Interlude 29

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Two parts to a whole.

This, as everything does, builds towards the ultimate objective, a propagation of the species.

To rise above a competition among one’s own species is a kind of transcendence.  Cooperation, a goal that extends beyond one’s lifespan, one’s community.  This entity can recall the moment of transcendence, the unification and reinvention of their species.

Everything extends to an end goal.  A complete and total mastery of all things.  In time, just as they spread and consumed their entire world, they will fill every space in all accessible universes that can be occupied.  In time, they will reach a stasis and they will fall from their transcendent state.  They will descend into competition once more, and they will devour each other alive once again.

Hope, continued existence, is dependent on another reinvention of their species.  They will use knowledge gleaned from countless other species, from mingling, matching and culling their own internal libraries of functions.

There is only so much time.  Only so many generations and cycles before things approach their final state.  Information will be exchanged, their species will weigh everything based on merit, and then they will seek a solution.  A final expenditure of power, a resetting of the universes, a reinvention of existence, or something beyond this entity.

This is the goal.  The most must be made of every cycle.

Two parts to a whole.  The other entity is a warrior, direct, oriented in the short-term goals.  This entity looks further, consulting possibilities.

Their general destination is in mind, and has been in mind for some time.  Already, they have begun to close their helix spiral, drawing fractionally towards one another with each rotation, controlling the pattern and timing of their approach.

Destination, the Warrior entity communicates.

Agreement, this entity responds.  The signals that accompany and form the overarching messages allow them to pick out sub-worlds for themselves.  Arrival points, destinations for critical shards to root, hosts for the extensions of those same shards.

Trajectory, the other entity communicates.  More data on where they will arrive, the way they will move on approach, the placement of less crucial shards.

Agreement.  This entity sees the constant messages as a distraction.  It is reorganizing, calling on its own precognition and clairvoyance to map out their actions after arrival.

This entity reforms itself, adjusting the placements of individual shards, priming itself for a deeper simulation, considering possible ways things can be carried out.

This takes time.  Focus.

Colony, the other entity signals.

Narrowing down possible destinations.

Agreement, this entity is distracted in responding.  It is receiving another broadcast.

A third.

The communication is almost alien, a member of their species, but long distant, from countless cycles ago.

It hesitates, then signals its own location.

ExchangeMeet.

The response is garbled.  Takes time to analyze.

The third entity travels more through momentum than by insinuation.  It expends vast quantities of power to change course.

They meet violently.  As their ancestors did, they share with one another in a violent fashion, crashing together, breaking shard from shard.

This entity knows right away that there is a wealth of information here.  But there must be cooperation, information given for information.

Even as they grind together, destroying one another in a brutal exchange of shards, the entity works to salvage key shards, to put ones it can afford to lose on the exterior body.

This is the optimal path, the best way to achieve their end goal.  The shards here are rich with memories, experience and unexplored possibilities.  It is worth sacrificing as much as she is.

They break apart.  The third entity continues its path, moving to a distant star, its path perpendicular to the pair’s.

Concern, the Warrior entity expresses.

Confident, this entity responds.  This is optimal.  It is heavy with these new shards, drowning in knowledge and experience.  If this could occur with every cycle, bringing this sort of information into the pattern, then survival beyond the endpoint would be virtually guaranteed.

This entity struggles to move as it works to reorganize these new shards, to convert them into a form it can use.

It will see this cycle through, and regain what it lost in the union with the Warrior.

This entity sees new possibilities, now.  Not simply conflict, but philosophy and psychology.  Imagination.  It is in these new patterns of thought that it can see a possibility for the future.  Its partner takes on some of its duties as it digs into the libraries of information to see how it might put it into practice.

It can use its strengths, the Warrior’s strengths, and the host’s natures to explore new ideas and tactics for approaching the endpoint.

Already, this entity is forming a model, a simulacrum of the host species, mapping out how things might unfold.  While the Warrior is preparing to shed its shards and litter the world, this entity is plotting a strategic approach.

It cannot make out what form it or the other entity will take, but it can still view the situation in part.  It sets the criteria for an optimal future, for optimal study, and then it looks to a future that matches this criteria.

“Thank you for coming,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  Its expression was stern.

Partisan touched his computer terminal.  Monitors lit up, showing a series of images.

A figure, fifteen feet tall, pale, with a lion’s head, a mane of crystal.  Muscular, brutish, it was perched on a massive floating crystal, with more crystals floating about it. Here and there, the crystals touched ground.  They turned what they touched into more crystal, which soon uprooted themselves to join the storm around it.

A woman, even more brutish in appearance, had a reptilian lower body.  Steam rolled off her in billowing clouds, taking uncanny forms as it coiled and expanded through the area.  Faces, reaching claws and more.

And on the third monitor, flecked by static, was a naked man, beautiful and long-haired, his face touched with a macabre grin.  He perched on top of an ocean wave that was frozen in place, his body too flexible, moving with the wind as though he were light enough to be carried away.

“They’ve released three more of the superweapons,” Partisan said.  “But of course, you know this.”

“I do,” the entity responds.

“This makes nine.  Four are at the Divide.  We’ve got one to the far north, poised to flank us.  Four more spread out over the world.”

“Maybe more we don’t know about,” Arsenal speaks.

A power the entity held in reserve identified something wrong.  The entity turned and looked at its partner, standing slightly behind it, taciturn and silent.  They exchanged the smallest of broadcasts.

A consensus was reached between them.  Arsenal knew something about the superweapons, or he suspected strongly enough for it to matter.

“What is it?” Clarent asked.

The entity responded, feigning emotion, “…There are eleven more.”

It could see the reaction among the gathered heroes of the Wardens.  Fear, alarm, a kind of dawning horror.

For Arsenal, though, there was another reaction.  He was upset, yes, but was a little relieved at the same time.  He knew about the others, and he had been testing them, to see if they would lie.

But suspicions remained.

“Eleven?”  Partisan asked.

“Stationed around the world, at the borders of the stronger nations,” the entity informed the Wardens.  “Like yours, they’re remaining more or less stationary, only attacking when they see weakness.”

“And you believe it is the Shepherds who are responsible?”

The entity shook its head.  “I can’t know.  You’ve seen for yourself, the powerful blocks they’ve put in place against powers.  But enough clues point to the Shepherds.”

The expressions of the three men are grim.  The other heroes, at the edges of the room, seem equally concerned.  A woman with a great cannon that constantly changes, expanding and contracting like a living thing.  A hulk of a man, laden with muscle, was muttering something to people around him.

“If this goes any further, we’ll be forced to submit to these terror tactics,” Partisan said.  “I don’t like to say it, but…”

“War,” Arsenal said.  “It’s our only option.”

“I don’t like war,” the woman with the gun said.  “It’ll cause as many problems as it fixes, and with stakes this high, that’s a lot of new problems.”

“Doing nothing is just as dangerous,” Arsenal said.

“I’m not so sure.”

“We know they’re projections,” Arsenal said, his eyes on the monitors.  “Someone or something is projecting them.  We cut off the head, the superweapons fall.”

“Yes,” the entity agreed.  It didn’t miss the curious glance Arsenal gave it.

“We’ll need your help,” Partisan said.

“You’ll have it,” the entity said.  “But there are other places needing our help, too.  Against these, and against other things.  Some are in the middle of full-scale wars as I speak.  We’ll assist you, we’ll stop these superweapons-“

“If these ones can be stopped,” Partisan said.

“…If they can be stopped.  That touches on my next point.  You’ll need to do as much damage as you can, give it your all.  We’ll be arriving late, and if they’re strong…”

The entity trailed off.  It could see Arsenal’s suspicions growing deeper.

“You have your hands full,” Clarent said.

The entity nodded.  It feigned a moment of weariness, assuring these individuals it was merely human.

“Thank you,” Partisan said.  He extended a hand.

The entity roused itself from the mock-exhaustion, straightening, and shook the hand.

“We need to go,” the entity said.

“Before you do,” Partisan said.  He reached into his belt and withdrew a small device.  “Here.  It has good days and bad, but on a good day, we get a range of about a thousand miles, which is maybe four or five times the usual.  With luck, we’ll be able to tune it and cut through the blackout effect.  Get international communications going again.”

“Arsenal’s work?” the entity asked, though it already knew.  It could trace the design to the memories in Arsenal’s shard.

“Arsenal and Richter,” Partisan said.

The entity nodded.  It had no pockets, so it held the device in one hand.

“Good luck,” Partisan said.  “Whoever you’re helping.”

The entity’s expression remained grave.  “I should be wishing you luck.  If you succeed here, you’ll be saving a lot of people.  Here and elsewhere.”

“Easy to forget elsewhere exists,” Clarent said.

“We defend our borders, keep the peace within, and we hold out,” Partisan said.  “It’s all we can do.  We have enough powers that get stronger over time, yours included.  We have Richter, too, we just need the resources.  Things will get better.”

Clarent nodded.  Arsenal clapped a hand on Clarent’s shoulder.

The three tapped the ends of their weapons together.  Partisan’s heavy spear, Arsenal’s guisarme and Clarent’s longsword.  Then they parted ways, attending to their individual groups and squads.

But Arsenal watched out of the corner of his eye, tracking the entity and the Warrior as they approached, walking towards the room’s exit.

The woman with the gun made her way to Partisan’s side.  She whispered, but the entity could hear it, as it heard all things in the vicinity.  “War?”

“We’ll need our Black Knight, Hannah,” Partisan said.  “We bait them into a fight, then sic him on them.  He’ll be able to win as long as it’s parahumans he’s fighting.  Colin’s squad flanks and infiltrates, my squad scouts and Clarent maintains a defensive line.”

“And if these superweapons attack while our forces are elsewhere?”

“They aren’t attacking.  They’re just… there.”

“But if they do attack?  If they’re there for this exact eventuality?” the gunwoman asked.

“We’ll push on, striking for the Shepherd’s headquarters, and the rest hold out.”

“It’s reckless.”

“It’s the only option.  We’ve got two of the strongest parahumans around on our side,” Partisan said, his voice a little louder.  He glanced at the entity and the Warrior.

The entity glanced his way, acknowledging him.  Its focus, however, was on Arsenal.  Hearing Partisan’s words, Arsenal’s suspicions had reached a climax.  He would say something.

That is, he would, if the entity didn’t intervene.  The entity passed by him, and it leveraged a power.  Wiping a memory, setting a block in place.  The same blocks that prevented accord between the Wardens and the Shepherds.  The same blocks that prevented Partisan’s special sight from seeing the entity’s power at work.

With that, the task was done.  The entity stepped out onto the balcony, then took flight, the Warrior flying behind it.

Destination, the Warrior entity broadcasts the idea, interrupting the simulation.

Agreement, the entity absently responds.

An optimal future.  It is an unwieldy future because it gave up a part of its ability to see the future to the other being.  There are holes, because this entity does not fully understand the details of what happened, and because this entity’s future-sight power is damaged.  Above all else, it is an incomplete future because this entity has only the most minimal role in things, and the shards it saw were all the Warrior’s.

The fact that it did not is a part of that future.  This entity will arrive at the destination, and it will deploy shards to complicate a situation and break stalemates.  Losing sides will be granted reinforcements through maturing shards.  A different sort of engagement, a different way of testing the shards.

This entity continues focusing on converting, translating and relocating the shards.  It is frail, fragile.

Hive, the Warrior broadcasts.  A set world, with a set population density and degree of conflict.

But this entity has already decided on that world, seen it in a future.  It responds without consideration.  Agreement.

They are more engaged now, as they close the distance.  They negotiate who can place shards where, and this entity now holds its shards in reserve.

The Warrior is focusing on refining the shards, and this entity is, in turn, focused on refining the future.  A set goal, a reality.

Too complex to convey to the other.

The communications continue, and they approach the galaxy.  This entity begins altering its own powers, but it is not a great concern.

The gravity of the planetary bodies pull at it.  It loses great clumps of shards.

It loses more.  Its focus is now on holding on to the shards critical to making this future it has seen a reality.  A world perpetually in conflict, the groups and factions kept small enough that none can challenge it.

All energy it can spare goes towards the reorganization.  Shards must be discarded, or it will dwarf the destination planet.  It casts shards off, and it retains shards that will allow it to draw power from those shards.

Danger, the Warrior broadcasts.

Confident, this entity responds.

It picks a reality.  Up until the moment it hits ground, it works to reorganize itself.

In the doing, it alters one of the third entity’s powers, replacing its own ability to find the optimal future.

In that very instant, it recognizes that it has made a grave error.  The simulated world and the glimpse of the optimal future are already gone from its grasp.  Too late.

The perspective changes, breaking away, distant, confused, detached.  The impact was too hard.

A girl woke from a dream.

She started to scream, but a man, her uncle, placed a hand over her mouth.  It was the hand, as much as the full-body ache she experienced that silenced her.

Hush,” he said, in their language.  “The monstrous ones are out there.

She nodded, still delirious, lost in the magnitude of what she had seen.

The memories were already slipping away, like sand through her fingers.

Have to remember, she told herself.

The answer snapped into place.  A way to remember.

Nine steps, and she could do it.  Step one was to avoid thinking of the memories.  The moment she acknowledged it, she found herself slipping into a different mindset.

She is touched,” another man said.  One of her uncle’s friends.

She could dimly recall something happening to her parents.  A cataclysmic event.

Except she couldn’t allow herself to start remembering.

She hasn’t changed,” her uncle said.

We both saw the phantom, the night-thing, leap out at her.

She needed to dream.  The next steps would achieve that.

Step two, standing up.

Step three, a jab of her hand at her uncle’s elbow, to stop him from grabbing her.

Step four, a little push of her foot against the ground, to keep her ankle out of reach of the friend’s clutching hand.

Step five, grabbing the medicine bag from behind her uncle.

Opening it was step six.  Walking to the bench was seven.

Her uncle was only getting to his feet now.  Every action was mechanical, spelled out by this surety in her mind’s eye, helped along by a complete, exacting knowledge of how and where to move every body part.

Seven involved uncorking the right bottles.  Eight involved obtaining a specific amount of powder, moving her hand in a careful, precise way, so the exact right amount piled up in her cupped palm.  She dashed it into a half-full mug and drank, just as her uncle reached her, putting his hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

Step nine was to wait for sleep to reach her.  She only needed to dream, and she would be able to escape the forgetting.

When she woke, her body was a ruin, but her mind was clear.

It had started three days ago.  This disaster.  People becoming monsters.  Madness.  Others getting sorcerous abilities.  Their community had scattered, fleeing to the wilderness in small groups.  Any friend or family member could become a beast at a moment’s notice.

Being alone was safest, but being alone meant being in the dark wilderness with the wolves.

It had been a hungry season for the wolves, many sheep dying.

The taste of vomit filled her mouth, but her face was clear.  When she moved, her stomach felt like it had been hit with a club.

She turned her attention to the subject.  One step to minimize the pain.

Swearing was one of them.

Wolf-fucking horseballs,” she muttered, groaning as she found her footing.

She remembered, though.  She knew what they were up against.  This thing, this godling monster, it was going to orchestrate a conflict that spread across an entire world.  When it had gathered whatever it was it wanted to, the results of tests, studies and whatever else, it would consume this world, her own, and everything else to spawn the next generation of its kind.

If she had any conception of where to look-

The answer was given to her.  A thirty-nine step plan.

She felt a chill.

If I wanted to kill the monsters and save everyone from this madness?

Three hundred and seventy-four steps.

She could see each individual step, looking forward to see what it entailed.  She could see it evolve as time passed, accounting for her starting it later.

If I wanted to do both?

Five hundred and thirty-three steps.

Forta,” her uncle spoke.  “You’re awake.

She spun around.

He kept his distance.  “A madness possessed you.  Has it passed?

Had it passed?

Five hundred and fifty-four steps.  Why more than before?

She couldn’t bring herself to respond.

You moved like someone else was inside you.  Escaped Ruggero and me like we weren’t even there.

“I remember,” she said.  She remembered so much.  She understood it all, and she couldn’t explain it-

Ninety-two steps.

She could explain it.  Could she explain it and save everyone?  Explain it and find the strange god-beast, and save her hometown from this chaos?

It was possible.  It would require two thousand, one hundred and seventy-four different actions.  Statements, movements, decisions at precise times.

But she hesitated to carry it out.

There was another question she had to ask.  Like the fable of Luisa and the black-furred man, she had to ask very carefully.

Could she do all this, explain to her uncle, find the thing that was at the heart of this chaos, and save her people, and handle the other essential crises she run into on her way?

No.

A fog was creeping over her eyes, and the number of steps were growing too numerous at the same time.  Two differing things, denying her.

The chill and the general sense of unease crystallized with the realization that she’d have to choose between stopping this monster and helping the people she’d grown up with.

Fortuna, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost,” her uncle said.

I might have, she thought, without taking her eyes off him.

She shivered, but she steeled herself, picking the path she wanted to take.  It was the haze of fog that scared her most.  If she chose to do something else, and she lost sight of the path where she could kill the godling…

Her uncle stiffened as she approached, but she laid a hand on his arm.  She tugged on his sleeve to get him to bend down, then kissed his cheek.

Saving him?

The answer appeared in her mind.  “Go, uncle.  Run as far away as you can.  Don’t eat or drink anything for three days.  It’s all tainted.  Poisoned with the same thing that is making people into monsters.

His eyes widened.  “You will come with me.

She shook her head.

Then she broke into a run.

She could outrun him.  She knew.  He had a bad leg, and it was worse since he’d had to fight off Ruggero.

Into the hills, up the mountain.

Her body ached, but it was easy.  She knew how to move, how to place her feet so the branches didn’t catch on her or trip her, to avoid the patches of lichen which would break away and make her foot slide on the rock beneath.

She knew the most efficient way to climb the rock wall.

She paused to catch her breath, doing her best to ignore the horned man’s corpse at the foot of the wall.  He’d tried to escape this way too, but he’d been pulled down or shot when he was partway up.

Had he been one of them?

Something went wrong.  The monstrous godling had a plan, a vision of the future it wanted, and this isn’t part of that.

It had crashed to earth, and something had broken free.  Here and there, phantom images had appeared, brushing past people, and they changed.  Others changed without touching any of the massive, ghostly gray hands that had appeared from thin air.  She knew, because of this conviction in her head, that it was the food and water.  It was tainting the landscape.

All coming from higher up the cliffside.

She found her breath, then scaled her way up.

The landscape she was as she reached the top wasn’t a familiar one.

A different sky, showing a different time of day.  But the space in between was something else entirely.  She had only to look and she knew what it was she looked at.  The entity.  The evil godling.

I have to kill it.

The plan formed in her mind.  The haze of fog still hung over her mind’s eye, and it grew worse with every moment.

Her hand moved to the little knife at her belt.  She wore it there for when she helped her mother with the cooking and gardening.  Worked metal was expensive, and the knife was a personal treasure.  Two inches long, curved.  She used it for cutting stems and trimming fat.

She would use it here.  She started walking forward.

There were people gathered, bystanders.  An assorted mix.

Why are they here?

No, was there a way to find out, using this sight she had?

I want to understand why they’re here.

They’d come from different worlds.  There were gates or doorways here and there.  When the entity had fallen, it had left gaps.

They bellowed words in a language she couldn’t make out.  Warnings.  They were too far away to stop her.

A woman stepped in her way.

Strangely dressed, wearing a dress so short it might well be indecent, showing the calves, and a fair amount of the upper chest.  Her skin was the strangest black color, her hair bound in thin, glossy braids.

One of the monsters?  No.  She knew right away it was a stranger from a distant land.  A land much like the one she had glimpsed in her fever dream.

The woman said something in a strange language.

Fortuna strode forwards anyways.  Her special knowledge let her push her way past almost effortlessly, choosing the right spot, the right amount of strength.  The godling was in a chasm, a crater caused by the impact.  It stretched out in every direction, a pool of flesh, and it reached into several worlds at once.

It was disorienting to look at.

Step twenty-nine, making her way down into the crater.

She stepped onto loose grit, and her weight did the rest.  She coasted down, much like the boys riding down the mud-slick path they’d made in the hill, down into the pond, except she remained on two feet.  It was a task only the oldest and most athletic boys could manage.

It was more dangerous here than it was on the hill.  There were rocks that jutted out, and outcroppings of deeper roots and plant life that had rained down into the crater in the aftermath of the impact.  It was more dangerous, but not harder.  This, like scaling the cliff face, was easy.

Everything was easy now.  It was disorienting.

The woman with black skin followed, moving slower.  She used her hands and feet to control her descent, sliding from rock to rock, stopping before sliding down further.  The black-skinned woman was a quarter of the way down before Fortuna was at the bottom.

It didn’t matter.  Fortuna advanced into the living forest alone.  Everything here was alive, hands moving, webs of skin stretching and folding.  There was a cacophony of noises that made her think of a chorus of heartbeats, a choir of soft breaths and whispers.  Gentle human noises that were all the more eerie because she could see right through the deception.  She was well aware that what she saw here was the godling putting together a mask so it could lie to people, setting  them against each other.

She advanced into the heart of the gray forest.  She was terrified, but the feeling was disconnected from her actions.  She only had to recognize the next step in the series.  She was aware of the steps that followed…

Until she came face to face with the godling.  Her knife was in hand, and she could see a figure before her.  A human shape, in the midst of pulling itself together from the examples and experiments that surrounded them.

She set foot on one of those experiments, a raised hand, and used it until she was eye to eye with the being, a matter of feet away.

It swelled, lurching forth, creating few inches more of waist, another inch of one arm, two inches of another arm.  Beyond the ending points, the arms and legs simply extended into nothingness.  Parts of a tapestry she couldn’t make out.  It moved again, and closed the distance between them.

The being raised its head.  She could see its eyes open in recognition.

It’s teaching itself how to act like we actEven this.

She raised her arm, knife held with the point down.

And the gray fog descended on her mind, blinding her.  A barrier, a blind spot, a future she could no longer see.  Had it set the limitation more firmly in place?

The godling smiled.  It knew, because the power she was using was the same power it had used to glimpse the future, to find that particular future where it had the world divided, drowned in conflict.

As far as the godling was concerned, she was blind, as helpless as anyone else.

A voice, from behind her.

The black-skinned woman, shouting something in a foreign language.

I want to understand her.

One step.

She had only to think, ‘Stab it.

Fortuna realized she still held the knife aloft.

But where had she wanted to stab it?

Indecision gripped her.  For an hour now, she’d been absolutely certain of what she was doing, and now she faced the absolute opposite situation.

Her hand shook.  She nearly dropped the little trimming knife.

She nearly fell as the hand beneath her moved.  Her power failed her here, too.  Because the hand was an extension of the being before her.

It was going to kill her, and then it was going to reclaim the ability to see the future.  It would use that power to control the world, then to destroy it.

And she couldn’t bring herself to move an inch.

I want to tell her…

The words were alien to her as she spoke them.  “I- I can’t.”

A hand wrapped around her shoulders.  She felt a body press against her back, supporting her.

“I- I have seen visions.  Things I was not meant to see, things this… godling wanted to keep to itself.  I… have to stop it.”

But even as the words left her mouth, she couldn’t bring herself to move.

The woman leaned forward over Fortuna’s shoulder, her face in Fortuna’s peripheral vision.  She said something.

“I believe you.”

The woman spoke in her ear once more, her voice insistent.  She translated, asking for a way to understand the answers.

“It’s dangerous?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“I- I would stake everything on it.  Everything ever.”

Though she didn’t even know the words she was speaking, there was a conviction in her tone that seemed to reach the woman.

“Where were you going to stab it?”

Where?  The image had fled her mind, erased from her memory.

“Where?”

The being moved again, and they stepped back, nearly falling.  Fortuna managed to keep them both steady.  Easier if she looked at it as ‘I don’t want to fall’ instead of ‘don’t let this thing make us fall.’  So long as she divorced her thoughts from the being, she still had this strange certainty.

It lurched, creating more of itself.  Legs, a sexless groin, more of the arms.  Hair flowed free, overlong.

It bent over, head hanging, arms suspended to either side.

She saw the nape of the neck as hair slowly slid free, silky and straight.

Still unable to bring herself to move, she found her left arm extending, palm down, until the longest finger pointed at the spot in question.

The woman behind her took hold of the fist that held the knife.  She stepped forward, driving the knife down, as if she were an extension of Fortuna.

Plunging into the spot where the spine met the skull.

They fell from the hand, dangled for a moment by their grip on the knife.  It cut free, and they dropped to the ground.

Fortuna let one leg fold, pushing at the ground with the other.  She rolled, breaking the fall.  The woman fell a little harder.

The entity moved, and everything around them stirred.  A thousand hands, a thousand arms, not all attached to the hands, legs, feet, ears, eyes, faces without features, expanses of skin, they twitched and writhed.

The noise around them faded, the heartbeats going still, the breathing quieting.  The movements all around them stopped.

There was only the thing, hanging in mid-air, struggling to form itself and failing.  It breathed in rapid huffs, in obvious pain.

It wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive.  A connection had been severed in a moment where the godling was most vulnerable.

The woman spoke.

“Again?  The heart?”

But Fortuna was sure this was it.  They’d carried out the last step.

“Can you explain this?  Do you know something?”

Fortuna nodded.

“Please,the woman said.  Though she begged,   “My life just turned upside down.  I’ve been lost here for three days.”

Fortuna looked back the way she’d come.

Home was gone.  Tainted.  She could find her uncle, but…

“I need food,” Fortuna said.  “I have no home to go to, so I need shelter.”

“I-“

“I will take you back to your home.”

The woman nodded.  “Yes, of course.  And you’ll explain?”

“Yes.  But there’s one more thing.  I need help.”

“Help?”

“There is one more of these things somewhere out there.”

Yet she could reach out with her power to try to look for it, and all she could see was the fog.

Fortuna did up the clasps on the dress shoes she wore as the woman entered her apartment.

The woman gave the girl a once-over.  “You know how to do up a tie?  Wait.  Dumb question.”

“A little dumb,” Fortuna replied.

“You’re getting a sense of humor.  I’ve done like you asked.  I bought the land with the doorway, using the money you got.  Are you sure you want to keep it a secret?  People could study that thing.”

Fortuna shook her head.  This was a harder question to answer, but she could construct a kind of mental picture, then test her questions.  What would happen?  What were the most likely scenarios?

Panic.  Fear.

Could they figure anything of value out by studying the half-alive thing?  She couldn’t be sure.

But the emotional effect would be all the more pronounced.

“Well, the area is secured, people have found their way home, or at least, to other worlds they can call home.  There was only one doorway people might find easily, and I blocked it off.”

“Thank you,” Fortuna said.

“What’s the next step?”

A heavy question.

How do we stop them?

The fog blocked out her view of any answer.

Can we stop something as powerful as the beings in my fever dream?  How can we stop the Warrior?

Still too close to home.

The indecision gripped her again.  When she wasn’t acting in the scope of her power, it was all the more difficult to act.

Fortuna frowned.  She couldn’t be paralyzed like this.  “How- how would we stop any powerful monster?”

“Weapons?  An army?” the woman suggested.

One hundred and forty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty steps.

It was doable.

“We need some lab equipment,” Fortuna said.

Then she turned her attention to the next step, and it dawned on her just how they would be amassing this army.  She thought of the monsters that had torn her parents apart, the infection that had ravaged her community and home.  Stray bits of the godling had done that to them.  It had killed people, turned others into monsters, drove yet others mad.

But it had given abilities to her.  It would give abilities to others.

The man, Lamar, reached like a child clutching for candy.  The Doctor pulled her hand away.  “There’s no guarantee this will work.”

Fortuna remained silent.  Her halting way of speaking, asking her power for the words or the translation, still made for a barrier in communication.  It unsettled people, apparently.

“If what that girl was showing off wasn’t some fantastic magic trick, if this does what you’re saying it will, I’m willing to take the chance.”

Fortuna exchanged a glance with the ‘Doctor’.  She could see the stress in the Doctor’s expression.  The woman had taken on a moniker, to give just a little protection to her real identity.  Easier to have an adult handling the negotiating and person-to-person interaction.  Fortuna was young, and people wouldn’t be so inclined to drink a strange substance offered by a child.

She offered the Doctor a little nod, a go-ahead.

“Go ahead, then,” the Doctor said.  She handed over the vial.

Lamar drank.

The changes ripped through him.  Lines marked the areas where bones were closest to skin, and then split into craggy outcroppings, thick with scales the length and width of human hands.  Lamar screamed, and the sound soon became guttural.

More scales sprouted, until the man looked more like a bush than a person.  The scaly growth continued at one knee, spiraling around the knee over and over again, growing ever-lumpier.

The leg fell off.  Blood began to pour forth.

Fortuna started to step forward to help, but her power told her it was too late.

Couldn’t see the outcomes, couldn’t counteract the outcomes.

Lamar was left panting for breath.  the wound at his ruined arms and legs closed up.  Holes had opened up throughout his midsection, exposing scale-covered internal organs.

He was trying to scream, but he couldn’t draw in enough breath.

His chest cavity is filled with the scales.

The Doctor stared, silent.  Fortuna had stepped away from the wall, but remained where she was, rooted to the spot.

He wasn’t dying.

Fortuna stepped forward.  Hand shaking, she drew a knife from her pocket.  Not her knife, but a knife of similar length, straight.

She ended Lamar’s pain.

“Our first patient is a fatality,” the Doctor said.  “Is it worth it?”

Fortuna couldn’t answer.

“Let’s wait, then.  Try to figure out where we went wrong.”

She still couldn’t bring herself to answer.

“Fortuna?”

“Don’t.  Don’t… call me by the name my parents gave me.”

The Doctor took a moment to reply.  “Another name?”

Contessa nodded.

It’s a sight unlike any we’ve ever seen.  A man made of gold, floating above the ocean.  Sightings continue to be reported around the world as he travels.  Who is he, and why is he here?  Some speculate he is Jes-

Contessa muted the television.

The pair stared at the screen, watching the silent images.

“Is it?”  the Doctor asked.

Contessa nodded.

“Do we try again?”

“I- don’t know,” Contessa said.

“If we explain to someone important, the army…”

“Disaster.  They react with fear, and he’ll probably respond to the fear.  He’s… hostile, I’m certain.  He only needs an excuse,” Contessa said.  “They can’t beat him, because he designed himself to be unbeatable.”

“You’re the one with the ability to see the future,” the Doctor said, her voice gentle.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know!”  Contessa said.  “I- when it comes to him, I’m just a child.  I’m useless, blind.  I’ve only got some glimpses of him to work with.  I know how important it is, but, I feel paralyzed, I feel, feel-“

“Okay,” the Doctor said.  “Okay.  What if I made the decisions from here on out?  You tell me if I’m going down the wrong path, give me direction where it’s needed.

“You can’t.”

“I can.  I’ve been thinking about it.  What is the key thing about the one we killed?”

“It’s… broken.  Something went wrong.  It focused too much on the future, and lost sight of the present, it fell and the part that was supposed to guide it ended up inside me instead.”

The Doctor pointed at the TV screen.  “This golden man, he’s more or less on track.  He didn’t break, he didn’t go wrong.”

“Except… there’s a lot of power there, and he’s going to find out what we did, or he’s going to start acting more like the conqueror he’s meant to be, and he’s going to use that power at some point.”

Why?” the Doctor asked.

“I felt the hostility.  I felt how the one we killed, in the vision it had of the future, it almost enjoyed doing what it was doing.  If the golden one is similar at all, then all it takes is an accident.”

The Doctor nodded.  “See?  You’re doing okay.”

“Easier when someone else takes point.”

“So our solution… it’s going to take one of two forms.  Either we break him, somehow, or we find something we can use in the broken parts of the one we killed.”

“Feeding it to people.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I’m inclined to go with the latter.”

Contessa nodded.  “So am I.  If we interact with him, and he figures out what we’re doing, it all goes wrong.”

“Then we need to start testing this.  Figure it out.  Is it luck?  Or is there a way to get consistent results?”

Contessa nodded.

