Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.3

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“Hey, Weaver?”

I had to twist around to look at Crucible.  We were in the hallway just outside a set of elevators, windows on one side, doors at either end of the hallway leading into offices.  This was something of a waiting game, as Tecton and Revel got their teams into position to support Golem.

Through countless stakeouts, I’d found a routine.  Cheating on the ‘can’t do anything but sit there’ rule and reading while my bugs saw to everything else was a part of that routine.  I was nestled in between two pillars that sat between clusters of windows, my back against one, one knee propped up, a file in my lap.  My cliff notes on the various members of the Nine.

“I wanted to say thanks,” Crucible said, “Appreciate the invite.  Hundreds of superpowered lunatics, some of the scariest guys around, and that’s not even the scariest part of all of this!  But Chevalier’s all, ‘Weaver specifically asked if you’d help.’  How the hell am I supposed to say no to him?”

“You just say no,” Clockblocker said, before I could respond.  “You’re team leader, I’d even argue it’s your job to say no when the situation calls for it.  More than leading the team, more than strategy or handling double the paperwork or attending the meetings.  You decide what jobs are out of your team’s depth and you tell the bosses to go fuck themselves, in the politest terms possible.”

“It’s Chevalier.  Important guy.”

“And when we asked you if you were okay with me taking command, that was your opportunity to say no.  His rank doesn’t matter.  He’d probably respect you more if you told him your team wasn’t prepared and then stuck to your guns.”

You didn’t tell anyone to go fuck themselves,” Crucible said.

“No.  And I agreed to help out with this because this is important.  My old teammates have been preparing for this in their own time, and-”

“-And you’ve got a thing for Weaver,” the Ward I hadn’t yet met said.  It was a girl, flanked by five shadowy silhouettes of herself, who were sitting around her on the other side of the hallway.  I’d read up on her, and I knew her as Toggle.  The ‘baby’ of the team, it seemed, at fourteen.  She held what looked like a mace, but it, along with the layered body armor she wore, had circles of light glowing in shifting colors.

There was a long, awkward silence.  I glanced at Clockblocker, but he appeared unfazed.  Not that I could really tell.  His armor still had animated clock faces digitally displayed on the open spaces, and there was one in the middle of his face.  Was the varying speed and position of the hands supposed to indicate something, or was I reading too much into it?

“That was a joke,” Toggle said.

“I’m not dignifying it with a response,” Clockblocker said.

“Clocksie’s sweet on Weaver,” Imp said.  “Aww.”

Clocksie,” Clockblocker said, deadpan, “Has been the target of a lot of criticism, because he was in charge of the Wards at the time a lot of stuff went down.  Some dingbats online speculated that I had a thing for Weaver, and it took off.  The people online like to find stuff that fills in blanks, and there were a hell of a lot of blanks around the whole thing with Weaver defecting, and our pseudo-truce with the Undersiders.”

“They latched onto the idea,” I said.

“Yep.”

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Not your fault, not exactly.  The city’s pretty peaceful, pretty safe, and nobody even hints about why, but people know.  My bosses know why, and that means my career might never recover.  The only thing keeping things remotely interesting is the challenge of trying to get to any new bad guys before the Undersiders do, to enforce real justice instead of vigilante scare tactics-”

“We’re awesomely good at the scare tactics though,” Imp cut in.

Clockblocker ignored her.  “-Except we barely even get to do that, because Tattletale’s always a few steps ahead.  Then, to top it all off, I hear about the Weaver-Clockblocker thing every single day, to the point that it’s sad.  Salt in a wound.”

Silence lingered.

“Jesus, Clock,” Vista said, after that.  “Pent up much?”

“Fuck, you’re right.  I’m stressed, ignore me,” Clockblocker said.  “Like Crucible said, it’s a lot to manage.  Sorry.”

“I just wanted to make a funny,” Toggle said.

“Don’t worry.  Clockblocker used to be the funny one,” Vista said.  “Now he’s the asshole grown up that tears the funny kid to shreds.”

Clockblocker didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he shifted the device he’d been wearing on his back against the wall and sat down between the elevators.

Waiting on my lonesome was easier.

My bugs crawled all around the exterior of our target.  The buildings in this town were smallish, the tallest being five stories, and this contingent of the Nine had chosen it as their destination.

Not a single gap.  They’d barely had any time, but they had hermetically sealed the structure, containing themselves and every single resident within.  The windows and doors had been sprayed with something red that trickled out of cracks only to harden.  My bugs explored cracks in the foundation, and found that same vaguely tacky, amber-like barrier blocking the openings where they should have been able to enter the building.

Doors, windows, cracks, vents, all protected.

I could estimate seven apartments per floor.  One on the ground floor, for the building manager.  Assuming they weren’t bachelor apartments, that suggested fifty-five to sixty people in total, trapped within, along with hostages and an unknown number and composition of the Nine.

“I have to ask,” I said, not looking in Clockblocker’s direction, “This end of the world thing.  The way you talk about the future, life beyond this supposed apocalypse event.  Can you do that because you’re optimistic,  or because you don’t think it’ll happen?”

“I do it because I have to.  You can’t stay sane, thinking it’s all going to end soon.  There has to be something beyond it.  If you get to that point and then we figure out a way to resolve it, then what happens after that?  You need a real life.”

“If you get to that point and you’ve plotted out the rest of your life, and we lose, then aren’t you going to be devastated?” I asked.

“I’m good at handling devastation,” Clockblocker said.  “Don’t worry about me.”

I shrugged.

I can’t really believe it,” Crucible said.  “World ending situation?”

“Oh, I believe it,” Clockblocker said.  “The crazy powers we get?  One of them’s bound to break something somehow.”

“The wrong power in the wrong hands,” Kid Win said.  He’d reconfigured the outside of his suit so the armored upper body folded down into a pair of gauntlets, allowing him to walk forward like a gorilla, the two halves acting as massive fingerless gauntlets.  It wasn’t pretty, and it left his head and upper body more exposed, but it let him maneuver inside.  He seemed to muse a second, then agreed, “Yeah.”

Interesting to see the divide, I thought.  The veteran members vs. the newer ones.

“See, I don’t think it’s the wrong power in the wrong hands,” Clockblocker said.  “I think it’s a joke.  Humanity destroys itself, and all these powers, they just open the door to let it happen.  It’s not going to be some villain overlord or even a monster like Jack who does it.   I’m more liable to believe the world ends because of some deluded, fat, pimply faced punk kid that lives off pizza and mountain dew.  There’s no damn point to it, but sometimes I look at the idiots, the selfish assholes and the maniacs that fill this world and I think that’s all we deserve.”

“I like your line of thinking,” Imp said.  “The world gets destroyed by some loser who jacks off twelve times a day to the freakiest, nastiest parahumans.”

“Thank you,” Clockblocker said.  “For so eloquently demonstrating what I was saying about us deserving it.”

“No problemo,” Imp said.

“That doesn’t exist, does it?”  Toggle asked.  “Case fifty-three porn?”

“Everything exists,” Kid Win said.

“Um, it just hit me.  When you were saying we deserve it, were you talking about pimple-face the world destroying freak-fetishist or were you talking about me?”

I shut my eyes and tuned out the conversation.  It was good that they were talking, staying calm, more or less getting along.

Grue and Rachel arrived from the stairwell.

“Anything?” Imp asked.

“No,” Grue said.

“The Red Hands leave already?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  “Listen, about all that, it’s-”

I raised my hand to stop him.  “Not important.  Not a big deal.  I was only going to ask if maybe Crucible or Toggle could be taken along.  It’s a way out, now that things are getting heavier.”

“No.  It’s fine, I’ll stay,” Crucible said.

“Ditto.”

I nodded, then looked at Grue, shrugging.  “That’s all.”

“We’re okay?”

“Copacetic,” I said, turning my attention back to the file.  Skinslip.

I reread the page four times before I was sufficiently distracted and able to register what I was reading.

Rachel directed her dogs to watch the stairwell, then crossed to the middle of the hallway to me.  She sat with her back to the same pillar I had my back to, her shoulder pressing against mine, squishing me a little bit further into the crevice I’d settled in.  Not uncomfortable.  Or it was, but the body contact was comforting enough that it didn’t bother me.  It was reassuring without being in my face or distracting me from my study of the folder.

All stuff I’d read backwards and forwards, but I couldn’t focus on a book, and refreshers could only help.

I turned the page.  Night Hag.

“How’s life on the dark side?” Kid Win asked.

I turned my head.  He was talking to Foil, who sat at the furthest point from the stairwell.

“More wholesome than you’d think,” Foil said.  “Playing into every stereotype ever, moving in before we’d even been on a date, but it’s nice.”

“Nice?” Clockblocker said.  “Not what I expected.  Not that I’m not happy for you, but-”

She shifted position, resting her head on Parian’s shoulder.  “It’s… free.  Pleasant.  The times between the fights with the brain-shatteringly terrifying god-monsters, anyways.  Cooking breakfast, having breakfast cooked for you, going on walks with the dogs, maybe a bit of bodyguard duty while Parian handles a meeting, whatev, picnic for lunch, patrol the territory, do stuff for my University course, whoever didn’t cook breakfast makes dinner…”

“They’re like a newlywed couple!  It’s so sweet,” Imp said.  “Of course, they’re skipping the-”

“No,” Foil said.  “We don’t need to go into any detail about my personal life with Parian.”

“But I was just going to say-”

“No,” Foil said again.

“-they’ve got crazy good interior design, what with Parian and all,” Imp finished.  She made a smug little sound, like she was very pleased with herself.

Foil flicked a dart at Imp.  It sank into the wall just to the left of Imp’s head.

Vista leaned back, smiling, “This is the second time in four minutes where she’s alluded to rude stuff.  Feeling lonely, Imp?”

“I’m offended!  Unfair accusations!”

“Now I’m going to start wondering what someone with pseudo-invisibility powers gets up to in her alone time,” Kid Win said.

“She’s gone there,” Grue said.  I looked at him, and saw he was glancing my way.

“Lies and slander!”

“Wait,” Clockblocker said.  “I thought I heard something at some point about you being her…”

He trailed off.

“Hm?” Grue asked.

“Train of thought derailed.  What were we talking about?”

It was a puzzling change in the ambient tone, and I almost gave the word for people to switch to high alert.

I was distracted by the vibration of my phone.

A quick check and I verified that it was what we’d been waiting for.

Golem engaging. 3x Burnscar, 3x Shatterbird, 2x Winter, 1x Skinslip, 1x Psychosoma identified.

You’re clear to go.

“We’re moving,” I said, hopping to my feet.

Just like that, the mood shifted.  Everyone was standing, picking up the equipment they’d put down.  The joking atmosphere was gone, the… not peace, but the stillness, it was broken.  Nerves were suddenly on edge, the opportunity to joke and comment gone.

“Scouting with the bugs didn’t turn up anything,” I said.  “Place is sealed.  Vista, we’ll be counting on you to give us an in.”

She nodded.

“We’re going in blind.  We suspect there’s at least two Mannequins, but that’s it.  Mannequin specializes in indirect attacks.  Catching people off guard, while being durable and flexible enough that he can escape from any situation that doesn’t go his way.  I hope the rest of you have read up on the other members of the Nine, past and present.”

There were nods all around.

“Parian, Foil, Kid Win, you’re staying here.  Set up, keep an eye out and an ear out.”

“Will do,” Parian said.  She was already inflating a stuffed scorpion.  Cloth bound around one of Foil’s bolts to help form a tail.

“Grue,” I said.  “Hit the building, inside and out, but leave the inside clear.  With luck, we can shut off their communications.  With more luck, you can get a bead on what powers we’re dealing with.”

He nodded.

With that, we were down the stairs and out the front door.

A joint attack maximized the chaos and minimized the chance of reinforcements.  Golem was attacking the other location.  Ten members of the Nine there.  Ten here?

If so, that was a big step up from the last fight.  From four or five to twenty.

Grue used his power, surrounding the area.  Slowly but surely, the area was consumed in darkness.  Not just Grue’s power, but the fact that the massive cloud of darkness was blocking out the ambient light.  Though he kept the smoke out of the center of the area, it grew darker with every passing second.

I joined the Brockton Bay Wards as they switched on flashlights, both handheld and gun-mounted ones.  Each of us flicked on the smaller lights that were part of our masks or helmets.  The latter were feeble at best, but it was still light.  Mine came from smaller lenses that sat around the larger ones that covered my eyes.  They filtered out as a faint blue.  The pattern and color would hopefully make me more identifiable.

“It’s kind of dumb that we don’t have those things,” Imp commented.

“Perk of being a hero,” Clockblocker said.  He handed her a spare flashlight.

I gave one to Rachel, but she didn’t turn it on.  Instead, she slid the loop over her wrist, hopping onto her dog’s back.

The walls of darkness that surrounded the structure connected at the very top, and we were plunged into the deep sort of darkness one might expect from being a thousand feet underground.  The headlamps and flashlights were the only real light, making it look almost as if the exposed pavement, sidewalk and the foot of the building were the only things that remained in the world.

Vista used her power as we got closer.  I could see a depression appearing in the wall, as if a giant, invisible finger were pressing into it.

A hole appeared, and a small explosion tore out through the space, opening the hole wider.  We staggered, and some of our smaller members were even thrown to the ground.

Pale mist cleared slowly as we got to our feet.  My bugs scanned the area, searching for threats who might have been alerted to our presence.

Nothing.  Apparently they didn’t want to engage.  They were happy hunkering down, staying eerily quiet.

And the explosion… there was a byproduct.  Or maybe it was the source.  A small glacier had formed around the hole, jagged, as if water had spewed forth and immediately frozen.

“The hell?”  Clockblocker muttered.

Good thing it wasn’t Tecton knocking down the wall, I thought.

Vista tried again, higher up, on the fourth story, off to the far side.

We were braced for the detonation this time.  I kept bugs close to get a sense of what was going on.  The moment there was a gap, the air rushed out, cold and wet, and was followed soon after by a crushing manifestation of a small iceberg.

It creaked, a long, drawn out sound, then cracked abruptly.  The iceberg came free, and the resulting gap was almost instantaneously filled by a third detonation.  A chunk of ice the size of a large car dropped to the street and shattered into a million individual fragments.

Or maybe Tecton would be an asset here.  How the fuck do we break into this?

“Has to be Mannequin,” I said.  “Or Sphere.  Used to specialize in closed systems.  It makes sense, on a level, but this isn’t in Mannequin’s usual repertoire.  Maybe they stole it from… what was the name?  Toybox tinker, Gelid?  Glace, that’s it.”

“A cloned tinker is the smallest threat,” Clockblocker said.  “Takes them time to build, and if you figure Jack didn’t exactly save anything of his, and… well, I don’t even know how they replaced memories, but there’s no way he’s just going to pick up where he left off.”

“Mannequin in a different vein,” I said.  “Same psychosis, different direction taken?”

“Looks like, doesn’t it?”

I frowned.

“We could wait for the ice to melt,” Imp suggested.  “Warm out.”

“Would take forever,” Vista said.

“And it would only get replaced, probably,” Clockblocker said.

“Go big?” I suggested.  “Whatever’s producing the ice, there’s got to be a limit in terms of materials.”

Vista nodded.

This time, rather than a depression, it was a line, running from one corner at the bottom of the building to the opposite corner on the top.

It took ten or fifteen seconds, and then the ice blasted out, barely visible with only our flashlights to illuminate it.

Nothing.  Ground to roof, the ice remained.

“I could do it again,” Vista suggested.

“Faster to get Kid Win to just tear the outside of the building apart,” Clockblocker said.  “Not like they don’t know we’re here, now.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.  “You know that draft of cool air you feel when the automatic doors of a big-name store swing open?”

“Sure,” Clockblocker said.

“It’s designed like that, to use air pressure and air flow and whatever else to keep bugs and debris out.”

“Of course you know that,” Imp said.  “Because of the bugs.”

“I looked into it when I started paying attention to places where there aren’t a lot of bugs, to see why.  There’s sonic countermeasures, and there’s that.”

“Whatever,” Imp said.  “Still pretty random.”

“This is the same thing, except it’s weaponized.  Or made into a defense system, depending on how you want to look at it.  I’d bet most of the building is rigged with some crazy high pressure, as well as whatever devices he’s got that are detonating on exposure to the outside.”

“Okay, with you so far,” Clockblocker said.

“But where are they keeping the hostages?  Option one is that they’ve got them in some sealed area, like they stuck Cherish into, and all of the Nine members in the building are immune to that pressure and cold.  Multiple Mannequins, maybe a Siberian in a sealed case?”

“What’s option two?” Grue asked.

“The inside is safe.  Apartments or offices bordering on exterior walls would be pressurized, but the interior walls, all of the rooms of the building that aren’t rigged, they’d be safe, with hostages and the Nine inside.”

Clockblocker nodded.  “Makes sense, but that’s a lot of speculation.”

“Theory two is a lot easier to prove,” I said.  “We either need to go in through the top, and hope the roof isn’t as protected-”

“-or access the interior without passing into exterior rooms,” Vista said.

Shuffle could have done that, I thought.  Had we sent the wrong teams to the wrong locations?  It had sounded like there was a hell of a lot of offensive power at the other location.

“I’ll try,” Vista said.  “Hold on.”

This was a more refined use of her power.  She drew on the exterior of the building, and created a depression, but the goal this time wasn’t to create a hole.  She extended the depression inward, but she fed enough of the surrounding material into it to keep the resulting walls intact.

It stopped, and she merged it into another wall.  I couldn’t see the wall, but I could sense it with my bugs.  To my eyes, it was a black void, a hole too deep for my bugs to reach.

She paused, then began opening an experimental hole in the far wall.  I pulled my bugs back to make it easier for her.

I could feel the warm air blow past my bugs.  I could smell it using their senses.  An alien sensation, but I noted the scent of blood, the acrid chemical odor of the sealing materials.

“Way’s open,” Vista said.

“It’s messy in there,” I said.  “Be prepared.  Sending bugs in now.  Grue?  Darkness.”

We waited as he pumped the building full of darkness.  My bugs made their way through, scanning the surroundings.

“Murder Rat,” Grue said.  “Three of her.  I can… kind of sense what others are sensing around me, and there’s a glimmer of something that might be a teleportation power.  I don’t trust myself to use it without any ability to sense where I’m going.  Breeds… And… I can’t even get a bead on this guy’s powers.”

Was it?  I could sense figures moving throughout the darkness, but they were swift, and moved in unpredictable directions.  The elevator shaft’s doors had been opened, and they climbed up and through with no difficulty.  There were countless people, hanging from the ceiling by chains, countless pieces of armor, as though Mannequin was trying to reinvent his own gear, and then on the penthouse level…

A man, easily eight feet tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, sitting at a computer chair with one foot propped up on a desk.  His chest was bare, his pants no doubt a normal size, but rendered skintight by his sheer mass, left unzipped.  He was watching something violent on a laptop as he sat there.  The hostages who weren’t strung up with chains were in the room, cowering behind him as a full cluster.  In the midst of them, there was something that looked like a coffin.

“Try using his power?”

“Not sure I want to,” Grue said, “But okay.  Um.”

I felt my powers dim, my range swiftly dropping.  Others stepped away from him in surprise.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  My powers started to return.

“That’s one.  Jesus, that’s a rush.  The other… I think it’s the sort of power you need the built-in second sense to grasp.”

“That has to be Hatchet Face.  I guess you can use his power nullification,” I said, “That’s something, if we hit a pinch.  I just don’t understand this other power.  Bonesaw’s work?  A hybrid?”

Grue nodded.  “Possible.”

I frowned.  “Not sure how to do this.  If we entered through the top floor, we could access the hostages right away, defeat Hatchet Face.”

“Sounds good,” Clockblocker said.

“Except… what do the rest do?” I asked.  “Some signal goes off, or they realize something’s up… they’re not fighting types, not exactly.  They’re assassins, indirect attackers.  They wouldn’t just converge on us.  I don’t know how they’d react, and it’s not the kind of situation where I can say that in a good way.”

“We need to make a call soon,” Grue said.  “You said the other team is already attacking?”

“I thought this would be simpler,” I said.  “Let’s go in the ground floor.  Clear each floor, block off escape routes, so they can’t just exit the building and go wreak mayhem elsewhere, or notify Jack.  They can fall back to the main room where Hatchet Face is waiting, and-”

“And then we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands,” Grue said.  “Against enemies with hostages.”

“Cornered rats with hostages,” Vista said.  The little of her face I could see in the flashlight-illuminated gloom was somber.

“Ground floor,” I said.  “If nothing else, it buys us time to think of something before we reach a crisis point.  The alternative… I don’t like the idea that so many of these guys could escape.  They’ve bottled themselves up nicely.  Stay on your guard.”

“Are you staying outside?” Clockblocker asked me.

I shook my head.  “Need to maintain communications against this team, and I don’t like how long it would take to communicate using my bugs, or the chance you could get cut off.  I’ll come with, help watch your backs.”

There were nods all around.

“Go,” I said, before touching my earbud.  “Tattletale.”

There was a pause.

Weaver.  Kind of busy watching over the other team.  Sup?”

“Entering the fray.  Looks like Mannequins, Murder Rats, Breeds and one Hatchet Face hybrid.”

Got itG’luck.”

Rachel had kept the dogs at a smaller size so they could patrol the building we’d been hiding out in.  It meant they were big, but not so big that they filled the entire hallway.  They passed through the corridor Vista had made without trouble.

We filed in, shoulder to shoulder, and I did what I could to track the various villains in the building.  Grue dissipated the darkness as we got close enough to the respective areas to shine our flashlights on the objects in question.

