Interlude 26 (Donation Bonus #1)

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

Thank you, Weaver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words popped up.  Cherie Vasil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red mist.

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

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

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

Voice modelling program loading… Complete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Horrible stuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They could be.  The pig prank?”

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

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

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

“And Nilbog?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been right.”

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

“Mass murders in three locations,” Mags said.

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

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

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

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

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

I know.

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

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

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

“Seems anticlimactic,” Mags commented.

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

“And we can’t do anything?”

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

Mags frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trouble,” Dobrynja said.

“Trouble?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of the chair,” Saint ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ascalon,” he said.

Words appeared on the screen.

Confirm: Y/N

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

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

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

“Maybe.  Probably.”

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

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

Saint stared at the blinking prompt below the confirmation request.

The sea air was thick in his nostrils.

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

“Second thoughts?” he asked.

“Yes.  It feels wrong.”

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

Just mementos, Geoff,” she answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…urgent…”

The word was a whisper.

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

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

A loop, an emergency transmission.

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

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

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

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

He surfaced.

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

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

The captain emerged from belowdeck.

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

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

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

“Detours with limited air supplies are bad idea.”

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

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

She only folded her arms, unimpressed.

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

“A beacon?”  Margaret said.

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

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

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

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

“A will,” Mischa said.

“Shh.”

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

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

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

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

Programmed?  Robots?”  Geoff asked.

“Maybe,” Mags said.

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

“I was close.”

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

Geoff frowned.

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

Geoff glanced at Margaret.

“No,” she said.

“You can’t say no,” he responded.

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

And that fear became defeat, despair.

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

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

“Tomatoes, tomahtos.”

Do me one favor?  Tell Def-

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

The face disappeared.

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

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

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

“Rest her soul,” Dobrynja said.

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

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

“Well said, my friend,” Saint said.

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

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

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

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

“A little extreme,” Saint said.

She was a hero!  The woman I loved!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, the world wouldn’t end with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So will Jack,” Mags said.

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

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

He clicked that last one.

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

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

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

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

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

Something to be wary of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which were important?  Which could he afford to ignore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes stopped on a file.  Amelia’s.

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

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

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

Child’s play, to put them sequentially.

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 25

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July 8th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Makes for a greater fall?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The giggles trailed off.

Silence.

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

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

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

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

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

King
Screamer
Harbinger
Breed
Crimson
Gray Boy
Nyx
Psychosoma

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

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

Her, Jack, Mannequin, Siberian, Shatterbird.

Crawler had managed pretty well, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another giggle, smaller.  No worry on that score.

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

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

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

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

Would have to cauterize his tear ducts, maybe.

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

“Ungh,” he rasped.  “Ugh.”

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

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

“Ugh.  Guh.  Fuh- fuck-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better give him some exercise too.

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

There.

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

September 28th, 2011

“I’m going to take over the world!”

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

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

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

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

“We are children, Damsel.”

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

“I could end you, for that insult.”

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

“This tea is too hot anyways.”

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

“It’s my natural place.”

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

“I’ll rule the ashes.”

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

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

“Can you trust the people you delegate to?”

“No.  I trust nobody.”

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

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

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

“I’m not…”

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

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

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

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

She was virtually whispering by the time she was done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This way.  We’ll wall you in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nodded mutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bug… hug.  I, J, K, L.”

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

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

A touch roughspun, but it would do.

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

Back in Earth Bet.

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

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

She entered a small grocery store.

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

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

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

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

“Dollar store or the boutique?”

“Boutique.”

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

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

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

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

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

Something else, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  That’s why.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman only waited patiently.

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

“You will.”

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

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

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

“No.  I can tell you two things.”

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

“Breadth and Depth.”

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

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

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

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

An empty threat?

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

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

But her quarry was gone.

January 20th, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

But she was too tired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She thought maybe she knew what mommy was saying.

“No,” she told Mister Jack.

“No?”

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

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

Say goodbye.

“Goodbye, mommy,” Riley said, obediently.

Silent, her mom mouthed a reply.

It took a long time.

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

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

It was easier.

Didn’t make her chest hurt as much.

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

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

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

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

“She done?”

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

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

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

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

“No.  I just… I wanted to smile.”

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

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

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

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

But she had nowhere else to go.

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

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

Be a good girl.

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

November 15th, 2011

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

She didn’t like it.

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

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

He wasn’t family.

She pushed her covers away, annoyed.

Blasto lay there, unmoving.

“Up,” she said.

The hardware worked throughout his body bid him to move.

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

It was just a little harder every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so good for snuggling.

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

Now she was alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See any good movies lately?” she asked.

“You like horror movies right?”

“Mm hmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the woman was gone.

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

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

“No.”

“No?  Why?”

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

“I wouldn’t, you know I-“

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

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

It was feeble.  She knew it was feeble.

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

“Eight ninety-five,” was all he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie, the girl’s name was.

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

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

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

And there, again, that unease.

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

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

Eli and Mrs. Hemston both, now.

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

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

An emotional factor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what kind of connection was it?

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

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

What kind of connection was it?

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

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

How much of me is me?

She stared at the backs of her hands.

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

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

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

Odd to think about.

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

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

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

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

Going ahead would be safest.

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

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

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

The pain gave her clarity.

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

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

That in mind, she made her decision.

November 12th, 2012

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

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

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

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

First menstruation, check.

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

Auto-hysterectomy.

Auto-masectomy.

Limb shortening.

Bone shaving.

Plastic surgery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She started cutting.

January 24th, 2013

“The sign’s down,” she commented.

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

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

“You’re back?”

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

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

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

“Goodbye?”  He seemed more surprised than disappointed.

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

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

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

“Yes.”  Another easy lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A horror movie.  A child werewolf?

A child monster.

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

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

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

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

“You look good,” he added.

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

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

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

May 25th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes fixed on her.

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

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

In the meantime, she’d have options.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

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

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

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

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

“And the milk?”

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

“I won’t ask.  My clothes?”

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

He took a step, then stumbled.

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

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

“We have a schedule.”

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

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

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

“You could have woken us sooner.”

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

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

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

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

“Interesting?”

“I’ll show you later.”

“And the clones?”

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

“Good,” Jack said.  “Excellent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlights went on beneath each of the glass chambers.

Drain.

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

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

“Didn’t work out.”

“I see,” he said.

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

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

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

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

The woman in the suit had options.  She would come to Riley and claim the remote.

Countless enemies would be mustering their forces, ready to deal with this.

Eli had the letter.  He’d find a plane ticket inside, along with an urging to leave and stay gone.  To drive the point home, she’d revealed her identity.

Yet Riley still felt a moment’s doubt.

Some rose from their knees.  Others had managed to remain standing from the moments the fluid left the chambers.  As they roused, powers flickered into action.

Siberians flickered into being near the Mantons.  Six like the daughter, three more like Manton himself, all in black and white.

Chuckles, tall, fat, with arms that zig-zagged, her own addition.  Thirty-one elbows, and arms that dragged behind them as they moved.  Here and there, one of them would twitch, a tic.  The clown makeup was a series of scars, tattooed on.  One activated his speedster abilities experimentally, crossing the room in a flash.

Nostalgic, in a way.  Chuckles had been around when she’d joined.

Murder Rat.  Not stapled together as the original had been.  She’d taken the time to do it well.  When membership had been down, Bonesaw had made Murder Rat as a created addition to the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She’d passed the tests, but degradation in mental and physical faculties over time had seen to her demotion.

Winter, white-haired, with white irises edged in black, nude, her eyes peering.  Madeline’s eyes, Riley thought.  Winter would need guns, of course.

Crimson, Winter’s brief-lived lover.  Riley had taken the time to program their relationship into them.  Crimson had been one of the first members in the group, Winter one of the more recent ones to die.  Winter had been followed by Hatchet Face -there he was, over there, nine of them- and Hatchet Face had been followed by Cherish.

Nine Cherishes, gathering in a huddle.  She’d forgotten to give them the tattoos.  It didn’t matter.  A glance suggested they were discussing different ways to do their hair.

The smile on her own face was so wide it hurt, but it wasn’t her smile.

King, tall and blond, unabashed in his nudity.  All nine Kings were broad-shouldered, each half a foot taller than Jack.

Their interaction would be an interesting one.  She’d wondered if she should program King with the knowledge that Jack had been the one to kill him, reconsidered.

Oh, and there were others.  Some were harder to recognize.  Nine Alan Grammes, who lacked his armor.  Nine Neds, narrow shouldered and only five and a half feet tall.  When the others had done some damage and given him a chance to regenerate, he’d resemble his true self a little better.  He’d be Crawler.

“And the last one?”  Jack pointed at the remaining chamber.

She hit a button, and for a moment, her expression slipped.  She closed her eyes, a brief moment too long, as nutrient soup drained out of the chamber and the glass lowered.

But nobody was looking at her.

The boy stepped out, and there was no sign of any difficulty.  He didn’t struggle as others had, nor have trouble finding his feet.  He was prepubescent, to look at him, older than ten but younger than fourteen.  His hair was neatly parted, and he wore a private school uniform, complete with glossy black shoes.  Dry.

Even though he was naked in the tube.

Then again, that was sort of his thing.  One of them, anyways.

Visually, the most notable part of him was the effect that surrounded him.  He was monochrome, all grays and whites and blacks, with spots of light and shadow flickering around him.  Here and there, he flickered, a double image momentarily overlapping him, ghostly, looking in a different direction.

As far as parahuman powers went, his was as unfair as they got.

“Jack,” Gray Boy said.  His voice was high, clear as a bell.

“Nicholas.”

Jack extended a hand and Nicholas shook it.

Riley felt her stomach sink.

It would be like Gray Boy to use his power and take out someone in the room, just because he could.  Jack had only wanted one, and the unspoken reality was that he only wanted one because he could only control one.

If he wasn’t going after Jack, then… she was the only other person in the room without clones surrounding her.

He approached her, his expression placid.

For a brief moment, she felt stark fear.

It was perhaps her salvation that the fear was buried under the expressions that her system pasted on her face.  The false smile that spread across her face was the push she needed to hop down from her seat, approaching him.  She leaned in close to kiss him on the cheeks, her hands on his shoulders, one leg cocking upward like she’d seen women in older films doing.

“Little brother,” she murmured.

“Bonesaw,” he said, voicing a name she hadn’t programmed into him.  His hand found hers, and he held it.  She felt a chill.  “We’ll be inseparable, I think.”

“Inseparable,” she answered, smiling falsely.

The others from rows further down in the chamber slowly approached.  She watched Jack taking it all in.  Two hundred and seventy-five in all.  Two hundred and seventy regulars, five special makes.  Snowmann, Nighty Night, Laughjob, Tyrant, Spawner.

The names had never been a strength of hers.

I’ve given you everything you want, she thought.  Now we see who comes out ahead.  Succeed, and Bonesaw comes to the fore.  Fail, and Riley wins.

She wanted Riley to win, but that wasn’t as simple as making a decision.  She had to bury her life with the Nine.  Bury Jack, and see him defeated.

Gray Boy squeezed her hand.  She would have jumped, if her body language wasn’t in the system’s control.  She looked at him, and he winked.

Her expression hadn’t wavered, she hadn’t allowed herself the slightest tell, but somehow he fell in the same category as Jack.

He knew.

Staring out at the gathered crowd, Jack seemed to reach a conclusion.  He glanced at her, as Gray Boy was doing.

“Good,” he said.

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Three places nearby they could have gone,” Tattletale said.  “Two that fit with the direction they were running.  The shelter underneath the central library, and the one near where Scion confronted Leviathan.”

“I remember that one,” I replied.  We were walking at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the bomb site.  The area to our left still burned, and Sundancer was in the lead, clearing away the worst of the fires ahead of us.  I was walking with Tattletale and Grue, Atlas following behind us.  The others rode the dogs behind me.

“If we’re going to check those locations, then…” Tattletale trailed off.

“If I had a preference, I’d rather we check the library first.  Bad associations with the other spot.”

Tattletale turned her head at that.  “I thought you’d be proud.”

I shook my head.

“I only heard secondhand, so I didn’t get the full story, but you stabbed Leviathan with Armsmaster’s weapon and distracted him from going after the civilians that were inside that shelter.”

“Don’t know how many I really saved.  He had a good thirty seconds to a minute to unload everything he had on the people in there, and we all saw how much damage he did to some of our toughest capes.”

Tattletale nodded.

“I dunno.  I think of what happened back then, and I get this ugly feeling in my gut, like I did something wrong, or I didn’t try as hard as I could have because there was someone in that shelter who I sort of hate.  Hated?  I’m not sure if I should use past tense.”

“One of your bullies?”  She asked.

“Teacher.  I think that when I left the Undersiders, I guess I was thinking of considering becoming a hero or something.  But with what happened at that shelter, I almost feel like it was the turning point.  It was the first time I did anything that someone else could point to and call it heroic, and somehow I can’t find it in myself to be proud about it.  And it’s like, that dream of being a hero that I always had just kind of faded away in the face of reality.”

“We’re glad to have you, whatever your reasons,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I told her.

I looked at Grue.  “You okay?”

“I’m getting annoyed that people keep asking that,” he spoke.

“Don’t be a dick,” Tattletale replied.  “She’s asking because she cares.  We’re asking because we care.  And you know that if it was one of us that went through what you did, you’d want to make sure we were in the right headspace to go up against the Nine.”

Grue sighed, but he didn’t respond.

“You’d tell us if you weren’t feeling right, yeah?”  Tattletale asked.

“If I had any idea what I felt, and it wasn’t good, yeah.”

“Good enough.”

We watched as Sundancer cleared away the flames with her flickering sun.  Flames bent toward it as if being influenced by a strong wind, thinned out and disappeared.

She cancelled out her power and turned back to us.  “One minute to cool off and we’re probably okay to go!”

“We should decide where we’re going and how we’re going to make our approach,” Grue spoke.

“If they’re waiting for their teammates, they’ll stay inside the shelter for the time being,” I said. “We’ll be in a better position if we don’t try anything overly complicated, like a pincer attack, if there’s more than one exit.  We can hit them hard enough with Sundancer, Ballistic and my bugs.”

Grue nodded.  “I don’t disagree.  You two will have an idea if they’re making their way out the other exit.”

“The two shelters are close to one another,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m still a little worried they’ll leave one location while we’re checking out the other.  I almost want to split up.”

“Is that worth the risk of having half our group caught off guard by the Nine before the other half can arrive?”  I asked.

“A better question,” Tattletale said, “Is whether we can afford to let them get away.  If we miss this chance to go on the offensive and let them escape, they go into hiding and work out a strategy.”

“And we’re not exactly in their good books,” I said.  “So we’d be a primary target.”

Was I imagining it, or did Grue’s darkness expand around him by a fraction?

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Hm?”  He turned towards me.

No use making it worse, if I was prodding a sensitive area by raising the threat the Nine posed.  “Nevermind.”

“Saddle up!”  Tattletale called out.

Sundancer turned and sprinted back to the dogs.  Regent hopped down from his seat and grabbed Shatterbird’s wrists so she could lift him into the air.  I climbed on top of Atlas.

“What if-” I started.  “No.”

“Keep talking,” Tattletale prodded me.

“What if I scouted the library, while you guys checked out the other site?  I can fly, it’s faster for me to get there.”

“And we’d be one mistake away from you being killed,” Grue said.  “If not worse.”

“Hear me out.  Their only real long-range attacker is Jack, right?  If I’m flying, the others won’t be able to touch me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  But if Jack’s at the location, I’d be able to sense him before he got a bead on me.  If that’s the case… I can just attack without exposing myself, and I can alert you guys.”

“Assuming he’s not two steps ahead of us and waiting at some vantage point somewhere nearby,” Grue said.

“He functions like a sniper,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore the fact that he slashes and stabs, he’s a long-range combatant with a good sense of what the enemy is doing and how his teammates move on the battlefield.  He stays out of the way and makes surgical strikes, then relocates to another vantage point.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that all the time is how he has to stay involved with his team and keep them under control.  Can’t make it look like you’re in charge if you’re not there.  With less teammates to manage, he’s liable to go on the offensive.”

“But I have the ability to find him,” I pointed out.  “Before he finds me.  Amy gave me bugs that increase my range.  I’ll be taking on some risk, but it means we’re able to check both locations at the same time and keep an eye out for the Nine.  It’s the best way to strike the balance we need.”

“The balance,” Grue said.  He was clearly unimpressed.

“Minimal risk to maximum effect.  Your group will be safe because you’re all together and you’ll vastly outnumber them.  I’ll be safe because I’m airborne, and I’ll have the advantage of an early warning.  Offensively, you guys will have the Travelers and Bitch.  I’ll have my bugs.”

“Bonesaw countered your bugs last time around,” Tattletale pointed out.

I nodded.  “I have a few things in mind.”

“If you’re sure.”

“She’s not the only person who gets a say,” Grue said.

“Name a better option, then?” I said.

“We all go to the library’s shelter, then we all go to the shelter Leviathan attacked,” he said.  “Safer, smarter.”

“If you’re worried about me being defenseless,” I suggested, “Regent could come with me.”

“There’s a reason we’re keeping that pair close to us,” Grue said.  “If he gets taken down, you’ll have to deal with Shatterbird on top of everything else.  We’re capable of handling her, I think.  I don’t know if you are.”