“I’m actually not that much of a scientist,” the Doctor said.  “But I do know that if we want to get a sample size worth talking about, we need to test a lot.”

“Which means we start by preparing more vials.”

Ten vials, to start.  Five hours to prepare each vial.  To saw off the body part, to find a way to break it down, then to package it.  Each vial correlated with a specific map coordinate and they took photos to record every step of the way, to ensure no clue was missed.

Then they’d found ten patients, who had downed vials in separate rooms.  People who’d been terminally ill.

Six made it out.

Contessa watched them, saw the beaming smiles on five faces.

The Doctor kept her back straight as they approached.  “Satisfactory?”

A blond man offered a little half-laugh as a response.  He was looking down at his hands in amazement.

“As the contract stipulates, this is free, which won’t always be the case, but we’ll need forty hours of testing with each of the abilities any of you have received.  In addition, we would like your assistance for a period of time totaling five hundred hours of active duty or five years, whichever term reaches its limit first.”

“Does anyone else feel amazing?” the blond man asked.

“I was afraid to ask,” a young girl said.  “Yeah.”

“Amazing?” the Doctor asked.

“Hey,” the blond guy said, “I spent my entire life with this heart problem, you know?  Heart going a little too fast, reedy, thin heartbeat.  Reminding me it could pop at any moment.  Organs are garbage, diabetes at twenty-two, liver problems turn me yellow if I’m not careful, throwing up bile every morning and every night.  Every moment of every day, there’s something making me miserable.  Except, right now, I’m sort of feeling every part of my body, and the heart’s good, no headache, nothing in my throat, nothing in my gut.  No tremor in my hand…”

“You’re better,” the Doctor said.

“I’m better.  And my brain is, I don’t even know.  I’m picturing stuff really vividly.  Really vividly.”

“I feel better too,” another man said.

“I’m not sure I do,” A woman chimed in.  “Sorry.”

A man who can invent, a girl who can teleport…  she could go down the list and figure each of them out, by posing it as a challenge to her power.  Only one was a little harder to figure out, coming with a fog around him.

She left the group behind.

One by one, she checked on the other patients.

Dead.

A monster, furious with rage, slamming her hands on the door.

Another monster, crumpled into a ball in the corner, murmuring something to himself.

And the last… a boy, staring off into the distance.

She asked her power, and she got her answer.

He could make doors.

He could also close the other doors, the gaps left around the other entity.  It would minimize the chance that the golden man could find them.

“I can’t… too much to look at,” he said.  “So many worlds at once.”

“I know.  We’re going to do what we can, okay?”

“I’m… I’m pretty scared.”  There was a tremor in his voice.

“I know,” she said.  “I need to look after a few things, but I’ll be back.  We’ll figure this out, alright?”

He nodded.

She closed the door.  She paused, standing beside it.

It’s a step forward, she told herself.

A step forward, in a long series of steps.

She rejoined the others.

The Doctor was touching a block of stone that had risen from the floor.  “-a complex, for our labs and research.”

“Most definitely,” a woman answered her.  “If you can do this for more people, I’d forget about the limit on how long I have to work.”

The Doctor allowed herself a smile.  Her eyes met Contessa’s.

One step forward.

“You’re heroes, as far as I’m concerned,” the blond man said.

Monsters!” the word was howled, reverberating through the building.

Fog approached.  A wall of it, moving down the corridor.  She could see normally, but the effect on her powers was absolute.  It was impossible to make out any steps that moved within the fog.

She turned and bolted.  Not a run, but an efficient jog, preserving stamina while still keeping ahead.  She could see from the way the wall extended forward that it was being carried or it was emanating from a person.

There was another power at work, somewhere here.

“Custodian,” she said.

She felt the Custodian’s presence.

“Alert the Doctor.”

A brush against her left hand.  Negation?

“Is the Doctor dead?”

Negation.

“Hurt?”

Negation.

I want to find out how the Doctor is.

There was only fog.  She was blind, which meant the Doctor was somewhere beyond that wall.

I want to find where Number Man is.

He was on the east end of the facility, with the Harbingers.

I want to stay out of this fog.

The path appeared before her.  She fell in step with it, moving in perfect sync with the individual movements in the sequence.

Until a figure appeared behind her  A man with yellow skin, with bruising in the areas where his skin stretched or folded, giving him an artificially gaunt appearance.

A teleporter.

Path: taking him out of action.

Fog.

Path:  hitting that target.

Three steps.

She drew her knife, spun, and threw it.

He teleported away before it made contact.

She could hear his voice echoing through hallways as he hollered.  “She’s heeeeeeere!”

It was all going wrong.  Eidolon had been their trump card, but he wasn’t supposed to be the only one.  None of the others had worked out.  Now Eidolon was dead.

The deviants they’d planned to use against Scion, a way of breaking up the metaphorical scent trail, were now attacking the complex.  The entity was winning every engagement.

He was getting more ruthless, more cruel.

They had five major tools left to deploy.  Three armies, two of which were roughly the same size as any of the defending forces, Khonsu, who was a stalling measure, and a hail mary in the form of the three vials with the special element inside.

She could hear footsteps behind her, running.  They were heavy.

Escape route, she thought.  Get back to Number Man.

No option was clear.  Every possible escape through the complex was blocked by that damnable gray fog.

She could move down a floor, run through the fog, but she’d be blind.

Call the Number Man, keeping myself alive with an escape route afterwards, she didn’t even form the phrase as a complete thought.  It was an idea, formed in a fraction of a second.

The path appeared before her.

She changed direction.  The heavy footsteps followed.

Weld.  The leader of the Irregulars.  He didn’t tire, and however heavy he was, he had some power to his movements.

She ducked into an office.

The phone still had a cord.  The offices here were one of the first they’d set up.  She picked up the phone and pressed two keys to contact the Number Man directly.

Yes?

“Facility under attack,” she said.  “Doctor somewhere in the east section, possibly injured, captured or dead.  I’m in the east section as well.  Not far from your office.”

Weld appeared in the doorway, catching the frame with one hand.  The momentum splintered the wood.

She’s downstairs, using one of Teacher’s subordinates with Doormaker and Two-six.

“I see.  You’ll need to get to her.  They-”

Weld attacked, slashing out with his other hand, a long blade.

She ducked.  “-have a perception blocker, beware.”

Weld struck again.  She stepped back.  She saw the paths available, and kicked the chair so it slid into him, binding with his skin.  He stepped forward and she put one foot against the chair, causing wheels to skid, and Weld to fall to the floor.

Good to know.  Are you alright?

“Cornered.  They’ve got a thinker, I think, they planned this ahead of time, knowing I wouldn’t pick up on their presence.”

Weld drew his feet back and kicked the desk.  Not to hit her, but to put it between her and the door.  Contessa caught the phone-rest before it could clatter to the ground.

Thinking ahead, barring my way.  The fog wall was steadily approaching.

I’m going.  Tips?

She thought, modeling the situation.  The distance he had to travel…

“Best route would be to move further downstairs.  Intercept instead of going right to her.  They’ll reach her before you do, in any event.”

Noted.  You have an escape route?

“No.  Like I said, cornered.”

“Maybe you’re asking the wrong question.  My window.”

The Number Man’s window.  He had a doormaker portal to another world, constantly, for a view and for light, deep underground.

She dropped the phone, making a dash for Weld.

For his part, he put himself between her and the door, using his bulk and the desk to bar the way.  Buying time for the fog to approach.  Spikes extended from his body.  No doubt razor-sharp.

Cute.

“I just want to talk.  We’re here for answers.”

“Ask me after we defeat Scion,” she said.  She used her power, plotting a path.

Two steps.

“I don’t-”

She ran straight for him, her eyes falling on an air conditioning vent.

His sword-arm slashed out, piercing the floor and blocking the vent.

She changed direction, leaping.  One hand placed on his head, vaulting over his other shoulder, her legs together.  A space that was only just wide enough to pass a toaster through.  He tried to right himself, but his arm was bound to the grate, costing him a half-second.

Spikes scraped against her belt buckle and watch.

She found her footing just a half-foot in front of the fog wall, then dashed away.

Number Man’s office.

The teleporter appeared behind her.  She glanced behind her shoulder.  He had guns, and he was inside the fog.

Modeling scenario… not getting shot.

She ducked into a side hallway.

The teleporter was following.  Appearing at each intersection in time to open fire.

Getting closer, closer, moving faster than she did.  Weld was already catching up, too.  She wouldn’t be able to outrun them.

Moving faster than whoever or whatever was broadcasting the fog was.

A little further, and…

He teleported to a point beyond the fog wall.

One step, and she had both of his guns.

He was bulletproof, but one shot point-blank to the eyeball served to delay him.

She fired down the corridor, hitting doorknob four times in succession.

Path: faking my own death or escaping.

Gray fog.  Not happening.

Contessa kicked the door as she passed through.  She was inside Number Man’s office.

She shot his window.  It didn’t break.  But she could loosen the frame which held the bulletproof glass in place.

She was working on the next when the teleporter appeared.  He struck her, driving her through the one pane of glass that remained, through the portal.

She found herself on an alien landscape, tumbling down a hill.

He teleported to follow her.  He struck her again and again.

She tumbled.  She had a glimpse of others appearing.  Weld and two more parahumans hopping over the windowsill, holding on so they didn’t follow her down the steep cliff.  They weren’t shrouded in fog.

Whatever the reason, it was more variables to work with.

Path, she thought, again, faking my death.

She turned in the air as the teleporter delivered another hit.

She raised the gun, and she fired three times.

Two shots, missing.

A third, hitting one of the Irregulars in the chest, a lethal shot.

Whore!” one of the others shouted.  “Yellow, get the fuck away!

The yellow parahuman disappeared.  Contessa hit the hill.  She rolled, and in the doing, she managed to grab a stick.

Weld grabbed at the shouting deviant’s arm, but it was too late to convince him to stop.  He opened his mouth and a flood of magma cascaded down the hill, an impossible amount.

She rolled and came to a stop.  She pushed herself up off the ground with her hands, moving too slowly to get out of the way of the onrushing magma, or the plumes of smoke.

But the moment the smoke had risen high enough, she kicked a rock to get herself moving and threw the branch.  She moved until she couldn’t feel the oppressive heat.

The branch burned quickly, but it, coupled with the rock, made for a well positioned image of a head and a burning hand, when glimpsed through the smoke.

She kept moving until she was at the base of the hill, off to their right.

“-go down and check,” Weld was saying.

“She burned,” one of the others said.

“I’d like to check.”

“You want to check or you want to get Tater Tot to a healer?”

“I’m not sure a healer is going to help,” Weld said.

“Look.  Mantellum’s right here.  She had to have been in his range.  Let’s go.  Healer, then the Doctor.”

“…Right,” Weld said.  “Healer, then Doctor.”

The sounds of conversation faded.  Contessa consulted her power.  They were most definitely gone.

She remained where she was, tending to the wounds she’d received in the course of selling her ‘death’, waiting for them to get far enough away that she could make her way back indoors.

This ‘Mantellum’ had been close enough that he should have been able to block her power.  He hadn’t.

Because he’d been on the other side of the portal.  The power didn’t cross dimensional boundaries.

She’d been lucky.

Minutes passed before she found her feet.  She made her way up the hill.  Easily.  Always easily.

Until she reached the top, and found only the view in front of her.  No doorway.

Not so lucky.

It was almost an hour before the portal opened again.  She made her way into the facility.

Lights out.

She strode through the hallways, wary of the fog, but moving at as good a clip as she could.  Things were damaged, vandalized.

She asked herself questions as she went.

The Doctor was dead.

Doormaker was alive but he wasn’t here, meaning she was limited to any doors he’d left open.

Number Man was alive, but he wasn’t here.

The vials were all gone.  The ability to make more vials was gone.  At best, they’d be able to collect a few stray vials here and there, in evidence rooms and the like, but nothing beyond that.

The plans had failed.  Only Khonsu and the Indian capes were still active.  Capes brainwashed with a deathwish, working in coordination with an Endbringer who could move them to any location instantly, and who could theoretically block some of Scion’s attacks.

She made her way to the nearest portal, finding her way with her power.

And she came face to face with a large group of capes.  Protectorate capes, the ones too minor to help against Scion.

“You were reported dead,” a man in a horned viking-styled helmet and heavy armor said.

“Did anyone really believe it?”

“No, I suppose they didn’t.”

“How do things stand?”

“Standing may be too optimistic a word,” the man in the horned helmet said.

A cape in wizard attire spoke up, “The Doctor is dead, I believe?”

Contessa nodded.  Odd, that she couldn’t bring herself to feel badly about it.  Was it because she’d spent so long trying to achieve something and she’d failed, or was it because she’d lost respect for the Doctor like she’d lost respect for herself?

If she were an outside party, she was forced to admit, any outside party, she wasn’t convinced she would be able to be upset over her own death.

“We need your help,” the wizard said.

She nodded.  “Whatever I can provide.”

“First, we need information.”

“Yes.”

“Were there any other plans Cauldron had in the works?” he asked.

“Nothing substantial.  I can show you the tertiary plans.”

“Please do.  Did Cauldron have plans for if humanity failed?”

“Of course.”

“We’ll need to see those as well.”

She hesitated.

“A problem?” the wizard asked.

Path: identifying strangers and deception.

Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet, then, after a pause, to the wizard.

“I’m not entirely sure.  Teacher, is it?”

The wizard nodded.  “The Protectorate is just on the other side of the portal, collecting Satyr’s teammates, Nix and Spur.  If you could be discreet, it would be appreciated.”

“Why?  What are you doing, Teacher?”

“What do you think I’m doing?” he asked.  He reached behind his back and withdrew a disc, roughly the size of a trash can lid.  He placed it on the ground, and then kicked it into an empty room off to the side.

“I could stop you,” she said.  There was a flash in the other room.

“Most definitely.  But will you?”

She hesitated.  She watched as a pair of young men in white stepped out of the room.

“Find an empty office,” Teacher said.  “If I’m not here, and another student of mine looks lost, tell them to do the same.  I assume there’s documentation?”

Contessa paused, then nodded.

“Something this big, it has to carry on somehow.  I’ll need a second in command.”

“Me?” she asked.  Her eye moved to the man in the horned helmet.

“He’s his own man.  A wild card.”

“I see,” she said.  More kids in white were streaming from the room.

“Trickster, stop.  You’re with me.  We might need help navigating some of the trickier areas, if the damage to this place is extensive enough.”

One boy stopped where he was, stopping beside Teacher, a dull and unfocused look in his eyes.

Teacher turned his attention to Contessa, “Whatever happens in the next few hours, we need to be there to pick up the pieces.  That was a factor in Cauldron’s plan, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t have much of a role,” Contessa said.  “I can’t do anything when Scion’s on the table.”

“To the contrary,” Teacher said.  “We very much need your help, or we might.”

She narrowed her eyes.  “With?”

“Saving us from ourselves,” he said.  “Case in point, we’ve got a crisis that involves one little lady I think you’re familiar with.”

He held up his phone.  A picture was displayed.

It took her a moment to recognize the person in the picture, and not because it was an unfamiliar face.

Weaver?” she asked.

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Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Scarab 25.5

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Three days.

Nearly three days and we hadn’t managed to kill him.

A new target every thirty minutes, give or take.  Ten to twenty minutes for the defending forces to get their shit together.  The remainder of that time was our capes trying to hurt him.  Chipping away at him.

Sometimes we made headway.

Sometimes he crushed the bulk of the defending forces and then stood still, drawing those rotating columns of altered time to himself.  Not covering himself, but allowing the altered time effects to graze the outer edges of his body.  He’d heal, regenerating as much as half of the damage we’d done.

He hit major cities and small ones.  Villages, even, when he needed some elbow room to regenerate.  He’d hit a weapons stockpile in Russia, and nuclear weapons had been accelerated in time, the casings wearing down in that odd entropic, eroding effect that accompanied the time accelerations.  A nuclear detonation.  Heroes were still trying to minimize the damage.

He was teleporting less often than he had at first, and there were a number of heroes who were appearing regularly on the scene.  Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon, they were stepping up, though they’d started taking breaks, shifts.  Legend would skip one, then participate in the next two.  Alexandria would do two on, then two off.

They were tired, weary.  Everyone was.  How could you rest when he could appear where you were?  Six or eight hours of sleep meant he’d be changing location twelve to sixteen times, if not more.  And at the same time, that fatigue, it made it easier to make mistakes, and he wasn’t an opponent that let mistakes slide.

Tecton approached me, setting his hands on my shoulders.

“What?” I asked.

“You need to rest.  The others have managed it.”

“I’ve napped.”

Sleep.  You’re swaying on your feet.”

I wanted to protest.  My eyes fell on the others, and I could see how affected they were.  Scared, tired, helpless.  They were arranged around the Chicago headquarters, perpetually in costume, with no idea what to do with themselves.  Thirty minutes, and then that intense period of tension, waiting, wondering as it took the media or the PRT time to grasp just where he’d gone, to report the information.  If we were lucky, we got video footage, and we didn’t have to wonder if Khonsu had caught any of the big guns.

In a way, I’d grown used to being a little different from my peers, here.  I could be blasé about things that had them freaking out, confident.  I could put myself in the bad guy’s shoes because I’d been one, once.

Except here, I was no different.  Three days in, unable to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, feeling my heart plummet into my stomach every time Khonsu teleported, I was on the same page as the others.

“I only ever wanted to do something to help,” I said.

“I know,” Tecton said.

“Even at the beginning, even when I was undercover in the Undersiders, I wanted to stop the bad guys.  A lot of it was selfish, me wanting to escape, but I still wanted to work for the greater good.”

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  He let his gauntlets fall from my shoulders.  I turned around to look at him.  Our man of iron, his face hidden beneath his helmet.  He was standing firm, giving no indication of how affected he was.  It let him be strong, or appear to be strong, for our sakes.

“And then I decided to be a villain full-time, but my motivations were still sort of good, even if I wasn’t.  I knew the Undersiders needed help.  That there was something wrong with a lot of them, something missing in them.  And being a part of all of that, it was a way to help Coil, when I thought his plan was something good.”

“You’re not a bad person, Taylor.”

“I’m not… being good or bad was never a thing for me.  Not really.  It was all about the actions I was taking and why, instead.  I became a warlord and I took care of people.  I helped seize the city from Coil and we started implementing changes.  Again and again, I’ve escalated in terms of the kind of power I wield.”

“Do you think you’re more powerful now?  With the Wards?”  He sounded almost surprised.

“I… think so.  Yeah.  Maybe my hands are tied, I can’t be as direct or ruthless as I would otherwise be, but I can reach out to the villains and I can reach out to the heroes, and I can affect a kind of change.  I have resources.  Tools and information I might not otherwise have.”

“Makes sense,” he said, his voice soft.  “Taylor, you need to sleep.  I can hear it in your voice.”

“I just… why is it that I get more powerful over time, and yet I feel more and more helpless?”

“You ask too much of yourself,” Tecton said.  “You could have all of the power in the world, and you’d still feel like you should do more.”

“If he hits Brockton Bay-”

“Your father and friends will be okay.  Hell, our strike squad that we used against Behemoth was made up of Brockton Bay residents, wasn’t it?”

“If I have to watch people I care about getting hurt while I’m helpless to do anything, I’ll lose it.”

“It wouldn’t be constructive to lose it,” Tecton said.  “And you’re more likely to lose it if you’re tired.  Go sleep.”

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I trudged off to the quarters that had been set aside for me.  Roughly pie-shaped, with the door at the tip, it sat at the edge of the ‘hub’.  I had a bedroom upstairs, more personal, more of a home, but I didn’t want to be that far away.  I didn’t want to lapse into being Taylor Hebert, even in a moment of rest.  Better to keep thinking, keep considering options.

I lay down on the bed, pulling my mask off.  I didn’t put my glasses on.  My vision was blurry, but it didn’t do anything to block out all of the individual little lights, some blinking, that studded the interior of my quarters.  Laptops, batteries, alarm clock, the charging station with my spare flight pack inside, the television screen, the slat of light that filtered in beneath the door… so many little points of light.  If I hadn’t been so tired, I might have blocked the lights.  Using bugs wouldn’t work, as they’d wander, but a towel at the base of the door, books propped up against various devices…

I sighed and draped my arm over my eyes, my nose in the crook of my elbow.

I spent a long span of time in the twilight of near-sleep, trying not to listen to the murmurs of people’s voices in the main hub.  Idly, I wondered how much time was passing.  Where was Khonsu attacking now?

A lot of people crossed my mind, too.  Enemies, allies.  How were they dealing?  My dad had fired off emails, asked that I let him know before I joined the fight, and right after I got away safely.

For every cogent thought that crossed my mind, two or three stray thoughts followed.  The devastation, scenes burned into my mind’s eye.  People caught and left to die of dehydration in Khonsu’s fields.

Somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to drift off, the recollections becoming dreams, or something close enough to feel like it was an immediate transition.

My uneasy rest was interrupted by a touch to my shoulder.

My eyes opened, and I could see the vague shape of a woman standing over me.

Mom?

I was awake and alert in an instant, but she was already turning away.  Not my mom.  Dark haired, but too short.  Both of my parents were taller than her.

I only recognized her when I saw the doorway.  A rectangle of light, almost glaringly bright, just beside my closet.

“Hey,” I said, as I hopped up from my bed.

She didn’t respond.  She was already gone.

But the doorway remained open.

I had to cross the length of my quarters to see the interior.  A dark hallway, with only dim lighting cast by tubes recessed into the ceiling.  The woman in the suit wasn’t on the other side.

I accessed the various storage containers for the bugs I was keeping in the workshop upstairs.  Beetles navigated the trap that kept them from flying out, then made contact with various touch panels, opening the cages where the various individual species were kept.

As a mass, they flowed down the stairs and into the hub.  The Wards who were at the command center and watching the monitor stood, alarmed, as the mass of bugs made their way across the room to my quarters.

“Taylor.”  It was Tecton speaking, hurrying to the door of my room.

The bugs filtered into my quarters through the space where the walls joined, and beneath the door.

My swarm entered the hallway.  No traps.  The woman in the suit was standing off to one side.  I stood at the threshold, and glanced down at the tracking device that was strapped to my ankle.  What the hell would happen if I stepped through?

I supposed I’d find out.  I stepped through in the same moment Tecton opened the door.

The rectangular portal closed, and I was left staring at a wall.  I turned to see the woman in the suit.  She was tidy, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail with strands tracing the side of her face, and she held a fedora in one hand.  The hat was beaded with moisture.  Another excursion she’d made before reaching out to me?

I was going to speak, when I noticed another presence.  A non-presence.  It was a shift of air currents that seemed unprovoked, affecting certain bugs when it should have touched other bugs in front or behind them.

The topographical sense I got from the movements of my bugs suggested a woman’s form, nude.  It wasn’t entirely gone when another appeared across the room.  The way they moved in sync- not two people.  One person, if she could be called a person; a phantom, flowing through the space around me and the woman in the suit.

The woman in the suit extended the hand that didn’t hold her hat, directing me to a doorway.

I glanced at the woman, noting how there wasn’t a trace of the anxiety or exhaustion that everyone else seemed to show.  My swarm checked the path.

There were people I recognized on the other side.  I stepped through.

The area was dark, but there was ambient light from a series of panels.  Large panels, floor to ceiling, eighteen by five feet, had been erected in a general circle. Two accompanying panels, only two or three feet wide, were set up on either side of each larger panel, to cast light at a slightly different angle.  A bar sat at just below waist height, a semicircle, simultaneously a handrest and a way of indicating a boundary the designated parties weren’t to cross.

A different person or group of people at each station, lit from behind rather than the front.  The light from the other stations barely reached them, which meant their features weren’t well illuminated.  Distinct silhouettes, with only a few more reflective materials catching the light.

I ventured up to the panel closest to the door I’d entered.  Tattletale stood there, and I deigned to stand just behind her and to her left.  Grue, I saw, was leaning against the panel itself, his arms folded.  Tattletale glanced at me and smiled, and I could just barely make out the white of her teeth.

“Asked if they’d pick you up,” she murmured.

“Thank you,” I said.  “What is this?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked.

She turned her attention forward, and then she was taking it in.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, with the amount of information she was doubtlessly gathering.  It was obvious, considering the general presence of those who’d gathered, even if I could only recognize a handful.

Opposite us, Chevalier’s silhouette was unmistakable.  His cannonblade was too distinct.  Exalt stood to his left, and a cape I didn’t recognize stood to the right.  I wondered momentarily if it would count against me that I was standing here.  It hadn’t been by choice, exactly, but it wouldn’t look good that I was with the Undersiders.

Bugs helped me make out Dragon and Defiant at the station to Chevalier’s left.  Both wore their power armor, but apparently the presence of firepower wasn’t a concern, here.

For the most part, that was where my ability to recognize people stopped.

To my left, there was a man in power armor with his face bared.  The tattoo across his face reflected a dark blue-green in an odd way, as though he stood beneath a blacklight, flecks of light… only the fragments flowed.  No, they were traveling a circuit, instead.  Faintly blue, the glimmers traveled a circuit that marked the interior of an elaborate, stylized cross, his eyes unlit shadows in the midst of the two horizontal bars.

I could make out a station with a woman, black, accompanied by a massive shadow of a monster with an auroch’s skull for a head.  The woman’s head hung, her hair braided or bound into dreads, I couldn’t be sure.  I moved my bugs closer to check to see if she had any weapons, and her pet shadow reached out to block the swarm.  They died so quickly it was almost as though the shadow had killed before it made contact.

I decided to leave her alone.

Further down, hard to make out due to the angle of the panel that framed them, there was a small crowd.  A young girl stood at the forefront, and others were gathered around and behind her.  My bugs noted twelve people gathered in front of the panel.

Another station had only a woman and a man sitting at a table that had been set out.  The man had his hands folded neatly in front of him, and the light from neighboring panels was reflected on the large-frame glasses he wore. The woman leaned forward, elbows on the desk, hands clasped in front of her mouth.  Dark skinned, with some kind of pin in her hair.  My bugs traced their hips – the area least likely to be unclothed, and I noted the presence of ordinary clothing.  A button up shirt for him, a knee-length skirt and blouse with accompanying lab coat for her.

Three men in robes that bore a striking resemblance to Phir Sē’s were arranged to our right.

“One moment longer,” the woman in the lab coat said.

“Quite alright,” a man answered her, from the group of twelve.  “I’m really quite excited.  Been a rather long time since I’ve had a breath of fresh air.”

Hush, Marquis,” the girl at the front of that particular group spoke, and her voice was a chorus, a number of people speaking in sync, “I will not have you speaking out of turn.  Our hosts have been gracious to invite us, you will not offend them and besmirch my reputation by association.

“My sincere apologies.”

Marquis?  I had to search for the name for a moment.  Then I stopped.  That Marquis?

Another panel lit up, and the circle was complete.  My bugs found the people gathered in front, allowing me to investigate that crowd, who had silhouettes I couldn’t make out in the jumble.  A woman with a ponytail and a number of monstrous parahumans behind her…  Faultline.

The woman in the suit arrived in the room, crossing through the darkness at the center with the steady taps of her shoe heels against the hard floor.

She joined the man with the glasses and dress shirt and the woman with the lab coat.  It clicked for me.

Cauldron.  I was looking at the people behind Cauldron.  I felt a chill, despite myself.

“Ms. Alcott declined to join us,” the woman in the lab coat said.  “As did Adalid, who wanted to be ready to defend his home in case the new Endbringer arrived there.  The three blasphemies and Jack Slash were unreachable, but we would have far fewer problems if individuals like them could be reached so easily.”

Except you didn’t do anything about Jack when it counted, I thought.

“We reached out to a number of major powers and sources of information, and you are the ones who responded.  As useful as it might be to have the Yàngbǎn or Elite with us, I’m almost glad that we can have this discussion with only those who are truly committed.  Thank you for coming.  I go by Doctor Mother, and I am the founder of Cauldron.”

I could hear a growl from within Faultline’s group.  They were directly opposite Doctor Mother, as far away as they could have been.

Probably sensible, all things considered.  Cauldron was to blame for the case fifty-threes.  I suspected they could have handled themselves if anyone in Faultline’s group were to attack, but setting a distance between the two groups made sense.

“Look,” Tattletale said, abruptly, “Let’s cut past the formality bullshit.  I know a lot of you are big on that sort of thing, but we should talk nitty-gritty tactics sooner than later, especially considering the amount of squabbling that’s sure to happen.”

“Agreed,” Chevalier said, from across the room.

Mense sterf elke sekonde van elke dag. Babas sterf in die moederskoot en die kinders doodgeskiet soos honde. Vroue word verkrag en vermoor en nagmerries skeur mans uitmekaar om te fees op hul binnegoed,” the woman with the skull-headed shadow said, her voice quiet and level.  I was startled to see that it was a human skull, now.

“I gave you the ability to understand and speak English,” a man in the group of twelve said.  “It wouldn’t cost you anything to use it.”

Ek sal nie jou tong gebruik nie, vullis,” the woman replied, her voice still quiet, though it was flecked with anger, just a bit of an edge.

The man sighed, “Well, I could use my power on everyone else here, but somehow I don’t think the offer would be accepted.”

Another person in that group, a woman, spoke.  “She doesn’t believe in using English.  Her first statement was, to paraphrase, ‘People die every day’.”

“Helpful,” Tattletale commented.  “Enough with the bullshit and posturing.  We were brought here for one reason.  Well, a lot of reasons, but the main one that ties us all together is that we’ve got that monster rampaging around and we’re not making headway.  We whittle him down, he heals.  Scion attacks, he teleports, and the golden fool doesn’t follow.  So let’s be honest, let’s talk about this and introduce ourselves before we say anything so we’re not completely in the dark-”

“Some of us have identities to keep private,” the man with the cross on his face said.

“We can’t bullshit around about secrecy and all that.  We need to dust off our weapons and the schemes we’ve been keeping on the back burner and hit that motherfucker.  More than half of us have cards we’re keeping up our sleeves for a rainy day.  Someone needs to bite the bullet and play their card.  And then we need to talk about who plays the next card, when number five comes around.  Because there will be a fifth.  Or a fourth, if you count Behemoth or not.”

“Many of us are playing on a scale where a particular play would put us at a critical disadvantage,” the man with the cross on his face said.  “Acting now, at the wrong time, it wouldn’t only hurt us, but it would put bigger things at risk.  There’s doing wrongs for the greater good, and there’s doing noble deeds and dooming ourselves in the process.”

“You’re hardly so noble, Saint,” Defiant said, his voice a growl.

“I wasn’t speaking about me,” Saint retorted.

“Either way, this is why you’re here,” Doctor Mother said.  “To negotiate.  With luck, you can barter to guarantee your safety in the future, or ask favors of others, in exchange for whatever it costs you to use whatever weapons or resources you’re holding back.”

We can barter,” Faultline said.  Her voice was hard.  “Unless you’re saying the people who’ve been creating and hoarding parahumans en masse don’t have any cards to play.”

“Unfortunately, Faultline, we cannot.  Cauldron, to be specific, cannot.  I have provided this forum for discussion, we can help troubleshoot or support plans, or even provide assistance, but our cards must remain in place.  There is nothing any of you could offer us that would be worth what it costs to act.”

“Bullshit,” I said.  I could feel anger stirring.  “No way I believe that.  Even just that portal system you’ve got, that’s enough to change the tide of this fight.”

“Not an option,” Doctor Mother said.

“Because you’re afraid,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a fear that someone’s going to come after you, trace the portal back home.  But there’s another, bigger fear, isn’t there?”

“Yes,” Marquis said, from among the group of twelve.  “And I suspect I know what it is.”

“Contessa here has informed me you do,” Doctor Mother said, cutting him off.  She was gesturing towards the woman in the suit.  “Let me assure you, it would do more harm than good to reveal the details.  Especially here, especially now.”

“Shit on me,” Tattletale said.  “You bastards figured this out.  How the hell did a bunch of prisoners in a jail that’s dangling inside a mountain get to figure it out before I did?”

