Cell 22.1

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.2

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“They won’t take me back.”

“They will.”

“I saw it,” Dinah whispered.  “Before I ever met Coil.  The fear in their eyes.  When I said the numbers and I was right.  They’re scared of me.  They were relieved when I got taken.  They won’t want me now that I’m free.”

“They will want you.  Just wait,” I said.  “They’ll welcome you with open arms, and there won’t even be a hint of fear.”

“I look weird.  My hair’s all dry and dull, and I haven’t been eating that much.  I always felt sleepy, or edgy, and was never hungry, even when my stomach was growling.  And maybe I didn’t eat some because it was my only way of fighting back, the only time I could choose something, even if it was bad for me.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does!”  There was a note of desperation in her voice.  “They’ll see me and I’ll look different and they’ll think about all those moments when I left them feeling nervous and how there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t even mentioned because it’s that bad.  I’m not even human anymore.”

“You’re definitely human, Dinah.”

“Then why do they call us parahumans?  Doesn’t the ‘para’ part mean half?  Paraplegic, only half your body works.  Parahuman, half human.”

“Not exactly.  It means beside, which is how it’s used with paraplegic, or paragraph.  It can also mean extra or beyond, like paranormal.  We’re next to human, or more than human, depending on how you look at it.  I think it’s pretty apt.  Powers, in a lot of ways, make the best and worst parts of our humanity stand out.  And that depends on the choices we make.  Your parents can’t judge you for stuff you didn’t choose.”

“How… how do you even know that?”

“Which?”

“The meaning of the words.”

“My mom taught English,” I said.  “So I was always sort of introduced to that stuff.  And after she passed away, I maybe started paying more attention to it because it’s the sort of thing she would have done.  A way of remembering her.”

“Are you an orphan?”

“My dad’s alive.  I don’t have as much contact with him as I should.”

“Why not?”

“It seems like every time I get closer to him, he gets hurt or put in danger.  Or I only get close because of the hurt.  I don’t know.”

“You should get back in touch with him.  Parents are important.”

“I know.”

My parents won’t take me,” she said.  She made a croaking noise, and I touched the bucket she was holding to ensure it was in position, held her braid so it wouldn’t get in the way as she tried to empty her stomach of contents that were no longer there.

I sighed, waiting until the worst of it had abated.  When it looked like she might tip forward and fall with the puke bucket into the space between the back seat and the front seats, I caught her shoulders and leaned her back, carefully.

“How’s the pain?” I asked.

“It ends later.”

“I know it ends.  But how is it now?”

“Hurts all over.  Painkillers didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah,” I said.  They couldn’t give her anything narcotic, not with the way the doctor was suspecting that Coil had dosed Dinah with a mixture of opiates and tranquilizers to keep her artificially content and mellow.

“They’re not going to take me.”

It was becoming a refrain.

“They will,” I said.  “I know you can’t use your power right now, but they will.”

“And even if they do take me, it’ll be weird, because they can’t ignore my power now.  They pretended I didn’t have one.  Pretended I was an ordinary kid.  Pretended the headaches didn’t mean anything, like they pretended the heart disease wasn’t a thing.”

“Heart disease?  You?”

Dinah shook her head.  “Not me.”

She didn’t elaborate.  Related to her trigger event?

“Don’t worry,” I said.  I might have gone on to try to reassure her, but I wasn’t sure what to add.  I didn’t know her parents.

“They’ll turn me away.  I’ll have to come to stay with you.  Or Tattletale.  And then it’s like it was with Coil.  Not as bad.  No drugs, no being locked up.  But I’ll know I can never go home.”

She was shaking, I realized.  Trembling.

“Dinah, listen.  That’s the drugs talking, okay?  That’s all it is.  As relaxed as they made you before, they’re making you rattled now while you’re in withdrawal.”

She made an incoherent noise in response.

I leaned towards the front seat.  “Do you have a brush?”

The driver, supplied by the doctor’s office, responded with only one word, “Comb.”

“Comb will do.”

He opened the glove compartment and reached back to hand me a small comb, not even as long as my hand.

“Here,” I said, “Let’s get you more presentable, so there’s one less thing to worry about.”

I pulled off the elastic that held her messy braid together and began combing it straight.

There wasn’t much time left, and still so much I should be saying, doing or asking.

Do we come out of this okay?

We’ll come out of this okay.

Can we stay in touch?

I’m sorry I played any part in this happening to you.

Either I didn’t have the courage or I couldn’t find the right words.  Dinah wasn’t in much of a state to converse, either.

I settled for tidying her hair, braiding it from scratch, and putting the elastic band in place.  Maybe it wasn’t as nice as it would be without the braid, but this would be easier to manage while she was recovering.

Not even a minute later, I was holding that braid back while she hung her head over the bucket, the both of us waiting to see if she would start heaving up mere teaspoons of bile or if this latest spell of nausea would subside.  I was avoiding putting bugs on her skin, but I was aware of how she was drenched in sweat to the point that it was soaking through her clothes.  She was feverish, too.  My swarm could tell the difference in her temperature, even through her clothes and scalp.

The car pulled to a stop.

Dinah startled, as if shaken by the realization of what it meant.

“Can you go on your own?” I asked.  “Or maybe we could sit you down on the edge of the front lawn and beep to signal your parents?”

“Go,” she said.

“What?”

“Go.  I’ll stay in the car.  You see if…”

She paused.  I wasn’t sure if it was because of nausea or something else.

“If?”

“If they want me?”

I thought about arguing.  About assuring her that they would.  Then I reconsidered.  I got out of the car and crossed the front lawn to the front door of her house.

I hit the doorbell, but neither I nor my bugs could hear a sound.  No power, or it wasn’t hooked up.

I gripped the heavy iron knocker and rapped on the door.

Two stray fruit flies found the parents in a bedroom on the ground floor.  They stirred, one sitting up, but they didn’t approach.

I knocked again.

The dad got a cast iron pan for an improvised weapon.  It was almost comical, cartoonish.  Through my swarm, I could almost make out his words as he assured his wife,  “…don’t know…”

Whatever started or ended the sentence, I didn’t catch it.

I stepped back before he cracked the door open, pan held like a weapon out of sight.

He saw me and slammed the door shut in the next instant.

I pushed the door open before he could lock it, winced at the pain that caused with my fractured rib.

He moved as if to swing at me, then dropped his arm as he reconsidered in the face of the thick cloud of bugs that stirred around me.  I wasn’t sure how much he could see.  There weren’t any streetlights, or lights on inside, but I would be backlit by moonlight.

“I’m not here to cause trouble, Mr. Alcott,” I said.  “And I don’t mean to scare you.”

“What do you want?”

“I brought Dinah.”

He froze.

“If that’s alright,” I said.

Not turning away from me, he shouted, “Anna!”

His wife exited the bedroom to stand in the doorway, peering out into the hallway.  She reacted as she saw me.

“Extortion?” he asked.  “We don’t have anything.  You can take anything we have here, but it’s not much.”

“Not extortion.  The man who took her died.  I’m bringing her back.”

“Please,” the mom said.  “Where is she?”

“Before I go get her,” I said, “You should know.  There’s no sign he touched her.  He didn’t hurt her, not physically.  He did everything he could to take care of her, in a utilitarian sense, but she was still a prisoner.”

Without working eyes, I couldn’t see their expressions.  Horror?  Grim acceptance?

“She was drugged, often and heavily.  She’s in the middle of recovery, and it isn’t pretty.  No narcotics, no painkillers, and no tranquilizers, maybe for the rest of her life.”

The mom made a subvocal noise.

“She’s an addict?” the dad asked.

“Yes.  And she’s a touch malnourished, and above all she’s scared.  I wouldn’t have brought her yet, but I thought it was more important that I get her away from anyone who would do what Coil did, using her for her power.  I wanted to get her home.”

“She has abilities, then?” the dad asked.

Why else would Coil take her and keep her?

An ability, to be specific,” I said.  “Does it really matter?”

The dad shook his head.

“I’ll go get her, then.”

I walked out to the car and opened the door next to Dinah.

“They don’t want me.  They won’t.”

“Come on,” I said.  I extended my hand.

“Maybe we should wait until I’m not sick anymore.  If they see me like this, they might have second thoughts.”

“They won’t.  And we agreed you should go home sooner than later.  Come on.”

She put her hand in mine, and I could feel it shaking in the half second before I got a firm grip.  I supported her as she got out of the car, then walked her back toward the house.

Mrs. Alcott made a noise somewhere between a moan and a cry as we approached the front door.  I moved my bugs out of the way and let go of Dinah the second her mother embraced her, right in the middle of the front lawn.  The father was only a step behind, dropping to his knees to wrap his arms around them.  A family reunited.

It was a rare thing, I was finding, that a family was both intact and functioning.  Too many of the people I’d interacted with so far were separated from the families they should have by death, by pain, misunderstandings or abuse.

I turned to leave.

“Thank you,” the dad called out.

I almost stopped.  Then I kept walking towards the car.

“Don’t thank me,” I said, without looking back.  I wasn’t sure if I was loud enough for him to catch it.

It didn’t feel good, but it didn’t feel bad, either.  I’d played a part in her being taken from her family.  Maybe a small part, but a part.  I’d done something to make up for that.  The real sacrifice, the real atonement, would be dealing with what came next.  Dealing with Noelle and the end of the world without using or abusing Dinah’s powers.

I wasn’t sure I felt good about that.  I’d gotten this far by making the most out of every resource I had available, and by being smart about things.  This was throwing away a resource, tying my own hands.  The decision felt dumb, even as I knew it was the right thing to do.

I climbed into the car.  Settling into the middle of the back seat, I swept my bugs over the area as a matter of habit.

Two folded pieces of paper were stuck in the flap behind the driver’s seat, where they hadn’t been before.  I picked them up, tried to view them with both my regular eyes and my bugs, then settled for tucking them into my belt.

Had to get someone to read them for me later.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Downtown.  I’ll tell you where to stop.”

The others were gathered outside Tattletale’s new headquarters.  The Undersiders were all there, Bastard and Bentley included.  Ballistic was present as well, though I hesitated to call him a member of the group.

There was also someone who I hadn’t expected.  Parian.  My recruit, after a fashion, the doll girl was dressed in a crisp new frock, accompanied by a giant stuffed penguin fashioned from cloth.

“You’re late,” Ballistic said.

“Had an errand to run.”

“Sent the girl home?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeah.”

“Good,” she said.  “Feel better?”

“Some,” I replied.  I turned to Parian.  “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Tattletale got in touch.  I… I apparently missed a lot.”

“You’re up for this?”

“No.  But I want to know what’s going on, in case it affects my territory.”

“She’s taking over my shelter and the surrounding area,” Tattletale said.

“Makes sense,” I said.

“Glad everything’s getting sorted out,” Grue said, “But we’ve got an hour and forty minutes until dawn, and we really need to deal with the present situation.”

Tattletale said, “Let’s talk as we walk, then.  We have one sighting of Noelle.  She left ten minutes ago, and I doubt we’ll run into her, but we could get info, something that’ll let us track her, or we’ll at least be in the right general area.  Sorry, Skitter.  We found Atlas, but he’s stashed halfway across the city.  So transportation might be a little awkward.”

I only nodded.

Parian took the penguin apart and created a longer, broader form: a dachshund, in black and white.

“This is so lame,” Imp said.  “How are you supposed to build a decent rep if you’re caught riding a wiener dog?”

“It’s the only thing long enough,” Parian said.

“Snake?”

“Too much wear.”

“If you don’t like it,” Grue said. “You can walk.  It’s functional.”

“You’ve fallen so far, man,” Regent murmured, wry,  “You used to care about these things.”

“Because they kept us alive, kept our enemies off our backs.  I don’t care too much about anyone dumb enough to ignore the fact that we own this city but care about how we travel.”

“I could ride Bentley,” Imp suggested.

Regent commented, “You’re calling him by his real name, now?  Didn’t you call him slobberjaws, just a little while ago?”

Rachel was looking at Imp.  Glaring?  “You’re not riding him.”

“You really care?” Imp asked.

“Not about the name,” Rachel said.  “About respect.”

Imp groaned audibly, and Regent laughed.

My bugs helped me catch the muttered exchange between the pair.

“Why?”  Imp asked, in her most wounded voice.

“Payback.” Regent replied.

Rachel was looking at me, the offer unspoken.

I accepted it, reaching up to take Rachel’s hand and using her help to climb onto Bentley’s back, settling in behind her.

We walked briskly alongside the cloth dachshund that bore the burden of the rest of the group; Grue, Tattletale, Regent, Parian and Ballistic.

“Everyone’s kosher with me taking the seat of power?”  Tattletale asked. “This isn’t me being manipulative like Coil, but I do consider us partners, I want us working side by side, even if our roles are different.”

“Partner?  You’re in charge, aren’t you?” Ballistic asked.

“I’m… headquarters.  Ops.  Management.  Skitter’s our real leader, our field commander.  If it comes down to it, she can call the shots.  I’ll back her up.”

“If she’s up for it,” Grue said.  “She’s blind, and neglected to mention it before the events earlier tonight.”

“It doesn’t matter that much.  I don’t need my eyes when I can use my power,” I said.

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“What are we up against?” I asked, aiming to change the subject.  “Ballistic, can you fill us in?”

“It’s why I’m here.  Consider Noelle a triple threat,” he said.  “She’s strong, she’s got nothing to hold her back, now, and she’s smart.”

“She was your team leader, right?” I asked.

“She was the leader before all of this started, yeah.  You have to understand, she’s a natural tactician, and tacticians come in two varieties.  There’s the strategists that think things through, innovate, and analyze.  Then there’s ones that go by instinct.  Noelle’s the latter.  Not to say she isn’t good if given a chance to plan, but she can get a sense of the current dynamic on an intuitive level, play things by ear while making spur of the moment calls.  Those calls turn out to be the right ones, not because she’s lucky, but because she grasps the situation so quickly that it looks like she didn’t give it any thought at all.”

“She’s quick witted, then,” I said.

“Not exactly what I meant.  Might be that I’m extrapolating too much from too small a sample of info.  Far as I know, she’s never been in a serious fight, but when you add that to the whole strong and desperate bits I just mentioned, it makes for a scary combo.”

“How’s that?” Grue asked.

“Right now, she’s scared, angry, desperate and frustrated, except all the dials are turned up to eleven,” Ballistic said.  “She can’t hold back her emotions like she used to.  She goes berserk at the drop of a hat, and this?  Losing what she sees as her last shot?  That’s more than a dropped hat.  If she were a person who relied on her brain in a crisis, she’d be at a disadvantage, because she’s not in any position to think straight.  The way she really operates, though?  She won’t be any less effective because of that fear and panic.  I don’t plan on getting in her way.  I’m sitting out on this fight, for the record.”

“You’re out?  You’re not working with us?” Grue asked.

“I’m holding territory, but I’m not a member of the team.”

“Same,” Parian said, “Sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” I said.  “But I think you’re underestimating how bad this situation could be.  I don’t think we can afford to have anyone sit out.”

“She’s scary,” Ballistic said.  “Let’s settle for that.  You don’t get within Behemoth’s range, you don’t aim for the long fight against Leviathan, and you don’t send everyone against the Simurgh at once, or you’re screwing yourself over.  Trust me when I say this is better all around if I skip this fight.  She knows me, and she’ll use me against you.”

“You talk about her being clever, but she didn’t seem that on the ball when we talked to her over the phone, back in your base,”  I said.  “You guys were lying to her about Tattletale, about Dinah, and other stuff.  If she’s that clever, why didn’t she pick up on it?”

Ballistic sighed.  “Honestly?  She put her trust in Krouse, in Trickster.  He betrayed that trust, and he did it pretty damn well.  I don’t fault him for it, exactly.  She couldn’t know the whole truth, or we’d be in exactly this situation, just at a worse time.”

“But you do fault him for something,” Tattletale said.

“He became team leader more because he’s fast at thinking on his feet than because he’s good at making the right call.  He took it on himself to make a whole lot of wrong calls.  I let a lot of that slide because he used to be a friend.  And maybe because they weren’t blatantly wrong.  Just a little wrong, a little disagreeable.  But at some point every call was a disagreeable call and every word out of his mouth became a white lie.  He started lying to us for what he saw as our own good.  Not Noelle with her delicate state, but us.”

“And you realized he was never going to change,” Tattletale said.  “His focus would always be on Noelle and himself, no matter what happened.”

“Yeah.  We shouldn’t discount Trickster, by the way.  Either as a threat or as a possible solution.”

“I hadn’t forgotten the possibility that he’d stick around and make life harder on us,” Grue said, “But solution?”

“Yeah.  Whatever else, I’d say Noelle still believes in him.  We can use that.  If we’re willing.”

“And that’s only if we can get him on board,” I said.

Ballistic nodded.

“What does she do?” Grue asked.

Ballistic sighed.  “Besides the ridiculous super strength, durability and the regeneration?”

“Besides that,” Grue said.

“To put it briefly, if it’s dead, she absorbs it and it becomes a part of her-“

“Powers included?” I asked.

“Don’t know.  Haven’t had cause to believe it.  In terms of raw material, raw mass?  Yeah.  She eats, she grows.  But here’s the thing.  If she absorbs something alive, she clones it.  More clones if she’s angrier, we think.  We don’t have a large sample size of incidents.”

“Clones?” I asked.  “Isn’t that an advantage for us?”

“No.  Because whatever they are, the extras come out wrong.  They come out ugly, their powers don’t always work exactly the same way, they’re screwed up in the head, but all that aside, they’re stronger, tougher, they have the memories of the parent.  Sometimes that means they’re just homicidal.  Other times, it means they’re just as sane as you are, but their priorities are reversed.  They want to end your existence, kill everything you want to protect, hurt everyone you care about, and dismantle your life.”