I frowned.

Tattletale looked back at the others, then back at me.  “Go.”

I looked at Grue.

Tattletale pointed.  “Go!  Stay in contact!”

I turned and lifted off.

I kept to the cover of nearby buildings, and I flew erratically, so Jack wouldn’t be able to hit me if he saw me coming.  I was getting more used to flying Atlas.  I wouldn’t have said he felt like an extension of my own body in the same manner as my swarm.  He felt more like a prosthetic limb, or how I imagined a prosthetic limb might feel like.  At first, it would be clumsy, every action requiring some level of careful thought and attention.  Over time, it would become more second nature, a learned skill on my end.  It would never match up to the real thing, but I could deal.

Already, I was getting more used to correcting orientation and keeping him level in the air.

We set down on a rooftop a distance away.  There was a shed with a doorway that led into the building’s interior, and we headed there to take cover.

I chained relay bugs together so one connected to the next, then extended them well beyond the range of my power.  Their progress was relatively slow, but it did allow me to sweep over an entire region around the library.  Bugs stirred into action at my order, and they crawled or flew within a few feet of every horizontal surface that Jack or Bonesaw could be standing on.

No sign of them.  The vault door beneath the library was closed and sealed.

I was about to return to the others when an explosion of dust and rock fragments ripped through a group of bugs a few blocks away from me.

A woman, no clothes.  My bugs slid off her skin.  Even the slightest abrasion on the surface of the skin served to tear through the legs and bodies of the bugs.  Had to be Siberian.  If the general shape of the large object she was holding was any indication, she still held the truck.

A handful of my bugs were wiped from existence a fraction of a second before more explosions of varying size ripped through the area around her.  Legend was somewhere up in the air.

I drew my bugs together around Siberian’s head, in the hopes that I could distract her.  It was pretty thin, but there wasn’t much I could do.  Even a direct hit with Legend’s lasers wouldn’t affect her.

I shifted locations, flying half a block before landing again.  I could just barely make out the pair of combatants with my swarm sense.

Something about what Legend was doing seemed odd.  He wasn’t firing constantly.  Rather, his shots seemed to be strategically placed.  He ripped apart the side of a building a moment before Siberian landed there, then tore through the five or six floors beneath her so she had nowhere to go except straight down.  The instant she stepped free of the building’s ground floor, he tore into the ground with a series of laser blasts that expanded outward, thinning as they went.  It created a bowl-shaped indent, with rubble covering the storm drains that had been exposed by the lasers.

Carrying the truck, Siberian headed for the storm drains anyways, tearing through the piles of debris.  Legend unloaded on the entire street, collapsing them around her.  Some of my bugs descended with the pieces of the shattered street, and they could feel the warmth of the outside air mingling with the cold, stagnant air of the storm drains.  He’d exposed her.

I’d seen Legend go all out, and this wasn’t it.  Why was he holding back?  Granted, there was little point in hitting Siberian with everything he had, and it was easily possible that trying to drill a hole in the ground around her could theoretically give her the chance to escape, if she found some underground cavern or tunnel, but it could just as easily drown her.  So long as she had the truck, Siberian had to stay places where there was oxygen.  She couldn’t, I was assuming, dive beneath the water and make her escape from there.  Legend seemed to be going out of his way to keep her aboveground and exposed, attacking only when he had to.

He was conserving his strength.  As much as both he and Siberian were powerhouses with more offensive capability than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet, this was a strategic battle.  It was easily possible he was planning to keep this up for hours, harrying her, keeping her from getting her feet under her.

And with Siberian’s master or controller in that truck, she was forced to move more carefully.  If Siberian’s creator didn’t have food and water, this could turn into a battle of attrition.  One Legend might even win.  He was fit, healthy, athletic.  Siberian’s master, according to Cherish, wasn’t.  Added to that, being in that truck as Siberian leaped around couldn’t be fun.

I felt like I was still missing something.  Why was Legend fighting here, of all places?  Whatever else was going on, they were causing pretty horrific property damage, and it had to be hard to fight Siberian in a place with this many high-rises.  She could disappear into building interiors, and even if he lowered the height he was flying at, Legend was probably having to penetrate three or four stories of building to get to her.

I kept my distance from the fight as I directed Atlas toward the library.  With my bugs, I was able to more or less follow the fight.  I couldn’t touch Siberian directly, but I could sense where Legend was directing his attacks, and how he was positioning himself.

I continued to do what I could to help Legend, sending bugs at Siberian in the hopes of distracting her or finding some way into that truck.  They searched the windows but failed to find a gap.  Some crawled into the exhaust, others into the undercarriage-

She fell into a trench as Legend leveled another series of blasts at her, and the movement of the truck coupled with Siberian’s power and its rough texture murdered a solid ninety-percent of the bugs I’d used.  The remainder made their way deeper inside.

The bugs could scent something they registered as food.  A heavy smell, fetid, like garbage.  It was rank in there.  They crawled through the air conditioning vents and into the truck’s interior.

The driver’s seat was empty.  I sent the bugs into the back.  Nothing.

The truck was empty?

With my bugs, I drew out words in mid-air high above me, informing Legend: ‘TRUCK EMPTY – SIBERIAN BLUFF.’

Had she assessed what Legend was doing, turned it around on him?  If her real self was somewhere safe, somewhere with food and water, that meant Legend would lose any battle of attrition, if that’s what he was aiming for.

I couldn’t think of another reason her creator would leave the safety of the truck.

Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

“Tattletale?”

“Sup?”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck.  I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

“Someone’s sealed over this door with a heavy pad of metal, because Leviathan or someone tore it down.  My gut’s telling me the Nine didn’t gather inside and weld it shut behind them, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Bonesaw’s spiders did it.  One in twenty chance, I’d guess?  We’ll know in about thirty seconds, after Sundancer burns through.”

“Right.  A few more things that are bugging me.  Can I use your brain?”

“Go ahead.”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here.  It feels wrong.  He’s working to pin her down, slow her movements as much as he can.  I know he’s probably buying time, trying to wear her other self out, but why not a place with flatter terrain?  Why not a place where there’ll be less cover for her and less collateral damage?  I know Siberian goes where she wants, and if her other self is in the shelter, that’s probably a big reason she came, but-”

“Your gut is saying something’s off.”

“My gut is saying something’s off.”

“Okay.  I’d guess the Protectorate have more of a plan than the one firebombing.”

“They’re going to do it again?”

“No.  The first one, going by what you’ve said and what I’ve picked up, hasn’t done much for our side.  It’s going to be something else.”

“And we don’t know what?”

“No clue.  What else?”

“Minor, but if her other self is in the shelter, where are Jack and Bonesaw?  And if they’re in the shelter, where’s Siberian’s real body?”

“She’s spent years with them, they have a rapport, and they’re dependent on one another. Maybe he felt it was safe to approach them.”

“Maybe.  Nothing more specific?”

“Don’t have much to work with.  What else is going on?”

“Legend’s holding back.  Conserving his strength.  I get that he’s trying to win a fight of attrition, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed his tactics or the pacing of his attacks much since I informed him that the creator isn’t in the truck.”

“He’s buying time for something?  Someone?  Maybe Scion is headed this way?  No.  Don’t get that vibe.  Hmm,” Tattletale mused.  “We just got inside.  They aren’t here.”

I looked down at the library.  “Vault door, how do I open it?”

“Can’t say until I see the control panel myself.  The shelters are supposed to open with a command from the PHQ-”

“Which was annihilated,” I said.

“Right.  Or the PRT headquarters, on the Director’s order.  There’s bound to be another code that can be used in case those places get knocked out of commission.”

“How did they get in?”

“They have a tinker,” Tattletale said.  “She may work primarily with biology, but that’s not going to be the full extent of Bonesaw’s knowledge.  Look at those spiders.  Some basic hacking isn’t out of the question.  Anyways, I can figure it out when I get there.  Unless you want to take the brute force route.”

I looked down at Atlas.  “I don’t have enough brute force, and neither does Atlas.”

Legend does.  We’re on our way.  See you in a few.”

“Right.”

I hung up.

I drew more words in the air with my bugs, near Legend.

‘FOUND THE 9.  UNDERGROUND SHELTER.’

As an afterthought, I added:

‘MAYBE CIVILIANS INSIDE.’

I drew an arrow by the words.  Then, to make it as clear as possible, I drew a giant arrow in the sky, pointing down at the shelter door.

I was going to look foolish if they weren’t inside, and maybe cost Legend in whatever plan he was operating under.

I could feel him changing directions.  He kept facing Siberian, unloading laser blasts, but he was flying my way.

Siberian dashed forward.  I could feel her cutting a swath through the swarm as she ran, the truck in one hand, one corner of it dragging on the ground, cutting a line into the pavement.  She leaped into the air, out of the reach of my swarm-sense.  I felt something massive collide with the bugs that were in the air around Legend, felt more die as he shot a laser and caught them in the area.

She’d thrown the truck, and he’d obliterated it.

Legend shifted into high gear, flying out of reach of Siberian as she lunged for him.  He dove, hard, and I could imagine her leaping off the side of a second building, trying to get her hands on him.

Legend turned my way and flew towards the library.  I hurried out of the way, directing Atlas to higher altitude, just in case Legend decided to level the place.

The leader of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene, and I could sense Siberian on the ground, hot on his heels.  He raised one hand, and a laser beam shot forth, splitting into eight smaller beams that bent in the air.  They hit the outside edge of the vault door with precision, evenly spaced out, then drifted in a clockwise direction.  The door toppled free.

Legend spread his arms, and hundreds of individual beams radiated out from his body.  Three quarters of them turned in sync to spear towards the library, stabbing through the architecture.  Other beams split off to strike through doorways and windows and across rooftops.  No less than three struck me.

I flinched and nearly lost my seat on Atlas, but found it wasn’t much hotter than steaming tap water, and it only lasted two or three seconds before cutting out.  Siberian had approached close enough to demand Legend’s attention, and he’d terminated whatever it was he’d been doing.

I turned my mind away from whatever the beams had been intended to do and toward my own contributions to this fight.   Had to strike before they got their bearings.  I took advantage of the pause to send bugs flowing into the shelter.

I could count a number of people, young and old.  The mosquitoes in my swarm could scent blood.  Twenty or so people were inside the shelter, standing there.  There was metal on their bodies, like backpacks or prosthetic body parts, but they didn’t seem to be hurt.

There were three more inside, but I wasn’t feeling so generous as to call them ‘people’.  They stood apart: two men and a preadolescent girl.

It was them.  The Nine.

I couldn’t trust my ability to get to Legend and communicate the necessary details in time, and I might even be endangering him by getting too close to Siberian.  I couldn’t say for sure how he would really act in the field, but his PR sold the idea of a legitimate good guy who would balk at attacking an enemy with a hostage.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.  It could even be a mercy, sparing someone from one of the Nine’s clutches.  Siberian devoured people alive.

Either way, it was better to try to catch his attention with a written message: ’20 CIVILIAN, JS, BS, SIB’.

He was too distracted by Siberian to see it.  She wasn’t as fast as Battery or Velocity, but she had the physical power to move quickly, and she was leaping between buildings to throw herself at him with the speed and aim of an arrow shot from a bow.

I tried leaving another message for Legend, stating the same thing.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him looking at me.  Our eyes met.  He nodded, and I turned my attention to the shelter.

I didn’t want to do this half-assed.  No mistakes this time around.  I gathered a swarm of generous size, but I held it at bay.  There were more preparations to carry out.  I drew the capsaicin bugs from beneath my armor and added them to the swarm.  I drew out silk threads and held them suspended in the air, ready for use.  For a final measure, I withdrew a lighter and the changepurse from the utility compartment at my back.

Primary swarm in first.  As one singular mass, they flowed inside.  The capsaicin-laced bugs joined them, going straight for the eyes.

Jack reacted, as did the man, but Bonesaw was unfazed.  I saw Siberian flicker.  Legend noticed as well.  He snapped his eyes to me, and then the shelter.

The creator needs to concentrate?

My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it would dislodge me from Altas.  Bugs settled on the three members of the Nine and then they attacked.  It wasn’t the sort of attack I’d ever done before.  I’d had bugs bite, I’d had them sting, I’d even used them to deliver payloads of their various venoms.

I’d always held back to some degree.  The only ones I hadn’t held back against had been untouchable.  These three weren’t so lucky.

Mandibles bit into flesh, seeking not to pinch and inflict pain.  Ants scissored flesh away, beetles tore and rent into the flesh, flies spat their digestive enzymes onto the exposed flesh.

I buried them in every kind of insect I had that could eat, cut or pierce meat.  The bugs didn’t eat their fill: they simply bit, chewed, let the food fall from their mouths, then bit again.

Bonesaw’s hands were smooth as glass as she reached for her belt.  She was cool and collected, even as the bugs slowly flayed her.

She was stopped short as the silk strands tangled her ceramic fingers.

My bugs could hear her speak.  Though I could barely make out the words, I thought maybe the first one was ‘Jack’.  She held out her hands.

I tried to bind him, but tying his arm to his side was harder than using silk cords to lash fingers together.  At least partially blinded by the capsaicin, he swiped his knife a few times in Bonesaw’s direction.  He cut her several times, and my bugs could feel her flesh part around her collarbone and face.  Some of the cuts were on target, however, and the threads around her fingers were severed.  An instant later, she was free to put together her anti-bug smoke, working her hands to break the threads as I tried to tangle her fingers again.

Okay.  Not the end of the world.  The bugs were still devouring the three, and I still had a plan in mind.  An idle hope.

I withdrew the tissues I’d wadded in the changepurse to keep the contents from jingling or rattling around.  My bugs took hold of them and carried them into the air, two or three dozen in all.

I tested the lighter, then held it out to ignite the first tissue.

It was a slow burn, taking fifteen or twenty seconds to consume the paper.  The flies that carried it died as the flame reached them, consuming them.

By the time the first was burned, my bugs were positioning the second, allowing it to ignite.  In this manner, I chained them one after the other.  A slow-moving relay of flame.

Bonesaw had her smoke going, despite my efforts to rebind her fingers, and I could feel it murdering my bugs en-masse.  I pulled them away and out of the shelter, leaving only a few to track the movements of the Nine.

The trail of burning tissues made their way inside the shelter.  I ignited the last few tissues and sent them to Bonesaw.  I could feel the bugs die as they hit the smoke.

Nothing.  I swore.

It had been too much to hope for, that the smoke was flammable.  Even if the smoke had exploded in the mildest possible way, it would have at least given me a countermeasure.

I turned away from the area.  I’d told the others I would play safe.  I’d tried what I could, I’d maybe even done a little damage to them, now I’d back off.  I’d earned Siberian’s attention by attacking her creator, but she was preoccupied with Legend, so that was one threat I didn’t have to worry about.  The rest of the Nine were still inside.

Legend, for his part, was keeping up the measured, carefully paced assault.  I saw him raise one hand to his ear.

A communication from his team?  Had something happened with the rest of the Protectorate?  Or the other members of the Nine?

He dove straight for the shelter.  Siberian gave chase, and without slowing in the slightest, he raked a laser across the street to render her footing less stable.  It couldn’t have bought him more than a fraction of a second, if it even made a difference at all;  I could see her placing one foot on a shattered piece of road that wouldn’t have held a squirrel without collapsing.  She used it to kick herself forward, soaring after Legend, hands curled into claws.  He was ahead of her by only ten or fifteen feet.

The scattered bugs I had at the fringes of the extermination smoke gave me only a half-completed picture.  Legend inside, blasting a laser in the direction of the cloud where Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian’s creator were.  He grabbed one of the civilians that were standing dumbly in the shelter, only to get mobbed.  She latched onto him, and the others did the same, trying to drag him down.  My bugs felt a flash of heat as he used his laser to blast at them and free himself.  Another laser speared out of the top of the Library, followed soon after by Legend, spearing up toward the sky.  He directed another laser straight down at the library, continuing to fly straight up.

That was reason for me to do the same.  I rose with one hand on Atlas’ horn, and I drew my phone with the other.  I speed dialed Tattletale.  Trusting to her penchant for picking up the phone on the first ring, I started shouting before I heard any response, “Something’s up!  Take cover and get back!”

The stealth bomber streaked across the sky, just as it had before.  Its payload this time was smaller, barely visible.

The devastation wasn’t so easy to miss.

The only word for it was chaos.  I could hardly pick out the individual effects as they mingled.  A cloud of yellow-green smoke being pulled into a spiral around a vortex, which was causing the section of the library that had turned to glass to shatter and implode.  There was a flare of brilliant mixed colors I could barely look at, frying a scattered assortment of boneless, faceless, fleshy monsters.  One monster made it four steps before being turned to dust.  Where the dust touched, more dust was created, until the vortex expanded enough to start pulling it all in, stopping what might have been an endless chain reaction.

I could see time slowing in one spot, I could see pavement heating into a liquid in another.  I could see one area that was serene, untouched, a bubble where a newspaper that had been scattered on the ground was flapping violently with the movement of air.  Half a building was annihilated by the flash of an explosion, and it toppled into the midst of the bomb site.  In seconds, it was obliterated and chewed up.

The effects spread and expanded all down the street, a stripe of this madness three blocks wide, extending into the midst of the blaze from the previous bombing run.