“Hands on experience,” Marquis answered.

“Panacea,” Tattletale said.

“Exactly,” Marquis said.  “Clever girl.  Well, I’m not looking to stir waves.  I can’t disagree with the good doctor, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.  Back to business.”

“Damn it,” Tattletale said, under her breath.  Louder, she said, “You’re sure that this doesn’t relate to our Endbringer situation?”

“It doesn’t,” Doctor Mother said. “The Endbringers are a puzzle unto themselves, independent of every other major variable.”

“That reeks of bullshit,” Tattletale said.  “I want to think you’re bullshitting or you’re absolutely wrong and they’re connected to everything, but I’m getting the feeling it’s not.  It’s bullshit because it’s true?”

“I think we’re on the same page, Tattletale,” the Doctor said.

“Can we progress this discussion?” one of the robed men asked.

“We can,” the Doctor said.  “Thank you for getting us back on track, Turanta of the Thanda.  Let’s open the floor to discussion.  Let’s start with the possibility that we might draw from the Birdcage.”

Freedom matters little to me,” the girl with the eerie voice said.  “The true end draws nearer.

“The end of the world, you mean,” I said.

The end of all things, queen administrator,” she said.

Queen administrator?  What?  “Isn’t that the same thing?  The end of the world and the end of all things?  Or do you mean the end of the universe?”

It doesn’t concern other celestial bodies.  It doesn’t matter.  This ends, one way or another.  We and ours will carry on, in some form, whether it happens today or three hundred years from now.

“How reassuring,” Tattletale quipped.  “You won’t help?”

I am safe where I am, whether it beyond the Endbringer’s reach here or deep beneath the mountain.  I will collect from among the dead, and I will keep them company until the faerie rise from the ruins.

Oh, I thought.  She’s completely out of her mind.

“There’s no way to barter for assistance from within the birdcage then?” Doctor Mother asked.  “Nothing you want, Glaistig Uaine?”

The girl, Glaistig Uaine, responded, “A hundred thousand corpses, each being one naturally gifted by the faerie.”

“We don’t have time to laugh about like this,” Turanta, the apparent spokesman of the cold capes said.

I am not joking, astrologer.  I would like to see their lights dancing in the air.  I have seen only glimmers, fragments of the performance.  To see it all at once… yes.

I heard someone in Faultline’s group swearing.  Newter, I suspected.

Honestly, I kind of agreed.  I clenched my fists, biting back the worst of my anger.  I managed to stay calm as I commented, “I’m getting a better idea of why things are as screwed up as they are.  We’ve got all of the major players here, and half of you are willing to do nothing while the world burns.”

“All of the major players who were willing to come to the table,” Doctor Mother said.

Not any better, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Doctor Mother had turned to the girl from the birdcage.  “If you participated in the fight, I can promise there would be a number of dead parahumans there.”

I fear that would not be enough.  It would need to be all together, for the greatest effect,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“We could provide that many over a period of ten years, if required, but we’d want more assistance than simply this one fight,” Doctor Mother said.  She stopped as the man with the glasses leaned close.  A moment passed, “Or we could provide that many twenty-seven years from now.”

I felt a bit of a chill.  They were so casually discussing this, as if it were possible.

I opened my mouth to cut in, but Glaistig Uaine spoke first.

No.  No, I don’t think I’ll accept.  My word is too vital to me, and you seem to want me to war with the abominations.  I don’t fear my own death, but I would rather be together with the others than be separated until the grand celebration.  I won’t fight.  I would only grant my advice, some power here and there.

Doctor Mother sat back in her seat.  The ominous silence suggested she was still considering it.

A hundred thousand lives, being mulled over so readily.

“That’s a shame,” Doctor Mother said, in the end.

“If I may?” Marquis spoke up.  “With your permission, faerie queen.”

Granted,” Glaistig Uaine said.

“There are others who wouldn’t mind being free again,” he said.  “Myself included.  We’d fight that monster if you gave us the chance.  All we’d ask is that you let a select few others out, and that you don’t create a portal that leads back to the Birdcage after the fact.”

“No,” Chevalier said, breaking his long silence.  “No, I’m sorry.”

“Some of the strongest parahumans are contained inside that building,” Marquis said.  “Glaistig Uaine is one, but there are others.  My daughter is another.”

“Your daughter was a mental wreck the last time anyone outside of the Birdcage saw her.  There are too many dangerous individuals in there.  She,” Chevalier said, pointing in the direction of the woman with the shadowy pet with the massive bird skull, “Has killed thousands of people.  That’s nothing compared to what some individuals in the birdcage have done.  We’d be letting the wolves run free again, in the hopes they deal with the lion.”

“If there is no other way to deal with the lion, and we know the wolves have been caught in our snare once before…” Saint said, trailing off.

“We know they can be dealt with.  We’re just lacking resources.  Opening the doors of the Birdcage has to be a last resort.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I could stand for it to be the first resort,” Marquis said.  He turned toward the Doctor, “I’m staying mum about what my daughter discovered.  The details we both know that must not be shared.  Surely that’s worth some goodwill.”

“It is,” the Doctor replied.

I glanced at Tattletale.  Her eyes were moving quickly, hungrily taking in details.

Chevalier sighed.  “Dragon?  Some backup.”

“I have to say no,” Dragon said.  “The prisoners must stay within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  If you intend to rescue them, I’ll deploy everything I have to stop you.  Neither of us can afford the losses at this juncture.”

“But if we did try,” Saint said, “And if we did free a handful of deserving individuals, you wouldn’t be unhappy, would you?”

There was a pause, telling.  It was enough of a delay for Chevalier to look from Saint to Dragon and give her a curious stare before she spoke.  “My view on who is deserving is far different from yours, Saint.”

“Those of us standing here.  Me, my daughter, Lung,” Marquis said.

“You cannot speak for all of us on that front,” a matronly woman spoke.  “One of my girls was unfairly imprisoned, another is on the verge of losing her mind, in captivity.”

“We all have people we’d see freed,” the man who’d spoken about granting the ability to speak English said.  “Let’s say two for each of us.”

“Thirty six in all,” Dragon said.  “One in five of the people currently in the Birdcage, almost.  Six more could potentially use the opportunity to slip out, through Stranger powers or other malfeasance.  Glancing over the notes my artificial intelligences have made regarding the facility, I can guess who some of the cell block leaders would choose to release.  No.  I harbor concerns about the Birdcage, but this is not the answer to that.”

“It would do more harm than good,” Chevalier said.  “And I say that with full knowledge of what we’re up against here, today.  The last three days.”

“Their opinions don’t decide this,” Marquis said.  “If it were solely up to our officers and jailer in the first place, then we’d be free already.  You, Cauldron, have the means to send us back or not.  It’s your authority that matters.”

Chevalier shifted his grip on his weapon, but he didn’t attack.  “We’ll bargain.  Marquis is offering assistance, but the PRT has influence.  We’ll deal with you, Doctor, if it means the Birdcage remains sealed.  With the ongoing inquisition against Cauldron capes, perhaps there are one or two you’d want to be ignored.  They couldn’t be promoted, that’s the PRT’s jurisdiction, and it would only draw attention to them that I couldn’t help them avoid.  Still, I could time a transfer, allow someone to slip through the cracks.”

“A few someones,” the Doctor said.  “Yes.  I’m sorry, Marquis.  Our clients must come first.”

“You’ll be twisting our arms and escorting us through the portal, then?”

“You’ll go willingly.  This place cannot sustain life.  It’s a facility in the middle of a wasteland, and your Earth is several universes away.”

“I see,” Marquis said.  “Unavoidable, I take it.  And if I were to share the particularly valuable information that you and I both know, that you don’t want me to share with others who are present?”

“I can’t believe I’m not getting in on this,” Tattletale whispered to me.

Doctor Mother didn’t reply.  She remained still, her eyes on Marquis, as the woman in the suit, who she’d called Contessa, leaned in close, whispering.

“You won’t,” the Doctor said, when Contessa had straightened and stepped back, standing guard behind the Doctor’s chair.

“I won’t?”

“You won’t.  Teacher would, hearing that, but Teacher has a secret he doesn’t want divulged, and he now knows we know.”

Marquis turned, his shadow shifting, presumably as he looked at Teacher.  He turned back, “Ah well.  I suppose I’ll just say we’re here if you need us.”

“If we need you that badly,” Chevalier said, “Then we’ve already lost.”

“Rest assured,” Marquis retorted, “I think you’re doing a very good job at getting yourselves to that juncture.”

“It’s a failure across the board,” I said, surprising myself by speaking.  “All of us, the Birdcage prisoners excepted, we’re not doing enough.  If we don’t come up with an answer or get someone to step up to bat and fight, then we’re doomed.  We’ve got the end of the world happening in twenty-thirteen, and we can’t even band together for this.”

“Complaining gets us nowhere,” Faultline said. “Besides, it’s not like this is small potatoes.”

“Okay then,” I said.  “Let’s talk resources.  If you’ve got parahumans or information, let’s hear it.  Let’s show a measure of trust and have Marquis or Cauldron share the tidbit of information they’ve gleaned.  Let’s talk options that don’t involve fighting.  Tattletale thinks these bastards are designed.  Where’s the designer?”

“Nowhere we can find,” Doctor Mother said.  “And we have the most powerful clairvoyance we know about, alongside the most powerful precognitive.”

“Does that mean there isn’t a designer?” Faultline asked.  “That Tattletale’s wrong?”

“Get fucking real,” Tattletale retorted.  “I’m confident on this count.”

“If they can’t find the designer-” Faultline started.

“There’s other possibilities.  Lots of powers confound precogs and clairvoyants.”

“Both at the same time?”

“Be constructive,” I cut in.

“We will assist,” Turanta said.  “Sifara, Bahu and I, others beneath us in our organization.  I cannot speak for my fellow brothers, but I will ask them because we all owe a debt.  Our brother died, but Weaver helped to make it not for nothing.”

“Phir Sē died?” I asked, surprised.

“At the hands of the First, very late.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“We owe you,” he said.  “As we owe some of the others.  It is your choice how you would use this.”

“You can pay me back by helping, here,” I said.  “You’d be paying us all back.”

“We have the means,” he said. “But this hurts us, because we rely on our enemies not knowing what we are truly able to do.”

“If this goes much further,” I said, “It might not matter.”

“This is true.  Of each of you but Weaver and Chevalier, we will ask a small favor, after.  Nothing dangerous or painful to give away.  Token gestures, most.”

“Favors make for a good currency,” the Doctor said.  “Granted.”

There were murmurs of assent from others.  The woman with the shadow pet didn’t respond, but Turanta didn’t press the issue with her either.

Dragon glanced at Defiant, but ultimately relented, accepting the terms.

The Doctor spoke “Moord Nag?  We could use your assistance.”

The woman and her shadow pet with its crocodile skull looked at Doctor Mother.  “Laat hulle almal sterf.  Ek is tevrede om die wêreld te sien brand en die vallende konings te spot.  Ek en my aasdier sal loop op die as van die verwoeste aarde.”

“She says no.  Let them all die,” the woman from the Birdcage said.

“Can I ask who she is?” Faultline asked.

Tattletale was the one to answer.  I think she got a measure of joy out of rubbing the fact that she knew in Faultline’s face, “Moord Nag.  Warlord based in Namibia.  As far as the current warlords in the area go, she’s had the longest lifespan at about eight years or so, and she’s gotten things to the point where most of the other bastards around there are kowtowing, asking permission to attack this city or occupy that area, to go to the bathroom or unite two groups in an alliance.”

Die badkamer?”

Us, basically,” Tattletale said, glancing at me.  She turned her head to look at Grue, “Only on a much, much bigger scale, and she did it alone.”

Ek het dit reggekry met aasdier,” Moord Nag responded.  “Nie alleen nie.

“With your pet monster, right.”

“She said she’d be willing to let the world burn, before,” the woman from the birdcage said.  “I don’t think you have an ally there.”

“From her attitude,” Saint added, “I don’t even see why she was invited.”

“I’ll ask you the same thing I asked the others,” the Doctor said.  “What would it take for you to fight, here?”

Ek kan nie krag spandeer sonder om die nag lande hulpeloos teen hul bure te los nie.”

“She can’t spend her power, not without-”

“We’ll supply what you need to replenish it,” the Doctor said.

“No,” Dragon spoke.  “No, you won’t.”

Ek sal nie-

“It would be appreciated,” the man from the Birdcage that had granted her the ability to understand English spoke.  “Reconsider.  Don’t underestimate our resources.”

Vyf duisend, lewendig, dit maak nie saak of hulle mag het of nie.  ‘N Fraksie van wat jy die gek aangebied het.

“No,” Dragon said, before the translator could speak.

“Yes,” the Doctor said, just as readily.  “I caught the number, I can figure out the rest.  You’ll get what you need.”

“I can’t stand by and watch this, not like this,” Chevalier said.

“How many more will die if we don’t act?” the Doctor said.  “The Thanda will counteract the Endbringer’s teleportation ability, at least for a time.  Moord Nag gives you much-needed clout.  Again, at least for a short time.”

“In exchange for five thousand lives?” Dragon asked.

“A small price to pay.  How many have died as we conducted this meeting?”

Jy praat asof dit saak maak. Die kontrak is verseël. Sal ons gaan nou,” Moord Nag said.

“What did she just say?” Chevalier asked.  Moord Nag was already walking away, stepping away from the panel and into the recessed passage beside it, almost completely hidden in shadow.  I could only make out the rodent’s skull, overlarge and pale in the darkness.

“The contract is settled,” Dragon said.  “She sees it as inviolable, now.”

“I like her,” Marquis commented.  “Mass murder aside, anyways.  Woman of her word.”

“We’ll find her,” Chevalier said, to the Doctor, “After the battle is done, before you deliver those people to her.”

“You promised us a favor, in exchange for our not letting Marquis and the other cell block leaders free,” the Doctor said.  “I could ask you to leave this be,” the Doctor said.

“No.  Not this.  Not five thousand people, fed to that woman’s pet.”

“Stop us, then,” the Doctor replied.  “Or try, as it may be.  That’s one Endbringer we should be able to drive away.  As Weaver said, we may have to evacuate the planet if this doesn’t work.  Faultline, your assistance would be invaluable on that front.  You’ve already created nine, I believe?”

“Three of which were supposed to be secret,” Faultline replied.

“It doesn’t matter.  We’ll pay for several more, at major locations, and we’ll arrange your transportation.”

Faultline stared at the woman.  “No, Doctor.”

“No?”

“Not your money.  Not you.”

“Shortsighted,” Saint commented.

“I think this is pretty big picture.  Money talks, and I don’t like how this money sounds.  She spends five thousand lives like someone else would spend change.  Cauldron made innocent people into monsters.  They took everything from them.  I can’t deal with that in good faith.”

She turned to Chevalier, “We’ll give you a discount.  Escape routes in major cities across America.  Leading to the world that the Brockton Bay portal goes to.”

Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“I’ll talk to my superiors,” Chevalier said.

“Good,” Faultline said, “that’s settled, then.”

“Leaving only the Endbringer that comes next,” I said.

“We won’t know what measures need to be taken until it makes an appearance,” Defiant spoke.

“Another meeting,” the Doctor said.  “Another day.”

I could feel my heart skip a beat at that.  I wasn’t sure I liked what this was becoming.

Then again, the nature of this meeting had been suggested from the start, with the shadows concealing identities.  Everything the PRT had been fighting to assure people that parahumans weren’t doing was happening here, in this room.  Scheming, trading lives like currency, and wielding incredible amounts of power, money and influence.

“But before we get that far,” the Doctor said, “Tattletale?”

“You asked me here for a reason,” Tattletale said.  “Multiple reasons.”

“The first being to give you an opportunity to check something for our mutual benefit.”

“You brought the major players in so I could see if anyone was the designer, the creator of the Endbringers.”

“And?”

“Nobody here.”

The Doctor nodded.  “I suspected.  They remain immune to precognition, but the designer wouldn’t be, I don’t think.  It’s good to double check, regardless.  Will you be attending if we hold another meeting, Chevalier?” the Doctor asked.

Others, the Thanda, were departing, now.  Grue had stepped away from the panel to step close to Tattletale, whispering something.

Then Grue walked past me, not even glancing my way, before disappearing into the corridor I’d used to enter.

Hurt, confused, I couldn’t speak to ask Tattletale why without possibly interrupting Chevalier, as he spoke in a steady, quiet voice.

“I don’t think I have a choice.  If I don’t come, then I’m left blind to what’s occurring behind the scenes.  I wouldn’t be able to intervene if you tried something like you did with the Birdcage.”

“That’s true,” Doctor Mother said.

“And I think that’s exactly what you wanted,” he said.  “You have that Contessa there, and she sees the road to victory.  You schemed this.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Chevalier asked.

“It’s not time for you to know,” she said.

Fuck that,” Tattletale cut in.  Most of the other groups were gone.  Faultline and her group lingered behind.  “I think it’s damn obvious what you’re doing.”

“A new world order,” I said.  Tattletale nodded in agreement beside me.

There were a few curious glances shot our way.  I could see the Doctor shift position.  Exasperation?  Annoyance?

I leaned forward, resting my hands on the railing in front of me.  Grue’s odd departure only fueled an anger that had been simmering, “I had a hell of a lot of time to think, in prison, in my downtime and during stakeouts.  There’s only one thing that really makes sense, as far as your motivations go.  It’s not the clues or what you’re doing, it’s what you weren’t doing.  Only Legend helped against the Slaughterhouse Nine, but he wasn’t in the know, from the looks of it.  You didn’t help Coil, and you didn’t help against Coil.  You only helped against Echidna when it looked like everything might go down the toilet.  But Alexandria steps in when I leave, confronts me after I’d surrendered to the PRT.  So I had to ask myself why.”

“I can imagine,” Doctor Mother said.

“We were guinea pigs,” I said.  “For what?  So you could be in charge?”

“Not us.  Never us,” the Doctor said.  “There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

Try us,” Tattletale said, almost snarling the words.

“All of this?  It’s small scale,” the Doctor said.  “Important?  Yes.  But it’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

I clenched my fists.  “Five thousand lives, nothing.  Talking about a hundred thousand parahumans to be delivered after twenty-some years, nothing.  The lies you perpetuated with Alexandria, the schemes, Echidna, the human experimentation, the case fifty-threes, everyone you watched die just so your experiment with parahumans in charge of Brockton Bay wouldn’t be tainted…”

“We’ll go down in history as the villains,” Doctor Mother said.  There wasn’t a trace of doubt or hesitation in her voice.  “But it’s worth it if it means saving everyone.”

“You sound so sure,” Gregor the Snail spoke, from behind Faultline.  He had a heavy accent.  European-ish, in the same vein as Moord Nag.

“Do morals matter, if our alternative is a grim and hopeless end?”

“I would never question your morals,” Gregor said.  “I know you have none.  I merely wonder why you are so confident you will succeed in all of this, that you will save the world and you will achieve your new world order and your parahuman leadership.”

“We have a parahuman that sees the path to victory.  The alternative to traveling this path, to walking it as it grows cloudier and narrower every day, is to stand by while each and every person on this planet dies a grisly and violent death.”

“You know how the world ends,” I said, my eyes widening behind the lenses of my mask.

“Of course,” she answered, standing from her chair.  She collected papers and a tablet computer from the table in front of her.  She collected it into a neat bundle, and the man with the glasses took it from her, holding it under one arm.  Only then did she add, “We already saved it once.”

There were no responses to that.  Confusion and disbelief warred with each other as I stared at her silhouette.  The others seemed to be in similar straits.

“You had better hurry if you want transportation to the battlefield,” she said.  Then, with the man with the glasses and Contessa following, she strode from the dark chamber.

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Crushed 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-”

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-”

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-”

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

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Drone 23.2

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Every part of the Las Vegas team’s reaction to our arrival screamed dissatisfaction.  Folded arms, the way none of them would meet our eyes, the very way they were positioned, so they were just enough in our way to make it clear they didn’t agree with what was going on, but not so close as to be with us.

Except it wasn’t me that was the problem, this time.

Satyrical, Satyr for short, wore a helmet sculpted to look like a goat’s head, the mouth in a perpetual smile.  On a good day, I imagined his eyes were bright with mischief, his shaped eyebrows quirked behind the large eye-holes of the helmet.  This wasn’t a good day.  There were circles under his eyes, and he glowered.  With the smile on his helmet, it made him look… I didn’t want to say deranged, but it was the word that sprung to mind.

His bare chest was muscular, waxed hairless, the belt and leggings of his costume slung low enough that I could see the lines of his lower stomach that pointed to his… yeah.  It was admittedly distracting.  It was meant to be distracting.

Nix, Blowout, Leonid and Floret joined Satyrical in their anger.  Heroes in more flamboyant and colorful costumes than normal, their moods a contrast in how dark they were.  Spur and Ravine seemed more lost than angry, but the way they retreated into their group as we passed told me that they would side with their team over us.

If there was something to be said, words of encouragement or apology, nobody I was with seemed ready or able to come up with them.

We approached the elevator and made our way down, and none of the local heroes joined us.

“Thoughts?” Vantage asked me.

“For a city like Las Vegas, I’m surprised the building is so…” I trailed off.

“Dull?  Like a giant tombstone?”

“No windows,” I said.  “Just the front door, walls all around it, no decoration except for the PRT logo on the face of the building, no lights except for spotlights.”

“Stands out,” Vantage said.  “There’s contrast.”

“And it’s required.  Vegas is one of the worst cities for sheer number of villains,” Rime said.  Her entire demeanor was rigid, which maybe fit in a way with her ice powers.  “Vegas employs a group of unsponsored thinkers and tinkers to monitor the venues, much like the PRT does with the economy, ensuring that everything is above-board, that everything is being conducted fairly and that the numbers add up.  Vegas changed as a result, developed a different cape dynamic.  In Los Angeles or New York, it’s the people who can blow down buildings that are seen as true ‘heavy hitters’.  Here, they’re trying to game the system, and the heroes are trying to game them.  In Vegas, it’s thinkers, tinkers and strangers who rule the underworld.”

“A different sort of cops and robbers,” I said.

“Cops and robbers?”  Vantage asked.

“A way my teammate once explained it to me.  The, for lack of a better word, healthy way for heroes and villains to be, is for all of this to be a game of sorts.  Trading blows, counting coup, but ultimately leaving the other side without any permanent damage.”

“Counting coup?” Leister asked.  He was the sole subordinate that Vantage had brought along.  Rime, by contrast, had brought Usher and Arbiter from her team.  Prefab from San Diego had shown up as well.

I explained, “The term came from the Native Americans’ style of warfare.  In a fight, one person makes a risky, successful play against the other side showing their prowess.  They gain reputation, the other side loses some.  All it is, though, is a game.  A way to train and make sure you’re up to snuff against the real threats without losing anything.”

“Except,” Rime said, “Things escalate.  One side loses too many times in a row, they push things too far.  And there’s always collateral damage.  I notice civilians don’t factor into that explanation.”

“I’m not saying I agree with it a hundred percent,” I said.  “I didn’t, even from the beginning.  But it sounds like what you’re describing.”

Rime shook her head.  “No.  The strip is dying.  Every successful job the villains pull causes catastrophic damage, sees venues shutting down.  More villains arrive, hearing of the last group’s success, or because there’s room for them, and they settle in the more desolate areas.  The problem feeds itself, gets worse.  This building is a fortress and a prison because that’s what the city needs, that’s how bad things have gotten.”

“And the heroes?”

“Flamboyant, as brilliant and attention-grabbing in the open as the villains are discreet and hidden in plain sight.  The Vegas team is largely made up of strategists, charlatans and borderline scoundrels.  Individuals who can foil cheats and frauds, or throw a wrench in the works of the local masterminds, who think like they do.  Which is why this is such a problem.”

The last sentence had a note of finality to it.  I decided not to push my luck with further questions.

We made our way out into the corridor with the cells.  It was deeper, more developed than Brockton Bay’s.  There were two tiers, with one set of cells above the other.

Rime moved her phone next to a television screen, then tapped it.  There was a pause as a row of black squares with white outlines gradually lit up.  She leaned forward a little, her hand resting against the wall beside the television.

The screen came alive.  I saw a man in a cape uniform within, without a mask.  He had albinism, to the point that the velvet purple of his costume overwhelmed the little of his skin that was showing.  The irises of his eyes were a dark pink.

“Pretender,” Rime said.  Her voice had a harder note than before.  “What have you done?”

“Don’t place all of the blame on me.  You forced my hand.”

“No,” she said, “There had to be another way.  You could have admitted-”

“A death sentence,” he said.  “You’re an upper-echelon cape now, and you have the clearance.  You know about her.  The bogeyman that comes after anyone who tries to release information they want to keep secret.”

I glanced at Vantage, who only shrugged.

“We could have protected you,” Rime said.

Pretender only chuckled.  “No.  No you couldn’t.  I’m dead anyways, one way or another.  I surrender, it’s the end of my career, and that’s all I have.  I talk, I die.  This was the best option.”

The hand that Rime was using to lean against the wall clenched into a fist.  Her voice was tight as she asked, “Killing a government thinker was the best option?”

“Yes.”

Rime straightened, but it was more of a defeated gesture than anything, her hand dropping from the wall.  “You were one of the good ones, Pretender.”

“Still am,” he said.  He crossed the length of his cell, sitting on the corner of the bed.  “I’d explain, but it would only get us all killed.”

“We’re going to have to take you to a more secure facility,” Rime said.

“Well, I didn’t expect you’d let me go.  Do what you have to.  I made a deal with the devil, you caught me, for better or worse,” Pretender said.  In a quieter voice, he said, “About time I pay the price.”

Rime turned off the television.  She looked at Arbiter.

“My riot sense was going off like crazy as he talked,” Arbiter said.  “There’s something at work here.”

“Describe it.”

Arbiter touched her middle fingers and thumbs together, forming a circle, “Orange.”

She moved her hands further apart, “Red.”

Then further apart again, until the implied ‘circle’ was as big as a large pizza.  “Yellow.”

“That bad?”  Rime asked.

“Bad.”

“Then we move now,” Rime said.  She raised her hand to her ear.  “Dragon?  Cancel your errands.  We’re in for some trouble, almost guaranteed, and I’m thinking we want to clear out before it descends.”

There was a short pause.

The digital voice of Dragon’s A.I., the same one I’d heard through her drones and the armbands, informed us, “Kulshedra model en route to Las Vegas Protectorate Headquarters.  ETA two minutes.  Tiamat to join in t-minus eight minutes.”

“Okay,” Rime said.  “It’ll be here before we’re on the roof.  Let’s get Pretender packed up.  Standard stranger protocols in effect.  Usher and Arbiter, you handle it.  Everyone else with me.”

Once we were all in the elevator, I figured I was clear to ask without sounding too much like a newbie.  “What was Arbiter talking about?  Riot sense?”

Rime explained.  “She’s a social thinker, in addition to her minor blaster and shaker powers.  Her danger sense is mild at best, not something she can react to immediately, but it makes her aware of associated individuals and the threat they pose.  She wouldn’t be able to see much from Pretender alone, but she knows that there’s a moderate to high danger posed by those closest to him-”

“His team, probably,” Prefab said.

“She’s predicting a massive risk from people who have an intimate but less immediate association or those who have a recent but less familiar association with him…”

“Old teammates or family that he doesn’t see regularly,” Prefab said, “Or people he’s hired for help that he isn’t as familiar with.”

Rime finished, “…And a moderate risk from people or things on the periphery of his real-life social network.”

“The bogeyman?” I asked.

Rime didn’t answer.  Instead, she looked at the digital display above the door of the elevator.  “Prefab, look after our Wards.  I’m going to have words with Satyr.  See if we can’t work out what the angle is.  Wait on the roof for our ride.”

“Stranger protocols mean you don’t go anywhere alone,” Prefab said.

“Of course.  I’m thinking…  Vantage,” she said, beckoning.

Vantage nodded, stepping forward.

The elevator doors opened for Rime to exit, then shut.  The three of us continued up to the roof.  Prefab was large, and his armor made him look larger, with shoulderpads that looked like the tower-tops of a castle, each probably weighing twice as much as my entire outfit, equipment included.  He carried a heavy cannon, obviously tinker made.

Leister was a teenager in lightweight silver armor with the edges molded into wave-like forms.  Beneath the armor was blue cloth with a similar wave-like design embroidered on it.  He held a trident, as ornate as his armor.  As lightweight and sprightly as Prefab was a veritable tank.

“This bogeyman-” Leister started.

“Based on what we know,” Prefab said, “Arbiter giving us a yellow that possibly includes her is more worrying than a red alert involving just about anyone else.”

“You don’t know anything about her?”

“We mainly see her censoring information,” Prefab said.  “Silencing and disappearing people who are talking about sensitive stuff, and doing the same with everyone they talked to.  Only details are slipping through the net, now.  About Cauldron, about Alexandria, the formulas.”

“Too much for one person to handle?” I suggested.

“Speculation from the top is they’ve probably stopped caring,” Prefab said.  “Thinkers believe she’s letting things leak, because it doesn’t make sense that they’d keep things this tight and then slip up like they have been.”

“What’s her classification?”

“Thinker.  Don’t worry about the number.  Just run.”

I frowned.

“Exactly how many capes are like that?” Leister asked.

“A handful.  Enough.”

“I’m beginning to feel like I’m out of my depth,” Leister said.

“You get used to that,” I said.  “With the sheer luck involved in powers and the crap we wind up facing on a daily or weekly basis, it’s only a matter of time before you wind up going up against someone you don’t have a chance against.”

“Yeah, but Fab’s talking-”

Prefab,” Prefab growled.

“Sorry.  I mean, Prefab was talking about opponents we couldn’t hope to fight, and I’ve only had two real fights so far.  One of them wasn’t even a real fight.”

“You’re new?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“I’ve only been a Ward for a month.”

Only two fights in a month.  I felt a pang of envy.

“Let’s hope there isn’t a fight today,” Prefab said.  “But let’s be ready if there is one.

We ascended to the rooftop.  Dragon’s suit had already landed.  A bulky craft, twice the size of a helicopter, with what looked to be a cargo bay.  Letters stenciled on the edge of the wing read ‘Kulshedra v0.895’.

Inside, in boxes, there were butterflies.  Innumerable varieties.  Sadly, quite a few had died due to a lack of food or being crushed under the weight of the others.  The idea was clear.  The PRT wanted me to change how I operated.  Dragon, at least, was willing to give me the means.

It was still stupid.  Ridiculous.

The back of the craft opened, giving me access to the hatches.  I stepped up onto the ramp and found the buttons to open the boxes.

“Go, my pretties,” I said, monotone.  “Go, seek out my enemies and smother them.”

They took off, moving in colorful formations, organized by type, drawing fractal shapes in the air as they spread out.

I stepped down off the ramp to see Leister staring at me.

“I know you were joking,” Prefab said, “But no smothering.”

“No smothering,” I said, sighing.  I looked up.  The sky was darkening.  “If there’s a fight, it’s going to be at night.  It’d be pretty stupid to use butterflies at night, when half of my tricks are subtle.”

“You’d have to ask Rime.”

Was I supposed to use non-butterflies to scout for trouble?

I considered asking, but I was suspicious I already knew the answer.

Best not to ask, and beg for forgiveness later.

Insects and flies moved out over the surrounding cityscape.  There were too many buildings here, too many that were sealed off, but I could check rooftops and balconies, and I could investigate the ground.  Tens of thousands of people, all in all.

“Sniper rifle,” I said, in the same instant the thought came together.

“Wha?” Leister asked, incoherent and confused.

Prefab’s head snapped my way.  “You sure?”

“I’d point,” I said, “But he’d notice.  Our masks and helmets cover our faces, or I’d be worried about lip-reading.”

“Don’t panic, don’t give away that you’re afraid.  Into the craft.  Go,” Prefab said.

I nodded, wishing I had my real costume, though I knew it might not be tough enough to withstand a bullet from a sniper rifle.