“Evil twins,” Regent said.  “She makes evil twins.”

Ballistic nodded.  “And that’s why I’m sitting this one out.  She’ll come after me if she sees me, especially if she heard the bit about my defection.  If she gets me, that’s even worse, because the clones she’ll get are capable of killing anyone and everyone here, easy.”

Bitch spoke for the first time.  “Animals too?”

“Animals too.  And microbes too, based on stuff she’s said before, though she might just treat them like she does dead material.  I don’t know.  For all we know, it ties into some other power.”

“Do the clones have an expiry date?”  I asked.

“Not as far as I know.  Any time we’ve had to deal with them, we were pretty ruthless in putting them down.  They sort of made a point of being too problematic to be left alone.”

“They’re still people,” Parian said.

“No,” Ballistic replied.  “They really aren’t. Trust me on that count.”

“I’ve got soldiers at key locations, keeping an eye out,” Tattletale said.  “Just a few guys, and I’m paying them an astronomical amount.  I won’t be able to keep it up for more than a few days.”

“Which is how you got this lead?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said, “Good.  But we’ll need a way to deal with her.  Ballistic, you said she regenerates?”

“Not that fast, but fast enough.  Her lower body is tougher, but her upper body isn’t exactly vulnerable.  I’ve seen her take bullets and barely even flinch, and that included one to the head.  They do damage, maybe, but it heals too quickly for it to matter.  And I think she’s gotten bigger and tougher since I saw her last.”

“When was that?”

“Maybe a week after we got to this city.  A while before Coil put in the first vault door, there was just a garage door.  I didn’t want to risk getting too close, not with the lethality of my power and the damage she could do.  Her appetite’s increased, so it might be a pretty dramatic difference in strength from the last time I saw her out and about.  You guys are going to have your hands full trying to kill her.”

“I don’t want to kill her,” I said.  “Not unless we absolutely have no other choice.”

Ballistic turned my way, and he had a funny tone in his voice as he asked, “How do you think you’re going to handle this?”

“Containment,” I said.  “If I get enough spiders together, I could try to surround her in web.”

“Not going to work,” Ballistic said.

“It almost worked against Crawler.”

“She’s stronger than Crawler.”

“Then we go to the heroes.  We get their assistance,” I said.  “Containment foam on top of my web.  Vista to slow Noelle down, Clockblocker to put her on pause.”

“Tattletale told you, didn’t she?  That we think she’s turning into an Endbringer.  Why is lethal force okay against Leviathan but not against Noelle?”

“She’s still a person, under it all,” I said.  “She deserves a chance.”

“You don’t seem to care at all about the subject of killing a friend, Ballistic,” Tattletale added.

“She’s not my friend.  She’s not the person I knew.  Maybe she has the same memories, fragments of the same personality, but that’s only surface stuff.  Because even the bits that look like Noelle aren’t really anything resembling the original.  She wouldn’t be able to heal bullet wounds like she did if they were.  Stands to reason the bits that think like her aren’t either.”

“Pretty cold,” Tattletale said.

“Fuck you,” Ballistic replied.  He slid off the stuffed animal’s back.  “I hope what I said was useful, and I wish you luck, but fuck you.  You don’t get it.”

Parian’s animal had stopped, but Ballistic was already striding away, in the general direction of his lair.

“Go on,” Tattletale urged Parian.  The stuffed dog started walking again.

“You told me I could protect people,” Parian said.  It took me a second to realize she was addressing me.  “How do I do that?”

“We could use your stuffed animals.  If she can’t absorb them, then they’re frontline combatants we can use.”

“I don’t want to fight.”

“I really don’t think we have a choice.  You fought Leviathan,” I said.

Parian shook her head, “I almost wish I didn’t.  I only did it because I promised myself when I was a kid, when I first learned about the Endbringers, that I would fight them if I ever got powers.  That’s why I did it, because I didn’t want to betray the kid version of myself.”

“Wouldn’t your child-self want you to do this?”  I asked.

“I don’t know.  But I didn’t make any promises to myself about this.”

Tattletale cut in.  “Heads up.  I don’t think we’re the only ones checking out the scene.”

“Who?” Parian asked.

“The Protectorate.  The Wards.  If you’re not up for a potential fight, this is the time to back off.”

“The Wards?” Parian asked.

Tattletale nodded.

“I’ll stay.  I won’t fight, but I’ll stay.  I made my decision and I’ll own up to it.”

It’s at least one more body on our side, giving them less reason to pick a fight.

“We do this peacefully,” I said.  “We need their help, so we avoid confrontation.”

“This isn’t going to work,” Regent said.  “Just saying.”

“We’ll try it anyways,” I replied.

I could sense the heroes well before we reached them, gathered by a ruined building.  I used my bugs to get their attention before we appeared around the corner.

“Undersiders,” Miss Militia spoke, rifle raised and pointed in our direction.  The other members of the local hero teams were at the ready just behind her.  I noted Flechette gesturing, Parian shaking her head.

“Miss Militia,” I responded, when I realized none of the others were responding.  Should have hashed this out with Tattletale.  She can do the negotiating with hostile parties better than I can.

“You do this?”  She jerked her head in the direction of the wreckage, not moving the rifle.  Her voice was hard.

“Indirectly,” I replied.  “But not really, no.  I don’t know what that is, exactly.”

“I find that hard to believe,” she responded.  “A hell of a lot of damage, reports of howling eerily similar to the reports we’ve had for Hellhound’s animals, and let’s not forget your penchant for kidnapping the good guys.  Shadow Stalker, Piggot, Calvert…”

Kidnapping heroes?

With my bugs, I did a head count.  Someone was missing.

How?  Dinah said Noelle wouldn’t do any major damage before dawn.

“Vista,” I finished Miss Militia’s thought.  “You’re talking about Vista.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Queen 18.1

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

The empty vault loomed before us, dark and fetid.

“It’s that bad?” I asked.  “Do we need to contact the PRT and Protectorate?  Get the heroes on board?”

“No,” Dinah said, quiet.  “Not immediately.”

The others looked at her.  I couldn’t see her, but I had a pretty distinct mental picture.  A pre-adolescent girl, thin, with straight brown hair.  Cursory inspection with my swarm suggested her hair was tied into a braid, but many strands were coming loose.  Unless a lot had changed since I’d last seen her, Dinah would be pale.  My mental picture of her was of a girl that was almost ghostly.  It said something that she was still able to command our attention with a few quiet words.

“One point seven percent chance she does any serious damage before dawn.  We have time.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Useful to know,” Tattletale said, “But this is bad enough that we may have to go running to the heroes, eat crow and ask for their assistance, get it sooner than later.”

Regent had followed Grue, Dinah and I down the stairs.  He peered into the darkness, then said, “I don’t think we’ll have much pull with the white hats.  Among other things, we’ve conquered the city, gave their heroes a series of spankings, gave the world-reknowned tinker a very expensive spanking, kidnapped one of their Directors and if I just heard you right, you just offed the replacement director.”

He stepped back, moved his mask and whistled.  I had to step back to see Rachel on her way from the entrance, her dogs following behind.

I couldn’t help but cough at the rancid smell from the vault, which made me cough more.

“Hospital,” Grue said, for the umpteenth time.

“Soon,” I said.

“The heroes don’t know we offed Calvert,” Tattletale said.

“Yet,” Regent added.

“My question stands.  Do we need to contact them?” I said.

“Maybe.  I don’t know,” Tattletale shook her head a little.

“What do you know?” I asked.  “Because as far as the rest of us are aware, there’s a teenage girl that’s capable of tearing through two vault doors like they’re nothing, and she’s free, and she’s pissed at us.  Quite possibly at me, depending on how much she heard.”

“Coil sent the Travelers to me for help.  She’s had some physical changes,” Tattletale said.  She traced one of the creases in the crumpled vault door with her gloved fingers.  “They wanted to get a better idea of what was going on, so they could maybe change her back.”

“And when I asked about her before, you brushed me off.”

“Don’t like admitting I don’t know something,” she said.  “And I don’t know the full story.  They were working on the assumption that she’s turning into an Endbringer.”

That gave us all a moment’s pause.  Rachel had just descended from the walkway in time to catch the last part.  She grabbed Bastard’s chain to keep him from venturing into the vault, but her attention was on Tattletale.

Seriously?” Regent asked.

“No.  Well, it’s what they were thinking.  It’s not what I think.”

“Elaborate,” Grue said.

“When I saw Leviathan, I got the distinct impression that the Endbringers aren’t human and never were.  Noelle?  She’s human.  So I’ve got two running theories.  Theory one is that she is turning into an Endbringer, with her body serving as the host to a growth that’s eventually going to shed off the Noelle bits and go full-monster.”

“And theory two?”  Grue asked.

“Someone’s doing their level best to make their own Endbringer.”

“Who?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged, “No clue.  Could be any of the major players.  To figure out which one, I’m going to need time with the database on capes we downloaded from the PRT.  Even then, I’m not sure it covers the high-clearance stuff we need.”

“Off the top of your head?”  I asked.

“Who could it be?  The Protectorate might have been aiming to make an Endbringer with the idea that it could fight the other Endbringers, only for things to go sour.  There’s the group that made people like Gregor the Snail and Newter,” Tattletale looked at me, “You remember that paperwork we found when we infiltrated the Merchant’s party.”

“Cauldron.”

“Yes.  There’s also any number of megalomaniac tinkers out there who might have tried something. Bonesaw, Rattenfänger, Jamestowner, Blasto, Mosaic, Monstrum, some non-tinkers like Chrysalis and Nilbog, bunch of others.”

“Too many,” Grue said.

“But their powers don’t fit this scenario that well, so it would have to be some alliance between two of them, or one would need to get ahold of the tools and blueprints from one of the others and reverse engineer it, or one had a second trigger event and their powers expanded.”

“A lot of ‘ors’,” Grue said.

“Too many possibilities,” Tattletale said.  “We could be on the complete wrong tack, where I’m overthinking it, or I’m overlooking the most obvious possiblity, that she’s just unlucky.”

“What if we ask the kid?” Regent asked.  He turned his attention to Dinah.

“Only if she’s up to it,” I said.

“Head hurts, still fixing things, putting all the worlds in the right places,” Dinah said.  She was clutching my wrist as though I were a life preserver and she was going to drown if she let go, but she stared at the ground as she spoke.  “But I’ll help now.  I fear I won’t be useful for much longer.”

I fear?  Who talked like that?

“Why not?” Regent asked.

“I’ll get sick without the candy.  Soon.”

“Withdrawal,” Grue said.

Dinah nodded.

“Fuck,” I said.  “We need to get her to a hospital so they can see her through it.”

“I can see it,” she said, and her voice was smaller.  There wasn’t any inflection when she spoke; the only indication that she had any emotion at all was the changing volume of her voice, more volume as she got more confident, less as she drew into herself.  “I see myself getting sick, and it’s so clear a picture, so many pictures it’s almost as bad as being sick right here and right now.”

“There’s ways they can help you through it,” I said.  “I looked it up.  The hospital can put you under, so you’re not awake for the worst of it.”

She squeezed my wrist a little tighter.  “It’s okay.  I can see the chances and I know I’ll be okay.  So long as it’s just once.  Ask me questions.”

Tattletale glanced at me.

“Go ahead,” I told her.

“Chance she’s turning into an Endbringer?” Tattletale asked.

“Those aren’t the kind of odds I can give,” Dinah said  “It has to be something I can picture.  Scenes.”

“I thought so.  And that’d mean I can’t really use it to pin down who’s behind Noelle’s situation.”

Dinah shook her head.

“Chance of trouble in the next twenty four hours?” I asked.  “Violence, she attacks us, she attacks other people…”

“Ninety-nine point three four six three zero one percent,” Dinah said.

“What happens in that not-even-one-percent chance?” Regent asked.

“I can’t go looking.  I have to ask, and figure it out from there, which hurts if I do it too much, or someone else asks, which makes it hurt less, because I can focus on the numbers and just the numbers.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said, “Chance she runs? ”

“Twenty-three point three one one percent.”

“That doesn’t add up,” Regent said.  “Unless I’m way worse at math than I thought.”

“She does some damage and then flees,” Grue suggested.  Tattletale nodded confirmation.

“Chance someone stops her?” Tattletale asked.  “Defeats her, kills her?”

Dinah shook her head.

“You don’t know?”

“I can’t see it.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “That means we probably can’t stop her with sheer firepower.”

“Didn’t see it.”

“Okay.  Thank you, by the way,” Tattletale said.  “Appreciate it.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Dinah said, dropping her eyes to the ground.

Quite welcome.  Dinah kept phrasing things in a funny manner.  An old fashioned or proper way.  It wasn’t quite like how Coil spoke, but there were similarities.  Was it a side effect of spending way too much time around Coil?

I didn’t like the idea of that.  That either Coil had molded her, or that she’d spent enough time in a pliable mental state that she’d adopted his speaking patterns.

“This situation is bad,” Tattletale said.  “We can’t take her on, but we don’t know enough about her to plan against her.  I was going to reposition everyone so our territories covered the entire city, under the assumption that the Travelers were leaving.  Now I’m suspicious they’ll be staying, which complicates matters, and I don’t want us spread too thin, either.”

“We could get hold of Ballistic,” Grue said.  “Get his version of events.”

“He went back to his territory.  I’ll make calls and see if we can bring him on board,” Tattletale said.  “I have two squads of soldiers that I’m keeping on retainer.  They’ll serve as my hands for right now, while I try and get myself sorted out here, establish this as my new headquarters.  If you guys want to go to the hospital, maybe see about getting Skitter and Dinah looked after, I’ll handle things on this end.  We regroup at least an hour before dawn and we plan with whatever new information we have.”

“No sleep tonight?” Regent asked.

“No sleep,” Grue confirmed.

I turned to Tattletale, “We don’t have access to all of Coil’s resources, now.  Or Calvert’s, for that matter.  Can you find us a doctor who we can trust?”

“Someone you can trust?  No.  But I can find someone not altogether untrustworthy.

We were just finishing sorting out who was going where when Tattletale called us with a name and an address.

The group heading to the hospital consisted of Me, Grue, Rachel and Dinah.  I had the smoke inhalation and breathing problems, as well as the pain in my chest and my eyes to look after.  Grue and Rachel had been shot.  As for Dinah, we needed to make sure there weren’t any severe problems before we sent her home.  Regent headed back to his place with Imp for backup.

Dinah, Rachel and I settled in the back of one of Coil’s trucks with Bastard and Bentley.  Grue took the wheel.

I focused on canvassing the area with my swarm as Grue drove.  Dinah had assured us that things were safe for the rest of night, but I couldn’t ignore the existence of a dangerous pseudo-Endbringer with a very good reason to want to hurt me.

You’re quiet,” Rachel said.

I turned my attention to her, then realized she was talking to Dinah.

“I considered saying something, but you would get upset,” Dinah said.  Again, the low volume.

“Huh,” Rachel said.  “Why?”

Dinah paused for long seconds.  I wondered if she was trying to work something out with her power.  “I was going to ask if I could pet your puppy, but it’s… not my place.  He’s not mine.”

“He’s not a dog.  He’s a wolf.  He doesn’t react like a dog will.  And I’m trying to train him before he’s old enough that he won’t listen, and I don’t need people mucking that up.”

“Okay,” Dinah said.  There was no fight there, no resistance, total compliance.

Rachel put one boot against the edge of the bench across from her, a foot to the right of Dinah.  As far as I knew, Rachel didn’t take her eyes off the girl.

“Rachel,” I said.  “Just curious, but you’re hoping to eventually adopt your dogs out, right?”

“To good owners.  So?”

“Just saying, but as much as the owners need to adapt to the dog and understand the dog, the opposite is true.”

I couldn’t read Rachel’s expression.

“The dog has to adapt to the owner?” She asked.

“Right.  And that means the dogs need a chance to get used to people.  Dogs and humans have a partnership, right?  So they need to meet halfway in that understanding.  Mutual understanding.”

“Okay.”

Enough time passed that I wasn’t sure if she’d picked up on my meaning.

“You want to pet Bentley?” Rachel offered.

“Very much,” Dinah replied.

“Bentley, go.  Up.”

Bentley hopped up between Dinah and I on the bench.

“Relax.”

The bulldog turned around once, then flopped down on the bench so his head was pressed against my hip.

“Give him a sniff of your hand before you touch him,” Rachel said.  “Bentley’s a good boy, but it’s a good habit to get into with dogs.  You don’t want to surprise him and get bitten.”

I kept still while Dinah took Rachel’s suggestion and extended a hand.  Without standing, he twisted himself around until his oversized head was in Dinah’s lap.

Months since she’s seen a dog, let alone touched one.  How would that affect her in the long run?  I hoped she wouldn’t be in therapy for the rest of her life.  I turned my attention to scanning the area, while Bentley reveled in the attention and affection.

It was another five minutes before Grue stopped the van and we had a chance to get out.

“Chance of trouble?” I asked.

“Fifteen point three three percent,” Dinah answered.

“Can you tell me who causes the trouble?”

“I only know we’ll be in there, so I have to look at each of us, one by one, and then I see the number.”

“Okay.”

“When there’s trouble,” she said, “It’s you.  Eighty percent of the time.”

“Me?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll try to be good.”

With ‘Doctor Q’, the man Coil had always referred us to, it had been one man operating solo.  He’d known his stuff.  But he’d been Coil’s man, and we couldn’t trust him until things had time to settle down.

This doctor’s office had a staff, and they didn’t even react as we entered.

“What do you need?” a woman asked.  She had a musical voice that was almost irritatingly sweet.  Condescending, like a kindergarten teacher or a character in a show for very young kids.  Not to the point that I saw myself causing any trouble, but… yeah.