I drifted toward Legend, raising my hands over my head to show I meant no harm.

“Thank you for the assistance,” he spoke, when I was in earshot.  “Some was misguided or off target, but it did make a difference.”

I could only nod.

He put one hand to his ear, then paused for several long seconds.  When he spoke, it was vague.  “Acknowledged.”

I waited, staring down at the disaster area below.

“Crawler and Mannequin observed to be in the blast site.”

“How did they disengage while keeping them there?  They- they did disengage?”

“Clockblocker managed to tether Mannequin in place.  Crawler freed himself from the same trap by tearing himself in two against the immovable object.  It was Piggot who managed to keep Crawler in the blast area.”

“How?”

“She had Weld pass on a message, telling Crawler what we had planned.  He was so tickled at the idea that we would be able to hurt him that he stayed where he was while the teams made their retreat.”

“Just like that?”

“Apparently so.”

“If he survives-”

“He didn’t.”

There was a series of smaller explosions below.  I could see a section of ruined building glowing red, then detonating in a blast of light that sent a nearby glacier spinning into a patch of burning ground.

“And the other three?”

“Remains to be seen.  The civilians are dead, but it’s something of a mercy.  Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders were welded to their skeletons, allowing her to remotely control them.  Like zombies, only they were aware and in incredible pain.  I expect she had measures to inflict agonizing deaths on them if we attempted to disconnect them from her spider-frames.  Maybe I could have saved them, can’t say.  From the glimpses I saw of them, I don’t know if they would have thanked me.”

We spent a minute staring down at the devastation.

I ventured to ask him a question, “Can Brockton Bay take this?  It feels like it was on the verge of collapse already.  Add this mess, the firebombing… can we really come back from it?”

“You know this city better than I do, I’m sure.  I like to think people are stronger than they appear at first glance.  Perhaps the same goes for cities as well?”

“I’d like to think so.  But if I’m being realistic-”

I stopped mid-sentence.

My bugs had found a group of individuals on the edge of the blast radius.

“No fucking way.”  I pointed.

Siberian flickered violently as she crouched beside Jack and Bonesaw, one hand on each.  In between the three of them was a man, hunched over.

Legend raised one hand, but he didn’t shoot.

“Legend?”

“They haven’t seen us.  I would like to take out Jack or Bonesaw while they’re distracted and unguarded, I just need Siberian to step away or let go of them.”

The group shifted positions, so the man had an arm around Jack’s chest and an arm around Bonesaw’s shoulders, Siberian behind him.

“See that?” Legend asked.

“What?”  I could barely make them out from our vantage point.  “I can’t.”

“My eyes are better than most.  A minor benefit of my powers.  The backs of his hands, perhaps you can make out the tattoos?  A cauldron on the left hand, a swan on the right.”

“I- I don’t follow.”

“No,” he sighed a little.  “I suppose you wouldn’t.  It does mean we know who he is.”

“Someone I’d know?  An old costume?”

He shook his head.  “A scholar.”

Jack glanced up, and Legend fired in the same instant.  With Siberian’s strength, the group  of the Nine lunged to one side, disappearing behind cover.  I sent bugs after them.

My swarm sensed other arrivals.  The Undersiders and Travelers came from the west, taking a circuitous route around the top end of the bomb site.  Legend fired a series of blasts after Siberian and gave chase, but she was keeping a building between her group and Legend.   He stopped where he was, one hand outstretched, and touched his ear.

“My teams are on their way,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “The Undersiders and Travelers are too.  I’m going to go fill them-”

“We need them to back off,” he interrupted.

“Another bombing?”  I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  It seems we’re facing the worst case scenario.”

“We’re winning,” I said, incredulous.  “You guys took out two of them, we’ve got them on the defensive-”

“Exactly,” he interrupted me.  “We’re winning.  And we’ve broken enough of Jack’s rules for his ‘game’.  Now I fear we’re about to see whatever ‘punishment’ it was that Bonesaw prepared for us.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

“Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Snare 13.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“We set up and act the second they stop moving,” Grue’s voice sounded through the walkie-talkie.  “Be ready to move the instant Cherish alerts them.  We maintain unbroken line of sight over the Nine and between our squads.  Notify us and change position if you lose sight of ’em.  Everyone knows what they’re doing?”

Various assents could be heard through the walkie-talkies.

“Maybe I should ask if anyone’s unsure about what they’re doing?” he asked.

There was no response.

“Good.  Hold positions.”

The strategy was mine, but Grue was more comfortable than I was as a battlefield commander.  I was okay with him taking charge here.  Preferred it.

I raised my binoculars.  Seven members of the Nine were strolling down the street.  Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian were at the head of the group, and Jack was using his knife to try to cut down anyone he saw who didn’t get under cover fast enough.  It was almost an idle amusement, rather than some mission or task he’d undertaken.  Most escaped, and he didn’t go to any particular effort to chase them down, as though he were conserving his strength.

Cherish, Mannequin and Shatterbird were in the middle of the group, Crawler behind them, trailing behind with languid, casually effective movements that resembled those of a cat.  At the very back of the group, trailing even behind Crawler, was a hulk of a man who I took to be Hatchet Face.  He looked like he was rotting alive, and there were grafts of flesh and mechanical replacement parts filling in the gaps.

The majority of my attention was on Cherish.  Through the lenses of the binoculars, I focused on her face.  I watched the movements of her eyes, her facial expressions, and the tension in her hands.  Nothing she’d done thus far had indicated she was aware of us. Her attention seemed more focused on the handful people Jack had cut down.  As they walked, she looked down at each of the wounded and dying with the detached interest one might have for a car accident by the side of the highway.  She hadn’t opened her mouth since we’d caught up with their group.

so wanted to jump in and save those people.  But it would be suicide.  Our priority was stopping the Nine.

Part one of the plan was simple.  Up until the point we engaged, we stayed as far away as we could while maintaining a visual and some ability to act.  We knew Cherish’s power was more effective as she was closer to her targets.  If there was any element of surprise to be had, we’d have it by striking from a distance.

I spared a glance at Mannequin, changing the focus of my binoculars to the man in white.  Again, he’d replaced his parts.  His form resembled what I’d seen the first time I’d encountered him.

I turned my attention back to Cherish.  Shatterbird was saying something to her, her lips moving in the rhythms of speech beneath the glass beak/visor that covered the upper half of her face.  She was using her hands to punctuate her words.  Cherish didn’t respond.  From the length of Shatterbird’s speech, I took it to be some kind of monologue or lecture.

“Hey,” Sundancer said from beside me, “Ten or so seconds until we lose them behind that building over there.”

A quick check confirmed she was right.  The direction their group was traveling would take them out of sight.  I picked up the walkie-talkie, “Moving forward.  You guys have eyes on them?”

“Yeah,” Grue reported.  That would be our second squad.

“Yep,” Trickster said, from the third.

I was already sitting side-saddle on Bentley, with Bitch ahead of me.  My burned legs didn’t afford me much grip with my calves, so we’d taken a loop of the chain that surrounded Bentley and wound it under and over my lap and around my waist to secure me in place, connecting it with a carabiner in case I needed to get off fast.  I put one arm around Bitch for further support, and scooted forward to make room for Sundancer.

“Go,” Bitch hissed the words the second Sundancer was in position.  Bentley lunged forward, leaping to the next rooftop and landing with enough force that I wasn’t sure I could have stayed seated if I’d been riding normally.

Bentley was more of a bruiser than the other two dogs, with his front half adding up to almost twice the mass of the rear.  It made him weaker at the long distance leaps than any of the dogs I’d ridden thus far, but his powerful upper body also made him a strong climber.  It also meant he had the raw strength to carry three of us and the pair of heavy metal boxes that we’d strapped to his sides.  Our progress wasn’t fast, but we did make our way up the side of the next building, Bentley’s claws digging into the windowsills as he slowly and methodically ascended.  From that building It was one more leap and a short climb to the roof of the tallest building in the area.  I released my deathgrip on the chains and got the binoculars and walkie-talkie out.

“In position on the Demesnes Soft Tower.  Location of the Nine?”

“Lord and Tillman,” Trickster answered me.

I found the intersection.  Once I had the right general area, it wasn’t hard to spot them.  Crawler was conspicuous.

“Found them,” I informed the others.

Our setup put Grue, Ballistic and Sirius directly behind the Nine, along with the metal cases of supplies we’d strapped to Sirius’ sides.  Trickster and Regent were mounted on Genesis, who had taken a form not unlike the dogs.  The trio were positioned to the Nine’s left.  By contrast, my group, with Sundancer, Bitch and Bentley, were positioned to their right.

Each of us were a little over a thousand feet away from the Nine, three city blocks, give or take.  It meant my allies were out of range of my powers.  It was a drawback, but I hoped it would balance out.

“They’re moving with purpose,” Tattletale sounded over the walkie-talkie.  Trickster was sending her ongoing video with a camera and directional microphone.  “I think they’re heading to Dolltown.”

“Dolltown?”

“Parian’s territory,” Ballistic said.  “She controls these giant stuffed animals.  Cordoned off an area in my district before I made my claim.  I haven’t gotten around to dealing with her yet, with the Nine and all.”

“They’re probably trying to bait the heroes out,” Tattletale said, “Killing in the streets, then attacking one of the safe territories that aren’t controlled by us.”

“ETA for them getting to their destination?” I asked.

“One minute,” Tattletale spoke.

“Moving up,” Grue reported.  “You guys maintain visual.”

Jack was still attacking everyone he spotted.  How many lives would be lost in the meantime?  Worse, would Cherish notice our presence, or would Jack look for civilians and spot one of us on a rooftop blocks away?

Going into this with the element of surprise was almost too much to hope for.

I put my walkie-talkie down, but I kept my eyes on Cherish.  She hadn’t spoken, and there was no change in her posture.

“Grue,” Trickster said, “Get in position fast.  I see the area where Parian marked off her territory.  If they’re going to stop, they’re going to stop here.”

I used the binoculars and found the area in question.  Yellow spray paint, rain coats and scarves had been used to form a line across a street.

Grue didn’t respond, but that could easily be because he was focusing on riding.  Just in case, I asked, “You have eyes on him, Trickster?”

“Yeah.  Grue and Ballistic are heading up to a spot where they can see everyone.  No danger.”

No danger.  It was a loaded statement.  Burnscar wasn’t here, but Tattletale was ninety percent certain that the pyrokinetic teleporter was off tracking down one of the ‘hero’ candidates or Hookwolf to give them their tests.

My heart was hammering in my chest, and I knew that between one of these heartbeats and the next, one of the Nine could spot us.  If it was Jack or Shatterbird, we could be dead or bleeding out less than a second later.

“Set up,” Grue ordered.

I unclipped the carabiner and hopped down.  Working alongside Bitch and Sundancer, I helped bring the boxes we’d strapped to Bentley’s side to the edge of the rooftop.  We hurried back, Sundancer giving me a hand up.  I almost didn’t feel the pain of my legs with the tension and adrenaline that thrummed through me.  Or maybe that was the industrial strength painkillers Coil had provided.

I didn’t want to think about the fact that the drugs I’d taken might be the same ones that he’d used to drug Dinah.

A quick sweep verified that the area around ‘Dolltown’ was largely empty of people.  The flooding was bad here, and only Parian’s place was really on high enough ground to be free of it.  Just to make sure, I asked, “Tattletale?  How many bystanders?”

“Going by the video feed?  Guessing there’s between eight and twenty people in the buildings around you.”

“Then I’m set,” I replied.  I strapped the ‘seatbelt’ chain around my waist and hips and reconnected the carabiner.  Other voices echoed mine, confirming they were ready.

Halfway across the roof, Sundancer began forming her miniature sun.  I checked on the others with my binoculars.  Trickster and Regent were crouched at the corner of one building, and Genesis was dissolving.  Good.

Grue and Ballistic were arguing.  I was pretty sure.  I could see Grue grabbing Ballistic’s shoulder with one hand and pointing at the Nine with the other.

“What’s going on, Grue?” I asked.

“He’s chickening out.”

He’s supposed to handle Cherish.  I glanced at the Nine.  No sign of anything from her.  She was standing apart from the rest of the group, her arms folded.

“She looks like someone I used to know,” Ballistic said, as if that was some kind of answer.

“Who?” Trickster asked.

“Sadie.  From seventh grade.”

“Nope,” Trickster replied.  “Not in the slightest.  Your head’s fucking with you.  Get the job done.”

“But-”

Trickster’s voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it.  “Now.  Remember the deal we made.  Our promise to each other and to Noelle.  Don’t fuck this up.”

Ballistic hesitated.  Through the scope of my binoculars, I could see him holding the foot-ball sized warhead in his hands.  “She’s a human being, someone with feelings, and tastes and-”

Regent was the one who cut him off this time, “And she’s someone that has forced parents to mutilate and kill their kids and she made them enjoy it.  Then she left them to live with the aftermath.”

Regent sounded remarkably calm given the situation.

“She’s my sister.  If anyone has a right to get sentimental, it’s me, and I’m saying it’s okay to off her,” he finished.

“I-”  Ballistic broke off.

I shifted my attention to the Nine.  Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw were moving past the yellow lines.  And Cherish… Cherish was turning to look in Grue and Ballistic’s direction.  I could see her almost bounce in place as she got her feet under her and started sprinting, her mouth opening.

“Cover blown!” I shouted into the walkie-talkie.  Taking my finger off the button, I called out,  “Trickster, Sundancer!”

Sundancer sent her sun soaring around to the Nine, taking the long route so it could cut them off.  In that same moment, Trickster pointed a sniper rifle at a corpse on the street and swapped Cherish’s position with it.

Part two of the plan, after finding them and getting into our positions, was to remove Cherish as fast as humanly possible.  If we accomplished nothing else, our goal was to do that and then make a run for it.  It would pave the way for future attacks and it would slow them down.

We’d left that task to Ballistic, with the idea that Trickster would take care of Jack.  Ballistic decided he didn’t have it in him at the worst possible moment, forcing us to shift roles.

Damn him.

Cherish was struck by Trickster’s shot, blood spattering the pavement.  Her teammates left her behind.

“Don’t have line of sight to Jack!” Trickster reported.

“Hit the others,” I told Sundancer.

“You mean kill them,” her voice was quiet, her fists clenched at her sides.

“Kill them, then.”  I could see the sun growing as it flew.  It was maybe eighteen feet in diameter now.

“Just… just tell me there aren’t any civilians there, no bystanders.”

I looked through my binoculars.  The remainder of the Nine were making a break for it.  Mannequin and Siberian stood still, watching Grue and Ballistic, Crawler was barreling towards them, and Shatterbird had taken to the air.  Jack and Bonesaw were taking cover around a corner to stay out of Grue and Ballistic’s line of fire.

The thing that had once been Hatchet Face scooped up the wounded and anyone he could catch and deposited them with his group.  Bonesaw had a scalpel out and was cutting the second the people were in her reach.  A throat slashed here, a stomach cavity opened there.  Intestines and muscle strung from one individual to another, connecting them together as their faces contorted in pain.  Some struggled to stand, to strike Bonesaw or push themselves away, but deft slices with the scalpel severed tendons and ligaments.  It was a kind of grim reversal, the adults utterly helpless and weak when faced with the child.

We’ll never have another shot like this.

“No,” I said.  I even managed to sound convincing.  “No civilians!  Go!”

“Then tell me where to move it,”  Sundancer’s eyes were closed.  “I can’t see that far.”

“Out further, left, left, left,”  the miniature sun slid twenty or so feet with every order I gave as I tracked the enemy’s position and the movements of the orb with the binoculars.  “Short bit left and then out!”

I couldn’t look directly at the thing, but I saw Mannequin and Siberian wheel around as the blinding light of the orb caught their attention.  Mannequin ran, and Siberian lunged forward.

The orb slid out into position around the mouth of the alley and then rolled over Jack, Bonesaw and Hatchet Face.

“Report!” Tattetale’s voice came from the walkie-talkie.  “I don’t have visual.”

“Sundancer just hit Jack, Hatchet Face and Bonesaw.”

“Where are the rest?”

“Crawler heading for Grue and Ballistic, Mannequin running down Tillman in Regent and Trickster’s general direction.  Shatterbird’s going for the bird’s-eye view.  I don’t think she’s seen any of us except Grue and Ballistic.”

“Siberian?”

“Missing.”

Shit.  Assume they’re all alive, then.  Sundancer’s power still in that area?”

Alive?  “It is.”

“Then keep it there!”

I glanced at Sundancer and she gave me a grim nod.

Crawler had reached Grue and was scaling the side of the building with surprising speed.  I’d taken him for a quadruped, but apparently his joints were modular.  His proportions were more simian, now, and he was climbing up the side of the building twice as fast as I could have run it if it were laid out horizontally.

Part three of the plan had been to hit them as hard as we could.  Trickster was using his rifle to take shots at Mannequin, but I couldn’t see if it was having any effect.  Ballistic finally decided to contribute, and fired a warhead at Mannequin.  Then he reached into the box he and Grue had unloaded from Sirius’s harness and grabbed two more.  He fired them into the smoke cloud that had expanded around Mannequin.

I could see Crawler reaching the edge of the roof, not twenty feet from Grue and Ballistic.

Part four of the plan?  Avoid direct confrontation.

“Trickster,” Grue said, the one word buzzing over the walkie-talkies.