Ominous, being in the midst of this building, almost like being in a submarine.  There was an incredible, devastating pressure all around us.  A leak meant a possible terminal end to all of us.  The darkness was oppressive, and every surface was covered in the red sealant, scabrous, hard, removing the human touch from everything around us.

I was so caught up in it that I nearly missed it.  A figure in the ducts.

“There,” I said, keeping my voice low.  I pointed.

Our side turned to look.

Mannequin, I thought.  I immediately switched mental gears.  Who to protect, what to do tactically.

I hit the briefest stumbling block when the recollection of what Clockblocker had been talking about crossed my mind.  Why does he remember his suit?

The same outfit, with alterations.  The all-concealing, all-protecting shell surrounding his body, even the joints.

Bastard lunged for him, jaws snapping shut, but the Mannequin cartwheeled back and away.

Vista fired her gun, sending a single green spark zipping ahead.  Mannequin swayed to one side, bending his body at impossible angles to avoid the shot.  The bullet hit the wall, then briefly flared, disintegrating a scab-covered vending machine.

Lines exploded forward from Clockblocker’s hands, one from each finger, and the Mannequin staggered back.  The narrow cables flew past him, glanced off his armor to ricochet into the surrounding area, and one or two even managed to wind around his arm or leg.

Clockblocker used his power, freezing the Mannequin in place.

“Vista,” he said, “Another shot!”

She still had her gun leveled at Mannequin.  She aimed-

And the Mannequin let a blade spring from his palm.  It punched through the wall at the very edge of our tunnel.

Ice exploded into the interior of the hallway, consuming the Mannequin entirely.

Vista dropped her gun.

“No escape route,” Crucible said.

“Can’t shoot without putting us at risk,” Vista said.  “I can make another exit, but it’s going to take a minute.”

“Not a focus,” I said.  “Upstairs first.  Hostages first.  We’ll cross that bridge after.”

We had to walk around in a semicircle before we found ourselves by the elevators and stairwells of the lobby.  The stairwell was framed by two bodies, hung by their feet.  No wounds were visible.

I felt with my bugs, and I could sense warmth from them.  Still alive.

Breed.

What were we even supposed to do with his victims?

For the second time in as many minutes, I found myself saying, “We deal with them after.”

We entered the stairwell.  I was aware of a Murder Rat popping in on the ground floor, crawling on hands and feet that each had excessively long blades on the ends.  She moved faster than she should have been able to, considering her means of locomotion, but she had an exceedingly strong, flexible body.  Enhanced senses, too, with her conical nose close to the ground, long greasy hair brushing against the surface.  I almost turned back to deal with her, but she was already gone, moving faster than my bugs could.

Claustrophobic.  I was acutely aware of the dimensions of the space, the fact that only a fraction of the building could actually hold people.  Of that portion of the building interior, the elevator shafts took up an awful lot of space.

Their territory, really.

The stairs hadn’t received as much of the ‘scab’ treatment, but they were still treacherous ground.  The stairs blocked our view of what was above or below us.  I was careful to check for threats every step of the way, watching doors, sweeping over surfaces, all too aware that Mannequin had evaded my bugs before.

Had this one somehow retained the lessons the original had learned?  I could use thread to cover more ground, spread out my bugs.

An air vent at the very top floor was punched free of the wall.  My bugs could sense the long claws, the conical nose.  They started chewing on her, devouring and biting, but her skin was tough, as though most of it was scar tissue.  I could feel the hot air as she rapidly inhaled and exhaled.

“Murder Rat, she’s on the top-”

She pushed herself free of the vent, lunging, drawing her claws together as if she were diving into water from a height.  Her narrow, emaciated body slipped right between the railings of the ascending and descending stairs.

“Incoming!” I shouted.  I pushed the others back as I could reach them.  The only ones in reach were Rachel and Crucible.

She reached the stairwell just above us and kicked off it, changing her orientation and the trajectory of her dive.  She slammed into the largest, most obvious target -Grue- all of her claw-tips drawn together into one long spike.

He was thrown against the walls and the stairs, and his tumble down the stairs just below him drove him into Toggle and Vista, who nearly fell down the stairs along with him.

Murder Rat was still on top of him, shifting the movements of her limbs to remain more or less upright as she perched on his body.  Her head cocked quizzically.  The blades hadn’t penetrated.

She lashed out, striking, only her target was exposed skin, this time.  Vista’s face, Crucible’s jaw.  Bastard’s shoulder.

And then she kicked the wall, drawing her shoulders together as she slid between Clockblocker’s legs, her nose pointed at the gap in the railing.

Clockblocker shifted his foot to make contact with the long blades at her toes, touching her, and froze her in place.

“My face,” Vista whispered.

“Put pressure on it,” Crucible said.  His own face was bleeding badly, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

And, more troubling, the wound was smoking.  Murder Rat’s power.

I turned my attention to Grue.  “Are you hurt?”

“No.  I… shit, how did that not break a rib?”

I shook my head.  Still using the costume I made, and it saved your life.

He accepted my help in standing.  I turned my attention to the Brockton Bay Wards, but there were too many people crowded there for me to jump in and help.  I focused on the other threats.

I could sense the others swarming around us, on stairs above and below.  I drew out lines of silk to stop them from using the same approach this Murder Rat had managed.

For extra measure, I tied thread around the frozen Murder Rat’s throat, tying it to the railing.

She was a composite of two ‘kitchen sink’ capes.  Mouse Protector and Ravager.  Two primary powers that had blended into the one, a dozen other minor powers.  Flexibility, a bizarre kind of enhanced strength, reflexes and agility that had peaks and valleys, and skin as tough as leather.

“Pinch it shut, tape it,” Clockblocker was saying.  “We spray it to keep it closed.  Smells awful.”

“I kind of like the smell,” Vista said, her words muffled by the hand Crucible was pressing to her face.  “Hey, this’ll be a badass scar, huh?”

“Quiet,” Clockblocker said.

I could hear another Murder Rat on the stairs below us.  She let her claw drag on the wall, and the metal on concrete made a sound like five nails on a chalkboard.   Loud, slowly increasing in volume as she approached us.

I set my bugs on her.  She persisted, simply enduring what they were doing to her.  I tried to go for the tiny eyes that were nearly buried behind her altered face and brow, but she shut them, relying on touch and smell to move.  I started to pack bugs around her nose and mouth, and found that slowed her just a fraction.

But the noise continued.  I could see the effect it was having on the others.

A rattling noise from above, joined by another nails-on-blackboard screech.  A Mannequin, using the blades he’d extended from his forearms to scrape the wall and hit the individual bars that held the railing up at chest level, the same bars that the Murder Rat had tried to slip between to make her escape.

“It burns,” Vista said.  Her fingers raised to the mark that ran from the side of her chin to her cheekbone.

“The meds?” Clockblocker asked.

“The smoke.  Stinging my eyes, and feels like it’s fizzing.  I read the file, this is her power, right?  It’s what she does?”

“It’s going to take a long time to heal,” Clockblocker said.  “Pretty much guarantees a scar.  But we stopped the bleeding, which is better than most get.”

The dog growled as another Murder Rat joined the fray, her clawed feet clicking against the steps as she made her descent, the screeches of her claws against the concrete joining what was quickly becoming a cacophony.  The blades at the fingertips of her other hand struck the bars of the railing, which set them to ringing.

Then, from the first and fourth floors, I could sense Breed’s minions make their approach.  In the midst of the banging and screeching, their hissing was almost impossible to make out.

One more Mannequin hung back, letting the little bastards climb on him.  They were smallish.  Smaller than the ones in Killington had been.

I shifted my weight, ready for one of them to make an attack at any moment.  Indirect attacks, surprise attacks, all from directions that were hard to anticipate.

“Three Mannequins and a Rat above us,” I said.  “Two rats below us.  Lots of Breed’s bastard parasites on both sides.”

“I could use my darkness, but it wouldn’t help much,” Grue said.

“They don’t sense things like we do.  My bugs aren’t going to do much either,” I said.  “Laying tripwires and trying to bind them here and there, but these aren’t guys my bugs can sting.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“We die,” Imp said, with an odd cheerfulness.  “Horribly, gruesomely.  They’ll break or sever our arms and legs and cap them with Mannequin’s stuff so we don’t bleed out, and then they’ll let Breed’s bugs devour us from the inside out.”

“Not helping, Imp,” Grue said.

“I’m only saying what we already know.  Kind of counterproductive, morale-wise, to have us read all the dossiers on these bastards.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” Crucible agreed.

“Why are we waiting here?” Rachel asked, her voice a little too loud.  “Why don’t we just fucking attack them?”

I didn’t have a good rebuttal to that.

No, that wasn’t right.  I had a dozen rebuttals.  That these guys would take any offensive action on our part as an excuse to slip past us and murder our more vulnerable members.

But I didn’t have a better strategy.  Not one I was eager to use so prematurely.

“Attack,” I said.  “Now.”

Rachel whistled, a long sharp sound that cut through the various noises the Nine’s members had created.  There was only silence as the whistle echoed through the stairwell.

She snapped her fingers and pointed up the stairs, snapped again and pointed down.

The two dogs charged in the alternate direction.

“Wards, go up.  Grue, Imp, Rachel, help cover the rear,” I gave the orders.  “Watch your backs!”

We split into two groups, the Wards leading the charge, while the Undersiders covered the flanks.  I remained in the center, my knife drawn.

A Murder Rat tried to jump down through the gap, as the first had, but got tangled in the threads I’d woven.  She began severing them, one by one, but too slow to slip through.  Vista shot her.

With her death scream, the others shifted tactics, abandoning the offense.  Mannequins advanced to take over the assault.

Another got caught in the threads, but blades sprung out all over his body, the individual components rotating, and the threads were cut.  He dropped down.

Crucible caught him.  A forcefield bubble surrounded the figure, pale blue, then flared a brilliant orange-white.

Mannequin would be fireproof, though.  Even an extreme heat like Crucible could create wouldn’t have an effect.  Still, it meant one was contained.

Yet as soon as we captured one, another slipped the net.  The Murder Rat Clockblocker had frozen animated again, slipping through the railing, only to find herself hanging by her throat, a silk cord binding her.  My bugs could sense blood trickling, but the movement suggested her neck hadn’t snapped.

Two ways she’d escape.  The first was obvious, cutting the cord.

The second?

“Vista, Crucible!” I hollered their names.

They whipped around to face me, saw me holding my knife, ready to drive it forward.

The smoke on Vista’s face flared, blossoming like a smoke grenade that had just gone off, and Murder Rat materialized, one claw already poised with the points facing upward, ready to drive upward into Vista’s unprotected jawline.

I’d seen her gesture as she hung on the rope, in preparation for her materialization.  I had to lunge forward, striking the stairs with the boniest parts of my shins to catch the villain’s wrist with my free hand, pulling her off-balance.

She rolled with it, almost doing a backflip as she threw one leg back to drive a point towards Imp’s scalp.  Grue caught Murder Rat’s leg, and between us, we held her.  I punched the blade into her throat.

Grue heaved her over the railing.  He covered our retreat with darkness, then lunged ahead of the group.  Murder Rat’s powers, it seemed.

Reckless, not like him, but he joined the front lines, where Bastard was giving two Mannequins a hard time.

Clockblocker threw out lines of silk, then froze them.  The dog lunged, and the Mannequins were sandwiched between the dog and the silk.

Blood spurted at the dog’s shoulder where the lines had made contact.  One Mannequin lost an arm, but they both managed to contort and angle themselves so they could slip over, under or between the threads.

Of course it wouldn’t be easy.  Fuck.

“Back!” Rachel called out, before the dog decided to charge through the cables Clockblocker had used.  The dog retreated a pace.  Grue only hopped up, grabbing the railing, managed a grip, and then descended on them.  He grabbed one and flung it towards the wires.

It only contorted, arching its back like a high jumper to slip through a gap.  It got halfway before Bastard closed his jaws on his upper body.

Shit.  My bugs were so useless here.  I couldn’t go after the Breeds until I knew which of the people in the building were them.  The original Breed had died when someone had hit a building with an incendiary missile, and the bugs had stopped appearing.  He wasn’t altered in appearance.  For all respects, he was just an ordinary man.

Besides the whole ‘I create horrifying space bugs’ thing.

The Mannequin that crawled with Breed’s creations leaped down, only to get caught in more strands.  He started to cut his way free, but Vista opened fire.  Her shots glanced off his outer shell.

The creatures, though, fell through the gaps.  More than a handful landed in our midst.

“I thought you said they don’t go after people!”

“They don’t!” I said.  “So long as there’s other food sources available.”  I kicked at one as it advanced on my right foot.

“There are dozens of bodies here!”

Already infected, I realized.  These parasites were seeking fresh hosts, ones not already occupied by anything.

I caught the ones I could with my own bugs, used thread to haul them free, but there were twenty, and their dozens of legs were sharp, capable of punching through flesh and clothing to maintain a grip.  Difficult to dislodge.

One had landed on my shoulder.  I tried to pull it free and failed, stabbed at the legs with my knife, only for it to fold them into its carapace.  It lashed at the lens of my mask with its spike-tipped tail.  It didn’t penetrate, and rolled off my shoulder before I could get a hold on it.

Its legs extended, and it found a grip on my flight pack.  In an instant, it was racing up towards my head again.  It stopped twice, pausing for one second as it transitioned from my flight pack to my costume, then stopping again as it reached the area where the mask and body of my costume overlapped at my neck.  The needle points of its legs were pricking through the fabric of my costume, no doubt as it tried to find a way under.  I got a grip on its tail, but failed to dislodge it.  Too slick.

The others weren’t faring a lot better.  Crucible shouted something incoherent as he used both hands to stop a softball sized creature from advancing on his mouth.  Its millipede-like limbs left bloody tracks in his skin as it made excruciating progress towards the orifice.

It was a critical distraction as we were dealing with highly mobile foes.  A Murder Rat leaped up to find a grip on the underside of the stairs we were standing on, then vaulted herself to one side and up, slipping between the bars and into our midst.

Rachel whistled, hard, and the dog from downstairs came barreling through our group.  We were knocked aside, pushed to the ground by the dog’s mass as it charged Murder Rat.  She leaped up, stepping on the dog’s back, then jumped back down to the lower end of the flight of stairs.

The dog growled and turned around, preparing to charge through us again.

“Hold,” Rachel said.  She had to pull off her jacket to access the trilobite-parasite bastard thing that was crawling on the small of her back, heading south.  Toggle struck it with her baton, and lights flared.

Imp stepped up just in front of Crucible, impaling the bug on his face with her own knife.

Progress, but we were still in the midst of a lot of dangerous enemies.  Elusive ones.  Of the six here, we’d only achieved two kills.

Tattletale here.”

“In an ugly spot,” I said.

“Help’s on the way.

“Help?”

Eidolon.  We tried to keep things quiet, keep everything off the radar, but he caught on.  Legend’s at the other site with Pretender.

“Turn them away!” I hissed the words.

“Um, not about to turn away help,” Imp said.  She was benefiting as Crucible created his superheated forcefield dome to burn away the Breed-parasites too dumb to walk around.

“Turn them away,” I repeated myself.  “All three.”

More of Breed’s bugs were starting to make their way to us, from above and below.  One Murder Rat, one Mannequin, and the guy upstairs we still hadn’t even interacted with.

With his fucked up coffin.

I can’t get in touch with them.  Not like their number is in the phone book.”

“Contact Cauldron?”  I used my swarm to attack the Breed-bugs, but it was slow going.  Twenty bugs with strong mandibles could kill one, but it took a minute, maybe two, before they reached something resembling soft tissue.

No go.”

I could sense him, now, approaching the building cautiously.  He used a laser to pierce the roof.  Ice blossomed out to fill the gap, a glacier in summer.

I began drawing from the bugs outside, forming a swarm-clone.  Eidolon ignored it, firing again.  Multiple blasts, multiple creations of ice.  He swore under his breath.

Rachel’s dog leaped over us to attack the Murder Rat.  She slipped to one side, and a wound at Toggle’s shoulder began blossoming with smoke.

The Murder Rat appeared in our midst.  Clockblocker was quick enough to tag her this time.

It wasn’t the most ideal maneuver.  Grue’s stolen power disappeared in that same instant.  Bad timing – he was in the midst of fighting the Mannequins.  One had been taken out by Bastard, but another had joined the fray as it brought the bugs down.

Grue reached out for another power.  Mannequin’s power wasn’t useful, but the other-.

I felt my power fading, just as the swarm-decoy was gaining enough bulk.

I wasn’t the only one.  Crucible’s forcefield shorted out.  Clockblocker had been in the midst of reaching for Breed-bugs to lock down, and found himself only giving them easier access in climbing up his arms.

The Mannequin staggered back, tripping on the stairs.  Just a little less coordinated.

Still, it wasn’t useful.  One dog was entirely disabled, crawling with countless Breed-parasites.  Only the fact that it clenched its jaw kept them from getting in its mouth, but its nose-

“Cancel it, Grue!” I shouted.

He didn’t.  Instead, he reached down to grab Mannequin by the throat.  He ascended the stairs three at a time, dragging two struggling Mannequins with him.

A bad situation was turning into a nightmare.  My radius shrank to a mere hundred feet, then fifty.

Twenty.

The bugs were crawling on us, Crucible wasn’t the only one struggling to keep them from worming beneath his hands and into his mouth.

Then he was gone, the radius of his power nullification too small.  If the Hatchet Face upstairs was a hybrid, Grue’s copy of his power was a fraction of a half of a power.

Still, he seemed to have Hatchet Face’s strength and durability.

Our powers began to return, and with the threats of the other capes dealt with, we were free to focus on stopping them.

Clockblocker paused the most dangerous ones, closest to mouths, anuses and private parts, to ears and nostrils.  We backed away as he freed us of the worst of them, and Crucible barred the path with his superheated forcefield.

“I’m not… I’m not useful,” Toggle said.

“Different threats, you would be,” Crucible said.  “Fuck, this stings.”

“Medical treatment after,” Clockblocker said.  “One more to take down.”

We hurried up the stairs.  Two flights to the penthouse floor.

Eidolon,” my swarm-clone spoke.

“Weaver.”  He had created a kind of portal and was widening it.  It seemed slow, inefficient.

Go home, Eidolon.  You aren’t a help here.

“I’m to take orders from the one who murdered Alexandria?”

Yes.  Leave.  You’re more danger than help.

“I can end this.”

So can I.  I will end this.  Your choice as to how.  Do I handle this situation myself, or do I have to kill you, then handle this myself?

There was only silence from him.  He stared at my swarm-clone.

“You dare make that threat, after killing my comrade-in-arms?”

I do.  If there’s a trace of doubt in your mind that I could do it-

“Your bugs couldn’t touch me.”

Inside the building, we were approaching the penthouse floor.

Your power is dying.  It’s obvious enough that people are speculating on it online, in the media.  How Eidolon isn’t as strong as he was in the early days.  Why aren’t you inside already?  Are you so sure that your power would stop me?

“I’m here to help.  That’s all.  Attacking me now would be like the violation of the Endbringer Truce.”

You’re one of the biggest dangers, Eidolon.  Jack’s supposed to be the catalyst for an event, a great catastrophe.  Are you honestly telling me that there’s no danger here?  That you’re absolutely certain that you don’t have a weakness he could capitalize on?

Eidolon didn’t speak.

Don’t tell me you don’t.  That you aren’t potentially powerful enough to end the world if it came down to it.  If he somehow opened that floodgate-

“It won’t come to that.  I control my powers.”

Or played a head-game with you?  Are you telling me your mind is a fortressThat you don’t have that capacity for great evil inside you?

“I’m not evil.”

You participated in business that people felt was so horrifying that they seceded from the Protectorate.  How many thousands died or suffered gruesome transformations because of the atrocities Cauldron committed?

Inside the building, we opened the door.  Grue was staring down the last member of this particular group of Nine.  Tall, muscular in the way that suggested he was in his physical prime, with a wild mop of dark hair.  He was masculine in a way that exaggerated the qualities to a fault, with an overly square jaw, massive hands, an almost Neanderthal brow.  It made him look like a bad guy from an old animated film about princesses.  As if echoing that sentiment, a word was tattooed across his chest.

Tyrant.

I recognized the other half of the pair.  Hatchet Face and King together.

Untouchable.  King’s power took any physical harm he suffered and transferred it among his pawns.  People he’d touched within the last twenty-four hours.  Hatchet Face’s power meant we couldn’t even use abilities to circumvent it.  Tyrant here had the enhanced strength each of the two had possessed, the enhanced durability.

“Are you saying you’re blameless, little murderer?” Eidolon asked, just above us.  “That you don’t have a potential for evil?”

No,” I answered.  The hybrid crossed the room, and I could feel my powers fading.  Grue’s darkness dissipated around the building, and light streamed in through the red windows, casting a tint over everything.

I shifted my bugs outside the building.

No, I know I have some ugliness inside me,” I spoke through my swarm.  My swarm was dissipating, my focus and control over my bugs failing.  I had to maintain the formation.

“Then what qualifies you to be here when I can’t?”

Maybe arrogant of me to say so,” I said.  The swarm was quieter as my fine control swiftly dissolved.  “But I’ve recognized that ugliness, and I’ve got it harnessed.

I gave the signal, gesturing for emphasis.  Tyrant paused.  The swarms outside the building shifted in the same moment, uttering the word faintly.

Now.

Outside the building, Foil fired, and she used the line I’d drawn out with my bugs for guidance.  Not perfect, not ungodly straight, but the thread I’d drawn out helped.

There was a concentrated explosion of ice at the edge of the penthouse as the shot punctured the wall, passed within a foot of Tyrant.

