan fight.  Glory Girl had, if the magazines and papers were any indication, maintained an on-and-off relationship with Gallant.  He’d died too.

So this?  Lying here beside Brian?  It was sort of bittersweet, with maybe a 60-40 split on the sweet vs. the bitter.

I couldn’t see Brian’s face without raising my head, and I didn’t want to do that and risk waking him.  I’d left my glasses on the table with the knife and gun, so I couldn’t see that well anyways.  I settled for studying the fabric of his sleeveless shirt, the nubs of lint, the weave of the textile, and how it shifted with the slow, deep and rhythmic breaths he was taking.  I could smell his sweat, with the faint traces of his deodorant beneath.  It was funny, because when we’d settled in, I hadn’t been able to smell anything.

I felt warm in the core of my chest.  That wasn’t just the morning light streaming in through the windows.

Not happy, exactly.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, not with the responsibilities I wasn’t attending to right now, not with the mistakes I’d made and the people I’d failed.

But I could convince myself that this was something I should be doing.  It was one of the tasks that I had to tend to, no matter how the coming days and weeks unfolded, and we’d settled on making those tasks a priority.  We had to support Grue if we wanted him around to help us when everything started going down.

I wouldn’t rest any hopes on this, not with the way every other parahuman relationship seemed to go.  I’d take these individual moments for what they were.

All of which amounted to a pile of excuses and rationalizations I was layering on top of one another, trying to convince myself this wouldn’t end disastrously, that I wasn’t being irresponsible or that I wasn’t going to regret this on a hundred different levels.  It was enough that I could feel at peace, here.

Mostly at peace.  I had to pee, and yet I didn’t want to move and disturb him.

Nothing was easy, it seemed.

My body won out over my willpower, and I decided to extricate myself.  I didn’t even try to get to my feet, instead easing myself down to the ground as I unwrapped myself from Brian as slowly as I could.

Once I’d disentangled myself from Brian and the couch, I grabbed my glasses, knife, cellphone and gun and rushed to the washroom.

The cell phone rang while I was on the toilet.  Tattletale.  For Brian’s sake and my own sense of decency, I refused the call and texted her instead:

What’s up?

She replied soon after:

R is done.  Bird in the pen 4 now.  C wants a meeting neways.  Get G I and come 4 11am?

So it was time to see if Brian could glean anything from Victor’s power.  I responded:

G sleeping.  Don’t want to wake him.

I could guess her reply before it appeared:

hate to break u 2 lovebirds up but we r tight on time and C is impatient

I texted her an a-ok before hanging up and putting the phone away.

The kitchen had been cleaned up, but my bugs hadn’t alerted me to anyone coming in.  Had Aisha returned and used her power to stay quiet?

I decided to assume she had and began preparing breakfast for three people.

If I had to rouse Brian, I’d do it with the smells of bacon, coffee and toast.  It was as inoffensive a method as I could think of.

Aisha woke up before Brian did, venturing downstairs in a long t-shirt.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” I said, quiet.  I could remember her reaction the last time I’d been talking to Brian, and added, “And for not getting upset.”

“I can’t help him, don’t know how.  So I’m putting it in your hands.”


“Don’t thank me.  If you screw this up, I can and will make your life a living hell.”

I frowned.  “Honestly?  That’s not very fair.  I think I probably will screw up along the way.  This isn’t going to be smooth sailing, whatever happens.  So maybe it’d be better if you just trust that I’m going into this with the best intentions for him.”

She plucked a piece of bacon from a plate and popped it into her mouth.  “Maybe.  But no. Don’t fuck this up.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.  It’s the little things, convincing someone they’re going crazy, nothing they put down is where they left it.  Things go missing.  Furniture gets moved.  Then it gets more serious, they find the stash of drugs they were supposed to barter for stuff is missing-”

“I don’t have any drugs,” I told her.

“Talking hy-po-theticals.  I get them in trouble with people they know.  Then they have little injures they can’t remember getting.  Splinters under their fingernails, papercuts between their fingers or at the corners of their mouths, little cuts on the back of their hands.  That’s usually when they freak out.  They run, go somewhere else, and it stops, just a little while.  Until it comes again, twice as bad as before.  They snap.  Then I leave them a message telling them that it all stops when they leave the city.  Put it on their walls in blood or put it on their bathroom mirror in soap so it shows up when the room gets all steamy.  They’re glad.  They’re happy to have a way out.  Except I wouldn’t leave you that note.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brian asked, from behind her.  “And where are you getting that blood?”