Crawler disappeared, and an empty pickup truck toppled from the edge of the roof to the ground.  Crawler was back in the vicinity of the other Nine, not far from Sundancer’s burning orb.  Blocks away from Grue and Ballistic.

The monster lunged after Grue and Ballistic again, and was supported this time by Shatterbird, who conjured up a storm of glass shards to pelt the pair.  Ballistic retaliated by firing a warhead at Shatterbird, who prematurely detonated the explosive with a thick cluster of glass, shielding herself against the worst of the blast with another wall.  She drew more walls around herself and maintained her assault.

Bitch whistled, and Sirius started bounding across rooftops to head our way.  I could see Shatterbird turn and notice us.

That was fine.  I sent a payload of bugs her way; wasps and bees each carrying several spiders, and more expendable caterpillars and the like that were smeared in capsaicin.  I wanted to make absolutely sure she knew where we were and that she wouldn’t ignore us.

Crawler reached the base of the building only to be switched with yet another car, resetting his position a second time.  He roared in frustration, then turned toward the miniature sun, breaking into an all out run as he charged for it.

“Sundancer, switch off!”  I called out.

The orb disappeared, and Crawler crashed through the alleyway, only barely avoiding Jack, Siberian and Bonesaw.  The edges of the alley were unrecognizable, and the walls were on fire, but the trio were untouched.  Siberian had Jack draped over one shoulder  and another hand clasping Bonesaw by the back of her shirt, holding her high.  The pavement was a molten liquid beneath them.

I clicked the button on the walkie-talkie and informed the others, “Siberian’s granting her invulnerability to Jack and Bonesaw!”

Tattletale said something, but I missed it over the roar of noise that came with Sundancer using her power.  She was forming another orb.  Everyone else was busy with their own things.

Siberian was protecting Jack and Bonesaw.  That was both good and bad.  We’d planned this strategy under the assumption that Siberian would come for us and we’d use the dogs, Grue’s Darkness, my bug-decoys and Trickster’s teleportation to keep our distance from her until we decided we needed to make a run for it.  All of that was in line with part four of the plan, maintaining our distance and avoiding a toe to toe fight.  In the meantime, we’d intended to use our ranged abilities to take out Jack, Cherish, Bonesaw and Burnscar.

She was protecting them, which we hadn’t anticipated, but she couldn’t do that and come after us.

Or maybe she can.  I saw Siberian virtually toss Bonesaw in the air, the girl wrapping her arms around the woman’s neck as she landed.  Holding her two teammates, Siberian sprinted for Trickster and Regent.  She was fast, but it was a speed borne of her peculiar powers, more enhanced strength than augmented acceleration.  Not so different from Battery on that count.

Air resistance and inertia didn’t hamper her in the same ways.  More than that, whatever it was that made her invincible and untouchable to any outside force, she had the ability to snap it out to affect any surface she touched.  Her strength was virtually limitless, and the pavement didn’t shatter with her footfalls because she made it as untouchable as she was.

Shatterbird, meanwhile, was drawing closer, using the glass-storm to bar Ballistic’s access to the crate of explosives.  Grue’s power was serving to counter hers, and any glass that entered the darkness seemed to drop straight down like rain, bereft of her abilities.  Momentum still carried, however, and any glass shards that entered at a high enough velocity seemed to exit at roughly the same speed.

I wasn’t sure about Ballistic, his costume was among the best money could buy, but I wasn’t sure what that entailed.  Grue, at least, should be able to endure a beating.  Beneath his motorcycle leathers, he was wearing the costume I’d made for him and nearly finished.  It wouldn’t protect his head, but his helmet would serve in a pinch.

Even if they wouldn’t be cut to shreds, I wasn’t sure they would survive if Shatterbird detonated that case of rocket launcher rounds with a shard in the right place or a large enough impact.

“Bitch,” I spoke.  “The boxes!”

Bitch was sliding off of Bentley’s back, opening the first metal box and stretching out the contents.

The case was a piece of camping gear I’d noticed ages ago, when I’d first been buying things for my costume.  A watertight case for luggage with a metal frame inside that campers could stretch out to use as a drying rack for clothes and towels.

We didn’t have luggage inside.  No, the box held parts of the mannequins I’d been using for costume design.  Strung together with silk, two mannequins dangled from the frame.

Bitch adjusted the way one mannequin hung and headed over to set up the other case.

My bugs had reached Shatterbird and started attacking her.  Brown recluses, capsaicin, wasps, hornets and bees.  I’d never attacked someone like this.  Not someone who couldn’t heal.  I could see her thrashing, trying to stay aloft even as her concentration faltered.  The brown recluses were insurance of a sort.  If we happened to take out Bonesaw, it could mean Shatterbird was out of the equation as well.

The darkness Grue had generated around the rooftop disappeared all at once.  Grue and Ballistic crouched at the far corner.  Canceling the darkness was a signal.

The mannequins hanging from the first rack disappeared, replaced by the two boys.  Grue and Ballistic disentangled themselves from the metal frames and hurried to our side.

Trickster and Regent appeared soon after the other frame was up.  I could see Siberian on the rooftop.  They’d escaped just in time to avoid being caught in a melee with her.

Trickster rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck and adjusted his hat.

“Don’t waste time,” Grue growled.  “Do it.”

“Times like this call for a certain flourish,” Trickster said.  Trickster withdrew a small remote from his pocket and depressed the button.

The rooftops the other two teams had been situated on virtually shattered with the explosions.  The bazooka rounds had also carried a small collection of plastic explosives.  Since Trickster’s team had only needed the sniper rifle, their case held a hell of a lot more.

Part five done.  Baiting the hook, reeling them in, then hitting them as hard as we could.

It wouldn’t stop them, of course.  The only ones that explosion might have hurt were Shatterbird and maybe Mannequin, if he’d survived Ballistic’s attack and slipped around through some other angle.  Ideal world, it would also slow down Siberian.  More realistically, I was hoping that they’d get pissed, and they’d get sloppy.

I chanced a quick look through the binoculars.  Crawler was stampeding towards the site of the explosion, Cherish was still prone on the ground, bleeding out from Trickster’s sniper fire, and I couldn’t make out the others.

Wait, no.  I could see rubble shifting as Siberian shrugged it aside.  It was enough debris that Crawler would have been hampered, but even with her hands tied up in holding her teammates, she cast the chunks of concrete and brick aside with the same sort of ease that I might walk through a pile of balloons.  She shook her head, and her hair fanned out behind her, draping partially over Bonesaw, who was riding her piggy-back.

Jack wasn’t folded over her shoulder anymore.  He was standing, holding her hand, a wide smile spread across his face.  He said something, some exclamation, without dropping his grin for a second.

And Shatterbird?  I looked through the rubble that had been cast over the street around the building.  She was lying on the ground, struggling to her feet.  The glints of glass shards sparkled for a hundred feet around her.  I quickly tossed my binoculars aside.  They’d be a liability if she attacked us, now.

Here was the gamble.  We’d hurt them, injured their pride, we’d maybe killed Mannequin and we’d incapacitated Cherish.  If Ballistic had been on the ball, he would have blown Cherish to smithereens.  As it was, a stray bullet wouldn’t cut it.  Bonesaw’s known talents included the ability to raise the dead.

Grue used his darkness to form a dozen false-images of shadow-shrouded silhouettes on nearby rooftops.  I did the same with my bugs, but mine were animated, moving.

We’d have to run pretty damn soon.  There were seven of us, but only two dogs.  It was less than ideal.  I’d tried to get Bitch to bring another dog, but she didn’t feel any of the others were trained well enough to bear riders.

The remaining members of the Nine charged, Shatterbird rising from her position to fly straight for us, barriers of glass surrounding her.  Siberian carried Jack and Bonesaw with leaping bounds, while Crawler headed for us.

I crossed my fingers, watching intently.

Two ways this could go for the final phase of our plan.

Well, three ways.  But I was hoping the third possibility -my team getting caught and slaughtered- wouldn’t happen.

The first way this could play out was that Shatterbird’s flight over the buildings would make her faster than Crawler or Siberian, who had to climb or circumvent the obstacles.

When I’d brought this up during the meeting, assuming it would happen, it had been Tattletale who pointed out that I was maybe underestimating how fast Crawler and Siberian could be.  She was right.  Despite her ability to fly, Shatterbird was falling behind.

Which meant we went with plan B.

“You up for this, Grue?” I asked, “I could do it.  My plan, and I was first to volunteer.”

“No, you can’t run fast enough with those burns.” Grue replied, as he hurried to the side of the rooftop furthest from the Nine.  He glanced down. “Trickster, I’m ready!”

“Just need an opportunity,” Trickster said, watching the incoming members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  They were closing a little too fast for comfort.  Sirius had arrived, and we were all getting saddled.  Bitch, Sundancer and I on Bentley, and Regent, Trickster and Ballistic on Sirius.  At Regent’s orders, Sirius moved to Grue’s side.

“Sooner than later!” Grue said.

“Do you want to die?” Trickster asked.

“No, but I’m willing to break something!”

“Your call,” Trickster said.  “Three, two, one!”

Grue leaped from the edge of the roof.  In that same instant, Trickster swapped him with Shatterbird.

She tumbled for a second, got a grip with her flight, and then steadied.

Then Regent hit her with his power.  Shatterbird flew into the corner of the roof, was thrown off-balance and tipped into the gap between buildings.

And Grue?  I cast a glance backward.  He’d dropped out of the air where Shatterbird had been flying, landing on a rooftop a distance below.  I could see him struggling to his feet.

“Go, go!”  Trickster screamed the words.

Our mounts leaped down into the same gap where Shatterbird had fallen.  We made the usual zig-zagging descent down, leaping from wall to wall, and landed on either side of Shatterbird and Genesis.

Genesis looked like a cartoon caricature of a sumo wrestler, grotesquely obese and yellow skinned with eyes like black buttons.  She was hairless, unclothed and sexless, and her skin was translucent and oily.  Through the skin, I could make out the vague figure of Shatterbird, pounding on the walls of the stomach, her mouth opening in a scream that didn’t reach us.  Glass shards were stirring around her, a blender whir cutting at the insides of Genesis’s belly.

“She’s going to cut through,” I said.  “Bitch, Regent, get the chains.  I’ll try to stop her.”

Using my bugs, I formed words against the surface of Genesis’s belly.  ‘Stop’.

Shatterbird only intensified her attempts.

I gathered some black widow spiders and pressed them gently against the shiny, translucent skin.  They were absorbed, drifting inside, and were soon crawling around the inside surface.  Genesis obliged me by opening her mouth, giving me a direct route for the bugs to travel.

“Hurry,” Regent said.  He was winding the chain around the jello-like yellow hand.  Fingerless hands gripped the chain for further traction.

Shatterbird noticed the spiders.  Her eyes widened as the volume of deadly spiders trapped in the bubble with her increased.  I raked my finger beneath the message I’d drawn with the bugs, as if to underline it.  ‘Stop’.

She did.  Glass shards fell into a pool around her feet.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran, the two dogs side by side, pulling Genesis behind us like a chariot.

Drawing my bugs together, I covered us as best as I was able, creating other decoys, vague chariot-shaped lumps here and there, huddles of figures.

It would all be for nothing if they returned to Cherish, revived the girl and tracked us down.

“Left!” I ordered.

Bitch steered left.  Regent hadn’t heard, but as the tension on the chains pulled Sirius to one side, he caught on and turned as well.

My bugs served as a navigation system, feeling out the shapes of our surroundings so I could work out a suitable path.  We charged onward, with me giving occasional directions, until we found Cherish lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

“Get her!”

Bitch rode just to Cherish’s left, Regent rode just to the right, and Genesis rolled right over the girl.  Cherish caught like glue, suffered an unfortunate few seconds of being dragged over the road’s surface, and was then drawn into Genesis’ bubble of a body.

My bugs gave me a sense of the Nine’s locations, and my decoys gave them pause once or twice.  We could track them more easily than they could do the reverse, and we were soon far enough away that I couldn’t sense them.

We only slowed when we got to Coil’s underground base.  We parked the dogs and then headed for the series of barred and locked doors.  I glanced at Shatterbird and Cherish where they knelt in Genesis’ rotund body.  We weren’t really giving away information here. Crawler had apparently come this way, not so long ago.

It was a fifty-fifty chance whether Siberian and the other Nine would come this way.  Cherish wasn’t around to give them information, but she might have provided details at an earlier point that Jack or one of the others could use to connect the dots.  We’d cross that bridge when we got to it.

Coil was there to greet us with a Tattletale and a contingent of armed soldiers.  We waited patiently as one of the soldiers scanned Shatterbird with a plastic wand.  He looked at Coil and shook his head.

“This way,” Coil ordered.

How did he set this up so fast?

Shatterbird’s cell was large, twenty feet by twenty feet across, and the walls had the same textured black rubber soundproofing as the sound recording booths I’d seen in movies and on TV.  I couldn’t see the speakers, but there was a noise similar to radio static filling the room, so loud I wouldn’t be able to hear if someone spoke.

With our weapons trained on Shatterbird, we stood by while one of Coil’s soldiers reached into Genesis’s stomach and hauled her out.  She was chained to the ceiling with her arms stretched out to her sides, then divested of her costume, left only with a silk camisole and slip.  Coil’s people wheeled in an x-ray machine and a tank of containment foam.

Shatterbird glared wordlessly at us until we’d exited the room and the heavy vault door blocked our view of her.

“She will be cavity searched and x-rayed to identify any hidden weapon or any devices Bonesaw or Mannequin might have implanted in her,” Coil spoke, after the doors were closed and the white noise was blocked out.  “Regent, we have a protective suit waiting for you.  In the event that she does acquire something she can use her powers on, or if she has concealed anything on her person that is small enough to avoid radiographic detection, the suit will shield you until you’ve finished.”

Regent nodded.

“She was bitten by brown recluses,” I said.  “I’d give her a full physical examination every thirty minutes, to be safe.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know standard treatment for bites of that kind,” Coil said.

Brooks stepped out of the crowd of nearby soldiers.  “Sir?”

“Brooks.”

“I’m familiar with the treatment for the more dangerous spider bites,” he looked at me, “It’s a protein-based venom?”

So the jerk is useful sometimes.  I hadn’t liked Brooks since Lisa had introduced me to him, but I could respect someone who knew his job.  “Yeah.”

“Seems I can leave it to you, then,” Coil said.  Brooks nodded.  Coil added, “Failing everything else, it might serve as incentive to cooperate.”

“Or cause to get desperate,” Tattletale said.  “She might do something stupid if she thinks she’ll die or suffer lifelong effects if she doesn’t get back to Bonesaw.”

“Let’s not give her the opportunity.  Regent, how fast can you seize control?”

“A few hours.”

“Start now.”

Regent headed off to get changed.

“That leaves our unexpected guest,” Coil said.  “Cherish.”

Regent hadn’t yet escaped earshot.  He turned back to us.  “She’ll have a trap on her.  Small explosive looped around her neck with a lock and a deadman’s switch.”

“Thank you,” Coil said.  “Tattletale?  See to it at the first opportunity.”

“Not a problem.”

We approached Cherish and Genesis. Cherish knelt in the small pile of glass shards that sat at the very bottom of the bubble.  Her hands were pressed against the inside of the stomach, causing it to bulge like a small child in a womb.  She was awake, but bleeding severely.

Coil gave the order, “If anyone acts out of character, take them out of action as swiftly as possible and shoot the girl.”

There were nods all around.

Cherish’s mouth moved, but the sound didn’t reach us.

“I did not expect her, and I did not take measures for containing her,” Coil said.  “Keeping her on the premises may prove exceptionally dangerous.”

“The alternative being?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her go?”

“In the euphemistic sense.  Her value as a captive is minimal and we have no way to secure her until Regent can finish using his ability on her.”

“He’s resistant to her power,” Tattletale said, “But that goes both ways.  Don’t know how well he’d be able to control her.  She might break free.  Benefits of being family, I guess.”

“Then I would suggest, as Trickster said earlier, ‘letting her go’.  We execute her and remove her from the equation,”  Coil stated.

I looked at Cherish, and her eyes narrowed.  She knew exactly what we were saying.  Killing someone in cold blood?  A little different than killing someone on the battlefield.

“Not giving you the go ahead,” I said.  “But I’m not about to stop you.  I’m washing my hands of this.”

“The intent was to remove individuals from the Nine before they could conduct their round of tests, yes?  This seems to be the most expedient route.”

“Not disagreeing,” I said.  “But I didn’t sign up to be an executioner.  I manage my district and I help defend your city from outsiders, right?”

“Quite right.  No, I think your service this morning has been exemplary.”

I only barely managed to avoid bringing up the deal about Dinah.  No, it was premature, the wrong people were listening, and I was worried he would point out the fact that my territory had been torched by Burnscar.

Best to keep quiet for now.  Rebuild, re-establish myself as leader of my territory, then raise the topic.

Whatever happened, I needed his respect.

We turned our attention to our captive.  She had raised her hands above her head in a surrender position, despite the hole in her shoulder.

“Do we risk it?” Trickster asked.  “Letting her out?”

“Nothing she can’t do outside the bubble that she couldn’t do inside,” Tattletale replied.  Coil nodded, and that seemed to be signal enough.