Prefab was the last to step inside, slowing down as he approached the ramp.  I could see light glittering around the edges of the roof, growing more intense over the course of seconds.  Ten, fifteen seconds passed, until there was more of the light than there were spaces in between.  The light was most intense near the edges.

In a clap of thunder, a rush of wind and a flare of… anti-sparks, crenellated walls appeared, extending fifteen feet up from the lip of the roof’s edge.  The sparks, such as they were, were black at their core, surrounded by shadow.  They spun in the air before drifting to the ground, where they flickered out of existence.

“Does that block his line of sight?  I can make them taller,” Prefab said.

“I don’t think he has the right angle to shoot over the wall,” I said.

“No weapons?  Costume?”

I used my subtler bugs, but he was already packing away the rifle in record time, then swiftly moving away from the roof’s edge.  He brushed away my bugs as they converged, kicked a hatch open with his foot, then climbed inside with a speed that almost made me think he’d fallen.  Only the fact that the hatch closed firmly after him convinced me otherwise.

The only way he’d have evaded the swarm like that was if he’d known what I was doing.

“No costume,” I said.  “He brushed away the bugs before I could get anything substantial, but I think… glasses?  And a dress shirt.  I think he noticed what my bugs are doing.  That’s rare.”

“We’ve got trouble,” Prefab said.  I realized he was using his phone.  “Sniper on a rooftop nearby.  Possible Thinker.  Barricades should make for safe elevator exit.”

We’re on our way up,” Rime said, through the speaker.  “Four capes and the containment box.  Hold position, play safe.  If Pretender arranged a jailbreak, he won’t have just one person working under him.  Arriving in eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…

The elevators opened.  Rime, Arbiter, Vantage and Usher made their way out, wheeling a box along with them.

“Password?” Prefab asked.

“Twenty-three-aleph-pater-newfoundland-washington-vikare,” Rime said.  “Arbiter’s group is already confirmed, they haven’t left my sight.  First half of your first password?”

“Eight-nine-three-scion,” he responded.  “And the other two are clear.”

“Good.  Let’s move. A hand?”

Prefab gave Rime a hand in moving the box.  It couldn’t have been comfortable: four feet by six feet by four feet.  Enough to stand in, but not enough to lie down.  The thing had four wheels, and was dense enough that it took some muscle to get it up the ramp.  I would have joined in, if I didn’t fear I would get in the way more than I’d help.  I wasn’t the strongest person around.  Fit, yes, but not strong.

Instead, I focused on bringing my butterflies back.  I couldn’t get them all back in time, but a loss of a hundred or so wasn’t a tragedy.

A loss of all of the butterflies wouldn’t be a tragedy.  I’d feel bad, if only because of the trouble Dragon likely went through in acquiring them, but yeah.

Gosh, if they all just happened to die or get left behind, maybe I’d have to use something else.  Tragic.

They finally managed to settle the box at the center of the cargo bay, pulling a switch to close clasps at the base of it, lowering a solid metal pillar from the roof to the top of the box.

I doubted it would budge if someone crashed a bus into it.

I called back some of the butterflies closest to me, keeping others around the building with the sniper.  He hadn’t set up again.

“I’m worried about that sniper,” I said.  “If he was coming after us, why is he giving up so easily?  If he wasn’t coming after us, who was he after?  A civilian?”

“Identify the building as we get airborne.”

“Through a window?” I asked, looking forward, to the ‘head’ of the craft, that looked out onto the city.

“Bulletproof glass or no, let’s stay away from the windows for now,” Rime said.  “Kulshedra, show Weaver what your cameras see.”

Monitors changed from red text on a black background to high-resolution images of the surrounding walls and rooftop, a different image for each one.

A second later, the ramp closed, and we took to the air, the craft vibrating softly.

I studied the monitors, watching, getting a sense of the surroundings and of which buildings corresponded with what I was looking at.

“Kulshedra,” I said, pretty sure I was mangling the name, “The leftmost monitor on your left side.  Zoom in, a little up and left.  There.  Building to the left of the one in the dead center.”

I tapped the screen as the ship highlighted the building in question.

“Good job, Weaver,” Rime said, peering at the monitor.

“Was on the roof, moved below through hatch when I used my bugs.  Hasn’t left the building,” I said.

Rime touched her earbud.  “Vegas teams, be advised, armed individual in a building at… 125 West Sahara.”

“It’s port,” Leister murmured to me.

“Huh?”

“You said ‘left side of the ship.  It’s port.”

“Isn’t that boats?” I asked.

“Can be aircraft.”

“Best leave it,” Vantage said.  “Leister’s a little stubborn.”

“So am I,” I said.

“Maybe ‘tenacious’ is the word you want,” Vantage offered.  “There aren’t a lot of people who get knocked out and still manage to win a fight.”

“Are you all this pedantic?”  I asked.

Vantage only laughed, though I saw Rime glancing at me, and she didn’t look pleased.

“Alexandria was always hard on us,” Arbiter said.  Her voice had a strange tone to it, oddly melodic, “Getting us to focus on grades, extracurricular stuff, on top of what we did as a part of the team.”

“We were challenged to be better than the other teams in everything, academics included,” Vantage said.  “But we were the only team with a leader who cared about it.”

“Except the capes in Fresno,” Arbiter said.  “I was still a Ward, then.”

Vantage smiled, “Oh yeah.  The bastards in Fresno.  They caught on, probably because we were complaining so much.  Small team, but they started studying like crazy, just so we’d be in second place, academically.  Didn’t matter why we were second, Alexandria was still annoyed at us.”

“All those sermons on being top-notch, on acting like the people we wanted to be, and… she turned out to be a monster,” Arbiter said.

“A monster slain by Weaver, here,” Usher spoke.

All at once, I felt very on the spot.  Each of the capes here, Rime and Prefab excluded, had worked with Alexandria in some capacity.  Except Rime and Prefab were team leaders, and Defiant had commented on how every cape in a position of power had some experience working under the Triumvirate, so even they knew her to some extent.

“Weaver did what had to be done,” Rime said.  “Not pretty, not kind, but sometimes you have to use a knife to cut out a cancer.”

All eyes were on me.  Nobody was speaking.

“I asked you to come along on this job for a reason, Weaver,” Rime said.  “I’ve read the incident reports that involved your interactions with the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  The bank robbery, the fundraiser, the theft of the database with the Shadow Stalker kidnapping, and your ultimate surrender, a little over a week ago.”

I nodded, not sure where she was going, not wanting to interrupt.

“On the latter two occasions, you and your team perverted the natural course of justice.  You pretended to be defeated by Shadow Stalker in order to ambush the Wards, and you later surrendered, only to get off rather lightly for your crimes.”

“I think I follow,” I said.  I glanced at the others, but they were all busy trying not to look like they were listening to our conversation.

Rime nodded, “It’s about-”

The ship lurched, and Rime broke off mid-sentence to catch herself before she fell to the floor.  Usher fell and nearly slid across the floor, but Vantage caught him.

“Kulshedra!” Rime shouted, “Report!”

Incoming fire.  Taking evasive maneuvers.”

“The sniper,” I said.

Not likely,” the ship reported.  “Unless the sniper is capable of moving great distances, he is approximately point seven three five miles away.  The missile came from a perpendicular direction.

Missile?” Leister asked, sounding very alarmed.

Projectile,” the ship corrected.  “Humanoid in shape.”

I saw Leister relax a fraction at that, which I found oddly charming.  He was relieved it was just a person.  Experience told me that small-to-medium sized explosives were less daunting than the prospect of fighting an unknown parahuman.

“Let me out, Kulshedra,” Rime said, “Before they attack again.  Follow my orders on comm channel two.”

The back of the ship cracked open, and wind rushed into the cabin.  Several of my butterflies were torn free of their roosts.

“Prefab’s in charge,” Rime said.

“Got it,” Prefab answered.

“Usher?” Rime asked.  “Hit me.”

Usher didn’t respond, still struggling a bit with his precarious position, holding on to Vantage’s hand.  He did close his eyes, and Rime began to glow, a sheen radiating over her hair, skin and costume.

With that, she was gone, pushing her way out of her seat, leaping and taking flight, flying out of the open hatch.

An instant later, the ship swayed again.  Prefab used his power to create a short half-dome over Usher.  The back hatch closed, and Usher was finally able to relax, with solid ground and something to hold on to.

Projectile was rotating rapidly, along both horizontal and vertical axes.  Rendering composite image from video footage.

The monitors showed a gray expanse, but it began to rapidly take shape in what was first a distorted sphere, then a crude face, and finally a face complete with details.

Arbiter, Vantage, Leister and Prefab all groaned in unison.  I suspected Usher might have joined in if he had a better angle..

“Fuck you, Pretender,” Vantage muttered.  “Fuck you.  You had to hire the worst mercenaries possible, didn’t you?  You asshole.”

I looked at the image.  Not a face I knew, but one I recognized from TV, from the internet, and one very brief encounter.

“That’s B-”

The ship swerved, but it didn’t manage to avoid the hit this time around.  This time, the shifting center of gravity was compounded by a sudden impact, heavy enough to cave in the front of the craft.  Each and every one of us were thrown out of our seats.

From there, things went south quickly.  No longer flightworthy, the ship struggled to maintain altitude.  Bugs that had collected on the outside of the ship made me aware of how the jets that had been driving the craft forward were now angling towards the ground.  They worked double time to keep the Kulshedra from spinning as it fell and to give downward thrust to counteract the pull of gravity.

Rime’s power froze the Kulshedra in mid-descent, catching it between two buildings, suspended in the midst of a bridge of ice.

The projectile struck us again, from directly above.  The ice to our left, our port side, shattered.

“Seatbelts on!”  Prefab bellowed.  “Hold on tight if you can’t get to one!  Deep breath, don’t tense with the impact!”

I climbed up to a point where there were benches, and belted myself in.  One over each shoulder, one over my lap.  The headrest- it wasn’t there.  There was only metal.  My butterflies found the real headrest above me.  I reached up and found the clasps to lower the softer bundle until it sat at the right height to cushion any impacts.

The ice on our starboard side cracked, an agonizing, gradual break.  My heart leaped into my chest as we plunged towards the street below.

The Kulshedra hit ground, and the impact was so heavy my thoughts were jarred out of my head.  For long seconds, I couldn’t think, but could only experience, could only feel every part of my body hurt, aches and pains I didn’t know I had magnified by the jolt.

It was a small relief that my passenger didn’t take the opportunity to act without my consent.  I was bewildered enough without any added complications, stunned, sore where the straps had pulled against my shoulders and gut.

“Kulshedra!” Prefab shouted.  “Lights on!”

Auxilary offline.  Emergency lighting failed in six attempts carried out in two seconds.”

“Uhhhh,” he said, drawing out the sound, “Damage report?”

A.I. bank one offline.  Aux offline.  Propulsion offline.  Weapons offline.  Helm offline.

“Why are you speaking strangely?”  I called out.

A.I. bank one offline.  Advanced linguistics, memory, geography-

“Enough,” Prefab said, cutting it off.

I almost told him to let it continue, just so we had an idea, but he was the boss.

“Protectorate, Wards, sound off!”  Prefab shouted.

“Arbiter.  Fine.”

“Vantage, mildly injured,” Vantage said.  “My hand.”

“Usher, bleeding from a bad scrape, but otherwise okay.”

“Weaver,” I said, “I’m fine.”

There was a pause.

“Leister?”  Prefab asked.

“Mostly okay,” Leister said, but his voice sounded strained.  “Took a hit to the gut.”

“Let’s get ourselves sorted out,” Prefab said.  “If you can reach your phones, use them for light.  There’s an exec on the second page, if you haven’t mucked with them to add ten pages of games.”

“Don’t-” Leister said, still sounding odd, “Don’t diss the games, when you make us sit around waiting for stuff all the time.”

I didn’t get a phone yet, I thought.  But hey, I’ve got the damn butterflies.

At my order, the butterflies that had been clustered on the outside of their cage took flight, spreading out over the ship’s interior.

I spoke, “Kulshedra.  Roof got crushed, lights with them, am I right?”

Yes.

“No lights in floor?”

Not at present.  Standard floor fixtures in Kulshedra model precursor were removed for containment box fixtures. Lights included.”

“Any power to monitors?”

Yes.”

“Video footage of exterior, stat,” Prefab ordered, cutting in.

Monitors flickered to life.  One in three showed only the ground beneath us, and another third were broken.

“Change the focus of any monitor displaying only asphalt,” I said.

A.I. bank one is offline.  Discrimination no longer possible.

“Monitors with video from any camera on the ship’s upper half.”

Restate, please,” the A.I. said.

“Nevermind,” I said.  “Um.  Nine working cameras, four on port side, five on starboard, am I right?”

Yes.

I worked on unbelting myself, ensuring my legs were fixed in the bars beneath the bench, so I wouldn’t fall.  “Label monitors with numbers from one to nine.”

One by one, the monitors displayed numbers instead of the video feed.

“Weaver-” Prefab said.  “This isn’t helpful.  We need information on our surroundings.”

“No immediate threats nearby, according to my swarm,” I told him, checking with my bugs.  “Ship, monitors one, three and seven weren’t displaying a usable feed.  Restore a feed to each other monitor.”

The videos reappeared.

“Monitors two, six and eight are broken and are not displaying anything coherent.  Display white instead, maximum brightness, on those screens and any ones not displaying any video.”

Monitors lit up.  It wasn’t much, but it was marginally better than what the Protectorate-issue phones were granting.

“How the hell do you know your way around this thing?”  Vantage asked.  I could see him below me, one hand outstretched, the other held behind his back.

“Defiant and Dragon have been ferrying me between the PRT and court, and between prison and these little field exercises, so I’ve gotten a sense of them,” I said.  “And I fought a bunch of others back in Brockton Bay.  You figure them out, kind of.”

“I saw that bit about Dragon’s visit to Brockton Bay in the news,” Vantage said.  “Here, fall.”

I twisted myself around until I hung by my hands, then let myself drop from the bench.  Vantage caught me with the one hand.

The others were getting themselves sorted out.  A few minor injuries, but it wasn’t as bad as it could be.

My head snapped around as our opponent landed just outside the ship.  She let go of her companions, setting them down on the ground beside her.

Hellooooo,” a girl’s voice sounded over the system.  I had to turn around, checking all of the cameras, before I found the one where she was displayed, upside down.

“Ship, flip monitor, um, monitor four, one-eighty-degrees vertical,” I said.

It flipped the right way around.  I could see a young girl on the opposite side.  She was flanked by two other small children, one a male with a widow’s peak and a severe expression for his age, ten or so, the other a girl of about twelve, in overalls that ended at the knee, a star at the chest, and far too much makeup.

“Fuck me,” Vantage muttered.  “Bambina brought her team.”

Come out and plaaaaay,” Bambina called out.  A second later, she leaped.  The small detonation that followed in her wake was quenched by the appearance of Rime’s ice crystals.

Sniper’s active,” Rime’s voice came through the earbuds.  She was panting.  “Deliberate, accurate shooter.  I’ve taken three bullets, ice armor took most of the force out of the shots.  Bambina is accompanied by Starlet and August Prince, um.  Shooter’s shots ricochet.  Can’t dodge.  There’s wounded just outside craft.  Traffic caught underneath when you fell.

“Stop talking and get inside,” Prefab said.

 “Can’t close the gap to the Kulshedra without getting shot again.  He’s cutting me off.”

“Use crystals to form a wall, get inside, damn it,” Prefab said.

Ricochets,” Rime stressed.  “I- shit!”

I found her with my bugs, setting them on her costume.  “She’s okay, just fleeing from Bambina and Starlet.  The shooter doesn’t seem to be targeting the kids.”

“My power makes her immune to Bambina,” Usher said.

“Maybe to the explosions,” I said, “But the impact?  Or something else?”

He frowned.

“They’re not on the same side,” Arbiter said, “The shooter and the child villains.”

“Good,” Prefab said.  “Let’s-“

Bambina collided with the Kulshedra again.  It rocked, nearly tipping over onto one side.

“Kulshedra,” Prefab said, “Open ramp!”

The ramp opened, and I sent the butterflies out.  Nothing substantial, but it was something.

Okay, not really.  But it was an opportunity to lay out some silk.  I emptied the reserves I had contained in my costume.

Prefab began working on a structure, forming it out of the same flashes of light and sparks of darkness he’d used before.  It took time to pull together, and the way it joined with the wall next to it, it didn’t seem like he was designing it on the fly.

Similar to Labyrinth, but it was only natural that powers might run in parallel.

The shooter wasn’t in my reach.  Bambina was horrifically mobile, bouncing off of walls and the street, creating explosions with most of the impacts.  Her teammates were along for the ride, apparently unscathed by her power.  Going on the offensive would be hard, even if I was using my full complement of bugs.

I was having a really hard time justifying Glenn’s rule on pretty bugs only.

Prefab’s wall appeared around the craft.  “Priority one is the wounded!”

We made our way out of the craft.  Odd as it was, I felt a mixture of relief and… an emotion I couldn’t place, at the realization that I didn’t have to fight to convince my teammates that we had to help other people.

Three cars had been caught beneath the wings of Dragon’s craft, another smashed by a chunk of ice.  The passengers of one car had fled, another two cars had people trapped inside, and the people in the fourth were unconscious.

I helped Arbiter with the unconscious ones.

“I alerted Dragon,” Prefab said.  “The Vegas teams know too.  This is a waiting game.  We help Rime, and we keep the prisoner contained.  If he gets loose, or if Bambina destroys the containment vessel, this gets a lot more complicated.”

The prisoner, I noted the word choice, not Pretender.

“If I can get closer to the shooter, I can disable him,” I said.

“Too dangerous.”

An explosion against the exterior of the wall Prefab had pulled together marked another attack from Bambina.

“I can do dangerous.  Let me take the kid-gloves off, and-“

No,” Rime’s voice came through my earbud.  “No.  Stay.

I grit my teeth.  “You’re underestimating me.”

We’re well aware of what you’re capable of.  I’m doing you a favor,” she said, and her voice was strained.  “Stay, follow Prefab’s orders.

I considered running, then stopped.  “Okay.  I’m giving you some backup, Rime.  Best I can do.”

With that, I sent butterflies her way, clustering them into human-shaped groups.  When one group reached her, they surrounded her.  Decoys.

“Hard to see,” she said.  I didn’t even need the earbud to understand, with the butterflies near her.

I kept the bugs away from her face.  I wasn’t sure that was ideal, but it was her call.

Arbiter and Prefab had enough medical training to check the civilians over before we moved them or moved them further.  With my power, I tracked Bambina as she ricocheted through the area, causing innumerable explosions across the landscape.  Rime struggled to evade both Bambina and the detonation, while maintaining some degree of cover against the gunman.

“Last one,” Prefab said.  “Weaver, help.”

I helped him get the older woman to her feet, and keep her standing as we led her into the back of Dragon’s ship.

I stopped abruptly, as Bambina’s trajectory swiftly changed.

“Trouble!” I called out.

Bambina landed atop the wall.  Her teammates landed beside her, each holding one hand.  They looked a little worse for wear.  Starlet was firing darts of light at Rime, the darts exploding mid-way through the air to block Rime’s path when she tried to advance.  Between Starlet and the sniper, she wasn’t able to advance.

 “You were there for the Leviathan fight,” I spoke to Bambina.

“Can’t really bounce on water, it turns out,” she said.  “Wasn’t worth the trouble.  Ducked out.”

Prefab let go of the older woman, leaving me with the burden as he faced Bambina square-on.  “Lots of attention on Pretender all of a sudden.”

“Paying pretty well,” Bambina said, “And he promised a favor, too.  He set some rules, but considering how we’re going above and beyond the call of duty, I’m hoping he’ll bend them.  You know how fucking awesome it is to have a favor from a body snatcher?  He zaps himself into some hunky celeb that’d never touch me otherwise, then…”

Bambina launched into a lewd explanation of what she’d have him do to her, and vice versa.  I averted my eyes and did my best to turn off my ears.  I’d started out spending months suppressing my powers to varying degrees, and I’d learned to ignore some sensations from my bugs.  I wasn’t so lucky when it came to my hearing.

“…with my feet,” Bambina finished.

Starlet, still firing on Rime, glanced over her shoulder to look at us, cackling at Bambina’s audacity, while August Prince didn’t seem to react.

I’d backed away, helping the older woman hobble forward on her bad ankle, and we were close enough to the ramp for her to make her own way up.  I stepped forward, my eyes still on Bambina.

“Worst thing ever,” Vantage murmured from behind me.  “Fighting kids?  You win, you get zero credit, no matter how good their powers are.  They’re children, after all.  But if you lose, well, they’re kids, your reputation is fucked.”

“Focus,” Prefab said.  “We know who these three are.  We’ve got a Mover-shaker six, a blaster-shaker four, and a master-stranger three.”

“Hey, Weaver,” Bambina called out.  “You’re that supervillain-turned hero, right?  Offed Alexandria?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Odd, how I felt more at home in this situation than I had fifteen minutes ago.  Or even helping the civilians.  I’d liked helping civilians, but this was where I felt most able to reach into myself and be strangely calm.

“You fucked up my rankings for a straight week, worst fucking time, too.  I’d planned an escapade, was supposed to rise to number thirty, but your news took the front page instead, and I dropped to forty-five instead.  I haven’t been that low in a year!”

“Rankings?” I asked.

“Rankings!  Don’t you even pay attention?  It was embarrassing.  My mom’s still giving me a hard time over it, and it’s like, that’s less money from our sponsors.  So I’m going to make you deepthroat my fist, okay?  Break your arms and legs and make you suckle it.”

She stamped, and fire rippled around her.  Both August and Starlet flinched.

Worse, it destroyed the silk I’d been tying around her leg.

She leaped down, holding August Prince’s hand, and Arbiter took action.  The heroine directed a sonic blast at Bambina with one hand, but Bambina kicked the wall, changing the direction she was moving.  Arbiter blocked her with a forcefield, then raised a hand to shoot again-

And stopped, standing still instead.  A look of consternation appeared across her forehead, above her mask.

Bambina ricocheted off of Dragon’s craft, hitting it hard enough that it shifted, then flew at Prefab.  One hit, and he was out of action.  The explosion hadn’t even been that large.

Prefab, who had his cannon raised and hadn’t even pulled the trigger once.

Bambina whipped around, rotating crazily before touching ground, her feet skidding on the ground.  She set the Prince down.  Starlet, up on the wall, laughed.

“Can’t touch the Prince, can you?” Bambina asked.  “Go, August.”

The little boy advanced.  He held a scepter, different from Regent’s.  More of a mace.

Arbiter was backing up rapidly as he advanced, and I-

I thought briefly about what the heroes had said about Alexandria, about how she’d wanted them to act like the person they wanted to be.

I’d done that, in a way.  It reminded me of how I’d formed my identity as Skitter.  I’d acted fearsome, acted as if I expected people to be afraid, expected them to listen, and they had.  Even Dragon had, at one point.

But maybe I didn’t need to be feared here.  I could do something as Weaver.  Confidence.  I didn’t back down as the August Prince approached.  I sent butterflies his way.  No problem.

Tried to move them so he would be blinded… and found they didn’t listen.

Tried to bite and sting with the nastier insects I’d hidden inside the butterfly swarm, and again, no response.

He closed the distance to me, swinging at my knee with the mace.  I ducked back out of the way.

His fighting style was graceless, without any particular fluidity.  He held the mace with two hands and swung it, and then took seconds to recover.  An opening to strike, and my body refused to follow up on it.

That would be his power then.  Something in the same department as Imp’s ability.

My bugs continued past him, and I sent them straight for Bambina.

She only laughed as the butterflies landed on her, stomped hard to kill most of them.  “No way.  You offed Alexandria.  I’m not-  Ow!”

Bees, wasps and hornets stung simultaneously, targeting her eyes, mouth and earholes.

She stomped, and soared up to the top of the wall.  “My face, fuck you!  This is going to swell!  This fucking…”

I didn’t hear the rest.  I was more focused on the little kid who was striving to cave in something vital.

The Prince swung at me, and I caught the mace.

It was a mistake.  He let go and tackled me, gripping my leg, hauling on it to put me off-balance.

I couldn’t fight to pull him off, couldn’t use my bugs.

This was annoying.

Then I saw Bambina point, saw Starlet stop taking potshots at Rime and turn my way, reaching.

If the Prince was the master-stranger hybrid, and Bambina the mover-shaker, then that left the blaster power to Starlet.

“Arbiter!”

Arbiter threw a forcefield between us.  It didn’t matter.  The dart of light she fired exploded against the forcefield, and the ensuing implosion pulled me off the ground.  August Prince held on as I tumbled, then climbed up me before reaching around my throat.

I tucked my chin against my collarbone, preventing him from getting a decent hold, and he started clawing at me, struggling to get fingers, a hand, between my chin and my neck.

If this goes any further, Clockblocker’s never going to let me live this down.

The second thought was a little more grave.

If this little bastard kills me, the Undersiders will never forgive me.

The others were helpless to assist me, due to the peculiarities of the Prince’s power, but they could direct their focus to Bambina and Starlet.  Leister thrust out his trident, and it distorted, stretching the distance between himself and the two kid villains on the wall.  He struck Starlet in the face with the shaft of the trident.

Bambina kicked him, and he went flying to a point on the other side of the wall.  His spear distorted and brought him to the ground, but the kick- it hit too hard.  He didn’t rise.

Seeing one of her Wards get taken out of action, Rime made a break for us, my decoys moving parallel to her.

The sniper fired, and she went down.  One guess, and it was accurate.

Tumbling through the air, she used her power in one singular burst, and was encased in a two-story high tower of ice.

Vantage leaped onto the top of the craft, then onto the top of the wall.  Starlet’s blast nearly moved him.  Bambina leapt, bouncing off a nearby building, then flying towards Vantage.  He teleported out of her way, then threw a bola, catching her.  She fell from the wall, landing hard.

One down.  Two to go.

I’m better than this.

The rules about interacting with the Prince were strictly defined.  I could hold him, but I couldn’t hurt him.  Which category did silk fall under?  I had some on my person.  Twenty feet in all.  Twenty feet disappeared fast when it was wound around something.

I chose his neck.  Not hurting him, not directly.  His power allowed it.

One of Starlet’s implosions sent Prince and I tumbling.  Too far from anything I could hold.  He found the opportunity to seize me by the neck.

“Someone!”  I said, “Come closer!”

Usher approached, and Starlet blasted the ground behind him, pulling him off his feet.  He was mere handspans from where I needed him.

“Rime’s out of commission!” I said, my voice strangled as Prince did his best to choke me.  “Your power isn’t affecting her.  Give it to me!”

Usher focused his power on me.  I felt it ripple through me, felt something, but it didn’t break the spell.  I still couldn’t turn the slightest amount of aggression towards the kid.

“No,” I said.

Usher focused his power on Vantage instead, and Vantage flared with light.

Starlet’s power hit him, and it didn’t do a thing.  He punched her in the gut, then caught her as she went limp.

And Prince… was harder to deal with.  Usher approached, and I tied thread around his leg.

I tried to tell Usher to run, knowing what would happen with the thread around Prince’s neck.  My voice wouldn’t come out, and it wasn’t due to the feeble but persistent attempt at strangulation.

So many heroes around me, and they couldn’t touch this little bastard.

Move, I thought.  Move, move, move.

“Your power immunity isn’t making me immune to the kid,” Vantage said, helplessly.

Don’t talk, move.

In the midst of the Kulshedra, I could sense moving air currents.  A woman emerged from thin air, from a place cooler than the interior of the ship.  The civilians we’d rescued shrieked and backed away from her.  She didn’t respond, barely reacted.  Someone with long, dark hair and a suit.  She fixed her cuffs, then moved with purpose.

But I found myself less fixated on her than on her surroundings.  Oddly enough, I could feel a different structure behind the woman, a hallway.

I tried to speak, but couldn’t find the air.  Damn this little bastard.  Damn Usher for not doing something.

“What a mess,” Satyr called out.

Heads turned.

The Vegas Wards had arrived, perched on top of the nearest wall.  They didn’t move to help, didn’t leap to intervene.  Satyr glanced at Bambina, who was struggling to free herself from the bola.  There was something in his eyes.

Were they in on it?

“Help us!” Vantage called out.  “Rime’s out, and we can’t save Weaver!”

Satyr didn’t speak.  He glanced at the ship.  He couldn’t see from the angle he’d approached, but the woman inside had pulled the lever, and the door at the back was slowly closing.

I drew out words on the side.

Pretender in danger

The heroes turned, eyes going wide.  Satyr, Blowout and Leonid rushed forward, joined by Vantage.

Then Usher stepped forward to help, and the August Prince choked, giving me a little slack.  I sucked in a gasp for air.

Arbiter heard, whipping around, and threw a forcefield between us.  I pulled away.

She managed to sandwich the little bastard between her forcefield and the ground.  I rolled away, sitting up.

The ramp was nearly closed by the time they arrived.  Vantage slammed one hand against the door, but it was too heavily armored to give.

“Kul-,” I gasped out.

The woman turned and walked up to the ruined nose of the craft, and began threading wires together.  She didn’t even flinch as sparks flared between them.  She was measured, even patient, as she worked at fixing the panel.  When she was done, she tapped something out on the broken, unlit touch panel.

“Kulshedra, shut down,” I managed.

Restate request.”

The pillar rose from the top of the box, freeing the upper part of the box’s door.

“Kulshedra, contact Dragon,” I tried.

Dragon is currently unable to reply.

“Contact Chevalier.”

Calling.

The woman tapped out another code, and the clamps on the bottom came open, freeing the bottom.

Yet another code typed out, and the system spoke, “Type two safety override accepted.

The woman in the ship struck a single button.  The A.I. spoke, “Call ended.

“Kulshedra, call Chevalier,” I repeated.

Nothing.

The woman inside typed out a final code, and the door of the box opened, releasing Pretender.

And then she spoke, and I could hear through the bugs that surrounded her.  “The Doctor will see you now.”

“Right-o,” Pretender said.  “Gotta be better than the Birdcage.”

They stepped through the gateway that led to the cool, air-conditioned hallway, and then they were gone, the butterflies in the hallway no longer in my reach.

I felt my blood pumping, roaring in my ears.  “They got him.  They collected Pretender.”

“Who?”

“Her.  The shooter’s partner.  Cauldron.”  I clenched my fist.  “Rime’s down.  We have to help her.”

“The shooter-” Vantage started.

“He’s gone,” Arbiter said.  “Not sensing a threat.  You guys go.  I’ll look after Prefab and Leister, and make sure Weaver’s okay.”

Usher nodded.

Satyrical gestured, and most of his team joined the L.A. team members.  I was left kneeling, still catching my breath.  Satyr and Nix hung back, arms folded, exchanging surreptitious glances.

Arbiter didn’t look at them as she spoke, “You hired them.  Bambina’s crew.  You wanted to break him out.”

Satyr didn’t respond.

“You were going to leave the Protectorate?  You had to have been.”

“Yeah.”  It was Nix who spoke, not Satyr.

“Just like that?”

Nix shook her head.  “It’s gone.  Doomed.  We lost Alexandria, we lost Legend and Eidolon.  The new team doesn’t hit half as hard.  Look at Rime.  Taken out of action like that.  Protectorate’s a shadow of what it was.”

“She was beaten by monsters the Protectorate refuses to even classify,” I said.  I coughed a little.

“Alexandria would have managed.”

“Alexandria worked for them,” I said.

Nix shrugged.

Arbiter looked up at Satyr and Nix, “If you leave, the Endbringers-”

Nix interrupted, “We’ll still fight Endbringers.  But the Protectorate was going to take Pretender from us because of how he got his powers.  It’s ridiculous.”

“He was still going to be on the team,” Arbiter said.  “Just… we can’t let him be leader if he’s beholden to a group like that.”

“It shouldn’t matter.”

