Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #2)

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“Water torture,” Justin said.  “It’s what the C.I.A. uses.”

“No, please.”

Justin shook his head.  “What good is begging going to do?  There’s hardly a point to torture if you want it.”

“The victim can aspirate water during water torture,” Dorothy commented, as though she were commenting on paint shades.  “But I could have been doing it wrong.”

“Burning, then.  Start on the back, chest and stomach, work our way to the extremities.  They say a burn hurts worse than any other pain, inch for inch,” Justin said.  “By the time we work our way to the face, the armpits, or the soles of the feet…”

“Oh god.”

“Scarring,” Geoff said, looking up from his newspaper.  “Chance of infection.  He’d be facing as much risk as he would with the water torture.  It might even be harder to treat.  Harder to explain if we had to go to a doctor.”

“Razors?”  Justin suggested.

“Razors could work,” Dorothy said.  “I’m good with a razor.”

“Hear that?” Justin asked.  “She’s good with a razor.”

“Please.  There has to be another way.”

“There are a number of other ways,” Dorothy said.  “Tearing out your teeth, fingernails and toenails is one.  Castration, force feeding, breaking bones, rats, flaying…”

“I meant besides torture.”

“Psychological methods,” Justin suggested.

“Isolation,” Dorothy offered.  “Sensory deprivation, intoxicants.  Would you like cream in your coffee, Geoff?”

“No thank you, dear.”

“The bacon is done.  Why don’t you two come and eat?”  Dorothy offered.

Justin sighed. “Come, Theo.”

The boy gave them wary looks as he stood from the armchair and crossed the length of their hotel room.  Dorothy had laid out a veritable feast: bacon, eggs, english muffins, toast, french toast, a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of blueberries, and a bowl of fruit salad.  There was orange juice and pots of both coffee and tea.  She was just setting down a plate of bacon, leaving barely enough room for anyone’s plates.

It would have been too much for eight people to eat, but she didn’t seem to realize that.  She smiled as Justin ushered Theo to the table and sat down.  Her clothes were more fit for a job interview than for a fugitive, with a knee-length dress, heels, earrings and makeup.  Geoff, like his wife, was too well dressed for the occasion, wearing a button-up shirt beneath a tan blazer, his hair oiled and combed back neatly.

They can’t act, Justin thought.  They follow their routines like bad actors following a script.  A housewife preparing a meal for her family, the husband at the table.

He’d known that the pair started every day with the same routine, like clockwork.  Wake, don bathrobe, and collect a newspaper.  Geoff would step into the shower as Dorothy stepped out, and she would be done grooming by the time he was through.  Once they were both dressed, they’d head to the kitchen, and Geoff would read the paper while Dorothy cooked.

But always, the details would be off.  Things any ordinary person would take for granted were forgotten or exaggerated.  Dorothy inevitably prepared too much, because it was harder for her to consider how hungry everyone was and adjust accordingly.  Only two days ago, Justin had noted that Geoff would take a few minutes to read the front page of the paper, turn the page, and stop.

Now he couldn’t help but notice.  It was the same thing every day.  For the twenty or thirty minutes it took Dorothy to put everything together and set it on the table, Geoff would stare at the second and third pages of the newspaper.

Justin had asked about the headlines and the articles.  Geoff never remembered, because he wasn’t reading.  He could read, but he didn’t. He spent nearly forty minutes in total, every day, like clockwork, doing little more than staring into space, pretending to read.

Put the paper away, it’s time to eat, Justin thought.  Yes dear.  Mmm.  Smells delicious.

“Put the paper away, it’s time to eat,” Dorothy said.  She was holding the coffee pot, stepped behind Geoff, putting a hand on his shoulder, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.  Automatic, without affection.

“Yes, dear.  ” Geoff said, smiling up at his wife.  “Mmm.  Smells delicious.”

Jesus fuck, they scare me, Justin thought.  But he plastered a fake smile of his own onto his face, grabbed one of the oven-warmed plates and served himself.  Theo did much the same at the other side of the table, minus the smile.

Kayden emerged from one of the bedrooms, her hair still tangled from sleep, wearing a bathrobe.  Mousy, shorter than average, looking exceedingly human, she was Dorothy Schmidt’s antithesis.

“Aster slept well last night,” Justin commented.  “Didn’t hear her crying.”

“She slept through the night.  We just have to maintain a routine as we keep moving,” Kayden said.

“We were just discussing ways to force Theo’s trigger event.”

“It’ll come on its own,” she said.  “We have two years.”

“One year and eleven months,” Theo said.

Kayden glanced at him but didn’t respond.

“It should have happened already,” Justin pointed out.  “It’s easier for children with inherited powers, and Theo’s the son of Kaiser, who’s the son of Allfather.  Third generation.”

“Maybe I didn’t get powers,” Theo said, not looking up from his plate.

“Or maybe you’ve lived a sheltered enough life that you haven’t had a reason to trigger,” Justin retorted.

“I don’t want to get tortured.  Physically or psychologically.  There has to be another way.”

“Torture?” Kayden asked.

“It’s one line of thought,” Justin said, trying to mask his annoyance.  He’d purposefully brought it up while Kayden was out of the room.  “We were trying to think of methods that wouldn’t leave him unable to fight Jack when the time came.”

“No torture.  Theo’s right.  We can find another way.”

Justin frowned, “Every day we wait is a day we don’t have for training his abilities, and he’ll need all of the training he can get.”

“Because I have to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine and Jack Slash.  And he’ll kill a thousand people if I don’t,” Theo said.  “Me and Aster too.”

Justin glanced at the boy, saw the white-knuckle grip he had on his knife and fork, looked at Kayden, who had french toast speared on her fork but wasn’t raising it to her mouth.  She stared off into space as the maple syrup slowly dripped down to the plate below.

She doesn’t know what to do any more than we do.

“You come from a good pedigree,” Justin commented.  “Kaiser was strong enough to rule over the better part of Brockton Bay, as Allfather did before him.”

“Which doesn’t do us any good if I don’t get powers,” Theo mumbled.

“If worst comes to worst,” Kayden said, “We fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Night, Fog, Crusader and I.  Okay?”

Justin frowned, but he didn’t speak.

Theo voiced half the doubts that Justin was keeping silent, “You didn’t fight them last time.  I’m not saying you were wrong to leave, but-”

“But we didn’t fight them then.  You’re right,” Kayden said.  “I’d hoped the others would stop them.  The heroes, the Undersiders, Hookwolf…”

“And they didn’t,” Justin said.  “Which means we have to assume Jack’s going to follow through.  That gives us a time limit.  Theo needs powers, he needs training, we need to find the Nine, and we need to stop them.  What if we went to the Gesellschaft?”

Kayden glanced at the other two who were sitting at the table.  Dorothy and Geoff.  Neither of the two had reacted to the name of the organization that had created them.  Or, at least, they hadn’t reacted outwardly.

“I’m more concerned that they’d help the Slaughterhouse Nine if it meant killing a thousand Americans,” she said.  “And I’m not sure I want Theo to recieve the kind of power they offer.”

“If we contacted them through Krieg…”  Justin trailed off.

“What?” Kayden asked.  She let her knife and fork drop to her plate with a loud clatter.  “You think they’d give us assistance with no strings attached?  That we could call in a favor with Krieg and they’d give Theo powers, without the follow-up attention?”

“No.  No, I suppose not.”

“They turn people into weapons,” Kayden said.  “Then they decide where those weapons are best positioned, for the cause.  There’s two good reasons why they wouldn’t have given fresh orders to Night and Fog since the Empire collapsed.  Either they can’t get in touch with us-”

“I somehow doubt that.”

“Or Night and Fog are forgotten.  Presumed dead or ignored,” Kayden finished.  “In which case we don’t want to remind them that we’re still around.”

“I somehow doubt that, as well,” Justin said.  “They have to know we’re alive.”

“Then what?  Why leave these two in my care?”

“Because it serves their agenda,” Justin answered.  He finished off his plate, spooned some blueberries onto the side, and poured himself some orange juice.

“What agenda?”

“The Empire fell.  The Chosen fell.  Only Kayden Anders and her Pure remain.  If they hope to retain any foothold in the Americas, it’ll be through you.”

“I don’t want to give them a foothold in the Americas.”

“By the sole fact that you exist, you’re giving it to them.  Your reputation, your success, it gives the Gesellschaft the opportunity to say, their cause is being furthered in the West.  Even if your goals and theirs are only aligned in abstract.  So they leave Night and Fog in your care, because it keeps you dangerous, it helps ensure your success, and maybe because it gives them a way to strike at you if they decide you’re a danger to the cause.”

Kayden glanced at Dorothy, studying Night’s civilian appearance.

“More coffee?” Dorothy asked, smiling.

“God, yes,” Kayden muttered.  She held out her cup for a refill.

“What about you?” Theo asked.

Justin turned to look at the boy.  “Who?  Me?”

“Where do you stand, with the cause?”  Theo asked.  Justin didn’t miss the inflection at the end.

“I’m a simple man,” Justin said, smiling.  “I like steak and potatoes.  I like a good fight, a serious game of baseball or football.  American football.  I like a good woman’s company-”

Kayden cleared her throat.  When Justin met her eyes, she was glaring at him.  Not jealousy, more of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Justin smiled a little, more with one side of his mouth than the other.  “-And I believe that they are fucking things up, out there.  And the rest of the world’s letting them.”

“People with different colored skin.”

People with differences,” Justin said.  “Faggots, gimps, mongoloids.  Kaiser got that.  I talked to him one on one, and he had the right ideas.  He got that America is ours, that they’re polluting it over time, letting these people in.  But he was too focused on the big picture, and he was working with the Gesellschaft, which was way too big picture for my tastes.  Still, birds of a feather.  I worked under him because I wasn’t about to find others elsewhere, and I didn’t feel like going it alone.  Then he introduced me to Purity.”

Theo glanced at his onetime stepmother.

“And I think we’re more in sync, Kayden and I,” Justin said.  “If Kaiser was the visionary, the guy on top, the guy with the dream, working to achieve something over decades, then Purity’s the detective working the streets.  And that’s the kind of simple thinking I can get behind.”

“So you don’t support the Gesellschaft?”  Theo asked.

“I can’t support what I don’t understand,” Justin said.  “And what I do understand is that we need to give you your trigger event before it’s too late.  Because Jack and his gang of psychopaths are the sort of freaks I can’t stand, and I’ll be fucked if we let him beat you on this count.  They don’t get to beat us, and you’re one of us.”

Theo drew in a deep breath, as if he was going to say something, and then heaved it out as a sigh, slow and heavy.

“Whether you like it or not,” Justin added, just under his breath.

Theo glanced at him.  He hadn’t missed the comment.

At a normal volume, Justin said, “You’re vetoing the torture, where we’d be trying to get him to a trigger state in a safe, controlled environment.  We need another game plan.”

Kayden sighed.  “For now?  We’ll let Dorothy clean up.  Have you two done your morning sparring?”

Justin shook his head.

“Give Theo some training while I shower, then you two can wash up.  Get dressed to go out.  I have one idea regarding Theo’s trigger event.”

Justin stood with a plate in hand, but Dorothy was already walking around the table, her heels clicking on the tile.  She took the plate from him, smiling.

“Come on, then,” Justin urged the boy.  “Let’s see how much of it’s sinking in.”

“Not much,” Theo said.