Aisha wheeled around, not appearing even half as guilty as she should have.

“I asked Coil’s lieutenant for some.  He asked me how many gallons I wanted.  How weird is that?  I mean, seriously, who needs gallons of blood?  Or maybe I could use it.  Paint someone’s house, see if I can’t freak them out hardcore,” Aisha smiled wickedly.

“Ignore that question.  What were you saying to Taylor, about not giving her a note?”

“It’s fine,” I told him.  “She’s being protective of her big brother.”

Aisha plastered a fake smile on her face.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Brian told Aisha, with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’m dropping this only because Taylor’s sticking up for you.”

Aisha rolled her eyes and began serving herself.

It was nine-thirty.  Assuming it would take us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get to Coil’s place, that left us only about an hour to get ready.  We ate in awkward silence.  Aisha took the first turn in the shower, leaving Brian and me alone once again.

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  We had taken a step forward, but I didn’t exactly have any experience on this front.  What was I supposed to do?  What did I say?  I wanted to hug him, to hold his hand or raise the idea of spending time together later, but I didn’t know what was allowed, or what would be pushing boundaries or taking things too far.

He sat down on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table, and I grabbed a glass of orange juice before sitting down next to him.  Would he put his arm around me, or-

“This thing with Coil.  Do you have a plan?”

Opportunity missed.

I shook my head.  “More like I have a bunch of smaller plans.  Can’t commit to anything, in case things unfold in an unexpected way.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about them.  Plan A?”

“I whip my territory into shape, Coil decides that it’s more valuable to keep me in his service.  The idea is that he values my ability to keep an area stable more than he values having Dinah.  He lets her go.”

“Not likely.”

I frowned.  “I almost gave up on it after Burnscar torched everything.  It isn’t that impossible.”

“Think about what it would mean in terms of security leaks.  If he let Dinah go home to her family, she wouldn’t be able to return to her normal life.  If Coil was dumb enough to let her go with no safeguards and without people to watch her, then the heroes would swoop in on her and use her to get him.”

I nodded, glum.

“And really, can you honestly say that your services are worth the cost of everything you’re taking from Coil in the way of resources, plus the cost of the agents he’d need watching Dinah at all hours?”

“So you think he’ll say no.”

“Tattletale thinks that Coil may be considering dropping you from the team once he has what he needs.”

I turned to look at Brian.  His forehead was creased in a frown.

“You think I’m expendable.”

“To Coil?  Possibly.”

I nodded.

“It’s something to keep in mind,” he said.

“Thing is, I don’t know how that really changes anything.  Should I stop helping the people in my territory?  I’m not going to.  It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it would tip Coil off.”

“I think it was a bad idea to tip him off by making the deal in the first place.  Now he knows you’ve got pretty strong morals.  On a level, anyways.”

I nodded.  On a level.

He went on, “I imagine it’s troublesome to have someone with those sorts of moral concerns that could throw his long-term plan off course.  He might be looking to replace you.”

“And with his power, that might make for a bit of a pinch.”

“His power?”

I paused.  “Tattletale clued me in.  He creates parallel realities.  Makes two different decisions, and he gets to see the outcome of each as they unfold.  Decides which he wants in the end.”

Brian frowned.  “And he’s been doing that with us?”

“Since before I joined the team.  Send us on a job in one reality, keep us back in another.  If we succeed, great.  If we fail… well, nothing lost.  He deletes the reality where he sent us out.”

He rubbed his chin.  I noticed he had stubble.  “So he gets two tries at everything.  Including dealing with any of us who cause him any trouble.”

I nodded.  “Which is why we need to play along for as long as possible.”

“Fair.  What’s your plan B?”

“Plan B… well, it’s not so much a plan as a fallback.  If I get found out before we make any headway, it means fighting Coil and his underlings.”

“The Travelers and Circus included.”

“Tattletale and I have talked about how we might approach that.  The problem is that Coil would be backing them up.  Normally I’d suggest we go on the offensive, so they don’t have time to go after our weaknesses, but with Coil at work, we have to assume that it’s all the more likely that the Travelers would get that one lucky hit off, or that they’d pick the plan of attack that would work out for them.”

“And they’re powerful enough that they’d really only need to get lucky once,” Brian said.  I saw his expression darken.  He was staring off into space.