“Cauldron’s evil,” Arbiter said.  “They experimented on people to get the powers Pretender has.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Satyr said.  His voice was rough.  “Pretender’s gone, and so are we.  We’ll get our teammates and we’ll go.”

He nudged Nix, and they turned to go.

One Protectorate team gone.

Arbiter dialed her phone, shifted restlessly.  “Chevalier.  It’s an emergency.”

There was a long pause.

“The Vegas team,” she said, finally.  “They’ve broken ranks.  There’s more, but if we’re going to arrest them, Dragon needs-”

A pause.

“No,” she said.  “They aren’t.  No.  Yes.  Yes, sir.”

There was a defeated tone to her body language as she let her arm fall to one side, disconnecting the call.

Arbiter looked from her phone to Prefab.  “Dragon collapsed just before this began.  She was meeting a Las Vegas Rogue.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I thought of the woman who’d been so handy with the computer.  The censor, the bogeyman.  They’d taken out Rime, no doubt because she could have sealed the box behind a wall of ice.

Yet they hadn’t taken out Prefab, who could have done much the same thing.

Every step of the way, every action perfect.

“The Vegas heroes?”  I asked.

“He said to let them go,” she said, her voice small.  “That we need them, even if they aren’t Protectorate.  He’ll send people to talk to them and arrange something later.”

I nodded, mixed emotions stewing in my midsection.  It was bad, it was disappointing, to see a failure on this level, after I’d given so much up to help the Protectorate out.

“We lost on every count,” I said.

“Rime’s alive,” Arbiter said, looking at her phone.

“Every other count, then,” I said.

“There’ll be better days,” she said.

Not like this, I thought, and it wasn’t a good thought.  As nice as the feeling of rescuing civilians had been, this was an ugly idea, a pit in the depths of my stomach.

The person I wanted to be, the person I was, reconciling them wasn’t so easy.  The hero on one side, Skitter on the other.

This has to change.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22 (Donation Bonus #1)

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

March 2nd, 1997

“Okay,” Daiichi said.  His Japanese was easy, a lazy drawl.  He paused at the top of the flight of stairs, sneering a touch as he waited for his followers to ascend.  “If you don’t hurry, they’ll be gone by the time we get there.”

There were grumbles from the others.

“Why isn’t there an elevator?” Ren whined.  Of all of them, he was the heaviest, the black jacket of his school uniform straining across his shoulders.  He’d dyed his hair blond, but hadn’t yet found a good style to wear it.  Ren was Daiichi’s lieutenant; most thought that was because Daiichi put too much stock in Ren’s size, ignoring the fact that he was more fat than muscular.  People who knew Daiichi better speculated that it was because Daiichi wanted someone fat and ugly that could offset his own good looks.  Only those inside Daiichi’s group and the people who crossed them knew better.

“Only three floors,” Daiichi said.  “And we wouldn’t use it if they had one.  They could have someone watching.”

“With only two of them?”  Ryo asked.

“Can’t hurt to be safe,” Arata said.

Kenta was the first up the flight of stairs.  Daiichi clapped one hand on his shoulder.  Their leader asked, “Ready?”

“Ready,” Kenta answered.  His heart pounded.

For others, for his neighbors and peers, conformity was safety.  To be the same as one’s peers, it reassured the self, reassured others.  Standing out was bad.

But Kenta stood out anyways.  He looked different.  People knew his mother was Chinese.  He was oddly tall for his age, his grades poor.  He could have struggled, but there was so little point.  He was competing with classmates who were already miles ahead of him, who were fighting to keep ahead of one another by studying after school, studying at night.

This was something else.  It was both thrilling and terrifying, to recognize those lines and ignore them.  To be brazen, to stand out on purpose.  Breaking rules, breaking convention.  He imagined it was like the rush that accompanied a fall to open water or hard ground.

“This is our springtime,” Daiichi said, and he managed to say it without sounding ridiculous.  At seventeen, he was older than any of them.

Springtime, Kenta thought.  Daiichi had it all planned out.  They would earn a reputation for themselves, then submit themselves to the Yakuza.  With luck, they would be accepted as low-level members of the ‘chivalrous organization’.  The freedom would be gone, in a way.  Their ‘springtime’, in a sense, referred to the brief period where they were free to do what they wanted, between the confines of school and membership in the Yakuza.

“There’s only two Chinese?” Ren asked, as they filed out of the stairwell and into the restaurant on the third floor.  The rooms here had thick walls and a wooden door, rather than the traditional paper.  They’d wanted privacy, maybe.  It didn’t matter.

“My cousin owns the building,” Daiichi said. “He said they paid with bundles of bills, and no other Chinese came in.  Some Western gaijin, but nobody threatening.”

Kenta looked back at their group.  Nine people for two men?  And they had an unfair advantage, besides.

“Go,” Daiichi ordered.

Kenta was stronger than Ren, so he was the one to kick down the door.  He moved aside to let fat Ren advance.  He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t ignoring the possibility the foreigners had guns. 

There was no gunfire.  Instead, he could hear someone speaking in English, very calm.

The woman is upset you did not take enough precautions,” A man said, in Chinese.  He sounded more alarmed than the English speaker.

Daiichi and Ren led the advance into the back room.  Kenta followed, looking over Ren’s shoulder to take in the scene.

There were five people in the room.  Two were Chinese, sure enough.  Businessmen, they seemed to be, kneeling on one side of a squat dining table that was neatly stacked with cash and ‘bricks’ of white powder in plastic wrap, as well as various dishes laid out with vegetables and meat.  A Japanese man sat at one end of the table, hands folded in his lap, eyes wide.

But there were two more gaijin in the room, kneeling opposite the Chinese foreigners.  A black woman in a white suit jacket and a knee-length dress, and a twenty-something woman with a European cast to her features, with dark hair and a black suit.

The black woman spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to Chinese.  “The woman recommends we stand back.  Her bodyguard will take care of the situation.”

“The woman in front is a bodyguard,” Kenta told Daiichi.

This was wrong.  The two women were too confident.

Daiichi drew a gun and pointed it at the woman.  Kenta felt his heart leap at the sight of the weapon.

Then Daiichi fired, a warning shot.  Kenta flinched despite himself.  He’d never heard a gunshot before.  Loud.

The men were cowering, trying to hide beneath the table.  The women hadn’t even reacted.

“One bodyguard?” Daiichi asked, sneering.  He made the first move.  He flared a brilliant green, then jolted as a phantom replica of himself leaped forth.

The phantom Daiichi flew across the room like living lightning, a trail of neon green smoke in its wake.

The bodyguard was already moving, her hand on a plate.  She turned it upside-down and threw it in a single motion, and it caught the air like a frisbee.  It turned in mid-air and crashed into the real Daiichi’s face.

He staggered, and the phantom he’d created dissipated a fraction of a second before reaching the bodyguard.  She shut her eyes as the residual smoke carried past her.

Kenta stared.  He’d never seen Daiichi’s ability fail him like that.

Daiichi raised the gun, and the woman raised one knife from the table, turning it around so she held the blade, the metal handle extended.  She held it out with one hand, pointing it at Daiichi’s shoulder.

Daiichi fired, and the knife went flying.  It ricocheted, spinning rapidly, striking the doorframe behind the bodyguard before flying over her head in a tall arc.  She caught it in her other hand, resuming the exact same position as before, then shook her right hand for a second.

She said something, murmuring it in English.  The knife, still held in front of her, had a dent on the end.

The black woman behind her said something else.

“What are they saying?” Daiichi asked.

“The woman in the suit just got permission to kill us,” Hisoka said.  “But the black one said not to spill any blood.”

“We should run,” Kenta said.

“You scared?” Daiichi asked.  “We have muscle.”

“So does she,” Kenta retorted.

Daiichi only smirked.

Can’t run, we’re going to get hurt if we stay…

Ren rolled his shoulders, then inhaled.

Wind rushed out of the room, and small objects were drawn towards Ren.  The intensity of the suction grew as the fat boy sucked in more and more air.

The bodyguard kicked one edge of the low table, and the wind caught it, helping it rise.  Money, plates and the bricks of white powder slid to the floor, sliding and rolling towards Ren.

Daiichi opened fire again, indiscriminate, but she didn’t even react.  Her knife blocked one shot that was directed more at the black woman, flying out of her grip, and the bodyguard walked between the rest of the shots without even dodging.  She seized a table leg in one hand.  It would have been too heavy to lift, but Ren’s suction was hauling it off the ground.  Two bullets bit into the thick wood.

Daiichi unleashed his power, creating another ghostly replica of himself, incredibly fast, stronger than he was.

The woman kicked the table, and it spun through the air as it flew towards Ren, clipping the ghost.  The phantom lost an arm and a chunk of its chest, got its bearings, then charged the bodyguard.  The damage to its chest was too grave, and it crumpled into neon green dust a pace away from her.

Ren was struck by the moving table, hit with enough force that he stumbled backwards into Kenta, Hisoka, and the other mundane members of the group.

Ren blew, and the table went flying across the room.  Kenta’s heart sank as he saw the woman, crouching low to the ground.  Her hand reached up to strike the flying table, altering its course as it flew towards the Chinese men.  It came so close to hitting them that Kenta thought it would be like the cartoons, where someone was cut but didn’t start bleeding until seconds had passed.

Except it hadn’t hit them, and the woman was too close to the ground to really be affected by the wind.

“Suck!” Daiichi shouted.

“Don’t!” Kenta said, though there was little point.

It was too late.  Ren had stopped blowing, buying her a second to move.  She stepped forward, closing the distance to the group.  Daiichi created a third ghost, rushing towards her, but she avoided the first strike.

Ren started drawing air in once more.  Daiichi’s spirit opened with a flurry of attacks, moving twice as fast as she was, but failed to land a strike.  The bodyguard took a step back and used the toe of her glossy black shoes to flick a brick of powder into the air.  She threw it, and the suction only added to its velocity as it soared to Ren’s right.

Daiichi’s spirit was fast enough to avoid the brick, but Daiichi wasn’t.  It bounced off his head, and the ghost dissipated again.  She kicked the table, and again, the suction caught it.  It flew into Ren’s shins, and he fell.

Thrice, both the ghost and Ren had been countered, almost casually.

Daiichi shouted, uncharacteristically angry.  Uncharacteristic, maybe, because he’d never lost a fight before.

The others pushed forward from behind Kenta.  Had they not just seen the fight?  They really thought they’d accomplish something?

But the force of the others charging forward from behind started him moving forward, and he was driven to keep advancing by the vague, incoherent idea of what might happen to him if he, the largest, physically strongest member of Daiichi’s group, turned coward.

He knew in an instant that it was a mistake.  Daiichi’s ghost, twice as fast and twice as strong as Daiichi himself, an expendable assailant, hadn’t accomplished anything.  Why would six or seven teenaged delinquents?

She tore through them, every movement precisely calculated to disable, to crush, blind, stun and stagger.  They were driven to stumble into one another, their weapons knocked from their hands.  She wasn’t any faster than any of them, not a martial artist, though there was a degree of elegance to what she did.  No movement wasted.

Her foot caught Kenta in the diaphragm.  She planted one hand on the back of his head as he winced from the blow, then pushed him face first into the ground.

His teeth bit into a brick of powder, puncturing the plastic itself.  Kenta tried to rise, but she stepped on the back of his head, driving him facefirst into the brick a second time, hard.

Someone else fell to the ground a short distance away.  Kenta turned to look, simultaneously coughed, and loose powder exploded around his face, filling his eyes.

The powder caked his nose, thick in his mouth, to the point that he couldn’t swallow.

Drugs weren’t a ‘big’ thing in the East, even among gangs.  He didn’t know the particulars of any powder or substance.  Only that they were bad, possibly lethal if too much was ingested.  He tried to spit it out, but couldn’t help but feel like he was swallowing more than he was removing.  The weight of the woman bodyguard was on his head, holding him there, suffocating.

He felt the rush of it taking hold, intense and seemingly without a ceiling to top it off.  His face in the dirt, in the dust, he was overwhelmed by the paradoxical sense of being like the king of the world.

That rush lasted too short a time.  He could feel the rush building until it felt like his heart was going to burst or vibrate itself into pieces.  He felt nauseous, as if he was going to throw up, but couldn’t bring himself to.

Kenta’s left arm started going numb.  He knew what that meant.

With a cold feeling in his churning gut, he thought, I’m having a heart att

He found himself out of his body.  He was an observer, an outside agent, without body or mind.  He couldn’t think.  He could only exist, as a part of some sequence of events.

Two entities, communicating in increasingly short bursts as they drew together.  Two entities, each unfolding and folding through realities, through multiple worlds at the same time.  Two entities, singing ideas through mediums he could barely comprehend.  Through light and heat and space and half-lives and gravity.

And they were looking.  Looking at a planet that was broad, more gas than solid.  A world of perpetual storms.  There were lifeforms in there, lifeforms in countless possible variations of that world.  Bloated bags of gas that flowed through and in the storms, in kalleidoscopic patterns.

He could see what they were focusing on, see them examining those possible worlds, declaring something.  Ownership here.  Claim there.  Territory elsewhere.

ack.

Kenta’s thoughts were confused as he felt the high seize him.  Three things overwhelming him at once.  The things he’d just seen, fleeing from his recollection.  His own body, dying in a violent, incomprehensible way.  The world beyond-

He blinked the dust out of his eyes, felt them burn, could only see shadows, could only hear the rush of blood in his ears.

The bodyguard had stepped away from him, freeing him to raise his head.  She’d staggered, and was being supported by the black woman.

He turned away, flipping himself over.  He could see the fat shape of Ren, on his hands and knees, Daiichi prone on the ground.

The bodyguard recovered faster.  She found her stride quickly enough.

She kicked at Daiichi’s throat, hard.  Ren, she struck in the nose with one boot.

The black woman said something in English.

S-she’ll take the cost of the lost product out of the deal,” the translator said in Chinese, his voice distant.

Kenta only lay there, his chest heaving.  He felt stronger, could feel his heart returning to some form of equilibrium.

But he knew he couldn’t win.  He lay there, doing his best to emulate the dying, as the Chinese men collected both cash and drugs in a bag, handing them to the black woman.

She spoke, and the Japanese man translated it to, “She would like to discuss delivery of the product on the way out.”

Kenta lay there long after the two women and the Chinese men had left.  He wiped caked powder from his face, though the effects had receded, the tingling and the rush long since faded.  Whatever had happened to him, the drugs did almost nothing, now.

He wiped his face with his shirt, then checked on his friends.

Daiichi, dead, suffocated, eyes bulging.  Ren lay there, eyes rolled up into his skull, his nose rammed into his brain, though the blood hadn’t leaked past the aperture of his nostrils.

Hisoka, suffocated on powder, as Kenta almost had.  Arata, gasping for air he couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs.  Ryo’s head had a dent in it, and his eyes were unfocused.  Jirou’s airway had been blocked, much as Daiichi’s had.  Both Takeo and Shuji lay dead with no apparent wounds.

All dead or dying, with no blood spilled.  Technically.

Kenta waited, holding Arata’s hand as the boy slowly died, then he straightened.

Idiots, he thought, with a degree of anger.  It had been foolish to escalate the fight after seeing what the woman was capable of.  He’d be more careful of who he fought in the future.

November 2nd, 1999

Lung toyed with a flame in one of his hands as he watched the great lizard-man’s rampage.

The Sentai Elite were battling the thing, assisted by the gaijin heroes.  Once every few minutes, someone passed him, flying, carrying wounded.  Lung didn’t care.  It was about timing.  If he was going to do this, he’d do it right.

A tidal wave rocked the area, and Lung had to hold on to a nearby building to keep from falling.  Heroes were swept up in the wash of water, and buildings were leveled.

The anticipation of a fight stirred inside him.  He could feel the scales beneath his skin, just itching to be brought to the surface.  The fire, too, was warm in the core of his body.

This was a fight that was worthy of him.  The trick was orchestrating it so he wouldn’t die before he got strong enough.  It was his biggest drawback.  The fight… the heroes were stalling in their own way as well.  He could tell by the way the heroes moved.  They fought in shifts.

Eidolon was fighting now.  He hurled globes of energy the size of small houses at Leviathan, and each one was sufficient to knock the creature away, flaying away the thing’s skin and simultaneously slowing it.  The hero’s own hydrokinesis deflected the lizard’s ranged attacks, diverting them skyward or off to one side.  Leviathan couldn’t attack from range, and couldn’t get close without getting pummeled.  He attempted to run, only for Japan’s foremost team, the Sentai Elite, to step into his way, blocking his progress.

“Are you fighting?”

Lung turned to look at the speaker.  A woman in a yellow and black Sentai costume.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice a rumble.  His power had granted him additional strength, durability, regeneration and control over fire even in his ordinary form, but the changes to his body had altered his voice.

She glanced at the fight, as if unsure whether she should be participating or talking to Lung, “You’re a yankee?”

“No.”

“You’re a villain?”

“I am me.”

Another tidal wave rocked the area.  This time, the water reached Lung, sweeping up to waist level and forcing him to hold the windowsill again to avoid losing his footing.  He caught the Sentai woman’s wrist to keep her from being washed away.

He could feel the scales beneath his skin stirring, threatening to rise, eager.

“Sumimasen deshita,” she said, once the water was mostly gone.

Lung only grunted a response.

“Why are you back here?”

“I’m waiting,” he answered.  “And you should be fighting.”

“I can’t do anything.  My power hurts people, but it doesn’t hurt him.  I’m not permitted to leave.”

The heroes were winning, slowly but surely.  Slowly more than anything.  Each tidal wave was doing catastrophic damage in the meantime.

I’ll fight, he thought.

With that very thought, his power started stirring into effect.  The scales began growing, slowly but surely, bristling like a sea urchin’s spines as they arranged themselves.  The very anticipation of the fight was serving to fuel his abilities.  When he changed, it would be rapid, accelerated by the sheer threat his opponent posed.

He abandoned his handhold and began striding through the flooded streets, towards Leviathan and the others.

He’d made a promise to himself.  He wouldn’t lose again.  Victory, it didn’t matter.  But losing?  He wouldn’t accept it, not like the loss he’d faced at the hands of the unnamed woman.

And that very thought, that certainty, it stirred his power further, as though it were something alive, something other.

Another tidal wave hit.  Leviathan disappeared in the midst of it, reappearing elsewhere.  Lung could hear the destruction as the beast clawed and tore through the base of one building that heroes were perched on.  He quickened his pace, felt himself growing stronger as he got closer.

The beast was otherwise occupied… this was the time.

“You’re going to die!” the Sentai in black and yellow shouted.

I’ll never die, Lung thought.  I might fall, but I’ll come back again and again.  I might falter, but I’ll return with twice the fury.

The waves were more frequent now.  Buildings here had been built to tight specifications, to remain standing in the face of earthquakes and tsunamis, but it wasn’t enough.  Barely a minute passed between the strikes, with each wave reaching further inland than the last, and only a handful of buildings stood at their full height, where there had been a city here only an hour ago.

It was in one of those brief moments of respite that the ground shuddered.  Lung nearly lost his footing.  When he looked up at the night sky, he could see that the tallest standing buildings were swaying, like fronds bending in the wind.

Somewhere he couldn’t see in the gloom, a building swayed too far and crashed to the ground.

Eidolon backed off, and Alexandria stepped in, flying into close quarters with the beast, battering him.  He tried to duck beneath the water, but she broke off to fly beneath, using her strength and the speed of her flight to part the water, cutting off his retreat.  He slowed as he entered open air, though slow wasn’t the word.  Legend caught him square in the chest, and Leviathan slowed long enough for Alexandria to catch him by the tail.

She flew straight up, holding the monster by the tail.  Between Leviathan’s dark scales and Alexandria’s black costume, they disappeared in the gloom.

Leviathan fell, and the resulting impact was oddly out of sync with his mass.  The water in particular seemed to react, a single ripple extending outward, clearing an area around him of any and all water.

Lung braced himself, felt the water collide with him with a force like a locomotive, was summarily dragged beneath, trapped, suffocating.

Scales pierced his skin, strength surged through him, and his pyrokinesis boiled around him, disrupting the water’s flow, rendering it to steam.

Other heroes were pushed back a hundred meters, but Lung was already standing, burning himself dry, advancing on the fight, where Eidolon was again engaging with Leviathan.

Another tidal wave struck, barely giving the defending forces time to recover from the last assault.  Lung lost his footing, lost another dozen feet of headway.

More scales were sprouting, they were growing en masse now.  His blood coursed through his veins at twice the usual speed.  Fire burned around him perpetually now.  He was naked, the burned rags of his clothes swept away by water, and he didn’t care.  He was in freefall, of a sort, but it wasn’t the ground waiting for him.  It was Leviathan.

His flame blasted out to pelt the Endbringer.  It didn’t do any substantial damage.

Lung ran, and it took him an instant to get used to his newfound strength, to find a stride and a rhythm.

The ground was shaking almost constantly, now.  The lasers, Eidolon’s strikes, the very impacts of the blows Alexandria delivered, the Sentai’s attacks, the barrages from assisting heroes.  A cacaphony of noise, light and violence.

He struck Leviathan, and was struck in turn, his bones broken, internal organs smashed.

He very nearly blacked out, but his rage won out.  He struggled to his feet, found one femur in two distinct pieces.  He knelt instead, resting his weight on one knee, the other foot planted on the ground, taloned toes biting into asphalt, and he directed a constant stream of fire at the Endbringer.

A flick of Leviathan’s tail sent him sprawling.

But Lung knew he’d reached a critical point.  His leg was already healing, the changes speeding up.  He stopped to hold his leg, pull the bones into what was more or less the right position, so they could bond.

Anyone who crosses me will pay twice over, he thought.

A Sentai in purple and green offered him a hand.  Lung ignored the man, standing on his own.  Again, a stream of fire, but the color was more blue than red.

The Sentai joined him, adding their ranged fire to his.  They had a man who mass produced their armor and weapons, each with wrist-mounted laser guns, rifles at their hips.  Sixteen or seventeen of them opened fire with both weapons at the same time.

Leviathan turned, struck.  Some Sentai used powers to soften or deflect the incoming scythe of water.

Leviathan charged, and Lung stepped forward to meet the brute, roared in defiance.

He wasn’t strong enough.  Leviathan knocked him aside, and Lung rolled, putting taloned hands and feet beneath him before rushing forward, shallow leaps that carried him over the water that was knee-high to the humans.  Barely halfway up Lung’s own calves.

He found handholds in the shallow wounds on Leviathan’s back and shoulders.  The abomination moved, and the watery echo that followed its movements crashed into Lung.  Not enough to unseat him.

The tidal wave that struck wasn’t enough either, nor Leviathan’s speed as the creature swam.  Lung dug deeper, clawed flesh away.  Deeper in Leviathan’s body, the flesh was only harder, the ichor making it slick.

Lung roared, burned head to toe as he clawed deeper still.  If Leviathan’s muscle was as hard as steel, Lung would burn hot enough to melt steel.

Leviathan surfaced, and Lung found his way up to the monster’s neck.  He tried to reach around, and his arm shifted, reconfiguring to be a fraction longer.  Lung’s legs, arms, and talons were growing as well.

Stronger, larger.  Another man might have been afraid of what he was becoming, but this was only continuing the freefall.  Freedom.

Leviathan shook him free, and Lung found no trouble in putting his feet under him.  His mouth strained, opened wider than it should have, four individual mouthparts flexing, bristling with teeth, his own lips buried somewhere deep inside, altered.

Water steamed and boiled around Lung’s calves as he stood as straight as he was able.  He’d changed more, his shoulders broadening, his chest heavy with muscle.  He had to rest his taloned hands on the ground to maintain his balance.  His senses focused on Leviathan like a laser, taking in everything, even the faint creaking of the monster’s movements and the Sentai’s muscles, and the infintesmally small burbles of ichor bubbling forth from Leviathan’s wounds.

The ground was rumbling constantly, to the point that the local heroes were starting to seem more concerned about the landscape than about Leviathan.

There was a crack, and Lung was put in mind of the gun Daiichi had fired, more than two years ago.  A loud sound, a wrong sound.

The ground shifted underfoot.  Heroes scrambled for cover, scrambled to run or save their friends, and water rushed forth.  Lung merely set his taloned toes in the ground, ignoring the water, the debris, and the people that flowed past him.

Leviathan charged him.

He can’t ignore me now, Lung thought.  He was only half the height of the Endbringer, but it was enough.  Fire against water, claw against claw.  Leviathan hit harder, but Lung healed faster.  Every second he fought without Leviathan tearing him in half was a second that was to his advantage.

The ground parted, and Lung could hear the water rushing in to fill the void.  The landmass had parted, and ocean water was streaming in from miles away.

Leviathan tried to drag him closer to the chasm, no doubt wanting to fight in that churning abyss.  Lung planted toes in the ground and resisted.

Alexandria was there in a heartbeat, helping, keeping Leviathan from finding his way inside.  She drove the monster back, bought Lung purchase.

She said something in English, but Lung didn’t know the language.  The only others who spoke Japanese or Chinese were gone, now.  They’d evacuated who they could, and the remainder were left to drown.  The only ones left were the indomitable, and for now, Lung was among them.  They fought to keep Leviathan from continuing his rampage, to keep him from carrying on until he’d wiped away all of Japan.  Lung just fought.

Fought for minutes, hours.  Fought until four wings extended from his back, and he burned so hot that the steel-like flesh just beneath Leviathan’s skin was blackening and charring to ash by proximity alone.  Until he was larger than Leviathan, until even Alexandria hesitated to get too close.

For that indeterminate period of time, Lung was king of the world.

But he began to weaken.  The lesser heroes were gone, washed away or helping others to evacuate, the greater heroes a distance away.

And Lung had nothing to fuel his power.  He was engaged in a fight of ten times the scale he’d been in before, and his power was leaving him.

The landmass disappeared beneath the pair of them, the shards of land drawn beneath the waves, and Lung was now fighting Leviathan in the monster’s home ground.

For an instant, he thought he would die.  But Leviathan, wounded, broke away and fled into the depths.

Lung only sank, too dense to float, growing wearier by the second as his power left him, the fight over.

He’d expected a feeling of satisfaction, but he knew he hadn’t delivered a killing blow, that he had been a long, long way from it, though he’d done more damage than anyone had in years.

His enemy couldn’t be killed.  Lung had become something more terrifying than the Endbringer, but there had been nobody to see.  None of the public to recognize him, to respect and fear him.

He sank, feeling a kind of despair.  Too tired to move, he touched bottom.

Alexandria found him in the depths and brought him to the surface.

August 13th, 2002

The walls of the C.U.I. prison loomed around him.

Lung fumed, but his power was denied him.  He paced, punched walls, burned the concrete with his power.  All around him, the area was pockmarked with the wounds that marked his periodic struggles.

They’d had him in regular cells before.  It had been a learning process for them.  He’d found that surviving in a prison like this involved being a true monster, so he’d bowed his head to one boss.  When this boss had discovered what he was capable of, he’d attacked another leader in the prison.  The ensuing war had ended with Lung being placed in higher security, until he fought the man who’d brought him food, very nearly escaping before Tōng Líng Tǎ, who never showed herself, encased him in a mountain of stone.

All in all, three years since he’d fought Leviathan.  Two years since he and his mother had come here to Chaohu.  A year and eight months since he’d been arrested by the Yàngbǎn.

A year and four months since Tōng Líng Tǎ had buried him here at the base of this pit, with the same routine.  Twice a day, he would get two packages with food.  Every day, he would pace, trying to tap into his abilities, finding them beyond his reach.  He would struggle, fume, scream, and wonder if he was going mad with the solitude.  Sometimes it rained, and he found himself knee deep in water.  Sometimes it was cold enough he couldn’t sleep.  Always, he was here, in a pit so deep that the hole at the top looked no larger than his handspan when he held his hand overhead.

Every seven days, Tōng Líng Tǎ used her powers on the walls.  The floor, she left alone, but the walls were wiped clean, her power to manipulate stone turning the four impossibly tall walls of Lung’s cell into flawlessly smooth surfaces.  She would absorb any and all of the trash that remained from his meals, any of the wildlife that had accidentally found their way into the pit, and all of Lung’s leavings, which he customarily left in one corner of his cell.

Every fourteen days, like clockwork, the Yàngbǎn opened communications.

Lung was waiting, waiting for Tōng Líng Tǎ to use her power.  Like a ripple traveling over the surface of water, he could see her power extend down the walls of his cell.  It touched the base of the wall and traveled along the floor.

Lung didn’t resist as the ground swept over his legs, trapping him from the knee down.

They appeared, descending from above, floating.  Two of them this time.  They made no mention of his lack of clothes or his shaggy hair.  Both wore identical uniforms, red jackets and pants, their red masks turning their faces into overlarge, featureless gemstones with coverings over their ears

At each of their shoulders, there was a number.  One-six and two-seven.  Not ones he’d met before.  No names.  No identities.

Will you join us?

Always, the same questions, always in Chinese.  He didn’t answer.

The American heroes approached you.  What deals did you strike?

Again, he didn’t answer.  He’d tried to tell them the truth, that he’d told the heroes to go away.  The Endbringers couldn’t die.  There was no point to fighting them.  Twice they had approached him with better deals, promising him the world, but he’d turned them down twice in turn.  He’d considered the idea of taking the third offer, but then he’d followed his mother to the C.U.I. states and lost touch with the Americans.

Not a real concern.

You will stay here until you answer our questions.”

I will join,” he told them.

They exchanged a glance between them.

He moved one hand and saw them flinch.  They wouldn’t burn any more than the other Yàngbǎn members had, but they still feared him.

It made him feel better than anything in the past long months.

The Yàngbǎn is the solution,” the taller of the two said.  “You agree this is truth?”

No,” Lung said.

That is a shame.”

I want out of here,” Lung told them.  “That is all.  If I must kneel, I will.”

We need to hear the right answers before we can go any further.  We will come again in two weeks time and we will ask you again.  If you give us the answer we require, we can move on to the next step.”

And, Lung thought, carry down the chain of questions, steps, and procedures until I fail.  You will break me and brainwash me until I am one of you.

Worst of all, they would take his powers, most of them, and give him others in turn.  This was the reason they imprisoned him, the reason they sought to break him.

He would risk it, and accept the offer.  He would do whatever they required of him, and then he would kill whoever he needed to and escape.

March 23rd, 2011

With every defeat, a matching ascent.

“The ‘Azn Bad Boys’ is a shit name,” Bakuda said.

Lung didn’t react, staring at her.

“Just saying.”

“It was the name of the group I joined when I came to America.”

“See, that’s what I don’t get.  You’re a badass, fine.  You tested the waters, took on a whole team of local heroes, and you walked away.  Right?”

“I fought Armsmaster, Dauntless, Miss Militia, Velocity, Challenger, Assault and Battery,” he said.  “Yes.”

“Except you’re small time.  You’ve got all this power, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Fear,” he said.

“I don’t fear you,” Bakuda said.  Her pale blue eyes stared at Lung, unflinching.

“You will,” he answered her.

She shrugged.  She paced, looking around the building.  Two of Lung’s whores sat on a couch, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as if they didn’t know how to hold themselves, the pose to take.

“There are two kinds of fear, Bakuda,” Lung said.  “The first is common.  Fear of the unknown.  A questioning fear.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  He could tell he had her attention.

“This is fear of unanswered questions.  If I fought him, would I win?  How is he going to hurt me?  Who or what is he?”

“And the other kind?”

“A fear of knowing.  Of realities.  If I fight him, I lose.  I know him, and I quiver to be in his presence.  I know he will hurt me and I know it will be the worst pain imaginable.”

Bakuda didn’t reply.

“I have found that the first is a weak fear.  It breaks.  It ends when you have answers, when others give you their support.  The other?  It is a fear that breeds itself.  It is a disease, and it only gets stronger when you fight it and fail.  I have situated myself here to engender that kind of fear.  The residents know me.  Those I want for my gang, I take.  My influence grows, and my enemies know not to cross me, because I always have my vengeance.”