“Three of us took gunshots, but they didn’t penetrate.  Costumes stopped the hits, but I want to be sure there isn’t lasting damage,” Grue said.  “The little girl needs a full checkup and maybe a brief stay, while she suffers withdrawal from some unspecified drugs or drug cocktails.  And we’ve got one case of smoke inhalation coupled with severe chest pain.”

“Understood.  Your bill has been paid in advance.  My mother and I will be looking after you,” the young woman chirped.  “Please come this way.”

We followed.  The place was like any old doctor’s office, but I noted statues and innumerable picture frames, and the floor was tiled.  Going by my swarm sense alone, I got the impression the place was upscale.  And it was empty.

“You don’t seem bothered to have supervillains coming through.”

“We’ve dealt with supervillains before,” she said, and the way she said it suggested she didn’t plan on elaborating.  “You’ll need to remove your costumes and masks.  You can each have a separate room to disrobe, and we’ll be seeing each of you in turn.  Rest assured, your privacy and safety is our top concern.”

I could feel Dinah’s deathgrip on my arm.

I bent down and murmured, “Do you want a separate room?”   She shook her head.

I straightened and told the woman, “We’ll share a room.”

“Neither of you are bashful?”

“I’m blind,” I said, “And no, I guess I’m not bashful.”

“Blind?” Grue said, his head snapping around as he looked at me.  Rachel did as well.

“Tattletale didn’t mention it?”

“No.  And you didn’t either.”

“I’m functioning.  I probably won’t when I can’t use my power, but yeah.”

“Is everything all right?” the young woman asked.

“It’s fine,” Grue said, heading into one of the rooms.  He stopped in the doorway, turned to me, “We’ll talk after.”

I bobbed my head in a nod, then led Dinah into an empty room.  As far as I could tell, everything was as one might expect for a doctor’s office, down to the jar of tongue depressors and a bowl of lollipops.

“How’s your head?” I asked.  “Headaches?”

“Getting worse.  But I’ll get sick tonight, before the headache gets too bad, then it won’t really matter.”

“Oh.”

“Do you have more questions?”

“Some, but I don’t want to burden you, or make you feel like I’m using you.”

“Go ahead.”

“The end of the world.  Did Coil ask about it?  Did he get more details on what happens?”

“He would ask how the number changed, some mornings when he asked the usual questions, before Crawler came and I couldn’t use my power for a while.  He wanted to figure out what happened, but the only way to do that was to make guesses and see the numbers with my power.  Every day, he’d always asked the same sorts of questions about whether one thing was safe or whether another was safe and chance of success for this plan or that.  There weren’t many questions left for the day after he was done asking all those, so it was slow.”

I worked to take off my armor, unstrapping the armor to uncover the zipper.  It wasn’t easy, with the pain in my chest, and when it hit me, I’d have to suppress coughs to continue listening to Dinah.  “I guess he figured he’d be around long enough to figure it out.”

Dinah didn’t respond.

“What’s the chance the world ends, Dinah?  That these billions die because of something Jack Slash does?  Has the number changed?”

“It’s changed.  Ninety-seven point seven nine zero seven three percent.”

Ninety-seven point eight.  It’s higher.

“What did you and Coil figure out?  In terms of twenty questions?”

“People are spread out.  I know you’re there.  You’re different but you’re there.”

“And the others?”

“Sometimes there.”

“Can you give me more details?  How am I different?  Which of the others are there?”

“I don’t know.  There’s too many capes and too many capes with powers that make it fuzzy, because some powers make it harder and a bunch of those powers together make it impossible.   I don’t know what happens to start all of it and I don’t know much of what happens during, but billions are dead afterward.”

Damn.  “Okay.  You said we’re spread out?”

“Yes.  Five big groups, lots and lots of capes from all around the world, and armies.  Coil asked a lot about that.  He wanted to know about his chances for survival or the total number of casualties if he focused on one area over another.”

“He wasn’t interested in stopping it?”

“He asked about that at first.  But nothing changed the numbers enough.  He said it was better to accept that it’s going to happen and do what he could to minimize the damage.”

“Five major groups,” I said.  “You don’t know why?”

She shook her head.

“Do you know if it’s like, a natural disaster sort of mass-death, or death by violence, or…”

I trailed off.  Dinah was already shaking her head.

“Alright,” I said.  I finished pulling my costume off, grunting at the pain in my chest, then sat on the bed in my bike shorts and tank top.  Dinah sat beside me.

She looked up at me, and there was a hint of surprise in her voice.  “You’re burned.”

“Yeah.  Just a bit.  Is it bad?”

“Not bad.  But it looks painful.”

“My chest hurts more,” I said.  Then, as if I were reminded of it, I coughed, hoarse.

We sat.  I could sense the Doctor talking to Rachel, and ‘heard’ Rachel’s raised voice with the bugs I’d placed on her.  I didn’t envy the doctor for having to deal with her as a patient.

“Theoretically speaking,” I said, “Just in the interest of problem solving, or figuring out what’s going to work or not, would the chance of this happening change if I just drove around America and killed everyone in my power’s reach?”

“Not really,” Dinah said.

“Damn,” I replied.  If she’d said yes, I could have narrowed it down to maybe the eastern United States or the west, then cut it in half again with north versus south, or narrowed it down to certain states.  Home in on the person or people that the problem centered around, dealt with them one way or another

Except that wouldn’t work.

“Would you?”

“What?”

“Kill all those people, if you had to?”

“No,” I assured her.  “I’m not that kind of villain.”

“You killed Coil, didn’t you?  I saw.  Thirty-two percent chance it was you who did it.  Five percent chance you couldn’t and asked someone else to.  Sixty percent chance you were dead.”

“I killed him,” I admitted.  “But that was a special case.”

“Okay,” she said.

What I wouldn’t have given to be able to read her expression.

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

She shook her head, but she said, “It did at first, when I first saw that possibility.  But I had a lot of time to wait, and eventually the idea of being rescued mattered more than his life did.”

“That’s… pretty grim,” I said.  I didn’t get a chance to say more.  The female doctor was leaving Rachel’s room, and Rachel was storming out.

Both Dinah and I turned toward the door before the doctor had even touched the handle.

The woman entered and hesitated a fraction when she saw us staring.  Her voice was just as cheery as her daughter’s.  “Hello!  I’m Dr. Brimher.”

“Hello,” I said.  “Have trouble with my teammate?”

“She was uncooperative.  I suppose we’ll have to refund the amount that was already paid for her care.  I hope that’s alright.  Everything indicated she was fine, healthwise.”

“So long as she was fine.”

She perked up a little at that, “Well then!  Who’s first?”

“Her,” Dinah said, before I had a chance to speak.

The overall checkup went much as I’d expected.  I was diagnosed with a fractured rib, the smoke inhalation was apparently something that should have been treated earlier, but I wasn’t showing any lingering signs of mental or personality changes, and I wasn’t dizzy, so she let me off with instructions to breathe deep.  I got a cream for my burn and three bottles of eye drops for my eyes.

“Once every two hours,” she said.  “And as for you, little miss, you seem undernourished.”

“I haven’t had much of an appetite for a while.”

“Infection?”

“Involuntary incarceration,” I said.

“Ah.  Well,” the woman’s voice jumped up a notch on the cheeriness scale, “None of my business.”

“It wasn’t me,” I said.  “We weren’t keeping her prisoner.”

“Of course.  I wouldn’t act any differently if you had been.”

“Really?” I asked.

Dinah grabbed my hand.  I forced myself to shut up.

“Well.  What drugs were you taking, sweetie?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you describe what you felt when you took them?”

“Felt good.  Calm.  Relaxed.  Very sleepy, thinking through a thick soup.”

The woman was scribbling with a pen.  She shook it to banish the fly that I’d landed on the end.

“And now?  You’re a little flushed.”

Was Dinah showing symptoms that I couldn’t see?

“I’m hot, and my legs ache.  I’m sweating, but that might be because I’m hot.  That’s all for now.  Later, I’ll be throwing up, and crying.  I’ll be very tired but I won’t be able to sleep.”

“You’ve been through this before?”

“No.  Not much past this.  This will be the first time.  Hopefully the last.”

“I… see.  The time of your last dose?”

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t see a clock.  But things start getting bad in one and a half hours,” Dinah said.  “They get to the very worst in one day.”

“Can you put her in a coma?” I asked.  “I read about it.”

“No.  I wouldn’t feel confident in doing that without knowing the substances in her system.”

“Then do a blood screen first,” I said.  “If it’s a question of money-“

“No,” Dinah was the one who spoke.  “Has to be the hard way.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because there’s a seventy point one five nine percent chance that I relapse if I don’t.  The cravings get too bad and I can see more cravings in the future and it gets to be too much and I go looking for some eventually,” there was a hint of hysteria in her voice.

I sighed.  “Okay.  No induced coma.”

“One bad week,” Dinah said.  “Six days.”

“Okay then,” the doctor said.  Still chipper, strangely sounding pleased at this situation.  “I’ll go prepare a room so you have a place to rest.  I’ll grab some things to help quiet your tummy, too.”

A moment later, she was gone.

“I can stay with you,” I said.  “At least tonight.”

“You need to go and help the others with Noelle.”

“I will.  But first I’ll see you through tonight, okay?”

She nodded.

We sat in silence for a few long moments.  The doctor stopped in to say something to Grue, and there was something about her voice, the higher pitch…

“Hey, Dinah, since I can’t see, can you do me a favor and tell me if you see anything around here that says ‘Medhall’?”

“Medhall?  No.  I don’t think so.  Why?”

“These guys are too comfortable around supervillains, and this place is too expensive.  Medhall was the company that Kaiser ran, and he also ran the biggest gang of villains in town, before Leviathan came.  I’m just wondering if this was the place the white supremacists went to when they needed medical care.”

“Oh.  I don’t know.”

“If it is, I’ll have to have words with Tattletale.  And I guess I can see why you saw me possibly causing trouble.  If they said something to Grue, that’d probably do it.”

Dinah nodded.

I sighed.  “A week to recuperate?”

“Six days.  Eight percent chance I need another day to rest,” her voice seemed a touch tight, maybe a little anxious.  I wasn’t sure I could blame her.

“I’m not leaving you in their care, okay?  We’ll spend enough time here for me to get the details on what to do and what to look out for, and then we’ll find another place to rest up.”

“Okay,” she said, and her voice was far quieter than it had been since we’d rescued her.

It caught me off guard.  The quiet.  I’d pegged the changes in volume as being tied to her confidence, but the way she’d dropped her voice, it suggested she was anxious about something.  Something she apparently wasn’t sharing with me.

“Mind if I run a few more questions by you?”

“I should save my strength, so only a couple more?”  She was still quiet as she replied.

I wasn’t sure if Dinah was aware, but the bugs I’d placed on her shoulders sensed the movement, the way she drew her shoulders in.

She was afraid?  Was it the impending withdrawal?

“Okay,” I said.  “Chance we come out of this okay?”

“Sixty four point two percent chance.”

“And chance the rest of the city does?”

“…Not as high.  It depends how I ask the question, but if I do-“

“No.  I get it.  If you could ballpark it?”

“Eighteen point two two five eight percent.”

“Okay.  There’s going to be some catastrophic damage, then?”

“It’s very likely.”

I sighed.  I still had to figure out what we were doing about Noelle.  There were roughly eight hours before we had to address that issue.  Five or six hours before we really needed to act on the knowledge, calling in help, hiring assistance or notifying the heroes.  This was a threat just one step below an Endbringer.  Hopefully Ballistic would brief us on her powers, and Tattletale could get us on target as far as her location or weak points.

Tattletale might have been the ruler of Brockton Bay in a general sense, but I was still team leader of the Undersiders.  I was blind, we had a pseudo-Endbringer to tackle, and the lives of everyone in the city potentially hinged on it.

Just had to consider my options.

“Fifty eight point five,” Dinah said, and there was a hint of emotion in her voice.

“What?  What’s that number?”

“It’s my chance of getting home.”

“Why is it so low?”

She shrugged.

Did that mean she didn’t know, or she wasn’t willing to use her power to find out?

Then I sensed her lean slightly away from me, and I got an inkling why.

Me.

It was so seductive, when I thought about possible risk to my dad, to the people in my territory, to my teammates and friends, and even to me, to think about drawing on Dinah’s assistance.  With Dinah’s help, we could avoid the worst case scenarios.  And maybe in some not-quite conscious way, I was thinking about how to retain her help, one way or another.

If she was sick, after all, I could look after her while dealing with the situation.  Just a week of keeping Dinah close, drawing on her abilities to help everyone, and to ensure her safety.  With that in mind, and the way she’d clutched at me for security, I’d been assuming she’d stay with me for just a little while.

She knew that.  She saw the numbers changing.

And just with that, there was a breach in trust.  The savior wasn’t quite what she’d expected?  Dangerous, even?  It explained why she was anxious.

“Dinah, listen,” I said.  “I can guess what you’re thinking.  I don’t want to be that person.  I don’t want to trick myself into believing it’s right or better to keep you, that it serves the greater good or whatever.  Because that’s a slippery, fast road to doing what Coil was doing.”

She turned her head to look at me.

“We’ll get you home as soon as possible, okay?  Within twenty-four hours.  And if there’s more risk, if there’s more danger to me, or to you, or everyone?  I’ll shoulder that, okay?  I’ll make sure we come out of this okay.  You can go home.  You deserve to go home.”

A full minute passed before she responded with a murmured, “Thank you.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Plague 12.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why could I feel calm now?

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

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

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

“Regent!” Tattletale called out.

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

There was one flash in response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not going to happen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two?” Purity asked.

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

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

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

“So?” Tattletale asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Grue responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s vague,” Faultline spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

That gave everyone pause.

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

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

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skidmark and Purity nodded as well.

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

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

really didn’t like that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trickster nodded at his words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Militia frowned.

“Please.”

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

The arguing stopped, and all eyes turned to her.

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

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

“Perhaps.”

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

“Mannequin went after Armsmaster.  Armsmaster was hospitalized.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re saying no, Faultline?”

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

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

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

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

“Good.  That’s all we ask.”

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

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

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

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

She was met only with cold stares and crossed arms.

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Interlude 11f (Anniversary Bonus)

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

If each of the tens of trillions of universes were like pictures, then they were organized into a mosaic, constantly rearranging itself and shuffling.  Taken in as a whole, it was a muddle.  Depending on how it shuffled, sometimes patterns emerged.  A predominant color, perhaps, or lots of scenes that were blurs of motion and activity.

But there was more to it.  There were faint sounds, for one thing, and they weren’t just two-dimensional.  Just the opposite – they were each a fully realized world, and each was continuous, like a slideshow or film reel that extended vast distances forward and backward from any of the scenes of focus.  Things got even more complicated when each of the slideshow reels forked out and branched as they moved further away.  The only thing stopping them were the terminus points.  The first terminus wasn’t complicated.  The now, the present.  It moved inexorably, steadily forward, consuming the individual realities as they ceased to be the future and became the now.

The other terminus was somewhat more ominous.  Every branch ended at some point, some sooner than others.

Dinah Alcott knew that those branches were ones where she had died.  Right now, there were a lot of them, more coming into view with every passing second.  Almost all of the images in the mosaic were either black or crimson.  Either the lights were on and everything was covered in blood, or they were off, and she was effectively blind.

She concentrated, and the mosaic organized into two portions, one slightly larger than the other.  In one half, that death-terminus came very soon.  In the other, it was some distance off.  She judged the size of the individual parts, and the number snapped into her head.

43.03485192746307955659 percent chance she would die in the next thirty minutes.  The chance was steadily ticking upward with each passing second, with possible realities becoming impossible and fading from her view, or being replaced with other possibilities, effectively shifting over to the other side.

Anxiety crept up on her.  She wanted her ‘candy’, to take the edge off, to help clarify her thoughts.

She knocked on the door to her room.  She heard Coil say something on the other side and tested the knob.  Finding it unlocked, she stepped through.

Coil sat at his desk, on the phone.  She didn’t want to talk to him, but she wanted to die less.

“It’s unfortunate,” Coil was saying.  “Step up recon, call in a secondary team to ensure twenty-four seven surveillance.  We’ll want a replacement for our Leah the moment they start recruiting again.  Yes.  Good.  Let me know.”

He hung up.

“Coil?”

“What is it, pet?”

“Forty-four point two zero three eight three percent chance I die in the next half-hour.”

He stood from his desk.  “How?”

“Blood or darkness.  Don’t know.”

“The chance I die in the next thirty minutes?”

She thought, and felt the mosaic shift into a new configuration.  Coil’s face predominated each tiny scene, active, speaking and alive in some, unmoving or dead in the others. “Forty two point seven zero nine percent for the worlds where I don’t die.  Don’t know about the worlds where I’d die first.”

“And, say, Mr. Pitter?  The chance he dies?”

“Forty point-”  She stopped as Coil raised a hand.

“So whatever it is, it happens here, and involves everyone here.  Chance of survival if we leave?”

“Ten point six six four-”

“No.  Chance the average person in the city lives if we leave?”

“Ninety-nine point-”

“So we’re targets.  It’s not an attack on the city.  If we mobilize the squads?  To one decimal place?”

“Forty-eight point one percent chance I survive, forty-nine point nine percent chance you survive.”

“No difference.  Worse if anything,” he said.  She nodded, and he rubbed his chin, thinking.

Time was running out.  She fidgeted.

“I need some candy, please.”

“No, pet,” Coil said, “I need you focused.  What-”

She interrupted him, which always she tried to avoid doing, but she was feeling desperate.  “Please.  I’ve been using my power a lot.  I’m going to get a bad headache, and then I won’t be useful to you.”

“No,” he said, with more ferocity than she had expected.  “Pitter isn’t here to administer it, and won’t be until this situation is over.  Listen.  Chance that we survive Crawler’s attack if my soldiers use the laser attachments I’ve provided?  The purple beams?”