“Probably not,” Justin replied.  He reached for his power and stepped out of his body, a spiritual mitosis.  A ghostly image of himself, wearing the same clothes, crossed the ‘living room’ of the space the hotel had given them.  He created two more replicas of himself, one walking until its legs were sticking through the couch.

“Four against one?”  Theo asked.

“You think the Nine are going to play fair?  Now, do you remember priority one?”

“Self defense.”

“Protection comes first, always.  The core of any martial art or self defense.  Perception’s second.  Know what’s going on, because it’ll help you protect yourself, and it’ll help you identify the right moment to strike.  Arms up.  Let’s see your stance.”

Theo raised his arms in the ready position, positioned his feet further apart.

Justin looked the boy over.  He’d lost a little weight, though he wouldn’t look much skinnier if he kept exercising like he was.  He’d put on muscle, and look just as bulky, at least for a while.

But that stance…

Justin suppressed a sigh.  Those one thousand people are fucked.

“Harvard,” Justin said.

“This way,” Kayden said.  She had Aster in a harness, the baby’s head resting against her chest.

“You know your way around Harvard?  Color me impressed.”

“I looked it up online.  This way.  I’d rather not spend too much time in public.”

Justin noted the crowd of older teenagers and twenty-somethings.  It was summer, but the school wasn’t empty.  With the warmth of summer, the students were wearing shorts and short sleeves, as well as short dresses.  Justin smiled at a group of girls as they passed by.  One of them looked over her shoulder at him, gave him a glance that roved from head to toe and back up again.

“Justin,” Kayden said, raising her voice.

“Coming,” he said.  Damn.

They made their way across the campus.  Dorothy and Geoff had stayed behind, leaving Kayden, Justin and Theo to carry out the errand with Aster in tow.

They reached a tower, built to match the other buildings of the campus.  Justin held the door for Kayden and Theo, pausing to note the lettering across the entrance: ‘Dept. Parahuman Studies’.

Fitting.  Kayden’s plan was clear, now.

They entered the elevator, and Kayden checked a slip of paper, hit the button for the ninth floor.  She tucked it into a pocket behind Aster’s back, then kissed her sleeping daughter on the forehead as the doors closed.

“We should get in and out fast,” Justin commented.

Kayden pursed her lips.

“Always have to consider that someone made us, and that they’re calling the authorities.”

“I know,” she said.

“Fuck Coil,” Justin snarled.

Kayden glared at him, and her eyes and hair both glowed with a trace of light.  Some free strands of hair lifted as the light touched them, as if they were buoyant, or as if Kayden was underwater and slowly sinking.  “Watch your language around Aster.”

“She doesn’t understand.”

“But she will, one day.  Get in the habit now.”

Justin sighed.  “Will do.  We going in hard or soft?”

“You could rephrase that.  But this is a soft entry.”

“Right.”

They departed the elevator as it reached the ninth floor.  Kayden double checked the slip of paper, and they began the process of figuring out where the room was.  It wasn’t intuitive, as the rooms didn’t seem to be numbered sequentially.

They stopped at one door that was labeled ‘914’, with a nameplate below reading ‘Dr. Wysocki’.

“What the hell kind of name is Wysocki?  Polack?”

“He’s one of the top researchers on Parahumans,” Kayden said.  “The best in the Massachusetts area.”

“You’re the boss, and it’s your call,” Justin said, shrugging.  “Just saying I pointed it out in advance.”

“What difference is it going to make?” Theo asked.  “Doesn’t make any difference to his ability to do his job.”

“So cute,” Justin said.  He gave Theo a pat on the cheek, and the boy pushed his hand away in irritation.

Kayden knocked, and the door swung partially open.

A young man, no older than twenty-five, hopped out of his swivel chair, pulling earbuds from his ears.  “Ah.  Hi?”

“We had a few questions,” Kayden said.

“I’ve never had a student bring their family before.”

“We’re not students,” Kayden said.  She strode into the room, and Justin gave Theo a push on the shoulder to prod him forward.  When everyone was inside, he closed the door and stood with his back to it.

“Huh.  I thought I recognized you, would have been from class,” the man said.

“We’re not students,” Justin echoed Kayden’s words.  His tone didn’t have the intimidating effect he’d hoped for.  The young man’s forehead was wrinkled in concerns of a different sort.

“You’re not here for the office hours?  Figures.  I sit around for three hours twice a week, five straight weeks, someone finally shows and they aren’t a student.”

“You’re Wysocki?” Justin asked.

“No,” the young man gave him a funny look.  “You’re really not students.  I’m the T.A.  Filling in while he’s at an event.  Peter Gosley.”

He extended a hand, but nobody accepted it.

“Fuck,” Justin said.  “This is a waste of time.”

“If you have questions…” Peter trailed off, letting his hand drop.

“Trigger events,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

Peter’s eyes fell on the boy, widening slightly.  “You have powers?  You just got them?”

“I need them,” Theo answered.

Peter gave them a funny look.  “I… I’m not sure I understand.”

“Tell us what you know about trigger events, and perhaps we’ll explain,” Kayden said.

“I… that’s a broad field.  What do you want to know?”

“How to have one,” Theo said.

“Trust me, there isn’t a single government out there that isn’t trying to pull it off.  None have had much success with the various methods they’ve tried.  Not to the point that anyone else has been able to copy their methodology.  If anyone was succeeding, it’d be off the radar.  Maybe the Protectorate.”

“What methods have they tried?” Justin asked.  “The governments.”

“Anything?  Everything.  Drug induced panic attacks.  Kidnappings.  Torture.  Some with willing participants, some even with participants in the dark.  The Queensland Trials-“

“Stop,” Kayden said.  Peter stopped.  “Participants in the dark?  And nothing worked?”

“It sometimes worked, a lot of stuff sometimes worked.  The problem is, the act of getting a trigger event tends to throw a controlled situation into disarray.  A government or organization pours hundreds of man hours and half a million dollars into identifying people who might be parahumans, by whatever metric they’re using, tracking them, covertly acquiring them, and inducing the parahuman state… and it’d work one in two hundred times.  Half of those times, they’d wind up with a parahuman in an agitated state and things would fall apart.  So a lot of the successes end up being failures of a diffferent sort.”

“But they haven’t found a consistent way of getting people to trigger?” Kayden asked.

“No.  Fact is, it’s harder when you’re trying to provoke a trigger event.  Even if the participant doesn’t know you’re trying it.”

“Why?”  Kayden asked.

Peter shrugged.  “There’s theories.  There’s the specific trigger theory, which suggest that each individual demands a particular kind of trigger event, so any attempts to force it are essentially attempting the wrong form of trigger.  There’s the specific circumstance theory, which is different, because it suggests that it’s not just a particular type of trigger that’s demanded, but the specific time or event.”

“You’re saying it’s predestined,” Justin said.

Some scholars say it’s predestined.  I don’t.  Um.  Other theories… there’s intelligent intervention.”

“Phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin said.

“There’s no need for rudeness,” Peter said.  He adjusted his glasses and frowned at Justin.

“Please phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin clarified.

Please explain,” Kayden said, shooting Justin a look.

“It means there’s someone or something that’s deciding who gets powers and when.  There’s subtheories… Aesthetic analogue, where they’re saying the powers tend to relate to the trigger event somehow, so obviously someone’s doing it on purpose.  Uh.  Intelligent powers, where they say the powers are sentient and they’re making the call on their own.  Ties into other areas of study, and it’s a favorite of mine.  There’s the-“

“This isn’t helping us,” Justin cut in.

“Quiet.  Everything helps,” Kayden said.

“We’re short on time.”

Peter gave him a funny look.  “Look, I’m not fully understanding what you’re getting at.  It’s great that people are interested in this stuff, but this notion you have that, because your son wants powers, you’re somehow going to give him a trigger event?  That’s a little freaky, it’s not really possible.  And, uh, it’s borderline abuse, if not actual abuse.”

“It’s a complicated situation,” Kayden said.  “What else can you tell us about trigger events?  Beyond theories?”

“The manner of trigger event seems to impact the powers.  That’s frosh level stuff.  Physical pain, physical danger; physical powers.  Mental pain, mental crisis?  Mentally-driven powers.”

Justin frowned.  And being the brother of a dying, half-blind, deaf retard of a girl who got all the attention?  All of the gifts, the money?  Being made to get surgery for her sake, give up years of my lifespan so she might live?  Getting caught pulling the plug, only for it to do little more than set alarms going?

Was his power really a mental power?  He’d always considered it more physical.

He looked at Kayden, studied her concerned expression.

Peter was still talking, responding to something Kayden had said.  “Drugs tend to create conditional powers.  It’s not hard and fast, but you get situations where the power is directly linked to one’s physical, mental or emotional state.  We think it’s because the power works off a template it builds as the powers first manifest.  If someone is riding an emotional high as they trigger, their powers will always be looking for a similarly excited state to operate at peak efficiency, often an emotion or drugs.  When people were caught trying to fabricate trigger events, sometimes they were intending to use this so the subject would be more easily controlled.”

“I wonder if lack of food and water could create similarly conditional powers,” Kayden commented.

“I’m… are you talking about starving him?”  Peter’s eyes were wide now.

“Not at all.  I’m… speculating.”

Justin could follow her train of thought.  He’d heard the story through the Empire’s grapevine, once.  A sixteen year old girl, driving for the first time, down a side road, getting in an accident where her car rolled off the road, out of sight of anyone passing by.  Trapped… starving, dying of thirst.

Getting powers that fed off and required other resources.  Light.

He glanced at her, and she offered him a curt nod.  Without speaking, they’d come to a mutual agreement that this ‘Peter’ knew what he was talking about.

“What’s the impact of being the child of a parahuman?” she asked.

“Um.  I love that you’re interested, and yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything, but maybe if you have this many questions, you should take a class?”

“He’s the son of a parahuman,” Kayden said, pointing at Theo.

Cat’s out of the bag now.

“No kidding?  Wow.  Who?”

“Kaiser,” Kayden said.

Peter’s eyes widened as he looked at Theo.  Then something seemed to click, and he looked up at Kayden and Justin with a note of alarm in his expression.

“Yeah,” Justin said.  “Smart man, and you’re only figuring it out now?”

“I saw the stuff on the news.  Thought I recognized you.  Purity and…”

“Crusader.  So maybe now you understand we’re serious.  And how we’re not interested in taking a class,” Justin said.

“If he’s Kaiser’s son, and Kaiser’s Allfather’s son… he’s third generation.”

“And he doesn’t have powers,” Kayden said.  “It’s crucial that we fix that.”

“I… I don’t really know.  It’s supposed to be ten times easier to get powers if you’re second generation.  But we don’t have research on third generations yet.  It’s only pretty recently that we had the first third-generation cape on record.  The baby in Toronto.”

“Didn’t hear about that,” Kayden said.  She frowned.  “A baby?”

Peter’s eyes fell on Aster.  “Oh.  Wow.  Is she third generation too?”

“Pay attention,” Justin said.

“The… yeah.  Each successive generation seems to produce younger capes, by lowering the barrier to entry, the severity of the requisite trigger event.”

“So why haven’t I triggered?”  Theo asked.

“I don’t know.  There’s a lot we don’t know.   Maybe… maybe you don’t have powers.”

“I have to.”

“It’s a question of luck.”

“You don’t understand.  If I don’t get powers, a lot of people will die.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Justin said.  “Give us all the information you have.  Every way you’ve heard about people trying to trigger, and how well they worked.”

“That’s a six month lecture series unto itself!”

“Talk fast,” Justin said.

