Venom 29.6

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“Weaver,” Cuff said.  Her voice was pitched low enough that Satyr wouldn’t hear.

I turned my head her way to acknowledge her.  Satyr seemed to be preoccupied, sitting on a stair, picking something out of a groove in his golden belt.  Dried blood?

“You’re doing that crazy mastermind thing again,” Cuff said.

“Which crazy mastermind thing?”

“Where you talk to the other masterminds and one of you leaves something unsaid, and the other knows what that thing is without asking.  Who’s here?”

“Scion,” Satyr said.

“You heard me?” Cuff asked.  Then, after a pause, she asked, “Scion?”

I spoke up, “Leonid’s powerset includes the ability to hear everything in a certain range.  That means everything, regardless of intervening obstacles, interfering or distracting noises and volume.”

“I can hear your heartbeats,” Leonid said.  He was a lean, young twenty-something with long golden hair and a mask with a lion motif.  His upper body was draped in a black, skintight, sleeveless, bodysuit, his legs in loose-fitting pants.  Complex looking gauntlets and boots encased his extremities, each tipped with wicked, six-inch claws.  Not quite what he’d worn when he was on the Vegas Protectorate team.  His eyes roved from Cuff to Imp.  “I can hear your heartbeat speed up when you look at particular people.”

“Satyr can tell you he already tried the seduction angle with his copies,” I said.

Leonid grinned behind his mask.  “Satyr was doing it to distract you.  I’m not like that.  I’m one of the active guys.  It’s like how a magician shows one hand, all action, style and flourish, to get your attention…”

He gestured towards Satyr, “…and the other hand is busy with the trick.  Hate to break it to you, but I’m genuine when I make a move.”

“Yet you’re all man-whores at the end of the day,” Imp said.

“Imp,” I spoke, my tone a warning.

Leonid only smirked in reply.  Floret, for her part, cleared her throat.

“You’re from Vegas, right?  Just because you dress like a woman doesn’t mean-”

“Satyr,” I said, cutting her off.  “You think Scion’s here.  Is he down there with the Doctor?”

“He entered through the same gateway we did,” Satyr said.  “I imagine he’s somewhere upstairs.  It was always one of Cauldron’s greatest concerns, that Scion would make his way here through one of their doorways.”

“Why?”

“Cauldron’s plan B, their plan C, even plans D, E, and F, if things had gone without a hitch, they would have been deployed from this facility.  Perhaps there is one in a million chance one of the plans potentially works.  If they don’t, then perhaps they buy the rest of us some time, and a third party figures out a solution.  Or perhaps they get close, and Cauldron uses the time that remains to refine the approach and the idea.”

“The prisoners, all of the people upstairs…” Cuff said, trailing off.

“Plan B.  Also plan D, if you count the more unnatural deviants,” Satyr said.  “Except Scion is now here, and he’s here now.  All of the plans will be forced into effect at once, rendered into little more than alphabet soup.  To top it off, the architect of those plans is out of reach.”

I looked at the solid metal wall.  “Cuff?”

Cuff focused on the metal barrier.  “I can tell from here.  It’s a lot of metal.  I don’t know how they did it.  It’s all one solid piece.”

“They did it with powers,” Satyr said.  “A column, with the panic room dead center.  When they retreated inside, they pulled the switch, and the entire substructure dropped two thousand, five hundred feet below ground, putting the upper end of the column between us and them.”

Floret shrugged.  “We could handle a computer, a lock, even a vault, no sweat.  But not this.  The plan was to wait for the group on the other side of the facility to forge their way through the steel, or around the steel, but someone gave the Custodian a tinker-made super death knife, and well…”

“That was me,” I said.  “Nothing to do with the Custodian.”

“Ah, well,” Satyr said.  “Good and bad to any situation.  We’ll be able to assert control over that group more easily, with their leadership dead.  And there won’t be as great a chance that they take the good Doctor out before we can get a word in… but progress will be slower, and we don’t have much time to spare.”

It was a relief, on one level, that he didn’t seem interested in making a fuss over it.  He’d set Spur and Nix in the way, to keep people from interfering with his group’s infiltration, but he seemed fully capable of accepting that there was a snarl in his plan.

I knew it was hypocritical, but a part of me was bothered by that.  I didn’t want him to be able to take this in stride.  I didn’t want a lack of communication, conflicting plans and inter-group issues to be the norm, when the stakes were this high.  Satyr was the type that thrived because he anticipated such.

Maybe I was too.

Satyr looked at the wall to his left.  “The remaining members of the Irregulars and their digging party have just arrived at the far end of this column.  If we go up one floor, we can cross to the other staircase and make our way down to pay them a visit.  Given that the group watching their rear is… compromised, I don’t think we’ll have any problems taking control of that situation.”

“If we leave now and walk briskly, we’ll arrive in eight minutes,” Floret said.

“My details person,” Satyr said, “Would you believe?”

My tone was dry as I replied, “Somehow, I’m not surprised.”

Details would be Floret’s thing.  She didn’t look it, with bright pink hair, green roots, and a costume of metal ‘leaves’ that left little to the imagination.  Her costume philosophy was the antithesis of my own.  But Floret wasn’t a fighter, even less than I was.  She could take a minute or two to create a ‘bud’.  The bud would then unfold into a complex crystalline shape after a set time, or upon impact with a surface.  They were limited in terms of their size, no more than a foot across, but they were rich in potential, with crude applications on the molecular scale.  Typically stylized to look like flowers, the crystals could bond to surfaces, set touched things on fire, cancel out chemical reactions or just fuck with tinker devices.

As a teenager, she’d had a career as a roving lockpick for villain heist teams, creating keys and fake keycards with cloned magnetic strips, to varying degrees of failure.  It was only when she joined the Vegas team that she found others with the degree of forethought, planning and teamwork that could let her power truly shine.

Her power only worked because of her secondary power, and her secondary power was the big reason she fit in so well with the Vegas team.  An enhanced awareness and processing ability regarding fine detail.  She picked up on the little things.  All of the little things.

Satyr leaned back, then rolled forwards, getting to his feet without using his hands.  “I assume you’re coming.”

“Yes,” I said.  If only to make sure you don’t pull something.  “More bodies against Scion.”

“Bodies don’t matter,” Satyr said, as he led the way.  “One, ten, a thousand, it doesn’t make a big difference.”

Speaking of bodies…  Where the hell is Scion?  There wasn’t even any noise.

Was Satyr fibbing?

No.  It didn’t jibe.  Not with the aura of defeat, not with the circumstance, with what Tattletale had said… they were good at the con, but not that good.

I changed subjects.  “Can I ask where the heroes are?  Revel, Exalt and Vantage?”

“With Nix and Spur,” Satyr said.  “Most likely disguised as a rock or a bulge in the cave wall.  Blowout hit them with a full-on stunning presence.  They should still be out.”

“I see,” I said, trying not to reveal how surprised I was.  We’d walked right by the captive heroes.  That wasn’t the big issue.  Blowout was.  He wasn’t as stylish or attractive as the others, with a featureless mask that had a single ‘eye’ at the brow, his head shaved.  His armor panels had lights that slowly rotated from one color to another, like a chintzy car stereo.  Unassuming, when he wasn’t engaged in a fight.  When he was, the lights would be flaring, muscles would be standing out, and there would be noise, shock and awe involved.

Blowout wasn’t a tinker; he had telekinetically assisted strength, which meant that when he was hoisting a car over his head, he was doing it with his mind more than with his arms.  The strength and durability increased with the size of the audience and the reaction he got from them.  His secondary power was the effect he had on his enemies, feeding on the same reactions that fueled his strength to new heights and leaving his targets stunned, reacting slower, taking longer to pick themselves up off the ground.  On paper, he was the case-in-point of what Leonid had been talking about, the hand that distracts while the other hand sets up the trick.

But, as Floret suggested, it was something of a thing for Vegas capes to have ‘secondary’ powers that were actually the real power, in practice. Or maybe it was that Satyr tended to encourage a focus in the secondary powers, or a development of those same abilities.  There was nothing on record about a long-term use of Blowout’s power, like Satyr had described.  It would be a card he’d kept up his sleeve when he wasn’t doing something behind the scenes with the Vegas capes.

I was put in mind of a few of the records and events that hadn’t quite fit.  They’d checked, retroactively, for drugs, and found none.  They’d checked for any remainder of Floret’s creations, and again, they’d found nothing.  But if it was Blowout… if he was the reason people had been left with amnesia, brain damage and even brain death, then that gave me a bunch of new reasons to worry about the Protectorate heroes we’d left behind.

A reason to watch our backs.  I just had to wrap my head around how he might have done this so discreetly, when his power required the obvious and blatant.

Satyr’s duplicates, maybe?  Did the copies count as a crowd?

Something to keep in mind… and I had to inform my teammates without Leonid knowing.

I glanced at the leader of the Vegas mercenaries, noting how quiet he was as he ascended the stairs.  He didn’t seem worried about anything.  Not us, not Scion, not the riot above.  Was I like that, when I was in the zone?  Almost wanting to push him outside of his comfort zone, I said, “I expected you to ask about your teammates.”

“Spur and Nix?  They’re capable enough.  If you’ve done something horrific to them, then informing me won’t help us in the here and now.  I’ll have my revenge at a later date, all the same.”

“Fair,” I said.  No effect.

I let Satyr maintain the lead of the group and determine our pace as we moved forward.  He had eyes on the other group with his duplicates, and he had Floret passing information to him with the subtle sign language the group had adopted.  It worked; if we arrived too early, we’d be interrupting the Irregulars before they were through the steel barrier.  If we arrived late, we’d be running the risk that the Doctor would be killed.

For now, I was happy to let them manage that aspect of the plan, while I focused on keeping an eye out for the inevitable stab in the back.  It just didn’t flow, their attitude now, compared to how they’d tried to cover their tracks earlier.  I knew who they were and I’d seen the records detailing whole strings of crimes, and I wasn’t willing to believe they were playing ball with us.

So I watched them, and Floret watched me, because her power was perfectly suited to following what my swarm was doing from moment to moment.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel murmured in my ear.

Imp leaned in to join the conversation, adding, “You do know that Leonid can hear everything that’s said in a certain area around him?  There’s no point in whispering.” as if she hadn’t just found that out for herself.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel said, full volume.

“That’s not what I meant,” Imp said, a little off-guard.

“He’s arrogant, he talks too much, and he acts like Tattletale does when she’s trying to pretend she’s not in a really bad mood,” Rachel said.

“It’s a rare thing,” Satyr said, “for someone to leave me speechless.  I can tell you that virtually everyone comes to like me when they get to know me.”

“Everyone likes the manipulative assholes after they’ve had a chance to do their manipulating,” Rachel said.

“I couldn’t extend that to Weaver, there, and suggest the same applies to her?”

“You could try,” Rachel said, “But then I’d have my dogs attack you.”

“Alright,” I said, stepping in.  “No more of that.”

Rachel glowered at me.

“He’s a weasel,” Lung growled.  “I have allied with a man who talked like he does, but it was a man of substance.  Not sex and…”

“Subtlety?” Imp offered.  “Scandal?  Style?  Sophistry?

Where is she learning these words?

Lung only glowered at Imp.

“As substanceless a person as he might be,” I said, “Scion’s upstairs, and we have overlapping goals, so we’re allies, or as close to being allies as we’re going to get.  No fighting.”

Rachel relaxed as though she’d flipped a mental switch.  She snapped her fingers twice, getting her dog’s attention, and then made a gesture without moving her hand from her side, her palm facing the ground.

The dogs eased up just like she had.

I glanced at Satyr, who shrugged.  His tone was light as he said, “My ego’s taking a bruising today, it seems.”

I could see the lines of his shoulders and chest, with him not wearing any armor on the upper body.  Was he maybe just a bit less relaxed than Rachel at this point?

Maybe he wasn’t at ease around someone who blithely barreled past any attempts at manipulation with unbridled aggression.  A point for us, maybe.

We’d reached the fourth floor.  I stood by, watching for trouble from above, while the others filed through.  I could see how Canary was ill-at-ease, while Shadow Stalker was impossible to read in her ghostly state, passing through the wall by the door.  Cuff and Lung were both rigid, as if anticipating fights, but were confident enough to walk ahead of the rest.  Golem, Rachel, and Imp seemed more in their element, hanging back while the Vegas capes passed through.

“You know what you’re doing?” Golem murmured, as he hung back with me.

I nodded.  “Mostly.  Just watch your back.”

“For Scion?”

“For them,” I said.  “And yes, I know Leonid hears me.  I know Satyr and the others are getting the cliff notes from Leonid.  But they’ve got secondary goals here, and it’s worth watching out in case they try something.  Even if they know we know they’re trying something.”

There were nods all around.

Four copies of the Custodian appeared before us as we made our way into the fourth floor.  Each moved slightly out of sync with the others as they moved their heads.  It was only when the third and fourth moved that I realized just how they were moving their heads – raising their chins to look up.

“I know, my dear,” Satyr said.  “How close?”

They didn’t respond.  Instead, they disappeared.  First one pair, then the remaining pair.

“Second floor basement,” Satyr said.  “Scion is taking his time making his way down.”

“Why?” I asked.  It was too quiet.  “If Scion wanted, he could have torn his way through here in a heartbeat.”

Satyr was on point as we made our way across the fourth floor.  The cells here were reinforced several times over, each standalone, separated by tracts of empty space that eighteen wheeler trucks could have turned around in.  Spotlights served as the only light in the area, and they were focused on the individual cells, leaving the empty space between the cells dark.  Without my relay bugs, my power still didn’t quite reach the far end.  A third of a mile across by a third of a mile across, maybe, with ceilings that were fifteen feet high.

The lights flickered more violently than it had upstairs or in the stairwells, but these cells seemed to be drawing on a backup power source.  The lights flickered, went out, only to be turned back on, glowing a dim red, before the regular power was restored.  The lighting cycled between the three states, with no rhyme or reason.

Why?” Satyr echoed my question.  I turned my attention back to him.  “Why do you think he’s taking his time?”

“That’s not helpful,” I said.

“Basic reasoning,” Satyr said.  “What do we have in abundance, here?”

“Capes?” Golem asked.

“Capes?  Yes.  But there were capes at the other battlefields.  It’s very possible he’s idling because he’s taking them all to pieces, but… for however many minutes?  No.  What else is in abundance?  Or, to phrase it better, what particular kind of cape is in abundance here, that you didn’t have at the battlefield?”

“I get the feeling you already know the answer,” I said.

He nodded, the goat-horned helm dipping low, then rising.  The lights went out, then went red for a moment.