Genesis began to dissolve, and in moments, Cherish spilled out, wincing as she cut her hands and knees on the glass that Shatterbird had detached from her costume and weaponized.

Tattletale bent down and looked at the device that hung around Cherish’s neck.  “Small explosive, combination lock.  A bit paranoid?”

“No such thing as too paranoid,” Cherish said, glaring.  “Between my brother and the crap that Bonesaw and the rest of the team want to subject me to, knowing I’ll die if I leave that thing alone long enough actually helps me sleep at night.”

“Can’t have that,” Tattletale said.  Changing the topic, she asked, “You like computers?”

“Computers?” Cherish startled.  She seemed to intuit what Tattletale was doing.  “Not saying.”

“Clever girl, but even that’s enough of a clue.  Let’s see… four, five, four five.”  Tattletale tugged on the lock.  “Nope.  Three, seven, three, seven.”

The lock popped open.  Cherish’s eyes opened wide.

“There goes your bargaining chip.”

“I’ve got more,” Cherish said, her chin rising a fraction.

“Do tell,” Coil said, dryly.

“Certain teammate of yours paid me a visit.  Imp, I think her name was?  So hard to remember.”

“What did you do to Imp?” I asked.  Grue is going to freak out.

Cherish smiled, “She decided to help me get back at the Nine.  They’re planning on inflicting a fate worse than death on me, you see.  There was a reason I pretended not to notice you were all waiting in ambush.  Thought maybe the brat passed on word somehow, until you used that sucker-teleport on me and shot me.  Suppose you’ll have to give me medical attention and keep me alive if you want the rest of the story.”

“And your other bargaining chip?” Trickster asked.

“Grue.  I can sense him with my power.  I can also sense my team.  They got their hands on darkness boy.”

I swear my heart stuttered mid-beat.

Cherish smiled, but her glare didn’t fade in intensity.  “My teammates and I already talked on the subject of Jean Paul, aka Hijack, aka Alec, aka Regent…  You got Shatter, and you got me.  We’re compromised.  No way they’re going to accept us back with open arms.  They’d kill us first.  So no, don’t get your hopes up.  My teammates aren’t going to agree to a hostage exchange.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 13½ (Donation Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Sam!  Sam!”  Celia’s voice was grating and nasal.

“I’m coming!”  The heavyset man grumbled, as he made his way into the living room.  Celia sat on the floor between the couch and the coffee table.  The white of her t-shirt and panties was a stark contrast to her dark skin.  Sam leered at the woman.  She was good-looking for her age, slim, though her breasts sagged behind her shirt without the benefit of a bra.

“You said you were five minutes ago, asswipe.  Takes you five minutes to find your wallet?”

“Needed to piss.  Your fatass friend was in your bathroom, so I pissed in your sink.”

Celia kicked under the coffee table to strike his shin.

Sam just smiled and stepped back.  “Kidding.  I went off the fire escape.”

“That’s not any better!”

“It’s all water and shit down there.  Any place that doesn’t smell like hot garbage smells like a toilet.  Here.  Stop bitching.”  He threw a plastic movie rental card at her.

She cut open a plastic wrapped block of powder and shook a small amount of the powder onto the coffee table.  She used the laminated card to cut it into lines, a set on each side of the table, with none in front of her.

“You’re not having any?”

“I told you.  I’m pregnant.”

“You’re too old to be pregnant,” Sam commented.  She kicked him again.

“Not that old!”

Jennifer emerged from the washroom and stopped in the doorway, staring at the scene.

“I didn’t think you’d actually use any of the stuff.”

“Jen, hon,” Celia said, “We’ve got enough to go around.  Even if we only sold half, we’d be made in the shade for five or ten years.”

“And you just took it?”

“Leaders of the Merchants got killed, everyone else decided to run off with what they could carry of the stockpiles.  Sam and I decided to play it smart.  Sam got his truck, and I guarded the stash from the other assholes.  Paid off.”

“I… what is it?”

“Little bit of everything.  Come, sit.  Try some.”

“What is it?”

Sam seated himself at the table, by one set of the lines of powder.  He picked up a pinch and put it on his tongue.  “H.”

“No way,” Jennifer said.  She dropped into one of the felt-covered chairs at the far end of the room.

Aisha had to hop out of the way so she didn’t get sat on.  She watched the dialogue between her mother, her mother’s boyfriend of the week and her mother’s new friend with a dispassionate expression.  Seeing this scene, she didn’t really feel much.  A little disappointment.  Embarrassment.  Disgust.

No, it was less this scene and more the discovery that her mother was pregnant that nailed her in the gut with a profound kind of sadness.

The first place her mind went, before joy at the idea of having a brother or sister, before anger at her mom for letting it happen and not using protection, was hope.

“Sam, do you have any papers?”

“Rolling papers?  I thought you were going clean.”

“It’s just weed.  I need to have something.”

“Isn’t that bad for the kid-in-progress?”

“It’s weed, dumbass.  Nothing they tell you about it is true.  Kid isn’t going to wind up addicted from birth or anything, ’cause it’s not addictive.  Right?”

“Sure,” he reached into his back pocket and slipped a packet to her, along with a dime bag.

Aisha bit her lip.  Maybe hope was the wrong word, because she didn’t really feel anything on the subject.  But she knew it would probably be better if her mom miscarried and the kid was spared this shit.

How much of Aisha’s problems were because of her mom’s lack of self-control and how many others were because of this environment?  She’d grown up with a mom who’d never mentally or emotionally aged past fourteen or fifteen.  A new man in the house every week or two, with his own idea of how things should work, Celia generally content to let him run things however he wanted.

Aisha tried not to think about the men.  It was like having a broken arm; so long as she didn’t move it, so long as she didn’t think about it, it was okay, a dull throb in the back of her mind.  Something she could ignore.  But even a stray thought could remind her that the arm was broken, and then it sometimes took days before she could get out of that head space.  There was no distraction that worked, because the fact that she was consciously looking for a distraction only reminded her of what she was trying to distract herself from.

Of course, there was no way to avoid the countless reminders in everyday life that would remind her of Guy, or Bridge, or Darren, or Lonnie.  Thinking about a broken arm was one such reminder.

Being ignored by her teammates and told to go to her room and play along for everyone else’s sake was another.  How many afternoons had she come home from school, only for her mom or one of her mom’s boyfriends to shoo her off or bribe her to leave the apartment for a bit?

Pissed her off.  She didn’t need that from her brother, too.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Celia urged her friend.  She took a long draw from the spliff she held in her fingers. “Oh fuck!  Sam, you jackass!  This isn’t just weed, is it?”

“Thought it was.”

“There’s a kick to it.  Amp or something.”  Celia took another puff.  “Amp.  Hey, Jen, join in. Have some of what Sam’s having.”

“But H is fucking scary,” Jen protested.

“So you hear.  But why is it scary?”

“It’s addictive.”

Aisha tuned out the sound of her mother and Sam cajoling the woman and walked over to the table.  Her mom didn’t notice her.  Nobody ever noticed her, and they noticed even less ever since she’d gotten her power.  It was like a dark joke, a grim comedy.  Just when she’d started to figure things out, grow up and catch people’s eye, the world went to hell and she got her powers.  Now she became invisible if she lost her concentration.

Not that it was invisibility, really.  It was memories.  People forgot her as soon as they saw her, to the point that they didn’t register her presence.  She could feel it, her power rolling over her skin, jabbing outward, invisible to sight, touch and anything else, making contact with the people around her and pushing those memories away.

And like her metaphor comparing her memories to a broken arm, her power seemed to respond to the attention of her subjects; the harder they tried to remember and focus on her, the faster she slipped through their minds.

The metaphor applied in another way, too.  Her power operated on its own, doing its thing, and if she very casually noted what it was doing, without pushing it forward or holding it back, she could feel it doing something else.  As if it was ready to push away memories that didn’t relate to her, exactly.  It never did.  Any time it built up enough that it came close to doing anything, she noticed, and it retreated like a turtle pulling its head into its shell.

Frustrating.  Her power didn’t do anything because she wanted it to.  It worked only if she surrendered to it, let it act on its own.  Pushing it to work harder had the opposite effect.

How easy would it be to just carry this stuff away?  She could hand it to Coil for some brownie points, and he could decide what to distribute.  It would be out of her mother’s hands, and money would become a limiter on her mother’s habit.  If the drugs weren’t around, maybe Sam would leave.

Maybe, if Aisha got rid of the drugs, her mom would have an excuse to get things back on track, somehow.  The city was paying people who joined the clean-up crews.  Three square meals, simple and bland but they gave the essential nutrients, and they gave you twenty dollars for nine hours of work.  Fuck around or slack off, and they just kicked you off the crew for the day, no pay.

Idle hopes.  Aisha had spent long years wishing her mom could pull it together, dating back to just after the divorce, when a bad day was still better than most good days were now.  Or maybe that was nostalgia and a child’s eye view.

No.  If she got rid of the drugs, it was more likely that someone would erupt in anger.  Sam or her mom, getting violent, verbally or otherwise.  It would do more harm than good.

She sat down on the coffee table, directly opposite her mother.  Reaching forward, she plucked the spliff from her mother’s lips and dropped it, grinding it under her toes.

Her mother blinked a few times, then reached for her rolling papers.

Aisha used her hand to cover the papers and whispered, “No.”

Again, the dazed blinking.  Her mother asked, “Sam?  Got any more papers?”

“I just gave you a full package.”

“The hell?  Maybe that hit me harder than I thought,” Aisha’s mother giggled.

Aisha stared her mother in the eyes.  She didn’t deactivate her power.  “Mom.  You gotta stop.”

“Where are the rest of the papers, Sam?” her mom asked, oblivious.

“Kitchen.”

“But I don’t want to get up.  I’m comfy,” Celia whined.

“You keep going down this road, your kid is going to be born without a face or something,” Aisha said, her voice quiet.  “You know how hard school was for me?  Even as far back as kindergarten, I couldn’t sit still.  Teacher tells me three things, and by the time they’ve gotten to the third, I’ve forgotten the first.  And Brian doesn’t have any of that.”

“Go get some papers, Sam.  Sam McSamsam.  Sammy-sam.  Samster-”

“I don’t want to get up any more than you do,” Sam growled.  “You’re not one of the talkative ones, are you?  I like it quiet.”

“Mom,” Aisha said, as if she could get her mom’s attention.  Ironically enough, she knew that if she deactivated her power, she’d have even less chance of talking to her mom.  It wasn’t just the horned mask and the black costume.  She’d never had anyone just sit down and listen to her.  Dad ignored her, mom was self-centered and Brian was too focused on what needed to be done that he ignored everything else.

“Mom.  You’re going to have some fucked up kid, and then you’re going to die of an OD before it’s even grown up.  It’s not fair that you leave some kid that’s more retarded than me, or some deformed freak for Brian to take care of.  Not fair on him, and it’s not fair on the kid to make them put up with the dick, either.”

“Fine,” her mother said, standing.  “I’ll get the papers myself.”

Aisha sighed.  Was it cowardice that kept her from confronting her mother, or the knowledge backed by years of experience that it wouldn’t make a difference?

Maybe, if everything with the Nine worked out and Coil got control of the city, maybe she could get her mom some help, or report her to the police.

But not now, not when things were like this, when she had to prove she deserved her place in the group.

Abandoning her mother to a noisy search of the kitchen, Aisha headed into her old room.

Her room smelled like sex, and faintly of urine.  Her mom had apparently had a party since Aisha had left.

Holding her breath, she opened her closet door.  She pushed past the clothes she’d stolen, shoplifted and bought, and past the old clothes she couldn’t or wouldn’t wear anymore.  Her closet was in layers, and each layer held clothes and trinkets from a different era.

Her girl guide stuff was in the very back, too wrinkled by years to wear.  Her dad had pushed her into that.  He’d wanted her to have structure.  After a year and a half, even he had pulled her out.  A bad fit.  She didn’t have the personality type for it.

Around the girl guide stuff, she found a small tape recorder and an old pair of binoculars.  After finding an old backpack that had never been emptied of the school supplies, she found some notebooks that had only been filled in about a third of the way.  She tore out those pages and tucked the notebooks under one arm.

Everything went into a compact black handbag, along with her taser and knives.

Small things.  Nothing she couldn’t have bought in a well stocked convenience store, maybe.  But she would operate best if she was relaxed, and having some personal items made her feel better.

That only left the problem of finding them.

They’d attacked the Merchants, and observing her mom had given her the chance to find out where.  It was a starting point.

It was worse than she’d expected.  She ducked under the police tape and pushed one officer out of her way as she stepped into the area.  Police cars and PRT vans had formed a broad perimeter, with police tape strung between them.  She momentarily wondered why they didn’t have the wooden barricades.  It was flimsy as security went.

It was drizzling, and the small amounts of rain did little to clean the streets of the blood that spattered it.  Water soaked into the white and brown sheets that had been draped over the bodies that still waited for someone to clean them up.  The brown, she realized, was dried blood.

Aisha picked her way through the fallen.  The worst of the carnage was at the edges, as if some invisible line had been drawn that nobody was permitted to cross, and in the center, where the masses of people had gathered before being murdered together.

She’d hoped for a lead.  A piece of evidence, or an overheard tidbit of information from the cops.

No such luck.

There was an overabundance of evidence.  By the time the cops processed everything here and managed to identify the bodies, the leaves would be falling off the trees and the Nine would be long gone, one way or another.  The cops weren’t talking, either.  They were working silently, or the things they were saying weren’t interesting.  Catching the Nine wasn’t their job.  If they found something worthwhile, they would pass it on to the local capes, probably.

No.  If there was something to be found, it wouldn’t be here.  She headed to the edge of the scene, where the police cars had all stopped.  There were still spots and spatters of blood here and there, and bloody footprints, but not much.  She walked around the police and the cars to check each set out.  In every case, it seemed, the bloodied victims had either fallen where they lay or disappeared.  Ambulances?

Having checked the area, she moved further down the street to see the next closed-off alleyway.  The same thing.  A few more bloody footprints, but nothing beyond that.

The third blockade offered something.  There was a spot where the blood was thicker, which didn’t match up with the other spaces.  The trail extended further than it did elsewhere.

Looking around, she spotted a smear of blood on the side of a building, three stories up.

Okay.  So maybe they’d gone this way.

The trail of breadcrumbs that the blood provided were slowly being eroded or masked by the light rain.  The water raised the oils from the cracks in the road, giving the ground a rainbow sheen.

The signs of blood faded too soon, and Aisha could only guess whether she had taken the wrong road, gone too far or if the rain had cleared it away.  She might have given up right then, but she saw a group of men standing outside of an apartment building.

It was only when she got close that she saw the badge clipped to the front of one of their jackets.  A detective.  There was blood on the door that led into the apartment lobby.

The elevator wouldn’t be working.  She headed for the stairwell, only to find more blood.  It was as though a body had been dragged.

Going forward was a stupid idea, she knew.  Brian and Skitter had gone into way too much fucking depth about the risks.   Still, that hadn’t stopped her before.

She got her taser and knife from her bag and made her way upstairs.

Third floor up, blood on the door leading into the hall.  More blood trailing down the hallway, stopping at one apartment.

She double checked that her power was active and pushed her way inside.

Only a few of the Nine were present.  Crawler slept with his ponderous head on paws that were crossed over one another, his back rising and falling with each deep breath.  He was large enough that the highest part of his back rose nearly to the ceiling with each breath he drew in through his nostrils.  Only half of the eyes on his body were closed, covered with thick, dark gray lids.

Shatterbird and Burnscar were on the couch, Burnscar stretched out with her head on the armrest, her feet propped up on Shatterbird’s lap.  She held a graphic novel on her stomach with one hand and created flames in the other, shaping them to match the people she saw as she flicked from page to page.  Shatterbird was sitting upright, a novel in her hands.

Bonesaw stood over the dining room table, with a mechanical spider-thing on the opposite side of the table, assisting her.  A young man was on the table itself, his wrists and ankles tied down.  His torso was open from collar-bone to crotch, his ribs splayed apart.  Bonesaw and her mechanical spider were elbow deep in the contents of his torso.

The spiders.

Aisha moved quickly aside as a spider moved from the kitchen, past her and to the table.  Whatever cameras or artificial intelligence it used, it didn’t seem to notice her.  It handed Bonesaw a diet cola that the little girl opened with bloody fingers and drank.

With a little more confidence, Aisha moved further inside, giving a wide berth to Crawler and Burnscar’s foot-high images of flame.

Holding her weapons, Aisha stood next to Shatterbird, at one end of the couch.

Aisha had never killed anyone, but here she was, holding a lethal weapon.  She could slice Shatterbird’s throat and they wouldn’t even realize she was there.

They would, she suspected, realize that Shatterbird was dead or dying.  There was a fifty-fifty chance, anyways, that it would force them out of whatever effect her powers had on their brains.  It had happened to her before.

Except that Shatterbird would kill her in her last moments, using the glass that had been swept to the corners of the room, or one of the others would.  Burnscar or Crawler could deal a hell of a lot of damage, even if they didn’t know who they were attacking.

Slowly, she walked over to Bonesaw, navigating around the drones.  Could she kill the kid?

On the one hand, Bonesaw was the one who kept the other members going.  Removing her would take a lot of problems off the board.  She could finish off Bonesaw and run for cover in the kitchen, out of Burnscar and Shatterbird’s line of fire.  From there, it was only steps to the front door and safety.