“Sorry,” I said.  Impulsively, I leaned closer, so my arm and shoulder pressed against his arm.


“If you want to talk about something else-”

“I want to make sure we come out of this alive.”

“But it’s stressing you out.”

“I’ll manage,” he answered, putting one arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

But he didn’t raise the subject again.  Aisha got out of the shower, he took the next turn, ostensibly to clean up after her.  I took the brief period of quiet to get my stuff in order.  I’d worn my costume under my clothes, the top and dress portion  bound around my waist, beneath the sweatshirt.

Once I was free to use the shower, I pulled off the costume and hung it up.  The steam would help with any wrinkles for the parts that weren’t skintight.

I had to admit to being a little disappointed with the way the morning was unfolding.  Part of that was with myself, not knowing how to act, but part of it was with the lack of romance.  RationallyI knew that the movies, TV, books and all that, they didn’t paint a realistic picture.  I knew that we wouldn’t instantaneously click, that everything would be fixed.

But at the core of it all, I wasn’t a hundred percent rational.

Had to take what I could get.  Last night, cuddling?  It had been nice.  Really nice.

All in all, we were ready to move out well ahead of time.

I wracked my brain, trying to think of things to say.  Everything social or romantic seemed forced or awkward, especially with Imp there.  Everything related to our costumed selves seemed too delicate, fraught with reminders for Brian.

Each time I entered Coil’s headquarters, it seemed like it had transformed.  On our first visit it had been a bare bones setup with piles upon piles of crates, and soldiers congregating wherever there was room.  Our last visit had seen some organization.  Now it had finally taken form.

The interior was divided into two levels.  The lower level sported a cafeteria, a bar, a small computer lab and bunk beds for the soldiers on standby.  Doorways leading to what I suspected were washrooms.  I knew that Coil had squads positioned across the city by now, in quarters not unlike the lairs he had assigned us, if a little more austere.  Anyone who stayed here had the bare necessities.

There was an area with more of a focus on the actual ‘war’ part of soldiering, with men at the ready to hand out the guns and ammunition that were tidily arranged on racks and shelves, a massive laundry room that appeared to be devoted to washing and preparing the uniforms and two more stations for heavier gear and more esoteric stuff like walkie-talkies and explosives.

The upper level was pretty plain, with a metal walkway bridging the gaps to the doorways that were recessed in the concrete walls.  Still, things had been added, including whiteboards with shift schedules and maps very similar to the one I’d seen in Tattletale’s base of operations.

I glanced at one map; our territory had expanded somewhat.  Or maybe it was better to say that the pockets of enemy forces that had lurked at the edges of our territory were collapsing.

Cranston, the blond woman who served as one of Coil’s liasons to us, who was my contact when I needed something, was standing outside the door to the conference room.

“Skitter.  How are you?”

“I’m fine, Ms. Cranston.”

“You’re a bit early.  Can I offer you anything while you wait for Coil to arrive?”

I shook my head.

“Grue?  Imp?”

They refused as well.

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Grue and Imp stepped away to talk to the fat, short man who I took to be their liason.  I stepped over to the railing and watched the scene below.

A group far to my left caught my eye.  I ventured closer.

Trickster, Sundancer, Genesis and Ballistic were gathered around Tattletale, joined by Coil and a blond boy with striking good looks.  I couldn’t really get a good look at it from my vantage point, but the wall jutted out beneath the walkway, and there was a heavy vault door set into the concrete, similar to the ones I’d seen at the shelters.


Tattletale was shaking her head as she talked.  She gestured toward the door.

I could see the Travelers respond to that.  Trickster folding his arms, Sundancer turning away slightly.  Genesis, in her wheelchair, hung her head just a bit, her mop of hair blocking the view.

They weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear.

Tattletale touched the wall, some panel or button system, said something, and then turned away, walking towards the staircase.  The Travelers and Coil followed behind.

“Everything okay?” I asked Tattletale, as she joined me.

“Oh, not really,” she gave me a tight smile.

“Fill me in later?”

“Can’t.  Sworn to secrecy.”

“Uh huh.  You know, for someone who calls herself Tattletale, you’re way too fond of keeping secrets.”

“Believe me, some secrets aren’t so fun to keep.”

I frowned.  What was going on there?

I could only trust that she’d inform us when we weren’t in earshot of Coil and the Travelers.

Bitch and Regent were waiting outside the conference room as we approached.  I gave Bitch a small nod of acknowledgement, and she returned it.  All together, we got seated; Travelers on one side of the table, Undersiders on the other, Coil at the head.