“Um.  There’s meditation.  Either to tap into your deeper psyche or to tear down the walls between yourself and your worst fears.  There’s theories that the powers themselves are intelligent, and they’re worked into the host’s head, before or after the trigger event.  Sometimes the meditation’s related to that, but it’s usually people trying to have a second trigger event.”

“That’s not relevant to the boy, is it?” Justin asked.

“The research is related!  There’s a lot of research into second trigger events because it’s a lot easier to find willing parahumans than it is to find potential parahumans.  The methods that people try tend to be similar, too.  It’s just… a lot of the time, they fail for opposite reasons.”

“Opposite?”  Kayden asked.

“It’s not confirmed, it’s just an idea, but the idea the powers are sentient?  Well, either the second trigger event opens up communication, frees the powers to act on their own more, or if you don’t buy that stuff, it breaks down the mental barriers between the altered part of the brain that controls the powers and the part that doesn’t.  At least, that’s going by the patterns we’ve seen.  Except… well, we think sometimes the reason people can’t have a second trigger event is because they’ve already had one.  You can’t really distinguish a single trigger event from having two in quick succession.”

“Like a multiple orgasm,” Justin commented.  Kayden glared at him.

“More or less.  There’s more parallels than that, but yeah.”

“Crusader is right, this isn’t helping him,” Kayden said.

“What kind of trigger events did Kaiser and Allfather have?”

Kayden and Justin exchanged glances.

“No idea,” Kayden said, frowning.

Peter frowned.  “That would have helped.  At least we know they both had similar powers.  Allfather could conjure iron weapons from the air immediately around himself, send them flying.  Kaiser could call metal out of any solid surface.  Both are the kind of powers you’d see from almost purely mental trauma.  If the trend continues…”

He trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging.  Theo would probably require mental trauma to trigger.

“Hard to imagine Kaiser having mental trauma.  He seemed so confident,” Kayden said.

“His dad was Allfather.  Not so hard to imagine,” Justin replied, absently.  He thought of the college girls and stepped over to the window, curious if he’d be able to make out any from this high up.  He froze.

“Kayden,” he said.

“What?”

“Cops.  And containment vans.”

“Someone made us?”  Kayden asked.

“And saw us enter the building,” Justin finished.  “They’re surrounding us on the ground.”

Shit!”  Kayden swore.

Aster whimpered, then started crying.

Didn’t you tell me to watch my language in front of Aster?  Justin thought.

Theo was sitting in a swivel chair, hands clasped in his lap, his eyes watching Kayden, waiting for her cue.

Justin noted the tension of Theo’s grip, the way he seemed to retreat into himself.  The fat little boy who was nothing like Kaiser.  Maybe he hadn’t inherited powers at all because he wasn’t his father’s son.  If his mother had cheated on Kaiser, gave birth to this pudgy blob, it would explain why he didn’t have powers.  It would mean he wasn’t a second generation cape, let alone a third.

“Hmm.”  Justin watched more PRT vans arrive.  They were spreading out, clearly anticipating Kayden’s artillery-level attacks, and they had the damn foam-bead nets they used for dealing with fliers.  “Theo, who’s your mom?”

“Heith.”

Justin sighed.  Heith was Fenja and Menja’s cousin and guardian, Kaiser’s first wife, killed in a turf war with the Teeth, back in the old days of Brockton Bay.  She has powers after all.

Somehow, all of this would be easier if he could believe that Theo was illegitimate.

“Crusader,” Kayden said, “Can you stall them?  We have more questions.”

He nodded, shut his eyes, and drew on his power.

It was as simple as stepping forward while staying in the same place.  A ghostly phantom appeared, followed by another, and another.  One headed for the elevator shaft, while the other headed for the stairwell.  He directed the remainder to sink through the floor.

“What else can you tell us?  Something we can use,” Kayden said.

“If the authorities are here, I don’t know if I should say.”

“You should,” Justin said.  “Because we’ll hurt you if you don’t.”

“Don’t,” Theo said.

Justin gave the boy his best dispassionate look.

“He’s been helpful,” Theo said.

“He hasn’t solved your problem,” Justin said.  He was dimly aware of his other selves engaging with the enemy as they moved into the building.  One fought them in the stairwell, immune to any strike or bullet, yet fully capable of pushing a man down the stairs, into the people behind him, fully capable of strangling a man.

Peter shifted positions nervously.  His voice rose in pitch as he spoke, “I don’t know what you want.  I can’t give you an answer because there aren’t any!

Think,” Justin suggested.

“You expect me to do in five minutes what the best scholars in the world haven’t figured out in thirty years?”

“Well put,” Justin said.  More clones were still splitting off, breaking away from himself to sink through the floor.  Some had moved beyond the building to attack the men who were manning the turrets on top of the van.  With luck, he and Kayden would be free to fly to safety with the children.

“This… this is insane!  What am I supposed to tell you?  I’ve outlined some of the best theories we have!”

“If it helps,” Justin said, leaning towards Peter, “I’m going to kill you if I don’t leave here satisfied.  Think about that.”

“Kayden,” Theo said, “You’re not going to let him, are you?”

“Crusader,” Kayden said.  “Is that really necessary?”

“I can’t even think straight under this pressure!” Peter cried.

“I imagine you feel very similar to someone about to have a trigger event,” Justin said.  “Maybe that will inspire something or fill in the blanks for some half-baked idea you had once.”

“I don’t… There’s isolation.”

“An isolation chamber?” Justin asked.

Peter shook his head.  “No.  More basic.  It’s a common trend.  People who have trigger events, they don’t usually have a good support system.  Their family, their friends, they tend to fail them, or be the cause of the problem.  I… I wrote a paper a while back about how Masters tend to have loneliness as part of their trigger events, and how maybe that was why Masters tend to be villains.  Because you need support and social pressure to be more of a good guy.  My professor then, the guy who I work for now, Dr. Wysocki, he tore me to pieces.  Too many other parahumans have it as part of their history.  Isolation.  It wasn’t enough to suggest a correlation.  He said you could call it a common theme for nearly all of the trigger events out there.”

Justin was in the middle of creating another ethereal copy of himself when he stopped.  It snapped back into place.  He thought back to something earlier in the day.

“Kayden, let’s go.”

“What?”

“I’ve got our answer.  Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?”

Justin nodded.

“To the roof?” she asked.

“As fast as you can move with the baby.”

Kayden rose into the air, her hair and eyes lighting up.

“Come on, Theo,” Justin said, “I’ll carry you.”

He spawned a ghostly replica as Kayden left the office.  Theo hesitated as the replica got closer.

“What’s wrong?” Justin asked.

“What he just said…  You’re going to leave me.  Isolate me.”

“Yeah,” Justin said.  His ghost-self lunged, and Theo threw himself back with such force that he fell over in the chair.  The ghost was on him in a second, pinning him down to the floor with one hand around his throat.

“Don’t.  You heard what he said.  If you force it, it won’t happen,” Theo protested, his voice barely above a wheeze with the hold the ghost had on his neck.

“I’m willing to take that chance.  In the worst case scenario, you’re their problem, not ours.  The heroes can look after you and figure out what to do with you.”

“Justin!  Crusader!”  Theo managed a strangled scream, but Justin was already in the doorway, not even pausing or hesitating at his words.  “It won’t work if you try to make it happen!”

Justin left Theo behind, stepped into the stairwell, noting a gap between the stairs that was big enough to fly between.  He created a clone and left it overlapping his body, using its flight to lift himself into the air.

Kayden hadn’t flown for safety yet.  She was waiting on the rooftop, Aster writhing in the harness, screaming bitterly.

“Fly,” he said.

“Where’s Theo?”

“Would you believe me if I said he was coming?”

He could see her expression shift in time with the realization.  “You didn’t.”

“I did.  And you won’t go back for him.”

“Like hell I won’t.  He saved Aster when Jack was going to kill her, he might have saved me in the process.  I owe him-“

“-And we’re paying him back by leaving him.”

“No.  No, we aren’t.”

“He’s one of our own, kind of.  I get that.  But… he was never going to help the cause.”

“The cause,” Kayden spat the word.

“Purifying the world, cutting out the rot, becoming a symbol of better things.  It’s not him.”

“He’s my stepson.”

“And isn’t that the problem?  Remember this morning, at breakfast?  He was worried he wouldn’t get powers.  That he wouldn’t be able to stop Jack.  And how did you respond?  You reassured him.  You told him we’d fight the Nine if he couldn’t.”

Kayden only glared, eyes shining with painful brightness.

“When you said that, part of me, I thought we didn’t fight the Nine then, how could we two years from now?  Theo said it outright.  He’s sharper than he looks sometimes.  Sharper than he acts.  But here’s the thing, at the same time, a part of me felt like I’d realized something, and it took me until now to get it sorted in my head.”

“What?”

“You’re reassuring him, when that’s the last thing we want.  When there’s a crisis, he looks to you.  The most basic requirement for a trigger event is you get to a point where you can’t go anywhere.  Pushed to your limit and then pushed further.  He can’t get there so long as we’re there as a safety net.  As a support system.”

“So we’re supposed to abandon him?”

“We just did,” Crusader said.  “The authorities are just getting to the ninth floor now, my clones are letting ’em by.  By the time we got there, they’d have him secured, and they’d be ready to spray us with that foam.”

“You could use your power, disable them without any risk.”

“I could.  But I won’t.”

Kayden flared with light, and for a second, he thought she was going to shoot him.

The blast of solid light didn’t come.

Justin sighed, “He’ll be hurt, he’ll be pissed, and he’ll be alone.  They’ll quiz him on us, get every detail they can, and if I know him at all, it’ll tear him up, because he might not like us, but we’re the closest thing he’s got to family…”

Kayden glanced toward the door.

“…And that’s the best thing we can do for him right now,” he finished.

“I never was the mom he needed,” Kayden said.

“Well, it’s too late now.”

She walked over to the roof’s edge, peered down.  “Any net launchers?”

“Nobody to aim them now.  Everyone’s fighting my doubles.”

She glanced back toward the door, absently cooed for Aster to stop crying.

There was a flash of light.  By the time it cleared away, she was merely a glinting speck in the distance.

He glanced at the door, then flew after her.

Up to you and you alone now, boy, he thought.

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Plague 12.2

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I’d spent nearly sixteen years in Brockton Bay, living a half-hour’s walk away from the ocean and I couldn’t remember ever being on a boat.  How sad was that?

I mean, I was sure I’d been on a boat before.  My parents had to have taken me on the ferry when I was a baby or toddler.  I just didn’t remember any of it.  My parents were introverts, by and large, and their idea of an outing had been more along the lines of a trip down the Boardwalk, a visit to the Market or going to an art gallery or museum.  Maybe once in a while we’d go to something more thrilling like a fair or baseball game, but no… this was the first time I could remember being out on the water.

It was exhilarating, the boat ride.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair, the slight turbulence as the boat bounced on the short waves.  It wasn’t that different from how I had enjoyed riding Bitch’s dogs, and there was none of that primal, deep-seated worry that the hulking monster I was riding would turn around and snap my face off.  I’d almost think I had been destined to fly, based on how thoroughly I enjoyed myself, and that it was only bad luck that I’d gotten other powers instead… except I remembered flying with Laserdream as the Endbringer attacked, and  that hadn’t been the most enjoyable experience.  That might have been a special circumstance; I’d been dealing with the fact that I’d had a broken arm, I’d recently puked my guts out, I’d been soaking wet, and an Endbringer had been working on wiping my hometown and everyone I cared about from the face of the planet.