Crawler?  It took her a second to get her mental footing.  Coil was using his power.  She wasn’t sure how it worked, but she could always tell when he was doing it because the numbers always started changing all at once, and he knew things he couldn’t.  He’d know about things and numbers she might have told him, except she didn’t remember telling him.

“Thirty Nine point one-”

“If I deploy the Travelers that are on site at the moment?”

“Thirty point-”

He pushed his monitor off his desk in a fit of anger.  It crashed to the floor, pieces of screen rolling and sliding onto the rug at one end of the room.

Striding around the desk, he seized her by the arm and pulled her out of his office.

“Candy.  Please,” she said, whispering.

“No.”

Gripping her wrist so hard it hurt, he drew her into the main area of his underground complex.

“Get battle ready!” Coil shouted.  It was so out of character for him to shout.  “Threat incoming!”

The soldiers that were at ease in the lower area of the base jumped to action, grabbing weapons and protective wear.

It wasn’t going to make a difference.  The numbers weren’t changing enough.  But he was already upset, so she didn’t tell him that.

Trickster, Oliver and Sundancer appeared, running along the metal catwalk.  Sundancer had her mask off, and her permed blond hair was damp against her scalp with sweat.  Oliver was in casual clothing, like Trickster.  He was good looking, his features chiseled.  Athletically built.  Trickster wasn’t.  He had a hook nose and long hair that didn’t suit him, but she knew he was smart, and she would have guessed it even if she didn’t know, just going by the way he looked at stuff.

“What’s going on?” Trickster asked.

“My pet has graciously informed us that Crawler of the Slaughterhouse Nine is less than thirty minutes away from entering this complex and murdering us all.  Suggestions outside of the obvious would be appreciated.”

“Trickster and I could go and try to stop him,” Sundancer suggested.

Outside of the obvious, Sundancer.  I’ve asked my pet.  You try that and we’re all more likely to die.”

“Why?”

“He’s a regenerator,” Coil answered, sounding irritated at having to explain, “And he regenerates exceedingly quickly.  More to the point, he has the added advantage that any part that grows back is stronger than it was before, typically with extra features, growths and increased durability to render him more resistant to whatever hurt him or give him other capabilities.  These adjustments are not only permanent, but he’s been working on it for some time.”

Trickster added, “I read up on these guys after you mentioned them the other night.  Crawler eventually becomes immune to whatever was hurting him, and he’s that much less human, afterward.  He wants to get hurt, wants to further his transformation, like a crazed masochist or someone with a death wish.  Throws himself into suicidal situations and then comes out stronger.  Which may be why he’s here.  The soldiers?”

Coil shook his head, “He’s immune to conventional ammunition and explosives, and most likely to most unconventional forms of ammunition and explosives as well.  The laser attachments might have some small effect, but not enough to draw him here.”

“Which makes me wonder all of a sudden how he found us,” Trickster added.

Coil shook his head, “One thing at a time.  If he is here because he’s seeking someone who could harm him, the only individuals on site who would be capable are Sundancer and your Noelle.”

That gave the three teenagers pause.

“Noelle?  But who even knows about Noelle, except-”

Coil raised his hand to silence Trickster.  “Pet, the chance that Crawler would seek out Noelle first, given the opportunity?”

She felt the images filter out until she was looking at a pattern of scenarios.  The vague shape of the hulking figure, the open vault door.  The images snapped into two groups, one vastly larger than the other.

“Ninety three point four percent.”

Shit,” Trickster swore.  “That’s why he’s here.  Just like Leviathan, Crawler’s coming after her?”

“I find every piece of evidence we gather only supports our working theory on your teammate,” Coil said.  He turned to Dinah, “The chance of survival if we were to give him what he wanted?  Give him access to Noelle?”

“Hey, no,” Trickster said.

“Eighty-one point nine percent chance we survive the next hour-”

“A start,” Coil noted.

Something about the image bothered her.  She pushed forward, seeing the possible realities that unfolded after that.  Very, very few extended any meaningful distance into the future.

“Six percent chance we survive the next five hours.”

Coil stopped, then sighed.  “Thank you, pet, for clarifying that.”

She nodded.

“Awesome,” Trickster responded, his voice thick with sarcasm.  With a more serious tone and expression, he said, “Let’s not give him access to Noelle.  Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Coil conceded.  “Any further ideas?”

Time’s running out.  She looked at the numbers for herself, even though she felt the initial throbbing pains at the base of her skull that foretold the encroaching headaches.  53.8 percent chance I die in the next thirty minutes.

“Pet,” Coil said.

What she didn’t get from his tone, she grasped from the vague images she saw of her most immediate possible futures.

“No,” she pleaded, before he’d even told her what he wanted.

“It’s necessary.  I want you to look at a future where we survived, and I want you to tell us what happened.”

“No.  Please,” she begged.

Now, pet.”

“Why is she so against this?” Trickster asked.

“Headaches,” Dinah answered, pressing her hands to her head,  “It breaks my power.  It takes days, sometimes weeks before everything is sorted out and working again.  Headaches the entire time, until everything is sorted out, worse headaches if I try to get numbers in the meantime.  Have to be careful, can’t muddle things up.  Can’t lie about the numbers, can’t look at what happens, or it just becomes chaos.  Safer to keep a distance, to make and follow rules.  Safer to just ask the questions and let things fall into place.”

“We don’t have time to play twenty questions,” Coil said.  “Would you rather die?”

Would she?  She wasn’t sure.  Death was bad, but at least then she’d go on to the afterlife.  To heaven, she hoped.  Finding an answer and surviving would mean days and weeks of absolute hell, of constant pain and not being able to use her power.

“Pet,” Coil said, when she didn’t give him an immediate response, “Do it now, or you won’t get any more candy for a long while.”

She could see those futures unfolding.  He would.  She could see the pain and the sickness she experienced, the full brunt of her power without her candy to take the edges off, complete with all of the details she didn’t want.  Worst of all were the feedback loops.  To go through withdrawal from the drugs, from her ‘candy’, while simultaneously being able to see and experience echoes of the future moments where she was suffering much the same way?  It was a massive increase in the pain and being sick and mood swings and insomnia and feeling numb and skin-crawling hallucinations.  There was no limit to these echoes, the feedback from her futures.  It would never kill her, knock her out or put her in a coma, no matter how much she might want it to.

She had come close to experiencing it once, early on in her captivity.  Never again.  She would obey Coil in everything he asked for before she risked that happening again.

“Okay,” she murmured.  She picked out one of the paths where they survived.  Even looking too closely at it made her head throb, like it was in a massive vise and someone had just cranked it a fraction tighter.  Some of the possible worlds around the fringes of her consciousness disintegrated into a mess of disordered scenes as she pushed forward.  The scenes and images of the less possible worlds flew around her mind like razor-sharp leaves in a gale, cutting at everything they touched.  “It hurts.”

“Now, pet.  As quickly as you can.”

He didn’t know.  It was something else, like trying to will herself to stick a hot poker in her body, in her brain, knowing it would remain there and burn her for weeks before it cooled.

But she did it, because as much as it would hurt, it would hurt more if she didn’t get her candy.  If Crawler got his hands on her, it wouldn’t hurt at all after those first few moments of pain, but that was bad too.  It meant dying.

She focused hard on that scene, taking it from an image small and vague enough that it could have fit on the end of a pencil to something full size.  Her head exploded with pain.  She caught fragmentary images as she felt herself double over and heave the contents of her stomach onto the metal catwalk and Sundancer’s legs and feet.

Sundancer could have yelled, but she didn’t.  Instead, she fell to her knees and grabbed Dinah by the shoulders to steady her.  It was just in time, because Dinah felt fireworks erupt in her brain, felt her body go spastic.  Too much, too fast.  The image was overly sharp and detailed, overwhelming her senses, shredding all sense of time and present.

It was long moments before she could even piece together what the others were saying and doing.  She was lying down, her head on Sundancer’s lap, a cold cloth against her forehead.  Oliver leaned next to her, holding a bowl of cold water.

“-running out of time!” Trickster shouted.  Coil stood just behind Trickster, arms folded, staring out over the railing, at his underground base.

“Give her a moment,” Sundancer said.  “Whatever that was, it just knocked the poor kid out.”

“That deadline she gave us?  It’s here.  Now.”

“I know, but pressuring her won’t help anything.”

A smell hit her.  Like the bitterest black chocolate in the world and overly strong coffee, the odor so thick on the air that she could taste it.  With her already upset stomach, it made her want to retch.

“Smells bad,” she said.  “Make the smell go away.”

“She’s conscious.  Is this smell a clue?” Trickster turned.

“No.  It’s a symptom,” Coil answered him, not turning to look at her or them.  “She may be dizzy, dazed, or she may rub or scratch at herself until she fully recovers.  Don’t let her scratch her corneas or rub herself until she bleeds.”

Dinah tried to recall what she’d seen.  “Darkness.”

“You mentioned that earlier, pet.”

“We were in the dark, and it smelled like meat.  It smelled like sweat, too.  And we were all pressed in close together.”

Where?” Coil asked.

“There was a metal door in front of us.  Big.  The vault door downstairs.”

“Noelle’s room,” Trickster said, an instant before Dinah put the pieces together.

“How many of us, pet?”

“Everyone here was there,” she looked towards the soldiers.

“Is she in there?”

“She was.  Yes.”

Coil turned and swept her up in his arms.  Her skin crawled at the contact of her body against his.  She didn’t say or do anything about it, in part because she wasn’t able, too sick, hurting too much.  The other reason was because she had seen the numbers shift each time she flinched away from his touch or made her disgust known.  Little differences.  He was angrier with her, more curt, if she pulled way, if she complained about it.

There was safety in the numbers, in following the rules she set on herself.  It kept her power in order, it ensured Coil was tolerant with her, and it meant she didn’t have to go without her candy for even a short time.

Coil took the stairs two at a time as he descended to the ground floor, Trickster, Oliver and Sundancer hurrying after him.

“You,” Coil called out, not even bothering to recall the employee’s name, “The vault door.  Open it.  Squad leaders, organize your groups!”

There was a faint crash in the distance, and a vibration rippled through the complex.

“Pet, the chance that Crawler kills us, now that we’ve undertaken this route?”

“I don’t.  I can’t.”  Her head hurt so much.

Try,” and in his hard tone, she heard the unspoken threat of having her candy taken away.

She did.  The scenes had no order to them.  They were all jumbled, and trying to pull some semblance of order and sense into them was like thrusting her hands into fire and razor blades, thrusting her mind into fire and razor blades.  A long groan of pain was drawn from her throat, and the strength went out of her body.

“You’re killing her!” Sundancer gasped.

“No,” Coil said, as if from a place far away.  “I’ve had her use her power to check.  This may be miserable for her, but she can’t die from it.”

Coil touching her, that overpowering phantom smell, the fear, the nausea…

“I need to barf.”

Coil set her down and held her by the wrists as she leaned forward to cough up mouthfuls of bile.  Her stomach was already empty of food.

“The number, pet?”

Sundancer bent down to hold her, so her shoulders weren’t being twisted with her arms held behind her by Coil.

“Three point one percent,” Dinah gasped out.

“Reassuring,” Coil said.  The vault door opened before them.  “Trickster?  Would you announce our imminent arrival to Noelle?”

“Yeah,” Trickster sighed.  “Fuck.  I hate to do this, but can I get a number?”

“Trickster!” Sundancer admonished him, sounding horrified, “You can see how much pain it’s causing her.”

“It’s important.  Kid, what’s the chance that Noelle kills us?”

There was another series of crashes, closer.

Dinah shook her head, “Please.  I just want to put everything back together.  Every time I use my power, it all falls apart and it hurts.”

“Pet, it’s the last question we’ll ask you tonight.  I promise,” Coil said.

So she did.  She reached for the number.  It can’t kill me.  It doesn’t do permanent damage.  It just hurts.  It’s my brain telling me my power shouldn’t be used to find answers like that.

The words she used to convince herself did little to soften the pain that came with digging for a number once more.  She screamed, and tears flowed down her face as she sank into Sundancer’s arms, screwing her eyes shut.

“Nine point eight percent,” she managed.  Was she being carried?  They were venturing inside, past the first of the two heavy vault doors.  How much time had just passed?  Where was Trickster?

“That’s good information to have, pet,” Coil said, from somewhere near her.  “Squad leaders.  As you gather inside the containment room, I want you organizing your troops into ranks, your backs to the door.  Weapons need to be locked, loaded and ready to fire.  Be sure to equip the laser attachments and battery packs.  Don’t venture any further than ten paces inside.”

There were affirmative responses.  Dinah could hear guns cocking.

Another crash, the closest yet.  The sound of rubble and concrete falling echoed through the underground complex.

“He’s here,” Coil said.  “Last people inside, hurry.  Close the first door.”

Dinah opened her eyes.  They were in a concrete room with steel girders at set intervals, as if forming a cage against the inside of the room.  It smelled like meat that had gone bad.

The second vault door slowly swung closed as the last few stragglers slipped through the gap.  Employees, technicians, people in suits, some soldiers.  They packed in close at the end of the room closest to the door, their bodies pressing against her.  Three fifths of the chamber were left unoccupied.

And on the other side of the room – darkness.  Trickster was emerging.

“How is she?”  Coil asked.

“Scared.  Hungry.  She said she didn’t get her meal tonight,” Trickster answered, his voice quiet.

Coil folded his arms.  “She did.  I personally observed the delivery.  I suspect she’s needing more food as of late.  Unfortunate we find this out now.”

“She asked me to turn out the lights on this end of her room.  Said it would be easier if she can’t see us.”

“Do it,” Coil ordered.  He strode over to one of his squad captains and spoke in the man’s ear.  Dinah thought she might have overheard something about night vision goggles.  She closed her eyes, as if it could help shut out the pain that continued to tear through her skull.

The pink of the light shining through her eyelids turned to black as the lights went out.

“I’m sorry,” A girl’s voice whispered in Dinah’s ear.  Sundancer?

Dinah tried to answer, but her voice came out in a croak.

“I’d help you if I could, but I can’t, you understand?” Sundancer whispered to her.  She had her arms around Dinah.  She smelled like barf, but that was Dinah’s fault.  “It’s not just that my friends and I are in a bad spot, or having to help Noelle, or even that I don’t think I could save you on my own…  We made a promise to each other, when everything began.  Fuck, it sounds so stupid, sounds so lame, when I say it like that.”

There was a crash nearby, the sound of metal on metal.

Then a massive impact against the vault door made the room shudder.

Sundancer kept talking, as if oblivious to the ongoing attack.  “When you’ve been through hell and back again with a group of people, when you’ve all lost everything, and you collectively stand to lose more?  I- I don’t even know what I’m saying.  Maybe there’s no justification for letting you go through what you are.  I just… they’re all I’ve got.  I’m sorry.”

Dinah reached up and fumbled around until she found Sundancer’s hand.  She didn’t have a response, couldn’t speak if she’d been able to think of what to say.  She just held the hand tight.

A series of hits collided with the metal door.  A roar rattled through the air, painfully loud despite the muffling effect of the intervening wall.  It was a roar heavy with frustration and anger.

There was the sound of guns cocking.  She almost missed it in the midst of the steady, relentless crashes that came from the metal door.

“I’m so hungry,” a girl’s voice echoed through the chamber.  She’s close.

“I know, Noelle,” Trickster answered.  “Just a little while.  Let’s go back to the other side, away from these people.”

Noelle sounded like someone who was very, very tired.  “Can’t wait.  Can’t wait at all these days.  I can smell them.”

She wants food as badly as I want my ‘candy‘, Dinah thought.  The difference is that she can and will take what she wants, even if it means eating one of us.  I don’t have that power.

God, her head hurt.  Worse, she knew this was the calm before the storm.  Her head would hurt more with every passing hour until she wanted to die.

“You can hold on,” Trickster said, his voice gentle.  “You don’t want to come any closer than that.  You know what your power does.  None of us want that.”

“No.”

“And these guys, as good as they are, I can’t be positive that one of them won’t shoot you in a moment of panic.  We don’t want that either.”

“I’d live.  Don’t want to, but I’d live.”

“You would.  But would I?  Would Oliver and Marissa, if you went berserk?  They’re in here too.”

Sundancer spoke up, calling out, “Remember the promise we made together.”

Noelle didn’t reply.  The silence lingered, punctuated by the heavy blows on the metal door, echoing through the concrete chamber.

“Come on, Noelle.  Let’s go back, before you or someone else here does something they’ll regret,” Trickster urged.

The banging continued.

“Come with me, Krouse?  We can talk alone?”

“That sounds good,” Trickster said.

Dinah felt the tension in the room ease.  The pain in her skull didn’t get any better.  She set about the tedious task of trying to reorganize the images in her head.  Building a house of cards in an unpredictable wind.  Every time the numbers changed, what she’d started to sort out fell apart.

She’d have to wait until a period of calm before she made any real headway.  The passage of time would help as well.  Then it wouldn’t be so painful to use her ability.

She got caught up in the painstaking operation, and it was some time before she realized the banging had stopped.  Still, the gathered people in the room waited.  Just in case Crawler was bluffing them, waiting until they opened the door.

Long minutes passed before Coil gave the order.

Dinah was blind.  Her power too fragile and painful to use, so she couldn’t see the future that awaited them outside the door.  Her heart pounded in her throat as the door was opened.  The first squads moved out, fanning through the complex to find if Crawler was lurking in some corner of the underground base.  They returned and gave the all-clear.

Emerging from the gloom, she squinted in the face of the flourescent lights.  Claw marks gouged the outside of the solid steel of the vault door, each at least half a foot deep.  The catwalk had been torn down at one side of the complex, and innumerable boxes of weapons and supplies had been crushed or scattered across the floor.