He advanced, and I stepped forward to meet him, my eyes on his.  My power was almost entirely gone.  Dampened to the point that it was just me and the bugs that crawled on me.  Every step he took reduced it another fraction.  Half a foot, then an inch away from my skin…

Another bolt, between us, closer to Tyrant than to me.

And then an explosion that seemed to shake the entire building.  Everyone present was thrown to the ground.

Kid Win had blasted a hole in the side of the penthouse, firing what had to be every single weapon at the same time.  Ice was swelling from the open area in fits and starts.

But it was enough of an opening for Foil to get a clear shot.

She shot Tyrant, and the bolt pierced his brain.

He collapsed onto his hands and knees, then staggered, starting to rise.

Another bolt through the spine.

A third through the heart.

He collapsed onto his face.

Foil’s bolts broke the rules.  Apparently his power didn’t work on them.

I slowly climbed to my feet, then stared up through the closing hole in the building at Eidolon.

“Go home,” I called out.

He was still, hovering there.  I didn’t break eye contact as he floated closer to me, until he stood only a few feet away.

“Sit this one out, for all of our sakes.”

He broke eye contact first.  His eyes fell on Foil and Kid Win.

“Please,” I said.

He didn’t move, looking across the street at the others.

Then, as if the courtesy of the please had given him the ability, he spoke.  His voice was quiet enough that I was probably the only one who could hear.

“I live for this,” he said.  “It’s what I do.”

It was an admission of weakness, not a boast.

“I know,” I answered him.  “But it’s not worth it.  Even here, that coffin up there that Mannequin made… if it’s hiding Jack, keeping people from sensing him until the end of this lunatic game he set up, then he could say something.  Do something, and you could become everything you’re trying to stop.”

No.  I’d said something that was off the mark.  I saw Eidolon hesitate, as if he was considering going ahead anyways.

“And you’re all so safe?” Eidolon asked me.  “You’re not such a danger, with the right trigger event, the right saying?  You couldn’t murder a town full of innocents as readily as you murdered Alexandria?”

“The difference between you and me,” I said, “Is if I go off the rails, if I somehow become an agent of the apocalypse, I can be stopped.  I can be killed.”

He stared at me, the shadows of his eyes only barely visible behind the blue-green expanse of the concave mask he wore.  The shadow cast by his hood didn’t help.

“There’s a quarantine, Eidolon.  Everything we’re bringing to the table here, everyone who’s on the front lines, they’ve talked about this, they’ve agreed.  We’re all willing to die if it comes down to it, for the sake of maintaining that quarantine, keeping the end of the world from coming to pass.”

He looked past me at the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards.

“I’m willing to die if I have to,” he said, in his eerie chorus of a voice.  “I’ve proven that enough times… but it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“There’s no guarantee we could stop you before it was too late.”

“I see.”

He cast a glance over our assembled ranks, then took off.

I waited long moments before turning my attention to the crowd at the far end of the room.  They were already moving, running like they could make their way downstairs and escape out the front doors.

I drew my knife, stepping into their path.

“Weaver?”

My bugs flowed past them.  I could see, hear, smell, taste.

The swarm went on the attack.  People in the crowd screamed and ran.

Of the three I’d targeted in their midst, I saw one open his mouth wide.  Four small trilobite parasites crawled out, dropping to the ground.

His nostril bulged, and one crawled from his nasal cavity.    One crawled from each of his ears.

His pants bulged, a great deal in the back, then a little in front.  They fell out of the bottom of his pant legs.

The others were producing some now too.

Crucible caught the first in his forcefield.  He paused a second, then turned it on full burn.  The forcefield dissipated, and man, parasites and a circular section of floor were scorched black.

The other two were still fighting off the bugs when Crucible burned them as well.

Silence reigned.  The crowd, I think, was a little too horrified to cheer for us.

“First kill?” Imp asked, quiet.

“Yeah”

“How the fuck did you get to be a hero with a power like that?”

“Kept it a secret from you guys, kept it a secret from the public.  You can do a lot with a solid forcefield bubble.”

Grue and Clockblocker joined me as we approached the coffin.

It opened easily, and we stepped back, as Crucible surrounded it in a bubble.

Jack?

He lay inside, opened his eyes, and frowned.

“This didn’t go according to plan,” he said.

I could see the forcefield start to change hues, ready to bake before Jack could say anything devastating.

“Stop,” I said.

“But the idea was-”

“Just stop.  It’s not him.  Doesn’t fit.”

Jack only smiled.  “That so?  Well, it’s the bug girl.  I can’t even remember your name.”

I could see the tension in the other’s bodies.

He stepped forward, staggered a little, then poked at the forcefield bubble with his knife.

“Shall we put an end to all of this?  You got me.  Victory is yours.  Murder me, and they all go off leash.”

“It’s not Jack,” I repeated myself.  “It’s Nyx’s power.”

Jack’s expression became a frown.  Then he dissipated.

It was only a teenager, trapped inside.  He was in the middle of asking a question.  “-you let me out?”

“Holy fuck.  I almost burned him,” Crucible said.

The boy pounded one hand on the forcefield.  “Please!”

“I’ll let him out,” Crucible said.

I hesitated, holding up a hand.

No.  Not enough grounding to say for sure.  I let my hand drop.

“Weaver?”

I was about to give the go-ahead, but Tattletale’s voice came over the comm.  “That’s Nyx you’re looking at.  Her range is too short, she’d have to be in the building, and she’s too distinctive looking to pass in a crowd.

I stared at the teenage boy.  I’d almost said he could leave.

“Last chance, Nyx,” I told the ‘boy’.  “Last words?  Share a juicy tidbit?”

The ‘boy’ faded away.  An illusion in an illusion.  It was only a woman with pale red skin, overlarge black eyes and vents along her hairline, the back of her neck and down the backs of her arms.  A fog seeped out from the holes.  A small Cauldron emblem was tattooed on her face like a beauty mark.

“No way I can convince you to let me go?”

“You could,” I said.

“Hey,” Grue said.  “She’s too dangerous.”

“For good enough information?  I’m willing to risk it.”

“I agree,” Clockblocker said.

“Good information?”

“Tell us where Jack is,” I told her.

She smiled.  “And I get to go free?”

“My word as a hero,” Clockblocker answered her.

“He’s on his way to visit Nilbog.”

It’s true,” Tattletale said.

“Now let me go,” Nyx said.  She rolled her shoulders, “Take me into custody, if you have to.  All I want is to live.”

“No,” Grue said.  “We can’t let her go.”

“No,” Clockblocker agreed.  “Crucible?”

Nyx snarled, and the fog blasted out of the vents along her body, forming into a shape.

She didn’t get any further before the orb flared.  Her scream was high, loud, and exceedingly brief.

“Nilbog,” I said.

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Cell 22.6

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Dragon’s craft closed the distance to the rooftop’s edge, using precise adjustments to almost freeze in mid-air as it hovered.  It was gentle and graceful in comparison to Defiant’s squat, durable tank.  I wondered how intentional that was.  Just looking at it, I had little doubt that it was even longer range than any of the other models I’d crossed paths with.  I was put in mind of a sniper rifle, long, narrow, sleek and focused in its almost singular design.  The stability it had fit with the idea.  A stark contrast to Defiant’s craft, which seemed more like the type to be in the thick of a fight, fighting alongside him and complementing his fighting style.

Not that the aesthetics of Dragon’s work was really a priority right this moment.

“A mistake,” I said.

“We know how she operates,” Defiant said.  “Dragon, Miss Militia and I have each worked directly under Alexandria at some point.  It’s something of an unofficial policy to have anyone that’s being considered for a leadership position working under each member of the triumvirate for a time.”

“Must have been real fun for you guys when you found out what they’re really like, last month.”

“Not fun at all,” Miss Militia said.  She had to stoop to exit the ship and step onto the roof’s edge.

“We’ve seen how Alexandria handles interrogations,” Defiant said.  “She reads microexpressions.  Shapes every statement and action to get the responses she wants.”

“And she wanted this?” I asked.

Defiant shook his head.  “Knowing her, this was a gambit.  It wouldn’t do to have one workable outcome.  She pushes you, and if you attack, she has cause to finish you off or send you straight to the birdcage without a trial.  If you don’t attack, she knows she has leverage against you and the Undersiders.  She’d see which way you were leaning, then refine her approach further.”

“And here I was,” Miss Militia mused, “Thinking you didn’t have a head for this sort of thing, Defiant.”

“I’ve had help,” he said, glancing at Dragon.

“But she didn’t get either of those results,” I said.  “At least, not like she wanted.  For all her brains, for all this apparent ability to read me, she… didn’t understand what my friends mean to me.”

“I think she understood well enough,” Defiant said.  “But the mistake, the tragedy in all of this, was that she didn’t get an accurate read on you.  Much, I expect, for the same reason my lie detector could never seem to.  She was working with bad information, and she pushed you too far, too fast.”

An eerie parallel to mistakes Tattletale had made in the past.  And I killed Alexandria and Tagg because of it.

“And… my friends?  Just to make sure.  They’re okay?”

“Alexandria didn’t touch them.  The ones she brought into the building were body doubles, and the real Undersiders are poised to attack in-”  Miss Militia reached for her phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Defiant said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.  “In the meantime, we’re trying to deal with your lawyer, who got his hands on the footage of the interrogation and is threatening to bring hell down on our heads-”

Earning his pay, I thought.

She continued without pause.  “-And we still have to find a way to handle this without a complete PR catastrophe.  Once the media gets hold of this, we lose the ability to control the situation.”

“Dragon is managing the details as we speak,” Defiant said.  “She can isolate and track digital communication, but she can’t stop the spread of word of mouth.  Chevalier’s doing what he can on his end, but the PRT agents that confirmed Alexandria’s death won’t be able to keep their mouths shut forever, not with something as grave as this.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“Fourteen,” Defiant cut in, correcting her.

Fourteen minutes,” she said, “That’s our working timeline.  Even if Skitter were to call off the Undersiders, we have information leaks.”

“Then what if we let it leak?” I asked.  “We say ‘fuck it, the PRT is fucked, Alexandria is a monster, let people figure it out for themselves.'”

“You don’t really want that,” Miss Militia said.

“The system is fucked,” I said.  “Everything that’s happened, it’s taught me a few things.  People are fucked up, for one thing.  And any organization that has people in control is going to be fucked on an exponential level.  But for all that, people are a hell of a lot tougher than we give them credit for.  We survive.  We innovate.  So yeah, I’m seriously thinking along those lines.  I wouldn’t mind seeing the PRT burn, damn it, because I think we’ll make it regardless.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “What changed your mind from the moment you decided to surrender?  Your friends weren’t at risk, you already knew something about Tagg and Alexandria.”

“You,” I told her.  “You were part of it.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly.”

“You can’t blame me for standing out of the way.  You had a plan, Alexandria told me she had a plan, and nobody shared anything substantial with me.  I couldn’t take a step without risking that I’d get in someone’s way.”

I frowned.

“You’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re still reeling from what you thought happened,” Miss Militia said.  “Fine.  That’s fair.  But we don’t have time to work through that.  You said you wanted to work together, to compromise.  Do you stand by that?  Are you willing to at least try a workable solution?  Or are you going to keep fighting us?”

I glanced at Defiant.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“We need you to call your team and get them to stand down.  We can’t have bloodshed, and we can’t have Tattletale divulging critical information.”

I folded my arms.  “Meet me halfway.”

“Twelve minutes,” Defiant said.  “This isn’t the time to be hard-nosed.  You don’t want this fight any more than we do.  If this happens, your team will be at a very real risk of death or arrest.  Three of the A.I. models, Dragon’s, mine, the Brockton Bay heroes and no less than ten visiting heroes.”

“This is exactly the time to be hard-nosed.  The Undersiders get left alone.  Those are my terms.  Figure it the fuck out.”

There was a pause, an exchange of looks between Defiant and Dragon.

“We’re talking to Chevalier and the Chief Director,” Defiant said.

“Good,” I answered him.

A few seconds passed.  I glanced at the sun, dipping beneath the mountains to the west.

Miss Militia will fill in as an interim PRT director,” a male voice sounded from the speaker at Dragon’s shoulder.  Chevalier.  “I’ll arrange it.  We have leverage, with the current state of emergency and the issues that are liable to come up with the announcement that we can make use of the portal.

“And I’ll remain hands off, unless I’m replaced or I have no other choice?” Miss Militia said.

We’ll keep you in position for as long as we can, postpone any changes or replacements until people get more comfortable with the idea.  With luck, we can segue into keeping you in position on a permanent basis. Failing that, we tap someone sympathetic to our aims.

“Damn it,” Miss Militia muttered.  “I feel like my lifespan just got cut short.  Double the work, too.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Defiant said.  He looked at me.  “Satisfactory?”

“Yes.  Phone?”

Miss Militia tapped out a password, then handed me hers.

I dialed Tattletale’s number.

When Tattletale didn’t pick up on the first ring, I felt my heart jump into my throat.  She’d never done that.

“‘Lo,” Tattletale said.  I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.  She continued, “Call display says PRT Phone server.  Who am I talking to?

“It’s me,” I said.

You!  You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been.  Or the headache I have.  You know they gave you bad info?

“I know,” I said.

The stuff you were writing, it didn’t match up.  Tried to tell you, but you couldn’t understand me.

“I know,” I said.  “Just tell me… everyone’s safe?”

Everyone’s accounted for.  Shit, what did they do?

“Tattletale-”

They tried something.  What happened?”

“Tattletale,” I said, raising my voice a notch.  “Time’s short.  Call off the hounds, literal or otherwise.  Delay.”

Delay?”

“They’re making temporary offers,” I said, eyeing the heroes, “We can make some temporary concessions.”

Okay.  But I can’t hold back some of the bastards we put into play.  I can stop them, but that’s it.  They’ll leave, and we’re that much weaker.

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “These guys are at a bit of a disadvantage too.”

Okay… let’s see… alright.  Holding off for… half an hour?  Adding fifteen minutes to the clock?” Tattletale asked.

“Longer?” I asked.

Any longer and more mercenaries start walking away, deciding to take the half we paid up front.

“That’ll do, then, I guess.”  I said, giving the heroes a thumbs up.

You said they’re weaker, huh?  So it’s true.  I didn’t want to use my power to verify… but the rumor mill is right?  Alexandria bit it?

“Yes.  I-” I stopped.

You?  You did it?”  Tattletale asked.  “Guys-

Her voice faded as she turned away from the phone.

“Don’t tell them,” I said, once I realized what she was saying.

It was too late.  I could hear jeers and whooping from Regent and Imp in the background.  I couldn’t make out everything Grue was saying, but I caught something along the lines of ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ.

It’s too late to matter, honey bear,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have much juice powerwise, but I don’t need any to know this much.  Word’s already out about Alexandria.

“Word’s out about Alexandria,” I said, for the benefit of the heroes.

Defiant folded his arms.

Anything else I can do?” she asked.

“Stay near a phone.  Thank you,” I said.  And keep the jailbreak specialists on hand, I thought.  Not that I could say that with the Protectorate members around me.

“One disaster averted,” Miss Militia said.

“Held at bay,” Defiant said.  “The word’s spreading.  It’s starting to pop up on isolated channels.”

“We’ll need to get our official word out first,” Miss Militia said.

“What do you even say?” I asked.  “She’s dead.”

“And that will make a lot of people lose hope,” Miss Militia said.  “We have other ideas, but we need something bigger, more concrete.”

“But she’s dead,” I said.  “The only way to change the reaction is to convince everyone we have a winning game plan anyways.  That the PRT isn’t fucked, which it is.”

“The A.I. craft,” Defiant said, turning to look at the Pendragon.  “Expendable, versatile, devastating in their own right, and there’s image attached to them.  They’ll get the public’s imagination fired up.”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “There’ll be doubts, it’s not enough.  Behemoth can generate electromagnetic waves that wipe out electronics.  Even many reinforced electronics, if he’s close enough.  The Simurgh can scramble coding.  We don’t just have to convince the public.  We need to convince the heroes, and they know these things.”

“And they know what the difference is going to be, without Alexandria on the front lines,” Defiant said.  He sighed audibly.  “Four times now, she’s been the deciding factor in beating the Simurgh back early.  Once with Leviathan, when I was new to the Protectorate.”

“We can reduce the impact of the loss with careful word choice and a good speech,” Miss Militia said.  “If Skitter is willing to call off her other dogs.”

I glanced at the phone in my hand.  “Okay.”

“No demands this time?”

“Believe it or not, I want to fix things,” I said, as I dialed Mr. Calle’s number.  “We’re on the same side here.  The difference is I consider my friends to be a part of a workable scenario.  I have my issues with you guys, but I’m extending the benefit of a doubt again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.  Again.”

The phone rang.  Mr. Calle answered.  “Quinn Calle speaking.

“It’s Taylor Hebert.”

Ah, excellent.  I’d feared they’d executed you or sent you to be incarcerated.

“I’m sorry for, um, that,” I said.

They had one of your good friends in a body bag, or they led you to believe they did.  You reacted as many would, with anger and pain.  You were simply, how to put it… better equipped than the rest of us mere mortals to express that anger and pain.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left.”

Rest assured, Ms. Hebert, I’ve dealt with worse.

“Okay,” I said.  “I need you to back off on whatever threats you’re directing at the PRT.”

No can do, I’m afraid.

“Why the hell not?”

Because, right at this moment, you’re in the custody of the heroes.  They’ve given you a phone, no doubt, and they’ve caught you at an emotionally vulnerable moment.  For your benefit, I can’t assume you’re of sound mind or that you aren’t being coerced.

“How do we change your mind?”

I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the discussion.

“We’re sending a vehicle your way,” I said.  “Where are you?”

The lovely little shop with the donuts I visited this morning.

“Okay,” I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece, “He says-”

I stopped.  The armored suit Miss Militia had left was already moving, heading directly for my territory.  She’d been listening in.

“Never mind.”

“Let’s talk about our game plan,” Miss Militia said.  “We’ve got the peripheral stuff in the works.  You’re bringing the suits in?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “She is.  Chevalier is on the way as well, and we’ve contacted the media.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “The two major crises are being held at bay, thanks to Skitter’s cooperation.  We can’t keep the word from spreading through other channels, so let’s cover every base we can.  We only get one shot at this.”

“Key points being Skitter’s role in this, and addressing how we deal with Alexandria’s demise,” Defiant said.

“My role?” I asked.  “I thought you wanted me to call off the attack?”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “There’s more.”

I narrowed my eyes, very conscious of the fact that there were three rather powerful capes and one mechanized suit in my immediate vicinity.  “What more?”

She glanced at Defiant, then back to me.  “We’d like you to be there for the conference with the media.  Dragon’s going over footage, and so long as your lawyer doesn’t release the unedited content, we can hide the worst of the details from the media.  Shape the narrative.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“We’re revising the truth,” she said.  She paused.  “Yes.  We’re lying.”

“And you want me to participate in that?”

“Yes.  Your presence will lend a degree of legitimacy to what we’re saying.  We’re on opposite sides, in the public eye, making it all the more meaningful if we agree on what happened.”

“Are you fighting to keep the PRT going, or are you working to rebuild it?” I asked.

“Rebuild it,” she said.  No hesitation.

“And you’re doing it by starting with a lie.  Just like they did.”

“Yes,” she said.  Again, there was no hesitation.  “There’s no pretty, perfect answers, and concessions have to be made.  Questions and issues on a greater scale mean more repercussions for failure, and they call for bigger concessions if we want to ensure success.”

“And this is a big event, a lot of power,” I said.  “Big concessions?”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked ten times as tired as she said it.

I folded my arms.  I couldn’t disagree.  I didn’t like it.  But I’d been a leader.  I’d made shady calls.  I’d hurt people.  Had lied, cheated, stolen, killed.

The sun was gone, hidden by the mountains, and the clouds were changing from purple to black.  How long until the new deadline?  Twenty minutes?

I could see Defiant, saw him conversing with Dragon and Miss Militia.

I saw how he folded his arms, still holding his spear, so it rested against his shoulder.  How he planted his feet further apart.  A warrior’s stance.

It inspired a memory, of my first night out in costume.  The bad guy lying defeated on the street below, the city quiet around us, the dark sky overhead, with only meager light illuminating us.  Framing the situation, talking about options and priorities.

Not so different from the scene here.  The villain wasn’t here.  Alexandria had fallen a distance away.  But the city was quiet, the area still blockaded, the sky was dark, and the topic of discussion…

I thought of something, one moment in that night’s discussion when I’d thought that maybe Armsmaster could live up to the reputation, that he could really truly be someone who I could look up to.

“Hey,” I said.

Heads turned my way.

“As far as Alexandria goes, what if we turn it around?”

“Turn it around?”

“Way back, when I first started out in costume, I had a talk with Armsmaster.  He told me that I should be happy I was mistaken for a villain, because it meant I didn’t have to fight the Undersiders.  This was before I joined them.  It reminded me of how I’d been trying to deal with the shit I was going through back then, turning negatives into positives.  I think we can do that here.”

“How?” Miss Militia asked.  She glanced at Dragon’s craft, just now arriving to bring my lawyer to us.

“So long as we’re lying,” I said, “Let’s go wholesale.  We present Alexandria as the villain she was.”

“That’ll make the situation worse,” Miss Militia said.

“It depends on how we present the idea,” I said.

Dragon’s suit once again came to a stop at the edge of the roof, as it had when it had delivered Miss Militia.  It turned sideways, and the body opened, revealing my lawyer, looking more stressed than I’d seen him, in the midst of a rather compact cockpit.