“I understand that things have been hectic since the Nine departed the city.  Communications are difficult to establish, there’s still lasting damage from the Endbringer attack, and everyone has their individual concerns.  Before our focus fell on the Nine and eliminating Jack Slash, I told you to establish your territories and do what you could to effect some sort of control.  As Tattletale may not have all of the necessary information to draw the right conclusions, I’d like each of you to inform us on your progress.”

He gestured to Trickster.

“Putting me on the spot, huh?”  Trickster asked.  “Dunno.  Nobody’s doing business in my neighborhood, and there aren’t any crooks there that the public knows about, but Purity and her people are still hanging around, and I’m waiting on my teammates to wrap up their stuff so they can lend me a hand.”

“Infrastructure, recruitment?” Coil prompted.

“I’ve made a few small steps forward for each of those things.  I offered some of the low-level thugs the option of moving out of the city or serving under me.  Got a half-and-half split of each, more or less.  Enough people to deal product, if you want, or to scare some people.”

“Good.  Sundancer?”

Sundancer had the posture of someone who’d desperately hoped to avoid being called on in class.  “I don’t know.  I’ve been working with the maps Tattletale provided me, but I’m not good at this.  I burn them out of whatever place they’re holed up in, they run, then half the time it’s like they settle somewhere else that’s nearby.”

“You have to scare them more,” Trickster said.

“I burn their houses down.  I don’t know why that’s not scary enough.”

“You’re too soft about it, being too careful to let them know what you’re doing and when, because you don’t want to hurt them and they can tell.”

Coil cleared his throat.  “How far along?”

Sundancer didn’t look happy.  “I dunno.  I’ve maybe cleared out one in four of the local groups?”

“Genesis?” Coil asked.

“Mostly clear,” Genesis replied, leaning forward and putting her elbows on the table, “Not sure how to get anything going in the way of operations.  It’s not exactly heavily populated territory.”

“You’re keeping Noelle company tonight, yes?”

Genesis nodded.

“Then we’ll discuss it then.”


“And Ballistic?”

“Further along than him,” Ballistic jerked a thumb toward Trickster.  “Nobody doing business in my area, only two capes hanging around.  Got that girl from Dolltown who’s pretty insistent on holding onto her neighborhood, even if pretty much everyone that lived there is dead, now.  It’s the only spot that I haven’t taken over.”

“I see.  And the second cape?”

“There’s a kid from the old Merchants group.  Has powers.  Going to try to scare off the Doll girl and recruit the Merchant kid.”

“You might start with remembering their names,” Genesis pointed out.

“I’m not a cape geek like you.”

“You’re a cape.”

“Parian and Scrub?” I spoke up, hoping to keep them from going off on a tangent.

“Sure.  Sounds right,” Ballistic conceded.

“If you’re dealing with Parian, can I come along?”

“Actually,” Coil said, “I had a request to make of you, Skitter.”

I turned my attention to him.

“After,” he told me.  “Let me get to the main topic of this meeting before I address it.  For now, I’d like to hear how the Undersiders are coming along.”

“Been busy helping everyone else out,” Tattletale admitted.  “Like Trickster, I guess, I’m waiting for others to finish what they’re doing.  I’m pretty solid for business, though.  Bringing in more cash than I’m spending.”

“What’s the business?”  Trickster asked.

“The big one is reclaiming items and homes.  I offer goodies to any people from the shelter willing to band together and scare them off, anything too difficult, I use the mercenaries you provided.  Coil’s hooked me up with some banking services so we can actually make the transactions.  People don’t have a lot of use for money with the way things are right now, and they do have stuff that they value.  Figure a few hundred to a thousand dollars per job, three or four jobs a day, and they’re sort of doing my work for us, dealing with the gang members.”

“With the idea that your teammates will claim the areas at a later date,” Coil said, his voice firm.


“Grue and Imp?”

I saw Grue hesitate.

“Seventy-five percent clear,” Imp said.  “The Chosen and leftover Merchants mainly moved into our territory and Regent’s.  Maybe we’re not a hundred percent done, but when we scare people off, they stay gone.”

“Good.  Can you drive out the remaining threats in the next two days?”

“Got this far in three, don’t see why not.”

“Excellent.  Regent?”

“About the same.  Nobody wants to cross Shatterbird, but lots of people keep popping up, moving in because they’re oblivious that she’s there.  With no radio or TV, they’re clueless.”

“Make it more obvious, then.”

Regent nodded.


“Nobody left in my territory.”

“No threats?”


Coil sighed, “I did tell you that you could run your territory as you wished.  Still, that’s not ideal.  Would you object to a rearrangement of territory?  I would grant you more overall area to control, but it would be limited to the outskirts of the city.”

“So long as it’s mine.”

“Good.  And Skitter?”

I shrugged.  “No threats, nobody’s daring to pop their heads in.”

“Then consider working on rooting out the individuals too afraid to show themselves, before they cause a problem.”

“They’re dealt with,” I said.


“I’m doing two sweeps through my territory every day.  Only one yesterday, but we were busy dealing with the Chosen.  I’m checking every building for trouble.  If I find contraband, drugs or weapons, I confront the individuals in question.  Past two days, I haven’t had to confront anyone.”

“The only people with weapons are your people, then?”

I nodded.  “I’ve got sixty people working under me, and maybe a hundred more who are working for me in an indirect way, joining the community that’s started on the cleanup projects.  Filling, moving and placing sandbags to control and reroute the flooding, clearing the area Burnscar burned down, and setting up accommodations.”

“Impressive,” Coil said.

I nodded.  “I feel like I’m cheating, though.  My power’s suited to this.”

“It remains impressive.  Let me explain just why I find this of interest, Undersiders, Travelers.  The mayoral elections are in one week.  Before this occurs, I would like to have this city firmly in my control.  It will shift the tone and the aim of the election, which would be to my advantage.  Our advantage.”

“So you’re saying we have less than a week to wrap stuff up in our territory,” Trickster said.

“Yes.  I also have some other issues I would like you to address.  Skitter, Genesis, I trust you’re able to step away from your territories to give me a hand?”

Tattletale leaned forward over the table, looking at me.  I glanced at her, then turned to Coil, “Yes.”

“Sure,” Genesis said.

“And Trickster, if you’re idle while you wait for your teammates to come assist with Purity’s group, I’m sure you can lend your assistance for one night?”

Trickster nodded.

“The mayor and several members of the city council will be traveling to Washington to discuss the state of Brockton Bay and the possibility of condemning the city.  Skitter, Imp, Genesis, I would like you to visit him and ensure he argues towards our ends.  Brockton Bay will stand, and it will recover.”

I nodded slowly.  “Sure.  I think I can do that and still help Ballistic with Parian.”

“I haven’t asked for your help,” Ballistic said.

“Coil’s call,” I responded.

“If Skitter feels she can spare the time, I would be glad to have the extra assurance the job will get done.”

Ballistic folded his arms.  Didn’t look happy at that.

“That’s the last point of discussion.  I will provide anything you need to see your tasks to completion.  If there’s no questions, that will be all.”

After a brief pause to check that nobody wanted to speak, we all stood from our seats.  The Travelers headed out the door and turned a right to go back to where Noelle was sealed up.  Tattletale led our group to the cells where Shatterbird and Victor were.

While we waited for Regent to go and bring Victfor out of his cell, Tattletale stepped close, so she was right next to Grue and me.  She murmured,  “One piece of good news, two pieces of bad news and one spot of catastrophic news.  The good news is that Coil is impressed with you, Skitter.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s what we were hoping for, right?”

“But something tells me we’ve got a major snag.  I’d say odds are pretty fucking good that he’s on to us.”

I felt my heart drop.

“How sure are you?” I asked.

“Not positive, but pretty damn sure.  And I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance one of ours informed him of our aims.”

“A member of the Undersiders?” Grue asked.

“That, or he’s got our places bugged.  But I didn’t get the sense that anyone who built the place or brought our stuff in knew about any electronic bugging.  Like I said, fifty-fifty chance.”

I nodded.  I glanced around, looking at Bitch, Imp, and the door Regent had disappeared through.

“Fuck,” Tattletale swore under her breath.  “I was trying to signal you to say no to Coil’s request, but you weren’t looking at the right moments and I couldn’t exactly tip anyone off.  I’m positive he’s asking you to go on that errand with Genesis and Trickster because he’s planning on eliminating you.”

I felt Grue’s hand squeeze my shoulder.  He’d gone rigid, as if he was more spooked than I was.

“And of course, he knows I know.  So this is a loyalty test, I’m betting.  If you don’t go, I flunk.”

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