“Case fifty-threes,” Golem answered the question.

There we go,” Satyr said.  “And if you care to, you can infer further.  Why?  Scion is the supposed source of powers, yes?  Then what are the deviants to him?  If we see them as distorted people, then he sees them as…”

“Distorted powers?”  Cuff answered.  “Or… whatever they are to him.  Distorted spawn?”

“Something foul,” Shadow Stalker spoke for the first time since we’d split up to escape the cell.  “Broken, wrong, loathsome.  Damaged.  And no parent wants to face the fact that their kids came out less than perfect.”

The sphere Imp had tucked under one shoulder jerked a little.

“Woah,” Cuff said.  “Generalizations much?”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Shadow Stalker said.  She glanced at Satyr, “I’m right.  Cauldron created these deviants as a kind of psychological warfare.”

“Most definitely part of it,” Satyr said, and there was an approving note in his voice.  “It’s psychological warfare… Shadow Stalker, was it?”

Shadow Stalker nodded.

“Yes, I’ve heard of you.  There are other elements at play.  Prey species have been known to spread their scent through an area, to confuse predators.”

“I like that analogy,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Mm hmm,” he responded, nonchalant.  “So Cauldron uses these deviants as a particularly strong source of our metaphorical ‘smell’.  They scatter them across the world where Cauldron is most active, the world Scion occupies, and he loses the ability to sniff them out.  Of course, this only works when the deviant isn’t going to draw undue attention.  Either they’re calm and inclined to keep to their own, by nature, or so dangerous that they remove witnesses by default.”

My eyes moved to the sphere Imp carried.  I was inclined to think she fit in the latter category.

“It makes sense,” I said.  My eyes were on Shadow Stalker.  She was playing into Satyr’s hands.  I’d made a note to watch out for it, but this wasn’t even subtle.

They were fucking blatant about this shit, relentless.  Which probably worked for them, because it eventually worked.  They found a hook, an angle, maybe played it in a more subtle way, or they’d just take it and run with it.

And it was all controlled, all managed, keeping it at a level where I couldn’t call them out on it without looking like I wasn’t willing to play ball.  That was fine on its own, but it put us on a bad footing.  I didn’t want to be in the middle of a brawl if and when Scion made a sudden appearance.

“Cauldron capes have, according to reports, gotten responses from Scion.  A pause, a momentary break in pattern, even, some say, a feeling of aversion.  Powerful Cauldron capes achieve better results, deviants even more so… and if the effect scales up as Cauldron thinks it might, the extreme deviants will get an even greater result, while having powers that may have some effect on him.”

“Which makes a lot of sense,” I said, “They’re a smokescreen, maybe.  Except there’s a hole in that theory.”

“There is,” Satyr said.

“He could wipe them out with one shot,” Golem said, the first to connect the dots.  “He could shoot them and shoot through the floor, if he wanted to.”

“Exactly right,” Satyr said.

“Do you know why he isn’t?” I asked.

“I have guesses, nothing more,” Satyr said.  “Hm.  They just found a way of combining their powers.  They’re breaking through the column more quickly than I thought they would.  We don’t have to run, but maybe hurry a bit.”

We stepped up our pace.

“He’s on the third floor,” Satyr said.  “Floor above us.”

“How do you know?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“Custodian.  We’ve crossed paths, as my group ran some errands for the good Doctor.  I think she likes me, even.”

I hadn’t noticed the Custodian, but I wasn’t positive I would have seen her if the appearance was brief enough.

“What’s on the third floor?” Floret asked.  “I haven’t been down here.”

“The ones with names.  Any cape they deemed interesting enough to keep and research.  Not many left.  I think they scaled down on those to focus on other things.”

Not many left.  Meaning there wasn’t much standing in the way between us and Scion.

If Satyr’s group wasn’t playing us.  I was less sure than I had been.

Supposedly Scion above.  Who’s below?

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.

Ask her,” he said, pointing at Imp.

I glanced at Imp, who shrugged.

“In the sphere,” Satyr said.

“There’s a button on the bottom.  If you depress it, you can rotate hemispheres.  Counter-clockwise, please.  Clockwise opens it, and I’d rather not die.”

Imp looked my way.

“Go for it,” I said.

Imp turned the sphere.

“Finally.  Fresh air,” the girl inside said.  She had a quiet voice.  More the type of voice I’d connect to a shy librarian at a party or a sheltered preacher’s daughter in the company of boys.

“Sveta?” I asked.  “We met on the oil rig.”

“She also goes by Garotte,” Satyr said.  “The only reason the PRT didn’t put her down was because she’s rather hard to kill.  She has quite the impressive body count.”

“Don’t say that.”

“She was part of the original invading party,” Satyr went on, ignoring her.  “They attacked the Doctor, setting this whole mess in motion.”

“I could hear everything you guys were saying,” the girl said.  It was only when she said the longer word ‘everything’ that I noticed the rasp to her voice.  It would be part of the reason for her being quiet.

“Who’s with the Doctor?” I asked.  The other stairwell was in view.

“When things went bad, it was Weld, me, Brickhaus, Gentle Giant and six others who turned around and protected her.  I wasn’t very useful…”

She trailed off.  A second passed.

“Need a bit more information,” Satyr said.

“I’m hurt,” she said, and there was a plaintive note in her voice.  She sounded more like a Canary than a Shadow Stalker.  Not quite the voice of a killer.

“Suck it up,” Satyr said.  “Scion’s coming, and we need to know what we’re walking into.”

“Brick took the guy Blesk brained against the wall, um.  It was the clairvoyant, the doormaker, hurt, the Doctor.  Brickhaus, Magnaat, Munstro, they made it inside.  The others got shot down in the stairwell.  Um.  There was a guy with glasses, and five teenagers who looked a lot like him, only without glasses.  Ordinary looking, pretty much.  Alexandria…”

“Hm,” Satyr made a noise.  He looked up.

In that same moment, the lights flickered out for the umpteenth time.

The emergency lights didn’t come on.

I could sense my teammates, Shadow Stalker, Canary and Lung closing ranks.

“Weaver?”  Satyr asked.

He split in two.  A slow, oozing process, a lump swelling, pulling free, then forming features.  The arms and legs were quick enough, and the details followed, but the new him had no helmet, but slowly reshaped his exterior to match the original Satyr’s costume.

“If you keep doing that, I’m going to have to attack,” I said.

“What’s he doing?”  Canary asked.  There was a note of panic in her voice.

“Splitting up,” I said.  I willed Canary to pull it together.  Satyr bulged, clearly preparing to make another double.  I called out, “Satyr, I might need to rephrase.  If you finish making that copy, I’m going to attack you.”

“He can’t stop once he’s started,” Floret said.  “It’s a drawback.”

“I don’t buy that at all,” I said.  “So either you need to be more convincing, or I’m wrong, and Satyr has to learn how to cancel a copy in progress in the next five seconds.”

The bulge stopped growing more parts.  It began retreating into Satyr.

“We need to talk, Weaver,” Satyr said, still distorted, withdrawing the mass into himself.

Imp spoke up, “Why is it always Weaver you need to talk to?  Never, we need to talk, Rachel.”

“Shut up, you idiot,” Satyr snarled the words.  “There’s no time for foolishness.”

Idiot?  Foolishness?”

“What is it, Satyr?”  I asked.

“I’ve got to ask about your goals.”

“Ah,” I said.  “Nothing complicated.  Saving the doctor, getting answers, stopping Scion.”

I found my knife, beneath the staircase, suspended by threads I’d tied to the surrounding area.  I set my swarm to retrieving it.  We couldn’t see, but Floret shouldn’t be able to either.

“I always had a hard time trusting anyone who doesn’t have ulterior motives,” Satyr said.  “And now, here, I dearly wish you had some.”

“Sorry,” I said.  “If you haven’t noticed, a lot of us are pretty blunt here, straightforward.  Our goals are what they appear to be.  I really wish you could trust us.”

“And I wish I couldn’t,” he said.  “Funny how that works.”

I sensed Blowout pacing a bit to our left.  Floret had her hand cupped, like she was ready to throw one of her things.  I gathered the swarm, sensed her tilt her head a fraction.

Listening?

How much noise could thirty bugs make?  Or, rather, how much noise could thirty bugs make in the audible spectrum?

No.  That didn’t make sense.  Floret sensed details without even trying.

She was faking me out, no doubt.  Distracting so someone else could pull something.

Leonid was utterly still, no doubt focusing on the various sounds.  On heartbeats and breathing, the creaks of our muscles moving and joints shifting.  He was the one to watch.  He’d said it himself.  He was the hand that drew attention so the others could pull their tricks.

Which didn’t make him any less threatening.

Secondary powers of sound detection and sound manipulation, adjusting select things to be up to twice as loud or absolutely silent.  It gave him a stranger classification, a thinker classification.

His third power was a mover power.

“Don’t do this, Satyr.  It’s insanity,” I said.

“Your being here fucks it all up, Weaver.  There’s too much danger that you’d agree with us, that we’d have the same objectives, regarding the Doctor.”

There a distant detonation, a rumbling passed through the complex.

“What are your motives?” I asked.  “Do you want to help her or hurt her?”

“Yes,” Satyr said.

“That’s not an answer.  I thought you said there’s no time.”

“There isn’t,” he said.

“Satyr, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’ve been playing this game of tricks and subterfuge so long you’ve all forgotten how to walk a straight line.”

“Oh, I remember,” he said.  “We remember.”

“So you’re just going to stand here, idly threatening us, until Scion attacks?  That can’t be right.  You’ve lost your mind.  Something with your power, messing with your heads…”

“You’ve got it wrong.  Powers from a bottle, they mess with your body.  Subtle things, but stuff you notice.  Heh, the last straight conversation I had with Pretender, he brought it up, joked…”

Time,” I told him.

“Ah well.  It’s you natural triggers who get a little bent in the head, here and there.  Isn’t that right, Ms. Lindt?”

My heart dropped out of my chest.  I closed my eyes.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice quiet.

I clenched my teeth.

“That’s right,” she went on, a little louder.

“Shadow Stalker.  You too, believe it or not.  I’ve seen your record.  Your attitude, it’s not wholly your own.”

“Bull.”

“I’ve worked with worse.  I could give you direction.”

“Honestly?  With this shit you’re pulling now?  You sound fucking crazy.”

“Shadow Stalker and I are agreeing on this count,” I said, “Trust me when I said that’s a bad sign.”

“If we’re going to resolve this, it’ll have to be soon,” Satyr said.

“You keep doing that,” I told him.  “Telling us how little time we have, then delaying.  Forcing us into a corner?”

Another half-chuckle, wry.

“You’re not making any sense, Satyr,” I said.

He only offered another short laugh.

“You want us to fight you.  To stop you.”

“Probably for the best,” he said.

“No, it’s not,” I said.  “We need help, we can’t be distracted by-”

“Enough of this,” Lung growled the words.

“No-” I said, but I was too late.

Flames erupted around his claws.

It cast light on us, on our surroundings.

With the light, Floret could see my knife, off to one side.  I hadn’t been planning to use it to attack, but I’d wanted it in hand before we descended.  She slung one bud at it.  Encased it in crystal.  It hit the ground at the base of a cell, by a spotlight.

Leonid screamed, double volume, and it was an eerie, echoing scream that bounced through the area, each echo lower in pitch than the last.

Not that he needed it to reach that far.  Each echo of the scream coincided with a fraction of him fading out of existence.

Simultaneously phasing those parts of him in behind our group.

Canary had started to sing, nervous, but Leonid faded in behind her.  Two seconds to teleport.

Rachel raised her hands to her mouth to whistle.  No sound came out.

I turned, opened my mouth to shout, but Leonid had muted us.

I pointed, instead, but Canary didn’t get my meaning.

Rachel couldn’t get her dog’s attention with snaps or whistles.

Leonid reached out with his claw, up for her throat-

And Rachel tackled him, gripping his wrists.  Canary was entirely unawares, up until one of them kicked her ankle in their struggles.

Shadow Stalker and Lung engaged two of the remaining Vegas capes.  Blowout stepped in the way, protecting Floret.

And through some unseen signal, some practiced maneuver, he knew to duck as she flung buds at the pair.

One unfolded in the air, tagging Shadow Stalker in her shadow state, and she crumpled.

The other hit Lung.  Foot-long tendrils extended from his right pectoral to his right arm, binding to each.

Blowout hit the tethered Lung.  Maybe he wouldn’t have been strong enough to affect Lung normally, but the audacity of it and our reactions to that went a long way in giving him a little extra kick.

Satyr forced another copy out in record time, as the other charged me.

I set my bugs on it.  On her.  My double.  She didn’t have my powers.

She was strong.  Tougher.  She closed the distance to me with ease, with a runner’s strength.

So I moved the bugs to the original Satyr.  That bare chest, the eyeholes in his helmet…  I attacked Floret, and Leonid, and all of the other capes who had exposed skin.

Golem’s hand knocked her aside.  Cuff charged the one Satyr had just created.

Even at this juncture, I knew it wasn’t an even fight.  Satyr had outright admitted his team wasn’t a match for ours in a brawl.

Canary tentatively stepped on Leonid’s right hand.  Rachel’s dogs got his legs.  He screamed, and that sound wasn’t muted.

He began to phase out, reappearing by Satyr.  He climbed to his feet.

We outnumbered them, we had better combat powers.  The outcome wasn’t in doubt.

Which made Imp’s maneuver all the more insane.

She stepped out into the middle of the group and held the sphere high.

Rotated it, then rotated it back.

Sound resumed around us, as Leonid dismissed the silence effect.

Don’t, don’t, don’t,” a voice was saying.

It was Sveta, inside the ball.

“Everyone stand up,” Imp said.  “And if you fuck with me, I’m opening this thing.”

Don’t, please don’t.

Why?”  I asked, again, my eyes on Satyr.  The real Satyr.

“I would have been content to wait.  To procrastinate until we ran out of time.  But you came.”

“Satyr…”

“It’s for love, in the end.  Pettiest of all pursuits.  Arrogance, greed, even revenge… they’re nobler, trust me.  I’ve walked all those roads.  But love?  It twists all the other things.  Makes you misstep, makes you irrational, makes you impatient, above all.  We couldn’t have gone down there without getting revenge, without falling to our greed and arrogance.  So I was willing to wait.  To sit back and put it off, tell myself we didn’t have the firepower, didn’t have the numbers we needed to take on the group at the stairwell.  Wait until it was too late.”

“You were willing to die?”  Shadow Stalker asked.  She sounded offended.

“Better than being the ones who pull the trigger, dash our last hopes,” Satyr said.  “You can put down that sphere, Imp.”