Mr. Calle accepted Miss Militia’s offered hand in stepping down to the rooftop, and seemed to relax the instant his feet touched solid ground.

“Whoo,” he said.  “Never let it be said that my job isn’t an adventure.  You’re well, Ms. Hebert?”

“I am.”

“You haven’t made any deals?”

“Nothing permanent.”

“Good.”

Dragon touched my shoulder.  When I turned her way, she set her fingers in my hand, pulling me after her with the light contact of two of her fingertips.  Gentle, easy to avoid, but clear enough.

I followed as she led me to her hovering Dragon-craft, Mr. Calle a step behind me.  Mr. Calle had longer legs than I did, but he was the one who hesitated at the gap before stepping into the open cockpit.

Once I was on board, Dragon reached over to the wall and opened a shallow drawer, no more than three inches deep.  The drawer opened with a noise like something from a science fiction movie.

I stared at the contents.

“How?” I asked, and all of the confidence was gone from my voice.  “Wait, nevermind. You’re fu- you’re tinkers, damn it.”

Mr. Calle stepped up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder in an uncharacteristic need for some support.  He looked down.  “I take it we’ve reached something of a consensus here?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said, from the rooftop.

“Then it seems I need to draw up some paperwork,” Mr. Calle said.  “For formality’s sake, if nothing else.”

“Do it in five minutes,” Miss Militia said, from Defiant’s side.  “We’re out of time.  The media’s here.”

“Five?”  Mr. Calle seemed momentarily pained.  “Paper, fast.”

Dragon handed him a sleek keyboard, pointing to a screen.  He started typing.

“I’ll credit you this, Ms. Hebert,” my lawyer said, as he typed away, tabbing to different windows to draw up pages he could copy-paste from.  “You manage a great deal of grief and chaos in very short spans of time.”

Chevalier had arrived, and stepped into the cockpit.  Gold and silver armor, his cannonblade resting against one shoulder.  He briefly clasped hands with Defiant.

I stopped tidying my hair long enough to take the stylus from Dragon, scribbling my signature on the offered pad.  Others were already present – Miss Militia’s and Defiant’s.  The Chief Director’s signature appeared as the document was signed from a remote location.

“You’re ready?” Chevalier asked me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“But you’re willing?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I rubbed my arms, then  zipped up my prison-issue sweatshirt.  “Has to be done, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not pretty,” he said.  “There’s a lot of ugliness in this.  But yes.  This gives us the best chance.”

I nodded.  I still had Miss Militia’s phone.  I dialed Tattletale.

Yo?

“Turn on the TV,” I said.  “And call them off.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” I said.  No, I thought.

I hung up.

All together, we stepped out of the cockpit and walked around the craft.

The Wards were here.  Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Crucible, standing on guard.

Rounding the corner, we approached the open street where the crowd of reporters waited.  Television cameras shifted to focus on the reporters announcing our arrival, or to follow us as we walked.  Tripod-mounted lights cast shafts of light across the road, all converging on one point, the makeshift stage – the flat ledge of the Dragon-suit’s wing, five feet off the ground.  Voices bubbled around us, a million questions, almost a singular noise.

Chevalier stepped forward, and they simultaneously drew quiet.  He had a presence, a kind of nobility that garnered respect.

“Today, not two hours ago, Alexandria was killed.”

I could barely see the reporters past the massive lights that were shedding light on the stage, on us.  They were solemn, focused on every single word.  They didn’t even flinch at the news.  They’d already known.

“Alexandria was a veteran among capes.  She was one of the first capes, one who was present for almost every major catastrophe in the last twenty years.  With every challenge she surmounted, she reaffirmed our belief in her, showed us how strong she was, how impervious and noble she was.”

He lowered his head.  I resisted the urge to fidget.  This was showing live, to homes across America.

On a rooftop nearby, capes teleported in.  Other capes, flying, were touching down on top of a news car.  Dovetail, with Sere beside her.

“If that was it, this would be hard enough,” he spoke.  “But she was a mythic figure in her own way.  She was a living symbol, recognized across the world.  She was a leader among us.  She was a friend to some of us.”

I sensed rather than saw Eidolon, hovering well above the reach of the lights.  Legend was close too, though less intent on hiding.

I steeled myself for what came next, willing myself to stay calm, to not give anything away.

“And she was a traitor.”

That garnered a response from the news reporters.  Shouted questions pierced the silence that loomed in the wake of Chevalier’s words.

He continued.  “When Alexandria was slain, earlier today, it was done by individuals standing on this stage.”

Every word carefully chosen, so it was technically or at least partially true.  Alexandria was a traitor, with her involvement with Cauldron, she had been slain at the hands of someone on the stage.

“There are individuals out there right now, who have kept quiet about recent events.  Only last month, there was an event in this city, a threat that was theorized to be a nascent Endbringer.  In the wake of that event, Alexandria was revealed to be partially responsible.”

The reporters, I noted, were deathly still.  Deer in the headlights.

Good capes,” Chevalier said, “Burdened by conscience, walked away from the PRT.  Without them to serve as our backbone, we were left gutted.  There has been rampant speculation on what has been going on within the PRT, on what might have caused so many capes to abandon it.  We –they– couldn’t speak because Alexandria held a position of power, because she was purportedly invincible, unassailable.  Because of the threat she posed, and the resources she had at her disposal.”

Others were joining the crowd of reporters.  Civilians, returning now that the blockades had been taken down, maybe going home, only to see the scene, the heroes in the spotlight.  They clustered, or parked at the periphery of the crowd, getting out of their cars.

How many millions were tuning in right this moment?

“Some of us left, because their consciences couldn’t bear serving a corrupt power.  Others, many of us on the stage included, stayed, because we felt the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards program and the teams that draw on us for resources were too important.  I’m not here to say one decision was better than the other, or to lay blame with those who sided with her.  In coming weeks and months, our capes, accountants and lawyers will be meeting with anyone and everyone in a position of power within the Protectorate program or the PRT, ensuring nothing of this scale occurs again.”

Something moved into my range.  An insect.  Large.

Atlas.

I moved him experimentally, and felt how incredibly weary he was.  His reserves of energy were drained, his body dying.  His forelegs touched the walls around him.  He’d been placed in the back of a van.

And the occupants of that van – bugs entered open windows to make contact with the others.  Lisa, Brian, Alec and Aisha.  I could hear the echo, time delayed by five seconds, as they watched Chevalier speak on a tablet PC.

 “Alexandria betrayed us on a fundamental level, and the whole cape community has felt that.  The public has felt that.  I urge people not to blame her.  She had no less than eighteen fights against the Simurgh.  We had been led to believe her powers rendered her immune, but she was clever enough to hide and alter the evidence.  She was a victim, and it’s a testament to her character that she fought off the Simurgh’s influence for as long as she did.”

And there’s the first egregious lie, I thought.

With luck, nobody would believe anyone that was callous enough to point it out.  Nobody would want to believe them.  It was an ugly thought, that Alexandria could be twisted to act against our interests just because of who she was.  She’d worked with Cauldron, had experimented on humans, all in the interest of… what?  Creating powers?  Selling them?

I swallowed hard.  I knew what came next.

“It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.”

Chevalier reached out, put a hand on my shoulder.  He drew me closer to him, until I stood in front of him and he had both hands resting on my shoulders.

“Many will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.”

And now half the world hates me, I thought, staring forward.  The glare was so intense I thought my eyes might start crossing.  And the other half… I don’t know what the other half thinks.

I’d agreed to share ‘credit’ for the kill, but only because there had been a consensus that people wouldn’t believe it if I took sole responsibility.

Chevalier wasn’t speaking.  I saw a red light go on at the corner of my collar.  The microphone Dragon had clipped there was live.  The signals would be received by all equipped, official cameras.  Something the PRT had arranged for convenience’s sake some time ago.

I had a chance to speak in my own defense, in front of countless tens or hundreds of millions of eyes, and the words were dying in my throat.

My thoughts were grinding to a standstill.  What was I supposed to say?  We’d barely had any time to prepare.  We hadn’t had time to prepare.

There were whole lines I was supposed to give.  Ideas I was supposed to express, striking the right tone, and I’d gone blank.

I couldn’t defend myself like this, even with rehearsed lines.

Chevalier rescued me.  He spoke, his voice clear.  “This isn’t a happy day.”

It was a reminder of what my line was supposed to be.  I’m not proud, I’m not happy that it came to this…

“It’s not a happy day, but it’s a good day,” he said, skipping ahead two or so minutes.  “It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.”

Dragon’s ships descended from the sky above.  My hair and the hood of my sweatshirt flapped as the vessels landed to either side of us.  Eleven vessels.  The ones we’d destroyed had been rebuilt, updated.  Others, old Dragon suits, had apparently been set up with A.I. to fly on their own.  They gleamed, various shades of chrome and gunmetal, with trim in different metals and colors for decoration and highlighting.

She had more made, I thought.

“A chance to fight Endbringers without as many casualties,” Chevalier said.  “And hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency.”

I stared at the van where the Undersiders were.

“And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.”

His hands dropped from my shoulders.

I reached up to the zipper of my sweatshirt.  I pulled it down, then shrugged out of it.  Chevalier took the piece of clothing in one hand.

I bent over and stepped out of the loose-fitting prison sweats as well.

Defiant handed me my new mask, and I pulled it on.  Electric blue lenses, the opposite of the yellow I’d worn before.  They helped with the glare, though they weren’t so good against it as my old lenses.

Light gray fabric where I’d had black.  Armor panels in the same dark gray as before, albeit with cleaner lines, less bulk, and less in the way of edges.  I had no points at the tips of my gloves, and both the mantle around my shoulders and the cloth that hung around my belt were marked with an electric blue border, with my gang emblem in miniature at each corner, flipped upside down so they faced skyward, altered to match my new color scheme.

“I admitted to reprehensible things,” I said.  “I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.”

I paused.  For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d forget what to say again.  Then I fixed my eyes on the windshield of the van, at the far end of the crowd.

It struck me that I hadn’t suffered stage fright.  It had been something else entirely.  I hadn’t wanted to speak, because there would be no going back.

When I finally spoke, I didn’t follow the cues I’d been given.  My eyes didn’t leave the spot where the Undersiders were watching from.

“I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable.

“Except there are bigger things.  More important things.”

The eyes and cameras on me made me feel like I was deep in the ocean, a crushing weight pressing down on me.

“I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.”

A lump welled in my throat.  I knew I didn’t have many more words left before I wouldn’t be able to speak.

“This is what I want to do, above all else,” I said, and I said it to the Undersiders.  “Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-“

A howling in the distance interrupted me.

Moments later, others took up the cry.  Ten dogs, then twenty.  Others took up the cry around the city, from various shelters and homes.  A hundred, two hundred dogs, and the wolf cub that had started them off.

“-When and if I do take up the job,” I finished, speaking around the growing lump in my throat, “You can call me Weaver.”

Chevalier set a hand on my shoulder.

“That’ll be all,” the hero said.  “We’ll have another statement and a conference to answer questions early tomorrow, when we know more for sure.”

The reporters were already calling out questions.  Is this the first time you’ve recruited a villain?  How did Alexandria die?  What crimes did she commit, exactly?

More questions, until it was a jumble.

He led me away, one hand steady and firm on my shoulder, and Miss Militia, Defiant, Dragon and my lawyer fell into step behind us.

I cast one last glance at the van, then entered Dragon’s ship.

“You stumbled,” Defiant said.  “Improvised.  But that was good.”

I didn’t respond.

“You know you can’t stay here.  There’s a conflict of-“

Dragon reached out and pressed an index finger against the ‘mouth’ of his mask.

Then she folded her arms around me.  She was cold to the touch, hard and unyielding, but she still managed a motherly embrace.

My face pressed against her shoulder, I found myself glad that my mask hid my face from view.

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Cell 22.4

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I watched my dad’s expression change.  “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said,” Tagg said, “Peace of mind.”

“Let’s get started,” Alexandria said.  “I believe I’m fully up to speed, unless Director Tagg has agreed to any deals or made any concessions.”

“Sadly, he hasn’t,” my lawyer said.

“This is common knowledge?” my dad murmured to me.

“Since roughly ten days ago,” I said, not taking my eyes off the woman.  She was looking at me like Tattletale sometimes did.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make this the focus of our discussion.  You wanted to be on board, I presume.  You had to be informed, so you understood exactly what it means when I make a threat.”

“You’re planning to make threats?” I asked.

“Threats is the wrong word,” she said.  “But English is a limited language in some ways.  There’s really no word to articulate what I mean.  A threat with a measure of inevitability to it.  A promise?  Too feeble.  People break promises too often.  A curse?  A malediction?  Too… magical.  An oath?  The connotations are wrong.  When I say I’ll do something, I make it happen.”

I didn’t respond.  Mr. Calle did.  “You seem rather confident.”

Overconfident?  I imagine I seem that way.  It doesn’t matter.”

I studied her, “When you say you’re going to do something?  What is it you’re doing?”

“Putting an end to this nonsense, for one thing.  The PRT, flawed as it is, is my legacy, and I truly believe that it saves lives, or I wouldn’t try to protect it.”

I’m trying to protect it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “But the timing is wrong.  Things are too fragile at this moment.  It won’t do.  We’ll arrange this discussion for another time, weeks or months from now, when things have stabilized.”

“I… don’t think it works that way,” I said.

“It does.  Truth be told, I’ve relinquished all authority.  I’m serving under the new Chief Director, and I’m carrying out his instructions, between the times where I’m instructing him in the particulars of his job.  Alexandria, however, remains with the Protectorate, having given her notice that she quits within the week.  She’ll continue as a solo operative.”

An operative for Cauldron, I thought.  I didn’t say it aloud.  Best to let her dictate what information was acceptable to mention aloud.  And she refers to her costumed self as someone else entirely.

I could see the confusion in my father’s face, the dawning realization of how far in over his head he was.

“So you’re following orders,” I said.  “That’s the worst and scariest excuse in the world, really.”

“It’s a reality,” she said.  “When you’re dealing with organizations as big as these.”

“And it’s also a reality that you’ll have people at the top who don’t understand how things work on the ground, giving orders that don’t jibe with reality.”

“You’d be surprised at what I’m capable of understanding,” Alexandria told me.

“You’re forgetting about the Undersiders.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t forget anything.  Your team is now my bargaining chip.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “How’s that?”

“It’s twenty minutes to six.  I’m not in a particular rush, and I actually enjoy the idea of some field work.  We can talk for five minutes, and then have ‘Alexandria’ remove one of your teammates from the field.  Depending on the situation, I will either arrest them and take them to PRT offices in New York and Boston, or I’ll kill them.”

I could feel my blood run cold.

“After, we can talk for another five or ten minutes, and then I will, again, depart to dispatch one of your teammates.  I expect that by the time the sun sets at eight thirty, the Undersiders will be either dealt with or so neutered that they aren’t a consideration.”

“You’re talking about killing teenagers,” my dad said.  “Without a trial?”

“I’m talking about self-defense, if it comes down to it.  Tattletale can see through weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leverage mine in the spur of the moment, but I won’t rule anything out.”

I stared at her.  “You’re willing to go this far, yet you couldn’t bring yourself to show up to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Or Echidna, when she first showed.”

“There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Tattletale, you mean.”

“No.  Tattletale was only a small part of it,” she said.  “And it should be obvious that the rest isn’t up for discussion.  Three minutes and forty-five seconds.  Negotiate.”

“You mean you want me to make concessions.”

“I’m saying I’m willing to hear you out.  Convince me.”

“You’re underestimating my team.”

“And now you’re referring to them as ‘your team’.  I thought you left.  You committed to this idea of yours, did you not?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.  But as much as I may be underestimating them, I find that others underestimate me.  Strength, durability, flight.  It doesn’t lend itself to much imagination, does it?  Yet others acknowledge me as one of the strongest heroes in the world.  ‘Cape geeks’ debate my effectiveness, protesting that I’m only seen as powerful by association with Legend and Eidolon.  Do feel free to interrupt me if you want to talk about more concrete things.”

I would have, if I could have thought of something to say.

“My reputation isn’t so different from yours, Taylor Hebert.  It’s a reputation that was forged.  There have been fifty-six Endbringer attacks in the last nineteen years.  I have personally participated in forty-nine of them, and in each fight I’ve attended, I’ve been in the thick of the fighting, personally trading blows with the abominations.  The creatures know me.  They know how to fight me, and I know how to fight them.  Yet I’m still here.  Strength, invulnerability, flight.  Those are my core powers, but my other power is greater.”

“Other power?” my dad asked.  “I remember.  When you started off… you explained the reason for your name.”

“A reference to the burned library of Alexandria.  It’s been mythologized as that era’s sum of human knowledge.  I am much the same.  I think faster, I think more easily.  I know martial arts and I remember everything that crosses my path.”

Miss Militia reacted to that, giving Alexandria a look I couldn’t interpret.

She went on.  “I would say I am one of three or four people in this world who truly understands what is going on.  I don’t have all of the answers, and there are some riddles in particular that we’re desperately seeking to unravel.”

We, of course, being…” I said, trailing off.  It wasn’t a question.  Something about the gravity of the word made my dad look at me, startled.

“I won’t discuss the others.  I’ve been disconnected from my former partners, so it’s a moot point.  A debatable point, to use the true meaning of the word.”

I saw a possible piece of leverage and grasped for it, “If you need answers, then we’re the last people you should be attacking.  Tattletale can offer input.  Leave the Undersiders in place, and they can work with you where necessary.  Treat me fairly, and I’m sure Tattletale will play ball.”

“There’s two problems with that offer,” Alexandria said.  She stood from her seat and adjusted her suit jacket, then turned her attention to her cuffs.  “First of all, I believe I mentioned that there’s only a small number of people who truly understand what’s going on.  We haven’t shared this information.  Why?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“This isn’t a riddle.  It’s quite simple: we don’t want people to know.  And we don’t want people to know for good reason.  Having Tattletale off leash with all of the information she might discover is a dangerous prospect.”

“She’s not that unpredictable.”

“But it’s not a variable we can afford to have in play.  As I’ve said, things are fragile.  Which brings me to my second point.  There’s no reason to leave her here if we can bring her into custody and use her freedom or probationary freedom as leverage to obtain her talents.”

I frowned.

Alexandria glanced at Tagg, “It’s time.  Five forty-five.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.

She was at the door, waiting for the guard to open it, when I called out, “Tattletale won’t listen.  She’s too rebellious, wants to be the smartest person in the room.  If you force her, she’ll sabotage you, or she’ll just make you put her in the Birdcage, having her here, it’s the only way to get her help.”

Alexandria paused, then looked back at me.  “That will do.  Information I can use, that changes how I’ll respond to this particular confrontation.  I don’t agree, but we can discuss that after.  I’ll target one of the others in the meantime.”

The metal door slammed shut.

Miss Militia stood.  “I need some fresh air.”

She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t even look at anyone as she made her way to the door and knocked for the PRT guard to let her through.

“Everything she was talking about,” my dad said, “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“This is what I’ve been living,” I said.  “This has been my day-to-day.  My friends and I, facing terminal risk, facing down monsters like her, like Alexandria.”

“She’s one of the heroes.”

“Yeah,” I said, meeting my dad’s eyes.  It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d been able to cling to that basic idea.  The image, as I’d heard it phrased, of the heroes, of the Triumvirate.  It had been Armsmaster who instilled the seed of doubt in me, as far as the heroes went.  “Do you think she’s that heroic, now that you’ve met her in person?”

“No,” he said.  He looked troubled.

Shit.  I was stuck in a box while one of the scariest heroes around was going after my friends.  I’d expected retaliation, had told Tattletale to expect it, but this was… I hadn’t expected Alexandria.  She wasn’t even supposed to be with the PRT.  Eidolon, we possibly could have dealt with.  Or Tattletale could have.  Even Legend, possibly.  Alexandria was something else.  The heroic equivalent of a cruise missile.

There was Grue’s power, Imp’s power… did Alexandria have the ability to see through it?

Alexandria was taking her time.  She’d said ten minutes, but she wasn’t in a hurry, making her way out of the building.

“You know, now,” I said.  “After the Echidna incident-”

I could see Tagg stiffen, kept talking, “-Stuff went down.  Alexandria was outed as head of the PRT, other secrets came to light.  You know the PRT is supposed to be led by non-capes, there was scandal, and now the PRT is falling apart.”

“I see,” my dad said.  “Other secrets?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.  “And Tagg would be exceedingly upset if I shared.”

My dad frowned and stared down at the table.  “I believe you.”

I nodded.

Alexandria had found an alley and promptly took to the air, zig-zagging between buildings and flying with enough speed that people couldn’t follow her with their eyes.

“My phone isn’t working,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have you warning them,” Tagg replied.

“I’m offended at the implication,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have her warning them either,” Tagg replied.

Warning them.  I needed a way to contact my team. Cells wouldn’t work.  A land line?  An unoccupied office… Tagg’s office would do.  My bugs made their way there.

Too small to affect anything, to press a key on the computer, even if I could see the screen.  Too small to transmit a message of any sort.

I needed a larger bug.  There were larger beetles and cockroaches outside.  Everything else had been wiped out by Kid Win’s drones.

I could see Mr. Calle and Tagg watching my dad and I, looking between us.  “What?”

Mr. Calle answered, “I’ve represented a lot of supervillains.  I can count on one hand the ones who had parents show up at their trial, let alone pre-trial.  When they did show up, half of them were a nightmare.  Bambina’s mother, for example, all of the worst aspects of a showbiz parent, but the kid’s a vandal and a mass murderer.  Don’t even get me started on how toxic that dynamic was.  You two are civil with one another, at the very least.  That’s… something.  Hold onto it.”