On the other hand, it was still murder, and it was a kid.  A kid that had a hundred kills under her belt.

A squeaking sound distracted her from her thoughts.  It was like air being let out of a balloon, but in shorter spurts.  Bonesaw?  No, the girl wasn’t making any noise.  The mechanical spider?  No.  Not the spider either.

Stepping as close to Bonesaw and the spider as she dared, Aisha investigated the sounds.  Where were they coming from?

Bonesaw smiled, “You’re going to have to speak up if you want me to hear you, Jonathan.”

Jonathan?

Aisha looked down at the body, and realized the heart was beating inside Bonesaw’s hands.  The man’s eyes were moving, and his lips moved as he struggled and failed to make words come up through his windpipe.

The surge of horror and disgust gave Aisha the strength to cast aside her doubts.

“Sorry kid,” she said.

She plunged the knife into Bonesaw’s bare throat.

Bonesaw screamed, shrill and loud, which caught Aisha off guard.  With a knife in her throat, the girl was screaming?

Reacting more on instinct than wit, Aisha pulled the knife out and then slashed it horizontally across Bonesaw’s throat.

She’d expected a spray of blood or gurgling.  Neither happened.  Bonesaw screamed again.

So she pulled the knife free and stabbed Bonesaw in one eye.  The blade scraped against the bone of Bonesaw’s eye socket.

Flame erupted and pieces of glass came to life around Aisha.  She backed away quickly as a wall of flame rolled over Jonathan on the table and divided her from Bonesaw.  There was a rumble and the sound of falling furniture as Crawler stood.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow!”  Bonesaw shrieked.  “It hurts!”

Why isn’t she dead?

Aisha yanked the knife out and then gripped her taser.

“Is it Jack?” Burnscar asked, looking around, then turning to the window, “What the hell?”

“It’s not Jack,” Bonesaw said.  She snapped her fingers, and the mechanical spider leaped on top of her, beginning to suture the wounds in her neck.  “I gave Jack the same safeguards I gave us, he would have succeeded if he tried it.”

Shatterbird scowled.  “Then who or what was that?  Crawler, do you know?”

Aisha backed toward the front door.  She stopped as Crawler appeared in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the front hall, looking through to see his teammates on the far end.  His voice was a mangled mess of sounds that only barely approximated anything like speech.  “I don’t smell anyone.”

Smells can’t find me, then, Aisha thought.  Still, she didn’t have her escape route.

“Torch the apartment and make a break for it?” Burnscar asked.  “We can meet up as a group later.”

“No.  Cherish has a hard time tracking Mannequin, and he won’t know how to find us,” Shatterbird said.

“I’m okay,” Bonesaw piped up.  She held one hand to her eye socket, which had trails of smoke rising from it.  “You don’t need to worry.  I can put my throat back together easy, after I get my kit out to check the sheaths for my vitals to make sure there’s no abrasions, and I’ve got spare eyes.  I could go with green eyes.  Or one green and one blue, or if I alter them, I could have-“

“Quiet,” Shatterbird cut in.  “It’s less about you being hurt and more about the fact that someone had the audacity to attack us here.  Burnscar, put out those fires.  We don’t want attention.”

The wall of flame shrunk and faded away.

“Really hope you don’t have another way of sensing me, big guy,” Aisha said to Crawler, ducking between his legs and stepping towards the door.  “I’m gonna make my exit now.”

None of the Nine reacted as she shut the door behind her.

Lesson learned.  The more ‘vulnerable’ members of the Nine weren’t as vulnerable as they looked.  Sheaths, Bonesaw had said?

Stepping into the lobby, she stopped in her tracks.

One of the detectives who’d been standing by the door was dead, his throat slit.  He laid in the center of the lobby.  Two more blood trails ran to the side of the lobby opposite the stairs.

Manager’s office?

Her weapon drawn, she reached for the doorknob, and collided with Jack as he strode out of the office.

“What’s wrong?” Cherish asked.

Aisha backed away.

“Nothing,” Jack said.  “You grab the last body and then find a mop.”

“Me?”

“I think I’ve been exceedingly generous, giving you a second chance.  You can repay me by doing the heavy lifting.”

“Ever the gentleman.”

“Go on, now.  I’ll wait here.”

Aisha watched as Cherish walked past her, grabbed the heavyset detective and began dragging him inch by inch toward the office.

She only remembered one other time when her heart had pounded this hard.  It had been when the fledgling Merchants had attacked her and her father.  It was another chance.  While they were separated, she could go after one.  But which?

She held the taser and the knife, adjusting her grip so she was secure.

Jack was the key figure.  Aisha knew she could attack him, knew she maybe should, but would she succeed any more than she did against Bonesaw?  Cherish might be able to lash out with some kind of blind fire, affecting the emotions of everyone nearby.

No.  Cherish was the newest member, wasn’t she?  There were better odds that Cherish didn’t have the protections that Jack and the others did.

Exhaling slowly, Aisha followed behind Cherish as the girl tugged the body into the other room.  She stepped inside and shut the door.

“Put the weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet.

Aisha gulped, realizing the trap she’d just stepped into.  “You can hear me?”

A second passed, and there was no response.

“Put it away, or I’m going to leave you quivering in a corner, shitting your pants.”

“You can’t hear me.”  Aisha gripped her weapon and stepped closer.

Cherish whirled around, her eyes flitting right and left, searching for Aisha.  “I’ll scream.  He’ll come in here, and a couple swings of his knife, he can cut you down, invisible or no.”

“It’s not invisibility,” Imp said, uselessly.

“Put your weapon away,” Cherish said, her voice quiet and carefully measured, “We only have a few seconds before Jack gets suspicious.  Listen.  I want to strike a deal.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 12

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Which one of you dripping rectal cysts is brave enough for this one!?”

The cheer bubbled up from the crowd, until it reached a crescendo that he could hear from his aircraft/podium.  The wind ripped around him as he stood at the nose of the aircraft, his cape fluttering.  Squealer’s vehicle was like a helicopter made by someone who had never seen a helicopter before, who’d decided to add their own improvements to the design when they were finished – more whirling blades spaced equidistant around the thing.  Topping it off, it was roughly three times the typical size.

“Green armband means poison, and this is a poison half of you wastes of air have already tasted!  We’re gonna make it as bad as it gets!  The worst of bad trips!”

He held a bowl of pills that were dusted with assorted powders and raised it over his head, “One handful, then you take a nap in one of the coffins we have up here.  Moment the lid shuts, you’ll find out what’s in store for you.  Some have rats, some have spiders, some have nothing at all and some…”

A beam of light speared down from the base of the fat bodied helicopter, sending chunks of earth where it hit ground.  The moment it faded, a coffin fell into the hole that had formed, followed by a downpour of gravel.

“Get buried alive!”

The noise of the crowd was more bloodthirsty this time, unmasked and unashamed in their savagery.

“Hope you rancid pukes have friends to dig you up!  Put up with that shit while you’re on the trip of your life, and you get yourselves a green fucking armband!  For the rest of the night, everything is as free as your mother’s pussy!  For as long as you hold on to that baby, anything you buy direct from one of us head honchos is ten percent off!  So which-”

He stopped.  There was a thump as the microphone hit the surface near Skidmark’s feet and then a violent but all too brief noise as it struck one of the propellers at the side of the aircraft and was promptly annihilated.

Skidmark’s hands went to his stomach, where blood and organs were spilling out.  He turned to run, but more slices appeared in his arm, his buttock, his back and the back of his neck.  No longer in sight of the majority of the crowd, he continued to try to crawl away, only for his reaching fingers to be separated from his hand, flying away from him in a spray of crimson.

The aircraft lurched and began to turn, but this maneuver ended up spelling out Skidmark’s doom.  The surface beneath him was already slick with blood, and with only one hand’s worth of fingers to grip with, he slid.  He used his power to change the surface and force himself upward, but it was too little, too late.

He dropped into the blades of the spinning propeller and was puréed in a heartbeat.

Standing on a rooftop across from the aircraft, Jack flicked his wrist and snapped the blade of his straight-razor back into the handle.

Smiling thinly, he looked over his shoulder at his teammates.  Bonesaw sat astride Siberian’s shoulders, in the midst of braiding a lock of the feral killer’s hair.  Shatterbird and Burnscar stood on opposite sides of the group, the former holding a book in one hand, the latter with images in flame dancing a quarter-inch off her skin, showing people and familiar objects, many of the images replaying the scene of Skidmark’s demise in miniature.  Bonesaw’s automatons were spread out over the remainder of the roof, and one of her Frankenstein creations waited patiently at the far end of the roof.  Hack Job, she’d called it?  It had started to rot alive, and Bonesaw kept it out of the way so as not to offend the sensibilities of her teammates.  Cherish stood in Crawler’s shadow, pale, her hands clasped together.  Her shoulders were drawn in, as if she was afraid she would be struck any second.

Crawler, the most monstrous member of the group, loomed over the rest.  His chest was ten feet deep from front to back, his head the size of a small car.  He combined the most effective features of a bear and a panther.  Sinuous, flexible, bristling with quiet menace, but also brawny with muscle.  He had armor plates covering him, with scales where armor wouldn’t allow him optimum flexibility, and spines and coarse hair where the scales wouldn’t do.  Head to toe, he had the coloring of an oil slick, black by default, but scintillating with rainbow hues in just the right light.  A hundred black orbs studded the length of his body, set into the plates of armor.  Caustic venom virtually poured from a mouth that bristled with mismatched fangs, spattering precipitously close to Cherish and eating at the concrete rooftop.  Perhaps most unnerving of all were his six legs, each forking at the knee or elbow joint, with one larger limb ending in scimitar-like claws and a smaller set of limbs for each; tentacles for the rear four legs and a long fingered human’s hands for the forelimbs.

Jack spoke, with no small amount of irony.  “Looks like Skidmark’s hosting a party.  I think we deserve a night on the town, after waiting as long as we did to reveal ourselves.  Be sure to thank our hosts.  I’m sure our invitation was lost in the mail.”

Smiles spread across more than one face.

Crawler was the first one off of the roof, throwing himself into the night air to land in the dead center of the crowd.  The others followed quickly after, Shatterbird and Burnscar launching themselves to the far corners of the massed crowd, conjuring up storms of glass shards and flame to block their victim’s retreat.  Bonesaw’s creations poured over the edges of the rooftop to herd the remainder of the crowd and keep them contained to one area.

It was just four of them left on the rooftop.  Siberian, Bonesaw, Jack and Cherish.

Siberian reached out and gripped Cherish by the shirt collar.  More graciously, she extended a hand toward Jack.  He gripped it tight.

“Thank you,” he said.

Catching a ride with Siberian was something of an art form.  Cherish had yet to master it, not even biting her tongue or keeping the short shriek from escaping her lips as Siberian stepped off the edge of the roof.  Jack, for his part, allowed himself to go limp the second Siberian pulled at him.  The four of them collectively dropped, Bonesaw riding atop Siberian’s shoulders, gripping her hair to maintain her position.

They were spared the messy fate of being pancaked on the pavement by a quirk of Siberian’s nature, transferring to each of them.  Jack staggered, more because he’d let his whole body relax so he wouldn’t jar something when Siberian tugged at him, but he let go of his teammate’s hand and straightened.  Cherish dropped to her knees.

“Much obliged, Siberian.” Jack said.  “Go.  Have fun.”

Siberian reached up and set Bonesaw down, and then was gone, one footstep carrying her into the midst of the crowd.  She didn’t care if she hit anyone.  Anyone unfortunate enough to be in her way was pulverized, their limbs broken, chests shattered and necks snapped by the impact.  Even those in the general area were caught by the flying bodies and hurt just as grievously.

Bonesaw laughed, and it was a sound without reservations, not shaped by social constraint or culture or self-censorship.  It was the laugh of a child, free and without a care.  One of her mechanical spiders leaped onto her back, and wound several of its limbs around her chest.  Two limbs extended to connect to her wrists, so the mechanical arms mirrored the dimensions and length of her own.  The ends fanned out into an array of scalpels, needles, saws, and other instruments so one tool sat between each of her splayed fingers.  The smallest gestures of her hands forced instantaneous rearrangements of the tools, so another was ready for her to grasp and use.  Two more spiders lunged forward and pulled one of Siberian’s screaming wounded away from the rest of the crowd, dragging it inch by inch toward the advancing Bonesaw.

The crowd might have turned to fight her, but they lacked the courage.  They scattered.

Jack twirled his closed straight-razor around his fingers.  “Cherish, stand up.  You’re missing the show.”

Obediently, Cherish raised herself up.  She lifted her head just in time to see a blur of white and black against the night sky, followed by a large explosion from the side of Squealer’s flying aircraft.  It tilted and bounced against the side of a nearby building, scraps of metal shearing off to land in the midst of the crowd.  A series of small detonations that ripped forth from the interior of the aircraft cast just enough light for Jack and Cherish to see Siberian striding across the deck, one of the Merchants in her grip.  In a heartbeat, she’d torn the woman’s limbs from their sockets and buried her teeth in the woman’s neck.

Bereft of a pilot and working internal mechanisms, the aircraft crashed heavily in the midst of the crowd.  The Merchants who had gathered in the street for Skidmark’s festival of poison scattered, abandoning their fallen friends, trying to find an escape route or hiding place.  The screams of panic were twice the volume of any cheering they’d done earlier.

Siberian hopped up to the highest point of the wrecked aircraft, the twisted remains of a propeller that should not have borne her weight.  Her hair blew in the hot air that rose from the heap of burning metal.  She glanced around to see where she might do the most damage, spat out a gobbet of meat and then leaped off to one side, out of sight.  The propeller didn’t even move.

“Are you going to partake?” Jack asked Cherish.

“Why are you still talking like I’m a member of this team?  I tried to manipulate all of you, and I failed.”

“We’ll deal with your punishment at a later date.  Bonesaw is working on something.”

Cherish’s eyes widened.  “I knew she was… I read her emotions towards me… I knew she was thinking about something.  But hearing you say it out loud.  Oh god.”

“Rest assured, Cherie Vasil, you dropped out of reach of God a long, long time ago.” Jack smiled at her.

She turned away, looking over the scene, as if it could distract her from her thoughts and fears.

Crawler threw himself into the point where the crowd was thickest.  Bodies flew as he moved on his two rearmost legs and swept the other four claws and two tentacles through the ranks of the Merchants.  When everyone within his broad reach was dead or suffocating from the paralytic venom, he turned toward the wrecked aircraft and began advancing with a more measured pace.  Each of the hundred eyes along the length of his body blinked to clear away the blood and dust that had spattered him in his all-too-brief spree.

Jack watched as someone drew a gun and pointed it at Crawler, then reconsidered.  He turned it toward Bonesaw, and found himself face to face with Hack Job.  He was cut down a moment later.  Hack Job exploded in a puff of white dust, already having left to dispatch more gunmen that might harm Jack or his maker.

Another figure appeared next to Jack and Cherish.  Jack assumed it was Hack Job until he turned his head.

“Oh hoh,” Jack assessed the man.  “What happened here?”

Mannequin stood, headless, streaked in paint and dust that marred his white body with dark colors.  His right arm ended at the elbow, the remainder missing.

One by one, the other members of the Nine seemed to notice Mannequin’s appearance.  Shatterbird stepped back from the ruined husk of a massive suit of steaming armor and started flying their way, accompanied by a cloud of bloody glass shards.

Bonesaw turned away from her patient.  She spoke to the man, pushing him away.  She might have said something like ‘run’.

The man stumbled five or six steps before his body began to swell.  His right arm bloated up to three or four times the usual size, turning crimson, before it exploded violently, sending shards of bone and a spray of blood into the people nearest him.  He screamed, only for his cries to grow shorter and more frantic, as the rest of him reached that critical mass.  In another ten seconds, the remainder of his body detonated.

Bonesaw was already skipping over to the rest of their group, grinning wide, “Mannequin!  Aww!  Did the villain break you?  Poor baby.  Like a little girl with a ken doll.”

A blade sprung from Mannequin’s remaining hand.  Bonesaw tittered.

Behind the child tinker, those in the crowd who had been struck by the blood and flying bone of her first victim were starting to scream as their bodies swelled as well.

Jack frowned.  “Bonesaw.  You know my rule about epidemics.  You have to play fair with the rest of the group.”

“No epidemic!  I promise!”  She said, drawing a little ‘x’ over her heart, “Four or five cycles.  No more.  Each transition is going to have only about half the catalyst of the last, and eventually they’ll be able to fight it off.”

Shatterbird landed in their midst.  Behind her, a swell of orange light from Burnscar’s flames coincided with a peak in the crowd’s screams.  Mush’s titanic form of sand and debris had ignited, and he flailed madly.  Shatterbird ignored the chaos that her teammate was causing, studied Mannequin and then spoke in a voice that was dripping with judgement, “Mannequin failed.”

“It’s a shame you can’t see the disapproving look on Shatterbird’s face, Alan,” Jack commented, smiling.

Mannequin pointed the blade in his hand at Shatterbird, a threat and a warning.  Jack tensed, studying Shatterbird’s expression, waiting to see if this would start something.