Imp hesitated, then lowered the sphere.  She locked it, with vents open so Sveta could speak.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“And you probably won’t.  If you’re lucky.  I’ve said it all out loud, so the lie isn’t worth it, now.  You can go.  We’ll stand by.”

“Your fucking head games.  You’re going to stab us-”

“Weaver,” he said, and there was no pretense in his voice.  No joking tone or trace of mockery.  Talking straight.  “Go.  They’re almost through.”

“He is right, Skitter,” Lung growled the word.  “I can hear him.”

Lung was looking the way we’d come.

Scion, here.  On this floor.  I thought I could see the golden light, but it might have been a spot in my vision from looking at Lung with his burning hands.

If we go, there won’t be any escape routes.  No exits.

It was as insane as anything Satyr was doing.  Everything rational said to go upstairs, to find our way to the doorway, hope that Scion was still half-blind, still holding back.

But I turned, running for the stairwell with the Case-fifty-threes, away from Scion.

I ran hard enough that I couldn’t spare the breath.

I spoke with my swarm.

Go upstairs, if you want to go.

Give them a way out.

I could hear the others behind me, at varying distances.  I could sense Satyr’s group with my swarm.  They held their ground as Scion approached.

I don’t understand.

The others were following.

If you come, there’s no way out.  This isn’t even a hail mary, it’s a hope that there’s maybe something we can do.  A chance buried in a chance.

We came face to face with the group that had been working their way through the steel.  A mole-man, an ‘extreme deviation’ case that seemed to be made up of lasers, with her petrified body parts capping the ends.

And others, dead.  Satyr’s clones littered the area, where they’d brutally fought and killed several of the digging capes.  Where they’d died, they’d withered.

With Scion on our heels, we couldn’t afford the time to fight.

Lung, Shadow Stalker and Rachel tackled the ones who remained.  A crossbow bolt delivered to the cranium of the laser-girl, dogs attacking the mole-man.  Lung’s claws and flames to assist with both.

Without my asking, Cuff jumped into the hole.  Imp followed.

One by one, we passed inside.

Golden light flared in the massive room we’d just left behind.  No rumble, no devastation, nothing of the sort.

But I could guess what had happened.

Even if I didn’t understand it.

Golem was blocking off the path to us, while others made their way down.  Lung, Canary, then Rachel and her dogs.  Hands of concrete barred the way, and two larger hands extended from the column, fingers knitting together to form a fence.

It wouldn’t hold Scion for seconds, but it was something.

Three of us remained.  Golem, getting ready to descend, me, watching the rear, and Shadow Stalker.

Our eyes met.

She bolted, disappearing through the wall.

I headed down, with Golem following right behind.

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Venom 29.5

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Prisoners and case fifty-threes flooded into the narrow corridors, making their way into the special cells.

I gestured, urging others to move.  They shifted until their backs were against the wall.  Golem and Cuff even stepped onto the bed, to get out of the way.

I found myself by the door.  Mantellum wasn’t close enough to blind my bugs, so I could track the people as they came around the corner, approaching the doorway.  A gang of them.

I drew my second knife, then activated the knife Defiant had given me.  Safety… and the trigger.

One… two…

The guy at the head of the group made it into the doorway.  He stopped as he saw Bastard.  I pressed my old knife’s blade against his throat, saw him back away, only to bump into the people behind him.

three… fo-

The knife finished forming the gray blur around it.  Roughly three point seven seconds.  Good.

He didn’t look worried.  So I reached out and dragged the blur against the wall, gouging out a groove a few inches deep.  Smoke expanded.

He froze, his eyes flicking down, as if he could see past his cheekbones, face and chin to the knife I had against his throat.

I nodded slowly.

“Move it, asshole!”  one of the captives said.

He didn’t move.  I saw his eye shift, until it settled on me.  My arm moved, not wholly steady when fully extended, a weight in hand, and I felt the blade rasp against the scruff on his neck.

Not a case fifty-three.  Just an ordinary guy.

‘Ordinary’.  He was here, he would have powers.

“Move!” the guy in the hallway ordered.

Dim byd yma,” my hostage said, without breaking eye contact with me.  Then he added, in a heavily accented voice, “Is nothing here.”

The cheering reached a climax outside.  My bugs could sense the people in an adjacent cell.  They had someone, and were dragging him out as a group.

“Something’s going on,” one of the guys in the corridor said.

“Don’t care.  Move, motherfucker.  I want to see if there’s any shit in there.”

“Is no shit,” my hostage said.  “Empty.”

I nodded slowly.  Oddly enough, he looked more concerned at that.

An issue in translation?  A cultural problem?

The roaring reached a climax.  They had a man with no arms or legs, not fat, but with a goiter-like mass around his neck… hairless.  A case fifty-three.

This one,” Imp said, repeating what the mob’s ringleader was saying.  Shouting, judging by the way he was acting on camera. “This traitor, he is how they controlled us.  How they planned to control you.  He was going to brainwash these ones into a private army… he’s pointing at the weird looking ones they brought from downstairs.  This traitor was going to send the rest of you out without any memories, without identities, as Cauldron’s trash.

“We’re missing it,” the one further down the corridor said.

It’s only the three, now.  The rest backed out to check out the scene.

“I think I know what we’re missing.  It’s not worth seeing.  But first dibs at whatever’s in this cell?  If this fuckhole doesn’t move out of the doorway, I’m going to slide a foot up his rectum, and pry open a new doorway.”

I glanced around the room.  I could see how tense the others were.  Even Lung was rigid, bristling with scale-points.  Primed for a fight.

Imp’s voice came over the earbuds.  “Oh, hey, fun fact.  You can apparently crucify someone without arms or legs, if you try hard enough, and have the right powers.  He’s getting the crowd worked up, trying to start up a witch hunt.  Um.  He’s shouting, who wants to kill the real monster, the monster who did this to us?

The bloodthirsty cries of the crowd made it through even the soundproofing of the cell.  I could sense the emotion, the anger.

Look to your neighbors, the ones next to you.  Are they shouting loud enough?  Are they angry enough?  Because we aren’t going to brook any traitors.

My hostage looked like he was going to have a heart attack.  Caught between two very dangerous people.

I relented, easing up on the knife, then I beckoned for him to enter the room.

Slowly, he obeyed.

The guy behind him spat.  “Fucking liar.  I knew you were lying.  Trying to keep all this shit to your… self…”

He trailed off as he got far enough into the room to see me and the others.

I gave my hostage a push, with the idea that he’d get put off balance for the others to deal with.  Except I failed, completely and utterly, to budge him.  He started to turn, and I left him behind, hurrying forward to slide behind the second man and confront the third before he could catch on to what was happening and alert others.

The others folded in on the first two.

I could see the third man’s eyes go wide as I approached, my bugs swarming.  I had a knife in each hand.

He had other powers.

Fighting capes I don’t know, unfamiliar powers.

A sphere of light surrounded my right hand and knife, more spheres lighting up to surround the largest clusters of my swarm, turning each of them into fireflies in the darkness.

Which put me in the awkward position of figuring out what his power did and counteracting it.  The obvious solution, a solution to most powers, was to hit him before he could hit me with whatever it was he did.

I tried moving bugs outside of the sphere, and the sphere moved with them.  I moved individual bugs in different directions, and I felt them distort, coming to pieces, as if they were blobs of ink and I was pushing them against a hard surface.

Bugs made it through his perimeter, biting and stinging, and he reacted with the appropriate pain.  But the bugs surrounded by light didn’t manage to bite into flesh.  They were soft, their mandibles bending like putty.  Where he swatted his hand against them, both spheres and bugs were distorted and crushed by the movement.

I moved the bug-spheres out of the way, thrusting with the knife-hand he hadn’t yet affected, to cut off his retreat.  I felt the effect surround it as I got closer.  Another sphere.

I pulled back, instead.  I moved my body to block his retreat, and then drove my knee into his stomach.

He staggered back, then cast out more lights, surrounding my elbows, knees…

My head, too.  My vision went… not blurry, but the colors smudged, like bad watercoloring.

Breathing became more difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.

The bugs who’d bent their mandibles or distorted in the course of making their way outside of the spheres weren’t going back to normal.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to hit this guy with any of my body parts, if they wouldn’t bounce back to their normal shape after the fact.

I wasn’t sure I wanted him to hit me, either.  If my face proved that pliable and he punched it…

He charged me, and I was forced to move out of the way.  He stumbled for the other end of the corridor and for the crowd, a hand pressed to his stomach.  I unspooled lengths of silk cord from the dispensers at my belt and beneath my armor, dragonflies lancing past him to encircle his throat and feet.

I braced myself, ready to try and arrest his forward momentum, but one of the threads was shorter than the others, and he only tripped.  He glanced over his shoulder, then cast out his spheres, so they covered my feet.

I threw myself forward, my flight pack kicking into action.  I lost my orientation, fighting to activate the individual panels in such a way that my hands, feet or head wouldn’t slam into a wall.

Imp said something, reciting a comment, but my focus was elsewhere.

The flight pack cracked against a wall, and I came to a dead stop.  For long seconds, the two of us were stuck.  I was unable to walk, because my own body weight would crush my feet, with this softening effect.  I couldn’t touch anything without turning my hand or whatever into mashed potatoes.

For his part, the guy was caught on the ground, his feet bound by cords too thick and strong to break with his own raw strength.

The lights flickered  out.  I could see him using his power.  An orb of light, surrounding a length of the thread.  He could counter that, while I wasn’t so lucky as to be able to counter him.  He pulled his legs apart until the thread had stretched out to the point of snapping.

He started to climb to his feet, finding other threads and using his power to break them.  He was screaming, but nobody seemed to hear him over the noise of the crowd, and all eyes were on whatever was going on in the Mantellum blind spot.  He wasn’t getting any help, but I couldn’t stop him.

Not with the thread.

So I controlled the swarm, driving bugs into his nose and mouth.

You want to play hardball, Softball?

He collapsed, choking.  Some would have capsaicin, but few of the laced insects would be alive, covered in hairspray and a toxic chemical, so long after I’d last refreshed them.

Slowly, in the order he’d created them, the spheres disappeared.

“Need help?” Cuff asked.

“No,” I said.  Forty seconds ago, yes.  Not now.

“Right,” she said.  She looked at the choking man.  Her voice was a little different as she said, “Okay.”

When the spheres around my feet and hands had faded, I let myself drift to the ground.  I hit the safety and trigger to remove the blur, then sheathed my knives.  Once my hands were free, I clenched and unclenched my hands to make sure everything was in working order, and then grabbed the threads that still remained.  I pulled on the threads until he was in a position where Cuff and I could get our hands on him and drag him back towards the others.

There were cheers.  I looked at my phone, and I could see the weirdly pretty man.  Chains stretched out from the armless, legless figure’s stumps, extending to the high ceiling and the floor, suspending him fifteen or so feet in the air.  Dead, or close enough it barely mattered.

I could also make out Mantellum, at the center of the crowd.  He stood beneath the guy they’d strung up, blood running off of the shroud that seemed to flow from his back and the edges of his face.  His expression was hard to read, but the fact that he seemed to be luxuriating in the blood rather than avoiding it… it didn’t put him in my good books.

It looks like we’ve got a full-on riot here,” Imp commented.  “Armless dude’s good as dead, they’re splitting up the crowd, so anyone that’s not inside the circle has a few guys who can deal with the ghost janitor.”

“The Custodian,” I said, as I rounded the corner.  I shoved the still-choking prisoner to the ground.  The one I’d held hostage was pinned to the wall, arms and legs held fast to the surface by Golem’s projected arms and legs.  Lung stood with his face just a foot away from the man’s.  Bastard stood with his paw on the chest of the remaining prisoner.

Three dealt with, no alert given.

The pretty man and the spiky, yellow guy were holding a prisoner’s hands up the air between them, like they were celebrating a prize fighter.  I could hear the noise of the crowd, as if it were far more distant than it was.  My bugs, outside of Mantellum’s effect, could hear it at full force.

Her.  Right,” Imp said.  “He’s getting them hyped, saying they’re going after the Doctor, but they need to dig.  Picking out the people who have the best powers for the job.  They’re shouting out what they can do.  I think they’re leaving soon.

The small army we were faced with aside, I found myself smiling a little behind my mask.  The situation evoked memories.  Except this time, I had a cell phone.  I had the pepper spray.  I had a weapon.

I’d changed.  I was more prepared to do what needed to be done.

“Less to fight,” Lung said.  “If you are scared, children, you can stay here.  In a moment, I will go.”

Taunting?  Mocking?  No.  Not really his style.  Confident in his superiority, now that he’d changed as much as he had.  Not full changes, not even full coverage with his scales, but he seemed to think he could throw himself into the crowd just outside the corridor and survive.

“We should exfiltrate,” Golem said.  “Lose the costumes, wear other ones, blend into the crowd.”

“Except you need your costume,” I said.  “Cuff’s far stronger with hers.  Imp, Rachel and I benefit pretty heavily from ours.”

“It’s just an idea,” Golem said.

“It’s an idea,” I said.  “Very workable, but it doesn’t address our main issue.  We need to stop them from going after the Doctor.  If we only wanted to escape, then I’d agree with your plan, but for now-”

Looks like they have groups formed,” Imp said.

It was true.  I had to tilt my phone so others could see what I was seeing.  Gaps had formed between the discrete groups, as everyone figured out who they were sticking with.  The main group looked like it had eighty or ninety people.

“That’s a lot of people to stop,” Golem commented.  He gave me a sidelong glance.  “You’re wanting to do something here?”

I nodded.  “Have to, don’t we?”

“Damn it,” he said, but he didn’t argue.

“Canary?” I asked.

Her eyes were on the two guys we had on the ground.

“Canary,” I said, a little louder.

Nothing.

One was still choking.  I ordered the bugs to make their way out of his airway.  They weren’t blocking it, but they were keeping him down.  We had the situation here under control.

Canary didn’t seem to relax any as the bugs flowed out of his mouth and nose.  A few crawled forth from beneath his eyelids.  He coughed and gagged.

She got more tense as I let up on ‘softball’.  Maybe I should have left him the way he was.

Canary,” I repeated myself for the third time, injecting a little more force into my voice.

She looked at me, disoriented.

“Can you sing to them?”

“Just them?”

“If you don’t have control, then yeah.  Just them.”

“I guess.”

“It makes them suggestible?”  I asked.

“I don’t really know.  I never really experimented with my power.”

“Not even in the Birdcage?”

“Not really, no.”

I nodded.

“They’ll listen to me.  If I really get into it, they’ll do anything I say.”