“Hold onto it?” Tagg commented, from the opposite end of the table.  “I think you’re forgetting your client’s circumstances.”

Again, interjecting himself in between my dad and I.  Driving in wedges.  I felt a momentary urge to do something painful to him.

I couldn’t rise to the bait, though.  I had to channel the anger.  Bugs were finding their way through vents and down hallways, spreading out so the two or three remaining drones couldn’t eradicate them.

Others clustered on Tagg’s phone.  Silk allowed multiple bugs to effectively ‘grip’ the phone handle.  Larger bugs found their way under the base of it, wedging their bodies beneath as the pull on the cord tilted it.  A little bit of progress, driving in the wedge to make sure the phone didn’t simply fall back into place.

“You’re going to jail, Skitter,” Tagg said.  “And if you’re very, very lucky, it won’t be the Birdcage or a death sentence.”

“She’s a minor,” my dad said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Calle sighed.

“Look at me, Tagg,” I said.  “You said you weren’t going to underestimate me.  Do you really think I’m worried?  Do you think I would have surrendered if I didn’t have confidence that I’d be able to manage?”

My dad was staring at me.

“No,” he said.  “I think you have a number of plans in the works.  But it doesn’t matter.  Alexandria can out-think your plans, counter anything your Tattletale throws at us.

His phone handset fell from its perch, clattering across the keys before it fell from the desk, swinging.  I could see the flare of light on the phone, marking that the line was active.  I hoped there wasn’t a secretary who’d notice.

I flew the largest beetle I had into the number pad, driving him into the number five.  The bugs on the mouthpiece heard a sound I took to be the answering beep.

Five again.  Second number in the sequence.

Not hard enough.  No beep.

Five again.

Seven numbers.

The message that came through was odd, rhythmic somehow, though I couldn’t make out the words.  A recording.

I had to dial an outside line.

Eight numbers this time, starting with… Nine.  It took a full minute to hit the buttons.

Nothing.

Eight numbers starting with eight…  No.

Seven.

The call went through.  I got a response.

Please be Lisa.

I tried buzzing out words.  It didn’t feel like enough.

So I retired the abused beetle and set to using cockroaches.  My bugs felt the indents of the characters on the number pad.

Two, five, three, nine, two, six…

The voice interrupted me.

The number of syllables was right.  She understood.  The numbers each corresponded to three possible letters, and each number pressed on the phone generated a different sound.  Anyone else might have struggled, but Tattletale picked up on it right away.  ‘Alexandria’.

I could only hope it helped.  A little forewarning, at best.

Still couldn’t make out words that followed.  The filter of both the phone and my bugs was too much, and I couldn’t begin to guess where the speaker phone button was.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using it in case someone stepped into the office.  A phone being off the hook was far better than a voice talking to nothing.

“You meant it, when you said they were your friends,” my dad said.

“We’ve been through thick and thin.  They saved me, in some ways.  I’d like to think I saved them.”

Tagg snorted.  I ignored him.

“They did… bad things, didn’t they?” my dad asked.

“So have I,” I said.

“But you’re willing to martyr yourself for them?”

“No,” I said.  “I didn’t come here to be a martyr, I had other hopes.  But… things didn’t work out like that.  It’s down to secondary goals… and if those fail, then I’m willing to go to jail for their sakes.  Not just my friends.  The people in my territory, and maybe just a little, everyone.”

I looked at Tagg as I said that last word.  He gave me a dirty look, then more or less turned his attention to his phone, watching me with one eye while texting with one hand.

“Everyone?” my dad asked.

“We can’t lose the next Endbringer fight,” was all I could say.

“No, I don’t imagine we can,” he said.

That was something he understood in full, even if he didn’t know the particulars.  The Endbringers were something we all understood.  A fact of reality, something that touched everyone, struck a chord of fear in cape and civilian alike.

My heart sank as Alexandria appeared.  She plunged past the cloud of bugs that had collected over the roof, into an opening aperture in the ceiling.  She passed down a shaft that ran parallel to the elevator, and into the Wards’ quarters.

From there, she reached the elevator and made her way up to the cells.

Alexandria rejoined us in the cell, virtually the same, though her hair was disheveled, her suit jacket folded over one arm.  She laid it across the back of Miss Militia’s empty chair and stayed there, leaning on the back of the chair that was bolted to the floor.

Noting Miss Militia’s absence led to me double checking on her.  She was on the roof.  No, I couldn’t count on anything from her.  I’d hoped to have one more piece in play, but she was leaning over a railing at the edge of a helicopter landing pad, staring out over the city.

Alexandria had to be my focus.  She was staring at me, scrutinizing me.  I met her eyes, and she locked hers onto mine.

“I’d thought Tattletale had figured it out…” she paused, “But no.  You told them.  You have an open line of communication with them.”

I shrugged, thinking of Tagg’s phone, with the handset still dangling over the edge of the desk.

Wished I could hear her response.  What had happened to my teammates?

“Let’s take five minutes more to talk.  Then I’ll take care of another of the Undersiders.”

“Another?”

“A PRT van will be along shortly.  I wanted to keep to my time commitment, so I sent a truck.”

“Why should I say anything?” I asked her.

“Because as long as we’re talking, I’m not out there, taking your team to pieces, and you have a shot at passing them information.  It gives them time to recuperate and strategize.  Five minutes gives them time to make a getaway, or contact help.  I imagine you arranged for backup.  Hired mercenaries to help break you out if this went badly enough that you faced jail without getting anything you wanted or needed.”

I set my jaw.

“I know the general value of the properties you acquired, the proposed value of it.  Your team would spend it.  Ninety two million dollars, spent on hired soldiers, hired parahumans.  That’s only your liquid assets.”

I didn’t reply.  I set to typing the next message on Tagg’s phone.  K-N-O-W-S-A-B-O-U-T-M-E-R-C-S

She straightened, removing her hands from the back of the chair.  “If you’re not going to say anything, I might as well go now.  You’re rather partial to Grue, aren’t you?  Or should I take Tattletale out of the picture?”

“We can talk,” I told her.

“Excellent,” she said.  She stepped around the corner of the table and sat in her chair, opposite me.  “Do you need anything?  Water?  Coffee?  Soda?”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Calle?  Mr. Hebert?”

Two refusals.

She removed her phone from her jacket pocket.  “Forgive me for using this in the midst of our discussion.  Chevalier is likely to become the head of the Protectorate once the Triumvirate has departed, and he’s insisting that I keep tabs with him, what with the scandal and all.  I’d show you, but that would be a breach of confidence.”

She smiled, as though at a private joke.  The smile didn’t matter to me.  It was the way her eyes didn’t leave me.

“You’re cold reading me,” I said.

“Cold reading?” My dad asked.

“Tattletale does it too.  Mixes details she knows with ones she doesn’t, with very careful wording and a bit of an edge with her thinker powers.”

“Mm hmm,” Alexandria said.  She typed expertly on her phone, almost absently.  “I know you’ve probably got someone in the lobby or outside, receiving coded messages.  I know about the mercenaries.  More mercenaries than I implied.  I expect Tattletale called in favors.  Probably not the Irregulars, but I didn’t read that.  Simple logic.  They wouldn’t work for you.  I know that you’re still feeling confident, but not entirely so.  If you were very close to breaking or very, very confident, you would have accepted my offer of a drink.  And I know that your bugs can’t see computer screens.”

Was she bluffing on that last part?  Did it matter if she was?  I could refuse, play some kind of trick, and she’d see right through it.

“I could make some noise about my client’s rights being trampled, a lack of consent to that kind of analysis,” Mr. Calle said.

“But you know the law doesn’t apply here.  We’re in a gray area, up until the moment we decide to press charges and set this into motion, or you decide to force the issue.  But neither of us want that.  For now, this is… somewhere between her being in our custody and us having a friendly chat.”

My lawyer glanced at me.  I frowned.  “Yeah.  So long as she doesn’t start grilling me.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Calle said.

My head turned as I sensed the truck arriving.   Bugs clustered to it as it found a spot at the side of the building, PRT uniforms moving their target on a stretcher.  My bugs shifted position, tracking what they were moving.  The white mask, the curls, the shirt, with a tightly woven fabric beneath… a spider silk shirt?  It was Regent, unconscious.

The bugs moved, tracing down the length of his arm.  It was broken in two places, virtually zig-zagging.  His leg was the same.  I caught the words ‘medical’ and ‘doctor’.  ‘Tranquilizer’.

“He’s arrived, I take it.” Alexandria said.

I nodded tightly.

“The paradigm has changed,” Alexandria said.  “In… two minutes and thirty seconds, I go and dispatch another of your teammates.  I’ll hear concessions, offers or relevant information, and I’ll adjust my methods and the severity of my attack where appropriate.”

“This is extortion,” my dad said.

“She makes the process easier for us, we make it easier on her and her friends.”

I frowned.  “That’s still extortion.”

“Two minutes and eight seconds,” she said, not even bothering to deny it.  She had the same habit as Tattletale, of knowing the time without looking at a clock.  “They’re going to be running, now, trying to throw me off their trail.  I’ll find them.  I can study the environment, I’ve studied the case histories and I know where they own property.”

Another alert I needed to give.  I was still typing in the last one.  The cockroaches weren’t strong enough to hit the keys with enough force, so it was more of a case of having to leverage the key down through the combined efforts of several larger roaches and carefully arranged silk.

I grit my teeth, trying to focus on the spelling while keeping track of what Alexandria was saying.  Started on the next message.  X-K-N-O-W-S-P-R-O-P-E-R-T-I-E-S

“You’re backing me into a corner,” I said.  “Backing them into a corner.  Someone’s bound to snap.”

“Most likely,” she said, and there wasn’t a trace of concern in her expression.  It was almost eerie, how little she seemed to care.  Was that her passenger at work, or was she simply good enough at what she did, comfortable enough in her invincibility, that she’d grown able to shrug off the insignificant things?

I shook my head.  “I’m not making concessions.  The terms I gave still stand.  If you want to discuss the reasons behind-”

She was already getting out of her chair.

“-behind why I made the demands I made, we can.  I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

“I’ve heard this,” Alexandria said.  She donned her suit jacket, buttoning it up in front.  “Read it, rather.  I’ve thought about all the permutations and unless you’re willing to change tack or tell me something I don’t know, there’s no point to this discussion.”

She walked to the door and knocked.  While waiting for the officer to open the door, she turned, “One last chance to offer me something.  Any detail I can use, things to watch out for.”

Bitch, I thought.  Her power, it screwed with her headShe can’t relate to people.  She doesn’t understand facial expressions, body language or our social constructs.  It’s all replaced by dog behavior. 

Grue.  Post traumatic stress.  He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like being confined, or the dark.  But he’s stable otherwise.

Information that could be used to protect Bitch, protect Grue.  To keep a bad situation from getting worse.  It felt like it would be a betrayal anyways.  It was an eerie reversal of the rationalization I’d done back at the bank robbery, on my first job as a villain.  Telling myself that terrorizing the hostages was for their own good.

But I couldn’t bring myself to betray them on that level.  Not to people who trusted me.

And she was gone.

I grit my teeth.  I looked at Calle, but he shook his head.

Tagg reached for his phone, where it sat on the table.

Long minutes passed, as Tagg texted and I sat in anxious silence.

“You said you’ve worked with cape families,” my dad spoke.  It took me a second to realize he was talking to Calle.

“Yes,” my lawyer answered.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

“I was just about to step outside, call some colleagues.”

“Oh.”

“After.  Unless you want to join me?”

“Isn’t it better if she isn’t alone?”

“Everything’s recorded.  Short of her being threatened with serious bodily injury or death, I don’t see a problem.”

My dad cast me a look.  I nodded.

He left with Mr. Calle.

“You and I,” Tagg said.

I folded my arms as best as I was able, then leaned forward to rest my head.  Not worth giving him the benefit of a conversation.

The table shook, and I briefly looked up, only to see Tagg setting his feet on the metal surface.

He took his time getting comfortable, and kicked the table several times in the process.

When I set my head down, he started humming.

He’s trying to get to me, I thought to myself, for the Nth time.

They were bullies.  Tagg and Alexandria both.  They were the equivalent of the older child picking on the kindergartener, or the adult picking on the child.  They had power to throw around that I didn’t, they had freedom, liberty, the power of choice.  They wanted to punish me, to put me off-balance for their own ends.

Just… bullies in a grander scale.

I simultaneously felt like I understood Tagg a little more, and a little less.

Mr. Calle answered a ton of my father’s questions, big and small.  About things I’d thought were common knowledge, like trigger events, and more specific, grave matters, like the prospect of my receiving the death penalty.  When he’d exhausted each of those questions, he asked about other things.  Smarter things, like the degree to which he might be able to stand up to Alexandria or Tagg, about how he could work with Calle to throw them off-balance, and signals to arrange a plan of attack.

My dad, entirely out of place, out of his depth, confused and utterly unarmed, fighting to get up to speed, in the hopes that he could do something to help.

It was a step forward.  A small step, but a step forward.

Tagg stood, approaching me, then leaned on the table just beside me, so he loomed over me, not speaking, invading my personal space, denying me the ability to rest or relax.

And my bugs, in his office, continued punching away as best as they were able.  Me, communicating with Tattletale, unable to hear her response, straining to hear some sign of the violence.  Had they split up?

Regent’s arms and legs had been set, and he lay on a bed identical to the one I’d had, apparently tranquilized.

I was the target, the mastermind, the one they were trying to break.

Alexandria only took six minutes.  She arrived by the same route, only she held a girl this time.  A hard mask with horns and slanted lenses that tapered into points at the corners, a skin-tight bodysuit.  Imp.

Alexandria had found a way around Imp’s power.  Or her mental powers had overridden them.

One more body in the cells.  One more Undersider down.

Alexandria found her way back to the cells before my dad and my lawyer did, accompanied by Miss Militia.  Alexandria grabbed one of Kid Win’s active drones from the air and tucked it under one arm like a football as she made her way down, and held it up as she visited the cell where they were checking an unconscious, tranquilized Imp.  Every bug was eradicated by the mist that appeared, leaving me utterly blind.

I didn’t see her again until she opened the door and joined us.  She was drenched, her hair soaked, swept back away from her face, and the makeup that had hidden the seam of her prosthetic eye had been washed away, leaving a conspicuous line in place.  Miss Militia looked grim and very dry beside her.

“They fought back?”  I asked.

“A firehose, and a cape with a water geyser power.  They tried to drown me.  It didn’t work.  Others have tried the same thing, in many different variations.  Old hat.”

A cape with water generating powers?  The Ambassadors.

She looked around, “Your lawyer?”

“Out,” Tagg said, not looking up from his phone.

“I suppose it would be bad manners to talk to you while he’s occupied,” Alexandria said.

I didn’t reply.

“Well, five minutes before I go again.  If this is a delaying tactic, it won’t work.”

“Read my face,” I said, “It’s not a delaying tactic.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “I’m keeping to a schedule.  Roughly half an hour at a time, collecting one Undersider with each excursion.  I told you I’d hold off on collecting Tattletale, so I’ll save her for last.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

Tattletale was still periodically speaking into the phone, while I typed out letters.  She’d stopped talking as much when I’d typed out a few words to let her know I couldn’t understand.  No, her focus right now would be on arranging her remaining forces, handling what she could, dealing with Alexandria.

“I’d like to stay,” Alexandria said.  “May I sit?”

“If you want,” I said.  I gestured towards the chair, best as I was able with the cuffs.

“Excellent.  So cooperative.”  She sat down.  “And we can talk?”

I nodded mutely.

Alexandria, a bully, believing herself untouchable.  I felt a grim sort of loathing stirring in the depths of my gut.

“My terms, to you.  You surrender.  The Undersiders receive no amnesty, but I let captives go, with all required medical care.  They fend for themselves from here on out.  Tagg remains in position.  He’s here for a reason.  Miss Militia is promoted elsewhere.  With the fall of the Triumvirate, we need a new core group.  We can market it.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“It’s what I’m offering.  And you… provided you cooperate fully, giving us all the information we desire on you, your histories, and the Undersiders, we put you in juvenile detention.  Two years, followed by a long probation and acknowledgement that any conceivable violation of that probation will be counted as a third strike and cause for sentencing to the Birdcage.”

My dad and lawyer were just arriving.

“What’s this?” Mr. Calle asked.

“Skitter’s hearing my revised terms,” Alexandria said.

“And?” Mr. Calle asked.

“They want me to turn myself in.  I get virtually nothing, except the prompt release of the Undersiders she’s picked up and a stay in juvenile detention until I’m eighteen.”

I could see my dad’s eyes light up.  He saw this as a way out, when he was seeing just how deep we were in the midst of this.

Which broke my heart, in a way.

“And your thoughts?” Mr. Calle asked.

“No,” I said.  I looked at Alexandria.  “No.”

“This isn’t the sort of offer that stays on the table,” she said.  “If you want to push this further, we could keep the Undersiders.”

“You need the Undersiders,” I told her.  “You need someone on the ground, keeping the real monsters out of the city.  You need us, so don’t pretend you’re really going to keep them.”

“There’s other options,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Because even if there wasn’t that security, no.”

“That’s a disappointment,” she said.

“You wanted compromise, Skitter,” Miss Militia said, “But you’re asking for the impossible.”

“I’m asking for the improbable,” I said.  “But it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it was easy.  Alexandria isn’t asking me to meet her halfway.  She’s threatening people I love.”

“From teammates to friends to people you love.”

I grit my teeth.

“I don’t blame you,” she said.  “I loved Hero.  I loved Legend, and Eidolon, and Myrddin.  I know what it means to pass through hell together, to take a desperate breath for air, to clutch for clarity of mind, and help each other find the briefest of respite in the little things, only to plunge into that hell once more.  The little jokes, the familiarity, the gestures and small kindnesses, they count for a lot, when you’ve been through what we’ve been through-”

“Don’t compare us,” I cut in.

“-and you learn to look past their faults.  The little evils,” she said.  “And they learn to look past yours.”

Miss Militia gave Alexandria a curious look, then turned to me, “The offer, it’s the most reasonable one we can give you.  It’s generous, considering all you’ve done.”

“It’s not enough,” I said.  “Until my team has amnesty, I can’t back down.  I can’t abandon them to fight lunatics like Tagg and Alexandria the second I’m gone.”

“That’s what you want?” Alexandria asked.  “Amnesty, release for captured teammates, and a sentence to juvenile detention?”

My dad reached out, taking my hand, a silent plea.  Saying everything without doing me the disservice of interjecting.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.  I could trust my teammates to hold their own.  I could… I could find my way.  Two years made for such a small length of time.  It… it would mean I was in custody when Dinah’s deadline came.  But maybe that was what she’d wanted.  For me to be somewhere secure when it all started.  I couldn’t rule it out.

And all it would take was for me to do what I’d done for so long before I had my powers, for months after I’d had my powers.  To capitulate, to let go of my pride.  To let them win, those people who wanted to use their power, their prestige and superiority against me.

My dad squeezed my hand, hard.

“I named my terms,” I told Alexandria.  “I trust my teammates, and I trust that they’ll win where it counts.  No.”

I met Tagg’s eyes, and my voice was a growl, “And if you fucking hurt another hair on their heads, I’ll see you pay for it.  Like Lung, like Valefor, and if it comes down to it, I’ll come after you like I did with Butcher, and Coil- Calvert.”

I directed my glare at Alexandria as I said that last part.

“You’re admitting-” Miss Militia started.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t all know,” I said.

I felt my dad’s hand drop away from mine.  I might have met his eyes, to take in the hurt and the pain that came with seeing who I really was, but I wasn’t willing to break eye contact with Alexandria.

You can read facial expressions?  Read this.  Know I’m telling the truthKnow that I’ll take you apart, given the slightest excuse.

I was pressing the keys on the telephone before Alexandria had even stood from her seat.  Another warning that Alexandria was en route.

She stood, wordless.  There was no negotiation, no offer for leniency, and I didn’t ask for either.

I could only hope.

In a matter of minutes, she was gone, flying away.  A third mission.  A third hunt.

Bugs found their way through vents to Regent, but Imp’s cell was sealed tight, no doubt due to the Stranger-class precautions that had led to the note being pasted on her cell door, notifying the PRT of the special precautions.  It didn’t matter.  Regent was still unconscious, and Imp was likely to be as well.

Grue, Rachel, Tattletale and Parian.  Flechette too, if it came down to it.

Flechette… could she hurt Alexandria?

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have answers, couldn’t get them.  I could only wait, keeping my bugs out of the way of the drones that Kid Win had finally recharged.

“You had a way out,” Miss Militia said.

“You said you understand me,” I told her.  “That you had insight into who I was as a person, now that you knew my history.  If that’s true, you understand why I had to say no.”

“For your sake.  Because of what you’ve been through.”

“And because of them.  They’d never forgive me if I betrayed everything they helped me become, because I didn’t think they could fend for themselves.”

“And me?” my dad asked.  “I know it’s asking a lot.  I failed you where it counted.”

“Dad-”

“And maybe it’s selfish, to want my daughter, when you’re talking about things on this scale…” he said, pausing as if he was going to follow that with an argument.  But no argument followed.

And I couldn’t give him a good response.

Eight minutes passed.  I could count the progression of time on the clock hands, when I dared let a bug pass through open spaces.

Nine minutes in, I could see Tagg suddenly tense, lines in his neck standing out as he read the newest message on his phone.  He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

The PRT van arrived before Alexandria did, this time.  The PRT officers took their time before they finally emerged.