“Candy?” she asked.  “My head hurts.”

“You can have your candy, pet.  Go to your room, I’ll call Pitter in and send him to you.”

With her armed escort, she headed to her room.  She collapsed gratefully on her bed.

She knew she’d regret it, but she used her power.  She had to know.  It would be one more use, to hold her over, and she would stop using her power for the next few days, at least.  Weeks, if Coil let her.

She clutched her covers and bit her pillow as her head erupted with pain.  More than half of the groundwork she’d so carefully laid in place over the past hour fell apart as she pulled the scenes into two groups.  Minutes passed before she had her number.

31.6%.

More than four percent higher than it had been yesterday.

Thirty-one point six percent chance she’d get to go home someday.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Infestation 11.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I stared down at the metal walkway as I caught my breath.  I had one gash at the side of my head, and another trickle ran from beneath the armor of my shoulder, down my arm and to my fingertip, where it dripped almost in sync with the head wound.  It should have hurt, but it didn’t.  Maybe it would when the shock wore off.  If so, I didn’t look forward to it.

Trickster, Ballistic and Circus lay in front of me.  Another cape had fallen over the railing and lay on the concrete floor below, unmoving.  They were all either unconscious or hurting badly enough that I didn’t need to worry about them.

I swallowed hard.  My heart had climbed up so far into my throat that I almost couldn’t breathe, and my heartbeat felt oddly distant and faint for how terrified I was.

Coil’s base was deserted.  I knew his men were out on patrols, that the only people in here were a handful of the capes that were working for him.  He’d left it almost undefended.

If I was going to act, I’d have to do it now.

My costume’s feet lacked hard soles, so I should have been nearly silent, but the interior of Coil’s base was deathly silent and my feet were slamming down on the metal walkway as I ran.  The noise of singing metal filled the dark space, echoing, seemingly louder with each step I took.

The thrum of the metal rang through the air even after I came to a stop.  I’d reached my target; a reinforced door, identical to so many others in the complex.  With the labyrinthine mess of metal walkways and the dozens of doors, I might have missed it.  The only thing telling me I was in the right place was the smudge of ash left behind from when the soldier had put out his cigarette on the wall.

I opened the door, and it was far too loud, creaking, then banging into the wall with a crash despite my last-second attempts to stop its momentum.

The room looked like a prison cell.  It had concrete walls and floor, a cot and a metal sink and toilet.  Coil and Dinah were both there.  I couldn’t say whose presence left me more devastated.

I could say Coil’s presence was the worst thing, because it meant my info was bad.  His power meant I was probably fucked on a lot of levels, that the odds were suddenly astronomically against me.  I was caught.  My gut told me that I wouldn’t make it out of the compound in one piece, now.  He was washing his hands in the sink, he turned to look at me, apparently unconcerned by my presence.

But no.  As I stared at Dinah and registered what I was seeing, I realized the image would be burned into my mind’s eye forever.  She lay on the cot on her side, her eyes open, staring at me, through me.  A bloody froth was drying at one side of her mouth and at the edges of one nostril.  I didn’t consider myself a religious person, but I prayed for her to blink, to breathe, to give me some relief from that cold horror that was gripping me.

I was too late.

My vision practically turned red as I charged Coil, drawing my knife as I ran.  I felt him use his power, and suddenly there were two of him, two of me, two cells with two dead girls named Dinah Alcott.

In one of those rooms, I stabbed Coil in the chest.  There was no satisfaction in doing it, no relief.  I’d lost, I’d failed in every way that counted.  The fact that I’d put him down barely mattered.

In the other room, he stepped back out of reach of my first lunge, raised one hand and blew a handful of pale dust into my face.  While I was blindly slashing in his direction, he grabbed the wrist of my knife hand and held it firm in his bony hand.

That room where I’d succeeded in stabbing him faded away.  The only me that existed, now, was coughing violently.  My knees buckled as I coughed hard enough to bring up my lungs, unable to get the powder out of my nose and mouth.  I pulled at my hand, trying to free it from his grip.  Futile.

“Stop,” he ordered me, and my struggles stilled, though I was still finishing my coughing fit.

“Diluted scopolamine,” he spoke, his voice calm, sonorous.  He let go of my wrist, and pushed at the knife in my hand.  I let it drop.  “Also known as Devil’s Breath.  The vodou sorcerers, the Bokor, were said to use this along with the venoms of the puffer fish and other poisons.  With these substances, they could create the ‘zombies’ they were so famous for.  These zombies of theirs were not raised from the dead, but were men and women who were forced to till fields and perform crude labor for the Bokor.  The uneducated thought it magic, but it was simple chemistry.”

I waited patiently for him to continue.  The notion of fighting or responding didn’t even occur to me.

“It strips imbibers of volition and renders them eminently suggestible.  As you can see, I attempted to use it on my pet, and the results were… tragic.  The price of hubris, I suppose.”

He sighed.

“Take off your mask,” he instructed me.

I did.  My hair fell across my face as I let my mask fall to the ground.  My cheeks were wet with tears.  Was that from before, from when I’d first seen Dinah?  Or was I able to cry about my present circumstance, even if I was helpless to do anything about it?

He touched my cheek, brushed a tear away with his thumb.  He stroked my hair, and the gesture felt strangely familiar.  The way his hand settled on the back of my neck and gripped me there didn’t.  It felt… possessive.

“Pet,” he intoned, and fresh terror shook me to my core.

“You couldn’t have succeeded.  This was terribly unwise.”

“Okay,” I murmured.

No, no, no, NO.

I didn’t deserve this.

My eyes fell on Dinah.  She still stared at me, eyes wide and unblinking, and I couldn’t help but see the look as accusing.

I did deserve this.  It was thanks to me that she’d been kidnapped.  Thanks to me that she’d been made into Coil’s slave.  Karma, perhaps, that I’d take her place.

The strength went out of me.  My head hung, and I stared at my feet.

Tears streamed down my face.  I didn’t wipe them away.  I wasn’t sure I could.

“Look at me, pet,” Coil instructed, and I did.  I was glad to, like a compliant, eager to please child.  A part of me wanted more orders.  In that drug induced haze, I wanted to lose myself in obeying, wanted to serve.  That way, at the very least, I wasn’t to blame for my own actions or the tragic consequences that followed from them.

Coil removed his mask, and I stared.

I recognized him.  He was someone I knew all too well.

They were both tall, thin.  How hadn’t I seen it?  Coil’s costume could must have been designed to highlight his skeletal structure, make him look thinner and more bony.  All it had taken, beyond that, would be an affected change to his voice and different mannerisms.  I’d been unable to see it.

So dumb, so stupid.

I could understand it, too.  He’d been struggling to fix things, watching people failing to find work, knowing it was the city government that was to blame.  I could remember him telling me how he’d make the city work again, how he had all the answers.  I knew how hungry he was to do it.

He’d gotten powers.  He’d started to put plans into motion so he could do just that.

“Welcome home, pet,” he spoke, and he didn’t speak in Coil’s voice.  The voice I heard was my father’s.

I woke up, and for a long moment I stared up at the ceiling of my room and reassured myself that it was all a fabrication of my own scumbag mind.  It had been a nightmare or a terror dream; I wasn’t positive on the differences between the two.  It was my brain drawing together all my guilt about what we’d done to Shadow Stalker, the role I’d played in Dinah being kidnapped and leaving my dad; knitting it all into some convincing, disturbing scenario.  Not the worst I’d had, but there was at least some repetition and familiarity with the usual ones.

Fuck.

It had felt way too real, and it had sucked.  My shirt stuck to me with the damp of my sweat, the room was warm, but I still shivered.

My alarm clock sat on the ground by my inflatable mattress.  I picked it up and turned it around so the I could see the green numbers of the digital display.  Five forty in the morning.

Time to wake up, I supposed.  There was no way I was going to be able to fall asleep again in the next few hours.  It wasn’t just the idea of having another nightmare.  The dream had left me with a feeling of an impending deadline.

How long could Dinah be expected to hold on?  I doubted Coil was taking bad care of her, so she wouldn’t die of malnutrition or overdose on whatever drugs Coil was giving her.  Still, there was a limit to what the human mind could handle.  How long until Coil pushed her abilities too far?  If she was getting headaches from the use of her power, there was a chance she could suffer more severe issues if pushed to use it more often.  Pain generally signified something was wrong.

I was also worried I wouldn’t earn Coil’s trust and respect.  Until this was resolved, I wouldn’t be able to rest, take it easy, or have a day to myself.  Not in good conscience.  Depending on what happened, it might be a long, long time before I could relax again.

What worried me more than anything was the idea that I might save Dinah, only to find that Coil had broken her spirit or her will to the point that she couldn’t go back to her old life.  I worried that, like in my nightmare, I would be too late.

With this in mind, I sat up and tossed the sheet aside.  I reached for my glasses, by the alarm clock, then stopped.

Instead of putting on my glasses, I stood and made my way to the bathroom adjacent to my room.  Alongside fresh supplies of toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, tweezers, shampoo, conditioner and all that, I had a small box with packages of disposable contact lenses, daily use.

I hated contacts so, so much.  I’d tried them in middle school, at Emma’s recommendation, and they had never felt comfortable.  That, and I had never figured out how to put them in properly.  It seemed like ninety-nine out of a hundred times, they flipped inside out to cling to my fingertip instead of sticking to my eye.

True to form, it took me four minutes to get the contacts in, and I found myself blinking every two seconds after I did have them in.

At least I could see.

I walked through my new base of operations wearing an oversized t-shirt and a pair of underwear.  Not exactly fitting attire for a supervillain.

My new abode was three stories tall, which made it taller than Grue or Bitch’s places, which were the only ones I’d seen thus far, but it was narrow.  A cafe had stood here, before, but it had been flattened by one of the first waves to hit the city.  Coil owned at least one of the companies that was managing the restoration and reconstruction efforts, and over the past two and a half weeks, as his crews had started clearing and rebuilding on the Boardwalk, he’d had them set up some buildings, all squashed together.  When the Boardwalk was fixed up, these same buildings would be at the westmost edge of the same block that had the stores, restaurants and coffee shops.  If the Boardwalk ever got going again, they would be prime real estate.

Ostensibly to protect these new buildings until people started buying up the properties, each had been set up with heavy metal shutters to seal the windows and wall off the front.  It made the building dark, with only faint streams of light filtering in through the slats at the top of each shutter.

The topmost floor was mine and mine alone.  Taylor’s.  It was living space, with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.  The bedroom was spacious enough to serve as a living room as well as a sleeping area.  The first things I’d done after Coil’s men had unloaded the furniture and supplies was to hook up an internet connection and computer and get my television mounted on a wall and connected to a satellite.

The second floor, as I liked to think of it, was Skitter’s.  It was for my costumed self.  It still needed more than a few things to complete it.  I flipped a switch in the stairwell, and tinted flourescent lights lit up on the undersides of the shelves that ran along two adjacent walls, floor to ceiling.  Each shelf was lined with terrariums and backed by strategically positioned mirrors so that the light filtered through the front of the terrariums and into the room.  Only a few were occupied, but they each had the same general contents – a layer of dirt and pieces of irregularly shaped wood.

I hit the second switch, and chambers in the lid of each occupied case opened to release their inhabitants.  As they crawled through the case, the spiders were lit up by the lighting so that their shadows and the strange shapes of the wood were cast against the panes of hard plastic, distorted and larger than life.  I’d seen a picture on the web of the same thing, done on a far smaller scale.  I had hopes that the effect would be suitably impressive and intimidating once all of the terrariums were full.

It would be doubly impressive once Coil’s special effects technician stopped by and outfitted a case with a series of switches that a large bug could move – a beetle or something.  If I could direct the beetle to release the bugs, turn the lights on or off or even open the lids of the terrariums, all while appearing to sit motionless in my chair, it would be that much more effective for any audience I happened to have in the room.

Terrariums aside, the room was sparse.  Six empty pedestals sat just beneath the shuttered window, each standing just a little beneath knee height.

After touring the place yesterday morning and spending some time browsing the web to see what was available, I’d gotten in contact with Coil and named every possible thing I could think of that I could use for the space.  The current contents of the rooms on this floor and upstairs had been delivered last night.  The stuff I was waiting on was harder to come by, and it would be unreasonable to expect it to be available and in place within this short span of time.

I did have a chair, here, way too large for me.  It was positioned in one corner, so that it was framed by the two walls of terrariums.  It was black leather, and broad enough that I could comfortably sit cross-legged on it.  I’d loved the idea since I’d seen one like it in Brian’s apartment.  It was the one concession I was making in regards to atmosphere and appearances.  A series of smaller seats were positioned so they faced the larger chair and the terrariums.

A large abstract painting hung above the stairs on the right side of the room.  I’d seen a similar one online and had liked it, so I had found the artist’s gallery and stumbled onto this.  It was the first thing I had asked Coil for, and he’d delivered a large framed print far faster than I might have expected.  I liked how it tied into the room and echoed the shapes cast against the front panes of the terrariums.  The black lines were painted on the background of reds and yellows in a way that seemed spidery.

I stared at the painting for a minute, seriously worried that I would see the abstract image from a different angle and realize I’d had Coil get me a eight-foot by five-foot painting of a hairy wang or a headless chicken or something.

Making my way down the stairs, I found the ground floor surprisingly cool.  The weather was warming up, and with the shutters closed, I’d found my room warm, sticky in the humid air.  I’d foregone pajama bottoms, had slept with just a single sheet, and had slept with my feet uncovered.  Goosebumps prickled my bare legs as I stepped on the cool hardwood floor.

The ground floor here wasn’t much different from the one at Grue’s place.  There was an area with bunk beds, albeit fewer than Grue’d had, a bathroom, a small kitchen and an open area that didn’t yet serve a purpose, stacked with boxes.

All this was mine.  My lair.  It felt so empty.

I knew that would change as it filled with furniture and necessities.  The place was already something of a luxury.  More than half of Brockton Bay was currently lacking plumbing or electricity, with more than a few unfortunate individuals having neither.  In the process of setting up these buildings, Coil had ensured I was provided with both.  Trucks would be coming and going through this area as clearing and construction continued, and Coil had informed me that these trucks would be discreetly resupplying me with water, ensuring my water heater had propane, emptying the aboveground septic tank and refueling the generator.

As the city was rebuilt and standard utilities were put back in order, these special measures would be set aside, I’d get hooked up to those, and my lair would be lost in the surge of urban growth.  Ideal world.

It was nice to be able to enjoy those luxuries, but the Dinah situation took all of the joy out of it.  I had hot showers and the ability to wash my dishes because Coil had provided them.

I grabbed a cell phone from the kitchen counter and dialed Coil.  I didn’t give a fuck about the fact that it was 5:45 in the morning.

It bothered me, calling him, relying on him.  It made me feel complicit.  Inconveniencing him, even a little, felt good.

“Yes?”  His question was curt.

“It’s Skitter.”

“What is it, Skitter?”

“I need a loan of some guys.”

“How many?”

I looked around the living room, “Eight?  A truck would be a good idea, if you can get one here.”

“I can.  These men you require, are you needing gunmen or-”

“Just regular guys, anyone up for some exercise.”

“I assume there’s no rush?”  He was being more curt than usual.  Maybe I’d woken him up.  I didn’t really care.  He could deal, if I was working on something that helped him.

“No rush.”

“Then I’ll have them there in an hour.”

“An hour, then.”

He hung up.

It was a lot of time to kill.  Free time sucked when you didn’t want to be alone with your thoughts.

I wanted to run, but it was awkward.  The fenced off areas, construction zones and flooded streets of the Boardwalk didn’t really make a sprint around the neighborhood that doable.  Besides, it was dangerous enough I might stand out.

In the end, I went against my better judgement and decided to go for a run.  I dressed in a pair of shorts and a tank top, donned my running shoes and ensured I had both my pepper spray and my knife.  I unstrapped the knife’s sheath from the back of my costume, then threaded a belt through it so I could strap it around my waist.  I put the sheath itself under my waistband and the handle of the knife under my top.

I stood in front of the full length mirror in my bedroom to check how visible the weapon was.

It wasn’t exactly hidden, but it wasn’t conspicuous either.  I adjusted it slightly, then called a small collection of bugs to me.  It was a little creepy, having them crawl on my skin, beneath my clothes into my hair, but that stopped when they reached their destinations – above my socks, in my hair and between my bra and my top.  I was cool with it so long as they weren’t directly on my skin.

Did I look different?  My skin had a light tan, now. I’d spent more time outdoors in the past few weeks.  In the week and a half I’d spent in the shelter, I hadn’t exactly had books or TV, so I’d walked during the day, making my way across the city to check on the loft and to see the state of my dad’s house.  I’d walked at night, too, when I’d been unable to sleep, but people hardly tanned doing that.

I couldn’t pin down exactly how or why, but the definition in my face and body had changed.  It was possible I’d had a growth spurt.  Some of it was perhaps the tan giving more accent to the features of my body or face.  Maybe it was that I’d been eating a pretty lean diet when I was staying at the shelter, coupled with the fact that I’d been so active over the past two months.  I hadn’t spent six hours every day sitting around in school, I’d been in fights, I’d been running, and I’d ridden the dogs.  I had some muscle definition in my arms, now, and I thought maybe I was standing straighter.  Or maybe it was all those minor things helped by the simple fact that I was dressing differently, that my hair hadn’t been cut in a while, and that I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

To say I barely recognized myself was.. how could I put it?  It was true, but I could also remember myself months ago, when I’d look at my reflection and I would be so focused on the flaws and the things I didn’t like about myself that I never felt familiar with the person I was seeing in the mirror.  It was as though it was always a stranger I was looking at, and I would be left vaguely surprised at the combination of features across from me.