“Are they suggestible to you alone, or everyone?”

Canary shook her head.

“You don’t know,” I said, in the same instant she said, “I don’t know.”

“Can you group them all together?”  I asked.

Lung moved fast enough that it caught me off guard, bending down to grab ‘softball’ and the other guy by the throats.  He slammed them against the wall, putting them beside the guy I’d taken hostage.

Golem bound them in place.

Lung grunted, and I couldn’t read any meaning in the noise.  Irritation?  Satisfaction?

He was restless.  Ready for a fight.  The sound might have been a ‘there, now we can stop talking and do something.’

“Lung,” I said.

“Mm?”

“Go watch the corridor?  Your hearing is good enough you can follow along.  Plus you might not want to be too close to Canary, here.”

“Mm,” he said.

Less verbal, now, because of the transformation?

Canary crossed the room, and she began singing.  Wordless at first, as if sounding out what she wanted to do, then with more character.

Even though she kept her voice low, it still reached me, and that made me more than a little paranoid.

I moved to the other end of the cell, leaning against the wall.  When I could still hear the sounds, I put a curtain of bugs between myself and her, and made them buzz and drone, fluctuating the sound until I couldn’t make out what she was doing.

“What are you thinking?” Rachel asked me.

“Chaos,” I said.  “Ideal world, it won’t be chaos with us at the center.”

Rachel nodded.  “No dogs, then?”

That many parahumans, I suspected the dogs wouldn’t last more than a few minutes.  “No.  Let’s not put them in too much danger.”

“Lovely sentiment,” Shadow Stalker said, just a little sarcastically.  “So how are you pulling off this chaos thing?”

Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon,” Tattletale said.

I gathered my swarm into a cluster.  Then I activated my knife.

Using thread, I bound the knife handle, then lifted the knife into the air.

“What are you doing?” Cuff asked.  She sounded genuinely curious.

The bugs stopped working to carry the knife, and I very carefully grabbed it by the handle, before withdrawing my hand from the mass.

“Had a thought, but it doesn’t work.  It’s too conspicuous, the swarm.”

“Floating death knife?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“That was the basic idea.  But I’ll need to do something else,” I said.  I turned off the effect around it, watched as it dissolved into smoke.  “Custodian.”

I felt out with my bugs.  She reached directly into the swarm, letting me feel the slow movement of her hand.

“Generally speaking, you think you could handle most of the ones out there?”

She slowly floated through my swarm.  The movement of her head… was she shaking it?

I felt a familiar kind of disappointment.  We had the tools.  Canary’s song, Lung, the knife, the dogs, the Custodian, my swarm… but in execution, it didn’t fit together.

The crowd was stomping now, a rhythmic stomping, the crowd working in unison.

If anyone wasn’t game, if anyone wasn’t keen on the lynching of the armless man, they had to be powerless in the face of this much fury.  How could they speak against it?  Defend the man?

It was scary to think about.

Riling them up to go trash the place,” Tattletale said.

There was a crash.  I turned to my cell phone.  A cloud of dust, the crowd was agitated.  Someone had trashed a cell, or a group of cells.

“…If they keep doing that, they’re going to hit these cells awfully soon,” Tattletale added.

I shut my eyes.

“We’ll have to give it a shot,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker?  Leave.”

“Leave?”  Shadow Stalker asked.

“Find a vantage point, away from the crowd.  Be ready.  Your targets are the special case fifty-threes.  When I give you the signal, take out as many as you can.  As many as you safely can.”

“Your concern for my well being is touching, Hebert,” she said.

“I’d be annoyed if you got killed,” I said.  “I’d have that nagging doubt in the back of my mind, wondering if I sent you off into a suicidal situation because of our history.  And because we can’t afford to lose anyone.  Because you’re a human, and I don’t want people on our side to die needlessly.”

“So it’s about pride,” she said.  “Petty, stupid pride, that you think the outcome of this shit is up to you.  And maybe fear?  That you’ll lose too many good soldiers?”

“Whatever,” I said.  “However you want to interpret it.”

“I’m assuming you’ll insist on tranquilizer bolts,” she said.  “Because you don’t want anyone dying needlessly?”

“No,” I said.  I thought of Newter, of the unique physiology of the case fifty-threes.  “Lethal shots.”

She made a funny little laugh as she looked down at her crossbow.  She began loading it with expert, practiced movements.  “Funny how it all turns out.  This, for one thing.  That I can’t anticipate you anymore.  And… that it’s just you.  There’s nobody to mourn me when I’m gone.  Family doesn’t really care.  No friends left.  No teammates, even.  I’m left to console myself with the idea that, if I die, I’ll at least annoy the depressing, creepy little geek from high school.”

“I’d say something reassuring,” I said.  “I want to tell you that you matter more to me than that.  Or that I’m sure you matter to someone out there… but I don’t think you’d buy it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  She wasn’t maintaining eye contact.  “Whatever.  I’m going as far up the stairs as I can, put myself half out the wall, snipe from there.  I’ll be a minute.”

Then she was gone, stepping through the wall, heading towards the stairwell closest to us.

You meant that shit, Skitter?”  Imp asked.  “Wanting to care?  Wanting to reassure her?”

“Pretty much,” I said.  “At this juncture, there’s no reason to lie.”

You’re too forgiving,” she said.

The lights flickered as another impact shook the complex.

They’re going.”

“So are we,” I said.  “Just as soon as Canary’s ready.”

Imp spoke, “Always ticked Alec off, you know.  That you weren’t any good at holding grudges.  Too focused on the present, when it came to picking your enemies and your allies.  I wound up defending you, even.

I was barely listening, trying to focus on the swarm, picking out the places they could operate and the places they couldn’t, tracking the various prisoners as they started moving.

But that last sentence caught me off guard.  “You defended me?”

“For him, it’s his raisin de enter.

Raison d’etre,” Tattletale clarified.

Yeah.  That.  His daddy fucked him up, so it sort of gave him an inner fire where he didn’t have much more than coal inside, y’know what I mean?  Forward momentum, itch to go out and get shit done?  Become a villain with the idea that maybe someday he’d get to pull one over on the old man, become a warlord.  So for him, it was the only reason he really got up in the morning, besides maybe the basic pleasures of life.  My parents fucked me over too, but it was different.  No grudge here, just a whole lot of sad.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wasn’t sure what to add to that.

So it was a fight.  Closest to a fight as I ever got with that asshole.  Well, if Skitter’s being nice, so will I.  Good deed of the day, since I’m dicking around now, nothing to report…  You listening in, Shady?”

Shady?”

Man, it was eerie to recognize Sophia’s voice over the earbud.

I’ll take that as a yes.  Regent told me about his stunt.  Controlling you.

Canary passed through my swarm.  She was silent, and the glances to the side when Imp was speaking suggested she didn’t want to interrupt.

He took you home.  Gave you a hard time, messing with your mom.  The whole thing with you nearly committing suicide afterwards.

I was very still.  The lights flickered, the ground rumbled, and I didn’t so much as flinch.

Well, I’m not going to ‘prattle’, as Lung would put it.  He was there, obviously.  He told me about it, after the fact.  Just, like, a heart to heart, between two of us who don’t have much heart to go around, you get me?  Neither of us’s the type to get embarrassed, so nothing to hide.  Can share all the stories.  Share each other, just by talking?”

She made it sound like a question.  Like she wasn’t even sure, and she wanted validation from someone.

I remembered how Regent had controlled her.  Seized her with his power.  Sharing each other indeed.

Not a guy that’s in touch with his emotions.  Way I always saw it, they’re there, he’s just oblivious to it all.  Had to be.  So it’s only after he’s through with you that he realizes maybe he was a little hard on you, maybe he twisted the knife harder than he usually would, because it bugged him.  There you are with a family, and he can feel your emotions, and he totally knows you don’t even realize it in the slightest.  He’s blind to his own emotions and you’re blind to the emotions of others.”

Is this going somewhere?”  Shadow Stalker’s voice.  “You’re prattling.

Take it from me, as I tell you what the lazy jerk who body-controlled you told me.  Your mommy loves you lots, Shady.

There was a pause.  “Okay.

That’s all you’re going to give me?  I totally dish all this, and I get an ‘okay’?”  Imp asked.  She was oblivious to the pause before Shadow Stalker had spoken, to the fact that she’d affected Shadow Stalker on some level.

That, or Imp’s wording had taken a second to figure out.

“No arguments,” I said, cutting in before something could start between two of our more volatile members.  “Canary?”

“They’re ready.”

“Good.  Rachel, Golem, Cuff.  If and when we move, I need you to run interference.  When we move, I need you to distract, protect the core group, protect us as we run.  Rachel, keep the dogs large enough they can maybe take a hit or two, but not so big they can’t make their way into the stairwell.  Lung?”

There was no reply.  I could sense him out in the corridor, just at the corner where it looked out into the main hallway with the prisoners and other cells.  He turned in response.  He might have been able to hear me through the comm system, but he could have heard me anyways.

I don’t think he knows how to use the comm system,” Tattletale said.  “Or he does, but he’s changed enough it’s hard to do.”

“Lung,” I said.  “The other three are giving us cover.  You have enough experience I’m not going to tell you what to do.  You’ve been at this cape thing for a decade and a bit.  So go all-in.  Or do what the other three are doing.  Your call.”

There was no reply.  Maybe he didn’t understand the comm system.

“You’re so calm,” Canary said.  “Most of you.  Lung seemed nervous.”

Lung, out in the corridor, clenched his fist.

You annoyed him, saying that.

“I’m shaking,” Canary said, and her strange, melodic voice gave evidence to her fear.  “You can’t tell with these gauntlets I’m wearing, but I’m shaking.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Don’t worry.”

“I’m-” she laughed a little, and the laugh hitched with emotion.  “I’m- pretty worried.”

“We’ve been through worse.  Everyone here has been through worse.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better.  It makes me feel like maybe I had the right idea, back in the beginning when I decided not to do this cape thing.  I’m going to fuck up, and the stakes are so fucking high…”

“Relax,” I said.  “Or… if that’s not possible, just, um.  Tell yourself we’ve got your back.  None of us are about to let the newbie die.”

“That’s not that reassuring,” she said.

“It’ll have to do,” I said.  The ground was shaking, and someone was manually tearing apart a cell block just a distance away.  I could feel Mantellum retreating, the blind spot shifting.

I was just a little impatient.  We were running out of time, and I didn’t even have everything in place.

I parted my swarm, giving myself a view of the three captives.

“You three,” I said.

They raised their heads.

Brutto tik,” the largest one growled.

“Be quiet,” I ordered, as authoritative as I could manage.

He clenched his teeth, lips pressed together.

Does he even realize he’s obeying?

“I’m not your enemy.  Stop treating me like an enemy and listen,” I said.

I could see the tension slowly seep out of them.

“Nod your heads,” I said, experimentally.

They each nodded, out of sync.

“Golem?  Release them,” I said.

Golem created more hands, manually tearing the old ones apart.

The three stood still, looking just a little unfocused.

I turned to the largest one.  “What are your powers?”

He looked confused.

“Tell me your powers.”

“I’m dense,” he said.

Ah.

I extended my disintegration knife in his direction, saw the delayed reaction, the genuine fear and concern.

I turned it around, offering him the handle.

He stared at it, still looking afraid.

“Calm down,” I said.

He relaxed, very slowly, very visibly.

It works on involuntary reactions?

He settled into a state that still looked ill-at-ease, but not nearly as afraid as before.

Or does it work on the voluntary, visible signs of the involuntary reactions?

“Take it,” I said.

He took the knife.

“Hide it.”

He hid it.

“Now don’t move.  Don’t be afraid.”

He went stock still.

“Um,” Canary said.  “A thing…”

“A thing?” I asked.

“He’s not as influenced as my ex-boyfriend was, but… they’re very literal, about what you say.  Even like this.”

I looked at the dense man.  “Okay.  Then-”

“You’re allowed to move to breathe,” Canary cut me off.

The man exhaled audibly.

“Now don’t react,” I told him.

Then I sent my flying bugs to him, collecting them beneath the generic uniform he wore.  They carried silk cord and wound it loosely around his legs and arms.

True to form, he didn’t react.

I thought about it a bit more, and then gave him an excess of silk.  Hundreds of feet of it.

“This cell was empty, there’s nothing inside except people looking for some privacy.  Make your way to an isolated spot where nobody can really see you, wait until the lights flicker out, and then use the safety on the knife.”

He looked at me as though he hadn’t taken in any of it.

“My ex was like that, before went and obeyed me, without my knowledge,” Canary said.  “I think this guy will listen.”

“Then you’re free.  Forget this.”

He left.  I looked at the remaining two.

“You two, shirts off.”

“Yes.  I like the way you think.”

“Be quiet, Imp,” I said.  “We’re moving, be ready.”

And moving starts with sexy times.  Not complaining.

For someone who hates being ignored, she seems to demand it from others, I thought.  “Sit in the corridor, near where the spiky, scaled guy is now.  Tell him to come here.  If anyone comes, kiss.  Convince them they’re interrupting something private, get angry.”

“I’m not comfortable with this bit,” Cuff said.  “It’s creepy.”

“It’s better than Lung having to tear people to shreds or burn them if they happen this way,” I said.  “I’ll take creepy.”

“Okay, if I have to be specific, then I’ll say it’s a bit, um, rapey.”

I frowned.

“Don’t actually kiss,” I told the men.  “Fake it as much as you can.”

Cuff nodded.

The others were all moving, now.

As the two stopped near Lung, he turned to go.

Apparently he was going solo.  He clawed at his already scale-torn shirt and cast it aside, then stalked into the crowd.  He didn’t completely blend in, with his heavy jeans, but he could almost pass for a case fifty-three.

The dense man with the knife stopped.  He’d found a place in a cell where nobody had a good view of him.

He held up the knife, then activated it.   I drew the bugs from beneath his clothes and wrapped threads around the handle.

The lights went out.

I carried the knife up to the ceiling, then started carrying it down the length of the hallway.  With my bugs, I could trace the hallways on either side, sense the general grid with cells in rows of five, I could see the people…

Up until I ran into Mantellum’s blind spot.

A chronic failing of human beings, that we so rarely looked up.  The swarm moved along the ceiling.  If any parahumans had the powers to notice it, they didn’t have a strong enough voice to alert any others.

And, in the interest of using the enemy’s tools against them, I was able to bring the swarm inside Mantellum’s area of effect.  If there were clairvoyants or precogs capable of tracking my actions or what I was about to do, then this would presumably limit their sight just as well as it limited mine.