Restless, I shifted position.  My forearms were digging into the table where the cuffs held my arms in front of me.  Leaning forward made my back hurt.

They opened the back of the van, and there were no precautions this time.  Their weapons were holstered, and they didn’t stand in any particular formation.

The only thing in the back was a single body bag.

Back pain forgotten, I went as stiff as Tagg.  I drew more bugs in to get a better picture of the scene.

They took a different route this time, using their phones to make their way through the various doors and checkpoints.  They entered the attached building.  A small hospital, or a special office with medical facilities.  It didn’t matter.

And they made their way to the morgue.

The size of the bag… it couldn’t be Lizardtail.  He was too large.  Was the wrong size and shape to be one of the dogs.  That left only three real possibilities.  A PRT officer, Rachel, or Brian.

I closed my eyes, clenched my hands.

Then one of the PRT officers who was escorting the body said something, and others laughed in response.  It was one of those rare moments I could discern tone, and it wasn’t a kind one.  That was enough for me to know it wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t a civilian.

Metal clicked as they unlocked the heavy clasps and locks that were likely meant to prevent any parahumans from getting up from the dead.

They unzipped the bag, and lifted the body onto the drawer.  The drawer slid into the recess, the lid was closed and locked.

I didn’t want to know which of them it was.  I couldn’t. Whether it was Brian or Rachel, it didn’t matter.  Neither of them would get up from the dead.  They weren’t so lucky.

I stared down at my hands, and I felt myself go cold, my thoughts crystal clear, singular.

“Taylor,” my dad murmured, so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Yes?”

I sounded so calm, like an entirely different person was speaking.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered.

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t really think of anything else to say.  He was right.  My fingers were trembling.

I looked at Tagg, to see if he’d heard or if he’d noticed.  No indication, but his hand was close to his gun.  The text he’d read… he knew.  He probably wasn’t aware he was doing it, but he was ready for a fight to erupt any second.

Miss Militia’s hand wasn’t, but I could read a tension in her, as she exchanged words with Calle.  But then, I suspected she could draw faster than Tagg in virtually any circumstance.  Or maybe she wasn’t as ready or willing to deal out violence as Tagg was.

Then I had to lower my eyes, to hide the tears that were welling.  Needed just a few moments.  Just a few more seconds.

Alexandria arrived the same way she had after her last two excursions, through the hole in the roof.  With the speed she moved, she didn’t risk being spotted.  Even photography wasn’t in the cards.

With the speed she moved, she didn’t seem to notice the bugs that followed after her as the aperture began to close behind her.

She got as far as the Wards HQ before she stopped and the bugs had a chance to catch up to her.

As though I’d thrown a javelin, they speared right for her nose and open mouth, the fastest moving bugs I had at my disposal, and spiders.

She was invincible, the flesh inside her throat untouchable.  The flap that kept food out of her lungs kept the bugs at bay.  At first.  They bound themselves together, spiders fixing themselves and others to the inside of her throat with adhesive.

As strong as she was, air didn’t move past the mass of bugs that filled her mouth, as they fought to move into positions where they could block her throat.  She coughed in an instinctive attempt to dislodge them.

Even with super strength, even with a diaphragm like hers, the coughs didn’t remove every bug, and the greedy gasp of air allowed those who remained to find their way inside, filling her lungs.  They were just as impervious inside, but the bugs arranged themselves side by side, forming a layer that blocked the flow of oxygen to the membranes of the lung itself.  Spiders drew out silk, filling gaps.

If she could choke, if Leviathan saw submerging her in water as a viable tactic, if Tattletale saw fit to try to do the same, then I could drown her in insects.

The Wards were watching, realizing what was going on.  Clockblocker ran, pressing a button for the alarm.

And in front of me, Tagg moved, drawing his gun.  His voice was a roar, “She knows!”

A thread caught it before he could point it at me, and it fell to the ground.

With each entry that had been made into the interrogation room, barring the one where she’d used the drone in Imp’s cell, I’d brought more bugs inside.  Spiders, hornets, black widows, brown recluses and more.

I’d warned him.  He jumped as he felt the bites.  Shouted as hornets found the soft tissues of his eyes, his tongue and eardrums.  Black widows and brown recluses found crevices.

Miss Militia moved too, but the silk I’d used only bound her hand, didn’t serve to stop her.

“Taylor!” my dad’s voice sounded so far away.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t let the bullies win again, I thought.  That I’d stop the monsters.

But the thoughts sounded disconnected, false.

No, this was revenge.  Something simpler than any of that.

Miss Militia raised a gun, pointing it at me, where I had my head bowed, hands still chained in front of me.  My dad was shaking me, but I wasn’t a hard target to hurt.

And my bugs weren’t hurting her.  Weren’t touching my dad, or Mr. Calle, who was backed up into a corner, trying to make as much distance from me as he could.

She didn’t shoot.  Her gun clattered to the ground.

“Taylor!” she called out, as if she could reach me that way.  “I’m not going to shoot, but you have to stop!”

“Not a promise, not an oath, or a malediction or a curse,” I said, sounding calm, probably inaudible in the midst of Tagg’s screaming.  “Inevitable.  Wasn’t that how she put it?  I told them.  Warned them.”

Alexandria, in the basement, still choking, drowning on dry land with lungs full of dragonflies, spiders and cockroaches, soared.  She flew through the closed barrier in the roof, and debris showered down on the Wards who’d approached her, wanting to help but finding themselves unable.

In moments, she was out of my range, too high in the air.  I wasn’t sure it mattered.

And Tagg- Tagg was staggering towards me, roaring something incoherent, chewing and spitting in a feeble attempt to remove bugs from his mouth.  His tongue was likely swollen already.  The black widow venom would take effect soon.

He tried to push my dad out of the way, and my dad blocked him, shielding me with his body.

Tagg kicked my father hard enough to drive him to the ground.  The Director was still shouting, nearly blind.  He gripped me by the hair and slammed my head down on the table, hard.

I saw stars, felt tears welling out freely, as if the dam had finally broken.

Blind, writhing in pain and a struggle to get the insects off him, Tagg still managed to hold me down as the PRT officers burst into the room.  They had darts like the one that Shadow Stalker had kept in her crossbow, jammed one into my neck.

I had only the chance to think of how they’d just signed Tagg’s death warrant, that my power would work while I was unconscious.  I could have rescinded the order in the last moments.  I didn’t.

And then it was only darkness.  Oblivion.  A false kind of death.

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Cell 22.3

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The door slammed shut as the last of the heroes departed.  They joined the PRT uniforms and Wards who had gathered just in front of the elevator, leaving me and my lawyer to talk in private.

It should have been quieter, but things got more disruptive.  The moment the door was shut, a handful of seconds passed, and then everyone started talking.  Mr. Calle saying something to me, Director Tagg talking to his deputy and Miss Militia, Clockblocker talking with his teammates.

“This is more or less what we expected…” Mr. Calle was saying.

“Call him.  And let me know when he arrives.” Director Tagg, talking about my dad.

“She wanted to defect,” Clockblocker told the waiting Wards.  “Join Defiant and Dragon, go hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine…”

“You created pressure with the deadline, he’s trying to turn it around on you…” Mr. Calle said.

“I know he’s trying to turn it around on me,” I said.  I slid forward until I was sitting on the very edge of the chair, my elbows on the table, forehead resting against my hands.  “I didn’t think he’d be this stupid, and I kind of hoped someone would speak up, give a little momentum to what I was proposing.”

“People are stupid,” Mr. Calle said.  “The question is how we can use that.  If we-”

Some heroes simultaneously began to voice their thoughts, to the point that I failed to take any of it in.  It was too much.  Too much input, all together.  I couldn’t track it all.  I shut my eyes.  “Do me a favor?”

“You’re the client.”

“Five minutes,” I said.  “Five minutes to think, with some quiet.”

“Would pen scratches bother you?”

I shook my head.

Mr. Calle didn’t reply to that.  Instead, he started writing on a pad of yellow, lined paper, apparently unconcerned that I’d just brushed him off.

“…a hot button for her,” Mrs. Yamada was telling the Director.  “It’s a pattern, with the timeline we established.  Something happens to her father, and she escalates.”

“Yes,” the Director replied.  “But let’s not talk about that here.  Not while she could be listening.  We give Kid Win’s drones a chance to check us over before talking about any of that…”

“Hunting the Slaughterhouse Nine?” Vista was asking.  The Wards were lagging a short distance behind the adult members of the PRT and Protectorate.

“Yeah.  As in, step down from her position here, stop the guys who are supposed to end the world,” Clockblocker said.

“She didn’t kill any, did she?” Kid Win asked.

“Grue supposedly killed Burnscar, Piggot killed Crawler and Mannequin, they killed Cherish themselves, basically, Vista finished off Shatterbird after things caved in on them at the Echidna fight… no, Skitter didn’t kill any, I don’t think.  She was there, though.  Have to give her credit, she made a difference in that last fight with Mannequin and Crawler.”

“Which doesn’t matter,” Tagg said.  He’d overheard, it seemed, and stopped at the open elevator door.  “Because she also wanted us to condone criminal activity in this city.  Think about what that really means.  Your careers would be dead in the water once people caught on to the fact that you weren’t going after the real threats.  You’d be known for being corrupt.  Flechette’s actions threaten to taint this organization for some time to come..”

“Wait, wait,” Kid Win said, “Flechette?”

“We’re telling them?” Clockblocker asked.  “It’s confirmed?  It’s not a trick?”

“It’s not Regent,” Miss Militia said.  “The timing doesn’t fit.  No, it doesn’t look like it’s a trick.  She sent us an email and the details include only things she knows.  It feels right.”

There was a pause.

“What happened?” Crucible asked.

“Flechette is stepping down from the Wards program.  She is going to be assisting the Undersiders in the future, helping Parian,” Miss Militia said.

“No!”  Vista said, raising her voice.  “No!  She became a villain?  What… what the hell!?

“Vista,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in love.”

“She was still one of us.  Did you do something?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, until Tagg responded, “No.  We didn’t do a thing to her.  Everyone that’s been in Brockton Bay over the past weeks and months has dealt with a lot, and I think this is her wrestling with something on her own.  I have immense respect for Flechette, and all I can do, all we can do, is hope she comes to her senses.”

“What about her parents?  Her family?”  Vista asked.

“I can’t talk about anything my patients discuss with me in my office,” Mrs. Yamada replied.  “I’m sorry.”

“She came from a broken home,” Miss Militia supplied the information instead.  “She bounced between her mother, her father and the surrogate mother who had attempted to renege on the deal they’d made and keep her.  With the number of times she changed between them and moved, I can’t imagine she has strong ties to the idea of ‘home’.  Even within the Wards… New York has five small teams, and she moved between them as she changed residences.”

“She didn’t say anything about that.”

“It didn’t matter in the here and now.  Her focus, her path, was school, her career with the Wards.  She didn’t have much in the way of roots, but she had direction.  I think that the events following the Echidna crisis left her more devastated than she let on.”

“Can I call her?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” Miss Militia said.

“Do,” Tagg said.  “Remind her what she’s leaving behind, tell her how you feel, then let her be.  Too much pressure and she’s liable to be stubborn.  Give her time to think, and you may sway her.”

“Okay,” Vista said.

“When you’re done, join the others in discussing battle plans.  I’d rather not wait for Skitter’s forces to strike.  If it comes down to it, we mobilize first.”

“We’ll be fighting Flechette,” Vista said.

Tagg nodded.  “Very possible.  If you don’t feel confident you can do it in good conscience, then I won’t make you.  In the meantime, I’m requisitioning capes from nearby areas.  If it comes down to it, I want to be ready for a fight.”

“And if they don’t give us the chance?” Miss Militia asked.

I missed Tagg’s response.  It was monosyllabic.

“If the Undersiders try to avoid direct engagement and attempt to come at us from another angle?  Media?  Revealing telling details?  Financially?  Through our families?”

“Oh shit,” Clockblocker said.

“They wouldn’t, would they?” Crucible asked.

“They would,” Kid Win said.  “Probably.”

“They would,” Director Tagg agreed.  “And I already have ideas in mind.  This situation is far from unmanageable.  Rest assured.  I’ll need to make some calls.  Miss Militia, are you up for another walk?”

“Yes.”

Tagg stepped into the elevator, holding the door open.  It was too small for everyone to fit inside, but Miss Militia, the deputy and Clockblocker joined him.

Mrs. Yamada started to step inside, then paused while standing in the doorway.  “I’ll be in my office all day.  If any of you need to talk about Flechette, or anything else that’s going on, come see me.”

There was no reply.  There might have been nods, but I didn’t have bugs on top of any of the Ward’s heads.

The doors shut, and a few seconds passed, Kid Win, Crucible and Vista standing in the hallway with a handful of PRT officers.

“Fuck,” Vista said.  “Fuck this.  Fuck you, Skitter, if you can hear me.”

I waited to see if there was more, but neither she nor her teammates said anything.  The drones Kid Win had made were doing a number on my bugs, catching me by surprise when they opened fire with lasers, striking from the other side of the room.  It wasn’t easy to avoid them completely, when an exposed bug could get zapped, but keeping my bugs in hiding prevented me from seeing the drones themselves.

Miss Militia left the building, walking.  She wasn’t quite out of my range when she made her first call.

“Mr. Hebert?”

I sighed, then shifted position.

“Everything alright?” Mr. Calle asked me.  “Needed to get centered?”

“Was listening in,” I said.

“Listening in?”

“I can hear what my insects hear.  Tagg is confident.  He’s calling in more capes, and preparing for a fight.  He’s apparently not too worried about the Undersiders pulling something that isn’t a direct attack, but I don’t know what he’s got in mind, as far as trump cards go.  Miss Militia is apparently calling my dad, so Tagg can talk with him.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Calle said.  “Anything else?”

“The Wards are upset over Flechette defecting.”

“Okay.  Something to keep in mind.  Now, this is difficult to say, but-”

Mr. Calle paused very deliberately.

“What?”

“I would never recommend my clients do anything illegal,” he said.

“But you maybe suspect that if I had any leverage, I should exercise it?”

“I would never say any such thing,” Mr. Calle said.  He smiled.  “But now that you mention it…”

“There are options,” I said.  I thought about the areas of attack that Miss Militia had outlined.  Family would cross a line.  Something to shake their confidence in the coming conflict.  “Can you pass on a message?”

“That would be a mistake, I think.  I walk a fine line as it is, and I won’t have a hand in anything direct.”

I frowned.

“Let’s talk about what I can do.  First off, I think we should change things up.  As it stands, the Protectorate East-North-East holds Brockton Bay in a specialized state of emergency.  It’s a legal wild west, with very little precedent holding things together.  Director Tagg reports to his superiors, who report to the United States government.  This circumvents a great many of the usual checks and balances.  Checks and balances I think we should put back into play.”

“How?”

“Contacting the District Attorney and bringing her to the discussion would tie Tagg’s hands, but it would also tie yours.  We’d be working entirely within the law, certain items would be taken off the table.  You couldn’t ask for condoned villainy, for example.  Charges would inevitably move forward against you, but these same things would tie him up in managing things.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it.”

“It depends.  It’s… pressure.  The Director is focused on a half-dozen things at once.  There’s a lot to be said for putting one more thing on his plate.  I know he’s not trained in the particulars of law.  He’d be forced out of his depth, made to consult others, made to wrap his head around terms he’s not familiar with.  It would mandate that you, as a minor, would need a guardian present.  Failing that, there’s a great many hoops they’d have to jump through.  He’s a soldier.  So long as this is a battlefield of some sort, he has a leg up.  We can make it something else.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’d be adding pressure, turning things around so he’s the one on his heels, but I’m still not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  Other options?”

“Media.”

“He doesn’t care about image,” I said.  “He said he figures it’ll get patched up with good PR in a matter of time, a few days back.”

“It won’t hurt him as badly, then, but he’s more likely to make a mistake if it’s not something he pays attention to.”

“An option,” I said.  “It sets a bad tone, though.  I’m really looking for cooperation.  I’m putting everything on the line in the hopes of getting it.  I don’t want them to be enemies, not any more than they are.  And I don’t know that just talking to the media is going to be enough to get the results I want.”

“It isn’t, frankly.  Are there points you’re willing to compromise on?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Because he’s not willing to meet me halfway.”

Mr. Calle rubbed his chin.  “Okay.”

“So we need leverage, and it can’t be legal.  Going to the District Attorney or the media has drawbacks.”

“Yes.”

“Then I need you to get in contact with Tattletale.  Only we’ll be above-board, mostly, about how we handle it.  She’s been arranging things for a while.  Now it’s time to figure out just how much clout she has.  We’ll hit them with the biggest card we have.  We’ll make a play for ownership of the portal.  Successful or not, it’ll distract them.”

“I’ll do what I can to get in touch with her, then.  My firm’s assets will be at your disposal, of course.”

I nodded.

He stood from his seat to make the call.  Apparently he didn’t find them much more comfortable than I did.  He paced as he waited for the phone to ring.  “Cecily?  Need you to pull some strings.  And route me to someone, best if it’s untraceable.”

It wouldn’t be a direct call.  That didn’t make sense.  I focused my attention elsewhere in the building.  The outlet that fed Kid Win’s anti-bug drones… I found the wiring in the walls and ordered cockroaches to start chewing through it.

Petty, maybe, but I didn’t want to be disarmed, not with the way things were going.

The heroes were returning, Sere and Dovetail entering the lobby.  I planted bugs on Dovetail as she made her way indoors, and as discreetly as I was able, I transferred the bugs to Tagg and Miss Militia, who were waiting.

“They’re moving,” Dovetail said, “… soldiers.  Arming civilians.  Squads no larger than five people, across the city.”

“Good,” Tagg said.

“That’s all.”

“Tell the others,” Miss Militia said, “Adamant’s getting a cycle retooled to handle more weight before he leaves again.  He’ll go with Triumph.  Log it all in the system.”

“Will do,” Dovetail said.  Miss Militia patted her on the shoulder as she made her way inside.

Miss Militia and Tagg remained in the lobby, by the hallway to the elevators.  They didn’t say much.  A few words on degrees of lethal force, but no camraderie, not even much in the way of small talk.

My cockroaches found their way through the wire, and promptly died as they came in contact with the live circuit.  A breaker blew, but Kid Win didn’t seem to react.

Hopefully the drones wouldn’t get a chance to recharge.

A few minutes passed, as my lawyer got in touch with someone, and started talking about media contacts.  Then my father arrived.

I could sense him as he got out of a truck in the parking lot, making his way inside.

“Mr. Hebert,” Miss Militia said, extending a hand.

My dad shook it.

“Thank you for coming in again,” Director Tagg said.  He extended a hand.  Again, my father shook it.

“My office?” Tagg asked.

My dad nodded.

My pulse was pounding as Miss Militia, Tagg and my father entered the elevator and made their way upstairs.

“She’s here?” my dad asked.

“In a room downstairs with her lawyer,” Miss Militia answered.

“She hired him herself?”

“I imagine she did,” Miss Militia said.  “With the speed he pulled things together, I suspect she may have more working in the background.  Crime does pay, if she’s paying their salaries.  They’re apparently top of the line, as parahuman defense attorneys go.”

“I can’t believe this is all real.”

“It is,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s very real.”

“And very real blood will be shed tonight,” Tagg said, “If we can’t rein her in.”

Rein me in.

They exited the elevator and made their way to Tagg’s office.

“These,” Tagg leaned forward, and my bugs could hear something move.  “Are the charges as they stand.”

I didn’t sense it, but my bugs could hear papers rustle.  I might not have identified the sound if I hadn’t had the context.

A few long seconds passed, and I could hear the rustling again.  The turning of a page.

I clenched my fist.

“Problem?”  Mr. Calle asked, covering the mouthpiece of his phone.

“My dad’s here.  They’ve got him in Tagg’s office, and they’re filling him in on their version of events.”

“Right.  Let’s put a stop to that.  I’ll be back.”

Phone still pressed to his ear, he picked up his briefcase, tapping on the door three times with the side of his shoe.

A PRT uniform unlocked and opened the door, and my lawyer strode out.  It shut behind him.

Upstairs, my dad turned another page.

He was reading through it all.  All the details I’d gone over with my lawyer, only without my feedback, without my voice to point out the places where they were going a little overboard, naming charges they could throw at me, without checking whether they could stick.  Not that the difference was that big, comparing what I’d actually done to what they were accusing me of.

I heard the sound of him flipping through the last few pages before he dropped the pad on the table.  “Okay.”

“She’s in a lot of trouble,” Tagg said.

“This isn’t news to me,” my dad answered, his voice quiet.

“If the charges went through, she would face being charged as an adult.  The three strikes protection act wouldn’t mitigate things.  I’d say the worst case scenario is execution, or indefinite detention in the Birdcage, but the best case scenario for her isn’t much better.”

My dad didn’t reply to that.

“Her power means we can’t keep her in a conventional prison.  She’s too flexible, too versatile for us to use any of our current means of keeping her from using her ability.  Even today, contained in a cell, she’s been literally ‘bugging’ us to track our movements and listen in on conversations.  We had our tinker put together a countermeasure, but it’s not perfect.”

Again, my dad was silent.

“I have two daughters.  Four and six years older than Taylor,” the Director said.  “I can’t imagine.”

“I can’t either,” my dad said.  “Like I said, it doesn’t feel real.”

“I’d like you to come with me the next time I speak to your daughter.”

“She didn’t listen to me before, she won’t listen now,” my dad said.

“I didn’t ask you to come because I thought you could convince her,” Tagg said.  “You don’t have to say anything, as a matter of fact.”

What was he up to?

My lawyer had reached the top floor, and was striding between cubicles and desks.  He raised his voice to ask a question I couldn’t make out, and someone answered him.  He altered his course slightly in response, walked with more purpose, directly for Tagg, Miss Militia and my father.

“I’d like to talk to her alone,” my dad said.

“We can arrange that,” Tagg said.

I clenched my fists.  Using my dad as a pawn?  Damn right I was going to escalate.  Which, I suspected, was exactly what Tagg was aiming to achieve.  This was something to put me off balance, just like we were looking to do to him by way of leveraging control of the portal.

My lawyer knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a response.  “My client would like a word.”

“Of course,” Tagg said.  As the four of them exited his office and made their way to the elevator, I turned the two words around in my head.  Had he sounded sarcastic?  Did he simply expect me to interrupt?

I couldn’t say.  I could only wait as they made their way downstairs.  I was stuck, my back hurting where my arms were in a more or less fixed position.  I stood, stretched as well as I was able, tossed my head to one side in an attempt to get my hair out of my face.  When that didn’t work, I bent over and lowered my face to my hands to tidy my hair.

Then I sat, stewing in unidentifiable emotions.  Trepidation, dread, fear, guilt, shame, anger, relief… none I could put a finger on.

“Did you know?” Miss Militia asked.

“Me?” my dad asked, by way of response.

“Who she was?  What she was?”

“Yes,” he said.  I could feel alarm sing through me, inexplicable, but jarring.  Then he seemed to change his mind, “No.”

And the emotion that hit me at that was just as strong as that misplaced sense of alarm.

Damn Tagg.  Damn him for bringing my dad into this.

The four of them stopped outside of the cell.  Miss Militia used her phone to unlock it, and Tagg gestured for my dad to enter.

I saw him hesitate as he stepped into the room, dark sheet metal, a reflective pane of one-way glass, the metal table bolted to the floor, my handcuffs, locked to the table in turn.  Me, with my hair in some disarray, a touch damp from the shower and ineffectual toweling, from sweat, in my black uniform with the word ‘villain’ marked clearly across it.

I could see it, his expression changing, the disbelief he’d professed to becoming something else entirely.

His feelings were as mixed as mine.  I could tell just by looking at him, by imagining what he’d been through, the person standing by, dealing with the aftermath of everything I’d done.  His frustration, his confusion, pain, and embarrassment.  His loneliness, disappointment, his fear.

And, somehow, as though it were too much to bottle in, it seemed to boil over in the form of one singular emotion.  I could see his jaw shift as he clenched his teeth, met my eyes and looked away.  The sudden agitation that seemed to grip him, as he opened and closed his fists.

Tagg and Miss Militia had reached the interior of the room on the other side of the one way mirror, while Mr. Calle stood in the hallway, speaking on the phone.  I stood from the chair as my dad approached, his body language making it all too clear what he was about to do.  Miss Militia took one look and reacted, turning around to hurry back out of the room, to intervene.  Tagg said something, two words I couldn’t be bothered to decipher, and she stopped in her tracks.

My dad raised his hand, palm open, and I closed my eyes, lifting my chin to take the hit.

It didn’t come.  My dad wrapped his arms around my shoulders instead.  I squeaked, and I couldn’t say whether it was because he was squeezing me too tight or if it was because of an overflow of emotion similar to the one he’d just displayed.  I stood there, unable to return the hug with the way I was cuffed to the table, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

When minutes passed and we hadn’t exchanged a single word, Tagg and Miss Militia stepped out of the observation room, signaling Mr. Calle.

“Let’s talk,” Tagg said.

I broke away from my dad.  Blinked where there were tears in the corners of my eyes.  I didn’t care if Tagg saw.

“I’m waiting on a response from my colleagues,” Mr. Calle said.  “There’s no reason to speak further, unless you’re capitulating.”

“No,” Tagg answered.  “But I’d like to go over the main points.”

This was why he wanted my dad here, I thought.

“You’ve informed me that your teammates, many of whom are known murderers, are going to declare war against the PRT in three hours and twenty minutes, without word from you.”

My dad took a seat to my left, watching me carefully.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve described them as unpredictable.  They’re undeniably dangerous.  You think they’ll hurt people.  They’ll pull out all the stops, to get you back, and to hurt us.  The good guys.”

“Yes,” I said, not taking my eyes off Tagg.  “But I don’t think you’re a good guy, Director.”

“I don’t think you’re a good person either,” Tagg said, “and the court of public opinion is likely to agree with me before they agree with you.”

“Let’s not resort to name calling this early in the discussion,” Mr. Calle said.

“Right,” Tagg said, “It wastes time, and you have very little.”

“Neither of us want this to happen, Director,” I said.  “Neither of us have time, and neither of us want a war.  Except maybe you do.  Maybe you think you’d win, and it’d be a bump in the PRT’s ratings.”

“No,” he said, “I think, like any altercation, both sides would lose something.  But let’s talk about your terms.  You want amnesty for your criminal friends?’

I was acutely aware of my dad watching me.

“Yes,” I said.

“You want to depose me, raising Miss Militia to my place, and in the doing, force the PRT to relinquish all ideas of humans governing parahumans, to help keep those with incredible power in check.”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted me to allow you to become an official vigilante, leaving your group behind while you worked to hunt down psychopaths with powers.  I’ve explained why that can’t happen.  I’m not sure if you intend to change your demands, or-”

“I’ll go to the Birdcage if I have to,” I said.  “Because the rest of it, I believe in it enough to make the sacrifice.”

“Taylor,” my dad said.  The first words he’d said to me since the breakfast we’d had together, on the day I’d been outed.  “Why?”

“Because we’re losing.  We’re so focused on the little things, on petty squabbles and factions and vendettas, that we’re losing against the real dangers.  The Class S threats.  The fact that the world’s going to end in a year and eleven months.  Did you hear about that?”

He shook his head.  “I… I read the letter you left me, at Annette’s grave.  Realized it was probably what you were trying to write, the night you left.  Before you changed your mind.”

The night I left, so long ago.  When I’d first met Coil.

“A lot of what I did, it was to stop the man who really wanted to take over the city.  Who would have been far worse than any of us Undersiders.  And I did that because he had a little girl captive.  Dinah Alcott.  She could see the future, and she says the world ends in two years.”

My dad shook his head, “No.”

“Yes.  The heroes know it.  It’s a big part of why the PRT is falling apart.  You’ve heard about that on the news?”

“I… some.  But I haven’t paid much attention since I found out that you-”

“That I’m a supervillain,” I said.

He flinched visibly at that.

“Interesting,” Tagg cut in.  “That you call yourself that.  You say you’ve had justifications for what you’ve done, but you call yourself a villain.”

I wanted to hit him, for cutting into my conversation with my dad, for polluting my attempts to explain things.

“I am,” I told him.  “I’ve done bad things.”

“Left a trail of devastation in your wake.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I’m willing to pay the price.  I’ll go to the Birdcage, a place you described as a literal hell on Earth.  A place where people just as scary as the ones I’ve spent the last few months fighting stay.  A place where some of those very people are currently imprisoned.  Lung, Bakuda, Trickster.  They probably want to inflict fates worse than death on me.  But I’ll do it.  Because I really truly believe the world needs the PRT, or a PRT, one without lunatics like you in charge, and maybe bringing me in helps keep a handful more capes in the roster, keeps my friends secure where they are, so they can help.”

I was heated, my words angry.

“Your friends,” he said.

“My friends.”

“That’s the rapist, Jean-paul?  Alec?  A murderer.”

“Regent.  He was the son of a supervillain, screwed from the get go, and yeah, maybe some shady stuff went down, way back then.  I think he’s… not in love, but he’s close to Imp.  Somewhere between love and friendship, maybe.”

“Imp.  She’s the one who makes it a game, to psychologically and mentally torture gang members who step foot in her territory, until they have mental break downs.”

“Yes,” I said, through grit teeth.  “It’s more complicated than that, she’s been through a lot, but yes.  And I heard directly from people who were grateful to her for scaring off the real rapists and murderers.”

He didn’t pay me any mind.  “Who else is there?  Hellhound.”

“She prefers Bitch,” I said.  “But she’s Rachel to me.”

“Who had her monster dogs chew up innocents who’d gotten in her way.”

“It was a bad time for her.  Weren’t you just excusing Flechette, because we’ve all been through some shit?  I know Rachel as the person who takes care of wayward souls, grown men and children who are lost in a way even we can’t fathom, with the things we’ve been through.”

“And Grue?  Do tell me how you see him.”

“I liked him,” I said.  “If I’d stayed with them, maybe he and I would have tried to make it work.”

“Romance.”

I met my dad’s eyes.  His forehead was creased with worry.  My power was buzzing around the periphery of my consciousness.

I found refuge in the bugs, paid attention to their movements as they avoided the remaining drones, found my center, so to speak.  Calm.  He wants me upset.

“Romance,” I said.  “He was my rock, when I needed a rock.  And I was his, when-”

“When he snapped,” Tagg cut in.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“He was the stable one, until he wasn’t stable,” Tagg said.  “Until he killed Burnscar.  Yet I suspect he’s the one in charge, now that you’ve left?”

“Yes,” I said.  “And with the dozens, hundreds of people I’ve tried to take care of or whose lives I’ve saved, I trust Grue to look after them and keep the peace.  I wouldn’t give him that responsibility, with all the time and effort I’ve invested in them, if I didn’t trust him.”

“Very generous,” Tagg told me.  “And Tattletale.  Where do I even start?”

“With the fact that she was my best friend.  That she’s maybe our best bet at understanding what’s going on?  Understanding the Endbringers and what they’re doing?  Understanding powers?  Finding the Nine before they bring about the end of the world?  Understanding how the world ends?”

“All of this, from the girl who used her power to convince her brother to kill himself, before fleeing, spending years on the streets, stealing wallets and using the account numbers to take whole fortunes?”

“All wrong,” I said.

“And who planted the seeds that led to Panacea breaking down and mutilating her sister.”

“Those seeds were planted a long time before we talked to Panacea,” I said.

This was what Tagg had wanted.  He’d devastated my defenses, bringing my dad into this.

“Nonetheless,” Tagg said, leaning back.  “So, Danny Hebert, what do you think about your daughter’s friends?”

My dad glanced at me, then looked at the Director.  “I know less about them than either of you.”

“That’s not important,” the Director said.  “I just want you to answer one question for me.  Assume we’re both right.  Me and your daughter.  Assume that they’re everything we described them as.  Do you really want them in control of this city’s underworld?”

Again, my dad looked at me.

“No need to double-check with your daughter.  I’m wanting your honest opinion, as a man on the streets, from someone who has to live in this city without any real say over what happens in the cape-on-cape fights and politics.  Do you really want them in charge?”

“No,” my dad said.

I did my best not to show it, but the word was like a punch in the gut.

“I’m sorry, Taylor, but-”

“Are they really that much worse than the ABB?  Than Empire Eighty-Eight?”

“With them, we…” my dad trailed off.

“With them, we could pretend things weren’t bad!” I said, “But they were worse.  You know they were worse.  The people you worked with, the addicts, the people without money…”

“Does it matter?” Tagg asked.  “You don’t have your dad’s support, what makes you think you’d get anyone else’s?”

I grit my teeth.

“No,” my father said.

“Hm?”  Tagg raised his bushy eyebrows.

“No.  I think you’re wrong there,” my dad told Tagg.  “She has support.  When you attacked her in the school, there were people who stood by her.  If I’m being honest, I don’t get it, I don’t want those people in charge, but I don’t want any villains in charge.  I don’t understand the politics behind this, or the context, but I trust my daughter.”

“Of course you trust your daughter.  The curse of being a parent, I know it well.”

“You wanted my opinion,” my dad said, his voice a little firmer, “You get my opinion.  Others believe in her.  I trust her, even if I don’t know enough to follow what this is all about. Even if I barely feel like I know her right now, I can look her in the eye and know that’s the same girl I’ve spent the last sixteen years with.  With some of the worst qualities of my wife and I, and a lot more of the better ones.”

“I wonder how long that opinion will hold,” Tagg said.  “Because we have, what is it?  Three hours and a handful of minutes?  Then the war she set in motion hits this city.”

“It can be avoided,” I said.

“If we cave in to your extortion,” Tagg said.  “Except you think too small, Skitter.  It’s a common flaw among teenagers, however powerful they are.  They attend high school, and all they can see is the school, their peers.  Tunnel vision.  You’re the same.  You’re focused on this city, but you don’t see what happens elsewhere.  You don’t see the ramifications.”

“Which are?”

“You’d be strengthening the PRT a little in the short-term, but the long-term?  Letting villains take charge, taking the humans out of the PRT, condoning villainy?  It would doom us all.  What you’re threatening us with?  It’s only one fight.  And maybe it’s ugly, but it’s one fight.  If they kill us, if they become monsters of the Slaughterhouse Nine’s caliber to defeat us, then we win.  Your side wins the battle, loses the war.  If you don’t go that far?  If you leave us in a state to recover?  We pick ourselves up and we lick our wounds, and then we rebuild.”

Tagg cupped his hands, moving them as if balancing a scale.  “One fight, one set of casualties in one area of one medium-sized city, compared to consequences that reach across North America?  Across the world?  It doesn’t measure up.”

I glanced at my lawyer.

“You don’t have an answer for me?” Tagg asked.

“I have one,” I said.  I hope.

Mr. Calle looked at his phone, then gave me one curt nod.

“What?” Tagg asked.

“It’s in the news,” Mr. Calle said.

Tagg and Miss Militia simultaneously reached for their smartphones.  I was probably as tense as they were, as they thumbed past the security screens and found news sites.  Miss Militia was a few seconds faster than Tagg.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“It’s all legitimate,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.  Legal enough.”

“What is it?” my dad asked.

“Property,” I said.  “I expect a great amount of property just changed hands.”

“Who’s Sierra Kiley?” Miss Militia asked.

It was all I could do to keep from smiling with joy.  Of all the people to serve as a public face, Tattletale had found Sierra.  Someone I owed, in many ways.  Someone who’d, maybe, followed recent events and rethought her initial doubts.

“No idea,” I said, maintaining my poker face.

“I don’t understand,” my dad said.

“Quite simple,” Mr. Calle told him.  “I believe the PRT has become aware that properties in a wide area around the portal in downtown Brockton Bay, previously under the control of various individuals and groups, just exchanged hands, finding itself in the hands of one singular individual.”

“And that one individual is in thrall to the villains who control this town,” Tagg said.

“I resent the notion,” I told him, and I allowed myself a small smile.  “But it would be amusing, if it were true.  You might even have to rethink what you were saying about how narrow my worldview is.  I mean, that’s a whole other world.  Anything but narrow, when you think about it.”

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You’re playing out your hand.”

“And you’re bringing my family into this.  Remember how our little feud started?  You crossed the line.  You made the call to out me, because you wanted me in custody.  Congratulations, you got me in custody.  You broke the unwritten rules, because you think that you don’t have to obey them, since you aren’t a cape.  Except you’re forgetting why they exist in the first place.  The rules keep the game afloat.  They keep everything afloat, at the core of it.  We all know the PRT is a sinking ship.  You don’t agree with what I’m doing?  Fine.  But at least I’m trying to keep it afloat.”

“And you?” my dad asked.  It took me a second to realize he was looking at Miss Militia.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You’ve been quiet.  Are you here just in case my daughter turns violent?”

“No.  She’s not violent.  Not in that sense.”

“You don’t have anything to say?”

“As grateful as I am for the right to free speech,” Miss Militia said, “I’m grateful for the right to silence as well.”

“Then you don’t agree with your Director?”

“I didn’t say that.  What I’m saying is that there’s no right answer here, and I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make the decision.”

“Isn’t that cowardly?”  I asked.

“No.  It’s human, to not want to make the hard choices,” she said.  She raised one boot off the ground and placed it on the corner of her chair.  “And it’s good strategy to conserve your strength.”

“We’re not fighting,” I said.  “We’re not going to get tired.”

“Physically?” she asked.  “No.  Emotionally?  Mentally? Yes.”

“You’re anticipating the fight,” I said.  “You don’t think there’ll be a consensus in time.”

She shook her head, then used one hand to fix her hair, tucking it behind one ear.  “No.  I don’t think there will be a fight.  I hope there’ll be a consensus, but it’s not necessary.  Your ploys with the portal, controlling the territory around it, it’s clever, it’ll take a lot of time before we can pass legislation or conduct a thorough enough investigation to justifiably seize it.  But I’m not worried about that, either, nor am I concerned about the damage Tattletale could do in other areas.”

“Then why do you need to conserve your strength?” I asked.

“Because we’re dealing with the devil,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m angry at you, Taylor, and half of that is because you put us in this situation, a set of circumstances where we’re liable to lose either way.  Because I agree with the conclusions you came to, how the PRT is needed, the need for compromise, and because I can’t condone how you approached those conclusions.”

She shifted position, and the black-green energy of her flickered from her right hip to her right hand, appearing in her hand, amorphous and shapeless, as if searching for a form to take.  When she didn’t grasp it, it darted to her left hip, and the metal of a cutlass clinked against her seat.

“But I really hate you because we had to call her,” Miss Militia intoned.

Her?

Tagg looked at his phone.  “Assuming she’s on time, it’ll be less than ten minutes.”

“Her?” my dad asked.

“You’ve played your part,” Tagg responded.  “Go.  It’d be better in the long run.  Wash your hands of this, leave.  Your daughter’s in custody, she’s going to one prison or another.  You can go home and know that it was inevitable, and that this was the best outcome.  It takes a few years maybe, but you lament your mistakes, and you eventually make an uneasy peace with what happened to your daughter.”

“And if I stay?”

“You won’t have any of that peace of mind,” Tagg said, and that was all.

My dad looked at me, “I think you’re wrong.  Everything before this, it was the times where I thought I had to walk away, look away, times where I thought things were inevitable, that I regretted the most.”

He took my hand.  “I’ll stay.”

“Thank you,” I murmured the words.

Our guest didn’t arrive right away.  It might have been fitting, in a dramatic way, for her to appear as we finished our dialogue, but things weren’t so carefully orchestrated in the real world.

“Those things they said you did?” my dad murmured.

“Mostly true,” I said.

He squeezed my hand for a moment, but it wasn’t reassuring.  Something else.  Concern, maybe, channeled through a simple gesture.  Concern for me, for what I’d become.

I wanted nothing more than for my dad and I to talk for a month straight, just to hash things out, to form some kind of balance, some semblance of a connection like we’d once had.  Instead, there was only this, like the father-daughter relationship distilled.  Not enough communication, barely any familiarity, both of us flooded with very different sorts of fear, confusion, and frustration.  I imagined it was much like the bonds that had kept primitive families together in an era when living from week to week was a challenge.  Basic, crude, but almost primeval.

She arrived, minutes later.  A woman, tall, in a suit, carrying nothing with her.  I sensed her at the periphery of my range, walking with a steady, strong stride.

I was reminded of the Siberian, almost.  The way she moved with the confidence of the indomitable, the way that she was almost careful as she moved among people.  Except that where the Siberian was only careful among her teammates, this woman was careful with everybody.

It took her five minutes to reach us, walking through the crowds, using the pedestrian crossings.

But the person I found myself comparing her to, as she approached the PRT building, wasn’t the Siberian.  It was me.  She reached her home ground, and people started to recognize her.  They reacted, moving out of her way.  Showing respect.  Showing fear, in some cases.

Three of the Wards were in the elevator when it stopped at the ground floor.  Kid Win was taking his drone recharge station apart, which meant it was just Clockblocker, Crucible and Vista that crossed paths with her.

The Wards took only a moment to recognize her as she entered the elevator, and the two native Brocktonites left, pulling a protesting, confused Crucible after them.

In a matter of a minute, she was opening the door to the cell.  A woman, the sort who could be forty but looked like she was in her late twenties.  Hispanic, insofar as that was a descriptor, with darker skin and long, straight black hair.

But more than her description, the part of her that hit me was her presence.  Almost without thinking about it, I got out of my chair, standing, the chains of my cuffs pulling taut against the lock on the table.  My lawyer, Miss Militia and Tagg all stood, my dad a step behind them, bewildered.  The only one not in the know.

“Chief Director,” I said.

Deputy Chief.  I’ve stepped down from my position, but I still have to train my replacement,” she said, her gaze piercing through me.  I couldn’t even tell that one of her eyes was a prosthetic.  “And seeing to some leftover crises.  Hello, Ms. Hebert.”

She extended a hand.  As though driven to accept the handshake by a peculiar gravity, I extended my own hand and shook it.  Her firm grip could have pulverized me.  I might have been less intimidated if I were trapped in a small pen with an angry bull elephant.

“And Mr. Danny Hebert,” she said.  She shook my father’s hand.

Tagg stood from the chair at the table and moved over one left, leaving the seat for his superior.  “Since you’ve made up your mind about staying, you’ll need to know.  This is Deputy Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.”

My father nodded.  I was getting the feeling he was almost shell-shocked.  To find out about the end of the world, the situation his daughter was in, and countless other things, the name of this woman might not have even processed for him.

“Otherwise known as Alexandria,” Alexandria said, taking the chair opposite me.

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Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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Imago 21.7

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

I eased the door closed, then paused to let my eyes adjust.

Every window had the blinds closed and curtains shut over it.  The room was dusty, and needle-thin rays of light caught the flurries of specks, making them glow.

I grew aware of my surroundings, distinguishing dark gray shapes from an oppressive darkness.  A desk sat in the middle of the room, shaped like a ‘c’, with a cushy computer chair in the middle.  Four monitors were arranged at even intervals across the desk.  Beyond them, three widescreen televisions were mounted on tripods.  The walls and open spaces beyond the televisions, in turn, were filled with bulletin boards and whiteboards.

I glanced at my phone.  The last text I’d received was still displayed on the main screen:

the nearest keyboard to entrance.  don’ wander and don’t turn monitor on.  type WQtksDH2.

I followed the instructions, making my way to the desk, carefully angling my body so I wouldn’t touch any of the bulletin boards, and so that I didn’t bump anything with the loose fabric of my running pants or my backpack.  I didn’t want to risk using my bugs to check for obstacles, so I was forced to rely on my eyes alone, in this near-total darkness.

I found the keyboard, found the little nibs on the ‘f’ and ‘j’ keys so I could center my hand, and very carefully typed out the password.

A series of barely-audible ‘beeps’ sounded throughout the room.  What had I just disabled?  Claymores?

Did I really want to know?

Free of whatever safeguards that had been set in place, I turned on the monitor.  The faint glow lit up one half of the room, casting light on Tattletale’s costume in one corner, and the heavy metal door leading to her bedroom.

I found a dimmer switch on the wall and turned the lights up just enough that I could see.  The details on the bulletin boards became clear.  They were color coded by subject, but there were threads connecting elements, pieces of yarn tacked into place or held in spots with magnets.

I approached the nearest boards.  The set furthest to the left were each headed ‘Cauldron’, with subheadings, and had either green construction paper or words in green marker.  The board closest to me had photos of various capes, organized into forty rows and twenty-five columns, headed ‘Cauldron, unconfirmed’.  One-and-a-half inch by one inch images of various masks, their names penned in underneath.  Here and there, portraits were missing, presumably where Tattletale had found better spots for them.

So many capes.  It was startling really, and I was suspicious it was incomplete.  Was she planning on expanding that?

The upper half had sections marked for ‘likely’ and ‘confirmed’.  Many of the ‘likely’ capes had a series of letters and numbers by their name, five digits long: reference numbers.

There were only three ‘confirmed’ capes on the board.  Capes that had been more or less verified, through a combination of admission and Tattletale’s powers:  Eidolon, Alexandria, Legend.

Lines were drawn on the construction paper behind them, pointing to one portrait-sized rectangle of paper at the top, as though indicating a hierarchy.  It was blank, and the ‘name’ at the very bottom was only ‘Cauldron?’.

The back of the same bulletin board had ‘confirmed trigger’ capes and ‘Case 53’.  Each ‘trigger’ cape had a trigger event marked in pen below the name, along with the same series of letters and numbers by their name:  Jadeite: Post-brainwashing dissonance HSPuT.  Gethsemane: Lost family in war H2UXa.  Skitter: Bullying 9Zw3t.

The rest of the Undersiders were on that section of the board as well, but the trigger events had been left off.  Chances were good that she didn’t want prying eyes to dig up details, while my information was presumably public knowledge.

I walked across her setup, my hand trailing across the index cards and pictures as I walked, as though I could take in the information through touch.

Lengths of yarn connected the ‘Cauldron’ board to the PRT board, which was a whiteboard, magnets affixing index cards to specific areas.  A black piece of yarn extended from Alexandria on the ‘Cauldron’ board to the recently retired Chief Director on the ‘PRT’ board.  Black for a direct connection?  Yellow yarn extended from the Cauldron board to index cards regarding PRT funds.

The whiteboard held scrawlings of notes, musings and possibilities, some half-erased.  Degree of involvement with CauldronFunding: is PRT siphoning official funds to pay for powers?  Agenda?

It wasn’t reassuring.  The number of questions, the idea that the PRT might be far larger than I’d conceived.

I moved on to boards of a different color.  The red bulletin boards and whiteboards with red writing: Brockton Bay.  Potential threats: the Teeth, Red Handed, Heartbreaker, Lost Garden, Adepts, the Orchard, The Fallen.

Each was labeled with a code, much like the trigger events had been, and a letter-number combination after that.

It took me only a minute to find what they were referring to.  Things were organized beyond the initial veneer of chaos.  A small bookshelf, knee-high, held file folders with the same letter-number pairings as I saw on the bulletin board.  I picked one out at random.

Adepts.  Self professed magic users.  One page of information, listing names and powers.  Another page with the PRT’s information on them: a series of codes and symbols I didn’t quite follow, numbers inside colored circles, squares and diamonds.  From what I could gather, they had a low threat level, moderate crime rate, moderate ‘engagement’ level, low activity level.  Led by Epoch, a time traveler.

Fun.  I didn’t even want to think about the headaches that power would cause.

I put the folder away carefully, picked out another.  Lost Garden. High threat level, low crime rate, low engagement level and moderate activity level.  Leader, Barrow.  A powerful shaker, similar to Labyrinth, only rather more single-minded in what he did.  He couldn’t leave the altered area he created around him, only extending it slowly to an area while letting it fade behind him, an effect described as ‘a depression’ with overgrowth extending into the surrounding neighborhood.  Tattletale’s own notes in the file suggested he was making slow but steady progress towards Brockton Bay, and that he had been since the portal appeared.

I flipped through the rest of the file.  What kind of people gravitated towards someone like that?  Apparently a lot of very young parahumans, boys and girls around Aisha’s age, had gathered around the middle-aged Barrow.  A little creepy, when I imagined that collection of capes and the resulting dynamic.

I put the folder away, returned to the boards.  Brockton Bay had several more.  Money.  Planning.  Property acquisition priorities.  Property sales.  A whiteboard with the word ‘door’ written in red, circled and underlined several times, surrounded by question marks.

Who would own the portal?

A single blue-lettered whiteboard with pale blue index cards.  At the very top was the title, in bold black letters:  Powers: Source.

I looked at the index cards that were fixed onto the board with magnets.  There were no real answers there.  Only questions and theorizing.  It was Tattletale’s stream of consciousness distilled.

the whole?  pieces of greater puzzle but don’t know what shape it takes.  place person thing or something less concrete?  what are powers?  Mirror/extrapolation a consideration? is there link between there and here?

why?  power distribution aimless simple chaotic.  mistake?  something go wrong?  is this only part of something greater?  scheme or something more base?

why trigger events?  why go to trouble?  Connection to the source?  tied to something primal or some scheme?  simple or complicated?

what is deviation between cauldron and typical trigger?  was there leak to water supply from cauldron?  Parasite?  look into epidemiology.  prob not.  get someone’s story about process for getting powers from Cauldron for hints.

Who has answers?  if not thinkers then capes with closer connection to passenger?  PRT?  Cauldron?  S9?  other gov’ts?  what channels can I use to get these answers?  theft, coercion money goodwill barter?  have to set a value for an answer before raising idea with coil Skitter

I frowned and stepped away.

The last board, far right, was backed by black construction paper.  At the top, printed on white index cards in bold black letters: ‘End of the World’.

The board was disturbingly empty.  Jack’s picture was in the upper left corner with pieces of paper arranged below it, tracking everything that he’d done since he left the city.  Each piece of paper had names of known entities he’d interacted with in any direct fashion.  Sites the Nine had attacked, a string of small towns as they progressed in a zig-zagging fashion away from Brockton Bay.

Capes recruited to the group, capes slain.

The other three-quarters of that board were almost entirely clear, but for one index card in the upper-right:

limits to Dinah ability: can’t see accurately points of interaction with power immune capes, precogs, situ change Thinkers. Limited sight past points of interaction.  these are ‘stoppers’

Hartford: No known stoppers in area.
Enfield: No known stoppers in area.
Chicopee: No known stoppers in area.
Southbridge: No known stoppers in area.
Boston, Charlestown Area:  Yes stoppers, no direct interaction b/w any stoppers and Nine.  call to dble check with Still.  no interaction
Toybox: No known stoppers.

It made a lot of sense.  Tracking Jack’s trail of destruction from the point he’d left the city, finding the point where Dinah couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to see, using them to narrow down possibilities.

But the expanse of black on that board was daunting, considering everything that was at stake.

I made my way to the desk, set my backpack down on the ground, and took a seat in Tattletale’s chair.  I pressed the power buttons for each of the other monitors, and they flickered on.  Checking the drawers, I found a remote, and turned each television on in turn.

Two televisions dedicated to news, one to business, each on mute, with captions spelling out the words as the reporters spoke.

The password I’d entered had apparently logged me into the computers as a guest.  I kicked off my shoes and set my feet on the desk, as I’d seen Tattletale do, slipping into her shoes for a moment.

Everything was arranged so it was in clear view: monitors, televisions, bulletin boards.  Looking at the notes, the different colors, the disorder and the number of questions, it made me think of a kind of paranoid schizophrenia, seeing connections everywhere.  Except she was right.

Even logged in as a guest, I could see vestiges of the programs she’d installed on her main accounts: a stock ticker, a news ticker, weather, time, trending topics, social media feeds, several alert boxes for when pages relating to certain topics were updated or created.  Even the background was a series of four video feeds from cameras that overlooked Brockton Bay.

That was just what was worked into the desktop, with no windows opened.

The monitors flickered with new information at a speed that was two or three times that of the televisions, and the material on the televisions wasn’t exactly slow-paced.  The bulletin boards, conversely were static.  It was like a physical representation of what was going on in Tattletale’s mind.  Information streaming in, details from other sources intruding as I tried to focus on only one.  And always, there were the questions in the background, the same ones marked on the bulletin board.  Things to keep in mind while she took in other details, constantly seeking out the connections that tied things together.  Did she simply sit here, taking it all in, while using her phone and the computer to manage the Undersider’s business?

No small wonder she had overloaded on her power.

I opened up a browser window on the computer, logged into Parahumans Online.

Two new tabs.  A search for Skitter, a search for Taylor Hebert.

‘About 95,000 posts relating to Skitter.’

‘About 5,200 posts relating to Taylor Hebert.’

I sighed, closed the tabs, and then investigated the board for Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t anything I wanted to read.

I had checked most of the pages up to the halfway point on page two of the Brockton Bay sub-board when the heavy metal door clicked and opened.  Tattletale- Lisa stepped out, wearing an oversized t-shirt and pyjama pants.  My momentary confusion on how to define her was due to the fact that her hair was down, which I associated with Tattletale, while she was in civilian clothes, which was naturally fit for the name ‘Lisa’.

“Su- oh hell,” she broke off, recoiling in pain in the face of the dim lights and the glow of the various screens and monitors, shielding her eyes.

I hurried to reach for the dimmer switch, but she was already calling out a command, “System, lights off.”

The lights went out.

“System, screens off.”

The televisions and computer monitors went dark.

“Sorry,” I said, keeping my voice low.  “Thought you’d have recovered more.”

“Nah,” she said.  She still wasn’t opening her eyes, and was speaking with a care that suggested even the sound of her own voice hurt her.  I could see dark circles under her eyes.  She probably hadn’t slept recently.  “But no big.”

“You could go back to bed,” I said.

“No way am I missing this,” she said.  “My chair.”

I climbed out of the chair and turned it around so the seat was available to her.  She made her way there as if she were an old woman, eased herself into the seat and reclined, putting her feet on the desk.  One arm draped over her face so her eyes were hidden in the crook of her elbow.

“This setup… all of this is too much for you,” I said.  “You’re trying to handle too much at once.”

“Ironic,” she mumbled, “Coming from you.”

I took a seat on the edge of the desk.  “You’re bombarding yourself.  You should try to tackle one thing at a time.”

“Can’t.  I focus on one thing, I let others fall by the wayside.  Too many bases to cover.”

“Maybe you should let things fall by the wayside,” I commented.  “Is it so important to understand where powers come from?  Isn’t it enough to run the city, watch out for enemies, and maybe devote weekends to figuring out this business with Jack?”

She groaned.

“Sorry,” I said.  I was only giving her more cues and prompting involuntary uses of her power, making the problem worse.  Asking questions was cruel, with her like this.

“No.  No, it’s okay.  It’s all related.  I described my power as being like a massive, three-dimensional game of Sudoku, right?  Spaces get filled in.”

“Yeah.”

“This… if I get stuck somewhere, maybe there’s something on the periphery that helps me figure it out from another angle.  If I’m going to tackle the problem, I gotta tackle the whole problem.  Helps keep the facts straight.  Notice sooner when the wrong piece of information’s in a spot.”

“You forgot to note that Accord buys powers,” I said.  “Came up a little while ago, didn’t see them on the back of the green board.”

She put her feet down on the ground, as if she was going to spring up and make the necessary adjustment, then seemed to think twice about it.  She rested her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Index cards are on the shelf by the door.”

I got up and walked over to the shelf, fished around until I found the green index cards and a black felt-tip pen.  I wrote down, ‘Reminder: Accord buys powers from Cauldron to empower qualified underlings.  They don’t know much about process, but he will.’

I pinned it up in the ‘Likely’ section.

When I was done, I glanced back at Lisa, still resting her head in her hands.

I let a minute or two pass in silence, while she got her bearings.

“So,” she finally said.

“So.”

“Sorry I took so long to show,” she said.

“Not a problem,” I said.  “I enjoyed the peace.  A moment of quiet before the storm.”

“I’m not messing up your schedule?  What time is it?  Eight?”

I started to shake my head, then realized she wasn’t looking at me.  Hard to tell in the gloom.  “You aren’t.  And it’s about seven forty-five.”

“Not sure I follow this plan of yours.  That’s a bad sign, if I can’t get my head around it.”

“You’re not exactly in the best shape.”

“Still.”

“Still,” I echoed her, sighing.  I leaned against the wall, hooking my thumbs in my pockets.  “Maybe you’re right.”

She slowly raised her head, grimaced, and then shifted back to a reclining position, moving at a glacial speed.  I felt a pang of sympathy.

“Can I get you anything?”  I asked.

“Drugs don’t help.”

“Something besides drugs, maybe.  Water.”

“No.  Nothing makes a difference except time, being very still, very dark and very quiet.  Let’s just…”

She trailed off.

“Let’s just what?” I prompted.

“I was going to say we should get this over with, but… we don’t want that, do we?”

“No,” I said, my voice barely above a whisper.

Silence lingered.

I stared at the room, all the unanswered questions now illegible in the darkness, reduced to shades of dark gray on black, and black on dark gray.

Those questions were Lisa’s province.  My focus was on the team, the dynamics of the group, and the how we handled those beyond our inner circle.  Our enemies, allies who could become enemies.  Even the public at large had to be handled, managed, addressed as a possible threat.

Those were the concerns I had right now.

“Wish I could use my power more,” Lisa said, “Give you advice so you’re going in with your eyes wide open.”

“I wish you could too.  Don’t be upset with yourself, though.  I didn’t give you much advance warning, and you’d already overloaded your power.  The sentiment’s enough.”

“It’s not, really.  Fuck me.  I’m not very good at this.  Being uncertain.  Frustrated.  Disappointed in my inability to offer anything…”

She trailed off.

I thought of the Lisa I knew, her personality, her general demeanor.  Slightly reckless, confident, cocky.  Fearless.

“And scared?” I offered.

“Scared,” she agreed.

I’d never really seen her vulnerable.  I’d seen her hurt, had seen her reactions after her arm had been dislocated, after Jack had slashed her face open.  I’d seen her worried, even spooked, when the Endbringer was en-route, and when she’d been concerned for me.

But this was Lisa, temporarily bereft of her powers.  A mere mortal.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

“You know, Rachel said thank you last night,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Got me thinking,” I said.  “Don’t know if I ever said it to you.  I owe you the most, in a way.”

Lisa smiled, but it wasn’t a joyful expression.  She murmured, “Don’t know if you should be that thankful.  What I did, bringing you on board, trying to help you, if I can even call it help, considering where we wound up.”

“The means justify the end, maybe,” I suggested.

“Maybe.”

“I appreciate it, whatever the case,” I told her.

“Then you’re welcome,” she said.

She changed position, and I made out a nearly imperceptible noise of pain.

“And I think that’s my cue to go,” I told her.

She frowned, “Damn.  That’s it?”

I shrugged.  “What more is there to say?”

“I’m supposed to give you advice.  Some insight.  But I’m crapped out.”

“Give it a shot anyways,” I suggested.

She frowned.  After a few seconds, she said, “Give ’em hell.”

“Will do,” I said.  I approached her, then leaned down and wrapped my arms around her, while she was still sitting in the chair.  One gesture, as if it could convey everything I couldn’t say with words.

Grue had worried I was fatalistic.  That wasn’t quite the term that applied, here.  But the underlying idea was sound.

We’d established something of a rule, way back when, on the night we’d first found out about Dinah and her powers, the same night Leviathan had arrived.  I’d very nearly turned my back on the group, and Tattletale had established a rule.

No goodbyes.

I collected my backpack, turned, and then left, wordless.

The sun and the heat were working on destroying the fog that had settled around the city in the wake of the grim weather.  The result was that the sky was very blue overhead, the city still harboring traces of the early morning’s fog.  It couldn’t be later than nine.

I wasn’t wearing a costume, but I wasn’t hiding in clothing I wouldn’t normally wear, either.  A simple white tank top, black running pants and running shoes.  For all the bystanders could see, I was Taylor Hebert, indistinguishable in appearance or fashion from the girl who’d appeared on the news.

Nobody gave me a second glance.  I moved with purpose, and that was enough.  The eyes in the crowd looked right past me.

It had taken me some time to get used to the sheer obliviousness of people.  Even Rachel, with her distinct appearance, had been able to manage with brief public appearances.  It was less about getting caught, more about escape routes.  Being spotted while I was on my way to visit Grue and Citrine would have been problematic.  Being spotted on my way back to my territory wasn’t a problem.  By the time the heroes could respond, they wouldn’t be cause for any concern.

The same principle applied here.  The only distinction was why the heroes weren’t a cause for concern.

Tension sang through my body with every step.  My stomach felt hollow – I hadn’t had much of an appetite this morning.

At the same time, I felt an almost zen calm.  My thoughts were clear.  I’d already decided on a plan of action.  It was a similar calm to the one I’d experienced against Dragon and Defiant.

I approached the PRT headquarters.  Many of the bugs I’d infested the building with on my last visit were still there, and the occupants of the building had adjusted to them.  Nobody gave a second thought to the bugs that made contact with them, unless it was to absently slap at a mosquito or brush an ant from their leg.

I could sense Tagg in his office, talking on the phone.

People were filing in through the front doors, some were employees, others were tourists, eager to check out the newly opened gift shop and inquire about a tour.  It was puzzling.  Did Tagg not anticipate another attack?  Or had he decided that my attack with my bugs was the very extreme to which I was ready to go?  The full extent of the threat I posed when angered?

The PRT officers stationed just inside the door, grown men and women who had the job of looking out for troublemakers, barely glanced at me as I joined the crowd and walked right under their noses.

Then again, I’d said something to Regent about that.  Attacking from an unexpected direction, doing the last thing one’s enemy expected.  This was definitely that.  There was no way they expected me to walk into the building, first thing in the morning on a sunny day, when they hadn’t even done anything in recent memory to provoke me.

I made my way into the center of the lobby and stopped to looked around.

Maybe it was that I was standing still, while the rest of the people in the lobby were moving.  If not moving against the flow, resisting it.  But someone noticed me.  A PRT officer by the front desk.  I could see him out of the corner of my eye, reaching for his weapon.

I exhaled slowly.  I felt eerily calm, while my power roared at the periphery of my consciousness.  It was as if my bugs were screaming at me to attack, to retaliate.  To strip flesh from bone, sting and bite.

I pushed my bugs back, told them to go still.  It had been months since my power and I were this at odds.  Months since I’d been in the bathroom of Winslow High, telling myself I didn’t want to fight, that I didn’t want to retaliate against the bullies.

But now I was left to wonder if that was my subconscious or my passenger?

“Villain!” the PRT officer bellowed as he trained his gun on me.

The reaction was oddly delayed, as each one of the fifty or sixty people in the lobby turned to the PRT officer for a cue, for some indication of the danger or the direction of the threat.  They saw the direction that he was facing and the direction his gun was pointing, and turned their attention to me.

Only then did the civilians and unarmed staff scream, run, and seek cover.  Only then did the PRT officers around me draw weapons and point them at me.  A half-dozen PRT officers in full body armor, with their lethal and nonlethal weapons trained on me.

“Get down!” one officer screamed.

I slowly dropped to my knees, then folded my hands behind my head.

There were sounds of footsteps.  I could see Miss Militia and the Wards exiting a room behind the front desk.  I tried to think of what my bugs had told me about the layout on past visits.  It was a meeting room, if I was remembering right.

Miss Militia, Clockblocker, Flechette, Vista, and Crucible stared, eyes wide.  Miss Militia’s expression was one of concern, her eyebrows furrowed.  She was still, compared to the PRT officers around me, who were shouting at me, asking questions I couldn’t answer.  I bowed my head and closed my eyes, as if I could find the same kind of refuge Tattletale had been seeking, find a stillness by shutting out the chaos of the outside world.

I’d said my goodbyes to my team, as much as I’d been able.

I’d put my ducks in a row, again, as much as I could.  I’d have to trust to Grue to see to Regent and Aisha, keep them on the right path.  I’d have to trust Tattletale to look after Grue.

I’d decided, in the course of talking to my mom, that I’d have to cross a line if I was going to follow Dinah’s instructions, if I was going to achieve everything I needed and wanted to achieve.  To do it, I’d told her, I’d have to be heartless, and this was the most heartless, inhuman thing I could do.  Leaving my people.  Leaving Rachel.  Leaving Brian.

I thought of the paper, of the words from Dinah.  ‘Cut ties’.  I hope you know what you’re doing, Dinah. because this is as cut as I can get them.

My eyes met Miss Militia’s.

“I surrender.”

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