This was not recognizing myself in a very different way.  There were still things I didn’t like, like my wide mouth, my small chest and the lack of curves or any real femininity.  My scars stood out with my slight tan, a teardrop shaped mark on my forearm where Bitch’s dog had bitten me, a wavy mark on my cheek where Sophia had dug her fingernails in,and a line by my earlobe where she’d tried to tear my ear off.  But my physical flaws no longer consumed my attention when I looked at myself. I felt comfortable with my body, like I’d somehow earned it, the way it was, and it was mine now.  I wasn’t sure if that made any sense, even to myself.

If there was anything about myself that I didn’t like, it was primarily psychological.  Guilt was a big one.  The idea that my dad might dislike me if he got to know me, now?  That was another.  That my mom, were she alive and showing up at the door, might be disappointed in me?  Sobering.

As he’d done with his own underground base, Coil had set my lair up with a discreet entrance and exit.  Leaving through the front door would be conspicuous, if I started working with anyone beyond my teammates.  Skinny teenage girl with black curly hair entering and leaving the same building that the skinny teenage villain with black curly hair was operating out of?  No.

I made my way to the building’s cellar, opened a hatch and entered the adjacent storm drain.  The same builders that had put the building together had blocked off the drain so the water flow wouldn’t make it impassable, and I was left with a clear route down to the section of beach where the storm drains emptied.

I wasn’t sure if Coil had plans to keep the city’s workers from trying to unblock the drain, but I supposed that was the sort of thing we could rely on him to handle.  In the meantime, a third of the storm drains were too clogged with rubble and detritus to drain, and another third didn’t connect to anything anymore.  Add the fact that most of the storm drains were a little out of the way of regular foot traffic, and it wasn’t too conspicuous.

I started running the moment I reached the beach, glad for the chance to resume my routine.

It was a strange environment, eerie.  The wooden pathway, the literal boardwalk that had run in front of the stores, was now a skeletal ruin that loomed above the piles of trash that the bulldozers had all pushed to one side, twice as tall as I was.  The beach had been cleared, which was a feat unto itself.   The work of the bulldozers and the crews with rakes had revealed the packed, dirt-like layer from beneath the loose sand.  Opposite the trash piles, by the water, there were mounds of irregularly shaped pieces of concrete, set to break up the waves and prevent the highest tides from dragging the trash, debris and machinery into the ocean.  Two mounds looming on either side, with a space cleared in the middle for the trucks and any foot traffic.

A scene up ahead caught my attention.  Two pieces of machinery lay in a heap just below the lip of the boardwalk above.  A bulldozer and an eighteen wheeler with a crane-mounted claw attached had both been driven or pushed over the edge of the boardwalk and onto the beach.  The cab of the truck with the claw had been partially crushed by the bulldozer. Though it was barely past six in the morning, a group of laborers were already there, some on the ledge above, others down on the beach, all gathered around the trucks.

Spray paint had been used to draw the same crude symbol on both the side of the eighteen wheeler and the concrete wall separating the beach from the Boardwalk above.  A capital ‘M’, with two taller lines drawn vertically through it much the same as you’d do with a dollar sign.  The Merchants.

It fit their modus operandi.  They had been bums, drunks and addicts, looked down on others, before Leviathan came.  In the wake of what Leviathan had done to the city, leaving everything in shambles, with social services gone or in chaos and even basic utilities in short supply, everyone else had been brought down to their level.  The Merchants were even, I suspected, thriving.  With strength in numbers and virtually nothing holding them back, they had become like pack animals.  They roamed the city in bands of three to twenty, robbing, raping, pillaging and stealing.  They were settling in some of the better areas, the neighborhoods that still had power or water, and forcing the existing residents out.

Or, worse, I could imagine that some were moving in and keeping the residents around for their own amusement.  It was not a pleasant thought.  The kind of people who had gravitated towards the Merchants tended to have a lot of resentment.  Specifically, they had resentment towards people who had what they didn’t.  If they happened upon a family with Kate the soccer mom, Tommy, the kid with more video games than teeth, and Joe the blue-collar worker with a steady job?  If they weren’t letting them go?  I was guessing that hypothetical family would be in for a hell of a rough time.

It might have sounded silly, that line of speculation, but I’d spent time in the shelters.  I’d heard about how vicious and depraved the Merchants were getting.

Anyways, this?  This whole situation?  They liked it.  They wanted to keep things this way, and that meant they were going to stop anyone else from fixing it.  They would intercept supplies, attack rescue workers and they would push construction vehicles into a heap on the beach.

I’d have to deal with these guys.  It wasn’t just intercepting any groups that made their way into my territory.  That was easy, all things considered.  No, I also had to deal with the small army that would come marching through here wanting retaliation over my having kicked the asses of any groups that had made their way into my territory.

I could call on the others, if such a situation arose, and I expected them to call on me if the same thing happened.  But people would take time to get here, and the Merchants, the Chosen or whoever else was making trouble could keep making trouble until the reinforcements arrived.  It was tricky, and I didn’t know for sure how I’d handle things if-

“Taylor.”

My reaction wasn’t much different than if someone had stabbed me in the stomach with an icicle.  I’d thought of that mental image in particular because of the cold, horrible feeling in my midsection; fear, guilt.  My thoughts immediately went back to my nightmare from earlier.  I turned to look.

“It’s you,” my dad spoke, “Wow.”

He stood on the ledge above me.  He was more tanned than I was.  He wore a short-sleeved button-up shirt and khakis and held a clipboard.  It set him apart from the other laborers, and the man who stood just behind him, wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans.  I knew in an instant, my dad was in charge around here.

Looking at him, I couldn’t imagine how I might have thought he was Coil.  Even in a dream.

“Just out for my regular run.”

Surprise etched his face, “You’re running during this…?!”

He made a visible effort to close his mouth.  It made me feel uneasy.  What thought process or concern was keeping my dad from opening his mouth about my running?  He’d been worried about it when the streets were relatively safe.  Was he that spooked at the idea of scaring me off again?

He looked at the man who was standing near him, murmured something.  The man walked over to join the others in observing the damage around the damaged vehicles.

We were left more or less alone.

“You got my messages?”  I asked.

“I’ve listened to that answering machine so many times-” he stopped.  He was a good distance away, but I could see the lines in his forehead, “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“I… I don’t know how to ask.  I’m afraid to ask you to come home, because I’m not sure I can stand to hear you tell me you won’t.”

He paused, for a long moment.  Waiting for me to jump at the opportunity.  I stayed silent and hated myself for it.

“Well,” he said, so quiet I could barely hear him, “You can always come home.  Any time, any reason.”

“Okay,” I told him.

“What are you doing with yourself these days?”

I struggled to find an answer, and was saved by the bell.  One of the men by the wreck shouted, “Danny!” and my dad turned.

My dad ran his fingers through his hair, “I need to go handle this.  Can I… How do I contact you?”

“I’ll leave you a message on your answering machine,” I said, “With my cell phone number, and my email in case I’m in an area where cell service is down.”

“Email?” he asked.  “Where are you that you have access to a computer?”

A few blocks from here.

“Just outside the city limits,” I lied, “Not far from the Market.”

“So you’re out of the way of any trouble,” My dad noted, with a touch of relief.  There was a noise as someone began prying one of the truck doors open, and my dad turned his head, frowning.  “But what are you doing here this morning?”

“I was going to stop by the house, see if it was in okay shape,” I lied again.  Was this the extent of my interactions with my dad?  Always lies?  “Keeping up with my running.”

“I see.  Look, I have to go, but I do want to talk again, soon.  Lunch, maybe?”

“Maybe,” I offered.  He offered me a sad smile, then turned to go.

I moved my hand to adjust my glasses, and wound up waving at my face.  I was wearing my lenses.

“Dad!” I called out.  He stopped.  “Um.  I’d heard the Slaughterhouse Nine were around.  Be careful, warn others.”  I pointed at my face.

His eyes widened.  I could see the thought process, the realization.  He took off his glasses and hung them from his shirt’s front pocket.  I wasn’t positive that was much better.

“Thank you,” he said, squinting slightly at me.  He raised a hand in an awkward half-wave, and I returned it with one of my own.  As if by mutual agreement, we turned to leave at the same time, both of us going in separate directions.  He hurried to where he was needed, and I turned to run back to my place.  My lair.  I hadn’t run nearly as far as I’d wanted, but I wasn’t up to continuing.

I checked the kitchen clock as I entered from the cellar.  I had thirty minutes.  I took the time to shower and don my costume – my sleeve was still crusty and stained yellow-white where it had come in contact with the foam, but at least it wasn’t sticky anymore.

My mask wasn’t wearable with the contacts.  I’d taken lenses out of an old pair of glasses and set them into the construction of my mask.   I debated it for a few moments, then I decided to use the remaining time to fix it.  With my knife’s point, I set about undoing that particular piece of work, prying the lenses out.

I finished with enough time left over to grab and eat a breakfast bar.  Coil’s people were punctual, rapping on the metal shutter at six forty-five.

Alright.  This was it.  I pulled on my mask.

Time to claim my territory.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The residual foam on my glove made my hand sticky as I reached into the compartment at my back and grabbed my baton.  It took me two tries to get my thumb onto the button so I could whip it out to its full length.

I strode towards Bitch, weapon in hand.  Tattletale hurried to catch up to me, turning to keep an uneasy eye on the ongoing fight with the Protectorate.

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

I whirled to face her, hand clenching my baton.  I could see the change in her expression as some piece fell in place for her.

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

She didn’t get a chance to finish.  White smoke billowed around us.  My first thought was that our adversaries were using some sort of bug spray.

The way today was going, it would be just my luck.

I held my breath and hurried out of the cloud, Tattletale following, and searched for the source.  Assault was taking on Regent and Imp, while Grue and Shadow Stalker were dealing with Battery and Weld.  Bitch and her dogs, on the other hand, were facing down Triumph.  Not the matchup I would have chosen, taking on the guy with the sonic shout using dogs with sensitive hearing.

I almost went after Bitch right then and there, but self-preservation won out over any desire for retribution.  As Tattletale and I made our way around the cloud, I spotted Miss Militia.

A black-green energy crackled in her hand, and she lobbed a grenade my way.  I scrambled back, only for it to turn out to be another canister of smoke, billowing out between Miss Militia and me.

Why the smoke?

The bees I had in the smoke were acting funny.  I was surprised to find out why.  I’d known that beekeepers used smoke to pacify the bees before collecting the honey.  My assumption had been that it acted as a tranquilizer, putting them to sleep.  In reality, it was forcing them to revert to instinctual behavior.  It made them want to eat and feed and to flee.  For those near enclosed spaces or even the corners of walls or the foundations of buildings, it made them adjust their wingbeats to divert the flows of oxygen.

If she’d been intending to use the smoke to screw with my insects, she’d underestimated my power.  I canceled out the instincts and sent the bugs through the smoke, blind, feeling out for her.  I found her running towards us, through the smoke.

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

Much as I might have warned Tattletale and the others, I’d also informed Miss Militia on my location.  I turned to run, but she was already raising her gun to fire with an ear-shattering crack.

From the way it cut past my bugs, and the wake of disturbed air the pellets left behind them I could only guess she’d just grazed me with a shotgun.  I collapsed sideways to the ground, and the pain came a heartbeat later, radiating over half of my upper body, from my shoulder to my right butt cheek.  I was guessing it was nonlethal ammunition – it could well have been lethal, for the sheer degree of hurt it delivered, if my costume had prevented it from penetrating.

Before she could shoot again, I directed my bugs to her hands and eyes, hoping to incapacitate her.  I still had a small few of the capsaicin-loaded bugs, and sent them all her way.

As hard as it was to see in the smoke, there was still faint light.  That light disappeared the instant Grue used his power.

Miss Militia was staggering and reeling as her hands and face lit up with stings and burns.  The gun wasn’t in her hands anymore, which meant we weren’t at risk of getting shot.  I sent more bugs across to the other members of the Protectorate, to try to disable them.

Tattletale fumbled around and found me in the darkness, clasped her hand around the same hand I held the baton with, and helped me to my feet.  She gave me her support as we limped away.  Nothing seemed to be broken, judging by what I felt.

The darkness disappeared after we’d traveled across the street.  Grue greeted us.  “Dragon?”

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

He looked back the way we’d come, “Damn that smoke.  Listen, Tattletale, head down this street, wait for us.  Skitter and I are going back in to find and retrieve the others.”

I supposed that would be another benefit of using the smoke.  If you didn’t expect to be able to see, then it didn’t hurt to deny your enemy that same privilege.  Miss Militia had been thinking about this.  If her team wasn’t so sparse on members, she could have done a lot more damage.

“My bugs are telling me they’re over there, there and there,” I pointed in the direction of our teammates.  “That’s all I can do for you.  I kind of got shot, not sure I’m up to running around.”

His head snapped around to face me, “Shot?”

“I’m okay, it was nonlethal.  I think,” I assured him, “Go!”

He did, glancing over his shoulder to look at me before disappearing back into the midst of the darkness.

Tattletale and I made our escape.  We got three blocks away before we found a spot to hide.  Tattletale got out her phone and began sending messages, presumably to Grue and Coil.

Our hiding place was the lobby of an apartment building.  Boards had been placed over the windows, and there were signs that some people had camped out here, not long ago.  It was otherwise similar to Grue’s apartment complex.  Less tidy, obviously.

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

“I’m sorry.  I knew the gun would inevitably overheat, and what little I could read off of Dragon told me she’d deal with that above anything else.  I didn’t think you’d be stuck there, too.”

“No.  Your gun thing there saved my skin.  The real problem was…” I trailed off.  I still had the baton in my hand – the residual containment foam meant I’d probably have to peel the glove away from the weapon.  I clenched the weapon tight.

We sat in silence for nearly ten minutes before the rest arrived as a massed group.  Shadow Stalker was limping, and two of the dogs were their normal size, draped across Bentley’s back, but everyone was more or less intact.

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

I was already standing, barely feeling the hurt from where I’d been grazed.  Blood pounded in my ears, and I could feel the buzz of my insects.

“How-” she started.  I didn’t let her finish.  My baton held in both hands, I struck her in the upper thigh.  When she didn’t fall, I let go of the baton and backhanded her.  She toppled, and protests and shouts echoed around me.

It hurt.  Damn it, I’d never really hit someone with my hands before.  I wondered if I’d managed to break something.

There were still bugs on some of my teammates.  I could sense them approaching, Grue and Imp moving to stop me.  I ducked out of the way of their hands before they could grab me, and then held up my baton, menacing them.  I cast a momentary glance towards Shadow Stalker, then augmented my voice with the buzzing and chirping of my swarm, “Don’t.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Grue roared.

“Ask her,” my response was barely above a growl.

Grue glanced down at Bitch, who was rubbing her chin, opening her jaw wide, as if testing it.

I dropped down to a crouch so quickly that my knee slammed into the ground.  I grabbed the upper end of the baton and pulled it over Bitch’s head, forcing the bar between her teeth, pulling back hard.

Grue moved to stop me once more, and I shook my head.  He hesitated, then stopped.

Bentley was pacing towards me, snarling at the attack on his owner.  I met his gaze with my own, unflinching, and he didn’t lunge to attack, maybe because he didn’t want to hurt his master in the process.  I didn’t break eye contact with the dog as I spoke with the swarm buzzing in accompaniment, “Regent, this isn’t for Shadow Stalker’s ears.”

“Got it,” Regent spoke.  Shadow Stalker moved to the bench by the elevators, sat down, and buried her face in her arms, covering her ears.  Regent informed me, “She can’t hear much of anything, now.”

“Bitch,” I pulled on the bar, eliciting more struggling from Bitch, “Just tried to fuck me over in the fight with Dragon.  Shoved me into the foam.”

Bitch made a muffled noise, then jabbed me in the side, where I’d been grazed by Miss Militia’s shotgun.  It hurt, and in the interest of keeping her from doing it again, I shifted my position so I could force Bitch onto her back against the ground, her head pinned down by my baton.  She could still hit me and jab me, but my shins could take a lot more abuse than her jaw could.  I belatedly realized I’d taken my eyes off Bentley, but he didn’t maul me.  When I looked up, I saw Tattletale had a grip on his chains.

“You’re a coward, Rachel,” I spoke, “You just did the very same thing you hate me for almost doing.  You stabbed me in the back.  You fucked over your own teammate.”

She mumbled something around the bar.  The look in her eyes made me seriously worry she would kill me when I let her go.

“I’m in a position to hurt you now, and I’m pissed enough to do it,” I spoke, my voice low.  “But I won’t.  This vendetta against me ends, now.  You got your shot at me, you fucked it up.  If you’re still mad at me, you fucking better cope, got it!?”

She snarled out two muffled words.  I suspected they were rude.

When I spoke next, I bent low and whispered the words for her and her alone, “When you’re tossing and turning and trying to sleep, remembering what I did and said here and getting pissed off about it?  Remember that you were the weak one.  You embarrassed yourself, fucked up, you were the weakling, the wuss who couldn’t even confront me face to face.  And knowing you like I do?  I’m betting it’s going to gnaw at you.  That’s as much a punishment as I could inflict, I think.  That’s on you, not me.

“You said it yourself, a while back.  It’s a mistake to underestimate me.  You want another shot at it, it had better be really damn good.  Because if it isn’t, I’m going to survive, I’m going to get away.  And then I might break your jaw for real.  For starters.”

I stood, removing the baton from her mouth and stepping away, to give her room to stand.  Leaning against the wall, I pressed the button and collapsed the baton into the handle.  I stared at her.

Working her jaw, she stood and glared at me.  She either didn’t have a response for me, or she did and her jaw hurt too much for her to try giving it.  None of the others were jumping into the middle of this.