That day would almost feel like something that had happened in a dream, if I hadn’t spent every hour of every day since living in the aftermath.

Coil’s people had dropped us off along with two sleek motorboats, depositing them at the water’s edge.  Grue was in one boat with Bitch, her three dogs and a puppy she had on a long chain.

I wasn’t sure if the puppy conveyed the image we wanted, but with her attitude towards me lately, I wasn’t willing to comment and risk her going off on me.  She’d remained angry after I’d called her out on her screwing me over and setting me up for Dragon to arrest, but she’d left me more or less alone.

The puppy was cute.  It was skittish, especially around people, which seemed a little odd.  It wasn’t the kind of dog I’d expect Bitch to favor.  Too young, not vicious or intimidating in appearance.  On the other hand, skittish as it was, it had an aggressive streak.  It constantly hounded Bentley, nipping at his flanks, then spooking and running away the second the bulldog looked at him.  It had made for a fair amount of noise when we’d been getting the boats into the water.  One for Bitch, her dogs and Grue, one for the rest of our group.

Our boats weren’t out on the ocean.  We traveled through the area downtown where Leviathan had collapsed a section of the city.  It was now more or less an artificial lake.  The water was fairly still, lapping gently against the ruined roads and collapsed buildings that surrounded the crater, but with the speed these boats were capable of going, even waves a half-foot high made us ramp slightly off one and then crash down onto the next with a sudden spray.

Tattletale was at the back, steering the thing.  It seemed counter-intuitive, with the boat going the opposite direction she pushed or pulled the stick.  Still, she seemed competent at it.  Better than Grue, which I found slightly amusing.

From time to time, I was finding myself in a strange emotional state.  As I stayed alert for it, I was able to catch those moments, try to pick them apart for what they were.  The high-end motor whirred and the boat bounced over the waves, the wind and water getting in my hair, all while we headed into the most ridiculously dangerous and unpredictable situation we’d been in for weeks. It was one of those moments; I felt almost calm.

For a year and a half, I’d spent almost all of my time in a state of constant anxiety.  Anxiety about schoolwork, my teachers, my peers, my dad, my mom’s death, my body, my clothes, trying to hold conversations without embarrassing myself, and about the bullies and what they would do next.  Everything had been tainted by the constant worries and the fact that I’d constantly been preparing for the worst case scenarios and maybe even setting up self-fulfilling prophecies in the process.  I’d spent every waking moment immersed in it.  Either I was stressing over something I’d done or something that had happened, I was concerned with the now, or I was anxious over what came in the future: distant or near.  There was always something.

And that was before I’d ever put on a costume and found myself caught up in my double-crossing plan against the Undersiders and everything that had stemmed from that.  Before Dinah and running away from home, before I’d decided to go villain.  Stuff that made some of what I’d been worried over before seem trivial.

So why could I feel calm now?

I think it was that realization that there were moments where I was helpless to act, oddly enough.  This boat?  Speeding across the Endbringer-made lake?  I had to be here.  There was no other option, really.  As I clutched the metal rim of the boat with one hand while we soared forward, the wind in my hair, I could accept the fact that I couldn’t do anything in this time and place to get Dinah out of captivity sooner.

With that in mind, I surrendered myself of that responsibility for the present.  Much in that same way, I cast off all the other worries, great and small.

A light flashed ahead of us.  Three blinks, then two.

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

Regent raised a flashlight and flashed it twice, paused, then flashed it twice again.

There was one flash in response.

Grue slowed his boat as we reached our destination.  Our meeting place was in the center of the lake, one of the buildings that still partially stood above water, leaning to one side so a corner of the roof was submerged, the opposite corner peaking high.  Tattletale didn’t slow our boat like Grue had his, and instead steered the boat in a wide ‘u’ to ride it up onto the corner of the roof.  Regent and I hopped out to grab the front of the boat and help pull it up.  When Grue rode his boat aground as well, a little more carefully, we helped him too.  Bitch hopped out and spent a moment using gestures and tugs on the puppy’s leash to get her dogs arranged and settled.

Hookwolf and his Chosen had situated themselves at the corner of the roof that stood highest from the surrounding water.  Hookwolf stood with his arms folded, densely covered in bristling spikes, barbs, blades and hooks, only his face untouched by the treatment, covered by his metal wolf mask instead.  Othala, Victor and Cricket were sitting on the raised edge of the roof behind him.  Stormtiger floated in the air just beside Cricket, and Rune had levitated three chunks of pavement into the air behind the group, each the size of a fire truck, like weapons poised at the ready.  She sat on the edge of one of the chunks, her feet dangling over Victor’s head.  Menja stood just behind Rune on the floating piece of shattered road, twelve feet tall, fully garbed in her valkyrie armor, a shield in one hand and a long spear in the other.

I almost missed it in the gloom, but when I did spot it, it was almost impossible to ignore.  On every patch of skin I could see in the Chosen’s group, scars and scratches had just barely healed over.  There were still faint indents and lines of pale skin that marked where the deep lacerations had been.  The little scars made patterns across their skin, some spraying out from a single point, others running parallel to one another, going in the same direction like a snapshot of rainfall imprinted on their skin.  With that many scratches and scars, they must have been hit hard.

Faultline’s group was gathered to one side.  Faultline, Newter, and the new member Shamrock wore more concealing costumes than their usual.  Faultline’s face was covered in a tinted visor, and her arms and legs were covered in opaque gloves and leggings.  Labyrinth and Spitfire were fully decked out in their usual concealing robe and fire-retardant suits, respectively.  Only Gregor showed skin.  The barnacle-like growths of spiral shells that covered his skin had multiplied on one side of his body, until there was more shell than skin.  The skin around it was crimson enough that it stood out in the gloom.  It looked tender.

I saw a flash of light above us, and spotted Purity in the air high above the rooftop, using her power to create a flare of light, extinguish it, then create it again.  There was an answering series of flashes from across the water.  It was a different set of signals than the ones she’d set up with us.  It made sense for the light signals to be different from group to group, so Purity could keep track of who was coming and where from.  The main reason we’d agreed on this meeting place were the seclusion it offered, and the fact that it was just hard enough to access that the Nine wouldn’t be able to approach without us knowing.  Hopefully.

All at once, an incoming boat made its presence known.  As though a switch was flipped, there was the sound of something that sounded like the combined noise of radio static coming from a bank of speakers, an eighteen wheeler with the muffler off and an onrushing train.  It wasn’t just noise – the vehicle flickered with flashes of electricity and lights that people could probably see from anywhere downtown.

Seeing it approach, I had no doubt it was a tinker contraption.  It was the size of a small yacht, but it looked outfitted for war, with what looked like tesla coils crossed with old school tv antennae fueling its forward momentum and sending arcs of electricity dancing over the waves in its wake, as though it was riding on a current of lightning.  Various guns had been placed haphazardly around the upper deck, each manned by a Merchant.  Skidmark stood at the highest deck with Squealer, the driver.

Squealer had apparently never grasped the concept of elegance in design.  From what I’d read and heard, she went for size, augmentations and additions when she built her vehicles.  She was kind of the polar opposite of Armsmaster in that regard.

The hull of their boat scraped against the edge of the building, nearly running over the boat that Grue and Bitch had come in on.  All of the lights shut off, and the Merchants descended onto the roof.  Skidmark, Squealer, Mush, Scrub, Trainwreck, the telekinetic whirlwind lady with the long hair and one other.

Another reason for this meeting place had been subtlety, keeping out of sight and off the radar.  The Merchants apparently hadn’t gotten the message.

“Hey!” Hookwolf growled, “What part of keep a low profile don’t you fucking understand?”

Skidmark smirked, raising his chin to give it an arrogant tilt, “We did.  My Squealer built a box that cancels out light and noise at a certain distance.  Nice and in your face up close, almost invisible and silent when far away.  Isn’t that right, baby?”

Squealer just smiled.  It probably wasn’t as sexy or cute as she thought it was.  Aisha, when left to her own devices, was a pretty girl who dressed trashy.  Squealer, I felt, was more of a trashy woman who dressed trashy.

“Hey, Faultline,” Skidmark’s smirk dropped off his face as he realized who else was present.  “What the motherfuck were you doing, fucking with my party!?”

“You had something we needed.”  Faultline’s response was as measured and calm as Skidmark’s question wasn’t.

“Who hired you, bitch?  Tell me and my Merchants won’t come after you in revenge.  All you’ll have to do is return that shit you stole or pay me back for it.  Maybe you can spit-polish my knob for a little goodwill.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Then forget sucking my cock.  Pay me back and tell me who hired you and we’ll call it even.”

She shook her head.  It was more the kind of head shake that accompanied an eye roll.

Skidmark went on, “You’re mercenaries.  Don’t tell me you don’t have the cash.  I’ll only ask for five mil.  One for each vial you took.”

Fautline didn’t answer him.  Instead she looked at Hookwolf and asked him, “Did we really need to invite him?  Does he contribute anything to this discussion?”

“He has nine powers on his team,” Hookwolf responded.  “Ideology isn’t important.”

“He doesn’t have an ideology.  He’s just an idiot.”

“Enough of that,” Hookwolf snarled, his voice hard with a sudden anger.  “We don’t fight amongst ourselves.  Not on neutral ground.  Both of you shut the fuck up.”

Faultline shook her head and leaned over to whisper something to Shamrock.  The Merchants settled themselves on the side of the roof opposite our group.  Skidmark gave Grue the evil eye.  Was he still resentful over what had happened at the last meeting?  Being denied a seat at the table?

Another series of flashes served to alert us, indirectly, of incoming arrivals.  The Travelers appeared soon after.  Trickster, Sundancer, Ballistic each stood on the back of some kind of turtle serpent.  I couldn’t make out Genesis’s form in the gloom.  What little light was available came from the moon and Purity’s radiance from where she floated above us.  I could have used my bugs to get a feel for the shape Genesis had taken, but my habit was generally to place my bugs on clothing where they wouldn’t be noticed, and Genesis was effectively naked.  I didn’t know anything about them, but they were our allies.  I didn’t want to irritate her and upset anything between our two groups.

Coil was the last of us to arrive, maybe because he’d wanted to be fashionably late.  The two soldiers who’d driven his boat stayed behind.  Purity set down by where the boats had landed, followed by Fog and Crusader, who I hadn’t seen in the dark.  Night stepped out of the lake, between our parked boats and onto the roof, water streaming from her cloak.  Had she been the just-in-case measure if an incoming boat hadn’t known the signal?  She would be invisible in the pitch black gloom beneath the water’s surface, which would mean she wasn’t in her human form.

The way the Travelers and Coil had positioned themselves, we’d formed a haphazard ring.  From the top of the roof, going clockwise, the arranged groups were Hookwolf’s Chosen, Faultline’s crew, us, the Pure, Coil, the Travelers and the Merchants.

“It seems everyone is here,” Coil spoke, taking in the collected villains.  Forty-ish of us in all.

“Not quite everyone,” Hookwolf replied.  “Victor, Othala.”

Othala touched Victor, and Victor raised one hand.  A fireball appeared in it, then disappeared as he clenched his hand.  He repeated the process two more times.

“Who are you signalling?” Purity’s asked.  Her hand flared with light, ready to fire.

“It would be a grave and stupid mistake if you invited the Nine,” Coil told Hookwolf.