They’d lynched one of their own kind, were eager to lynch any others who didn’t show absolute loyalty.  They were celebrating, in a way, and they were simultaneously building up the crowd, ensuring that their mob was loyal.  All of them on the same page, for better or for worse.  I couldn’t see, but I could guess that the reason for their slow progress was the press of the crowd between them and the door.

I was blind, here, but I didn’t have to strike aimlessly.

I extended silk thread above the blind spot.  A good two hundred feet of the stuff, level with the ground.  I only stopped when either end of the suspended silk cord I had bugs on either side of Mantellum’s blind spot.

Then I extended more, setting it cross-wise against the other thread.

Not perfect, but it gave me a starting point.  Assuming the blind spot was a circle or a sphere, which it appeared to be, I could find the center point.

Mantellum, the source of the effect, dead center.

I waited until the lights flickered again.  The moment my bugs couldn’t see the lights, the tight swarm of bugs with the threads and the dagger swept down.

“Shadow Stalker, Lung, this is my signal.  Act.  Imp?  Get out of the way, head back to us.”

One pass.  A lazy swoop with the swarm, the knife suspended by threads.

I couldn’t see, even with the camera, but I was aware of Mantellum stopping in his tracks.  The boundaries of the circle stopped drifting in the general direction of the stairwell.

I waited, willed the lights to flicker.  Time passed.

People were reacting, outside the circle.  How much damage had I done?

The lights went out.

Another pass.

Mantellum’s effect dissipated.  The blind spot filled in, a crowd, capes, blood spraying.  My bugs could sense them all.

The lights came back on.  One cape saw the swarm, moving towards the ceiling.

A chunk of ice the size of a small car hit them.  Ice fragments rained down on the crowd.

Many bugs had died in the collision.

The swarm couldn’t keep the knife aloft.  I had to reinforce it, but I couldn’t get enough bugs there in time to do it before it hit the ground.

Fine.

I let it fall.  Let it pass through the ground like the ground wasn’t even there, disappearing into the floor beneath us.

“Custodian,” I said.  “The effect that was blocking you is down.”

I could feel her move.

Lung was advancing, now.  Fire rolled forth from his claws in plumes, surging into cells.  The crowd moved out of his way.

I could hear them cheering.  Oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t on their side, wasn’t just carrying out the raid.

Lung hurled a fireball that passed just inches above the crowd’s heads.

The fireball hit a cell block, scattering more of the crowd.

He was changing now, changing quickly.

“Lung,” I said.  “Tone it down.  If you grow too much, you won’t be able to come downstairs.”

No response.

More fire, more destruction.  The flames were spreading, igniting beds.  I could see on the camera, the meager flames that lingered on stone and concrete.

There was a method to his madness.  Small as the flames were, capes were backing away a touch.  They were cheering him on in his rampage, cheering the destruction of cells that had kept them captive, but they were still falling victim to the strategy beneath it all.

He was walling them off, sectioning off an area with fire and plumes of smoke.  Making it so we only had to deal with a smaller number.

I became aware of Imp as she hopped over a smaller flame on her way to us.  Lung, unaware due to her power or uncaring due to his personality, came dangerously close to frying her as he shored up the barrier, driving people back as the smoke continued to billow.

The cheers became screams of fear and panic as Shadow Stalker’s bolts started hitting the special capes.  Sniping them.

Three shots, and then someone retaliated.  A sonic attack, focused.  The crossbow bolts stopped appearing.

She’s dead?  Just like that?

No.  More crossbow bolts, from a different vantage point.  Fired from within walls, Shadow Stalker poking a barely visible head out into gloom to get a bead, then firing at her targets.

“Go,” I said.  “Shadow Stalker, Lung, we’re moving.  Cover our retreat, follow us if you can.”

No response from either.  They were busy doing what they were doing.

I could feel the Custodians appearing.

A vast quantity.  Filling empty spaces, overlapping.

A duplicator?  I thought.

Like Velocity, the Brockton Bay Protectorate member who’d died against Leviathan.  He’d been a fast cape, capable of outrunning vehicles, striking a hundred times in a minute.  But that came at the expense of a limited ability to affect the world.

The Custodian was the same.

She was weak, standalone, barely a wisp of air.  And she couldn’t turn it off.  Couldn’t get back to a state where she was fully material, capable of affecting the world normally.

But she duplicated, combined her strength, made hundreds of herself, thousands

She tore into the crowd like an elemental force.  My bugs could feel the air ripple, felt prisoners get thrown into cells.

Felt the blood, the limbs being bent in ways that wasn’t possible, when they refused to be thrown.

Energy attacks cut through the open air, and she barely slowed down.

The remaining special case fifty-threes from the floor below started to attack, to use abilities I couldn’t quantify as sound or fire or lightning, and the Custodian let hundreds of duplicates disappear in her attempts to get out of the way.

We headed out of the corridor.  “You two,” I ordered the shirtless duo.  “Help defend us.”

Between the dogs, Golem and Cuff, we had the brawn to force ourselves through the crowd that was in the area Lung had walled off.  Surprise, too, went a long way.  I didn’t have a lot of bugs, but I had enough to blind a few people, to fill their noses and ears and distract.

When Lung turned his fire on the group that was standing their ground, readying to stop us, that was a breaking point.  They scattered.  Two remained, tough and stubborn enough to keep attacking, and Lung picked one of them up, swinging them like a flail to bludgeon the other aside.

Golem’s hands shoved more away.  Cuff’s strikes, using her ability to manipulate metal and her metal gloves, were enough to break bone.  She shattered legs and arms, struck ribs and threw people aside.

I wasn’t proud, but I knew that this cold, efficient ruthlessness was at least partially a result of the time we’d spent together.

Imp caught up with us.  She had a sphere tucked under one arm, with the coiling mass of Weld’s partner within, still moving.

Panting, Imp said, “Couldn’t get him, but I figured she’s bound to be on our side, right?”

I only nodded.  There were other things to focus on, like the ones that had been torturing her.

In the stairwell at the far end of the hallway, the one that mirrored our escape route, the main group, with the beautiful man, the spiky boy and a badly injured Gully were making their way down the stairs.

I was ready.  I already had thread attached to a rivet in the ceiling, thread attached to the knife I’d dropped to the floor below.  It swung into the stairwell, an easy, casual swing.

The disintegration effect carved into the people at the front of the group, into heads, shoulders, necks, and body parts unique to case fifty-threes.

I used the swarm to control the swing, to swing it into the crowd that was hurrying down the stairs.

More struck.  Devastation, people falling over each other as they collapsed on the stairs.

Someone, no doubt someone with a sensory power, reached for the knife, tried to grab it.

I cut the thread with the mandibles of my bugs.  It plunged down into the group, paused as the handle came to rest on writhing bodies.

Then slid off to one side as the blade continued to eat through everything near it.

Again, it ate through the stairs, falling to a floor below.  I did what I could to catch it, using my bugs to grab after the threads that still trailed behind it.

We reached the stairwell, and faced the group within.

They’d barely dented the reinforced metal doors, with their myriad powers.

Cuff ignored them, charging forward, and hit the door with her fist.

The crash was loud enough to stun me, and I was at the thick of the group, furthest from the door.

She did more damage to the door than most of them had.

The Custodian was right.  We wouldn’t have been able to break through here in normal circumstances.  We’d have been cornered, more than we were in the cell.

The damage continued outside.  The Custodian pursued the group in the stairwell, harassing, bludgeoning.  She separated the crowd into groups and then bulled them back, driving them towards empty cells.  I was drawing my bugs back to me in stages, concentrating them on a few people at a time, trying to track what she was doing.

Yet even with that, I couldn’t follow it all.  Flayed skin, people holding their hands against one eye, joints bent the wrong way, bleeding wounds.

Nothing lethal.  Only punishment.

Lung, Cuff, Golem and Rachel dealt with the five threats here in the stairwell.  Shadow Stalker made her appearance, and dealt with the sixth, jamming a tranquilizer bolt into his neck.

Cuff hit the reinforced metal door again.  It bulged as if she were ten times the size, hitting ten times as hard.

She hit it a third time, a fourth…

On the fifth impact, it gave way.

We made our way down.

“Further,” I said.

FYI,” Tattletale’s voice sounded, “Losing you as you get further down.”

“We’ll be in touch,” I said.

Attack in Gimel went.  Not good, not bad, but it went.  Didn’t want to dis…, but now it’s…    …Just wanted to let you know.  Bracing ours… …r nex… he didn’t show at next location… trying…  where he is… Wish us-“

And then radio silence.

I tested the comm.  No luck.

Two stairwells, mirroring, no doubt for the safety of having a backup.  The other group had stalled where the knife had delayed them.  We proceeded further.

Past the fourth floor.

We stopped, panting for breath.

Another reinforced door, open.

An expanse of flat, brushed steel behind it.  A dead end.

And sitting in front of that expanse of steel were Satyrical, Blowout, Floret and Leonid.  Revel and Exalt were nowhere to be seen.

“It seems we’re going to have ourselves a problem,” Satyrical said, looking down at his fingernails.

“No offense,” I said, “But I think we’re a little stronger, in terms of raw firepower.”

“You are.”

“So unless you’ve replaced half of my team with sleeper agents…”

He shook his head.  “Only just became aware of you, honestly.”

“…I’m not particularly threatened.”

“No,” Satyr said, speaking slowly, as if he were picking his words.  “It’s not us.  It’s him.”

Him?

Oh.  Him.

“And the one with the answers is buried under a half-mile of solid steel,” he said.  He bit at the corner of one fingernail, then buffed it on the leg of his costume.  “Like I said.  A problem.”

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Venom 29.4

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Lights flickered as we made our way inside.

It looked like a hospital, but not an abandoned one.  Things were pristine, the walls and tiled floor a clean, untouched white.  It wasn’t a place that had been left to deteriorate.  The stark, clean nature of the place made for a contrast where the damage had been done.  There were gouges in the walls, things torn free from walls and ceilings.  Scorch marks, from both acid and fire, and damaged chairs, cabinets and lockers.

I noted the contents of the lockers and cabinets that had been torn open.  Glass vials, empty, clear fluids, medical tools still in plastic wrappers with paper covers that could be torn away.  But for the disorganization, it was all in excellent condition.  It didn’t look like it had even been touched.

The longer I looked, the less it seemed like a hospital, and the less real it seemed.  It was more like someone had taken sections of a hospital, removing everything like the nurse’s stations and the rooms for the patients, leaving only the hallways and doors that sat flush against the floor, airtight.  I would have thought it was all staged, but a check with my bugs confirmed that there was a minimum of dust even in places people wouldn’t be able to see.

Why take that much time to clean areas that were never going to get used?

“Tattletale?” I asked. “How’s the connection?”

The Dragonfly is relaying the connection from the towers, which are relaying from Gimel.  Kind of impressive when you think about it.

“I’m thinking this stuff tells a story.  Can you fill us in?  Information wins fights.”

I heard a noise from behind me.  A grunt or a scoff.  I turned to look, but couldn’t see who it had been.  Lung?  Shadow Stalker?  Golem?  Cuff?  All were possible, on different levels.  Lung might have been dismissive, Cuff bemoaning the fact that I was harping on that particular point yet again.  I’d reiterated it a few dozen times when justifying the stakeouts and a few cases of infiltration.

“I can see the path they took,” Tattletale said.  “You’re facing the direction the Irregulars headed.  They got more agitated as they made their way through.  Excitement, anger, a mess of negative emotions, bottled up for years, finally released.

I nodded.  I could imagine it now, almost see them in the hallway.

“Forty three of them.  Case fifty-threes.  Weld’s entire group.

“We have data on them?” I asked.  My eye fell on one of the doors.  It looked so ordinary, but someone had hit it, and it had been dented.  Metal, and apparently well reinforced, with a good section of the door fitting into the wall.

Already have files open.  There’s not a lot of details on most of them, but they aren’t exactly in the public eye.  You only get sightings, and apparently PRT paperwork where Protectorate members get sent to check in on them every once in a while, make sure they’re okay.  The others, well, you’re aware of Weld and Gully and Gentle Giant.  I could recap for the people who wouldn’t know.”

“I know enough,” Lung said.  “I would rather not have a voice prattling in my ear when I could be listening for trouble.”

“Oh, hey,” Imp said.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could feel Lung reacting to her sudden appearance.  “I wouldn’t mind hearing this info.  Cliff notes?”

“You’re doing this to irritate me,” Lung said.

He’s sharp, in some ways, I thought.

“Don’t get your gonads in a twist.  I just want to know what we’re walking into.”

I heard a growl, and my first thought that Imp had pushed the wrong button.  I turned, my hand moving to my knife.

But it was Rachel’s dog, Huntress, her nose pressed to a door.

I watched each of the others prepare for a fight.  Or not prepare, as the case was.  Lung remained very casual, almost calm, while Canary backed away, putting as much distance between herself and the door as she could.  She was in better armor than most of us,with one of Saint’s Dragonslayer suits, but she still saw herself as vulnerable.

Hell, I saw her as vulnerable.

My bugs moved around the door’s perimeter, but I could sense only damage around the handle.  As airtight as any door.

I drew my knife, then gave Rachel a nod to go.

She kicked the door handle, and the door swung open.

Blood, corpses.  Three dead case fifty-threes.  Two men and a woman.  A cat-man with far too many teeth in his mouth, even covering the roof and the space beneath his long, narrow tongue, something that looked like keyboards on his forearms.  A reptile, not so different from Newter, but with no mouth or nose.  Only two overlarge eyes.  The last was a girl, squares of flesh intersped with patches of cloth.  Her mouth was only a tear in the cloth.

Their throats had been neatly slashed -the patchwork girl bled like anyone else might- and they’d been dragged into this room.  It was clear from the way that the blood trail suddenly stopped that someone had cleaned up.

Stragglers.  The Irregulars were moving as a tight group, keeping close to one another, but Satyrical and his team blindsided the ones at the back.  Killed them, dragged them off, then one of them cleaned up the evidence.  Floret, probably.”

“And Satyr probably masqueraded as these three,” I said.  “He’s in Weld’s group.”

Probably.”

“Then we need to move fast,” I said.  “Good job Rachel, Huntress.”

Rachel only grunted acknowledgement.

“You’re thanking the dog?” Shadow Stalker asked, incredulous.

“I’m thanking people that are being useful,” I said, my voice hard.  “If you want to be one of them, maybe scout the rooms we’re passing by.”

She didn’t obey right away, but she did obey.  She disappeared through a door.

The lights momentarily went out.  For an instant, I thought Shadow Stalker had been electrocuted, walking straight into a wire.  They flickered on again.

There were no windows, no sources of light beyond the lighting that was supposed to glow evenly from the high ceiling above.  When the lights flickered out again, the darkness was absolute, all-consuming.  As seconds creeped on and the light failed to return, I wondered if we’d be continuing this in the dark.

Lung used his power, creating a flame in his hand.  It didn’t make for much light – only enough to illuminate our groups.  Golem raised his hand to his helmet, then paused.

“Go ahead,” I told him.

The lights mounted on Golem helmet turned on, followed soon after by Cuff’s own lights.  I could see the way they were turning their heads, trying to cover both ends of the hallway.

“I don’t sense anyone,” I said.

No.  Wait.  There was someone.

Something.

I’d sensed it at the meeting the Doctor had arranged.  The spirit, the ghost.  So subtle it was almost impossible to notice.  The currents of the air, the faintest of traces in dust that marked where she’d traveled… all things I’d mentally dismissed.  Air tended to move.  Only the fact that this was a closed space, without any kind of air conditioning or temperature difference made the movements in the air curious.

Paying attention,  I could see that there was a pattern, a consistent repetition in air currents so feeble they might not have moved a feather.

The lights flickered back on, went out, and then settled in a compromise, the dull translucent pane of the ceiling lit up with a patchwork of  maybe two thirds dark to one third light.

“We’re here to help,” I called out.

My voice echoed down the hall.

“I thought you didn’t sense anyone,” Canary said.

“I don’t,” I said.

“Then who are you talking to?”

“I don’t think it’s a who,” Imp said.  “Try ‘what are you talking to?'”

“Shh,” I bid them to be quiet.

I could sense more movements in the air, close… no.  That was a result of Lung’s fire heating the air.

Further down the hall.  If I use enough bugs, try to get a sense of dimensions…

A head, part of a torso.  I could feel the contours of narrow shoulders, the waist.  Female.

She disappeared, or she became less coherent, the movements in the air continuing, but ceasing to suggest a general human shape.  Another appeared behind us, roughly as far away.  No arms, no legs.  Just a broken figure.

“Help me out, Tattletale?” I asked.

Help with what?

“The Custodian.”

I’m not getting anything usable,” she said.  “Video cameras suck like that.

“Right,” I said.  Louder, I called out, “We’re here to help the Doctor!  You’ve got two other groups in here, one that’s definitely hostile, angry and destructive, and another I think is worth being suspicious of.”

A movement, a reaction to that last sentence.

I explained, “Maybe they seem friendly, but they’ve got a bad history of backstabbing, making subtle plays for power.  I think the Doctor would back me up on this.  If she’s cooperating with them at all, she’s doing it with knowledge they’ll capitalize on any weakness she shows… and she’s never been weaker than she is right now.”

The figure turned around, briefly fading out of existence.

She reappeared in a way that made me wonder just how long she’d been there, a foot away from me.

“We’re not your enemies,” I said, holding my ground.  “I want to stop Scion, and the best, easiest way to do that is to get things back into working order here.”

For an instant, she was in four places at once.  Then she settled on three.

It struck me that I’d never fared particularly well against stranger-class powers.

“If it helps,” I said, “I’m pissed.  The Doctor called you the Custodian, which probably means you’re the one taking care of this place.  If you’re not completely emotionless, it hurts, that they’re tearing it apart.  If you care about the doctor, I’m betting you’re worried.  Maybe you feel like I do.  You want to retaliate, but something is getting in your way-”

And then she was gone.

“So.  Uh.  You’re kinda tense there, boss,” Imp said.

“She’s gone,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.”

“Question is, is there really a crazy janitor lady?”  Imp asked.  “Or is Skitter finally going mad?”

“If there are no more obstacles, we should go,” Lung said.

I nodded.  I started walking at a good clip, reorganizing my swarm to check the areas around corners.

A series of eight or so doors to our right were open, now.  Shadow Stalker lurked at the end of the hallway.  She must have walked through the walls while the power was out, opening every door in passing.

“Just saying,” Imp kept talking, “Custodian?  Knowing what we do about your origins… kinda a thing.  The Doctor, if you think about it… what if we’re all-”

“Imp,” I interrupted her, all too aware of the presence of Lung and Shadow Stalker, “Not now, not here.”

“Righty-o.”

She’s nervous, I told myself, before I could get too irritated.  But her way of dealing with that came at my expense.  I didn’t need to be reminded of my weakest moments.

I really didn’t need any head games, intentional or otherwise.

With the doors open, it was possible to see the room interiors.  Offices, perfectly ordered and empty of people.  Desks, file holders to neatly sort paperwork, book cases with texts.  All of it even, ordered.  No pages sticking up or books missing from shelves.

Still want that briefing, Imp?” Tattletale asked.

“Huh?  Briefing?”

On the Irregulars.

“Oh.  Right.”

I’ll take that as a no.”

I sent my bugs out, directing them to collect a few things.  Two booklets, the most substantial material my bugs could hold and still carry.

They shouldn’t have been able to pull this off,” Tattletale said.

I thought of Contessa, and of the Custodian.

“They did, though,” I said.  “At the worst possible point in time.”

“Weld isn’t dumb,” Shadow Stalker said, as she stepped out of one room and crossed the hall.  “Except maybe with people.  Kind of put his big metal foot in his big metal mouth, I remember.  But he’s not dumb when it comes to powers or strategy.  He’s had a few years to figure this out.”

“Hey,” Imp said.  “You’re not allowed to say nice things about people.  You shot my brother with an arrow, messed with people I respect.  I’ve been waiting for that cinematic moment when you and I find ourselves alone and I get my revenge.  Don’t fucking dilute it by being nice.”

Shadow Stalker stared at Imp, standing her ground as we, Imp included, made our way up the hallway to where she was.

“You’re irritating,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice dripping with condescension, dismissive.  That said, she disappeared through the nearest door.

Better,” Imp muttered.

I used the arms on my flight pack grab the booklets my bugs had brought to me.  The contents of each were bound into books.

I paged through the booklets.  The cover of the first read: ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency C-2-6’.  The second was ‘ASDEC01 Employee responsibilities, contingency F-4-7’.  Both, at a glance, very similar inside.

I looked at the inside cover.  Contingency C-2-6.  Transmigration.

Then page upon page of jargon.  References to other files, to organizations and places I had no concept of, and things I knew of, but not in this context.  Overseers, terminus, and again, the word transmigration.

It lacked flow, as the writing went.  More of a technical manual, in the end.  I could tell from the structure that things had been done by computer, so that information specific to the employee and the employee’s role could be injected at the appropriate spots.

I flipped through the book, continuing to scout with my bugs and use them to check our surroundings for possible danger.  Only endless hallways.

“You reading over my shoulder, Tattletale?” I asked.  I had the camera on my mask.

I am.”

“Thinking what I’m thinking?”

Accord was two-timing us,” Tattletale said.  “Doubling up so he had enough of a power base to enact his plans, whatever happened.”

“Except for, you know, the whole dying thing,” Imp added.

“Are you getting the gist of this, Tattletale?”  I asked.

Picking up pieces of it.  I’d ask you to scan the thing and let me have access to all of it, but that’s not exactly reasonable, is it?

“Just give me the byline.”

A plan for if the Endbringers win.  A plan for if Scion wins.  A plan if we come out ahead and beat both of them.  Recurring themes in all of the plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Lung rumbled.  “Foolish.”

Accord makes pretty fucking good plans,” Tattletale said.

“I do not know this Accord, and I only trust what I experience myself, so this is only prattle to me.”

“How does this turn out?” I asked.  “Cauldron ruling the world?”

Honestly?  I don’t think so.  Cauldron’s primary interest seems to be humanity.  Keeping us going, minimizing chances of war and conflict.  All of this seems to be geared around that.  Setting things up so we aren’t fucked, however things go down.”

“Right,” I said.  “Where do the powers come in?”

I think… well, I don’t have enough to say anything for sure.  But the underlying assumption seems to be that parahumans are going to take charge, one way or the other, so they wanted to set things up so that happened naturally.  They’ve been vetting clients, finding the ones who’d work best.  They don’t identify them by anything except number, but… I think Coil was a test case.”

I nodded.

So were we.”

“We had an idea,” I said.

Yeah.  But there’s more… I don’t know how much more.  Yet.  Can you flip ahead?  Maybe about three quarters of the way through, there should be a bit about the Overseers and the Terminus.  Flip through… slower… show more of the pages… I’ll go back through the video feed to view each page on my own and figure the rest out myself.

Further down the hallway, Shadow Stalker stepped out of a room.  I looked, keeping my head at the same general angle, so the camera would continue to have a view of the book, still flipping.

Shadow Stalker was pointing.

My swarm caught up with her, flowing into the room.

I glanced into the room as we passed.  Two more bodies.  Two men, large, both bristling with horns.  One with curling horns like a ram, the other with horns like a bull.

Satyr,” Tattletale confirmed.  “Again.

“Hmm,” Shadow Stalker murmured.  She was leaning against the doorframe, her arms folded.  “He’s efficient.”

Did she just sound like she was approving?  I lowered the booklet, raising my head to give Shadow Stalker a serious look.

She only made a small, smug sound, like she was pleased, or pleased with herself, and then turned around, her cloak flaring out before she disappeared through the wall.

“This long-delayed revenge thing is getting easier all the time,” Imp commented.

“No revenge,” I said.  “Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re sounding a lot less like Imp and a whole lot like… well…”

“Regent,” she said.

I nodded.  The desire for revenge, the way the wisecracking was veering off course, to uncomfortable or dangerous levels…

“Be nice if he was here,” was all she said.

I nodded again.

The hallway reached a t-junction at the end, with a path going off to the left, and a stairwell to the right that led down, deeper into the building.  I could sense just how thick the floor was.  Most buildings had only a few feet separating each story, but here, there was solid matter nearly as thick as the open spaces.

A fortress?  A fortress has soldiers.

A shelter?  It doesn’t make sense that they’d try to take shelter in a place like this.

It also made the descent to the next floor down take just long enough that it felt like something was wrong.  Winding our way down.

“There are backup plans if the whole parahumans-as-leaders thing didn’t work out.  Brainwashing leaders like they brainwashed the case fifty-threes.  So the leaders were absolute and could be trusted.  Um.  Distribution and organization for getting things going again, depending on how many threats remain after we make it through this.  They didn’t know what the end would be like, what we’d be up against, so they could only ballpark here.  The reason for these offices?  Cauldron’s going to staff this place.  It’s going to be a hub, police, a whole lot more, up until humanity’s got the ball rolling again.

“No way that doesn’t fall apart,” Golem said.

I nodded a little.

“Power fucks everything up, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“Speaking of fucked up.  You should know, Scion just hit Dalet.  It’s ugly.  Getting worse with every attack.  A little more ruthless, toying with specific people, breaking them before he obliterates their friends.  He’s going to hit our settlement again if the pattern holds.  Within the next half an hour to an hour.”

I sighed.  Nothing we could do but hope the defenders could hold their own.  I looked at Lung.

“What?” he asked.

“You wanted to come with us.  Odd choice.”

“I tried, I did nothing in the end.  I do not like being…”

“Impotent?” Imp offered.

Lung growled his response, “A mere bystander.”

We reached a set of double doors.  A foot thick, solid, they overlapped rather than meet, effectively doubling the thickness, allowing for their structure to reinforce one another.  They’d been destroyed, pried apart.  An impressive feat, considering they looked like they were meant to withstand charging elephants.

Or parahumans.

It’s a prison, the thought struck me, as we passed through, getting a glimpse of the floor below.

Rows and columns of cells, connected in strings of ten or so.  Most cells were occupied.

Not case fifty-threes, going by what my bugs told me.  The case fifty-threes were the outliers, here.  These were people who I might have seen on the street in Brockton Bay, all in matching outfits.  Men, women, children.  All young, twenty-five or younger.  All more or less in good health, if a touch thin.  My swarm touched each of them as I tried to take in their total numbers.

“They’re here!”  Someone called out.

They can’t see us from this angle, I thought.

Then it dawned on me that everyone here had powers.  Some had powers that would sense us.

“Did it work?” the person from before called out, a woman.  “Hey!  Did it work?”

“They aren’t the same people as before,” a man said.

We needed to move on.  The double doors leading down to the next flight had been torn apart as well, and that meant the Irregulars, Revel, Exalt, Vantage and quite possibly the Doctor were all downstairs.

But the noise level increased with every passing second.  Cheering, shouts, cries, even threats to urge us to move faster, in a dozen different languages, maybe more.  The noise swelled as others took up the cry.  People screaming at the tops of their lungs.

And they were threatening to draw attention to us in the process.  I drew on my relay bugs, sending the swarm downstairs, trying to figure out if we’d just alerted Weld and the others.

“They think we’re here to rescue them,” Golem said.

“Aren’t we?” Cuff asked.  “I mean, it’s not why we came, but we can’t leave without them.  We’re not heartless?”

That she made it a question was telling.

That she directed that question at me was… I didn’t even have the words to articulate it.

“Yes,” I said.  “Yes, of course.”

“If we rescue them, then it causes trouble.  Too many to look after,” Lung said.

“Chaos could help us,” Shadow Stalker observed.

“We are going to rescue them,” I said.  “It’s just a question of when.  And how.”

I walked forward until I could see the cells and their occupants.

Hundreds of cells, and there wasn’t anything blocking them off.  Open doors, with nothing visible that would keep the prisoners inside.  Most consisted of only three walls and a white line painted on the floor.  Beside each cell was a metal plate, engraved with a number.

“Oh my god,” Cuff’s voice was touched with quiet horror, almost lost in the rising noise.  “Look at how pale they are.  They’ve been here a long time.”

These guys haven’t been here for long,” Tattletale said.  “Or they’re the newest.  Two thousand and fifty cells, I’m thinking, maybe half of them occupied.  All the structural reinforcements, the heavy doors, the traps in the ceiling, it’s to keep the prisoners in.  But you don’t need to put security doors in for going downstairs if there’s no way out.  There’s more cells downstairs, with older patients.  Plus, I think, the hub of Cauldron’s operation.

“This can’t be for humanity’s sake,” Golem said.

It is,” Tattletale said.  “Everything they’ve been doing is for our sake.  Producing better formulas to get more soldiers for the biggest, most important fights, weaning out the bad formulas so nobody important gets them…

“And the case fifty-threes?” I asked.  “Dismissed as bad formulas?”

At first, maybe.  But there’s a use to them.  As a rule, they’re stronger, tougher.  If we’re forced to make a break for it, scatter humanity and survive with the remnants, the case fifty-threes can settle places you or I couldn’t.  I think there’s something else, but I don’t see it… lemme keep looking.  There’s got to be a hint.  Might have to get you to run upstairs to fetch a file or something…

Tattletale trailed off, going silent but for the occasional mumble.

Was this the army that Cauldron wanted to deploy?  Men and women with powers they didn’t ask for, released with stipulations, or simply deposited on a battlefield and left to fight or run?

It felt too thin.  Even this many capes, they were untrained, their powers presumably unpracticed.  They wouldn’t amount to more than cannon fodder.

I stopped, feeling the scale of it all.  Hundreds of cells, hundreds of voices

“Quiet!”  I called out.

My voice was lost in the noise.

Quiet!”  I used my swarm to transmit my voice.

Some listened, as if waiting for me to say something else.

I wasn’t sure what I could say.  I glanced at my teammates, searching for an idea, before something came to me.  “Save your energy.  Don’t exhaust yourselves shouting.

They listened, quieting down.  At first.

But excitement won over.  There was no way to communicate their excitement other than by talking to their cellmates, or the people in cells across from them, but as the general volume rose, they had to raise their voices to be heard.  It didn’t help that the entire area was a giant acoustic sounding board.

“I could sing,” Canary said, raising her voice to be heard, “But I think I’d calm you guys down too.”

Rachel whistled, a shrill sound that almost made my bugs wince in pain.  Not a soothing song.

In the silence that followed, Bastard shook his head a little, then snapped at open air.  Too sharp for his wolf senses?

“Good,” Lung said.  Rachel only scowled at his approval.  He added, “You have to follow this with something that drives the point home.”

“Make them fear us?” I asked.  I remembered Bakuda’s commentary on her lessons from Lung.

“Fear?  Respect,” Lung said.

“Same thing,” Shadow Stalker said.

Lung shrugged.

I didn’t feel like arguing the point, and the crowd was very patiently waiting.  They were barely making a sound now.

Which was good, but was there any guarantee they wouldn’t get riled up as we made our way down to the next floor?

Bastard shook his head again.  Rachel and I both looked at the same time, then made eye contact.

I spread my bugs out through the area.  Felt the Custodian flowing through the air, a little faster than before.

She flew towards me, and I flinched, taking a step back.

She repeated the process, looping back, then charging me.

This time, when I took a step back, it was on purpose.  She’d done it a second time because she wanted me to take a second step.  And a third, a fourth…

“Go,” I said.  “This way.  Move.

We ran.  I focused on my swarm, spreading the bugs out as much as I could behind us and in front of us.

Different cells sat at the end of the hallway.  Bigger cells, arranged so that they faced the opposite direction, with paths leading in, then to the right, then back into the room.

Two-nine-three.  An empty, unlabeled cell.  Two-six-five.  Two more empty, unlabeled cells.

Bastard shook his head again, opened his mouth in an almost yawning, lazy bite.  I could sense the Custodian there, brushing by the side of his face.

I moved the swarm to block the other inmate’s view of us.

“Head-” I started, but Rachel was already making her way inside one of the empty cells.  She’d put the pieces together.  “…right.”

I hung back, looking over my shoulder as the others filed into the cells.  I hurried down the hallway, then kicked the door.  I saw a glimpse of a stairwell, identical to the one we’d used at the far end of the room.

I reversed direction, then ducked into the same corridor the others had entered.  Let the people nearby think we’d left.

I wasn’t sure it was the brightest thing, taking the dead end over the open-ended exit.  But the Custodian had suggested this.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Why?

You’re being followed,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head a little.  I could sense my bugs.  Nothing.

Was it a trap?  Would the Custodian shut some kind of door on us, locking us within?

No.  She had no reason to.  As hard to define as she was.

I pulled the camera free from my mask, then pressed it against the side of the mount on the cell exterior that would have held a number plate.  I ducked inside.

“Tattletale?”

I get it, I get itMight need to ask for help on this one.  Sit tight.

The cell was empty, but it featured a double bed, a television, a computer, a small bookshelf of cases with stuff to watch or play, and an odd little double-layered glass window that looked out onto a wall of gravel.

I joined the others, drawing my phone from my pocket.  It took a moment for Tattletale to manage the link-up.

And you’ve got video.  I’m brilliant.  Admit it.

“You’re brilliant,” I said.

If I’d had the idea earlier, I would have wound up with a better vantage point.  As it was, we viewed the scene from a distance.  I held the phone flat, so our group could circle around to observe from different angles.

The noise of the crowd became a roar, muffled to near-silence by the cell’s walls.  The occupants wouldn’t have heard the other prisoners, except in the most extreme cases.  I could see the Irregulars as they entered from the same direction we had.  I could see the crowd that followed the Irregulars.

Case fifty-threes.  Kind of?

No.  Different.  The way they spread out, their haggard appearances, they made for the best clues when these individuals were just silhouettes seen from three hundred feet away.  But they got closer, and I could see how they differed.  They didn’t take on the traits of animals, nor simple mutations or exaggerations in features.  There was a man that burned, who staggered forward, like it hurt, but he wasn’t consumed.  A woman who floated, every part of her body a distinct piece, separated by open space.  It made her look twice as tall.  A… something that inched forward, occasionally running to keep up with the crowd.  Hands and feet like flippers, but the face was an orifice, and thin worms were spilling out, swarming over the surface of his body in numbers so thick that the flesh underneath was impossible to see.

Case fifty-threes that Cauldron had kept in reserve, it seemed.  I could see the anger in them, the tension, the wariness that came with what had to have been… how long?  With the hair, the beards, maybe years of confinement.  Maybe even solitary confinement.

On camera, I could see this.

I couldn’t feel them with my bugs.  Couldn’t see them, couldn’t hear them.  A revised image, an edited image, as if the whole crowd had erased with some careful photo editing.  Sound editing.  Touch editing?

Oh, hey,” Tattletale said.  “Anyone else having trouble getting a read on those guys?

“I am telling myself we may fight soon,” Lung rumbled, “But my power is not responding as well as it should.  Looking at them, seeing what look to be worthy opponents with little to lose, I should be feeling it build faster, a pressure inside me.”

“I can’t see or hear them with my bugs, let alone touch them,” I told Tattletale.

Over an entire area.  Mantellum,” Tattletale said.  “The guy with the built-in cloak, dead center.

I looked, but the crowd moved.

They were talking.  We didn’t have audio.  There was only the rise and fall of the crowd’s shouts, letting us know when people were talking and when they were reacting to statements.

On camera, people began to leave cells.

It’s a power with layers.  Each successive layer enhances the level of protection.  Except everything on record says the range it blocks powers only extends about fifteen feet.  Get within five feet, no senses work.  It’s not supposed to be a hundred feet like this.

“Six times the range,” Cuff said.

Somehow.

I pursed my lips.  “The Doctor?”

Probably downstairs.  Look at the way the group at the rear is set up.  They’re watching to make sure nobody comes upstairs.  I think they have the Doctor trapped down there.

They have us trapped here too.

I didn’t say it out loud.  Canary looked scared, and both Lung and Rachel looked restless.

There’s this guy that looks like he’s in charge.  You see him?”

It was a voice over the earbuds, but it wasn’t Tattletale.

You’re an idiot,” Tattletale said.  “I love you for this, but you’re an idiot.”

“Who?”  I asked.

Imp,” Tattletale said.

Imp?  It took me a second.

Imp.  Damn it.  Grue would kill me.  She was close enough to overhear, and this many parahumans… so many ways she could be detected.

“Mister beautiful,” Imp said.  “He’s saying they’re free… oh, whoop.  Here we go.”

The cells emptied.  It was almost like the order being given was a stone dropped on the water’s surface, the movement of the cell’s occupants the ripple, the ones who didn’t hear the man speak reacted to the others’ movement, and the chain reaction continued.  Hundreds of people.

Hundreds of victims.

The roar of the crowd increased in volume.  I could feel the floor vibrating.  No power at work.  Just a lot of people, stomping and cheering.

The Custodian moved a little, then stopped.  I could sense her more than before, a disturbance, agitated.

She was the one that had been enforcing the peace, keeping people contained in cells without doors.  Now… either Mantellum or the strange case fifty-threes were keeping her at bay, preventing her from seeing to her duties.

The lights flickered, a little worse than before.

“They’re going to come here,” Shadow Stalker said.  “I spent time in juvie, if someone had a nice toothbrush, cookies from mom, there was jealousy, retaliation.”

I nodded a little.

And a cushy cell like this…

“They will come,” Lung said.  The irises of his eyes were orange, and hive-like lumps were standing out on his skin, where scales threatened to push forth.  “I can win, but you will all most likely die in the time I require.”

I need all the people who can bore through solid steel, he says,” Imp spoke over the comms.

“Lung’s plan can be plan A.  Let’s hear plan B,” I said.

“We run,” Shadow Stalker said.  “Door’s right there.”

“I could make barriers,” Golem said.

The roaring dimmed.  The man was speaking.  The cupboard door beneath the large television seemed to rattle with more intensity.

“Custodian says… door?”

She stopped.

Barriers,” Tattletale said.  “We’d have to get past more security doors, ones the Irregulars haven’t dealt with.  Quite probably other security measures.

Imp spoke up, “Pretty guy’s saying… traitors to our kind.  See they get the justice they deserve.  Oh… hey.

I looked at the phone.

Weld, mangled to the point that he looked more like scrap metal than a person, was heaved forward, thrown to the ground.

A sphere rolled forward.  Something coiled within, behind the colored transparent pane.  Someone in the crowd grabbed it, then made their hands glow.  Fire?  Heating the material?  I couldn’t tell from this distance, but I could see the movement within accelerate in fits and starts.

Weld reached out for the sphere, but his arm was so badly damaged it couldn’t hold his weight.  It bent the wrong way, breaking off.  When he rolled over onto his back, the forearm was stuck to his upper arm, hand to his shoulder and neck.

If he’d been a human, if half that much damage had been done, there would be no way he’d be alive.

“Doesn’t get much worse than a crowd this mad,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice low.  “I can probably make a break for it and get away.  Not usually my thing to be nice, but… you want me to pass on any messages?  Last words?  My memory is shit, but I can try.”

The crowd was reacting, the contents of the room shaking with the sound.  Out there, it would be deafening.

Then they moved.  People were parting the way.  Opening a path to our end of the hallway.

The camera gave us a view of the central gang.  A spiky boy with yellow skin.  A man with exaggerated masculine and feminine features, a caricature, burdened with muscle.  There was Gully, the muscular girl with the shovel, braids and severe overbite who’d helped out against Echidna, looking ill at ease.  A boy with red skin.  Sanguine.

As they got closer, I could feel my power changing, to tell a lie.  No people in the area.  A conspicuous clearing in the gap.  There were enough people to push my insects around, wherever they were, but my brain was revising it to make sense of the scene.  It was unusual enough to grab my attention, though, but not accurate enough for me to use it.

“Feel up to singing?” I asked Canary.

“They’d hurt me before I got anywhere,” she said.  “Probably.  I’ll try.”

I closed my eyes.  I could feel my swarm out there, both inside and outside of Mantellum’s power, but I couldn’t do anything meaningful to the crowd with it.

“Satyrical’s out there,” I said.  “His people…”

Tattletale spoke.  “Probably happen to be the ones who stayed behind to dig for the Doctor.  Nobody there, in Satyrical’s group who’re going to be able to deal with this mob.  Probably nobody in the Doctor’s group, either.

I nodded, drawing my knife.  The one Defiant had given me.

Not enough to cut our way to freedom.  Judging by the gravel outside the double-pane window, we were sitting beside layers of rock.  The knife could get us into the next cell, maybe the cell next to that… but it wouldn’t let us get anywhere fast enough to outpace the crowd.

“Plan A, then,” Lung spoke, somber.  “For your sacrifice, I will grant you a favor.  Tell me if you want me to kill someone, an enemy you want gone.”

“We’re not going to die,” I growled the words.  I began forming the swarm into a decoy.

A distraction.  If I could get the crowd’s attention, lead them upstairs-

The pretty man outside spoke, and I could see his lips move on the camera.  There was no need for translation.

Revenge.

This time, the jeering was just outside our cell.  The mob advanced.

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Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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The Number Man swept one finger over the touchscreen display.  Two point six billion dollars here, a hundred thousand dollars there.

Money was the blood of civilized society, its currents running through everything and everyone.  Where money was insufficient, things withered.  People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas perished.  Where funds were plentiful, the same things blossomed with new life.

And money was, in the end, little more than the product of collective imagination.  A slip of paper or a coin had no value beyond that of the material it was fashioned of.  It only took on a life of its own when people as a whole collectively agreed that certain papers and coins were worth something.

Only then did people bleed and die for it.  For a fantasy, a faith given form in hard, concrete numbers.

Then again, much of society was built on a series of shared delusions.  Clothing was little more than scraps of particular materials with particular geometries, but people clung to the idea of fashion.  Style.  Good and bad fashion was another belief system, one which all members of a culture were indoctrinated into.  Breaking certain conventions didn’t only challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of others, but it challenged their sense of self.  It reminded them, subconsciously, of the very pretendings they clung to.

Only those with power could stand against society’s tides, flaunt the collective’s ‘safe’ aesthetic.  When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them and safely say something calculated to reduce their own dissonance and remind the offending party of the unspoken rules.

When one had enough power to take a life with a twitch of a finger, a thought, they earned the right to wear skin-tight clothing and call themselves Hero, or Legend.  To wear a mask and name themselves something inane like ‘the Cockatoo’ and still take themselves seriously.

He armored himself in normalcy.  He wore only a button-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, his blond hair cut into a short style that was easy to maintain.  To anyone on the street, he wouldn’t appear to be anything but a bookish middle-aged man.

He hadn’t always been this bland.

The Number Man stepped away from the screen.  His office was plain, white tile with white walls. The rear of it was a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a foreign landscape, a place far from Earth.  Still an Earth, but not the one he’d been born to, not even the one he was in at this very moment.  The Doormaker maintained a portal to that foreign landscape, just behind the Number Man’s office and changed it on request.  Today, it was a mountaintop view of a wilderness with a crimson foliage and gray branches, the sky perpetually overcast.

One of a number of Earths where humans had never been.

The Number Man had gone to some lengths to spruce up this place.  He’d never liked the eternal white of this complex, so he’d adorned his walls with other images.  To his right, there was a large print of the Golden Mean, the Phi decimal as a fractal image in gold against black paper, with mathematical notation surrounding it.

Opposite it, Dali’s Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubus.  The painting was blown up to one-and-a-half times the size.  Jesus crucified on a fourth dimensional cross.

No chairs.  He’d worked out the dangers of sitting against the convenience and decided it wasn’t worth falling into that trap.  When he did enter his office, he walked, paced, tapped his foot while pondering deeper problems, stood and stared out the window at whatever landscape he had outside his window in a given week.

He crossed his room and touched a screen.  It lit up, filled with data fed to his computers from a doorway to Earth Bet.  The pulse of society, right under his thumb.

The Elite, a villain group expanding a subtle control over the western seaboard of America, putting pressure on rogues to bring them under their thumb as performers, thinkers, designers and innovators.  He could see the numbers, extrapolate from the data to gauge their rate of growth.  They were developing too slowly to be useful, not developing fast enough to outpace the predicted end of the world.  They’d reach Brockton Bay in about a year.  There would be time to decide if countermeasures were needed in the meantime.

Gesellschaft, a nationalistic organization half a planet away from the Elite, was moving large funds in anticipation of a small war.  Money was being laundered through cover operations and businesses, almost impossible to track, unless one was able to take in the bigger picture, to see the intent, the beginnings and endings of it.  They were investing in transportation, and their fundings seemed to decline at the same time some notable arms dealers in Southern Europe found themselves richer by an equal amount.  The Number Man flicked his way past a series of windows detailing the transaction amounts.  Arms dealers who specialized in nuclear materials.  This was pointing towards terrorism, and not on a small scale.  Troubling, but the system would address them.  The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem.  It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have a disaster at this crucial juncture.  The Protectorate was required for just a little longer.  If they were going to make it through this, there couldn’t be any substantial distractions.

Gesellschaft hadn’t elected to seek out the Number Man and make use of his services, as so many supervillains around the world did.  He had no compunctions, as a consequence, about interfering with them.  He tapped into a series of bank accounts he hadn’t touched in some time, then scheduled a large number of transfers to the personal Gesellschaft accounts.  Ten or twenty thousand Euros at a time.

Where funds weren’t likely to be held for moderation, he scheduled more transfers and disputed the charges.  The transfer amounts were large enough to raise flags, to draw attention to the accounts in question.  The banks were on the lookout for suspicious activity, and a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand Euros would be suspicious enough to merit a serious look.

That was only to slow them down.  They would want to investigate, to be careful and find out where the money came from.  Later, if the situation was resolved and they somehow managed to hold on to the money, they would want to know where the money disappeared to, as he reclaimed it with a severe interest rate.  They would suspect interference, would wonder if this outside agent had connected their civilian identities to their personas within Gesellschaft.

Which he had.

The transfers took him less than thirty seconds to arrange, and it would occupy them for one or two days.

Freezing the larger business accounts would take only a little more time.  One or two minutes.  The meetings with the arms dealers had fit a vague schedule.  The arms dealers always took a different route, but they traveled enough that they needed to buy gas at one point on the way.  There was always a large transfer of funds.

He laid a trap, calculated to start falling into place when the gas was bought in the time window.  The main accounts that the Gesellschaft used to manage their funds would be frozen by the time the meeting was underway.  They’d likely find themselves at the meeting, the product delivered, but with no funds to pay for it.

He swept his fingertips along the window, dismissing the task.  Who else?  Where were the priorities?

The C.U.I. had bought a parahuman.  Not so unusual.  Higher rates, as of late, but then, the C.U.I. faced a slight chance of an Endbringer attack in coming weeks.  They would want to bolster their forces, add parahumans to their peculiar team.

Tattletale had been actively separating herself from the Number Man, issuing new accounts to the Undersiders and her organization.  Not so surprising.  Eidolon had outed him, announcing the Number Man as a Cauldron-involved cape to a crowd.

Irritating.  At least it had been manageable.  He didn’t exactly have a great deal of traction with the hero community.  Tattletale was one loss, and he was hands-off with the Undersiders, regardless.

The King’s Men were in debt.  Easy enough to manage an anonymous donation, keep them afloat for another two months.

Child’s play, all of it.  The money, with its imaginary value, it was something he breathed.  Setting up the tools to manipulate it had taken a little time, but that was it.  Numbers were the fundament of the universe, as much a fabrication as money in some ways, more real than anything else in others.

He understood numbers, and through them, he understood everything.

A soft beep marked the arrival of somebody at his door.  He turned.  “Enter.”

There was only one person it could logically be.  The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.

Except it wasn’t a person.  The door swung open, but there was nobody on the other side.

“You can’t handle it yourself?” he asked.

No reply, of course.

He broke into a quick stride, hurrying through the door.  “Contessa is busy, I take it?”

Again, no reply.

He reached an intersection and felt his hair stir imperceptibly, little more than what one might excuse as the exhaust from an air conditioning vent thirty feet away.  He took that as his cue to change direction.

He knew where he was going, now.  He was relieved that it wasn’t the worst case scenario, if one could call it that.  A mercenary calling herself Faultline had been leading a team that was opening portals for exorbitant amounts, traveling the world.  It was a matter of time before someone contacted her to ask her to open a portal to here, or her own curiosity about Cauldron happened to lead her down that same road.

If and when that happened, the young woman and her team… perhaps organization was more fitting now that their numbers had grown, would get a visit from Contessa.  They would be removed from consideration, the portal would be sealed, and Cauldron would be safe again.

In the meantime, they’d let things carry on like they were.  Faultline would make contacts, she’d find like-minded individuals, and through her, Cauldron would uncover enemies, to be eliminated in one fell swoop.

At the very least, right here and right now, the threat wasn’t an invader.  Given the layout of the complex, and the fact that whole wings of the structure were on separate continents, linked only by the Doormaker, there were only a few possibilities for why an invader would be here.  Not that it really mattered, it would be near impossible for someone to find their way here, now.

No, this was a threat from within.

Double doors unlocked and slid open.  The Number Man wrinkled his nose as he entered the basement areas of the building.

When the Simurgh had attacked Madison, she’d copied Haywire’s technology to open a gate to a building much like this one.  A research facility.  The portal had dumped the buildings, soil, plant life and all the residents into the city on Earth Bet, costing Cauldron a horrific amount.  Even a stockpile of formulae had been lost.

Perhaps most frustrating was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they’d been near a breakthrough.  She’d sensed, somehow, had known, and had dashed it to pieces with the ease that a person might tear down a painstakingly made sandcastle.

They’d rebuilt, and this facility was somewhat different.  More reinforced, connected to the surrounding terrain.

Silly, to think she’d do the same thing twice, but they’d felt it necessary, after feeling the losses of that last attack.

The architecture here wasn’t white, and he was somewhat relieved at that.  The tile was dark gray, lit by fluorescent bulbs and the light from windows at the end of the hallway.  At regular intervals down the hallway, there were cells.  Only some had windows to keep the occupants within.  Others had only three walls and a white line that marked the division between the cell and the hallway.

In each cell was an occupant.  Large metal plates engraved with numbers helped track who they were, matched to the numbers hidden in the right ‘arm’ of the tattoo that each subject received; a series of white dots that looked like nothing more than areas where the tattoo hadn’t taken.

The cells on the right were new test subjects, lost and angry.  He didn’t hesitate as he walked past them.  The angry words they spat in alien languages were nothing to him.  Their glares and hatred less than that.

Their powers were only a small consideration.  It was a rare parahuman that didn’t try to move beyond the boundary of their cell.  There was no forcefield to stop them.  They inevitably ignored the warnings and gestures from those in neighboring cells, stepping free, or they used their power, teleporting free or lashing out at one of the staff.  The Doctor, the Number Man, Contessa.

They learned after the first time.

Several staff members were housed in the cells to the Number Man’s left.  Those cells didn’t open directly into the hallway.  There were short paths that led around to the back of the room.  It helped mask the noise, gave them some privacy.  The cells were bigger too.

Zero-twenty-three, with a placard beneath.  ‘Doormaker’.

Two-six-five.  No name.  The Number Man knew him well enough, regardless.  He’d been too young a subject when he’d taken the formula, his brain too malleable for the required changes, too slow to form natural immunities and defenses.  Not a problem with regular trigger events, as it was.  The boy’s eyes had burned out of his sockets as he’d tried to process the vast amount of information he was capable of perceiving.  Even now as he was reaching his late teens, the boy’s mind had never developed beyond the mental age of eight, and his eyes remained like twin ashtrays.

A partner to the Doormaker, capable of granting clairvoyance, seeing whole other worlds at once.  It left most subjects incapacitated for a week after use, and it overrode any other perception powers.

No use to the Number Man, but essential for Cauldron in vetting universes and finding individuals.  Most individuals.  There were some, like the Dealer, and triple-seven, who’d escaped.

Two-nine-three.  Incapable of talking, barely able to move.  Limbless, obese.  Another key member of the staff.

No sign of interference.  The odds of the threat being an assassin dropped.

He quickened his pace, reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

Second floor basement.  He stepped out of the stairwell and progressed down the main hallway.  There were rows of cells to either side of him.  Two thousand and forty-eight parahumans, each with a number, both on the wall of their cell and in their tattoo.

“You need to narrow it down,” the Number Man said.  “Help me find the trouble.”

His voice resulted in an outcry, the people in the cells nearest him realizing he was there, shouting, swearing, insulting him in twenty-nine different languages.

He ignored the shouting, instead extending his right hand.  “Is it this floor?  Yes…”

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

The faintest brush of air touched his left hand, so faint he might not have felt it while he was walking.

He turned back for the staircase, made his way down.

The third floor basement.  Here, the special case studies could be found.  Seven-seven-seven had been one.  They got a name, more space, some quiet.

He paused.  Again, a brush against his left hand.

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

He took the stairs two at a time, moving with an uncharacteristic haste.  He also spoke, more to himself than his companion.  “There are others who are supposed to attend to these matters.  Which suggests the escapee is smart, is strong enough to deal with them, or… as is more typical for the denizens of the fourth floor, interesting.”

Smart, he could deal with.  Strong, he could deal with, barring certain exceptions.  Interesting escapees, well.  There’d be degrees of unpleasantness.

He was still hurrying down the stairs as he reached the bottom.  Two doors, both heavy, stainless steel top to bottom, capable of withstanding a small bomb blast.  Only the Doctor entered the rightmost door.  The Number Man turned his attention to the door on the left, and entered his access codes, pressed his hand against the disguised plate to the right.

As security measures went, it wasn’t impossible to crack, not when one considered the breadth of parahuman abilities, but if anyone who got this far decided to pass through this door, they deserved what they got.

The deviations, the ones who didn’t take to the formula, tended to fall into certain categories.  There were those who had some minor physical or mental changes; they were little different from the most extreme deviations that appeared in typical trigger cases.  Such deviations occurred a mere eighth of a percent of the time.  They weren’t what he was thinking of.

The formula wasn’t exact.  Though they learned more every day, there were still unknowns regarding powers.  Whatever connection the agents formed with individuals before or during a trigger event, it didn’t manifest as strongly through the formula.  When the subject was stressed, their body engaged by that distress, the connection grew weaker.

In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.

For many -for ninety-three percent of the unfortunates who were so afflicted- the agent drew from plant and animal life, from physical objects, materials and designs in the subject’s immediate vicinity.

But seven percent of the extreme deviant cases didn’t find something physical, and there was little to nothing to rein things in.

Such cases were not, as a general rule, released into the wild.  It would be counterproductive.  They were briefly studied, then disposed of.  The Number Man’s office was in this building because he was but one line of defense against escapees and threats, even in this department.

He paused, concentrating.

As though it were penciled in the air, in thread-thin, elaborate notation, he could see the geometry and the numbers unfolding across the world around him, through the air.

He withdrew a pen from his pocket, spun it around one finger.  The notation billowed around it, and through it, he could see the movement of the pen, the plotted trajectory, the velocity and rotation of it.  The numbers clicked into place with a speed that made the rest of him, his very perceptions, seem like slow motion.

Here and there, there were incongruities.  Painting an entirely different picture.  His companion was here, near him.  Bending the most fundamental rules.  The Custodian.

In another scenario, she would have been kept here and disposed of once we’d found a way to dissect her.

“I know you want to help,” he commented.  He wasn’t even entirely sure if he was being heard.  “You see it as your responsibility.  But it’s best you stay behind.”

That said, he pushed the door open.

If the cells on the third basement floor were twice as large as the ones on the second floor, these were larger still.  Each was isolated, standalone in the vast, dark basement.  The space allowed countermeasures to be maintained in each space.

And here, experiment number three-zero-one-six was out of his cell.  The Number Man knew of this one.  He’d paid particular attention, once he’d heard about the peculiarities, heard about the power.

The man was only half-dressed, his upper body bare, his beard a shaggy growth, his hair long and greasy.  Showers were provided, where patients were able to make use of them, but the solitude wore on them, and few partook with any regularity.

But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.

One leg of his uniform flapped in the wake of a wind turbine used to keep two-nine-nine-zero contained.  There was no right leg beneath the pelvis, but his right foot was there nonetheless, set firmly on the ground.  He stood as if his weight rested on it.

Other parts of him had been carved away when he’d had his trigger event.  An area of his stomach, around one eye, his entire left arm.  Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plane, featureless, without shading or definition.

But the Number Man could see it.  Could see it in the physics of the way the pants leg moved, just slightly out of tune with the way it should have been flapping.  There was something there, a disturbance.

The test subject had destroyed one wind turbine, was facing the occupant, who was hidden in shadow.

“We escape,” three-zero-one-six said, his voice a rasp, heavily accented.  “Together.  I stop the spirit, you take-”

He stopped, turned to face the Number Man.  The pair was separated by an expanse of a hundred feet, in an open area with a high ceiling, only the lighting around each standalone cell allowed them to see one another.

No conversation, no pleading.  Three-zero-one-six struck before he could be attacked, leaning back and then swinging, using the left arm that wasn’t there.

The Number Man was already moving, the mathematical notation filling his field of vision, singing in his ears, running along his skin.  He could taste it, virtually swam in a clear, precise, organized outline of the world around him.

His weight shifted as he found his center of balance.  He kicked out to push himself to the left.

Three-zero-one-six manifested the strike as though his arm were exponentially larger, the attack repeated in almost infinite variations through the space in front of him, as though he were leveraging every possible version of himself that could have been here, in this basement, drawing them together in one coordinated strike.

Concrete and steel were obliterated, and the blow carved divots into floor and ceiling both, disintegrated layers of stainless steel that sat behind and beneath the concrete of floor and wall.

The Number Man was airborne.  He’d measured the trajectory of the first hit as it carved through the ceiling, letting it slide past him by a mere one and three-quarter feet.  He angled and oriented his body to absorb the rush of wind and dust, used it to carry himself just a little further, a little higher.  His shoes squeaked as they found traction.

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-”

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-”

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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