“A loss is allowable,” Jack said, when the fight didn’t erupt.  “Most of us are more forgiving than Siberian, and allow a failure or two from our candidates during the rounds of testing, no?  It’s okay to let them win from time to time.  It gives them that spark of hope, so we can snatch it away and leave them all the more devastated.”

He looked at Shatterbird and she inclined her head in a barely perceptible nod.

“Which raises an interesting topic,” Jack said.  He spotted Siberian and indicated for her to approach.  Two corpses were stacked on her arm like meat on a kebab, and she cast them aside with a motion of her arm before approaching their circle.

Crawler was one of the two group members who had yet to rejoin the group.  He was engaged with a young man with a glow that suffused his hair and emanated from his eyes and mouth.  White flashes appeared with little accuracy and devastating effect, carving spherical chunks out of the brute.  This only encouraged the monster, and Crawler eagerly paced closer, his wounds closing together with a startling rapidity.  So few things could hurt Crawler these days that Jack rarely got to see the regeneration in full effect.  Crawler’s healing powers appeared to play out in fast-forward when compared to even the regenerators who could heal wounds in seconds.  Hundreds of pounds of flesh were replaced in one or two heartbeats.

One eruption of light hit Crawler in the dead center of his chest.  It made him pause, no doubt removing one of his hearts and some of his spinal cord.  The boy with the glowing hair pushed his power into overdrive, calling forth a series of flashes that exploded in close succession.  One caught Crawler in the face, revealing only a cross-section of his head, complete with a bisected brain, a skull six inches thick and the interior of Crawler’s mouth.  Crawler collapsed.

Siberian watched as the boy ran, then turned as if she intended to give chase.

“No,” Jack instructed.  “Let him go.  We need to leave some alive.”

He had other motivations, but he would remain quiet on that particular subject.

Crawler’s brain grew back to its full beach-ball size in one or two seconds, followed closely after by the healing of the skull, the reappearance of his facial muscles, then his skin, hair, spines, scale and armor plating, roughly in that order.  He shook his head like a dog with water in its ears and looked around, searching for his quarry.

“After, Crawler!”  Jack shouted, “You can fight him another time!  Group meeting!”

Crawler hesitated, then loped over to their gathered circle.  Burnscar lobbed a fireball high over their heads, and then dropped down from the airborne projectile to land in a crouch.

Somewhere in the background, there were the screams and explosions of the fourth or fifth cycle of Bonesaw’s work.  Of the crowd that had been gathered in the street, only stragglers remained.

“I wanted to give you all a chance to cut loose before we got down to business,” Jack said.  “It seems a teammate of two of our prospective members wants or wanted to strike a deal.  Cherish, do you happen to know if she is still alive?”

“Tattletale lives.  She’s very close to the buried girl right now.”

“Oh, you hear that, Crawler?  Your candidate and this Tattletale might be friends.”

“No,” Cherish said, avoiding eye contact with anyone in the group, “They barely know each other.”

“Too bad.” Jack shrugged, then he went on, “This Tattletale wants to play a game, leveling the playing field between us and the others.  If we cannot reduce our selection to a single candidate, we take the first to volunteer and we leave.  Our loss, and a hit to our collective reputation as a penalty.”

Why?  It’s a bad idea,” Cherish said, “She knew you’d want to do this, knew you’d set yourself up with a situation where you could fail.  Where we could fail.  There’s no reason to do it.”

Jack shook his head.  “Oh, but there is.  Limitations foster creativity.  Tell an artist to paint anything, and he may struggle, but tell him to create something specific, in a set amount of time, for a certain audience, and these constraints might well push him to produce something he might never have come up with on his own.  We grow and evolve by testing ourselves.  That’s my personal philosophy.”

“That’s not really a test,” Shatterbird spoke, “There hasn’t been a round of testing since I joined the group where we didn’t whittle it down to one candidate.”

“We could forego the final test, pitting them against one another.”

Shatterbird turned to him, “Ah.  But, again, the last test where we had to go that far was… mine?”

“True.  Would there be any complaints if we added another restriction?  Perhaps a time limit?  We take turns.  Three days each to carry out our tests.  A failure, such as the one that Mannequin evidently suffered tonight, and you’re penalized one day.  A successful test might add some hours to your deadline, while the removal of one candidate buys you an extra day.”

“That’s not very fair to the first few of us to go,” Bonesaw said.  “They’ll have to test more people in less time.”

“They also have an easier time removing candidates from the list.  More chances at a longer run.  In fact, just to be fair, we may have to adjust the time awarded for a successful test, so there’s less for the first few of us to have a turn.  Do you all trust me to decide on something fair?”

There were nods or noises of agreement from Bonesaw, Burnscar, Siberian and Shatterbird.

“Mannequin?”

Mannequin tapped one finger on the blade that still extended from the base of his hand, drawing forth a single ‘clink’.

“That’s five of you in agreement.  Crawler?”

The monster stretched, his musculature rippling.  When he spoke, his voice was a rumble of broken sounds that only barely resembled words, “No point.”

“Ah, you feel your only road to self-improvement is your power.  While I would love to return to this particular debate, I can agree to disagree so you all can get back to your fun.  Look at it this way.  Our usual method has our quarry running scared.  To even get them to fight, you have to corner them, which you are admittedly very good at doing.  Like this, however, they have reason to band together, to fend us off, and protect the candidates who decide to eschew our tests and face our reprisals instead.  More would fight you, and you’d have a higher chance of finding another individual who could harm you.”

Crawler tilted his head one way, then the other.  He rumbled, “Fine.”

“Which only leaves you, Cherish, our errant rookie.  You’re dejected because you know Bonesaw has a punishment in the works.  But you mustn’t lose heart.  You’ll still have a chance to redeem yourself, and maybe even escape reprisal for your juvenile stunt.  I think Mannequin should start us off, and he’ll be penalized one day from his time limit for his loss tonight.  And you’ll have to deal with the bug girl, to make up for this embarrassment.   Make her suffer.”

Mannequin tapped once on the blade.

“Cherish, you’ll go second.  Your last chance to impress us.”

Cherish nodded, as mute as her headless teammate.

“Good.  Two days, Mannequin, then three for our Cherish.  To be fair, we should have a rule that says you cannot take out a candidate until they fail your test.  So each prospective member must be informed about the test and what it requires, they must fail, and they must be eliminated or punished, until one remains.  For those of you who want to show how superior they are over their teammates…” he cast a sidelong glance at Shatterbird, “There are several paths to success.  Remove several candidates, conduct a full round of testing, see that your candidate succeeds above any of the others, or all of the above.”

“I like it,” Bonesaw said, “It sounds fun!  But what about Siberian?  How is she supposed to tell them the rules?”

“We’ll help her out on that front.  Same test as usual, Siberian?”

Siberian nodded.  She reached out to Bonesaw’s face and used her thumb to wipe away a  spatter of blood before licking the digit clean.

“In any case, we’ve hashed this out enough.  I’ll think it over tonight and have something proper to present to you and the capes of this city who will be our… opposition.  I can add some rules, to cover loopholes and keep this little event manageable.  Panacea, Armsmaster, Bitch, Regent, the buried girl and Hookwolf.  Burnscar didn’t nominate one, and I’ve already dispatched mine.  That’s six candidates, we need to remove five.  And when we’re done and we’ve established our superiority, we can kill this Tattletale, her friends, and everyone else, just to make our point.  Good?”

There were signs, nods and murmurs of agreement all around.

“Good.  Go.  Have fun.  Mop up the stragglers.  Don’t worry about leaving any alive.  They already know we’re here.  No more than five minutes before we leave.  We can’t have our grand battle with the locals so soon.”

His monsters returned to their carnage.  He watched them at their work and their play, noting all of the little things.  He knew all too well that Shatterbird pretended civility, but she got as restless as Siberian when things got quiet, and she would look up from whatever book she read every thirty, fifteen or ten seconds, as if waiting for something to happen, craving it.  Siberian would begin to look at her group members in a hungry way.  She didn’t need to eat, but she enjoyed the experience, wanted it the same way someone else might crave their morning coffee.  Stimulation.

Crawler, he knew, wouldn’t show any signs of boredom or restlessness.  When he lost patience with things, it was an explosive affair, almost unmanageable.

Keeping this group in line was a matter of balancing carrots against sticks.  A constant, delicate process.  Every member sought something from the others, however solitary they might strive to appear, carrots that Jack could use to keep them as part of the group and entice them to stay, to cooperate.  It was not easy: what served as a stick to one might easily be a carrot to another.

Shatterbird, who had deigned to observe for the moment, hovering over the scene, was an individual who craved validation.  She would be insulted to hear it spoken aloud, but she needed to be powerful in the eyes of others, civilian or teammate.  She could tolerate much, but an insult or a joke at her expense could push her over the edge.  As carrots went, a simple word of praise could satisfy her for a week, and an opportunity to shine could sate her for a month.  It was why he allowed her to ‘sing’ each time they arrived somewhere new, even as he found it repetitive and boring, brooking the same scenarios time after time.  Her stick was easy enough: the threat of physical harm, or the embarrassment of being made to lose control.  Were she to attack a member of the group, Siberian or Crawler would retaliate, and they would hurt or kill her.  It would be inevitable, unequivocal.  The idea of the shame she’d feel in that ignoble defeat held her back as much as anything.

Siberian watched as Bonesaw began excising and stitching together groups of muscle and collections of organs she and her mechanical spiders were harvesting from the fallen.  It was taking on a vaguely human shape.

Siberian was tricky.  He doubted anyone else in the group was even aware, but their most feral member harbored a fondness for Bonesaw.  Siberian had little imagination, and was perfectly comfortable rehashing the same violent and visceral scenarios time and again, but she nonetheless enjoyed Bonesaw’s work.  She saw a kind of beauty in it.  Even more than that, he sometimes wondered if Siberian didn’t reciprocate Bonesaw’s desire for family.  Bonesaw alternately referred to Siberian as an older sister or the family pet, but Siberian’s fondness for Bonesaw bordered on the maternal, like a mother bear for her cub.  Did anyone else in the group note how Siberian seemed to keep Bonesaw’s company, to assume she would accompany the young girl when she went out, and carefully kept Bonesaw in sight at all times?

Siberian’s stick was Bonesaw, the possibility of losing the girl’s company in one way, shape, or form.  Threats against the girl would be met with a fury like no other.  Boredom, similarly, would see Siberian stalking off on her own to amuse herself, a scenario that grounded the group until Siberian’s return hours or days later.  Such usually meant a hasty retreat as the heroes who had realized that they could not defeat Siberian came after the rest of the group.

Bonesaw wanted a family.  Her stick was disapproval, a revoking of any ‘love’ from those closest to her.  She was far younger, emotionally, than her outward appearance suggested.  She had bad dreams at night if she didn’t sleep in the embrace of one of her older teammates, usually Siberian.  When she didn’t sleep, or when her mood otherwise soured, she was as intolerable as any of the others, and among the most dangerous.

Crawler wanted to be stronger, and remained with the group because it put him in constant danger.  His other motivation was more subtle.  He was patiently awaiting the day Siberian might honestly and brutally attempt to take him apart.  The only stick Jack could wield was the possibility that the group might dissolve before that happened.  On the other side of the coin, the day Crawler decided there was no longer any threat that could evolve him further would be… troubling.  It was why Jack had ordered Siberian to let the boy with the glowing hair go.  Finding the lad again would give Crawler something to do, and it would give Crawler a taste for what Siberian had to offer.

Burnscar was more sensitive, in many respects.  She had to be managed, provoked or set up to use her power so she remained in a more dangerous mindset.  Too much one way, and she became depressed and scared, vulnerable.  Too much the other way, and she became reckless, potentially attacking him or one of the others and sparking disaster.

Mannequin had his mission.  Few things bothered him as much as seeing someone try to help others and succeed where he had catastrophically failed.  To keep Mannequin in line, Jack could remind Mannequin of who he had once been.  A simple casual utterance of the name ‘Alan’ served as effectively as a slap in the face to someone else.  He rarely needed such considerations; Mannequin was predictable, manageable.

And Cherish, who would not survive their stay in Brockton Bay… after a fashion.  Hope was her carrot, but she had only sticks waiting for her.  He met her eyes and knew she knew what he was thinking.  She was all too aware an ugly fate awaited her, but didn’t know what it was.  The fear helped curb her.  Still, he would have to watch his back.

Carrots and sticks.  A game of constant balance.  A thousand factors.  Even now, he was taking notes on their candidates, deciding what would work and what wouldn’t.

Armsmaster and Regent were abrasive enough that they would likely prick Shatterbird’s pride.  Bitch would be a risk at first, but he trusted his ability to manage her and stop any fights from erupting.

Siberian would become jealous of any growing relationship between Panacea and Bonesaw.

The buried girl was only a candidate because Crawler hoped she was strong enough to fight him.  Either she would fail to hurt him and he would grow tired of her, or she would succeed and he would have no reason to stay in the group.

That left him two candidates who might work.  He doubted either Hookwolf or Bitch had what it took to stay in the group long-term.  They would soon be replaced, killed by an enemy or a member of the group, but they would not upset his carefully staged balance while they remained members.

He could manipulate the outcome of this little contest, see that one of the two lasted to the end.  It would be hard, requiring the best he could employ in subtlety and head games.

The wind blew flame-heated air at his back, thick with the smell of smoke and the sweet tang of blood.

He smiled.  These challenges, after all, served as his own carrot.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11g (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

A teenager with a red streak dyed into her dark hair strode down the street in rubber boots.  Three hours past curfew, alone.

She drew a smartphone from the pocket of her jacket, then set to untangling the earbuds.  How did the damned things always get so knotted together?  They were like Christmas lights.  Not that she’d ever untangled Christmas lights, but she’d heard how Christmas lights got tangled.

Popping the foam-covered buds into her ears, she began thumbing through the music as she walked.

J’adore-

Sweet Honey-

Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…
Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…

Her head nodded in time with the beat, and she slipped the phone into her pocket.

She supposed she could have bought something to coil up the cord of the earbuds, or replaced the music playlist instead of deleting everything that didn’t appeal.  It wasn’t like she didn’t have money.  It was an option.  What stopped her was the fact that she had a pattern going.  Everything she owned and everything she used day-to-day was stolen.  The shirt on her back, her shoes, the music, her laptop.  She kind of wanted to see how far she could get before she caved and actually bought something.

Love me, you?
Love me, true?

Her boots splashed as she danced a little circle, murmuring the words.  The light drizzle had wet her hair, and she pushed it back out of her face, stretched her arms out and let the raindrops fall against her closed eyelids.

It wasn’t as though she was in a rush.

She’d walked long enough for six songs to start and finish before someone stopped her.

“Miss.  Miss!”  He was barely audible over her music.

She turned and saw a man in military gear, forty-something, his face heavily lined.  He wasn’t wearing a helmet, he had a short buzz cut, a bit of scruff on his cheeks and chin, and his face was beaded with droplets of water.  She pulled out her earbuds.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy, 
Nutty, barmy, mad for me…

The crooning sounded artificial coming from the earbuds that dangled from her hand, nasal.

“What’s up?”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m excellent.”

“There’s a curfew during the state of emergency.  I don’t want to scare you too badly, miss, but there’re rape gangs, murderers and human traffickers on the street.  All people who would prey on a pretty young woman.”

“You think I’m pretty?” She smiled, stepping closer.

“I have a daughter about your age,” he replied, smiling tightly.

“That doesn’t answer my question.  Do you think I’m pretty?”  She stepped even closer, ran her finger down his chest.

“Yes, but-” he paused, gripping both sides of her jacket.  He pulled the jacket together, then did up her zipper all the way to the top, around the heavy box that dangled around her neck.  “That’s all the more reason for you to be careful, understand?  Do you have a home or a shelter you’re staying at?”

She didn’t reply.  Her brows knit together and she undid her jacket and stepped away from him.

He went on, “I can give you directions to the nearest shelter if you want. It’s new, just a little ways up Lord street here.  There may be space.”

“I’m staying with some people.”

“Do you need directions?”

She didn’t reply.  She studied him instead.

“If you’re willing to wait, I can give you a ride when I’m done here.  I’ll get relieved in five or ten minutes, but we could talk in the meantime.  You can sit in my jeep, and you’ll be dry.”

She hesitated.  “Fine.”

The man led her back to his jeep.  She sat in the passenger seat while he stood outside, his eyes on the surroundings, occasionally exchanging words with the person or people on the other end of his walkie-talkie.

After a few minutes, he climbed into the driver’s seat.  “The men who were supposed to take over the watch are late.  Something about fires downtown.”

She nodded.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Mental, dotty, whacked, loopy…

“Do you mind turning off your music?”

“I like it,” she said.  “I hate silence.”

“Well, I’m not about to deny someone their coping mechanisms.  Where do you live, or where did you live, before the attack?”

“Out of town.”

He raised one eyebrow, but he kept looking out the windows for possible trouble.  He put the key in the ignition and started the car so he could use the windshield wipers.  “Sounds like there’s a story there.  People don’t just come into town at a time like this, and if you were just visiting, you would have evacuated already.”

“Oh, we’re visiting because it’s a time like this,” she smiled.

“Thrill seeking?” his voice hardened.  “That’s not only stupid, it’s disrespectful.”

“The people I’m staying with?  They’re the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I’m one of them.”

“That’s not funny.”  His voice went hard, any gentleness gone.

“It’s really not,” she agreed with a smile.

He went for his gun, but he didn’t get that far.  She closed her eyes for a moment, listened for the music that came from his mind and body.  The jangling, dissonant noise of alarm, the throbbing percussion of mortal fear, every part of his body shifting into fight or flight mode.  The underlying notes spoke to his personality.  His love of his family, his fear that he was about to leave them behind, anger towards her, a momentary anxiety that he was overreacting.  She grasped this in the fraction of a second.

Reaching for that mortal fear, she wrenched it.  When that wasn’t quite enough, she pulled at it and twisted it until everything else was squeezed into the far edges.

He screamed, throwing himself as far away from her as he could get, his weapon falling between the seats.

Crazed, kooky, cracked, crazy,
Nutty, screwy, mentally diseased…

She twisted other parts of his emotional makeup until he was compliant, adrift in apathy, obedient.  “Stay.”

He stopped retreating.  He was still breathing hard from his momentary panic, but that would pass.

She leaned towards him and ran her hand along the top of his head.  It was like rubbing a toothbrush, spraying minuscule bits of water onto the wheel and dashboard.

“Good.”

He stared at her.  There was fear in the look, and she didn’t have the heart to erase all of it.  A little was good.

“I want to drive.  Switch seats with me.”

He nodded dumbly and climbed out of the jeep.  She made her way over to the driver’s seat, then waited for him to climb in before she peeled out.

The jeep cut through the shallow water that covered the roads.  Others had noticed her leaving, she knew, and were following in their own vehicle.  She could sense them, each a  fingerprint of emotions in deeply individual configurations.  The mix of personal pride and confidence that she sensed in them suggested they were military.  The soldiers that had been taking over for this guy?

Not much time to do it.  She searched through the feelings of her passenger, found the networks of brotherly love, trust, camaraderie, and adjusted each until the music was one of tension, suspicion, paranoia.  Then she set his fight or flight reflexes into high gear.

“Get the gun.”

He fished for it between the seats, picked it up.

Then he pointed the gun at her.

“No, stop,” she said.  Too unspecific.  Fuck.  Still need to work on that.  She hit him with as much doubt and indecision as she could manage to keep him from shooting her.  Then she stalled all of the ‘music’ that flowed to and from that one point in the very front of his brain.  She knew the music was her way of understanding and interpreting the biological processes that drove people’s emotions.  By listening for it, she knew what they felt, knew what the emotions were tied to, vaguely.

There would only be one thing in his short-term memory that was that important right now.  Her.  With that link severed, he would now feel nothing towards her, couldn’t summon up any self-preservation, anger or hatred.  Another tweak, redirecting the flow of emotion from his family to her, and he would feel an extreme aversion to the idea of shooting her, wouldn’t be able to shoot her any more than he could his own daughter.

He pulled the gun away, dropped it into his lap.  He crumpled over, his hands to his head, then moaned, “No.”

She was close to her destination.  She pulled the jeep to a stop and hopped out, the other jeep pulling up just a ten or so yards away.  Two soldiers got out.

“Hey!” someone shouted at her.

She turned her back to them, slipping her ear buds in.  The music had looped back to the first track.  She got her phone out and skipped forward a few times, pausing to delete one song.  She sang along, “Love me, love me, you know you wanna love me…”

“Hey!”

She could sense her passenger climbing out of the jeep, hear the garbled murmurs of warning, questions.  There was a burst of fear from all three, then the sound of multiple guns firing.  She smiled.  The authorities would have a hell of a time figuring out what happened there.

She’d had her doubts about coming to Brockton Bay.  It had been a turn off to know that areas lacked power, that still more areas lacked working plumbing.  But Burnscar and Bonesaw had both been excited to come, and Jack Slash had bent to Bonesaw’s wishes, pushing for the group to come this way.  Crawler, Mannequin and Siberian had seemed fairly indifferent.  Not that Crawler or Mannequin showed much emotion.  She’d thought she had an ally in Shatterbird, at least, but the woman hated her, and the uptight bitch had gone along with the plans to visit Brockton Bay just to ruin her day.

But it was interesting, she had to admit.  The landscape of people here was so different.  So many people here were so insecure, so worried.  Most were on the brink of some kind of emotional breakdown, needing just one event, one piece of bad news before they broke down completely.  Others had already been broken, or they’d turned vicious and started preying on their fellows, seeking out vengeance on those who had wronged them in a past life.  In their pre-Endbringer life.

People here were so deliciously fucked up.

This kind of situation, ordinary citizens were doing things they’d never even have considered before.  Stealing, hurting their neighbors, bartering things they once considered precious for clothing, food, toilet paper and other essentials.  Emotions were raw, far closer to the surface, easier to manipulate.

Her music cut off.  She checked the phone.  An alert on the screen notified her that the battery was dying.

She swore.  No more time to waste.  She dialed a number, but didn’t hold the phone up to her ear.  Good.  Now she had fifteen minutes.

She reached out and started feeling for the outliers.  The emotional fingerprints that stood out from the rest.

The other seven members of the Nine were out there.  Not hard to find.  One or two were interacting with some other outliers.  The most fucked up people in this fucked up city.  She’d studied each of these unknown outliers over the course of a week, watching their emotions shift as they went out about their lives, sometimes visiting the areas they tended to hang around, to get a sense of their environments.  Slowly, she’d pieced them together, created profiles, discerned which ones had powers and described them to the other members of the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Each had made their picks:

The buried girl.  The arrogant geek.  The dog lover.  The daydreamer.  The warlord.  The scaredy cat.  The broken assassin.  The crusader.

And all she wanted was a few minutes to pay a visit to hers.  She didn’t have to name that one.  He was familiar enough.  She smiled.

Two men sat on the steps outside the building.  She knew immediately that they were soldiers, but they weren’t official.  They wore black, and they wore body armor that she hadn’t seen before.

“No,” she stopped them from reaching from their guns with a mixture of doubt, apathy and anxiety.  Complementing her words with a heavy surge of depression, guilt and self loathing, she ordered them, “Kill yourselves.”

It wasn’t immediate, but their willpower wasn’t enough to stave off some of the strongest and most agonizing emotions they would have felt in their lives.  It was quick when their composure cracked, the guns flying to mouth and temple to fire.

She could sense the others inside the building, alarmed at the gunshots, moving toward the front.  Four more soldiers and four others who stayed back.  Not soldiers.

She didn’t wait for them to step outside.  She did the same thing she’d done to the guards stationed outside, crushing them with despair, overwhelming them with loathing and paranoia.  It was only slightly faster than it had been here.  Here, there had been an enemy for the soldiers to focus their negative energies on, to distract them.  It was surprising how important that could be.

Nearly a minute passed before the fourth gunshot sounded, marking the death of the last soldier here.

She tried the front door and stepped inside.  The inside was nicer than the outside, watertight, heavily reinforced.  A feminine looking teenaged boy with a mop of dark curls stood at the other side of the building.  He had two men and a woman guarding him.

“Jean-paul.  Ça va?

“It’s Alec now.  Regent in costume.”

“Alec,” she smiled.  “Still sounds French.  I approve, little brother.”

“Cherie,” he ran his fingers through his hair. “What the fuck?”

“If we’re changing our names, I’m going by Cherish.  I wanted to make an entrance.”

“Man.”

“You’ll find others.”

“Fuck,” he sighed.

She reached for the three people who stood between her and her brother, manipulated their emotions towards Alec.  Filled them with suspicion, paranoia, hate.

They didn’t budge.

“Cut it out, Cherie,” Alec said, “I’m controlling them.”

“If I remember right, you lose control if they’re hit by enough emotion,” she smiled.  She turned up the intensity.

“If I’m farther away.  Seriously, stop.  It’s irritating.”

One of the men fell to his knees.  His hands were clenched at his sides.  Beads of sweat rolled down the faces of the other two, tears appearing in their eyes.

“While I’m doing this, you can’t tell them to attack me.”

“Unless I’ve gotten stronger over the past few years,” Alec answered.  The man who was still standing reached for a knife and started walking towards Cherish.

She hit the knife wielder with fear and indecision, saw him stop.

For nearly a minute, they engaged in a tug of war over the three subjects.

“Seems we have a stalemate,” she said, finally.

“Did the dirty old man send you?” Alec asked.

She shook her head, “Daddy?  I went my own way.  After a bit.”

“How’s he doing?”

“Unfocused.  For the longest time, I thought he was building up to something.  Lots of kids, ensuring they had powers.  Thought he’d try to topple the other gangs and become ruler of organized crime in Montreal.”

“But?”

“But it didn’t happen.  Time passed, he never made a push for it.  Guillaume got his power, you know.  Ten or so of us kids, and three of us could control people one way or another.  Four if we count you.  We had what we needed to pull off something huge, and Daddy decided he wanted a celebrity among his girls.  Took us on a road trip to a film set in Vancouver, kidnapped this star, took her back to Montreal.  So petty.”

“Somehow I’m not surprised.”

“Heroes came after us, from both Vancouver and Montreal.  Half of what we had built and earned as the Vasil family just kind of got trampled in the fighting that spilled out from that.  All because Daddy wanted to bone someone famous.  I got fed up, left.”

“So you’re on your own.  And he didn’t send the others after you?”  Alec moved one of his subject’s legs so she would fall to the ground rather than point her gun at the man standing next to her.

“He did.  Guillaume and Nicholas.  Guillaume just has to touch someone and he can sense everything they do for a good while.  Nicholas just wallops you with pants-shitting waves of terror.  Literally thousands of eyes and ears looking for me, can’t fight when they do get close to me.”

“Right,” he said.

“Anyways, it got old real fast, them constantly finding me, constantly making me pack up and run somewhere else. Besides, the freedom to do what I wanted and go where I wished kind of lost its appeal when the boredom set in.  I would’ve done it even if my big brothers weren’t coming for me, but I joined the Nine.”

She looked at the multitude of small changes that crossed Alec’s expression and smiled.

“Well,” Alec said, after processing her statement, “That was dumb.”

“It’s exciting.  I decided I needed to earn a place on the team, both to scare our brothers away and to add some spice to my routine.  Took out Hatchet Face to do it.”

“I got the info on him a day or so ago, after I heard the Slaughterhouse Nine were in town.  Isn’t he immune to powers?  That’s pretty much what he does.  Super strong, enhanced toughness, big… and your powers just stop working when he gets close.  Or they go haywire.”

“He is immune to powers, but he didn’t get close.  See, difference between me and Daddy is that I have range.  I can use my power even if I can’t see the person I’m using it on.  Through walls, from the building next door.  Hatchet didn’t get close enough to me to turn off my power.  He tried, but it works both ways.  I was prepped to run any time my power stopped working, because it told me he’d found my trail or guessed where I was.”

“Ah.  I sort of remember that bit about your power.  The part that sticks in my head is that you don’t have long-term benefits.  It wears off, and your targets build immunity pretty quickly.”

Cherie shrugged.

“I’m not the best when it comes to strategy, but I’m thinking… I’m going to win here. Eventually.  You can’t run without me getting control over my people and sending them after you, you can’t use them to attack me, and if you stay, I can try doing this.”

Her arm jerked involuntarily.

“Remember me practicing my power on you when it was new?”

“I remember, little brother,” she frowned, looking at her arm.  “Daddy had us all practice on each other.”

“Well, I still remember how to hijack your body, pretty much.  Info that’s stored away in whatever corner of my brain makes my power work.  I’m thinking I could get control over you pretty fast if I tried.”

“Fuck,” she said.  “I think we’d both be happier if you didn’t.”

“Oh?  You going to tell me the Nine will come after me if I don’t let you go?”

She shook her head, then used one hand to brush the hair away from her face.  “No.  This.”

She reached inside her jacket, and Alec made her hand seize up, the fingers striving to bend the opposite way.

“It’s cool,” she said.  She winced with pain, then used her splayed hand to work a metal case the length of her forearm out into plain view.  It dangled from a thick cord that stretched around her neck.  “See this?”

“Yep.”

“It’s a bomb.  Very simple.  A block of explosives rigged to a timer.  Any time I call the right number, the timer will reset.  I did make the mistake of letting my phone battery die, but I figure I’ve still got a couple of minutes.  If you keep me here for any longer than that, I go kablooie.”

“Is that a threat?  Sounds like a win for me.”

“You’ll probably get blown up as well.  Or maimed,” she smiled.

“I could walk away.”

“And lose control over your minions as you get further away?  Please do.  I can make the call when you’re gone.”

His emotions were so muted.  Dim.  How much of that was Jean-Paul or Alec’s personality, and how much was his natural immunity, built up over years of exposure to Daddy?  She couldn’t get a sense of what he was feeling, which was disappointing.

However faint his feelings were, she could sense the slightest change.  A chime of attention.  He didn’t look at any of the puppets that he was struggling to control, but she could sense his attention flicker to the woman.  A thrum of confidence.

They both dashed towards the woman at the same moment.  In their hurry to get to her, they collided, falling to the ground as a trio.

The woman wasn’t in any shape to fight, but Alec did strike Cherie across the head, fairly ineffectually.  She retaliated by kicking him, then grabbed his wrist as he tried to draw the weapon he had in his pocket.  It was a gold-painted stick topped with a crown.  She couldn’t see why he wanted it, but he did and so she wasn’t about to let him have it for just that reason.

He changed tactics, rolling over to drive one shoulder into Cherie.  With his free hand he tried to reach for the gun holster worn by the woman.  That had been what caught his attention, gave him that surge of confidence.  Cherie fought with him, pulling him away, and then got one leg under him to roll him away.  She pinned him, holding his wrists to the floor.

“Got you, little brother.  You still suck at fighting.”

He stared up at her, panting for breath and looking half-bored at the same time.  He used his power, and she let go of his left hand to strike him across the face.  He stopped.

She smiled, “Thought you should know that things got pretty shitty at home after you left.  Daddy got really overprotective, angry.  It sucked.  Sucked worse when we couldn’t find you.”

“Sorry,” he said, in what she judged as the least convincing tone he could manage.

“My payback?  I’ve nominated you for the Nine.”

“Not interested.”

“Doesn’t matter.  You get nominated, you’re tested no matter what you want… and a few of the Nine don’t want to have two Vasils on the same team.  Shatterbird hates my guts, for some reason.  Crawler doesn’t respect me.  Jack thinks it would be boring.  So what I’m thinking is that this test?  The initiation?  It’s going to be a little harder for you.  They won’t be testing you to see if you’re mean enough, bloodthirsty enough, creative enough.  They’re just going to try to kill you.”

“Fuck,” Alec said, his eyes widening.

“Have fun with that,” she smiled, standing.  She had to leap back to avoid being stabbed with the gold-painted stick as she released his wrist.  “Now we’re even.”

“Fuck you.  That’s not even at all!  I leave home, so you arrange to have me killed by some of the scariest fuckers on this side of Earth?”

“Yep,” she smiled, smug.  It was good to see she could provoke him, get a response out of him.  Was that because she’d done it well, or had he gotten more emotional as of late?

He ran his fingers through his hair.  “Lunatic.”

“What I find really interesting is that you’ve got some connections.  A girlfriend, maybe?  No.  Nothing romantic.  You have friends?  A team?”

He stayed silent.

“Come after me, I go after them.  You may be immune, but they aren’t.”

“Fine.”

“And remember, I can always tell Daddy where you are.  He’s pissed you left.  Pissed left, but he’s too scared to come after me.  Not with the Nine having my back.”

“They don’t have your back, Cherie.”

She shrugged.  “Close enough.”

“No.  They’re going to kill you someday.  Probably sooner than later, when you’re no longer useful and they want the thrill of the hunt again.  You’ve probably seen what they can do.  Fates worse than death.  Just don’t ask for my help when you realize it’s happening.”

“Whatever.”

“You just screwed me over, Cherie.  Don’t know why you did it, but I think you did a pretty fucking good job of it.  You trying to be like Jack?  Trying to act like them, pretend you have a place there?  Rest assured, you screwed yourself ten times as bad as you screwed me.”

She scoffed at that.

“You’re way out of your depth.  As good as you think you are, they’re better.”

She smiled and shook her head, “We’ll see.  I’m gonna leave now.  You’re going to let me.  Cool?”

He sighed.  “Can’t really stop you or you’ll fuck with my team, right?”

“Right.  But first…”  She bent down and searched the woman who was sweating, panting, and twitching with the combination of Cherie’s emotional assault and Alec’s physical control.  She found the gun, and then found a cell phone.  She dialed the number to reset the timer on the bomb she wore.

She felt a touch relieved as the call went through.  That could have been a pretty lethal mistake on her part.  She’d have to break her rule and buy a cell phone charger.

“Bye, baby brother.”

“Go die horribly, sis.”

She smirked and turned to leave, putting a touch of extra sway into her walk as she made her way out the door.

She had this.  A few weeks, one or two months at the most, she could be one of the most dangerous people in the world, barring the obvious exceptions like the Endbringers.

What Alec didn’t know was that her power did have long-term effects.  Subtle, but they were there.  Emotions were like drugs.  People formed dependencies and tendencies.  If she hit someone with a minute amount of dopamine every time they saw her, it would condition them until she didn’t even need to use her power to do it.

Just a little while longer, she told herself, and I’ll have the Nine wrapped around my little finger.

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