“We’re not stupid,” Hookwolf said.  Three answering flashes appeared over the water.  I heard the faint noise of a boat motor.  Everyone present on the roof readied for a fight, turning towards either Hookwolf or the incoming boat.  I used my power to call on local crabs, and to draw out the bugs I’d stored in the boat, keeping them close to me.

There were three more flashes, close, and Victor responded again.  In moments, the boat arrived.  It wasn’t the Nine.  It was the good guys.

Miss Militia was first out of the boat, and Battery activated her power to haul the boat up onto ‘land’ in a flash before stepping up to Miss Militia’s side.  Triumph, Weld and Clockblocker rounded out their group.  Our circle made room, though half the people present seemed to be tensed and ready to use their powers with the slightest excuse.

“It seems we have a problem,” Miss Militia spoke, as her group took her place between the Pure and us Undersiders.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “Two problems, actually.”

“Two?” Purity asked.

Hookwolf pointed at the Travelers, then pointed at Grue and the rest of our group.  “They’re being cocky, think they’re being clever.  Figure we should get all this out in the open, at least so you’re aware.  You too, Coil, Miss Militia.”

“Perhaps you’d better explain,” Coil responded.

Hookwolf pointed at each of us in turn, “Grue has been making attacks against my people in the upper downtown area.  Howling has been heard in the Trainyard.  Bitch.  Regent was sighted in the college neighborhoods.  Skitter made a move to take over the Boardwalk and claim it for herself.  Tattletale is either abstaining, or more likely, putting herself in the middle of the Docks and keeping her head down.”

“So?” Tattletale asked.

Hookwolf ignored her.  “Downtown we’ve got Ballistic attacking my people in the upper downtown neighborhoods, north of this lake here.  Sundancer was spotted in the shopping district, Genesis at the downtown coast, near the south ferry station. Trickster has been driving looters out of the heart of downtown, the towers.  You seeing the pattern?  All of them alone.  Most of them making moves to take a piece of the city for themselves.”

“We already knew they were talking territory,” Miss Militia responded, “This isn’t a priority.  The Nine-”

“They haven’t taken territory,” Hookwolf snapped back, “They’re taking the city.  Split it up all nice and proper between them, and now they’re taking advantage of the distraction the Nine are giving them to secure their positions before we fucking catch on.”

Grue looked at Trickster, and there was some kind of unspoken agreement between them.  Knowing Grue, I was certain he was deliberately ignoring Coil.  No use volunteering more information than necessary.

Trickster spoke, “We didn’t know the Nine were around before we put this into motion.”

There was a flicker of surprise on Purity’s face.  “So Hookwolf is right.  You are taking over.”

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

What was Hookwolf’s game?  Had he brought everyone here under a different pretext so he could ambush us on this front?

“This isn’t of any concern to us,” Miss Militia spoke, stern.  “The only reason we’re here is to get information on the Slaughterhouse Nine, their motives, and strategies for responding.”

“That might help you in the next week or two, but a month from now you’ll be regretting it,” Hookwolf told her.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think we have any other choice,” Miss Militia replied.

“We do,” Hookwolf said.  “They want us to lose our territories to them while we busy ourselves dealing with the Nine-”

“That’s not our intent,” Trickster cut him off.

“Pigshit,” Skidmark muttered.  He looked angry.  Even Purity had a hard cast to her face, or what I could see of it through the glare of her eyes and hair.  These were people who thought highly of themselves.  Whether that self-esteem was deserved or not, they didn’t like being played for fools.

All at once, this meeting had become about us versus them.  The Travelers and the Undersiders against everyone else.

Hookwolf said, “Then agree to a truce.  So long as the Nine are here, you’re hands off your territories, no fighting, no business.  We can arrange something, maybe you all stay at a nice hotel on the Protectorate’s tab until this is dealt with.  That’ll mean we can all focus on the real threat.”

Stay in a hotel until the Nine were dead, arrested or driven out of town.  He couldn’t seriously expect us to do that.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Coil answered, after a moment’s consideration.  “Perhaps now is an opportune time to share this information:  I have sources that inform me that should Jack Slash survive his visit to Brockton Bay, it bodes ill for everyone.”

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

“I’ll be more specific.  Should Jack Slash not die before he leaves Brockton Bay, it is very likely the world will end in a matter of years,” Coil spoke.

“Bullshit,” Skidmark answered.  The others were showing varying reactions.  I doubt many bought it.

“You contacted us to say something very similar a couple of days ago.” Miss Militia said, “But I have the same questions now that I did then.  Do you have sources?  Can you verify this?  Or provide more information?”

Behind her, Weld reached into his pocket and withdrew his smartphone.

“More information?  Yes.  I have sought further details and pieced together a general picture of things.  Jack Slash is the catalyst for this event, not the cause.  At some point in the coming years, Jack Slash kills, talks to, meets or influences someone.  This causes a chain of events to occur, leading to the deaths of anywhere from thirty-three to ninety-six percent of the world’s population.”

That gave everyone pause.

Coil went on, “If Jack Slash is killed, the event is likely to occur at some point in the more distant future instead.”

“Dinah Alcott,” Weld spoke.  All eyes turned to the metal-skinned boy.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Thursday, April fourteenth of this year, Dinah Alcott was kidnapped from her home and has not been seen since.  Dinah had missed several weeks of classes with crippling headaches in the months before her disappearance.  Investigation found no clear medical causes.  Police interviewed her friends.  She had confided to them that she thought she could see the future, but doing so hurt her.”

“You think Dinah is Coil’s source.  That makes a lot of sense.”  Miss Militia turned from Weld to Coil, and her voice was heavy with accusation, “Coil?”

“I did not kidnap her.  I offered Dinah training and relief from the drawbacks of her abilities on the contingency that she immediately cut off all contact with her family and friends and provide me a year of service.”

He lied so smoothly, flawlessly.  What really rattled me was hearing him refer to her as Dinah for the first time.  Coil added, “She took a week to decide, then contacted me during one of her attacks.”

Of course, the heroes weren’t about to take his word for gospel.  Miss Militia’s lips pursed into a thin line.  “Could I contact her to verify this?”

“No.  For one thing, I have no reason to let you.  Also, the process of gaining control of her power requires that she be kept strictly isolated from outside elements.  A simple phone call would set her back weeks.”

“So Coil has a precog,” Hookwolf growled, “That explains how he always seemed to fucking get the upper hand when he pit his mercenaries against the Empire.”

Coil clasped his hands in front of him, “I knew you might come to these conclusions if I volunteered this information.  You all should already know I am not a stupid man.  Would I weaken my position if I did not wholeheartedly believe that what I was saying was correct?  Jack Slash must die, or we all die.

“And to maximize our chances for this to happen,” Hookwolf added, “The alliance of the Travelers and the Undersiders must concede to our terms.  They hold no territory until the Nine are dead.”

Coil deliberated for a few seconds.  “I think this makes the most sense.”

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

Coil’s response caught me off guard.  He was throwing us to the wolves to maintain his anonymity in things.  I felt my heart sink.

It made sense, on a basic level, and I could see why the other groups were agreeing.  I mean, our territory wasn’t worth risking that the world ending.  Coil was apparently willing to delay his plans, or pretend to delay his plans while he carried them out in secret.  But I would be giving up my territory, condemning Dinah to more days, more weeks of captivity.

really didn’t like that idea.

“Easy decision for you guys to make,” Trickster said, chuckling wryly, “You’re not giving anything up.  In fact, if we went with your plan, there’d be nothing stopping you from sneaking a little territory, passing on word to your underlings to prey on our people, consolidating your forces and preparing them for war, all while we’re cooped up in that hotel or wherever.”

He was right.  I could imagine it.  Not just weeks, but months lost.  We’d just lost the element of surprise thanks to Hookwolf outing us here, and the local villains and heroes were now all too aware of the scale of what we were doing.  Add the fact that they would get a breather?  A chance to regroup and prepare?  To retaliate?  Regaining any of the ground we lost while we helped hunt down the Slaughterhouse Nine would be excruciating.

In those weeks or months it took to retake territory and slog ahead with constant opposition, there could be further delays.  It would mean that my plan to efficiently seize the Boardwalk and surrounding Docks would fall apart.  I’d have to pull away from my people and my neighborhoods to help the others fight off attacks.  I wouldn’t be able to offer exemplary service to earn Coil’s trust and respect in the mess that ensued.  The opportunity to free Dinah would slip from my grasp.

Worst of all, there was no reason for it.  We’d claimed more of the city as our territory than they had assumed, and now Hookwolf was building on that, giving them reason to worry we had other sinister motives.

“No,” I murmured, barely audible to myself.  I could see some of the other Undersiders -Grue, Tattletale and Bitch- turn their heads a fraction in my direction.

“No,” Grue echoed me, his voice carrying across the rooftop.

No?” Coil asked, his voice sharp with surprise.  Was there condemnation in there?  It was  very possible we weren’t going the route he wanted.

Grue shook his head, “We’ll help against the Nine.  That’s fine, sensible.  But Trickster is right.  If we abandoned our territories in the meantime, we’d be putting ourselves in an ugly situation.  That’s ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Trickster nodded at his words.

“If you keep them you’ll be putting yourself in an advantageous position,” Purity intoned.

“Don’t be stupid, Undersiders, Travelers.” Faultline cut in, “You can’t put money, power and control at a higher priority than our collective survival.  If Coil’s precog is right, we have to band together against the Nine the same way we would against an Endbringer.  For the same reasons.”

“And we will,” Trickster said.  “We just won’t give up our territory to do it.”

“Because you’re hoping to expand further and faster while the Nine occupy the rest of us,” Hookwolf growled. “We agree to this like you want, and you attack us from behind.”

“We haven’t given you any reason to think we’ll betray a truce,” Grue told him, his voice echoing more than usual, edged with anger.  The darkness around him was roiling.

“You have.  You’re refusing the terms,” Purity said.

Hookwolf was manipulating this.  He wasn’t as subtle about it as Kaiser had been, it was even transparent, what he was doing.  Dead obvious.  At the same time, the scenario he was suggesting was just dangerous and believable enough to the Merchants, to his Chosen, and to the Pure that they couldn’t afford to ignore it.  Coil couldn’t talk sense into them without potentially revealing his role as our backer.  Even the heroes couldn’t counter his argument, because there was that dim possibility that he was right, that they would lose control of the city to villains if we continued to grab power.

Which was admittedly the case.  Dealing with the local heroes was one of our long-term goals, for Coil’s plan.

We were fighting for Coil’s plan and Coil wasn’t helping.  He remained silent, inscrutable, sticking to the situation that worked best for him and him alone.  Damn him.

“You’ll be earning the enmity of everyone here if you refuse,” Hookwolf said.  Was there a hint of gloating in his tone?

“We’ll be ruining ourselves if we agree, too,” Grue retorted.

“I strongly recommend you agree to this deal,” Purity said.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Trickster said.

“No,” Grue echoed Trickster, folding his arms.

That only provoked more argument, along many of the same lines.  It was clear this was getting nowhere.

I turned to Miss Militia, who stood only a few feet from me.  When I spoke to her, she seemed to only partially pay attention to me, as she kept an eye on the ongoing debate.  “This isn’t what we need right now.  Hookwolf’s made this about territory, not the Nine, and we can’t back down without-”  I stopped as she turned her head, stepped a little closer and tried again, “We, or at least I have people depending on me.  I can’t let Hookwolf prey on them.  We all need to work together to fight the Nine.  Can’t you do something?”

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

She turned away from me and called out, “I would suggest a compromise.”