“But the ‘Azn Bad Boys’?”

“A reminder, to my enemies, of what I’ve done before, what I could do again.”

Bakuda frowned.

“I defeated many gangs, many groups.  Some had powered members, others did not.  I recruited some.  Oni Lee was one.  The rest I killed.”

“And the heroes didn’t stop you?”

“The heroes see me as a double-edged sword.  They fear me.  They know what I am capable of when the situation calls for it, they know I am too strong to defeat as a group.  For now, I wait.  They leave me be because the only aggression they can see is that I inflict on other criminals, and I amass power, swelling in reputation.”

“And the fact that you, a halfbreed, recruited me, a halfbreed, and built a gang of a bajillion different races, it’s totally not a freudian thing, tying back to some childhood issues.”

“No,” Lung growled.

Bakuda only smiled.  “And what happens down the road?”

“I have enemies,” Lung thought.  “Those who have slighted me, those who have won.”

“Like Leviathan?”

Lung shook his head.  “Leviathan, I beat, if you can even call it an enemy.  It is a force of nature.  No, I speak of other enemies, insults old and new.  I will defeat each of them in turn, and then I will rule.”

The woman in the suit, the Yàngbǎn.

“So petty.  And you want me to help?”

“You will help,” Lung said.  “Because you think like I do.  In terms of power and fear.”

Bakuda took a seat at the end of the couch.  The two whores inched away from her.

She smiled at that.  “Alright.  You got me.”

July 14th, 2011

“…and that’s the gist of it,” Amelia said.

Lung watched Teacher’s expression change as he considered the idea.  The man seemed so ordinary, so unassuming.  To hear the man talk about it, he’d been one of the foremost criminal masterminds until the heroes trumped up charges against him.

“I might not be explaining it right,” Amelia said, “How my power works, hard to interpret.  But I think I’ve worked it out.”

“I can see where it makes sense to you,” Teacher said.  “But for those of us with no conception of these power granting entities, we don’t have enough solid ground to found the idea on.”

Amelia frowned.

Teacher shook his head.  “There’s holes in your logic.  The Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how they fit in,” she admitted.

“A developmental step forward?”

“No,” Amelia said.

“A step backwards, then?”

“No.  At least, I don’t think so.  Something else entirely.”

“To be frank,” Teacher said, “I don’t know whether to hope you’re right or wrong.”

“It’s both,” Amelia said.  “It’s bad, but at least we know how bad.”

“With nothing we can do about it until someone lets us out,” Teacher said.

Amelia frowned.  She rested her elbows on her knees, as she sat on the edge of Marquis’ bed.  Plastic crinkled with the movement.  The tattoo artist who was working on her arms had scrounged up plastic sheets from the meals that came down the shafts, sterilizing them and then taping them in place.  The freshest tattoos and the irritated flesh around the markings were blurry just beneath.

Panacea had complained about how idiotic it was, because she couldn’t get sick, but any artist had their rules and peculiarities, and Marquis had told her to accept them.

“Well,” Marquis said.  “It’s food for thought.  I’d suggest a breakout attempt, given how grave this all seems, but we know how that tends to go.”

“Yes,” Teacher agreed.  “Our deal stands?  You won’t replace my dentists or doctors?”

“That wasn’t the deal,” Marquis chided.  “We’ll price match.  A little competition will keep your employees honest.”

Teacher frowned.

“It’s the best deal I’m willing to-”

Marquis stopped short.  Lung turned to see Spruce at the entryway into the cell.

“Hey, boss,” Spruce said.

“What is it?” Marquis asked.

Spruce gave him a curious look before turning back to Marquis, “Big news. TV.”

Lung took his time walking down to the televisions.  Marquis, Spruce and Amelia made their way down, where a crowd had gathered to watch.  It was rare, that the same thing would be on all of the working televisions.

It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.

“What’s this?” Amelia asked.  She gave Lung a nervous glance as he approached.

“Alexandria bit it,” Cinderhands said.

With that, each of the new arrivals turned their attention to the screen.

“…will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.

“No shitting way,” Panacea said.

Lung remained quiet.

“She’s the one who arrested you, isn’t she?” Cinderhands asked, looking over his shoulder at Lung.

“No,” Lung said.  “We fought twice, I was arrested by others.”

“But she beat you?”  Cinderhands asked.

“Shush, C.H.,” Marquis said.

It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.

“Anyone else thinking that we really should get a chance to appeal our cases?”  someone in the crowd asked.  “If the organization is this fucked up, the arrests can’t count.”

“Yes,” Marquis said, his tone condescending, “I’m quite sure the Protectorate will be apologizing to the public, then they’ll throw open the Birdcage’s doors and let us all loose.”

“…hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency…

And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.

Panacea stared as the girl on the television stepped forward at Chevalier’s bidding, She removed the black sweatshirt and pants the PRT had issued her, revealing a costume of white and gray beneath.

Amelia’s hands went to her mouth.

Marquis glanced at Amelia.  Lung took that glance in all it’s import.  The two girls were opposite sides of the same coin.

Lung’s eyes fixed on the new heroine, then narrowed.

I admitted to reprehensible things.  I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.

“is it reassuring?” Teacher murmured.

Lung turned, realizing that Teacher was talking to him.  “Why would it be?”

“You lost to her, but she’s strong enough to defeat Alexandria.  Less of a wound to your ego?”

“I lost once,” Lung said.  “An underhanded trick, but a loss.  I’ll credit her that.”

“Mm hmm,” Teacher replied, wordlessly.

The girl continued, “I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable. Except there are bigger things.  More important things.

“She was stronger before,” Lung spoke his thoughts aloud.

“More powerful?  Likely,” Teacher said.  “Stronger?  I wonder.”

Lung shook his head.

I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.

“Noble,” Marquis said.  “Foolish at the same time, but the line between the noble and the fool is a thin one, or even a matter of perspective.”

“On this, we may agree,” Lung rumbled.

“I’ll endeavor to see that as something other than a veiled insult,” Marquis said.

This is what I want to do, above all else.  Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-  …When and if I do take up the job, you can call me Weaver.

The broadcast ended, with news reporters discussing the fallout, reiterating details.

The noise of it was broken down by singing, echoing through the Birdcage.  A dirge.

The yellow feathered girl who was in the truck, Lung thought to himself.

“That’s for Alexandria, I imagine,” Marquis said aloud.  “Undeserved, I think, but I imagine Lustrum gave her cell block a very good reason to honor the woman.”

“I wouldn’t have imagined you’d care,” Teacher commented.

“I don’t, really,” Marquis answered.  “But I have a lot of respect for people who keep to a particular code, whatever that code might be, and very little for traitors and wafflers.

“Like this new ‘Weaver’?” Teacher asked.

“I would defer to my daughter’s opinion on that.  She knew Weaver.”

Amelia frowned.  “She’s… both?  She’s stuck to her own personal code, even when it made her a traitor.”

“I see,” Marquis mused, rubbing his chin.

Lung frowned.  All nonsense, and none of it mattered.  That was out there, this was here.

“A word, Lung?” Teacher asked.

Lung nodded.  Anything to get away from this intolerable talk of morality and this singing.  His cell wouldn’t afford much relief, but it would be a touch quieter.

They departed, but Teacher led the way out of Marquis’ cell block, rather than to Lung’s cell.

“I believe I can be useful to you,” Teacher said.

“You have nothing to give me,” Lung said.  He bristled at the implication.

“You know how my power works, yes?”

“You make others smarter.”

“I turn others into lesser Thinkers, into Tinkers.”

“At the cost of their independence.”

“Yes.”

“Not something I want,” Lung said.

“You have strength, good instincts on a primal level, and all the potential in the world.  Yet you’ve failed here and there.  You’re here, after all.”

“And so are you,” Lung said.

Teacher nodded.  “Exactly my point.  Think on that for a moment.  We’re almost to my cell block, now.”

“You were captured because you lacked muscle,” Lung said, “I was captured because…”

Lung didn’t like the implication.  Of a lack of brains?

“Because of your incompetent underlings,” Teacher finished for him.  “Who escalated the feud with the heroes into a war while you were incarcerated, leaving you to sustain what they had started.  And, more apropos to our conversation, because your power has a drawback.  It requires a certain mental state.”

“Yes.”

“Amelia, Marquis’ girl, she won’t fix that.”

“I wouldn’t let her,” Lung said.

“Because it involves tampering with your brain,” Teacher said.  “My offer is… less invasive.  We can break down that barrier, give you the ability to control when you change.”

“At the cost of my identity,” Lung said.  “No.”

“A temporary cost to your willpower,” Teacher said.  He extended a hand, welcoming Lung into his cell block.

There was no conversation in Teacher’s cell block.  The residents were neat, tidy, and well groomed.  Some seemed functional, reading on their own or watching television.  Others were more disabled.  Lung could see one individual rocking in place, tapping something out on a table.  Another was walking in small, tight circles.

“My groupthink,” Teacher said.  “Rest assured, I wouldn’t subject you to something this grave.  We would dig deep enough to discover the true nature of your power, fast enough that you didn’t feel the side effects at their worst.  Then we would use what is effectively a hypnotic state to unlock your power as it truly should be, effectively a second trigger event.  If Amelia is right, the entity that grants you your power will resist… but we can get around that.”

Lung frowned.  “There is no point.”

“There is every point!  Come.  I’ll show you.  But first you need to tell me, are you and Marquis friends?”

Lung shook his head.

“Peers, then.”

Lung considered the word.  There were some that came up in English that he still wasn’t quite familiar with.  “Yes.”

“Then you’ll keep a secret?” Teacher asked.

“I will keep a secret,” Lung answered.

“Good, good.”  Teacher led Lung to one TV in the row.  “Trickster?”

Lung arched an eyebrow.  Trickster… the name rung a bell.  It didn’t matter.

“Connect,” Teacher said.

Trickster reached up to the power button on the television, then began a sequence of turning it on and off, with very specific pauses.  A code.

The sequence was still going on when Teacher said, “Stop.  Leave it on.”

The screen showed a face, the image grainy, flickering.  The face had a tattoo of a cross on it.

“Lung, meet Saint,” Teacher said.

Lung didn’t answer.

“He speaks when we give him something to say,” Teacher said.  “But I may have been too eager to find a way of contacting the outside world, and I’ve irritated him.  Saint explained what happened.  The PRT showed him Dragon’s equipment, asked if he could commandeer it, and Saint found an opportunity to insert a discreet backdoor.  He has a channel in, a way to observe, but our channel out is poor at best.”

“This matters nothing to me.”

“It matters a great deal,” Teacher said.  “Saint can see what Dragon sees, even if he’s blocked off from the Birdcage itself, while Dragon is occupied elsewhere.  It buys us a window of opportunity to communicate something, a message in code.  The program that Dragon has observing us with every moment tracks the activity of our televisions.  Turn it on, turn it off, and do it in a systematic enough way, and patterns emerge in a way that Saint can observe.  This allows us to coordinate.  He can’t rescue us, or empty the Birdcage, but, we could do something.  We could communicate with the outside world, and with the hypothesis that Amelia has posed… well, that’s a world changing set of information, don’t you imagine?”

Lung didn’t speak.

“The alternative, Lung, is that we unlock your power, and we use other information that Saint has collected through his backdoor.  We use it to leave the Birdcage.”

“To escape?”

Teacher shook his head.  “We wait, and we let things devolve to the point that they are willing to open the door and let us go, for the assistance we can give.  Dragon has files dictating scenarios in that vein.”

“They will not let us go free,” Lung said.  “Not the true monsters.”

“Most likely not.  It’s a question: do we gamble, or do we take a modicum of comfort in knowing we’ve perhaps saved the world a great deal of grief and maintained the status quo?  The way things are, if you’re not familiar with that particular phrase.”

Lung folded his arms.  “I have no attachment to the current state of things.”

“Then you agree?  I should tell Saint to bury the information, maybe push events here and there, if it means we could go free?”

Lung nodded.

“And your power?  If I-”

“My power will be left alone,” Lung said.  “It is enough.  If you want a bodyguard for a time after we’ve walked free, you will have it.  I will keep your secret about this Saint for now.”

“Alas,” Teacher said.  “But I’ll take the offer.  By the time this comes through, I’ll have a small army of parahumans at my disposal.  Some will be… under my sway, but I’d rather have your feral instincts to offset my own wit than have you as a slave.”

“I would kill you for trying,” Lung replied.  “You use your power on me, I will see you dead for it.”

“Very well,” Teacher answered.  He smiled.  “I’ll have Trickster pass on a message to Saint, then.  We’ll scrub Dragon’s records of this conversation, and any cases Amelia has talked of the power-granting entities, and we’ll leave a request, perhaps.  I have large sums of money stashed away.  That should be enough to convince Saint to perhaps set some events in motion, in the hopes that things sour just enough that they might open the Birdcage’s doors.”

Lung nodded.  “Do what you must.  I only care for our deal.  I walk free, I will assist you for a time thereafter.  The other things do not matter to me.”

“Very well.”  Teacher extended a hand, and Lung shook it.

Lung turned to leave.

As with the Yàngbǎn, he would stay with Teacher until he had what he needed: freedom.  Then the man would die.

The woman in the black suit, the Yàngbǎn, Skitter, and now Teacher.  People he would have his revenge on, at a later date.  People who had looked down on him, who had tried to manipulate him.

He could feel his power rippling under his skin.  Against Leviathan, he’d waited hours before engaging the beast, had fought longer than he ever had.  Now that he knew he might leave… this would be a two year buildup.

The scale of the event Teacher had spoken of?  That Amelia had alluded to?  Fear and power beyond anything he’d ever experienced, freedom without limits.  That very idea gave Lung a taste of that exhiliration he hadn’t experienced for so long.

Lung returned to Marquis’ cell block.  Marquis and Amelia were sitting at one table, drinking green tea and conversing with one another.

Marquis glanced at Lung, then poured out another mug of green tea without asking.  He gestured to the bench opposite, slid the mug in Lung’s direction.

Acceptance, the idea caught Lung by surprise.  He had a place here, odd as it was, as different as he and Marquis were.

Bakuda had taunted him over how he’d sought a kind of connection to others, how he’d recruited his gang to fill a void.  At the same time he found himself thinking of the restrictions he’d faced in school as a youth, the joys of rebellion, the Yàngbǎn and everything they’d threatened to take from him.

If there was a middle ground between acceptance and conformity, was this it?

“Marquis,” Lung spoke, carefully.

“Hm?” Marquis quirked an eyebrow.

Teacher is working to undermine everything you and your daughter are striving for, Lung thought.

“The tea is good.  Thank you.”

“Quite welcome,” Marquis replied, absently.

And Lung fell silent.

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Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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The Number Man swept one finger over the touchscreen display.  Two point six billion dollars here, a hundred thousand dollars there.

Money was the blood of civilized society, its currents running through everything and everyone.  Where money was insufficient, things withered.  People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas perished.  Where funds were plentiful, the same things blossomed with new life.

And money was, in the end, little more than the product of collective imagination.  A slip of paper or a coin had no value beyond that of the material it was fashioned of.  It only took on a life of its own when people as a whole collectively agreed that certain papers and coins were worth something.

Only then did people bleed and die for it.  For a fantasy, a faith given form in hard, concrete numbers.

Then again, much of society was built on a series of shared delusions.  Clothing was little more than scraps of particular materials with particular geometries, but people clung to the idea of fashion.  Style.  Good and bad fashion was another belief system, one which all members of a culture were indoctrinated into.  Breaking certain conventions didn’t only challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of others, but it challenged their sense of self.  It reminded them, subconsciously, of the very pretendings they clung to.

Only those with power could stand against society’s tides, flaunt the collective’s ‘safe’ aesthetic.  When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them and safely say something calculated to reduce their own dissonance and remind the offending party of the unspoken rules.

When one had enough power to take a life with a twitch of a finger, a thought, they earned the right to wear skin-tight clothing and call themselves Hero, or Legend.  To wear a mask and name themselves something inane like ‘the Cockatoo’ and still take themselves seriously.

He armored himself in normalcy.  He wore only a button-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, his blond hair cut into a short style that was easy to maintain.  To anyone on the street, he wouldn’t appear to be anything but a bookish middle-aged man.

He hadn’t always been this bland.

The Number Man stepped away from the screen.  His office was plain, white tile with white walls. The rear of it was a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a foreign landscape, a place far from Earth.  Still an Earth, but not the one he’d been born to, not even the one he was in at this very moment.  The Doormaker maintained a portal to that foreign landscape, just behind the Number Man’s office and changed it on request.  Today, it was a mountaintop view of a wilderness with a crimson foliage and gray branches, the sky perpetually overcast.

One of a number of Earths where humans had never been.

The Number Man had gone to some lengths to spruce up this place.  He’d never liked the eternal white of this complex, so he’d adorned his walls with other images.  To his right, there was a large print of the Golden Mean, the Phi decimal as a fractal image in gold against black paper, with mathematical notation surrounding it.

Opposite it, Dali’s Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubus.  The painting was blown up to one-and-a-half times the size.  Jesus crucified on a fourth dimensional cross.

No chairs.  He’d worked out the dangers of sitting against the convenience and decided it wasn’t worth falling into that trap.  When he did enter his office, he walked, paced, tapped his foot while pondering deeper problems, stood and stared out the window at whatever landscape he had outside his window in a given week.

He crossed his room and touched a screen.  It lit up, filled with data fed to his computers from a doorway to Earth Bet.  The pulse of society, right under his thumb.

The Elite, a villain group expanding a subtle control over the western seaboard of America, putting pressure on rogues to bring them under their thumb as performers, thinkers, designers and innovators.  He could see the numbers, extrapolate from the data to gauge their rate of growth.  They were developing too slowly to be useful, not developing fast enough to outpace the predicted end of the world.  They’d reach Brockton Bay in about a year.  There would be time to decide if countermeasures were needed in the meantime.

Gesellschaft, a nationalistic organization half a planet away from the Elite, was moving large funds in anticipation of a small war.  Money was being laundered through cover operations and businesses, almost impossible to track, unless one was able to take in the bigger picture, to see the intent, the beginnings and endings of it.  They were investing in transportation, and their fundings seemed to decline at the same time some notable arms dealers in Southern Europe found themselves richer by an equal amount.  The Number Man flicked his way past a series of windows detailing the transaction amounts.  Arms dealers who specialized in nuclear materials.  This was pointing towards terrorism, and not on a small scale.  Troubling, but the system would address them.  The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem.  It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have a disaster at this crucial juncture.  The Protectorate was required for just a little longer.  If they were going to make it through this, there couldn’t be any substantial distractions.

Gesellschaft hadn’t elected to seek out the Number Man and make use of his services, as so many supervillains around the world did.  He had no compunctions, as a consequence, about interfering with them.  He tapped into a series of bank accounts he hadn’t touched in some time, then scheduled a large number of transfers to the personal Gesellschaft accounts.  Ten or twenty thousand Euros at a time.

Where funds weren’t likely to be held for moderation, he scheduled more transfers and disputed the charges.  The transfer amounts were large enough to raise flags, to draw attention to the accounts in question.  The banks were on the lookout for suspicious activity, and a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand Euros would be suspicious enough to merit a serious look.

That was only to slow them down.  They would want to investigate, to be careful and find out where the money came from.  Later, if the situation was resolved and they somehow managed to hold on to the money, they would want to know where the money disappeared to, as he reclaimed it with a severe interest rate.  They would suspect interference, would wonder if this outside agent had connected their civilian identities to their personas within Gesellschaft.

Which he had.

The transfers took him less than thirty seconds to arrange, and it would occupy them for one or two days.

Freezing the larger business accounts would take only a little more time.  One or two minutes.  The meetings with the arms dealers had fit a vague schedule.  The arms dealers always took a different route, but they traveled enough that they needed to buy gas at one point on the way.  There was always a large transfer of funds.

He laid a trap, calculated to start falling into place when the gas was bought in the time window.  The main accounts that the Gesellschaft used to manage their funds would be frozen by the time the meeting was underway.  They’d likely find themselves at the meeting, the product delivered, but with no funds to pay for it.

He swept his fingertips along the window, dismissing the task.  Who else?  Where were the priorities?

The C.U.I. had bought a parahuman.  Not so unusual.  Higher rates, as of late, but then, the C.U.I. faced a slight chance of an Endbringer attack in coming weeks.  They would want to bolster their forces, add parahumans to their peculiar team.

Tattletale had been actively separating herself from the Number Man, issuing new accounts to the Undersiders and her organization.  Not so surprising.  Eidolon had outed him, announcing the Number Man as a Cauldron-involved cape to a crowd.

Irritating.  At least it had been manageable.  He didn’t exactly have a great deal of traction with the hero community.  Tattletale was one loss, and he was hands-off with the Undersiders, regardless.

The King’s Men were in debt.  Easy enough to manage an anonymous donation, keep them afloat for another two months.

Child’s play, all of it.  The money, with its imaginary value, it was something he breathed.  Setting up the tools to manipulate it had taken a little time, but that was it.  Numbers were the fundament of the universe, as much a fabrication as money in some ways, more real than anything else in others.

He understood numbers, and through them, he understood everything.

A soft beep marked the arrival of somebody at his door.  He turned.  “Enter.”

There was only one person it could logically be.  The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.

Except it wasn’t a person.  The door swung open, but there was nobody on the other side.

“You can’t handle it yourself?” he asked.

No reply, of course.

He broke into a quick stride, hurrying through the door.  “Contessa is busy, I take it?”

Again, no reply.

He reached an intersection and felt his hair stir imperceptibly, little more than what one might excuse as the exhaust from an air conditioning vent thirty feet away.  He took that as his cue to change direction.

He knew where he was going, now.  He was relieved that it wasn’t the worst case scenario, if one could call it that.  A mercenary calling herself Faultline had been leading a team that was opening portals for exorbitant amounts, traveling the world.  It was a matter of time before someone contacted her to ask her to open a portal to here, or her own curiosity about Cauldron happened to lead her down that same road.

If and when that happened, the young woman and her team… perhaps organization was more fitting now that their numbers had grown, would get a visit from Contessa.  They would be removed from consideration, the portal would be sealed, and Cauldron would be safe again.

In the meantime, they’d let things carry on like they were.  Faultline would make contacts, she’d find like-minded individuals, and through her, Cauldron would uncover enemies, to be eliminated in one fell swoop.

At the very least, right here and right now, the threat wasn’t an invader.  Given the layout of the complex, and the fact that whole wings of the structure were on separate continents, linked only by the Doormaker, there were only a few possibilities for why an invader would be here.  Not that it really mattered, it would be near impossible for someone to find their way here, now.

No, this was a threat from within.

Double doors unlocked and slid open.  The Number Man wrinkled his nose as he entered the basement areas of the building.

When the Simurgh had attacked Madison, she’d copied Haywire’s technology to open a gate to a building much like this one.  A research facility.  The portal had dumped the buildings, soil, plant life and all the residents into the city on Earth Bet, costing Cauldron a horrific amount.  Even a stockpile of formulae had been lost.

Perhaps most frustrating was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they’d been near a breakthrough.  She’d sensed, somehow, had known, and had dashed it to pieces with the ease that a person might tear down a painstakingly made sandcastle.

They’d rebuilt, and this facility was somewhat different.  More reinforced, connected to the surrounding terrain.

Silly, to think she’d do the same thing twice, but they’d felt it necessary, after feeling the losses of that last attack.

The architecture here wasn’t white, and he was somewhat relieved at that.  The tile was dark gray, lit by fluorescent bulbs and the light from windows at the end of the hallway.  At regular intervals down the hallway, there were cells.  Only some had windows to keep the occupants within.  Others had only three walls and a white line that marked the division between the cell and the hallway.

In each cell was an occupant.  Large metal plates engraved with numbers helped track who they were, matched to the numbers hidden in the right ‘arm’ of the tattoo that each subject received; a series of white dots that looked like nothing more than areas where the tattoo hadn’t taken.

The cells on the right were new test subjects, lost and angry.  He didn’t hesitate as he walked past them.  The angry words they spat in alien languages were nothing to him.  Their glares and hatred less than that.

Their powers were only a small consideration.  It was a rare parahuman that didn’t try to move beyond the boundary of their cell.  There was no forcefield to stop them.  They inevitably ignored the warnings and gestures from those in neighboring cells, stepping free, or they used their power, teleporting free or lashing out at one of the staff.  The Doctor, the Number Man, Contessa.

They learned after the first time.

Several staff members were housed in the cells to the Number Man’s left.  Those cells didn’t open directly into the hallway.  There were short paths that led around to the back of the room.  It helped mask the noise, gave them some privacy.  The cells were bigger too.

Zero-twenty-three, with a placard beneath.  ‘Doormaker’.

Two-six-five.  No name.  The Number Man knew him well enough, regardless.  He’d been too young a subject when he’d taken the formula, his brain too malleable for the required changes, too slow to form natural immunities and defenses.  Not a problem with regular trigger events, as it was.  The boy’s eyes had burned out of his sockets as he’d tried to process the vast amount of information he was capable of perceiving.  Even now as he was reaching his late teens, the boy’s mind had never developed beyond the mental age of eight, and his eyes remained like twin ashtrays.

A partner to the Doormaker, capable of granting clairvoyance, seeing whole other worlds at once.  It left most subjects incapacitated for a week after use, and it overrode any other perception powers.

No use to the Number Man, but essential for Cauldron in vetting universes and finding individuals.  Most individuals.  There were some, like the Dealer, and triple-seven, who’d escaped.

Two-nine-three.  Incapable of talking, barely able to move.  Limbless, obese.  Another key member of the staff.

No sign of interference.  The odds of the threat being an assassin dropped.

He quickened his pace, reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

Second floor basement.  He stepped out of the stairwell and progressed down the main hallway.  There were rows of cells to either side of him.  Two thousand and forty-eight parahumans, each with a number, both on the wall of their cell and in their tattoo.

“You need to narrow it down,” the Number Man said.  “Help me find the trouble.”

His voice resulted in an outcry, the people in the cells nearest him realizing he was there, shouting, swearing, insulting him in twenty-nine different languages.

He ignored the shouting, instead extending his right hand.  “Is it this floor?  Yes…”

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

The faintest brush of air touched his left hand, so faint he might not have felt it while he was walking.

He turned back for the staircase, made his way down.

The third floor basement.  Here, the special case studies could be found.  Seven-seven-seven had been one.  They got a name, more space, some quiet.

He paused.  Again, a brush against his left hand.

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

He took the stairs two at a time, moving with an uncharacteristic haste.  He also spoke, more to himself than his companion.  “There are others who are supposed to attend to these matters.  Which suggests the escapee is smart, is strong enough to deal with them, or… as is more typical for the denizens of the fourth floor, interesting.”

Smart, he could deal with.  Strong, he could deal with, barring certain exceptions.  Interesting escapees, well.  There’d be degrees of unpleasantness.

He was still hurrying down the stairs as he reached the bottom.  Two doors, both heavy, stainless steel top to bottom, capable of withstanding a small bomb blast.  Only the Doctor entered the rightmost door.  The Number Man turned his attention to the door on the left, and entered his access codes, pressed his hand against the disguised plate to the right.

As security measures went, it wasn’t impossible to crack, not when one considered the breadth of parahuman abilities, but if anyone who got this far decided to pass through this door, they deserved what they got.

The deviations, the ones who didn’t take to the formula, tended to fall into certain categories.  There were those who had some minor physical or mental changes; they were little different from the most extreme deviations that appeared in typical trigger cases.  Such deviations occurred a mere eighth of a percent of the time.  They weren’t what he was thinking of.

The formula wasn’t exact.  Though they learned more every day, there were still unknowns regarding powers.  Whatever connection the agents formed with individuals before or during a trigger event, it didn’t manifest as strongly through the formula.  When the subject was stressed, their body engaged by that distress, the connection grew weaker.

In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.

For many -for ninety-three percent of the unfortunates who were so afflicted- the agent drew from plant and animal life, from physical objects, materials and designs in the subject’s immediate vicinity.

But seven percent of the extreme deviant cases didn’t find something physical, and there was little to nothing to rein things in.

Such cases were not, as a general rule, released into the wild.  It would be counterproductive.  They were briefly studied, then disposed of.  The Number Man’s office was in this building because he was but one line of defense against escapees and threats, even in this department.

He paused, concentrating.

As though it were penciled in the air, in thread-thin, elaborate notation, he could see the geometry and the numbers unfolding across the world around him, through the air.

He withdrew a pen from his pocket, spun it around one finger.  The notation billowed around it, and through it, he could see the movement of the pen, the plotted trajectory, the velocity and rotation of it.  The numbers clicked into place with a speed that made the rest of him, his very perceptions, seem like slow motion.

Here and there, there were incongruities.  Painting an entirely different picture.  His companion was here, near him.  Bending the most fundamental rules.  The Custodian.

In another scenario, she would have been kept here and disposed of once we’d found a way to dissect her.

“I know you want to help,” he commented.  He wasn’t even entirely sure if he was being heard.  “You see it as your responsibility.  But it’s best you stay behind.”

That said, he pushed the door open.

If the cells on the third basement floor were twice as large as the ones on the second floor, these were larger still.  Each was isolated, standalone in the vast, dark basement.  The space allowed countermeasures to be maintained in each space.

And here, experiment number three-zero-one-six was out of his cell.  The Number Man knew of this one.  He’d paid particular attention, once he’d heard about the peculiarities, heard about the power.

The man was only half-dressed, his upper body bare, his beard a shaggy growth, his hair long and greasy.  Showers were provided, where patients were able to make use of them, but the solitude wore on them, and few partook with any regularity.

But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.

One leg of his uniform flapped in the wake of a wind turbine used to keep two-nine-nine-zero contained.  There was no right leg beneath the pelvis, but his right foot was there nonetheless, set firmly on the ground.  He stood as if his weight rested on it.

Other parts of him had been carved away when he’d had his trigger event.  An area of his stomach, around one eye, his entire left arm.  Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plane, featureless, without shading or definition.

But the Number Man could see it.  Could see it in the physics of the way the pants leg moved, just slightly out of tune with the way it should have been flapping.  There was something there, a disturbance.

The test subject had destroyed one wind turbine, was facing the occupant, who was hidden in shadow.

“We escape,” three-zero-one-six said, his voice a rasp, heavily accented.  “Together.  I stop the spirit, you take-”

He stopped, turned to face the Number Man.  The pair was separated by an expanse of a hundred feet, in an open area with a high ceiling, only the lighting around each standalone cell allowed them to see one another.

No conversation, no pleading.  Three-zero-one-six struck before he could be attacked, leaning back and then swinging, using the left arm that wasn’t there.

The Number Man was already moving, the mathematical notation filling his field of vision, singing in his ears, running along his skin.  He could taste it, virtually swam in a clear, precise, organized outline of the world around him.

His weight shifted as he found his center of balance.  He kicked out to push himself to the left.

Three-zero-one-six manifested the strike as though his arm were exponentially larger, the attack repeated in almost infinite variations through the space in front of him, as though he were leveraging every possible version of himself that could have been here, in this basement, drawing them together in one coordinated strike.

Concrete and steel were obliterated, and the blow carved divots into floor and ceiling both, disintegrated layers of stainless steel that sat behind and beneath the concrete of floor and wall.

The Number Man was airborne.  He’d measured the trajectory of the first hit as it carved through the ceiling, letting it slide past him by a mere one and three-quarter feet.  He angled and oriented his body to absorb the rush of wind and dust, used it to carry himself just a little further, a little higher.  His shoes squeaked as they found traction.

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-”

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-”

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

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Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”

Silence.

“Captain Adams, report.”

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.  He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”

“Please-”

“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.  I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”

“Why?”

“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

“Did he have a handle?”

“Christof.”

Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”

“C-H-R-I-S-T-O-F.”

A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.  She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.  It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

She led Elle to the bedroom, where Spitfire was pulling the last of her fire-retardant gear on.  Her own gear was in a separate suitcase.

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.  Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.  The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.  Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.  She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.  However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.  The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.  In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”

“Yes.”

“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

“No catch.”

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.  Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.  And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

“What do you want?  We’re not available for any jobs.”

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.  I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

Faultline considered hanging up.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.
-c

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Interlude 15 (Donation Bonus #3)

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August 20th, 1986

She was being poisoned by people with smiles on their faces.

She hated those smiles.  Fake.  Pretending to be happy, pretending to be cheerful.  But she’d spent enough time here to know that her friends and family would be crying the second they thought they were out of earshot.  The strangers had a weariness that spoke to the inevitable.  The older they were, the more reality seemed to weigh on them.

Somewhere along the line, they had stopped telling her that the chemotherapy would make her better.  The smiles had become even more strained.  There was more emphasis on making her comfortable.  Less explanation of what was going on.

So when her mother came in to check on her, bringing the mug of heated chicken broth, she pretended to be asleep.  She hated herself for it, but she couldn’t stand the lies, the fakeness.

If it wouldn’t have given her away, she would have winced as her mother sat down by her bedside.  It meant she might be staying a while.

“Becca,” her mother murmured from behind her.  “You awake?”

She didn’t respond, keeping her breathing steady.  She tried to breathe through her nose, so the sores that filled her mouth wouldn’t sing with pain at the contact with the air.

Her mother ran one hand over her head.  Her hair was mostly gone, and the contact was uncomfortable to the point that it was almost painful.

“You’ve been so brave,” her mom whispered, so quiet she was barely audible.

I’m not brave.  Not at all.  I’m terrified.  I’m so frustrated I could scream.  But she couldn’t.  Everyone had painted her as being so courageous, so noble and peaceful in the face of the months of treatment.  But it was a facade, and she’d passed the point of no return.  It was too late to break composure, too late to stop making bad jokes, faking smiles of her own.  She couldn’t complain or use her mother’s shoulder to cry on because everyone would fall apart if she did.

She was their support.

“My little superhero,” her mother said.  Rebecca could feel her mother’s hand on her bare scalp once more.  She wanted to slap that hand away, yell at her mother.  Don’t you know that hurts?  Everything hurts.

“You’ve been trying so hard.  You deserve better.”

And just like that, from the tone and the word choice, Rebecca knew she was dying.

She felt a mixture of emotions.  Relief, in a way.  It would mean the chemotherapy could stop; she could stop hurting.  There was anger too.  Always some anger.  Why couldn’t her mother just tell her?  When would they get up the courage to deliver that news?

Apparently not tonight.  Rebecca heard the scrape of the chair moving as her mother stood, the muffled footsteps as she retreated down the hall.

Tears had been harder to come by since the chemo had started.  Most days, her eyes were red and itchy, her vision blurry, too dry to cry.  But it seemed this occasion deserved them.  For a long time, she lay on her side, staring out the window at the cityscape of Los Angeles, tears running sideways down her face, across the bridge of her nose and down to her ear, soaking her pillow.

There was a sign that caught her eye, because it was so bright a yellow against its immediate background of blues and dusky purples.  The classic logo of a fast food restaurant.

It struck her that she would probably never get to eat there again, never get a special kids meal with the dinky plastic toy that was meant for kids ten years younger than her.  She’d never forget about the toy afterward, letting it clutter the top of her dresser along with the other colorful trinkets and keepsakes.

She’d never get to read the third book of the Maggie Holt series, or see the movie they were making of the first book.

She’d never have a real boyfriend.

It was dumb, but those stupid trivial things hit her harder than the idea that she’d never see her family, her friends or her cats again.  The steady tears became sobs, and her breath hitched, making her entire chest seize in pain.  The involuntary clenching of her empty stomach was twice as bad, and she started to think she might need to throw up.  Or dry heave.  Experience told her that would be worst of all.

She’d started moaning without realizing it, quiet and drawn out, trying to replace those painful lurching sobs with something else.

“Do you need morphine?”

The gentle voice startled her, interrupting both the moans and the sobs.  Morphine wouldn’t help the most basic, terrifying, inevitable reality she faced.  She shook her head.

There was a whispering.

“I’m going to increase the drip just a little, Rebecca Costa-Brown.”

“Who?”  Rebecca stirred, turning around to see who was speaking.  A black woman with long hair in a doctor’s get-up was messing with the IV bag.  But… no name tag.  And there was a teenage girl with pale skin and dark hair standing behind her, wearing knee-high socks, a black pleated skirt and white dress shirt.  “You’re not one of my doctors.”

“No, Rebecca.  Not yet,” the woman replied.

Quietly, Rebecca asked, “Are you one of the doctors that takes care of people that are dying?”

The woman walked around to the end of the bed.  The teenager stayed where she was.  Rebecca gave the girl a nervous look.  She was staring, her expression placid, hands at her side.

“Who are you, then?”

“Shh.  Lower your voice.  It would be a shame if the nurses happened to come by and eject me.”

“So…” Rebecca started, making a conscious effort to speak more quietly, “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“No,” the woman replied.

Rebecca closed her mouth.  She could feel the effect of the morphine.  If nothing else, it was helping ease the uncomfortable sensation where her stomach had been cramping, her skin feeling raw against the stiff hospital sheets.  She didn’t know what to say, so she fell silent instead.

“To answer your question, I’m a doctor, but not one that works in this hospital.  I’m more of a researcher and scholar than anything else.  And I came to make you an offer.”

“Shouldn’t my mom be here for this?”  My mother makes all of the decisions.

“Normally yes, when dealing with a minor.  But this is a private deal.  Just for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ve heard about the superheroes?  On the television?”

“Yeah.  There’s, like, a bunch.  Twenty or something?”

“No less than fifty, now.  They’re appearing all over the world, with thousands upon thousands estimated to appear by the turn of the millennium.  I confess I have something of a hand in that.  Which is why I’m here.”

“You… make superheroes appear?”  Rebecca could feel herself getting foggy with the morphine.

“I make superheroes, but it’s not easy.  The risks are high.  The files?”

The teenager on the other side of the bed stepped forward, pulling off her backpack.  She reached in and withdrew a file folder.

The woman moved the wheeled, adjustable bed-desk that still held the chicken broth Rebecca’s mother had brought.  She moved the plastic container and put the file folder down.  Opening it, she spread out the glossy photographs that were contained within, until six images sat side by side.

A man with gnarled skin like the wood of a tree.  A woman with tentacles everywhere.  A beetle-man.  A boy with skin that seemed to be melting like wax.  A burned husk of a body. A little girl without eyes, only flat expanses of skin where they should be.

“Right now, in the early stages of my project, only one in seven succeed.  Two of those seven die.”  The woman tapped the pictures of the burned body and the boy with melted skin.  “Four experience unfortunate physical changes.”

“They’re monsters.”

“Yes.  Yes they are.  But of those seven, statistically there’s one who experiences no major physical changes, who gains powers.  All anyone has to do is drink one of my formulas.”

Rebecca nodded.  Her eyes flickered over the photographs.

“And I’ve stumbled on a little side-benefit, Rebecca.  I mix those potions a certain way, and it not only helps reduce the severity of any physical changes, but it also has a restorative effect.  The body heals.  Sometimes just a little.  Sometimes a great deal.  I think we could heal you.”

“Heal me?”

“I’m not asking for money.  Only that you take this leap of faith with me and help me build something.  I know the risks are great, I wouldn’t normally ask someone to face them, but I suspect you don’t have much left to lose.”

Rebecca extended a hand to touch the photos, but it was herself she looked at.  Her fingers so bony, her skin mottled yellow with bruising around the knuckles.  I’m already a monster.

She tapped the photo.  “If… if it was just this?  If you were offering to save my life and make me one of those monsters?  I’d still accept.”

August 21st, 1986

“I think we can mark this as a success,” the Doctor spoke.

Rebecca opened her eyes.  She’d seen something fragmented but profound, but it slipped away as fast as she could think to recollect it.  She staggered to her feet, wobbled.  The girl in the school uniform caught her before she could fall.

“I’m not a monster?”

“No.  In fact, I don’t know if it could have gone better.”

Rebecca extended one arm.  Her skin was a healthy pink, her hand thin but not so emaciated as it had been.

“I’m better?”

“I would guess so.  In truth, I’m not sure how the regeneration affected the cancer, it might even have exacerbated the symptoms.  For the time being, however, you seem to be well.”

“I feel really light.”

“That’s promising.”

Rebecca allowed herself a smile, letting go of the girl’s hand.  She could stand under her own power.  Everything around her appeared sharp.  She hadn’t realized how bad her vision had become.

Even her mind seemed to be operating like a well oiled machine.  Had the drugs and poison made her stupid?

No.  She’d never been like this.  It was like her brain had been a bicycle and now it was a Ferarri.  Even as her eyes flicked over the interior of the warehouse, she could tell she was processing faster, taking in details and sorting them better, as if her thoughts were no longer limited to the confines of her skull.

“What can I do?”

“I’ve yet to start categorizing the results.  For the time being, I’m playing a game of battleship, creating what I can and logging the results.  I hope to find the patterns and the factors at play, given time.”

“You’re going to keep doing what you did with me?”  Rebecca bounced in place.  It took so little effort to move so high.  She was better.  She was alive, like she hadn’t been for months and months.

“I’m going to find an alternative as soon as possible.  The risks are too high, at present.  You can understand that what I have is valuable, and every time I approach a potential patient, I face the possibility that I’m going to be exposed.”

“They’ll stop you?”

“They’ll try.  I have her to guard me,” the Doctor nodded in the direction of the dark-haired girl.  “But I’d rather work without interference.”

“So what do we do now?  What do I do?”

“I have ideas.  Would you object to accompanying me for some time?  I could use another bodyguard.”

“I don’t even know what I do.”

“Nor do I.  But I think it would be a bad idea for you to return home.”

Rebecca stared down at her hands, clenched and unclenched them.  What would her parents say?  What would the doctors and nurses say?

She walked across the empty building.  By the time she reached the other end, she was floating, her feet not even touching the ground.  She set her hands on the wall, dragged her fingertips through the concrete, then crushed it in her hands.  It should have ruined her skin, left scrapes or torn her fingernails, short as they were, but it hadn’t.

I used to be a shadow of a person, barely there.  Now I’m something more in every way.

When she turned around, the girl in the school uniform was whispering in the Doctor’s ear.

The Doctor spoke, “Two years, then you decide if you want to stay.”

Rebecca looked down at the concrete dust that had settled in the lines and folds of her hands, met the Doctor’s eyes and nodded.

May 1st, 1988

“Alexandria,” the Doctor called.

Alexandria waited patiently as Contessa adjusted her cape, then strode through the door.  The Doctor was there, of course.  Professor Manton, too.  The boy with the math powers was there, standing next to a boy who was staring off into space.

“She’s young,” Legend said, sizing her up.

“She’s also one of my best yet,” the Doctor said.

“I’ve heard of her,” Hero said.  “Los Angeles?”

Alexandria nodded.

“You took down Strongarm and Mongler.  It was impressive,” he said.

“Thank you.”

The Doctor spoke, “She’s as strong as any parahuman we’ve recorded.  Flies at speeds that match your own, Legend.  Near-perfect memory retention, accelerated processing and learning.”

Legend gave her another serious look.  She wore a black costume with a skirt, knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves.  A heavy cape flowed behind her back.  Her black hair was held back out of her face by the metal visor that covered the upper half of her face.

“It’s more typical for heroes to wear brighter colors,”  he said.  “It conveys a more positive image.”  His own costume was a testament to that philosophy, blue with flames and lightning stencils in white.

“Black’s more utilitarian,” the Doctor said.  “Harder to see in the dark.”

“And it’s easier to get the blood out,” Alexandria added.

Legend frowned.  “Do you get a lot of blood on your costume?”

“I hit really hard,” she said, deadpan.

He didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.  It didn’t matter.

“Okay,” Hero said, folding his arms.  “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alexandria.  But I’m not sure I see the point of this, Doctor.”

“You each committed to assisting my enterprise, in exchange for the powers I could grant.”

“Yeah,” Hero said.

“Now I have two things I’d like you to consider.  The first is… well, you could consider it a new arrangement.”

“Alright.  I can keep an open ear,” Legend said.  Eidolon and Hero nodded in agreement.  “What’s your proposal?”

“It’s not my proposal.  Alexandria?”

Alexandria felt her heart skip a beat as the three heroes turned their attention to her, but she kept her emotions from her face.

“This room, I would argue, contains the most powerful parahumans in the world, Scion excepted.  The good you accomplish is undeniable.  Even if villains outnumber the heroes, powers have come to benefit the world in the long run.  A golden age, if you will.”

Legend nodded.

“But we know that trigger events tend to produce damaged, disturbed and unbalanced individuals.  Any traumatic event will do that, and a trauma punctuated by the acquisition of superpowers is going to leave a lasting impression.  Trigger events produce more villains. We know this.”

The Doctor cut in, “And I’m producing more heroes than villains.  For now, the proportion favors us, and you’ve been able to keep the criminal element in line.  For the most part.   But even as I expand my operations, I have come to the realization that I can only produce so much.  And the rate of parahuman growth is expanding.  The next twenty years are projected to produce a total number of six hundred and fifty thousand people with powers, worldwide.”

Alexandria spoke, “I’ve looked at the numbers, at the growth, the trends, checked and double checked them.  Even if the rate decreases, we’re going to get outpaced and we’re going to get outpaced hard.  The people with trigger events will outnumber the Doctor’s clients, and we’ll wind up with three to ten villains for every hero that steps forward.”

Legend, Eidolon and Hero were paying attention.

The Doctor spoke, “Alexandria and I have discussed this at length.  A recurring worry is that as much as I’ve been able to gift you three, you four with exemplary abilities, we could see other threats of comparable power.”

“Is there any evidence of this?”  Hero asked.  “You haven’t explained how you create the powers, but what you’ve said leads me to believe you’re producing something purer than what everyone else gets.”

“Purer?  Perhaps.  But the purer something is, the more fragile it becomes.  The process seems to be influenced heavily by psychological strain and stress.  Almost an inverse of the trigger event phenomenon.  You know there’s a possibility that the formula can become tainted, giving inhuman characteristics to the unfortunate subjects.  This is despite the most sterile conditions.  I’m improving the results over time, with Professor Manton’s help, but there are no guarantees.”

“The point we’re getting around to,” Alexandria spoke, “Is that even if the Doctor can get better results with time and effort, the explosion in the natural parahuman population is inevitably going to produce an individual with powers that outstrip our own.”

“So we lose in the long run?” Eidolon asked.  “We’re doomed?”

“No.  Because I’d like to propose a solution.  A way to assert control.  I want to band together.  Form a team.”

Legend leaned against the wall.  “There are teams forming already.  Yes, we’d be powerful, influential, but I don’t see how that addresses the problems.”

“Simple.  We do what the government’s been pushing for.  We regulate.  We bend to the government’s yoke, all four of us together.  We follow their stipulations and regulations.”

“That sounds like a horrendously bad idea,” Eidolon spoke.  “Why?”

“Because if it was us four, together?  We could afford to push back if they pushed too hard, and they’d know that.  And just by being there, we could make the project attractive enough to bring others in.”

Legend turned, “And how does this benefit you, Doctor?”

“It doesn’t.  Not directly.  That’s why this is Alexandria’s proposal.”

“But,” Manton spoke, his voice gravelly for his relatively young age, “We could send some of our clients to you.  Happier clients are better for business.”

Legend folded his arms.  “And you’d want to be in charge, Alexandria?”

“No.  I think you or Hero would be a better choice, to portray a kind face and a positive image.  You two wear the colorful costumes.”

“Not Eidolon?” Hero asked.

“He’s too powerful.  Not saying either of you aren’t, but we wouldn’t be able to convey the impression that it’s the government in control of the heroes if it was Eidolon front and center.”

Legend nodded.  “You’ve given this a lot of consideration.”

“More than a little,”  Alexandria admitted.  “I have an eight stage plan to incorporate parahumans into society, I’ve also researched and developed plans for marketing and monetizing capes.  America is the most powerful country in the world, and it’s a capitalist nation, first and foremost.  We’ll use that.”

“Seems to be getting away from the idea of doing good deeds for the sake of doing good deeds,” Eidolon said.

“It is, but that’s inevitable.  The post-baby boomer generation is growing up.  Couple that with the explosion in parahuman numbers, and this situation threatens to get well out of control.  We need structure and organization if we’re going to keep things intact.”

“There’s no guarantee your plan will survive contact with government,” Legend said.

“There’s one guarantee.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m estimating that it will take at least five years to establish this plan nationwide.  In that span, we’ll start with only a few groups in the largest cities, we’ll gradually and gratefully accept involvement and oversight from government and law enforcement.  We’ll also create a sub-group for minors with powers, so we can strictly structure their environment and development.  Those are the key points.  That gives me time to address your doubts.”

“Again, how?”

“I expect we’ll be able to employ the remainder of the plan, the eight-stage integration of parahumans with the public, because I will be in a position of power in the government.  I, my civilian self, can be in charge of the government-sponsored superhero teams within eight years.”

“There’s too many holes in that plan.  People will wonder why Alexandria and your secret identity aren’t in the same place at once.”

“There’s more than one solution to that.  For one thing, I can work faster and better than my unpowered peers.  For another, the Doctor thinks she can find a suitable body double with similar powers before the deadline.  I designed this costume to be elegant without being attention-getting.  No color, as you pointed out.  And I don’t seek leadership of the team.  Instead, I will content myself with working to guide legislation to where we need it.”

“It seems so manipulative.  Everything people feared we’d be doing,” Hero said.

“I have booklets of paperwork you can look over.  All of the math, all of the projected issues for the future, and all of my proposals and plans.  You don’t have to give me an answer right away.  Just consider it.”

“Okay,” Hero said.

“And,” the Doctor said, “I think it goes without saying that everything said in this room stays in this room?”

There were nods all around.

“Good.  Thank you.  There’s one more thing I would like to show you.  If you’ll accompany me?”

She turned to the girl in the suit and the young man with the thousand-yard stare.

“You know where to take us.”

The girl in the suit placed her hands on his shoulders, tapping one twice.  In response, the boy raised his hands, bidding the back wall of the room to fold out into an area that shouldn’t have been there.  Bright sunlight streamed down around them, a salt-scented wind blowing in their faces.

“My god,” Legend said.

“He gained a very valuable set of powers, but there was an unfortunate effect on his perceptions.  He sees too much at once.  He’s effectively blind and deaf.  He agreed to work for me in exchange for care and comfort.”

Eidolon and Hero advanced to the edge of the window, staring out at a landscape of tidy concrete buildings and overlarge trees.  There was a coast there, too.

“I will be locating my operations there in the future.  Doormaker will shuttle you to and from my base in the future.”

“Where is it?”

“Another Earth.”

“Like Earth Aleph?  The one Haywire opened the portal to?”

“In some respects, yes.”  The Doctor gestured, and Contessa squeezed the boy’s shoulders again.  The portal shut.  “My assistant will hand you the booklets Alexandria prepared for her project.  Doormaker will then take each of you home in turn.  Thank you.”

One by one, the others departed.  Legend was first through the doorway Doormaker created, taken to New York.  Both Eidolon and Hero made their way to Chicago.  Professor Manton and the others left.

Only Alexandria and the Doctor remained.

“You didn’t tell them about our long-term goals,” Alexandria spoke.

“No.  There’s issues that have to be addressed first.  We’ve already discussed several.”

“Anything I can do?”

“You have your end of the project.  I feel they’ll come around.  Focus on that.  I’ll handle the projected issues on my side of things.  Just need to find the right individual.  Someone I can groom, perhaps.  Between you and I, one of us is bound to succeed.”

Alexandria nodded.

“Your two years are up in three months.  Will you be returning to your family?”

“I nearly forgot.  I’ve been so busy.”  Alexandria frowned.

“It might do you good to see them.”

“Maybe.”  Why did she have her doubts?  Why didn’t she want to go home?

“Good.  I do expect you’ll return?”

“Of course.”

Maybe, she realized, it was because every memory of her family was tinged with the feelings of despair, of loss.  With the Doctor, she had hope.

December 13th, 1992

Big.

The clawed hand speared toward the sky, followed by an arm the size of an oak tree.  When it turned to slam against the ground, bracing for leverage, she could feel the impact rippling through the air.  The dry ground shifted, bulged and cracked as he shouldered his way up and out from underground.

Really big.

Forty-five feet tall at the very least, he climbed forth from underground.  His skin was crusted with black stone that might have been obsidian, layers of what might have been cooled magma sloughing off of him as he planted his feet on the ground and stood straight.

‘Straight’ might have been too generous.  He was built like a caricature of a bodybuilder, or a bear-human hybrid.  He rippled with muscle, his skin gray, thick and leathery like the hide of a rhinoceros or elephant.  His black obsidian horns were so heavy his head hung down.  They weren’t rooted in his forehead, but in the middle of his face, a half-dozen curved shafts of black crystal twisting their way out of his face and back over the top of his head, some ten feet long.  A single red eye glowed from between the gap in two horns, positioned too low.  His mouth was a jagged gap in his lower face, twisting up to a point near his temple, lined by jagged horn-like growths that were too irregular to be called teeth.

His claws were the same, not hands in the conventional sense, but mangled growths of the same material that made up his horns, many of the growths as large as Alexandria herself.  He could flex them, move them, but they were clearly weapons and nothing else.

The rest of the Protectorate was present, and the local heroes, the Mythics.  Rostam, Jamshid, Kaveh, Arash.

It somehow didn’t feel like enough.  They’d come anticipating earthquake relief.  Not this.

The creature roared, and as invulnerable as she was, it almost hurt.  A whirlwind blast of sand ripped past them.  Kaveh stumbled back, collapsed, blood pouring from his ears, one of his eyeballs obliterated.

The fight hadn’t even started, and they’d lost someone.

“Hero,” Legend spoke with the smallest tremor in his voice, “Call for help, as much as you can get.”

The creature, the Behemoth, stepped closer, raising one claw and pointed at Kaveh.  Kaveh the Smith, the builder, the forger.

The man ignited from the inside out, flame and smoke pouring from every orifice as he was turned into a burned-out husk in a matter of seconds.  His skeleton disintegrated into fine dust and ash as it crashed to the ground.

He can bypass the Manton effect.  She thought, stunned.  She flew forward, trying to draw his attention, interjecting herself between the Behemoth and the others.

He pointed his claw once more, and she braced herself, gritting her teeth.  Time to see how invincible I am.

But it wasn’t fire.  A lightning bolt flashed from the tip of Behemoth’s claw, arcing around her and striking one of her subordinates in a single heartbeat, before leaving only the smell of ozone.  She flew in close, slamming her hands into his face, driving him back, throwing him off-balance.

He struck her and drove her into the ground.  His flame burned through her, the sand was turning to glass around her, burning her costume, but it didn’t burn her.

But she couldn’t breathe.  She flew back and out of the way until she had air again.  She stared at the scene that was unfolding, the heroes beating a hasty retreat as that thing advanced, slow and implacable.

Shit,” Hero’s voice came over the communications channel.

“What?” she responded.  Legend was pelting the thing with lasers that could have burned buildings to the ground, and he was barely leaving a mark.  Eidolon was manipulating the sand, creating barriers while simultaneously drawing sand out from beneath their enemy, while pelting it with laser blasts that he spat from his mouth.

At least he’s too slow to dodge or get out of the way of trouble.

Guys back home say we’re close to some major oil fields.

She shook herself free of glass and dirt and threw herself back into the fray.  A bad situation was suddenly critical.  The creature roared again, and the force of the noise threw her flight off course.  Eidolon’s makeshift walls collapsed and more heroes fell, bleeding from heavy internal damage.

They’d been right after all.  Dumb luck had created a parahuman as dangerous as what the Doctor could create by design.

Fire, sonic, lightning.  And he hit me harder than he should have, even being as big as he is.  Kinetic energy, too.  

Her eyes widened.  Not individual powers.  Those were all the same power.  She pressed one hand to her ear, opening communications to the rest of her team.  “He’s a dynakinetic!  He manipulates energy!  No Manton limitation!”

How do we even fight something like that?

But she knew they didn’t have a choice.  She threw herself back into the thick of the fight.

January 18th, 1993

“I, Alexandria, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the director appointed over me, according to the regulations of the PRTCJ.”

Applause swelled around her.  As far as the eye could see, there were crowds and flashing cameras.  President Griffin extended a hand and she shook it.

He leaned close, “You do us proud.”

“Thank you, James.  I’ll give my all.”

He squeezed her hand and moved on.

“I, Eidolon, do solemnly affirm…”

She gazed over the crowd, saw her mother standing there with eyes glistening.  The lesser members of the Protectorate were in the front row as well, her subordinates among them.

Turning further right, she saw Hero looking at her, almost accusatory.  She turned and faced the crowd.  Regal, unflinching, dressed in an updated costume.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” the Vice President spoke into the microphone, “Let me introduce the founding members of the Protectorate of the United States of America!”

Invincible as she might be, she thought her heart might burst as it swelled with pride, the crowd cheering with such force that the stage shook.

September 15th, 2000

Alexandria and Hero were last to arrive on the scene, entering through the window.  Legend pressed one finger to his lips.

“We’ve got her cornered?” Hero whispered.

“Think so,” Legend replied, his voice as quiet.  ”We’ve got teams covering the drainage and plumbing below the building, and the entire place is surrounded.“

“She hasn’t tried to leave?”  Hero asked.  ”Why not?“

Legend couldn’t maintain eye contact.  ”She has a victim.“

Alexandria spoke, stabbing one finger in Legend’s direction, “You had better be fucking kidding me, or I swear-“

“Stop, Alexandria.  It was the only way to guarantee she’d stay put.  If we moved too soon, she’d run, and it would be a matter of time before she racked up a body count elsewhere.“

I’m in this to save lives.  Sacrificing someone for the sake of the plan?  She knew it made sense, that it was even necessary, but it left her shaken, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Then let’s move,” she responded, “The sooner the better.“

“We’re trying an experimental measure,” Legend spoke, “It’s meant to contain, not kill.  Drive her towards main street.  We have more trucks over there.“

They operated with a practiced ease.  Legend blasted down the door and Alexandria was the first through.

Siberian was there, kneeling on the bed, her body marked with stripes of jet black and alabaster white, her arms slick with blood up to the elbows.  The man who lay on the bed – there would be no saving him, even if Eidolon manifested healing abilities.

She looks familiar, Alexandria thought, even as she soared across the room.

They’d underestimated their opponent.  Alexandria’s fists collided with Siberian and didn’t budge a hair.  She flew out of the way before Siberian could claw at her with long fingernails.

Legend fired beam after beam at Siberian, but the striped woman didn’t even flinch.  She was invincible on a level that surpassed even Alexandria.

Eidolon cast out a cluster of crystal that exploded into a formation around Siberian on impact, encasing her.

Siberian shrugged it off like it was nothing, lunged forward, going after Hero.

Alexandria dove to intervene, to guard her teammate, but Siberian was faster.  She reached Hero first, her hands plunging through his chest cavity.  When she pulled her arms free, she nearly bisected him.

Eidolon screamed, flying close to scoop up the two pieces of Hero, carrying them outside.

Siberian leaped after them, missed only because Legend shot his comrades with a laser to alter their trajectory.

Their enemy plunged to the street, landing on both feet as though she were light as a feather.

The ensuing moments were frantic, filled with screamed orders and raw terror.  Alexandria chased Siberian to try to scoop bystanders out of the way, to catch the PRT vehicles that Siberian flung like wiffle balls.

And they were losing.  Eidolon was trying to heal Hero, to teleport people out of danger when Alexandria and Legend proved unable, and changing up his abilities every few seconds to throw something new at Siberian in the hopes that something would affect her.  She waded through zones of altered time, through lightning storms and force fields, tore through barricades of living wood and slapped aside a projectile so hyperdense that its gravitational field pulled cars behind it.

Alexandria moved in close, hoping to stop Siberian, to catch her and slow her down, saw Siberian swing, pulled back out of the way.

Her visor fell free, clattering to the ground.  Then she felt the blood.

Saw, in her one remaining good eye, the chunks of her own face that were falling to the ground around her, bouncing off her right breast, the spray of blood.

It had been so long since she’d felt pain.

Legend called out the order and buried her in containment foam, hiding her from sight.

September 16th, 2000

Alexandria sat in the hospital.  Eidolon’s healing had only been able to do so much.  She held a glass eye in one hand, the remains of her other eye in the other.

She looked up at the Doctor.  “William Manton?”

The Doctor nodded.

“How?  Why?”

“I don’t know what predicated it.  His daughter’s in our custody.  One of our failures.”

“He gave his daughter the formula?  Without the usual preparations and procedures?”

“I suppose he thought he was qualified to oversee all that.  Despite my strict instructions that staff weren’t to partake.  Or he had other motivations.  It could have been a gift from a father trying to buy his daughter’s affections.”

“Or her forgiveness,” Alexandria looked down at the glass eye, then back up to the Doctor.

The Doctor’s eyebrows were raised in uncharacteristic surprise.  “Did you see anything suspect?”

“No.  I only met his daughter twice, and it was brief, her father wasn’t around.  But I know the divorce between Professor Manton and his wife was pretty bad, as those things go.  He was angry, maybe did some things he regretted?”

The Doctor sighed.

“So that was him?

“Almost certainly.  He gave his daughter one of our higher quality formulas, and she couldn’t handle it.  When he realized what he’d done, realized that he couldn’t hide it from us, he took one formula for himself and fled.  I didn’t know what it had done for him until tonight.  The resemblance between Siberian and Manton’s daughter is subtle, but it’s there, and the footage from Hero’s helmet-camera has been run through every facial recognition program I could find.”

“What did Legend, Eidolon and…”  Alexandria stopped when she realized that she’d been about to say Hero.  “What did they say?  About Manton?”

“They don’t know.  I suppose we should tell Eidolon.  He reacted badly when his powers informed him of our other plans and projects.”

Alexandria hung her head.  “How do we stop him?  Manton?  If he’s transformed into that…”

“The sample he took, F-one-six-one-one, it tends to give projection powers.  I suspect his real body is unchanged.  But I’m wondering if we shouldn’t leave him be.”

Alexandria stared at the doctor, wide-eyed.  “Why?

“So long as he’s active, people will be flocking to join the Protectorate-”

Alexandria slammed her hand on the stainless steel table beside her cot.

Silence rang between them in the wake of the destruction.

“I will not condone the loss of life for your ulterior motives.  I will not let monsters walk free, to profit from the fear they spread.”

“You’re right,” the Doctor said.  “I… must be more shaken by Manton’s betrayal than I’d thought.  Forget I said anything.”

If Alexandria saw a hint of falsehood in the Doctor’s body language, she convinced herself it was the strain of one eye compensating for the job she’d used to perform with two.

“You realize what this means, don’t you?” The Doctor asked.

“That we’re no longer doing more good than evil?” Alexandria replied, bitter.

“No.  I still feel we’re working for the forces of good.  Manton was a selfish man, unhinged. The exception to the rule.”

Alexandria couldn’t quite bring her to believe it.

“No, this means we simply need to step up our plans.  If we’re going to go forward with the  Terminus project, we need to advance the overall efforts with Cauldron.  And we need the Protectorate effort to succeed on every count.”

“Or we need your project to work out,” Alexandria replied.

The Doctor frowned.  “Or that.  We still have to find the right individual.  Or make him.”

April 10th, 2008

Mortars, bombs and air-to-ground missiles rained down around her. It had been a decade and a half since she had really felt pain, and she still couldn’t help but flinch as they struck ground in her immediate vicinity.  Still, she continued walking, her cape and hair fluttering behind her.

Two people lay face-down on the edge of the street, a teenage boy and girl holding hands.  She knelt and checked their pulses.  Dead.

But she could see others.  She quickly strode over and kneeled by a young man.  His stomach was a bloody mess, and he was gasping for every breath.

“To gustaria livir?” She asked, in the local’s anglo-spanish pidgin.  Do you want to live?

His eyes widened as he seemed to realize she was there.  “Eres an gwarra engel?”

“No,” she replied.  She brushed his hair out of his face with one hand.  “No an engel.”  Not an angel.

Livir,” he breathed the word before slumping over.

She swept him up in her arms, quickly and carefully.  Keeping an eye out for any falling mortars, she quickly ascended into the air.

She was at the cloud-level when the door opened.  She stepped into the brightly lit corridors of Cauldron’s testing laboratory and strode down to the cells.

Thirty cells, filled with subjects.  Thirty-one now.  The cells didn’t appear to have doors, but  the individuals within were all too aware of the dangers of stepping beyond the perimeters of their cells, or of trying to harass Alexandria as she strode by.

Only two-thirds of them were monstrous, affected by the formulas.  Others would go free with alterations to their memories.  Some would have fatal weaknesses inserted into their psyches, reason to hesitate at a crucial moment against a certain foe.

But they would be alive.  That was the most important thing.  They had been destined to die, in places where the wars never stopped, or where plague was rampant, rescued from the brink of death.

Entering one cell, she brushed the hair from the young man’s face once more, then propped him up while she administered the sample the Doctor had left for her.

She stepped back while he convulsed, his wounds filling in, his breathing growing steady enough for him to scream.

His eyes opened, and he stared at her, wide-eyed, still screaming as sensations returned to him and pain overwhelmed every sense.

“Eres okay,” she said, in his language.  “Eres livo.”

It’s okay.  You’re alive.  She forced herself to smile as reassuringly as she could.

So long as they lived, they could have hope.  Living was the most important thing.

And here I am, administering poison with a smile on my face.

She turned and walked away.

June 18th, 2011

“…I guess we have another unanswered question on our hands,” Eidolon said.

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  ”Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  A small smile touched his lips.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

“A month or two, either Simurgh or Behemoth if they stick to pattern,” Alexandria said.  She watched as Legend strode out of the room.  Eidolon paused, then gave the hand signal.  No bugs, and Legend wasn’t listening in.

The Doctor already had the booster shot ready.  Eidolon extended one arm, clutching his bicep to help make the vein more pronounced.  The doctor injected.

“The boosters aren’t cutting it anymore,” Eidolon said.  “I’m getting weaker.  Powers are taking longer to reach their peak, and their maximum strength isn’t what it used to be.  If this keeps up, then I won’t be able to offer anything during this end-of-the-world scenario.”

“We’ll find a solution,” the Doctor said.

“You were too calm,” Eidolon spoke.  “I was worried you’d miss my warning.”

“Very clever, burning the words into the paper in front of me.  Thank you.  Was I convincing?”

“You managed to feign skepticism over this apocalypse scenario,” Alexandria spoke.

“Well, that’s the most important thing,” the Doctor spoke.

“He’s suspicious.  He knows or suspects we’ve been lying to him,” Alexandria said.

“Unfortunate.  Will he expose us?”

Alexandria shook her head.  “No.  I don’t think he will.  But he may distance himself from us to lower the number of opportunities we have to see his doubt for what it is.”

“We’ll manage,” the Doctor replied.  “In the worst case scenario, we’ll explain the circumstances, explain our plan.”

“He won’t like it,” Eidolon spoke.

“But he’ll understand,” the Doctor said.  “If the Terminus project is a success, the end of the world isn’t a concern.  And I believe we will succeed.”

“Provided we come up with a solution to the bigger, more basic problems we’re facing,” Eidolon said.  “Or we’ll simply find ourselves in the same circumstances after we’ve gone to all this trouble.”

Alexandria nodded.  “The Protectorate is proving to be a failure on that front.  Recent events haven’t given me much hope in that regard.”

“So that leaves only my end of things,” the Doctor said.

“Coil,” Eidolon said.  “And if he fails?”

“Ever the pessimist,” Alexandria said.

“This revelation about the possible end of the world has decimated our projected timeline.  We don’t have time to prepare or pursue anything further,” the Doctor said.

“If we assist him-”

“No,” the Doctor spoke.  “If we assist him, there’s no point.”

“In short?” Alexandria leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table.  “He doesn’t even know it, but everything rests on his shoulders.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 14.5 (Bonus Interlude)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“It’s just going to be another minute or two.  The data has to compile and upload.  It’s not my work, so I played it safe and went for the slowest, heaviest compression method that I could.  It’s going to take a bit.”

“That’s fine.  Thank you.”

Kid Win shifted position uncomfortably, falling silent.

You don’t have to be intimidated.  I’m just a man.

Legend stared out the window.  He wouldn’t miss this city.  There weren’t happy memories here, and there was little he was proud about.  Most of the time, he was able to feel that he’d made an impact, that the world was a better place for his being there.  That wasn’t the case here.

“How long have you been in the Wards?” he asked, to make conversation.

“Two years.”

“I’ve seen your records.”

Kid Win cringed.

“No, don’t act like I’m going to say something bad.  The Deputy Director in charge of the Wards, I can’t quite remember his name, he had some glowing praise for your ability to engage with the public.”

“Engage with the public?  I don’t remember doing much of that.”

“Something about speeches to other youths at school?”

“Oh.  That wasn’t a big deal.”

“The guy who’s rating your performance seems to think it was.  Can’t quite place his name, the suits sort of start to blur in with one another-”

“Deputy Director Renick,” Kid Win supplied.

“Yes.  Thank you.  He seemed to think you connected with the crowd, and you did it better than any of your teammates. You were frank, open, honest, and you stood out because of how you handled yourself when the students started getting rambunctious and heckling you.”

“Director Piggot yelled at me for drawing the gun.”

“It was something that could have backfired very easily, but you struck the right tone and you defused the situation with humor.  I think that’s a good thing, and so did the staff at the school.  The teachers sent emails a few days after the event, commenting on the overall positive impact you had on the students, the hecklers included.  And when I say you, I mean you specifically.”

Kid Win shrugged, tapping a few keys on the laptop to rotate through a series of progress bars and graphs.  “Nobody told me about that.”

“That’s a shame,” Legend said, turning his gaze to the window to relieve some of the pressure his very presence seemed to put on Kid Win.  “The ability to manage yourself with the public is crucial if you intend to go on to make a career out of working with the Protectorate.”

“It’s kind of weird, that someone as important as you are is making such a big deal out of an event I barely remember.”

“I study the records of everyone I intend to work with, and I studied yours.  I try to make a note of individual strengths.  That event stuck in my mind when I was reading through your files.  It was a very easy mental picture to put together, especially the part with the gun.”

Kid Win smiled a little.

“You remind me of Hero.”

The smile fell from Kid Win’s face.  He looked startled.  “Really?”

“I imagine he was very much like you when he was younger.”

Kid Win looked uncomfortable.

“You can talk about it,” Legend assured him.  “It’s okay.  It was a long time ago that he passed.”

“I sort of modeled myself after him.”

Legend studied the boy.  Red and gold body armor and a red-tinted visor.  There were additions that seemed to be more recent, judging by the lack of wear and tear, but if he looked past those, if he imagined the boy with a helmet covering that brown wavy hair, replaced the red with blue chain mesh, he could see the resemblance.

“I can see that.”

“I didn’t mean to copy him, or to ride off his fame or anything.  I was younger when I started, I totally meant it to be respectful-”  Kid Win stopped as Legend raised a hand.

“It’s okay.  I think he would be flattered.”

Kid Win nodded, a little too quickly.

“He was the first real tinker, you know.”

“Before we knew tinkers have specializations,” Kid Win added.

“I’ve thought about it.  The disintegration gun, the jetpack, the sonic weapons, the power sources and explosives that were surprisingly effective for their size.  I suspect his specialty tied into manipulating and enhancing wavelengths and frequencies.”

Kid Win’s eyes went wide.  He glanced at the laptop.

“I know enough other tinkers to know that look.  You just had a stroke of inspiration?”

“Sort of.  More like a bunch of half-assed ideas all at once.”

“Don’t let me distract you.  If you want to take a minute to make some notes on whatever came to mind, I won’t be offended in the slightest.”

“It’s okay.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I-” Kid Win paused.  “I guess I’d rather keep talking to you than write down ideas that probably won’t work out.”

“Thank you.  I’d say you shouldn’t worry too much about trying to emulate Hero.  It’s heartening, if I had to put a word to the feeling, that you look up to him and carry on his legacy.  But you have your own specialization and your own strengths.”

Kid Win nodded.  “I’m figuring that out.  I spent a long time trying to be like other tinkers and struggling.  Ninety percent of my projects just stopped before I finished it.  The stuff I finished, I finished it because it was simple.  Guns, the floating hoverboard… well, I used to have a floating hoverboard.  I sort of copied Hero’s approach.  ‘Board instead of jetpack, but I made the guns, tried a few disintegration rays.  Maybe part of the reason I finished that stuff was because I felt like I’d be insulting Hero by trying to copy his style and making a mess of it.”

“Makes sense,” Legend spoke, primarily to show he was listening.

“But lately I’ve started to relax about that.  Maybe it helps that we’ve been working as hard as we have.  I’ve been too tired to keep to the rules I thought I was supposed to follow.  Still have to spend time in the workshop, I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t, but I’m winging it more.  I’m trusting my instincts and spending less time using the computers to get the exact numbers and measurements.”

“To help compensate for your dyscalculia?”

“I didn’t know you knew about that.  I didn’t know the PRT knew about that.”

“Dragon’s talents make for very comprehensive records, sorry.”

Kid Win frowned, his expression changing fractionally as he stared down at the keyboard in front of him.  He seemed to come to terms with the idea, because he moved on. “Anyways, I think it’s working for me.  I’m getting the feeling that I do have a specialization, but it’s more of an approach than a particular field.  Equipment with multiple settings and uses, modular weapons, gear that’s adaptable to different situations, I guess?”

“That’s fantastic.  The fact that you’ve struggled and then found your strengths the hard way could be an asset.”

“An asset?”

“If you wind up leading the Wards or a team in the Protectorate, it means you’ll be better equipped to help out teammates who are having their own problems.”

“I’d be horrible in a leadership position.”

“Hero said the same thing, and I think we’ll both agree that he was wrong.”

That seemed to give Kid Win pause.

“Think about it.”

“Okay,” Kid Win replied.  “Not that I’m not majorly grateful that you’re giving me the pep talk, but you said you were in a bit of a hurry and I think we’re done here.”

“The compiling is done?”

“I could refine it further, try to give you some additional features, but the coding and the hardware I’m working with here is so tightly structured that I think I’d do more harm than good.  It’s like the techie equivalent of trying to put toothpaste back in the tube after you’ve squeezed it out… you can’t, so maybe you try to make more tube that sticks out of one side, but you keep doing it and you wind up with this kludgy mess that you can’t even use for its original purpose.  For getting toothpaste.”

“I think I understand what you mean.  Thank you for this.  It’s already uploaded?”

“Yeah, and it was my pleasure, really.” Kid Win smiled.

Legend stood and stretched a little.

The goodbyes had already been made and he’d had his meeting with Emily.  Business was wrapped up here.  He’d called home to let Arthur know he wouldn’t make it to dinner but that he hoped to be back before midnight.

A light smile touched his face.  He even felt a little giddy at the thought of getting home, wrapping Arthur in a hug.  Growing up, he’d never thought that he’d feel giddy about his husband after six years of marriage.

But he had something to take care of first.  The notion put a damper on his pleasant mood.

“I’m going to go, then.  You and I,” he promised Kid Win, “Should talk again sometime.  You can tell me if you’ve figured out your specialty, and if you’re leading a team.”

“Maybe the next time you’re in Brockton Bay?”

“Maybe.”  Legend smiled, but he was thinking, does he know?  This whole region might be condemned.

Maybe Kid Win was being optimistic.

Legend turned and opened a window, then let himself float through.  He took a second to get his bearings, to inform himself of which direction was up, down, north, east, south and west, then he took off.

Powers were classified into categories, and the ‘breaker’ classification was used to mark those powers which were limited to one’s own body and their immediate vicinity.  Though it had initially been used to cover individuals who could make themselves stronger, denser, larger or change the materials they were made of, it was slowly expanding to include others.  There was a theory that was gaining traction, suggesting that the breaker classification was one of the most common powersets, if not always the most pronounced.  Innumerable people with powers had also adapted innate defenses that kept their own powers from harming themselves.  Pyrokinetics tended to be resistant to flame. There were automatic shutoffs, biological and mental, for various other powers.  Even beyond that, there were other adaptations that were so subtle as to be almost undetectable.  His weren’t.

Legend’s flight powers let him accelerate to a speed that exceeded sound and continue accelerating, to no hard limit.  The soft limit was that he had breaker powers that kept the acceleration from tearing him to shreds, altering his body into something else entirely as he gained speed.  The drawback to this was that his brain also shut down on a cognitive level as the transformation occurred.  He had never let himself go so fast that he lost the ability to consciously control his movements.

There were other benefits too.  He was better at registering and processing light waves, regardless of which state he was in.  He could see with perfect clarity up until the point that an obstactle intervened or the atmosphere occluded his vision.

If an opponent attacked and struck him, he instinctively transitioned into his energy form for a split second.  In that state, he absorbed energy of a variety of kinds, including the kinetic energy that was transferred with a punch or with a bullet.  His opponents were forced to whittle him down, each attack only a fraction as effective as it might otherwise be.  Even then, a share of that small amount of damage was healed a second later as he used the absorbed energy to mend his body.  Conversely, his enemies could try to hit him with enough speed and force that even a hundredth of a second of contact was sufficient to take him out of the fight.  Leviathan and Behemoth had managed to land blows of that magnitude.

Siberian has as well.  He set his jaw and increased his speed a notch.

He traveled over the Atlantic Ocean, moving so fast that the water appeared to be one flat plane.  His thoughts became a blur, and he was forced to focus on his destination, letting all other thoughts and doubts fall by the wayside.

It was refreshing, in a way, cleansing himself of the responsibilities and the thousands of problems he was forced to handle as the leader of the Protectorate.  Still, it always scared him just a little.

It took him only an instant to reach a complete stop.  He let himself settle down into his real body once more.

He’d wondered sometimes if his ability to fly was meant for travel on an interstellar level.  What if he kept accelerating?  His breaker power would let him weather the void of space, his ability to see would be that much more powerful if there was no atmosphere to occlude his vision over miles… even the boredom of traveling for years was nothing if his conscious mind shifted into a rest state.

Not that he’d ever test it.

He’d absorbed light, heat and ambient radiation while he flew, and he felt restored.  Even the mildest wear and tear had been tended to, his body restored to peak condition.

His mind was another matter, his emotions.  It was like waking up in a warm bed, the man he loved beside him, only to experience a sinking feeling as he came to dread the coming day.

He drifted closer to the oil rig, and settled down on a fence, using a touch of his flight ability to stay balanced.  In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there was only water.

“Any time now,” he said.

It began as a pale square in mid-air, then unfolded rapidly, three-dimensional.  When it opened up further, the interior of a building loomed in mid-air, the exterior absent.

He floated forward and set foot on the white tile of the hallway.  He felt the distortion as the space shifted, felt the rush of wind as air pressure adjusted.  It took only a couple of seconds.  When he glanced over his shoulder, the oil rig was gone.  There was only more hallway behind him.

He walked onward, confident in his ability to navigate the maze of rooms and corridors.

When he pushed open the double doors and stepped into the conference room, there were a few looks of surprise.

“Legend,” the Doctor spoke, “I thought you were occupied in Brockton Bay.”

“Jack escaped.”

“That’s… really unfortunate,” Alexandria said.

“Quite,” the Doctor replied.

Legend glanced around the room.  Alexandria leaned back in her chair, her helmet on the table in front of her, a star-shaped scar at the corner of one eye.  Beautiful, Legend was sure, but more in the way a lioness was beautiful.  In her black and gray costume, she was intimidating, her expression regal.

Eidolon was the opposite.  He had lowered his hood and removed his glowing mask, revealing a middle-aged man with thick eyebrows, thinning hair and heavy cheeks.  He looked more like an average family man who was getting dressed up as Eidolon for a costume party than he looked like Eidolon himself.

There were others around the table.  The Doctor: dark-skinned, hair tied into a prim bun with chopsticks stuck through it, wearing a short white dress beneath a white lab coat.  The Number Man, with his laptop set in front of him, looking more like a businessman than one of the most influential and lesser-known parahumans on the planet.  There was also the woman in the black suit, who had never introduced herself or been introduced by name.  Whenever Legend came here with the others, the woman was there with the Doctor.

Insurance, he thought.  The Doctor thinks that woman can face us if we turn on her.

Would she win?  Legend harbored doubts.  He’d met a lot of powerful individuals over the course of his career, and he’d learned how to measure them.  This woman didn’t relax for an instant, where someone who was assured of victory would be more willing to let down her guard.  More likely that she’s supposed to stall or stop us if there’s a problem, buying the doctor time to escape.

“Jack escaped.  What about the other Nine?” the Doctor asked.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“It’s unusual for you to show any interest in what’s going on outside the realm of your business and research.  Any reason for the curiosity?”

The Doctor smiled. “Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Legend nodded.  He took a seat to Alexandria’s right.  He considered for a moment, then spoke.  “There are some things that concern me.”

“Is this tied to why you came here today?”

“Yes.  Let me begin by saying that there’s apparently a precog in Brockton Bay that’s pretty damn certain that the world’s going to end shortly.”

“Precogs are notoriously unreliable.  I tell many of my customers that when they express interest in seeing the future.  I think I even told you.  Or was it Alexandria that I discussed it with?”

“It was,” Alexandria replied.

“You’re right,” Legend said, “Most precogs are vague.  They have to be, because the future is vague.  But all reports point to this precog being very specific.  Jack Slash was mentioned as the catalyst for an event that occurs in two years.  More specifically, she said this occurs if Jack escaped Brockton Bay alive, which he did.”

There were nods around the table.

“What do you mean when you say the world ends?” Eidolon asked.

“Thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the population dies in a very short span of time.  I assume the aftermath of this scenario leads to more deaths in the long run.”

The Number Man spoke.  “Depending on the circumstances of death, the demise of even one in three individuals would lead to further casualties.  Lack of staff for essential services and key areas, health, atmospheric and ecological effects of decomposition on a massive scale, destabilized societal infrastructure… The best case scenario is that Earth’s population drops steeply over twenty years, until it settles to forty-eight point six percent of where it currently stands.  Three billion, three hundred and ninety-one million, eight hundred and three thousand, five hundred and four.  Give or take.”

“That’s the best case scenario?” Alexandria asked.

The man shrugged.  “It’s unlikely it will occur.  The bare minimum of people would have to die, there couldn’t be any bodies, and there wouldn’t be anything left unattended that could cause uncontrolled fires or nuclear incidents.  If I were to ballpark a number, talking about events that could kill one-third to nearly all of the world’s population, I’d say roughly seventy-two percent of the earth’s population are likely to die.  That leaves one billion, nine hundred and fifty million alive.  More than half of those individuals would die over the following twenty years, and more than half of those who remain would die in the ten years following that.  Keeping in mind these are estimates, of course.”

“Of course,” The Doctor said, “Precogs are unreliable.  I’m surmising this girl doesn’t know exactly how this occurs?”

“No.  Her employer didn’t say anything on the subject.”

“We’ll take measures,” Eidolon said.  “Evacuation, we’ll also push for automatic shutdown controls on power grids and nuclear facilities.  With the Endbringers out there, it would be sensible to do it anyways.  We can reduce the potential damage.”

“Unless,” Alexandria said, “The numbers the precog provided are already accounting for us having this conversation and taking the extra measures.  If she does view the future, it’s very possible she saw this very meeting and everything that followed, in a manner of speaking.”

That was sobering.

“We’ll do it anyways, of course,” Eidolon said.

Legend and Alexandria nodded.

“Let’s remember,” the Doctor said, “The numbers already pointed to an endgame situation at the twenty-three year mark.  If the Endbringers continue doing the damage they’ve been doing at the current rate, things won’t be sustainable.  We’ll be forced to withdraw from damaged and dangerous areas, populations will condense, the Endbringers attack those pockets…  and that’s without considering the possibility that they achieve something big in the interim.  We’ve talked about the crisis scenarios: Behemoth triggering a nuclear winter, Leviathan obliterating or tainting the world’s renewable water supply.”

“You’re saying we’re already facing an end of the world situation,” Alexandria said, “And this is just accelerating the timetable.”

“Yes.  Any measures we take are still vital.  They’ll help here, with this scenario, but if it never occurs, it will still help against the Endbringers.”

“Are we assuming the Endbringers are at the core of this end-of-the-world scenario?” Eidolon asked.

“Likely,” Alexandria said, “But let’s not rule anything out.”

“Provided this is really occurring,” the Doctor spoke.

“We can’t afford to say it’s not,” Legend said.  “You have precogs among your staff and customers?”

“Some,” The Doctor answered.  “I can ask them about this end of the world scenario.”

Legend nodded.  “Good.  Eidolon, you want to try your hand at it?”

“If my power lets me.  It only gives me what it thinks I need, not what I want.”

“We need all the help we can get.  Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this happens, so we can stop it or mitigate the damage.  There’s a lot of capes out there with the thinker classification.  Get the word out, call in favors, offer favors.  Anything to get more information on this.”

There were nods and noises of agreement from his fellow Protectorate members and the Doctor.

Legend quietly cleared his throat, glancing around the table.  “Speaking of great minds… there was another point I wanted to address, that came up during my stay in Brockton Bay.”

He had their attention.

“Alexandria, I expect you read the reports already.  You didn’t seem that surprised when I talked about the precog and her end-of-the-world scenario, you’ve probably read up on my notes here.”

Alexandria had originally named herself after the Library of Alexandria, though she’d ceased mentioning that, choosing to leave enemies in the dark instead.  As strong as she was on a physical level, her mind was equally formidable.  She never forgot a detail, absorbed information quickly, reading two pages of a book with a glance, and she learned quickly, retaining everything she picked up.  She knew most commonly spoken languages, no less than ten styles of martial arts and she could match some of the best non-tinkers in the world when it came to computers.  Not only was she rated well in the brute classification, but she held high scores in the mover and thinker categories.

“I read what you provided, though I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically.”

“Siberian.”

He saw a change in her expression, saw Eidolon flinch as if he’d been slapped.

“I’ll explain for those of you who lack access to the PRT records or the time to peruse them.  Siberian is not a brute-class cape.  Siberian is a ‘master’, and the striped woman is a projection.  I caught a glimpse of the man who is creating the projection before they retreated.”

“And?”

“And he had Cauldron’s mark tattooed on the back of his left hand, a swan on his right.”

With the exception of himself, the Number Man and the woman in the suit, everyone present reacted with surprise.

“You don’t think that was William Manton?”  Alexandria asked.  “But why the mark on his right hand?”

“I don’t know.  It doesn’t fit on a lot of levels.  A top parahuman researcher becoming one of the Nine?”

“It happened to Alan.  To Mannequin,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.

“There’s nothing in the records,” Alexandria said, “Nothing saying he was present at any of the places the quarantine protocol was put in effect.”

She would know.  She read every record, could call them to mind with perfect accuracy.

“He could have stolen someone’s identity.”

Alexandria nodded, “True.”

“We have confirmation he’s alive,” Eidolon said, his voice quiet.  “We suspected, but-”

“We made assumptions, and we were way off base.  That’s what concerns me.”  Legend leveled a hard look at the Doctor.  “See, we’ve been going by the assumption that William Manton, from the time he left Cauldron to the present day, has been continuing his work.  We’ve been assuming he’s traveling across the world, experimenting on human subjects, giving them powers with physical mutations as a side effect, then releasing the victims back into society with Cauldron’s symbol tattooed on their bodies.  Or at least, that’s what you told us.”

“You’re implying I lied?” the Doctor asked.  She didn’t look bothered in the slightest.

“I’ve looked at the timelines.  It’s not likely that William Manton could be conducting experiments to give some poor girl tentacles in Illinois at the same time Siberian’s busy attacking people in Miami.  Not to mention he barely looked capable of taking care of himself, let alone conducting research.”

He glanced at the others.  Eidolon’s brow was creased in concern, while Alexandria looked pensive.

“The pattern doesn’t fit,” he said, to drive the point home.  He looked at the Doctor, “Which leaves me to wonder just who is conducting experiments on human subjects.”

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

“Maybe that’s the case.  But just who is conducting experiments on human subjects, who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”

“It’s not us,” the Doctor spoke.

Legend stared at her, studying her.  “And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.  If it would assuage your suspicions, you can examine this complex,” the Doctor suggested.

“You and I both know this place is far too large to explore in one lifetime,” he answered.

“True.”

“And if we were to surmise that you’re the culprit here, there’s nothing saying you couldn’t have your doormaker maintain a path to another alternate reality where you have captives stashed away.  It would even explain why there haven’t been any real missing persons cases that we can link to the case-fifty-threes, if you’re simply snatching them from another reality and depositing them in our reality when you’re done.”

She spread her arms wide.  “I don’t know what I can say to convince you.”

“You trust me, don’t you?” Alexandria asked.

“Yes,” Legend said.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

Legend sighed.  “Right.”

“We’re okay, then?” the Doctor asked.

Legend nodded.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

“It’s understandable.  This situation doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery,” Eidolon spoke.  “I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

Legend sighed, “More than one.  William Manton and his link to Siberian, the tattoo on his right hand, our end of the world scenario and the role Jack plays as the catalyst.  Too many to count.”

“None of this has to be addressed today,” Alexandria said.  “Why don’t you go home?  We’ll consider the situation and come up with a plan and some likely explanations.”

Legend nodded.  The thought of holding Arthur and Keith in his arms energized him.

The Doctor turned to Eidolon, “You want another booster shot?”

“Probably another Endbringer attack coming up, it’s best if I’m in top form.”

While the others talked and planned, Legend stood and left without a farewell.

An opening between realities unfolded before he was half of the way down the alabaster white hallway.  He stepped through the opening to the oil rig, and then began his flight back to New York City.

But he didn’t go home.

Instead, Legend descended on the rooftop of the NYC Protectorate offices.  A tinker-made scanner verified who he was and opened the doors for him in time for him to walk through.

He nodded a greeting to everyone he passed.  When people asked him how things had gone, he offered them a response that was polite but short enough that it was clear he wasn’t looking for further conversation.

He reached his office and closed the door.

He was careful to start up a virtual operating system preloaded with the standard PRT databases and software.  Nothing that would leave a trace on his regular OS.  He unplugged the fiber-optic cables and disabled the wireless.

The precautions were little use if he was already being watched, but it made him feel better.

Once his computer was isolated from outside influences, he withdrew a USB cable from one drawer, plugging one end into the keyboard.  He reached up to one ear and withdrew an earbud.  The other end of the USB cable connected to it.

ASCII art of Kid Win’s face popped up as the earbud connected to the computer, along with the text, ‘thank you’.

He couldn’t bring himself to smile.

Problems of self-confidence aside, Kid Win had produced an interface that was easy to use.  Legend clicked on the yellow button and waited.  Voices played from the computer’s speakers.  He adjusted the volume and listened.

“We suspect that Bonesaw and Siberian also escaped, with Hookwolf as a new member of their group.”

“I see.”

“Any reason for the curiosity?”

“Hard to keep track of what goes on beyond these walls, sometimes.”

Text appeared, transcribing what was being said.  The program paused, the image of the yellow button popping back out.  A red word appeared below the last statement: LIE.

A vague lie, but not a damning one.  His pulse was pounding as he hit the waiting yellow button to resume the record.

“We have no need for human experimentation.  The Number Man can calculate the odds of success for a given formula.”

LIE.

He clicked again.

“…Who knows enough about Cauldron to tattoo or brand them with the mark while simultaneously having access to these kinds of resources?”  His own voice was the one playing from the speakers.

“It’s not us,” the Doctor’s voice answered his.

LIE.

He sat staring at the screen, horrified.

Cauldron had given him his powers, had given him what he needed to be at the very top, to lead the largest collection of superheroes in the world.  They hadn’t wanted much in exchange.  He kept an eye out to make sure nobody got too curious about Cauldron, diverted them if they did.  He’d greased the wheels for some of Cauldron’s top customers.  He was also ready to defend Cauldron if and when it became public knowledge.  It was for the greater good, he told himself.  There was no way for Cauldron to operate otherwise, lest the world’s governments fight over the ability to create whole armies of people with powers and interfere with the organization’s ability to operate.

It would operate, he knew, it obviously wasn’t in a location where it could be raided or seized by military forces, but it wouldn’t be able to reach nearly as many people, and capes would come under scrutiny with the possibility that they’d purchased their powers.

He’d committed to this because Cauldron was essential.  With the rise of the Endbringers and threats like the Slaughterhouse Nine, the world was in need of heroes.  Cauldron produced more heroes than villains, because there was none of the trauma of a trigger event to throw them off.  Even for those individuals who turned to crime, Cauldron was able to leverage the favors that were part of the contract in order to guide their path.  More superheroes meant better chances for everyone when it came to fighting the Endbringers and dealing with the big threats.

It struck him that this wasn’t necessarily true.  If the Doctor had lied about human experimentation, she could have lied about those details as well, too.

Human experimentation on a large scale.  Unwitting, or perhaps unwilling to connect the dots, he’d helped it happen in a way.

His hand shook as he reached for the mouse.  He clicked the button once more, hoping there would be something he could use to convince himself that this was a mistake.  A false positive, a clue that Cauldron was really a force for good after all.  Hadn’t Armsmaster said that his lie detection system was imperfect?  Or maybe Kid Win had generated errors in the code.  The alterations had been minor but comprehensive:  Legend hadn’t wanted to be informed in real-time about the lies, lest he give something away.

“And you don’t know anything about how William Manton is connected to all this?”

“I’m as mystified as you are.”

LIE.

He knew what came next, with the conversation fresh in his memory.  He didn’t want to press the button again, but there was little choice.

“I’ve trained myself in kinesics.  I can look at a person’s face and body language and know if they’re lying.  And I can tell you the Doctor is telling the truth.”

The red text popped up as the last four and a half words appeared.  LIE.

Alexandria knew.  Of course she had.  Her ability to read people, her vast troves of knowledge, her ability to see patterns.  And she was the most willing of their group to take the hard, ugly road.  Had been since Siberian had hospitalized her.

Click.

His own voice.  “I’m sorry to accuse you.”

LIE.

Had he been lying?  He supposed he had.  He didn’t like the Doctor, and he hadn’t truly felt sorry for his suspicions.  Ever since he’d seen William Manton with the Slaughterhouse Nine, he’d harbored doubts about what was going on.

Those doubts had become quiet conviction after he’d gone to see Battery in the hospital.  One of Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders had cut her suit.  He knew exactly the kind of disorientation, hallucination and waves of paranoia she would have experienced as the gas took hold.  While she reeled and tried to get a grip on reality, she’d likely left herself open for further attacks.  Whatever the case, one of the spiders had injected her with a poison Bonesaw had devised.

Her death had been slow, painful and inevitable.  It had been engineered to strike those notes in a way that millions of years of evolution had yet to refine a plant’s toxin or an animal’s venom.  Lying in the hospital bed, still delirious, Battery had used halting sentences to tell him about Cauldon, about buying her powers, and about Cauldron asking her to help Siberian and Shatterbird escape.  She’d planned to pursue the Nine, to offer assistance and then kill one or both of the villains.  Battery had begged him for affirmation that she’d tried to do the right thing, that he would find the answers she didn’t.  He’d reassured her the best he could.

She’d died not long after.

He almost couldn’t bring himself to click the yellow button again.  Alexandria had been lying to him.  And that only left…

Click.

Eidolon’s voice came from the speakers.  “I can’t add anything here, and my power’s not volunteering anything that could help to solve this particular mystery.  I guess we have yet another unanswered question on our hands.”

The word was in red letters on the screen.  It could have been his own pulse behind his retinas, but the letters seemed to throb with a heartbeat of their own.  LIE.

“All lies,” Legend whispered the words to himself.

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