In the face of the silence, I offered one final comment, “I think I’ve already covered what happens if you want to continue this vendetta.  Now I’m going to offer you a deal.  Number three, I think, and my deals with you are usually pretty fair, if I may say so myself.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I fucked up, you fucked up, whatever.  Insult for insult, blow for blow, I’d like to think we’re even.  So now I’m going to trust you to have my back.  I’m going to put myself in more situations where you have a prime chance at fucking me over, backstabbing me, catching me at my most vulnerable.  Because we can’t function as a team any other way.

“I’m going to treat you like a damned teammate, Rachel, but I’ll go one step further.  You think you can put this behind you and satisfy yourself with what you tried to pull earlier tonight?  Cool.  Because if you’re willing, I’ll come with you to help take care of your dogs.  I’ll bring fucking lunch, if you want it.  That’s the deal I’m offering you, pissed as I am right now.  I’ll be your damn friend.”

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

She decided to leave it, apparently.  Bitch stomped away, slamming the door the moment Bentley passed through it, leaving the rest of us standing there in the rubbish-strewn apartment building.

Grue sighed audibly and looked over our group, “We’d better go.  We should decide what we’re going to do with Shadow Stalker, now.”

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

Regent shook his head, “Nope.  There are drawbacks to this, and one of them is that I lose control of anyone I’m controlling while I sleep.  Better to get rid of her on my terms than have her trying to shoot me in the throat while I take a nap.”

“And it’s kind of fucked up,” I spoke.

“I thought you were all-in,” Regent said.

“I am.  But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,” I retorted.  “This kind of mind control-”

“Body control,” Regent interrupted, his tone bored, “Her mind still belongs to her.”

“Semantics.  This kind of mind control is pretty high up there on the scale of fucked upness.  People are going to respond to that.  It might be the nudge they need to start responding to us with lethal force.  Think of how different tonight would have played out if Dragon and Miss Militia hadn’t held back.”

“Sure,” he shrugged.  “Whatever.  I don’t know why you’re arguing with me.  I agree, we should get rid of her.”

“What did you do, back in the old days?” Tattletale asked.

“Kept three people I used regularly, with my sister’s help.  But this is fine.  Look, watch.”

Shadow Stalker stood, lowering her hands and arms from around her head, and walked over to the door.  She faced Regent.

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

And then he did.  She dropped to all fours on the ground, grunting.  A second later, she was loading her bolt, spinning to point her crossbow at him.  She stopped before firing.

“There’s a catch,” he spoke. “My power?  Once I’ve figured someone out?  It’s a lot easier to control them, after.  Any time you come near me, I can do this.  I can use my power and retake control in the blink of an eye.”

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.  It was a tranquilizer dart, but the meaning seemed pretty damn clear.

“Next time I get control?  I’m keeping you for a full day.  Maybe two, if I feel like pulling an all-nighter.  And here’s the funny part,” there was no humor in his voice, “I’m going to do it even if I’m in civilian clothes, if my power tells me you’re in range.  You won’t even know when it’s coming.  You’re now a liability to the Wards, and you won’t ever know when or where I’m going to get control again…

“Unless you leave.  Skip town.  Join another team.”

She nodded, slowly.  The movement was jerky, which was peculiar.  Was he giving her limited control of her own movements?

“Now let’s walk you off to the other end of the city before I release you.  I don’t think you’re quite stupid enough to try and follow us, but I think my teammates would be more comfortable if they were sure.”

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

Regent looked at us, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

“She might be mad enough to come after someone else in our group, but yeah.  Good,” Grue said.  “Let’s go deliver the stuff.”

We didn’t meet Coil in the underground base, and the people surrounding him weren’t all the same uniformed mercenaries that had made up his entourage in our prior meetings.  The meeting place was at the south end of the Docks, near the border to the downtown area, and it was closer in appearance to the refurbished, ramshackle building where I’d reunited with the Undersiders than anything else.

The building was an old quadruplex, and it had been reinforced with metal panels, sandbags and plastic sheeting to keep the interior crisp and dry, much as the other building had.  Small rooms with bunk beds filled half of the lower level, with a bathroom, kitchen and living room taking up the rest.

Finding the lower level empty, we headed to the second floor and found an open space supported by two metal pillars.  There were a half-dozen mercenaries with Coil, as well as a collection of people who looked like they had come from every walk of life.  Teenagers, professionals, and two guys that might have been capes – one thin, short guy with brown skin and a tattoo around his mouth, depicting a mess of sharp teeth penetrating the skin of his cheeks and lips.  The other was burlier, shirtless, and wore a rusty, old fashioned looking mechanical rigging around his hands, with a bear-trap jaw plate.  The frame seemed set up to hold metal claws around his fingertips while allowing his hands the full range of motion.   He had a spiked collar of much the same style.

Coil sat in a black leather armchair, with a laptop set on the table beside him.  Dinah was there, too.  She sat at the base of the chair, on a cushion just beside Coil’s feet, picking at the threads of her white dress with a dazed single-mindedness that told me she had probably received her ‘candy’ pretty recently.

“Undersiders.  Tattletale informed me you were successful, despite complications.  May I see it?”

Tattletale stepped forward and handed Coil the USB thumbstick.  He plugged it into the laptop, then turned the computer so the middle-aged man to his left could type away.

“Data’s corrupted, sir.  Looks like the download was interrupted at the ninety-seven percent mark.”

“Can you fill in the blanks?” Coil asked him.

“Probably.  Will take some time.  There’s encryption.  Good encryption.  Maybe a few days, with the full team working on it?”

“Most likely it is Dragon’s work,” Coil spoke. “Let’s assume it’ll take a week, minimum.  Perhaps Tattletale will be able to assist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Priority number one, I want the data on the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I felt a chill, but didn’t say anything.  Was he intending to hire them?  It would be a huge mistake in my book, if he was.

Regent asked the question for me, “The Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“At least some of their members have been seen in town, preying on the locals, disrupting recovery efforts.  The recent chaos makes the city a playground for them,” Coil spoke.  “One of my teams is bound to run up against them soon.”

“How likely is it?” Tattletale asked.  She tilted her head in Dinah’s direction.  “Can you ask her?”

“I suppose.”  Coil put his hand on Dinah’s head, stroked her hair, then slid his hand down the side of her face until he could place his fingertips under her chin, raise her head to look at him, “Pet?”

It was disturbingly intimate in a way I’d rather not think about.  No, not intimate.  That was the wrong word for the impression I was getting.  Possessive.  I looked away.

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

“Likelihood that one of my groups encounters the Slaughterhouse Nine?”

“Who?”

He moved to take the laptop, and the middle-aged man stepped back to let him.  He typed for a few seconds, then turned it around so Dinah could see.  It was a gallery of images.

“Bonesaw.” he spoke.  The girl on the screen looked barely older than Dinah, maybe the same age as Aisha.  The image showed her wide-eyed, a spray of dried blood painted her face at a diagonal.

“Shatterbird.”  A dark-haired, brown-skinned woman with a helmet covering the upper half of her face, in a beak shape.  I was reminded of Iron Falcon, the boy I’d tried to help, who’d died in the Endbringer attack.  From what I’d read, Shatterbird usually used her power as the Nine arrived in a city, to maximize panic and terror.  I supposed they were flying under the radar for now.  Fuck, I’d have to do something about my costume, just in case.

“Crawler.”  No portrait, this time.  It was a still from a surveillance camera, a misshapen silhouette, not even humanoid, in a shadowy area.  I’d come across stories about him when I’d been researching possible superhero names for myself.  Not pretty.

“Mannequin.”  Another long-distance shot.  The figure was standing by Bonesaw in the photograph, with other hulking figures within the shadows of the background.  He stood almost twice her height, and he looked artificial.  His body was in pieces, each section wrapped in a hard shell of ceramic or plastic or white-painted metal – I couldn’t be sure.  His joints were a mix of loose chains and ball joints.  A Tinker with a body-modification fetish.  I couldn’t say how much of the transformation was his own power and how much was Bonesaw’s work.

“The Siberian.”  A woman, naked from head to toe, her body painted in alternating stripes of jet black and snow white.  She had gone up against the Triumvirate – Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon – on a dozen occasions, and she was still around to talk about it.  Or around, at least.  From what I’d read, she didn’t talk.

“Burnscar.” Younger, maybe an older teenager or a young-looking twenty-something.  She looked almost normal, with her dark hair badly cut, but then I saw the vertical row of cigarette burns marking each of her cheeks, and a faint glow to her eyes.

“Hatchet Face.”  This was one I hadn’t even heard of.  The man didn’t wear a mask, and his head was shaved.  He looked like he had been beaten, burned and just plain abused so often that his face was as much scar tissue than flesh, and he didn’t look like he’d been handsome to begin with.

“Jack Slash.”  Jack looked like someone on the attractive side of average, his dark hair cut short and styled with gel.  His beard and moustache were immaculately trimmed so that each had a serrated edge, and his shirt was wrinkled, only half buttoned so his hairless upper chest showed.  He had kind of a Johnny Depp look to him, though he had more of a widow’s peak, a longer face and lighter eyes.  Good looking, if you looked past the fact that he was a mass murderer.  He held a small kitchen knife in the photo.

There were parahumans who were fucked up before powers entered the picture, like Bitch, and there were parahumans who became monsters after they got their powers, like Bakuda.  Then there were the really dangerous ones, the people who had probably been monsters before powers were even on the table, and then they got worse.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, you had Bonesaw, who was like some kind of artist, as psychopaths went.  The sort of person that drew other lunatics to her, just because they wanted to see what she would do next.  Even that wouldn’t normally work as a dynamic, but as I understood it, Jack somehow managed to play them off one another and keep the group more or less intact.  He was familiar enough with the psychology of his group and just plain charismatic enough to keep them from killing one another.

Which wasn’t to say they didn’t.  There were only eight members in their group at present, and the turnover rate was pretty damn high, because they had a tendency towards recklessness, infighting and showy displays.  They thought nothing of descending on an elementary school, just because they could.  When the heroes came for them, they came with lethal force.

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

She pointed at the screen, at Jack Slash.  “Him.”

“You’re going to have to explain it to us, pet.  What about him?”

“He’s the one who makes everyone die.”

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

Dinah shook her head, her hair flying out to either side.  “Everyone.  I don’t understand.  Can’t explain.”

“Try,” he urged her.

“Sometimes it’s in two years.  Sometimes it’s in eight.  Sometimes in between.  But if he’s alive, something happens, and everyone on Earth starts to die.  Not that everyone doesn’t die anyways but they die really fast when that something happens, all one after another, and in a year almost everyone is dead.  So I said everyone, if that makes sense and a few live but they die pretty soon after anyways and-“

“Shh, pet.  I think we understand what you’re saying.  Quiet now, unless you think of something important.  We need to consider this.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds.  You could have heard a pin drop.

“His power isn’t all that, I don’t think,” Grue spoke, slowly, as if considering the words as he spoke.  “Space warping effect, so any blades he’s holding have an edge that extends a horrendously long distance, all with the optimal force behind the swing.  Swings his knife, cuts through an entire crowd.  Doesn’t make sense that he’d be able to murder everyone on Earth.”

“Unless he somehow cuts the planet in half,” Tattletale mused.

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

“I think we need more numbers if we’re to understand this, pet.  What is the likelihood that he succeeds in this?  To one decimal point.”

“Eighty three point four percent.”

“You said if he’s alive.  What if we killed him?  Now?  To one decimal point.  If I use my power.”

“Thirty one point two percent chance someone kills him before he leaves the city, if you use your power.  It doesn’t happen until fifteen years from now, if you do.”

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

Tattletale spoke up, “He’s the catalyst for something else, then.”

“Is it always successful, pet?  This something that kills everyone on Earth?”

She shook her head, “Not always, not all the way.  Sometimes more people live.  Sometimes hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes billions.  But millions or billions always die when it happens.”

“If I were to send the Travellers?  How likely would they be to kill him?”

“My head hurts.”

“Please, pet, this is important.  To one decimal point.”

“Twenty two point six percent.  Thirty point nine percent chance some of them die.”

“And the Undersiders?”

“Eleven point nine percent chance they succeed.  Fifty five point four percent chance they die if they fight those people.”

Coil sighed, then straightened.  He looked at the middle-aged man, handed him the computer, “I strongly recommend you get what information you can on the group.  Any detail in the PRT records could be invaluable.  Lose sleep if you have to.”

The man took the laptop, swallowed, and then offered a quick bob of his head.  The others in the assembled group around Coil looked just as alarmed by what they’d overheard.

“We should contact the local heroes,” Grue spoke.  “Let them know what’s up.”

Coil nodded, slowly, “I’ll look into it.  That said, I think the numbers illustrate one thing.  You are not equipped to fight that group.  If you encounter them, you-“

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

“Sixty percent chance the Undersiders encounter some of those people.”

Coil turned to look at us.  “So you’re likely to encounter them.  When that happens, you run.  Cede any territory, abandon any job.  I would rather you were alive than successful in a job.”

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

“In the meantime, we move on to the next phase of my plan,” Coil spoke.  “You may be wondering about this location, how it is similar to the new headquarters I provided you.  I have outfitted these areas to be your stations, points from which you will operate, work to seize and keep territory.  I have several more.  If you’re amenable, I would have each of you take one of these stations for yourself.  Grue, this would be your station, shared with Imp, which I assume is alright?”

Grue looked around, “Big place and a lot of beds for two people.”

“More on that later.  Rest assured, I can provide staff, help.  I expect you’ll wish to find and recruit people of your own.  Contact me about funds – I will ensure that anyone you hire is paid well.”

Grue nodded.

“Regent?  Your territory is near Grue’s, close to the water.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

“Interpersonal stuff,” Grue replied.  “She’ll be back.”

“A shame.  Your other headquarters, where I moved your collective belongings, that will be her station.  Barker and Biter here showed up for the Endbringer fight, and I got in contact with them.  They, alongside these three young individuals,” he gestured to the two parahumans, and three college-aged kids who looked rather intimidated, “Will work under her.  Barker and Biter profess to be fearless, and should have little difficulty managing the dogs, even when Bitch’s abilities are at work.  The men and the young lady I’ve provided have some degree of training in veterinary medicine or handling dogs.  Let her know this.  She is free to accept them or refuse them as she sees fit.”

Grue looked over the five people who would be Bitch’s henchmen, nodded.

“Tattletale, I’ve set up quarters near Lord Street, in one of the ABB’s old locations.  I assume your teammates will want to be in contact, and this area is both accessible, and it can reach any other area readily.  The area is already furnished with computers, and you’ll find staff there, people who are capable at gathering information, be it from media, computers or the streets.  You’ll also find a small force of mercenaries that I’ve assigned to you, so you can act on that information where you see fit.”

“Cool.”

“Skitter, I have set up quarters near the south end of the Boardwalk.  Reconstruction and repair work is still ongoing there, but if you will be patient, it may well be one of the more lucrative locations when things are up and running again.”

I nodded.  That wouldn’t be far from my old home, close to our old hideout.  Did that mean something?  Did he know who I was, or had Tattletale suggested it?  I felt uneasy about that.

“Regent, Grue, Imp and Skitter, I realize I have not detailed any employees to you to begin with.  I leave it to you to start this task for yourself, to decide what you need and how you intend to operate.  Once you have decided this for yourselves, let me know, and I will endeavor to help you fill in the blanks in your individual operations.

“As you leave, you’ll receive emails on the locations of your individual headquarters.  For the time being, all I require from you, for now, is that you establish order and assume some measure of control over your territories.”

There were nods all around.

“Your payment for tonight’s job will be in your accounts shortly, with a bonus for the obstacles you faced.  Any questions?  Any topics you would like to raise for discussion?”

“A few questions, but I figure I’ll see what’s up with this new role we’re taking,” Grue replied, “Then I’ll ask them.”

“Good.”

“I’ve got something I’d like to talk to you about,” I spoke, augmenting my voice with the swarm’s noises to mask it.  “In private.”

“Yes.  That’s fine, I was hoping to have a private conversation with you anyways.  Anyone?  Anything else before we part ways?”

Nobody had anything further to say.  Grue and the others turned to leave, and the crowd around Coil followed them soon after.  One of Bitch’s henchmen – Barker, was it? – leered at me as he passed, dug his hand into his groin in some sort of scratch or a lewd gesture.

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

When the group had left the room, I could hear noises downstairs, as they moved about the house.  Or maybe it was Grue, checking his new place.  I was left alone with Coil and Dinah.

I wasn’t sure I liked that our group was being split up like this.  The timing seemed bad.  I’d sort of been hoping I could repair the divide, and that would be hard if we were each in our own territories, doing our own things.

I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“I heard about the incident at the hospital, following the Endbringer attack.”

I nodded.

“Tattletale told me that you know I was fully informed about your true nature.”

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

I shook my head.  She’d told me about his power in confidence.

“Well, I suppose I may share that detail at some point in the future.  You understand my desire to keep certain things private?”

“Yeah, no.  I get it.  It makes sense, it’s smart.”

“Mmm,” he murmured.  He turned to his pet, stroked her head like one might with a dog or a cat.  She stared down at her dress, picked at a thread that was sticking out, stretching it out long.  The thread snapped, and she let it drift from her hand to the ground.  Then she started picking at another.  Coil interrupted my observations, “So.  You wished to discuss something?”

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

“Before, back in the limousine, you asked me what I wanted out of all this, what I desired from my deal with you.”

“Yes.”

“I asked you to fix the city, you told me you planned on doing that anyways, that I should ask for something else.”

“And you’ve decided.”

“Yeah,” I took a deep breath.  “Dinah.  Your… pet.”

“You want me to release her.  I’m afraid-“

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

I swallowed, felt an ugly feeling in my gut, “I know she’s invaluable to you.  I know how useful her talent is, and the lengths you went to in getting ahold of them.  I don’t like it, but I get it.”