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

“The Undersiders and Travelers would move into neutral territory until the Nine were dealt with.  But so would the powered individuals of the Merchants, the Chosen, the Pure, Coil and Faultine’s Crew.”

“Where would this be?  In the PRT headquarters?” Hookwolf asked.

“Perhaps.”

“You were attacked as well, weren’t you?  Who did they go after?”

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

That was some small shock to everyone present, though I might have been less surprised than some.  Armsmaster as a prospective member for the Nine.

“What you suggest is too dangerous,” Faultline said.  “We’d all be gathered in one or two locations for them to attack, and if Armsmaster was attacked, we could be too.”

“And their whole reason for being here is recruitment,” Coil spoke, “Perhaps the plan would work if we could trust one another, but we cannot, when many here were scouted for their group, and may turn on their potential rivals to prove their worth.  We would be vulnerable to an attack from within, and we would be easy targets.”

“We could make the same arguments about ourselves,” Grue pointed out, “If we agreed, we’d be sitting ducks for whoever came after us.”

“I think the Protectorate can help watch and guard nine people,” Coil replied, “I’m less confident of their ability to protect everyone present.”

So Coil wasn’t willing to play along if it meant losing his ability to stay where he was, but he was willing to make life harder on us, his territory holders.  Did he have some plan in mind?  Or was he just that callous?  Either way, he was an asshole.

“No.  I’m afraid that compromise won’t work,” Hookwolf said, squaring his shoulders.

Miss Militia glanced my way.  She didn’t say or do anything, but I could almost read her mind: I tried.

Hookwolf wasn’t about to give up anything here.  He had us right where he wanted us, and he was poised to kill two birds with one stone: The Nine and his rivals for territory.

“It seems,” Hookwolf said, “The Travelers and the Undersiders won’t agree to our terms for the truce.  Merchants, Pure, Faultline, Coil?  Are you willing to band together with my group?”

Purity, Coil and Skidmark nodded.  Faultline shook her head.

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

“We’re mercenaries.  We can’t take a job without pay.  Even a job as important as this.”

“I will handle your payment here as I did for the ABB, Faultline,” Coil said, sounding just a touch exasperated.

“And Miss Militia?” Hookwolf asked, “A truce?”

“Keep the business to a minimum, no assaulting or attacking civilians,” Miss Militia said, “We still have to protect this city, there’s no give there.  Don’t give us a reason to bother with you, and we’ll be focused wholly on the Slaughterhouse Nine in the meantime.”

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

The leaders of the new group crossed the roof to shake hands.  In the process, things shuffled so that our group, the Travelers and the heroes were near the bottom of the roof.  The heroes moved off to one side, as if to guard us from any retaliation, making the separation in forces all the more obvious.

“You guys are making a mistake,” Grue said.

“I think you have things the wrong way around,” Hookwolf said.  “Nobody wants to break the peace at neutral ground, so perhaps you should go before things get violent?”

Tattletale asked, “You won’t let us stick around and discuss the Nine, who they attacked, what our overall strategies should be?  Even if we aren’t working together as a single group?”  She paused, looking deliberately at Faultline, “You know, the smart thing to do?”

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

There was little else to be said or done.  We’d lost here.  I turned and helped push our boat into the water, then held it steady as everyone piled in.  Tattletale had started the motor, and we were gone the second I’d hopped inside.

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Buzz 7.10

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Whether I shut my eyes or suffered the effects of the flashbang grenade, the effect would be the same.  The moment we took our eyes off Night, she’d become what Tattletale had termed ‘all monster’.

I opted to have more control over my temporary blindness, clamping my hands over my ears, dropping into a crouch to shove my face against my knees, eyes wrenched shut.  I sent every bug in my immediate vicinity toward Night, in the hope of slowing her down even a fraction.

The flashbang went off while it was still over us.  The last time I’d been around one when it went off, I’d had a wall between me and the detonation.  I wasn’t so lucky this time.  It wasn’t just bright and loud.  The blast rattled through me, left me dizzied, unable to balance, almost incoherent.  It was scarily like the concussion I’d endured.

Night was already moving.  My bugs were my only sense that still worked, but they couldn’t get a grip on the surface of her body.  She moved too fast, and her skin was smooth and oily, slick with some sort of lubricant.  The result was that I couldn’t really make her out in the darkness.  I only got flashes, the vaguest sense of how she was put together.  I was reminded of the ink blots I’d seen during my brief stay in the mental ward.  Every fraction of a second, it was a different set of ink blots, a different shape, all edges and angles and sharp points, entirely up to interpretation.

She struck at Judas a half-dozen times in the span of a second, her limbs flashing out and striking hard enough that I could feel the vibrations in the air.  Judas staggered away from her, colliding with me and one of my teammates.  I felt Judas’ crushing weight against my own body, the raw meat feel of his flesh and the stone hardness of his bones smothering me, before he shifted his weight and lurched back her way.

From the way Judas’ movements followed Night’s as she moved back, and the rigidity of his face and neck, I knew he’d managed to get a grip on her with his teeth.  He weathered the hits as she continued to thrash him.  He seemed to be getting the worse end of the exchange, but he’d taken away some of her leverage.

Blinking, I tried to focus on Night, but I saw double.  For several long, terrifying seconds, I was unable to bring what I was seeing into focus.

Judas was thrown against a wall, and went limp.  The furrows Night had carved into his face left more gouges than untouched flesh, his face a mess of shattered bone and hamburger meat.  With Judas’ bulk out of the way, I could make out Night, backing away.  My bugs settled on her, and she pulled her cloak up to shield her face, still walking backward.

Snapping my head around to check, I saw our escape route barred by Fog’s mist.  I could see Angelica’s silhouette in the midst of the cloud.  Bitch and Tattletale were struggling to drag Grue back away from the advancing mist.  Grue, too weak to stand, was trying to use his darkness to wall Fog off.  Grue might have stopped Fog entirely, except he was so weak that his darkness was dissipating almost as fast as he produced it.  Fog slipped through the largest gaps and continued a slow but inexorable advance.

Night was still struggling to get away from the bugs as they navigated around the folds of her cloak and the coverage of her mask.

Drawing my baton, I started to advance on her.  Night was human like this, vulnerable.

She drew her hand from her sleeve.  Another canister with a pin in it.

“Regent!” I shouted.

He snapped his hand out, and Night’s arm bent in a palsied, twisted angle.  The grenade fell to the ground, and Night fell on top of it.

I thought that Regent had been the cause of her fall, until I saw her raise her head, her good hand holding the grenade, pin held in her teeth through the fabric of her mask.

She pulled the pin free, and black smoke began billowing from the upper end of the canister.

It was suicidal, perhaps one of the dumbest things I’d done yet: I charged her.  She was already standing, holding the canister out in front of her to ensure the plumes of colored smoke obscured her quickly.  I struck at her hand with my baton, knocking the smoke grenade to the ground.  I stooped for it, but she stepped forward, blocking it with her body, seizing my shoulders.

She wrestled me to one side of the alley, perhaps to try and push me away and buy time for the smoke to build up, maybe for another angle.  I wouldn’t find out, because I brought my baton against the side of her face.  I got a sense from the feeling of the hit that she didn’t wear any armor or protective wear beneath the cowl and mask.

Night staggered from the blow, and I drove my shoulder into her.  It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped, but I did get her far enough away from the canister that I could duck down and scoop it up in one hand.

I dashed away, past her, and she struck me from behind.  I knew from the magnitude of the impact that she wasn’t in her human shape as she hit me, and for one paralyzing moment, I suspected I’d made a terminal error.

The blow was enough to knock me to the ground and make me roll a half-dozen times before I could stop myself.  I cast a glance over my shoulder as I stopped.  Night was there, and the residual smoke from the canister that surrounded her had apparently been sufficient to block my teammates’ view.  Stupid of me to turn my back.  I was lucky that she hadn’t had more than a second or two in her transformed state to act.

I scrambled to my feet, not taking my eyes off her, and rapidly backed up.  A piece of the armor on my back dangled from where she’d cleaved through it, swinging against my backside in time with my steps.  I held the smoke grenade low, to minimize how much it obscured my vision.  When I’d backed up enough that there was an alley to my right, I threw the smoke grenade away.

Night stopped following me, then swept her cloak up to shield against the bugs that still swarmed her.  I couldn’t go as all-out as I normally might with my swarm, without risking that I’d obscure my own vision of her and give her another opportunity to transform.

Second try, then.  Baton in hand, I charged her.

She was thrashing beneath her cloak, six or so paces away.  The bugs were nipping and stinging flesh.  Good.  One or two more good hits with the baton, she’d be disabled.

Night bent low, and I thought maybe she was down for the count.

Then she swept her cloak off and threw it up into the air.  It opened wide and momentarily filled my field of vision.

I heard her footsteps, two normal ones, heels clicking rapidly as she ran, then the noise of claws scraping against hard ground.  She tackled me, keeping the fabric between us, and my baton slipped from my grasp as her weight slammed into the trunk of my body.  The cloth of her cloak caught on my right hand and face.  An angular arm with too many joints seized my right leg, another two latched onto my right arm and neck, respectively.  Her grip and proximity to me held the cloth in place, kept her obscured.  I was hefted high into the air with a speed that dizzied me.

She dropped me, making me grunt as I landed.  Above me, my bugs touched her very human body.  I struggled to pull the cloth free, but it caught.  After a few seconds of ineffectually trying to remove the cloak from myself and see what was happening, I was almost frantic.  I brought my own bugs down on top of myself to get a better sense of what was happening.

Hooks.  The black fabric of the cloak was woven with black-painted hooks at regular intervals.  She’d worn that layer facing the outside.

“You’re boring people, you know,” I heard Tattletale’s voice, and felt a fractional relief.  I focused on pulling the hooks free.  Not that many were caught on the fabric, but there were some caught on the textured exterior of my armor, others on the straps that held my armor in place, a couple in my hair.

“I saw your info.  Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt.  First located in Hesse, Germany, moved to London, then Brockton Bay, Boston, then Brockton Bay again.  No kids.  Cat.   Nothing interesting about you, besides the obvious.  I’m thinking you even have your dinners on rotation.  Chicken and rice on Mondays, Steak and potatoes on Tuesdays?  Something like that?”

I pulled the cloak free and held it in my hands.  I saw Tattletale on the other end of the alley.  Fog had advanced quite a bit, but Regent and Bitch had apparently gotten Grue up on Brutus’ back, and both Brutus and Judas were with them, Brutus moving painfully slowly, while Judas was apparently blind or nearly blind from the damage to his face.  They all stood not far behind Tattletale, masked by traces of the smoke from the smoke bomb.

Night stood closer to me than the others.  I could see how she had various pieces of equipment strapped to her hips, forearms, and back.  Grenades, canisters, knives, something that looked like spray paint.  She swatted at the bugs that were crawling around her face and eyes, but her attention was on Tattletale.  I could have stood, maybe, but I didn’t want to draw her attention.

“So I was at a loss to figure out how to fuck with you.  You’re two dimensional.  Until I remembered that you left the Empire when Purity did.  And when she came back?  So did you.”

Night cocked her head a little to one side, listening.  Again, she slapped at the bugs on one side of her face.  Her face didn’t feel swollen, from what my swarm was conveying.  Her eyes were open, blinking closed when a bug touched her eyelash.  I suspected she healed back to perfect condition whenever she entered her other form, which would include cleansing herself of any toxins or allergens.

Night looked down at me.  Pale blue eyes.

“Hey!” Tattletale spoke, “Pay attention!”

Night drew a knife from a hip sheath.  She bent down over me.  I dropped her cloak and struggled to reach behind my back for my own knife, but she was faster.  The blade pressed against my throat.  My hand caught her wrist, stopping her from going any further.  I was pretty sure my costume could take a cut from a knife, but if she found the gap where my mask was separate from the body portion of my costume that extended around the lower part of my neck, she could slide the blade through with no difficulty.

“Damn you!” Tattletale shouted.  I was only aware of Night’s unwavering, unblinking gaze, the feel of her wrist in my grip.  Then the gunshots.

Night didn’t even scream.  She dropped partway on top of me, falling onto her side, her weight on my legs.

The villainess lay there, silently writhing, hands behind her back.  Blood welled from holes in her lower back and the space where her buttock met her thigh.  I glanced at Tattletale, who had her gun raised, looking slightly surprised and disturbed by what she’d just had to do.

Any sense of relief I felt at Night being taken out of action was short lived.

Too bright to look at, Purity hurtled down from the sky to land just beside Night and me.  I saw her raise one hand toward Tattletale and the others, energy welling up.

The blast of light momentarily blinded me, and it struck me just why Purity had Night and Fog working as part of her personal squad.  There were no happy coincidences there.  She must have calculated how their powers could collectively work together.  Her light and Fog’s mist could blind their foes, with Night leveraging any opportunities gained.  Alabaster and Crusader?  Probably intended as the front line, to slow the enemy down, take out the problem targets and buy time for the core group to do what they needed.  Or to do what they were doing now, and occupy enemies elsewhere.

When I could see again, I tried to grasp what had changed and what had happened.  Dust filled much of the alley, Night stood beside Purity, unhurt, and my teammates were on the ground.  No blood.  Nobody dead or dying.  At least, nobody that hadn’t been dead or dying when Purity arrived.  I was getting worried about Grue.  He didn’t look nearly as lively as he had two minutes ago.

A channel had been carved out of the brick wall to Purity’s right.  Motes of light still danced around it.  An intentional miss?  No.  It would have been Regent throwing off her aim.

“Purity!  Kayden!  Not looking for a fight!” Tattletale called out.  She raised her hands, her gun dangling from one finger by the trigger guard.

Purity just raised her hand, and more light began glowing in her palm.

“Dale and Emerson!”  Tattletale added.

Purity didn’t lower her hand, but she didn’t shoot either.  “What?”

“Aster.”  Tattletale stood up, “She’s at Dale and Emerson.  Outskirts of town.  The PRT has a safehouse there, for when a villain’s after someone, or in case some member of the Protectorate or Wards gets outed, and their family needs a spot to stay.”

“How-”

“You worked alongside me when we were dealing with the ABB.  Your subordinates and allies have as well.  You know I have my sources.”

“Don’t believe you.  You have no reason to tell me this, you told everyone-”

Tattletale interrupted, “We didn’t tell the media that stuff.  I’m even a little pissed about it.  Not just about us getting blamed, but that they didn’t just attack you, but your families?  It’s fucked up.  Entire reason we came here was to set the record straight and get you your kid back.”

“Kaiser said-”

“Kaiser thought he’d get more out of this debacle if he turned you against us, first, before directing you at the people or person who really sent the email.”

Purity shook her head.

Tattletale added, “It’s up to you.  Who are you going to trust, when Aster is on the line?  Me, or Kaiser?”

That was her argument?  I started to move to where I could attack Purity if it came down to it.  A spearpoint pressing down against my collarbone stopped me.  I looked up and saw Crusader behind me.

Purity dropped her hand to her side.  She told Tattletale, “You’re coming with me.”

“Didn’t expect any less.  But you’re letting my team go, and this destruction stops.”

“And how do I know you’re not just sacrificing yourself for them?”

“Because whatever else you might be, Kayden, you somehow, in some warped perspective, see yourself as an upstanding person.  And if I wasn’t an honest person when it counted, I wouldn’t trust you to hold to that.  Make sense?”

It didn’t to me.  It was circular reasoning.  I wouldn’t have listened if it were Tattletale trying to convince me  The question was whether it would get through to Purity.

Purity stared at Tattletale for a long time.  I was acutely aware of the spear at my chest, which Crusader could thrust through my costume and into me with a momentary use of his power.  How easily Purity or Fog could give Night the opportunity she needed to slaughter my teammates.

“You’re aware of the consequences if you’re wrong?”

“I’m not stupid,” Tattletale spoke, “You take out your anger on me, I wind up dead or maimed.”

Purity stepped forward and grabbed Tattletale’s wrist.

“The others walk,” Purity spoke to her subordinates, leaving no room for argument or discussion.  She wrapped one arm around Tattletale’s ribs, and they were gone in a flash of light, a trail of firefly-like lights dancing in Purity’s wake.

In that same momentary glare that had carried our teammate and Purity away, Night had moved into the midst of our team.  She had a knife held with the blade pointed out of the bottom of her fist, pressed to Regent’s throat.

“I get it,” Regent replied, with a disinterested tone, “You could kill us right here.  May we go?”

Night sheathed the knife and walked through the group to Fog, who was gathering himself up in a human shape again, turning away to exit the alley.  Crusader, on the opposite side of us, was rising back up to the sky.

I breathed a sigh of relief as Purity’s squad disappeared.  I held my breath again when I saw Grue and, further down the alleyway, Angelica.  Grue’s darkness was reduced to mere wisps around his body, which I took to be a bad sign.  Hurrying toward him, I retrieved my cell phone, went down to the bottom of the contact list.

It rang three times before it picked up.  I heard ambient noise, maybe a fan, but the person on the other end didn’t respond.

“Coil,” I spoke, “It’s Skitter.  We need that doctor of yours.  Fast.”

“Can you get to the same location as last time?”

“I don’t know.  Grue and the dogs are hurt.  We may need a ride.”

“I will arrange it.  Expect a call from the driver shortly.”  He hung up.  Not quite so friendly as the last time we’d talked.

I set to helping Alec steady Angelica while Bitch worked with Judas, who’d been effectively blinded in the fight with Night.   She guided his head and shoulders under Angelica’s body, so the smaller ‘dog’ was draped over him.

Once Angelica was in position, I hopped up behind Grue and helped him turn him over, to examine his chest.  I applied pressure and used the remainder of the bandage I had in my utility compartment to try to staunch the bleeding.  When I talked to him, asked him to verify that he was okay, his replies were monosyllabic and fairly nonsensical.

Between Judas’s canine burden and the damage Brutus had apparently sustained to his side, the two dogs moved slower than I normally walked as they plodded down the alley.

Every moment was nerve wracking.  I kept waiting for someone in the Wards, New Wave or Empire Eighty-Eight to find their way into the alley, spot us and pick a fight.  Worse, I harbored grave concerns that Grue might stop breathing.

The phone call from Coil’s people came when we’d reached the beach – the closest spot I could think of that would put us out of line of sight in the continued fighting.  I directed the guy on the phone to our position, and in my nervousness, I had to get them to verify, twice, that they’d safely made it through the barricade without any trouble.  All we needed was another ambush at the barricades from more of Hookwolf’s underlings.

The moment the pair of ambulances arrived, we loaded Grue into the back of one, the three dogs into the other.  Brutus and Judas had shrunk, having shed the layers of added bulk, and were more or less alright underneath it all.  Angelica, though, had been in Fog’s mist, and wasn’t any better even though she was almost normal size.  She’d inhaled the mist, drawn it into her lungs.  I could only surmise that it had consequently made its way into her bloodstream, and from there, to the rest of her body.  Only time would tell how much damage Fog had done to her from within.

I went in the ambulance with Grue, and watched as they gave him extra blood and tended to his chest.  Between my first time job patching up his chest, the fact that he’d torn it open, and my haphazard attempts to wad it with bandages and stall the blood loss as we retreated from the scene, it was a mess.  I cringed, feeling guilty, waiting for one of Coil’s medics to call me on something I’d done wrong.  They worked in silence, which was almost worse.

I sent Tattletale a text:

Frog A.  Got Coil’s people to pick us up.  Brian is getting help.  Dogs are mostly ok.  Text me back.

We pulled in behind the doctor’s office, and Tattletale still hadn’t replied.  I was surprised that the ambulance with Bitch, Regent and the dogs hadn’t come with us.

The doctor was a cranky old guy that Coil’s medic referred to as Dr. Q.  He was a thin-lipped man, about my height, which made him fairly small.  His hair was either recently cut or he got it cut regularly, was slicked close to his scalp, and seemed too dark given how old his face and hands were.  He took over for the medics as they carted Grue in, and they left with a nod to me.  I nodded back, unsure of how else to respond.

I stood by Grue’s bed with my arms folded and watched.  Dr. Q checked the work the medics had done in suturing up Brian’s chest and muttered to himself that it was competent.  When he’d verified they hadn’t screwed up, he took the time to clean Brian’s chest and remove the remaining threads from the first job.

“The bug girl,” he finally commented.

“Yeah.  I’m really sorry about bringing the bugs to your place, last time.  I see they’re gone now.”

“They are,” was his response.

I nodded.  I checked my phone again.  Still no response from Tattletale.

Minutes passed.

“Okay,” he pulled off his latex gloves, “Nothing more we can do for this lug.  You unhurt?”

I shrugged, “More or less.  Got jabbed in the stomach, I have my aches and pains, hurt my ear earlier, but I already got it taken care of.”

“I’ll verify that for myself.”

He checked my stomach, which required me to take off the top of my costume, and he prodded the bruise Cricket had left me with cold, dry fingers.  Then he had me remove my mask to examine my ear.  Apparently, he didn’t deem Brian’s job satisfactory, so I was sat down on a stool so he could clean it up.

He was partway through the job when my phone vibrated.  I read it and heaved a sigh of relief.

Tattletale:

Avocado c.  she got what she needed.  omw

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Buzz 7.9

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“You going to be okay?” I asked, as Grue zipped up his jacket.  With his t-shirt removed, he was wearing the leather jacket over his bare, freshly stitched skin.  I couldn’t imagine it was remotely comfortable.

“I’ll be fine.  Let’s end this ASAP.  Bitch?  The dogs.”

I winced.  I wasn’t looking forward to riding.  It was too soon after our previous escapade, and I was still sore.

Bitch whistled and pointed, and we headed out the front door of the church.  The moment we were outside, Grue hauled himself up onto Judas’ back, and I could see him hunch over for a moment in pain.

“Seriously, are you going to be-”

“I’m fine, Skitter,” Grue spoke.  He was creating darkness around himself, and his voice had that hollow quality to it.  “Just drop it.”

The ‘drop it’ line hit a little too close to home, echoing what I’d said at the mall after Brian’s rejection, and once or twice after that.  I was made acutely aware of that little rift I’d generated in what had been a fairly easygoing friendship.

Regent and Bitch were climbing onto Brutus, while Tattletale was examining her phone.  That left two dogs to ride.

I looked at where Grue sat, and decided it would be less awkward if I didn’t ride with him.  I approached Angelica, extended my hand for her to sniff, then climbed onto her back.

“Tattletale,” Grue spoke.  “I thought we were in a hurry.”

She put the phone away, then climbed up behind Grue.

“Coil?” I guessed.

“Yep.”

“And he’s saying?”

“To be careful.”

Grue gave a hand signal, Bitch whistled to give the dogs the order, and we rode.

Angelica was happy to follow the others, which freed me from the burden of getting her to follow my instructions.  That only left me the task of holding on and ignoring the ache in my leg muscles and stomach.

Tattletale was able to give us a general idea of which direction Purity was, using her power, and it only took us a few minutes to spot the telltale pillar of white in the distance.  Purity’s light, not aiming at a building, but lashing out.

As we got closer, the situation became clearer.  Purity, a flare of white against the backdrop of the gray sky, was surrounded by other figures, easy enough to make out with their predominantly white costumes.  New Wave.

The leader of New Wave had named herself Lady Photon, but in the wake of New Wave’s founding, and the revealing of their secret identities, the media had latched on to the idea of a superheroine mom and dubbed her Photon Mom.  It was apparent to anyone who followed cape news that the name really bugged her.

Lady Photon’s daughter and niece were in the air with her.  Laserdream and Glory Girl.  Mother and daughter shared the same general powers; flight, the ability to raise forcefield bubbles around themselves, and the ability to project lasers from their hands.  As a consequence, their fight with Purity was something of a light show.

Below, it seemed, there was an all-out war.

As she targeted Glory Girl, one of Purity’s blasts of light slammed into the edge of a rooftop.  Debris showered down, but was deflected by a bright blue forcefield.  That would be Shielder’s power at work.  He fought alongside Flashbang and Brandish, and I could identify Krieg, Victor, Othala and Alabaster in their immediate vicinity.  Further away were Night, Fog, Panacea, Vista and Clockblocker.

“Around!” Tattletale pointed over Grue’s shoulder.

Wordlessly, Grue steered Judas into a turn.  Bitch, astride Brutus, a bit ahead of Judas, looked over her shoulder and turned to join them.  Angelica was happy to follow after.  Together, we detoured left to a side street running parallel to the ongoing battle.

“Why?” I called out.

“Safer!” Tattletale replied, without turning to face me.

A crash behind me made me duck.  Manpower, a powerful seven foot tall athletic figure decked out in white and yellow, had been thrown through a brick wall.  Maybe more than one.  He seemed unhurt, but he was a fairly durable guy.  Personal electromagnetic shielding, if I remembered right.  He was still struggling to his feet after we left him behind.

“What’s our plan!?” I shouted, raising my voice to be heard as one of Purity’s blasts crashed down to the street to our right.

“Get her attention!” Grue replied.  He pointed,  “Up!”

Bitch whistled, and Brutus surged forward in our pack.  Brutus turned partway into an alley and leaped.  He latched his claws on one wall of the building, half turned, then leaped across to the neighboring building.  Zig-zagging upward, he ascended to the roof in a span of seconds.

Oh hell no.

Judas followed, and Angelica was only a heartbeat behind.  If I’d thought our travel over the rooftops on our last escapade had been rough, this was sadistic.  Or masochistic.  It depended on where I assigned the blame.

We reached the rooftop just in time to nearly be squashed by a huge chunk of building that dropped from the sky like a meteor.  Angelica lurched under me as she leaped to one side.

New Wave’s fliers and Purity weren’t the only ones in the air.  Aegis was also up there on the side of the good guys, but Purity had backup from Crusader and Rune.

Crusader was flanked by a half dozen translucent replicas of himself, each armed with a ten foot long spear.  He could use his power to generate ethereal simulacrums of himself, a legion of ghosts, if you wanted to be dramatic.  I was more willing to peg them as some sort of semi-sentient forcefield molded in his shape or some telekinetic energy infused with fragments of his ego.  Whatever.  The important thing was that his images could carry him up into the air, letting him fly, and they could pass through walls, armor and other solid barriers to impale you with those spears of theirs.

Rune was the source of the debris that had struck us, which was rising back into the air as I watched.  A teenage girl in the service of Empire Eighty-Eight, Rune was a powerful telekinetic capable of lifting nearly a ton.  Several things weighing up to a ton, judging by what I saw.  She hovered in the air, crouched atop a piece of building as big as a garbage truck, with more similarly sized pieces of rubble orbiting her.  The drawback to her power was that she needed to touch things before she could move them with her mind, but that seemed fairly inconsequential right this moment.

The pair of villains were running interference for Purity, distracting and trapping the heroes to set them up so Purity could blast them out of the sky.  Purity was too high up for us to interfere with, which meant we had to find another way to get her attention.

Regent handled that for us, sweeping his arm to one side.  Rune slipped from her position on her floating piece of balcony.  Another gesture from Regent, and the girl was left hanging from the side.

“Don’t kill her,” I told him.

“Right,” he looked up at the girl.  Seeing her struggle, he shouted, “Better make sure you can land somewhere safe!  I’m dropping you in three seconds!”

The rock drifted in our general direction, and we backed the dogs up.  When Rune was over the rooftop, Regent swept his hand to one side and brought her down to a painful landing.

“Fuckers!” the teenager in the cowl and robe screamed, “I’ll squash you!”

The big pieces of rubble in the sky above drifted our way.  One suddenly stopped levitating and dropped.

We were already kicking the dogs into motion, leaping to the neighboring rooftop, when the debris struck with a series of crashes that suggested the debris had punched through the roof and even the one or two floors below it.

Crusader was apparently too occupied covering for Rune’s sudden absence to come after us.  That meant that all we had to worry about was keeping from being crushed by Sabrina the teenage nazi.

Note to self:  I apparently wasn’t one of those capes that was good at the repartee, banter or name calling.

One piece of debris soared over our heads, then plunged to stab downward through the roof in front of us.  The dogs were agile enough to leap out of the way.

In the heat of the moment, we didn’t anticipate it rising again.

The debris thrust up through the edge of the building’s roof, and the dogs had to skid to a halt to avoid treading on crumbling rooftop.  With the damage the building had sustained, our footing grew unstable.  The ground sloped, Angelica scrabbled for a grip, and then the section of roof beneath us began to slide down toward the street.

Brutus pulled clear easily enough, but the continued drifting of the piece of debris forced Bitch to direct him down toward the alley, off the rooftop.

The rest of us had a harder call to make.  We were sliding off a precipice, and it was a good ten story drop to the street.  The nearest and only available rooftop to leap to was the one we’d just left, which was in ruins.

Judas, I saw, managed to clutch the edge of the sliding raft of rooftop and get the leverage for a jump.  Brian, Tattletale and Judas reached the alley, where they could rebound off the walls until they reached relative safety.

I was about to urge Angelica to do the same, when that drifting debris of Rune’s shifted position to block off the alleyway.  Another of Rune’s pieces of building approached from her direction, promising to smash us if through some miracle, the section of roof Angelica and I were standing on didn’t break free.

But we had another option.  If I could only convince Angelica.

“Go!” I shouted at her, kicking my legs.  She pushed forward, and the movement only accelerated the decay of the fractured rooftop beneath her paws, prompting it to slide and tilt.

Angelica ran toward the building to our right.  To the right of the alley.  She clearly intended to leap to the building face, use her claws to dig into position there… and there would be nowhere to go from there.  Even if she could hang there indefinitely, or scale the wall back to the street, Rune would scrape us off the wall with a levitated piece of rubble.

I grabbed a horn at the side of her head and hauled on it, pulling her left.  She resisted, hauled right, but I tugged again.

“Go!” I shouted at her.

She lunged straight for the floating piece of debris.  Her claws latched on it, and for a moment, we hung there, Angelica in an undignified pose with her upper body hanging onto the thing, back legs dangling.

It drifted downward, slow at first, then faster, as though Rune couldn’t support the weight of us and the chunk of building.  Angelica scrabbled for a grip, pulled her body up and forward, and found the footing to leap.

We reached the alley, Angelica found footing on the wall, and then made her way safely to the ground.

As we landed heavily, I fell from Angelica’s back.  My hands were stiff from the deathgrip I’d just maintained, and my legs were a wreck.

Still, hard to complain.

“You okay?” Tattletale called out.

“Yeah.  You guys?”

“Not so hot,” Grue replied.

He was leaning against a wall, with Tattletale at his side.  Darkness radiated from every part of his body but his chest, and I could see how  he’d unzipped his jacket to investigate the damage.  He was bleeding from the cuts on his chest.

“Fuck, I knew you weren’t good to go!” I struggled to my feet and rushed to his side.  “You pull your stitches already?”

“Other things to worry about!” Regent called out.  “Incoming.”

I looked, and sure enough, Night and Fog were striding into the alleyway.  Night sported high heeled boots that clicked as she walked, and there was the gender difference, but the two were otherwise very similar.  Cloaks, cowls, no logos or other decoration.  Gray for him and black for her.

“Retreat,” Tattletale spoke, “Just don’t turn your backs to them.”

Fog moved forward, his limbs and legs dissolving into a cloud as he advanced on us.  His pace was slow, only a little faster than we moved walking backward.

Bitch had to whistle twice to get a growling Angelica to retreat.  The dog seemed set on protecting her master, attacking this threat, and was slow to obey.

The fog reached her, and we heard a strangled yelp, an unnatural sound from the throat of an unnatural animal.  I saw Bitch start forward.

“No!” I caught her shoulder.

I might have argued, told her why she couldn’t or shouldn’t attack, how useless it would be against a man that turned to a sentient gas.  I didn’t get a chance.

While our attention was on Angelica, Night took the opportunity to blindside Brutus.  He was thrown bodily into our group with enough force to to bowl us and even Judas over.  Night just stood there, standing straight, heels together, one arm outstretched in front of her.  I hurried to my feet, my legs and knees aching, putting one hand on Brutus’ shoulder to steady myself.  It was then that I saw the damage she’d done to him.

A dozen gouges criss-crossed his side, each wider than my handspan.  One of the gouges had even shattered some of the protective bone plating.  Brutus exhaled slowly, shuddering.

She’d done that?

I sent my bugs at the woman, but the delay Night had created had bought time for Fog to get close.  His mist blocked the path to Night, reduced the woman to a faint silhouette, and where the cloud passed, my bugs were crushed alive in midair.  The mist swelled forward, and we backed up as best as we were able.

I checked our escape route.  It was blocked by none other than Night herself.  Had she teleported?  Cloned herself?  No, it wasn’t cloning.  I couldn’t see her silhouette anymore.

“What the fuck is this woman?” I asked, “Tattletale?”

“You know how the Manton effect could maybe be a psychological block that comes parceled with our powers?”

I nodded, once.

“Okay, well, imagine that this woman got powers that let her turn into something so wrong that she’s got some sort of mental block that keeps her from transforming if anyone can see.  Maybe because she’s so ashamed of being seen like that.  When nobody’s looking, though, she’s a monster.  Lightning fast and all sharp.”

“That’s…”

“Not even remotely close to the truth,” Tattletale confessed.  “But it’s the best I can offer you.  Don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Right.”

I began massing my bugs.  I was going to need to catch Night off guard, debilitate her enough to take her down before she retreated to safety.  Swarm her, swat her down, then we’d figure out how to deal with Fog.

A bit optimistic, but it was a plan, anyways.

Night reached into her sleeve and retrieved a canister.  I recognized it immediately.

A flashbang grenade.

“Tattletale?”

“I see it,” she murmured her response.  “Grue, we’re going to need you to cover this shit.”

I felt a ton of weight suddenly press heavily against my back.

“Grue!” Tattletale shouted.

Grue had fallen against me, and he slid from that position to staggered to the ground at my side, landing with his hands and knees on the ground.

“Blood loss,” Tattletale intoned.  “Fuck, Grue, pay attention, you’ve-”

Night pulled the pin from the flashbang and threw it high into the air above us.

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