He didn’t respond.  He just stared at me, his mask lacking eye holes, just black cloth stretched over eye sockets.

“I… All I’m asking is that you let her go when you’ve done it.  When you take this city, when you succeed in your plan, you release her to go home to her family.  If you do that, I’ll work for you.  I’ll try harder than anyone, to get this city under your control, and then I’ll work for you for as long as you’ll have me, afterward.”

“I’m afraid, Skitter, that this deal doesn’t quite balance out.  I intend no offense, but my initial impression is that my pet is far more valuable to me than you are.”

No.  My heart sank.

“But I can accept it,” he spoke.  “Provided you prove to me that your talents are worth losing hers.  I admit, the active assistance you can provide might prove more useful when the city is firmly in my grasp, when I have less to be concerned about in terms of day-to-day operations.”

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

I shook my head, then turned to leave, wordlessly.

When I went downstairs, Tattletale and Regent were already gone.  Maybe they were checking out their new places.  Grue and Imp were in the ‘living room’, opening crates of stuff to see the supplies they had available.

I wasn’t up to talking to them, or explaining the recent conversation.

Leaving the building without a word, I sloshed through the water.  I realized my fists were clenched, and my glove was sticking to itself, thanks to the residual containment foam.  Annoying.  I wondered if I could scrub it off.

When I peeled my fingers away from the glove, I realized my hand was shaking.

I took a deep breath, to calm my nerves.  I could do this.  Whatever I had to do, I was going to help that girl.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Buzz 7.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The skeleton of a building loomed over us.  Girders and beams joined together in what would become one of Brockton Bay’s high rises, twenty stories tall.  At the base of it was a sea of crushed stone, with innumerable bulldozers, piledrivers, loaders, mixers and graders standing still and dark.  The only light came from the buildings and streetlights on the surrounding streets.

Tattletale put key to lock and let us through the fence that surrounded the site.  She held the gate open as Grue, Regent, Bitch and I filed through, followed by Judas and Brutus.  The two dogs were nearly normal in size, nothing that would raise alarm if someone saw us at a distance.  When we were through, Tattletale shut the gate and reached through the gap to put the lock back in place and click it shut.

Gravel crushed underfoot as we made our way to the unfinished high rise.  Tattletale pointed to a hatch, surrounded by a rim of concrete.  The hatch itself had a yellow warning sign reading ‘Drainage’, sporting images beneath of a man wearing a hazmat suit and a man wearing a gas mask.  She fiddled with the keyring to get the right key, undid the lock and raised the hatch.  Stairs led down into a darkness that looked and smelled very much like a storm drain.

As we descended, the smell got stronger.  We passed through a door with metal bars, and then traveled down a long hallway.  The room at the end of the hall was small, with one other door and a small surveillance camera in one corner.  The door we faced had no handle, forcing us to wait.  It took about twenty seconds before someone opened the door for us.  One of Coil’s men.

The interior of the sub-basement had none of the smell of the previous chambers, and consisted of two tiers with walls of poured concrete.  The upper level we stood on was an arrangement of metal walkways that extended around the room’s perimeter.  Crates and boxes filled the level below, and I could see fifteen or so of Coil’s people down there, sitting on crates or leaning against them, talking among themselves.

Each soldier was outfitted in a matching uniform: shades of gray and some black, hard vests with raised collars to protect their necks.  Only a few wore their balaclavas, and I could see a variety of nationalities in a group that was mostly men.  All of the soldiers had assault rifles somewhere nearby, slung over shoulders with straps and leaning against walls or crates.  Polished steel attachments on the underside of each gun’s barrel contrasted with the dark gunmetal tone of the rest of the equipment.

The man who had opened the door for us inclined his head in the direction we were to go.  We traversed the metal walkway, and passed more of Coil’s soldiers.  I saw one squad of six below us was gearing up, pulling on masks and checking their guns.  Five seconds later, we passed Circus on the walkway, in a costume and makeup of red and gold.  Oblivious to us or our passing, she was leaning against a wall by a stack of cardboard boxes, standing intimately close to a young soldier with close-cropped red hair and an ugly scar running down one side of his neck.

We found Coil at the end of the walkway, talking to four people who most definitely weren’t soldiers.  Each wore a suit, and none seemed the type to carry a gun.  There was a heavyset woman, a man who must’ve been fifty or sixty, a man who stood no more than four feet tall and a blonde woman who barely looked out of high school.

“Cranston, can you have it for tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir,” the blonde woman replied.

“Good.  Pearse, the soldiers?”

“Squads Fish, Nora and Young are suited up and ready for your okay,” the short man spoke.

“And the replacement recruits?”

Pearse handed Coil a set of folders, “I’ve put post-its on the most promising.  We need two to make up for one soldier that was recently injured, and one that decided to skip town.”

Coil tucked the folders under one arm, “Good.  Duchene, I’ll talk to you later tonight about our preparations.  The rest of you, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

The suits marched off, with all but the fat lady passing us to go the way we’d come, along the metal walkway.  The woman headed down the stairs to the lower area with all the soldiers, and a group of people that weren’t in uniform flocked to her.  People with clipboards and crowbars.  The construction crew?

“Undersiders,” Coil spoke, “You’ve recuperated this past week?”

“More or less,” Grue replied.  He had his arms folded.

“Excellent.  And what do you think?”  He gestured to the underground complex around us with a sweep of his arm.

“It’s impressive,” Grue spoke.

“Once things are set up, some of this will be a base of operations for the Travelers, the rest of this space serving as a place my men can meet before they deploy.”

“Right,” Grue replied.

“So.  I expected a reply once you felt you were healed and ready for more work, or if you decided on a reply for my deal, but I got a sense this isn’t quite that.”

Tattletale spoke, “We can’t keep doing this, Coil.”

It was hard to tell, but I suspected that did something to knock Coil off his stride.  “Hm.  Elaborate?”

“We keep getting through these fights by the skin of our teeth.  We’re not up to it.  Just a few days after we helped take down the ABB, a situation that had two of our members facing down Lung and Oni Lee, we were up against the Protectorate, the Wards and Empire Eighty-Eight in the span of forty-eight hours.  Even with your people and your powers to help, we’re not strong enough for this.”

“I see,” Coil turned to face the lower section of the sub-basement and look down at his people.  He rested his hands on the railing, “Are you terminating our arrangement?”

Tattletale shook her head, “We’d rather not, but it depends on what we agree to here and now, in this meeting.  We talked this over for the past week, and I’ll be blunt.  The one person who wasn’t keen on taking your deal changed her mind, but the rest of us now have some serious reservations.  And it’s not just the issue of our safety.”

Coil nodded.  “Well, let me start by saying I’m pleased to hear about your change of heart, Bitch.  Can I ask what prompted it?”

Bitch shot Tattletale an irritated look, clearly unimpressed that Coil had been informed on our negotiations.  Still, she gave him a response.  “Decided it wouldn’t be so bad to get help with my dogs.  I still think you’re full of shit, but way I see it, you can be as full of shit as you want, so long as I get what I want.”

“I suppose I’ll take what I can get.”  Coil sighed a little, “Which leads me to our subject of discussion.  Would I be right in assuming these reservations our Tattletale has mentioned have something to do with me, and how I operate?”

Grue and I both nodded.

“And you’re among these individuals with doubts, Tattletale?”

“Sorry.  I’ve worked with you for a while now, I know what you can do, I even like and respect you.  What you’re going for.  But this last play of yours was fucked up on a lot of levels.”

“Yes,” Coil conceded, turning back towards us, “You’re right.  Too heavy handed a maneuver.  A tactical nuke where a rocket launcher might have sufficed, with undeserving parties suffering for being too close to the real targets.”

“Us, and the families of the members of Empire Eighty-Eight that you outed.”

Coil nodded, “So the two main points we need to discuss are the apparent carelessness of my maneuver against Empire Eighty-Eight, and the risk your group has been facing in the field.  That said, if these issues are addressed in a satisfactory manner, would I be right in thinking you are prepared to accept my deal?”

Tattletale glanced at each of us, myself included, then told Coil, “Maybe.”

“Good.  Shall we walk?  I’ll be more able to answer your second concern when we get to the other side of this complex.” He stepped away from the railing and extended a hand, inviting us to join him.  He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, leading us around the end of the room to the walkway opposite the one we’d traveled to reach him.

“First off, apologies are in order,” Coil spoke, “Your concern over the way I outed the Empire’s members is entirely deserved.  In truth, it was a plan I had begun before I even knew of your existence, Undersiders.  My initial attempts to divine the secret identities of my enemies were slow to bear fruit, and my hired men often underwent weeks of investigation only to find they had been barking up the wrong tree.

“For almost four years, I have invested funds and time in the possibility that I could find the weak point of my enemies: their civilian lives, the faces under the masks.  For years, I was disappointed.  In my early days, I had less money to fritter away, my facility with my own power was not what it is today, and many of the failures on these fronts were costly.

“As I began to amass my fortunes, this became easier.  I could hire better investigators, pay the right people to divulge information and unseal court records.  Pieces began falling into place.  With my recruitment of Tattletale, I was able to avoid a number of wild goose chases.  It was still slow, and the turnover rate of Empire Eighty-Eight was frustrating, especially as I aimed to have the complete picture, with no member of Kaiser’s empire left unmasked.  My efforts with the local heroes were no better, if for different reasons.

“For some time, aside from regular payments and some direction, my attention was elsewhere.  It was only two weeks ago that I was contacted by my investigators and told that I had what I wanted on Empire Eighty-Eight.  To have it come together at that time, when the Empire was one of the sole barriers remaining before me, it seemed to be serendipity.  I jumped on the opportunity.”

Grue spoke to Coil’s back, “And you forgot about us.  What it might look like.”

Coil turned his head, “Yes.  I’ll admit I am not proud of my failure to see the bigger picture, and I assure you, it is not a mistake I am prepared to make again.”

“That’s it?  You say ‘I’m sorry’ and we’re just supposed to accept it?” Regent spoke for the first time since we’d arrived.

Coil stopped, and we were forced to stop or we would have walked right into him.  He spoke, “If you accept my deal, I will undertake no plan of this scale without first consulting you, the Travelers and the independent villains that work for me.  It is my hope that you would be able to inform me about any flaws or unintended consequences regarding my schemes.”

Grue unfolded his arms, “I can’t say for sure.  Maybe.”

I spoke, “I like the idea, but no offense, I’m not sure I trust you that far.  And don’t say that Tattletale would find out and tell us if you bent the rules and tried to slip something past us.  She’s not infallible.  Sorry, Tattle.”

Tattletale shrugged at that.

“I’ll leave you to think on the idea,” Coil spoke, “There’s no action or gesture I can really take that will earn your trust in one fell swoop.  All I can do is to work with you, giving you no more reason to distrust me.”

“Sure,” I replied, noncommittal.

“Now, that leaves one us final issue to remedy.  Your worries for your safety.  I wish to show you that you are in good hands, and I’m prepared to reveal one of my secret weapons,”  Coil came to a stop outside a door.  A soldier stood nearby, smoking a cigarette.

“Fetch her,” Coil ordered.  The soldier nodded, squashed the cigarette against the wall, pocketed the butt and went through the doorway.

Coil walked over to the wall where the soldier had extinguished the cigarette and used his thumb to wipe the smudge on the wall away.  He spoke to us, “If I told you I knew where Kaiser was hiding out from the heroes, alongside his bodyguards and perhaps a handful of his lieutenants, that I wanted you to defeat them in a nighttime ambush, this would be an example of the sort of situation you’re concerned about facing?”

“Yep,” Tattletale replied, “Even with your power-”

“-You have your worries, yes,” Coil finished for her.  “Forgive me if I do not elaborate on the subject of my abilities, or give Tattletale permission to do so.  We- ah, here she is.”

The soldier came through the door, with a girl in tow.  Twelve years old or so, she had dark circles under her eyes, and straight, dark brown hair that was in need of a trim.  She wore a white long sleeved shirt, white pajama bottoms and white slippers.  She didn’t make eye contact with anyone, staring at the ground.  Her right hand gripped her left elbow, and the fingers of her left hand drummed an inconsistent beat against her thigh.

Coil bent down and pushed the hair away from the girl’s face.  She looked at him, then looked away.

“I need some numbers,” Coil spoke, gently.

“I want candy.”

“Alright.  Candy after six questions.”

“Three,” she grew more agitated, turned as if to walk away, then turned back in his direction.  She was fidgeting more.

“Five questions.  Is that fair?”  Coil turned and sat on the metal walkway, beside where the girl stood.

“Okay.  Five.”

“I’d like these people,” Coil pointed at us, “To go fight Kaiser, tomorrow night at eleven in the evening.  You remember them?  The Undersiders.  And you remember Kaiser?  From the pictures I showed you?”

“Yes.  You asked me this before.”

“I did.  But I want the Undersiders to hear what you say.  Give me a number.  How would they do, without my help?”

“Forty-six point six two three five four percent chance they all come back.  Thirty three point seven seven nine zero one percent only some come back.  That’s one question.”

Coil paused to let that sink in, then looked up at us, “She calculates possibilities, we think she does it by seeing all the potential outcomes of an event in a fraction of a second.   Her power categorizes these outcomes and helps her to figure out the chance that a given event will come to pass.  It isn’t easy for her, and I try not to tax her abilities, but you can surely see why this is so valuable.”

I hugged my arms close to my body.  When I glanced at the girl, I caught her looking at me.  I looked away.

“Candy, now?”  She started to bite at her thumbnail.  Looking at her other hand, I saw her nails were bitten to the quick.

He moved her hand away from her mouth, “Four more questions, pet, then candy.  Tell me the numbers for the same situation, but if I sent the Travelers instead.”

“Sixty point two one zero zero nine percent chance they all come back.  Forty-four point one seven four three percent chance but someone gets hurt or killed.”

“Good girl,” he turned to look at us, “The Travelers are powerful, so it stands to reason their chances are higher.  But I’ve found that your group benefits more from a use of my power.  Pet, tell me the numbers for the same scenario, for both the Travelers and the Undersiders, but let’s say I was helping them in my usual manner.”

“That’s two questions.  Two teams, two questions.  No cheating.  I get really bad headaches when I try to get too many numbers.”

“Okay.  Answer those two, then there’s one more before you get your candy.  I just need to know the chances that the teams will come back intact.”

The girl nodded, a little too quickly and eagerly, “Those people there have a thirty-two point zero zero five eight three percent chance to come back with nobody dead or seriously hurt if you help them.  The Travelers have a forty-one point-”

“No, stop,” Coil stopped her, “That doesn’t make any sense.  You gave me different numbers before.  Those numbers are lower than the ones they’d have if I didn’t help.”

“It’s the numbers in my head.”

“The numbers are wrong, pet.”

She shook her head, raised her voice in a surprisingly sudden fit of anger, “No!  They’re right!  You just don’t want to give me any candy!”

Coil put a hand on her shoulder.  She pulled away, but he held her firm.  He had to raise her voice to be heard over her squeals, and he shook her just a little to be sure she was listening, “Last question, then you’ll get your candy, I promise.”

She began to settle, and Coil was calmer when he spoke again, more like his usual, reasonable self, “Just give me the number, again, if I sent the Undersiders out to fight Kaiser, without giving them my help.  What percentage, that they come back intact?”

“Twelve point three one three three percent-”

Coil stood, swiftly.  He turned to the soldier that stood nearby, “Give her what she wants.”

The soldier guided the girl back through the door.

Coil muttered to himself, “There’s some anomaly at work, here.  The numbers can’t skew that much, that fast.  More than a thirty percent drop…”

“Coil?” Tattletale spoke.  She looked a little pale.

“Tattletale, do you know why the numbers would change?  Does your power tell you anything?”

She shook her head, started to speak, but was interrupted.

“Then go,” he ordered her, ordered us.  “I will contact you later, and we will finish this conversation then.”

“I-”

Please,” he stressed the word, “See yourselves out.  This situation, whatever it is, demands my attention.”

Tattletale nodded.  Together, we headed around the walkway to the door we’d come in.  We were halfway up the stairs to the hatch when Regent commented, “Well, that was surreal.”

“Not the word I’d use to describe it,” I replied, quiet.

“What’s her deal?  Is she like Labyrinth?  Powers fucked with her head?”

I looked at the others, then turned to look at him.  I couldn’t help but let a little venom seep into my voice as I asked him, “Are you dense?”

“What?  She said she got headaches, Coil said it was hard on her, using her power, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think there’s something going on mentally, especially seeing how she acted.”

“The candy she was asking for was a euphemism for drugs,” I spoke, and saying it aloud made it somehow more real.  I hugged my arms tighter against my body, “He’s keeping her strung out so she’ll cooperate, give him his numbers.”

“I don’t think-”

“Shut up,” I cut Regent off.  “Just shut up.  I- I can’t argue with you on this.  Please.”

He stopped.  I looked at the others.  Grue had his arms folded, and was standing very still.  Bitch just had her usual angry look.  Tattletale looked pale, even for the single lightbulb’s worth of light we had in the stairwell.  She wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“You’d know if you watched the news,” I told Regent, “If you read the paper.  I hate that I have to explain this, when I don’t even want to think about it.  She’s the missing kid.  Remember our bank robbery?  How we were weren’t even front page news because an amber alert took priority?  That was her.  Dinah Alcott.”

The revulsion and anger that was welling up in my chest and throat made me want to throw up, hit something, right there.  Some of that emotion, a lot of it, was directed at myself.  I looked to Tattletale, “Tell me I’m wrong.  Please?”

She broke eye contact, which was answer enough.

“Get it, Regent?” I asked him, “The bank robbery was a distraction for the local capes, so Coil could be sure to get away with taking the kid.  We played a part in that. We made that happen.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter